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Saturday, March 2, 2013

It's February---again

     Drats, I hate February, and here we are in the middle of February again. In the middle of February there is no green, and in the case of Otsego County NY, no blue skies. What is it with this area of upstate NY? It seems to be overcast and gray 95% of the time from mid October until mid May; very depressing, and they say Seattle has a high level of depression and suicide, I wonder what the statistics show for this area? Not something I really care to ponder within this blog, just setting the mood.
    So, what do we do to raise the spirits amid the gray skies of February? Cook! Cooking is the answer to all that ails me, unless of course I am delirious and cannot stand up, then forget about cooking, but I am not at that point, yet. There is only one thing better, for me than cooking to raise my spirits and that is teaching someone else to cook. I taught my husband, the Big E, how to make bread today. At his request, I introduced him to my recipe, well, actually Donna's recipe with my alterations, for the perfect homemade Italian style bread. We are going to be making Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches and the Big E decided to make the rolls himself---he is finding being unemployed as uninteresting as I did; he is also finding that filling your time between job searches and interviews with cooking is very rewarding. Cooking gives a sense of purpose and fills the need to be productive within the family. And gives me a break while I try to juggle a full time job and four classes.
     Baking bread is an excellent way to really feel productive and useful. Bread is so widely available and not all that expensive. It is one of the staples of life, but making homemade bread, brings me a level of satisfaction that goes much deeper than just putting a good, healthy meal on the table. It gives me a down to the bones feeling of accomplishment. Bread making heals my soul, and as each successive step is, well, succeeded, the pride and feelings of self-worth are re-enforced. So February, for me, is an excellent month to experiment with bread baking. Here we are in the deepest darkest despair that Old Man Winter has thrust upon us, and there is a light of hope in the breads we bake.
   The recipe for the bread the Big E made is so easy it is scary.
1/2 cup water- 105 to 117 degrees F, any cooler, the yeast won't bloom, any hotter and the little yeast beasties will die. (Read: use your kitchen thermometer to be sure of the temperature.)
 In a 1 cup measure mix water and 1 package of instant dry yeast--or in my case 2-1/4 teaspoons of instant dry yeast--I do not buy my yeast in packets because I use too much of it. I buy in bulk, keeping it in the freezer between uses--word of caution: I wrap my package of bulk yeast in paper towel, and put in a freezer zip-top bag, if the yeast touches ice it will also die--I take the yeast I need out of the freezer about half an hour before I am going to use it--to bring it to room temperature. I honestly do not know if using the yeast while frozen would affect the outcome, but I know if I was freezing, jumping into a hot bath might be too much of a shock to my system, so I imagine yeast might "feel" the same way. (Yes, I heard what I said, but I am sticking to it.)
Stir to dissolve the yeast and set aside until foamy on top.
In a two cup measure, add 1 cup of warm water--same rule for the temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir to mix well and dissolve sugar and salt. Add the foamy yeast/water mixture.
Put 3 cups of all purpose flour in the bowl of your mixer that has been fitted with a dough hook.
Add the liquid and turn the mixer on low to work the flour slowing into the liquid. Be sure to scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl so there are no little pockets of flour or puddles of liquid. You will get a very sticky dough. Add more flour, 1/2 cup at a time until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. I rarely have ever used more than 4 cups of flour, the recipe says you can go up to 5 cups. The Big E also used only 4 cups, so it must be something with the humidity in our kitchen. Knead the dough until you get a smooth stretchy dough. Let it rest 10 minutes. Knead on low another 5 minutes.
   Put the dough in a greased bowl, turn it once to grease all sides of the ball of dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and put somewhere warm for 1-1/2 - 2 hours until double in size. To test for sufficient rising, take your index and middle fingers and push them into the side of the ball of dough. If the indentation stays there,it has risen enough, if it bounces back immediately, let it sit, covered a bit longer. Punch down the dough, cover it and let it rest 10 minutes. 
    Cut the dough into eights (for rolls); you can also just cut it in half to make 2 nice loaves of French bread, but we're making rolls here--sub rolls or hero rolls or hoagie rolls, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods. Shape the rolls and put them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. You can sprinkle some cornmeal on the sheet pan instead of greasing it, your choice. Shape the rolls into log-shapes and place them side by side on the sheet pan, slash the tops about 4 times each across, paint with an egg wash (1 egg beaten lightly with 1 tablespoon of water) and sprinkle with sesame seed, poppy seed, granulated garlic, minced onion, or coarse salt, or nothing at all-- again your choice. We sometimes make 8 different mixtures and make one of each, or sometimes we leave them all plain, especially if we plan on making French toast with any leftover bread.
        Cover the rolls with plastic/towel again for another hour to rise. Remove the coverings carefully and place in a preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Done!
       The Big E's rolls came out perfect, because this recipe never fails. Love to have you all give it a whirl and let me know how yours comes out. Okay? 
        Until next time...enjoy!

Memoirs through the stomach

    I am currently doing an independent study through Empire State College called "the Art of the Memoir". With my adviser we came up with a program that fits my personal interests: food and cooking. I have used this blog to document stories about my family and how food is entwined in our lives, besides sharing cooking tips and secrets I have come across over the years, and I love every single letter of it. Now I get to share things I am learning about not only my own heritage, but how other heritages have survived and strove through their own trials, and how their basic needs were met in the kitchens of their days.
    I have just finished reading 97 Orchard: an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement, by Jane Ziegelman. Not a memoir, per se, but reading it has evoked personal memories and has made some sense and filled in some blanks about my own past and my family's heritage.
    Suddenly, with  vivid clarity, things I took for granted or participated in had a reason, a deep seated need that was tradition being handed down and I did not even know it. The Baldizzni family, for example, the final family in the book was from Sicily, and although my family was not, many of the the customs and their foods were indeed familiar. The book tells of how the family all got together on Sunday and ate and ate and ate. First course, soup. Followed by antipasto, then pasta with trays of meatballs, sausage, and rabbit, then either a roast beef or chickens or turkey, or individually grilled steaks, and trays of pastries, and nuts and fruit, some of which was grown out behind the garage in a small 10 foot by 8 foot plot, and the vino, do not forget the vino from the grapes Grandpa had grown, and pressed down in the basement.
     A typical Sunday would have about 32 people at the table, and there was no such thing as a "kids' table" we all sat at the main dining room table, with the linen tablecloth and napkins. And we passed each tray of food, to the next person, helping them select the choicest piece for themselves. I remember staying for a week at my Italian grandparents' house, and we did not eat like that during the week. We ate mostly soup and fresh bread that grandma baked every day. The meals were not gourmet, but neither were they lacking and quite as frugal as the immigrants meals were as depicted in the book. I suddenly realized exactly how blessed my family was. My father's family was not among those depicted in the book, my grandfather had secured a job as a longshoreman and was on the upper part of the low-income scale. He also scrimped saved and bought two brownstones in the Hell's Kitchen part of Brooklyn. He achieved part of the American dream early on.
       The struggles faced by the families of 97 Orchard have never been in my family's verbal history--not that that means it was not part of their history, just nothing that was ever discussed. Maybe once you climb out of those conditions you soon forget, or wish to forget.
       In honor of the difficulties the past generations suffered I went on a small journey through frugality in the kitchen. I accumulated and saved the tips from chicken wings for a couple months, something the immigrants did not have the capability to do without refrigeration or freezing capabilities, but I used what I had available to me to help me on my journey. I had frozen a turkey carcass and leftover legs and thighs from Thanksgiving and made soups and stews from the remnants.  I made a chicken stock with the wing tips, I added onions, carrots, potatoes,and celery, then made egg noodles. No meat to speak of, as the tips are only skin, fat and bone, but my husband and kids agreed it was one of the most tasty broths I had ever produced.  Two days later I tore up some leftover chicken from another meal and added it to the broth, and then the next day thickened it up and made a chicken pot pie from that. If it wasn't for the fact that my husband is a beef man, through and through, I might have been able to keep the adding and altering ingredients for a few more meals. But for the cost of a 4 pound chicken, and some leftover wing tips, I fed us for nearly a week out of the vegetables and basic pantry supplies. And the meals were good, as long as you added a bit of salt and pepper, and herbs like sage, parsley, and thyme. The noodles and thickening the broth made the meals more hearty. Lesson learned: you can eat on a shoestring if you have to.
       The soup and stew I made from the turkey carcass was just as rich. I made a turkey-dumpling stew that was to die for, even my beef eaters liked it, but after almost two weeks of poultry, they were done and my husband presented me with an eye round roast beef and  begged me to make it.
       I got four meals out of that 5 pound roast, plus a few sandwiches for lunch for two of us. I made a regular roast beef dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, and mixed vegetables, then I made pepper steak with the addition of two large onions and two green peppers, served over rice. Next came the Philly cheese steak sandwiches, again with the addition of onions, a bit of cheese, and homemade french bread, and finally a beef and noodle casserole using the leftover mixed vegetables, and a can of condensed tomato soup, some water and the leftover gravy.  
       I think I am getting the hang of this "stretching" the food idea. Now I think I am going to really keep a close watch on the food budget and see what I can plan ahead to get more mileage for my food dollars. Hey, with the price of food and gasoline you need to get to the store you need to find ways to conserve, right? 

References
Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard: an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement. Balance of credits to come.