Skill a Week: Baking Bread

First off, sorry for the lack of updates recently. Had some family stuff going on and updating the blog here was not my highest priority.

What have I learned this week? I made bread! This was one of the things I had on my list of aspirations for 2013 – to start baking my own bread. This for a number of reasons:

  • Baking is useful for making a lot of foods, and bread is a simple baked product
  • I can make healthier, cheaper bread
  • It seems like a nifty skill
  • It opens the doorway (through yeast) to other micro-organism ventures, such as brewing, wine-making, yogurts, fermentation, pickling, etc, which are intriguing to me

I saw a few recipes that looked dead simple – and they are. The most basic bread is just flour, water, salt, yeast. Four ingredients, and about 10-15 minutes of time.

I followed the steps described by the gentleman who put together how to make perfect French bread in 10 minutes. There are similar batch recipes.

Another useful resource (for this, but also cooking generally) is this Bulk Foods website. I haven’t ordered anything yet, but the prices are great.

Anyway, I made two loaves, no problems, with this method. But eating them knocked me out. I’ve been tired generally recently but the bread was a bit exhausting (though delicious when hot). It’s so much flour. So I’m looking at a few possibilities. I’m going to try putting some wheat flour in the bread (to replace part of the white flour), as well as some oats and other grains. Just dump it in and see what happens. I’ve also got a book of bread-making recipes that looks interesting – one bread is a tofu bread, which I think will cut the carb content somewhat and add protein. Also I might add milk to the bread, or eggs. More ambitiously, I might try substituting in a bit of protein powder, for maybe 1/4 of the flour. This has worked fine for pancakes and crepes. Lots of different things to test!

Advertisements

Smoothie Foods

Last week, I was wandering around my local grocer, where I get most of my fruits and vegetables. I usually make a few rounds as there’s a lot of different foods to admire (most of which I have no idea how to prepare). I noticed they had cantaloupes for $1 each. While I enjoy the flavor of cantaloupe, I’ve always found it so difficult to select that I basically ignore it. After dicing, many cantaloupes are too soft — plus the center, with the seeds, is slimy, and it’s not always fully removed. Needless to say, I don’t eat much cantaloupe. But for $1 each? They’re healthy, and one melon can lighten and sweeten 4 smoothies. I’m not about to turn down that deal. Furthermore, after dicing it’s easy to freeze a large batch for use whenever you want.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy eating ¬†fruits with mushy or pulpy textures. However, those textures disappear in the blender, so it’s possible to eat a more diverse group of foods than you otherwise would. There are other foods besides melons that fall into this category. Old bananas, blueberries and other fruits can be finicky to get right, but in a blender, their worst properties are neutralized.

Blending foods that are physically tiring to eat is another option. It’s difficult to consume leafy greens, carrots, and cucumbers in volume, but these, too, benefit from blending. The texture isn’t fully eliminated, but it’s easy to eat a lot of carrots if you don’t have to chew.

The moral? Think about ways to eat cheap and healthy foods that put them in a more favorable context than usual.

Skill a Week: Cooking with Cast Iron

Time has led to some serious attrition in my kitchen wares. I started out four years ago with some space plates/utensils my parents didn’t need, plus a nice set of glasses given as a graduation present. Over time, I’ve dropped things, lost them, snapped them, etc… now I’m down to 4 plates, for instance, and 3-4 bowls, 4-5 forks, you get the picture. That’s still¬†probably too many, because it just allows too much to build up in the sink… The latest casualty was a large teflon pan I had, maybe 10 years old, and pretty scarred. It wasn’t non-stick anymore, and I don’t want to get cancer in my twenties.

As a replacement, I bought an $18, American-made 12-inch cast iron skillet. Probably the most fetishized piece of kitchen equipment, and also the most durable. I like the thick, heavy metal, the black color, the slightly greasy feel. I like heating it over a gas flame. It reminds me of cooking breakfast at Boy Scout camp, cast iron pan on a Coleman propane stove. Tucked in an old wood cabin in the snowy Adirondacks, playing cards, fighting the wood stove, building insane sled jumps… but that’s another story.

This skillet was supposedly pre-seasoned, but that didn’t work out so well. So I’m seasoning it myself right now. I can tell I’m making progress, although there’s a lot of work to go. I try to improve myself, and it’s nice to own something which will likewise improve with each use.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  1. Lots of Pam and butter before eggs. Clean the pan right after eating, when it’s still warm, by pouring some salt in it and wiping with a paper towel.
  2. Wipe the pan down after cleaning with a thin coat of vegetable oil.
  3. Put more oil in the pan and toss it in the oven whenever baking something.

I’ve got two weeks of use in and I’m expecting a fully non-stick pan in a month or two. I’ve been cooking eggs, which are the worst, anyway.

 

Skill a Week: Kale Chips

I was poking around online for information on kale (for my green smoothies), and I found a recipe for kale chips. It’s dead simple and tastes good. The only downside – it requires turning on the oven. But I don’t mind that so much in winter – the oven doubles as a heater.

Kale Chips

Ingredients:

  • Kale
  • Oil Spray (Pam)
  • Salt
  • Garlic Powder
  • Cayenne Pepper

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Tear or cut kale leaves off the central stem into potato chip-sized pieces
  3. Place kale rounded side down onto baking sheet
  4. Give a quick spray of pam across the leaves (I used butter flavor, but olive oil flavor would work as well)
  5. Cover leaves first with garlic powder, then a few shakes of salt, and finally a dusting of cayenne pepper
  6. Bake for 10 minutes
  7. Eat.

First off, keep a close eye on these – the cooking time is a bit sensitive and you don’t want them to char. The chips are intense. The garlic, salt and pepper really pack a punch. The texture isn’t really similar to potato chips – it’s closer to dried seaweed you might find in sheets at an asian grocery store.

I’ve heard of other variations with, among other things: soy sauce, black pepper, onion powder, etc. Try and see what you get.

Fruit Shopping

For the past two weeks, I’ve been making smoothies on average, twice a day. That’s probably 4x more frequently than I previously was. The best part, I’ve found, is shopping!

That’s remarkable for me, because I hate shopping, and I hate spending money on things. Occasionally I get an urge to buy some books on Amazon or to get some computer parts. But I feel guilty about it; I furtively sneak a few items into my wishlist. When I buy food, I feel guilty, too. It’s usually cheap stuff like ramen or eggs, but sometimes I’d indulge in ice cream or candy or diet soda. Sure eggs are healthy, but I don’t really feel great buying them. Most of the food I end up getting is stuff that’s bad for me, and bad for the wallet.

Since I started eating smoothies I’ve looked forward to grocery shopping. I enjoy thinking about all the fresh fruit and vegetables I’m going to pick up. Maybe I’ll find some deals, or maybe I’ll try a new fruit. Today I bought for smoothies: 2 cucumbers, a bunch of bananas, 4 pears, a container of yogurt, two containers of cottage cheese, 6 bags of frozen blueberries (33% off), 4 bags of frozen peaches (33% off), a cantaloupe. For consumption outside of smoothies, I picked up pomegranates, onions and green onions (with root). I had kale, carrots, ginger, already. This food can be a little pricey (berries in particular), but I know it’s great for me, and also that it’ll taste great. I spend 15 minutes walking home thinking about what smoothie I’ll try first.

It’s strange to me to feel so good about shopping. But I love unpacking all this healthy fruit and vegetables, thinking about how good it’ll taste, thinking about what combination I’ll try in a smoothie. I enjoy dicing it up and filling up the freezer. And of course I enjoy preparing and drinking smoothies.

Skill a Week: Three Smoothies

I’ve made smoothies for years, but they were always very similar: banana, strawberries/raspberries, milk. Here’s three rather divergent smoothies that shake (ahem) things up. You can swap out almost any of the ingredients unless they’re in the name of the smoothie. the number one most important ingredient in these is banana. It will add natural sweetness and bind together the ingredients without being unhealthy. It also doesn’t have a strong taste.

I use a vitamix to make these: 30-60 seconds and everything is smooth. But I think with some coaxing and judicious ordering of ingredients, a regular blender could handle most of these.

Green Machine

This smoothie isn’t that tasty (it has a semi-sweet gardeny taste with a pulpy texture). But it’s super-healthy. There’s a ton of greens that can be difficult to eat on their own and you can dump in a lot of vegetables, so long as they don’t have a strong taste.

Sweet ingredients:

  • One whole pear (you can core if you like)
  • One banana
  • Apple juice (just a half cup will sweeten the smoothie)

Vegetable ingredients:

Other:

  • Cup of water (or chilled green tea)
  • 1/4 cup Coconut milk (optional)
  • Ginger (Tbsp)

There are three parts of this: the sweet ingredients, the super-healthy green ingredients, and the creamy ingredients (banana, coconut milk). The sweet ingredients end up dominating the taste, which is good, but the sweetness is cut by all the green vegetables. You can substitute in a lot of other things: spinach, sprouts, cauliflower, grape juice for apple juice, etc.

Peaches & Cream

The goal here is a lightly sweet, smooth and creamy shake. Rather than going for fiber and vitamins, you can add a lot of protein to this one.

Sweet:

  • Frozen peaches (1 cup)
  • Fresh peaches (1 cup)
  • Banana (1 large or 2 small)

Cream:

  • Skim Milk (1 cup)
  • Fat Free Yogurt (1 cup)
  • 1/2 scoop Vanilla or Cookies & Cream Protein Powder

Peaches have a relatively mild flavor, so you can’t sneak in too many vegetables; the light orange color is also delicate so any greens will turn it murky (if you care about that). I can toss in a handful of carrots without changing the taste or color. Also worth considering: cottage cheese instead of yogurt, vanilla extract, coconut milk.

Blueberry Smoothie

As long as you add enough blueberries, this smoothie has a very strong taste and a texture that accommodates grittier ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Blueberries (1-2 cups)
  • Small handful spinach
  • Half cucumber
  • 1 large banana
  • Flax seed
  • Water

You can substitute in tea or milk instead of water. A few carrots or heads of broccoli can be added as well.