Being Nice

Pan fried kale

I am, to the best of my knowledge, not a jerk. I strive to be mindful of others. I say “please” and “thank you,” even to the mean bus drivers. I try not to keep people waiting. I work hard to meet deadlines. I’m quick to offer help when a friend asks for it, and sometimes even when they don’t. After yesterday, though, I feel like it might be a while before I voluntarily help a stranger again. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a jerk, but hear me out…

My day started very quietly. I woke up after a full night’s rest, made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish and got down to work. My morning was extremely productive and, feeling good about everything I’d done, I decided to reward myself with a quick trip to the store and a nice, leisurely walk. Soon after I got outside, I encountered a woman in a wheelchair who was just sitting in the middle of the intersection, and she asked me to help her cross the street. Not being a jerk, I obliged.

Almost immediately, I regretted my decision to help this woman. Once she discovered we were going in more or less the same direction, she decided that what she really wanted was for me to take her to her destination. She worried that I would break the wheels of her wheelchair if I tried to get her on the sidewalk, so she insisted that I push her down the bike lane, against traffic. Then, she spotted a curb cut she liked (after I had already passed it, mind you), and bellowed at me to turn around. After ten minutes of being yelled at for going too slow and for not trying hard enough to make sure she wouldn’t fall out of her wheelchair, I’d had enough. I told her, politely, that I’d be leaving her at the corner once we got to the end of the street, which didn’t make her happy, but at least she didn’t yell at me for it.

I can’t say that I let this encounter ruin my day, but I did feel annoyed about it for longer than I should have, or at least longer than I wanted to. By the time I got to the store, my leisurely break was nearly over and I had to make a quick decision about dinner, which brings me to the lovely plate of food pictured in this post.

I know that everyone in the blogosphere is so over kale right now, but I’ve never been a very trendy person. If it’s easy to pull together and it tastes good, I’m all over it, and this braised kale is both simple to make and  extremely delicious.  Plus–I have no idea why–it really helped shake me out of my foul mood.  So, if you find yourself in a bad mood, for whatever reason, I have just the ticket: a steamy plate of garlicky braised kale. It’s a simple and incredibly versatile dish: serve it as a side next to chicken or fish, on top of pasta with some nice parmesan and a drizzle of lemon and olive oil, or as a main course, topped with a poached egg.

Braised Kale with Garlic

Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a small main course

1 large or two small bunches of kale (any type will do), roughly chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter

2-4 cloves of garlic, slivered

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Then, add the butter. When the butter has stopped foaming, add the kale and  cover with a lid or large plate until the kale starts to wilt, about 1-2 minutes.

2. After a few minutes and once the pile of kale has gotten smaller, clear a space in the pan and add the garlic. Cook for another 1-2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant and is beginning to look golden in places, being careful not to burn.

3. Stir the kale and the garlic together. Remove from the heat, season to taste and serve.

Advertisements

5 Tips for Better Bread

Bread finished 2

Bread is one of those things that people seem to have very strong opinions about. In a very short amount of time, bread has gone from being the measure of greatness (and, really, who doesn’t love sliced bread?) to something that should be avoided at all costs lest it RUIN your LIFE, or something like that. I don’t think autoimmune disorders and allergies are things to be taken lightly or made fun of, but I’m going to go on record as being pro bread and seriously confused by the recent trend of anti-bread histrionics. I mean, of course bread can make you gain weight if you eat too much of it. So can chocolate. And dried fruit. And nuts. And chicken. And wine. The point is that anything and everything can make you fat if you eat too much of it, so why point the finger to bread?

If it’s not obvious to you yet, let me be clear: I love bread. Not only do I eat it almost every day, I’ve devoted a fair amount of my spare time learning about bread. I’ve been known to curl up in bed with my baking books and fall asleep reading about formulas and technique, and I’ve spent countless hours in the kitchen practicing and perfecting my bread baking skills (giant nerd or obsessive perfectionist? You decide…). Naturally, any new blog, book or TV special about bread baking immediately captures my attention, so imagine my excitement when I first learned about BBC’s new show, Paul Hollywood’s Bread. When it comes to food porn, nobody, it seems, does it better than the British.

Before The Great British Bake Off, I had never heard of Paul Hollywood, the token Grumpy Judge of the show. According to Wikipedia, he got his start by apprenticing under his father and, later, made a name for himself by authoring a reputedly best-selling book that I’d never heard of before I looked him up, and by selling high end (read: needlessly expensive) loaves to places like Harrod’s. In short, Paul Hollywood has an impressive pedigree. And no matter how I feel about surly judges who sometimes seem as though they’d rather pass a kidney stone than give positive feedback, it’s hard not to get excited at the prospect of watching a master at work.

Except…. the whole time I watched him, all I could think (and say aloud, much to Keith’s annoyance) was, he should know better! I know this probably seems precocious of me, because who do I think I am? He runs a successful bread brand that capitalizes on, among other things, his decades of experience with baking. I, on the other hand, am nothing more than an amateur enthusiast. And, yet, watching him explain the process of building a levain and creating a loaf was beyond infuriating. The instructions he gave regarding mixing, proving, shaping, all of it was just plain wrong. Like his claim that bread dough rises more quickly with salt? Um… no. Or his claim that overproofing the dough makes it taste bitter? Wrong again. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t be too hard on him because he’s merely repeating the conventional wisdom of home bakers, and those are the people watching his show, after all. But then I remember that he’s also selling a companion cookbook that contains much of the same bad information, and my sympathy goes away. If he expects me to part with my money, he has to give me something that will make my bread better.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the point. Today, I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about how to make good bread. For free! These are tips I’ve learned from my bread heros and through trial and error. Making picturesque bread certainly takes a lot of  practice, but the tips I’m about to share with you will go a long way to helping you make really delicious bread. And, away we go!

Tip #1: Use a digital scale

Making good bread doesn’t require a lot of equipment, but one thing you should have on hand is a digital scale. The reason is simple: weight measurements are more accurate than volume measurements. A cup of flour, for instance, can be lighter or heavier depending on whether you’ve packed or sifted your flour, while the weight of a cup of water is more or less same every time you use the same measure. By weighing your ingredients instead of measuring with cups, you’ll end up with more consistent and predictable results.

Tip # 2: Use more water

People seem to be afraid to add water to their doughs because they think the whole thing will become messy and unmanageable, which I understand. If you’re new to bread baking, it might seem like it takes forever for the whole thing to come together and, meanwhile, you’ll probably be muttering profanities under your breath as you struggle to stop the dough from sticking to, well, everything. Adding less water (or, alternatively, more flour) is not the answer, though. Even if your bread tastes great right out of the oven, bread without enough water will begin to stale within a few hours and will likely be inedible before you get to the end of the loaf. When you add enough water, though, it’s much easier to get better texture and a more open crumb. And even if you leave your bread on the counter in a paper bag, like I do, it will be soft and relatively fresh for several days.

High hydration spelt and prune bread

High hydration spelt and prune bread

So, how much water is enough, then? I prefer to work with higher hydration when I bake, so I rarely make a loaf that contains less than 70% water. Calculating this amount is very simple to do using baker’s math, in which all ingredients are calculated as a percentage of the weight of flour. Here’s an example: let’s say you want to make a large loaf of bread that is hydrated at 70%, and you have 500g of flour to use. To figure out what 70% of 500g is, multiply 500 by 0.7, which gives you 350. So, to get 70% hydration using 500g of flour, you’ll need to add 350g of water. Again, this is just what I prefer, and you could certainly make bread using less water. But anything less than 60% hydration is going to result in a dry loaf that stales really quickly.

Tip # 3: Handle the dough less

This might be my favorite tip because it actually saves you a bit of time as well as improving your bread. Many bread recipes will tell you to knead your dough into a smooth, elastic ball, but this is bad advice. Why? Because a dough that is worked to its full strength at the beginning of the process has very little room to grow stronger by the time it goes in the oven, which is when you most need it to be strong. When bread dough is overworked, the probability that the risen dough will collapse, instead of rise, once it hits the heat is really high, and there’s nothing worse that putting a beautiful dome of dough into the oven and removing a pancake 45 minutes later. Fortunately, it’s really easy to avoid this: just handle your dough a bit less.

What, you may be thinking, does it mean to handle your dough less? Many recipes will tell you to knead your dough for anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes in order to achieve smooth, strong dough. If you’re working by hand and you’re not particularly strong, that’s probably about the right amount of time. But if you’re using a stand mixer on its lowest setting, that is far, far too long. Instead, knead your dough until it looks like this:

Bread dough kneaded

As you can see, it’s not exactly smooth, but the gluten strands are starting to line up and get stronger. This takes no longer than 5 minutes using the lowest setting of a KitchenAid stand mixer.

At this point, you might be concerned that your dough is underworked and that it won’t rise properly, but, happily, all your dough needs in order to grow stronger is time. This is the brilliance behind Jim Lahey’s (in)famous No Knead Bread formula: time does the work and, with minimal handling, bread dough can become stronger with little or no help from the baker. This same principle applies to regular bread, too: short kneading time + stretching and folding occasionally during the first rise = strong and minimally worked bread dough.

Tip #4: NEVER allow your dough to double in size

I think the piece of advice I was most annoyed by while watching Paul Hollywood was that bread dough needs to double in size. In his book, he even suggests letting the dough triple or quadruple in size, which is just so, so wrong. Bread dough is elastic and, like all things elastic, it will snap back and/or break when stretched to its limit. In other words, dough risen to more than double its original volume is overproofed and will collapse in the oven. So, instead of letting it double, triple or quadruple in size over 3-5 hours, as Hollywood suggests, let it rise until it’s 1.5-1.75 times the original size of the dough, which will only take between 1 and 2.5 hours, depending on the type of yeast you’ve used.

Tip #5: Let it cool down

Cooling, the final step to bread baking, is the step we all want to skip the most, and who can blame us? It’s hard not to be enticed by the scent of the bread while it’s baking, and often our first impulse after we take the loaf out of the oven is to tear into it while it’s still warm. I suppose this isn’t such a big deal if you eat the whole thing in one sitting. But if you want to make your bread last a few days, it’s important to let it cool down for at least an hour before you cut into it. If you cut into it too soon, the crumb quickly becomes gummy and unpleasant. Letting it cool for at least an hour, but often longer, not only prevents the crumb from becoming sticky and gross, it also helps improve the flavour. Bread, like most other fermented food, tends to taste better with age, and leaving it to cool even a few extra hours before cutting it open can make it taste so much better than it does right out of the oven.

Now, I want to assure you that I still make plenty of mistakes (that go unphotographed) when I bake bread. I can go for several weeks making perfect loaves and then have a streak of bad luck in which every loaf I make is just plain bad. Sometimes, I know that my failures are a result of having rushed through the process, and other times there are different factors at play. The weather can make a big difference, and so can the water you use, especially if your water filter is old or something like that. Some brands and types of flour absorb water better than others, and I’m most likely to bake something inedible when I’m experimenting with new flours. But I’ve observed a drastic improvement in the quality of my bread since I began making use of these tips. Few things make me feel more capable than making a beautiful and delicious loaf of bread, and I hope that my sharing what I’ve learned will give you the confidence to try making your own. Bon appetit!

Bread finished

I Made That!

Image

Well, hello there! How are you? Me, I am just fine. Why? I finished a sweater!

Miette

Allow me to introduce you to Miette. This is the 5th sweater I’ve ever made (and my second cardigan), and I’m really, really happy with it. There is, as far as I know, only one big mistake: I forgot to make a button hole on the collar band. This isn’t such a big deal to me–I almost never do up the top button of any shirt or sweater–so I’m choosing to bask in the glory of having created a near-perfect cardigan. This pattern is, in a word, great. The instructions are very clear, written line by line, and are extremely easy to follow if you use a row counter. I did modify the original pattern by making mine longer in the body and the sleeves, though. Also, see those buttons? Yeah, those buttons are awesome.

If there’s a downside to my newest wardrobe addition, it’s that I won’t get to wear it for all that long. I know it seems like winter is never ending, but I have to believe that warm weather is coming soon, right? (right!?) So, with spring in mind, I’ve started knitting this pattern:

Vertex back

I love a bulky sweater as much as the next cold blooded person, but I can’t wait to wear this one. It’s knitting up quickly and I can tell already that it’s going to be lightweight and perfect for cool evenings and warm afternoons.

And, now, to get you up to speed on all that baby knitting I told you about a month ago. First up is the Baby Bunting cardigan:

baby bunting cardigan

I’m not really happy with the way this sweater is photographing, because, I can assure you, it looks much cuter in person than it has in any of the pictures I’ve taken. I’m holding out for some red buttons, and then it’ll be done. And, look, it’s got pockets! Pockets! What do babies need pockets for? For cuteness, that’s what.

Also cute are the hat and socks I’ve made to match:

Poppy 2

(Short rows! Oh yeah!)

baby sock 2

(Little socks!)

And, of course, there’s the blanket:

Garter stitch baby blanket finished

In addition to baby stuff, I’ve also finished a badass hat for Keith’s Dad:

Bullet proof hat

And, with that, I’m done for today. Have a great Sunday evening, everyone! I’ll be back with more words and pictures later this week.

On the Subject of Lunch

Image

When you work from home, lunch is the most exciting part of the day. Now, I know that lunch is important to everybody, whether you work from home or go to an office. Everyone eats at midday, of course, and I’m sure most people aren’t such masochists that they would deny the need for breaks throughout the day. When it comes to food, though, I contend that the stay-at-home worker has the advantage. First, it’s far less expensive to eat at home than it is to have someone else prepare something for you. You don’t have to deal with any of that nonsense where you ask for an extra pickle slice on your sandwich and it costs you $3.00, oh, no. Second,  you get to root around your own cupboards, presumably already stocked with things you like to eat, and make something that fits your needs and tastes perfectly. You want that third slice of cheese? An extra large pile of guacamole? More than what many doctors would recommend as a healthy serving of bacon? Pile it on, friend, and enjoy your meal! Finally, when you eat at home, you avoid the lineups. I see the value in being around people who aren’t your coworkers, but waiting in line to place, and then receive, your order just makes your lunch break shorter. And work days are already long enough without making our breaks shorter, am I right?

When it comes to good lunches, I am a firm believer in leftovers. My reasons are pretty obvious: leftovers are cheap and convenient, requiring little or no effort from me. A quick poke around the fridge, and maybe a few minutes on the heat, and then and I can get back to catching up on the news* or just relaxing until it’s time to grumble grumble my way back to afternoon productivity. My absolute favorite thing about leftovers, though, is how good they can taste the next day. No matter how good it tasted the night you made it, that time overnight in the fridge can turn what was already a decent dish into something that is absolutely, transcendently delicious. I’ve noticed that this magic tends to happen with dishes that feature some kind of acid–citrus, vinegar–and so I’ve tried to make use of this effect with what Keith and I affectionately call “slapdash” meals, or something you just throw together from whatever is on hand, with varying degrees of success. If I’m making a salad with onions, for example, the very first thing I do is chop them finely and let them sit in the oil and vinegar dressing until I’m done preparing all the other components. Even in a short amount of time, the onions will mellow just enough to ensure you don’t kill anyone with your breath while retaining most of their flavour and crunch.

Of course, I’m not here to tell you about a slapdash lunch. I’m here to tell you about Yotam Ottolengi’s Sweet Winter Slaw, from his book Plenty. And, boy, is this slaw ever plenty delicious (yuk yuk)! This salad has everything, and I mean everything, that makes great food great. Its dressing is sweet, salty and sour at once, redolent of the very best flavours of Asia. Two different types of cabbage and toasted macadamia nuts add a satisfying crunch, while the sweet mango and papaya lend a soft juiciness to the whole thing. And that’s not even to mention the cooling mint and cilantro, which contrast nicely with the heat from the minced Thai red chili. This salad is so well balanced that it’s hard to say what the best part is, but I can tell you with certainty that it won’t taste the same if you leave anything out. On several occasions, I’ve made this salad while forgetting the lemongrass, or the mint, or the cilantro, or the Savoy cabbage. Every time I convinced myself  I could get by without one or another ingredient, its absence has been notable and the salad hasn’t been as good. If I had to name one thing that could be excluded or replaced, though, it would be the macadamia nuts. Thankfully, Ottolenghi recommends a much cheaper replacement–peanuts–which works really well.

This slaw tastes just great the day you make it, but it’s nothing short of phenomenal the next day. The Savoy cabbage wilts a bit and the fruit gets a little softer, but the red cabbage and nuts retain their crunchiness and all of the salad’s flavours meld together in sweet-salty-sour-spicy-refreshing harmony. This, folks, is a leftover lunch not to be missed!

*Because Facebook is not going to check itself….

Sweet Winter Slaw, recipe adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

Serves 4-6

So, yes, it’s called a winter slaw, but don’t let that deter you. There is nothing winter-like about these flavours, which are bright and refreshing. Serve at room temperature immediately, or make it in advance and leave it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. 

Dressing:

100 ml lime juice

1 lemongrass stalk, roughly chopped

3 tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp soy sauce

1 pinch red chilli flakes

2 tbsp sesame oil

4 tbsp olive oil

Salad:

150 g macadamia nuts or peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped

7 leaves of Savoy cabbage, finely shredded

1/2 red cabbage, finely shredded

1 mango, cut into thin strips

1/2 papaya, cut into thin strips

3 sprigs of fresh mint, stems discarded and leaves roughly chopped

1 small bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped

1 Thai red chilli, de-seeded if you don’t like spiciness (I left the seeds in) and minced

Salt, to taste

Start with the dressing. In a small saucepan, add all ingredients, except for the sesame and olive oils, and bring to a boil over high heat. Let it boil for 4-6 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and thickened slightly. Set aside to cool slightly as you prepare the salad ingredients.

Next, chop your vegetables and nuts and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Strain the solids from your cooked dressing mixture and then mix with the sesame and olive oils. Add the dressing to the chopped vegetables and nuts and toss. Taste for seasoning, and serve.

The Gift that Keeps On Giving

Sisters eating ice cream

Have you met my sister yet? No? Well, allow me to introduce you.

Lara and I are twins, and we’re the oldest of seven children. Though we’re fraternal twins, we look very similar to each other. As a result, we’ve been asked the most cliché-d of questions about our twin-ness for most of our lives: can you read each other’s minds? Do you feel each other’s pain? Do you trade places all the time? Are you really close? Most people now know better than to ask a grown woman whether or not she shares a telepathic relationship with her twin or to encourage us to play pranks on people (to be fair, though, I did pretend to be Lara once, when I was visiting a school she was teaching at, and it was pretty funny), but people still frequently ask me about the closeness of my relationship with Lara. I understand why they ask, and I see why they assume that we would be close. I’ve grown up listening to people romanticize being a twin and lament not having a permanent, biological best friend of their own. In truth, I still occasionally find myself blown away by the fact that there actually is one person in this world who’s known me even longer than my parents have.

If I’m being honest, there were many years when Lara and I just didn’t get along. We didn’t really develop a closeness until we both left home and were able to create separate lives without being under the shadow of the other one. When we were growing up, our Mother was reluctant to let us be autonomous if it meant that one of us might be excluded or feel left out. If only one of us was invited to a birthday party, neither could go. Until high school, we were enrolled in the same extracurricular activities, regardless of whether or not we both shared an interest in the activity. When it came time to make a decision about university, my Mother was adamant that we both attend, despite the fact that I was enthusiastic about the idea and Lara was more cautious, wanting to take some time off before diving in. What’s worse, most people, even some of our friends, referred to us as “the twins” instead of by our individual names, which infuriated me to no end. It still bothers me when well meaning but clearly oblivious older relatives call us “the twins” or “the girls” at family functions (you can’t learn my name after 30 years!?, I often think to myself sarcastically, knowing that the problem is not that they can’t remember our names but that they still don’t know who is who), but I suppose everyone has to pick their battles.

In any case, thank goodness for adulthood. After Lara moved out of my Mom’s house and I left for Toronto a few years later, it became obvious that the only thing preventing us from developing a close friendship when we were young was the expectation that our twin sibling relationship should be somehow different and better than other sibling relationships. Now, we’re very close friends, and I think it was distance, in the end, that made our closeness possible. As adults forging ahead with separate lives in different cities, it was easy for us to develop individual identities and to pursue our own interests without worrying about how we compared to each other. Over the years, Lara and I have discovered that we actually share many of the same interests: we both love to cook, we’re both keenly interested in being healthy, we’re both passionate teachers, and, more recently, we’ve discovered that we share a love of making things.

For the last year or so, Lara has been sewing her own clothing. She is seriously, amazingly good at it, too. I’ve spent many hours gazing wistfully at her blog, alternating between imagining what I could do with a sewing machine and hatching a plan to get her to make me some custom fit clothing. One day, I proposed a trade: I would knit her a sweater and she would make me a dress. She agreed, reluctantly, and told me that I’d have to wait until she could take my measurements. Sure, I responded, no rush. Whenever the timing is right. 

Then, one day, she sent me a text message. It was a picture of a sewing machine, with the note: “Surprise! Merry Christmas/happy birthday! :)”

Jesus Christ, I though, has she bought herself another sewing machine?

“No, you ding dong,” she wrote, “I bought this for you!”

That’s right. My wonderful and exceedingly generous sister bought me a sewing machine!! A great machine, by all accounts, and one I definitely couldn’t afford to buy for myself.

Sewing machine

At the moment, I’m feeling more than a little intimidated at the thought of getting started. My apartment feels way, way too small for me to work in without making Keith crazy. Aside from the sewing machine, I don’t have any other equipment I might need to make anything. But, I’m slowly building up courage. I’m feeling inspired by my recent discovery of The Great British Sewing Bee, which makes sewing look fun and somewhat less intimidating, and I’ve signed up for this online class, on Lara’s recommendation. Slowly and surely, I’m getting my affairs in order, and I know it won’t be long before I have a closet full of clothes that I made. How exciting is that !?

So, a request: Are there any experienced sewists willing to share tips and tricks for getting started? What additional equipment do I need? What easy, foolproof project should I start with? What resources (books, blogs, videos) would you recommend to someone like me? How easy or challenging is it to work in a compact space?

P.S. Lara, you can expect your sweater sometime in the next few months!