Yeast #2: Baking artisan bread

110I have a problem: yeast.  I have had a bad track record of killing it and producing not so great results in my baking.  In January I was talking to a friend about it and made a quasi-resolution to bake something with yeast every month in 2016 to try to get over my phobia.  Or at least to have better results.

In January, I made pizza crust.  It wasn’t terrible.  In fact, it turned out pretty great.  I had used a Jim Lahey recipe.  He’s been kind of known for his no-knead bread recipes — long fermentation and slow rises rather than lots of kneading.   What I liked about it was that the slow rise makes it possible to start with almost cold water which is where I think I usually go awry — water too hot it kills the yeast.  In the pizza crust, the initial rest period is 18 hours.

When I was thinking about what to make in February, I was thinking I needed a similar slow rise recipe to help guarantee good results in my early not-so-confident days.  I have been printing out recipes I might try making this year and among them was a recipe for no-knead bread I thought was by Mark Bittman.  Turns out it was another Jim Lahey recipe on the NY times site:


Like the recipe before, it couldn’t have been easier.  Indeed, the whole bread making process probably only takes about 20 minutes of active work and the rest of the time is spent waiting for things to happen.  Again, the first slow rise process is about 18 hours.  Because of some work commitments I had on the day of baking, mine actually probably went an hour or two longer.


The dough after just one hour — already smoother, smelling yeast-y.


The following morning — bubbles, elastic.

After the slow rise, the very gooey, very sticky mess is put on to a floured surface for just a fold or two to incorporate some flour, another short rest, and then formed into a ball.  This process is minutes of your time.

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The next step is putting the ball of dough into a cotton towel that is floured.  I failed to realize the importance of this step even though I did it.  First, the dough will still be sticky.  Even using a cotton towel that was well floured, it was very difficult to get the sticky ball to release in the pan when I was ready.  Second, there’s no such thing as too much flour on the towel.  If the towel hadn’t been smooth cotton, I don’t think it ever would have released even with a very generous coating of flour.  If I were to do this again, I might experiment with flouring a smooth surface and just covering the top with a towel, but I was superstitious and did everything as described in the recipe.

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In the last 30 minutes of so before baking, you pre-heat a dutch oven (I used one of my LeCreuset pans) in a very hot 450 degree oven so that the pan and its lid are smoking hot when the dough goes in.  It is a moment where faith comes into play.  Although the recipe said it might not look so great and that the dough would center itself in the oven, there was a part of me that still worried that once I opened the top in 30 minutes, I’d be met by an ugly blob.

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It was thrilling, then, to take the lid off in 30 minutes to be met by something loaf-like.  085Another 20 minutes uncovered and I had a glorious, brown artisan bread loaf.  It smelled terrific and popped right out of the dutch oven.  I probably should have let it cool completely before slicing, but I was too eager and had to take off a chunk right away.


After that, it was lovely meals of toast over several days.  I would happily try this recipe again.  Sometimes the only thing taking me to the grocery store is bread.  On a weekend where I have lots of time, this would be a better option — easy, cheap, and less likely to buy other things on impulse.

Plus it’s delicious.

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Old beans and crockpot chili

150I recently had an experience of trying to make chili for my friends. It turned out the beans I had were probably quite old and they were very resistant to softening. I know that beans are often kept from softening if you add salt or acid (tomato, lemon) too early. It’s best to cook beans without seasoning other than things like garlic and herbs (like rosemary) that don’t inhibit softening and still add a bit of flavor. Most of the time, I cook beans on their own or just with garlic.

I did this with the beans for my chili. After almost two hours, they were sort of soft, but not like you would want from chili. I was frustrated. I read some solutions that I could have used if I had realized my beans were old, but at this point, I was too far in. I’d been cooking my beans with the veggies (onion, carrot, peppers) and meat that would be part of my chili, so I no longer had the option of using these “tricks” that I found online.

I decided to go “all in” and add in the tomatoes and other seasonings for my chili, transfer the whole mess to my crockpot, and cook on high all afternoon. By the time my friends were there to eat it, my beans were finally al dente enough to serve. I was horrified but my gracious friends ate it happily. I will say, the vegetable-full soup was very tasty. I can make a mean pot of chili in spite of my bean woes.

I recently lost my mind a bit and ordered a bunch of dried beans. I was sure the “old beans” I had used in my chili was the last of the old beans in my house. Wrong.  As I cleared off a tall shelf to make room for the new beans, I found more old beans. One was a pound or Rio Zape beans which are great for chili. I decided to assume they were old and would be problematic so I decided to use one of the tricks before I got started.

I soaked the beans overnight so they could start to rehydrate.

The next day I drained them and put them into a large pot with plenty of water. The online trick said that for one pound of beans to add ¼ t. baking soda and then to cook as usual. That’s what I did. I brought them to a boil. The baking soda started to foam up. Rather than skimming it off, I stirred it back in to make sure the baking soda had a chance to work on my beans. I reduced the water to simmer and let them cook for about 45 minutes. Once done, I drained off the cooking water and put them into a container in the refrigerator to cool until the next day when I made my chili. I tested them and they were tender so I knew I was going to have good results the next day making chili. No more stress.

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I had my oven on that night making banana-chocolate chip muffins. Since it was already warm, I put in a winter squash to roast so I could use it in my chili. We had a small >> squash so I cut in half and put each half cut side down on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and into a 400 degree oven for an hour. When they came out, I turned them over so the steam could be released and they’d cool enough for me to scoop out the flesh. After about 30 minutes, I was able to easily scoop out the lovely orange flesh  of the squash and put it into the refrigerator until the next day along with the beans.

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Like so many things, I also have a No Recipe Chili recipe. The basics:

  • At least a pound of ground meat of your choice
  • One pound of beans, cooked until mostly tender — could be a couple of cans of cooked beans if that’s easier, rinsed and drained
  • Onions and garlic, chopped
  • Basic veggies you like: carrot, peppers, jalapeno, etc.
  • Other veggies you like: precooked winter squash, chopped zucchini, corn or whatever you like or have on hand
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cumin (2 tablespoons or more) and chili powder (2-5 tablespoons)
  • If you like it, thyme or oregano (maybe 1-2 teaspoons)
  • If you like it spicy, add other chili like cayenne or smoky/spicy with chipotle
  • 2-3 cans of tomatoes or tomato sauce or a combination of the two

Since I decided to make it in the crockpot, it’s pretty easy. It’s mostly chop and dump into the crockpot. This time I had one green pepper, one red pepper, a small jalapeno, and garlic. I chopped the onion and put half with the other veggies and set half aside. I like carrot for the sweetness it adds so I added in two small carrots, chopped.  I knew I’d be adding sweetness with the cooked winter squash as well so I decided to go “all in” with this flavor profile.  Plus, this time I was cooking for myself, so I went toward the profile I knew I’d like best.

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In a small pan, I sautéed the meat and the other half of the onion. I like adding the onion because it helps to soak up some of the oil from the hamburger and I like the flavor. I start by adding a bit of salt (Lawry’s seasoned salt if I have it, but I don’t always have it) and browning the meat and onion. Once it’s mostly cooked, I add in the cumin and chili powder, both of which bloom by cooking in fat or oil.  As a result, the meat mixture is very highly seasoned. Too seasoned. It doesn’t matter because it all goes into the crockpot to eventually season the whole mixture. I usually add a bit of water to the pan to rinse out the spices and add that to the crockpot – you spent so much time building flavor so you don’t want to lose it and this way nothing goes to waste!

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On top of the veggies and meat, I add the cooked beans and squash and give everything a good stir. Finally in goes the tomatoes and just a little water to rinse out the cans. Give it all a good stir and let it go for 8 hours on low.

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It was already beautiful and both delicious looking and smelling at this point!

Sometimes I add the extra flavor of these “flavor bombs” I make in the summer. When the bbq is still hot, I grill poblano peppers, onions, tomatillos, or whatever I have and then puree it and then freeze them for flavor when I need it. I had some in the freezer that were roasted pobalanos and onions so I added three to my crockpot. They defrost as the chili cooks and the flavor permeates the chili. It would still be good chili without them, but I love having the extra flavor available.

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137Once done, it can be topped in any way you like: sour cream, cilantro, tortilla chips, and/or cheese. Or eaten as it is. Served on its own or with rice, tortillas or baked potato.

Most of it went into containers for the freezer for enjoyment in the upcoming months when work is too busy and I don’t have the time to get things like this put together, but it’s also making for some not-sad lunches this week at work.

148The best part is the beans were soft, delicious, and didn’t go to waste. I’ve got two other small containers of beans that were also found. I’ll be giving this internet hack another try on them to see if it’s a consistent solution to old beans.

And then I’ll try not to lose my beans any longer in the pantry. My new beans are in the same place so that should help. I hope.

Needing to and wanting to use my veggies: two no recipe recipes

040Earlier this month, I had to have minor hand surgery to remove a tiny cyst from my thumb. Ironically, the pre-op procedures and the post-op protective wrapping made me feel a little ridiculous. It was a tiny cyst. It felt like major surgery and my wrap definitely felt like overkill.

At any rate, the fear I might not be able to use my hand and then the reality I couldn’t use my hand led to a need to use some veggies.

I’m not one of those people who need to hide veggies from myself or others. I love the flavors of all vegetables (except sunchokes) so I’m happy to taste the flavors of my vegetables. That said, I also love a good soup loaded with vegetables where the flavors blend into something delicious.

Two recipes I made – one before surgery and one after – made good use of my abundant vegetables from the farm.

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I make a “no recipe” soup that is similar to minestrone except I don’t always include beans and/or pasta. It’s loaded in vegetables, has tomatoes in the broth, and is flavored with thyme, basil and oregano. Sometimes I make a version that is more like tortilla soup flavored with cumin and chili powder. It just kind of depends on my feelings in the moment and what I have on hand.

Here’s the basic No Recipe Soup:

  • Onion, chopped
  • Carrot, chopped
  • Celery, if you have it but ok if you don’t, chopped
  • Garlic, minced
  • Plus any veggies you have, chopped (I used celery root, delicata squash, and some small sweet peppers)
  • When corn is in season, I might take it off the cob and add it to the soup. Sometimes I add it as frozen or canned (drained) corn. Sometimes I skip corn except I love corn. Just depends…
  • If you have it and want it, 2-3 slices of chopped bacon or pancetta for flavor.
  • Ideally, some kind of greens to put in at the end, chopped (I used chicory since that’s what I had)
  • Chicken broth to cover your veggies in the pan (I use box stock often and I usually end up using almost a whole box)
  • 2-3 cans of tomatoes or tomato sauce (depending on what you have)
  • Seasonings of your choice: thyme/basil/oregano if going for minestrone or cumin/chili powder for tortilla soup
  • 1-2 dried bay leaves, depending on size
  • Salt and pepper
  • Whatever toppings you like: parmesan cheese, sour cream, lime, crushed tortilla chips, crackers, olive oil or nothing at all

The measurements aren’t really exact. Before my surgery, I had onion, carrot, part of both a delicate squash and a celery root so that’s what I used along with some pancetta I had in the freezer.  I chopped them all up to be about the same size. I crushed several cloves of garlic in my garlic press. In a large pot, I added a bit of olive oil and sautéed the veggies and pancetta and garlic until they got a bit softened.  At that point (once the bacon is cooked and vegetables are a bit soft), I add chicken stock until it just comes to the top of the veggies. To that, I add 2-3 cans of tomatoes depending on how many veggies I have or how tomato-y I want it to be. I can my own tomatoes in the summer, but one jar of my tomatoes is about the size of a standard 14 ounce can from the store.

To this I add my seasonings. I decided to go toward minestrone with this batch so I used dried thyme, basil and oregano. I don’t measure it, but I’d guess it’s about 1 teaspoon of each with maybe a bit more thyme and oregano than basil. To this I added 2 bay leaves because mine were pretty small.  I had it so I added a can of drained corn. I bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and then cook about 20 minutes until all of the vegetables are soft. In the last 5 minutes, I would add in any greens I have (kale, chard, spinach or whatever I have). If I have fresh parsley or cilantro, I might add that in just before serving. It’s pretty flexible.  Because I had it, I added colorful chicory which simply needed to wilt in the soup just before serving.

If I wanted to make a more traditional minestrone, I would add in drained cooked beans and pasta in the last 10 minutes of cooking. If I was leaning toward tortilla soup, I might add chopped corn tortillas into the soup with the broth so they have time to break down and thicken the soup while the veggies are cooking.

It makes a very delicious soup with lots of flavor and it’s easy to cook. Most of the time is chopping the veggies at the start. After that, it’s pretty passive cooking and it’s ready very quickly.

017I ended up eating the soup for several days after my surgery and I was very happy to have it on hand so I didn’t have to think about how to feed myself. I also put three “single serve” jars of it into the freezer so I’d have some options for myself after surgery. I also make a large baked pasta casserole. Between the soup and the pasta, I kept myself going when cooking wasn’t really an option.

But then you get bored. I had to figure out how to finally cook again even though I wasn’t able to use my left hand. I finally decided to try to make tacos since I knew I could use many vegetables as long as I could use my food processor instead of chopping with my hands.

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Still, you’d be surprised how much you need your left hand even if you’re right handed. I ended up having to cover my left hand with a bread bag turned inside out and using it to hold things steady while I did some basic chopping. In this way, I could get onion, carrot, and kohlrabi cut up enough to put it through my food processor. Thank goodness. There’s no way I would have ever been able to chop any vegetables enough by hand. I was barely able to hold things steady for making large chunks to go into the processor.

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Here’s the basic “no recipe” recipe:

  • Ground meat of your choice (at least one pound)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • Veggies of your choice, finely diced: I always include onion and carrot but you could use zucchini, hard squash, or whatever you like
  • If I don’t have fresh lettuce to eat raw on the tacos, I will put in greens like kale into the beef mixture to cook so there’s some green in there somehow
  • 1-2 cans of tomatoes, depending on how sauce-y you like it
  • taco seasoning packet of your choice (I had trader joe’s) or make your own seasoning with salt, cumin, oregao, and chili powder

If I were a person who needed to “hide” vegetables from kids or anit-vegetable people, this would be a perfect recipe. The vegetables get hidden in the spicy meat mixture of the tacos. For me, a veggie lover, it was a way for me to use my precious vegetables before they went bad. The individual flavors of the vegetables to get lost, but it was a delicious mixture that was extended by the inclusion of the abundant vegetables.

To keep things easy on myself, I put the ground turkey (use whatever you life) into the pan to brown. Once it was partially cooked, I added in my finely chopped vegetables to cook. Once the meat was done, I added in the taco seasoning mix along with a can of tomatoes and a bit of water.

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It simmers a bit to get thickened and then you eat it as you’d like. We had raddichio from the farm that formed cute little cups so I ate some of it as if in a lettuce cup. I ate some in flour tortillas. I topped both with cheese and sour cream. My taco seasoning turned out to be pretty spicy so I didn’t need to add any salsa. If it had been summer, I might have added in some raw tomatoes for a contrasting texture, but given the winter, I used the raddichio to provide that raw crunch and feel.

Again, there were plenty of leftovers to have several nights of soft tacos to fill in around the other things I ate (mostly takeout). Until my hand wrap came off — 2 weeks!! – it was enough to keep me ahead of my vegetables spoiling and also satisfied my desire to cook and eat something yummy that I made myself.

I like that these “go to” recipes don’t require a recipe at all and they provide satisfying, simple meals. Even one handed.