Thursday, October 30, 2008

My favorite (oat)meal

Merriam-Webster's dictionary gives us two tantalizing definitions for the word "meal". The first, and one which you may have already suspected, is "the act of eating a portion of food to satisfy appetite." The second, however, is the topic for this post. "Meal. n. The usually coarsely ground and unbolted seeds of a cereal grass or pulse." While myriad meals are available to the curious consumer, today's post is going to focus on my personal favorite: Oatmeal. Often overlooked, these humble ground grains pack in oodles of fiber, vitamins, and complex-carbs, and when prepared right, make one kick-ass cold-morning breakfast (or lunch, dinner, or evening snack if you're me).

My love of tasty oats was sparked early in life. Growing up, my mom often ground up whole oats in a hand-cranking grinder in order to make our morning oatmeal. And no, I'm not Amish, she was just that into food. My love for oatmeal only deepened when I started paying for my own groceries ($0.30 breakfast!), and before long I began experimenting with my own preparation techniques and added ingredients in pursuit of the perfect bowl. Below I've included some tips about preparing your own perfect bowl of oatmeal, as well as my personal three favorite versions of this glorious grain.

Selecting your Oats
The perfect bowl of oatmeal starts with the perfect bowl of oats. You just can't do better than oats you have just freshly rolled (ground) yourself, but Bob's Red Mill Extra Thick Rolled Oats come pretty darned close. If I can't get my hands on Bob's Red Mill, then I typically go for the "Old Fashioned" variety from Quaker Oats. In my humble opinion, instant oats take up their place at the bottom on the T-oat-em pole, as they have fewer vitamins and less flavor.

Stove-Top vs. Microwave
I find that stove-top oatmeal is drastically tastier than its microwaved cousin. You have so much more control over the texture, and the added flavors and ingredients have more opportunity to blend together. As a general rule, you can influence the texture of your oatmeal in three ways: 1) the liquid to oat ratio (less liquid = thicker oatmeal), 2. whether you use milk or water (creamier or lighter), and 3. the cooking time (shorter time for chewier oats, longer time for smoother oatmeal). Here are three of my all-time favorite oatmeal recipes, each one perfect for a different occasion.

Cinnamon Custard Oatmeal - Perfect for an indulgent morning - 1 serving
Pour 1 cup of whole milk (that's right, WHOLE milk) into a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir the bottom of the pan until the milk starts to bubble, and then toss in a 1/2 cup of rolled oats. Continue stirring constantly in order to keep the milk from burning. After about 3 minutes of stirring (or whenever your oatmeal reaches your preferred texture - I do it for 3 minutes because I like a chewier texture), remove from the heat and shake in some brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. What you'll get is the creamiest, tastiest, richest, most custard-like oatmeal you ever did taste.

Protein-Packing Oatmeal - Perfect for a post-workout snack - 1 serving
Follow the basic steps from above, but this time use skim milk instead of whole. When the oatmeal is close to reaching the right thickness, crack an egg into the pan and stir quickly so that it blends completely with the oatmeal before it has a chance to cook (otherwise you'll get white strings in your oatmeal). The result is a hearty bowl of oatmeal that looks and tastes just like you're used to, but has 20 grams of protein as compared to the usual 5. I like sweetening this version with Stevia if I've just come from the gym.

Forager's Oatmeal - Perfect for the wanna-be hermit in all of us - 1 serving
This oatmeal I tend to make with water instead of milk so that it tastes a bit lighter...but it can certainly go either way. Just like before, put a cup of water in a saucepan and heat it until it begins to boil. Throw in your 1/2 cup of oats, wait for it to boil, and then cook for about 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, or until it reaches the desired texture. Remove from heat and top with chopped nuts, fresh and dried berries, and a dash of whole milk or cream.

Do you have any favorite oatmeal recipes? If so, please let me know! I'm always open to broadening my oatmeal horizon.

Musings on a fresh-baked cookie: A global perspective

Finding a long e-mail from my good friend Dan in my inbox this morning really brightened up my day. For some reason, messages from the island nation of Vanuatu always make me smile. That being said, I thought I would share just a tidbit from this morning's e-mail:

"I was actually day dreaming just recently about those wonderful days in college when I'd come home from class to find that every surface in our kitchen was covered with cookies. That just doesn't happen in Vanuatu nearly as much as it should, I think because the first step when baking here is usually 'sharpen your machete and head out into the bush to cut down some trees for firewood,' which is kind of a daunting opening to a recipe, even for the most determined of chefs. Although, actually, I could probably start baking things by just leaving them in my house during the middle of the afternoon."

And yes, that's a picture of Dan opening a coconut with his machete in order to have an afternoon snack. Perhaps after my next baking-fest I'll think twice before bemoaning the onerous process of doing dishes. After all, I'm lucky enough to have running water and an oven that requires nothing more than the twisting of a knob to operate.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Here's the Scoop

This weekend, in the midst of apartment hunting (I'd elaborate, but you just don't want to hear about it), we stumbled upon a beautiful row of brownstones in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and an even more beautiful little cafe. If you don't know about Prospect Heights, it's a neighborhood right above Prospect Park, a big, green place that nicely anchors the borough of Brooklyn. Prospect Heights is looking pretty gentrified these days, and you can see the mix of old neighborhood and new in the stores that neighbor one another and the people who mingle there. A tasty addition representing the new is Blue Marble Ice Cream, where we made an impromptu stop before moseying on to view some laughably dreary apartments. I'd have to say it was the most rewarding part of our day.

Blue Marble opened in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in 2007 and has just recently opened this Prospect Heights location. My guess is that sourcing their dairy from small farms in New York and Pennsylvania is what makes their ice cream so lick-ably silken. To my delight, they even tell you where they get their coffee, and their chocolate, and their tea, and it's all certified Fair Trade. Their shop is clean and family-friendly, as New York City Explorers shares the space. Their teeny little tables made me giggle, each one adorned with a slight jar of fall-hued flowers. All in all, I felt that this was the ultimate cafe experience.

If all this isn't enough for you, their ice cream will have your tongue tap dancing with glee. I tried 'Culture', a tangy frozen yogurt sweetened with honey. I even ordered a hefty dollop of natural peanut butter to mix in. Mary was kind enough to let me try her chocolate cone. I don't even like chocolate ice cream that much, and she practically had to chase me down the street to get it back. Even though it's fall, Blue Marble was an ideal snack stop for this sunny day. If you're ever in the neighborhood, I'd recommend you check it out.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

A book, a cabbage, an adventure

I have an important announcement. As of this evening, I have officially cast off my culinary diapers and embraced legitimate home cook's underwear. That's right. I'm a big girl now.

Today was the day, I set aside my baking bowls, spatulas, and muffin tins and opened my arms to the millions of microbes floating around my kitchen. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my very first raw sauerkraut.

This adventure actually began a few weeks ago when a package arrived at my doorstep containing the book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz (i.e. my personal hero). Now here is a man who makes his living by fermenting anything he can get his hands on: veggies, honey, milk, dough, goat meat...Come on, are you not just a little jealous?

My mother had sent me a copy of his book, and, upon receiving it, I had promptly sat myself down and read it cover to cover. I swear, the book reads almost like a novel (as least as far as cooking books go). As I turned each page, I kept hearing myself think, "my gosh, what will those microbes do next?!" By the time I had reached the final riveting recipe, I considered myself to be a true expert on the art and science of fermented foods. The only problem, of course, was that I had never fermented anything before in my life. "Alright folks," I proclaimed to the helpful microbes serenely bobbing through my kitchen. "It's time to make my very first sauerkraut."

Sauerkraut usually takes 1-4 weeks to finish, depending on how sour you like your kraut to be. Below I've included my (somewhat haphazard) interpretation of the basic steps given in Mr. Katz's book.

(makes roughly 1 gallon)

Ingredients and Equipment:

5 pounds of cabbage (green or red - but red's my personal favorite)
3 tablespoons sea salt
1 ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket
1 plate that fits inside the crock or bucket
1 weight such as a jar filled with water or a cleaned rock
1 cloth cover such as a towel

Step one
Chop or grate cabbage and place in a large bowl.

Step two:
Sprinkle salt on the chopped cabbage as you go.

Step three:
Add other vegetables, herbs, or spices. I decided to be a purest on my first attempt, so I went with bare cabbage.

Step four:
Mix everything together and then pack it bit by bit into your crock or bucket. I had a lot of fun with this step by using my fists, jars, a mallet, and anything else that seemed sturdy enough to tamp the cabbage down. The overall idea here is to squeeze as much water out of the cabbage as possible, with the help of the salt, of course.

Step five:
Cover the shredded cabbage with the plate or another object that fits fairly snugly into the opening of the crock or bucket.

Step six:
Push down on the weight every time you pass by your crock or bucket (or just whenever the tasty kraut happens to be on your mind). Within 4 to 24 hours the brine (the water and salt mixture that has been drawn out of the cabbage) should cover all kraut. Cover the bucket with the towel so that no mischievous bugs get any ideas about settling down and raising a family in your fermenting culinary delight.

Step seven:
Leave the sauerkraut alone in a corner of your kitchen to ferment, but check on it every day or two. If a mold appears on the surface of the liquid, just skim it off and don't worry. Your sauerkraut is carefully protected beneath the brine. Start tasting it after about a week, and when it reaches the right degree of tang for your tastebuds, scoop it out and enjoy!

You can store the sauerkraut in a jar in your refrigerator after it's done fermenting.

Stay tuned for the finale of this microbial adventure in a few weeks time.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Eat, Drink and be Merry!

Thinking back on our 12 + years of friendship, a lot of good memories come to mind: the all-night brownie-baking extravaganza in 7th grade, the evening we spent 5 hours attempting to make our own darned fig-newtons, eating a baked brie Thanksgiving dinner together our sophomore year of college in a Greenwich Village restaurant because we couldn't afford the airfare home to Seattle, daring each other to have the first taste of an intimidating platter of black squid ink pasta in Boston's North End, inhaling an entire jar of almond butter in one sitting in Vancouver, BC, oh how the list goes on.

While we eventually moved to different parts of the country, attended different schools, and pursued different careers, there's one thing that has never changed.

And that is the fact that we plan to eat, toast, bake, stir, taste, sample, drink, sniff, and cook our way through life. In fact, that's one of the things that has enriched our friendship most over the years, and we just couldn't bear not to share it with you.

We hope you'll enjoy our blog and participate with us in this wonderful food-loving community. Here we will detail our culinary adventures, reveal our stumbled-upon secrets, and document life, love, and the meaning of food. Salud!

P.S. That's us up there, posing beside a beautifully crafted outdoor pizza oven at City Farmer, a community garden we discovered in Vancouver, British Columbia. That's where our buddy, Rachel, lives. All three of us were dazzled by the beauty of this urban garden and the multitude of classes they offer for grownups and youngsters alike.

-Kylie and Adriana


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Adriana Willsie and Kylie Springman ©2009