Steamy Whole Wheat Kabocha Rolls

The heat in our apartment appears to be controlled by martians so the cool days have been inspiring me to do something I fear like the reaper: Bake. By martians, I may actually mean the girls that live below us. Point is, its cold during the day so instead of being productive with work, I want to bake.

Kabocha squash roll close upI had an idea in mind; though stumbling across this post confirmed to me that it was a good idea. I also had a Kabocha squash, my very favorite kind, sitting on the counter.

Squash

Winter

Warm

Bake

Visions of warm, buttery rolls floated through my head, emitting puffs of steam when you pulled them apart, letting pats of butter melt into their every crevice.

Knowing that baking isn’t my forte, I set out to make something involving flour, eggs and squash.

Stacked kabocha rollsAnd then, a few quick hours later, there they were, too hot to handle, ready to fulfill all of my bread related fantasies.

If you still have giant amounts of cranberry sauce left (as I do) it makes a great compliment to these.

Whole Wheat Kabocha Squash Rolls

1 small to medium Kabocha squash
Canola oil
1/2 cup warm water
1.5 tsps. baking yeast
2 tsps. brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3 tsps. salt
More flour for the board

Rub the oil on the outside of the squash and roast it until soft. For me, this was about 30 minutes in a 375 oven. Cut it open, scoop out the guts and toss, then scoop out the ‘meat’ and save. Put the water and the yeast into the bowl of a food processor, then add the sugar. Leave it for a few minutes, then add the eggs and squash (about 2 cups) and process until smooth. At this point, add the salt and leave the processor going on low and add the flour through the tube. Once all three cups are in, let it process until it forms a ball or close to it. You’ll probably want at least a little more flour, but I err on the low side, its easier to add than subtract!

Once you’ve got it in a ball, place on a floured board, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rise for an hour. Roll in to balls (I got ten out of this), cover and let rise another 45 minutes to an hour. If your house is freezing, you can turn on the oven and let it come up to 375 degrees while you sit in front of it during this time.

Either way, place on a floured pizza stone or baking sheet and put it in the oven. After about 5 minutes, open the oven and splash a little water in–this gives the rolls a crustier exterior. Let it keep baking for about 25 minutes in total. Then cool and eat. or don’t cool. and eat.

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Gin Class: Learning to love a new spirit, and a contest

“No” B said definitely on the phone when I asked if he wanted to attend a free gin class with me that night. I was taken aback by this sudden change of heart–usually he can be bribed anywhere with the thought of free booze. I had emailed him, but when he called I thought I’d bring it up. The phone rang again, seconds later after he had seen the email: “GIN class? I thought you said GYM class,” I sighed in relief that my boyfriend had not been kidnapped by alcohol hating aliens.

Hendrick's Gin Gimlet

If you are a gin lover, you can stop reading right now. As I understand it, gin aficionados don’t like Hendrick’s, by whom the class was sponsored. Also, this post is the story of me learning to appreciate a new beverage, and encouraging others in the anti-gin coalition to give it a shot. If you already like gin, you don’t need encouraging. On the other hand, if you’re like me and think most gin and gin based cocktails leave you with that feeling that you just got lost on the way to the bar and ended up in Grandma’s perfume drawer, then this is for you.

The class was sponsored, as I said, by Hendrick’s Gin. Much like their branding, which I was exposed to a lot of that night, it was fun, light-hearted and educational. Side note? I heart their branding. Check out their website. At the end of class we got ‘Field Guides’ to Hendrick’s Gin. It’s hilarious, informative and full of cool facts, amusing anecdotes and cocktails that I want to drink. Right now.  Since I ended up with an extra copy of Hendricks’ Field Guide, I’m giving it away to the best gin-related story, comment or cocktail that gets left in the comments by December 1st.

Back to class, where we learned to make a traditional gimlet as well two other twists on the drink. It wasn’t really the actual cocktail that was so informative–to be honest, I don’t remember the ratios that we learned. But I do remember learning the appropriate way to hold (perpendicular to and over your dominant shoulder), shake (front to back, like a piston) and open (a well placed thump to the side) a Boston shaker. I don’t remember how much St. Germain we put into the gimlet that was my favorite, but I do remember learning why the St. Germain worked so well in the cocktail:

Hendrick's Gin Aromatics

This is a chart of the botanicals that are involved in the flavoring of Hendrick’s Gin. By pairing up the additional flavors of the gimlet–or whichever cocktail of choice is being made–with these botanicals, the cocktail becomes this little microcosm of flavors that all hold hands and sing ‘We are the World’. What? Have I been drinking too much of that gin? Let me explain. So the Hendrick’s is in this gimlet with the St. Germain. St. Germain is an elderflower liquor, so the elderflower matches up with the same botanical in the gin, and all of a sudden, it becomes this vaguely sweet, completely mild and smooth, but intensely elderflower-ish cocktail. Another variation played a similar trick using orange bitters to go with the orange peels in the botanicals. I like elderflower better, so I wasn’t as big of a fan of the citrus version, but given the eleven options for botanicals shown in the picture here, I could dream up ideas for a while. Indian themed cocktails with coriander? Tea based cocktails with Chamomile? The mind boggles…

Somewhere in the course of the class my mindset about gin began to change. No longer were the botanical flavors the enemy, blocking the path to good, clean fun–er–beverages. Instead, they are now my jumping off point for creating any number of unique cocktails. My personality tends to lead me to want to attack disagreeable flavors–to overpower them, like with a dirty martini-I’d rather taste briney olive juice than bad vodka. My biggest takeaway from the class was to do the opposite. Find the flavor I do like, embrace it, nurture it, cradle it and let it grow up to be a full cocktail flavor.

Eating in Washington D.C.: Ben’s and Amys’

Somehow, in my entire life, I had somehow neglected to ever get to our nation’s capitol. This little situation was rectified recently when I landed for the wedding of friends of mine. Tracey, another college friend of mine, was excited to take this moment to show me the food of the area. So, I have to admit, I walked by the White House on the way to a sandwich shop. I did see the Washington Monument from the deck of a bar serving me drinks. My trip was not entirely void of culture, history and that thing, housed in the city, oh, yeah, our government?

That said, time was limited and the food was delicious. Ben’s is a Washington tradition, but chili poured over a hot dog is not really my type of food. Hesitantly, I agreed to go, since she was the guide. I regretted ever having doubted Tracey’s excellent taste. That is a woman who knows her food.And Ben’s? It is a place that knows their ‘half-smoke’ aka what the rest of us call a chili dog. The meat itself was what I felt really made the combination work. The whole thing was a messy proposition, with the chili soaking into the vaguely sweet, yet bland bread, transforming it into a spice-spiked but disintegrating partner of the meat. The meat held up though, like a circus strongman lifting balloon dumbbells of bun. That little snap of skin that’s required of meat in tube form was present, as was the requisite grill flavor. Sitting at the counter, we soaked in the atmosphere of Ben’s, like the bread soaked in the chili. Bustling, hustling, the staff were hard-working, but clearly proud of their handi-work and pleased with the grins and groans of enjoyment coming from us–and everyone chowing down in the restaurant.
Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

Later that day we trekked out to a different part of town, weathering high heat and humidity to walk a mile from the nearest subway station. Again, I silently questioned the worth of this trip. Both Tracey and a number of my Twitter buddies had suggested it. But pizza? I can get good pizza anywhere. And it’s hot. And I’m sweaty. Are we there yet? Then we were there, and when I took my seat at the bar and these showed up next to me:
Two Amy's Anchovies

Right there, by my left elbow, were hundreds of anchovies, silently curing in zippy, fragrant olive oil. Clearly there was one order that I was going to make before I got any further.

 

Two Amys' Pepper and AnchoviesThe anchovies, the very same ones I was snuggling up to at the bar, were presented to me like fishy stripes amongst the rainbow of soft grilled peppers. Olive oil was in no short supply in this dish, nor in any dish at Two Amys’. Lucky for us eaters, they use a good kind, adding a light zing to everything. But next up for us was a totally different kind of fat. Possibly my favorite for eating straight up. The kind that comes from a certain adorably dirty, four legged animal. That makes an oink. Lardo! Sliced in to long ribbons, like handmade papardelle noodles at an Italian restaurant. Noodles these weren’t, though. Thin slips of meat would disappear within a mere instant of landing on your tongue, leaving only a porky memory of what once was. Lardo, cured pieces of fat back, is light in texture and rich in taste. The whole plate that came as a starter barely had a dent in it by the time our pizza arrived.

Clam Pizza at Two Amys'Yeah, it was as good as it looks. Somehow I remained un-bothered by the shell on clams that had to be picked apart before we could eat. The juices were immediately diluted amongst the other juices in which the herbs were afloat, from the cheese and of course the ever present olive oil.

The meal was overall incredibly good. We were a little squished in against the bar, but the advent of air-conditioning after our walk was such a relief that our own comfort was plenty mollified. The service was a little harried and flaked out–we had to wait for a knife to slice our pizza, for example. That said, as you can tell from the post, the food quality was high enough to over come any misgivings about the service.

2 Amys on Urbanspoon

Beijing Part 5: Regional Chinese Food

As I finish my summary of eating in Beijing, China for eleven days last fall, I contemplate the irony of the fact that an 11 day trip took me 11 months to finish writing up. Yet, the impact that the food of Beijing made on me is fully worth the patience of my readers and time I’ve spent thinking about what was so amazing about it.

While I’ve already written about the foods from two regions, Sichuan and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s Street Food and own cuisine, the thing that truly floored me, amazed me and made me feel as though I knew just so little about the cuisine of such a vast country was all the regional dishes. I knew the basics, Peking duck is from Beijing, Sichuanese food is common in Seattle, I knew Cantonese, but with the guidance of my amazing friends, Nick and Even, we took a tour of the foods of so very many different foods.

In summarizing the foods of these various cultures, it is hard to get beyond broad generalizations. The foods of Sichuan were hot with spice and cool with Sichuan peppercorns. The foods of Western China, aka Xinjiang, were closer to Indian or Afghani or even Turkish food than anything else I’d had. Those I at least had known something about before the trip. Then Nick led us down a whole new path. I’ll be summarizing a few of those ‘new path’ meals here.

With a group of six people–assorted ex-pat friends of theirs joined us–at a Shaanxi restaurant, we were able to order a good amount of food. The restaurant was a great little spot, just off of a main road, where I never would have thought to look. I took a card to remember the name of the place, so I could recommend it in the future–I can still remember the frustration when I opened a coat pocket, months later to see the washed, shredded, card. Fear not, the powers of Google returned it to me! (Yeah, I just spent 20 minutes Google-ing it so you can get to it. Thank me later). This was probably the first recommendation I’d give for a traveler to Beijing, as it was totally different from anything you get at home, yet totally identifiable. And totally, completely and utterly delicious.

From the top left corner, you can learn that I have no idea what that first dish is. But it involved noodles and spicy sauce. Next to it was the century egg, my first experience with them, which I enjoyed, despite their reputation for stinkitude. In the bottom right is longevity noodle, which is all one noodle. Yeah, that was hard to share between all of us (especially since it was topped with an egg). The fourth dish shown here is a wasabi buckwheat noodle, which reminded more of Japanese food than anything else. I always find experiences like that refreshing, to remember that no culture is in isolation–authenticity is such a relative term. But before we dwell further….the rest of the dishes (not all of them. I spared you photos of the more boring looking, but no less tasty dishes, such as bitter melon).

Okay, now we’re at the good stuff. In the bottom left, you see Brett and I looking extremely apprehensive at the amount of food that has just arrived and continues to arrive. By the minute! Next to that is a mutton and dumpling soup. That is, mutton, in dumplings, in soup. On the top right is one of my favorites from a meal that was full of amazing food, the green noodles (okay, them being green helped them in that favoritism) which you pulled out, dunked in to the murky, chile-spiked sauce next to it, then ate. The real winner, though, overall, was the lamb-burgeresque thing pictured on the top left. Like a soft, buttery English muffin, filled with tender, savory, roast lamb, topped with cilantro. Oh, damn, I just drooled on the keyboard remembering that dish. Unrelated: I think we’re planning a return to China soon. Oh, wait, that was totally related.

At this point we took it upon ourselves to continue exploring regional foods and ended up at the rather upscale, highly recommended, Three Guizhou men. I knew basically nothing about Guizhou food, so it was a learning experience, for sure. What I found so interesting as I traveled the various culinary regions, was, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. For example, that dish in the upper left? For all the description I could give you, it was basically a sweet corn tamale. A damn good one. Lower right? That’s a potato pancake. I’ll hesitate to say ‘latke’ and give away my own heritage, but the similarities were there. Note to self: this Chanukah, add spicy chili peppers to latke plate. The other two pictures are a dish that, as it arrived we slowly realized was basically hashbrowns and bacon. And chilis, of course. Okay, conclusion? American breakfast+chili peppers=Guizhou food. Overall the food was good and quite spicy, but I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you were specifically seeking out Guizhou food and a nice meal. Also–it was hard to find, hidden in an alley behind an Olympic venue.

After having ventured on our own, we decided to return to the wisdom of Nick and Even for a little weekend lunch. Even had lived in Yunnan province prior to finishing school and moving to Beijing, so she offered to be our tour guide through the food.

This food was slightly more towards Thai or even Vietnamese food, I thought, especially ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’, not shown, which are the signature dish of the region. Basically a big bowl of noodle soup with stuff in it, but I agreed with Even when she said she didn’t think it was really the highlight of the cuisine. We did learn some really great things at the meal, and I enjoyed the food that was further from what I’d had before. We started with a salad of Chrysanthemum greens (bottom right), which were lightly dressed and slightly spiced. The texture was surprising, not at all reminiscent of the frisee which it resembles, but lighter, friendlier. We had a few other, non-pictured dishes (the noodles, a purple fried rice in a pineapple), but the chicken in the bottom left was one that stood out as being exceptionally perfectly cooked and spiced. The whole fried fish (served with spices) on the top left was a favorite of mine–though whole fish always will be–and it taught us a great fact: in China, you don’t flip the fish. You have to pick the meat on the bottom from the top, because if you flip it over to get to that meat, you flip the boat that we are all in. Makes sense to me, I sure as hell haven’t flipped a fish since then. Lastly, in the upper right, you’ll find Yunnan Fried Cheese. Somewhere between doughnut and mozzarella stick, lies these. Crunchy on the outside, stretchy on the inside and dusted with what I think is a combination of sugar and MSG, I secretly loved them. Though we all know I have a mozzarella stick issue.

What, you’re still reading? You’re either bored, hungry, or planning a trip to Beijing. Okay, here it is though, the final meal to go up on the blog, the final meal we ate on the trip. Before leaving, Nick insisted on taking us to one more stop, lunch on the way to the airport, at a Hunan restaurant. There are a million restaurants in the U.S. that use the word Hunan in them. Very few of them serve Hunanese food. I’m eternally thankful that I had the chance to experience real Hunan food though, because I now understand a tiny fragment of this wild, mysterious cuisine.

What do I mean by wild and mysterious? Well, on the upper right, you’ll see a dish that I am told is “wild Hunan vegetable”. No other info and no English name, because, well, why give an English name to something that only grows in Hunan Province? It was sort of halfway between a mushroom and a green, which only belabors the point that in addition to having no English name, it is very difficult to describe. So I won’t. Below that, you’ll find stir-fried donkey meat, which was far better than I would have guessed. Donkey seems to do very well at absorbing the flavors around it, so the meat was fragrant with the peppers that surrounded it. Cold tendon, bottom left, is fast becoming my go-to dish on any Chinese menu that has it, and this Hunan version was up to par. Above that is a classic Hunan dish, a special, Hunanese type of bacon, with a deep, rich, smokey flavor. I believe here we had it over tofu, which soaked up additional smokiness from being cooked with the bacon. Imagine the best bacon you’ve ever had? Now imagine better: Hunan Bacon.

And with that, we hopped in the cab and headed to the airport. Arriving back in Seattle, we made our next meal the same as the one before we left for China: Sichuanese Hot Pot. Yeah, we’re incorrigible.

The Best Bread: Shepherd’s Grain Flour

Subtitle: In which I go all wheat-geek on you guys

So I went on a wheat farm tour, thanks to Shepherd’s Grain Flour. SG is a local, no-till (more on that later) wheat cooperative, and the tour was awesome. I was geeking out learning all about wheat farming, but I know that as exciting as it was to see in person, it wouldn’t translate well to a blog. Then I tasted the different wheat kernels and was fascinated by all the various flavors that were perceptible and began to compose a post in my head. I was ready to invite the world over to taste these various wheat kernels. Then I baked with the flour.

I’m hoping the sunlight when I took this photo adequately conjures up the sounds of angels singing as the clouds part. I used the flour from Shepherd’s Grain to make the same bread I always make. The same recipe (from Mark Bittman’s ‘How to Cook Everything) that I’ve made so many times I could do it with my eyes closed. The loaf of bread I removed from the oven, though? It was not the same as all those others. Seriously, this was an amazing loaf of bread. This flour, it is great flour. Sure, it could have been the day, the alignment of the moon or any number of other variables, but the obvious one is that this flour was far more amazing than I could have imagined.

Prior to realizing that the flour was going to be so good for baking, I was already excited about it, after learning about the no-till method that the farmers use–essentially a sustainable method that is gentler on the land than conventional methods. I know a lot of the food-nerdy things I found fascinating when hearing about them from the farmers aren’t that interesting on your screen, but I will say that these men were passionate about the wheat they grow and the land that it grows on. One displayed to us the charter his great-grandfather got for the land that he still farms. Another encouraged us to pick up the soil and smell it, then showed us the difference between that and conventional (tilled) soil.  While all of the farmers inherited their land from family and then converted it to no-till, three of the four farmers who spoke to us were going to pass on their farm to someone outside of the family.

Each of the farmers was surprisingly blunt about their use of chemical weed killers, which, to someone long imbued with the ‘organic’ mind set, I found disorienting. The upshot, they said, was this method permits a healthier soil, in terms of long term sustainability, versus tilling and being able to use fewer chemicals.

At one of the four farms that we visited, the farmer spoke to us about four of the varieties of wheat they grow, and we were given a chance to taste the kernels. The soft white, used to make pastry flour was, indeed, soft and white. The hard red winter wheat was, well, harder, and just a little bitter. The dark northern spring wheat, however, was the one that really amazed me. Each kernel I popped into my mouth, like snack food or popcorn was full of flavor, just a little bit nutty, and really quite complex. So it made sense that these flavorful flours made such delicious bread.

Overall the tour was an amazing education experience, touring the farms, drinking local beer (great beer!) from a local brewery in Reardan, WA, eating pizza, muffins and cupcakes made with the flour from farms that we went to, hearing the story of how Shepherd’s Grain convinced a large national wheat mill to separate and isolate these special grains. Thank you to everyone at and involved with Shepherd’s Grain!

If you’re looking to get this flour for yourself, look for Stone-Buhr, they currently package it for consumer retail, but you can find lots of local companies using the flour, including, but not limited to Pink’s, Cupcake Royal and Molly Moon.

Mushroom Festival and a $75 Giveaway Contest–about Mushrooms

The prize for this giveaway is kindly sponsored by the folks at CSN, who run a number of websites where you can find everything a good eater needs from a dining table to cookware. Details about the contest are at the bottom of this post.

Ever since I started mushroom hunting about two years ago, I’ve been inundated with people wanting to know where I go, how I do it. My only answer is to try to explain just how much work it was. Hours of classes, studying, walking around in the damp, drizzly local woods, driving around, hoping that this would be the right spot. I wish I had a better answer. I wish it were like crabbing or razor clamming, where a few dollars and some time will virtually guarantee you at least a modicum of success. Unfortunately, it isn’t. If you averaged out the number of edible mushrooms I’ve gotten over the number of hours I’ve put in to learning how to identify and locate them, you’re looking at about one mushroom every ten hours.

But it is worth it. And I’d never for a second discourage anyone else from trying to learn. Which is why, when I received a press release about a mushroom festival that was a) Cheap–just $20! b) involved some of the best parts of foraging–that would be the eating of warm, delicious, hearty, mushroom based foods upon return and c) involved going to a beautiful part of the state–Lake Quinault, I felt strongly about passing it on. It is October 15-17th, and to spare those who aren’t interested, I’m just going to attach the detailed info here: Mushroom Festival and the full schedule here: Mushroom Agenda. If you’ve ever (and you know who you are) asked me about mushrooms and hunting, this is such a great opportunity.

Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: the contest. The prize is a $75 gift certificate to any of the CSN sites, which as I mentioned above, cover any number of categories, most notably for me, cookware. If you read my blog, there are a few mushroom recipes: Lobster Mushroom Bisque, Chanterelles with pasta, but I’d love to have more options. So, tell me the most delicious thing you can imagine cooking with foraged mushrooms. I’d love a recipe too, but I can always improvise, I’m just looking for ideas. Leave your idea in the comments here, and be sure to put your email address in–it won’t display, I just need it to contact you. Contest runs through October 18th, so you’ve got ten days!

Chanterelles with Rosemary: A Foraged Feast

Chanterelle PastaSeattle has a reputation for constant rain. Natives such as myself know that isn’t true–it only rains in fall, winter and spring, and even then, just a light drizzle. Regardless, we natives also know that the rain brings us treasures in the form of chanterelle mushrooms.

As our short summer wound down last week, I watched the rains begin–along with the complaints from those who have moved here from cities with summers that go past labor day. As others complained of the wetness, my head danced with visions of the reward we Seattleites get for enduring the rain.

Freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms.

There is something that I love about going out and finding the most delicious foods, whether it’s locating an underground izakaya in New York or digging my own razor clams from the ground. I can’t put my finger on just why food is so much more delicious when I’ve spent time, effort, possibly far too much of both, seeking it out. So there I was, bright and early on a fall-like Sunday morning, walking about in the rain, with a silly, oversized basket, brushing my hands about on the forest floor.

For all the dreary rain, though, these dots of golden color coming up from the ground provide the perfect antidote. A chilly apartment can be easily warmed with the smells of chanterelles sauteing on the stove. There are any number of things you can do with chanterelles, but for my first foray of the season, there was only one dish I could do.

Simple Chanterelles with Rosemary and Fresh Pasta

Rosemary grows everywhere around Seattle, my backyard included, so I start by warming up butter, heavy handedly adding the herb. Meanwhile, I start the water boiling for the fresh pasta. We (B does much of the work for pasta making) used the recipe in this post, though used some whole wheat flour for extra flavor to stand up to the strong texture and flavor of the mushrooms. The mushrooms go into the butter, along with a pile of salt and pepper–again, with a heavy hand, these will bring out the natural flavors of chanterelles. When the mushrooms soften, I throw the pasta into the water, and everything comes together. I take the pasta out, move it into the pan with the mushrooms and add a little pasta water. The heat does its trick and the whole dish comes together, textures, and flavors, perfectly, delightfully.

The thick chew of the mushrooms, the light give of the pasta, the strong herb from the garden. This dish warms the room–and the season.