Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday Food: Easter Gyros


Short version: Scrambled eggs, pasta with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, leftover green beans

Long version: Sysco food is not the most flavorful food. I got a 25-pound box of Roma tomatoes from the school Sysco program, and they were the hardest, palest, most flavorless tomatoes I have ever encountered. I used some of them to make a sauce for the kids' pasta. It was uninspiring, but serviceable.

The mozzarella was also from the Sysco program. Pre-shredded, part-skim mozzarella is not my preference, but you know what they say about beggars choosing.


Short version: Roasted Italian sausage, roasted potatoes, roasted tomatoes, roasted green beans


Actually, the tomatoes were greatly improved with roasting. Cubby took a bite and said, "Hey, these tomatoes actually taste like something." Indeed. It didn't hurt that I added salt, garlic powder, and dried oregano to them, too. They were good with the sausage, anyway.


Short version: Lamb gyros, french fries, bunny cake with ice cream

Long version: It's a Greek Easter.

So I marinated a leg of lamb that A. had boned with a bunch of tomato juice left from when I was cutting up the sad tomatoes to roast, olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. It sat in the refrigerator for almost 24 hours, which was a good thing. Then I tied it up, browned it, and threw it in a 400 degree oven with the french fries.

While that was cooking, I was making the pita bread*.

You know what P.I.T.A. stands for? Yeah, these were that. The dough wasn't particularly difficult to make, but then each pita has to be rolled out with a rolling pin, using a lot of flour so that it doesn't stick. But then all that extra flour goes on the screaming-hot griddle along with the bread and there, it burns. So the ENTIRE TIME I was rolling out and cooking the breads, every single smoke detector in the house was going off and Cubby was running hysterically around the house opening every last window.

They were good, but I'm not convinced it was worth it.

Anyway, I made french fries just because I always like french fries. And this is the bunny cake:

Even by my low standards, this is an Ugly Cake. A bit creepy, too. Delicious, though!


Short version: Leftover meat pizza-style, potato slices, green salad

Long version: There was a bit of lamb left from the night before, plus a couple of sausages, so I sliced both of those thinly, fried them, and added some tomato sauce I had made earlier.

I actually made Finny's Sauce with the terrible tomatoes from Sysco. I didn't have any wine, either, and just used a bit of balsamic vinegar. Even with terrible tomatoes and no wine, that sauce is still good. Maybe I'll re-name it Finny's Magic Sauce.

This is still salad from MY LETTUCE HOORAY! The excitement never dims.


Short version: Sheep lap, curried split peas, baked potatoes, garlic bread, carrot sticks

Long version: Man, this was the most random meal ever.

The lap is the breast of the sheep. It's a very thin, fatty, and quite tough cut. I had seen somewhere that it can be used to make a sort of bacon, so A. found a recipe somewhere that called for a dry rub of salt, pepper, and brown sugar, and we left it in the refrigerator for two weeks.

The resulting meat was quite sweet. Not much like bacon, but it was reminiscent of the lamb ribs A. makes sometimes. So I baked it at a low heat for a couple of hours, adding paprika and garlic powder to it. This made a chewy, crispy, very fatty meat. A. and Cubby liked it, Poppy ate it, but Charlie and Jack tried it and refused. They had some cheese instead.

I mostly made the curried split peas and baked potatoes for me, because I love curry and potatoes. Rafael had given us all those split peas, and I used to sometimes make dal, which is made with split lentils. Lentils split smaller than peas, but the peas still cooked up pretty quickly. All I did was cook some diced onion and garlic in oil, fry some sweet yellow curry powder in there, then add rinsed split peas, salt, and water. I ate mine over a baked potato with sour cream on top, and it was delicious.

Let us pause for a photo of this year's floofy Easter dress. Sadly, it went unappreciated by our church at large, but we all appreciated it very much.

And I didn't have to worry about the clashing striped pants underneath, so that's a bonus.


Short version: Bunless cheeseburgers, rice, frozen green beans

Long version: That cheap Sysco ground beef is much better as thin hamburgers rather than meatloaf. Not as wet.


Short version: Grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen green beans

Long version: Those who wanted pizza grilled cheese had the remainder of Finny's sauce with mozzarella and, in Cubby and A.'s case, anchovy paste.

Speaking of Cubby, I decided to try to include him in the preparations for Easter dinner by asking him to make a centerpiece for the table out of some of the modeling clay they got in their baskets. I suggested a bunny. This is what he put on the table:

The beheading of the creepiest Easter bunny in existence.

Okay, your turn! What'd you eat this week?

* I used that recipe mostly because the author explained how her Palestinian grandmother used to make bread: She saved a small ball of dough from each batch and dropped it right into a bag of flour for the next batch. SEE? SEE?! No one is throwing away flour in places where food is hard to come by. (And where bread is made frequently.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Sane Sourdough: The Starter

I was kind of hoping no one would ask me how to make a starter for sourdough, because I didn't actually make ours. A. made it many years ago now. I think about eight years ago, but I can't really remember.

He started it because he had read that some people who have trouble digesting wheat-flour bread (which in our house at the time included both A. and the MiL) are okay with sourdough.

Now, because it was A. in the kitchen, he was not about to get involved in anything finicky or detailed. The MiL looked up a lot of information about sourdough and found all that stuff about feeding and discarding and all, and A. responded something along the lines of,"That's stupid. I guarantee you no one crossing the prairie in 1870 was throwing out flour."

So he used the method that we found in Darina Allen's Forgotten Skills of Cooking, an immensely practical book the MiL gave me for Christmas at my request many years ago.

Here is that method:

Day 1: Choose a large airtight jar that will hold at least 2 quarts--a glass jar is fine. Put 1/4 cup of tepid (not hot) pure spring water (my note: I think filtered tap water is okay, too, you just don't want municipal water with chlorine in it) and 1/4 cup of flour into the jar. Stir well, close the jar, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 2-5: Add 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup flour every day, stir well, close, and leave at room temperature.

It should be ready to go by Day 6.

An important change A. made, though, was that he did not cover the jar so it was airtight. He just covered it with a cloth secured with a rubber band, under the assumption that you need to give the wild yeasts in the air access to your starter.

He put it on top of the refrigerator, which is a nice warm spot.

To be fair, the kitchen at Blackrock--a damp, 1860s farmhouse--almost certainly has a larger-than-average colony of wild yeasts hanging around. I have never tried doing this in New Mexico, but I think it would be much harder to start a starter here in this arid, cleaner climate.

Anyway. That's what he did, should you wish to try it yourself. And if you do, please let me know if it works. (Or doesn't.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 8

Dough goes in, and after fifty minutes, out comes . . .


I dump the bread out onto a cooling rack, then I let it cool for a few hours and then wrap it up. Cereal bags and twist ties are the best way to wrap it, but if I don't have enough of those, I just put it in two plastic grocery store bags without holes in them.

Although this bread, like all bread, is much better fresh, I still freeze three of the four loaves.

So, a handy summary for you if you don't feel like spending an hour reading the many, many words I just wrote about sourdough:

Step one: Mix together a cup of starter, four cups of flour, and two cups of water. Cover and leave.

Step two: 8-10 hours later, mix together another four cups of flour and two cups of water. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Or, in winter, just leave it on the counter overnight if your kitchen is cool.

Step three: Take out of refrigerator first thing in the morning and let it warm up for a few hours. Or, in winter, get going right away.

Step four: Remove about a cup of starter and put it back in its jar in the refrigerator. Mix in six cups of flour  (some whole grain flour here if you want) and 2.5 cups of water. Cover and leave to rise.

Step five: Four hours later, scrape the dough out onto a floured counter and sprinkle over it 4.5 teaspoons salt. Knead it in for about thirty seconds. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover, and leave to rise.

Step six: Two hours later, grease four loaf pans, scrape the dough out onto a floured counter and flip a few times so it's not sticky, then cut into four pieces and put the pieces in the pans. Cover the pans with a damp tea towel and leave to rise.

Step seven: 2-3 hours later, heat oven to 425 degrees, then slash the top of each loaf twice with a serrated knife and put the pans in the oven.

Step eight: About fifty minutes later, take the bread out, flip it out of the pan onto a cooling rack, and allow it to cool all the way before wrapping it up.


Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 7

Let's get this oven party started.

During the last stage, the dough rose in the bread pans for about three hours. Our kitchen was only about 65 degrees today, so that was maybe a little slower than normal. But once it starts pushing up the towel covering it, it's ready to bake.

The oven needs to pre-heat to 425 degrees. Then I slash the top of each loaf twice with a serrated steak knife. I do this quickly so that I'm not pressing down on the dough and deflating it at all. The slashing gives the bread more space to rise in the oven.

Slashed loaves with the slashing knife.

They stay in the oven for about 50 minutes.

To be continued . . .

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 6

Now that it's two hours later and the dough looks like this:

Puffy and bubbly.

It's time to rid ourselves of that pot and make some loaves.

First I get the loaf pans ready.

My kitchen equipment can be most charitably described as "utilitarian."

I grease the pans with old butter wrappers I save. There's always some butter stuck to them, and it's usually enough to grease a loaf pan. If it's not, I just get some of the soft butter from the counter and smear it on with the wrapper. Keeps my hands from getting greasy.

You can also use non-stick spray.

Then I scrape the dough out of the pot and onto the floured counter. I immediately put the pot in the sink and fill it with water, because that pot is a bitch to clean even if it soaks. Then I flip the dough over two or three times, just so it's not sticky.

Next I pat it a bit flat, to make it easier to cut.

Like so.

I cut the dough into four pieces with my bread knife. 

I have two one-pound loaf pans, and two pound-and-a-half loaf pans (one of which was the MiL's), which means I don't divide my dough equally, but rather, into two bigger pieces and two smaller pieces. This is challenging, and frankly, I suck at it. If I had a scale, I could weigh the pieces. I don't have a scale, though, and honestly probably wouldn't do that even if I did.

It doesn't really matter if I screw it up, though. This time when I tried to cut two smaller pieces and two bigger pieces (plus one even smaller piece for garlic bread tonight), I ended up with one big pan with too much in it and one small pan with not enough, so I just pulled a chunk from the too-full pan and squished it in with the dough in the not-full-enough pan.

This is what the MiL meant when she said I don't take any particular care shaping them. Understatement of the year.

Here's what the pans looked like after I re-arranged the dough.

They're . . . pans of dough.

I cover them with a damp tea towel:

Shrouded pans.

I bet you can guess what I do now, right? Yes. I wait.

To be continued . . .

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 5

It is now 10:50 a.m. Now that the dough has been sitting for about four hours, it looks like this:

Mo' bubbles, mo' bettah.

It's going to get all kinds of exciting up in here now, because now we take the dough out of the pot.


Okay, so I clear a spot on my counter (possibly the hardest part of this whole process, given my paucity of counter space) and wipe it down, then make sure it's dry and scatter a heavy layer of flour in an area of about a foot. I just use my hand to scrape the dough out of the pot out right onto the counter. Fingers are excellent tools for scraping.

Directly onto the surface of the dough, I sprinkle about five teaspoons of salt. Usually it's more like 4.5 teaspoons, but I'm making a bit of extra dough this time for garlic bread.

Anyway, I usually use plain old table salt, although this time I was out of that and just used canning and pickling salt.

Kind of hard to see white salt on white dough, but it's there.

I fold each side of the dough up and over to keep the salt from coming off, then start folding and flipping the dough. Otherwise known as kneading. Just for you, I counted how many times I folded: fifteen times exactly. I stopped once about halfway through and lifted the dough to re-distribute the flour under it so it wouldn't stick.

Sourdough requires very little kneading compared to breads made with commercial yeasts. This is one reason I like it. None of this "knead for five minutes." Five minutes is far longer than I want to knead.

Anyway again.

After kneading, I drop the dough right back into the pot:

As you can see, I don't bother washing the pot out first.

Incidentally, if you have a lot of loose flour still on the counter--I had about a quarter cup this time--sweep it back into your measuring cup to save for the next step.

And now! We wait. Again. Sourdough baking could accurately be called The Waiting Game.

To be continued . . . 

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 4

Now that a couple of hours have passed, we can carry on with the sourdough. It's warmed up enough to liven up and get bubbly again. This is at 7:15 a.m.

Lively and ready to go.

Before I add anything else at this point, I pull out some of the dough to serve as starter for next time. So using my wooden spoon, I scoop out about a cup and a half of dough and put it back in the jar to go in the refrigerator.

This jar is pretty crusty, but that's a good thing.

The advantage of using the same jar over and over is that if you forget to take starter out while you're making bread--which I have done more than once--you can just put more water and flour right in the jar to get starter going again easily. The residual dough that inevitably is stuck to the sides and bottom of the jar will act as starter for your starter.

Okay, now I add more flour. As I said before, I only use white flour to make bread now, but when I used some whole wheat flour, this is when I would add it. I used just two cups of wheat flour, and I would add it first and add a little more than a cup of water to mix it in. I found the whole wheat flour the hardest to incorporate, so I would mix it first by itself with a bit of extra water, then, when it was all mixed in, add in the white flour.

At this point, I'm adding a total of about six more cups of flour. So when I was using whole wheat, that would have been two cups of whole wheat and four cups of white flour. 

Now, with only white flour, I add only about five cups of flour to start with, because I always add a bit too much water, so it's usually a little too wet. Then I mix in another cup or so of flour to get it a bit drier. 

This time I put in five cups of flour, about two and a half cups of water, and then another cup and a half of flour. You really want the dough at this stage to be as dry as possible without having dry streaks of flour in it. This requires some heavy-duty mixing and is, I find, the most taxing part of the whole process. Which isn't saying much.

If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, I think this is where you would use it. I don't have one, and I can vouch for the fact that it is entirely possible, if a bit tiring, to mix all this dough by hand with a very study wooden spoon. This will be easier, though, if you're not making such a quantity of bread at once.

So then it looks like this:

Same as the last two times, except the pot is getting steadily more full every time.

I'm sure you've noticed that making sourdough can pretty much be summed up as "mix in flour and water, and wait." Now we're going to wait some more, but then! Then we're going to add in the excitement of kneading! And salt! WHEE!

To be continued . . . 

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 3

Winter update: Disregard this step if it was on your counter overnight.

Say good morning to your sourdough! And get it out of the refrigerator.

Rise and shine! No, but seriously. Start rising, sourdough.

The sourdough will have risen a bit in the refrigerator--mostly right when it's put in, before it gets too cold--but you still need to leave it out for a few hours to recover itself. It will be too stiff and cold to do anything with right out of the refrigerator.

I just take it out as soon as I get up. Or rather, as soon as I get up, get dressed, and get water heating for coffee. Priorities.

This morning, that was at 4:53 a.m. And now, we wait some more.

To be continued . . .

Monday, April 13, 2020

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 2

Okay! Time to crack on with our sourdough!

Now that it's been sitting for 8, 9, 10 hours, I do the next addition of flour. This time I did it at 6:50 p.m., although I can do it anytime between 6:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. That is, when I remember after dinner and before I go to bed.

Often I'll be on my way to bed and remember I haven't dealt with the sourdough, at which point I swear gently to myself and shuffle back into the kitchen to tend to the sourdough. Because sourdough has no mercy.


Here it is, pre-addition:

Sing it with me: "Tiny bubbles . . ."

Then I do the same thing I did the first time. That is, four cups flour and two cups water, mix mix mix until all mixed up.

Then it looks like this:

Looks familiar.

I should mention that I make all-white-flour bread, although I will tell you later at what point I added whole-grain flours when I used to do that.

And then, because I go to bed early, I put the sourdough to bed, too. In the refrigerator.

Good night, sweet sourdough.

It'll just sit there in the refrigerator until I get up in the morning. And with that, we will leave you for the night.

Winter update: I don't put it in the refrigerator overnight in the winter, because our kitchen is around 58 degrees overnight. So I just leave it out on the counter. If your kitchen is very cool at night, you don't have to put it in the refrigerator overnight.

To be continued . . .

Real-time, Sane Sourdough: Part 1

After that post in which I frankly kind of ranted about the ridiculous information online about finicky sourdough baking, A. was all, "Well, why don't you show people how you do it?"

Why don't I?

I don't usually do tutorials or give advice here because, to be honest, I don't take advice well myself. I kind of figure no one wants to be told what to do, just because I don't. But maybe you do! Maybe you have a sourdough starter hanging out in your kitchen and you're staring at these insane sourdough websites thinking, "Why doesn't someone post something actually useful that won't make me tear my hair out?"

If that's you, this is for you. What I'm going to do is take pictures and post as I go through my process, which takes two days. Almost all of that is just waiting around for dough to rise, though, so don't be intimidated.

So if you're so inclined, you could just keep madly refreshing this page and do exactly what I do as I do it. Or not. Whatever.

You ready? Let's go.

First thing in the morning, I take my jar of starter out of the refrigerator:

Sourdough starter on the left, yogurt starter on the right. The most important jars in my kitchen.

When I say "first thing," I mean "whenever I get to it in the morning." I did it this morning around 7 a.m., but I've done it as late as 10 a.m. with no issues.

This is what the starter looks like in the jar:

A bit dry and stiff right now, and not actually bubbly. Doesn't matter. It'll still work.

I make four loaves of bread at a time, so I start with four cups of flour in my big stock pot, which is what I use to mix my dough in. I like the pot because it's capacious, relatively easy to clean, and has its own tight-fitting lid.

Okay, so four cups of flour in my pot, then scrape out whatever is in my starter jar. This time it was about a cup because I used some to make the sourdough pita bread yesterday.

Starter and flour in pot. Plus the very sturdy wooden spoon I mix it with. It must be sturdy. I have broken spoons before mixing sourdough.

Then I add about two cups of water. A ratio of 2 cups flour with 1 cup water is about right. A little more is okay, though, so if it's a little wet, doesn't matter. I also don't worry too much about the temperature. My water is usually pretty cold. Again, doesn't matter. (Are you seeing a theme in my sourdough attitude?)

Mix mix mix until there are no streaks of dry flour anymore.

And there it is.

Now put a top on your container or cover it with a wet towel and forget about it until evening.

To be continued later . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Making-Do Easter

"So," asked the MiL yesterday on the phone, "How do you have Easter for kids when you can't get to the store?"

WELL. Let me show you!

Dyed eggs for hunting courtesy of curry powder and paprika:

The lighting here doesn't show the yellow to good advantage. It actually came out a pretty bright yellow.

(There were originally eight eggs--two for each child to find--but Poppy and John helped me and so we had a couple of fatalities.)

Easter baskets courtesy of Miss Amelia, my mother, and the tiny store in the village:

Randomness in a basket.

My mom sent an enormous box of modeling clay about a month ago, which I've been saving and divided up into the baskets. The peanut butter cups from the village store stand in for chocolate bunnies, and there are some marshmallow bunnies and chicks (like Peeps, but a different shape) that Miss Amelia gave us over a month ago. I've never actually eaten a Peep, so I had to ask A. if they're supposed to be so . . . hard. He waved this away, saying, "They're all sugar. They can't go bad."

Right. Tooth-breaking fake Peeps for all!

Easter dinner courtesy of me.

I made two chocolate cakes yesterday to be made into a bunny cake today (stay tuned for pictures of what is sure to be the Ugly Cake to end all Ugly Cakes), along with some ice cream from the village store.

We're having lamb gyros using a rolled leg of lamb from the wether and sourdough pitas that I will attempt for the very first time today. No cucumbers for tzatziki, but I do have a bit of lemon juice I had frozen way back for Cubby's birthday cheesecake in case I didn't have lemons when I needed to make it, so I can still make a yogurt sauce for the gyros. And we have greens for a salad, plus a few of the last homemade olives (which I will DEFINITELY soak before using this time) and some anemic tomatoes to make it a Greek salad.

So that, my friends, is how you have Easter without going to the store. A little luck, a little ingenuity, and a lot of substitutions.

Happy Easter to all, and to all a good day.