Monday, September 7, 2009

Not As the Author Intended

I would like to get something kind of uncomfortable off of my chest: I don't follow recipes well. The problem is not that I have trouble achieving what the author intended (when I stick to the directions), and it is not a reading comprehension issue. The problem is that I often do not follow recipes on purpose.

This is surprising in light of my dogged adherence to instructions of other kinds. I'm the type who is reassured by a clear set of directives. Deep down, I like to be told what to do (in a technical sense). I have never installed new software or assembled a bookcase without reading the directions once through, then following each step to the letter. I know that there is an unknown technical directions writer out there who labored over how to guide me through steps 1 through 5, and my job is to meets that person's efforts in a cooperative and productive manner. No flash of creativity will ever take me off course when I'm trying to figure out how to insert widget A into slot B.

When it comes to recipes, you'd think my behavior would be similar. Especially when you consider some of the total failures that recipe-deviation has caused me.

Witness: flat-as-a-pancake Cowboy Cookies. When I was about 11 years old, I learned that baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable.

Witness: curdled chicken pot pie filling. Last month, I learned that lemon juice is not an acceptable substitute for white wine when you're dealing with cream sauces, forcing me to start over.

And for Pete's sake, please witness: countless bland dishes. I am still learning, on a regular basis, that you cannot always cut out all of the salt from a recipe, no matter good your intentions.

In spite of all of this, I still kind of prefer to just wing it when I'm cooking. And that's wrong in some ways. We should honor the creator's original intent, right? It seems like the respectful thing to do. Someone went out of his or her way to create a unique dish, so it seems proper for us to give it a try in its proper form before making changes.

This seems especially important for food bloggers. Each of us takes a recipe that someone else created and publishes it. Without a doubt, credit should always be given where credit is due (which is why I always link to my "inspiration recipe" and try to identify my changes). But is it right to attribute inspiration to the source, then adapt as I go along?

I dunno.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Often, I adapt recipes because I can't find dinosaur kale, or whole coriander seeds, or, in the case of this week's recipe, sugar pumpkins. So I adapt. Sometimes, as with this particular recipe, the changes are great and may even enhance the original recipe (in my humble opinion).

Sometimes, my changes are not so great. That's the interesting thing about cooking, though: you keep learning.

Acorn Squash, Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad
Adapted from this recipe at

I reduced the portion size of this recipe from 8 to 2, and substituted acorn squash for the titular sugar pumpkin in the original recipe. I also used Cypress Grove Purple Haze goat cheese, which has a floral touch of lavender in it, and I substituted fig-infused balsamic vinegar for the original red wine vinegar, all with delicious results.

cup French green lentils
1 1/2
cups 1-inch pieces peeled seeded acorn squash (from about half of a medium-sized acorn squash)
tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
/4 teaspoon ground cumin
/8 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
teaspoon sea salt
cups baby arugula
/4 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled
3 large
thinly sliced fresh mint leaves
teaspoon red wine vinegar or fig-infused white balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place the acorn squash cubes in a large bowl, then toss with 1 tablespoons oil, the cumin, the paprika, and the sea salt. Arrange the cubes in single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes, until the edges of the cubes are golden and the squash is tender. Cool for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, as the squash is roasting, prepare the lentils. Place the lentils in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Soak for 10 minutes, then drain. Bring 2 cups of salted water to a boil and add the lentils, cooking until tender but firm (about 30 minutes). Drain the lentils, then give them a quick rinse with cold water, draining them again. Set aside to cool to room temperature (5 minutes).

Combine the lentils and squash with the arugula, half of the goat cheese, mint, vinegar, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among plates; sprinkle remaining goat cheese over.

Serves: 2 entree portions

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Guacamole to Teach You a Lesson

During my first year of graduate school, my roommates and I invited a few people over to watch the Superbowl. Right after debating whether people could sit comfortably on each of the dollhouse-furniture loveseats in our basement apartment, we turned our attention to food. I decided to try my hand at an appetizer.

You need to understand that this was a bigger deal than it seems. After all, this was the year in which I prepared the same dinner almost every night: a piece of grilled chicken and some kind of vegetable (often broccoli) over a bed of pasta, doused with Newman's Own Balsamic Salad Dressing. For two semesters in a row, followed by a summer internship, this is what I ate. Every. Single. Night.

I know.

Cooking wasn't really my thing back then, but by early February, I was ready to try a few new dishes. Plus, The Food Network was running Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals every afternoon and as a graduate student, I had lots of time in the afternoon to watch television. The combination of taste exhaustion and a Food Network education inspired me to wander over to the avocados in the grocery store on the day of the game.

Guacamole seemed like the very thing. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, this all occurred in early February, months before avocado season. Therefore, the avocados that I picked up were little green rocks that had no chance to ripen before that evening's game. Being a total novice and the type of person who could eat the same four-ingredient meal every night for months on end, I didn't pick up on this fact.

It turned out that you cannot make guacamole out of green Hass avocados. And crunchy guacamole is never worth the effort.

The moral of the story for me was, of course, always purchase your guacamole. No, just kidding, I learned that I need to buy my avocados in season and a day (or two) before they are needed. However, it was a long time before I made guacamole again. Once I did, I found that nothing beats good homemade guacamole.

Sarah's Guacamole
A Fritter Original

Hass avocados are better for guacamole than Florida avocados because they have a buttery, nutty taste and texture that the Florida variety lacks. Also, please note that this recipe does not contain sour cream. If your avocados are perfectly ripe, you may find that you do not even miss it. If you simply must have sour cream, though, feel free to add a few dollops.

5 ripe Hass avocados
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1 tomato, seeded, cored, and roughly chopped into medium-sized pieces
1 tablespoon fresh jalapeno, chopped
The juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste if needed
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
*optional: a few springs of cilantro. Some people loath cilantro, though, so I usually leave it out unless I know my audience well.

Pit the avocados and scoop each avocado from its shell into a medium-sized bowl. Mash with the back of a fork or a potato masher with wide slats just until the avocado has been broken down into bite-sized pieces.*

Combine all of the other ingredients with the avocado. Serve immediately with tortilla chips, or, if you want to make this ahead of time, prepare up to two hours ahead, then cover with plastic wrap so that the wrap actually seals directly to the guacamole (this will prevent browning), and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves: appetizer portions for 4 people

* No matter what you've seen in cheap Tex-Mex restaurants, do not, under any circumstances, put this beautiful fruit into a mixer and puree it to the consistency of baby food. Just don't; that is so wrong.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Bowl of Cherries

Remember me?

I've been gone awhile. I went to Chicago for Memorial Day weekend and that weekend-long break from posting became, um, three months long. I have missed Fritter, and I have missed you. Please understand that it's not the time commitment to blogging that caused me to stay away. Actually, it was the cooking.

Yeah, the cooking: The premise on which this blog was built. For nearly three months, I haven't cooked at all. I haven't been too interested in eating, either, and I have not visited my fellow bloggers' sites in ages - too much cooking and eating going on there.

Here's how this peculiar little turn of events began, sometime in mid-May:

That little "yes" changed everything.

My appetite politely can be described as "robust" under normal circumstances. However, the first weekend in June knocked me clean off my game. The rest of June wasn't great for cooking, eating, or even blogging. July was better, but only in a tentative, pasta-with-jarred-sauce kind of way.

Now, the fog is lifting. I feel well enough to be charmed by the way my pregnancy book compares our baby's growth with the size of different fruits and vegetables each week - it speaks my language! In fact, I like fruits and vegetables again (but not meat). I went to the grocery store yesterday and suddenly had to have some of the ripe, golden peaches piled in the produce section. Biting into one was like coming home again, and I happily let the juice run down to my elbows.

We are going to go slow here: I may post only once per week in the upcoming months, but I'm making strides. I cooked a few meals last week. I even want dessert again.

And I want to share it with you.

Quick Chocolate-Cinnamon Mousse with Cherries
Adapted from this recipe in Bon Appetit, available on

8 ounces fresh cherries, pitted
1/3 cup black cherry preserves or other cherry preserves
1/3 cup ruby Port or cherry juice

1 1/4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1/8 teaspoon (generous) ground cinnamon
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the cherries:
Combine the cherries, the cherry preserves, and Port in heavy, small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens to syrup consistency, stirring frequently, about 12 minutes. I can tell that the sauce is syrupy enough by carefully swishing the back of a spoon through the sauce, then holding it over the sink, away from the heat. A slow drip is just about right. Resist the urge to drip the sauce onto your finger or into your mouth: it's hot!

Once the consistency is right, remove from the heat and allow the pan to sit for about 5 minutes, just long enough to cool down for safe handling. Pour the sauce into a heat-resistant container and cover. Chill until cold, about 3 hours. The cherry sauce can be prepared one day ahead; just keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it.

For the mousse:
Combine 1/4 cup of the heavy cream and the cinnamon in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Remove from heat. Add the chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Transfer the chocolate mixture to a large bowl and allow it to cool to lukewarm (5 minutes). In a separate medium bowl or upright mixer, beat the remaining 1 cup of cream until soft peaks form. Fold 1/4 of the whipped cream into the lukewarm chocolate mixture. Gently fold the remaining whipped cream into the chocolate mixture in 3 additions just until incorporated. Divide the mousse among 4 glasses or bowls, then chill until set, about 4 hours. This can be done one day ahead; just keep chilled until ready to serve.

Spoon the cherry sauce over the mousse and serve.

Makes: 4 servings

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Windy City Trip

Back soon!

Monday, May 18, 2009

In Moderation

I try to eat healthy foods. I try to eat sustainably-grown foods, local foods and seasonal foods. However, sometimes I need to just go with a craving.

I'm usually glad I did. Except when I just go with my cravings for M&M's. Or, once, when I was a sophomore in college, sweet and sour soup made from a packet - the kind to which you add water and one egg. I ate two packets' worth of soup while reading a Patricia Cornwall novel on my parents' couch and rarely have felt so sick from a meal or a book. It was an afternoon laden with regret.

Most of my cravings are more reasonable. On Saturday morning, I mentioned to Steve that I craved burgers from Smitty's, our local butcher, for lunch. Smitty's burgers are unlike any other I have had. They must have a very high fat content to be so juicy and flavorful, but some details I would prefer not to know. I would rather enjoy my burger ignorantly, with pleasure.

Steve returned from the butcher shop with not only two luscious hamburger patties, but two Delmonico's, a handful of shallots, and two knobs of soft mozzarella packed in water.

The hamburgers, we grilled for lunch. I ate mine with my legs in the pool, the juice of the patty running over the bun and down my wrists. The mozzarella, we put in a salad yesterday afternoon following an afternoon of corn toss for charity and a sudden cloudburst that sent us hurrying home. The Delmonico's and shallots went into the recipe below, which we enjoyed on Saturday night.

Balsamic reductions and steak belong together. There's something about the acidic tang with the tender meat that just works for me. This sauce may be one of the best I have tried. It fulfilled a craving that I did not even know I had.

Rib-Eye Steaks with Balsamic-Caper Vinaigrette
Adapted from this recipe at

2 3/4-inch-thick rib-eye steaks (we used a Delmonico cut, known also as a boneless rib-eye)
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus another 1/8 cup, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup good balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup minced shallots
1/8 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1/8 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon drained capers
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Lay the steaks on a rimmed cookie sheet. Rub both sides of the steaks with 1/8 cup of the extra virgin olive oil and the garlic. Mix the smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon of coarse salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a small ramekin. Pat onto both sides of the steaks. Let the steaks stand at least 15 minutes and up to 45 minutes.

In a small saucepan, simmer the balsamic vinegar over medium-high heat until it has reduced by half (about 5 minutes). Add the shallots, 1/8 extra virgin olive oil, and crushed red pepper and return to a simmer. Remove the saucepan from the heat, then whisk in the parsley, capers, and thyme. Season the vinaigrette with salt and pepper, then cover and set aside.

Heat the barbecue to medium-high heat. Brush the grill rack with oil to coat. Grill the steaks until cooked to desired doneness, about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer the steaks to plates and spoon the vinaigrette generously over the top of each.

Makes: 2 portions

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sorry About the Wait

"Sorry about the wait," she told me. She was wearing thick navy eyeliner that made her look a little older than she probably was - a teenager - but when she said it, with her back half turned to me, she dipped her shoulder nervously and gave a little jerky wave of her hand. She turned her back toward me and peered at someone I could not see and I could swear that she was holding her breath. Her shoulders rose a little and she glanced back at me, waiting for me to show signs of impatience.

I was sitting at the pick-up window of the drive-through of a fast food establishment. It was dinnertime. When she apologized, I had been sitting at her window for the length of time it takes to play the introduction of American Public Media's Marketplace, right up to the part where Kai Ryssdal says, "But first, let's do the numbers." Thirty seconds, and this girl was hopping with anxiety that I had been waiting so long.

If you've read any one of the recent critiques of the fast food industry, you know that many, many fast food employees are teenagers. You may also know that many franchises track the time that it takes for a car to move from the ordering speaker to the pick-up window. The times are averaged for each employee, and long wait times can result in the employee being disciplined or fired.

I once knew a woman who worked in management for a company that owned a number of fast food restaurants. She told me a story one day about having to terminate an employee for "product loss." I assumed that she meant that he was eating without paying for his employee meal. No, she told me, he spilled a 50-gallon container of food product, which cost the company money. "Food product?" I asked, confused, "What exactly was it?"

"It was chocolate-flavored," she said, flipping her hand in a vague way.

I couldn't bear to question her further.

And yet.

Here I am, turning a semi-critical tone on the fast food establishment, even though that's where I got my dinner last night. As a food blogger, you'd think that I would have better taste than to eat fast food, even when pressed for time. My husband has made this point a million times - there are a dozen places that he will go for a quick meal before he would consider the particular restaurant I visited.

I was in a hurry, driving to a late client meeting, and I needed something I could eat with one hand. Fast food was developed to fill exactly this kind of need.

I understand why fast food took off the way it did. It fills a need. Perhaps the teenager in the window would not have a job if it wasn't for that restaurant. Perhaps I would not have eaten at all if I had not been able to spend 3 minutes in a drive-through.

There is a lot of criticism of the fast food industry, and I will join in that chorus (bad for our health, bad for the environment, etc.), but I have to tell you, there are a lot of realities that get overlooked in those critiques.

Just saying.

Monday, May 11, 2009

No Recipe Bread

I have been trying to make sourdough bread from scratch for over a year now. Let me tell you, this has required a lot of patience.

A slice of sourdough bread is one of my favorite ways to get a hearty dose of carbs. Carbs, you say? Non-vegetable carbs, at that? Aren't those in the penalty box with high-fructose corn syrup? Perhaps, but if something could come along that would one day make sugar look less evil, something will put carbs back on our plates.*

And even if something more evil than carbs does not come along to make carbs look good again, I won't mind. I love pasta and bread as much as ever.**

I want to turn out loaves of sourdough at my whim. The scent of fresh-baked sourdough winds its way into my dreams. I love it that much, but I haven't been able to bake sour sourdough yet.

I have a really lovely sour-smelling sponge in my fridge and I know that it is active and alive. I have tried to make the dough without commercial yeast, a known killer of that tangy sourdough taste. I use ridiculously expensive bread flour, and I do not mix the dough in metal bowls that might warp the flavor.

Yesterday, I gave this sourdough thing another try. My efforts yielded the pretty loaf below, which had the best crumb to date, thanks to my decision not to use commercial yeast (I think). However, the tangy taste I wanted still isn't there. The taste was serviceable, but indistinct. I want "wow" bread, but I been able to bake that kind.

That's why this post is called "No Recipe Bread." I literally have no recipe for the sourdough bread that I want. Can anyone give me some suggestions? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

* I was entertained to learn that the corn syrup industry launched a public relations campaign earlier this year to defend its product.

** In my house, we have one paragon of nutritional virtue and one carb-eating machine. Guess which is which. Steve switched to a low-carb diet two months ago and he looks great. I have tagged along with the low-carb concept at dinnertime, but I get my fix at lunch.