Fermented life

Four years ago, I made my first sourdough bread with a homegrown starter named “Stinky”. If you’ve ever made your own fermented food, you can relate to the name. Starters go through many stages of existence over the course of time, and some of them are more funky than others. Stinky developed well enough, but I learned early on not to keep him on the counter near an open bottle of wine or beer. Yeast is in the air all around us, and unless it is a flavor you are going for, an opened bottle of Chardonnay will completely change things. Let’s just say the bread made that week was not bad, but it did have a lot of white wine characteristics. It took about two weeks of daily feeding to get the flavor back to what I wanted.

To consistently bake good loaves, you need to research and practice. Sourdough is a little different than a regular yeast bread in a few ways. First, it takes 2-3 days per batch instead of a couple of hours. That takes a conscious effort for planning the timing of the steps. If you work outside of the home like I do, it can be tricky. I’ve pretty much gotten the timing down so I can bake before or after work. The unpredictable variable right now is the summer heat. We hang around 100-105F July-early September, with relatively low humidity. The best way to combat this is to watch your dough and know how it reacts in different season. When you make sourdough, be patient. You can only push the dough so much because the microbes work at their own pace. I have made hybrid breads with adding a little yeast and sugar, but the timing is harder to manage when you are also working. I’ve had more than a few batches proof merrily along, then zip past the optimal window for baking. The over-proofed loaves taste and texture were still good, but not so much if you are trying for a more open crumb result.

Have patience with your starter (levain) and feed it on a regular schedule. I don’t agree with the “toss half and then feed” idea. It is very wasteful. If you are consistent and careful, you can feed your starter once a week and put it in the fridge. I pull Tex or Stinky out a day before I need to use them and feed them. Since they are both mature starters, they wake up pretty quickly. After I pull the levain for the recipe, I lightly feed again and return the starter to the fridge. If you keep it on the counter and feed on a more regular basis, just use the discard to make frybread, biscuits, or pancakes.

Another major difference between home baking with a starter or yeast is how you handle the bread. With a yeast loaf, there is a lot of time spent kneading the dough, letting it rise, kneading it again, then usually a final rise. With sourdough there is a bit of mixing/kneading early on, but that’s where things change. You fold and coil instead of kneading after the rise, and even that changes depending on the dough hydration, the type of bread (whole wheat, spelt, cornmeal addition, etc.). If not done right, you wind up with a tasty frisbee that makes very thin toast, croutons, or breadcrumbs. Don’t get discouraged if that happens. Even if you are using a recipe, keep track of what you do and what the result is. Some people have beginners luck. Their first loaf or two comes out amazingly beautiful with a distinctive ear or crust, and then the rest are so-so. I figure that if it tastes good and you are able to correct what didn’t go 100%, then you have (mostly) won. No one will know any different if the panzanella salad was made with a pretty loaf or one that didn’t get a good rise. There will always be another loaf in your future to bake again.

One final thing. Unless you know what you are doing or have made the recipe before, DO NOT freestyle bake and swap out ingredients and quantities willy-nilly. Different grains have completely different hydration rates and needs, and some breads really do need oil, milk, or egg added. Baking powder, baking soda, yeast, and starter (levain) are not always interchangeable. Follow the recipe at least once, and even then only swap out 1/4-1/2 cup flour at a time. I know my husband teases me because I don’t log my baking and cooking as much as I should, but I do know any changes I make in ingredients, baking times, or temps to know what went right (or almost right).

Ready to try an easy yeast bread? Try this one on for size and let me know how yours came out.

Time to define yourself

We all go through phases of deciding who we are, what we stand for, and what makes us tick. It happens several times throughout our existence, not just once and done. Different experiences and interactions cause us to grow and evolve over time, which is a good thing. No one wants to be static and never-changing, but you also have to stay true to yourself. For me, that meant figuring out what it means to be a food groupie. Everyone has an idea of what a rock & roll groupie is, and sports fans are simply a rose by another name.

I have always loved food, and grew up watching the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child on television (thanks to my mom). The start of Food Network was a dream come true when we finally got cable. All food all the time. Even before I actively started collecting cookbooks, I had a good selection of books and various pans/dishware to be able to cook and bake better. Food has always been a full contact sport in my family (I’ve mentioned this before, and will probably do so again), so becoming a food groupie was destined in the stars (or pots and pans, you decide). The last few years have been interesting in that I consciously made the choice to push my skills and knowledge regarding food and cooking. You never really quit learning, you just change the focus and intensity. Once I started meeting chefs and talking to other food enthusiasts, I knew I had found my happy place. I still have an office job that pays the bills, but there is always some part of my brain that is percolating an idea about a meal, how to make a snack, or whatever the ingredient of the moment is. I will talk about food with anyone at the drop of a hat. My husband or coworkers can vouch for that.

That time I double-dog-dared Alton in 2017.

The definition of “groupie” is is someone who is a fan of a particular band, singer, or other famous person, and follows them around. Saying you are a “fan” means you like, prefer, or are into someone, a thing, or a group. They are basically the same thing. My interpretation for being a food groupie means that you love food, like trying new dishes in an adventurous way, enjoy learning about food (history, ingredients, people), and collect items and experiences that relate to your culinary journey. I collect cookbooks (1200+ so far) and like meeting celebrity chefs when I can. It is also why I created the Worst Cooks bingo cards when Alton was the guest chef, and kept making them for the past year and a half. By the way, we need more shows with real home cooks (like me!) pairing up with actual chefs to compete. I can be very perky and animated when food is involved.

My husband is very patient with the amount of cookbooks and baking pans that I have, and he is also my #1 taste tester. It’s a rough job, but someone has to do it. It keeps things interesting to grab a random book and try a new recipe, and many of the older ones have short blurbs about the recipe or things about the time. They are a version of food history in their own right. If you are able, grab one of your grandparent’s old cookbooks and take a look. You can even ask an older relative if they have any recipes that they can make from memory. My grandmother was that kind of cook. She used “a handful of this” or “pinches of that”. One of my favorite things is that they measured out her recipes and translated her handfuls/pinches into regular measurements and created a cookbook for all of the granddaughters.

I like being a food groupie, and wear the title proudly (how many people can say they hauled their Kitchenaid to an event to have Fabio Viviani sign it?). It means I am an adventurous eater, and quite happily going down the rabbit hole of learning more about the industry and ingredients. Talking about food with other people makes us happy. If you doubt me, just ask someone where to get a specific dish or how to fix something. There might be disagreements on which is better (BBQ or chowder people, I’m looking at you) but it’s more of the “best team” vibe.

food groupie /fo͞od grü-pē/: person who loves food, likes trying new dishes in an adventurous way, enjoys learning about food (history, ingredients, people), and collects items and experiences that relate to their culinary journey

Sous Vide Jerk Pork Tenderloin with Mango Salsa

sous vide jerk pork tenderloin with mango salsa

1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (you can use more if preferred)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper
2 1-pound pork tenderloins
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 mango, pitted, peeled, and diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped (I usually have more on hand because I love cilantro.)
3 tablespoons finely diced red onion
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 small jalapeno, seeded and finely diced

Set your sous vide temperature to 135 degrees F.

In a medium bowl combine the brown sugar, allspice, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, 2 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Rub mixture over tenderloins.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork and sear until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes.

Place tenderloins and any leftover spice rub in a large vacuum seal or zipper bag (think freezer instead of storage weight). Seal using the water immersion technique or vacuum sealer on moist setting. Once the water temperature is at 135F, place the bag in the water bath and let go for 2 hours.

Prepare the salsa by putting the mango, bell pepper, cilantro, onion, lime juice, and jalapeno in a medium bowl. Mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and keep chilled until ready to use.

When the timer goes off, remove the bag from the sous vide bath. Let rest 10 minutes, then remove from the bag and pat dry. Slice the tenderloin and serve topped with the mango salsa.

Is the year half over, or has the adventure just started?

June 30th is the midway point in the year, with July 1st starting the downhill of the current yearly cycle. If you look at the year as half over, then you most likely have already started planning Christmas and New Year 2022 events. If you take the position of the yearly cycle has only partially started, it frees you up to see where the 2021 adventure can take you. I think most people are in the middle of the two, kind of seesawing back and forth depending on the moment and topic. I think that can be applied to food as well. Is the day or meal half over, or is one part of your brain looking ahead to dessert or deciding what to fix later? I am definitely the latter, always thinking about food and what I can create with what is in the pantry and fridge.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you decided what you are fixing for the 4th of July? I know for sure I am making ice cream (time to get back into the tradition my dad started when we were kids), most likely corn on/off the cob of some sort, and maybe even toss ribs or tri-tip in the smoker. I don’t know what the weather is where you are, but in the Central Valley it is HOT. I love cooking and baking (but dislike the obligatory dishes that go along with it) and the extended heat creates challenges to find ways of prepping or preparing meals without spending a lot of time in a hot kitchen. I’ve switched my bread proofing and baking schedules a little, so that the majority of the bulk rise is done overnight and baking can be done early in the day to mitigate heat buildup in my small kitchen. Canning is also challenging as the hot water bath turns half the house into a sauna. I think if I ever won the lottery, I would use part of the money to make an outdoor kitchen just for that reason. I’ve also started utilizing my collection of small appliances and the sous vide. The toaster oven can handle pretty much everything needed for a dinner for two, and the electric grills work well enough for a quick burger. Nothing quite replaces using the BBQ for certain things, but sometimes you don’t want to brave 100+ for just a few small chunks of animal meat.

Do you have a favorite small appliance? Several? Which ones make life easier for cooking at the end of the day? I love the Instant Pot and the Zest rice cooker. My Anova sous vide is another one that is becoming a regular part of the kitchen crew, plus the zippy red toaster oven (adult Ez-Bake). We actually had to buy a new coffee maker (Ninja) because the old one up and kicked the bucket a month ago. Talk about major researching and debate as to what to purchase! The hubby wanted certain features, and I just wanted something that would make coffee. In the end, we found one that made us both happy campers. Now, the big discussion on the weekend is drip or pour-over.

Stay cool, keep hydrated, and drop a comment on which kitchen gadgets you love or hate.

California is open for business – restaurant review

Our state opened all the way up on Wednesday, which is a good thing for many businesses. Restaurants in our area had been open at a percentage, so it wasn’t a complete opening of floodgates. I had purchased a beer club membership for my husband for Father’s Day, so we went to the restaurant to have dinner and pick up our membership goodies. I’m not going to name it, suffice to say it is a popular chain restaurant that has beer.

We got to the restaurant around 6:15pm. The restaurant was not busy yet, with a 20 minute wait time. Given the fact that they were adjusting to seating volume, that wasn’t too bad. There was room in the bar area, and for some reason everyone else that checked in was given the option of sitting in the bar except us. Maybe we looked too old for bar seating, though some older regulars had it all figured out. In they went. If that had been an option that we were made aware of, we would have taken it. We were able to be seated at a table fairly quickly enough though.

They have a code to scan on the tables for the menu instead of handing out physical menus. It is a great idea when it works. Unfortunately, the online menu was still indicating to-go only and if you hit the back button, it took a long time to refresh so you could see the menu. The app was even slower. We wound up asking a couple of times for a paper menu before we finally got them.

It seems like our server was new, and couldn’t keep track of the 6-8 tables she had. We almost got someone’s order three different times while we were there. The establishment doesn’t set the tables ahead of time, so we had to ask a few times for plates and utensils when the appetizer was delivered. The table across from us ordered a salad and it took almost 5 minutes for someone to bring them silverware. Our first beers took 15 minutes to arrive to the table after the order was placed (it wasn’t very busy yet, just steady), we had to bug the server a couple of times for my husband’s second beer (that took another 20 minutes to receive after placing the order), and we don’t believe she ever took the order for my second beer. After another 15-20 minutes we told her to cancel it since we wanted to wrap up the meal and leave, and she couldn’t find it on her tablet.

I had enrolled in the new beer club as a gift for my husband, which is why we went to dinner to pick up the product. All of the staff have t-shirts that say “ask about our beer club”, and our server had no idea on anything about it. Every question was met with a blank stare and “I don’t know”. She had to keep asking the manager for answers or what to do. The customer service issues continued in different ways. My husband’s napkin fell, a bus person picked it up, didn’t check to see if anyone might need a new one, and the server acknowledged when we asked for a new one but never brought one by the time we left 40 minutes later. The manager did have his hands full in our section. There seemed to be plenty of staff on the floor, and only our area seemed affected.

As to the food, my husband’s jambalaya was good. My order however, was not a happy event. I had ordered the double cut pork chop, which they were out of (it took the server 15-20 minutes after we placed the order to tell us) so I picked the half rack of ribs and two chicken thighs (the options were 1 breast or 2 thighs). The server repeated he order back correctly, but unfortunately, a thin chicken breast was what was delivered. Both of the proteins were cooked well, but the white cheddar potatoes were both gummy and dry (I didn’t know that was possible). The garlic roasted vegetables didn’t have very much garlic, and also were charred and underdone at the same time. The vegetables were perfect when I reheated the leftovers the next day. Then, when I was getting ready to pay, I noticed that the server hadn’t taken my first entrée off because of the order change. The cashier remembered that we had gotten there around 6 and gave us happy hour pricing on the beer (this might be a training issue for the server). What normally would have taken an hour to hour and a half took almost three hours for dinner.

I might not be a professional cook, but I have worked in restaurants and served tables. It is poor customer service to drop the appetizer on the table with a clunk and walk off without checking to see if anything else is needed. At that point we hadn’t even received plates, napkins or silverware. We had to ask twice. The major issue was a new waitress that had no idea what she was doing at all. She couldn’t keep track of her tables even though she had a tablet with her that had the information. She also had very long nails (I remember when I was 20) which made it so she punched orders in wrong, and she couldn’t retain the information long enough to make the correction. We had to keep repeating the order to her.

I will give props to the manager. He was aware that there was something amiss in our section and kept checking on all of the tables. He was very apologetic about any issues, and I’m sure that things will be addressed in a timely manner. It is an establishment that we frequented before the pandemic, and we will definitely give them another try. I think we’ll wait a few weeks so that the newer staff can be brought up to speed. Fingers crossed.

Happy Fri-yay!

In case you haven’t noticed, we are almost halfway through the year (I know you just checked the calendar). Hopefully you are somewhere that isn’t unbearably hot yet. The Central Valley has had a lovely week of temperate weather, albeit extremely windy at night. Next week will be higher than normal, with the projection of 111 on Tuesday (ugh!). I will be staying inside as much as possible, and I know the dogs will be happy that I’m still working remotely.

Our area is surrounded by farmers, so we can get a wide variety of fresh produce all year long. I haven’t been able to find ramps or fiddleheads to try to cook with, but I think those are mostly East Coast beauties. The stone fruit is starting to really come into season, so much that I had to completely pick all the fruit off one of the plum trees this week. I already know that I’ll be processing it this weekend into jam, pickles, and at least one pie (or several smaller ones). The second tree will be ready to start picking fruit next week, and the third type will be ready in about a week. Add to that the 40-year-old grapevine is having a bumper crop year, so there will be raisins galore. That will come in handy for my fair entries this fall.

Yes, the Big Fresno Fair will be up and running this October. The competition book went live online last week, and I’ve already started plotting my entries. I think my record for the fair one year was 44 items entered between Home Arts, Fine Arts, and Floriculture buildings. This year should be as hectic as the rest have been, and I am fully prepared to rush out the door and hope paint dries on the way to turn things in. Some things will never change.

I never tell anyone what categories I enter things in until after everything is dropped off. Once that is done and I can find my kitchen again, I put together a “where’s Waldo” score card and post it for anyone that wants to play the home game. The building is fairly large, but the entries are not always grouped together by division and category. Therein lies the fun of hunting for everything. It usually takes us an hour or so to track it all down. All I will tell you is that the goal is to make it this year a memorable one.

Do you enter in your local fair? What are your favorite memories of going to the fair (food, rides, livestock, home arts, etc.)? Let us know in the comments.

Wearable Art, locally sourced

“I believe the Tree of Life should represent your life, your adventure. It can signify your personality, spirituality, strength, love, a memory, or maybe just your mood for the day.” – Debbie, My Twisted Tree Shop

One of the main takeaways from the last year and a half is how much humans crave art and “center”. We missed going to live performances and being able to interact with others. Art encompasses so many things: painting or sculpture, the performing arts, intangible things like sunsets or watching the wind in the trees, and yes, even the obligatory pandemic sourdough starter that hopefully became bread. The internet provided ways of relief with virtual performances, go to remote comedy shows (Niko, I see you!), script readings (who else watched the Princess Bride
panel? ❤️), and tours of famous sites across the globe.

I missed being able to wander the local farmers markets, and some of the arts and crafts shows that are big in our area throughout the year. I also missed being able to dress as She Hulk at comic cons, but that’s another story. Just last night, I found that one of my friends had started her side business back up making beautiful tree necklaces. They are all individually done, and there are so many styles that it is difficult to choose just one. Even better is that they are extremely affordable, so you can get one (or two) for yourself and still have enough left over to gift a special tree for someone else. You can find her on Facebook and Etsy under @mytwistedtreeshop.


Cookbooks, more cookbooks, and still more cookbooks!

Now that the campus is working summer hours, I have a little extra time after work to get small projects slowly caught up. The big one on my list is cataloging the many bookcases of cookbooks that I have. I made it through a little over one bookcase today, and made it a goal to tackle one (or at least most of one) each day. As I do, the cookbook list will be updated (you can find it here). I’ve had to devise codes for each of the cases so that I can find the books I am looking for on that particular day. It will also help to tell quickly if I have an interesting book already, so that I don’t buy duplicates (I’ve done that on more than a few occasions). As the list grows, make a guess as to what the final count will be and leave it in the comments.

There are a few new possible side adventures on the horizon, from the looks of it. Nothing for certain yet, but we’ll see what happens. I have started putting together a mystery box of 3-4 ingredients on Instagram every three weeks and revealing what I came up with the following Sunday. So far so good for Adventurous Eating. It is fun, and I get to eat the experiments. Everyone wins. I promise to post pictures even if the dish doesn’t quite make it. Not everything is pretty, but as long as it tastes good I am happy.

Oh! Almost forgot to remind everyone that the finale of the Worst Cooks – Best of the Worst is this Sunday, May 30th. This will be a double elimination of sorts because they are starting the episode with the final four recruits. Two will be cut early on, and the final two will battle it out for $25k. I have my favorites, but you’ll have to turn into Allison Wolfe’s Pajama Party on Instagram at 5pm PDT/8pm EDT on Sunday before the show. (Who is your favorite recruit, and why is it Domaine?) This has been a nail-biter all season, so you know the finale will be WILD!

Grown-up Easy Bake Oven

A few months ago, I made a splurge purchase and bought a toaster oven. I love the Whirlpool gas range/oven that we installed several years ago, but sometimes you don’t want to heat the entire kitchen up for a small batch of anything. I got a Nostalgia Retro 12-slice convection toaster oven (yes, on sale and with a coupon). We looked at quite a few, but I wanted something that held more than a postage stamp-sized tray. This one is decent size, and fits our counterspace well. For those that are new, I have a REALLY small galley style kitchen, and counter/storage space is at a minimum.

Nostalgia Retro 12-slice Toaster Oven

It is red, retro-styled (as the name implies – truth in advertising), and appears perfect in size for two people. I’m not going to cook a turkey or five-course meal with it, but smaller meals will be great when it is 109 degrees outside. I thought the convection feature was interesting. The one-appliance-does-it-all trend is in full swing, but I didn’t want one with too many bells and whistles since I already have an Instant Pot, dehydrator, multiple crock pots, and a great oven. I do wish that it had a light inside, but that is minor. It sat on the counter gathering dust for a month before I got around to using it, but it has been busy as of late. In the last few weeks it has been used for biscuits, small cakes, meatballs, and roasting vegetables. I haven’t used the convection feature much yet, but it seems to work pretty well. Time (and more cooking) will tell.

One thing has stood out so far. Even though the toaster oven is adult-sized, it feels like I’m using a grown-up Easy Bake Oven. It might be partially because it is candy apple red. The tray isn’t teeny tiny, but it is certainly not the size of even a half-sheet pan. Maybe an eighth sheet pan. It certainly makes me giggle and feel like a kid when I use it.

I always wanted an Easy Bake Oven. My parents were very practical, and did a kitchen remodel when I was around 5 years old. They put in a double oven to help with the volume of cooking a family of five needed. So when I asked for one for a birthday or Christmas present, their response was that I had two perfectly capable (adult) ovens to use. Not something that a kid wants to hear, but you just go with it. Looking back, I’m glad they did because I learned how to cook and bake with real-sized pans instead of a metal saucer and light bulb. Unlike Alton Brown, I don’t have the room to create a Mega Bake with 56 theater lights. This toaster oven is about the size of an old school Easy Bake, but it is easier to use and clean up (I still wish it had a light though). I’m still kicking the tires on this model, but so far it is performing as expected and I’m happy with the purchase. (not a sponsored post)

Do you have an appliance or other cooking/baking item that reminds you of your childhood?

And poof! Summer in the Valley

Living in the Central Valley has it’s perks for sure. It is only three hours to Los Angeles or the Bay Area, two hours to the coast, and an hour to the mountains. Our freezing time in the winter is pretty minimal, but we are rapidly (like tomorrow) approaching early summer. This year has been a little wonky with the temps; one week we went from 60 to high 80s. So tomorrow will be one of the hottest days of the year so far at mid 90s. Luckily, we do not have high humidity, or my hair would look like I put my finger in a light socket with all the frizz.

I am glad that people are getting the COVID-19 vaccines, and that the world is slowly inching towards the new normal. I have gotten used to wearing a mask, and it doesn’t bother me any more. It actually helps in two ways. First, it keeps the pollen level down from breathing it in, and second, it hides when I’m making frowny faces at people. Besides, think about it. How much money have we all invested in cute masks to wear over the last year and a half? They have become a fashion accessory, and I’m going to wear mine for awhile.

The semester is winding down, so that means graduate paperwork is flowing across my desk for checking and sending off for signatures. I have been in my department for long enough that I have seen one full cohort achieve a graduate degree. It makes me feel good knowing I helped keep them unflustered with helping with paperwork questions. The admissions cycle is done, and the new incoming cohort is furiously sending in their pile of paperwork. In August, the cycle will start again. It is an interesting dance, and I like that I am able to help where I can. I’ve also been doing the groundwork for going back in August to start on a BA. I’m a little excited, but not excited for homework. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy the scholastic journey and anthropology will provide an interesting trip.

I’ve been lagging on my cookbook collection updates, and I apologize for that. With 1200+ cookbooks, I’ve been pondering different ways to make the list accessible, but not overwhelming. I hope to have the new pages available soon. In the meantime, rest assured that there is one full book case (2’x1’x6′) full on celebrity chef books (plus a stack or two in the front room).

One way I’ve been keeping my creative ideas going is to participate in themed cooking challenges on Instagram. It is fun, and there is a mix of professional chefs and home cooks. I generally can hold my own, and I try to thing outside the box a little. Recently, a chef reached out to me to do collaborations with her for mystery boxes. The first box was fun, and the second one’s results will post on May 2nd. The ingredients are strawberries, cheese, takoyaki/ebilskiver pan, and chicharrons. I have an idea of what I’m going to do, but you’ll have to watch the social feeds to see what we come up with. I really had fun with the basket, and picking the curveball made me chuckle. I think I’ve watched a little too many Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen episodes.

Thanks for following the food adventures, and I hope you are playing Worst Cooks Bingo.

%d bloggers like this: