12 October 2010

venturing into the land of culinary arts

Living alone with my partner for the first time without a dining hall means we have to fend for ourselves when it comes to meals (hello, adulthood-- I'm finally here), and I'm looking forward to learning how to cook. I've been an Irma or, at best, a one-trick pony cupcake baker, but (contrary to what some may think) I realize that we'll have to eat more than just cupcakes to stay alive.

I don't know why exactly, but I decided the way to become proficient in the kitchen was to have gadgets, so I went on the craigslist prowl and found a breadmaker for $5 (score!) and a brand new Cuisinart electric pressure cooker (wooo...) for $50. I saved myself about $150 between the two machines, and they've been great!

(Aside: it's funny to remember how I swore I'd only live in cosmopolitan cities and would never become domestic. Of course, I also said I'd never live on the east coast after college, would never go to graduate school and would never get married. At this rate, I should decide never to win the lottery...)

But back to the culinary arts. The pressure cooker is like a steamer/convection oven/microwave, but supposedly healthier because it's sealed to keep in all of the nutrients. And it is amazingly fast: we had an entire chicken cooked with tender meat coming off the bone plus perfectly cooked carrots and potatoes in about half an hour.

To make the perfect pressure cooker "roast chicken," you sauté garlic and onions on the stove until the onions are soft, then sauté the chicken (turning over frequently) until the skin turns golden brown, and then throw everything in the pressure cooker with carrots, potatoes and chicken broth. I have to confess that since I'm still a novice and don't like handling meat, my partner (who is an excellent cook) did all of this.

Depending on your pressure cooker, the time will vary a bit, but our instruction manual told us to set the timer for 24 minutes to cook a whole (three pound) chicken. And then voilà, dinner-- in the time it would normally take for an oven to preheat... I exaggerate, but it's pretty amazing, considering it would take hours and hours to get the same result in the oven. Apparently, you can make some incredible cheesecakes in there, too. I'll keep you posted on that.

With our leftovers, we used our food processor (yay, kitchen toys) to purée the potatoes, onions, carrots and broth to make a nice hearty soup (which we then heated on the stove with some extra veggies). With our homemade bread, it made for a nice dinner on a cool fall evening.

Onto the breadmaker! We make a fresh loaf of bread every few days, and it's so easy! You open the lid, dump in the liquid ingredients then the dry ingredients, push a button, and if you'd like (because there's a timer), you can wake up to the incredible aroma of freshly baked bread and have a hot homemade loaf waiting for you for breakfast.

I've been impressed with the quality of the bread, too-- it has a baguette-like crunchy crust and a soft and moist interior. We've tried several different recipes that came with the instruction manual, including the deluxe white, the honey wheat, the oatmeal and the wheat, and our favorite so far is the wheat, which I'll include here, in case you have or are inclined to get a breadmaker, too.

With all ingredients at room temperature, add:

10-12 oz water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil (I think it's better with 2 tbsp)
2 tbsp molasses
2 c bread flour
2 c whole wheat flour
2 tsp active dry yeast

Select whole wheat setting and desired crust (light, medium or dark), then press Start/Stop. When display reads 0:00, press Start/Stop to cancel and remove bread. Easy peasy.

A quick note on bread flour from our manual that you might find useful:
Bread flour is milled from hard wheat and contains a higher percentage of protein than regular all-purpose flour, usually 14% or higher. This is also referred to as the gluten content, which gives structure and height to the bread. If bread flour is not available in your area, all-purpose flour with a protein content of 14% or higher is an acceptable substitution. Bread flour requires no sifting.
Also, you can use pretty much any liquid when making your bread, from milk and juice to beer and fruit purées. Using water as your liquid of choice results in a "crisper crust and more open texture," while buttermilk yields a "light, high-rising and tender bread."

The fat enriches the bread's flavor and keeps it tender and moist. If you want a softer crust, use olive oil instead of butter. If you want your bread to last longer, peanut oil (and buttermilk as your liquid) keep the bread fresh for a longer period of time.

I haven't tried making any of the sweet breads yet, but I'm looking forward to making a fresh loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, apple walnut bread, banana chocolate chip bread, zucchini bread... And if you prefer salty to sweet, you also have the option of savory breads like parmesan herb bread, cottage cheese and chives and so on. I know, I sound like Bubba Gump. Barbecued shrimp, grilled shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp scampi, shrimp cocktail...

Well, for better or worse, you can be sure there will be more posts on food to come. Do you have any recipes you'd recommend for someone starting out on their culinary adventure?

And I'm not done with travel posts, either, as I still have a few continents to catch up on...