I finished culinary school and got a part-time job with a chef who owns a terrific little neighborhood restaurant on the west side of Milwaukee. She took a chance on a newbie like me, but I think most of the time we’re both happy with her gamble.  

The one thing you sort of know about, but not really, when it comes to restaurant work is the repetition (or maybe I just didn’t think about it–wouldn’t be the first time). I make the same things over and over and over again.  For example, chocolate cake. Every week I make chocolate cake. Not a different chocolate cake as I might if I were baking at home. The same chocolate cake every week. It can be mundane, but I mind it less than I thought I would (you know those days when your brain is about to explode because you have to think so hard about a problem, and all you want to do is go sit in the mailroom and stuff envelopes? Yeah, that’s part of why I don’t mind it so much).  I try to learn something new everytime I repeat a recipe, but honestly, sometimes I just want to get through it.  

What I love about it is touching, tasting, arranging, beautifying, watching, learning, and taking pride in the things that I made from scratch, and now people are coming to the restaurant and eating the food. They’re paying for my food! OK, it’s not really my food. It’s the chef’s food, but I try to treat it like mine, respect it, and respect our diners who are paying good money for it.

And you know, occasionally there’s a little victory. Like the time my chef-y peanut butter pretzel curry cookies changed one of our regular’s minds about peanut butter cookies. I know it’s lame, but hey, it made me feel good. And more importantly, it’s little things that ward off regret about the decisions I’ve made.

I made hoppin' john (black-eyed peas in smoked ham stock with rice) and greens for new year's day. It's supposed to bring you luck and prosperity throughout the year. It tasted far better than it looks. Trust  me on that one.

I made hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas in smoked ham stock with rice) and greens for new year’s day. It’s supposed to bring you luck and prosperity throughout the year, and I could use all the help I can get. It tasted far better than it looks. Trust me on that one.

I’m also still rocking my office gig. You know, the one that lined my pocket with a bit of cash while I was in school. Turns out, it’s a good job with incredibly smart and talented people, and while I don’t love the work, I’m finding that most of the time I don’t mind it.  That said, my passion is still with food: learning more, preparing more, experimenting more.

The weirdest thing about this arrangement is that I’m straddling two worlds. I don’t feel completely a part of either, and that’s a kind of strange place to be.  I’m OK with it for now, but I think eventually I’ll want to immerse myself more completely in food and cooking.

It’s funny, I thought the hardest thing about this journey would be quitting my high-paying job and going to culinary school. And that WAS hard. But it’s not the only hard part.  Everything about my working life has been in transition since I made that decision. Transition is hard, always, even if it’s a good, life-affirming transition.  I think it’s because it involves uncertainty–the kind that you can’t ignore or hide away.

I’m living with that uncertainty right now, and I haven’t lost my marbles… yet.

That’s a win in my book.

I have continued my journey with pie, but I’ve been having so much darn fun with it, that I haven’t been reporting too much.  I’m getting closer to my perfect crust, and it’s fun to try different fillings each week.

Here is the pie history:

May 13 – Rhubarb Streusel.  Sadly, I have no photo of this pie, because I took it to Green Bay, where friends hosted us when I ran the Green Bay Marathon.  I forgot to take a photo.  Trust me when I tell you the pie turned out far better than the marathon.

May 20 – Apple Crumble.  No, apples are not in season in May, at least not in the Midwest, but I had a hankering. What can I say?

May 27 – Peach.  The dog ate it. I’m not kidding. Here’s a photo of the dog who ate my pie. Damn dog.

June 3 – Apricot galette. It exploded in the oven from the custard you add during the last 15 minutes of baking. But it was delicious. I actually didn’t share this one. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle that I don’t weigh 300 lbs.

June 10 – Mixed berry. To date, the best pie I had made, including crust.

June 17 – Plum blackberry streusel. A Bon Appetit recipe. Messy, but the unique flavor was well worth having purple fingers.

June 24 – Open-faced blueberry. This has been my favorite pie so far.  It uses 4 cups of blueberries (though I think you could definitely increase this to 5 or 6), but you only cook one cup of the berries (or 1/4 of the berries you’re using if you increase the total amount) with some sugar and thickener, then mix it in with the fresh berries, dump it in a baked pie crust, and let it set for a few hours. Eat it with some lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream. Summer doesn’t get better than this.

Did I say this was my favorite pie so far?  OK, I thought so.

June 30 – Peaches and Dream pie from the cookbook Baked Explorations.  It’s basically a way-too-sweet peach custard pie. My verdict? Blech. Others seemed to like it well enough, but you won’t find it being made in my house again.

July 1 – Run for the Roses, aka Kentucky Derby pie. It’s got chocolate, pecans and bourbon in it. Need I say more? This was supposed to be one of two pies I brought for the 4th of July (my sister doesn’t eat fruit), but it turned out to be a grief pie. My doggie nephew Bruno was laid to rest on July 3. He was the sweetest little Italian greyhound, who loved to give kisses, but a tumor got the best of him.  We miss that lovable trouble-maker. Understandably, my sister and brother-in-law were in no mood for July 4 festivities, so they stayed home, and I brought them this pie to comfort them.

July 1, part deux – Strawberry cream cheese pie. This is the pie I brought to the 4th of July festivities at my parents’ home. Again, I sadly have no photo of this pie, and it’s too bad, because it certainly was a beauty. I used strawberries I picked myself from a farm just north of the city, and that definitely put this pie over the top.  It had a cream cheese base layer, a cooked strawberry layer, and an uncooked strawberry topping.  My dad went nuts over it and asked me to make it again next year for his birthday. No problemo, padre!

July 8 – Peach streusel. The organic peaches were wonderful and juicy, and I used more than the recipe called for, but didn’t increase the thickener. Oops. It was a little soupy, but unlike the Peaches and Dream pie, this one was indeed dreamy. Tip: Don’t make a streusel for a peach pie unless it’s going to be completely consumed the day it’s made. It gets soggy and unappetizing after day 1.  Stick with a top crust instead.

July 15 – Open faced apricot pie. I’m finding that I’m quite fond of apricots. This pie was lovely and fragrant. Too bad I dropped half of it on the garage floor, and had to throw it out along with the pie plate that shattered and shot like shrapnel all over the place.  Sweeping up that mess was no fun. The raspberries were from a roadside stand. (I love writing that!)

July 22 – Cherry-rhubarb. I used the last batch of Cherryland’s Best Door County Cherries that I froze from last year for this pie.  This one was a beauty.  Randy took it to work (after I sampled a piece), and it was gone within 2 hours. Yeah, it was that good.

Here’s the piece I sampled. How’s that for discipline!?

I also made a savory Zucchini-Ricotta galette this week, which we had for dinner yesterday. I wasn’t that excited about it, but we have zucchini up the wazoo from our CSA, and it seemed like a good way to use it and exceed my pie quota for the week. I’m an over-achiever like that. I also got a little wild with the crust, and used a mixture of unbleached all purpose, whole wheat pastry, and spelt flour. It was incredibly flavorful. I dare say it’s a repeater, though I would probably amp up the cheesy base with some spices or herbs next time.

So there you have it. I may have been slacking off in the writing department, but the pie-making has been full-speed ahead.

A word about my crusts.  Flour is a big deal.  Turns out, so is sugar.  I love the texture that pastry flour gives a crust, but I can only find whole wheat pastry flour in the stores.  So, if I use it, I add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the crust.  If I don’t add sugar, the crust seems a better fit for a savory rather than sweet filling. You can skip the sugar if you use a white flour.

But pastry flour is more expensive.  A good alternative is bleached all purpose flour.  I know, the idea of using bleached flour is a little unappetizing, but it has less protein which makes for a more tender crust.

Don’t use White Lily flour for pie crust (though in cakes it’s great!). I actually discovered this a number of weeks ago, but in an effort to use up what I had bought, I mixed the White Lily flour with unbleached All Purpose flour for a couple of the pies I made.  It’s just too soft and delicate.  It’s a pain to roll out and crimp, and it doesn’t hold up to fruit fillings. I’ll stick to using it for cakes and muffins.

If you want to knock your friends’ socks off with your crust, use an Irish or European butter, which has a higher fat content than American versions. You CAN taste the difference.  One of my favorite crusts to date has been made with Kerrygold butter.

At the end of the day, you can use regular butter and unbleached all purpose flour for your crust, and it will still be loads better than your average store-bought version.  Before this here pie journey, that’s how I made pie crusts whenever I made pie, and it was great! The crust is perhaps a little crunchier, but it’s homemade. You bring a homemade pie anywhere, and people are not going to start asking you what kind of flour and butter you used. They’re going to Mmmm and Ahhh about it, as they should.

Happy pie-making.

I’ve been a very bad blogger, not keeping up with my writing and all that.  I really have been busy cooking, pie-making, and just having a jolly summer, but I’m ready to jump back on the wagon.

And what better way to do it than with one of my favorite fruits.

Yesterday was National Blueberry Muffin day.  I’m a blueberry whore.  And besides, I can’t pass stuff like that up (Pi Day, anyone?), so of course I made blueberry muffins, and tried out a new recipe from Cooks Illustrated.  It was quite lovely.

The major difference in this recipe vs. your typical recipes is that your sugar goes with the wet ingredients (emulsified with the eggs, oil, butter, and vanilla), and instead of just dumping a pint of blueberries into your batter, you cook 1 cup of the berries down into a tart jam, and swirl it in after you’ve portioned your batter into the muffin cups.  A bit tedious, yes, but quite worth it.

The stuff sprinkled on top is lemon sugar. It gives it a hit of sweet on your palate, which makes the muffin seem more like a dessert. If you want a less sweet breakfast treat, skip it, or just add the zest to the batter instead (I would rub it into the sugar–yes, with my fingers–before emulsifying it with eggs, which helps release the oils in the zest.)

I’m going to go eat one now.

Next up:

  • A pie round up (I got lots of photos of pie!)
  • A CSA round-up (sick of salads, yet?).
  • Food crawl photos
  • A cheese tour

I’m so incredibly thankful right now that I’m road tripping to my friend’s house in Green Bay on Saturday (to run a f**king marathon in 80-f**king degree weather, PLUS 10-20 mph winds! … Deep breath. Composure. I’m good.), and bringing dinner with me.  Because, people, if it weren’t so, I’d be leaving leafy greens at the neighbors’ doorsteps without a note.  Instead of being the anonymous zucchini dumper, I would be the anonymous leafy green leaver. Oh, ugh, that was bad.

Bad alliteration aside, if you haven’t figured it out, I’ve got a cornucopia of green veggies on my hands.

Though they are so very beautiful. And I’m thankful for that, too.

The lettuces will go in an entree salad this evening, tomorrow, on Saturday, and throughout next week until they’re gone.

Young onions will go into the spaghetti sauce I’m making for dinner on Saturday. The rest of them?  No clue… yet.

Radishes will also find their way into salad and on my breakfast plate with a sprinkle of fleur de sel. The greens will be sauteed and combined with my Growing Power scrambled eggs.

Cabbage… maybe cabbage rolls, and/or a mexican slaw with tacos. I’m in need of some inspiration here.  I’m not a Kimchi fan, so don’t even suggest it.

Isn’t this baby pac choi gorgeous?!?

I don’t cook much Asian cuisine, and every other time I’ve  tried to cook pac choi (aka bok choy), I didn’t get it quite right (stem too crunchy, leaves too slimy).  I’ll be scouring the recipe sites and cookbooks for some serious guidance this time around. It’s just too beautiful to mess up.  If you have pac choi expertise or just some fav recipes up your sleeve, please share.

I’ll share what I do with this bounty over the next couple of weeks.  Until then, take 2 minutes to get cozy with Kermit.

I’ve nearly finished dumping everything perishable in my refrigerator and freezer, which stopped working last night.  Yes, my heart hurts from throwing out homemade yogurt, pork jowl, beef tenderloin, homemade chicken broth, and all manner of other items that I was planning to use over the next few weeks.

Luckily, I had pie to comfort me.

The crust was made just like a basic butter pastry crust, but I subbed plain yogurt for water, at Rose Levy Berenbaum’s suggestion.  I can see why she recommended it–the tangy flavor of the crust does complement the tartness of the lime filling, but 1) it was a devil to work with, cracking all over creation, and 2) I missed the stage-center flavor of butter, which in this crust is masked slightly by the yogurt.

In all fairness, I used another type of flour, so that could have contributed to the difficulty I had keeping the dough in one piece.  On a whim, I decided to use self-rising White Lily flour that I found at a local grocery store in the area (Sendik’s, for those of you who live in Milwaukee).  It’s a bleached white flour with leavener added.  I understand it’s very popular in the South. Since I usually add 1/8 teaspoon baking powder to my crusts, I thought, why not? But it feels very soft. Almost cake flour soft, so it might not work out for me.

The filling was dreamy. It was actually supposed to be a lemon pucker pie from Berenbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible, but since I had an overabundance of limes from our Casa de Collett Margarita Party (the best margaritas in the Midwest!),  limes it was going to be!

I started by making a lime curd*.  Then I made a stiff meringue*.  Then I folded the curd into the meringue (I keep wanting to spell merengue! Let’s dance!).  Voilá!  Filling done.  I dumped it into my fully pre-baked pie crust, and into the oven it went for about 20 minutes until the top was golden.  It was actually half golden, and half light brown, because my oven is terribly uneven and I forgot to turn it 10 minutes in.  But it was still pretty… until I cut into it.  That meringue-curd filling stuck to the knife no matter what I did!

But I still ate it.  So did my colleagues.  Pucker up, buttercup.

* Note:  these are not the recipes I used, but they’re close and will serve you well if you want to try them. 

For Sunday dinner, I tried a mint pesto with the wild mint that came in my CSA share.  It had mint, parsley, parmigiana reggiano, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil.  What better to pair it with than lots of grilled treats, including a lamb skewers, asparagus, red onion, and the obligatory accoutrements:  minted yogurt sauce and smoky hummus (made with smoked paprika).  I also made a brown rice pilaf with a touch of the wild mint, peas, and lemon zest.  Topped with ricotta salata, it made a great side dish.

The whole thing sounds like quite a feast to behold, right? Well, turns out the wild mint is just too bitter to be a star in a thing like pesto.  This ain’t your typical mojito mint. And my limited culinary training is failing me in terms of how to adequately tame its bitterness. Adding sugar doesn’t seem right, but I might try it.

Because I’m such a nutcase about not wasting food, I’m going to at least attempt to use the rest of it.  I’m thinking of rubbing it on some chicken parts (with skin and bone) and grilling it.  Perhaps cooking will mellow the flavor?  If anyone is reading this, your suggestions are most welcome.

On Monday, I finally stuck to the meatless theme I’ve been trying to incorporate for months, but because of the abundance of pesky leftovers from Sunday dinner or the need to use other items in my refrigerator that will otherwise take a turn for the worse, my efforts to date have failed.

This time, victory was mine! I made arugula pesto with the gorgeous arugula that came in my CSA box. Basically, it was just like a basil pesto, but I subbed walnuts for the pine nuts.  Seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, it was fresh tasting and rich at the same time.  I also managed to incorporate into the meal more of the green garlic from the share and the asparagus I bought at the grocery store (totally an impulse buy).   Randy is the household grillmaster, so he grilled the asparagus and green garlic, which I then chopped and added to the pasta.

I topped the whole bit with ricotta salata (yes, I’m trying to use it up, but it’s also terrific cheese with just the right amount of bite and salt).

Served with a green leaf lettuce salad (from my CSA share), and homemade sourdough bread (made with my own starter), and a bit of brie (damn those “tiny treats” from Whole Foods!), it was a dinner to remember… and repeat!

I brought home my first batch of beautiful veggies from High Cross Farm yesterday!

Since it’s probably hard to identify everything in the photo, here’s the list:

  • RHUBARB, and a whole 3 lbs!  Yum-OH!
  • Green garlic
  • Arugula
  • Wild (!) mint that they foraged from the woods.  (How cool is that?)
  • Oregano
  • Baby Kale
  • Baby Chard
  • Lettuce
  • Garlic mustard, which is an invasive plant in this area, and honestly, I’m not overwhelmingly excited about cooking with it, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

I was in a bit of hurry after I got home last night, since I had plans to go to this.  (It was great fun!) I decided to make life easy.

I washed the lettuces and arugula, and made myself a big spanish-inspired salad.  I started off by making a quick sherry viniagrette that I can use all week long:

1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2 tsp dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, smashed
3/4  cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine everything in a jar, and shake the bejeezus out of it until it emulsifies. Easy.

Note:  The ratio for viniagrette is 3-1. Three parts oil to 1 part acid, which can be lemon/lime juice or vinegar.  You can play with this ratio to your own taste, but it’s great to have it in your back pocket when you don’t have time to prepare a fancy salad dressing with lots of ingredients. Plus it’s endlessly adaptable. Add fresh herbs, capers, honey, soy, even cheese.

Note 2:  When you combine garlic and oil, and leave it there for a long time, that’s a recipe for botulism. So don’t think you can keep the dressing indefinitely.  Use it or throw it out after a week, 10 days tops.  See? There are reasons behind these storage guidelines we see everywhere.   

I doctored up the salad with julienned piquillo peppers, slivered pieces of Pamplona style salami from Bolzano’s, Bel Gioso ricotta salata (I didn’t have manchego on hand, OK?), red onion and radishes.

I would have added chickpeas as well if they weren’t frozen solid in their cooking juice in my freezer.  And some sea-salted marcona almonds would have added some crunch and an extra hit of rich flavor, too, but like I said, I was in a hurry.  And it was a great salad without these additions.

I’m already dreaming about breakfast from my CSA:  soft scrambled eggs with sauteed greens and green garlic.

But I have to go for my run first.

Happy trails, and happy cooking!

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