simple roast chicken

I used to read food blogs on a daily basis, and subscribe to (and yes, read) Cook’s Illustrated. I even made their chicken once. Baking and cooking used to play a much more central role in my life. I even started this wacky thing called a food blog.

All that was before getting a grown-up job (sort of ) and moving to California, where my secondary hobby, triathlon, staged an uprising and usurped Suzie Homemaker. These days, we do consume more meals out, but we also make far more simple meals that don’t require recipes. Because of that, and spending far more time in front of a computer screen than when I started out, freshcrackedpepper has quieted down significantly. But thanks to the recent encouragement of some fell0w fitness-minded friends (you know who you are), I’ve decided that I’m not ready to let it die just yet.

(And, for someone who used to be an obsessive journal-keeper, this blog also serves as an interesting record of my no-longer-journal-obsessed life. The other night Mark and I were trying to figure out when we’d become friends with a certain couple, and what did I do? I checked the blog. There they were! “…a tempting invitation from friends to come over and eat chocolate cake all afternoon kept me away.”)

Anyway, onto the food.

Now that I’m finished my main races of the year (Oceanside and Orangeman) and triathlon training has taken a backseat to yoga and TRX and a new run focus, we’ve started cooking more. There’s been lentil soup and butternut squash soup and pumpkin muffins and muesli (most made without consulting a recipe). I’m focused less on perfection, and more on the creative act of throwing things together. Just the other day I said to Mark, “we have to keep cooking like this when I’m training for Ironman in the spring!” One can dream.

And, thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s fun techniques episode of “No Reservations,” we’ve rediscovered roast chicken. My response to a good, simple roast chicken, is always “why don’t we make this more often?” Seriously. It makes the house smell like a holiday and makes me crave pumpkin pie or some other delicious dessert my mother makes that’s no longer part of my life.

I want to offer you two ridiculously easy methods of roasting a bird. Neither of them require a special pan. Neither of them require trussing (though you can if you want to). Neither of them require anything but a 3-4 pound roasting chicken (go organic for the best texture and flavor), some salt, pepper, and that spice simply made for chicken: thyme. Dried or fresh, no matter. The first is for those of you who own a Bundt pan and wondered what else you could possible do with it besides make ridiculously delicious cinnamon coffee cake. The second is for those of you who own a cast-iron pan, or other oven-safe skillet. Both are equally simple and yield a tender bird with temptingly crispy skin.

So wherever you are on the food preparation spectrum, from microwaving Trader Joe’s meals to becoming the next Thomas Keller, these two methods will restore your confidence. They did mine.

Courtesy of glutenfreegirl.com

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roast beast (and beets)

My second Paleo Experiment-induced trip to Costco on Sunday ended in me taking home a five-pound top sirloin. I purchased it with the intent of making my own homemade (read, additive and sodium-free) healthy roast beef. I’ve never been a big fan of deli meats, and up until trying this new way of eating didn’t really eat much beef at all. But that, along with many other habits and tendencies, has all changed over the past week.

As the days go on, some of the “symptoms” of going Paleo continue to lessen or disappear. Namely, strange stomach pains, a dry mouth, and periods of mental fogginess. Everything seems pretty much back to normal now, with the addition of new energy, better sleeps, and a pretty consistently positive mental outlook.

It’s always so hard to know with these things which are caused or related to a certain factor (here, the diet), or whether they would’ve happened anyway. That’s the complication with the Paleo way of life. Die-hards claim a lot for it, but could many of those “improvements” be due to them incorporating new and fresher veggies and fruits into their diets?

See the above salad. I would often eat salads for lunch at work, but this new diet prompted me to add some turkey and roast beets (which I blasted under the broiler with garlic and olive oil for 30 minutes, skins and all). The turkey was an early-Paleo Experiment slip-up. It’s deli-style, and even though the ingredients are only “turkey, turkey broth (containing less than 2% salt and vegetable oil),” it’s probably not the best. The black flecks on there aren’t pepper, they’re roasted hemp seeds: delish.

Another thing was red about my day besides the beets? The roast beast.

Yes, you read that right. The roast beast. With apologies to any sensitive vegans out there (though they surely would’ve stopped reading by now, so I have nothing to worry about), it is rather pleasant to say “roast beast.” It’s from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I’ve always found the expression hilarious.

The beast in this case was that five-pound hunk of Paleo protein procured from that grocery store where couples like us should really not be shopping. (Costco). We cut it in half and froze the other 2.5 pounds, and then followed Saveur‘s sandwich issue instructions for DIY roast beef: season the tied roast with salt and pepper, sear in a cast-iron skillet until the edges are browned, and then bake at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for three and a half hours. Take the temperature to make sure the interior reaches 130 degrees, cool, slice, and you’re done!

By slow-cooking the meat at such a low temperature, you retain that nice even pink color. Who wants brown-grey roast beast? Not this Who. Mark reported that it’s not really thinly-cut enough for a good sandwich, which makes it even more Paleo-friendly than it already was.

Tonight, post “Andrew” yoga, I had 100 grams of this served with sauteed spinach and some of Mark Bittman’s Spiced Melon Balls? (For this simple summer appetizer, simply mix the balls from a whole cantaloupe plus one whole honeydew with the juice of half a lime, ½ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground coriander, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, and 1 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro.)


5 Lessons from Today:

1. Don’t add coconut oil to a smoothie with frozen ingredients in it. It will turn to a grimy, greasy slop.

2 .If you’re going to eat roast beast often, invest in an electric meat slicer or marry a butcher.

3. When you go Paleo, it won’t be long before your co-workers start calling you a cavewoman.

4. Roasted seaweed, nuts, or hemp seeds work well when you’re craving popcorn or pretzels.

5. Choose your cheats wisely: I haven’t “caved” (ha ha) often, but tonight am giving in to Stone’s BELGO Anise Imperial Russian Stout while I watch the season premier of Weeds. Hey, it’s not easy being a cavewoman.

roasted peaches, 101

Everybody said it was perfect here. For the first two months of my North County residence, I didn’t believe them. Gloomy mornings and evenings spent wearing long sleeves were evidence of the coldest summer since 1916, a nice little fact Mark heard one day on the radio. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me. When I moved to D.C. last winter, they got slammed with Snowpocalypse, the worst triple-whammy of winter weather since who knows when. (How did I deal? I made stuffed eggplants.)

Of course it’s selfish to think that weather patterns revolve around my wayfaring ways. Of course they don’t. But after two months of patiently waiting out “June gloom,” California had really started to let me down.

And then came August, sweet August with its clear skies and stone fruit and newly-minted sun. Suddenly everyone who’d claimed how perfect it was here changed their tune: “September and October are the best months,” they’d say. “This is our winter,” they’d assure me, as I inquired about buying a bike trainer for the winter months. Despite a bad track record, the optimist in me must believe them.

August brought so many good things: a trip to Boulder for my first magazine cover photo shoot (not me, mind you, that would be a milestone worth its own post!), my first Aquathon (and many other great San Diego Triathlon Club events), and the much-anticipated parental visit. There was body-boarding with cousins visiting from Vancouver and lounging on the beach with books. With the parents there was a trip to the Wild Animal Park and Stone Brewery, a Del Mar reggae concert, good food and conversation. It was also the month our first pet joined our household of two: a seal-point Snowshoe we haven’t yet named! (Click here for a photo.)

My favorite part about this weather, quickly showing its true colors, is eating outdoors. Until I can afford the restaurants that overlook the ocean and until we have a patio or yard on which to dine, I’ll have to settle for beach picnics, the little deck at the office, and friends with benefits (ie: backyard dining rooms!) Two of those friends are our neighbors, Rob and Barbara, a lovely couple we became acquainted with through my Aunt Evelyn. From the first night we spent with them, drinking wine and eating pizza, they’ve been a significant part of our San Diego socialization process.

On Sunday they invited us over to their funky Leucadia home once more for a potluck with a few other couples. While the guests deliberated over beer, margaritas, or wine in the kitchen, Rob ushered everyone outside to enjoy the still-warm evening. (My kind of host—”get outside everyone, go enjoy it!”)

Charged with appetizers and a dessert, I decided on two recipe-less offerings. The first was fresh spring rolls, made with ingredients procured on Friday at an Asian market Mark had expertly tracked down while I was out covering a triathlon event. The second, simple roasted peaches with local honey, ricotta cheese, and toasted walnuts.

The idea for the peaches came from something similar we’d made for our parents two Christmases ago—Roasted Pears with Ricotta and Honey, from the January 2009 Bon Appetit. That was a slightly more involved version of roasted fruit, requiring that you strain ricotta and crush fennel seeds. I didn’t have time for either, so I stopped at the Leucadia farmer’s market down the street to see if I could come up with a simplified version (hence the “101” in the title … the market takes place just off highway 101, the same road that runs right by our apartment). I bought a few ripe local peaches, and a large jar of local wildflower honey from Deborah, my new friend at Sunflower Organics. (She mixes up a magical offering of honeys, including cinnamon- and Christmas-berry-spiked varieties, some with added bee pollen. Check it out.)

I cut the large peaches in thirds (you could also do halves for a larger portion), and placed them cut side up in a 400 degree oven. (See photos above). I put a little pat of butter on each one, and sprinkled the whole lot with about 2 tablespoons of sugar. I baked them until they looked done, about half an hour. While they baked, I mixed ricotta cheese (probably not local, unfortunately, as it was from Trader Joe’s!) with some cinnamon. To serve, I simply re-heated the peaches in the microwave, and each person got a portion topped with cinnamon-ricotta, drizzled honey, and chopped and toasted walnuts.

Aside from burning two pans of walnuts due to cat-induced distraction, it was a quick summer dessert that wasn’t too heavy or syrupy sweet. I probably should have made more, as I was the only person who brought dessert, but this would be perfect for a potluck or multi-course dinner party where you just want a little something to cleanse sharper flavors from your palate.

There were loads of other delicious items, like Rob’s onion pie (above), stuffed zucchini, grilled salmon, roasted cauliflower, and caprese salad. The best part, though, was the company: people who could talk travel, coffee roasting, wine, and William Carlos Williams. People from all walks of life and various parts of the country who’ve come to land here, a place that, as I’m starting to see, will only become more perfect the more I time I give it.

And of course, it’s the little things that will continue to make it so: love, food, friends, bikes, waves, coffee, sun, health, employment, and gratitude for all of it.

agua fresca de la casa

Since moving to California, I’ve become intrigued with Mexican cuisine. There’s a simple explanation for this new obsession: The serious dearth of authentic Mexican food in my hometown. (Carlos and Murphy’s anyone?) Even upstate New York blew me away with its variety of south-of-the-border-style fare. It was there I learned the pleasure of the tostada, and tasted what God had in mind when he created burritos.

And then, along came Southern California, taking me gently by the hand and saying, “little Canadian—how much you still do not understand.”

Though my first taste of horchata came in New Mexico, my first time making it happened right here in my new coastal home. I’d subsequently tried the creamy beverage in a few different tacquerias (to different levels of satisfaction), and I wanted to learn how to make the nutty refresher the old-fashioned way.

Consulting a version that included mashed strawberries from The New York Times, I forged ahead, omitting the berries and the crushed almond topping. The chef who created the recipe grew up on Mexico City and had authored a few books on the national cuisine, so I figured my horchata was in good hands.

I blanched and peeled almonds. (Trust me, next time I’ll buy them already blanched!) I soaked rice and cinnamon sticks overnight. I pureed and added sweetened condensed milk, that miracle of the canned dairy world. I waited. And then I strained. And strained and strained and strained, watching as precious drips of delicious horchata fell into the pitcher below. So far, so good.

It turned out as good as I’d hoped, though as with all experiments, yielded some lessons and future adaptations. It was far better than the overly sweet, pre-mixed version found at many taco shops, but not quite as good as the one we’d had in New Mexico with shaved ice. Next time I’d find a way to get shaved or crushed ice into my drink. Also, I found the final product too sweet. (Shockingly, the original article says that if you want it even creamier, to add a second can of S.C.M!! Ummm, no thanks, I’m not training for an Ironman—yet.) To counteract this, I’d add an extra cup of regular or evaporated milk to the finished product to “water” it down just a bit.

My second agua fresca came about in a manner similar to the aforementioned milky nectar. I had ordered my first tamarindo in the very same New Mexico taco shop, and when I arrived in California, the tart drink was available everywhere. When I found a huge bag of fresh tamarind pods at North Park Produce (the place I was so lovingly mocked for my enthusiasm at tamales), I saw visions of icy glasses of tamarindo dancing in my head.

As I cracked open my first sticky-sweet tamarind pod, a substance I’d only ever seen before in jars and packets of paste, I was intrigued. The pod cracks and falls open easily between the pressure of your fingers, like a perfectly boiled egg. Beneath it, five or six hard beans, the color of dark chocolate, lie encased in a sticky, date-like substance. Holding all the beans together is a netting you must pry each pod from, as if it were a precious fish meant to feed 5,000.

Homemade tamarindo, as I’d soon find out, was no quick task. But I’d made it myself, standing over my tiny counter, in my tiny apartment just five blocks from the coast, freeing all that delicious paste from its netting and then cleaning it off each hard pod. I followed a random internet recipe loosely, using all the pods in the bag (instead of the prescribed 1/3 cup), and boiling them with a big pot of water and some sugar. I set it in the fridge to “steep” overnight, just like the horchata, before straining it through a sieve.

The process was therapeutic—I was alone. It was rewarding—the citrusy drink would last a week in my fridge, refreshing, especially mixed with some soda water and ice. The world of Mexican beverages, like the food, was just beginning to open before me.

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pulled pork, two ways

I have no hook—life or literary—for sharing these recipes with you tonight. I’m alone in my room, having bailed on a potluck invitation. A more social weekend and longer run than usual have left me spent. But I’m feeling pleasantly mellow after exploring Rock Creek Park in my running shoes this morning and bundling storm-damaged tree debris in the yard with the housemates this afternoon.

Now the spectacle of the closing ceremonies are on mute in the corner of the room, and I’m nursing a glass of Shiraz. the aroma of French Onion Soup is wafting up the stairs (my roommate has adopted my mother’s recipe, an honor that makes me feel warm inside). In this state of relaxation, I decided to release a post that’s been gestating in my blog’s drafts for a long time: pulled pork.

These recipes could inspire poetic musings about moving even deeper south, and discovering its unique cuisine. Pulled pork could serve as a segue into missing Dinosaur BBQ, and by extension Syracuse (which I do, from time to time). Perhaps the evolution of these recipes from blurbs heard on the radio to shared meals would be a good lead.

But I think I’ll stick with something nearer in time and dearer to my heart. Last weekend, my sweetheart carted a local, humanely-raised pork shoulder down to D.C. to cook up together on a Sunday afternoon. The only problem was, he forgot the liquid smoke—a niche ingredient we couldn’t easily substitute.

Off to Target we went (wary of the previous weekend’s Epic Eggplant Adventure), happy to find the lone last bottle with nary a glitch.

When you don’t eat a lot of meat, the good stuff is a true treat. I know the farmer who raised this animal: she sells her meat at the Syracuse Farmer’s Market and one of her chickens was one of the first meals to grace this blog in its toddler days. Syracuse introduced me to the wonders of good BBQ, and one of its signature dishes, pulled pork. (Or maybe I can credit the Philosophy department, where vats of Dinosaur BBQ‘s best are known to make an appearance.)

Since I don’t own a backyard smoker of my own, hearing about “Cheater Pulled Pork” on the Splendid Table made me itch with curiosity. The host interviewed some bona-fide BBQ snob/cookbook author who claimed that good BBQ could be achieved in a slow cooker. With liquid smoke. A travesty? Maybe. But I was willing to give it a whirl.

It was as easy as they said it would be: Chop chop chop, a sprinkling of spices, a splash of liquid smoke, and seven hours in which I had to do nothing but worry that our household dog—who has been known to eat cookies and their container, coffee beans, and popcorn kernels—would get into the slow-cooker. Aside from the pork being too salty (my fault, perhaps, for using the more potent and effective kosher variety), it was scrumptious with buns and baked beans. If you’ve never made tender, succulent, southern-style pulled pork for yourself, you’re missing out.

The second recipe has simmered away in my drafts for over a year now after a successful test run on the folks over Christmas 2008. We snatched this one from the same radio show.  It’s is a slightly more refined version of the same tender, shredded pork variety of the first. This one better struts its stuff in well-constructed burritos, or paired with sides like roasted broccolini, root vegetables Anna, and robust wine. Either one you choose, you can’t go wrong with slow-roasted, fork-tender pork that barely needs tending.

Our long winter is crawling to the finish line. There’s plenty of time for leaner meats and the fresher, vibrant meals of spring. In the meantime, don’t you deserve a comforting meal reminiscent of warm places where the beer and barbecue freely flow?

I think you do.

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firsts

My weekend was filled with firsts. My first smart phone arrived in the office mail late Friday, and I rode the metro home with the box tucked into my bag, excited to spend a homey evening in, importing and consolidating my contacts, and downloading free applications (I’m particularly excited by the ones from epicurious and public radio).

the brewery's offerings

I’ve always thought of myself as fairly un-technological,  and now here I am, an iPhone owner. My life is about to change dramatically.

On Saturday, I did my first D.C. yoga class, and later that day I brewed beer for the first time. Luckily I had my iPhone’s built-in camera to document the process. The quality of the pictures still isn’t up to snuff for fresh cracked pepper, but it will come in handy for those times I just want a record.

packed with people

And as you can see, the record was of the vertical sort. Apparently I didn’t realize my new gadget could take landscape as well as portrait, and here are all my pictures, lovingly rendered in vertical (instead of this blog’s usual horizontal). I laughed at myself when I uploaded them…the learning curve may only continue to steepen!

our working recipe

So after yoga downtown with my housemate, I biked the 13 rolling miles out to the industrial armpit of Alexandria to meet my new friend Rick. He’s the brewer for the church I’ve started attending—St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill. We were convening at Shenandoah Brewing Company, a brew-on-premise and brew-pub rolled into one.

bins of grain

I was expecting the inside to look like its surroundings—bare, soul-less, empty. But the door creaked open into a Willy Wonka factory of beer: cauldrons stewed and steamed away at the periphery of a room full of people. Long wooden tables were piled high with pretzels and chili, the merry makers clinking their pint glasses and getting louder with each passing minute. In other words, I was home. (I later found out that much of Shenandoah’s equipment is from Canada, so I was more home than I even knew.)

grinding our grain

Shenandoah is a special place. Couples, connoisseurs, and (apparently) church people alike come here to brew beer for their weddings, cellars, and in our case, congregations. First, we received our recipe (picture 3 above) for our “steam beer,” the afternoon’s project.  Then, we dipped into the stores of  grain to find our “caramel 60” and “Munich mix” or whatever it was that we needed. We hand-ground the grain into a bucket lined with a cloth filter: basically a giant tea bag.

tying up the "teabag"

Here, the guys are tying the tea bag closed so that it can be lowered into the steaming pot of “wort,” another grain mix that the brewery takes care of beforehand. When that was finished, we added a huge pitcher of sweetener: wort reduced down to a thick, honey-like syrup.

the brewing begins

I stirred the mix as Rick added the sweetener, using an old apple-sauce spoon from Pennsylvania. It was a rugged spoon fit for a Father Bear, and that’s precisely when the thrill of beer brewing hit me. Here I was, bent over the steaming broth of one of my favorite beverages (perhaps my favorite—this fact is still up for constant debate between Mark and I). It was a beautiful moment.

the old applesauce spoon

Next we added the hops. We’d selected two different strains (the names of which I’m now forgetting), distilled into rabbit-food-like pellets that smelled…well, like beer. The first round (“bittering hops”) goes in for 60 minutes, the second (“flavoring”) for 20, and the third (“finishing) for 10, equaling a 90-minute hopped beer when all is said and done.  The reason you do this is because you want the natural preservatives and the bitterness to equal out appropriately.

hops hops hops

My friend Rebecca picked me up for a movie before we could get to the yeasting (see the vials picture following) and the aerating (where the two brew masters push a barrel back and forth between them). After downing an IPA and a Stony Man oatmeal stout, however, I was ready to relax in front of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga’s collective sexiness.

the yeast vials

Go to Shenandoah. It’s worth the trip to the end of the blue line, or, if you have a bike, from the far-flung haunts of Hyattsville.

I Can and I Did: Chunky Farmer’s Market Salsa

I passed a food milestone yesterday. A friend of my mother’s came through town last week bearing an armload of a gift: my mother’s old hot water canner. (Basically, a big black speckled pot with a metal rack inside.)

My late-summer dreams of salsas, jams, and chutneys are inching ever closer. Yesterday, with a little help from Central New York farmers, I canned for the first time.

With a few weeks of research under my belt and the fear of botulism clinging fiercely to my hope, I set out to making a batch of salsa worthy of chips and tostadas. The great stuff at the stores is well over 5$, and the cheaper stuff is barely a dressed-up ketchup. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

I scoured the internet for recipes, finally settling on one from FoodieMama.com.  I wanted chunks of tomato and good fresh peppers, and despite the recipe writer’s disdain for spelling and grammar, this one seemed to fit the bill.

A lazy hour at the farmer’s market outfitted me perfectly for my first adventure in jars: a flat of pint jars for $10, an assortment of peppers for $4, and tomatoes to last a lifetime for $9.

Equipped with my bounty, my canner, and some 80’s music, I proceeded to make six and a half pints of salsa in an afternoon. We polished off the half pint with some locally-made tortilla chips, feeling like good slow-foodies with every crunchy bite. The only adjustments I’ll make next time will be to add a little more heat; it turns out those little Serrano peppers weren’t as hot as they felt on my fingertips!

The next day I checked the jars and each one of them had sealed properly. My salsa not only tasted great, but it would keep for months without crowding my fridge.

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