A confession

I must confess: I don't measure.

This isn't a huge revelation for anyone who's watched me in the kitchen, but I wanted to point it out to those who plan to recreate dishes from this blog (and I hope you will). Yesterday's carrot soup recipe? The amounts of each ingredient are guesstimates. Very good ones, but guesstimates all the same.

People who are comfortable in the kitchen understand this. Even if they aren't winging it, they forgo the measuring cups and eyeball each ingredient. Laziness? I don't think so. Sure, it can be time consuming to stop and scoop freshly chopped herbs into little measuring spoons, but accomplished cooks are self-confident. All of the senses are called upon when creating a dish, tasting throughout the process. More salt? Add a pinch. More acid? Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice into the pot.

Sight, smell, and sound all come into play. You are likely to smell nuts toasting in the oven before you see them, you hear a chicken breast hissing in the pan when your back is turned. Touch is part of the process, too. Ever tried pressing a steak with your finger to know when it's done? The meat becomes firmer the longer it cooks.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and just try. The practice-makes-perfect rule applies here, and you'll have a lot more fun.

Baking is an exception to my no-measuring habit. A big exception. I follow baking recipes to the letter the first go round, taste the results, think about changes I might make, and march forward. Chemistry is so important in baking - all that leavening magic that takes place - and it's virtually impossible to correct a mistake once you've placed your carefully mixed cake batter into the oven.

On that note, it's time to walk the dog and tune into Top Chef Masters 2. I'm no slave to food television, but my former boss, Jody Adams, competes tonight, and I must cheer her on. If you're ever in Cambridge, Massachusetts do yourself a favor and dine at Rialto.

Oh, and the camera is working again!


What to cook when the fridge contains only carrots

This post title is a slight exaggeration.

My kitchen is very well-stocked, but there are days I return from work to a hungry dog, a pile of junk mail, and not so much to choose from in the refrigerator. This is one of those days.

I'm going out of town Friday and I refuse to do a major shop this close to departure. I also pick up my first CSA box-o-goodness tomorrow evening, so it's time to make due with what's immediately available. And what's available is a bag of carrots.

I look to the larder for onion and garlic and note that the spice cabinet is full. The herbs out back look terrific this early in the season, and I decide to make use of the almost-too-old serrano peppers hiding the refrigerator's produce drawer. It's soup time.

Carrot soup has become a standby in my repertoire. It can be dressed up or down, served hot or cold, garnished according to the season (or what's lurking in your pantry). Don't knock it. Carrot soup is a beautiful thing.

Note: Sadly my camera is not a beautiful thing. It died mid-photo session. This means no photos of tonight's featured blog entree. If any of the "peeling carrots" shots I took initially took work out, they may end up illustrating this entry. Wish me luck! I need an easy fix.

Tonight's Carrot Soup
Serves 4-6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 very large onion, chopped
2 serrano peppers, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
about 1.5 pounds carrots, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons white rice
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
salt and pepper (freshly ground)
approximately 6 cups of water, but use vegetable stock if you have it

Warm the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, peppers, parsley and rice and cook until the onion is soft, about 6 minutes. Add the spices, salt and pepper, and cook another 6 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, consider a garnish. Not just a pretty garnish, but something with substance. A red onion relish, a blob of creme fraiche, a chile butter, or chopped parsley and cilantro with a squeeze of lime juice.

When the soup is done, puree until smooth. I love my immersion blender, but it doesn't puree things to the velvety consistency of the upright. It also doesn't explode like the upright, leaving me to clean even more of the kitchen and dress burns. Something to consider.

Taste the soup for salt and serve with the garnish of your choice.


A light dinner

Sometimes all I really want for dinner is a green salad. Boring? Nah. Not if you grow your own lettuce.

The lovely green leaves in the pictures came from my back porch. My house has a tiny yard, but I've covered the deck with pots of all shapes and sizes, the majority filled with edible plants.

The delicate flavor and fresh crunch of newly harvested lettuces can't be beat. The key is to dress them with a light vinaigrette, something that allows the greens to shine through, show off. I toss in a few radishes for color and a nice peppery bite, consider a perfectly hard-boiled egg if I need more substance, then add just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the leaves. Spring perfection.

For a gorgeous hard-boiled egg, place the eggs of your choice (I usually stick with large, and yes, the eggs from your local farmer's market are significantly better) in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil, then shut off the heat and — this is the important part — allow the eggs to sit in the cooling water for 10-11 minutes. Please adjust the time according to the size of your eggs. Then crack the shells and place them in ice water to cool completely. When peeled, you should have beautiful yolks, buttery and golden, without the nasty green rings and chalky centers of overcooked eggs.

Do what you will with the eggs. I like to sprinkle them with sweet herbs and kosher salt before they hit the salad bowl.

For a vinaigrette, rely on your taste buds. I prefer a ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but hey, it's your salad. Many people like a 4:1 ratio. Adjust accordingly.

My favorite dressings include a minced clove of garlic (or two) and finely chopped shallot. I add Dijon mustard if I'm in the mood for a little more spice, but it's not required. Fresh herbs are always included — just be sure to choose sweet, tender herbs like chervil, tarragon, chives and thyme, rather than the more assertive options, like rosemary and sage. With delicate lettuces I'm a big fan of lemon or lime juice instead of vinegar, but champagne vinegar is lovely, and I reach for the sherry vinegar bottle frequently. If you don't want to deal with a whisk and are willing to simply combine ingredients rather than create an emulsion, put all of the ingredients into a covered glass or jar (covered with a lid, not your hand or plastic wrap) and shake. Hard.


The first post


A blog. Who isn't blogging these days? After much back-and-forth, I decided to hunker down, break out the digital camera, and start writing.

I used to be a professional cook. Not a chef, but a cook. Big difference. I never wrote menus or hired and fired people, but I cooked for a few years on the line at a very nice (excellent, actually) Boston restaurant. I moved from the line to a rounds position, then a rounds pastry/bread position, then kitchen supervisor. The changes were driven by my desire to have a more "normal" life, more regular hours.

I learned that each step away from the line, away from it's rigors, left me feeling empty. I have a job in another industry now, but food is very important to me. I think about food all the time. I start planning dinner when I wake up, obsessing over flavors, combinations of flavors, textures, presentation. Homey, rustic food tugs at my heart. A trip to Paris this winter cinched that — dinners at Taillevent and L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon emptied my bank account — but I enjoyed the bistro meals more.

Enough of the chatter.

Tonight, I baked.

I am a cook, not a baker. Tomorrow begs for a pound cake, however. Rain dominates the forecast here in central North Carolina, and I made a pound cake to bring to Cathy's house. We planned to take a long walk with a dog (mine) and toddler (hers) and meet another one of my good friends, Kirstin, and her dog (Gabby). I think Cathy and Kirstin will hit it off — but the weather could ruin everything. I called both parties and negotiated a pound cake and coffee meeting if the walk falls through. I will provide the eats.

That lead to an adaptation of Perfection Pound Cake by Dorie Greenspan, an amazing baker and cookbook author. I left out the vanilla extract and used Fiori di Sicilia from King Arthur Flour instead. The aroma is amazing: the most fantastic citrus extract — with a hint of vanilla — ever.

Stayed tuned for taste test results. Now I'm off to watch Six Feet Under on DVD. All the best programs are on the pricey stations.

Perfection Pound Cake
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons Fiori di Sicilia extract

Note: Remember to store Fiori di Sicilia in the refrigerator after opening.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter or coat a 9×5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray (I used Baker's Joy). Place the loaf on a jelly roll pan or 2 baking sheets stacked on top of one another.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt to thoroughly combine.

Beat the butter and sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, ideally using a heavy duty stand mixer with a paddle attachment. This will take 5 full minutes — be patient. Carefully scrape down the bowl and lower the mixer speed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 to 2 minutes after each addition. Scrape down the bowl and beater as you go, making sure the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add the extract and milk. Add the flour with the mixer on a low speed, being careful not to over mix, or fold it in by hand  (over mixing will toughen your pound cake). Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake the cake about 70 minutes, checking after 45 minutes to be certain the top isn't too dark. If it's browning too quickly, cover it with a loose foil tent. A cake tester, inserted into the center, should come out clean when it's done.

Cool the cake on a rack (still in the pan) for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the cake pan to release it, then turn it onto a rack to cool.

Perfection Pound Cake keeps 5 - 7 days at room temperature if well wrapped (leftovers are great toasted). Freeze up to 2 months.