Smoke detectors and grape focaccia

My home's smoke detectors are very, very sensitive.

I never worry that I'll be asphyxiated in my sleep if the house begins to smolder, which is generally a big positive. But baking things at high temperatures on a stone — crusty, tasty things like pizza — sets off the smoke alarm. I'd forgotten (or blocked out) that tidbit before firing up the stove to make grape focaccia Saturday. The harsh, blaring noise forced me to throw open each and every window while flailing a kitchen towel around my head like a madwoman. It also drove my dog Gus into the backyard. He stayed as far from the house as possible, and had to be coaxed back inside.

It was worth the hassle. Tossed with freshly chopped rosemary and thinly sliced shallots, the grapes wrinkled and softened as they cooked. The natural sugars are intensified as they bake. It's a great textural experience, biting into oozing fruit, warm juices dribbling down your chin, then encountering a mellow bread with a crisp crust.

In the past, I've added a bit of turbinado sugar and crushed fennel seeds to the topping, when I'm going for a sweeter bread, or thrown in a couple of thinly sliced garlic cloves if I want a slightly more savory option. I think thinly sliced roasted fennel would make for an interesting combo — that goes onto the Things To Make in the Future List.

Grape Focaccia with Rosemary and Shallots

This recipe makes enough dough for 2 focacce, about 10 x 16 inches each. The topping quantity listed below is enough for one focaccia. Double the topping quantity if you plan to bake both, or freeze the leftover dough for future use.

1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/4 cup warm water (for dissolving yeast)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups water
6 1/2 - 7 cups all-purpose flour

1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups seedless grapes (red or green)
1 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
1 large pinch Kosher salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the yeast and 1/4 cup of water in a mixing bowl and stir to dissolve. Let it stand for about 10 minutes to proof.

Add the olive oil, salt, 2 1/2 cups of water and flour to the mixing bowl. Stir with a heavy wooden spoon. When the mixture comes together, knead it by hand on a floured work surface until smooth, about 12-15 minutes (a little less if you're using a mixer). Place it in an oiled bowl to rise, covered with plastic wrap or a tea towel, until doubled in size. This will take about 1 1/2 hours.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces and press into the desired shape on lightly floured or parchment-lined baking pans (mine are most often misshapen rectangles). Press your fingertips into the dough, forming small dimples. Cover and allow the shaped dough to rise for about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the dough with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Toss the grapes and sliced shallots with a pinch of Kosher salt and finely chopped rosemary. Spread evenly over the focaccia dough, then bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating once to ensure even browning. Cool on a baking rack for 5 minutes before serving.


The beauty of roti

Unleavened bread is a wonderful thing. I've known this for a while, but it fell off my radar screen for a couple of years. I got caught up in the hoopla that (justly) surrounded Jim Leahy's No-Knead Bread  and turned to the magic of an easy artisan-style loaf whenever it came time to bake. That changed this past weekend, when I went with an Indian dinner menu for an informal gathering (a.k.a. Game Night).

I'm no Indian food expert, but with the help of Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, I turned out a great meal featuring braised chicken with bay leaves, cardamom and cloves; lentils in garlic butter; a fresh mint relish; saffron rice; and Besan ki Roti, or Chickpea Flour Bread. Roti requires a bit of last-minute effort, but the recipe couldn't be simpler and the results are terrific. Griddle baked and finished over an open flame, the roti puff up, the soft aroma of chickpea flour wafting into the kitchen as the breads gently deflate and are brushed with ghee (clarified butter). The bread is lovely by itself, though it's the perfect vehicle for scooping up other foods. I'll be making roti for solo meals, rolling out small portions of dough on an as-needed basis, but it's fun party food, something guests can help with just before you sit down to eat.

Note: I plan on increasing the amount of red pepper a bit the next time I make roti. I couldn't taste it and didn't get any heat using the recommended 1/2 teaspoon in the original recipe that follows. Follow your taste buds.

Chickpea Flour Bread (Besan ki Roti)
Makes 24 six-inch roti, enough for 8-12 people
Adapted from Classic Indian Cooking

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chickpea flour
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon red pepper (optional)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 1/4 cups (or more) warm water
additional all-purpose flour for dusting

Put the whole wheat flour, one cup of all-purpose flour, chickpea flour, Kosher salt and red pepper (if you're using it) in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse a few times to combine, then add then the water slowly through the feed tube with the machine running. The dough will come together in a shaggy mass.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10-15 minutes by hand. The dough will be soft and slightly sticky. Cover and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes, but up to 24 hours, before you plan to bake.

Place the dough on a work surface, dusting flour at the ready, and knead gently for about a minute. Divide it into 2 balls, then divide each of those into 12 equal portions. Roll the pieces into small balls and cover with plastic wrap as you work with them individually.

Place one ball on your work surface, dusting with flour to prevent sticking, and flatten with a rolling pin. Roll into a disc about 6-inches in diameter.

Bake on a hot griddle (I used a cast-iron skillet) until a few brown spots appear and the bottom is cooked, then flip over and cook the other side for about 30 seconds. Using a pair of tongs, hold the bread flat over another burner  — over the flame — with the gas set to high. Cook for 10-15 seconds, then turn and cook the other side for another 10-15 seconds.

Serve as is, or brush with ghee (clarified butter). Roti doesn't reheat well — it gets dried out and leathery — so enjoy fresh off the flame or at room temperature.


Hibernating with orange flower-buttermilk sorbet

What to do with the three-quarters of a quart of Maple View Farm buttermilk sitting in the refrigerator? Though I am the type to drink it, I decided to make sorbet — something to share. I was headed to my friend Cathy's house for dinner and a movie, and dessert was in order. Rather than stick with the ever popular buttermilk-lemon combination, I opted to use the orange flower water that's been sitting in my pantry for eons (alongside an almost identical pretty blue bottle of rosewater).

Orange flower water has a floral quality that makes a nice counterpoint to buttermilk's rich, slightly sour flavor. Combined with simple syrup for sweetness and brightened with a few drops of fresh lemon juice, the sorbet was a big success. Cathy and I enjoyed a quiet evening with a few episodes of HBO's New Orleans drama Treme, bowls in hand. I highly recommend both. 

Note: I added orange zest to the sorbet for color and flavor, but it should be considered optional — the sorbet would be good without it. If you opt for pretty orange flecks, add them after your sorbet is frozen, stirring it into the finished product as it comes out of the ice cream machine. Zest sometimes catches on the mixing paddle of the ice cream maker, forming a big clump rather than the evenly dispersed look you're going for. 

Look for orange flower water in Middle Eastern stores or the ethnic section of an upscale grocery like Whole Foods. You can also order it (and rosewater) from Amazon. I'm a big fan of the frozen canister type ice cream makers made for home use — they come in 1 and 2-quart sizes, and you can buy an extra canister or two if you make lots of frozen desserts.

Orange Flower - Buttermilk Sorbet
Makes about 1 quart

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
3 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange flower water
zest of 1 orange, finely grated

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then turn off the heat and set the simple syrup aside to cool. 

When the syrup is room temperature, combine it with the buttermilk, lemon juice and orange flower water to create the sorbet base. Chill for at least one hour, then freeze according to your ice cream machine's instructions. Add the orange zest to the sorbet after removing it from the machine and freeze for up to 1 month.


Rhett's Southern pantry

One of things I like most about my friend Rhett is his love of all things Southern. He is fiercely devoted to his hometown of Charleston and will never live anywhere else. He doesn't want to. I, too, am a Southerner, but my loyalties aren't so strong. I left North Carolina as soon as I graduated from college planning never to return. 16 years later I find myself enjoying life in Chapel Hill — enjoying it very much — but I threaten to move far, far way on a regular basis. I think it's the way I'm wired.

Rhett's reaction to my recent blog post on pantry basics came as no surprise. He sent a brief list of things he thought I missed, things his kitchen never lacks. All of these items are very regional, very Charleston, very much like Rhett himself — and I thought it would be fun to share. What follows is a slightly edited version of his email, as well as my own input. Maybe you'll be inspired add a few items to your list of kitchen staples.

Rhett's Pantry Staples


Rhett: I drink it, yes. However, it does amazing things to pork, chicken, soups and chili; it's also great with chocolate and nuts.

Lynn: I don't drink it, but I keep a bottle of Maker's Mark my liquor cabinet. Friends (you know who you are) love the stuff, and I cook with it occasionally, using it to flavor ice cream, cake and hard sauce.


Rhett: Without buttermilk there is no reason on this good earth to make biscuits, cornbread, pancakes/waffles or fry much of anything. It elevates wild game to new heights.

Lynn: Agreed. And I like to drink it, something my restaurant coworkers back in Boston thought was particularly disgusting.

Grits and cornmeal

Rhett: These are the most under-rated food items in the world. They pair well with seafood, chicken, veal, and wild game (marsh hens with grits and gravy). Fried grits can be topped with anything from pulled pork to caviar and creme fraiche.

Lynn: I keep cornmeal from White's Mill in Abingdon,Virginia in my pantry at all times. Your comments have set off a shrimp and grits craving.

Local honey

Rhett: Sue Bee is the Coors Light of honey — tasteless. Making the extra effort to buy local is more than worth it. It helps local farmers, the local economy, and provides many health benefits.

Lynn: Good point. I buy honey from Little Tree Farm in Oxford, NC. It's more expensive than nationally distributed honey, but worth it.


Joy's cornbread

My father claims that it took my mother, Joy, two years to perfect her cornbread. Many of her initial cooking efforts were, um,  unsuccessful. I've heard tales of burnt pot roast, fallen cakes, and undercooked vegetables, though those last dishes would be considered overcooked by many today — think green beans stewed for hours with bacon. To be fair, Joy had just turned 20 when they married, and she didn't have much cooking experience. She went from her parents' house to a dorm room to sharing a trailer with her new spouse in Jackson, Mississippi.

When I stop to think about it, my father was probably just looking for his mother's cornbread. Don't most men want food like Mom used to make? Maybe this post should be named after my paternal grandmother.

I compare all other cornbread to this one, the one my mother made daily when I was growing up. When I left home it was the one recipe of hers I had to have, the one thing I knew I'd want to recreate wherever I lived, so I set out to record the process exactly. But Joy doesn't measure ingredients when she makes this particular dish. The cups and scoops come out for just about everything else, but cornbread she creates by eye, by feel. We came to a consensus after a few tries, and I'm happy to report that the following recipe will very accurately reproduce Joy's version.

This isn't for everyone. I expect that anyone accustomed to what my father calls "Yankee cornbread" will be appalled by the crisp exterior, lack of sugar, and somewhat dry crumb, but these are things I like best about it. I love the crunch, the fact that this cornbread is perfect for scooping up the juices that surround slow-cooked Southern summer vegetables like pink-eyed peas and butter beans.

Compared to Miss Effie's cornbread, described by my friend Kitty in her guest post back in August, my mother's cornbread is loaded with "extras" like flour and baking soda. Joy used to cook this with bacon grease — she kept it in an old orange juice concentrate container in the fridge — but she's lightened up and uses vegetable oil now. An iron skillet is mandatory. Don't even think about baking this in another type of pan. Leftovers can be frozen — they're great for stuffing.

Joy's Cornbread

1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, lard or butter for the skillet
1/3 cup cornmeal (yellow or white)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet — the bottom coated with a tablespoon of bacon grease, vegetable oil, or butter —  in the oven as it heats. The hot oil creates that crispy exterior you're aiming for.

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl with a fork or whisk. In another bowl, whisk the egg into the buttermilk, then pour this mixture into the dry ingredients. Pour the batter (it will be pretty thick) into the preheated skillet, spreading it to the sides with a spatula. Bake for 20 minutes. Warm slices are best slathered with butter.


The pantry

My friend Kathleen emailed me a few months ago with a question. She wondered how I could "whip up dinner every night," making a modest meal out of whatever was already in the house. My culinary background helps, but the truth is my day-to-day meals are nothing fancy, just good, simple dishes made from great ingredients. I visit the grocery store or farmers' market a couple of times each week for fresh produce or proteins, but I do have a well-stocked kitchen. The refrigerator always contains eggs, a hunk of parmesan cheese, a couple of lemons; the pantry is never without pasta, rice, a large assortment of dried herbs, and a few vinegars. The assortment varies a bit, but below is a list of basics I think every kitchen should have. It limits multiple trips to the store and allows you to create something tasty with whatever fresh items you bring home.

A few hints: it's wise to buy dried herbs and spices in the smallest containers you can find, unless you have a big cooking or baking day planned. Yes, they are more expensive per ounce, but they age quickly. Old oregano that smells and tastes like dust is no bargain. Check for bulk items at the grocery - you can buy as much or as little as you'd like, the turnover is usually pretty good, and the pricing is better.

The following is a very basic list of pantry staples. Herbs are dried unless otherwise noted.

Salt  - Table salt and kosher salt. I almost exclusively use kosher salt, but table salt is often called for in baking recipes because the smaller grains dissolve more easily. Kosher salt doesn't contain additives - typically iodine - found in table salt.

Whole black peppercorns - grind to order in a pepper mill

Vinegars - My first choice is sherry vinegar; I always have white wine and red wine vinegars as well as a good quality balsamic

Pasta - I keep one long, skinny pasta (spaghetti, fettucini) and one or two shorter types (penne, macaroni)

Rice - long rained white rice is my first option; brown rice allows me to feel virtuous

Mustard - Dijon (regular or grainy) and dried ( I love Coleman's)

Kalamata olives (in a glass jar, not a can; canned olives taste like tin)
Canola oil (or another neutral vegetable oil)

Chile oil
Bay leaves
Cinnamon, sticks and ground
Coriander seeds
Cumin seeds
Fennel seeds
Oregano leaves
Baking powder
Baking soda
Unsweetened cocoa powder
Vanilla extract
All-purpose flour
Unsalted butter
Eggs (large)
White or yellow onions - 2 or 3
Fresh garlic heads - 2 or 3
Red onion -1
Whole peeled tomatoes, canned - 2 or 3 cans
Extra virgin olive oil
Dried red chile peppers - whole
Hot red pepper flakes
Sugar - granulated and light brown
Soy sauce - I prefer Kikkoman
Tabasco sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Fresh lemons - 2 in the fridge at all times
Fresh parsley - I grow my own, so it's available at a moment's notice


Creamy bean soup

Scrumptious, smooth, creamy. Herb-scented, olive oil-enriched, crouton-garnished. I need to create quite an impression of the simple bean soup I made last weekend, because the pictures, well, the pictures aren't so great. And if you don't try this (brown soup with beige croutons) you'll regret it.

Spectacular fall weather inspired a bit of bean cookery over the weekend. I ventured into the pantry and broke out a bag of better-than-average heirloom beans — snowcap beans — from Rancho Gordo. Beans I ordered and got all worked up over in June, and with good reason. The heirloom varieties I've tried thus far have been amazingly good. Like all great ingredients, the Rancho Gordo beans haven't needed much help, just the addition a few aromatic vegetables and an herb or two.

Snowcap beans remind me of cranberry beans with their rich, velvety texture — perfect for soups. When I make this type of pureed bean soup I typically use a little pancetta, cooking the vegetables in rendered fat before adding the beans, herbs, and water or chicken stock, using the crisped meat as a garnish. Feel free to do that here if you'd like, but if you go to the trouble of procuring heirloom beans, try it first without the meat. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

You'll find many different opinions on the best ways to cook dried beans. Some people recommend adding dried seaweed or crushed espazote to the water to aid digestion; others insist that a pinch of baking soda does the trick. Many advise that you not add salt to the bean pot until they're done, lest you toughen the skins and prevent them from ever truly cooking through. I haven't found that any of these things are true, and I've tried them all. Seaweed and espazote are nice for flavor, but I'm not convinced that they help the, er, bean problem. Dried beans benefit from a soak prior to cooking —  this simply speeds up the process.

Velvety Bean Soup
Serve 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound dried snowcap or cranberry beans
1 large onion, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 rosemary sprigs
10 sage leaves
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Cover the dried beans with cold water and soak, refrigerated, 8 hours. When it's time to cook the beans, drain and proceed with the recipe. If you're pressed for time, place the dried beans in a large pot and cover with water by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, then shut off the heat and allow the beans to soak for one hour. Drain, then proceed with the recipe below.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottom stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add the celery and carrots, stir, and cook another 5 minutes. Add the herbs and soaked beans, and cover with fresh water by about 2 inches. Simmer the beans until tender, adding more water if necessary. My batch of beans cooked in about 35 mintues, but please note that the cooking time varies, as some beans are older (and therefore more dried out) than others.

Remove the herb sprigs and puree with an immersion blender or standing blender. If using an upright, work in small batches with the lid loosely covering the top, and allow the soup to cool a little bit before pureeing. Hot splatters are painful as well as messy. Add more water to thin the soup if necessary and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with freshly made croutons (toast small cubes of the best white bread you can find in a little extra virgin olive oil on the stove top) and a drizzle of olive oil.


Slightly cooler temps = spicy three bean chili

All of my bitching about hot temperatures brought about a change in the weather. OK, that had nothing to do with it, but we've been hit with 2 days of much needed rain, the kind of weather that makes me want to curl up with a book and put a pot of soup on the stove. So what if it's a comfortable 74 degrees? Cooler weather calls for a celebration, and the promise of autumn brings thoughts of football, colorful leaves, and hearty foods. Fall is the best time for chili.

I took a yoga class after work, delaying my return home by an hour, so I used canned beans for my veggie chili meal. I use dried beans whenever possible (better flavor, less sodium, significantly less expensive), but this was a last minute decision, and I wanted chili before midnight.

My vegetarian chili recipe isn't set it stone — sometimes I add smoky chipolte peppers, toss in a zucchini or two, add a bottle of ale — but this recipe is a pretty standard starting point. I love the heat and complexity provided by fire-roasted tomatoes and jalapeno peppers, but feel free to make adjustments. Cooling garnishes include sour cream and cheese, if you like that kind of thing. I settled for a sprinkling of scallions on top, a piece of cornbread on the side. Hunkered down with a bowl of spicy bean marvelousness, my legs tucked underneath me on the couch, and a book in hand (The 19th Wife, which is good, but I've reached the saturation point with this polygamy thing), I couldn't have planned a better night.

Spicy Three Bean Chili
Makes about 8 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
3 jalapeno peppers
2 teaspoons ground cumin (freshly ground if possible)
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 bay leaves
2  15-ounce cans fire-roasted tomatoes, including juice
1 28-ounce can whole peeled or diced tomatoes, including juice
1 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Possible garnishes:
scallions, chopped
sour cream
lime juice
cilantro, chopped
cheddar cheese, grated

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium low heat until soft. Add the green pepper, celery and jalapeno, and cook for another 3-4  minutes. Add the chili powder, freshly ground cumin and bay leaves. Add the tomatoes and beans, stirring well to combine. Sprinkle with a few pinches of kosher salt and bring to a simmer. If the chili is too thick, thin it with a little water. Cook for at least 30 minutes before serving — longer is better. Like most chilies, this one improves with time. For best results, make it a day in advance.