Saturday, September 15, 2007

Caramel Cook, my new cooking blog

I haven't really been posting here a ton lately. And when I do, it's usually about food. My urge to post random spirituality tracts has waned over time, and my exercise is what it is; if I log it, it's really just for my own tracking purposes. Cooking is the primary thing I do that I feel compelled to share with others online, and certainly the thing I most rely on the internet to teach me. In Google Reader, my folder of food blogs is bigger than all the rest of the blogs I read put together.

With that in mind, I've decided to put this particular blog on hold so that I can focus my efforts on a new one: Caramel Cook. By making it an official cooking blog, I can really dig into the food I make, the food I eat, the tools I use, the ingredients I love, where here I tended to just summarize.

I hope you'll join me over there, especially if you enjoy cooking, and moreover I hope you'll post comments to solve all my various cooking problems for me!

I'll probably make an occasional post to this blog still, just status-update kinds of things to keep family and friends up to date on what I'm doing, but it'll be even less frequent, most likely, than it already has been lately.

What are you waiting for? Head on over there!

Monday, September 3, 2007


Chow is building a video series called "Obsessives", profiles of people in the food industry & community with singular fascinations, and looking at how they do their work. So far they've got one of the baristas from Blue Bottle talking about espresso, then Chris Cosentino (exec chef of Incanto in Noe Valley) talking about offal and food ethics (not for the squeamish, but I thought this one was really excellent; he clearly has a deep respect for the animals he cooks), the Stephens-Lewallens, owners of the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, and now June Taylor, producer of amazing preserved fruits (marmalades, conserves, syrups -- if you've had her stuff, you know how amazing it is.)

It's a really spectacular project they're doing, and all four of the videos so far have been great!


Monday, August 20, 2007

Beans, Beans, Good for the Heart...

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned Rancho Gordo on here before, suppliers of the best beans money can buy. I've missed them ever since moving back to Austin, where beans aren't so locally grown in so many varieties.

Some ingredients aren't worth worrying as much about. I've never had, say, a red onion that really jumped out at me as being wildly better than any other reasonably fresh red onion. Some things aren't really worth the time and money involved in procuring at their zenith.

Lest there be any doubt, beans are a food where the quality is critical. I made the Chocolate Turtle Beans from Heidi's latest cookbook and used a mix of Black Turtle beans and Appaloosa beans that I had sitting around from the Whole Foods bulk bins.


I soaked the beans for a day and a half just to be on the safe side, to where starch had risen to the surface of the water. I eagerly sweated the onions and garlic in my stock pot, added the tantalizing spice blend (I used the rest of my smoked serrano powder from Tierra and my Ceylon cinnamon with the allspice and cumin) and cooked the beans with that, their soaking liquid, and a bottle of thick English stout.

Two hours later, the black beans were still tough, nearly crunchy. Another hour later it became clear they weren't going to get much softer. I kept simmering just to reduce the liquid, mixed in the chocolate, and ate them with fried eggs in soft, fresh whole wheat tortillas. It was supposed to be bliss! That meal was going to be transcendental. Instead, every time the stout-chocolate-smoked serrano sauce started to pull me off to dreamland with its rich, mole-like complexities, I'd bite into a black bean with a crunch like uncooked potato and grimace a little bit.

Beans from Whole Foods are maybe $3/lb. or so for the interesting ones. All of Rancho Gordo's are $5/lb., less than double the price. And the difference is, Rancho Gordo's make for delicious, highly edible dishes, where Whole Foods' are unpalatable, cook poorly, and just aren't worth eating.

I went ahead and ordered a pound each of six different bean varieties from Rancho Gordo. I just got the shipment notification, and should be getting them in a few days.

Really, $38 for six pounds of beans and shipping is just not that much money in the grand scheme of things. Six pounds of beans? If I ate nothing else for dinner, that would probably feed me heartily for an entire month. Using them for side dishes, stews, chilies, and the occasional entree, I'll be set for much longer than that.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Website plug: Yoga Art and Science

I just randomly stumbled upon this website: Yoga Art & Science. It looks fantastic. I wish I'd found it sooner. The focus of the site is on aiding people in developing a home practice, and the author, Witold Fitz-Simon, is a pretty serious Iyengar practitioner and teacher. The site's blog has excellent book recommendations, videos of master yogis demonstrating various poses, and, best of all, practice sequences. The ones I've glanced through so far have me excited to try them.

On top of that, Mr. Fitz-Simon has spent some serious time, it would seem, photographing himself demonstrating a large number of poses, hunting down illustrations for others, and writing up instructions for all of them. This is an invaluable resource, especially in conjunction with Yoga Journal's Pose Reference, also an incredible resource available for free.

He's also written up a whole multi-section portion of the site on props, describing every common prop and its use, demonstrating a bunch of prop-modified poses himself.

Maybe this'll finally motivate me to really start a more regular home practice. At any rate, if you have any interest in yoga at all, this is among the best online resources I've found for it, so far.



I've had this problem for a while now: When I exercise, be it cycling, swimming, or even yoga, I'll often find myself later in the day developing spontaneous muscle cramps.

Essentially, it's any prolonged endurance sport, but oddly it doesn't matter the pace. I went on a ride with Kristine to Buda and focused on keeping a gentle pace, spinning the pedals at a high cadence with relatively low load (it's really good for my knees) but even then, later in the day I was sitting and playing a board game and one of my hamstrings seized up. I spent the next ten or twenty seconds trying to act like everything was OK while straightening my leg very slowly under the table.

This has been going on for a while. I know cramps are usually caused by electrolyte imbalances, but I think I eat a reasonable amount of salt in my diet. Before exercising I usually have some carbohydrates that inevitably include some sodium, and if it's anything of any serious intensity or duration, I'll bring a bottle of energy drink, and I pick brands that have more sodium than most, because I know my sweat is saltier than average. After exercising, my skin is like a salt lick. But I just didn't think that could be the problem.

I started stretching after exercise, a little yoga sequence that thoroughly stretches the legs, shoulders, and hips. It didn't really seem to help a whole lot.

Finally, on a whim, after a challenging ride, I put 2 whole tablespoons of salt in my protein shake. It tasted absolutely revolting, but lo and behold, no cramps.

Ian suggested salt tablets, so I googled around, looking for information on athletes taking sodium supplements. I discovered that a state of sodium deficiency is called hyponatremia, and leads to headache, cramps, and malaise. Bingo. But the websites said that hyponatremia is not a condition normally experienced as a result of normal exercise, and that rarely do athletes need to explicitly supplement their diets with additional sodium.

Nonetheless, I've been drinking a glass of salt water (maybe a tablespoon of salt or slightly less) after all substantial exercise and the cramping is gone, as are the headaches I always just assumed were normal, a result of the heat, or neck strain, or something. I guess not! I know my mother has a thyroid disease that she takes medication for, and one of its symptoms is an increased craving for -- and legitimate physiological need for -- more sodium in her diet. And thyroid disease is congenital. Maybe I have a mild case of that.

Come to think of it, I've always suffered from cold extremities due to low blood pressure, and I've always heard an excess of sodium is correlated with increased blood pressure, so maybe that's related, too.

On the upside, I don't need to worry about moderating my sodium consumption.

Now, if only there were an analogous condition for a deficiency of ice cream. And if only I suffered from it.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cooking and Critical Mass

As long as I can remember, my cooking has been this oddly schizophrenic activity. It happens in one of two ways. Either I'm Cooking, with a big trip to the grocery store or farmer's market (or both) and a big chunk of time devoted to it, or I'm just cooking a meal to eat, which entails knocking something relatively mediocre out by an easy formula.

Now that I'm really sinking some time and energy into my cooking technique, now that I've cleaned out and organized my pantry, now that I make an effort to keep staples stocked (and, lo and behold, my grocery bill hasn't increased, since staples are so cheap), that's slowly but surely changing.

And it's a really pleasant change. More and more I'm finding myself hungry and am able to open the refrigerator or glance in the pantry and put together, with relative ease, something serious. Something closer to Cooking, something that would until very recently have taken 5 hours, including a specific trip to Central Market, complete with fanfare.

Tonight I had Kristine, Jessica, and Ian over for dinner on a whim, because last night I made some ravioli and there was no way I was going to eat them all. But furthermore, I threw together a full meal, with the help of a couple tomatoes and a pepper I got for the sauce, some figs I'd had around for a week that I needed to use, and a bunch of staples I just... happened to have around. Kristine brought the salad, too; I haven't quite gotten the knack of keeping greens on hand, because they wilt so fast. That's still pretty premeditated for me.

Tonight's Menu:

Spinach salad with sweet bell peppers, chevre, and avocado dressed in lemon and white wine

Chicken, zucchini, sage, and brown butter in whole wheat ravioli with heirloom tomatoes and roasted pepper, with a tomato-pepper coulis

Black Mission figs poached in a pinot noir reduction, with vanilla gelato

Sugar cookies with caramel and roasted cacao nibs

The figs seemed like they'd be good poached, and I had some pinot noir. Then I couldn't really see serving them unaccompanied, so the gelato just kind of happened. I had a vanilla bean, I had some whole milk, I had sugar, cornstarch, and best of all, a tested recipe. What's more, it took almost none of my time. I threw the milk on with the bean on the back burner. I mixed the rest of it and poured it in when the vanilla-milk reached a simmer. I threw it in a cold bath since I didn't have hours to refrigerate it. And immediately before serving dessert, I fired up the ice cream maker and poured it in.

The wine reduction happily simmered away, too, on the side, as I worked with the ravioli, blanched the tomatoes and roasted the peppers (which Kristine then adeptly peeled), and when it was time for dessert, 5 minutes poaching was all it took.

For once, I was able to prepare a full meal, each course ready just as it was served, nothing staying warm (and drying out) in the oven, and yet still able to sit at the table through most of it and socialize. All four burners were on most of the time, and it never felt overwhelming.

Furthermore, it didn't take a special trip to the grocery store.

I was able to improvise well, too. This morning I made the caramel for the cookies, and lacking heavy cream, I just used whole milk. I cooked the sugar syrup longer for a bit more browning, eyeballed some measurement changes to compensate, and after a brief crystallization scare, ended up with delicious, dark brown caramel of just the right texture.

I think this is all a good convergence of my increasing intuition (thanks in large part to this exceptional book) and my more diligent effort to keep those foundation ingredients around.

All I know is, if I'd tried to make a meal like that before, it would have taken a couple days of cookbooks, shopping lists, trips to and from the store, and careful planning, and even then I doubt it would have gone so smoothly. Progress!

Actually, that's a lie - that's not all I know. I also know that after a few hours of running all four burners, the oven, and now my dishwasher, while outside it hit 100 degrees today, it is now really, really hot in here.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Dishwasher Detergents

When I first moved into my house, I was excited to have a dishwasher for the very first time since I moved out of my parents' house 10 years ago. I got a box of Cascade, and started using that, but at some point my anti-big-brand bias took hold, and I thought, it's probably awful stuff, made with ground up bones and dreams or something. I got some of the Mrs. Meyer's stuff from Central Market, a brand that at least looks smaller and more independent, and started using that.

A while ago I realized that my dishes come out of my dishwasher just filthy. I routinely have to re-wash plates, silverware is covered in gunk, and I thought, man, I guess my dishwasher is just no good. That's too bad. I started washing things by hand more and more.

On a whim, I tried using the Cascade again, thinking, "This won't work, there's no way the difference is the detergent. Obviously it's just a bad dishwasher."

My dishes are spotless now.

I actually Googled, just now, to find the name "Cascade" -- it had slipped my mind -- and came across a review of detergents by Consumer Reports. I've been meaning to subscribe to them forever, and at $26 a year, you can't really go wrong, so I did. Turns out Mrs. Meyer's scored a 54, and the powdered Cascade got an 85. Now I'm going to go try their top scorer, the Cascade packets.

I'm just excited I don't have to hand-wash things anymore. It was a sad day when I realized it wasn't getting things clean.