Monday, June 13, 2011

Weekend Wrap Up

After a week of impossible, horrible, soul-crushing hot weather a magical thunderstorm rolled in Friday night and brought delightfully cool temperatures with it. On Friday night, in the midst of the storm, it was time for bed and the Boy did not feel like doing his nightly duty of taking Foxy Brown for a short walk, so I volunteered for the job. It's always a risk taking her out during a storm since she is very afraid of thunder and lightning, but I knew she had to pee so I took the chance. I hesitated slightly as I had spent the evening in just a shirt and underpants (in my defense, the shirt is long and pretty much covers my ass) and didn't feel like putting on anything else. Considering it was 11:30pm and pouring down rain, I took the chance. What do I care if someone sees my underwear clad tush? Foxy trotted along, unwilling to stop, so I did get soaked but the lower temperature was invigorating. I was cold and loving it so many days of heat and sweat.

Saturday wasn't exactly cool, but there was a good amount of cloud cover and it never got much above the mid-80s. I spent the afternoon running around, buying pottery glaze and vegetables. For a late dinner, I warmed up the leftover grilled chicken thighs, roasted some gorgeous little Yukon gold potatoes and made a salad of cucumber, tomato and onion with my version of Hendrickson's dressing. If you see Southern Illinois tomatoes for sale, buy some! They smell and taste like actual tomatoes!
I also bought some pickling cucumbers and made two jars of a quick, improvised spicy-sweet dill pickle. I used equal parts white vinegar and water, sugar, turmeric, cayenne pepper, garlic, black mustard seeds, salt and a little bit of fresh dill. I took a little taste today -- they were not quite ready -- and they seemed like they were well on their way to goodness. I will work on the recipe and actually can another batch rather than just make a refrigerator version.
Sunday dawned wonderfully cool and all I could think of was baking. My friend Rene had posted a recipe for a summer strawberry cake several days ago and while it was tempting there was no way I was turning on the oven in our no-central-air house. So today was the day! While I was at it, and buying strawberries, I wanted to make more strawberry preserves and can them properly. And while making my grocery list in the morning, I finally remembered to add heavy cream so I could make a batch of butter. As long as I was making butter, and the oven was going to be on, I decided to make a loaf of bread, baked in the Dutch oven to give it a nice crust.

The strawberry cake is a fairly easy recipe, apparently adapted from one by Martha Stewart. This version appeared on the blog Smitten Kitchen. Make a batter, cover it with halved strawberries, sprinkle with sugar, bake. The cake, before baking:
And the cake when done:
While the cake was baking (it takes an hour at a low heat to get the strawberries all gooey), I started the preserves. Two pounds of strawberries, hulled and cut into chunks were tossed in a heavy large saucepan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice and four cups of sugar. Slowly bring it to a boil and then let it go for about 10-15 minutes. Between the smell of the cake baking and the aroma of the preserves, my stomach was growling in anticipation of strawberry goodness. The berries cooking:
In the canner (okay, really just a large pot with a round rack in the bottom, waiting for the water to boil:
And all sealed and ready for the pantry shelf:
At the Memorial Day barbecue thrown by my sister Carol, my nephew Chris brought a container of 40% heavy cream to make into butter.  I've been wanting to do that for ages, but I never seemed to remember when I was at the grocery store. It seemed to take a lot of shaking effort on his part and I lost a little least until I remembered again on Sunday to buy the stuff. I let the cream sit out for about an hour or so in the warm kitchen before I poured it all into a jar and started shaking. For the first few minutes (really, probably less than five minutes) it sloshed around like you'd expect but then suddenly I couldn't really feel the liquid jostling around so I stopped to take a peek. And there was butter!
It really kind of was like magic! I shook it a bit more after this stage, just to make sure I had collected all the fat out of the liquid. The next step involves draining and rinsing the butter. You have to get rid of all the milky liquid to avoid the butter going rancid quickly. I rinsed it in the jar a few times with cold tap water, but then attempted to get the butter into a [way too small] piece of cheesecloth. That was kind of a disaster because at this point in the butter's life, it is still rather soft (particularly in warm weather) and it kind of sticks to the cheesecloth. After that somewhat failed experiment I opted to squoosh the butter into a ceramic dish and repeatedly stir in and then drain off cold tap water. At some point in the process, I stirred in some kosher salt (I like butter to be a bit salty), but that's up to your own personal tastes.
Try this at least once. It's really delicious.

As long as I was making butter and turning the oven on, it seemed to follow that I should make a loaf of bread. Expert bakers will be appalled at my bread making methods. Generally I measure nothing and today was no exception. Here's my bread recipe: Put some warm water in a big bowl to proof the yeast (along with a little glug of sugar for the yeast to eat) and then dump some flour in after the yeast proofs. I happened to have a glob of very melted butter handy so I put that in along with perhaps a teaspoon of salt and some more water. Mix it up, turn out onto a floured surface and knead for several minutes. Like this:
Put a little oil in a bowl, plop the dough in and let it rise till it's about doubled. Punch it down and knead again for a few minutes, then back into the bowl for a second rise. About 30 minutes before you are ready to bake, put a heavy Dutch oven (including the lid) into a hot (400F) oven to heat up. When you're ready to bake the loaf, gather up the ball of dough, toss a palmful of corn meal into the pot and set the dough atop the corn meal. Whether this does anything or not, I'm not sure, but I generally run a bit of water on the inside part of the lid (be very careful as it's really hot and will steam up) precisely to put some steam into the pot to help the bread. Now I will confess that I'm not sure exactly what this does, but I know it's supposed to be a good thing.
 Bake for about 30 minutes or so (I swear I'm not being obtuse - I really don't remember how long - somehow I just know when it's done...). About 10 minutes or so before the bread should be done, take the lid off the pot and let the bread get a nice golden brown. Again, be very careful as things are very hot! This method makes a nice crusty loaf.
And it goes really well with freshly made butter (add some strawberry preserves and you have my breakfast).
My friend Rene also inspired the evening's cocktail as she offered bunches of mint. I didn't want to drink rum so I made vodka-based mojitos, but I think they suffered a bit without the rum flavor. At any rate, they were refreshing.
Dinner was grilled pork boneless country ribs and buttered noodles with leftover tomato and cucumber salad.
And of course strawberry cake for dessert.

Now I'm contemplating making more pickles and two different Asian-inspired dishes for dinner...

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