i didn’t overcook the lamb! but i also didn’t make the sea cucumbers.

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

for the next installment in the “what have you been doing other than facebook?” series (hereafter referred to as WHYB.FB?), i will discuss the following:

i went to burning man!

Kynthia grinning in dusty goggles

for my third pilgrimage to black rock city, i agreed to run the kitchen for the golden cafe, which i also did last year, but this year i was excited because more people signed up to help cook, and i had more experience, including the experience of already acquiring equipment, which meant that part would hopefully be easier this time around.

Lucifer talking in the bar

i was basically responsible for:
– making sure that all of the basic equipment was purchased/borrowed/found and transported to the playa somehow;
– making sure that someone signed up to cook for each slot on the meal plan, or signing up myself, or letting lucifer buy MREs;
– making sure that each person who signed up to cook understood that they were responsible for either purchasing and transporting their own food, or giving me a list;
– making three supper club menus that were separate from the meal plan;
– recruiting people to help me cook on supper club nights (TWR);
– purchasing the food i needed for supper club and the food that other people asked me to get;
– transporting all the food i bought;
– making sure there was enough cooler/refrigerator space for all the food throughout the week;
– organizing the kitchen somewhat so that it could be used by many different people without driving them (or me) completely insane;
– communicating with the power and trash teams throughout the week;
– encouraging camp members and random passersby to wash dishes even though it was a disgusting job in an environment without running water or drains;
– making creative use of leftovers and unused/forgotten food so that food waste was minimized as much as possible;
– overseeing cleanup, packing, and distribution of leftovers and equipment;
– transporting my own share of the leftovers and equipment home to sit in a dusty pile until i get around to sorting through it (current progress ~ 40%);
– making notes about what to do better next year (current progress (~ 10%);
– vowing to do everything differently if i’m ever crazy enough to do such a job again.

considering that this list should probably be split between 3-4 people for maximum efficiency and enjoyment, things went quite well, though some concessions were made in the form of crazy supper club menu items that very few people even knew i was considering. i decided that going the safe route at the last minute was preferable, seeing as that way i got to do some other things, too, like climb on the giant monkey bars on our corner, or spin on the teeter-totter of death next door, or go all the way out to the giant slide. this year was a year of playground equipment, and i rather enjoyed that trend.


purchasing and transport were way easier this year, but seeing as how last year i almost had a nervous breakdown in the week before the burn, and ended up going way over budget because i had to rent a hotel room to hold all the stuff i was buying and then rent a van to transport it, the bar to beat was not very high.

the worst thing on playa this year was that my back really hurt the whole week, and that made it harder to want to do other things when i wasn’t cooking, which kind of sucked. i did manage to get out several times, and i saw the big sights, and i made new friends, so all was well. one morning, a friend of the camp even stopped by on his way to volunteer at the heebie jeebie healers, and i got a reiki session without having to wait in line, so that was awesome. that was thursday morning, and the night before, an experienced line cook had sauntered in to help with supper club just as i was about to pull my hair out, so i didn’t have to grate any cheese, and then i had excellent company wandering around the city til dawn, so the universe provides. :)


and as for the kitchen, all three nights of supper club were very well received, so that was quite rewarding. i did, in fact, not overcook the lamb, and neither did i make the sea cucumbers, which was the name i came up with for cucumbers that i cored, stuffed with crab/seaweed salad, chilled, sliced, and flash fried. at one point, i also tried wrapping them in nori, but it didn’t really like to stick, so i ditched that step. i think it would work better with a layer of sticky rice, and i might try the whole thing again sometime, when not in the desert. more disappointing was the loss of the cheddar-apple ties, which were cool little apple and cheddar sandwiches that i wrapped in pie crust and grilled. i was stressing out that night, and we already had grilled cheesecake for dessert, so hassling with pie crust seemed silly.

in the end, i had a lot of fun, enjoyed some excellent food, and met many amazing and generous people, which is always the biggest joy of burning man. i was considering that i would not be in the country for burning man 2010, but now i think i will be, but i will not be running the cafe kitchen again, which will doubtless be a bit sad, but also very liberating. one of our most awesome new camp members – tigerlily – has agreed to take on the infrastructure portion of the kitchen alone, which means the meal plan and potential supper club portions will be handled separately, which is smart. i might be convinced to cook one meal, but as of now, i believe that my main focus is going to be the creation of a wandering employment agency and impromptu soup kitchen. the theme next year is ‘metropolis’ and i figure any real city needs social services. :)

Kynthia with a Popeye face

i do no real planning for burning man until after president’s day, however, as a personal concession to sanity.

so more thoughts there after the year turns over, yes?

in the meantime, i’ll keep trying to clear the brush of these WHYB.FB backstories…

15 minutes: Why you need something other than a non-stick pan

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

OK, so, continuing with the “write for 15 minutes and then post” game that began yesterday (that’s what the “15 minutes:” at the beginning of the title means. I will try to stop commenting on it in the future unless I need ways to kill time. :), today I remembered a little rant that I had the other day that I thought it would be good to blog at some point.

Initially, I wanted to title the post “How non-stick pans are ruining a generation of home chefs”, but that seemed a bit harsh, so now I will just say this: if you ever want to make sauce or gravy – and really, if you are cooking with meat or onions on a regular basis and you don’t want to make sauce or gravy… why not? – please don’t use a non-stick pan.

The science behind this plea is quite simple, and I will let Wikipedia summarize it for me:

Deglazing is a cooking technique for removing bits of food from a pan in order to make a sauce with them. When a piece of meat is roasted, pan fried or prepared in a pan with another form of dry heat, a fond, or deposit is left at the bottom of the pan with any rendered fat. Usually, the meat is removed from the cooking vessel, the majority of the oil is poured off, leaving a small amount with the dried and caramelized meat juices. The pan is returned to the heat, and a liquid is added to act as a solvent. This liquid can be plain water, vegetable or meat stock, a spirit, some wine, verjuice or any other liquid. This allows the cook to scrape the dark spots from the bottom of the pan, and dissolve them creating a rich sauce. [1]

This method is the cornerstone of many well known sauces and gravies. The resulting liquid can be seasoned and served on its own (sometimes called a jus), or with the addition of aromatic vegetables such as onions or shallots. The sauce can also be thickened with a starch such as flour, cornstarch, or arrowroot, or reduced with a steady heat forming a richer concentrated sauce.

You see, something really cool happens when you heat up sugar, and it is what we call caramelization. You know, like caramel. Caramel is sugar that has been cooked at a high enough temperature that it turns brown, which gives it that characteristic nutty sweet caramelly taste. If you just heat up sugar alone and then add butter and milk in appropriate proportions, you get caramel, or butterscotch, and you have a happy day before you.

When you heat up other foods that have sugar inside of them, however (and a lot of foods have sugar in them somewhere – yay energy!), those sugars start to caramelize after a while too, and the way the food tastes changes. Caramelized onions, as the most famous example, are just onions that have been cooked for a long time. No caramel is added. It comes out of the onion like magic and bunnies. Cooking is chemistry, people, and chemistry is fun. :)

If you use a nonstick pan, however, you miss out on a lot of this fun. The sugars brown best when they get to stick to something for a while and get crispy, but nonstick pans are built around the notion that sticking is terrible, and we want to avoid it at all costs. That makes home chefs who aren’t used to browning action freak out a bit when they start cooking something and the sugars begin to caramelize, and the innate reaction is to stir and scrape and curse at what suddenly seems like a pan that will be really hard to wash.

As wikipedia explains above, however, you should just chill. Wait a few minutes. And add water. Or brandy! The process of ‘deglazing’ is an entry level concept for sauciers everywhere, and I think it’s a shame that people might not be able to learn it just because they got tricked into thinking that non-stick coatings are the best thing to happen to home cooking since the microwave.

I’m a couple minutes over, so now I leave.
I might come back later or post again with pictures.
In the meantime, have fun! Deglaze something! Trust me! :)

another reason spinach is a better salad green than lettuce

Monday, August 6th, 2007

because then the next day? when the salad starts to get wilty? you can just throw it in a pan with some tomato sauce and have a quality meal without having to chop anything in less time than it takes the pasta to cook.

Salad + Tomato Sauce = Fancy Pasta Night in Ten Minutes

another reason it might be fun to live in amsterdam

Monday, August 6th, 2007

i’ve never been very good at picking a favorite anything, and i’m kind of annoying if you ask me to do so because i will probably give a somewhat lengthy speech like: “well, toDay i think it would be fun to watch the hudsucker proxy, listen to the shins and go bowling. while eating pringles. but last week i totally wanted to watch ET and go to the park. so i Really think it’s more about… sorry. yeah. i’ll take whatever’s on special. thanks.”

but then there is aged dutch goat’s milk gouda, and i think i’m ready to go out on a limb and say that it is my favorite cheese. ever. and yes, i would marry it.

the first time i tried this cheese was a few years ago in some schmancy wine and cheese shop in concord, ma. i was there on a business trip and the other woman i was traveling with and i were exhausted and decided to go buy some cheese and a baguette and a bottle of wine and call it dinner in the hotel room. i think we got some other kinds of cheese, too, but honestly i don’t remember any of the next week because all i wanted to do was eat that gouda all day. work schmork.

it’s funny because this was the same trip wherein i discovered that i have a fondness for tempranillo wine, which is one of the most common spanish reds, so this post sounds a bit big for its epicurean britches now, don’t it?

but to return to the cheese, i came home gaga over it and unable to find any in indiana for a long time, until david rousted some up in indy for the decadent garden party almost a year later, and it was still good, but not quite as good. then sahara mart offered yet another reason to become my favorite bloomingtonian grocer by carrying some for a few weeks. i must have been the only person who bought it, though. barbarians. ;)

anyway it’s not all that hard to find these days, possibly because it’s getting hipper, and i have since located several samples that were all lovely, though usually quite expensive. at whole foods, for example? they have one that is aMazing but it costs like $18/lb. and i’m sorry, but i make it a rule to only donate a kidney to subsidize dairy purchases once every five years.

yesterday though? i found some at trader joe’s for $8/lb. and the past few days have been happy, which is what led to this post. i think my conviction is even more solidified because this dairy sensitivity thing i mentioned in the biscuits and gravy post? it’s quite real, but both hard cheeses and goat’s milk cheeses don’t aggravate it much, so it looks like the thing to do is just pinch pennies and cherish only such cheeses that truly deserve to be cherished. which is how it should be anyway, really. and this shiznit’s at the top of the list.

that was educational, eh? :)

and the first reason it might be fun to live in amsterdam, you ask?
why, the tulips, of course!
i like tulips.
and if you don’t believe that, look here.
there are even two pictures that are named “i like tulips”, so i don’t know what else you thought i meant…

I like tulips

one step forward, one step back

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

i’ve said it before, and i’ll likely say it again: i like to make biscuits.

i like them so much that sometimes i make them for dinner, and when i do this i often consider and sometimes act upon the idea that i should also make gravy. an interesting thing that i have learned over the years is that i somehow did not end up with a mental model of biscuits and gravy that requires said gravy to be a white gravy with chunks of pork in it, which seems to make me an anomaly. i don’t really care what kind of stuff you put on biscuits as long as it tastes nice, but when i talk with people about the matter (and yes, i do talk with people about the matter), they seem to have a very specific craving.

this has intrigued me for a while because, actually, it’s not just that i don’t think about biscuits and gravy requiring white gravy. it’s that i don’t really think much about white gravy at all. i mean, i know it exists and everything, but… that’s about the extent of my interest: “oh look. people make that. it usually has sausage in it. i don’t eat much sausage. meh.”

recently, though, christy started talking about how her mom nailed a vegetarian biscuits and gravy, and i started thinking about it more. the trouble with vegetarian brown gravy in general is the same trouble with vegetarian broth in general – it’s hard to give it umami. white gravy, on the other hand, has the whole “milk as substance” thing going for it, and the chunks of matter that add flavor of their own. so i had some veggie sausage that i wasn’t eating and i figured i should try to make biscuits and gravy with it.

and i did!

Biscuits and veggie sausage gravy

erik says the picture looks gross, but i beg to differ. or actually, i just think all biscuits and gravy look gross. it’s lumpy dairy matter, folks, whaddya want? ;)

and actually, to move on to the second subject of this post, the lumpy dairy matter in this case has only confirmed a suspicion about which i have lately become more and more convinced – i think i’ve developed a dairy allergy. so these biscuits and gravy were damn good, but i rather quickly lost the stomach to enjoy them fully, so it’s a somewhat dampened, fleeting sense of success. now it seems i will have to move immediately on to Vegan biscuits and gravy to feel that i have captured this particular grail, and that’s harder, even without thinking about the butter problem.

i have an idea for the gravy though, involving ground walnuts and tempeh, so we’ll see how long my resistance holds out.

job free

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

well, i didn’t know what it was going to be like to come home from bonnaroo, collapse on the floor, and wake up to the reality of not having guaranteed gainful employment.

now that it has happened, lemme tell ya: it is bliss.

i got home so late on tuesday that some would call it wednesday, missed the chance to take the light rail from the airport so had to spring for a cab, enjoyed the door-to-door service, performed aforementioned collapse onto the floor, and embarked upon the rest of my week with no schedule to keep but my own.

for the past two days i have slept, unpacked, cleaned the house, cooked what could be salvaged from the fridge (an adventure which included the preparation of what is possibly the best tomato sauce i have ever had the privilege of bringing into the world), listened to music, walked around town, talked to friends, sorted through bills, and charted the first steps along the path towards the next income horizon.

i will save the details for another post because i’m making a website that will explain the idea more fully than i care to right now, but here’re the basics: i’m making lunches. for the people in the office where i used to work. and it’s hella fun. there are few things in this world i love more than playing with food, and right now i’m looking at a world where i get up, take care of myself, find and test recipes, assemble menus, play on my computer, make people happy and healthy, and spend the rest of my time as i wish.

feels good, people. feels good. now we just need to see if i get enough takers to pay the bills for a while.

happy official summer while we wait.

wrap-wrap-wrapping? nevermore.

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

yesterday at trader joe’s i bought these chips that are just deep-fried wonton wrappers. without anything in them. like someone went to make some wontons and then got distracted by the simpsons and just dropped the wrappers in the fryer and didn’t notice until they were done.

you know that has to have happened at least once.

and maybe sometimes people throw them away and curse and do it the right way on the commercial break, but at least once, someone actually ate them, and told trader joe’s about it, and that moment kind of reminds me of the accidental creation of silly putty. or post-it notes. or xray photography.

because seriously, did you ever really like that chewy piece of gristly meat in the middle of a wonton anyway?!

and these only cost $1!!
and do not require you yourself to contend with splattering oil!!

apparently, i am not the only one to believe this worthy of sharing with the world.

i got the mustard flavor, but later i will get the plain flavor and use them to make summery asian-themed salads.

you’re jealous.

customer service is priority one point seven

Monday, March 12th, 2007

my friend deb says:

subject: Something to post on your blog?
I was telling my father in law about your really good (and easy) biscuts and I got a craving for them. I went to see if I even had your recipe to make them, but I don’t have it…

not only am i happy to honor this request, but i already have the recipe in easily findable digital form, thanks to the fact that it has been requested by others since i began using gmail.

so no excuses.
biscuits anyone?

recipe makes 10-12 biscuits, depending on how big you cut them

preheat oven to 450.

combine in a good-sized mixing bowl:
scant 2 c. flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder (4 tsp. if you’re at a high altitude)
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar (it makes them fluffier)
1/2 tsp. salt

cut in, with pastry blender, knives, fork, whatever’s your pleasure, until uniformly crumbly with butter the size of small peas or thereabouts:
1/2 c. butter, cold

make a well in the center and add:
about 2/3 c. cold milk (better less than more)

mix just until it starts to stick together, then use your hands to form a ball and turn it onto a floured surface, kneading a very few times so as to help with the butter distribution but not encourage it in melting.

roll (or pat, i usually just pat) out to about 3/4″ thick, and cut with a biscuit cutter or top of a glass.

place on ungreased baking sheet and bake in your preheated oven for 10-12 minutes.

you may have to add more flour or milk in the balling/kneading phase, depending on how scant your original 2 c. were and such, so adapt as needed.
the keys to a perfect batch (which even i do not always attain), are first to not let the butter get too warm, and then to get the right balance of flour and
milk and not overknead.

the original recipe, which i haven’t had in years, called for a full 2 c. of flour but i often found myself thinking that was too much, so i would add more milk or whatever, but then they would be moist but not flaky, so i started cutting the flour at the beginning and then only adding more if i needed it, and trying
to keep the milk level low enough that i didn’t need to add flour other than to dust the counter and pat it out…it’s kinda just something i feel as i go, which is the main principle of my cooking, so i hope this isn’t all very unhelpful… :)

the final dough should be neither sticky nor stiff, and the best thing i can say is, even though they are not always perfect, they Are always good, so… my best advice is to make them often and enjoy them well.

happy baking.


Sunday, January 21st, 2007

why do red onions sometimes have lobes like shallots or garlic, but yellow and white onions never do?

One onion, two halves

i will ask you, instead of actually looking for the answer, because that way i can post something without having to blather on about sightseeing or the job front.

i’ll move on to those topics soonlike.

while i’m posting pictures of food

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

French Toast and Oranges

a week or so ago i made french toast for breakfast, and since i didn’t have my secret ingredient (almond extract… ok i guess secret isn’t the word for it when you post it on your blog, eh?), i had a moment of inspiration wherein i decided to try using some slivered almonds for a fancy “crusted with…” kind of effect. it wasn’t even decadent to think about using slivered almonds because i already had them. i had bought them a long time ago to make granola because they were the only ones i could find in fort william, and i had been carrying them around for all this time. so it was practical even.

the result was quite pretty but i actually don’t think i cared for the effect. it made it hard to enjoy the sponginess of the french toast, and the almond flavor wasn’t very strong.

fun to try, though.