Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Short Stack

Short Stack

I was at a diner a few weeks ago eating with some friends, and was trying to decide between eggs and pancakes. One of my friends said I should get pancakes, because you can cook eggs for yourself but you don’t cook pancakes for yourself.

Channeling Bart Simpson, I said, “Au contraire, mon frere. I make pancakes for myself all the time.” (Okay, I didn’t actually say, “Au contraire, mon frere.” But I should have.)

The reason I make pancakes for myself pretty regularly is because they’re cheap and easy, they make a lot of food, and I think they’re really good the next day. They also travel well; if you need something to take with you on a trip, they make a good quick breakfast or snack in the car.

I nearly always add stuff to my pancakes—frozen blueberries or other frozen fruit, or nuts or granola, or some combination of those things.

The best combination I ever came up with was peaches and cranberries that had both been in the freezer for ages, they were shoved back in the corner and it was one of those days where I hadn’t made it to the store in a really long time and had to get creative if I wanted anything at all to eat. Those pancakes were the bomb.

I haven’t gotten too creative lately but have mostly been sticking with my current favorite — banana-pecan pancakes.

I like bananas on the underripe side, so once they start showing brown spots, I usually let them go all the way brown and then peel them and put them double-wrapped in a plastic bag in the freezer. They’ll keep pretty much indefinitely and are great for smoothies or muffins or … pancakes.

Unless you have a pecan tree, pecans are not cheap, but you don’t have to use many of them to make a big difference, and they’re very calorie-dense, so the serving size is small and the cost per serving is better than you might think. (Divide the per pound cost by 16 to get the per serving cost, for a one-ounce serving, which is a pretty generous handful and has between 150 and 200 calories for most nuts). I definitely think that nuts are worth the extra expense.

The other item that can add to your pancake cost is syrup, because pancakes without syrup are like a day without sunshine. (Hot pancakes that is; I think cold leftover pancakes taste just fine without anything on them.)

I used to get maple syrup from the farmer’s market near my parents, where it’s cheap and tasty. Then I didn’t manage to get up there (or have my folks bring me some) for a few years so I was getting it at the grocery but then the price of maple syrup went through the roof and I realized I didn’t really care whether I had genuine maple syrup on my pancakes, I just needed something sweet. So I made a simplified version of the pancake syrup recipe from the Tightwad Gazette and now that’s all I use.

Here’s the original Tightwad Gazette recipe, for you purists out there:

Pancake Syrup

3 cups granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups water
3 Tbsp molasses
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp butter flavoring
1 tsp maple extract

Bring all to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolve (a good rolling boil). Turn off burner, but leave pot on burner until bubbling stops.

The first time I made it, I didn’t have maple flavoring, and butter flavoring seems wholly unnecessary (if I want my pancakes to taste like butter, I’ll put butter on them) so I skipped those, and thought it was fine. I did get some mapeline (artificial maple flavoring) from my mom the last time I was home but I haven’t used it yet. I kind of like the syrup tasting like molasses.

So here’s my simplified version (with a smaller quantitity — I don’t use enough syrup at a time to need 3 cups of it), which I call…

Better Than Aunt Jemima Syrup

1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)

Bring to a boil to dissolve sugar.

The end.

For my pancake recipe, I use a modified version of the basic Better Homes & Garden plaid cookbook recipe. I usually use buttermilk because I always have powdered buttermilk in the fridge and don’t go through it very quickly. (Saco brand powdered buttermilk is available in the baking section of all of my local supermarkets; I’m assuming that’s national but don’t know for sure.)

Banana-Pecan Pancakes

1-1/4 cup flour (I use a mix of whole wheat and white, usually 3/4 cup white and 1/2 cup whole wheat)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbsp powdered buttermilk + 1 cup water, or 1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 frozen banana, cut into small pieces
1/4 – 1/3 cup chopped pecans (approx 2 – 4 oz.)

Sift together dry ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, water (or milk) and oil. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir to mix. Add banana and pecan pieces and stir until everything is mixed and all dry ingredients are moistened. The batter will by lumpy.

The hardest part about pancakes is cooking them right. I use a cast-iron frying pan and I’ve found that the trick is to not turn the heat up too high and just be patient. (If the heat is too high, the outside will burn before the inside is cooked. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

It also helps to have a good coating of melted butter (or bacon grease!) in the pan for the first round, and then subsequent batches will be fine without adding more fat.

The pancakes are ready to turn over when there are bubbles all along the top. If you lift up a corner with the spatula, you can usually tell whether it’s brown enough.

Put the oven on warm and put the pancakes in the oven to keep them warm while the rest of the batch cooks. Heat the syrup while you cook the pancakes, so you’re not putting cold syrup on hot pancakes (or my dad will send the hot food police after you, he hates that).

Eat your fill while they’re hot on day 1, then put the leftovers in a plastic bag in the fridge and have for snacks or breakfast for the next day or two.

Yum eee.

Party Food

Sunday, August 16, 2009

We had our annual board retreat for The Scrap Exchange on Saturday, and because of my weird aversion to potluck, I offered to make lunch again this year. Last year the food was great but I made way too much of it — I was eating leftovers for a solid week. This year I did a much better job. Less is enough.

I promised my fellow board members I’d post recipes, so here they are.

These recipes are all good, and two out of three are cheap. So you can spend the money you save on the first two on the cookies.

Thanks to my friend Jill for the fabulous sesame noodle recipe. I don’t know who Deb is but she gets a gold star from me. This recipe is killer good and incredibly cheap and easy. I actually make a modified version of it, but I haven’t nailed down the details yet so I’m going to post the original.

[In case you’re wondering… My main change is I use a toasted sesame oil (rather than sesame oil) in a much smaller amount, and add more tahini to make up for any sesame flavor that’s lost from cutting back on the oil. This last time, I added a little bit of a canola oil to get the volume and texture right. I’m still working out how much tahini and how much canola oil I should use (or if I should add or substitute something else). This weekend’s wasn’t quite right. But everyone ate it anyway, and I managed to refrain from telling everyone what was actually wrong with everything I made when they told me it was good. I’m getting better.]

Once I get everything figured out with the revised recipe, I’ll post the final, but in the meantime here’s the original recipe. Thanks Jill (and Deb!).

Deb’s Cold Sesame Noodles

1 cup soy sauce
1 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup wine vinegar
1/4 cup balsalmic vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
3 cloves garlic – crushed
1 Tbsp ginger – grated
1 Tbsp sesame paste (tahini)
2 lbs pasta – linguini or spaghetti
1/2 cup sesame seeds – toasted
1 bunch scallions – sliced thin

– Cook pasta
– Mix all ingredients except sesame seeds and scallions – Drain pasta – don’t rinse
– Add hot pasta to marinade and let sit overnight in fridge – Add sesame seeds and scallions just before serving

Note that this version of the recipe makes a GIANT amount. For this weekend, I cut it in half  and cooked about 20 oz of pasta (1 full package plus about a quarter of another package) and had exactly the right amount for lunch for 10 people plus a care package of 1-2 servings for a friend who loves this recipe.

When I’m making this for myself (not for a party) I do about a quarter of the recipe, so the final revised version I put up will be to go with about 8 ounces of pasta.

The other two recipes come from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook edited by Michael Bauer and Fran Irwin, which is a really nice cookbook my aunt and uncle gave me for Christmas a bunch of years ago.

The first is a simple summer salad. I was going to do a cucumber salad but decided this one looked better.

Sweet and Spicy Zucchini Salad
from Brad Levy of Firefly Restaurant

4 medium zucchini, preferably 2 green and 2 golden
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
4 Tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp Chinese chile paste with garlic
1 Tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 small carrot
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

Trim the zucchini, cut in half lenghtwise, then cut into 1/16-inch-thick slices on a 45-degree angle. Combine the zucchini, 1/4 cup of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a bowl. Toss well and let stand at least 1 hour.

Drain the zucchini well. Add the remaining 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt, the chile paste and cilantro; mix well.

Peel the carrot, cut in half lengthwise, then slice as thinly as possible on a 45-degree angle. Blanch the carrot slices in boiling water for 10 seconds, then transfer to ice water to stop the cooking. Drain, pat dry and add to the zucchini. Add the onion and let stand 30 minutes before serving.

Serves 6 to 8

And the second is I think the first Marion Cunningham recipe I made. These cookies are really amazing, but at $8+/lb bulk in the grocery aisle and $12+/lb bulk in the spices aisle, crystallized ginger is not a bargain item. Plus the cornflakes adds some cost, especially if you wouldn’t normally eat cornflakes. But worth it — these are GOOD!!

Ginger Jack Cookies

1-1/4 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups cornflakes
1 cup uncooked oatmeal [rolled oats]
1-1/4 cups finely chopped candied (crystallized) ginger [approx 4.5 oz.]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets.

Put the shortening into a mixing bowl and, using the back of a large spoon [or an electric mixer] cream it around the sides of the bowl. Slowly add both sugars and continue to cream and blend until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; mix with a fork until mixed. Add to the creamed mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed. Add the cornflakes, oats, and ginger. Mix well.

Drop by teaspoonfuls 1-1/2 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake about 8 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are lightly golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool.

Store or freeze in airtight plastic bags.

Yields about 7 dozen 2-inch-diameter cookies.

Not Jiffy

Monday, August 3, 2009

I’m a big fan of the biscuit to add some substance to a simple/meager meal—they’re quick, and easy to make, and cheap.

I grew up on Bisquick biscuits, which I know some people are snobby about, but my mom makes really good Bisquick biscuits and she makes the best jam in the world so the biscuits are basically just a conduit for jam, it doesn’t much matter what they taste like. You could eat a piece of cardboard with my mom’s jam on it and you’d ask for seconds. (Please note that I am not saying that my mom’s biscuits taste like cardboard. They don’t, they’re really good.)

When I lived in Princeton, my Culinary Institute of America-trained housemate gave me an amazing biscuit recipe from one of her many cookbooks.

Mile High Biscuits

3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted before measuring
2 Tbsp sugar
4-1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup whole milk

In a mixing bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse meal. In another bowl, combine egg and milk and beat lightly with a fork. Add to flour mixture all at once, stirring enough to make a soft dough.

Turn onto a floured board and knead 15 times. Roll out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into 2-inch rounds and place on an ungreased baking sheet about 1 inch apart.

Bake in a preheated 450F oven for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden.

Yield 16 biscuits

This was my standard biscuit for many years. The huge benefit of these biscuits is that they keep well; they’re actually almost better the next day than they are the day they’re made.

I used to take the leftovers into the office and have them during the week and share them with people in the office and I remember once a guy I worked with (Tim Wallace) coming in to ask me a question and saying, “Hey, I came in to talk about those biscuits. I mean the catalog schedule.”

I don’t make them very often any more because even though they hold up, 16 biscuits is more than I want at once, and I value simplicity over taste these days. But sometimes I’ll make them the day before I go on a trip because the leftovers are so good; I take them with me in my nuclear winter bag so I always have something to eat .

On the $1/Day Project, I went with Jiffy biscuits, because it wasn’t cost-effective to get dry milk or flour or baking powder since I was only doing it for 30 days. And the Jiffy biscuits had a lot of good things going for them–they’re light and fluffy and tasty and super easy, and you get a whole lot of them for fifty cents.

So all that was great.

But they’re also really high in sodium (they actually tasted really salty to me, so you know that’s a lot of sodium) and are made with white flour and lard. So they’re even less healthy than the scratch biscuits I usually make, which are nothing to write home about.

I decided to work on my biscuit recipe to see if I could some up with something that was a little more healthy than what I usually eat, but still cheap and easy.

Here’s the recipe I had been making, from More-with-Less:

Basic Biscuits

Makes 18-20 biscuits
10-12 minutes

Preheat oven to 425F.

Sift together in a bowl:
2 cups sifted flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cut in:
1/4 cup shortening

Add all at once, stirring until soft ball is formed:
3/4 cup milk

Turn dough onto floured board; knead lightly 20 to 25 times. Roll or pat dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut with floured biscuit cutter or glass. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake 10-12 mintues. Serve hot. Makes 18-20.

And here’s my new one-person version using butter, which I almost always have, instead of shortening, which requires a special trip to a conventional grocery store and which if I have in the house I am tempted to make cookies with, so I try not to have it in the house:

Really Basic Biscuits

2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup white flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt (or less)
2 Tbsp butter
enough milk or water to make dough (a little more than 1/3 cup)

[Make as directed for Basic Biscuits above.]

They’re still not exactly health food, but the whole wheat flour adds some fiber and the butter tastes better than margarine or shortening (and no trans-fats) so I think they’re okay.