Day 5: A book to boost baking

IMG_3097Yes, you can go to La Farm in Cary and simply buy baker Lionel Vatinet’s wonderful breads. But Vatinet’s new cookbook brings you into his mind and heart – although it lacks the delight of his French accent, which remains strong after more than 15 years in the U.S.

This book is both a detailed, user-friendly lesson on making your own breads and an irresistible Valentine. You’ll want to walk into the kitchen and give it a try.

“A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker” (Little, Brown and Company, $35) begins with the story of how learning to bake bread changed Vatinet’s life and gave him a driving purpose. In the instructions, numerous photographs show home cooks how the dough and bread should look at each stage.

He clearly explains why things work the way they do, why certain ingredients are important and other techniques. I’ve encountered too many bread books that are sort of mystical, that lack helpful detail and talk about the “spirit” of the bread. One book suggested that I “praise the dough” before shaping it. I find Vatinet’s approach much more likely to achieve success and give me something delicious to eat. That’s “spirit” enough for me.

You may be able to still find some signed copies at La Farm or local bookstores. But signed or not, those who have an interest in good bread – whether or not they’ve ever baked – will enjoy this book. Although I still wish there was a book-on-tape version with Vatinet reading.

Day 4: Three great stocking stuffers

Every kitchen needs those little things that make life easier, and those are the items that I put in gift baskets or carry along for gifts at dinners or parties. Here are my three favorites. Two are old stand-bys and the third is a new one I was introduced to this year and now use several times a week.

All of these are available at kitchen stores, such as Southern Season in Chapel Hill or Whisk in Cary, and at variety stores.

Long-handled locking tongs: The locking function is key. It allows the handle to fold up tight for storage. I use these sturdy tongs to turn food on the grill, toss greens for salads or stir-frys, lift roasted meats and a number of other things. Mine are about 14-inches long. Oxo/Good Grips makes a good pair.

Mini angled measuring cup: I use this small plastic cup with a spout, which is marked off in tablespoons and ounces, for just about everything. It’s a jigger for cocktails or a scoop for sugar, holds soy sauce or other liquids at the ready to add quickly to a dish (try propping up a regular tablespoon and disaster will ensue). I have to frisk people when they leave my house to be sure they don’t pocket it. Also made by Oxo/Good Grips.

Charles Viancin silicone bowl lid: I received this as a gift earlier this year and it has become a kitchen staple. The surface seals to the lip of most bowls. Environmentally conscious friends will love it because it can replace plastic wrap or foil for storing food in the refrigerator. It’s heat tolerant, so it can go in the oven. It’s great for steaming  foods and is easily washable. And it’s just pretty. You can see what it looks like here.  Although the photos show lifting bowls with the lid, I would not attempt that. Find it at kitchen and specialty stores.

Day three: Emergency snacks

The phone rings. Guess what? Friends are dropping by. In the next 30 minutes.

This scenario is as common as that little drummer boy during this season of the year. You need a quick snack in your holiday arsenal, and this is a good one. It’s a savory alternative to Christmas cookies, and I often make it for New Year’s Eve munching. I keep the ingredients – including an overgrown rosemary bush – on hand year round.

The recipe is from “The Herbal Kitchen” by Jerry Traunfeld (William Morrow, 2005). Be sure to thoroughly dry the chickpeas on towels, because any water will spatter like mad.

Popcorn Chickpeas

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Drain and rinse the chickpeas in a strainer. Turn them out onto paper towels or a clean dish towel and pat them dry. Pour the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and toss in teh chickpeas. Cook them for 5 to 7 minutes, shaking the pan often. They won’t really brown, but they’ll turn several shades darker, shrink a bit, and form a light crust. Pour the chickpeas back into the strainer to drain the excess oil and then return them to the pan. Lower the heat to medium and add the rosemary and garlic. Stir for another minute or two until the garlic begins to brown. Sprinkle with the salt and a few grindings of pepper. Toss again and pour them into a serving bowl. Serve warm.

Use up more of that rosemary with this cocktail from “The Herbal Kitchen.”

Rosemary Gin Tonic

Makes 1 drink

1 lime wedge

1 3-inch sprig rosemary

2 ounces gin

Tonic water

Lightly crush the lime wedge and rosemary in a 10- to 12-ounce glass with a few strokes of a muddler or the end of a wooden spoon. Pour in the gin. Fill the glass with ice and top off with tonic water. Stir to position the lime and rosemary in the middle of the glass.

Day two: It’s the office Christmas potluck!

Working on my own as I do, my holiday office party consists of feeding the cats and hitting my stash of Moravian cookies.

But when I worked in newspaper offices, I could predict one thing about the Christmas office potluck: The guys would fight over bringing the ice, soft drinks and chips. That left it to the women to provide the real food. Things are different today – I hope – now that more men are into cooking. But back then, there would be near-fights at the sign-up sheet.

Office potlucks attract plenty of little weenies in Crock-Pots and meatballs in sauce, decorated Christmas cookies and mayonnaise-y pasta salads. Vegetable dishes, beyond tossed salads or raw-carrots-and-Ranch-dressing trays, tend to be rare sightings. This easy, do-ahead recipe has been a winner for me in almost every setting, from parties at my house to potlucks, picnics and tailgates. At least one of my friends is making it for her office party this week.

The recipe is from my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” published by Harvard Common Press. I use herb-flavored vinegar that I make myself, and the flavor adds a nice touch to the salad. You can purchase vinegar flavored with your favorite herbs or use a plain wine vinegar.

Crowd-Pleasing Marinated Green Beans

1/2 of a large red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Italian herb-flavored white-wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed but beans left long

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the sliced onions in a colander over the sink.

In a small bowl, stir together the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the green beans. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, jus tuntil the beans are bright green; do not overcook. Pour the beans and hot water over the onions in teh colander. Rinse under cold running water to cool down. Drain well.

Place the beans and onions in a large bowl or large zipper-top plastic bag. Pour the dressing in and mix with the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, stirring or shaking occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature.

From “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” by Debbie Moose, published by Harvard Common Press.

Day one: Last-minute shopping

IMG_3092Don’t worry – I’ll help you get it all under control. For the next few days, I’m going to give you great gift ideas for food fans that you can grab locally.

I’m going to start with a book that’s educational and delicious, and will upend your thoughts about a well-known type of food. If you think you know all about soul food, read “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine” by Adrian Miller (University of North Carolina Press, $30). You’ll realize just how little you knew before reading this well-researched and entertainingly written book.

Miller, a lawyer-turned-food-historian that I met through the Southern Foodways Alliance, deftly digs into the roots of African American food and offers thoughtful commentary on soul food’s place at the table. No stereotyping here. And I had no idea that red Kool-Aid possessed such significance.

Miller also addresses the changing nature and definition of the cuisine, as cooks adapt it to new tastes and nutritional issues, while expressing the hope that “soul food can keep its flavor without losing its soul”

This is not a cookbook, but it does contain 22 tested recipes that bring important parts of the story into the kitchen. Give this book to anyone who wants to know more about the culture and roots of an important cuisine.