Thursday, December 31, 2009

Toasty Toes

We'll be snowed in this weekend, riding out a historically significant storm, but my feet will be nice and warm in these felted slippers. They're called pichots (pea-shoos), and according to Michele at Fiberphilia, they were traditionally knitted by the matriachs of French Catholic families in New Brunswick and Aroostook County. I couldn't find any mention of their cultural roots online, (though googling turned up numerous opportunities to "check out this pic—HOT!") but it's easy to imagine northern mémères keeping toes warm with these quick, easy felted slippers.

The construction is basic: knit several inches on straight needles, for what will become the heel and open part of the slipper. Then join the fabric and knit in the round, right on down the foot, eventually reducing the number of stitches toward the toe. Sew up the back, knot up loose ends, and voilà! The slippers are ready for felting in the washing machine.

These green and purple pichots, a Christmas gift for my mother, were my first felted project. Man, is felting magical. In two washings, this men's slipper will go from Shaq-sized: a snugly size 10.

With bulky yarn, a pair of women's pichots should take no more than 8 hours, perfect for a weekend project, and for using up bits of leftover yarn.

Stay warm this weekend, mon ami!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Me gusta homemade tortillas.

My breadmaker hasn't gotten any action since I gave up gluten in September. Without wheat, there's been no crusty peasant bread for me. But no need to mope: in many cultures, wheat is rare or occasional. For lots of people, Our Daily Bread means a bowl of rice noodles or a corn tortilla. Maybe, instead of pining for baguettes, it's time to think outside the European culinary tradition.

Enter my new tortilla press.

Feliz Navidad to me. Making tortillas provides all the tactile joy and warming aromas of baking bread, with none of the waiting or kneading.

The first step to making your own tortillas is mixing masa harina with water. I used Maseca; they don't mill wheat, so there's no risk of cross-contamination. Plus, there are handy instructions on the bag.

Now you get to roll the dough in your hands like play-doh, forming golf ball-sized spheres.

Then place the balls of dough on the press and squash the living daylights out of them (this is the truly fun part). Plastic on either side of the tortilla keeps the press clean and makes moving the tortilla easy.

The tortillas get cooked over medium-high heat for 50-60 seconds per side. A tortilla warmer keeps them soft until you're ready to eat. Celiac disease is a wonderful excuse to buy yourself specialized tortilla equipment. It's not expensive—it'll pay for itself in four or five loaves of gluey rice bread—and it practically turns your kitchen into a taquería. My first homemade tortillas were heartier and fresher than any I've bought in a store. I don't think I'll ever go back.

When it came time to serve these, with black beans, rice, tomatoes, lettuce, sautéed peppers, and guacamole, I wasn't sure whether to call them fajitas or soft tacos. Both consist of warm tortillas folded around fillings, so what's the difference? My Mexican culinary vocabulary is limited—I am from Maine, the whitest, oldest, and most capsaicin-phobic state in the union. I remember being fond, in junior high, of McDonald's chicken fajitas. There was no Taco Bell.

It wasn't until college that I discovered a world beyond the Old El Paso taco kit (don't get me wrong, that ground beef seasoning packet is delicious, but it's neither Mexican nor food). Then I married someone from southern California, and received an education in enchiladas, empanadas, chilies rellenos, and tamales. For a time we lived above a restaurant called Taco Taco, and it became our second home.

I guess it doesn't matter what you call this meal. It was fresh and filling, and while I was cooking and eating it, I didn't miss wheat at all. I can feel a Mexican binge coming on; after months of gentle rice and mild soup, it's time revel in flavor and a style of bread that doesn't require alteration to be safe and delicious.

A final note: I'm so pleased to have avocados back in my life. For years, I thought I was allergic, because every time I ate them I got sick. Now I'm eating guacamole with gusto, and realizing it was flour tortillas that made me ill. Welcome back, you fatty fruit. I used this recipe, but next time I'll wing it with some lime juice, cilantro, onion, tomato, and salt.

¡Hasta Luego!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Last-Minute Knitting

How did I get myself into this? The weekend before Christmas with three gifts left to make.

First, a basic men's hat that I had to rip out and restart twice, because it was comically enormous. A quick project that ate up most of a weekend.

Ellie as unwilling hat model:

I also knitted a lace bookmark, to make an Amazon gift card feel a little more personal:

I used a skein of mystery yarn (rayon, I think) I picked up a few months ago for two dollars. I love the colors, but it was awfully slippery to work with. The pattern is available here; it makes a great 2-hour project.

It's Christmas Eve Eve, and I've got one pair of felted slippers to go. Back to the needles and sappy holiday films.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Potluck Foods

This weekend I baked my second annual batch of Rumnog Pecan Cookies (from Veganomicon). Though I love nutmeg, I suspect it's the rum that makes these such a hit: two tablespoons in the cookies themselves, and two more in the frosting. If getting tipsy on cookies appeals to you, The Washington Post published the recipe (it says adapted, but the ingredients are identical and the procedure merely paraphrased). I made this batch with gluten-y all-purpose flour and then disinfected my kitchen.

For a healthier alternative to the ubiquitous cheese platter and vat of meatballs, I made a red and green edamame salad. It's based on Veganomicon's Corn and Edamame Salad, with red bell peppers instead of corn, green onions and almonds tossed in, and a 1:1:1 ration of sesame oil, rice vinegar, and tamari. Simple, fresh, and quite filling.

What are your favorite holiday party dishes?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Peppermint Chocolate-Dipped Pretzels

Candy canes put me instantly in the Christmas spirit. Eating them transports me back twenty years to when I sat on the couch watching Christmas movies, wearing them down to finely-tipped spikes which I used to probe cavities and administer minty vaccinations.

It wouldn't be December without candy canes, but I'm not willing to eat corn syrup or red 40, blue 1, yellow 5, or any of the other chemical weapons present in conventional brands. Fortunately, I tracked down some Pure Fun Organic Candy Canes at Whole Foods. They're made with evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, and peppermint extract, and colored with a mix of elderberry, apple, and black currant juice. No refined sugars, no freakish dyes, and they taste exactly like normal candy canes. They're available online, but shipping is steep. Amazon sells Organic Peppermint Swirl Mint Pinwheels, which are the wrong shape but right flavor.

Since a dozen candy canes is a few too many to just straight up eat, I considered some pepperminty desserts. A google search turned up some good ideas, but I finally settled on a holiday treat that is stupidly easy: pretzels dipped in chocolate, dipped in smashed up candy canes. Salty and sweet and incredibly addictive, they're perfect for a party or last-minute gift.

I used Glutino Pretzel Twists (remarkably tasty and normal) for this no-bake gluten-free alternative to Christmas cookies. The straightforward ingredients and method have been documented on dozens of blogs, but I'll share my tips and ratios.

Peppermint Chocolate-Dipped Pretzels

salted pretzels, any shape
12-oz. bag vegan semi-sweet chocolate chips (white chocolate would be nice, too)
12 peppermint candy canes

Clear some counter space and lay out sheets of wax or parchment paper.

Place candy canes in a sealed plastic bag and smash (!) with a hammer or rolling pin until they are like fine gravel, but not completely pulverized. Pour the crushed candy canes in a small bowl and set aside.

Melt chocolate gently. (Create a poor man's double boiler by setting the bottom of a small metal bowl in a pot of hot water.) Set melted chocolate beside crushed candy canes.

Use chopsticks or skewers to submerge pretzels one at a time in melted chocolate. Allow excess chocolate to drip off. Dip pretzels in crushed candy canes and set on wax paper, leaving space between pretzels.

Or dispense with the skewers and use your fingers to dip half of each pretzel in the chocolate and candy canes. Still pretty.

Place pretzels in a cool, dry place and allow to set for 2-3 hours.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pumpkin-Citrus Soup at Maine Food & Lifestyle

Cold? Hungry?

I've posted pumpkin soup (with orange and coriander) at Maine Food & Lifestyle. Come on over, and bring a spoon!

Bonus squash-chopping tips, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snowy Day with Gingerbread and 'Nog

It's the first official snow day of the winter: no school, no driving, and no reason not to spend the day in pajamas. It's simply too dangerous out there to leave the warmth of the kitchen, where I've been working on some holiday dessert ideas.

Ice cream might be the furthest thing from your mind during a blizzard, but I've been dreaming of frozen eggnog since before Thanksgiving. I am in love with nutmeg, but don't enjoy eggnog's thick, gluey mouthfeel, and I can do without the egg yolks, too.

My solution? Lots of nutmeg, lots of cream (coconut and soy), some sugar and a smidge of rum, swirled around in the ice cream maker until light and fluffy. You could make ice cream out of commercially available soy or rice nog, but this from-scratch version is just as easy.

If you don't have an ice cream maker, put one on your Christmas list—it'll open up a whole new world of dessert.

Veganog Ice Cream

1 14-oz can coconut milk
1 cup soy creamer
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional, but alcohol improves the ice cream's texture)

Mix all ingredients in a blender until uniform. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a freezer safe container. Cover and freeze until firm.

Makes about 3 cups.

Delightfully rich and spicy on its own, veganog ice cream is perfect sandwiched between gingerbread cookies. In my gluten days, I liked this vegan gingerbread recipe (see last winter's Gingerbread Graemes). To make them gluten-free, I replaced the all-purpose flour with the following:

2/3 cup white rice flour
2/3 cup tapioca flour
2/3 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon xanthan gum

I based my mix on Bette Hagman's Featherlight Flour, which I learned about here. The dough behaved normally; I was able to roll it out and cut it into shapes. The cookies looked perfect coming out of the oven, but their undersides were cakey and undercooked, and they clung to the baking sheet. Since my cookies were destined for ice cream sandwiches, this didn't matter.

What's wrong here?

They taste like normal gingerbread, but they leave a film on the roof of my mouth. Is it the xanthan gum, the cornstarch, or the tapioca? I'm too new at this to know. Fortunately, we like gingerbread, so I'll be able to test out this recipe with a different flour mix.

I'm going to assemble a bunch of these puppies and stick them in the freezer for instant, effortless dessert down the road.

Okay, I've had my fun. Time to shovel.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Not Planning Ahead

I've been knitting furiously in preparation for Christmas. How do I end up rushing every year? I knew last spring and summer that I'd need gifts for people by the end of December, but I never seem to get serious until football season begins, and I'm guaranteed four consecutive hours on the couch each week.

You can see how simple these mittens are. They're made from the same pattern, and the embellishments are basic. They're warm, they're cozy, they're cute, and I'm happy with them until I see something like this, and begin to feel inadequate. My mittens, with their accidental holes and lumps and ill-conceived colorwork, look so sloppy in comparison.

I would love to have the time, focus, and patience to make intricate Scandinavian mittens. It's a dream of mine, but it's not going to happen. Knitting gauge swatches, counting rows, and following patterns makes me cranky. I knit on autopilot, so my hands have something to do while I watch a movie. I enjoy the nearly instant gratification of knitting hats and mittens with thick yarn (the teal pair only took me three days), and lose interest in projects that drag on longer than a week.

This month at school, I'm reading folk tales to the kindergarten and first grade. The other day we read the story of the Three Little Pigs, which encourages us to plan ahead and work carefully, like the pig who builds his house with bricks. If you rush, like the pig who builds his house out of straw, your crummy house will blow over, and if you get eaten you probably deserve it for being such a slob.

But you know what? I understand where that first pig is coming from; he gets the job done and moves on. No boring measuring or reading blueprints at his house.

So you see why the cables in my purple mittens are off center. I counted wrong. No matter, they're still cute and still warm. And we don't have wolves in Maine, anyway.

Here is the beginning of my next pair of Christmas mittens. They'll be violet with some type white accent. What will the final design look like? Who knows, I'll decide as I go.

If you're looking for precision, ask another piglet.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Curried Carrot Salad at Maine Food & Lifestyle

When it's cold and wet, all I want are warming starches. Mashed potatoes, risotto, grits with margarine—no wonder I start to feel like a washed-out blob this time of year. While light, healthy raw vegetables are usually the furthest thing from my mind, I try to remind myself to eat them at least a few times a week. I received lots of carrots in my holiday CSA share, so I worked up this curried carrot salad with apple cider vinaigrette. Even though the carrots are raw, the curry, pepper, and cinnamon give the salad warmth. It's great for lunch with cooked quinoa and fruit. Go check out the recipe at Maine Food & Lifestyle.