Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Living Room Chili

As we enter week three of our kitchen redo, lots of folks are asking what a cook like me is doing without a kitchen in which to cook. Answer: find another place to cook. My only option right now is the living room, which presents challenges. Where to put everything, where to plug everything in, and most importantly, where to wash the dishes. For about a week and a half our only choice for dish washing was the bathtub. Not surprisingly, we ate out a lot that week. But our amazing contractor has rigged up a temporary sink in our bombed out kitchen, which opens up lots of possibilities.

Where our beautiful new double oven will be. Eventually.

For the food prep, we are relying on a collection of counter appliances to get the job done. The microwave, toaster oven, coffee maker, blender, slow cooker, and rice cooker are all present and in use. The only item we purchased specifically for the living room was an electric burner, which cost all of $18 and has completely expanded our possibilities. 

Don't get me wrong--we are definitely buying more from the Trader Joe's frozen aisle, and the kids talked me into Eggo waffles (one glance at the ingredient list has convinced me not to buy Eggos anymore). But we've managed to cook fair amount. Last week we cranked out honey orange chicken in the slow cooker, burgers on the grill, and pasta with pesto. 

The living room set up. 

After a class a few days ago, I came home with leftover black beans and cilantro. My daughter took one look at them and requested chili. Actually, she specifically requested the chili my friend Lisa makes for an annual camping trip we take in the fall (does my daughter think we are camping?). Lisa told me she uses a Cooks Illustrated recipe, which I checked out and promptly altered substantially. In the end, my recipe isn't cutting edge, but a simple chili tastes so good when done right. 

Chili is perfect for the slow cooker, but you can't rely only the slow cooker to get the job done. I use a sauté pan to brown the meat, soften the veggies, and wake up the spices, but washing that extra pan is worth it in terms of flavor. Even on the $18 burner that step only took about 10 minutes, and then the chili can manage unsupervised in the slow cooker for the rest of the day. If I can make this in the living room, surely you can make this in an actual kitchen.

One note. I think part of what makes this chili so delicious is the spices I used. I don't use a traditional chili powder mix, which is often a combination of many herbs and spices. I start with Penzey's ground ancho chili pepper, which is just the chili. Ancho has high flavor but not a lot of heat. Use cayenne if you must have spicy heat, but I personally like the ancho flavor all by itself. 

Living Room Chili
Serves 4 with leftovers for lunch

1 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
3 T. ground ancho chili pepper
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. oregano
1/2 t. cayenne pepper (optional) 
1 lb. lean ground beef (or bison)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 c. corn kernels
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
Kosher salt to taste

Toppings, if you have them: chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, sour cream, feta cheese, avocado slices, or lime wedges.

Heat oil in a sauté pan until shimmery. Add onions and red pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add chili pepper, cumin and oregano and stir. Add beef and brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir briefly. 

Scrape contents of pan into a slow cooker (at least a 4-quart). Add beans, corn, tomatoes and tomato sauce and stir. Set slow cooker to low and cook 6-8 hours. 

Taste for seasoning and add salt to taste. 

Serve with toppings. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Monkeying Around

I love baking. The ingredients, the process, the gadgets, and definitely the outcome. But now I am in the midst of a gut renovation of my kitchen. Which is wonderful, don't get me wrong. I've been living with a highly dysfunctional, unattractive kitchen for eight years. Think cow and goat wallpaper and wood paneling on the ceiling. Seriously. Plus a big honking stove that looked (and acted) like something Laura Ingalls Wilder would have cooked on. Our new space will be airy, bright, open to the dining room, and most important to me, extremely functional. I cannot wait, but for the next few months, baking is off limits. Our temporary cooking space in the living room includes a microwave, toaster oven, and double electric burner, but no oven.

For my last baking act in the old kitchen, I chose (or my kids chose) monkey bread. It's a favorite in our house, and I confess that for a while we were making monkey bread every weekend. What is Monkey Bread, you ask? It's a yeast bread confection baked in a bundt pan that one of the best examples of accessible home baking. It's a do-ahead recipe that uses few ingredients and kids can help. It's also a crowd pleaser, and the results are so marvelous it usually doesn't have time to cool before it's gone. 

This recipe borrows heavily from Smitten Kitchen, which is one of my favorite food blogs. But I changed quite a bit. I nixed the cream cheese glaze, which I did think was overkill in the sweetness department. I altered the recipe to set is up the night before, so when you wake up in the morning you can just preheat the oven and stick it in. And while Smitten Kitchen claims this serves 8+ eaters, I beg to differ. The four of us at my house, for better or worse, can easily make one of these disappear.

Monkey Bread
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
serves 4-6

2 T. + 6 T. butter, divided
1 c. milk
1/3 c. water
1/4 c. sugar
2 1/4 t. instant yeast
3 1/2 to 4 c. all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. packed brown sugar
2 1/2 t. cinnamon

Place 2 T. butter, milk, and water in a heat proof measuring cup. Heat in microwave in 30 second intervals until the mixture feels lukewarm (or gently warm in a pan on the stove). Add sugar and yeast and mix. Let sit for a few minutes. 

Mix 3 1/2 cups flour and salt together in the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Turn on the mixer and slowly add the milk mixture. As the dough comes together, if it sticks to the bowl, turn off the machine and add additional flour, 1/4 cup at a time. Once the dough comes together enough so it isn't sticking to the sides of the bowl, stop adding flour. Mix on medium high until the dough is smooth, around 7 minutes (be careful to stay near your mixer as it works-it tends to jump around the counter when kneading). You can also knead the dough by hand if you need a good arm workout.

Turn the dough onto a clean lightly floured surface to check. It should form a smooth ball and spring back to the touch. If not, continue kneading by hand until it's springy and smooth. Spray the mixer bowl with cooking spray, and place the dough back in it. Cover and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about one hour.

Coat a bundt pan with cooking spray. Melt the remaining 6 T. butter and place in a bowl. Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon in another bowl.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface. (Kudos to Smitten Kitchen's technique here.) Gently roll the dough into an 8-inch square. Using a bench scraper, divide the dough into about 64 pieces (8 x 8). Start cutting in the middle and work out. If the pieces aren't even, don't worry. Just combine a few of the smaller pieces as you work. 

Line up an assembly line with the butter, sugar, and bundt pan. Roll each dough piece on the counter to form a ball, then dunk it in the butter, then roll it in the sugar, then drop it in the pan. Repeat until all the dough is used up (this is where kid hands come in handy). Sprinkle any remaining sugar on the top. Cover the pan and place in the fridge overnight. (You could also let it rise immediately for another 30 minutes, the proceed with baking).

Remove pan from the fridge. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove cover and bake until the top is browned and the sides are bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Take a deep breath and turn the bread out onto a platter. Try to let it cool slightly, or just dig in!