Friday, August 27, 2010

Food and Family

So much happening, so much to tell. Time is ripping by like those power poles seen from the window of the Coast Starlight Express as it rumbles along, clickty clack on the tracks. So rather than minutiae I’ll just drop a few moments of memory accompanied with a few pics.

I may not have mentioned that we had a family reunion of sorts here at Rocky Acres earlier in the month. My older brother attended his 135th High School reunion (James A Garfield HS, Seattle WA) and the sibs found it reason enough to convene. My two sisters came along, one from the Corvallis area and one from sin city (aka Lost Wages). They all spent a couple nights up on Hood Canal near where we lived when I was born, and then slid down the Map to Rocky acres for a day or so of feasting


card playing,

and, well, napping.

I invited most of the shirt tail relatives that I could think of within drive distance and much to my pleasure two of my four kids showed up.

I don’t know how it is for you but ‘family’ in my family is an awful lot about food. When I was young and there was a confab there were certain conventions, one of which was that the women of the family generally spent most of the time in a hot kitchen. As a kid and later a righteous young rebel of the 60’s I always thought that was terribly sexist. Having aged, and possibly matured a bit it is possible that this might not have been the terrible injustice it seemed at the time.

Most of the women in our family of my mother’s generation did not work outside the home. Cooking was their validation and they were damned good at it. I think putting on a big spread with roaster pans of fried chicken, real homemade potato salad, real mashed potatoes with real chicken gravy, and casseroles and yes a nice brightly colored Jello salad with maybe some shredded carrots and marshmallows to really fancy it up,… well that was their PHD in nuclear medicine, or cultural anthropology. My part was to partake. It was easy to eat and eat a lot, but even if it wasn’t, you better dig in any way.

Since part of this doo was at Rocky Acres I tried to follow form but in a minimalist way. In our family there is a certain politics that revolves around food and I know that if I had ordered out pizza and breadsticks it would not have gone well. Partly because there is no pizza joint in delivery range but also, well there is the expectation of some element of authenticity in the food.

The fam from the heartland had been jonesing for seafood and this time of year Mrs C and I eat off the grill probably 3 nights a week on average so I grilled salmon on the barbie was pretty logical.

I went with a couple of Coho fillets (we locals call them Silvers) and a Halibut roast.

I would have gone exclusively with the Halibut as it is hard to beat when done well but the fish I’ve been getting lately, even though fresh does not have as much flavor as I like, so I back stopped with the slivers. Coho rank perhaps number two or three in salmon flavor goodness, right behind Kings (officially Chinook) and Sockeye. Confused enough about the fish already? I don’t know Chardonnay from charred Tokay, but I guess I am a ‘fish snob’.

There is another fam tradition that demands a certain degree of obeisance: Sourdough. My mom, through her life had a sourdough starter around. Not all the time but a lot of the time and I do have great memories of those tangy, leathery little pancakes slathered with cheap margarine and homemade blackberry syrup. I will probably never be able to replicate or forget the flavor of those memories but it is fun (and tasty) to give it a try now and again.

I have not had a sourdough starter in the house for a few years but thought I would try to put such together as a little bit of a surprise for my sibs.

I ordered a live starter from the King Arthur Flour Co, and I also ordered a dried starter from Northwest Sourdough just in case. They arrived in plenty of time ahead so I put the KAF product to work and in no time the house was filled with that yeasty, sour smell as the starter bubbled away.

Not wanting to leave things to chance I embarked upon a few recipes ’just to make sure’ I still had the knack. Some things are a little more fun to experiment with than others and baked goods for most people usually fall on the plus side of the fun scale.

I wanted to make sour dough dinner rolls. I had done this once before and it was a one hit wonder, no sign of a recipe left behind, just vaguely pleasant memories, but not to worry, I know people.

As it happens, Mrs C’s mother in West Virginia follows her family tradition of making ‘hot rolls’ and we happened to attend the family reunion this past July for which she made her hot rolls. These tender morsels cannot be adequately described! Beyond delicious, a form of ambrosia from the oven, really, there is no bread that compares. They are big, pillowy, light, soft, fluffy, topped with a little melted butter, … and sought after! She took care of the immediate family setting aside a roll for each of us (ME INCLUDED!)

So I contacted her for her recipe. I then got in touch with KAF asking how I might modify the recipe to incorporate sourdough starter. KAF is pretty customer friendly so I got an email note back (THE VERY NEXT DAY!) from one of their bakers with a suggested work around.

Shortly thereafter I came home from work an hour early and got to it. It was not until 10:00pm that the sourdough hot rolls came out of the oven, but Mrs. C graciously decided to stay up and ‘grade’ the results once the house started filling with that baking bread smell. I appreciated her willingness to judge, and her candor in the evaluation. After all, she grew up in a house of hot rolls. They were good. Not great, not even in the same class as W VA hot rolls but within a day or two they had all disappeared and Chairman The Cat hadn’t eaten any.

Fast forward a few weeks to our fam reunion. I did make those sourdough dollar sized pancakes, I also made sourdough waffles, and for dinner I knocked out a batch of pretty tasty sourdough hot rolls.

Yesterday, having a little time on my hands I tried something that had been lurking in the small part of my brain for awhile: I worked up a rustic sourdough French loaf (two actually). I love the simplicity of this bead. There are very few ingredients and minimalist, Sartre like technique. This is one of those things that is easy to ’over make’. It’s what has attracted me to making French bread in the past (that and the combination of crusty crust and chewy inside)

It was pretty tasty, very tasty in fact but I do have trouble getting this bread to rise sufficiently after proofing. This is complicated with the French loaf for a couple reasons; First, as we all know the rustic French loaf is not baked in a pan, so no pan to force the bread to rise ‘up’, it can just as easily rise ‘out’. And secondly, by tradition you need to have a couple diagonal slashes in the top of the loaf. Making those slashes is an art in and of itself, one I have not mastered. When I ‘slash’ my technique is rough and my knife is dull and the loaf deflates visibly. (Note to aspiring bakers, jumping up and down, swearing loudly, does not help). KAF says all I need is an authentic bread lame. 

I’m pretty sure I could get better, and maybe even good at this, but to do so, I would probably blimp up to about 330# and well, that just wouldn’t do. But I may continue my attempts at the sourdough French loaf. I pretty much nailed the crust and inner chewy texture, so it’s just the rising I need to improve upon. I gave one of the loaves to the neighbors and so far nobody is stumbling out the back door puking in the yard (though it does seem a little quite over there, perhaps I ought to go check). We have a number of neighbors close by to whom I am beholden for many helps in the past so I could probably gift a number of loaves before they started pretending no to be home. That bubbly sourdough starter up on top of the fridge just doesn’t want to go to bed just yet

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