The kitchen has always been a place of inspiration for me, even as a child growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota. I remember well my hours of captive fascination as I would sit watching my mom mix and knead the yeast dough to fill as many as ten loaf pans at a time, several times a week! Our family was large… I am, in fact, the oldest of fourteen children. Since there were sixteen mouths that needed to be fed, bread… lots of it… was very much an everyday staple in our home. It was, however, so much more than humble loaves of bread to fill our stomachs at meal time. What a treat it would be to arrive home from a day at school, walk through the front door of our country farmhouse and be greeted by the warmth of a hot oven in the kitchen, the whole house filled with the fragrance of spicy cinnamon. Freshly baked warm cinnamon bread… what a special treat! We as kids always fussed over who would get the heels. The unspoken rule, however, always seemed to be “first come, first served”! The slices would be popped into the toaster and then slathered with copious amounts of sweet butter… it was heaven! Since homemade bread was the norm for us back then we always thought it a treat to have a slice or two of that soft white store bought bread when visiting neighbors or participating in pot luck church socials and gatherings. Have I ever done a turn around in my thinking since those days of my youth… give me a hearty and crusty loaf fresh from the oven anytime!
As the years went by I was thrilled when the day in which I walked through the door of my first apartment arrived… I had my own kitchen! I subscribed to as many food magazines as I could afford back then. How I looked forward each month to the arrival of Bon Appetit and Gourmet, reading them from cover to cover, intriqued by the listings of spices, herbs and seasonings with which I was unfamiliar. I hadn’t had much personal experience with seasonings other than salt and pepper back home on the farm. It was an adventure to walk into such markets as Ratto’s in Oakland and dip the silver scoops into the bins of bulk spices, filling the small brown paper bags with exotic and unfamiliar items I knew would be necessary as I launched out as a budding home chef. My enthusiasm couldn’t be curbed. I followed each recipe with precision… and how THAT has changed as well!
We purchased our home here in the San Francisco Bay Area in the spring of 1988. When we first walked through the front door of this house I knew this was going to be the one because of its immense kitchen and the possibilities it contained for the future. The house had originally been built in 1939, with an addition that included an enlargement of the kitchen in the fifties. The cabinetry and appliances were outdated… and the yellow formica countertops and yellow linoleum on the floor were, simply said, ugly! Fortunately our visions took us into the possibilities of the future and we replaced the old residential stove with a used six burner Wolf range. Nearly six years ago we designed and had installed a commercial venting system, realizing that it was the only way to keep the kitchen itself grease,smoke and steam free as we cranked up the BTUs during searing, browning, vigorous boiling and sauce and stock reduction. At about the same time we replaced the dishwasher with a commercial under the counter Hobart dishwasher. There’s nothing better than a three minutes wash and rinse cycle when there are two chefs being creative and dirtying dishes at the same time! That original Wolf has been replaced with another Wolf, this one having six burners, two ovens, a salamander and a griddle. And, just a year ago, the kitchen finally received its overdue makeover. The faded and worn formica and linoleum are now barely a memory as we enjoy the beauty, as well as the commercial utility, of our French country kitchen, truly the heart of our home!
A cooking truth that I have always known conceptually but never verbally expressed was brought to the forefront of my mind this past week. I was watching an early morning news program. listening to the words of a featured cookbook author and chef, when I experienced an “Aha!” moment. The author was explaining how one’s personality is the ingredient that makes each dish more than a combination of all other ingredients. It is that which gives the dish itself personality and makes it one’s own… “Aha!” indeed! A recipe, a list of ingredients and a paragraph or two of instructions truly do not in and of themselves make a dish satisfying to prepare or even enjoyable to eat. I’m reminded of the numerous recipes I’ve read through the years and thought “this sounds good”… only to be disappointed when I prepared the dish. Today I use those recipes as inspiration, a jumping off point to allow me to bring in my personality. I may use the very same ingredients that are listed for a specific recipe but completely change preparation techniques to give the dish a completely different and satisfying character. Our hope is to share with you tips, techniques, ingredients and recipes that will stir your imagination… and unleash your personality… as you open your refrigerator and pantry doors and declare with a sense of creative excitement, “What’s for dinner tonight!”
So, where does one begin? I’m inspired by an email response I received last week from a dear and longtime friend who lives in southern California. She too is an unabashedly self-proclaimed foodie to whom I had sent several photographs of some of our kitchen creations. One of the photos I had sent her was of a full sheet pan of heads of garlic that I had taken beyond roasting to the point of caramelization. She declared it to be her favorite because, as she said in her own words, “I believe garlic to be in a class by itself as one of the best things EVER…!” We couldn’t agree more!
Garlic takes on four incarnations in our kitchen and pantry. First of all, we grind peeled cloves of garlic through the course die of our KitchenAid food grinder into a jar partially filled with canola oil. When all of the garlic has been ground it is generously covered with additional oil. A lid is placed on the jar and the garlic is then placed in the refrigerator for future use, especially in sautes. A wonderful side benefit is that the oil itself becomes infused with the essence of garlic and is excellent to use, for example, to coat a chicken for roasting on the rotisserie. The second form is whole heads which we cut in half, longitudinally, and toss with vegetables and bones to roast in a hot oven as a base for stocks and reductions. Already mentioned are the whole peeled garlic cloves which we not only grind but have available for slicing, mincing, and microplaning for a variety of dishes. The fourth, and perhaps my favorite form that garlic takes in our kitchen, is caramelization. We are all familar with roasted garlic… and I love nothing more than the rich, flavorful nuttiness it adds to so many dishes. It’s delicious, without a doubt! I must admit, however, that there are times when the time involvement of roasting but a head or two seems lengthy for the reward of just a few tablespoons of delicious silkiness! During one of my forays through a specialty food store I was delighted to discover jars of already roasted garlic. Voila!… my problem is solved, or so I thought, even though the jar was a bit on the expensive side. The next time I needed roasted garlic I opened the jar and was sorely disappointed by the flavor of its contents. The wonderful nuttiness I was expecting was absent… and the taste of preservatives was obvious. To address that very issue I was inspired one morning shortly thereafter as I was strolling through the local Farmers’ Market several months ago and came upon mounds of Mexican garlic. Why not roast as many as a sheet pan will hold and then pressure process the product? I purchased enough to completely cover a full sheet pan and headed home to prepare them for roasting and caramelization. We opened the first jar (I used half pint Mason jars for processing and followed the USDA guidelines for pressure processing) about a month ago to use in a dipping sauce for oven roasted artichokes one evening for dinner… DELICIOUS!
So, fellow garlic lovers, here is our preparation… Bon Appetit!
ROASTED & CARAMELIZED GARLIC
Heads of garlic, as many as you wish to roast and caramelize
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with foil. Carefully cut the root end from each head of garlic, being careful to cut as close to the root as possible to prevent the cloves from separating, and place the heads closely together on the sheet pan. Drizzle generously with the extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Cover the sheet pan with foil, crimping over the edges. Place in the oven and roast for 1 hour. Remove the foil cover and continue roasting until the accumulated juices are thick and molasses-like, an additional 15 minutes or more. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the garlic to cool until the heads are able to be handled comfortably. Squeeze the contents of each head as a whole into a food processor (the roasted garlic cloves slip out of the skins easily and don’t need to be individually squeezed… a genuine time saver!). Be sure to include any roasted bits that you can salvage from the roasting pan as they add depth of flavor to the puree. Pulse until smooth. Depending upon how many heads you have roasted, use immediately as you wish, store in a covered jar in your refrigerator for later use or, if you have caramelized a large amount, pressure process and store in your pantry for weeks and months of future enjoyment!
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