Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Things I Want to Try This Year

Yeah, yeah, it's February: So I'm getting off to a slow start. Here's a (noncomprehensive) list of culinary experiments, intimidating projects, and other things I hope to try my hand at in 2009:

1) Baking bread. For all my obsession with cooking, this is one of those things (so simple! other home cooks tell me. Not scary at all!) that I'm just totally intimidated by. Something about working with living organisms that, I'm convinced, will die if you so much as look at them funny freaks me out. Also, I don't trust my oven.

2) Making cheese. Doesn't really matter which kind. One of the ones that's easy to make at home--ricotta, mozzarella, or paneer. When I was a kid, my mom actually went through a kick of making yogurt cheese with a strainer and a cheesecloth; as far as I can remember, the recipe was basically: Dump yogurt into cheesecloth-lined strainer, place over bowl, wait, squeeze. As long as it's that simple, I really have no excuse.

3) Crackers! This is another thing I just haven't gotten around to trying--not because I'm intimidated (see above), but because it's just not one of those things it occurs to me to make. Mark Bittman says they're a snap and better than store-bought; I say I'll probably keep buying them at the store, but I'd love to give it a shot and see if he's right.

4) Rendering fat. Recently, I've developed a habit of stashing cooking fat in glass containers in the freezer because, as mentioned previously, I have a pathological fear of letting anything go to waste. (Moldy cheese? Cheese is made of mold! Sour sour cream? Like there is such a thing!) Additionally, I have a tendency to pick up weird things at the grocery store when they're on sale; recently, I grabbed a big tray of suet (suet? I barely know it!), and I'm not above grabbing packages marked "ends and pieces" for no better reason than that they're so much cheaper than whole cuts of bacon/meat/what-have-you. This has resulted in me having tons of jars half-full of beef fat and bacon grease and chicken schmaltz, and no idea what to do with any of it. This year, I want to learn what to do with all of it: The suet, the beef fat, the duck fat I plan to buy at the Chinese grocery, all of it.

5) On a related note: Making confit. Not necessarily duck confit--although I'm both intrigued and totally freaked out by that prospect--but perhaps garlic confit, Meyer lemon confit, or this incredible-looking tomato confit that's been kicking around my recipe file for a couple of years now. Confit is basically just stuff preserved in oil, so I shouldn't be intimidated... perhaps the fact that I'm lousy at French pronunciation has something to do with it?

6) Homemade mayonnaise. I make homemade salad dressing all the time, so why not mayonnaise? My guess is that it has something to do with the sheer amount of stirring that's required; I know you can make it in a blender, but I'm also told the texture's not the same... and my blender's on the fritz anyway.

7) More pickles, more freezing, more preserving. This isn't really a new thing, but given my success pickling and preserving foods in the past, I'd really like to ramp production up this year. Especially if my summer harvest this year is as pitiful as last year's (the temperature hardly touched 80 in all of July and August), I may just buy bushels of Eastern Washington peppers and tomatoes at the farmer's market and figure out a way to make them keep until the dead of winter... An August tomato, even preserved or cooked and defrosted, could really transform a dreary, wet February day like this one.

8) Growing tomatoes from seed. According to the woman at the Tilth hotline, this is probably a quixotic mission, but my success with tomatillos last summer (the only vegetable to really go nuts in my garden, and the one almost everyone warned me not to try) has made me cocky. I planted the seeds last week and am keeping them over the heater vent; time will tell if my confidence was misplaced.

You'll notice that nowhere on this list is anything about "baking the perfect seven-layer cake" or "making croissants from scratch." That's no accident. I'm just not a "sweets" person... and when I do want something sweet, I'm happy to let the bakery/grocery store/Ben and Jerry's make it for me.

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