Food to Survive (and Thrive) On

Hi everyone, welcome to my (at last) blog. No more promises. This is it, the good, the bad, and the I-can’t-stand-learning-all-this-blogging-crap ugly. I hope you can live with it. I know I’ll have to, because today is the drop-dead deadline I set for myself to go live, after many months of foot-dragging.

As many of you (mainly my victims) are already aware, I have spent many years passionately coaxing any and all who cross my path to “take a bite” of some new food I have conjured up in my kitchen, drawn from cultures as far-flung as my mind and cooking skills are capable of taking me. I’ve done this for some 60 years, through personal boom and bust, and I don’t ever remember a time when my family and I (and frequently friends) failed to eat well. One great side benefit of loving great food while living on an economic roller coaster, is that you learn to use whatever brains and moxie you were born with to somehow make the two work together so nobody at the table notices which particular financial mode is driving the menu that night. So, it’s no mistake that I am starting my blog with my take on cooking for survival, since that’s where I think everyone should start their kitchen adventures. As a matter of fact, if there is a young person in your family (or that of a friend) who is about to leave home and will be starting to cook for themselves, I can think of no better send-off gift than a basic eating survival kit. It’s inexpensive and invaluable. Get them a nice-sized pot, a blender (or immersion blender), and a baguette pan or cookie sheet,  With these simple tools and a few very inexpensive ingredients —  bread flour, a jar of yeast filled from the bulk section of  local health food store, some sea salt, and whatever cheap vegetables they can find on sale at the grocery store, and they can eat like royalty for pennies. Using the following two recipes a person of any means can easily whip up a fabulously delicious and easy no-knead bread, and that timeless French concoction, Potage, which has kept France’s hoi poloi full and happy since the Middle Ages.

At the top of my list of “Food to Survive (and Thrive) On” is Stecca. Stecca (the Italian word for “sticks”) are delectable crunchy, chewy, skinny little loaves of bread that are nothing short of magic! They’re the brainchild of Jim Lahey, the man who re-invented and re-introduced the age-old concept of No-Knead bread to the world, and who is the famed proprietor of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery. So, OK, I’m going right out on a limb here. I think Stecca is just about the best thing I’ve added to my food repertoire in all the years I have been cooking, and cooking pretty seriously, I might add. And now I’m going to crawl out even further, onto a very precarious twig on that limb, and boldly declare that I think Jim Lahey made a huge mistake in not making Stecca his signature bread. Why?

Stecca

It’s that good. This stuff is far and away the happiest thing that ever happened to a cheese board. The crust is crisp, yet has real chew built in, and just a tickle of sea salt hits your tongue as you take a bite. The center has a substantial yet incredibly light texture that seems just right for whatever you pair it with, as if they were designed to go together. And ooooh! The flavor!

It’s that versatile. From cheeses and pâté, dips like hummus and baba ghanoush, or one of my favorite spreads, such as a Roquefort terrine with black pepper that I make, or ajvar, a roasted red pepper and eggplant spread; everything you pair with Stecca shines all the brighter for the company.

It’s that accessible. People of all ages and skill levels can make Stecca (not the case with most No-Knead breads, which call for you to flip the wet, sticky dough from a towel (to which it has stuck!) into a heavy, screaming-hot Dutch oven). OK, so that eliminates the kids. As a matter of fact, it damn near eliminated me, too. Frankly I found all that heat, teamed with all that sticky dough just a tad intimidating. Not so with Stecca. Just to prove a point, last year I taught my 7-year-old grandson and 3-year old granddaughter how to make it. I never touched the dough during the entire process except to demonstrate how to stretch the dough, and the loaves turned out perfectly.

The biggest problem I have with Stecca is that no matter how much I make of it to take to a party, it’s gone within a half hour. It’s so damned good that it’s a dinner-wrecker. The last time my daughter brought it to a friend’s home with a selection of cheeses, she suggested that they save it for after dinner, because she knew people wouldn’t be able to stop eating the stuff until it was gone, and she knew how much trouble her friends had put into making the wonderful meal! It can actually be a little embarrassing, too, because long after the last piece has been grabbed, people are coming back and asking for more. You can end up feeling as though you’ve cheaped out on your contribution!

I just can’t recommend this recipe highly enough, and I hope you’ll try it, because that’s the best way for you to get it that 1) I will never recommend something to people that I don’t think is really, really good, and 2) I have very high expectations for the food I make to put in my mouth. Once you’ve figured that out about me, you’re in for some real eating pleasure if you keep reading my blog.

A couple of last notes: I have made a few changes to Lahey’s recipe. Not to the ingredients or amounts (if I ever do that, I promise you I will detail to a fault what I have done, or by posting a link to the original, so you can choose which version you want to use), just by adding small details to his instructions where I felt they were somewhat fuzzy and could lead to less-than-spectacular results for inexperienced bread bakers. One change I have made is making only 3 baguettes from the recipe, rather than 4, as Lahey does. I like the balance of crust to crumb that I get this way.

Also, I don’t bake my loaves on a flat baking sheet, as Lahey does. I use a thin-channeled blued steel baguette pan from the French manufacturer, Matfer Bourgeat (available online for about $22.00, but I was unable to find them in stores, not even Sur La Table), because I like the fact that the blued steel is a real crust enhancer, and that its channels lend definition to the loaves. It also gives me a more consistent texture in the loaves and they are prettier to look at. If you decide to opt for the baguette pan, please let me know, as I have a few additional tips for working with the dough for baking in the pan.

French bread pan (for 2 baguettes at a time) - (Matfer Bourgeat)

You can see the thinness of the baguette it produces, which is just perfect for the Stecca. The pan I bought has only two channels. The multi-channeled one was over $100, a bit steep for my purse! If you would like the source I used to buy the second round of pans for a daughter (Fante’s, my usual kitchen supply source, has stopped carrying them), just ask.

I seldom add the toppings anymore, not because they’re not a terrific finishing touch, but because I just love trying my Stecca with new cheeses/dips/spreads, etc. each time I make it. Hmmmm. Maybe I should compile a list….. Let me know.

Makes 3 baguettes

STECCA
Adapted from My Bread, by Jim Lahey

3 cups bread flour
1/2 tsp. table salt
3/4 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. instant or other active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups cool water (55° to 65°, about the temperature of cool water from your tap)
Additional flour for dusting
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp. coarse sea salt

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, table salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours (I use the full 18 hours.)

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a cutting board or dinner plate with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece onto the floured surface.

Next comes what I call my “belly-button” kneading technique. Grab hold of a good healthy piece of the right side of the round of dough and pull it out to the right side 3 to 4 inches, then bring it up to the center of the dough and poke it into the center of the circle, as though you were tucking it into a bellybutton there. Then grab a similar piece at the top of the ball of dough and do the same at the top side, pulling the dough out and tucking it up and into the center of the ball. Repeat with the left side and then the front side nearest you. Now, repeat those four stretches all over again. Pat the mass into a nice ball shape, sprinkle the surface of the dough with some of the olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the coarse salt (which will gradually dissolve on the surface.)

Generously dust your work surface with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Gently turn the dough onto the work surface, seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Cover the dough with a towel and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 500° F, with a rack in the center. Oil a 13” x 18” x 1” baking sheet, or your baguette pan.

*** Important tip: Before heating your oven, you should make sure it is clean. Any spills on your oven surface will burn right up at 500° F, and quite likely set your fire alarms off. Trust me on this one.

Cut the dough into thirds and get ready to become a “snake handler”. (This is what I called it to help my grandchildren visualize what they are doing when teaching them how to shape the dough. Oil your hands really well with some olive oil to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands. Gently grab the end of one of the pieces of dough by the “throat”, and hold it up in the air. The weight of the dough will stretch out from the force of gravity, forming a “snake”. Now, reach down and grab the snake’s “tail”, and hold the dough up from that end, again letting it stretch out just from its weight. Do this several times, until the dough is approximately the length of the pan. Place them on the cookie sheet, leaving about 1” between the loaves. (This is difficult, as the dough is very loose and spreads sideways very easily.  Just do the best you can to keep space between them, as this helps prevent “doughy” edges to the finished loaves.)  If using a baguette pan, just lay the piece of dough into an oiled channel. Brush or sprinkle the loaves with olive oil, then very lightly dust them with the remaining 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt. Repeat this shaping with the other two pieces of dough.

Bake for 15 to 25 (I do 20, and get just the depth of crust and brown I like) minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan for 5 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the Stecca to a rack to cool thoroughly.

NOTE: The Stecca may become a bit soggy in just a few hours because of the salt on the surface. If that happens, reheat the loaves in a hot oven until crisp.

VARIATION: STECCA POMODORI, ALL’OLIVE, O AL’AGLIO (STECCA WITH TOMATOES, OLIVES OR GARLIC)
Push 10 cherry tomato halves, cut side up, 10 large pitted olives, or 10 lightly crushed garlic cloves into each formed Stecca, taking care to space the additions evenly down the length of the dough. Brush each Stecca with enough olive oil to create a thin coat of oil on the surface. For the tomato Stecca, top each tomato half with a very thin slice of garlic and a couple of fresh thyme leaves, and sprinkle with a bit of the coarse salt. Sprinkle the garlic Stecca with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Do not salt the olive Stecca — it’s already salty from the olives.

And now, on to the ancient French solution to survival , what I call POTAGE HÉLÈNE

This perfect accompaniment to Stecca is my homage to an old friend’s family version of an ancient French soup, or, as I like to call it, French Survival 101.  Hélène was a delightful young French woman with whom I shared a hospital room when I gave birth to my second daughter, Denise. We got together a few times after we left the hospital, and one visit to her home changed my understanding of food forever. She had a pot of vegetables boiling on the stove when I arrived, and that simple mélange, after a brief whirl in the blender and the adding of a bit of cream, was transformed into a simple French potage, a creamy, hearty, belly-satisfying soup. This turned out to be one of the most complex and deeply satisfying food experiences of my (till then) life. I have never looked back.

When I think about all the peasant foods from around the world, from forever, and ask myself  “If I were on a desert island, whose grab bag of survival strategies would I find myself happiest to replicate?”, one answer jumps right out: The French. So here you are: you  need to help masses of people to survive with minimal ingredients available, but at the same time  provide a sense of joy and luscious fulfillment. Everyone not only needs to get the requisite burst of nutrient energy, but also that different kind of energy, the one that leaves them so tied to that communal hearth that they will willingly risk the dangers of the next day, and the one after that, in the harshest of environments, just for the pleasures that hearth promises upon their return. Here is how the freaking ingenious French did it. Ya just gotta love them for it. At least I do.

Ahhh, yes, one final note: according to Michael Pollan, who in my mind one is of the most brilliant writers of our time, not just because he writes about the things that are the most important matters of our day, but because he is probably the most truly engaging writer I have ever encountered. If he were to decide to write about some obscure fungus from Zanzibar I would rush out for the book. You get my point, right? I have never read a writer who could turn the mundane into magic as this man does.

So OK, enough with the Pollan love-fest. Here’s some really great stuff I picked up from him. Mashed potatoes are one of  those perfect foods that need nothing added to provide us with a  nutritionally balanced diet. Not only did they give the Irish their claim to fame (well, there’s always the other famous Irish indulgence, but we won’t go there today, OK), but along the way potatoes single-handedly cured their friends on the continent of scurvy (for that story, buy the book, The Botany of Desire. It’s worth it, trust me) . But more important,  mashed potatoes, like rice and beans, is one of nature’s perfect combinations; food to survive on. The potato became a food staple in Ireland because in addition to  its carbohydrate energy, it provided a whole lot of  protein and vitamins B and C. To complete a nutritionally balanced diet all that was needed  was vitamin A, which was easily supplied by cow’s milk.  And voila! The perfect food strangely and serendipitously fell into the hands of and thrived with,  its most perfect caretaker imaginable, thus becoming the only food deemed “worthy” of being stolen fr0m the Irish by the the French.

Like I said, Ya just gotta love it.

POTAGE HÉLÈNE

 2 large leeks

1 large onion, peeled and cut into large pieces

One pound potatoes, peeled and cut up

Any other vegetable you may have on hand that you’d like to use up, or that’s on sale this week (see note below)

Broth or water to cover

1 T salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

½ cup heavy cream, or to taste

Small handful of chives, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Split the leeks down he middle and wash them thoroughly to remove all traces of  grit (they bring a lot of dirt with them from the garden). Slice off the toughest green parts at the top and cut them into large pieces.

Put all the vegetables and the salt in a large pot and cover with broth or water. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until all the vegetables are soft, about 45 to 60 minutes.  Remove from the heat and add to the blender or food processor in small batches so you don’t end up wearing the scalding hot liquid. Return the potage to the pan and taste to make sure you have enough salt (vegetables are terrific sweeteners, so the amount of seasoning will vary depending on how much and how many you throw into the pot). Add the black pepper to taste. Add the heavy cream to finish the potage. Add a sprinkling of fresh chives if you have them.

Note: Just about any vegetable or a combination of vegetables will be wonderful I this potage. Once you have the potato-leek base, the sky’s the limit.  Here are a few suggestions for variations. You’ll be surprised how much you can change things up just by using a different combination of vegetables.

Here are some suggestions:

Carrots, Tomatoes, Mushrooms, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Lima Beans, Peas, Zucchini, Spinach, Butternut Squash, or, one of my all-time favorites, a nice healthy handful of sorrel.

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6 Responses to Food to Survive (and Thrive) On

  1. Mim, I finally tried Stecca. Being the weenie that I am, I did not sprinkle it with salt before baking … shame on me! While the Stecca was fabuously crispy on the outside and full of delightful holes of airiness on the in, it SO needed that sprinkle of salt. As you would say, “A kiss of salt in every bite.” Now that I have been straightened out, my future Stecca baking (and there will be more … no bread this good has ever been this easy!), will definitely include a light sprinkling of Palm Island brand White Silver Sea Salt.
    By the way, I froze one of the Stecca loaves and baked it while it was frozen to accompany a weeknight pasta meal … I sprayed a little water on top and sprinkled the above-referenced salt onto the surface. After baking, it has adhered to the crust and tasted terrific.

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  4. I needed to thank you for this very good read!! I absolutely enjoyed every
    little bit of it. I’ve got you bookmarked to check out
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    • Mim says:

      Thank you so much for your very kind comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the read. There will be new posts coming shortly, as I have been experimenting in the kitchen like crazy lately, and family and friends are asking when I will be putting some of the results up on my blog. If you want instant notification when I post, you can sign on to my RSS feed here, or find me on facebook and do it there. Happy to have you with us.

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