Monday, December 29, 2008

Beans, Free Range Yeast and New Year's Eve Plans

So, New Year's Eve is two days away. Very exciting, considering how long it's been since I've been able to actually enjoy a New Year's Eve without having to create and execute a special menu for a hundred people I will never meet and who are all having a great time, as one is supposed to on the last night of the year. Unemployment does have its benefits. So, this year, I turned down a private dinner job offer in order to focus on one at home. Crazy right? An unemployed guy turning down work? Well, that's how much this means to me. Mind you, this won't be a fancy 18-course meal, so sorry to disappoint the foodies out there who want to read about me making triple smoked foie gras pho and lemongrass gellee. No, this year I am making a big pot of Spaghetti and Meatballs.

I think of all the big dinners I have cooked at home, and I think that a lot of the time, I take things too seriously. I need everything to be perfect, and plated beautifully; this time, I am opting to make things comfortable. I want to be able to indulge in drink and enjoy my home and my friends, so what leads to that better than a big pile of spaghetti and meatballs. I'm not even going to make homemade noodles; in a way, comforting=mom=box spaghetti. Comforting does not = flour and steam sticking to everyone while one psychopath rolls out 18 feet of pasta. I'll save that for the other 364 days. But, this time, I've got a big slab of beef from Iowa, and I plan on tracking down some good pork, I'll grind it all up and pile it in with garlic, parsley, onions, breadcrumbs, parmesan (yes, parmesan, not parmigianno). I'll keep it real, make a simple sauce with tomatoes (canned of course--it's December!), garlic, onions, carrot, celery, red wine, you know, the usual. This will be an amazingly cheap New Year's Eve feast; the pasta cost around $2.50, the beef was a gift, the pork will cost around $3.50, the tomatoes, $3.00, and the rest of the stuff, we'll say it'll cost around $3.00. A total of $12.00 for four people. But, to use a lame chef term, it's all about perceived value sometimes, and full stomachs will always attest to that. So, we will keep this dinner celebration on the low-key side of things. I will, however, bake a couple of loaves of bread with my own sourdough starter.

Starter is an interesting and fickle thing. I've heard lots of great stories involving starters; most of them are big flowery romantic tales of hundreds-of-years-old starter being brought over with immigrant grandparents and being used to this day in bakeries in Brooklyn. I love those stories; that sort of lore is what makes food great. In fact, I started a starter some years ago, and gave some to incidental friends here and there, ostensibly to have the starter go with them wherever they may go in order to beget future generations of bread. Hopefully some of the starter made it; sadly, I am pretty certain one batch did not, something I was worried about as I handed it over to my wonderfully forgetful pothead British friend Ollie. Regardless, this is a great thing to pass on, and very romantic. But then I came across this book by a baker named Joe Ortiz, and talk about a romantic and old fashioned do things with your hands kind of guy, and he sort of put some sense in to me. And this was that as far as yeast's leavening power goes, young yeast is the strongest. Older yeast may become more flavorful, but it needs to be refreshed with new food at some point. This will allow the old yeast to "get it on" and produce strong, young yeast. And it's this yeast that will make your loaves rise. Additionally, it is impossible to recreate the taste of a region, which so many places try to do with San Francisco Sourdough. The bacteria that fishermen captured to leaven their bread in San Francisco Bay is different than the yeast on the shores of Lake Michigan, or on top of Mt. McKinley for that matter. So to bring a culture form one place to the other in the hopes that it will reproduce flavors from the origin just won't work. So what I am saying here is that I have found that making a starter for each batch of bread isn't that bad of an idea, and if you bake enough bread, you can keep some of it in the fridge, and just refresh it when you are ready to get baking. This is a bit easier than continually "feeding the bitch" as described in Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. The book that planted all this hoo-haw in me is called The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz. Check it out. That is, if your library fines aren't killing you (another issue for someone on unemployment--return those books on time!)

ANYWAY, I'll be making some bread for New Year's Eve. The bacteria I'm able to capture in my apartment do a great job, develop some nice funky flavors, and the crust on the loaf is terrific. I make the starter over a 3-5 day period, starting just with about 1/4 cup of flour and enough water to make a dough; I knead it for a bit, then put it in a bowl and cover it with a wet towel. I let this roll for a couple days; it'll rise a bit, and develop a hard, dry crust (the starter's at this point in the photo below); peel this off, add about double the flour you started with, and enough more water to make the dough again. Let it develop, covered with a wet towel again, for another day or so. Refresh once more, let go about half a day and you will be ready to proceed with making bread as usual. Sure, it takes days, but that just means a bit of planning and a small amount of counter space. And this bread will cost you next to nothing--this is flour and water, and a bit of salt when you bake the bread. Cheap, and extremely good, nourishing and satisfying. Soon, I'll talk about the vinegar I'm making. It's really similar to the starter in a lot of ways, and it is delicious. Funny what happens when you give a guy a little time and a little budget.

And the beans in the title of this post? That's what I ate tonight for dinner. Yes indeed. The half can of refried beans cost me about 40 cents. I steamed a bunch of broccoli I got on super sale for 29 cents a pound and drizzled it with great olive oil a friend brought me from Italy, and squeeze a bit of lemon on it. I toasted my homemade bread and spread the beans on it. A real hobo's dinner, but complete, and very filling. I drank some of my Magnum of ten dollar wine from a tumbler, and I was set. A peasant meal with peasant wine and I was happy. Probably cost just over a dollar. Good fuel for planning my meatballs and starters and New Year's Festivities. And why on earth am I hosting? Because not only do I love feeding people and having friends in my home--but guests always bring booze!