I am the MacGyver of Soup: DIY Bouquet Garni

I love fall, and being from Illinois, I expect it to start in September.  Not October.  Or mid-November.  Five years in DC and I am still in a state of denial as to the duration of summer, even after having to scrap my son’s bear costume because it was too hot out last year.  On Halloween.  At the end of October.

Upon awaking yesterday, the sky was gray, the air was crisp and the garden was looking half-dead (thanks Irene).  Three clear signs of fall, if you ask me.  Dear Husband had the car and the drizzle was drizzling, so it looked like an indoor day with the baby, the perfect kind of day to make soup.  I pulled out my trusty Twelve Months of Monastery Soups and thumbed through the fall section.  Tomato brandy soup sounded perfect.  I could finally finish off the bottle of brandy that had been languishing on top of the fridge since last November.

The recipe called for making garlic herb stock first, using a “bouquet garni,” which apparently consists of tying together different sprigs of dried spices.  When the soup’s done, you remove the bouquet from the pot and leave the gray, soggy mess on the steps of an ex-boyfriend’s house.  Or something.

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All About the Quest

One of the best things about cooking is the quest. A dish can always be better. It can always be tweaked. And of course, it can always be fucked up. But the pursuit is worth it.

I thought I knew the tricks for oven-drying tomatoes. I tossed halved tomatoes, usually sun gold or cherry or grape, with oil, salt and pepper. I would line up the tomatoes, cut-side up on a baking sheet, and let them slowly shrink and deflate in a low-temperature oven.

I always admired the results. And then Chris Jakubiec, chef of Plume and The Greenhouse in the Jefferson Hotel in DC, told me a trick.  Place the tomatoes cut-side down on a cooling rack, over a baking sheet to catch the juice. The tomatoes remained juicy and finished quicker.

And while this method may cut it this summer, I’m still searching. It’s all about the quest, ya know.

Diggin’ DC Dirt: A Raised-Bed Garden Adventure

Part One: We’ve been framed

My indoor basil plant looks like this:

I know, pathetic.  Believe me, when I was pregnant, it was the inspiration for many “so you think you’re ready for parenthood” cracks. My response was, there is a reason that babies scream when they are hungry.

Elijah is eight months old now, and so far so good, so this summer, my dear spouse and I decided to take on another complicated project for which we were only minimally qualified: a raised bed garden.  I hear that these are trendy at present, but let me tell you, that trend hasn’t reached my neighborhood.  Our block seems to favor vegetation more like this:

New age sculpture or misguided but admirable attempt to grow a beer tree?  You decide.

We decided on the back porch as the locale for our foray into botany.  Large and concrete, it has thus far served little purpose aside from storing some semi-decaying deck chairs.  The whole back “yard” is paved over, so it seemed like concrete was our fate.  We called up our friend Pat, who jumped at the chance to bust out some power tool action.  He and Kurt (my husband) headed to Home Depot for supplies.  They were gone for about three hours, reasons for which are still unclear, and returned with some very long pieces of wood.  The folks at HD were kind enough to cut the 12-ft. boards into two sections, 10 ft. and 2 ft. Pat was a little sad about not having a chance to use his circular saw.

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Avoid Your Mother (Sauces)

Don’t worry about not mastering the French or Chinese Mother Sauces, you can easily create a creamy and tangy dressing from a few items in your fridge. In an I-need-to-make-dinner-in-30 minutes attempt last night, I buzzed around mustard, tahini, horseradish, hot sauce, manchego, oil, the slightly-cooled pasta cooking water, salt and pepper for a quick sauce on top of Israeli couscous with asparagus, almonds, avocado and green garlic.

The sauce turned out really well and I sourced it all from some hidden gems just in my fridge. Here are some more ideas on how to get the most from all those jars taking up shelf space.

5 Fridge Finds for Better Sauces

1. Mustard

Mustard makes everything better. It adds a creamy texture and a zingy flavor. And just like the New Kids On the Block, there’s a member of the mustard family out there for everyone. We usually keep a  dirty (aka spicy or brown) mustard, a grainy (with mustard seeds) dijon mustard and have recently purchased the British nose-stinger Coleman’s. Each has a unique flavor that can match lots of cuisines. And I’m currently in the market for a super hot Chinese mustard (suggestions welcome), maybe as a coating for eggplant?

2. Tahini

My dad is the only person I know that makes (veggie-filled) hummus on a weekly basis. Most people let their sesame paste sit until the next infrequent hummus affair. Tahini brings depth and thickness, and almost has a raw nut butter flavor. It plays well with plenty of other items, easily blending into a sauce with lemon and cumin, miso and cilantro, or feta and scallions.

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Two Tricks for Cheating Your Way to Better Homemade Indian Food

I appreciate your patience as I try to figure out a truly reliable, awesome tasting lentil dish. To recap, I’ve been working with udad dal split matpe beans and throwing in an assortment of dried spices in varying proportions. I’ve learned I’m not a methi fan, that lentils can be whipped into a party-approved dip and that if the lentils still don’t make the cut – just add some toppings.

I recently caved, ignoring the pending bathing suit season, and purchased ghee, clarified butter. This immensely aids in creating that depth found in real Indian cooking, but also ensured a lingering just-cooked Indian food smell in my apart for days. But I was okay with that. Because ghee is delicious.

But back to the toppings. Here are two ways to disguise mediocre Indian food:

1. Coriander Chutney

With a vivid green color this topping automatically brightens any dish.

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#1 Most Invaluable Kitchen Tool

Wherever you’re reading this, put down your laptop and go buy this now. At only $104.40, this butter spreader is worth every penny. It does it all: it spreads butter on hamburger buns, and spreads butter on lots of other shit, and turns like a little hamster wheel, and looks incredibly cool. Simply put the butter in the bottom of the well, place it on some heat to melt, and the butter spreader does the work. You might even be able to use it as a cheese grater or a food mill for those lumpy mashed potatoes. Forget my Staub or my Beka pancake pan, my entire collection of chef’s knives, or even all of my culinary knowledge. Put me in kitchen stadium with this thing, and I am good to go.

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Top 10 Tips for Taking Perfect Food Photos

Because everyone and their mother is a food blogger nowadays, we know more than a few of you have to wait to eat your Christmas dinners until the host has snapped some quality pics. So let’s give everyone a head start.

We asked former New York Times food photographer Lou Manna to share some tips on how to take drool-worthy holiday food photos—and still let your guests eat before midnight.

1. Get a Fork’s-Eye View

chocolate tarts
Bindi chocolate truffle tarts, finished with a hand decorated orange infused chocolate ganache

Place your camera on the table and photograph your plate from the point of view of your utensils. Photographing your meal from a low angle can bring volume and scale to your food, while allowing you access to a picture you would not be able to capture with your own eyes.

2. Clean your Plate

roast chicken
Quails with wild rice stuffing

Misplaced specks show up more in a photo than you would think. Manipulate food with tweezers to artfully position and style a dish before you photograph it. Clean up crumbs and food particles on plates with Q-tips and paper towels.

3. Crack the ISO Code

christmas cookies
Pumpkin maple syrup mini tarts

ISO denotes how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to the amount of light available for the picture. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the image sensor and better equipped your camera is to take pictures in low-light situations. Even if the lights aren’t dimmed, shooting indoors without a flash is still darker than you may realize. When shooting cookie trays, pumpkin pies and table settings indoors without a flash, the ISO setting should be set to 800 or 1600 so that the camera sensor is more sensitive to the ambient, inside light and captures details, texture and shine.

4. Balance Your Whites

Christmas cookiess

Don’t spoil your holiday food photographs by not knowing how to set your white balance. If you’re shooting indoors with household lamps (under incandescent or tungsten lighting), use your camera’s preset for tungsten white balance. If the lighting is fluorescent (hello, office holiday party!) then the fluorescent white balance setting will work better.

5. Macro and Say Cheese

vanilla bean
Star anise

To shoot food close up, use the macro setting on a point and shoot camera, which is typically indicated with a flower icon. On a camera with interchangeable lenses, use a macro or a close focusing lens to get closer to your subject.

Next: 5 More Tips for Taking Perfect Food Photos

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