Thursday, November 03, 2005

Egg Toast

One thing I have noticed about L.E. Modesitt's books is that reading them will, over time, make you hungry.

The reason is simple: in every novel of his, particular attention is paid to food. He is very concerned about what people eat. In the fantasy novels, travel food is emphasized, with army food pointed out from time to time. His Recluce books lead to cravings for olives and cheese. It's also evident that he has, at some point, had a bad experience with cactus or something like it; in two of his series, he has a food substance that is good for you and really, not very tasty. Both "quilla" and "prickle" tend to be strongly disliked by his protagonists.

But he's also fond of the good meals and the unique meals, and of slipping in some regional specialty seemingly made of fire in the role of spice. And his science fiction novels also feature food, both the good and the bad.

In the Corean Chronicles, a recent series, one of the common breakfast choices is "egg toast." That rang a bell, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was. (I've been tired.) When it hit me, it was a supreme moment of "Well... duh."

Egg toast is what a non-American might call French Toast. Because French Toast is an inaccurate term for one of the most delectable breakfast concoctions ever created.

Aaaaaand... it's one I've never managed to get right. I either end up with heavy, eggy bread that tastes like... well... eggs, or I end up with this weird soggy mess, or something that is basically bread with a light coating of egg. But I've mastered the omelette (after much trial), so I decided to surf online recipes and find out just exactly where I'm going wrong.

And, hmm, that doesn't seem to help, as they disagree. One says to soak the bread "for just a few seconds" while another states that you dip the bread until it is well saturated. They say nothing about the bread, which is of supreme importance. And not a one of them mentions a prime ingredient of diner French Toast, which is the scattering of powdered sugar across the surface. So I will present to you the basic French Toast recipe, which should work for you... because it works for everybody but me.

Maybe you can come and cook it for me someday.

You will need:
Day-old or older bread (stale is what it was originally used for!), preferably thick
Nutmeg (optional)
Butter, maple syrup, powdered sugar, or other toppings of your choice including preserves or fresh fruit
Griddle, nonstick, or seasoned iron pan

Crack some eggs into a shallow bowl. Add a little milk and a droozle* of vanilla, as well as cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Whisk them together until they are blended but don't keep going after that! Soak the bread according to your own design, making sure that both sides are coated.

Cook the bread over medium-low heat until the first side is firm, then flip and do the other side. Serve with whipped butter and a dusting of powdered sugar, warmed maple syrup on the side.

Or serve with fresh fruit. Or use raisin bread (Costco has a WONDERFUL raisin bread that tastes as raisin bread should, not like Sunmaid's lifeless variety.) Or use your egg toast to make a jam sandwich.

This is particularly good with a side of hash browns. The salty potato crunch is a perfect counter. And don't forget the orange juice.

So— tell me, just what am I doing wrong? Answer in the comments, and anyone who has worked at a diner will earn a virtual cookie by telling me what temperature they run the griddle at. Medium? Hot?

Also consider these recipes, variations on the theme:
Almond French Toast
Applesauce French Toast
Prepare-it-the-night-before Baked French Toast

*Liquid measurements go up in size like this: mist, spritz, squirt, drizzle, droozle, glug, shot (actual measurement). That is not a family phrasing and I have no idea why I came up with it, but it works for me.

Campfire Cooking

It's summer, and for summer my mind turns toward camping. My family used to camp all of the time, and the scent of forest is a sure path to memory.

And I still remember some of the recipes from when we went camping. Admittedly, in most of the West you can't have open flames right now, but there are still some places that allow fires in firepits, and quite honestly, this is not backpacking cooking. This is campsite-with-parking cooking. This is also the first night of camping, or at most the next day.

To begin with, you need a good hot bed of coals. Not charcoal, coals. Do you know how to build a fire? Remember that before you build your fire, you should have the means to put it out nearby. This means a shovel and a bucket of sand or water at the minimum. When you do put it out, you should get it to the point where you can stick your hand in the coals.

If it seems like I'm harping on this, please realize that the current state of our forests is best described as "tinderbox." I've also fought a very small wildfire that threatened to become a very large one if it weren't dealt with, and with people who didn't know how to put out a fire. If you're going to play with fire, know what you're doing.

That said, a contained fire is good for cooking in. Many campsites have stone- or metal-lined firepits available, and the simple task of raking duff— the loose soil that is mostly made of decomposed pine needles— and branches away from the pit is more than sufficient for safety. The most efficient type of fire for getting coals is a teepee-style fire. See the link above. It burns hot and fast and gets you a bed of coals within twenty minutes or so.

Then it's time for your Dutch oven. A Dutch oven is cast iron and is designed to sit on and in hot coals. If you're going camping with one, try and find a sturdy iron hook to go with it. Some fireplace pokers work well for this job. The appropriate hook should be able to catch the handle of the pot itself, as well as being able to catch and hold the handle of the lid in a steady fashion.

If you've put the coals on top, you don't want to accidentally dump them in your food.

On a practical note, if you really don't want to clean the inside of your Dutch oven, a lining of aluminum foil works farily well, especially if you press it firmly against the sides to smooth it out. Be careful when serving so you don't end up with foil slivers in your food.

Okay, now for the recipes. First off comes a wonderful heart-attack, the kind of thing that sounds appalling unless you've been hiking all day at altitude, in which case it sounds wonderful.

Corned Beef Hash
You will need:
Two large cans or four small cans or corned beef hash, with one can that has had its label removed and the outside of the can washed well
Fresh eggs (you can have eggs in a cooler without ice for one or two days without risking anything if you bought them the day you left)

Put the corned beef hash into the Dutch oven and smooth out the top. Use the bottom of the cleaned can to press regular depressions into the hash. Carefully crack an egg into each depression. Cover the oven and place it in the coals. Put coals on top to cook faster. Check starting ten minutes after placing in the coals; your dinner is done when the eggs are firmly set and the hash is warmed through. It's overdone if the edges are black. Try not to do that.

Serves about six, fewer if there are teenagers involved.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
You will need:
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 can pineapple rings (you may have extra)
Maraschino cherries (optional)
Yellow cake mix

Melt the butter in the Dutch oven. Run it up the sides; it will help the cake to release. Sprinkle the brown sugar across the bottom. Carefully place pineapple rings across the bottom as evenly as you can. Save the juice. If using cherries, place one each in the centers of the pineapple rings.

Mix the cake according to the box directions except substitute pineapple juice for up to 2/3 of the recommended amount of water. Pour over the pineapple rings; cover the oven and place in the coals. Cover the oven with coals; bake for about 45 minutes or until the top of the cake springs back when touched.

If you've brought a cake tester along, more power to you. However, err toward the slightly undercooked side, as iron holds heat and your cake will still cook a bit once removed from the heat.

Remove the oven from the coals, crack the lid, and let it sit for ten minutes. Run a spatula around the outside edge to loosen the cake. Put parchment paper or foil along the inside of the lid, replace the lid, turn the oven upside-down and pull off the bottom. With any luck, the cake will come out in one piece, but remember that fragments are always tasty too!

There are hundreds more Dutch oven recipes at sites such as Byron's Dutch Oven Recipes,, and the MacScouter.

However, I don't want you to think that a Dutch oven is the ONLY way to cook camp food. Cooking on a stick is always a popular method, though please please please do NOT use a stick you just found unless you are entirely certain of what it comes from. There are several plants whose wood can impart poison to cooked food, the most dangerous of which is oleander, a popular decorative shrub which is highly toxic and can be fatal. Use toasting forks for your marshmallows. My family's favorite trick was to use bamboo branches from our home stand; when the end got inevitably sticky, you could cut it down with a pocketknife and it would still be slim and smooth.

But perhaps a better trick for kids is a hobo pack. Yes, I know that's very un-PC of me, but that's what it's called.

Hobo Pack
You will need:
Thick aluminum foil (or a double or triple thickness of the thinner variety)
Ground beef
Salt, pepper, and other favorite spices

This is the simplest trick of all. You put your beef and your thinly-sliced vegetables all muddled together on the foil, spice it, wrap it in the foil, double the edges and crimp them, and place in the coals. They'll cook in a short period of time— check after seven minutes, but they should take about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Baked Potato
Prick lots of holes in the potato. Wrap in aluminum foil and cover with coals. The potato will bake in forty minutes to an hour, depending on its size. Serve with salt, butter and pepper.

And for dessert, there's the Ice-Creamless Banana Split
You will need:
Aluminum foil
Bananas in their peels
Chocolate chips
Mini marshmallows

Take a knife and carefully cut a slit in the banana through the peel. Stuff it with chocolate chips and mini marshmallows. Wrap the business in foil and place in the coals; it should be done in five to ten minutes or until the child's patience runs out.

Huh. I want to go camping.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Rainier Cherries

Rainier cherries, $3.99 a pound at the local chain.

Rainier Cherries

They are lovely cherries, with a much different flavor than Bing cherries, less intese and more plummy. But not quite plums, either. Eat them straight if you like.

Or... and this was my inspiration last night... slice them up and have them with a little honey over waffles.


Oh, yeah.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Reverse-Engineered Salad

Today was one of those days where you run around a lot to very little purpose. In short, I was told to load a van, drive home and change into nice clothes, drive back (did I mention it's a fifteen-mile drive?) and help out with a photo shoot... and it turned out that I wasn't even necessary, since the second setup was having problems and we turned out to not need it anyway.

What I got out of it was a lot of drive time and a fairly nice convention-center lunch. With a salad. In a takeout box with chopsticks.

It seemed pretty simple but somewhat unconventional. So here's my attempt to reconstruct it.

You will need:
Small cucumber (preferably under an inch and a half in diameter)
Daikon radish (preferred in Japanese cuisine; try an Asian market)
Kelp (no... really)
Rice wine vinegar
Shrimp, cooked and ready to eat, then chilled

Slice the cucumber and the daikon radish very, very thin. If you've got a mandoline or slicer-dicer or whatever they call it, use that. You want slices of no more than a millimeter or two. Chop the kelp into little pieces. In a shallow bowl, soak them in rice wine vinegar for five to fifteen minutes. (I am fairly sure that you could leave them soaking from morning without damage, but let's call that good.)

Serve in small portions with shrimp on top. Rice wine vinegar has a gentler flavor than white vinegar, so serve with something that complements a faintly bitter taste.