The Start of a Starter

I’m not sure what inspired me to create a sourdough starter. I can’t remember if it’s something I had contemplated for a while, or if I started it on a whim.  It was, most likely, inspired by my love for baking bread, and the memory of my sister keeping a starter for a while when we were teens, and making mouth-watering cinnamon rolls with it.  Anyway, I launched into my experiment with a sourdough starter not entirely sure what I was getting myself into.

I had a cookbook which we had found at a book sale, probably the local ongoing library sale which we raid periodically, all about bread. My intention was to cook through that cookbook as well, and had tried a couple recipes, all of which had been flops. The Mexican wedding cookie was crumbly af and the cornbread recipe yielded the driest chili accompaniment I’d ever had. But perhaps those were flukes, I thought.  I read the chapter about sourdough and decided to use the book’s recipe to raise my own from scratch.

What came from it was complete disaster. The cookbook recommended covering the bread with a damp cloth for the first week as I slowly built it up.  Soon enough, I had a lump of dough which was streaked with grey and smelled like rotten yogurt.  And then appeared the mold.  Well, that was a flop. Into the bin it went.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t realized what a dumb idea covering it with a damp cloth was. What else will happen but mold?

As you might expect, I turned to the Joy of Cooking.

The process for making a sourdough starter takes about a week, more or less.  It requires consistency, patience, attention, and lots of flour (obvs.) And in time, it yielded my very own sourdough starter, lovingly named Doey (like Joey, but also like doughey.)

Raising Doey has been a constant learning experience for me, a bit like raising a child, I suppose. You have to feed it every day, make sure it gets exercise, and above all, don’t forget about it.  I’ve rung up King Arthur Flour Company more than once to ask questions like, should I feed it before storing it in the fridge for a week of no baking? Is it ruined if a fruit fly got trapped inside?

The most challenging thing for me, honestly, is all the baking science that goes behind a sourdough starter.  Science is far, far from being my strong point. Give me an essay to write on the great British novel and you’ll have it in a day; ask me to explain anything of a scientific nature and I will very possibly end up in tears.  (Same with math problems.) This article, “Beginner’s Sourdough Bread,” on the blog The Perfect Loaf, is one of the many amazing and helpful resources about sourdough starters, and summarizes much of what needs to be known about starters. For instance, it challenges my ignorant notion that the temperature of the water isn’t all that important in feeding the starter.  Turns out, it actually is.

But my ultimate resource is the King Arthur Flour Company. The website contains a vast collection of recipes that call for sourdough at its various stages– the peak of the rise, the discard, and so on.  The recipes range from basic sourdough loaves to sweet breakfast breads, rolls, pizzas, and dessert flatbreads. Who would have thought?  I’ve been slowly working my way through the different kinds of recipes, trying to learn something new about baking with each recipe.  As with The Joy of Cooking, I will be sharing about some of the recipes as I try them and perfect them.  But for now, I’m off to read their ultimate guide to sourdough and to think about which recipe to make tomorrow.

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Cleveland Noshes: Winking Lizard Clambake

 

You aren’t a true Clevelander, I suppose, if you haven’t been to a Winking Lizard.

Now, your opinions of Winking Lizard may vary. If you’re my mom or my older sister Amanda, you hate the local chain with its reptilian mascot, and vow to never ever eat there again (a tear drops down my face as I write.)

 

If you’re a Cleveland sports fan and love a good sports bar– well, I assume Winking Lizard is a good place for such folks (I wouldn’t know, not being a sports fan, albeit a Clevelander, if it’s possible.) Finally if you’re Julian and me, you might not be a fan of the loud sports bar experience, but the food, as a whole, is worth it. We also have a special fondness for Winking Lizard, as the final part of our first date took place over drinks at the Cleveland Heights Coventry location, which sadly no longer exists. Nowadays, we make an occasional visit to the Mayfield Heights location, which has yet to disappoint.

One of the main attractions for me over the summer was the ultimate BBQ half chicken, one of their summer specials. After my brief stint as a (mostly) vegetarian, I have been what I call a chicken fiend. It happened last time I tried going vegetarian as wellIMG_20180915_200044467.jpg— once I stopped, it’s like I felt like I had to make up for all the chicken I hadn’t eaten. And Winking Lizard’s BBQ half chicken with its side of Latin street corn– let’s just say if I was stranded on an island and had to choose three meals I could have there, it would be on the list.

Imagine my heartbreak, then, when September rolled around, and despite the fact that summer wasn’t really over, the specials were gone and the fall specials had replaced them. We had made a special trip to Winking Lizard out of my desperate craving need for BBQ half chicken only to find out it was gone, and I had to content myself with wings.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait all that long to experience my favorite dish again.

Every year, Winking Lizard has its annual clambake. It takes place over a couple weekends around September or October (the dates differ depending on the location), and features a special menu that inevitably includes a dozen steamed clams and a couple select entrees. This year, they featured the return of the BBQ half chicken! (Fireworks! Confetti! Banners! Hip hip hooray!)

There was no way we were going to miss it.

So we went twice.

The meal begins with a bowl of clam chowder. The first time we went it was okay– no complaints but no raving reviews either. The second time, it was really delicious and a perfect way to start off a feast.

Following up the chowder, we each received a dozen steamed clams served in little nets that made us feel at least a little bit like being back in Cape Cod. The clams are served with a little butter sauce on the side for dipping.

Finally, the part we have all been waiting for: the entrees. Julian and his mom tried the lobster, which received good reviews. But you know, I was there for the chicken.

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The entrees are served with your choice of baked potato or sweet potato. I tried the baked potato the first time, which was hot and soft the whole way through. The second time, I tried the sweet potato which was equally good. The dish is also served with the Latin Street Corn that came with the BBQ half chicken during the summer. This is not the type of corn you have when you want something light and healthy. It is slathered in butter and topped with a delicious buttery sauce with an edge of spice to it. To add on to the points, they serve buttery garlic bread as well.

Then there was the chicken– half of it, slathered in delicious Winking Lizard barbecue– tender wings and thighs. I ate it like I imagine a cavewoman would in the days of olde, or someone stranded on an island who hadn’t chosen BBQ half chicken as one of their three meals and was finally presented with their first good meal in months. It’s the last chance I’ll have until hopefully next year, when I hope (and might even petition) for them to bring it back in all its chicken glory.

You have one day left to try it for yourself. The last date of the clambake is October 7th, at the Peninsula location. It’s your last chance until next year!

Why Smartpoints?

In my journey of exploration in food, you will often find me noting how many “smartpoints” (sp) a recipe comes out to.  For those who are not familiar with the system, smartpoints are Weight Watcher’s current method for tracking what one is eating.  On a given plan, you are allowed a certain number of smartpoints per day, and a certain amount of overflow for the week that you can use however you like.  Some foods, like vegetables or beans, are usually point-free, so technically you can have as much as you want of those.  Other items, like milk and butter, can be 5 to 7 points, and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake is well over thirty.

I started using WW in December of 2017. When I started college in 2012, I ranged between 130 and 140 pounds.  But slowly I added on the pounds until, by that December, after a year and a half of a desk job where I sat literally all day, I had reached 172 pounds.  My body felt heavy just to move in it, I was exhausted all the time, short of breath frequently, and my blood pressure was bordering on high.  My gynecologist was the one who turned me on to Weight Watchers. “I’ve known lots of women who’ve seen great results with it,” she told me.  It had always seemed old-fashioned to me, and I was skeptical of pretty much all weight-loss programs (the ketogenic diet, in my experience, was an absolute joke.) But at her recommendation, I gave it a try.

I was given 23 points a day and 30 monthly overflow points in order to reach my goal of 135.  I discovered that the wonderful thing about Weight Watchers is that you can still enjoy delicious foods, you just have to pace them appropriately. If you have tiramisu cake on Thursday, don’t go get ice cream the next day.  If you have a noodle soup for dinner, have a light lunch of apples, carrot sticks, and white bean hummus to balance the points.  I found creative ways to bring down the points: use fat-free Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise, olive oil spray instead of the recommended tablespoon of oil in a recipe, hard-boiled eggs as a snack.  But at the same time, I could enjoy delicious foods instead of starving myself and hating life.

After half a year, I had lost 30 pounds and felt really happy with where I was at. At that point, I decided to transition into maintenance mode. The truth is, if I don’t hold myself accountable and eat heavy, rich foods on a regular basis, I put on weight quickly. Being skinny isn’t a priority for me.  I feel happy fitting into size 8 jeans and medium tops. It feels healthy, and it feels me.  But health is a priority– high blood pressure and heart disease is a genetic possibility for me which I want to avoid if I can. Not wanting to return to the point where moving is a drag (literally), I am trying to continue living by the principles that I know work for me.  I calculate the smartpoints of the recipes I try in the WW app and include them, both for myself to know how to balance meals for myself, but also to help others who may be on the same journey as I.

This is not to say that I don’t fall off the bandwagon from time to time.  During my recent trip to Washington D.C., I threw smartpoints out the window and gorged myself on the most amazing patisserie experience which is Paul (be still my heart!)  But I will tell you all about that another time.

“O Kitcheneers!”

I’d like to say I invented the word “kitcheneer” to describe someone exploring and adventuring into the world of food creation.  However, it seems other people have also invented the word from their separate kitchens and that I am one of many kitcheneers who lays claim to the title.  I hope they don’t mind if we share it.

My name is Melanie, and my journey into the world of cooking has been slow and halting over my lifetime until the last three years, when it has exploded into an all-encompassing fervor.

My mom, besides being a strong, independent thinker; a fun-loving woman with a laugh that makes you laugh too; and a lover of Masterpiece Theatre (especially Poldark), is also an amazing cook.  Growing up, I was privileged to enjoy some of the best dishes: green chile chicken enchilada casserole, cozy chicken and dumpling soup, hearty stromboli, her mom’s recipe for fried chicken, the one true spaghetti sauce, buttery nut-free banana bread, and the world’s best rhubarb pie (and her grandma’s piecrust which no one can ever beat.)  Occasionally she would let me join her in the kitchen– one of the first meals she let me make was meatloaf, and my sisters and I would help her can and freeze too: late summers consisted of peaches oozing all over hospital blankets we’d laid out on the floor to keep the tile from becoming a sticky mess; corn husks falling all over the ground while I told my sisters all about my story ideas; the kitchen smelling of apples being made into applesauce which doubled for dessert when it was taken fresh out of the freezer.

After I left home for college, I borrowed some of my mom’s recipes whenever I missed home.  But my diet during those years I shared apartments with so many other girls, not all of whom left behind a clean kitchen when they were done with it, normally consisted of chips and salsa or bean dip, cereal with milk, Chinese takeout, and mac and cheese.

And then I met Julian.  I met him on a cold March day outside of a little gallery at the Cedar Lee district in Cleveland.  All the dates I’d ventured on with people I’d met online had been underwhelming.  But this time I found myself falling in love within the very first hour of having met in person.  His curly hair, his green-blue eyes, his intelligent mind, and the way we just “clicked” on every level– it was the first date that I desperately didn’t want to end. We went from the gallery to dinner to a bookstore to the Winking Lizard which no longer exists at Coventry, and after that we reluctantly parted ways.  Later that night he texted and asked if I’d like to come over for dinner sometime.

That first dinner consisted of grilled salmon, sauteed and seasoned kale, and brown rice, accompanied by some light jazz (he’s a true romantic) and followed by a viewing of Midnight in Paris, and our first kiss.  Needless to say, that dinner made a huge impression, because never in my life had I known a man who could make such delicious, high-quality food.  Soon I learned that his late father had been a chef, and he had gleaned a wealth of knowledge about food preparation, seasonings, and cuisines, by osmosis, growing up in a restaurant family.

Cooking together became one of our favorite things to do.  For a while, we would order meal boxes such as Home Chef, Blue Apron, and Marley Spoon (until we ran out of introductory discounts.) That was enough to kick me into full gear in the kitchen. I never knew you could do so many exciting and delicious things with vegetables! I tried my hand at foods I had never heard of before: fattoush salad, chilaquiles, bolognese (my computer is telling me that all three of those are not real words– it doesn’t appreciate adventurous foods apparently.) I made things I had never tried before: beurre blanc, grits, risotto, beef Wellington.

We also took to exploring the ever-growing food scene of his hometown and my new home, Cleveland. We ate delicious bananas foster french toast at Graffiti: A Social Kitchen, cozy homemade Japanese food at Flying Crane Cafe, and the world’s best lobster bisque at Pier W, on whose balcony we would eventually get married.  Whenever we have had the chance to get out of town for a bit, we always fit food into our adventures: oysters in Cape Cod, the best breakfast in the world at Paul in DC, seasoned crab at the Crab Shack in Annapolis, Baked Alaska at Cafe Boulud in Toronto.

Inspiration was everywhere.  In Parts Unknown, the late Anthony Bourdain took us on a journey to the heart and soul of people around the world through their food: Vietnam, Senegal, even Houston, TX.  On a more frivolous note, we fell into a strong addiction which hasn’t stopped– the Great British Baking Show, or, the Great British Bake-off (Lord knows why we Americans felt we had to change it.) There are few things more inspiring than to see a dozen complete amateurs take on such a huge challenge and create the most amazing dishes (Nadia, you are forever my hero– never say never.)

All of this is to say that in the last almost-three years, I have fallen in love with food in a way I never could have imagined.  With my muse and my love at my side to support me with his love and his wealth of knowledge (“how hot should chicken be in the center?” and “would these spices go okay together?”), I have taken to the kitchen like a madwoman and am determined to learn everything I possibly can to become an accomplished baker and chef– even if the only people to ever enjoy it are Hubby, my family, and my small circle of friends.

My latest decision is to work my way through a book Julian found for me at a booksale and is one of my favorite things he’s ever brought home to me: The Joy of Cooking. This book is an absolute encyclopedia of almost everything one would want to know about cooking or baking.  Eventually, I would like to try my hand at every recipe in the 1997 edition, with the belief that if I can understand these basic recipes (sauces, soups, etc.) I can begin to create my own with a technical knowledge that would make Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry proud.  On the side, I am turning weekly to the King Arthur Flour Company for inspiration and help, thanks to their hotline, and have raised my own little sourdough starter to create everything from sourdough bread to waffles to dessert flatbreads.

The purpose of this blog is to document my kitcheneering adventures, my successes, my failures, the things I am learning, and the things I love.  If you’ve made it through this lengthy memoir, I commend you, and welcome.  Let’s bake!