Pita Problems

The other day I was cruising through food videos on Youtube and came across a Chef John who made pita bread  in a cast iron pan on the stove. Folksy and chatty, he made it look so easy to prepare the Middle Eastern staple. After the dough rose and was formed eight dessert-plate-sized circles, he cavalierly tossed them into a hot, lightly oiled pan. After a minute or maybe two, magic: the center of the dough started to puff up and in a few seconds, there was a balloon-shaped, perfectly grilled pita that collapsed on itself when taken off the heat. Houston, we have pocket bread!

Ah. A miracle of physics and just the answer to my need to work with flour, yeast and water. If you know me, you’ll understand. If you don’t, know that making bread — and eating good bread — is one of my favorite things.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a working oven right now. BUT, I have a four-burner stove and a fabulous new carbon steel pan that John gave me for my birthday. Stove-top bread? Why not!?

Out of the gate, the recipe and I were winners. In five out of eight cases, the pita puffed right up. Fresh, homemade bread was now on our menu!

Perfectly puffed pita bread in the carbon steel pan on the stovetop. Yum!
Perfectly puffed pita bread in the carbon steel pan on the stovetop. Yum!

The pitas that morning were delicious stuffed with scrambled eggs and a scattering of cheddar cheese. John kept his breakfast sandwich at that, but I added more to mine — sour cream and sautéed tomatoes, onions, and corn. It channeled both Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine because…delicious. I treated the three pouchless pitas like flatbread in the subsequent days. Despite their age, they still were really, really good. I scooped up yogurt, homemade hummus, and guacamole one day — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! — for breakfast. I also made fattoush salad with toasted and torn up pita, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, feta cheese, za’atar spice blend, and a lemon-olive oil-pomegranate molasses dressing. (I made the pomegranate molasses myself and you should too.)

When I ran out of pita, I knew I had to make more. After all, it was so easy the first time. What could go wrong?

Turns out that, unlike the sun, the pita doesn’t always rise.

I re-read the recipe, to make sure I had the process right. I followed all the instructions exactly. I set my timer for proofing the yeast. I let the dough rise for two hours until doubled. I formed eight proto-pita dough balls and let them rest, too. I rolled out the dough and let it rest for five minutes, as instructed. I heated the steel skillet and wiped olive oil across its surface.

I carefully laid the dough in the pan and then…

Nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. The pita browned very nicely on the first side. I flipped the dough and waited for the pita to fill up with hot air like Professor Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs‘s balloon before it accidentally floated up to leave Dorothy seemingly trapped in the Land of Oz.

Just a first try, I told myself. No harm done. It is a great, fragrant flatbread anyway.

The second try will definitely work. I’ll adjust. I’ll let the pan heat up a bit more.

Nada.

Houston, I think we have a problem.

And now, my friend, you ask if third time was the charm?

Not on your life.

Maybe I was letting the pita rest TOO long? Maybe I was rolling it out too thin? Or too thick? Maybe the pan still wasn’t hot enough?

I cast a jaundiced eye on the fourth flat disc. It looked right. It hadn’t been sitting for too long. Maybe, maybe, this time…?

I held my breath and placed the dough in the pan and — VOILA! — we suddenly had puffage! Oh, happy day! I cracked the problem!

Well, not quite. If this was a blockbuster movie, I would have had perfect pockets for the rest of the cooking session.

The sad truth of that day’s pita production is that only one — yes, ONE — inflated correctly.

Don’t despair. The flat pitas won’t go to waste. I’ll find more ways to enjoy them.

I won’t give up trying to achieve maximum puffiness, though. It just may take a few more times. The first time may have been beginner’s luck but the next times will be informed by experience and using Dr. Google to diagnose the flaws in technique and get tips from more pros. Or, maybe I’ll just have to try making them again, and again, and again.

In the end, I’m eventually get the hang of this ancient food staple. I’m determined.

A successful first-round pile of pocket-containing pita bread.
A successful first-round pile of pocket-containing pita bread.

Last night, we hung out with our Lansdowne friends Marty and Elliot in the amazing countryside near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe spent time painting and creating (including food!) at her home on Ghost Ranch.

The four of us sat under the bright stars and cloudy milky way and had a snacky supper. We tore the failed pita…um, I mean, the successful flatbread into pieces and scooped up various combinations of hummus, red pepper sauce, olives, feta cheese, and slices of turkey or ham cold cuts that Marty and Elliot provided. The pita bread was delicious and perfect even after being stored in a plastic bag (at room temp) for a few days.

Even though the three of them caught sight of shooting stars that night, I didn’t. Still, I kept looking to the stars and thanked my lucky ones that we were able to share a meal with friends under the amazing heavens while enjoying the earthly delights of food nurtured by the sun, water and the soil.

Life is good.

Dinner tonight: Poached Chicken with Ramen Noodles and Peanut Sauce

Here’s the very loose recipe for this dish. Serves two and can be adjusted up or down as needed.

Poached Chicken with Ramen Noodles and Peanut Sauce

1) Cut cucumbers and carrots into short strips. I also grated part of the carrot to spread the sweetness better through the dish.

 
2) In a bowl, mix a few tablespoons of smooth peanut butter, a dash (or two) of toasted sesame oil, a dash of rice wine vinegar, a dash of hot sauce (I use sriracha), a couple of teaspoons of sugar, and a generous dash of soy sauce. Stir, adding a little bit of hot water or sesame oil if the peanut butter doesn’t easily get smooth. Taste and adjust according to what you like. (If the sauce is too thin or won’t get smooth, heat in a pan and stir until smooth.)
 
3) Boil water in a pot and add a boneless, skinless chicken breast and cook until just done. It should be moist when you cut into it but not pink. The time will depend on how thick the meat is. Slice chicken in strips.
 
4) Cook ramen noodles in the hot broth as per instructions. The brand I got, purchased from the H Mart in Upper Darby, said 4 minutes. (If any of the chicken seems a little underdone, throw it into the water to finish cooking it.) Drain.
 
5) Mix hot noodles with chicken and peanut sauce. Toss veggies on top. Squeeze a hefty slice of lime juice over it all. Add extra salt or soy to taste.
— Maura C.

Spiced Pulled Chicken (or Pork) Tacos

“How can you cook in such a small space?”

That’s the incredulous question I get frequently when I say we live in 170 square feet surrounded by curved walls.

The truth is, I can make anything here that I make in a kitchen, as long as I’m willing to clean up the pots and pans.

Lately I’ve been trying to reduce water use by using just one pot. That’s when I found a great recipe for pulled chicken tacos and adapted it to work for pork as well. Turns out, cinnamon, cumin, smoked paprika, red wine, onions and tomatoes along with other key flavors make a mighty fine topping for flour tortillas or even rice or pasta. Sour cream was dolloped on top (sriracha for me but none for J).

This recipe is going into the meal rotation since it makes easy and abundant leftovers.

Spiced Pulled Chicken (or Pork) Tacos
Makes about 6-8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 onion, chopped
3-4 mini sweet red/yellow/orange peppers, chopped (or one large pepper)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin (or 2, to taste)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup white or red wine
15 ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice or apple cider vinegar
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts OR small pork loin roast, cut into 1-inch by 2 inch section sections
Flour or corn tortillas
Optional toppings:
Lime wedges
Shredded lettuce
Salsa or sriracha/hot sauce
Sour cream

  1. In a large heavy pot like a dutch oven, add olive oil, onions and peppers. Saute until onions are soft. Add chopped garlic and the spices — cinnamon, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, kosher salt — and stir until mixed. Let cook for a couple of minutes to let the garlic soften and the spices bloom in flavor.
  2. Add wine to pan, scrape up bits from the pan bottom, and cook until wine is almost evaporated. Add tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and lime juice or vinegar.
  3. FOR CHICKEN: When the pot contents are bubbling hot, add the chicken breasts and nestle them into sauce. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot, and let chicken poach in the sauce for about 30 minutes or until cook until the chicken no longer shows pink in the center. Remove from pot and shred chicken with two forks in a large bowl. Cook the sauce down so it is thicker and return chicken shreds to pot and heat through.
  4. FOR PORK: When the pot contents are bubbling hot, nestle pork pieces into the sauce. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot, and let the pork cook for about an hour or more so that the meat is tender and shreds easily. Remove from pot and shred with two forks in a large bowl. If needed, cook the sauce down so it is thicker. Return pork shreds to pot and heat through.
  5. TO SERVE: Heap small amount of chicken or pork, as appropriate, on the tortillas, squeeze lime wedges over, add salsa or hot sauce of your choice, and top with sour cream, if desired.

— Maura C.

Great Plains Ice Storm

Great Plains S.P. in OKlahoma On Our Arrival Night with Moonlit Sky.

We arrived in Great Plains State Park, Oklahoma, on the evening of November 25, 2015. It was the night before Thanksgiving. We had barely got the Airstream level and stabilized, when I had to grab my tripod and take advantage of the moonrise, the clouds and the fantastic light reflecting off our aluminum home. I took many more photographs of this scene in the next hour as the light persisted while the temperature was in the mid fifties.

Great Plains State Park, Altus, Oklahoma

You have to understand that being a photographer means never letting opportunities like this pass you by. When the light is this good, find something to shoot, even a wooden sign if you’re nowhere exciting. A rock or a bush could become a masterpiece under this great lighting.

As We Drove By A Sun Drenched Cliff, We Saw The Shadow Of Our Yukon & Airstream Driving Beside Us. (The photographer rarely touches Photoshop when editing images.)

Well, Maura made some dinner, and afterwards I spent hours on my Mac editing the best photos of our trip, so far. When my tired eyes got the best of me and everything on the screen looked streaky and out of focus, I joined M in bed and eventually fell asleep.

The Next Morning At Great Plains S.P. OK, Ice Covered Everything In Sight, Including Our 1985 Airstream. and all the trees.

Maura almost always rises before me. She shook me, and as I opened my eyes I noticed that what little light was sneaking in around the curtains was muted and gray. When we tried opening the door, it wouldn’t budge. Then we pulled back the curtains and saw nothing but a thick sheet of ice covering the glass, and the entire shell of the Airstream, freezing our front door closed! We were in for a five day extended stay at Great Plains S.P. waiting for the trailer to thaw and the roads to clear. The next evening Maura performed some culinary magic in our miniscule kitchen, sans a working oven, to prepare our first Thanksgiving on the road.  — John G.

Maura’s First Thanksgiving On the Road, In Our Airstream, In Oklahoma after the Ice Storm!