Aug 302009
 

In an effort to get back into the swing of this blogging thing, I’m going to make a post today devoid of any real substance (i.e. recipes) because I have no new substance to report. Rather, this I’ll be posting gratuitous shots of some of the food I cooked today, all of which has been seen here before.

First up are the beloved pumpkin spice cookies. Last week whilst in the grocery store I was literally flabbergasted to find Halloween candy for sale. My brain was seriously thinking it was still July or something and was wondering why they were hawking old candy. I was happier when I realized that the appearance of the sickly sweet stuff on the shelves means one thing: it’s time to start baking these jewels again. I particularly enjoy the third photo when blown up to take over the entire screen and viewed with the benefit of a few feet of distance. It almost made Cory start drooling in his tracks.

Pumpkin spice cookies: cooling their heels
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Pumpkin spice cookies: good things come in piles!
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Pumpkin spice cookies: good things come in piles!
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Cory and I have been loving the grill recently. It doesn’t get much more simple than slicing up some veggies, crumbling some dried Greek oregano over them, and throwing them over the fire to blacken and soak up that flavor. We usually also grill fish, especially right now while the Alaskan seafood is so good (but admittedly not quite as fresh as I’m used to). Tonight we feasted on King salmon — a true indulgence — prepared in the usual manner, also pictured here and here — along with grilled zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and julienned onion (alas, the light was gone by the time it was prepared, so no photos tonight) and – another special treat – caprese salad.

[Hold on, I think I hear a riot forming in the back. What’s that, you say? I’ve never actually posted a recipe for caprese salad? Ah, that’s right, I’ve just posted a photo. Don’t fret. It couldn’t get any easier. It’s a pity because it’s certainly a favorite but I don’t know that it justifies its own entry. Anyway, here goes: take a large very ripe (preferably local because it’s really hard to find truly ripe tomatoes that aren’t local) tomato, heirloom if you can get it. Take a half-pound of fresh mozzarella cheese. Slice both into 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange on a plate. You can put the tomatoes flat and place mozzarella on top of them or you can place them vertically – it’s up to you and how fancy-pants you’re feeling. Made a chiffonade out of some basil and sprinkle it over the arrangement. Finish with a drizzle of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and some fresh cracked pepper. Skip the balsamic — good caprese is only hurt by it. Proceed to dazzle your tastebuds with one of the most simple and delicious foods out there. If you’re into, y’know, kicking it up a notch (oh god, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth), use buffalo mozzarella – mozzarella di bufala. It’s spendy but the flavor and texture are beyond compare. In further kicking-it-up action, spring for an heirloom tomato. My favorites are the Black Krims. Oh, and do yourself a favor – save those seeds and plant them next year! Another variation – great for parties – select some good cherry or grape tomatoes and find mozzarella sold in similar-sized balls. Get a bunch of basil. Take a wooden or bamboo skewer and put a tomato, a basil leaf, and a mozzarella ball onto it. Repeat until your ingredients are exhausted. Arrange on a tray and drizzle with olive oil and pepper.]

Whew. That was quite an aside for an entry that’s supposed to be all pretty pictures. But I digress.

But this was no mere caprese salad! This was, indeed, the fancy-pants variation described above! Marvel Stripe heirloom tomatoes! Buffalo mozz! Basil from the garden! And the clouds parted and Lo, the angels did sing, and it was good. And then it was in my tummy.

Black Russian heirloom tomatoes.  YUM.
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Marvel Stripe heirloom tomato with Russian Black heirloom tomatoes in the background.  YUM.
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Marvel Stripe heirloom tomato with mozzarella di bufala and basil from the garden.  YUM.
Nikon D50
Aug 282009
 

Ain’t life grand when you have the luxury of throwing a pizza in the oven on a Friday night? And isn’t it even better when that pizza is homemade? We definitely hold by that line in our house.

Kneading the dough
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I’ve always eschewed the line “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pizza” (quit rolling your eyes, I know that comes as no surprise whatsoever if you’ve even spent two minutes reading this blog) and I take great joy in making every component for my pizza that I can. Really, it’s the only way you know you’re going to get a good one.

A fresh harvest of basil from the garden
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I love to use pesto as a base for pizza, especially in the summer. Few things give me more pleasure than shearing my basil plants (Fred has recovered from his confined-to-a-pot days and is loving all the room he has to stretch his roots, for those of you who had met him when he wasn’t looking so hot), bringing the green stuff inside, and pulling the leaves off the stems. It fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma!

Whole unpeeled garlic cloves toast on the stove
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The only problem with fresh pesto is that it’s really easy to overdo it on the garlic, especially if you’re like me and habitually triple – at a minimum – the amount of the tasty stuff called for in a recipe. Luckily, I ran across a technique with which you toast the unpeeled garlic cloves on the stove to mellow out that bite it’s known for. It works like a charm and I no longer have to work about whether or not I’m going to OD on garlic. You just have to make sure to toast up enough so that you have extra to put on top of the pizza!

It's done!!!
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The only thing left to do is to load it up with other high-quality ingredients. Once you’ve done all of this, you’ll have created a pizza night to remember!

It's done!!!
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Jul 112008
 

Lasagna: there is so much to love about it. It’s cheesy, it’s gooey, it’s a meal in itself, it’s comfort food. It’s easy to make to boot. This was something I could make in my dorm kitchen, following the recipe on the back of the Barilla box. What that recipe lacked in finesse it made up for in cheese. Not that we minded – we were college students starved for a homemade meal, and so we always had fun popping this into the ovens in the dorm kitchens, opening a bottle of wine, and making a meal such that we were the envy of most dorm residents.

Now that I’m out of college though, that cheese-laden flavor-lacking thoroughly Americanized version isn’t going to cut it anymore. And that Souffer stuff? Forgetaboutit. Why oh why would you buy something like that when lasagna is like the easiest thing to make ever??? Anyway, I’d been looking for a good recipe for a several years until this winter when we had a dinner party at my swim coach’s house and my friend Ginger brought a tray of the most fantastic lasagna. It had just the right amount of cheese and wasn’t greasy and had some substantial herbs to it, which is really something that most recipes lack. So what did I do? I asked her for the recipe, of course.

The assembled lasagna awaits the oven
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“Oooh, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask my mom about it!” Apparently the lasagna recipe is akin to a state secret: Ginger’s mom worked really hard to develop the recipe (it shows!) and only gave it to her daughters under the condition that they would keep it as proprietary information. Lucky for me though, Carol agreed that it was ok for Ginger to give me the recipe because I had shared my family’s pumpkin cookie with her. Totally a great swap, if you ask me. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I do have permission to share this recipe on this blog! I’ve modified it only a little bit, because the core premise of the recipe is so solid. It uses cottage cheese instead of ricotta, which I think is a really great idea because it’s really tough to find good ricotta in the States. I absolutely love the sauce that you make for the recipe, and it’s fantastic with either traditional or turkey Italian sausages. I did substitute dried Italian herbs for dried basil because basil’s flavor is so volatile in the presence of heat and the dried version retains so little of the fresh’s flavor – but I just added in the fresh basil later in the recipe. The overall effect of the recipe is a way-less heavy version of the typical lasagna, but still retains all of the flavor that you want.
Thank you so much, Carol, for sharing this recipe with me! You did an awesome job creating this lasagna and I really appreciate being let in on the secret!

Mmmm lasagna
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Feb 292008
 

“Ugh! I hate Italian pizza! It’s so gross! It’s not even Italian, it was invented in New York! Let me eat the pizza at Boston’s, it’s so good!”

Wait for it….

KA-BLAMMO!

Yep. That was my head exploding.

It exploded not for just one, but three very good reasons.

Hating Italian pizza is impossible. The ingredients are so fresh and the results so simple that it’s quite simply easier to divide by zero than to hate it.
I’m not a food anthropologist, but I’m gonna call shenanigans on pizza originating in New York. The research I’ve done shows that it in fact came from Naples. It’s funny how a place can do such great things (invent pizza) and such monumentally stupid things (like stop collecting all the garbage so it piles up to third story windows). But I digress.
Boston’s pizza (god, I feel dirty typing in that URL for that link) is disgusting. You all know that I get pissed about paying good money for bad food, and not much makes me angrier than having to go there and pay the bill. In fact, the first time I ever went there (my bosses love it so we go there all the time for working lunches, much to my chagrin) I was sitting across from someone who had just read a few of my thoughts on restaurants and he could tell on the look on my face that I was livid about paying seventeen bucks for a shitty meal that I could have made one hundred and twenty times better by just lifting a finger and giving a shit about the food I was preparing. Anyway, their pizza is even worse than that first meal – a salmon caesar salad – that I had: the cheese was laid on way too thick and rubbery as only really bad American-made mozzarella can be, the crust suffered from being stuffed with ten times as much yeast as it needed to rise which made it utterly bland and sour, and the basil – this was supposedly pizza Margherita – was DRIED. DRIED, PEOPLE!!!!!!!!! WHAT THE FUCK???

*steps aside to breathe for a moment…. long deep breaths….*

Ok, I apologize for that “Oh FUDGE!” moment there. I just get sent into spasms of anger when I think about that place. Let’s get back to my happy place, and for me right now, that happy place is homemade pizza, even if, no matter how hard you try, it’s not quite like the Italians make it.

Not totally authentic Italian, but still really bloody good pizza
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For some reason I don’t make pizza as much as I should. There’s really no reason not to – I have a wealth of dough recipes whose prep times vary from 24 hours to 90 minutes. My pantry is always stocked with the requisite ingredients for the crust and toppings. I even have two 8-inch pizza stones, perfect for a cozy binge-free pizza night. But for some reason, I just… don’t.

Well, I had been craving good pizza for a couple of weeks and last Friday it became wholly apparent that that night was the night. The stars were aligned – the grocery stores were hemorrhaging fresh (FRESH! Not DRIED!) basil, I had plenty of fresh mozzarella in my fridge, and I had made a batch of marinara the night before. All I had to do was find a dough recipe.

So I called up my Mom. When I talk to him on the weekends, it’s not uncommon for my Dad to give me a rundown of the pizza my Mom made the previous Friday and for him to gush about how her pizza gets better every single week. No dice on the recipe from the Mom front though – she was really busy with some elderly relatives, no big deal, it’s not like she’s the sole source of pizza dough ever (though I still want her recipe!). So at one point, needing to get my current events fix, I brought up NPR and lo and behold, on their rotating blurbs about featured stories, was a Kitchen Window ad, whose topic just so happened to be pizza. It was like the skies had parted and I was sitting in my own little personal ray of sunlight. I was fated to make pizza that night. The gods had willed it to be so.

So when I got home, I got to work on my pizza. After the dough was done rising, I attempted to get the dough nice and thin, but the thing about kneading is that it make dough very elastic. Every time I stretched out the dough it just shrank right back up. I eventually adopted the mannerisms of a, well, special Italian, trying to toss this tiny disc of dough up into the air, catch it on one finger, and let gravity do the work. It certainly worked better than counter-top stretching, but clearly, my method needs work if I am to continue to aspire to Italian-standard thinness.

Thicker-crust-than-desired aside, this pizza was marvelous! I loved the warm, garlicky, basily sweetness of the sauce, topped with just a bit of mozzarella a plenty of fresh torn basil, all atop a crispy, grain-flavored crust. That pizza was not long for this world, and though I expect that it would have made a mean cold pizza breakfast, it never got the opportunity to prove itself. But even though I loved the process, the experience, and the taste so much, I think the best thing that came out of it was the inspiration to try again with a myriad of toppings. That’s one of the best things about pizza – almost anything is a choice candidate to grace your pie, so you’re only limited by your imagination.

And if you still think the pizza from Boston’s is better than this, well, do us both a favor and don’t ever talk to me about food. Unless, of course, you like watching my head explode.

Not totally authentic Italian, but still really bloody good pizza
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Feb 262008
 

Every cook needs a good marinara recipe in her or his repertoire. Why not? It’s simple to prepare, goes with tons of things, and is easily modified into a multitude of other sauces. It’s infinitely superior to what attempts to pass for jarred spaghetti sauces, and again, it’s so easily made and even more easily customized that it’s really not worth buying it off the shelf.

I recently made a batch from a recipe recommended by raving reviews from my Mom and I fell in love. It’s sweet but not overly so with plenty of warm garlic flavor without any of the raw garlic punishment. I used it for three separate applications: saucing ravioli served with fresh mozzarella and torn basil (pictured below), pizza Margherita, take due, and spaghetti with calamari (utterly divine, but so modified on the fly due to utterly poor recipe testing that I wasn’t keeping track of things like quantities and time, so I’ll have to re-make it in order to post the recipe). Needless to say, the sauce is all gone. Well, that is, until I make another batch…

(For guidance on preparing this for a backpacking meal, see the “Variations” section at the end of the recipe.)

Marinara sauce

Click for the recipe →

Nov 032007
 

When Cory and I arrived in Florence, one of the first things I noticed on menus at local restaurants was tomato and bread soup. I had never heard of it and honestly was thinking, well, something close to “ew.”

But then there was Il Latini, the renowned restaurant that hasn’t lost its local charm despite its fame (which I have already described in my Panna Cotta entry). Since it was our last night in Tuscany and we had finally found the Florence restaurant of our dreams — the restaurant that we had literally stumbled across, having gotten lost in the streets in our quest for food — I decided to branch out and try some of the truly local cuisine. Even though we were offered many, many delicious options for our primi, I ordered the pappa al pomodoro.

Basil, pre-soup!
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As soon as the waiter set the bowl down in front of me all of my previous expectations evaporated. I had been imagining something much like American tomato soup, thin and watery with an assertive salt flavor. Instead I was served a hearty, thick, delicious soup with deep tomato and bright basil flavor. Its texture on the tongue is like no other soup I’ve ever had. Cory, with his singularly amazing gnocchi, was something akin to jealous.

Bread, thinly sliced before going in the soup
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So, unsurprisingly, Cory and I started looking for a way to duplicate this soup experience when we got back to the States. The William-Sonoma Florence cookbook had disappointing results (which is a cautionary tale to American cooks that what we consider to be aromatics like celery and carrots will never ever stand a chance against plenty of fresh basil), and I was almost beginning to despair until I remembered that in the front window of Il Latini a TV was playing a tape of the international media coverage the restaurant had gotten — and they had played a clip of Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day. Feeling slightly dirty (to put it delicately, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ms. Ray), I hunted down the episode online, and lo and behold, she had their recipe!!! Cory and I cooked it together, and it was everything we remembered and brought back wonderful memories of that night in Florence.

Soup in progress
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So if you can’t make it to Florence yourself, at least do yourself this favor and make this soup. It’s so representative of how Italians can take something most Americans would throw away (stale bread), add it to a couple of fresh, simple ingredients, and create something warm, delicious, and satisfying.

Tuscan tomato and bread soup, finished and topped with fresh basil
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