Feb 032013

Eggs are magic.

Many food cultures seem to agree and have come up with their own version of savory eggy dishes. Omelets and quiches are pretty well-known, but have you ever had a frittata?

The Italians dreamed this one up. Envision a crust-less quiche without the usual addition of cream to the filling and you’ve got the measure of this bit of deliciousness. These things, like omelets, can be as simple or as fancy-pants as you’d care to make them, which makes them ideal for situations when you’re short on time but don’t want to sacrifice the yum-factor — no matter what time-of-day you’re cooking for. They go as effortlessly from the dinner table to delicious left-overs warmed-up for breakfast.

I’ve been making this version of frittata for years. I like it because I nearly always have the ingredients on hand, prep is done in five minutes, and about twenty minutes after that, I’m pulling dinner (or breakfast/brunch/lunch) out of the oven. Feel free to add and subtract ingredients to suit your whims. Nearly anything goes, so next time that carton of eggs in your fridge challenges you to a staring contest, show it who’s boss and whip up a frittata!.

Spinach and feta frittata

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Sep 142012

Pasta Fazool

I am such a huge sucker for hearty bean stews. The moment that the summer heat shows that it might be wavering in its resolve, I’m pulling out all my cookbooks and playing match-maker with my stash of beans. Borlotti beans often find a starring role in my kitchen in every imaginable application, and this soup is no exception.

Pasta e fagioli (aka pasta fazool) is a dish born of frugality, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be boring. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to find bland versions of this soup, with boring beans, mushy pasta, and a lack-luster broth. This soup rectifies all those wrongs and then some, all without requiring you to slave over a stove for hours or leave a pot simmering all day. Served in small portions, it makes an excellent appetizer (or primi if you’re going authentic-Italian-style), or scooped up into bigger bowls, it’s hearty enough to be a meal in itself. Either way, it’s a delicious and welcome addition to any table — whatever the weather!

Pasta Fazool!

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Sep 012012

Tomato medley | Savory Summer Caponata

Summer is probably my favorite season for fresh produce — but really, if you ask me in the fall or the spring what my favorite seasons are, you’ll probably get a different answer. Despite that, there’s one jewel of summer that makes me especially prize its produce, and it’s a gem that eclipses and asparaguses and strawberries of spring and the delightful hard squashes and greens of fall. If you know me at all you know that I am absolutely bananas about summer tomatoes. I wait all year for them and when they show up at the farmers’ market I go absolutely crazy buying them (alas, I haven’t mastered tomato-growing yet, and we moved across the country this summer, so I didn’t even get to try this year). This year has been trying for my tomato mania, as the pregnancy has caused incredibly awful heartburn since the beginning of the second trimester, and tomatoes are a major trigger for me. I’m stubborn though, and as my tomato lust has continued unabated, I haven’t tried to hold back from slaking it.

Diced jewels | Savory Summer Caponata

One of the things about Ohio that’s made me really happy is that heirloom tomatoes do really well here, unlike Arizona, where it’s just too damn hot and the pollen literally burns up in the flowers. I wasted no time finding an amazing farm that’s less than six miles from my house that produces all of my summer favorites, including a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes! Every week I go and stock up, buying several different varieties, for the week’s cooking and noshing.

Eggplant disks | Savory Summer Caponata

It turns out that the farmer also grows everything else that I could possibly want for another favorite dish of mine: caponata. This is a dish that I liked pretty well the first time I had it, even though I was cooking it in the winter and the ingredients were so far from peak-of-flavor that it wasn’t even funny. Since I started making it in the proper season, I’ve completely jettisoned the original recipe I was using and re-worked it to play better with in-season ingredients. Of particular importance is getting the tomatoes to fully complement the eggplant: eggplant readily absorbs flavors, so if you salt the diced tomatoes and let them sit for a while, lots of juice will be drawn out of them and they’ll lend lots of tasty flavor to the eggplant. Who knew these two relatives could play so well together? So go, hurry: summer is waning, so grab the last of the summer produce and whip this dish up!

It's caponata time! | Savory Summer Caponata

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Aug 292012

A whole, plated savory bruschetta tart

When it comes to cooking, sticking within limits can be so boring. If you’re ever in the mood to pull out a stop or two and make something the likes of which you’ve never had before, this savory tart is an excellent choice.

I first came across this recipe in a book that we received as a wedding gift. I can’t recall what first possessed me to try it; perhaps it was the description (it used to be served at the author’s Napa Valley restaurant) or the ease with which this could be fit into a dinner-party menu. Either way, I’m extraordinarily glad that I tried it: while I don’t make it terribly often, it’s been firmly set in my repertoire ever since. So much so that for my last birthday (my 30th), I decided not to go to a restaurant and to make this for dinner instead.

Savory bruschetta tart

So don’t be intimidated by the eggplant (this recipe introduced me to the veg), the method (my first-ever dip into deep-frying), or the unusual presentation: this is a dish whose bright, fresh flavors are welcome at any occasion!

Savory bruschetta tart

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Oct 042009

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been cooking. It doesn’t matter what your favorite cuisine is or whether or not you actually know that you’re looking for something: there is a recipe out there for each of us that we have been yearning to make.

In this dish, I found mine: whether I knew it or not, zuppa di farro is the type of Italian food I’ve been trying to make since I learned how to cook.

No, it’s not smothered in tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It isn’t pasta and there is neither a meatball nor a wine-soaked pan-fried chicken cutlet to be found. But this, folks, is the real deal – it’s not Italian-American, it’s apologetically Tuscan.

Not that the Tuscans have a single thing to apologize for in their cuisine. The days I spent in Florence and Siena were non-stop food bliss. And though I never tried this soup while I was over there, as soon as I tasted it I knew that zuppa di farro was unmistakably at home there.

Cesare Casella, the author of this recipe’s cookbook, said that this soup is like the Italian equivalent of chicken soup – it cures all ills. It screams comfort food, and the moment it hit my lips I wished that the temperature would drop a good forty degrees and that the rain would start falling in sheets from the sky. So the next time a day like that rolls around, take my advice: put on a cozy chunky sweater and lounge around the house with a good book in your hand and a somnolent hound at your feet while a pot of this simmers away on the stove.

Zuppa di farro

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Sep 272009

I have been meaning to post this for a loooooonnnggg time. In fact, if the word “long” was as long as the length of time I’ve waited to post this recipe, it would be approximately sixty-three syllables long. But I digress.

Rancho Gordo borlotti beans

I’ve long had a soft spot for minestrone. It’s such great comfort food, and super-healthy to boot. I suppose that soup is normally a fall or winter endeavor, but here I’m going to give a Tucson summer (the fact that it’s late September is irrelevant – it’s in the upper nineties today) the finger and make this soup anyway. That’ll show the bloody weather!

There I go with my digressions again.

I’ve been through a lot of phases with this soup. I first got hooked on it at an Italian restaurant when I was a teenager, so when I started cooking a lot of vegetable soups after I moved to Alaska I decided to try this one out. To be honest, I hated my first attempt. I hadn’t yet started making my own chicken stock, and this was when I learned the hard way that using commercial chicken broth as the base for a soup is Officially a Bad Idea because it is Utterly Repugnant. However, at the time, I didn’t know that was the cause, so I just thought the recipe was a dud.

Many months later, something strange came over me and I decided to try it again – on unsuspecting dinner guests, no less. This time I was using homemade stock, and when I put the stuff in my mouth I had a foodgasm. It was that good. But because I am crazy, I am hardly ever 100 percent satisfied with a recipe, no matter how good it is. I decided that what this soup needed was an improvement in the bean department. Since then, I’ve tried all manner of beans: pinto, cannellini, kidney, great Northern whites, and heavenly borlottis. But all of these were canned and none of them were quite right.

Enter Rancho Gordo beans! These heavenly heirloom beans are as fresh as dried beans can get, especially when compared with lowly supermarket beans that are more than likely about five years old, which explains why those inferior beans cook slowly, unevenly, and blandly. This company carries many little-known and rare varieties of beans, including – look out for the squeeing – borlottis! I tried them for the first time when I was throwing together this soup, and finally, I have found my 100 percent satisfaction. These creamy, velvety, supremely flavorful beans add an entirely new level of flavor that ties minestrone together perfectly. It is definitely worth the time to find and cook the beans. And considering that I only just discovered the key to bean bliss, it was also worth the wait in posting this recipe!

Minestrone soup

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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
Nikon D50
Pumpkin spice cookies: good things come in piles!
Nikon D50
Pumpkin spice cookies: good things come in piles!
Nikon D50

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.
Nikon D50
Marvel Stripe heirloom tomato with Russian Black heirloom tomatoes in the background.  YUM.
Nikon D50
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
Nikon D50

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
Nikon D50

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
Nikon D50

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!!!
Nikon D50

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!!!
Nikon D50

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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
Nikon D50

“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
Nikon D50

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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….


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
Nikon D50

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
Nikon D50

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