November 8, 2009

nothing like the real thing

One: I have a wonderful husband who loves me a lot.

In addition to being a master taste-tester, idea-guy, dishwasher, and kitchen-hand extraordinaire who provides musical entertainment while I cook and occasionally whips up a mean Irish beef stew, he now bakes! 

Chocolate chip cookies.  For me.  As a surprise.  When I am exhausted from working constantly.   

And he uses the Cook’s Illustrated recipe I have been testing, substituting light brown sugar for dark and topping the cookies with sea salt before baking – just the adjustments I had been planning to try!
The sea salt garnish was perfect.  I think the cookies look prettier and still have plenty of flavor when made with light brown sugar.  I do still plan to do a side-by-side taste test of dark vs. light and a couple more hybrid versions of the CI and NYT recipes  at some point.

Two: Homemade chocolate hazelnut spread will do in a pinch, but there’s really only one thing that can help ease my separation anxiety

Get your own here!
November 5, 2009

Fall Back, Part 4

These last few days have felt like a marathon of catch-up blogging.  The following gets us through most of  October and constitutes the final segment of “Fall Back.”

October 6, 2009

I worked on a recipe for pumpkin cookies.  All of the many variations (including one with molasses and another with chocolate chips!) were yummy, but not quite what I was going for.  There were very cakey and thus felt more like muffin tops than cookies.

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October 13, 2009
Orecchiette con Verdure e Pesce
orecchiette with vegetables and fish

This was the first recipe I attempted from my latest issue of La Cucina Italiana.  I adapted it to the ingredients I had on hand:
mahi mahi instead of monkfish,
chard instead of dandelion greens,
kohlrabi instead of celery root,
broccoli instead of cauliflower,
and homemade orecchiette instead of pasta shells.
The dish also included butternut squash, carrots and onions.
All the vegetables were julienned and sautéed, with the fish added in the last several minutes of cooking.

It was my first attempt at making orecchiette by hand.  It’s a fairly simple shape to make.  Just take a small ball of pasta dough (about the diameter of the nail of your index finger) and press it into the palm of your hand with the opposite thumb.  The dough should curl up around your finger. 

The challenge is making them all the same size and thickness.  Mine were all over the place, and thus did not all get cooked to the same degree. 
Oh, well.


October 25, 2009

Carnival Squash Soup
printable recipe

Serves 6 as a starter.

The following recipe will work with any winter squash.  I like carnival squash not only for it’s sweet, nutty flavor, but also because it make a great table decoration before it’s used for cooking.

2 medium carnival squash
olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
4-8 cups vegetable stock (store bought or homemade, see below*)
Preheat oven to 425 F.
Halve the squash.  Not an easy task.  I initially went with the Cook’s Illustrated recommendations to used a large chef’s knife or a metal bench scraper and a hammer.  Neither method worked well for me, so I ended up sawing through the squash with a serrated bread knife.
Clean out the seeds and fibers and reserve for vegetable broth. 
Place squash halves on sheet pan or baking dish and drizzle with olive oil (not extra virgin). 
Roast in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until flesh is tender and can be easily pierced with a fork.  Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil a medium saucepan.  Sauté onions in oil until translucent, stirring frequently.

When squash is cool enough to handle, remove skin and roughly chop squash.  Add squash to saucepan.   Add 4 cups vegetable stock and allow to simmer for several minutes. 

Puree the soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a traditional blender or food processor.

Add more vegetable broth until desired consistency is reached.  Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

At this point, you can add cream to the soup, but I find it is just as delicious (and a little healthier) without the cream.
Garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, fried sage, or freshly cracked black pepper.

*For this particular soup, I improvised a vegetable stock, using things I had on hand.  Feel free to use a store-bought stock or any other recipe for vegetable stock.  Do use the squash seeds and fibers for the stock, if possible.  It will boost the squash flavor in your final soup.  While the squash is roasting, fill a stockpot with onion scraps, a few stalks of celery (including leaves), parsley, reserved squash seeds and fibers.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for at least an hour.  Season with salt.

Grandma’s Soup (Fall Back, Part 3)

October 1, 2009

No one knows the exact history of this soup, except that my mother’s family has been making it for a long time.  Whether my grandmother or her mother or some previous  generation originated the recipe I am not sure, but it has since been passed down through my mother to my sisters and me.  It’s something like what Americans think of as “Tuscan bean soup” or “pasta e fagioli”: a rustic, inexpensive but filling soup of homemade pasta, vegetables, and beans.  The perfect meal for those days when you’re short on cash or abstaining from meat.  Or if you just feel like a hug from your grandma who may not be around anymore…

Some of my most vivid memories of visits to my grandparents’ farm in Northwest Arkansas are of this soup.  We always arrived late in the evening, and Grandma always had a pot of soup keeping warm on the stove for us.  As we groggily stumbled through the door, disoriented by the long car ride, the  first thing I would notice was the familiar aroma of Grandma’s soup.  Sitting around the table with a hot bowl of soup and a few saltine crackers or a slice of homemade bread was the perfect welcome. 

The first time I ever made this soup was during my junior year of undergrad, about two years after my grandmother had passed away.  I remember standing over the stove in a townhouse I shared with two friends, waiting for the soup to come together.  The moment that familiar smell hit my nose, it brought me to tears.  It’s still one of the most significant cooking moments of my life.  I remember thinking how amazing it was that something so simple could be so powerful, that the aroma of this soup could affect me so deeply and make me feel like I was right back in Grandma’s kitchen. 

Even now it brings back so many memories:   My adult relatives crowded around the table after dinner playing cards and my grandmother’s laugh.   Snipping fresh green beans on the front porch with Grandma.  Picking blackberries for cobbler.  Exploring the “timber.”  Tractor rides.  Getting unexpectedly snowed in and Grandpa building us a sled from scratch. Playing on bales stacked to the top of the hay barn in the late Fall and our disappointment  in finding the barn empty come Spring.   

There’s certainly a part of me that longs for those days.  I would appreciate so many things about my grandparents’ way of life  so much more now.   Vegetables came straight from the garden, and those that weren’t eaten fresh my grandma canned for the winter.  Grandpa’s cows grazed freely in large, open pastures.   The recent movement towards eating locally and reports on the significant health benefits of grass-fed beef make me think of the farm.  Whenever I succeed in doing something like not buying bread in over a month (baking it myself), I feel that in some small way, I am closer to them and the spirit of simpler times.  Maybe someday I’ll even have a vegetable garden of my own.

Pasta e Fagioli alla Nonna (Grandma’s Soup)
printable recipe

2-3 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cans cannellini beans*, undrained
3-4 chicken bouillon cubes (I use 3-4 tsp. “Better than Bouillon”)
2 medium potatoes**, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
~1/3 cup ketchup
Homemade pasta (about 3 cups)
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of oregano

In a large soup pot heat 2-3 tbsp olive oil.  Sauté onion, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, mash 1 can of beans with a potato masher or fork.  (This will make for a nice, thick broth!)

When onions are translucent, add mashed beans and 4 cups water.  Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

Add chicken bouillon, stir to dissolve.  Add vegetables and second can of beans.  Stir in ketchup and a dash of oregano.
Cook until vegetables are tender.
Add pasta and cook about 10 minutes more. 
Season with salt and pepper to taste.

* My grandmother used something called “horticulture beans,” but since they are not easy to find, cannellini, great northern, and pinto beans (or a combination of the above) can be used. 

**  I always add (frozen) green peas and sometimes leave out the potatoes in favor of more green vegetables. 

November 4, 2009

Ravioli, fatti a mano (Fall Back, Part 2)

September 29, 2009

Butternut Squash Ravioli

Handmade stuffed pasta is truly a labor of love:  it can be quite time-consuming, but so fulfilling--especially when there is someone special to share it with.  

At least once each fall, I like to make either pumpkin or butternut squash ravioli.  My first batch this year was butternut squash.  You can use the same method for any other winter squash, such as pumpkin or acorn.

printable recipe

for the filling
(This can be done up to a day in advance or while the pasta dough is being made.)

about 1 pound butternut squash
olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Quarter the squash (carefully!), remove seeds and fibers (reserve for another use, if desired),  drizzle with olive oil (not extra virgin) and roast in a baking dish for 30-40 minutes, until the flesh is tender and can be pierced easily with a fork. 
Once the squash is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and puree the squash. (You can mash it with a fork or potato masher.  A food mill or potato ricer would also work well.) 
Combine pureed squash with freshly grated parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.

fresh pasta for ravioli
2 3/4 cups of flour*, plus extra as needed for dusting                           

1 tsp salt
3 eggs
water, as needed

*Up to 1 1/2 cups whole wheat “pastry” flour can be substituted.
On a clean surface measure flour and salt.   Stir to combine and form a mound.

Create a well in the center and crack one egg.

Slowly incorporate the egg and flour by gradually drawing flour from the sides of the well with a fork.  Be careful not to go through the sides of the flour mound or you will have egg all over the counter!

Once first egg is mostly incorporated, crack second egg and incorporate as before.

Repeat with the third egg.

Once all three are incorporated, use your hands to carefully combine the remaining dry flour with the egg mixture.  It should look something like this:

Add water a few drops at a time until all the flour is moistened and you have a cohesive dough.
Knead for 5 – 10 minutes until ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.  (The dough won't be completely smooth.)

Wrap dough in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.

After resting the dough should be supple and elastic and much easier to work with.

Cut off 1/4 of the dough and wrap the remainder in plastic wrap.  Flatten dough with your hands until it is about 1/4 inch thick.  Using the flat plates of a pasta machine set to the widest setting (a rolling pin works too, but isn’t as precise), roll dough through to flatten.  Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter), rotate 90° and feed back through the pasta machine on the same setting.  Repeat one or two more times until the dough is a smooth, uniform shape the same width as the pasta machine.

Roll the dough back through the machine (not folding or turning), gradually decreasing the width each time, until you reach the desired thickness. (The last two settings both work, although the final setting makes for a more delicate pasta.  If you go all the way to the final setting, be sure not to over stuff the ravioli, so that the filling won't break through the pasta during cooking.)

At this point, you should have a long strip of pasta about 5 inches wide.  Lay it across a clean, lightly floured surface.  Place about 2 teaspoons of filling approximately 3/4  inch from the closest edge and spaced 1-2 inches apart down the length of the dough. 

Using water and a pastry brush or your fingers, moisten the edges of the dough (in a square around each mound of filling) and carefully fold the far edge over the near edge, enclosing the filling as pictured below:
 IMG_8164  IMG_8170

Using your fingers, carefully press the dough on the far side of each mound of filling and in between each mound.  Gradually work your way to the near edge of the dough, ensuring that any extra air is allowed to escape before the near edge is sealed.

Starting with the long edges, trim the dough with a ridged ravioli-cutter (a pizza cutter will work too).  Then cut between each mound to create individual ravioli.

Seal the edges of each raviolo with the tines of a fork to ensure that no filling escapes during cooking.

Place finished ravioli on a floured surface to dry slightly before cooking.  (I used floured waxed paper on a cookie sheet).
Repeat with remaining dough (1/4 at a time).

Don’t discard the pasta scraps!  Toss them with flour, and spread them out to dry.  Once they are completely dry (usually overnight), they can be stored in a sealed container at room temperature and used for soup.

Cooking and serving

with Sage and Brown Butter Sauce,
for two:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
fresh sage leaves ( about 6-8 large or 10 small)
freshly grated parmesan

Bring a large pot of water to boil. (A pot with a pasta insert works particularly well for fragile stuffed pastas.)  Generously salt the water. 

Carefully add about 20 ravioli* to the pot and cook until desired tenderness is reached.  (Cooking times will vary.  Start with 5 minutes.  Remove a raviolo and test a small corner for doneness at 5 minutes and every minute or 2 after that until pasta is al dente).  To drain, either lift pasta insert or remove ravioli with a slotted spoon or mesh strainer.

While the pasta cooks, melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Once butter is melted, add sage and fry until sage is crispy and butter is browned.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  (At this point, you could also add cream to the sauce, but the butter and sage are excellent on their own.)

Arrange drained ravioli on two plates.  Top with browned butter and garnish with sage leaves, freshly grated pepper and parmesan. 
IMG_8229  IMG_8245

Serve immediately.

*8-10 of these ravioli are usually plenty for one person as a main course.  The recipe makes about 50.  The remaining ravioli can be stored in the refrigerator (layer with flour and waxed paper in a sealed container) for a few days or frozen for several months.
November 3, 2009

Fall Back, Part 1

I’ve been working really long hours the past several weeks and most of my free time has been spent cooking instead of writing about cooking.  My work schedule has finally let up, and in honor of the time change, here’s a recap of the last week of September:

September 24, 2009

We made pretzels:

Until we started our little pantry project, there were many things that found their way into our pantry and never found their way out again.  Among the ranks was a make-your-own pretzel kit that we got in a gift exchange last Christmas (see what I mean).   Despite our best intentions, it didn’t see the light of day until a few weeks ago.  It was a fun change of pace to have a project we could both work on in the kitchen.

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September 25, 2009

We stopped buying bread.

This is my first multigrain loaf -- from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, with a couple of adjustments.  
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Although  I own a couple of appliances that will do it for me, I really enjoy kneading dough by hand.  It’s a pretty good upper body workout and makes for a much more satisfying bread-baking experience.   That said, I did break down and let my stand mixer do the work for me on a whole wheat loaf I made last week.  I was in the middle of another cooking project (more on that later) and with the help of the mixer, turned out a loaf of bread in less than 30 minutes of active time!
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Complete with freshly cooked wheat berries in the mix.
There was enough dough left over to make a couple of rolls….
IMG_8104  IMG_8100
…which were perfect for roast beef sandwiches the next day.
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You’ll notice my imperfect shaping skills in the gap at the top of the loaf… I’m getting there…

September 26, 2009

I attempted my first French omelet a la Cook’s Illustrated

My pan was 9” instead of the recommended 8,” so I didn’t quite have enough egg mixture to go around. 
I didn’t have chives, so minced red onion served as a substitute.
IMG_8082  IMG_8084 IMG_8085 
It didn’t roll out of the pan quite as easily as promised.
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I ended up rolling it up with my fingers, instead  of the recommended paper towel.  The paper towel is supposed to protect your fingers from the hot omelet, while providing an aide to roll it perfectly.  I found it unnecessary for the heat and easier to roll without the paper towel. 
Cheating?  Probably…

It still tasted quite good, however. 
Next time, I’ll give Julia’s method a go – and make sure I have an 8” pan.

September 27, 2009

I made my very own sourdough starter from scratch (also with the help of The Bread Baker's Apprentice).  The first attempt didn’t go so well:
I read up on the unwanted bacteria that exist in the air and can grow in a sourdough starter and prevent the good bacteria (yeast) from growing.  After finding some solutions online, I attempted to rescue the first batch of starter and began building a second batch, which went off without a hitch.   I tested the first batch by making a loaf with it. 
Although it didn’t rise as much as I wanted, it tasted great and gave me high hopes for the other batch of starter.
My second mostly-whole-wheat sourdough boule rose properly and was just delicious.   Hopefully this week, I’ll have time to refresh the starter and make some more!

September 29, 2009

I concocted a slightly healthier twist on my mother’s recipe for pumpkin bread, substituting whole wheat for half of the flour, reducing the sugar, and reducing the oil.   The addition of whole wheat flour was undetectable and the sugar and oil were hardly missed.
The Original Recipe                              The New Recipe
3 cups sugar                                                 2 ¼ cups sugar
1 cup oil                                                       just more than 3/4 cup oil
4 eggs                                                          4 eggs
½ cup water                                                1/2 cup water
3 ½ cups flour                                             2 cups whole wheat flour 
                                                                   1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda                                       2 tsp. baking soda
3 tsp cinnamon                                            3 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg                                               1 tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves (optional)                               ¼ tsp cloves (optional) 
1 ½ tsp salt                                                 1 ½ tsp salt   
2 cups (16oz) pumpkin                               2 ½ cups (20 oz) pumpkin
1 cup walnuts (optional)                              1 cup walnuts (optional)

Beat together oil and sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, beating between each.  Add water and beat until combined.   Sift together dry ingredients, add to wet ingredients and beat until blended.   Stir in pumpkin until blended. Pour into greased and floured loaf pans and bake at 350 for 1 hour.
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