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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Cooking

Some things about cooking...eating...and food in general that I'm only now getting around to mentioning...

 I was on a bit of a roasting kick this year.  And there's a laughably easy formula I've discovered:
"your choice of vegetable" + splash of olive oil + salt/pepper to taste + hot oven = fantastically delicious.
One can roast just about anything this way.  I've roasted carrots, parsnips, artichokes, sweet potatoes, squash, Brussels sprouts (with the added bonus of a bit of chopped up pancetta) and, my favorite -- broccoli, finished with a sprinkle of Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon.  That one's a total winner.  I saw it on an episode of Tyler's Ultimate, tried it once and have never looked back.  You too, need never steam broccoli again!

So, I say...Roast...and be happy.

This is one of those vaguely mysterious spices I never paid much attention to.  I have some pretty green cardamom pods in a spice jar, that probably date back to the early nineties, but I have no memory of why I bought them, or what I may have used them for.  Then, early this year I stumbled across a recipe for a Vanilla Cardamom Pound Cake which sounded simultaneously homey and exotic.  Now, I've never met a pound cake I didn't like, and this one called for vanilla bean (yet another of my relatively recent obsessions) so before you could actually say cardamom, I was pulling the mixer out and digging in the spice rack for a tin of ground cardamom that had been knocking around for at least a couple years.
The result?  Heavenly.  Baked in a Bundt pan, the cake was moist, golden and perfumed with that amazing combination of vanilla and cardamom.  A perfect match if you ask me.  I've made it several times since and it never fails to impress or turn your home into a fragrant paradise. 

The Chicken and Egg Thing
It seems like owning chickens is The Thing these days.  Friends have chickens.  Relatives of friends have chickens.  Susan Orlean has chickens and wrote about it for The New Yorker.  A colleague told me he got his chickens from  Seriously.  And day, he brought me some eggs.

They were beautiful.  Steve and I poached them the next morning and I swear to you that there was nothing more delicious than those perfectly poached, incredibly fresh eggs.   Unforgettably wonderful.

So this was the year I stopped using bacon in recipes that called for pancetta.  Ohmy, what was I thinking?!    The subtle, beautiful porky goodness of pancetta is something almost entirely different.  Silly me.  In certain recipes the lack of smokiness that is bacon's hallmark is a good thing.  It is not there to overwhelm or obscure the other flavors in your dish.  Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE bacon.  But, when the recipe SAYS me.  They're telling you something important.  I've figured out that pancetta can keep in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper and placed in a plastic container or bag, for at least a week.  I also found a couple excellent local makers of pancetta.  So, now it makes sense to me why I never thought Pasta alla Amatriciana was a big deal.  Ha!  Try using pancetta!!  Magnifico!

Building a Better Meatball
I didn't think it was possible...I had a meatball recipe that was pretty good.  A version of a Cook's Illustrated recipe that I thought was incomparable.  That is...until Rao's.   A legendary Italian restaurant in New York,  Rao's has a cookbook that reveals many of their secrets.  My friend, K., gave me the book for my birthday this year, inspiring us to create a Red Sauce Sunday dinner with recipes from the book.  I kid you not when I say the meatballs were a revelation.  Light, with an almost fluffy texture they were a huge hit.  Okay.  I'll say it...mama mia!!

The Pot
So I finally succumbed and spent what seems like a small fortune on...a pot.  Not just any pot.  An enameled cast iron beauty of a Dutch oven made by Le Creuset.

For years, I hemmed and hawed.  I used to stop in at Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma every so often simply to ogle it.  It really was ridiculous in a way.  I mean, all this agonizing...over a pot!  And then one day this past spring, I just thought, "I am going to buy that pot."  So I did.  And, I must tell you, it is a regular work horse.  I have it on the stove at least once or twice a week and I absolutely love it.  (Ohh, the beauty of a pot that gives you the tiniest of simmers in a Bolognese sauce!) 

Which brings me to some things I am planning to try and some books I'll be cooking from in the New Year...

  • The now-famous No-Knead Bread recipe that first showed up several years ago in a New York Times article -- and yes, I will be using my Le Creuset!
  • Foccacia.  I feel like this is one of those things I would like to try to make at home, especially a version of Pizza Bianca I found at Smitten Kitchen.  I love the idea, and taste of a simple dough, rosemary, olive oil and salt. 
  • Anything and everything from David Tannis' book A Platter of Figs.  He is one of the chefs who shares the head job at Chez Panisse and his book is stunning.  It is laid out in seasonal menus for eight and I'm planning to start with the Lobster Risotto, for New Year's Eve.
  • The Banana Cream Pie, the shortbread and ohh, a few other things from the Tartine cookbook.
  • hmmm, and maybe some Asian food...I've always wanted to make my own spring rolls, with exactly the combination of shrimp, pork and greens I like... but also, I've been meaning to try Chez Pim's Pad Thai recipe since I first saw it...
Much cooking to, I'll keep you, umm, 'posted'.

Happy New Year!

*           *          *          *

Rao's calls for frying the meatballs in 1 cup of olive oil (!) but I use much less.  Depending on the size of your fry pan, you want there to be about a quarter inch of oil in the pan.  I've also had good results with broiling the meatballs.  Place the meatballs on a large, foil-lined baking sheet or jelly roll pan.  Brush each meatball with olive oil and broil on each side, turning as they become brown.

The other important element is to use your own, fresh breadcrumbs.  It makes all the difference in the world.

Anna and Frankie's Meatballs  (Polpettini)
adapted from Rao's Cookbook by Frank Pellegrino

(makes 28)

1 pound ground lean beef
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped Italian parslety
1/2 small garlic clove, peeled and minced, optional
2 cups Bread Crumbs
2 cups lukewarm water
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil (approximately)

For the bread crumbs:
Use the finest quality Italian bread you can find and allow it to dry for at least two days.  Then grate/chop in a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Store tightly covered and refrigerated for no more than a week.  (I've been freezing the leftover bread crumbs in a plastic container and they are good for at least a month.)

For the meatballs:

1.  Combine beef, veal, and pork in a large bowl.  Add eggs, cheese, parsley, garlic and salt and pepper to taste.  Using your hands, blend ingredients together.  Blend Bread Crumbs into meat mixture.  Slowly add water (personally I think this is the part that makes these great), 1 cup at a time, until the mixture is quite moist

2.  Shape meat mixture into balls (about 2-inches).

3.  Heat oil in a large saute pan (or place meatballs on a baking sheet and proceed with broiling option).  When oil is very hot but not smoking, fry meatballs in batches.  Yes, you will make a big mess of your stovetop, but oh, it's so worth it.  When meatball is very brown and slightly crisp turn and cook top half.  Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.
Put some Frank Sinatra on the stereo and sing along..."...that's Amore....!"

4.  Lower cooked meatballs into simmering Marinara Sauce and cook for 15 minutes.  Serve over pasta of your choice.

What?  You say you'd like a recipe for Marinara as well?
Ok, here you go...and promise you'll never buy jarred sauce again.  There really is no need, and they put corn syrup in that stuff.

For Marinara sauce:
2 28-ounce cans imported Italian plum tomatoes with basil (try to find tomatoes labeled San Marzano)
1/4 cup fine-quality olive oil
3 tablespoons minced onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Salt to taste
6 leaves of fresh basil, torn
Pinch dried oregano (or Italian Seasoning)
Pepper to taste

1.  Remove tomatoes from the can, reserving the juice in which they are packed.  Using your hands, crush the tomatoes, gently remove and discard the hard core from the stem end, and remove and discard any skin and tough membrane.  Set aside.  (When you're in a hurry, Crushed Tomatoes in the can work well too.)

2.  Put oil in a large, nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat.  Add onion and saute for 3 minutes or until translucent and just beginning to brown.  Stir in garlic and saute for 30 seconds or until just softened.  Stir in tomatoes, reserved juice and salt.  Raise heat and bring to a boil.  Immediately reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for about 1 hour or until flavors have combined and sauce is slightly thickened.  (Cook another 15 minutes if you like a thicker sauce.)

3.  Stir in basil, oregano and pepper and cook for an additional miutes.  Remove from heat and serve.

Sauce stores well tightly covered and refrigerated for a couple days or in the freezer up to 3 months.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday Baking

I know, I know, it's That Season...
...of perhaps one too many glasses of bubbly...of rich foods eaten in copious quantities...of occasionally frantic list-making...and, yes, the slightly wacky music that wedges itself in one's brain for eternity.  (Example:  Mele Kalikimaka.  It's a song from an old Bing Crosby holiday record--with the Andrews' Sisters singing backup-- about a Hawaiian Christmas and I know ALL the lyrics, by heart.  Weird.)

It's also the season for baking.

Suddenly, in the weeks leading up to the holidays, otherwise ordinary people I know turn into night-prowling, super-human pastry chefs...their lives becoming a cycle of double-shifts as they bake their way through challenging holiday cookie recipes after their day jobs are done and night has fallen.

I've had my own ups and downs with holiday baking.

Typically, early in December, I begin an overly ambitious list of baked goods I plan to tackle.  True to form, this year included a weeklong obsession with making croquembouche, or as my French friend, N., likes to say simply "choux".  This towering assemblage of profiteroles built in the shape of a giant cone and drizzled with caramel is like climbing Everest in the pastry world, so I'm not sure why I thought I might be up to the task.  (See above...I've had my ups and downs with baking.)   After several days of surfing various cooking sites and blogs, the enormity of such a project sank in and defeated, I moved on to searching the Bay Area Chowhound boards for suggestions on local bakeries that carry my beloved pastry during the holiday season.

My holiday baking list always includes the now near-legendary White Chocolate Apricot Biscotti, which as noted before, make me as well as others, very happy.  Another classic that makes an appearance every year or two is oddly enough...a brownie.  This one is a cream cheese swirl brownie, with the added festive touch of orange zest mixed into the cream cheese topping.  I cut the brownies into tiny, bite-sized squares and they never fail to delight adults and children alike.  I'll make a batch this year, simply to honor the fact that they are from a particularly beautiful back issue of, ahem, Gourmet.

Now that Gourmet is gone, my holiday issue magazine stack is not as large, and I'm still trolling for the year's  'new' cookie.  There needs to be a bit of challenge with all this baking going on, so I usually try one new recipe.  At the moment, I'm tempted by a Lemon Twist from Martha Stewart Living.  There's also the possibility of a ginger cookie from the Gourmet web site, but in the end, my tentative plan is to somehow bring back memories of Sicily and make a panettone.  My Battle Chocolate colleague, Mike G.,  is considering bringing in his own version if we can somehow coordinate each doing our baking this coming weekend.  I'll report back on the results if The Panettone Smackdown actually happens.

Finally, there always has to be a 'problem child'.  Something that ups the I-suffer-for-my-art element of holiday baking.  In my case these recipes range far and wide.  There have been repeated attempts (all failures) to re-create a pate de fruit-like little apple ball my grandmother used to make.  (It never, ever jells.)  Meringues also figure into the high-failure rate category.  Me and egg whites.  Usually a disaster.  This year I'm planning to reprise a high-suffering/low-yield recipe from Celia Barbour.  Her Brown Butter Cookies (an old family recipe from a Swedish grandmother I think) have an intense stress factor -- making brown butter is tricky -- but are insanely good.  By the time you've paired all the halves created in one batch, together, sandwiching some jam between each, you realize, you have, like, twelve cookies.  Total.  The last time I made these, my father reached across the table to grab a second as we all munched on desserts one Christmas Day, and I reflexively swatted his hand away, informing him there was only one per customer. 

The kind of cool part about all of this is the sense of holiday baking camaraderie I feel with everyone out there whose December is similar.  Those of you who begin stockpiling butter early in the month...find yourself toasting almonds at nine o'clock at night on a Tuesday, or wake with a start on the sofa when the alarm goes off at 1 am, telling you to pull the final batch from the oven know of what I speak.

Cheers to you all and happy holidays.

*         *          *

This is really an assembly of two different recipes -- the brownies are from the New York Times article on brownies a few years back and the orange cheesecake topping from the original Gourmet article mentioned above.  Feel free to substitute your own favorite brownie recipe for the base.

Orange Cheesecake Brownies

For cheesecake batter
  • an 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

For brownie batter:
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) butter, more for pan and parchment paper
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup flour

Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan and line with buttered parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make cheesecake batter:
In a bowl stir together cream cheese, sugar, and zest with a wooden spoon until smooth. Beat in egg with a fork until blended and stir in flour.

Make brownie batter:
In top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, or on low power in a microwave, melt butter and chocolate together. Cool slightly. In a large bowl or mixer, whisk eggs. Whisk in salt, sugars and vanilla.

Whisk in chocolate mixture. Fold in flour just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Plop tablespoons of cheesecake filling a couple inches apart across top of the brownie batter.  Using a large fork (I use a serving fork) score the top, mixing and twirling the batters together to make decorative swirls). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until shiny and beginning to crack on top. Cool in pan on rack.

Yield: 15 large or 24 small brownies.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Touchy Subject

People are soooooooo funny about stuffing.

There are some people out there who believe the turkey is the focal point of the Thanksgiving meal.  They are so wrong.  It's really all about the stuffing, which is why everyone has an opinion about the stuffing.

Years ago, when we first started hosting the Thanksgiving meal, I was a bit of a, hmmm... (should I say it?) well, a bit of a maverick.  When it came to the side dishes and the stuffing, there were no rules.  It was our kitchen and we could, and did, try anything that sounded good.  The early years included a version using those little bread stuffing cubes that come in a bag.  (Brief shudder of shame.)  We tried a  stuffing with oysters.   (What a waste that was.  You'd never have known that a pint of freshly shucked oysters was even was as if they had evaporated.  Just now when I mentioned it to Steve he said, "What a shame.")  We tried simple, straightforward celery-and-onion based stuffings with no weird dried fruits or nuts.  (Can you say, boring?!)  Cornbread-based stuffings were attempted on numerous occasions, and met with lukewarm praise.  Wild rice was considered (and abandoned) as an idea.  Basically, we were all over the map.

We were living in Massachusetts in the early 90's, and for the better part of a year, there wasn't much I was cooking that didn't originate from the cookbook of a talented caterer and Silver Palate protege,
Sarah Leah Chase.  Based on recipes developed at her Nantucket catering shop, The Open-House Cookbook was my go-to cookbook at the time.  Mainly, summer-y in it's take on cooking, it did have a section called Thanksgiving-by-the-Sea, which was utterly charming.  I decided to give Nantucket Scallop Bisque and the Savory Apricot-Sausage Stuffing a try.

The soup was a smashing success...elegant, creamy and sophisticated.  But, little did I know that with the stuffing, I had just handcuffed myself to a recipe, for-EVER.  Truth be was outstanding.  (But really, any stuffing moistened with Cognac and chicken stock and butter has got to be good, no?)  It was everything you want in a stuffing.  Tangy apricot and pear made for perfect dance partners, waltzing sweetly with moist bread and bits of sausage, all delicately perfumed by fresh rosemary. It was heavenly.  The following year (maybe it was a cornbread year?) the family clamored for "that stuffing from last time". was like being David Byrne and having people constantly shout "Play Psycho Killer!!" at you.  Stuffing became Groundhog Day.  I rebelled every so often, trying something new, but the family was unforgiving.  "Are you going to make the apricot stuffing?" they'd want to know...weeks before.  And, in a way, they're right.  It's a winner.   I still like to take a break every so often and try a new stuffing.  Keeps them on their toes...and makes the return to The Stuffing all the more sweet.  The nice thing about "our" stuffing?  It's the one thing I can count on to produce complete harmony in the family.  Imagine!  You too can enjoy family harmony during a potentially stressful holiday.
It's all in the stuffing.

(And, yes, the leftovers are phenomenal.  Shown above with good ol' canned cranberry jelly...always good with leftovers, because, well, there are never any leftovers of the regular cranberry sauce I make each year.)

Shopping Notes:
The easiest thing to do with the chestnuts is to get yourself to your nearest Williams-Sonoma, or fancy grocery store and get the chestnuts in a jar.  They come from France and they're perfectly lovely.
Open jar.  Chop.  Done.  I roasted chestnuts for this one year.  Big...HUGE pain.

Savory Apricot-Sausage Stuffing
adapted from The Nantucket Open House Cookbook by Sarah Leah Chase

This recipe is designed to stuff a 22- to 24-pound turkey, with some extra baked in a dish on the side. 

3 cups dried apricots, diced
1/2 cup amaretto liqueur
1/2 cup Cognac or brandy
1 1/2 cups (3, 'yes, that's T-H-R-E-E sticks of unsalted butter)
1 very large yellow onion, chopped
1 bunch scallions, white bulbs and green stalks, sliced
6 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 pounds Pepperidge Farm's herb stuffing crumbs (don't knock it 'til you've tried it...)
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
8 ounces bulk pork sausage (aka breakfast sausage)
2 cups chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 ripe pear, cored and diced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
         (Right.  Go ahead and use your favorite brand out of the worries.)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.  Soak the apricots in the amaretto and 1/2 cup of the Cognac for 2 hours.
2.  Melt 3/4 cup of the butter in a large saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, scallions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and toss with the stuffing crumbs.
3.  Add the Italian and bulk sausage to the same pan and cook, crumbling the meat with a fork or the back of a large spoon, over medium-high heat until the meat is no longer pink.  Add the meat to the stuffing mixture and stir to combine.
4.  Add the chestnuts, pear, and rosemary to the stuffing and toss to combine.  Stir in the apricots with the liquid.
5.  Heat the remaining 3/4 cup butter with the chicken stock in a saucepan just until th ebutter is completely melted.  Pour the butter mixture over the stuffing ixture.  Mix the stuffing well and season to taste with salt and perpper.
6.  Store the stuffing in the refrigerator (overnight) until ready to bake.
7.  Butter a large baking or casserole dish* and spoon the stuffing into the dish.
8.  Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. for 40 minutes.

*I do not bake stuffing inside the bird.   Typically for a 10- to 12-pound bird, I halve this recipe and it fits in a large, rectangular glass baking dish.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Farewell Dinner

Last month Conde Nast announced the closing of several of their publications, one of which was Gourmet, and the news left me genuinely stunned and somehow...bereft.  Sure, I didn't quite know what to make of the magazine over the past several years and I had even let my subscription lapse for a year around the time Ruth Reichl was named editor.  But, don't laugh, I've been reading Gourmet since I was a geeky teenager.

My collection spans decades and was probably the main reason the weight the moving company calculated for our belongings was in tons.  I have issues I nabbed from my mother when I was in college.  I have the years from the late 60s to early 70s which belonged to my husband's grandmother.  Gourmet introduced me to one of my favorite food writers of all time, Laurie Colwin, for which I will be eternally grateful.  It's difficult to put into words the genuine shaping influence it had over the way I think about cooking, eating, travel, entertaining...and about life really.  

How could a publication that had been such an enormous part of my life education simply go away?  It felt wrong.  I needed to mourn.  The answer was to cook...(but of course!) and to cook with people who might somehow understand.    So, the big cartoon light bulb over my head turned was time to "walk the walk".

*     *     *

In recent years, Gourmet had, uh, let's say "evolved".  Into what, I'm not really sure.  Where there used to be highly styled photos of food on tables laden with lavish dishes, silver and flowers in empty dining rooms, or on deserted terraces, there were now attractive models with great clothes enjoying the food and cavorting (does that make me sound Victorian?) in festive, Elle Decor-like settings.  The colors seemed extra-saturated and the photos not too brightly lit.  For the most part, issue after issue, there was rarely anything that I actually wanted to cook.

There were a couple of which was the November 2008 issue.  Last year, having just completed the big move from Chicago, we gave up our usual Thanksgiving hosting duties and instead drove down the coast to Santa Monica to spend the holiday with Steve's brothers.  And, wouldn't you know it?  I bring along my November issue on the trip, and there, in the main menu...the "centerfold" meal, as I like to call it, was something I wanted to cook.  It was a menu featuring twelve dishes that integrated "bold Latino flavors" into a traditional Thanksgiving feast.  Chipotle Meatballs and Mango Pomegranate Guacamole with Plantain Chips kicked things off.  There was a Clementine Jicama Salad... turkey marinated in a chile and spice paste...Corn Bread and Chorizo Stuffing...and the clincher:  a potato gratin layered with roasted poblano peppers.   Mouth watering and mind racing, I was consumed with an almost greedy cook all of it and to taste all of it.  But how?  Ha!  Why not host a Thanksgiving dinner in the off-season, so to speak?  When no one is expecting roast turkey and the trimmings?  I marked the pages and thought "I'll just do July!"  (It's freezing in San Francisco in the summer, so it would have been perfectly fitting.)

July came and went.  August and September too.  Work was busy.  Who had time to figure out how to cook twelve, count 'em, TWELVE, dishes?!  And then.  The News.  As, I was time to "walk the walk."

Luckily, I had shared my wacky idea back in the summer with three very dear friends.  It may even have been on the evening we all went to see Julie & Julia together, and then came back to our place for Seafood Quiche straight from the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  My friends--all supremely talented cooks--were intrigued.  They thought it would be fun.   And, here's the most wonderful part...they wanted to help cook.

The announcement of Gourmet's demise provided a perfect opportunity.  A date was quickly agreed upon, I dug out my post-it covered issue and sent photocopies to the group.

So, a few Saturday's ago, we all convened in my kitchen and put together a feast of epic proportions, that looked just like the pictures!!   It was a magical, delightful way to spend an evening together and I say that as a genuine skeptic when it comes to gourmet clubs and pot-luck dinners.  We created a meal both gorgeous and delicious.  T., who normally creates recipes, brilliant cook and trained chef that she is, followed recipes in this case, with stupendous results.  F.  who insists she is not a dessert-baking type created pies that were phenomenal and picture-perfect.  And, J. whipped up magazine-worthy perfection, effortlessly.  We all cooked in ways and with ingredients we'd never tried before.  In some way, this all made me even more sad that the magazine is no longer around.

But wait a second...
there is that lovely springtime Menu for a Pool Party from April 1972...

Thank you, Gourmet.

*    *    *    *
Here's the full menu (yes--all twelve dishes!) with links to the recipes on Gourmet's web site, which is still up, as well as some cook's notes on each. 

Gourmet Entertains from the November 2008 issue
These were incredible.  Zesty and delicious...but then again, I've never met a meatball I didn't like.

Absolutely perfect.  The smoothness of the avocado gets a nice zing from the tartness of the pomegranate.

Plantain Chips
A crowd favorite.  Perfect flavor to balance the guacamole.  Addictive.  And, yes...T. had never bought or cooked with a plantain...ever.

One of the best salads in recent memory.  I will be making this again...and again.  It's a keeper.

 I can't believe I made an adobo sauce, from scratch.   I can't believe Steve found both dried guajillo and ancho chiles for me.  The smell of this marinade is transporting and it gave the turkey a gorgeous color.

This was the one dish I somehow wished was better.  The ingredients sounded great to me, but in the end, I think I realized, I'm just not a cornbread stuffing gal.  Maybe it's the texture.
J.'s mega-hit crowd-pleaser.  There was not a speck of it left at the end of the evening.  'Nuf said.
Chayote?  You say...what's a Chayote? Ah haa! Well, here you go... it's kind of like a squash-gourd thing-y.  Relatively simple preparation, but boy oh boy, follow their suggestion and wear gloves when peeling.  F. lost a layer of skin on her hands because she didn't.
Yet another huge hit from J.  Everyone was crazy about this, and I think I may add it to my Thanksgiving menu in a few weeks.
This was super delicious.  The smokiness of the charred poblanos, the creaminess of the potatoes...heaven.
F. insists she's never made a lattice, so clearly she's gifted.  This pie was spectacular.  
I gave Steve an ice cream maker for his birthday and this was one of his first few tries.  Good times ahead, for sure.
Nothing to say but, yuuuuuuuummmmmmm.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Search for the Perfect Roast Chicken

If I had been able to participate in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, I would most certainly have tried to shoehorn in one more unalienable right..."the pursuit of a Perfect Roast Chicken".   Because truly, a perfect, beautifully roasted chicken, is...Happiness, actually.  Does that sound crazy?  Maybe chasing a dream of finding the perfect roast chicken recipe for years and years, does sound crazy.  Believe me, there were times of deep despair.  I mean, seriously, people!   I would ask myself, regularly, after each failed, not-quite-right chicken...

Shouldn't it be easy to make a good roast chicken?

But, oh it is not!  Chicken after chicken after chicken.  Nothing seemed to come close.  My goal:  crispy, golden skin, moist and tender meat that tasted, rich, and well...chicken-y.  Nothing fancy really.

Early attempts included a contraption for the chicken to sit on -- an adjustable v-shaped rack, that would cause much cursing from Steve-the-Dishwasher, since fat and chicken bits used to cling tenaciously to the various nooks and crannies on the rack.  There were ill-fated experiments with a layer of onions or potatoes acting as a rack of sorts, upon which you'd place the chicken.    These vegetable 'racks' were a failure in every respect.  Pale and unappetizing, the fat-drenched vegetables never seemed to cook all the way through, and the underside of the chicken remained soggy and no-fun.

At some point in my culinary history, I had come to believe in Cook's Illustrated recipes with almost religious fervor.  So, of course, there was The Roast Chicken Recipe, with its intricate, numbered steps to heat the pan then flip the bird one way, then another, on its side, etc...
Meh.  Too much flipping, and pestering the poor bird for average results.  The search continued.

I converted and moved on to my Worship The French period.  (Do we see a pattern emerging here?)  Convinced that they had the answer when it came to the best way to roast a chicken, I pursued every possible method associated with France I could find.  This included the American-ladies-in-France...Julia, of course, and Patricia Wells, but also French restaurant cookbooks.  I thought I came close with a recipe from the Balthazar Cookbook that involved messy and slightly dangerous chicken-flipping on the stovetop at high heat.  There was also a momentary affection for Patricia Wells' version from Bistro Cooking, which involved squeezing the lemons that had roasted in the cavity, over the carved meat.  Bottom line though.  No perfect chicken.

Then, I found a book called Roast Chicken, by some English guy.  Super casual know...all "crank up the gas to 375,  toss the bird in a roasting tin, shut the oven door and have yourself a glass of wine."  Utterly unremarkable.  Bugger.

Hope wavered.  I resorted to store-bought rotisserie chickens to cheer myself up.  One of my favorite I-Live-in-San Francisco moments came last year, when I impulsively bought a rotisserie chicken at...
wait for it...
Costco shopping to me is a rather strange experience, but that's another story.  I was at the oddball section in the middle there where they sell denim, and uh, books (!) and I was noticing crowds of people moving over towards the deli section.  They were congregating over there.  Waiting for, I don't know...something.  I thought I'd check it out.  When I got there, I saw what was going on.  Rotisserie Chicken Guy was just then, taking some very plump and nice-looking roasted chickens off the giant skewer and plunking them into containers, fresh right out of the roaster-contraption.  They looked pretty good.  They were five dollars!!  $4.99, to be exact.  I chose one, he put it in the container for me, and I was on my way!
Here's the thing.  It was delicious.  Falling apart tender...savory and yes, chicken-y.  We ate most of it in one sitting.  Granted by the time we got it home, after a long day, it was close to 9 pm, but still.  With great enthusiasm the next morning, I shared the story with my colleagues at work.  Ohmy.  You'd think I'd eaten someone's pet cat.  They pointed out that the Costco chicken was most certainly not free-range, or biodynamically raised, or sustainably farmed, etc...It was classic San Francisco foodie outrage.
You get the picture.  I never spoke of "The Costco Chicken" again.

The Pursuit of the Perfect Roast Chicken continued.
(Long story, I know.  My mother tells stories like this.   Stay with me...)

Then, one night last winter, we joined some friends at the beloved San Francisco restaurant Zuni Cafe, for dinner.  They convinced us to order the legendary Roast Chicken and Bread Salad.  It took some persuading, because typically, I don't like to order chicken when dining out.  I mean, why bother?  Chicken gets more than enough stage time at home, so I want to eat something that is not really easy to achieve in the home-cooking realm.  But, we did, and I must say it was incredibly delicious.  The chicken had that perfectly golden, crispy skin.  The meat was moist and savory, and yes, chicken-y.  The bread salad was delightful.  Uneven chunks of crusty bread, plump currants, toasted pine nuts mixed with some mixed salad greens...all sprinkled with the rich drippings and a bright, tart vinaigrette.  Absolutely fantastic.  When we got home that night, I went straight for the overstuffed bookcase, where a portion of my cookbook collection resides, grabbed The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and started flipping through the book.  YES!  The recipe for that spectacular chicken was there!  First, there was a long essay about chef Judy Rogers' belief in the essentials for a perfect roast chicken.   The recipe covered several pages.  There were lots of steps.  It was a little intimidating.  But, I was a woman on a mission.

I read the recipe more than a few times over the next few weeks and then one Sunday, mustered up some courage and went ahead and gave it a try.  OH MY HEAVENS.  Finally.  Roast Chicken Perfection.  In roughly one hour, give or take five minutes or so, I had created the roast chicken of my dreams.
There was much rejoicing.
And really delicious leftovers for Monday.

Now, if I could just find the perfect way to cook a steak... 


This recipe really does rely on three elements for success, and they're pretty simple:

#1 -- Get a small chicken.  We're talking 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds.  This is key, so don't go getting a jumbo roaster, because it really does matter.

#2 -- Roast at high heat.  (This is where the small bird is important -- they do better at high heat, and will stay succulent.)  We're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 475 F.

#3 -- Salt the chicken several days in advance.  This concept is HUGE.  Judy has an entire section on "The Practice of Salting Early", but I will spare you this and just say that minimum 24 hours before, or even better a couple of days before, you'll rinse and pat dry that small bird you bought and then sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper.  This is why I typically pick up a chicken on Friday, for dinner on Sunday.

So, easy isn't it?  Oh how I wish I had found this years ago, but I know, I's not about the's about the journey.

Roast Chicken and Bread Salad
adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
serves 2 to 4

For the chicken:
One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
4 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 long
About 1/4 teaspoon of freshly cracked pepper
A little water

For the salad:
Generous 8 oz. slightly stale/day old, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tabelspoons Champagne vinegar, or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon of dried currants (if you like currants, the way I do, double this amount)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 -3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons chicken stock
A few handfuls of arugula, frisee, or red mustard greens, washed and dried

Rinse the chicken and pat completely dry, inside and out with paper towels.  Be thorough.

Slide a finger under the breast skin, making a pocket on each side, and then loosen a pocket of the skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh.  Shove an herb sprig into each of the four pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper.  (I mix a little ramekin of salt and pepper together and then go to town.

Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders.  Don't worry about trussing or tying the legs together.
Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Preheat the broiler.
Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks, carving off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust.  Brush the bread all over with olive oil.  Broil very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface.  Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side.  Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2-3 inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs.  You should get about 4 cups.

Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss about 1/4 cup of this vinaigrette with the bread chunks in a large salad bowl.  Taste one of the more saturated pieces and if it's bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 475 F.  (Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven, and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 F. or as low as 450 F. to get the chicken to brown properly.  I've been sticking with 475 F. and it's worked like a charm because I have a very steady, electric oven that stays right on the money.)

Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle.  Preheat the pan  over medium heat on the stovetop.  When the pan is nice and hot, wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan.  It should sizzle.

Take the chicken off the stove and place in the center of the oven.  Listen and watch for the chicken to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes.  If it doesn't, raise the temperature progressively until it does.
After about 30 minutes, turn the chicken over.  With a bird this small, it should not be too difficult, but be careful.  (This is when I spoon out much of the fat in the pan.)

Roast for another 10-20 minutes, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5-10 minutes.

Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

While the chicken is roasting:
Place the pine nuts in a small baking dish and set in the hot oven for a minute or two, just to warm through.  (Watch these babies like a hawk...I've burned so many batches of pine nuts, it's distressing to even think about it.)  Add them to the bowl of bread chunks.

Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet (ok, this recipe is indeed a little pot-and-pan intensive...but it's SO worth it.  Now's the time to ply your dishwashing loved one with beer or wine.)
add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened.  Don't let them color.  Scrape into the bread and fold to combine.  Drain the plumped currants and fold in.  Dribble the chicken stock, or some lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.  Taste a few pieces of bread and adjust with more salt, pepper or a couple drops of vinegar, if it's tasting bland and toss well.  These adjustments are important since the type of bread you are using could be different each time.

After you flip the chicken for the final time:
Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil;  set the salad bowl aside.  Place the bread mixture in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time.

Finishing and serving the chicken and bread salad:
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat.  Leave the bread mixture to continue warming for another five minutes or so.

Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate.  Spoon the remaining fat from the pan, leaving the lean drippings behind.  Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings.
Set the chicken in a warm spot and leave to rest while you finish the bread salad.
Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.

Place the roasting pan over medium-low heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring any golden drippings that have accumulated and remove from heat.  Tip the bread salad into the salad bowl.  Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices.  Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette and fold well.

Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warmed platter and nestle the chicken in the salad.

There you have it.  Perfect Roast Chicken.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Dream of Sicily

We've been back from a two-week vacation in Sicily for over a week now, and at night, I still dream of the place. This has me wondering about the power of that mysterious connection between Man and Landscape... and of course, Woman and Clam Sauce. More on this in a moment.

The trip was the result of many years of pitching Sicily to my husband as a place worthy of a visit. People have asked, why there? Why Sicily? I can't really remember how or when my obsession started...maybe it was a shot of Taormina's ruins silhouetted against the sea in some Masterpiece Theatre epic? An article in the Travel section of the paper? My lifelong love of cannoli? All I know is that Sicily was out there, beckoning to me for a very long time. The pictures in my mind, fed by Godfather films, cookbook photos and prior trips to Italy were a seductive collage, featuring pasta sauces with anchovies, dusty, abandoned hill towns, ancient ruins, blood oranges, pastries, lusty wines, swordfish and, gelato, of course.

The reality was everything I'd dreamed of, and more.

I'll start with the fact that it's so very far away. Extremely far away, from San Francisco, and it felt like it took us forever to get there as we dragged ourselves from plane, to plane, to yet one more plane. Then, through a haze of pure exhaustion I caught my first glimpse of Sicily's mountains rising from the sea through the airplane window, and my heart started to race. In the coming weeks, this seemed to happen regularly.

We'd turn a corner, on a street or on a hiking path or a sidewalk, and I'd catch my breath...

A Baroque church wrapped in beautiful swirling, pulsing stone, rocky hillsides tumbling into the sea, or the most perfect little shrine to the Madonna, set into the side of a dingy building, lit with a few candles softly glowing in the twilight. Sicily is truly unlike any place I've ever been. A feast of contrasts for the senses and a distance from the ease and comforts of my every day life. I realized how scary and thrilling it is to step away from what is typically called your comfort zone, and plunge into a place buzzing in another language (thinking you know Italian doesn't mean anything here!), mystifying street signs, labrynthine markets selling fresh goat meat, tube socks and CDs and delightful daily habits one of which includes gelato at 5 pm every day.

Sigh. I feel myself getting weepy with emotion when I even begin to try to explain the place.

So, let me get to the food.

My main goal was to try to incorporate pasta con vongole (Pasta with Clam Sauce) into each day somehow, and this I accomplished with great success. My beloved pasta with clams was so simple and so elegant in its perfection each and every time I had it that it became a kind of joyful representation of what I loved most about the cooking in Sicily. The most perfect ingredients, simply prepared: olive oil, parsley and garlic, tossed with a tiny bit of chili and the tiniest, sweetest most beautiful clams you've ever tasted...all combined with perfectly cooked spaghetti. Unpretentious, unfussy perfection.

Another goal was to eat as many cannoli as I could get my hands on, because, well...if you love cannoli, THIS is the place to get your fill. The best part of my own, personal Cannolo-thon was the range -- each cannolo I ate was subtly different. One might have candied fruit in the ricotta, another... chocolate shavings. Some would have nothing but sweet, beautiful ricotta, garnished with a candied lemon peel and others dipped each end in chopped pistachio. ALL were delicious.

Another Sicilian favorite was a favorite at snack time in the afternoons: arancini. I've been a fan for years. Who's to argue with a deep fried ball of rice, stuffed with meat sauce and cheese? My friend, Peggy introduced me to them ages ago in Boston, where she and her husband lived in the North End. The two of us would go over to a little hole-in-the-wall cafeteria at lunchtime. I don't recall a sign or any indication of a dining establishment inside, just lots of loud voices and silverware clatter. We'd enter and go through the line, loading up on arancini with tomato sauce, dished out by older, Nonna-like ladies and I remember being hooked after my first bite. But Sicilian arancini?! Paired with an icy cold Moretti in a sweating bottle after tramping around ancient ruins all morning and we are talking about pure HEAVEN.

And The Gelato...

This category probably deserves a blog post of its own. Clearly, the Italians know what they are doing when it comes to ice cream. They are truly, without peer. Steve and I realized, relatively early on, that we needed to have our fix every day. So, we followed the example set by the locals in each and every town we visited. 5 pm? It's Gelato Time. Everywhere you looked cafes were full of people, adults and children, enjoying a cone. It made life, well...wonderful! My favorite flavor? Blood Orange. On the last day of the trip, in Catania, a town at the base of brooding Mt. Etna, we sat down in scruffy plaza in front of the local opera house and had our Daily Gelato. I'd gone from choosing mainly chocolate in the early days of the trip, to the citrus fruits in the second week. The blood orange was spectacular -- tart, sweet and perfumed with the very essence of orange. It was the one thing that last day that made me desperate not to leave.

The next morning as the plane banked around the smoking, dark hulk of Etna and headed back over the sea towards the Italian mainland, we both sighed...almost in unison.
We'll be going back.

Cooking Sicilian
So, the day after we returned, jet lag had us both awake at 2 a.m., then, at 3 a.m., and at 5 we decided to make coffee to help with the wait until our favorite local farmer's market opened. I gathered up the ingredients that made up another of my favorite pasta dishes while we were in Sicily: Pasta alla Norma. Now Jamie Oliver will tell you he doesn't know who 'ol' Norma' is, but he reckons she's a good ol' gal. I will tell you that the legendary pasta dish of tomatoes and eggplants originated in Catania (of the shabby plazas and mind-blowing blood orange gelato!), birthplace of the legendary opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini. It is named for his famed opera, Norma. All you really need to know is that this is a Sicilian classic of eggplant, tomatoes, basil mixed with ricotta salata, a dried version of ricotta that tastes not unlike feta. In a pinch, a really good Pecorino works well in place of the ricotta salata. (I could cry when I think about the incredible Pecorino we had everywhere in Sicily.) It's an easy dish to throw together with either fresh, or canned tomatoes, and the flavor is...transporting.

Pasta alla Norma
(adapted from Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italy)
serves 4
1 large, firm eggplant
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 pinch red chili flakes
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
large bunch of fresh basil, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
1 28 oz can of plum tomatoes, roughly chopped or 3-4 large fresh tomatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lb. dried spaghetti
6 oz. ricotta salata or freshly grated pecorino

Quarter the eggplant lengthwise trim the seedy, fluffy centers and remove. Then, cut the eggplants across the length into finger-sized pieces. Heat olive oil in a large non-stick pan over medium high heat and fry up the eggplant, making sure to coat all the eggplant pieces with oil...adding a little more oil if the pan looks dry. Sprinkle with dried oregano and fry eggplant until golden on all sides. Sprinkle the fried eggplant with chili flakes, and then add garlic, basil stems to the pan (and, if needed another splash of olive oil!).

Give everything a good stir and then add the vinegar and tomatoes. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, then taste and season with salt and pepper.

Tear up the basil leaves and stir half into the sauce.

Cook your pasta in boiling salted water. When pasta is al dente, reserve a small cup of pasta water, drain the spaghetti and add to the sauce, sprinkling a few tablespoons of pasta water to loosen the sauce. Put pan back over low heat, stir and adjust seasoning.

Plate sauce and pasta and garnish with crumbled cheese, remaining basil leaves, and drizzle of your best olive oil.

Buon appetito!