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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!

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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.

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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.