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Sunday, December 11, 2011

You Too Can Love Broccoli

Broccoli was not treated well when I was growing up.  My mother tended to cook it...and cook it...and cook it some more, just to be certain she had eliminated any visible signs of green.  Back then everyone knew green vegetables were really meant to be gray.  For a long time my father's running joke was that broccoli gave him the only thing he could agree on with George Bush...they both hated it.

Despite being surrounded by anti-broccoli bias, I've always had a soft spot for it.   It's the perfect counterpoint to the beef in that takeout Chinese staple, Beef with Broccoli.  It can enliven a baked potato eaten solo in front of the tv.  You always know you're doing something good for yourself when you have a bite of broccoli.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an absolutely wonderful recipe that made me crave broccoli like never before.  It's relatively simple -- a room temp salad that mixes steamed or blanched broccoli with crumbled feta, fried almonds (a revelation by the way!), and (the key to the whole thing, I suspect) a divinely garlicky vinaigrette that gets some zing from a pinch of red pepper flakes.   I can't get enough of this salad, people!  It's perfect alone as a meal and also does well paired with a nice soup on a chilly night.  I've made it weekly since discovering it.  (That happens sometimes when I feel like I've made a real find.  Just can't help myself.)  There is something about the combination of flavors that makes it a welcome respite from all the rich, holiday foods that we're surrounded by this time of year.

I suppose the next step would be to try it on some true broccoli haters to see if it can convert them.  I'll report back on that, but in the mean time if you are partial to this lovely green vegetable know that this treatment gives broccoli the love it deserves.

NOTES:  the recipes call for blanching the broccoli for 3 minutes in boiling water, and then shocking the broccoli in ice bath for several minutes.  Make sure you drain and dry the broccoli well.  The first time I did not, and the residual water on the broccoli really diluted the dressing.

Broccoli Feta Salad
adapted from and Fine Cooking
4 servings

2-3 stalks of broccoli, florets and stems chopped into even-sized pieces
1/2 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup whole almonds
1 tablespoon olive oil -- for frying the almonds

For the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch of salt
pinch of red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil

1.  Start the vinaigrette:  mix the vinegar, minced garlic, salt and hot pepper flakes together and let sit for 10 minutes.

2.  Steam broccoli for 2-3 minutes (or, bring large pot of salted water to boil and add broccoli -- cook for 3 minutes -- drain).

3.  Prepare ice bath in large bowl.  When broccoli is done steaming or boiling -- drain and plunge into the ice water for 2-3 minutes.  Remove and drain well on a clean kitchen the broccoli from

4.  Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a small saute pan over medium high heat and add almonds.  Fry for several minutes -- until almonds have browned slightly and are starting to pop/crack.  Remove almonds from oil and drain on a paper towel.

5.  Combine cooked broccoli and crumbled feta.

6.  Finish vinaigrette by whisking 4 tablespoons olive oil, one at a time, into the vinegar, salt, garlic, pepper flake mixture.

7.  Pour vinaigrette over broccoli and feta -- toss to coat.  Sprinkle with fried almonds and serve.

Friday, November 18, 2011

There will be leftovers

So…hello there.  Yes, I know…it’s been some time, hasn’t it?
I suppose it happens to everyone…
that annoying combination of too much to do, too many things to say and not enough time to say it. 

And then, there was the garden.  I’ll save that story of heartbreak for another time.

Summer’s over.  Clearly.
Thanksgiving is less than a week away.  And here we are.

I’m going to just pick right up and tell you about something I prepared last year with my turkey leftovers.  I plan to cook it again this year because we loved it so much.

I typically leave folks to fend for themselves on the Friday after.  Quite frankly, that Friday after the holiday I am tired of cooking.  There.  I have said it.  And I’m fairly certain it happens to the best of us.  So on the day after…there is plenty to go around for sandwiches, and Thanksgiving dinner plate recreations that everyone assembles on their own.

But, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year, I found myself with enough energy and interest to try my hand at a pot pie I saw in one of my old issues of Gourmet.  (Sigh.  It’s my back issues that sustain me now.  This was the 2007 November issue for those of you with similar libraries.  For those who have embraced iPads and laptops in the kitchen, here’s the link.)  It looked like a fine way to cook up what remained of the turkey before anyone could tire of it.

That Saturday, I poured myself a lovely glass of wine and started in on disassembling the carcass to make a stock.  (Making stock from the leftover bones leaves you with a virtuous feeling I highly recommend.)  The pot pie came out of the oven looking like a team of food stylists had been at it for hours.  The biscuit top was all mouth-wateringly golden with sightings of bubbling sauce below.  Sitting down to watch a movie and nibbling this creamy wonder was incredibly satisfying.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a ‘one-pot’ dish after a holiday that was all about a million sides.  But I think it was really the biscuit topping that had me from the start.  Crisp and beautifully browned on top, tender and flecked with grated Cheddar and Parmesan inside, it was the very definition of comfort food. 

So if you’re doing your shopping for the big holiday, pick up what you’ll need for the pot pie…(I don’t feel ready to set foot in a grocery store for at least several days after all the festivities.) and know that your leftovers never had it so good.

Turkey Potpie with Cheddar Biscuit Crust
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2007
Serves 8

NOTE:   Three parts here folks – a super easy stock (or use pre-made chicken stock if you’ve tossed your carcass), the filling and the biscuit topping.

Make the Stock:
Carcass and skin from a 12-14 lb roasted bird*
10 cups water

*If your turkey was brined – omit the salt
Separate parts of the carcass and put the bones, the skin and water in a large stockpot.  Simmer until liquid is reduced by one third, about 1 ½ hours.  Strain into a large bowl and set aside 3 ½ cups for the filling – freeze the rest for another time.

Make the Filling:
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 celery ribs, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 large parsnip (peeled), cored and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ lb. mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups roast turkey meat, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 (10 oz.) package frozen baby peas, thawed

  Add mushrooms and cook, uncovered, stirring until tender, 5-7 minutes.
Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. 
Stir in stock (3 ½ cups), scraping up any brown bits, and bring to a boil, stirring, then simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. 
Stir in turkey, peas, and salt and pepper to taste. 
Reheat over low heat, and transfer mixture to a lasagna pan or large rectangular  (13 x 9) baking dish, just before topping with biscuit crust.

For the Biscuit Crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 cup coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¾ stick cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 ¼ cups well-shaken buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400 F. with rack in middle.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper into a medium bowl.  Add cheeses and toss to coat.  Blend in butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add buttermilk and stir just until a dough forms.  Drop biscuit dough onto filling in 8 large mounds, leaving spaces between biscuits.

Bake until biscuits are puffed and golden brown and filling is bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes.  Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Aperitif for Summer

Hard to believe that the start to summer is but days away. 

If you live in the northern half of the nation, my guess is that your weather has continued to disguise itself as winter.  It's been rather lovely here in Northern California for the past few months, but I won't rub it in.  What I will do is share a way for you to create a summer frame of mind...with my new, favorite cocktail. 

Based on the well-known Negroni (typically a mix of Campari, gin, and vermouth with an orange peel garnish) the Negroni Sbagliato, had me from the start, simply with its name...translated from Italian as a Bungled Negroni...a Negroni in error.  Highlighted in an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times last month, he explains that the "error" is the swap of gin in the original Negroni, with a sparkling wine, and as Frank points out..."it's a game changer".   The Negroni Sbagliato is meant to have a little extra zip...a little sass.

I mixed the first one up last month on a warmish Saturday evening after a long day spent in the garden, doing the most unglamorous work of weeding.  One sip of this gorgeous sunset red, effervescent cocktail and I felt transported straight into summer.  Indeed...I was refreshed and zippier myself. 

Nothing wrong with that.

Negroni Sbagliato 
(pronounced sbahl-YAH-toe...after a couple of these it will roll right off your tongue with ease)

NOTE:  I made a couple tweaks to the recipe in the Times, but I strongly encourage you to invest in a bottle of Carpano Antica vermouth.  I found it at my local wine store and it seems widely available in larger liquor stores.  Originally created by Antonio Carpano, the Italian who invented vermouth, it's a red wine vermouth made from his 1786 recipe and it is exceptionally tasty.

In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine:
1.5 oz Campari
1.5 oz Carpano Antica vermouth**

Shake well and strain into a glass. 
Squeeze juice from a slice of orange and then add it to the glass.
Top with:
1.5 oz of prosecco

Stir again and enjoy.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Do they still refer to ladies support (ahem) undergarments in department stores as "foundations"?

Not that that's what I'm about to discuss with you.  Really.
What I'd like to share is a foundation that provides a base for things to rest upon.
And no, that's not my sofa, which beckons to me on weeknights, upon my cushions...waste a few hours watching American Idol...don't you want to know if Scotty got voted off yet?
No no no...what I want to tell you about is my relatively recent devotion to a new dinner-related foundation.
Because, you see, what I've realized is I am very fond of a rather architectural approach to cooking.  Especially weeknight cooking, when one typically arrives home tired and hungry.  (Sound familiar?  Anyone?)
The food that seems to make me happy in those instances is hot, of course (do not even think about suggesting salad to me, when the year-round temperature here seems to be 57 degrees) served in a shallow bowl and then topped with something else, which can then be topped with some kind of garnish.  See?  Think vertical. 

Over the years, there's been an evolution of what I've cooked regularly as a base and one long-time favorite was rice.  Easy enough to start with, and back when I was first out, living on my own (oh, you remember...rice = cheap) an easy topping was a stir-fry of sorts.  Many have done the same, I'm sure... the usual suspects, broccoli, onions or scallions, red peppers, maybe some carrot, etc all tossed together with soy sauce in a garage-sale wok.

And, I'm sure we all remember The Baked Potato as a transportation device for either a heap of cheese and sour cream plus, ok, again...broccoli.   The less said about that, the better.

Then, for the longest time, canned beans were my preference. Sauteed in a pan with olive oil, some garlic and chopped celery, onion and/or carrot, a can of beans would come to life and become the perfect foundation for broiled chicken or, um, steamed broccoli.  The can-of-beans thing lasted a good long time, as I varied the toppings over the years... escarole stirred in with a bit of chicken stock,  steamed kale or Swiss chard, sauteed with garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes and then topped with some shaved Parmesan. 

This is where I've been, until very recently when two elements converged for me and led to a delightful new direction.

First, a winter Sunday afternoon marathon session watching episodes of America's Test Kitchen revealed a quick, simple and ultimately delicious polenta recipe.  Now, please...let's not panic.  Polenta has a bad rap for being one of those things, like risotto, that one must fuss over, chained to the stove, stirring constantly.  Most definitely not in the category of 'weeknight cooking'.
But, 'the cooking nerds' as I like to call them, claimed to have unlocked the secret to easy, no-stir polenta.  I was intrigued.  It's basically all about a pinch of baking soda at the beginning of the process which helps tenderize the cornmeal and allows it to cook faster, covered, with no slave-to-the-stove stirring.  That's about all I needed to hear -- I was in.  Early batches proved to be an epic revelation.  They tasted great, and were crazy simple to make.  The nerds also offered a topping idea -- sauteed, broccoli (ha, I kid you not!) and sun-dried tomatoes with a sprinkling of pine nuts.  That was all fine and tasty, but then...a cookbook randomly checked out of the library brought everything full circle.

Melissa Clark's book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite was my kind of book.  No fancy, lavish food-stylist designed photos.  Just interesting little stories connected to what looked to be temptingly delicious recipes.  Perfect bedside reading for a girl like me.  And, wouldn't you know it...there, in one of the early chapters...a description of my idea of the perfect comfort food:

Polenta with Sauteed Swiss Chard Topped with an Olive-Oil Fried Egg. 

I already HAD the perfect polenta recipe...there was chard in the fridge AND fresh set of eggs from a local farm sitting on the counter.  I barely could keep myself from leaping out of bed at 10:40 that night to try it right then and there.

So, I waited through the next work day.  (Not kidding.  I'm weird that way.   Pondering and looking forward to what I will make for dinner that night.)  Got home and couldn't get into the kitchen fast enough.  (Yes.  Totally weird, I tell you.)

Here's how it goes:
(1) The polenta (see below).  A snap.  I've got it down cold, so that it is perfectly, consistently good.  Get that into a shallow bowl and then Melissa tells you to (2) top the polenta with shards of shaved Parmesan (genius!) which you (3) then top with your sauteed chard (right, there's that vertical thing!) which then melts the cheese into the top of the polenta -- so totally clever... and then, (4) the garnish.  

An egg, fried super-fast in a pan of hot, hot olive oil... it sputters menacingly and browns like crispy lace at the outer edges, but leaves the yolk runny and gooey so that when you slide it on top of the chard and sit yourself down to break into it with your fork, you give it a little stir and  the yolk runs down into the chard and polenta making a nice little sauce.

You take a bite and simply sigh.  Contentment.

Age old wisdom doesn't disappoint...nothing beats a good foundation.

You want to find a coarse-grind of should look almost like ground coffee.
Also, make sure you've got a really low, low flame on your burner.  The polenta should not bubble or sputter -- just let out little sighs of steam.  If you can't get your burner low enough, try a flame-tamer disk (available at hardware stores) or the homemade version, a long, stretch of aluminum foil, crunched into a 'snake', then coiled and set to rest between your pot and the iron grate on your stove.

Basic No-Stir Polenta
adapted from America's Test Kitchen
serves 4 as a main, 6 to 8 as a side dish 

7 1/2 cups water  
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt  
Pinch baking soda
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter  
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
Ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover. 

2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.) 

3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Settling In

Moving is never pretty.  

From the initial panic of trying to pack ones belongings (...all of them) into tidying up the excruciating last bits in the old place (...which seems to take forever) to the stress of what seems to be never ending unpacking in the new place. 

That said.  It's really quite nice once you get settled in a bit.  You learn your new route to work.  You start to re-organize what you originally, initially, frantically unpacked.  You do a couple loads of laundry.

And, take full notice of the fact that you now have a yard. 

Granted, a slightly disheveled and neglected yard, but nonetheless...a yard!

But this is not just any yard, people!  This yard is a kind of 'secret garden', as my friend, Jane says.

Early efforts begin simply.  Raking and uncover what's there.  And then, lo and behold... raised beds! 

The elderly couple who owned the house before must have been avid gardeners.  Turning the beds closest to the house, Steve finds potatoes!  Small, beautiful golden butterball potatoes. 

The timing is perfect.  I have been making batches of potato salad lately...thrilled with a new recipe I found in a Tyler Florence book.  He describes this as one of the best potato salads he's ever had and I must agree.  Turns out, it's a recipe from someone he knows...a certain "Marge Clark of Marin County, California".  And now...I have potatoes from my own Marin backyard.

I feel like I need to be on the lookout for Marge.  I wish I knew what she looked like because if I bumped into her some time at the grocery store, I'd hug her.  I'd tell her that I adore her potato salad and I'm never going to make any other.  And, I'd say living in Marin is lovely. 

Right now though, I need to get out there and do some more weeding.

*           *          *          *

NOTE:  This potato salad is glorious for breakfast the next morning... maybe it's the hard-boiled eggs.  (I am weird that way...when there's something like this in the fridge, waiting for me, I can't wait to wake up in the morning.)

The secret ingredient here is dill pickle juice.  Don't ask why...just go with it. 
I've dialed back the amount of mayo a little bit (down from 1 cup) because I like it a little less saucy...but go ahead and add in an additional tablespoon or two if the salad feels dry.

And, if you live in parts of the country that still require a parka and snow boots...I beg you...throw some burgers or brats on the broiler and make this salad.  Pretend that summer has started.  With one bite of this potato salad, you'll be convinced it has.

The Best Potato Salad Ever (and I do mean that)
(adapted from Tyler's Ultimate)
serves 4 to 6

2 pounds small Yukon Gold potatoes (or dig your own!)
2 large eggs
Kosher salt

1/2 bunch scallions, sliced (both white and green parts)
2 tablespoons drained capers
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup finely chopped dill pickles with
  1/4 cup of pickle juice
1 small red onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Put the potatoes and eggs into a big saucepan of cold, salted water.  (Keep the skin on the potatoes so they don't get waterlogged -- you'll peel them later.)
Bring to a simmer.
After 12 minutes remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and put into a small bowl of ice water to cool.
Remove the eggs after a couple minutes, peel and set aside.

Continue cooking the potatoes until a knife goes in without resistance.  Drain the potatoes and let them cool.

Reserve some scallion greens and capers for garnish.

Stir together the mayonnaise, mustard, pickles with juice, onion, remaining scallions and capers, parsley and lemon juice in a big bowl -- large enough to hold the potatoes too.

Peel the cooled eggs and grate into the bowl with the dressing.  (I used my box grater which worked out well, just watch those knuckles.)

Peel the potatoes with a paring knife.  (Tyler says to stick a fork in each potato but I hold them in my hand...they're a little hot, so be careful.)

Break up the potatoes into rough chunks with a fork, toss them into the bowl to coat with the dressing

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with the reserved scallions and capers.  Drizzle with a little olive oil before serving.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ruffled Feathers

We are preparing to move...again, and I don't like it.
I keep asking Steve, so, doesn't it seem like just yesterday that we were moving?
General household disarray...half-packed boxes...scattered clutter.  It all ruffles my feathers.

There's also a cooking hiatus.  The kitchen is starting to get boxed up...the cookbooks too.  I will have to chill out for a bit and this just somehow adds to my irritation.

It's never a good sign when I pull Little Women off the shelf, seeking comfort in its familiar chapters.  (Odd, what gives us consolation, I know.)  It's been this way since I was a child.  Whenever I don't feel well, or am unsettled don't rub my head or make me tea.  Just leave me alone with my Louisa May Alcott and I'll be okay.

So there's the Little Women thing and luckily, another source of comfort.

It begins with a box of dry spaghetti.

The phrase 'comfort food' gets thrown around quite a bit these days, but it usually refers to things I think of as heavy.  Meat loaf.  Mashed potatoes.  Macaroni and cheese.  Don't get me wrong, on a good day, I love all that stuff, but it seems a bit much if you're truly in need of comforting.  I feel like in addition to being distressed, you're going to have this big, heavy pile of food just sitting in your stomach.  Not helpful. 

My own version of comfort food has evolved over the years.  For a good long time, there was spaghetti with butter and cheese.  (The quality of the cheese has improved as the years have gone by...and yes, I first started out with a few shakes of the legendary green can of Kraft Parmesan Cheese.  You know the one.  It reassures you on the label that it is "100% Real Parmesan Cheese".) Now that's comfort food.  Simple to prepare, with staples that are pretty much always on hand.  My spaghetti with butter and cheese always felt perfectly consoling.

A while back I started to add a tiny bit of chopped Italian parsley.  It added a cheerful bit of zip.  This advance probably coincided with the discovery that most herbs will keep, for weeks, in the refrigerator if stored like a vase of flowers.  Bingo.  Parsley available at all times, hence it started to appear in almost everything I cooked.

Then, several years ago, on a business trip to Italy (read:  stress...nerves...anxiety) I ordered a bowl of cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta)  for dinner one night and it rescued me.  No long list of ingredients.  No fancy stuff.  The pasta was clearly the dried stuff from a box.  Yet, it calmed me in a way that I was intensely grateful for.  The sauce, more of a creamy coating than a sauce really,  was fragrant with Pecorino.  The black pepper provided a warmth that radiated throughout my being, restoring my spirits.  Well, there was also a glass of red wine.  That helped.

So, of course, I had to find a way to recreate a proper cacio e pepe at home.  There was plenty of investigation. Restaurant versions here in the U.S. were hit or miss...mainly miss.  Almost always there was an overwhelming amount of olive oil.  Spaghetti swimming in oil is not my idea of comfort.  I searched.  I experimented.  We ate many sub-par versions of cacio e pepe.  The perfect recipe remained elusive. And I kept can just oil, pepper, cheese and pasta water create the creamy mix I remembered?  Many, many batches later, multiple sources contributed to what I think is the ultimate combination:  SAVEUR magazine (make sure to toast the pepper in the hot oil) with a bit of Batali (add pinch of Parmesan and butter) and a splash of Tyler Florence technique (something called burro fuso, which means cold butter simmered in starchy pasta water).

Tadahhhh...perfect cacio e pepe!
This, my dear friends, is comfort in a bowl!

The pantry has yet to be packed.  The boxed pasta is ready for the stressful week ahead.  That, and my beat up childhood copy of Little Women discreetly stashed by my bedside. 
I think it's all going to be okay.

Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper Pasta)
Serves 4

1 lb.  dried pasta, (spaghetti is good, but I like bucatini or perciatelli as well)
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper (I like a mix of 1 tsp. ground with a mortar and pestle so it's coarse and the remaining 1 tsp. from the pepper grinder.)
4 tbsp. cold butter
1 1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano (heresy, I true Roman would stand for it)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook the pasta until al dente (about 8-10 minutes if you're using spaghetti.) 
**Make sure to set aside a cup of the starchy pasta water before draining the pasta.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers and add the pepper, toasting it in the oil until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). 
(This pretty much lifts your spirits immediately!)

Ladle 3/4 cup of the pasta water into the skillet with the oil and pepper.  (There will be a big, noisy commotion when the water hits the pan...prepare yourself not to freak out.) 
Bring this mixture to a boil and add the butter, which will melt and then simmer for 3-4 minutes until the sauce thickens. 

When your pasta is ready and has been drained, transfer it, using some tongs, to the skillet with the water/oil/pepper/ butter mixture and add the cheese, (I mean lazy stirring here!) to combine. 

Continue to stir over heat until the sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta, about another minute or two, adding some of the remaining starchy pasta water if it begins to look too dry. 
Transfer to bowls and serve immediately.

Mangia! and feel better...