Friday, December 18, 2009

Mediterranean Chicken

If you're like me, during the holiday season you don't have a lot of time to spend on the every-night dinners (sigh, or on your blog either)--too much baking, cleaning, wrapping, and shopping to do! During this time of year, I rely on tested meals that take 30 minutes or less to cook. Martha's Mediterranean Chicken is one of my favorites in that category. It's simple (which translates to affordable) and doesn't require a lot of time or babysitting. It's gorgeous when it comes out of the oven: a sizzling pan of gold and crimson and deep, olive purple.

I use an iron skillet because you can transfer it from the stove top to the oven. I also use skinless chicken breasts, and I don't feel I've been missing out...

I usually serve this with cous cous and a salad or green vegetable.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Redeeming Biscuits

Have you ever tried to make biscuits? Most of the recipes I've tested in the past have yielded rock-hard nuggets that only the dog could choke down. I usually make biscuits about once every other year because, inevitably, most of them sail straight into the trash can. I'm left with a breakfast-less table and a strong feeling of defeat. Still, I can't help trying to win the biscuit battle. Biting into a warm, buttery, fluffy biscuit is a rare and delicious treat; so far, I have only been able to daydream about the triumph of baking one.

Last week I saw this recipe and I was caught by the biscuit bug again. The limited number of ingredients--cream being the only binder--sparked my curiosity. The simplicity of it just made sense. Weapon in hand (spatula), I folded the flour and cream together, stopping just when the flour was moistened and the dough began to form. I didn't use a rolling pin, but flattened the dough with my hands.

The biscuits cut from the scraps are what we call "uglies." There's always a little courteous competition over these biscuits (you dear, no you, no you--I insist...) I think it's because of the way the uglies fall apart in nicely segmented bite-size pieces when you tug at them--perfect for buttering bit by bit.

These biscuits are the best I have ever had, and I still can't believe they emerged from the very oven installed in this old apt. Each biscuit had a light velvety crunch on the outside that gave way to a fluffy-soft inside. After my knock-down, fish-and-chips failure, it felt good to get on my feet again with these redeeming biscuits.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bad Fish

This past Wednesday, I tried my hand at fish and chips. When I saw a recipe in my new Cooking Light mag., I had visions of paper bags filled with deliciously crisp, white, flaky fillets of haddock wreathed in chipped potatoes and dotted with malt vinegar--the kind of fish you can get in the UK and nowhere else. When I saw the recipe's gorgeous accompanying photograph, I thought--ha! I'll show London!

Mistake number one, I purchased a bag of frozen cod from Wal-mart. When I cut open the bag, soggy, grey fillets slid from their individually wrapped packets into a shallow dish. The fillets seemed to be disintegrating as I handled them, at which point I began to have second thoughts about the whole ordeal. Then I looked at the picture again and thought, surely the difference is that these fillets are raw and those are cooked. Onward ho! But I really should have stopped there.

I turned back to my heating skillet of oil and my bowl of flour. I added the called-for beer and whisked it into a frightening brown froth. I submerged each piece of fish beneath the bubbles and it came up dripping with a mix of what looked like a concoction of latex paint and scuzzy sea foam.

I plopped the fish into the oil, keeping the tearing pieces together with the flour/beer glue. After the alloted three minutes per side, the poor fillets looked as though they'd been beaten to a pulp. Like bad pancakes, I slapped them onto our plates, flung them on the table, and force fed myself and my family a truly abominable dish. Even the oven chips turned out poorly . . .

Lesson learned--never buy cheap fish! And also, I am no match for London.

(I tried to provide a link to the recipe, but found out that it had been removed from the Web site! Ha!)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fennel-Dusted Chicken and Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots

Last Friday, our apartment was cold and dark when I came home. I heard the jingle of our dog's tags as she came to the door, and I gave her a blind pat. With the light flicked on, I strapped an apron around my waist in the glow of the kitchen. And from outside, the corner of our first floor place, enclosed by the quiet, early night, shone like a firefly to Brandon and Rosie who would've been driving towards it once I had already lit the burners on the stove.

That evening, I made Fennel-Dusted Chicken with Brown Butter and Capers--my favorite new recipe of the season. As you already know, I love brown butter, but I also love capers. Capers are flower buds plucked from shrubby plants found on the cliff sides of the Mediterranean. I feel like some sort of kitchen nymph serving flower-bud-speckled sauces on my fillets beef or chicken or fish to an audience unsuspecting of the little treasure they're about to eat.

Anyway, this chicken tastes impressive and you can make it in under 30 minutes (well, if you don't have a little baby crawling around to distract you!) The elegant butter sauce is tangy and aromatic with a touch of citrus-sweet. If you can't find ground fennel (I couldn't), just buy the whole fennel seeds. Grab a hammer (rolling pin will not do in this instance), place the fennel in a bag, and pound pound pound on the cutting board. It makes a lot of noise, but does the trick.

I paired the chicken with mashed potatoes with caramelized shallots. When you put these two on the plate, let the mashed potatoes lean into the caper sauce. A little extra butter never hurt a potato...

I kind of make up the potato recipe as I go along, but below are some guidelines. Please note that these are guidelines only.

8 large potatoes (white or russet) cleaned, mostly peeled, and cut in half or thirds depending on size
4 tablespoons of butter (or more)
3-4 shallots, thinly sliced
Olive oil as needed
1/2 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of milk, plus more as needed
salt and freshly ground pepper
kosher salt
(other yummy additions are freshly grated parmesan cheese and sour cream)

Boil a large pot of water with plenty of salt. Add potatoes to the water and boil until they can be easily pierced with a fork--about 20 minutes for big potatoes.

While potatoes are boiling, bring some olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) in a small skillet to medium heat. Add shallots, decreasing heat if necessary. Season with a little kosher salt. Saute for 15 - 20 minutes until deep golden in color. Remove from heat.

Preheat broiler with rack in the middle or upper third of the oven.

Drain potatoes and mash by hand with a potato masher, until the pot of potatoes is broken up. Add butter, mashing to encourage it to melt. Add buttermilk, mashing a little more. (If adding cheese or sour cream, add here.) Then add enough milk to reach your desired consistency, mashing a little as you go. With a slotted spoon, remove the shallots from the oil and add them to the potatoes, folding them in with a spoon. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon potatoes into a ceramic baking dish. Make six swirls in the top of the potatoes, leaving pools for butter. Cut pats of butter and place in the empty pools. Broil for a few minutes until some of the swirled peaks begin to brown and the butter has melted.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Weeknight Staples: Easy Northern Italian Pasta

This one is a staple for us. I stumbled upon this recipe after we returned from our honeymoon in Umbria, Italy. I've had a lot of fantastic Italian food (thanks to Nanny and my mom!) in my life, but I found the cuisine of the region we visited much different. The sauces really stumped me. I couldn't figure out what was different, aside from the exceptional quality of fresh ingredients. I could only describe them as, well, surprisingly buttery! This was true even in Rome, where we stayed for a couple of days lapping up cappuccinos, chocolate tortes, and, of course, plenty of pasta. When I saw this recipe with butter in it, I tried it. This sauce doesn't quite match up to the heavenly dishes I was treated to overseas, but it is the closest I've come so far. That aside, Brandon and I have really grown fond of this one . . .

The addition of milk and a hint of nutmeg might have a few southern Italian food lovers turning up their noses (eh hem, Dad!), but I promise, this is a great dish and won't taste either milky or nutty when you're done.

This is a perfect weeknight recipe. It's inexpensive; it makes a lot; and it gets better with age (next day is better than the first!)

* Usually needs a little extra salt once plated.
* Serve with plenty of fresh grated parmesan cheese.
* Add a little finely grated cheese (1/4 cup) to the sauce to thicken it up a bit.
* While sauce is still in the pan, add some of the pasta water and cook a bit of it off so that the sauce is not so runny.
* Leftovers: reheat in a large skillet, adding a little water to freshen up the sauce.

I can't wait to try this next summer with sun ripened tomatoes from the garden!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Salad Week: Arugula, Fig, Proscuitto, Walnut and Paremsan

Today marks the first day of Thanksgiving vacation. I'm home alone (wow!), baking a pie and listening to music, specifically Radiohead, Aimee Mann and Imogen Heap. I love cooking because I get so lost in it--or maybe I'm found in it. The rest of life pauses while I sift flour, salt and sugar and watch it float onto its own little white mountain. I start to remember things from my past like the Red House--a dilapidated place with peeling, fake brick siding that sat in our backyard at the house I grew up in. My siblings and I used to play a game, throwing rocks through the holes in the roof. I remember other things too: burs in my hair, the back road to my country high school, coffee with my sisters, buckles on a saddle for the girth, Brandon's old Subaru... I recollect myself and think about where I am and where I'm going. I have to cook, otherwise, I might get lost in my double-life routine.

More on that pie later . . . can't taste it until tomorrow.

Our second-to-last before Thanksgiving dinner salad was my favorite so far, winning by a nose because I have enjoyed them all. I have an arugula fetish, so it was bound to come out sooner or later. Unfortunately, Brandon does not like arugula, so I compromised with a mix. The dressing on this salad is really something special. You have to microwave the figs after dousing them with balsamic vinegar whisked with raspberry jam--a truly glorious concoction!

The recipe says it is optional to crisp the proscuitto before adding it to the salad; I would 100% disagree. If you are going to make this, you will not be sorry you took the extra time to crisp the garnish. I tried it both cooked and uncooked. There is only one choice here, and it is the first.


Serves 6.   Published November 1, 2006.
Although frying the prosciutto adds crisp texture to the salad, if you prefer, you can simply cut it into ribbons and use it as a garnish. Honey can be substituted for the jam in any of these salad recipes.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto , cut into 1/4-inch-wide ribbons
1 tablespoon raspberry jam
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dried figs , stems removed, fruit chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 small shallot , very finely minced (about 1 tablespoon)
5 ounces lightly packed stemmed arugula (about 8 cups)
1/2 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
2 ounces Parmesan cheese , shaved into thin strips with vegetable peeler

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat; add prosciutto and fry until crisp, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper-towel-lined plate and set aside to cool.

2. Whisk jam and vinegar in medium microwave-safe bowl; stir in figs. Cover with plastic wrap, cut several steam vents in plastic, and microwave on high until figs are plump, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons oil, shallot, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper; toss to combine. Let cool to room temperature.

3. Toss arugula and vinaigrette in large bowl; adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Divide salad among individual plates; top each with portion of prosciutto, walnuts, and Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Salad Week: Mediterranean Chopped Salad

Exhausted. I'm thankful for salad week because I am exhausted. This morning when I woke up I felt like a limp bunch of sea weed left hanging on the beach from the pounding retreat of high tide.

Also this morning, I was reminded of the last line of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." It had me combing our bookshelves in the bedroom to find it before I even brushed my teeth. The first time I read that was about nine years ago, but I will never forget it because it seemed to me, so true. I'm revisited by those words often as life changes, as things fall apart and rebuild, as I clutch to things and let others go. At this very moment, I don't feel that the past is so much my problem as is the tumultuous present; nevertheless, the words are there in my head reminding me that I am quite small and yet not alone.

At least my dinners this week don't require a lot of work, special tricks, or clean up.

Last night I made a classic Mediterranean chopped salad, which was hearty--chock full of chick peas and calamata olives and cucumber. Plenty of parsley gives the dish a distinctive herby flavor. The only thing I might consider adding to this recipe would be a few spicy banana pepper rings for garnish.

This recipe makes A LOT of salad. It's the first dinner salad we haven't been able to finish. A perfect dish for the season of pot-lucking.

Mediterranean Chopped Salad

Serves 4 as a light entrée and 6 as a side dish. Published July 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.


1 medium cucumber , peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 1/4 cups)
1 pint grape tomatoes , quartered (about 1 1/2 cups)
Table salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 medium garlic clove , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas , drained and rinsed
1/2 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
1/2 small minced red onion (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 romaine heart , cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
4 ounces feta cheese , crumbled (about 1 cup)
Ground black pepper


1. Combine cucumber, tomatoes, and 1 teaspoon salt in colander set over bowl and let stand 15 minutes.

2. Whisk oil, vinegar, and garlic together in large bowl. Add drained cucumber and tomatoes, chickpeas, olives, onion, and parsley; toss and let stand at room temperature to blend flavors, 5 minutes.

3. Add romaine and feta; toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Salad Week: Colleen's Usual

Last night marked our second salad day, sort of. Call me a cheater, but I couldn't resist throwing in this tomato soup (below). The soup was just divine, even without the chives on top (trim out the garnish and save $3.99!) Rosie gobbled this soup by the spoonful and Brandon savored it, all the while chiding me for not sticking to the rules. The blended bread and olive oil create a texture/taste illusion--it's creamy, but it's not!

I kept the salad simple with what I call "Colleen's Usual." I just throw in whatever greens and veggies I have hanging around and then toss in a simple dressing that goes like this:

Olive oil--twice around the bowl
Vinegar--a few shakes of the bottle (about 1 tablespoon, balsamic or red or white wine)
Dried Italian Herbs--a hefty sprinkling
Basil--add torn fresh leaves if you have them otherwise omit
Garlic powder--just a touch (optional)
Juice of 1/4 (or more) lemon--just cut and squeeze with hand
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

To mix things up, sometimes I'll add black olives or marinated artichoke hearts.

Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup

Serves 6 to 8. Published September 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil , plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion , chopped medium (about 1 cup)
3 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
Pinch hot red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes packed in juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 large slices good-quality sandwich bread , crusts removed, torn into 1-inch pieces
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives


1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes (if using), and bay leaf. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juice. Using potato masher, mash until no pieces bigger than 2 inches remain. Stir in sugar and bread; bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until bread is completely saturated and starts to break down, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf.
2. Transfer half of soup to blender. Add 1 tablespoon oil and process until soup is smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to large bowl and repeat with remaining soup and oil. Rinse out Dutch oven and return soup to pot. Stir in chicken broth and brandy (if using). Return soup to boil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve soup in individual bowls. Sprinkle each portion with pepper and chives and drizzle with olive oil.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Acquired Taste: Peanut Butter and Coffee

A favorite breakfast of my dad's is a peanut butter sandwich dunked in coffee. He presses the sides of a slice of peanut-buttered sandwich bread until they're just snug, and then dunks it in a hot cup of coffee. He's always careful with the dunk, lifting the coffee-d part of the sandwich up in a swooping motion so that it doesn't break off and fall in. He eats it in airy bites, cooling the coffee as it hits his mouth. This is his before-Mass, Sunday staple.

I was an ocean away from home before I tried peanut butter and coffee for the first time. I remember sitting in the dining hall of my Scottish dorm (Junior Year Abroad), which was actually a very old hotel, and, for the first time, spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread, fitting the sides together, and dunking it into a very bitter instant brew. The next morning, with some indifference, I tried it again. It took a week for the taste to hit home, but after that I was hooked.

I still can't put my finger on what is so good about this--I'm chalking it up to comfort food.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salad Week: Pan-Roasted Pear Salad

Today begins Salad Week for Brandon and me. I think the crispy treats and alfredo put us both over the edge and in need of serious green therapy. We were craving healthy food, and what better time to begin a week (almost) of dinner salads than right before the Thanksgiving holiday?

We kicked off the week with a heavenly salad: pan-roasted pear with watercress, parmesan and pecans. I could not find watercress anywhere in Amherst or Madison Heights (not surprising), so I left that out. Despite this omission, the salad still had us raving.

This past work week was interminable. So, naturally, with a happy-hour martini in my right hand, I pulled out pears and leaf lettuce and cheese from the fridge with my left--almost burned the walnuts that were toasting in the meantime. I have never "roasted" pears before; watching the white slices turn gold and then rich brown with balsamic glaze, I reached a new cooking high.

This salad was a thrilling circus of textures and flavors. I am still giddy about it here, a day later. The zip of parmesan, tangy-sweet glazed pears, roasty nuts, aromatic shallots, and mild greens combined to a bowl of dinnertime bliss. We ate it all, sharing the pears with Rosie, who immediately refused any subsequent spoonfuls of baby food.

Salad Week: Day 1 was a repeatable success!

Here's the recipe:

Serves 4 to 6.  Published November 1, 2007.  From Cook's Illustrated.

  • 3 ripe but firm pears (about 1 1/2 pounds), quartered and cored (see note above)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus an additional 2 teaspoons
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 small shallot, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1/2 medium head green leaf lettuce, washed, dried, and torn into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 2 small bunches watercress, washed, dried, and stemmed (about 4 cups)
  • 4 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved into thin slices with a vegetable peeler
  • 3/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped


1. Toss pears, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in medium bowl. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add pears cut-side down in single layer and cook until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Using small spatula or fork, tip each pear onto second cut side; continue to cook until second side is light brown, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Turn off heat, leave skillet on burner, and add 2 tablespoons vinegar; gently stir until vinegar becomes glazy and coats pears, about 30 seconds. Transfer pears to large plate and cool to room temperature, about 45 minutes. Cut each pear quarter crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.

2. Whisk remaining 2 tablespoons oil, remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and shallot together in large bowl; season to taste with salt and pepper. Add lettuce, watercress, and cooled pears to bowl; toss and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Divide salad among individual plates; top each with portions of cheese and nuts. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Night

On Mondays, Brandon and the baby get home early. When I walk in, usually one or both of them is hungry, the dog is positively bouncing with joy, and last night's dessert plus this morning's breakfast dishes are stacked along the counter top. So after throwing a quick kiss to Bran, patting the dog, finding a snack for everyone, and scrubbing the cereal bowls, I start to cook. Life for us is a very frequent dance of homecomings, of settling ourselves into place. When I finally set the big steel pot steaming or sizzling on the stove-top, the quiet festivities of the evening can begin.

I try to find recipes that I can make in under an hour. It's essential for me to begin with a clean counter and sink--plenty of room to prep ingredients, work quickly, and keep tools organized. I feel much better when I know where my utensils are and when my mess is contained. A little ordered disorder is no problem at all.

Tonight, I tried a recipe from Cook's Illustrated: Lighter Fettuccine Alfredo. I just started using the Cooks Illustrated website and have found that their recipes offer lots of useful tips and new techniques that you can apply to other dishes as you tweak and refine them. I wouldn't have thought to add a little cornstarch to Alfredo, but my sauce was beautifully thick and smooth after I did. I wouldn't have thought to warm the serving bowls with some of the boiling pasta water to keep this very temperature sensitive dish at it's best on the table. I'm sure I'll use these tips again!

This recipe called for a little bit of grated whole nutmeg (see previous post) and a cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It was worth every penny to get the real P-Regg. rather than the more affordable Americanized version--"parmesan." I don't always splurge on this, but for the Alfredo I did and would again. It adds the zing you need to balance out the cream.

I'll confess that Alfredo has not always been a favorite dish of mine, but I have been warming to it over the past two years. With some extra cheese grated on top, this recipe was delicious. Brandon wasn't sure about the nutmeg, which added some fullness to the flavor of the dish. "Woody" came to mind for me, but I suppose the obvious adjective is "nutty." Next time, I might substitute the nutmeg for a little garlic powder...

In the end, I'd say this Alfredo recipe is a good one to have in my pocket.

LIGHTER FETTUCCINE ALFREDO--Cooks Illustrated, March 22, 2007

This recipe was published in The Best Light Recipe.


cup half-and-half
teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
Table salt
teaspoon cornstarch
ounces fresh fettuccine
ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano , grated fine (about 1 cup)
Ground black pepper


1. Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Using a ladle or heatproof measuring cup, fill four individual serving bowls with about 1/2 cup of the boiling water each; set the bowls aside to warm.

2. Meanwhile, bring 1/2 cup of the half-and-half, the nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a simmer in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup half-and-half together, then whisk it into the simmering mixture. Continue to simmer the sauce, whisking constantly, until it has thickened, about 1 minute. Cover and set the pot off the heat.

3. Stir 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta into the boiling water and cook, stirring constantly, until al dente, 1 to 2 minutes. Reserving 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, drain the pasta.
4. Return the half-and-half mixture to medium-low heat and whisk in 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Slowly whisk in the Parmesan. Add the pasta and cook, coating the pasta evenly with the sauce, until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Season with pepper to taste. Working quickly, empty the serving bowls of water, divide the pasta among the bowls, and serve.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Salty/Sweet Tooth

I meant to make these salted brown butter crispy treats last weekend, but after the birthday cake they seemed a little much. However, I am so glad that I did not wait longer than one week to make this absolutely delightful twist on an old favorite. Brown butter and a dash of sea salt make these bars simply gourmet and in less than 10 minutes! The cleanup was easy too. Just soak your big pot for a while and the sticky marshmallow will dissolve right off.

We all munched these this afternoon, grateful for a sunny day after a week of cold rain. Rosie and I sat outside on a blanket afterwards, picking up autumn's fallen leaves and dropping them into a picnic basket. One by one we took them all out again, clapping in between. For us, plastic toys pale in comparison to the ones given from above.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nanny's Pasta Fazool

I'm letting out one of Nanny's best kept secrets, her Pasta e Fagioli. It's pronunciation has morphed over the years of children and grandchildren into the endearing term, Pasta Fazool. If you love the rustic Italian flavors of parsley, garlic, potatoes, and white beans, you will love this. My dad always called it the soup of peasants, though I dare say it is worthy of lords.

My Nanny is 100% Italian. I would describe her as a romantic grandmother--beautiful, passionate, religious, generous, and exuberant. She always seems to be in love with something, whether it's a new pair of shoes, or a song, or an apricot pastry. She may not claim to be an artist, but she is one, and food is her medium. She treats each recipe as if it were a being of it's own, a creation outside of herself--like a writer and her novel. Nanny always calls food by its title, never saying, "I'm making meatballs," but, "I'm making The Meatballs."

At Christmas two years ago, she gave everyone in the family a cookbook, put together with Poppop's help, containing the family recipes that, if not written down, might otherwise be lost--the pizza fritas, the stuffed cabbage, the marinara sauce, the gnocchi...the Pasta Fazool. There are 70 of them, and I'll be sharing my personal favorites from time to time.

Everyone's pasta fazool will turn out a little differently. Brandon and I like ours a little thicker than most. The recipe calls for one potato. I add two. It calls for 1/4 parmesan cheese. I add a third. It calls for 1 cup of chopped parsley. I usually add a full bunch. Italian parsley is best. Look for the darkest, least wilted bunch. (If you're like me, wilted parsley is the bane of your weekly shopping trip.) Also, I use ditalini pasta, not ziti, but you can use either. This soup will be at its best a day after you make it.

A word of caution: The salt will make or break this recipe. Under salted it's good, but nothing like what you'll experience if this dish is salted just right. The salt will truly unlock the flavors. Over salted, it's just inedible.

Here's the recipe:

2 15 oz. cans Cannellini Beans---do not drain
1/2 c olive oil
6 large garlic cloves
1 c chopped parsley
1 1/2 c diced celery
1 c white wine
1 medium baking potato, cubed
1/2 lb ziti
salt, pepper, oregano, basil (fresh or dried)
1/4 c grated parmesan cheese

Put olive oil into a 6-qt. pot and bring to medium heat.
Add chopped garlic, cook until golden (about 1 min.)
Add parsley, saute 4 - 5 min. on low heat--do not burn.

Add celery and saute 3 - 4 min.
Add white wine, salt, pepper, oregano, basil.
Add 2 cups of water.
Add potato and simmer 15 - 20 min. until potato is tender.
Crush some of the potato with a fork against the side of the pot and stir.
Add the beans and scrape cans with a rubber spatula to get all of the juice.
With a fork, mash a few more pieces of potato and some beans to thicken the soup.
Add the parm. cheese and simmer 3 minutes more.

In a different pot filled with water and 1 tsp. salt, boil pasta.
To serve: place some pasta in a soup bowl and ladle the soup over it. Top each serving with parmesan cheese.

The book reads at the bottom of the page: "This is one of Poppop's favorites and is positively the best of all the pasta fagiolis he has ever tasted."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Birthday Boy, Birthday Cake

Brandon's birthday was Saturday, November 7. His signature birthday cake (to date) is the Better Homes and Gardens Yellow Cake iced with Martha Stewart's Ultimate Chocolate Icing. This yellow cake recipe is simple and very good for that classic birthday cake look, taste, and texture. I have never had this cake flop, except once when I added baking soda instead of baking powder. Lesson learned...

I love to build a layer cake. It's got a structure to be determined (I love to use square pans), then a tedious stacking process, and finally a color palate to choose and apply. It's your own little (or big) creation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always a learning process. This was my first time spreading the icing with an icing spatula. I HIGHLY recommend this tool. It helps you spread wide sweeps of icing.

The layer cake was a lot of work. I had to bake it, wash the baking dishes, dry it, wash the drying racks, make the chocolate icing, wash all icing bowls and tools, make the colored icing, design and ice the cake, and finally, wash the colored icing bowl and tools! But, even the copious amount of dishes I had to do cannot compare with the piles that Brandon washes sans machine each evening after my culinary escapades. So, I raise this cake to Brandon, a most patient, dedicated, and supportive husband who deserves so much more than I could ever give.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Two Sides Make a Whole

I must have Scotland on the mind because I made two recipes (see previous post for scones) in one weekend that reminded me of that fantastical, craggy place. While at St. Andrews, not only did I receive an introduction to scones, but also to pureed soups. Once again, my education began at Janetta's cafe (and ice cream shop!), where, as a server, my lunch was always complimentary. Each day, a three-foot pot sat on the stove around the corner in a tiny cook's kitchen simmering with a different, usually pureed, soup. The soups had gourmet flavors like curried carrot, apple and parsnip, winter vegetable, pear and celery root, tomato basil, honeyed carrot, yellow split pea, leek and potato...I couldn't choose a favorite. Each one was delicious and when paired with a buttered roll--sublime.

I have been trying to recreate those soups ever since. I don't feel that I have succeeded yet, and perhaps I never will. I'm sure a part of their deliciousness is tied to the very cobblestones of South Street.

When I saw this recipe for Creamy Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup in Cooking Light (can you tell I have a subscription?)--a spiced purreed soup that looked similar to my Scottish favorites--I had to try it. The recipe was part of a section of sides and starters. I picked out the Candied Walnut, Pear, and Leafy Green Salad to go with the soup, warmed some ciabatta bread and called it dinner.

The soup needed a little extra salt to bring out the festive flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet potato, but it was well worth the tinkering. The recipe requires you to brown the butter after adding it to the pan--I can only compliment the original chef on this tactic. Browned butter is one of the great delights of my life--if you haven't tried it, you must! (I'm sure a future blog post will be devoted purely to browned butter.) I used an immersion blender to puree it, which worked beautifully and cut down on clean up. The salad was delicious as well, the best thing being the dressing. I ended up using brown balsamic vinegar because that was all I had, but it was still great! This dressing could work for other salads--very handy to have in your repertoire. To cut down on cost, I used only romaine lettuce and cut the ingredients in half to serve just the two of us.

So we felt quite gourmet last night with our steaming bowls of soup and salad plates decorated with glazed nuts and greens. The eating and tasting gave us something new to do. What a way to dress up an average Sunday evening!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Good Scone is Hard to Find

I spent my junior year of college away in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I was introduced to "real" scones. Unlike most of my friends there, I spent my weekends working in a small, family-owned cafe called Janetta's. The cook/baker extraordinaire, Rona, made fresh scones every single morning, and I can still remember the warm raisin smell that would fill the place before we opened. I relished grabbing the huge scones with tongs, setting them carefully on the white ceramic plates, and laying down before the local Scots their most-beloved breakfast/teatime treat. If a scone was leftover at the end of the day, the servers would either split it and eat it straight from the counter or one of us would get to take it home. Sometimes, that was my dinner. Each one felt like it weighed a pound and was jammed with golden sultanas and dark raisins. Those were good scones.

It has been my experience on this side of the Atlantic, at least here in central Virginia, that most people do not know what a Scottish scone is like--its consistency being the hardest part to grasp. It shouldn't be chewy like a brownie (common misconception!) or light as a cake. It shouldn't be any sort of tough or spongy (a very, very common problem). It shouldn't be as sweet as a donut. It should, however, be somewhere between a biscuit and a heavy muffin. Scones are usually a little dry on the outside, soft and crumbly (but not dry) on the inside, and should have a little weight. A scone should be lightly sweetened, the sugar being a sweet discovery you make after the initial bite.

The best scones I've tried to make on my own are Martha Stewart's Cherry Scones. These scones have never disappointed. They're easy to make and are a good introduction to the art of the scone. You can eat these with the traditional devon cream, butter, or just by themselves. I suggest coffee or Earl Grey and a few good friends as the perfect accompaniment.

I made these scones this morning for Brandon's birthday breakfast. They brought a little bit of our history to the table--Scotland has a lot to do with why and how we met. We both watched as our baby grabbed pieces of scone with her two fingers, furrowed her brow, and crammed both hand and scone into her mouth.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Turkey, Take 1

On Sunday, I attempted to make Cooking Light's Classic Roast Turkey and Giblet Gravy because every cook, and every mom for that matter, should know how to make a good turkey dinner. Someday, I hope that I will host our own Thanksgiving meal, so I'd better start practicing now if I want to achieve that grandma finesse.

My experience was definitely a testament to doing too much and going too fast. The recipe wanted me to make the homemade turkey broth a day in advance. But Saturday was so quickly swallowed by dishes of past (made this the night before) and present and other household novelties, that I postponed until Sunday morning. At 8:30 a.m. I hoisted the turkey from the fridge to the sink, unwrapped it, wrestled the turkey neck from the bird's cavity (still a bit frozen) and yanked out a plastic packet of what I thought was premixed gravy (label said something about gravy). So, I tossed the packet, only to realize later that it contained the all important giblets, and threw the neck alone into a big stainless steel pot with hot oil. I was supposed to brown this for 15 minutes. The sputtering and spattering commenced as I held my baby girl on one hip and was soon distracted by her coos and arm flails and shrieks. Before long, we were both sitting in front of the computer staring at facebook when the smell of smoke started to tug at our noses. After only 8 minutes, I had completely charred the turkey neck. I put down the baby and took the pot onto the porch. Grabbed a towel and started waving it like a flag around the fire alarm. Thus the failure of step number 1.

I moved on. I had some chicken broth that I thought I could sub in for the homemade turkey broth. At this point, my husband Brandon and I decided it would be a good idea to go into town, get cappuccinos at Starbucks, and drop off some clothes at Good Will. It would be good to get out of the house, right? After a harried trip that turned out to be quite a bad idea (when will we learn not to take the baby ANYWHERE?!) with no cappuccinos whatsoever, I returned to my still smokey kitchen, exhausted, and feeling as though I was trying to do everything with one hand tied behind my back.

But then I delved into the real cooking. I had a blast chopping up the herbs and learning how to pin those pointy turkey wingtips behind the bird's back. I took fingerfuls of the herb-butter mixture and stuffed it underneath the skin. Cooking gets fun when you get your hands dirty. There's something elemental about shoving your hands underneath turkey skin and jamming in the shrubby herbs.

I thought my creation really was glorious slathered with butter and situated securely in my never-before-used giant roasting pan. I placed it in the oven and went back to baby watching...

When the turkey started to become golden, Rosie and I watched it through the oven door. She slapped her fat baby hands on the warm oven window and bounced like she does when she's happy. Brandon said it was starting to smell really good. Though we have many reasons not to call the apartment we're in our home quite yet, at that moment, everything fit together like magic. I knew right then that someday I'd look back on roasting that turkey and miss the feeling of home just coming together.

In the end, it turned out pretty well--even the gravy. I think I still have a long way to go before roasting the perfect classic, moist turkey, but this one still had its charm.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Whole Nutmeg

Have you ever seen whole nutmeg? Whole nutmeg is actually the seed of an evergreen tree that grows on Indonesia's Spice Islands. I finally got my hands on some, and after reading that a nutmeg grater is very similar to a cheese grater, I just used a cheese grater on the finest side. After a few strokes on the metal, the nutmeg emmitted a strong, spicy scent, much more aromatic than the preground. I was definitely hooked. Can't wait to try this on spiked eggnog when Christmas comes around . . .
Taking the extra time to use the whole seed really makes a difference, but not only in the taste of the food. It just feels better; there's some satisfaction in having put in a little more work. I didn't quite pluck it from the tree myself (plucked it from the Hispanic section in Wal-Mart, much less expensive than the baking section), but I was able to grate it myself, learn something myself, and in the end, put a little more of "me" into the food that I made for my family.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is It a Keeper?

What makes a recipe a keeper for you? Let's face it, we're all "taste" people. But are you also a texture person? A scent person? A sight person? Maybe a recipe is a little bland, but the texture is irresistable, so you keep it for doctoring. What if it smells divine, but the taste really didn't send you over the moon--maybe you'll keep that one too. Sometimes, though, it's just best to move on...

To be dubbed a keeper in my book, it's got to make me sit back and go yum--I mean really close-your-eyes yum. If a recipe can't do that, it's not worth my time to make it again. Lately, I've been trying to figure out exactly what makes me (and others) go yum--once you figure that out, you start to unlock all sorts of recipe and cooking secrets. Soon, you'll almost be able to determine just by reading a recipe if you might like it, if you should add something or take something away. You start to learn tastes and how tastes blend, for better or for worse.

Last Sunday, I made a recipe that I thought looked scrumptious--a sure yummer. Alas, it was not. The recipe was called Braised Chicken Thighs with Peppers and Olives, from Fresh and Simple, Cooking for Friends. I made the recipe carefully--rinsed, dried, and browned the chicken, sliced the olives, used a white wine as the liquid of choice. But, in the end it was bland and the leftovers were even worse. I'm still stumped as to why this recipe didn't really work (but others in that book are quite good!) It turned out slightly dry, but also lacking in real flavor.

There's always something to be gained from spending a little time behind the stove, even if the recipe is a flop. In my case, I have not quite yet learned all there is to know about the yum factor, but I'm one bum recipe closer!

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Joint Effort

Cooking is often a joint effort. Contributors to this past weekend’s venture included my mom (in absentia), best friend Katie, and me. The challenge: sausage gravy.

Gravy is one of those mysterious foods that, until you know all the tricks, is hit or miss. It has always baffled me that the simple ingredients in sausage gravy (milk, flour, sausage, salt, pepper) combine to form a consistency so different from their natural—if you will—state.

Katie's method is to brown the sausage, remove it with a slotted spoon from pan. Add a bit of butter and 1/4 cup flour. Brown the flour a bit. Then add about 2 cups of milk + sausage. Stir and cook until thickened. I wanted to try (a bit of my mom's influence in this method) keeping the meat in the pan, adding the flour directly to it to brown, and lastly, adding the milk a little at a time.

"A little more?" I asked Katie, as we both leaned over the pan to judge.

"A little more," she said. I added enough milk to make it look like sausage was not the main ingredient.

"It'll thicken," she reassured me. "We just have to wait."

In a few telling minutes our gravy thickened. We sat at the table and ladled full, steaming mounds of it over biscuits. It felt good to know that after 13 years of being friends, we still have things to share—a comfort reaffirmed through the common experience of making and enjoying food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Making Apple Pie

I set a high goal for myself last weekend--to make two apple pies. Making pie is an intimidating task as so many things can go wrong. The best thing to do is take your time. I found this to be my first challenge. Taking my time is a very hard thing to with my 8-month-old toddler around. Not to mention a needy cocker spaniel and a husband (he's very sweet). Not only did I attempt to manage the peeling and slicing of 14 apples, the cubing of 4 sticks of butter, and measuring of all that flour--but also the active and demanding home.

When little Rosie wanted to be fed just as I pulled the ingredients from their resting places, and then held, and then changed...I realized I would have to revise my game plan. I made the pie dough Saturday and ended the weekend with one complete pie on Sunday, the other on Monday.

Finally, with baby pushing an unopened jumbo box of wipes to help her cruise around the kitchen, a wooden spoon or two to serve as "new toys," and a few treats scattered about to keep her occupied, I opened my cherished book by Williams-Sonoma: Pie and Tart.

I've tried a lot of pie crust recipes, and the Williams-Sonoma basic pie dough always turns out the best. The dough is the toughest part. The goal is to achieve a crust that is golden, flaky, melt-in-your mouth delicious. Too much water and/or blending and it will be tough and rock hard. The Williams-Sonoma basic pie dough recipe uses a stick of cold butter per crust -- for two pies, I used 4 sticks!

Every stage of pie making reveals little discoveries like:

  • it's a good idea to blend the "seasoning" ingredients (flour, cinnamon, sugar, etc.) for the filling before adding to the fruit;

  • taking your time to blend your butter cubes with a pastry blender thoroughly into the "small pea" stage helps with the next step (though hurts your arm after four doughs!)

  • mixing the dough with a fork only until all (or most!) of the loose flour is incorporated is a rather difficult task, but the most essential of all. You MUST NOT OVER MIX. Do not be afraid if the dough isn't in a nice ball when you stop mixing it. Mine is usually separated, until I gather it into a ball with my hands;

  • to get the "very cold water" called for, I keep a mug filled with water from the fridge with ice cubes in it to dip from with my tablespoon.

This pie dough recipe is a beautiful golden color when you roll it out--not pale like those doughs that require shortening. It's sturdy too, easy to fold and handle.

On Sunday, I finally draped the second pie crust over top a heaping mound of cinnamon spiced apples, tucked in the edge, and sealed it with a fork. After cutting the five top slits in the shape of a star and chilling it a bit, I took it out to bake.

It looked so very traditional waiting on the stovetop to be baked--waiting to fill the house with a smell that meant someone was home preparing a place for you, waiting to be eaten and to elicit that satisfied, deeply good feeling of a thing earned, a thing home-baked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Stick of Butter

Yes, that's right--a stick of butter. Real butter. Nothing tastes like it. Nothing melts like it. Nothing browns like it. Nothing sizzles like it. Nothing brings joy quite like it.

That's what this blog is about. The joy that comes from cooking in the home and the day-to-day experience of food. I start with a tribute to butter because it makes so many things better. It's what I call a foundation food--a basic ingredient that renders your pies, cookies, main dishes, and appetizers (even regular toast!) absolutely delectable. In a word, butter keeps family and friends coming back to a table that's part of the home's foundation.

My dad flat out refused to ever keep butter substitutes in our house growing up, and I know now that it was for reasons beyond just the taste. It was for what the taste meant to him--it meant comfort, family, home, enjoyment, devotion, love--all wrapped in a stick of butter. It's good for the soul.