Friday, July 29, 2011

A winter dish in the middle of summer? Why not.

Sometimes in the summer I find I miss eating a great big dish of something hearty. That was the case last week, so I made something I've loved since I was little -- chicken cacciatore.
In Italian, "cacciatore" means hunter. There are a few theories about the origin of the name of this dish, one of which is that when the men came back from the hunt they'd be greeted with a dish like this one, which is hearty and warm. Whatever the origin, it's incredibly easy to make, and you can use any part of the chicken you like.

You'll need the following:
1 package of chicken breast (about 3-4 pieces) or a package of thighs and legs
1 large onion, minced
2 red bell peppers, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cloves garlic
8-10 white mushrooms, sliced
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
fresh basil

~Start with your favorite part of the chicken: a combination of legs, thighs and breasts is a nice.
~If you're using the breast only, cut into chunks and dredge in flour (add salt and pepper to the flour for extra flavor). If you're using thighs and legs, simply salt and pepper on both sides.
~Brown chicken in olive oil until golden; brown the other side and when golden set aside
~Wipe out the pan, add fresh oil and saute the onion, garlic, peppers and mushrooms, about 8-10 minutes.
~Add the chicken to the vegetables and add the crushed tomatoes and wine to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and add some fresh basil. Stir, cover and simmer for about 20-30 minutes.
When you open the lid, you'll have something like this. For this batch I used breast only. What part of the chicken you use is entirely up to you; it's delicious either way.

In southern Italy, chefs generally use red wine for this dish, while further north chefs tend to use white wine.

Serve over linguini, spaghetti or fettucini and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and you'll have a bit of winter in the middle of summer. Buon appetito!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Homemade pizza

My mom makes pizza every Friday or Saturday night, and she's been doing it for as long as I can remember. When we were little, she used to make it in a long baking sheet, so the slices would be rectangular in shape. She's made many changes in the years since, but I always remember fondly those thin, cheesy slices, which were so thin you could eat 8 of them at least. She'd have to make three pies because my father would eat almost a whole pie himself.

For a while my mother used a pizza stone, which she liked, but one day she cracked it in half. While looking for a new one, she came across a pan in Williams Sonoma, part of their Goldtouch line, and she's been using it ever since. I use it as well and think it's just great -- it allows the crust to crisp nicely and the pizza slides right off when done.

But onto the ingredients...where do you begin? Plenty of people buy their dough from their local pizza shop, which is fine. I've done it in a pinch. But making dough is really easy, especially if you have a bread machine (I use a Zojirushi machine; it's brilliant) . If so, this is my aunt's recipe for dough, and it's a great one.

1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup milk, warmed
1 1/2 cups flour, sifted (this is an important step!)
1/2 cup semolina (if you can't find semolina, use 2 cups of flour instead)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon active dry yeast

Add the ingredients in this order to the bread machine. When adding the yeast, make a little well in the center of the mixture and add it, making sure the yeast doesn't touch the wet ingredients. Use the dough setting on the bread machine.

Now onto the sauce. Let me make a bold statement here: there's no reason to buy sauce from a jar! I'm sure I'm biased, as I grew up eating homemade sauce, but it's so easy to do, especially for pizza, and it's so much better than sauce from a jar that everyone should give it a go. Here's my recipe for pizza sauce:

1 can whole, peeled plumb tomatoes
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
peperoncino (hot pepper flakes)
lots of fresh basil
handful of Parmesan cheese (optional)
pinch of dry oregano
salt and pepper to taste

~Saute the onion, garlic and peperoncino in good olive oil until golden. Start the onion a minute or so before the garlic, as the onions take longer to cook and you don't want the garlic to burn.
~Using a hand mixer or blender, blend the tomatoes without their juice until smooth.
~When the onion and garlic are golden, add the tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients, stir, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

You'll now have a bit of time for a glass of wine or a quick read, because your dough is still rising in the bread machine. When it's done, remove and put it on a floured surface. It will look like this:

If you leave it out for a while it will continue to rise. I roll mine out right away, making sure the surface and the rolling pin are well floured (but not too much). To get it to stay in a circle, roll it a bit and turn it to the right, roll it some more and turn, and continue this until it's rolled out to the size of your pan.
~Preheat your oven to 475 degrees
~If you're using the pizza pan I mentioned above, brush a bit of olive oil on it before putting the dough on it.
~Top the dough with the sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese (Use fresh mozzarella! It's wonderful and you can find it almost anywhere these days; if you can't, Bel Gioioso is a good cheese to use) and then any topping you like. I often saute and onion and top it with that, or a red pepper and sausage. Delish!
~Bake on the lower rack (so the dough gets crisp) for about 12-15 minutes

There are so many takes on pizza and so many opinions about it -- thick crust or thin, toppings or pure -- and what I love about pizza is that it inspires such strong opinions from people. You can do whatever you like and it's great, so be creative and have fun. Buon appetito!

My history geek moment: The first version of pizza came in the form of baked pieces of bread that were topped with a variety of toppings. It is believed that people have been making this kind of dish since the Stone Age.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Eating our way through the Jersey Shore...Ocean City, NJ

We just got back from a few days in Ocean City, NJ, where there was plenty of sun, the beach, and a ton of eating.  Looking back at my pictures, I realize that most of them are of food. Well, not all....

Photo by Ryan Schneider
This is where we parked ourselves for the better part of the trip; that is, when we weren't eating. And as I mentioned, there was a lot of eating. I've always been a fan of Jersey food. I just think there's plenty to love about it, from the freshness of the fruits and vegetables to the reliability of some of the staples, like pizza. I learned to love pizza in New Jersey. My mother made it every Friday night, and still does, and my brother and I would walk around the corner whenever we were tired of playing and had 75 cents to spend on a slice. It was always just the right thing at the right time, and I never got tired of it. So when I heard about All Natural Pizza in Ocean City, I knew I had to give it a go.

One could easily walk by All Natural Pizza and never decide to stop in, and that would be a shame. Totally unassuming on the outside and something of a catch-all for items he's collected over the years, All Natural is Lou DeFusco's pride and joy. I love to meet people who are proud of their food and who love to talk about the craft of it. Lou sat down while we ate and told us all about his pizza -- the dough, the sauce, the cheese. All Natural has been in Ocean City since 1968, and Lou's family first began making dough in Italy in the 19th century. Ever the cagey chef, Lou wouldn't tell me how he makes his dough or sauce, but he did say that he doesn't use sugar in any of it. Now I've always assumed that one uses sugar in dough to activate the yeast, but Lou told me that he doesn't need to use sugar because he doesn't use tap water in his dough. Tap water contains chlorine, which kills the yeast, so no tap water means no sugar. Lou uses a starter dough for each new batch of dough he makes, and he uses the recipe for both his dough and the sauce that his family has been using for generations. The end result? Simply some of the best pizza I've ever tasted, and I'm finicky about pizza. The sauce is perfectly smooth and flavorful, the crust is thin and crispy, and the cheese is just lovely -- not that plasticy-tasting cheese one too often finds on pizza. This cheese is creamy and delicious.
Lou's pizza. Perfection!
A happy customer

Me and Lou

After Lou's pizza, we wandered over to the farmers market. I reminded Ryan that New Jersey is called the Garden State for this particular reason, the glorious flowers and produce that New Jersey produces for the surrounding areas. Wandering through the market we saw all manner of lovely fruits and vegetables, but none lovelier than those from Dave Monteleone Farms. I met Dave's wife, Doris, as I was passing by. Sitting at her stand were the most beautiful tomatoes I've seen in ages. I'm a tomato snob, I'll admit, so Doris urged me to try them, as each had its own taste and texture: the sweet orange cherry tomatoes were like candy, and the more tomatoey reds and yellows tasted like summer. Doris even had Heirlooms, but I was literally too overwhelmed by these beauties to take a picture of them. If it weren't for Ryan I wouldn't have even gotten these pictures!
 Doris also had baby eggplant, which I bought along with the tomatoes. I dressed the eggplant, cut lengthwise, in 1 1/2 tablespoon of sesame oil, 3 tablespoons of soy sauce and 2 cloves of garlic. All I did was grill them on a stove top grill, along with a few scallions, and they were heavenly! Doris and Dave Monteleone's farm is in Vineland, NJ, and they visit many of the local farmers markets in NJ. Their produce is gorgeous, and I would have paid twice the price for it, easily.

We decided to venture out and try one of the local restaurants for dinner. I've mentioned that NJ has wonderful produce (and pizza!), but it also has its share of great seafood. We found Jon and Patty's Coffee Bar and Bistro on the main drag and decided it looked good. A quick perusal of the menu was all it took to decide that the fish tacos were for me; after the waitress exclaimed, "these will change your life!!" I knew I'd made the right choice. Sure enough, the tacos were amazing. The cod was crisp and light and fresh and sat in a bed of sesame ginger slaw; there was a side of black beans and rice topped with the most fragrant mango salsa I've had in ages. Jon, the owner, came out to check on us halfway through the meal, which is always such a nice touch. I told him that the tacos struck the perfect balance...the crispy, savory fish combined with the crisp slaw and the sweet mangoes hit every part of my taste buds. They were really just perfect.

And finally, there's Katie, owner of Sandcastle Cupcakes on Asbury Avenue and the cutest thing on two legs, to be fair. It had always been Katie's dream to own a shop on Asbury, so after completing culinary school, she searched for a shop and found an old garage with a For Lease sign in the window. Sandcastle Cupcakes was born. Katie told me it was her dream to bring quality back to the cupcake business, so she uses all natural ingredients, which means nothing from a box. The result are these beauties...creative, fresh, beautiful works of art, and Katie is the artist. Her menu includes a ridiculous number of flavors -- I honestly don't know how she does it, but she does. There's salted chocolate, dulce de leche, pumpkin, strawberry, fig and brown sugar, carrot cake, and apple cinnamon, just to name a few. I tried the toasted coconut and the cannoli, and they were both perfect; not too sweet and clearly made from quality ingredients. Katie also sells gluten-free and vegan cupcakes, which is even more impressive if you ask me. We visited her shop twice, not only for the cupcakes, but for the lovely feel of the place as well. Katie has a blog where she recounts the adventures of the cupcake business and where you can learn the names of her kitchen equipment (love that). Go, Katie!


Me and Kaite

This requires no explanation!

Food is such an important part of a getaway. I find myself thinking of vacations in a multifaceted way: what's there to do in this place, what will I learn, how will I relax, and what will I eat? I loved Ocean City for its food most of all, and for all of these people who clearly love their craft. This was my favorite post to write so far for these wonderful and inspiring chefs. What an unexpected bonus! Thanks to Lou, Doris, Jon and Katie for all their stunning food.

My history geek moment: Ocean City once served as a summer fishing camp for local Native Americans.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The best laid plans...salmon and broccoli rabe pesto

I've been talking about poaching a piece of fish for the past week, and somewhat painstakingly going about it. By that I mean I've been thinking about the fish, what sort to buy, how I would flavor the olive oil and what would accompany the fish. I've seen it done on television, and then on Wednesday, at a fancy lunch, I had a piece of olive oil poached cod; I thought, I can definitely do this, so I went for it.

And all went as planned...I settled on salmon, as it looked great the day I was at the fish store; I decided to flavor the oil with a bit of rosemary, so I took a sprig from my potted rosemary plant; and finally, I found a recipe for broccoli rabe pesto that had a twist, something I've made in the past but not this way, so I decided to make it. And everything was fine until I put the thermometer in the oil to check the temperature and it broke right in from of my very eyes (and ears, with a delicate little "pop.") So now what?

After getting over the fact that I lost almost a half bottle of olive oil, I decided to bake the fish in the oven. I prefer this way as it's less messy than pan searing it, though I do like the sear so I finished it in a pan at the last minute. And though it wasn't poached, it was quite good, so here's how I did it:

For the pesto:
~1 bunch of broccoli rabe, stems removed
~2 cloves garlic
~1/4 cup blanched almonds
~pinch of hot pepper flakes
~1 tablespoon honey (this is the addition, courtesy of Giada de Laurentiis)
~1/2 cup olive oil
~1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
~salt and pepper to taste

Cook the rabe in a large pot of salted boiling water for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking. Squeeze out all the excess water from the rabe and add it to the food processor, along with the garlic, pepper flakes and almonds. Pulse until smooth and then drizzle in the oil, while the food processor is running. Add the honey, Parmesan, salt and pepper, stir and set aside.

For the salmon:
~Salt and pepper the fish and place either on a baking sheet or in a baking dish
~Bake on 450 for about 9 minutes, then take it out and sear it in a pan to get that nice color on it, about 45 seconds on each side. Be careful not to overcook; your fish should be tender.
~Place the fish over the pesto and enjoy.

For a side, I made farro, one of my favorites.
~In a small bowl, combine a fourth of a zucchini, diced, and 5-8 diced grape tomatoes (or whatever tomato you have on hand).
~Add 2 1/2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, a few leaves of basil (cut) and salt and pepper. Set aside.
~Follow the directions on the farro package and when done, mix with the zucchini and tomatoes. Don't overcook your farro! It should be nutty and slightly al dente.

What I like about this kind of recipe is that it's versatile. I could have used almost any kind of fish, and I could have used any number of vegetables for the farro. Experiment and use what you like. And remember to use the leftover pesto for any number of things -- tossed with penne or on toast with an egg on top. Buon appetito!

My history geek moment: In the Middle Ages, kings weren't the only ones who had their own olive groves; monasteries grew olives as well, and it was quite lucrative!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Barcelona: my food mecca.

I love Spain. I think it's my favorite place on earth. There are other places I've traveled where the weight of history is greater for me than in Spain -- Istanbul, for example -- though Spain is not too shabby historically either. But Spain is comfortable for me, a place I feel so at home in, and a place I know I'll always return to. But enough about that. What about the food, you ask? Well! Just take a look.

 The only other place I've seen food like this was in Italy. Produce in your local grocery store just cannot compare to this, or to the feeling of being in an open air market in the middle of a city and buying your ingredients for that night's meal. There's nothing like it.

I've been to Madrid a few times and just love it, but food-wise, Barcelona is the place for me. Barcelona is like the younger, hipper sibling to Madrid. It's fresh and airy in a way Madrid is not. La Boqueria, Barcelona's open air food market, is bustling with people all determined to find the best produce, cheese and meats in the city...and they do.

 My favorite dish to eat in Spain is pulpo de gallega -- octopus drizzled with olive oil, salt and paprika. It's simple and refreshing. The best place in La Boqueria to get it is at Pinotxo Bar. This guy has been at Pinotxo for years, and he's as much worth the visit as is the pulpo.
Pulpo de gallega

 Another must visit is Cal Pep, tucked away on the Placa de les Olles. Here I ate the best tapas of my life, hands down.

A creamy, delicious tortilla

Chick peas and baby squid

Fried artichoke hearts and spinach with chick peas

Now, I think I'm a relatively adventurous cook, but I haven't yet tackled squid or octopus. I do try to make something Spanish every now and then, and pan con tomate, bread with tomatoes, is a dish that anyone can make. Try it now while tomatoes are in season, and you'll have on your hands a little slice of what life is like in Barcelona.

Pan con tomate
Grill slices of your favorite hearty bread. Rub with garlic. Slice a ripe tomato in half and rub the tomato on the bread until the juices soak through. Drizzle with a fruity olive oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt.

My history geek moment: There are conflicting theories about who founded the city of Barcelona. One story holds that it was founded by Hercules, another that it was founded by Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general and father of Hannibal.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Toscana Saporita Cooking School

Now that I've had my morning coffee and breakfast, I feel well prepared to write about last summer's trip to cooking school: Toscana Saporita, located in the hills of Tuscany and run by the indomitable Sandra Rosy Lotti. I happened to be leafing through a copy of La Cucina Italiana (a great magazine, by the way) when I came across the advert for Toscana. My mom and I had always talked about a trip to Italy; what better way to go than to cook our way through? After a few phone calls the trip was set. Easy.
Toscana Saporita
If you ever have the chance to go to cooking school in Italy, jump on it. Cooking in the kitchen of a 15th century villa does wonders for the soul. The food in Italy is just better because the raw ingredients are better -- egg yolks are deep orange, tomatoes are deep red, herbs grow readily outside, olive trees are nearby. Everything is fresh and perfect. Italians take their food very seriously. There's nothing like it.

We made fresh pasta and it reminded me of watching my grandmother make it in her basement kitchen when I was little. We made sauce from fresh Sicilian tomatoes, and no matter how hard I try to recreate that taste, it seems it can only come from those tomatoes.

And of course there were dishes besides pasta. There was meat, and vegetables, and dessert....

And there were the views and the beautiful surroundings....

And Sandra....

My mom, Sandra and me
And in some ways all these pictures and all this text won't ever do the place justice, won't ever fully explain how wonderful this adventure was. But maybe a little taste will do, so here's a recipe from Toscana for a summer farro salad (changed a wee bit by me). Farro is an ancient grain that's eaten widely in Italy. Like couscous, you can mix it with any vegetable or herb and it's just wonderful, and very easy to make. This is just one way of making it, so experiment. It only requires a lot of water and time to cook.

Summer Farro Salad
~Follow the directions on the package for cooking the farro, making as much or as little as desired
~When done, drain the farro and set aside, allowing it to cool
~Add the following to the farro, all diced:
      2 tomatoes of your choice
      1/2 red onion
      1 clove of garlic
~1/4 cup good olive oil
~2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
~Salt and pepper to taste
~Mix and enjoy

There will be more recipes from Toscana to come, and when I get brave enough to make my own pasta (after a crash course from Grandma), there will be plenty on that too. In the meantime, check out Toscana's site, and book a trip if you can. You won't be disappointed.
Toscana Saporita