Monday, August 31, 2009

What's Stirring? Another Awesome Blog.

Wow! I am honored to be a guest on "What's Stirring," the official blog of the Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis.

I have every right to be bias, since I was once employed there, but shoving aside my natural proclivity in its favor for the sake of journalistic integrity, I can honestly say they have the world's best (and most creatively-named) cooking classes, nicest and most knowledgable staff, and all the cookware tools you could ever need and even those that you couldn't possibly know that you need (but you do).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to: Deal With Leeks

Making bouillabaisse the other day reminded me of my first leek lesson. Leeks look like an oversized scallion, and are generally available year-round. Milder in flavor than onions or garlic, leeks make a great addition to all kinds of dishes. Pick a batch of leeks with healthy-looking green leaves, and a clean white stem.

First, trim off the dark green leafy end and the root end. Then, slice the stem vertically down the middle. If you run your thumb across each half, the layers will flip like pages of a book. This is where dirt will hide, so you'll want to rinse the leek while you flip the layers.

After the dirt has been rinsed away, place the leek halves flat side-down and make thin slices. The result will be little half-rings that look like fingernail clippings, ready to go into your dish.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fancy French-Speak for “Fish Stew”

Ever since my stepfather, Ernie, showed me how to make Bouillabaisse a few years ago, I have been dying for an excuse to make it again. My mom and Ernie would often make a big batch of Bouillabaisse for guests, and for me it holds blissful memories of sitting around my mom’s table with friends, being cared for and filled with something warm, fragrant, and intensely flavorful. One of the things I love most about food is that it does for me what music does for some – it envelopes me with deep emotions and memories of how it feels to finally come home after a long time away, tuck yourself under the covers after a bad day; the excitement of falling in love for the first time, or a comforting hug from a dear friend. The process of cooking is exciting, but eating is the reward. And if you have someone to share it with, that makes it all the more rewarding.

I had some fish-loving friends over for dinner last night. There are about a million ways to make Bouillabaisse, a traditional Proven├žal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille that contains different kinds of cooked fish/shellfish and vegetables, and is flavored with a variety of spices. This version received rave reviews.

Recipe for Ernie’s Bouillabaisse:

For Bouillabaisse for 4 people, you’ll need:

  • 8 Scallops
  • About 1lb Mussels
  • 8 Shrimp, peeled, cleaned
  • About ½-1 lb of non-oily white fish, such as Halibut, Turbot, Snapper… whatever is fresh… chopped into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 cups of Fish Stock
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced
  • 2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, pressed through a garlic press (or minced very fine)
  • 1 can of whole tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp of tomato paste
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • A pinch (about ¼ tsp) of saffron
  • About ¼- ½ tsp of cayenne pepper (adjust according to your heat preference)
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & white pepper
  • About 2 tbsp of Pernod (licorice-flavored liqueur)

In a large heavy pot with a lid, heat the olive oil and butter on medium until the butter has melted. Add the chopped celery, leeks, and fennel, and stir in the saffron; add the star anise and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Cook about 5-10 minutes until the veggies are tender. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir in the garlic and some sprinkles of cayenne. Next, add the tomato paste and stir. Cook for about one more minute, then add the white wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomatoes and their juices, mashing them into pieces with your stirring device. Add the fish stock and the Pernod. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot and let simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Discard the star anise and bay leaf, and check your seasoning. You might add a little more cayenne, salt or pepper at this point. With the pot is still simmering and steaming, add the mussels and cover. Let the mussels steam for a couple of minutes, until they open up. Discard any that do not open.

Add the scallops and white fish, and let them cook in the simmering liquid for another minute or two, then add the shrimp, and cook until it has just turned pink. Give one last stir, and check seasoning one last time.

Serve it to friends with lots of warm crusty bread, and a simple green salad on the side.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julia Lived to Be 91, Which Makes Me Feel Better

Dear friends, it's been lovely, truly it has, but I fear this is the end. I could quite possibly be approaching my death.

I only have months now, weeks or days even, before the morning comes that Nathan will think I am simply being stubborn and won't get up from bed. He'll say, "V, seriously, are you still in bed?" I won't even stir. "Well, give me a kiss goodbye then." Nothing. He'll shake me. Call my name out loud. Check my pulse. Panic. Regroup. Call an ambulance and have me rushed to the emergency room. The doctors will puzzle and agonize; how could a seemingly healthy 28-year-old have suddenly passed away like this? How did her arteries come to be like stone?

This is the scenario I play out in my mind as I drink my morning tea, watching Diane Sawyer interview someone about the hazards of too much salt in one's diet. The hazard of it hidden in processed foods especially, since we have no control over what has already been added. The levels of sodium in, say, a hot dog? Much more than our daily recommended value, which should be no more than a half teaspoon.

Wait, a half a teaspoon? That's it? Commence hyperventilation.

An animated graphic pops onto the TV screen of an artery being slowly thickened and hardened over time as the little white dots that represent "sodium" pile onto the screen. This is about where I turn off the TV and begin to accept my fate.

Until that moment, I had been preoccupied with trying to curb my butter intake, which would undoubtedly warrant the same kind of animated artery graphic warning if Diane Sawyer knew what I was up to. Me, and Paula Deen, The Butterton Family (have you seen those commercials?), the entire staff of Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis (motto: "It's better with butter") and the late Julia Child. We'd all be condemned to watch the artery clip over and over.

But I'd have made up my mind long ago; sacrificing it all for flavor. Nathan would tell people, "She loved life. She lived life. She never took life with a grain of salt... always with butter and usually with more than a half a teaspoon of salt."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Premeditations and Portobellos

I usually have pasta, butter, a block of parmigiano-reggiano, and salt & pepper at all times, so if I ever need a meal in a pinch, I'm prepared.

Sometimes, I even have some cream and beautiful market finds that I picked up with no particular premeditated plans for their future. Most recently: portobello mushrooms.

Recipe for Easy Linguine Alfredo with Portobellos:

You need:
  • Linguine
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Parmigiano-reggiano
  • Salt & pepper (affectionately referred to as S & P)
  • Portobellos, sliced (stems removed)

Boil pasta. Drain. Cook mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat in a shallow pan. Add a little S & P. Add pasta. Pour a little cream over the pasta/mushrooms, and toss with tongs. See if you need more cream to cover pasta. Shred as much cheese as your heart desires over the top. Toss pasta again. Serve with a little more shredded cheese.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Best. Cookies. Ever.

I have spent the last two years of my life deliberately researching, tweaking, and tinkering with chocolate chip cookie recipes to try to find one that sticks with me. Because it's my husband's favorite cookie, I feel that, as his domestic partner for life, I simply must possess the ability to create and wield a powerful-good batch of these cookies.

My quest had been on hiatus until last Saturday night. We were lounging on the couch watching Mallrats...

Okay, time-out. No, we do not live in fabulous New York City and spend our weekends watching obscure mid-nineties comedies on HBO. Occasionally we spend a mere fraction of our weekends doing this, but only after a fabulous evening stroll to Bar Boulud, where we had a fabulous meal with some fabulous wine, then walked our fabulous-selves across the street to the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Concert Series for some fabulous musical ambiance.

Where was I? Ah yes. Mallrats.

There is a scene in Mallrats where the two protagonist mall-goers visit the "new" cookie stand (or store, or whatever) in the mall. During that scene, my husband and I think, out loud, simultaneously, how great a warm, chewy, chocolate chip cookie sounds. The next day, in some place I don't remember, there was another reference to warm chocolate chip cookies. I don't remember where we saw it because all I remember is throwing my hands up and saying, "That's it. I'm making cookies. Now."

Prior to Sunday's batch, my cookies have always turned out too light, too dark; too fat, too thin. Too sweet, not sweet enough. Too cakey, too crispy. Etc. I finally went to the right source for guidance. Using Emily Luchetti's recipe for chocolate cookies, making very few of my own substitutions, I fell in love at last with the results.

Recipe for Best. Cookies. Ever. (Based on Emily Luchetti's recipe for chocolate chip cookies):
  • 2 and 1/2 cups of flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 10 tbsp cold butter
  • 6 tbsp cold Crisco
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (or one bag) of chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking soda, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and Crisco with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add the sugars and beat again until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing after each egg. Mix in the vanilla. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer, and fold in the dry ingredients until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips. Put the dough in the fridge to chill while you heat the oven to 350 degrees. When the oven is hot, roll the dough into tbsp-sized balls and bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper for about 13-15 minutes (depending on size and your preference for gooeyness). Serve warm!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

I am married to a great decision maker.

Okay, I confess - not all of the decisions Nathan has ever made have been great. But he consistently picks and chooses wisely, gives great advice, works out problems in a smart and logical fashion, and he always, ALWAYS, orders the best dish on the menu. At least, he always seems to be better at ordering than me. Lucky for me, he lets me try his selections, leaving me free to chase my whim by ordering something that was likely better in my imagination - an imagination that formed these great expectations as I sat studying the menu for several minutes, weighing each descriptive tidbit carefully. I weigh the descriptive tidbits, while factoring what the special happens to be, what day of the week it is, what season it is, what wine I want, what the person next to me is having, what I think Nathan might be thinking about ordering, what I ate already that week, what I might eat later that week, what the weather forecast is, what the waiter recommends, what my mother would recommend, what I might not cook at home, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Nathan simply find what he likes, and orders it. Or at least, that's how I perceive it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Few Thoughts About Lasagna

Out of necessity, and perhaps a little gluttony, I decided to make a lasagna. I say “a” lasagna, despite the improper grammar, because whenever you make a lasagna, it is a behemoth. It’s a commitment. It’s renting the use of your entire 9 x 13 baking dish for the next three-to-five days.

“Necessity” because it lasts about three-to-five days, and anything I can take to work and reheat for lunch is better for my finance-induced-insomnia than pricey NYC take-out lunches.

“Gluttony” for obvious reasons. It’s about eight pounds of cheese and noodles.

Here’s something about me: I love reading the funny pages. I’m a nerd for cartoons. One of my favorite characters of all time, for as long as I can remember, is Garfield. That cat who loves to sleep and eat. Garfield the Cat is a character I can relate to. His favorite food is lasagna, which he always eats while it’s still hot, in one big bite. Jon, Garfield’s owner, turns his back for one second, and the whole lasagna is gone and Garfield’s cheeks have suddenly quadrupled in size.

I think, given the opportunity, my pugs would do the exact same thing. Although, this is the real world, and they would probably need me to turn my back for at least 10 seconds. Then we’d inevitably have one of our little impromptu visits with our friends at the vet’s office.

At some point in my thought process, I realized that I have no idea how to make a lasagna. In my mind I’m thinking, how hard can it really be? You just layer stuff and bake it, right? Actually, that is right. That’s pretty much all there is to a basic lasagna. It’s one of those dishes that once you do it a couple of times, you can put it in your back pocket and make it over and over in different ways.

Here’s the recipe for the lasagna I made. It was really good. Sorry I didn’t take a picture, but it just looked like a heaping pile of noodles and cheese when it came out of the oven (shocking), and I really don’t have a fancy enough camera to make a heaping pile of noodles and cheese look appetizing via digital files posted on this page. You’ll have to take my word on this one.

Recipe for Lasagna with Pork, Basil and Fresh Ricotta:
  • An 8 oz. package of lasagna noodles, boiled (or no-boil version, whatever you prefer)
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, rinsed clean
  • 1 lb of fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 4 cups grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 3 cups of your favorite tomato sauce (or you can make it homemade, just use your judgement on what you add to it)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • Olive oil

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the onions until translucent. Add the pork, making sure to break up the meat. Cook until browned, and then add the wine. Stir in the sauce. Bring to a simmer and cover. Let your sauce simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix one cup of the mozzarella cheese, all of the ricotta cheese, the egg, and the oregano.

Spread about 1/3 of your sauce around the bottom of a glass baking dish. I use a 9x13x2. Place a single layer of noodles over the sauce. Using a spoon and your fingers, drop generous blobs of the ricotta cheese mixture over the noodle layer, about an inch or so away from each other. Place a basil leaf on each ricotta blob, then sprinkle mozzarella and parm' cheese on top. Layer again with noodles, then more sauce, then ricotta, then basil, then other cheeses. Finish by layering noodles, then sauce, then mozzarella sprinkled on top. Bake for 1 hour. Let stand to cool, but don't let your pets get too close.