October 9, 2011

Absent without leave

Guilty as charged. I left with no explanation and have no good excuse for my prolonged silence. It started as writer’s block, morphed into procrastination, and ultimately succumbed to the persistent happenings of day-to-day life.   However, this I promise - though I stopped writing, I by no means stopped cooking. There is much to share with you, and I guess the best place to start is with zucchini.

When I first moved to Boston, Tom had just started graduate school and I was desperately looking for a permanent job that did not involve me scheduling meetings for over-educated, middle aged, white men, in the steam pipe room, in the bowels of Harvard University (yes, best temp job EVER). This marked the beginning of a five-year slog, of what I understood to be a college graduate worthy career track- making a living in a cubicle and putting up with incompetent, self-important, no good bosses.

It never really occurred to me that the best part of my day was coming home to make dinner. The best part of my week was grocery shopping and Sunday cooking projects. My favorite thing to do was to cook food for my family and friends. When I was home sick with a cold, I would make spiced zucchini bread to stimulate the senses. When the meltdown the day before I took the GRE’s ended in pencil throwing and tears, Tom promptly took me to Whole Foods, and I spent the rest of the day making risotto and stuffed artichokes.

One day, not so long ago, I left the rat maze of cubicles for good. In the world of gastronomy, I’m learning that I can do more with food than just write about it. At the risk of sounding like the ideological, bleeding heart that I am, I believe that we can do good with food.  I’m sure that not even Nonna realizes the impact her cooking has had on the people around her.  I want to multiply that impact. I’m not ready to share with you my latest project, but here’s a hint: Soup. Lots and lots of soup.

So, the point of all this is simply to remind you to do what you love.  And if you have time, make this zucchini bread. Especially if like me, you are currently suffering from, The Cold That Would Not End. It will fill your home with warmth and spices, and will give you something to do with the bounty of zucchinis that are currently taking over the local farmers markets.

Zucchini Bread

Nonna stumbled across this recipe in a newspaper years ago. I don’t know how Italian it is, but it continues to be a fall staple in three generations of my family’s households.

*Note: Nonna and my mom make this recipe with vegetable oil. I substituted olive oil this past time with wonderful results. Be sure not to use extra virgin olive oil when baking- you will run the risk of turning your batter bitter.

2 cups shredded zucchini
3 eggs
1 cup olive oil
2 cups sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 oz crushed pineapple drained
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¾ tsp nutmeg
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350*

Peal zucchini. Finely chop or pulse in a cuisnart for about 1 minute. Empty zucchini onto a paper towel and let drain.

With an electronic mixer, beat together eggs, sugar and vanilla until creamy. Beat in olive oil.

Stir in zucchini and pineapple.

In a separate bowl, whisk together baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir into wet ingredients.

Fold in dates and walnuts.

Pour into loaf pans (I usually have enough batter for two).

Bake for 1 hour or until the edges of the bread turn golden brown and start to pull away from the pan.

April 3, 2011

False counsel from Mr. Twain

March, in like a lion, out like a lamb.  Such lies. Friday morning I awoke to the sound of wet, icy snow sliding down the roof.  There was no April fooling about it.  Who wants to be thinking of warming their bones on the first of April? Sometimes the price we New Englanders pay for living in the best place on earth is mighty high.

Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes. “ I feel that he should have been more specific. I waited all day and watched the snow change to sleet and then to rain. Thank you Mr. Twain for the false optimism.

Tom and I were naïvely hoping that this weekend would be just warm enough to pack a lunch and visit our rock at Halibut Point. Wishful thinking my friends. I was even prepared to finally share with you that wonderful chicken recipe that works so well for picnics. 

To be fair, even though there was no outdoor picnicking this weekend the sun did shine warm enough to sweep off the back porch and air out the apartment. I suppose that’s reason enough to go forward with making this spring chicken. It certainly does not require a picnic, just enough sunshine to have faith that April snow showers will eventually bring May flowers.

Oven Baked Rosemary Chicken

Nonna has been fooling people with this recipe forever.  When done right, it looks and tastes better than the fried stuff.

Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to document the fact that after several decades of making this dish, Nonna officially changed the recipe about two years ago by omitting the butter and upping the olive oil. After some reluctance (I’m never one to readily accept change) I tried the updated version. The result? The Nonna is always right.

2 lbs. chicken thighs
1 ¼ lbs. chicken drumsticks
1 ½ cups Italian breadcrumbs
½ cup flour
Extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs rosemary

Preheat the oven to 400*

In a medium bowl combine breadcrumbs and flour. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pat the chicken dry. Dip the chicken in the olive oil, wiping off the excess oil. Place the chicken in the breadcrumb/flour mixture and thoroughly cover. Shake of excess and place in an oven safe baking dish.  Repeat until all the chicken is breaded.

It’s okay and even preferable for the chicken to fit snugly into the baking dish. Place the sprigs of rosemary on top of the chicken.

Bake for 30 minutes and then turn chicken over. Bake until golden and crisp, about 25 more minutes depending on your oven.

As previously noted, this chicken is the perfect picnic food because it tastes even better cold! Or serve with mashed potatoes and enjoy a lovely Sunday dinner.

March 25, 2011

Are we all donkeys?

When I turned twelve Nonna told me that I was old enough to swear in Italian. She would teach me a word to use when I was mad or frustrated only if I promised to refrain from using the English counterpart. Though I can’t remember the exact word she taught me, I don’t think it was an actual swearword. Most likely it was Italian for crap. Or donkey.

Nonna likes to tell you how her mother never swore; instead she would just call you a pig or a donkey. Any reference to a barnyard animal indicated that you were in big trouble- except not really. Great Grandma Chinni was not so good with the discipline and would never swat a fly. She would yell, “brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!” (ugly pig, donkey, you filthy) at the kids and they would just roll their eyes.

I am trying to imagine what would happen if, today, our family gathered around the table and started calling each other donkeys and pigs in Italian. It would probably go something like:
“The liberals are destroying our government!”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
“I am a bleeding heart and want health care for everyone.”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
“God is punishing the East Coast with snow because there lives too many democrats.”
“Brutto porco, cicuco, sporco!”
I actually think it would make for great fun. Think of how well we’d all get along if everyone was yelling the same insults? In the end we’d all end up as donkeys. I’m thinking family experiment…

Or maybe we should just keep the spice in the food and stick with niceties at the table… probably the better idea.

Speaking of spice, remember those fabulous peppers I bought last month? They have been dried and ground, and are ready to burn up some palettes! Who needs Italian insults when you have homemade hot pepper flakes?

Habanero Pepper Flakes
10 Habanero peppers

*A food processor

Great Grandmother Chinni would string up peppers and dry them in the attic. I don’t have an attic so instead I to use them as a table centerpiece. 

Cut the peppers in half. Spread out on a tray, skin side down. Let dry for at least 3 to 4 weeks.

Before processing, I leave four or five half peppers in tact and store in a plastic bag. These are great to add to long simmering soups or sauces.

To process, you may want to consider protective eyewear or at least a handkerchief around your mouth. Also, it’s best to open a window. Pulse the peppers for a good two minutes. As they grind down, pepper micro dust will escape the processor and inhabit your kitchen for about an hour... or two.

Store flakes in a jar or plastic bag.  If offering as a condiment warn people of the intense spice… or not and be amused.

March 5, 2011

So much fun

Yes I make my own pasta. No it is not difficult. In fact, it’s really quite fun. Especially when you need to make enough to feed forty people and Nonna's twenty-five year-old pasta-making machine chooses to die... and you have to do the last two batches old school. Christmas 2009. So. Much. Fun.  

Untimely as the breakdown of The Pasta Machine was, it was ultimately saved by a gracious elderly gentleman from the local hardware store who took the whole thing apart, gave it a good cleaning and put it back together again.

I cannot over emphasize my family’s gratitude for this good deed. In a frantic attempt to replace said machine Nonna had dispatched children and grandchildren alike in search for its replacement. We searched restaurant supply stores (on Christmas Eve), we crossed country borders (Canada), we scoured the Internet (you would think that ebay would be helpful) but it was to no avail. The company, which still exists today, no longer makes pasta machines. Bialetti, if you’re reading this perhaps its time to consider the return of the pasta machine. Do it for overworked, pasta-making Nonna’s everywhere.

In the meantime the rest of us will have to make do with suitable alternatives. My alternative comes in pink.

Ironically, it’s not as fast or as sturdy as the twenty-five year-old Bialetti but it works just fine if you don’t have to feed forty people.

Nonna’s Pasta Dough 

Don’t let the long list of steps intimidate you. The end result is worth it- nothing beats the texture and feel of well-made pasta.  And there is something therapeutic about the rolling, stretching and cutting. It’s like playdough for grownups!

2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
3 eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
*Milk or cream, as needed
*The goal is to use as little liquid as possible. It’s best if your dough comes together without the addition of milk or cream

**Special equipment
Standing mixer with paddle and hook attachments and bowl guard
Electronic pasta maker with pasta cutting attachment, or if you’re a glutton for punishment (a hem… Mom) a manual one will work just fine
A large table or bed covered with an old sheet that you’ve floured
**The following are directions based on a using a KitchenAid mixer

To make the dough
This recipe makes about a pound of pasta. I usually make two recipes, which feeds about eight people. Do NOT double the dough recipe- you need to make each batch separately. So says Nonna.

  1. Place 2 cups of flour in the bowl of the mixer. Push the flour from the middle of the bowl to the sides to create a well.
  2. Place the eggs in the well.
  3. Using the paddle attachment and mix flour and eggs on medium speed for about thirty seconds. If the dough does not come together add a small amount of milk or cream to bring the dough together. Use as little liquid as possible- you do not want the dough to be sticky.
  4. Once the dough has come together use the hook attachment on medium speed to knead the dough for about one minute.
  5. Flour a work surface and your hands. Remove dough from bowl and using your hands knead it two or three times. Wrap it in plastic wrap until you are ready to roll it out.
Rolling the dough
  1. Tear off a piece of the dough roughly the size of the palm of your hand. Be sure to keep the remaining dough wrapped when not working with it.
  2. Form dough into a rectangle of even thickness. Sprinkle with flour so that the dough is not sticky. Turn roller on setting “2” (the second widest setting), turn mixer on to speed “2”. Put the dough through the roller. Re-fold into a rectangle, flour and put through roller until you have done this five times in total. On the last time through setting “2” do not refold- leave dough as is. Be sure to properly dust with flour to prevent sticking.
  3. Proceed to move the pasta roller setting to “3”. Put the dough through the roller once. DO NOT FOLD THE DOUGH. Adjust setting to “4” and roll. Continue this process until you have rolled through setting “6” (or desired thickness of pasta).
  4. Transfer the rolled dough to your floured table. Dust dough with some more flour.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you’ve rolled out all of your dough.
  6. More than likely your rolled dough will stretch to about 3 feet. You will want to take a sharp knife and cut the dough in half so that you don’t end up with extra long spaghetti!
Cutting the dough
  1. Using the pasta cutting attachment of your choice (I prefer fettuccini) run the rolled dough through being careful to catch the pasta as it is cut.
  2. Return the pasta to the table. Separate it out so that no individual piece is touching.
  3. Continue until all dough has been cut.
A few notes on cooking and storing

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta.

Fresh pasta takes less time to cook than the dried stuff so keep. I tend to stand over the pot and watch it cook so that I can pull it off the heat precisely the right moment. Over cooked fresh pasta can taste gummy.

The sooner you cook the pasta after cutting it, the less time it takes to cook. Usually I let it dry out a bit (an hour or so) and gather it in a large box lined with paper towels. It will keep for a couple of days if covered, or you can freeze it.

March 1, 2011

Morning bribes

I am not a morning person. Never have been. On more than one occasion I have been known to burst into tears when looked at before 8:00 am. When I was about five I went through a horrendous meltdown phase (I know, surprising) that left my parents at their wits end. Ever the pragmatist, Nonna’s solution was to bribe me. She said that if I could go two full weeks without a temper tantrum she would buy my doll a new dress. It was fantastically tempting. After considering her proposition for a day or two, I picked up the phone and called Nonna with a counter-offer. “Nonna,” I began, “could the day start after 10:00 am?” She was so tickled that she readily agreed. I didn’t make it the full two weeks even with the time adjustment, but not unexpectedly my doll still got a new dress.

One of the consequences of not being a morning person combined with a rather willful disposition was that I rarely ate breakfast. My mom would go to great lengths to try and entice me to eat something to start the day, but if it was before 8:00 am I would have nothing to do with it. A few bites of toast maybe, but that was it. When I got a little older my mom got a little more creative.

Breakfast was my first introduction to cooking. Well, maybe not cooking, but preparing food to eat. My mom showed me how to soft boil the perfect egg and to melt cheese on toast in the oven. Something about having to taken an extra step or two to get breakfast ready gave me more time to become human and find my appetite. 

I wish I could say that my morning disposition improved with age. It certainly has been helped by coffee. Tom and I abide by very strict morning rules- no talking before coffee, and even then proceed with caution.  And if I go two weeks without picking a fight before 10:00 am I get a brand new, shiny teapot.

Just kidding. I got the teapot just for being me (willful disposition and all) and turning another year older.

Whipped Ricotta with Orange and Nutmeg

This is a nice substitute for cream cheese and is especially delicious on raisin bread. It makes for a very pleasant breakfast on a rainy Sunday morning and an even better not-too-sweet afternoon snack with tea. You can substitute low fat for whole milk ricotta if you must.

1 cup whole milk ricotta
¾ tsp orange zest, finely grated
1 tsp nutmeg, grated
1 ½ tsp sugar
2 tsp milk
Raisin bread for toasting

Drain the ricotta.

Combine ricotta, orange, sugar, nutmeg and 1 tsp of milk. Using an electronic mixer whip on medium speed for about a minute. Check the consistency and add more milk if needed.  Whip for another minute or two.

Adjust sugar, orange and nutmeg to flavor as desired.

To serve

Turn on the broiler

Spread a thin layer of ricotta on slices of raisin bread

Broil until the cheese is just melted, maybe two minutes.
*Warning- the second you walk away from the oven the ricotta will burn and you will have to begin again. Not a good way to start your morning.

February 18, 2011

No football required

Chili is messy. It is not pretty or delicate and it flies in the face of all good food habits I’ve acquired in my almost twenty-seven years of life. I admit that my experience with the stuff is severely limited. I’ve never ordered it in a restaurant; my mom never made it for me as a kid and to say that I was not a school cafeteria/college dining hall type of a gal would be an understatement. Based purely on observation, to me chili always appeared to be this collection of ingredients that had no business being in the same bowl together.

And then one afternoon on the eve of what was probably a very important football game, Tom turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to make chili?” At the time we were still in our first year of marriage and I wanted to make a good impression so instead of responding with a look of repugnance I replied “um… sure... let me just go call my mom” (who will undoubtedly have no idea how to help me with this). Except that I was wrong. My mom’s advice was this, “call your Nonna, she makes great chili”. Of course she does. How else could something so wrong ever stand a chance of tasting so right?

It turns out that like me, Nonna can remember her very first bowl of chili. She and my grandfather were newly married and visiting with my Great Aunt Rosemary and her husband, my Uncle Harold.  Apparently they liked the stuff so much that Nonna decided it was worth making. And it absolutely is worth making. Especially if unlike me, your football team isn’t dead to you.

Company Chili

I should probably tell you that every time I make chili at home I have to call Nonna for a refresher and I swear to you she tells me a different way of doing it each time. So the following is an account of my most recent creation, which deviates slightly from Nonna’s instructions with the addition of pancetta and habenero peppers. Feel free to adjust the types of beans and the amount of chili powder to your liking, but do not omit the baked beans- they make all the difference.

You will be making enough chili to feed a football team so make room in your freezer and be ready with the Tupperware.

Oh and for the record this will be the first, and I promise the last recipe I offer to you that includes tomato sauce from a jar. I can feel your look of disgust and I understand. Honestly, I had my doubts about some of the ingredients in this recipe and every time I make it I still feel slightly dubious that it is going to come together and produce something edible. But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case the text message from my brother, which reads: “amazing chili”.

3 lbs. hamburger meat
.25 lbs. pancetta, chopped
3-4 TBLS olive oil
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes (yes, I realize that in the past I have lectured against using crushed tomatoes, but per Nonna’s instructions chili is apparently an exception to many, many rules…)
1 jar tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
2 cans red kidney beans, drained
1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can baked beans, drained
3 onions, chopped
2 red peppers, chopped
1 habenero pepper, chopped (optional)
4-5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 oz. chili powder of your choice

In a very large stockpot heat the oil and add the pancetta. Cook over medium heat until crisp. Remove pancetta with slotted spoon and reserve for later.

Add the hamburger meat. Breaking it up with the back of your wooden spoon brown the meat thoroughly.

Add onions and sauté until soft for about 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and peppers and sauté for about 15 more minutes.

Push the meat and onions aside to create a hot spot for your tomato paste. Stirring frequently, cook the tomato paste for about 2 minutes and then mix it with the meat and vegetables.

Add your tomatoes, sauce, beans, pancetta and chili powder and stir to combine.

Let simmer for at least an hour. Add water as needed to get your desired chili consistency.

Serve with raw chopped onion.

February 11, 2011

And it's magic

Wow. It occurs to me that I’ve been puttering around this last year telling you all about soup bones, prune cake and fried cauliflower without so much as nod to that which sustains us. Pasta. Or rather in this case, pasta sauce. Surely my Great Grandfather Chinni would disapprove. It is my understanding that his dinner was never, ever served without a side dish of pasta accompanying it.

In my family we differentiate between “Sauce” and “quick sauce”. Sauce with a capital “S” has the meatballs, the pork chops, the sausage and the salt pork. Nonna makes Sauce the way maestros conduct orchestras- it’s a production where things bubble, sizzle and reemerge as a harmonious symphony of taste. But quick sauce is different. One minute all you have are tomatoes, olive oil and garlic and before you can even bring the pasta water to a boil a sauce appears as if by magic.

The very first time I tried making a quick sauce I failed miserably. I added all sorts of things that I thought were supposed to be in sauce like oregano, onion, and red wine. And those things do sometimes go in sauce but for goodness sakes one should never just throw them all into the pot, give them a stir and wait for a miracle. It was a very foolish thing to do.

I now know better. Nonna taught me that the most important thing to remember when making quick sauce is that you should always be able to taste the individual ingredients. It doesn’t need much fuss; all that’s required is the right touch.

I rely on quick sauce the way some people rely on boxed macaroni and cheese.  It’s my go-to meal when I have late classes, am unmotivated to “create” or if I just need some cheering up. It will indeed make you feel happy like an old time movie.

Quick Sauce

This recipe is a great foundation to build from. Nonna sometimes adds some of her pesto and toasted pine nuts. I like to add a few dollops of creamy ricotta and fresh basil to the pasta before tossing.

A couple of things to note before we go on. First, Nonna will tell you to always use whole peeled tomatoes (even if a recipe calls for the other) and crush them yourself. The reason being that crushed tomatoes are usually picked too early and aren’t as sweet. Second, I prefer this sauce with long pasta or ravioli preferably homemade, but it goes wonderfully with any shaped pasta you favor homemade or not.

2  28 OZ cans whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 6 OZ can tomato paste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, roughly 5 TBLSP
4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
Kosher salt to taste
Pepper to taste
2 sprigs of fresh basil
Good quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated for serving
1 lb of your favorite pasta

In a large bowl, using your hands crush the tomatoes. I like to leave them a little chunky but you might prefer a more pureed consistency. You can break them down further while they cook with the back of your spoon.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic cloves. Brown the garlic until they are lightly golden on all sides then push off to the side so they are not directly on the heat.

Add the tomato paste and let it caramelize for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from burning.

Add the crushed tomatoes, stir and let simmer for about twenty minutes stirring occasionally.

Add the basil, salt and pepper and let simmer for another five minutes. At this point you can remove the garlic cloves or do what I do- leave them in but warn the husband.

For the pasta, bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water generously. Add the pasta, cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain pasta and toss it with sauce and cheese directly.