I was born and raised in Kansas and learned to cook alongside my mother. Now, along with my wonderful husband, I have taken the plunge into the city life in New York. These are my food adventures: in my own tiny kitchen, and in the many restaurants of the city.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Olive Sables

Monday night I hosted a cheese making party for some friends. We gathered together with lots of wine, loads of milk and cream, and some old-fashioned entertainment.

We made butter, mozzarella, and ricotta and made them into a three-course meal. The butter we paired with radishes and sea salt as a simple appetizer. Then the mozzarella was made into a caprese style pasta tossed with cherry tomatoes, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and Parmesan. Finally we used the ricotta to create dessert by serving it on top of toasted bread topped off with a pear and honey compote.

To have something to start the evening off and nibble on while we made the butter and cheese I decided to make cocktail cookies. I had read about Dorie Greenspan's versions and had them pinned to my Pinterest to try out for my next party. They sounded perfect: barely sweet with a lingering salty flavor on the end. The ideal pairing to nibble along with wine and cocktails. The version I used is from Pierre Herme, posted on the lovely Fresh From Eva's Kitchen blog. Find the recipe here.

To make your own butter check out Saveur's directions here.

For homemade ricotta find a recipe at Smitten Kitchen here.

To make mozzarella get Ricky's 30 Minute Mozzarella and Ricotta Kit here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Italian Feast: Mushroom Bruschetta, Orecchiette, Sardines, Panna Cotta

Sometimes I desperately wish that I had that woman in my life who taught me how to make gorgeous bread or pasta from scratch as a very young child. Don't get me wrong--my mom made so many things homemade--egg noodles for chicken soup, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, and always let me help and learn, but she isn't descended from a long line of Italians who passed down the tradition of beautiful ravioli or thin tagliatelle that is made without even having to measure out the ingredients onto the counter top. And I never moved to Italy and found an "adopted grandmother" who would show me her trade, patiently guiding my clumsy hands through the work over and over again until they finally found the pasta rhythm.

Therefore my homemade pasta tends to turn out thick and oh-so-indelicate. You can't see the filling through the ravioli because I haven't had the patience to let it rest so it actually rolls out thinly (instead of just shrinking back to its thicker self as I roll it out too soon). My hot hands make the orecchiette stick to my fingers instead of rolling smoothly off, making every shape in the world besides the ear shape they should be.

But these downfalls don't keep me from trying. I figure eventually practice will have to win out and someday I won't feel ashamed to host a dinner party featuring a pile of my own handmade pasta as the centerpiece. Someday.

Unfortunately that day is not today. After reading Gabrielle Hamilton's raw, honest Blood, Bones and Butter I wanted nothing more than to prepare an Italian feast--complete with homemade pasta. Since we had no dinner parties to speak of coming up, it was a special weeknight dinner prepared for just two.

The farmer's market gave me the initial inspiration with all of the flavorful sausages available at this time of year and the mounds of kale. Traditional orrechiette it was. The mushroom stall also called my name and I couldn't resist the oyster and maitakes, which would become a simple bruschetta appetizer. In my search for lobster the other week, I noticed Whole Foods had some really nice looking fresh sardines, so they went onto the list as well, with my plans to top them with the pesto I had made and frozen this summer. The whole meal was finished off by a simple and clean panna cotta topped with a freezer strawberry jam I also packed away during the warmer months.

The orrechiette making ended up being a bit of a disaster. I used an all-purpose flour from the farmer's market, which I thought would be nice, but it has more whole wheat which actually made the pasta dough too thick and not as smooth. As I said before, my hot hands also make shaping the little ears very difficult. I ended up with a lot of very thick, just barely concave disks but went through with the pasta course anyways. Despite it not being quite right and too chewy, the dish still tasted incredible--spicy from the sausage and just enough crispy bite from the kale.

The rest of the meal though was just right. Not too much (I actually somehow made small enough quantities that we had very few leftovers) and the flavors were harmonious in their simplicicty. The sardines were even delicious--we don't eat a lot of oily, fishy fish and I am trying to break us in. Topped off with this spiced pesto is the way to go if you are trying sardines for the first time! And panna cotta is always a wonderful way to end a big meal as it is light and never too filling.

It was a meal I feel my imaginary Italian nonna would be proud of. And one day, I know my orecchiette will roll off my fingers as easily as they do hers.

Mushroom Ricotta Bruschetta

French bread
1/2 c. ricotta cheese
zest from 1 lemon
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. pepper

1/2 lb mushrooms (mixture of oyster and maitake), chopped
4 TB butter
1 clove garlic
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
1 t. fresh rosemary, chopped

Slice the French bread into slices about 1/2-3/4" thick and lightly toast. Set aside.
In a small bowl mix together the ricotta, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, add the chopped mushrooms. Saute, stirring occasionally until they are nicely browned. Then add the butter and garlic to the pan. Cook for a couple of minutes until the butter is melted and the garlic is fragrant. Then add the salt, pepper and rosemary to the pan and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Spread the toasted French bread with a bit of  the ricotta mixture and top off with a good heap of the sauteed mushrooms and serve.

Orecchiette with Sausage and Kale

Homemade Orecchiette Recipe Here
Here's a video of a woman making beautiful orecchiette
(I doubled the Orecchiette recipe above to make enough for leftovers)
4 hot Italian sausage links, meat removed from casing
4 c. chopped kale
1 clove garlic
1/2 stick of butter
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Boil the orecchiette according to directions.
Heat a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage meat and saute until cooked through, breaking the meat up into small pieces as it cooks.
Add the chopped kale to the pan and cook until slightly crispy, about 4 minutes (before adding the kale you may need to add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to the pan if the sausage did not release a lot of its own fat).
Add the garlic and butter to the pan and cook until the butter melts and the garlic is fragrant. Then toss the whole mess with the cooked orecchiette. Top off with a bit of Parmesan cheese if desired and serve.

Fresh Sardines in a Spicy Pesto
serves 2

4 fresh sardines, cleaned
salt and pepper
1/4 c. pesto
2 TB extra virgin olive oil
1 t. paprika
1/4 t. red chili flakes
1 TB fresh lemon juice

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
Pat the sardines dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside while making the sauce and allowing the skillet to heat up.
In a small bowl mix together the pesto, extra virgin olive oil, paprika, chili flakes and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Once the skillet is hot, add the sardines in a single layer. Sear and cook for about 3 minutes or so per side, until the skin is charred and the flesh is just cooked through. Then carefully remove the sardines to a platter and top off with the pesto sauce to serve.

Panna Cotta
For easy, fast, simply delicious panna cotta use David Lebovitz's recipe Here

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Best Potato Chips Ever

Joe and I love us some potato chips--they are our go-to snack almost every time. Over the years we have tried many a variety: ruffled and not, bbq, sour cream and onion, cheddar cheese and chives, and brand after brand. But a couple of months ago, we came across these Utz chips in our local grocery store.

Utz's chips were already our favorite all-around chips--they have great flavor, just enough salt and are perfectly crispy. Their flavored potato chips are always excellent--my particular favorite flavor is the Crab flavored (chips covered in an Old Bay Seasoning like mixture). But the Grandma Utz chips took my chip love to a whole new level. Utz's website states that "To make these chips taste just like Bill and Salie Utz’s original recipe, we use slightly thicker and un-rinsed potato slices that are kettle-cooked in small batches." After they are sliced, they are cooked in lard as opposed to regular vegetable or canola oil. Infusing each of these chips with smoky, porky goodness. Making these chips the hands-down best ones I've ever tasted. If you find these staring out at you in the chip aisle make sure you grab multiple bags. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Killing a Lobster: A New Year's Resolution

On New Year's Day I work up sore, hung-over, bruised (all thanks to an immensely tough night at work) and desperately needing something to eat. Dim sum called to me, with its wide variety of food and endless pots of tea. But I knew that dim sum is never quite right with only two people to partake. So instead the husband and I creaked out of bed and headed to Shanghai Café.

We dug into porky soup dumplings (of which I could have eaten 2-3 orders of 8 by myself), fried wontons, crispy pig ears, rice cakes with mushrooms. I felt satisfied, yet not weighed down like I would have had we gone for the burgers/fried food that tends to be our go-to after a long night of drinking. I have a feeling soup dumplings will soon replace all other hangover cravings as #1. If only I could come by them more easily (meaning a jaunt down my block instead of a subway slug to Chinatown).

As we were eating away the pain of the night before, Joe declared a resolution for himself in the year that had just begun--to eat something new at least once a month, but preferably once a week. To really take advantage of the fact that we live in a city where you can get almost anything your heart desires and so many things it never before knew it did. Day 1 resolution complete: soup dumplings and pig's ear.

The idea of doing something new took hold with me in a slightly different way. I plan on tagging along on Joe's adventures of new foods, but for my own account I will be cooking something new at least once a month in the kitchen. What better way to expand my craft and better understand this thing I love so much. So I will be hunting down recipes/techniques I have never attempted or searching out ingredients which have never crossed my kitchen's threshold. I am excited for the personal education it will bring.
To start my resolution off right, I came across a recipe in The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child for Homard a l'americaine.

Lobster. And not the lobster meat that you can buy precooked, and toss into the pot none-the-wiser where the meat came from. This is live lobster that you kill and chop up just before putting it into the pan and lighting it on fire with cognac (or bourbon in my case) and  then tossing along with some vegetables and garlic into a rich, creamy tomato sauce. I must admit I was excited by the prospect while simultaneously feeling completely overwhelmed and skeeved out by it. I want to feel connected to my food and to understand it to the core, which I believe means understanding all the processes involved in getting it from its original form to the plate, from harvesting/fishing/hunting/slaughter to butchery to prep to heat. I have been present at the killing of animals before, even helping to butcher a pig that I had helped raise (and is still to this day the tastiest pork I have ever eaten). I grew up around hunters and ranchers. This is nothing new to me. Doing the deed itself is.

I suppose that's not 100% true if you think to include oysters and shellfish. Somehow I feel like this is a little different, however. These guys don't have little eyes that sit in judgment as you move towards them with your sharp knife. These things don't jump around on the counter after you have made the first cut, cracking through the shell {shiver}, while you hop around the kitchen, screaming curse words to make a sailor blush. And then continue to jump around even when you have finished chopping them up and plopped them into the hot oil in the skillet. As you are eating the mussels you don't remember how they shook their claws at you as you carried them home in a paper bag on the subway.
It's judging me right now...

So it is different, yet really the same. You are still ending a living creature's life. I know so many people have a problem with this--some therefore decide to no longer eat meat, which is a choice I respect despite not wanting to make that choice myself. Some continue to eat the meat and yet keep themselves separate from the journey of their dinner to their table--they don't want to see the chicken feet or the fish heads. Give them the fillets and chicken strips and don't remind them where it came from. This is the mentality that frustrates me every time. Respect your food, especially if you are going to eat meat. By understanding the process and its journey you are able to give it thanks for its life and for its contribution to your own. Perhaps it sounds silly to thank the lobsters for their lives as you are taking them, but somehow the food tastes sweeter when you are able to do so.

I hate to say that this wasn't the most delicious lobster I have ever tasted (after the effort and mental trauma that went into it, don't you wish it was??). More practice and experience will one day make this good dish great but the sense of accomplishment I felt as I plated the dish more than made up for its shortcomings. I conquered something new and have one more thing I can check off my "to learn" list. Not a bad way to start off 2012.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Warm Mediterranean Salad and Whole Roasted Eggplant

Happy New Year! How did you spend your holiday? I think I'm still (mentally) recovering from mine--which I spent working. It's always a crazy night for us at the restaurant. I passed most of the night fighting through the crowds dancing in the middle of the dining room and trying to be heard over the blasting DJ music, trying to keep my trays of drinks from crashing to the ground and trying to keep my patience. Definitely was not 100% successful, but I made it through.

But that is over now and we are onto a new year! I have high hopes and lots of good feelings about the year to come.

One thing I definitely have been trying to be better at lately, and hope to continue through 2012, is to eat more vegetables. I'm really wanting to be better about healthy eating habits, especially after seeing some of my family members struggling with heart issues this past year. As healthy as I generally am with my running and lack of fast food in my diet, I know I can do better.

For anyone with similar New Year's Resolutions, this salad is a delicious addition to your menu. It is a warm salad, so is also wonderful for the cold winter months, with small sausage "meatballs" in a tomato based sauce over top of a bed of fresh spinach leaves. I like to serve this salad with a whole roasted eggplant on the side--once roasted it creates a smoky, creamy spread perfect when served with crusty bread.

Warm Mediterranean Salad

4 lamb merguez sausages
1/2 TB olive oil
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
1/2 c. pitted kalamata olives
1 cucumber, chopped
1 TB lemon juice
Spinach leaves
goat and sheep's milk feta

Cut open the end of each sausage casing. Push out the sausage meat and form into small 1" balls. 
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage meatballs to the pan and cook until browned on the outside and cooked through. 
Add the tomatoes to the pan and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Then stir in the artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and cucumber and cook until heated through, another minute or two. Then stir in the lemon juice and remove from the heat.
Place a good portion of spinach leaves in a bowl. The top off with the sausage mixture and toss together. Sprinkle with the feta on top and serve.

Whole Roasted Eggplant
1 large eggplant
Extra virgin olive oil
lemon juice
coarse sea salt
red chili flakes
sliced French bread

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 
Poke the eggplant all over with a fork or sharp knife and then place onto a baking sheet. Place the eggplant into the oven and roast for about 1 hour (or until the eggplant skin is slightly wrinkled and the whole eggplant is soft).
Cut the eggplant in half. Drizzle with fresh squeezed lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and red chili flakes.
Spread the insides of the eggplant on top of sliced French bread to serve.