Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thoughts on Cookbooks

So I have a couple of followers now and a number of people who are able to publish on here. I was wanting thoughts on various cook books. I really love having them around- even with so many recipes at my fingertips via the Internet. However, there is something about having a physical book or magazine in your hands that makes me feel better. I suppose that means I hate trees or something.

Anyway. I already have two books considered staples for French cooking (Art of French Cooking and Escoffier Cookbook). I've spent time in Italy, so I feel comfortable with Italian food but wouldn't mind having a book with really great traditional recipes. I found one call Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan that I have heard is a really great resource. I also found a really cool book of traditional German recipes that I thought would be fun to have around; it is called The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking by Mimi Sheraton. The last book I think I want to purchase is The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.

If you have any other suggestions of books to have, I'd love to hear. I have a subscription to Cooks Illustrated right now that I like to have handy. It includes a lot of really great and interesting recipes- though not all of them are what they tout them to be. For example, I had the simple project of making scones blow up in my face as I followed their incredibly terrible recipe and suggested techniques. However, other ideas they give have been very useful and they have great equipment reviews included in every issue (considering the magazine has no advertisements or sponsors, this is VERY helpful before making any purchases)!

Reading List and a first fall recipe

The past week or so, time has been in short supply. As a result, complicated meals just were not in order. Also the weather in Chicago feels like full-blown Autumn already: low humidity, cloudy and cool days, brisk winds, low temperatures all around. It makes me nervous about the idea of an early frost- not just for my beautiful potted plants outside, but the effect it would have on the millions of acres of farmland in the upper Midwest. I don't think people understand how a bad harvest one year will affect the price of everything from flour to vegetables to meat and dairy. So keep your fingers crossed that frost won't show it's face until the early part of October.

Anyway. In my free-time, which is often most abundant while taking public transit to and from work, I have been reading a really fantastic book (especially for somebody like me who would rather be spending that time in a kitchen). Heat by Bill Buford is extremely entertaining so far. It follows the experience of the author as an amateur cook in the kitchen of a very famous New York chef. The story also slowly explains the background of the famous and eccentric boss. I've found it not only very informative about the life of restaurant workers behind the house, but cooking and prep techniques. It is pretty straight-forward and comes off as stream-of-conscious writing, though it is very well-written. The diction is not at all elevated, so I feel it is pretty accessible to most people.
While reading it, I was reminded to mention it in this blog as well as my all-time favorite cooking-fiction book Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck. That book, which I have read probably 5 or 6 times now, never ceases to entertain and inspire my personal cooking adventures. Though I love to cook and have a good time doing it, his life upon a private yacht for a summer on the Mediterranean is just a wee bit more fun. I'll keep imagining though! Check it out though. I seem to keep giving away the book and have bought it now at least three times...

Anyway. Quickly before I have to go. The other night I made Lentil Soup and Wheat Bread. Delicious.

Lentil Soup
3 pieces of bacon
1 Onion chopped into small-ish pieces
2 medium carrots peeled and chopped into small pieces
2 Tb minced garlic (or 4-5 cloves minced)
1 can of diced tomatoes (14.5 oz usually)
2 bay leaves
2 Tb paprika
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup green lentils (dry)
4 1/2 cups chicken broth/stock
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup dry white wine OR generous splash of vermouth
3 Tb balsamic vinegar

1. In a large stock pot, fry up bacon until the fat has been rendered and the bacon is pretty crispy. Remove the bacon. Use the remaining grease to cook (on medium heat) the onions until they are soft and fairly transparent. Add the carrots and continue cooking until they are softened slightly. Add garlic and tomatoes, continue cooking for a few minutes until very aromatic.
2. Add lentils and cook covered for about 8-10 minutes until the lentils have been browned slightly. Put in the paprika, salt, and pepper (more can be added at the end if flavors aren't right balance for you). Add in the broth and water- bring to rolling boil.
3. Once boiling, add the vermouth. Cook for 5 minutes or so before turning down to low heat.
4. Add bay leaves and continue cooking covered for about 30 minutes
5. Remove bay leaves. Ladle about 3 cups of soup into blender and puree for a few minutes. Add back into remaining soup.
6. Add balsamic vinegar and any salt/pepper that you feel it needs.

The lentils have an interesting texture to me. It took a little bit to get used to them, honestly. They are close to feeling like baked beans, but a little more dense. Maybe a little closer to black beans but smaller. Anyway. Some recipes add in thyme instead of paprika. The one I made did, but then I added paprika in my own bowl. It was much better- though I was wishing that the thyme was not a part of the recipe. I also thought that maybe instead of paprika, ground cloves might be kind of delicious in it as well. I used a spanish onion (yellow) and kind of thought that maybe next time I'd use a white onion that would have a little sharper taste to it after all that cooking down. I also never waste perfectly delicious and crispy bacon and added crumbled bits on top of mine. Yum.
And in case you are wondering, Lentils are an clean and plentiful source of protein. So you don't need to worry about adding chicken or anything to your meal for the night. Hooray for a balanced meal in a pot!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cooking Frenzy Continues

Yes, this would be the third entry for today. Though when I have the day off, I tend to just cook all my meals at home. After today's breakfast adventure, I went on a few errands with Nik including one to World Market.

Now, if you knew the part of town that I lived in, you'd be asking why I went to World Market when the half-a-dozen different markets just within a few blocks representing an equal number of nationalities would be necessary. Well, I certainly do appreciate the wide variety of foods available to me in this neighborhood; however the typical ingredients found in Italian foods are often in short supply- especially when certain ingredients do not over-lap with other cuisines. On my list of things to make before school starts and I begin finding time available to me to cook dwindle, quality risotto requires arborio rice. I also recently ran out of balsamic vinegar (gasp!) and decent extra-virgin olive oil (double gasp). Thankfully all three are readily available at the World Market in Evanston and are much cheaper there than if I were to venture out to the Whole Foods in the same area and better quality that the kinds offered at Trader Joe's down by my work.

So tonight's dinner was one dish and light after the ultra-rich hollandaise sauce of this morning.

3 1/2 cups chicken broth (stock base substitute is entirely fine and unnoticed)
a few splashes of Vermouth (gives much better taste than white wine unless using a very good and usually fairly expensive wine)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice

Heat the chicken broth and vermouth over medium heat in large sauce pan. Add arborio rice. Cover and let cook for 10 minutes.

3 Tb Olive Oil
4 cloves of garlic chopped to medium sized bits
4 medium-sized shallots chopped
Cremini mushrooms cut into moderate-sized pieces (as many as you like)

Sautee the garlic and shallots for 5 minutes or so over medium-low heat (too much heat will risk burning your garlic; you want it hot enough to soften them and flavor the oil). Once the shallots and garlic pieces are soft, add the mushrooms and stir together. Cover and let cook for another 5 mintues or until mushrooms have darkened slightly.

Add mushroom mixture (including oil) to rice. Stir in chopped fresh chives. Cook uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated and rice is soft.

*I like to add finely grated Parmasean cheese once I've turned off the heat. I just like a hint of the flavor, so it isn't much. And if you try to add that kind of cheese when it isn't finely grated, you'll end up chunks of it instead of it melting into the rice. It also gives pops of cheesy flavor- but not in a good way like chunks of mozarella in a marinara sauce.

Dessert for us was simple. Nik made ginger snaps; I, a peach and blueberry sherbert.

Ice Cream:
6 ripe peaches, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup blueberries
1 Tb ginger
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream

Put into blender for a few minutes.
Make per your ice cream machine's instructions!

*I'll let Nik post up the ginger snap recipe!

Breakfast with Julia Child

This morning, with a day off for both Nik and myself, we took the time to make ourselves a delicious brunch instead of going out. Sounds romantic, I know- which it is always nice cooking together. But it also definitely helps staying at home to make food rather than go out. Especially for brunch- the foods are never all the complicated!

Today was started out with Eggs Benedict, green grapes, big cups of coffee, and bacon. I'm not the biggest fan of most hollandaise sauces I've had at most restaurants. They are usually far too citrus-y for my taste. I had just been reading in The Art of French Cooking how to make it, though. In the book, after explaining the old-fashioned way of making it, there is a short section on how to make it quickly in the blender. Julia Child's note is that is very convenient and easy- though the flavor is slightly "lacking" to those who are very familiar with the taste of the classic method of completely homogenizing the ingredients. For myself, I said "whatever" to that. I personally don't have the time or focus in the morning to spend 30 minutes whisking and watching carefully a sauce. Sorry die-hard French cuisine people!

Anyway, the result was divine. So I felt it would was imperitive to share the recipe:

3 egg yolks
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2- 2 TB Lemon Juice
1 stick of butter melted

In blender WITH lid on, mix the yolks, salt and lemon juice. Then, with the blender still on (hopefully yours has a lid with a removable portion of the top that allows you to add ingredients without worrying about spattering), add the butter slowly in a thin stream. As the butter cools and mixes with the other ingredients, it will become a thick cream. If the mixture doesn't thicken on its own, pour out the ingredients and then add again with the blender on. I didn't have to do that personally, but apparently it is the way to save the sauce!

Probably took me a little under 5 minutes including my personal search for the right amount of lemon juice to have.

Easiest bit of French cooking I have ever done!

Amish (?) Bread

When it comes to the kitchen, I am a little bit stunted in my understanding and talent for making yeast breads. I have no idea why- something in the proportions of liquids to yeast, rising times, proofing, etc. Earlier this summer, I was determined not to have to start buying breads with Nik being away- so I set out to find recipes that were fool-proof. The first few attempts usually ended in a "squatty loaf" that I would force myself to eat. However, the last thing I wanted was a bread that looked more like a pound cake loaf for my sandwiches. Finally, Nik found a recipe that was both easy and has yielded nothing but tasty loaves of white bread!

*My mom was telling me how to alter this to make wheat bread, but she should just publish her recipe up here. While I think I came make a pretty killer white bread, her wheat is still the best.*

When it is just me, I cut the loaves in half and freeze them. It is easy to thaw them as needed, which then usually means that none of the bread is lost to mold or becoming stale. In the end, everybody wins: no preservatives, no waste, no extra plastic packaging to worry about!

2 cups warm water
2 Tbs yeast
2 Tbs honey
1 Tbs sugar
1 egg
2 Tbs vegatable oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 cups of flour

Dissolve honey and sugar into hot water, let cool slightly (I found the yeast doesn't bloom as well if the water is too hot, but the sugars don't dissolve as well if it isn't hot enough) before adding yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Beat egg and oil together. Add to yeast mixture with salt.

Stir in flour. I usually use the stand mixer for the whole process using the dough hook. It is easiest with that amount of flour (in my opinion). I turn the mixer on medium for this first part until things are mixed together well. Then turn it on medium-high for about five minutes to "knead" it all together. I suppose you could take the dough out and knead it on a lightly floured surface as well! Then I put it into a large bowl that has been sprayed down to keep the dough from sticking, put the dough in covered with plastic wrap. Let double in size (about 45 minutes).

Punch down the dough to redistribute the yeast and then separate into two equal amounts. form into a small loaf and place each in greased bread pans. Slice the top length-wise of each with a knife. Cover each and let rise again for 30-45 minutes.

Bake at 350 F for about 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Turn loaves out of pan onto wire cooling rack on their sides (leaving in pan will continue "baking" them).

Monday, August 17, 2009

The taste of summer

A few years ago, I spent the bulk of a summer in Italy singing in this opera program. While the singing experiences were more chaotic than anything, the cultural experience of living in Italy was truly unforgettable. Since then, I still have a hard time thinking of summer tastes and smells that don't have some kind of Italian influence. Some people may think of freshly-mowed lawns as the official scent of summer; mine would be freshly-cut sweet basil or rosemary.

Last night I was asked to bring a side dish to a dinner. At the time of our planning, the menu had not been planned out- so I immediately fell back on my Italian-inspired list of foods. Originally, I was considering making a batch of risotto. However, my host was lactose-intolerant (I enjoy mixing in finely shredded Parmesan cheese), and I was fresh out of the correct kind of rice and white wine. I've done a risotto without white wine before, but it was just ok; and I would only make risotto with regular white rice if it was just for me. Then I thought of my mom and how she seems to make bread any time there is a gathering of people- and everybody loves fresh bread.

So an Italian bread... oh duh, Focaccia.
I went to work and came up with this recipes (the one I used was slightly different, so here are my alterations):

1/2 cup warm water with 1 tsp of sugar dissolved into it
2 1/2 tsp yeast

*let stand for 5 minutes or so
*mix together and slightly warm:
5-6 Tbsp Olive oil
1 1/2 cups milk

*add mix/oil mixture to yeast
*in separate bowl, mix together 5 cups of flour with any kind of herbs you would like to use. I chopped up some fresh rosemary, dried oregano, and ground garlic.
*Add to flour mix 2 tsp of salt

*combine flour mixture with wet ingredients
*knead dough on lightly floured surface; it will be fairly elastic-y after a few minutes
*spray a large bowl with non-stick and place dough into it
*cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise for about an hour or until doubled

*preheat oven to 350F
*take dough out and punch down/knead to re-distribute yeast
*in a jelly-roll pan (or cookie sheet with 4 sides), drizzle a little bit of olive oil to lightly coat the bottom and sides
*put dough into pan and spread out into a flat piece that should cover most of the pan
*with fingers, make indentations about 1/2-1 inch deep every few inches or so
*drizzle olive oil on top of douch and lightly brush over
*sprinkle minced garlic cloves over top and/or add some more chopped rosemary
*sprinkle COARSE salt on top

*place pan into oven with rack towards bottom
*bake for 20 minutes or until lightly browned
*move rack towards top near element or flame and bake for another 5 minutes or so. this will brown the top a little more and turn whatever chunks of garlic you have on top brown.

*take out and let cool
*cut into squares and serve with anything from a tomato sauce or pesto to shavings of Parmesan cheese and bits of prosciutto.

Packed together like...

So I was recently reading yet another article listing off the newest version of "super foods" that we should all be eating. Almonds, salmon, and blueberries are all staples in each of these lists it seems, while the remaining seven (why is it that there are just 10 in a list?) seem to vary greatly from beets to honey to some random kind of walnut from the ice shelves of Antarctica. The latter they then seem to talk about as if it is the most readily available item in your local grocery store.


Well, in this recent article, sardines popped up in the magical list of things I should have started eating yesterday. Like many varieties of fish, it is a good source of protein, omega-3 fats, and EPA/DHAs. While it may not be quite up to the levels of salmon, it is a better source of all three than tuna (especially the canned kind). Unlike most fish, though, sardines are not entirely boned before consumption; their bone structure so soft and small that it is impossible to take it out (it is also entirely un-noticed when eating). So there is a considerable amount of calcium consumed by way of their small skeletal system. Quick run-down on nutritional facts:
1 cup of sardines:
310 calories, 17 grams of fat, 37 grams of protein, 57% of daily calcium, 25% of daily iron

Not too shabby for such a small fish.

Well, I was curious about the differences between anchovies- which are nearly impossible to find at my local grocery stores for some strange reason- and sardines. The former I enjoy throwing into a number of Italian dishes to bring a little bit more depth to other-wise acidic sauces and whatnot. At the glorious Devon Market, there is a fairly substantial number of varieties of sardines, so I grabbed two packages. One was packed in olive oil; the other, just water. Googling recipes for sardines, it seemed like most people use it in a way that is similar to canned tuna: paired with mayonaisse and put on sandwiches. Here is what I did:

Package of sardines (in water)
a few scoops of mayonaisse (same amount I would use when making tuna salad)
a few shakes of paprika
pinch of cayenne pepper
diced up green olives
little bit of balsamic vinegar

Mix all together and serve on some kind of white bread (I happened to have a loaf of French bread that needed to be consumed).

Honestly, it was insanely delicious. I'm not a huge fan of tuna from a can, even in a well-made tuna salad sandwich. At best, I'm just kind of indifferent to that. This, however, had such a unique flavor and was suprisingly delicious. I'm sure if you are reading this far, you are probably shaking your head or even wrinkling your nose at the thought of sardines. Just try it sometime. A package of them will set you back maybe $1.50- $1.75. If you try it and hate it, that is entirely fine. I'm personally always excited to seek out new (or in this case, old-fashioned) things to incorporate into my cooking. Sardines may not be what I crave on a daily basis, but they will certainly be added to my rotation of sandwich fixings.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Delicious Squash

Quickly this morning, I wanted to jot down a vegetable recipe I've fallen in love with this summer. While squash is usually something that you make more often in the fall and winter, I actually do like it almost all-year-round. Just not Spring. I have no idea why.

Glazed Butternut Squash

1 butternut squash - peeled, seeded, and cut into bit-sized pieces
2 Tbs butter - melted
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp paprika
course salt to taste

Mix butter, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and paprika together and coat the squash. Let sit in a bowl for 10 minutes or so. Line 9 x 13 pan with aluminum foil (easy clean-up) and pour squash into. Roast in over for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until squash is tender and the sugars are starting to brown. Salt and pepper to taste. Yum.

I also have cooked these in a skillet in the same way that you would fried potatoes, just without the entire stick of butter. I actually melt the butter in the skillet and then add all the ingredients. Cook it for a little bit with a lid on, so it will soften the squash- not too long or the squash will get mushy. Once you see the sugars starting to caramelize, put the mixture into a pan (again, aluminum foil helps keep the sugar from making clean-up a pain) and broil it on high for a little bit to brown it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Italian Sauces and Blogging 101

Good Evening!
Welcome to the very first blog in what will hopefully grow to be a large collection of recipes by myself and my family. For those contributing to the blog, make sure to give not just proportions of ingredients and directions, but any special insight you may have found as you work out the various dishes. I also ask that you tag the blog with whatever keyword(s) you may seem appropriate (i.e. Italian, Pork, Salad).

That being said, here we go!

The very first blog from me should most certainly be one about the Italian sauces I have grown to love and use continuously. The first will be a basic alfredo sauce that never fails; the second, a marinara sauce that you will have to trust me on.


4 Tbs Butter (European if you are wanting a richer taste)
2 Cups Heavy Whipping Cream
1 1/2 cups finely grated Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter completely. Add cream in and whisk together. Mixture will froth a little while still over high heat, which is good; this ensures that the butter and cream combine entirely. If not, the butter will separate from the sauce once cooled and on the noodles. After whisking a little bit during the minute or two that the cream/butter is bubbling and frothing, turn the heat down to medium-low (Sometimes I turn it down just barely to make sure the cheese melts well). Slowly add in the cheese making sure that it melts entirely before adding any more. The 1 1/2 cups is a general idea of how much, but it will depend on how thick you would like the sauce to be. Too little, it is a bit watery and doesn't stick to the noodles well. Too much, and it looses the smooth-ness while becoming paste-like.

This usually makes enough sauce for 4 servings. For a different spin on the taste, add some finely grated nutmeg after plating.


1 can Tomato Sauce
3 or 4 Roma Tomatoes chopped into small pieces
1/2 onion cut up into small bits
4 garlic cloves diced
1-2 Tbs chili pepper
2 tsp anchovy paste or two anchovies diced up
3 Tbs balsamic vinegar
also can add: chopped basil leaves, oregano, mushrooms, bell peppers, ground sausage, fennel

In large sauce pan, sautee onions in olive oil until soft. Add diced garlic and roma tomatoes once slightly browned. Cook covered for a few minutes. Then, add tomato sauce, chili pepper, and anchovies. Stir in and cook covered again for a few more minutes. Add a little bit of balsamic vinegar to the sauce and taste. From here, I add more vinegar- it adds a nice sweetness to the sauce. I also sometimes will add more garlic (is there ever enough?!), basil and possibly whatever protein I had in mind to have along with the pasta. For mushrooms, I personally like sauteeing them with the onions at the beginning, but not started immediately with the onions as they will not take as long to cook. Ground fennel is delicious to add along with the garlic and roma tomatoes at the beginning as well. I usually let the sauce simmer (covered) over low heat while my pasta is cooking. It lets the flavors come together a little more before serving. I usually use this for a pizza sauce as well if I'm doing a vegetarian pizza- it is a little much when there is a featured protein though.

If Roma tomatoes are out of season and therefore either expensive or unavailable, using a large can of crushed or diced tomatoes works very well.