Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Pumpkin is REAL!

Now that you know how to make fresh pasta, what should you fill it with? Pumpkin, of course. But...not the way I did it. In this post I'll show you about roasting and preparing fresh pumpkin, but there's a couple of problems with the recipe I made:

1. I did not love it.
2. I don't have permission to reprint it.

But it all began so beautifully!

Pumpkins seem to have become a hot item in the last couple years, mostly for seasonal household decorating, but I think people are also starting to eat them more. I've been seeing all sorts of crazy beautiful squash and pumpkin varieties in the markets the last couple seasons, in all different shades of earth tones, plus blue and white--and it is nice to know people are growing them, even if they aren't getting eaten. I have never tried one myself, because they are super expensive and who knows how it's gonna turn out? The one above is just a plain sugar pumpkin.

(As a side note, I was just in China, and they eat a lot of pumpkin and squash there too. The kind they used where I was, in Kunming, in the southwest, is a big, beige, lumpy type that I have seen here sold as one of the decoratives. One of the things they do with it is make a spicy pickle and it is one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. I don't even know how I would begin to describe it. Like squashy-spicy-Chinesey. Ha ha. I promise I'll do better when I have to write about it for work. But here it is.):

Anyway. For your ravioli, or most any pumpkin endeavor, the first thing to do is cut the sucker open, scoop out the seeds (which you should save and roast because they are so tasty) and place on a baking sheet.

I find this activity fun, but it does take awhile and you need a good amount of strength to hack it apart, and it is kinda messy and awkward. My dog enjoys eating the stringy stuff that I scoop out, which makes cleanup pretty easy...just drop it on the floor! (I know...sick and lazy. I know.)

Then you put it in the oven at like...oh let's say 350 or 375. I have gotten super lax about my oven temperatures in the last few years. If I am baking, I do what it says, and it's a good idea to have a thermometer in your oven if you aren't sure it's accurate, but for something like this...whatever. Just put it in and let it go for like, an hour. Check it now and again. When you can pierce it very easily with a knife, and it looks squishy, it is done. Remove from oven and let cool. Now, remove the skin. You can either scoop the flesh out with a spoon, or slice the skin off with a paring knife, or a combo. Toss in a food processor and blend away.

When blended and smooth, some people will force the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. I did not do this.
This isn't the whole amount, just what was needed for my recipe. The rest I saved to make pumpkin gnocchi...another post. Some recipes will say to hang the pumpkin in a clean dishtowel or leave it to drain in a fine strainer. I did this, but barely any liquid came out. Not sure I would bother next time.

So the recipe I used is supposedly very traditional Italian, and uses "mostarda di cremona," which is a sweet-mustardy Italian fruit condiment. I couldn't find it so I got this. There's a lot of Italian mustard fruit condiments, as it turns out.

I also was instructed to use crushed amaretti cookies, Parmigiano-Reggiano and some other stuff. Basically, I thought it was way too sweet, although I imagine the mostarda is supposed to add some kind of tang. It did not. (Though it is tasty on its own, I'd eat it on a turkey sandwich.) But this is a traditional recipe, and if you look up pumpkin ravioli you will find others that use the fruit-mustard and/or the cookies. This Martha Stewart recipe uses the cookies.

If I were making this again, here is what I would do.

About 1 1/2 cups roasted, blended, pumpkin puree

Maybe half a cup or more of good quality, whole milk ricotta, liquid strained out

tons of Parmigiano or even Pecorino Romano. Actually I think the pecorino would be better.

Salt and lots of black pepper to taste.

A lot simpler. Pumpkin really does have a lot of flavor that doesn't need masking or accenting with cookies and fruit. And I just don't like it too sweet. It lacked dimension. Cheese could provide that.

So you fill the ravs as I went over the last post, and then boil them for about 3 minutes. You don't want to crowd them and may not want to do the whole batch at once. To check for doneness, I take one out with a slotted spoon and nip off a bit of one corner. The corners are double-ply dough, and should be pretty firm. If the corner is too soft, it means your dough around the filing is WAY too soft. So be careful and taste often.

For sauce, pretty much what I always do for any kind of ravioli is just butter and olive oil cooked together with chopped herbs like sage and rosemary. Those two would be perfect for this. I don't think I would use garlic. When you put so much effort into the filled pasta, you don't want to bury it in sauce. Make the sauce in a pot while the ravs cook, and put them in with the sauce using a slotted spoon as they finish cooking. Draining is a little rough on homemade ravioli and can break them.

Here is my finished product. There is perhaps no food that I am more likely to gorge on than my homemade ravioli. And that's why the too-sweet filling was so ANNOYING. I still stuffed my face anyway, but it really should have been better.

Homemade ravioli is a great Christmas/festive thing to make. Rolling pasta is fun to do with family and friends. If this were a cheesy food magazine article, I would also mention something like "Pumpkins are like a shot of sweet sunshine from the cold winter earth." And you would laugh at me and it would be hilarious. But so good!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crank it

I said in my last post that I had a couple of pumpkin recipes coming up. Well, here is one that is good for Christmas and celebrations in general (we always do Italian food Christmas eve): pumpkin ravioli.

But first, you need to learn how to make fresh pasta. Unlike pie crust, this is one staple I think I am pretty good at making. I've been doing it for years on my own, and even had a cooking lesson in Italy where I made it with a couple of actual teachers.

This post will be just about the pasta, and then I'll do another one for the filling later. This is the same basic recipe and technique for any kind of flat-shape or filled pasta (the only stuff you can make at home, really).

First, a word about equipment. The easiest and most common way to make pasta is with a pasta roller, which looks like this. I think this is the exact same one I have. There are also electric models. You can also make pasta by hand and/or with a rolling pin, though I've never done this. It is the more old-fashioned way and I think it yields a different texture. I can't advise on that method, but Marcella Hazan can if you want to check out one of her cookbooks. She really talks it up. She can also explain about different flours, which I'm not going to do. For the normal person at home, you can just use all-purpose, or half all-purpose and semolina. And you can throw in some whole wheat as well if you want to be healthy, though this does make the dough a little harder to work with.

First thing to do is this.
Put about 1 cup of flour on a cutting board or counter, and heap it up. Then carefully make a big well in the center, all the way down to the board. It's more like a donut of flour around an empty space than a crater. And really make sure the walls are solid. Crack two eggs into a bowl (this is easier, I think) and then pour them carefully into the well. You can also crack them right in.

Now, use a fork to whisk the eggs. As you whisk, draw in small amounts of flour to gradually thicken up the eggs. Work slowly and carefully. It is fun and satisfying to do it right. If you rush, you can have bad leaks and major egg runoff disasters. You can see I have one rivulet above, but the flour can generally handle a couple of those.

When the mixture is too thick to stir anymore, push the rest of the flour into it and start working it by hand. Have extra flour nearby. Push and knead the dough ball until it is uniformly smooth. You may have to add more flour, or, the ball may not be able to absorb all the flour. When the ball comes together and is relatively smooth, brush off the crumbs and bits from the cutting board and wash your hands.

Now it is time to knead. Opinions on kneading time vary considerably: I've seen/done 3 minutes to 20 minutes. Marcella says at least 8. Kneading is easy. You push the dough flat, fold it, and push again. It's not so exact, and it is a good work out. When done, the dough will be almost shiny, totally uniform, and not sticky at all.

You can now wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it if you want to make your finished dish later, but you will have to knead it back to room temperature before using it.
So the machine has 6 widths. Divide the dough into quarters, set the machine on its widest setting, and place the dough on the roller as above. Push it in and crank it through. The first roll is very rough and looks really bad. Fold it in half, and put it through again. Do this a couple times, until it looks about like this.
If the dough is really ripping apart and full of holes, you will need to sprinkle it with lots of flour. Just keep rolling and folding and flouring until it is smooth. (If this happens it is because you did not knead long enough, or left it too sticky.)

Reduce the setting by one. Pass the strip through, then fold, and pass through again. It will start looking pretty nice, like this.

Now keep folding, rolling, and decreasing settings. A nice thing to do is to fold the dough with the edges coming in and meeting in the middle, if you get what I mean...This way, you have smooth ends. I guess I didn't do it this time, because my ends are uneven.

Warning: do not skip settings! This is evil and wrong and will backfire. I don't know how or why, I just know it is a terrible idea.

If you are making ravioli, go all the way to the thinnest setting. As you approach the thinnest setting, your dough may get too long to manage. In this case, cut it in half and deal with each part separately.

When it's done, the dough will look really smooth and lovely, like this.

Now, you can do anything with it. The machine comes with cutters for spaghetti or fettuccine size noodles (they're pretty self explanatory), or you could cut it by hand into super thick ribbons (which is AWESOME). You may want to do this now and consider this your practice batch.

For ravioli, use a pizza cutter, if you have one, to trim the ends, and then cut squares. The easiest way to do it, I think, is cut about 8 or 12 squares at once and then arrange them like they are in this picture. Then place your filling (only about a teaspoon) in the centers of half of them.

Before you cover them, lightly moisten the edges around your filling with water (just use your finger). Now put the top dough piece on--and this is another place where you have to work slowly and carefully. You want to do your best to get all the air bubbles out from between the layers. Try to kind of "cup" your hand over the center and work all the air out before pressing down the edges to adhere.
When all that pesky air is out, gently press down the edges to adhere. Do the ravs one at a time rather than assembly-line style: moisten edge, cover, press; now move on to the next one. When they are all covered, as above, start crimping. This is slightly fun. Oddly I don't have any pics of it. But all you do is take a fork and press the edges down to make a ruffled edge. I usually do both sides.

With scraps and irregular sized pieces, you can do stuff like this. (Of course, once it is cooked it is not quite as cute, but still fun to make and eat.)

That is all for now. Pumpkin filling will be next post.

Note: If you want to make a batch of fresh dough for noodles before making ravs, be aware that you do not have to let them dry--though you have probably seen images of hanging noodles (and on this very blog, in fact). You can cook them right away; I always hang them just so I have somewhere to put them as I am working. I think that's what everyone does. And they can hang for awhile, but become hard to handle if they get too dry.

And regarding shapes. The ravioli I made are probably big enough to be considered something else, like tortelli. You could also do circles (but this wastes dough, and necessitates re-rolling) or fill each square as above and then fold it up in a triangle shape (use less filling).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sweet pie o' mine

Honestly, I think I missed the butter bus. When I was a kid, I just did not understand it. Why, for example, did people put a layer of butter under the maple syrup on pancakes? This did not make sense to me at all--as far as I could tell, butter was flavorless or salty, and did not go with sweet foods. I did use it on my baked potatoes, but over the years I began seasoning them with excessive black pepper, and then garlic powder, and then crushed red pepper flakes...because these things had flavor, and butter was just, NOTHING. I remember a friend telling me she would eat spaghetti with butter...but no parmesan cheese. This completely shocked and revolted me. Today, I would rather dip my bread in olive oil than use butter.

Similarly, I never understood the draw of pie crust, which as we know is basically butter and flour. It was just this flavorless, starchy bottom to an otherwise delicious fruity filling. In high school, I spent a lot of time with my friend Grace, over at her house--she and her family LOVED pie. They were really into making pie crust, and eating pie, and had very high standards and strong opinions. But I never got what all the fuss was about.

Things began to change when I visited Grace in the UK where she lives now (this was in 2000, jeez she has been there for a long time) and we went on a four day-long road trip through Scotland. We had a giant thing of Walkers Shortbread, which I was initially not interested in at all...but grew to LOVE. When I think of that trip I picture looking out the window (on the wrong side) of a tiny red car (which, we later realized, had a donut spare tire on the whole length of our drive, oops) at beautiful, rainy hills and lakes and sheep, and the crinkly red plaid wrapper of shortbread. And the flavor: plain, a little salty mixing with the sweet, a little crunchy, a little tender...

Anyway, I guess now, nearly ten years on, I think I am starting to get it. Fat and flour can be magical together.

And yet--it is a HUGE DEAL. People never make pie crust, and if they do they talk about it like they parted the dead sea. Or red sea, whatever. I just don't think it should be so major. I've read and edited scores of pastry recipes, made a few over the years, and I reject the idea that it is so difficult. I mean it's basically two ingredients! Do we really need to be buying this stuff premade? (OK maybe puff pastry or phyllo--that is different. I'm talking here about ordinary, American-style pie crust).

So the first crust I have made recently was back in September or something, for the True Blood finale party. If you watch it, I recreated the maenad's human heart pie, BUT fortunately with homemade tomato sauce and turkey meatballs. The crust recipe is from my Joy of Cooking from the 70s (from Scott's awesome Grandma Harvey) and it used part butter and part veg shortening, aka, transfat. I happened to have some Crisco from when I made Christmas cookies a year or so ago (it is used in the frosting, I think so it doesn't go rancid), so I made the crust as directed. As you can see, it's kind of lumpy and bad looking, but people really liked it, and it was crisp and flakey and all that nonsense. But, I didn't actually eat more than a nibble of the crust, since I hate meatballs. It looks cool though. Yeah that's a heart on top, and that's a four pack of TruBlood type O negative. As you can see, I took very little care with rolling and making it smooth and everything.
This Thanksgiving I wanted to try again, and thought I would do better. I also didn't want to use the Crisco. It would be all butter. The principles are so could I go wrong?

You start with a ton of butter in a bowl of flour with some salt.

Then you use your hands to work it in till it looks like this. If you are fancy, you use a pastry cutter thingy, which I don't have. And actually I went a bit longer than this, till it was more like cornmeal, as the Joy said.

Then I sprinkled in the cold water. You then work it into a doughy mass. I know you don't want to overwork it, but that's about all I know. So from here I mushed it up till it held together, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. It does best to chill for 24 hours. I gave it about two.

Then, I took it out and attempted to roll it. And here is where I ran into problems: I did not have a surface large enough. I seemed to have enough dough for a double crust, even though all I needed was a single. It overhung the cutting board and was a real pain. So I decided, why struggle to roll it thin and smooth, and then have a lot left over with no real purpose? I left it nearly a half inch thick, hoisted it into the pan, pushed it in by hand and smoothed it out as best I could.

It was uneven in color and texture. Does this mean I should have worked it more, or is it supposed to be this way? I did not know and still don't. I pricked it with a fork and put it in the oven.

ROUGH! Grace would not approve. But I had also made a kind of cookie thing which I ate when it was cool enough. It was good! It was crumbly and satisfying and not so different from shortbread.

As for the pumpkin pie...I have a lot of pumpkin related posts coming up. I made this from a roasted sugar pumpkin and a roasted acorn squash (because there was a pumpkin shortage this year!) Per the Joy, I mixed them up with heavy cream (no sweetened condensed crap), sugar and eggs and seasonings, and cooked it in this makeshift double boiler, then poured it in the crust.

The finished pie was...medium. It had good points and bad points. The crust was thick and crumbly and had a good texture on the teeth and was super satisfying, and the flavors of the filling were amazing. However, it looked pretty bad, and the filling was not thick enough. If you sliced it really cold it held its shape OK, but then tended to run. None of which stopped me from eating the pie for days and days until it was gooooooooooone....

The bottom line is, whether you love pastry or just think it's medium, it's worth it to try it out yourself. I think a lot of people aren't even sure what they like or don't like in crust--I know I didn't--and the idea that it is this impossible, magical food that no one can make at home has been foisted upon us by the devils at Pillsbury. I would like to try it out more, read some more recipes, and work on my rolling and shaping skills. But I am happy with my lumpy, ugly, trans-fat free crust just the way it is, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

cake and friends

Hello. It's been over a month since I posted. Whoops! I was traveling and working and blah blah blah. But I have also been cooking and have lots of blog ideas and pictures. I will start with cake.

The cake's backstory is that horridly, my friend Beth is moving! To a northern city far, far away. She is a good friend and great artist and she is the reason that I joined up with my knitting/sewing group and consequentially met a bunch of other fabulous ladies.

So even though she isn't going quite yet, we had a farewell dinner for her last night at Vino Vino on Guadalupe here in Austin. (We kinda had to do it soon as there are a couple of babies getting ready to make their grand entrances into this world, which doesn't leave their moms with a whole lot of time for hanging out in fancy restaurants!) It was so much fun and very tasty. I had scallops with broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens, and mayhaps a tiny bit of pancetta. We drank Portuguese and Languedocian (is that a word?) wine (except the aforementioned pregos) and chatted and laughed. And since Beth won't actually be leaving for awhile, it wasn't actually that sad.

And since nothing is really fun unless there is also cake, I brought a cake. Beth prefers cheesecake, so that's what it was. It was a basic recipe from my Gourmet cookbook, which tells me it is originally from a cafe in Santa Fe that is now out of biz. It's basically just cream cheese, eggs, sugar and, in my version, orange zest and juice. I put it on a ginger snap crust. There was supposed to be an additional layer of a kind of sour cream topping, but because I don't have a springform pan and instead used a short round pan lined with parchment paper, the cake quickly swelled beyond its confines and was in no way willing to accept another layer. In the end I did an uncooked sour cream layer poured on the next day when the cake had settled down. This nicely covered its horrible cracks, as well.

I decorated it with chocolate covered sunflower seeds, which I have used a lot in my Christmas cookies. Their teardrop shape makes them perfect for symmetrical round designs. It looks kind of fancy, but was so easy.

Cake and friends. Sad as it is, I am happy to know Beth and my other kitting/sewing circle ladies at all. It seems every time I move (as I did to Austin just a couple years ago), or join a new social group or whatever, I am worried that I won't click with the people or somehow it will be a disaster. But time and time again, people are nice, fun is had, and friends are made. It is always very pleasing to reflect on this. WITH CAKE!

Monday, October 5, 2009

greens, beans, and bags

I have been on a real greens kick lately. Collards, endive, escarole, chard...anything leafy. I've always liked these veggies, but an article by Christina Pirello (inspiring vegan cook, and new contributor to my employer Intermezzo) has really reawakened my interest.

First, take a look. How beautiful is that.

These are collard greens, my go-to green. I started using them a lot when I lived in Boston, after eating them at a Brazilian restaurant and falling in looove. They were sliced into ribbons and sauteed with, well, I don't know. Probably meat drippings. But in my house, they are stacked up, sliced into thin ribbons, and sauteed in garlic and olive oil until bright green and still pretty crispy. When I moved to Austin, I started using them more and more. I think I like the idea of collard greens because they are so Southern.

A couple weeks ago I bought a ton of different greens for a salad. I'm still shopping at Central Market without plastic, so I was just putting them in my shopping bag and sticking the printed labels on a piece of paper. This hasn't been working so great at home though. Without the plastic bags, my veggies have been deteriorating quickly, especially leafies.

I decided to make an investment. One of my friends used to have these special plastic bags she kept her produce in and swore it kept it fresh for ages. They kind of disturbed me, as it just seemed like spinach shouldn't last for ten days. But I saw the bags, by Peak Fresh, in CM and decided to give it a shot. I have to say, they are working amazingly well. Apparently they let out the gasses that would cause veggies to wilt and go bad. They are reusable too, of course.

So I don't have to use the wasteful plastic bags, and my stuff lasts longer. What a deal. I can buy a week's worth of greens and other veggies in one shot.

I have lots of recipes for greens, but here is a quick soup for today. This is a really vague and simple recipe, even for me...maybe we should think of it more as "inspiration" than a recipe. It barely even qualifies as guidelines. But it raises some interesting points, and this is exactly how I eat it.

Bean and Green Soup

Olive oil
1 chopped onion
a couple cloves chopped garlic
head of collard or other cooking green, sliced/chopped as you prefer
about 2 cups cooked white beans
water, salt, pepper

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until softened.

*point one: you can use more or less olive oil, depending on how much flavor and fat you want or don't want. If you're on a diet, use just a tablespoon or so; if you are not concerned (and this soup is VERY healthy) use more. I use...a generous three-glug pour.

Add greens. saute until they collapse and are bright green.

Add beans and water.

*point two. I am never buying boxed or canned broth again. It is a waste of money and packaging. I will make my own veg or chicken stock if I feel like it, but I have been making really good soups with just water. If you cook your own beans, which I have been doing, you can also use some of the bean cooking water.

Cook this all over low for about half an hour. The beans will eventually start falling apart. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano! this is a better source of flavor than all the canned broth in the world. Parm has "umami," that Japanese-identified fifth flavor group. It is a packaged, imported food I will never give up. Then, if you are crazy, add spice, either red pepper flakes, or, as I did, Sriracha.

OK, that looks absolutely revolting and I admit it. But it was really good. Scott ate it with a lot less parm and zero spice and loved it, as he does all my various water-based bean soups. With a piece of multi grain bread it is a very healthy meal. I also sometimes cook a chicken sausage for Scott that he throws in his portion, since he doesn't always like to eat veg.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In the mood for take-out

I have a million things to do right now, but I think I'm in the mood to do a post instead. I haven't updated in awhile, because I have been traveling and busy. I have a lot to catch up on.

In this post, I leave the kitchen. I mean, you can't cook everyday, and I love take out as much as the next guy. But the containers...oh the multitude of non-recyclable foam containers. I used to just turn my brain off and shove them in the garbage can, but those days are over. On my last trip to my favorite Thai restaurant, Titaya's, I brought my own containers with me.

I had seen a guy do this before at Titaya's, and my friend Jason was successful in his efforts at containerism at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle. I figured it would be fine, since everyone at Titayas is really sweet and friendly, but I was still a tad nervous. Language barriers...blank stares...holding up the line...ugh. There's a reason most people don't bother to do this kind of thing. No one wants to be the center of attention in any kind of retail or customer service setting. (Well I guess some people do. There was a guy who faked a heart attack in the head honcho's office at the University Bookstore in Seattle where I used to work, just to get attention.)

Another disadvantage to the whole bringing-your-own-Tupperware thing is that you can't call ahead. How long was this going to take?

I went up to the counter with my bag o' containers. I had three. I figured one for Scott's entree (pad praram, a simple chicken and veg stir fry with peanut sauce) and one for mine (som tam, papaya salad, details to follow) and one for our rice. I ordered, and then took the containers out of my bag and gave them to the ladies at the counter. They were extremely cool about it. One woman debated a minute, deciding which container would be best for which food, changing her mind a few times before settling the matter and taking them into the kitchen. I sat down on the bench to read my book. A mere ten minutes later, the food was ready.
As you can see, there is one foam container. That's because Scott prefers his peanut sauce on the side. Next time I'll have to bring one more.

Besides my smug sense of self satisfaction, I discovered other advantages to using my own containers. On the drive home, I did not have to worry about spilling. (Maybe this makes me look like a horrible driver, but once on the drive home from Titaya's I made a quick turn, the bag tipped over, and I got curry sauce all over the floor. Repulsive.)

Another bonus: in the excellent movie In the Mood for Love, which takes place in Hong Kong, the protagonist often goes to a noodle stand to get take out. She brings this really cool thermos with her. So even though I was wearing my grody gym clothes and feeling rather filthy and unattractive, I imagined that I was Maggie Cheung, wearing a gorgeous silk dress and hot shoes, and carrying my own noodle bucket.

So here is what I ordered, som tam. This is one of my favorite Thai foods. It is shredded unripe papaya, peanuts, tomato and green beans with fish sauce, chiles, garlic, sugar, and lime juice. I first ate it in Thailand, where it is made pretty much the same way, but with tiny dried shrimp. They don't use those at Titaya's, probably because most Americans don't care for them, myself included. I also don't like the green beans they use (long beans, but they are always tough) so I always order it without. Anyway, you might think the salad is sweet, but it's not--the unripe papaya is crisp and bland, kind of like cucumber. It is supposed to be very good for digestion.
I can't get enough. Plus, low fat.

So there we have it. Easy, tasty, Maggie Cheungesque take out extravaganza.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You are a better cook than Paul Newman, I promise

Homemade tomato sauce is a big source of drama and mystique for many people. As my beloved Marcella Hazan says, somewhere in Marcella's Italian Kitchen--but I can't find the exact quote so I'll have to paraphrase--"there is nothing so false as the image of the old Italian matriarch, stooped over her hot oven for hours, stirring a simmering pot of tomato sauce." While there are some slow-cooking and complicated sauces, a tasty and basic tomato sauce can be made with little fuss. There are even delicious uncooked tomato sauces.

However, my method should not be mistaken for a Great Italian Masterpiece, either. One thing I have learned about Italians in my years working on a cooking magazine (and being half Italian, and visiting the country several times) is that they are very opinionated about food, to put it really mildly. But at the end of the day, we're all just people trying to turn vegetables into something healthy and tasty with a minimum of fuss. I believe my sauces accomplish that, and that you can make good sauce too.

To begin: the most important thing, and any Italian would agree with me, is quality ingredients. There are a lot of different kinds of tomatoes, and where they grow and how ripe they are really determines their flavor. The store can be overwhelming--which ones will be tasty? which ones are going to be mealy and flavorless?

Sometimes I luck out and sometimes I fail. I can't really guide you towards the best varieties because I just don't know. My only advice would be to not think a tomato will taste good just because it looks great--some of the scary looking heirloom ones are the best (but some are gross)-- and buy something locally grown, which will mean totally different kinds for different regions. Local tomatoes will be fresher, and it's nice to support your community. (Eating local is a big subject that deserves more attention but...later...and anyway, it's pretty well covered in the food press right now.) And, maybe your local tomato actually won't be that great, but hey--at least it didn't have to fly all the way from Holland just to suck.

(We are not going to discuss San Marzanos or other canned tomatoes here, but I can tell you more about them if you are interested.)

Whatever tomatos I buy, I like to let them sit around for a few days--at room temperature. NEVER refrigerate your tomatoes. Don't do it. And don't buy tomatoes that are in the refrigerated section. It totally messes them up and makes them spongy and bland. Let them sit around on the counter for a few days. If they get wrinkly, no problem. I've actually seen recipes that call for wrinkled tomatoes. This is one that I got at the Triangle farmer's market after it sat for a couple of days.

One more thing. Before I started my sauce, I tasted the tomatoes. These were really acidic. Good, but wow. Tongue searing. Good to know, as I would add some sugar to the sauce later. So, taste.

Along with tomatoes, a sauce can have just garlic, basil, and olive oil, and/or onions, and/or celery...whatever you want. Of course you can read and try different recipes, but at the end of the day, it's your choice.

I've learned that I really like my sauce with onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Not too much carrot, just one small one or less. It also gives a nice bright color. But if I don't have carrot or celery, that's OK. But I HAVE to have garlic and onion. That is the bare minimum. So chop your stuff up...(I used half this carrot) (garlic not pictured for some reason) (I was out of celery):

And put it in a pot with some olive oil.

Some recipes will say that onions and garlic should go first, then carrots, or whatever but--I just put it all in together. You know the other night while I was making this sauce I was also making a turkey meatloaf for Scott's lunches, and granola for the week. I have to be efficient.

Cook all your stuff up in olive oil over medium heat until it's soft. Stir often so it doesn't stick and brown. Maybe about 15 mins depending on if you have carrots or not (they are slow). And..oh...olive oil. Another ingredient where you need to consider quality. Sorry, no room to talk about it here. Just make sure you like the flavor of the olive oil you are using. "Lite" olive oil really has no flavor (that's what is "lite" about it) and I do not recommend it.

(Side note: of course onions, carrots and garlic all should be chosen carefully and taste good too, but as they aren't the star ingredients, it's not so important to spend time on them here.)

When the onions etc are soft, add your chopped tomatoes. For this amount of stuff I did...I don't know maybe a pound and a half of tomatoes. Some recipes say to seed and skin the tomatoes, but I don't do this, surprise surprise.

Let it all cook up for awhile. Lower the heat so it's not bubbling out of control. Add salt and pepper, and sugar if you think your tomatoes need it. Don't go hog wild with adding all kinds of spices from the spice rack. Choose a fresh herb or two and add that toward the end. If you don't have a fresh herb, well, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you can use dried spices to come up with some combo that makes it really "your" sauce, and that is fun.

Lately I have been really into using rosemary, which I used to only do in the winter but am now doing all the time (until I get sick of it). I had some basil plants all summer, but I recently let them die. They really struggled in the heat, I had to water them constantly, and after awhile they just didn't taste that great. So instead I just sneak down to my neighbor's apartment and snip a length of rosemary while the tomatoes cook. It grows everywhere in Austin, which I found truly magical when I moved here (but, I think it is common like, everywhere but New England where I grew up).

Of course, I pushed it all the way in, this is just so you can see it.

If you are using basil, don't add it till the very end. Rosemary I think needs a longer simmer. But the flavors of basil really pop if not cooked too long. Throw in some chopped or whole leaves right at the end.

Let the whole thing simmer about half an hour. When the sauce is done (which I determine somewhat arbitrarily and by it smelling really good) you can fridge it, as I did, or use it right away, or put it in the blender to make it really smooth (which I did the next day before reheating) (take out the rosemary if blending or before serving, too!). You can also stir in a little tomato paste, which is kind of a cheat to the no packaging experiment, and I didn't do it but...I do have a jar in the fridge. It's like a shot of tomato essence and can be a nice touch. This rosemary sauce also is nice with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, per Marcella. I didn't do it this time though.

So that's it for sauce, for now. There really is so much to say, and there are books written on it and everyone makes a big fuss about having"the best" sauce, and having grandmas secret recipe for "gravy" and blah, blah, blah. All that stuff is fun, but it shouldn't put you off making your own. All you have to do is love and respect your ingredients and enjoy your time in the kitchen and you'll do just fine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cheese sandwich with deep thoughts

This is a cheese sandwich made with homemade cheese, roasted hatch chiles, olive oil, and ten-grain bread from Central Market. It is toasted. I have included this photo and description simply to make the rest of this entry less boring, because there is no more food talk or photos. But doesn't this sandwich look great! it was. MMMMM don't forget the salt!

Meanwhile. The weeks of no packaging are long over. Here are some thoughts on the experiment.

1. It's not over. I'm still sticking to it as best I can. I have this idea to transform my refrigerator and cupboards into entirely name-brand-free zones. As I run out of condiments, I will make them and you will get to read about it. There is still so much fun to be had.

2. I realized that when I feel accountable (thanks readers!) it's really very easy to never forget your shopping bags or containers, and to think ahead a little bit. It was a little more effort, but what isn't at first? And for me, this effort isn't the same as "work." I love being in the kitchen with NPR or some music to sing to while I chop, chop, chop. But, this brings me to my third point:

3. It's not for everyone. But, we can all do something for the environment. For me, it's very easy to reduce my packaging and waste overall. But maybe it is not so easy for you. Maybe you are a busy mom and your kids really love Shark Bites. Maybe your job is very demanding and time in the kitchen is just more work, no matter how you look at it. I hope things can change, and that people can build stronger connections to the foods we eat and where they come from, but still, I totally get it. Major cooking is not for everyone. But what can you do?

Let's first consider an area where I majorly fail in environmental stewardship: exercise. Physical fitness and I have a very tenuous relationship, and in order for me to not be morbidly obese, I have to make it easy for myself. I drive eight miles to one of Austin's best gyms and use the machines, when I could just run around the neighborhood. I drive to yoga class when I could do it at home. Yes, I could have a major attitude more disciplined, learn not to feel embarrassed when people drive by and I'm out there sweating like an animal and tripping over tree roots; not get distracted by my iPod and run into traffic; vacuum enough that I'm not doing downward dog into a carpet covered in actual dog hair... but if I'm serious about staying in shape, these things aren't going to happen. Just like most of you are not going to make your own Saltines.

We all have changes we can and can't make. Play to your strengths, I say. If you are someone who loves exercising outside, maybe you can ride your bike to work instead of driving. If you love growing flowers, maybe you can learn to grow some veggies, too. If you love meeting new people, maybe you can go volunteer to pick up trash with KAB (Scott and I did this once, and it was fun, but not as much fun as cooking and dancing to Thriller). Few of us can do ALL of this...but all of us can do something, and make it fun.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The other tortilla...and a quick digression to Puerto Rico

Because "tortillas" are so prevalent in our society, as well as in a bunch of other societies (with Mexico leading the pack), the "tortilla Española" is a little confusing to Americans. This dish has nothing to do with flour, corn, or tacos. It is actually more like a potato and egg omelet.

I still don't know very much about tortilla Española, though my awareness of it has slowly increased in recent seems to keep coming up here and there. I first heard of it in about 2003, when Intermezzo (my main employer) almost ran a recipe for it but ended up cutting the article. has only two recipes for TE*, the earliest dating back to 2000. (Epicurious is the website of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and has thousands of recipes in its database.) I think the TE is an ordinary, everyday food eaten throughout Spain in many variations; I don't remember eating it when I was there, though I think many bars offered little portions of it as tapas.

But finally, I did eat Puerto Rico. Scott and I went to San Juan and the British Virgin Islands last fall. In San Juan we stayed at this tiny, fabulous, really inexpensive guesthouse called Andalucia. It was in a great location with many amazing restaurants nearby. The neighborhood (Ocean Park) was not built up and touristy and just sketchy enough to be charming but not dangerous.

Across the street from Andalucia is a hugely popular bakery/restaurant/deli called Kasalta. We ate there every day for breakfast, most days for lunch, and after dinner each night we'd stop by on the way back to the guesthouse for baked goods to eat in bed while watching bad TV. The best thing we had there was a sandwich called the "Elena Ruth." This was a baguette with roasted turkey (like from a real roast turkey, not cold cuts), cranberry sauce, Swiss cheese and mayo, served toasted and warm. To many people who know me as a vegetarian and mayonnaise hater, it is no doubt very strange to hear me praising this sandwich. I could do a whole separate blog on the vegetarian thing, but the super-short version is, I sometimes eat meat when I'm traveling. And the Elena Ruth is amazing! We would take them to the beach with cans of Coke and a cookie for dessert. Sandy perfection.

But breakfast at Kasalta was also pretty awesome. This is where we first had the tortilla. I knew what it was by sight and by name: a thick, golden, firm cake cut into wedges (links to pics below). Served cold right out of the display case, the tortilla was a dense layer of egg and potato...mild yet nourishing, rich with olive oil, and just excellent with a cup of coffee.

Back to the present. I'd been thinking that potatoes were an ideal choice for a package-free carb, and a lot easier than rolling out pasta. The only problem is, I don't LOVE potatoes. I mean, they are fine, but...never my first choice.

But when I got my eggs from Mr. Milagro, it suddenly struck me that tortilla Española was kind of a perfect food. And with the inevitable addition of roasted hatch chiles--they are in everything I eat this month--it was sounding better and better.

I used a combination of a recipe in my big yellow Gourmet cookbook (probably the same one they have online) and the step-by-step instructions I found in this article. The first thing to do, in either case, was "poach" the potatoes (Yukon golds) in a huge amount of olive oil. How "poaching" in oil is different from deep frying, I'm not quite sure. But I did it. I sliced the potatoes ( method, and what I remembered from Kasalta) rather than dicing (Gourmet), heated up a huge amount of olive oil (which I'd recently bought in bulk from Wheatsville Coop) and added minced onion and the potato slices. Immediately I knew what I had done wrong--added too much stuff at once and lowered the temperature of the oil. So I removed half, and kept on poaching.

Apologies for this stupid picture. I was trying to reduce the resolution, and cropped out one corner instead.

When they were tender enough to eat, I transferred them with a slotted spoon to a strainer set over a bowl, added salt, and let them drain. Then I did the other half, strained them, etc. Then, though this put me at risk for third-degree burns, I strained the oil through a strainer and into a jar to reuse. The potatoes didn't seem to have absorbed that much.

Then I tossed up the potatoes with like, 4 or 5 eggs, a good amount of previously roasted and chopped hatch chiles, salt, and pepper. The mixture went back into the pot to cook.

Once again, I immediately sensed a mistake. I just KNEW that they were going to stick and that I would not be able to do the "flip" so beautifully illustrated in I needed seasoned cast iron without the high walls, and I didn't have it. Can you believe I don't have a cast iron pan? Ridiculous.

So I tried to flip it, spilled egg everywhere, swore creatively, and shoveled it as best I could back into the pan to finish cooking. Then, I "transferred" (scooped) the whole thing onto a plate for serving. It doesn't look like the About pictures, does it?

However! it was awesome anyway. We ate it for dinner, and I had it cold the next day for breakfast. Just goes to show you can totally screw up and still have a great meal. But I would like to try it again with the right kind of cookware and see if I can get the perfect little cake. Maybe I'll try to make minis in my nonstick omelet pan.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to go to Puerto Rico. It is a pretty cheap destination, the food is amazing, and you don't even need a passport.

*Just realized Epicurious has a few more recipes if you search "Spanish omelet."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Eggxactly the cliche title I was hoping for

Well. The two weeks are up. And I still have a lot to post. I think for now I will talk about eggs.

Last Wednesday I went to the farmer's market here in Austin at the Triangle, a little development on North Lamar and Guadalupe, in the same plaza as beloved Mandolas. I was looking for Milagro eggs specifically, but was tempted by a lot of other produce too, mostly okra and zucchini. In the end I didn't get any, fearing I wouldn't use it fast enough. It wouldn't be the first time I had a fridgeful of rotting okra.

But I did get my eggs, from this guy:

I had brought my own container to put them in, just a cardboard egg container from last time I bought some. But the guy, whom I shall call Mr. Milagro, has his own system. You pay twenty-five cents deposit to get one of his plastic egg things, and then trade it in for reuse every time you come back for new eggs. Total cost, $4.25 for a dozen eggs.

(PS, it is a nice departure from magazine-land writing for me to post this without Mr. Milagro's real name. I could probably look it up, but I think I just won't bother. So deliciously lazy!) (PPS, I just tried to find a website for Milagro and can't, anyone know?)

I have to say, I would have paid more! Totally unprompted, Mr. Milagro told me all about how he has several kinds of hens (I forget how many...) and they all lay eggs in slightly different colors and shapes. Casual inspection revealed most to be different shades of brown, with one that was kind of light-blueish. The hens eat an assortment of ten different whole grains, plus veggie scraps (but no onion or garlic).

(photo no longer sideways thanks to Rohan!)

At home, I saw the eggs were all slightly different sizes, and some had much harder shells than others. Honestly I can't comment whether or not they tasted different than my usual almost-as-expensive organic eggs, because I used them in this really condiment- and flavor-heavy preparation (shocking for me, I know!).

(this image no longer sideways thanks to ME!)

This was the "final dinner" of my no-packaging project. It was kind of a melange of leftovers. Tortillas made with dough left over from last time I made them (for fish tacos), homemade salsa (from same tacos) mixed with some leftover roasted hatch chiles (from tomatillo sauce and tortilla Espanola), strained yogurt (not homemade...), homemade refried beans, and a kind of home-fry hash brown thing. I realize none of these above-referenced meals and ingredients have been blogged yet. All will be, in bite-sized portions so as not to bore and overwhelm.

But what else can I say about about the eggs for now? Oh, well I did use three for banana bread, and have a few more left. I'll fry one up for a real taste-test and let you know how it is. But I am really happy that I have found a source for them that is truly local, from someone who cares about his chickens and feeds them well, and that generates no waste from packaging.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tomatillo salsa with hatch

A couple of posts ago I said I would give the recipe (by which I mean "guidelines," because it's not an exact science with me) for the tomatillo salsa I used on my tortilla/egg/cheese thing. I roasted some hatch chiles the other night for something else and thought the pics made sense here too.

This time of year in Texas we have hatch chiles from Hatch, New Mexico. So that is what I've been using, but at other times of the year, I use poblanos. Poblanos are the real workhorse chile in my life--mostly mild but sometimes spicy, especially up near the stem. They are generally available even in the crappiest of grocery stores, and are pretty cheap. But this time of year, in the southwest, it's hatch all the way.

Here are the hatchies fresh. They are usually all green but you can see a few starting to blush.
There are "hot" and "mild" hatch chiles...but as with all chiles, it's a gamble. The mild can be completely heat-free, or they can be pretty spicy. The hot are generally medium to medium-hot, but some of them will unexpectedly make your teeth bleed. So I buy three mild and three hot, and then combine.

First thing to do is roast. You do this right on an open flame, either a gas stove or a grill. You want nearly the whole surface to be charred but not coal-black and not ashy. Just deep brown and blistered. But if it goes too dark that's really ok too. Believe me I've screwed up many and it's fine.

Yeah, my stove is kind of dirty.

These are about 1/4 done. Keep turning till the whole surface is blistered, put them in a bowl and cover them. Let them sit for like half an hour. If you do this first, you can chop other things while you wait.

Next, remove them from the bowl. They will be all limp and soggy. Chop the stem and very top off. Stand over the sink and kind of split them open lengthwise, and rub off all the charred skin and simultaneously remove the seeds. Do not give in to the temptation to run them under water to speed things up. I have been told this washes away the essential smoky flavor. Just get rid of as much char as you can (there will be some left) and as many seeds as you can. Put on cutting board and dice. Put in a bowl together and mix up so the hots and milds are fully mingling. For this recipe you only need about half of this. Save the other half for something else.

Now we do the tomatillos. These are widely available here, and I used to buy them all the time in the northeast too (and my CSA farm grew them). In the store, they look like this.

At home, pull off the papery husk, wash them (they are kind of sticky, that's ok) and cut out the hard bit around the core. Then finely chop, or, as I tried, grate them.

It worked pretty well, but then you end up with this leftover skin. The skin is tasty so I diced it and used it too. This is also a good trick for tomatoes, especially when you don't want their skin (like in sauce).

Now that you know your ingredients and methods, here is the recipe. I am 100% making this up as I go along. I've made this a million times and never really keep track of any quantities. Insert "about" in front of every ingredient listed and adjust to your tastes. (This is what I love about this blog--so different from my regular job editing recipes and measuring tablespoons of olive oil, etc.)

Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde) a la Jes
Yields: about 4 cups

olive oil or other cooking oil if you object to the taste of olive
1/2 onion, diced
a few cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh tomatillos, diced or grated
3 hatch chiles, hot, mild or a mix, or 2 to 3 poblanos, roasted and diced
1 lime
1 bunch cilantro

Heat up some olive oil. Just a couple tablespoons. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatillo and cook about 10 minutes. Mixture will start to really meld together.
Add the chiles. Simmer it all together for awhile...Don't overdo it or it will start to dry out. Probably no more than half an hour.
At some point, add a squeeze of lime juice and season with salt.
Turn off the heat and stir in cilantro. This is really up to you how much you use. I would use nearly a whole bunch. You can use either just the leaves, if you are patient enough to pull them all off, or just chop up the leafy top with a bit of stem. If you don't love cilantro, use considerably less.
Let it sit off the heat for awhile. At least 20 minutes or so.
Depending on your preference, you might want to blend it up in a food processor or blender. But I like it chunky.
Serve as a topping for enchiladas, burritos, eggs, or chill and use as dip.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bloody, bloody plums

In the middle of cooking my tortilla and cheese dinner the other night, I had to run to the store because my dog was out of chicken. While I was there I decided we needed something sweet...I was out of chocolate chips, my usual snack. There are no bulk bins at Ridiculous Randalls, so all I had was produce. So I got a bunch of plums.

When I was a kid plums were my favorite fruit ever. I have such vivid memories of standing in front of the fridge and chowing them down on hot summer days. But I've struggled to recapture that flavor. I don't know if plums are going downhill in general or maybe we just had really good ones in Vermont?

I took a chance and got three, which I decided I would cook and then eat on one of the homemade tortillas--it would be a little makeshift crostata/tart. I sliced them into thin wedges and cooked them with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a few spoonfuls of turbinado sugar. I cooked until the juice got sticky and they were quite jelly-like and glazed.

For the "crust" I rolled out a slightly thicker tortilla, and heated up little canola oil in my nonstick pan (I had visions of a puffy, fritter-like crust but there was no way I was deep frying...way too messy, fattening, and hot...but maybe with a little oil I'd get some richness). I cooked the tortilla and topped it with the hot plums, and sprinkled them with a little more sugar. It looked great:

Put it in the fridge to cool down. After dinner we shared it. Well, it was amazing. The plums seemed to be both more sweet and more sour than when fresh. They actually slightly burned my tongue--in a fabulous way. I was glad I hadn't added cinnamon or vanilla as I'd been thinking of. They were pure and perfect, like the plums of childhood summers but on steroids. The tortilla didn't really add much for me, but Scott liked it a lot.

A couple days later I cooked up a big batch of plums in the same way. This time they came out even better, not sure why. The color was the most beautiful electric red--the perfect thing to eat while watching my current favorite show True Blood! I dished out a bowlful, and poured a glass of my red hibiscus tea (in a light blue glass so that it appeared even darker red)!

Unfortunately my camera can't capture the brilliance, but it was fabulous. I cheesily savored every tongue-searing, sweetly acidic bite. A poor substitute for a nice bottle of O negative, but still good.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Homemade cheese, curdly fun

The other night when I made tortillas, I also made cheese. Nothing fabulous, but it was technically curdled milk, and it tasted pretty good.

What I made was basically paneer, the kind of cheese they use in Indian food (saag paneer, etc). I found a recipe but it didn't work so I won't link to it. Fortunately, I saw my friend Charlie make this a couple years ago, so I knew what was going wrong and how to fix it.

The first thing you do is heat up some milk. I did four cups of 2%. When it just starts to boil, I was told to add 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice. Well this did nothing...the milk just kept on foaming. I squeezed in a whole lemon until it looked the way it did when Charlie made it, like this:

Then I lined a colander with a (clean) dishtowel and poured the mixture through, and squeezed till it looked like this.

Then I sort of rinsed the curds a little and wrapped the towel around the stuff to make a ball, and squeezed and rinsed some more so it would be cool enough to handle. Then I hung it up from a cabinet handle with my iPod cord for said 20 minutes but I had it up there a lot longer.

Finally I took it down (not a lot of liquid drained out during its hanging, but this is what the recipe said to do, and Charlie did it, so...) and took the curds out and...Well I struggled with how to proceed at this point. I needed to compress them into a firm block. I eventually settled on putting them in a Tupperware, with another Tup over them (fitting inside) and on top of that, a pot of black beans that were soaking for the next day:

I let it sit this way for like 20 minutes while I did other stuff. Then I took the patty o' cheese out by inverting the container and whacking it. Then I cut the sucker into little cubes. I could have eaten them at this point, but wanted them to be a little more appetizing and snazzy, so I toasted them on a dry skillet. They browned up nicely, and I sprinkled them with kosher salt while they were still hot. I wanted to use Adobo seasoning, but that would be against the spirit of this project.

And that is it. They were so good and perfect for our dinner. They were slightly chewy and crumbly, I'm not sure they could have melted, like I I had wanted to do quesadillas, but maybe I'll try it sometime. Here is how they ended up in our finished dinner.

Next time: a recipe for tomatillo poblano sauce! (the green component).

Those are the homemade tortillas, and there are two fried eggs under there, then the sauce, cheese and avos.