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Archive for July, 2011

Presto pesto

Somewhere around mid-June or early July, something happens to me. It’s kind of like the old man in the doughnut commercial, waking up all bleary eyed, muttering, “It’s time to make the doughnuts.” He puts on his slippers and shuffles off to make the doughnuts.

I’ve never made doughnuts. This is not about the doughnuts. (Hmm. Doughnuts.) No, my internal voice whispers, “Psst! Hey! It’s time to make the pesto!”  And who am I to argue with that? So I put on my flip flops and shuffle off to the farmers market, all the way to the back (why are the best things always in the back?) and grab a huge bouquet of basil.

Then I get a hunk of parmigiano reggiano and some pine nuts, break off some garlic cloves from a bulb, grab the salt and olive oil from the pantry and drag out the food processor.

First, you have to deal with the basil, of course. I’ve found the easiest way to get the leaves off the stems is to use my thumb and  index finger to pluck them off. I’ve used scissors, too, but hands seem to be the best tool. Put all the leaves into the salad spinner basket, wash and spin dry.

Then add the garlic and pine nuts to the food processor. Um… make sure the blade is in there before you start adding things. (Who does that? Nah. Not me. Cough cough.)

Put the lid on and process till it makes a paste. Then start adding the basil leaves, a handful or so at a time.

Keep adding the basil, stopping to scraper down the sides of the bowl, until you’ve used all the leaves.

When you’ve added all the basil, you should have a bowl full of thick, bright green paste. If you taste it right now, you’ll taste garlic and basil. And if you know anything about pesto, your taste buds will be screaming for cheese and salt. And olive oil. But in this early form, it’ll taste bright and a little grassy with a bit of bite from the raw garlic and some nutty creaminess from the pine nuts.

Gorgeous, right? Just wait. Now it’s time to add the cheeeeese. Everything is better with cheese. Except fish. Don’t put cheese on my fish.

I shredded the parm myself. I suggest you do, too. When you buy cheese in a block and shred it as you need it, it stays fresh longer and it just tastes better. But I have used preshredded, or even grated in a pinch. It’s not wrong. I just figure if I’m going to all this trouble, I might as well go all the way.

Now it looks almost ready. Taste it. The cheese will add some nuttiness, saltiness and a little more texture.

It’s time for salt, pepper and olive oil. Add the salt and taste it to see if you need more. Then put on the lid and start adding the olive oil. One of the recipes I used called for a cup or a cup and a half of olive oil. I scoffed. Surely it wouldn’t take that much. Now I didn’t exactly measure it as I added the oil, but I can guess that I did add about a cup and a half. It just depends on how thick or loose you want the sauce.

I like pesto to be shiny and a little loose. After you put it in the bowl, add some more olive oil on the top to keep the basil happy. It’ll prevent the green from turning dark.

So great. We made pesto. Now. What the heck do you do with it? Lots of things!

Here are five things to start you off:

1.  Use it as a sandwich spread. For an amazing grilled sandwich, start with some salted Irish butter and two slices of whole-wheat bread. Melt the butter in a pan. Then rub the bread slices around in the butter on the outside. Put them butter-side-down on a cutting board. Smear both pieces with pesto then place slices of mozzarella cheese on the bottom slice. Add tomato slices. Top with another layer of mozzarella. Place the other slice of bread on top and add it to the pan and grill until the cheese is melted and the bread is brown on both sides. The salt in the Irish butter gives the bread a little flavor and the fat helps the bread grill and get a fantastic crispness.

2. Use it as a pasta sauce. Yes, that’s the obvious answer. But that doesn’t make it any less delicious. I like to caramelize some onions and add that to the pasta, then add the pesto. Then top with tomato and bread crumbs.

3. Toss it with shrimp. Cook the shrimp however you’d like, then just toss them with some of the pesto sauce. Serve over pasta if you wish, or rice. Or just on its own with some crusty bread. I’d probably add some tomato, maybe some corn kernels, too. OK, I’m officially hungry. You could also use it on salmon.

4. Swirl it into soup. I’ll eat soup any time of year. Even if you’re making gazpacho, some pesto drizzled on the top would add another dimension and some brightness. If you’re making the grilled mozzarella and tomato sandwich, use it as a dipper for tomato soup. Or spread the pesto on slices of French bread and bake it, like I did here for the Corncob Veggie Soup.

5. Stir it into vegetables. Asparagus tossed with pesto? Sounds like a winner to me. Just sprinkle it with a little extra parm and call it dinner. Or, and I’m sure I’ll talk about this again later, my great aunt had a garden and used to bring over a huge pot of green beans and little red potatoes, seasoned with a ham bone or some fatback (sounds gross but really adds a lot of flavor). So simple, but one of my favorite things in the world. With green beans in season right now, I’m going to have to make this soon. Now I don’t want to mess with my roots too much, because a bowl of green beans and red potatoes with some salt and a pat of butter on top? Perfect. But if I’m feeling creative, I might toss in a little pesto. Not into the whole pot, just into my dish. Also try it stirred into some roasted potatoes.

Bonus: Use it in place of tomato sauce when making a pizza.

I always have a stash of pesto in my freezer, but I can be very conservative about using it because I don’t want to run out before I get to make more. Yes, you can buy it at the store. No, it’s not the same, but it could do in a pinch. If you do have to buy it, get a refrigerated version instead of a jarred one. The chilled one will be fresher and have fewer preservatives. But if you’re game, it’s easy to make.

No, you say? Well. I have one more idea then. How about deconstructed pesto pasta? Cook some linguine, then add minced garlic, olive oil, parm cheese, thin strips of basil, salt and sprinkle in some pine nuts. You’ll get the same flavors. And no food processor necessary.

Classic Pesto

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1 bunch basil, leaves stripped, washed and dried
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • up to 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Add the garlic and pine nuts to a food processor and process till smooth. Add the basil leaves a handful at a time, processing till smooth and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the parm and process till incorporated. Add the salt and pepper and process. Taste along the way to adjust the seasonings.

With the processor running, use the tube to gradually pour in the oil until you get your desired consistency. Use at least a cup, but you might want to stop before you get to a cup and a half depending on how loose or dense you prefer your pesto.

Cover and store in fridge. Or freeze into cubes, then put the cubes into snack baggies, then add the snack baggies to a quart-sized freezer bag for long-term freezer storage.

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I’m in love with a muffin. Maybe you know this muffin. It lives at (gasp!) Starbucks. It’s tall, dark and hunger-busting. It’s name… is Apple Bran Muffin. I’m not ashamed!

Oh, I’ve thought about making my own. But it just couldn’t possibly be the same. How could I make that perfect muffin? There are endless ways to make them. How could I guess correctly? It’s heavy and dense and moist, full of fruit. The tart dried cherries, the sweet pieces of apple, the oats sprinkled on top. I did try to re-create it once. I tried. My bran muffin was an OK muffin. But a few days later, there I was back at the counter, wearing oversized sunglasses, digging out $2 for the original.

Well this time, my friends, I’ve finally done it. I bought a bigger muffin pan, swapped in whole-wheat flour for the all-purpose, used brown sugar instead of white. And of course, the key here is the wheat bran. Not something you probably have lying around the house. But it’s not that pricey. I bought a container of it at The Fresh Market for less than $2. It’s enough to make several batches of muffins. To fluff up the bran, put the dried fruit in with it and add some boiling water. Let it sit while the rest of the batter comes together.

The wheat bran combined with the whole-wheat flour creates the perfect density to hold the pieces of fruit. The soaking of the wheat bran and fruit is the biggest twist to this recipe. The rest of the batter comes together pretty much like any other. The only thing to do ahead of time is re-create some buttermilk if you don’t have any. Do that by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a measuring cup and letting it rest about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the whole-wheat flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Then put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer and fluff it. Add the brown sugar and mix till combined and fluffy. Add the honey.

Add the egg and combine. Then add a third of the buttermilk and mix. Add a third of the flour and mix just till combined. You don’t want to overmix because you’ll get tough muffins. I don’t know about you, but I like my muffins soft, squishy and happy — unaffected by the cold, hard world. Repeat with two more additions of each.

Then add in the bran mixture.

Mix till just combined. You can tell the batter will make dense muffins because it looks coarse and hearty.

Now all you have to do is scoop that batter into your prepared muffin pan and top each with a little raw sugar and chopped pecans to give it some crunch.

Then pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes. But more accurately… until you start to smell the muffins. When you get a bit of a whiff, run and check them. They’ll probably be done. When you can really smell them, they’re getting overdone.

These are huge muffins. If you’re a light breakfast eater, you’ll probably only want half. I made the big muffins because I wanted them to resemble my inspiration muffin. But there’s nothing wrong with making smaller ones. Next time, I’ll probably make smaller ones and add a little cinnamon to the batter too. Remember that recipes are just suggestions; no one is making you follow them exactly. If you don’t have dried fruit, leave it out. No brown sugar? Use the same amount of white. Or try more honey.

No matter how you tweak it, I hope your muffin will be as gorgeous as this one. Who needs Starbucks? Apple Bran who? Oh. Yeah, I used to know that muffin. But I’ve moved on now.

While we’re here, can I just tell you something? Which isn’t even off topic, because you have to have coffee with your muffin. So here it is: Every day when I make my coffee, I hear Carly Simon…

Know why? Because, yes, there are clouds in my coffee! Clouds in my coffee! And… you’re so vain. I bet you think this song is about you! You’re so vain!…

You feel bad for my husband right now, don’t you? Speaking of my husband… I have a plan. He eats no vegetables. I just read a story about zucchini pancakes. This weekend, I’m going to make crispy zucchini and potato pancakes and see if he’ll eat them. But I’m not going to tell him about the zucchini. Muhahaha. Wish me luck!

Meanwhile, make these muffins!

Apple-Cherry Bran Muffins

  • 1 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup wheat bran
  • 1/4 cup chopped dried apple
  • 1/4 cup dried sour cherries
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk*
  • Raw sugar, for sprinkling
  • Pecan pieces, for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 400. Prepare a muffin pan, with either paper cups or spray.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl, combine the wheat bran and dried fruit. Add the boiling water and let sit.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter till fluffy, then add the sugar and beat till fluffy. Add the honey and combine. Add the egg; incorporate. Mix in the buttermilk and flour mixture in three additions each, beating each addition till just combined. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl as needed. Mix in the bran mixture.
Using a 1/4 cup scoop, scoop the batter into the muffin cups. It should take two scoops for each cup if you’re using a large muffin pan — or one scoop if using a regular-sized pan.
Top each muffin with a teaspoon of raw sugar and sprinkle with a teaspoon of chopped pecans. Bake 20 minutes or until browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
* If you don’t have buttermilk, put 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup and add enough milk to make 1 cup. Let it sit for a few minutes to create the buttermilk effect.

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Bring out the vodka

Sometimes I’m a lazy cook. I watch all these cooking shows where professional chefs stand at the stove and watch pots like it’s their job. They do that because it IS their job. I love being in the kitchen, but sometimes even I don’t want to spend two hours making a meal. That tends to equal a lot of dirty dishes, even when you clean up along the way.

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I like her concept — use few ingredients, but very good quality ones. I also like her because she came to the food industry later in life. She worked for the government, then bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons on kind of a whim. She had no experience in the food industry, but went on to make it her own. I respect that. I hope that could be me someday.

Yes, this is leading somewhere. Let me cut to the chase: I got this recipe for vodka sauce from Ina Garten’s show. Actually, to be fancy and correct, it’s called Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola and it’s served at Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton. I will probably never have it from there. One, because it’s in East Hampton. And two, because it’s a $22 pasta dish and I made it at home for significantly less. A box of pasta on sale? One dollar for eight servings. Now I’m not going to do all the math. I’m a word person after all. But even word people know that $22 for a plate of pasta is just too much. I’m not saying it’s not a good dish. But I can make it at home for about the same cost — or less — for eight servings, not one.

It’s easy, but takes a while to cook in the oven. You just throw some onions and garlic in a Dutch oven (I like to say throw, but I don’t actually throw it. It’s lovingly tossed at best.) with some olive oil.

Let it cook for a bit to soften, add some crushed red pepper flakes and some dried oregano. Stir and let it combine. Then, add a cup of vodka. (One for you, dear sauce. Then one for me. Cheers!)

Let it reduce by half.

This bring us to the San Marzano tomatoes. I used to buy these. I can’t figure out what “brand” they are. But they’re about $4 a can and you’ll find them in the Italian section of your supermarket. The ones in that link are $6. Here’s a secret I recently found. Some supermarket private labels have them too. And guess what? They cost less. Go figure. I got them at Kroger for $1.89 a can. These are with the other canned tomatoes and not in the Italian section. The original recipe doesn’t call for basil. But leave it.

Drain two cans of these tomatoes. (These are great for simple tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. Crush them into a pot, add some olive oil and salt and simmer for 20 minutes. Viola. That’s not even a recipe. And there’s so much more flavor than you get from a jarred sauce. I always keep at least one or two cans of these tomatoes in my pantry.)

These tomatoes also come in crushed form. Don’t buy the crushed ones. The whole tomatoes are the best quality ones. The imperfect ones are crushed and canned, labeled as (you guessed it), crushed. So crush them yourself. It’s fun. Just make sure to wear an apron or at least a shirt you won’t mind having squirts of tomato juice on. And if you pretend that you’re crushing someone’s head as you crush the tomatoes into the pot? Well, that’s your business. I feel like I’ve said that before. But it can’t be said too much.

Add 2 teaspoons of salt. And a pinch of pepper. I know it sounds like a lot of salt. But trust me. Add it. You will not be sorry. Salt gets a bad rap because of all the processed crap we eat. But you need the salt when you’re cooking. Experiment. Just the addition of the right amount of salt can make something ordinary taste so much better. I don’t mean dump salt over all your food after it’s cooked. No, no, no. It’s most important as you go.

Anyway, stir in the salt and pepper.

Put the lid on the Dutch oven and put it into the oven for an hour and a half. Yes, it’s a long wait for dinner. But I’m pretty much in love with anything that takes a few ingredients and just cooks by itself in the oven for a while. And BONUS… it makes your house smell delicious and tastes amazing. Like it took much more effort than it did. Plus it’s hands-off time. Which I completely adore. I can clean up, check Facebook, send a few texts, watch something on TV. Whatever you want. And all while the oven does the work.

And when you pull that pot out of then oven? Well, sometimes even word people can be rendered speechless. Especially when knocked almost breathless with a bite of food. And one that you made yourself. It’s very hard to impress myself. This sauce impresses the hell out of me.

See those “burned” bits around the edges? You want that to happen. It gives the sauce a smoky character. (That one in the middle is a basil leaf.)

So if you don’t want to have this for dinner, you could stop here and store the sauce till the next day or so. But if you have a few more minutes, let the sauce cool while you cook some pasta. I used penne this time, but I like to use rigatoni with this sauce.

When the sauce has cooled some, proceed to the blender. Also, go ahead and give it a taste. The roasted goodness of those tomatoes, onions will make your taste buds dance. Then the heat from the crushed red pepper will make your tongue buzz just a little bit.

Blend it till smooth and creamy, then return it to the pot.

Reheat the sauce, adding a cup of cream — heavy cream if you have it, but half and half will work too — and some dried oregano. Stir it and add half a cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

You’re now seconds from greatness. Stir in that cheese. Now, depending on how many servings you’re making, you can toss the pasta into the sauce or toss the sauce into the pasta. I was only doing a couple of servings, but I put the pasta into the sauce anyway. Next time, I’d do the opposite so the dish wouldn’t be quite so saucy. Learn from  your mistakes, right? This was a mistake I can definitely live with.

Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola

Adapted (just a little) from The Barefoot Contessa and Nick and Toni’s in the Hamptons.

  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound penne pasta
  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 1 cup heavy cream or half and half)
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 375.

Heat the olive oil in a large oven proof saute pan over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half.

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve and crush them into the pan with your hands. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and set aside.

Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Return to the pan.

Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh oregano and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan and a sprinkle of fresh oregano on each plate.

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Setting out to bake sometimes ends up a lot like life. Your ingredients may take you in a different direction than you intended. But the deviation can make your destination even more delicious. (How about all those D words!?)

I had a few peaches that were languishing in the fruit bowl. Every time I walked by, I could hear them crying out “Please! Make us fantastic!” What’s a baker to do with a plea of that magnitude? Obey, of course.

So I rummaged in the fridge and gathered a roll of Pillsbury pie crust (nope, I’m not above a premade pie crust), half stick of butter, some Sarabeth’s strawberry-peach preserves, then grabbed a lemon from the fruit bowl. I pictured a peach pie with a crisp topping — brown sugar, oats, butter, pecans — instead of a top crust. I could taste it already. But when I unrolled the pie crust, it seemed a little off and I wasn’t going to sacrifice my peaches.

So I tossed the crust and went back to the idea bank in my head. Maybe a peach crisp.

Or. OR… Yes, yes… I think it must be peach cobbler, which is so simple and yet yields results so delicious, it will coax sighs of delight from whoever is lucky enough to sink a fork into it.

I started with half a stick of butter. Melt it into the pie plate.

Then mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and milk to make the cobbler batter. Pour that over the butter, but don’t mix it up. In a large saucepan or small stockpot, combine three peaches (peeled, pitted and sliced), some sugar, the juice from half a lemon and the preserves (choose peach, or a complementary flavor).

Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil. When it boils, the peaches will have softened a bit and the juices will have been drawn out.

Remove it from the heat, add some zest from that lemon and spoon the peaches and their juices over top the batter in the pie plate. Make sure to get all that luscious juice into the pie plate. Don’t stir it.

Then set the pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet and pop it into the oven for 40 minutes.

You’ll be so happy when you see what comes out of the oven.

And when you finally cut it open… I think I’ll let the photo speak for itself just this once.

Peach Cobbler

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
  • Juice of half a lemon, plus its zest
  • 3 tablespoons preserves

Preheat oven to 375. Melt the butter into a pie plate.

Mix the flour, 1 cup of the sugar, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the milk and stir just till combined. Pour over the butter. Don’t mix them together.

Combine the peaches, remaining 1 cup sugar, lemon juice and preserves in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When it boils, take it off the heat and add the zest. Then spoon over top the batter in the pie plate. Don’t mix anything together, but make sure to use all the juices from the peaches.

Set the pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes.

Serve warm or cooled, plain or a la mode. If you don’t have any ice cream, this cobbler will stand on its own quite well. Good luck not going back for seconds.

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