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Bread, Cheese, Tomatoes – 3 ways

Last week I pretty much lived on tomatoes, cheese and bread. Partly this is because I finally found a real, artisanal, independent bakery that makes real, quality bread (and incredible blueberry scones!). Partly this is because I finally figured out how to make quality pizza.

(Darby’s in West Boylston has literally made our life here better and filled a real void. 8 months with supermarket bakery bread as the best option has been sucky. And enough to prompt me to learn how to bake bread. I’m not good at it yet, but at least I know what’s in it. But Darby’s makes that less necessity, and more choice. Anyway, I digress.)

So, what did I do as soon as I got real bread in my hands? Why, I grilled it of course, and topped it with the best stuff I had on hand.

I happened to have some good golf-ball sized tomatoes on hand leftover from another use, and the same for some fresh mozzarella and basil. (Really the dish was serendipitous, and I was giddy when I realized I had all the things on hand for a delicious snack.) I sliced, salted and allowed the tomatoes to drain for a little bit. The salt leaches the excess water out, and leaves you with a concentrated, less messy, tomato flavor. Then I tossed it together with the cheese, basil, some olive oil and balsamic and let it sit together for a bit.

Meanwhile, I heated a grill pan over medium high heat, and brushed slices of bread with olive oil on both sides. I grilled the oiled bread until there were nice grill marks on each side, and then rubbed one side of each slice with a garlic clove that I had slice in half. This infused the bread with a nice garlic flavor without actually putting garlic chunks into the mix to eat.

And then? I sat, and quietly ate my snack with unbridled pleasure.

The next day I tossed the topping leftovers with toasted, 2 day old bread, to make a panzanella. Panzanella is literally stale bread tossed with tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, balsamic, (or variants). The stale, toasted bread soaks up the lovely juices, and you’re not stuck with a stale hunk of bread on your counter.

Yum.

But the real triumph was this:

(Please excuse the crappy picture. I didn’t expect this to be bloggable, but it was so freaking delicious that I had to snap a picture before we ate it all.)

Salami & Zucchini Pizza
from Jamie’s Italy

My god, this was So Much Better than I could have expected.

First off, I didn’t realize how much proper technique affected a pizza’s outcome. I’ve been making pizza at home with mixed results for years, but I assumed that rolling out some dough, topping with sauce and cheese, and popping it in the oven until done was all there was to it.

And in some ways, it’s that easy. But HOW you roll out the dough, how much sauce, what cheese and toppings, and WHERE in the oven (and at what temp), these all make a huge difference in outcome.

(I will admit it was a shamefully inedible pizza that prompted me to finally look up some technique help on this. I mean, really, who screws up a pizza so badly that it’s inedible. Me. That’s who.)

This is what I’ve found out about making an excellent pizza:

1) A super hot oven. As hot as you can get it really, 500 degrees if yours goes up that high.

2) Thinly rolled dough. About 1/4″ thick. We’re not making veggie pies here, we’re making pizza.

3) Not too big, maybe about 12″ diameter. The dough is thin… if you roll it out too big, it’s too ungainly to handle. Make multiple pizzas if you have to.

4) Just sauce to cover. This means about 4 Tbs of sauce for a pizza the size we’re talking about. Too much sauce and you’ll drown your dough and ruin your pizza.

5) Good toppings. This doesn’t mean fancy. It can be as simple as avoiding the processed, shredded mozzarella and using some torn fresh mozzarella and fresh basil instead. It will make all the difference in the world.

Bonus: A pizza stone, or a slab of granite or marble on the bottom rack of your oven. This keeps the oven temp steady and (as closely as possible for a conventional oven) replicates the bottom of a wood stove. Otherwise, cook the pizza on oiled and floured tin foil directly on the bottom rack, as close to the oven floor as possible.

So, roll out your dough about 15 minutes before you’re ready to cook. Place it on an oiled, floured piece of tin foil. Prepare your toppings.

In this case I used thinly sliced zucchini and salami (Trader Joe’s Pinot Grigio Salami), then some pieces of basil, and enough torn fresh mozzarella to fill the gaps once everything else was on the pizza.

Pop in the oven for 7 – 10 minutes, and enjoy.

I really do have to say that I was extremely surprised at how well it turned out. It was better than any pizza you can get in my neck of the woods, and would fit right in at any specialty, high end, quality pizza shop. This will probably take the place of our Friday night take-out routine. Simple, delicious, and better than anything (pizza, thai, or otherwise) that will arrive in my kitchen after spending 20 minutes in the car.

Fail.

We are taking a short break from the food parade to mourn my entry into Elinor’s sock contest.

This, my friends, is what happens when you leave your knitting within reach of a toddler. I was equally horrified to find the knitting mangled, as well as by seeing 3 sharp, thin, wooden needles being gleefully waved around in EJ’s hands.

The deadline is Monday, and I don’t have the heart or the time to rip back and start over. Partially, this is because the yarn I had long since been waiting to arrive for a previously contracted design project arrived on my doorstep last week, the very afternoon of the above-pictured accident.

I had hoped to finish the socks before it arrived, but I am on a tight deadline for this new design, and sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

Although, THIS JUST IN! I just went to Elinor’s site to appropriately link and what not, and it turns out that she too has come upon unexpected time pressures and as such has extended the deadline to May 21st.

Looks like I might just be in the game after all. Count me as one of the people who are RELIEVED.

(I swear to god this post was not staged. Also, I feel a little dirty for feeling the need to say that.)

The Original Paella

I’ve never been overly interested in paella… restaurant versions have always been bland and overcooked, or so varied and upscale they’d be impossible to recreate at home. In fact, that’s usually why I skipped over every paella recipe before I found this one. An ingredient list 15 items long (not including pantry items) is usually an automatic out in my book.

Then I stumbled upon this recipe in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World, a cookbook that focuses on traditional, authentic and well, cookable recipes from around the world. (Needless to say, I am a huge fan.) It calls for a handful of ingredients, the core of which are rice, shrimp and onion.

Bittman himself says he didn’t understand paella until he happened upon this recipe in Spain, a simple weekday workhorse of a meal, made like this for centuries.

Me? I love it for its humble depth of flavor, because it’s made in one pot (a cast iron skillet at that), and the fact that it’s real food at its best. I mean, you can’t get more simple than rice, onion, broth and shrimp. Yet, something magical happens, and out of the oven comes this tasty, hearty, wonderful dish that you will find yourself making over and over again.

The Original Paella
Adapted slightly from The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman

Ingredients:
Olive oil
1 onion, minced
3.5C chicken broth
2C arborio rice
1lb shrimp, peeled, de-veined, and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
fresh parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 500 degrees, or as close to that as you can get. Heat olive oil in ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, add onions, and cook until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add rice, and saute for a minute or so. Add broth, being mindful of the steam. (If broth is cold, warm it before adding.) Add shrimp and stir. Transfer to oven and cook for 25 minutes, or until broth is completely absorbed (no longer soupy on top). Garnish with parsley and serve.

Notes: Bittman includes saffron, but as a rule I don’t make things with saffron, or omit it when possible. I simply can’t justify ponying up for a spice that costs that much. Also, he instructs one to heat up the broth before adding, but since I buy my broth in a carton that is stored at room temperature, I have found that to be unnecessary as well. If you are using refrigerated broth, you definitely want to warm it first – both to avoid the steam backlash and to prevent halting the cooking process from such a drastic change in temperature.

Embarrassing admission: EJ and I polished off more than half of that pan by ourselves. We both ate it with gusto, but I will leave you to guess who had 3 helpings.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Back when I was fresh out of school, living in Cambridge with two sisters from California, I found a weird little green thing on the kitchen table. We were sitting around, having after work drinks, and Jen (one of the sisters) sliced it open, whacked out the pit, and started making guacamole. I was sort of stunned, because while I’d had guacamole before (for years, and loved it), I’d never seen an avocado, nor did I really know what guacamole was.

(To be fair, the girls were just as amazed and confused at the variety of gourds I brought home that fall. I grew up with squash, they grew up with avocados and lemon trees. Regionality at its best.)

Anyway, another food that used to be in the love-but-really-not-sure-what-it-was-parade was rhubarb. I clearly remember the first time I had strawberry rhubarb pie (my grandfather’s post-funeral gorge and get drunk Irish Catholic mourning thing – it was one of his favorite pies I found out that day). I remember how delicious and different it was, and wondering what the hell rhubarb was. A spice? A fruit? But then I quickly got very very drunk and forgot all about it.

Then, years later, we got a bunch with our CSA basket in NYC and I thought “ooooohhhhh, so THIS is what rhubarb is” immediately followed by “I must make pie!”. Long time readers of the blog may remember the pie soup fiasco that ensued (I thought I could wing it in the same way I wing making apple pie), but shortly thereafter Carole passed along her pie recipe and saved my hopes of mastering this pie.

And now the rule in my home is every time I see rhubarb and strawberries sold together, I must buy them and make pie. It only happens a few times a year, and it’s a huge treat. Fortunately, that time is upon us again, and it resulted recently in this:

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
From Carole, Baker Extraordinaire

Pie filling:
2 ½ cups strawberries
2 ½ cups rhubarb
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup cornstarch

Pie crust:
You’re on your own. I always used store bought until recently, but am not good enough at making my own to offer any guidance. Carole has a tutorial here, and it’s a good place to start if you’d like to make your own. And here’s Smitten Kitchen’s take on making a butter-only crust.

How to:
Mix together strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and cornstarch. Let stand for 15 minutes, giving it a stir a few times. Put that in your crust and dot with some butter. Make a lattice top, and then bake for 30 minutes at 425, reduce heat to 350 and bake another 25-35 minutes.

Notes:
The lattice top is very very important. Strawberries get soupy, and the lattice allows the excess moisture to steam out. Also, I highly recommend lining the oven shelf with tin foil to catch drips. (See: soupy) The last thing you want is a constant stream of sugary drips collecting on your hot oven floor and smoking you out of house and home. Ask me how I know.

Thoughts on filling ingredients:
I almost never have exact amounts of strawberries and rhubarb. I aim for equal amounts (sometimes they’re equal, sometimes they’re not) and having enough total to fill a pie. I often go light on the sugar, particularly if the strawberries are at the peak of ripeness and from a local farm. Those don’t need much help.

Food (foodfoodfoodfoodfood)

Scroll down for recipe: Pasta with Cheese and Pepper

Since I last posted, our house has been a parade of illness. I will spare you the details, but it is pertinent to our discussion for me to disclose being felled by a 36-hour stomach virus (the dreaded rotovirus), not once, but TWICE in the span of two weeks.

People, you can ask Eric, but generally it is a bad idea to withhold, say, a snack or a meal when the hunger comes upon me. (Jess supplied the perfect word for this phenomenon: Hangry.) When pregnant, I get very very hangry, very very quickly. Lashing out and irrationality ensue. I become incapable of processing language. And now twice this past month I’ve gone 4 or so days without ingesting anything but ginger ale and chicken broth.

This has resulted in transforming my former passion for food into full-on obsession.

I spend my days pouring over cookbooks and food sites, researching recipes and techniques. Several days a week involve trips to grocery stores, specialty stores, bakeries… sometimes for purchasing, sometimes to scope out what is available in the area for future planning.

EJ and I spent one morning on a 5-store hunt for horseradish root.

(It was worth it. I’ll tell you why later.)

And so, in the spirit of using what you got, I’ve decided to share my food crazy with the blog. I’m starting with this ridiculously simple, but crazily delicious, traditional Roman pasta recipe I whipped up for EJ and I the other day.

Pasta with Cheese and Pepper

Adapted loosely from Mario Batali and Smitten Kitchen


I know that you could be fooled into thinking that this is just pasta with some cheese sprinkled on top. But what is hard to capture on film is the hot, dripping, emulsified, butter/cheese sauce that is perfectly coating each piece of pasta.

The basic recipe follows these super simple steps:

1) Cook pasta.
2) Drain, reserve pasta water.
3) Dry pot, return to burner.
4) Heat olive oil to almost smoking.
5) Add pasta, some reserved water, some butter, grated cheese, & pepper.
6) Saute for a minute or so.
7) Season to taste and serve.

It was one of the easiest things I’ve ever made, and it was transcendent. The sort of meal found in hot little NYC restaurants, on authentic Roman countryside tables, and if you look closely, it is nothing more than a recipe for mac’n’cheese using real ingredients instead of boxed, powdered cheese.

In fact, I am NEVER buying or making mac’n’cheese again, not even the Annie’s stuff, because this was just as easy to whip up, using ingredients I always have on hand, and was a thousand, trillion times more delicious than anything that could ever come out of a box.

Now, a note on ingredients and amounts. I was deliberately vague in my instructions…. Mario and Deb list specific cheeses (cacio di roma and pecorino romano, respectively), specific pastas (linguine fini and spaghetti, respectively), exact amounts.

I used fusilli and parmigiano reggiano, because that’s what I had. I guessed at amounts, because I only made about a 3rd of a package of pasta. It was still perfect. My thought is that this is the sort of pasta that you need only understand the technique, and it’s meant to be thrown together with what you have.

(That being said, I’d only use a hard Italian cheese. This is not the place to go grating cheddar into pasta.)

Make it, and rejoice in having a meal in your arsenal that would be equally suited to being served at an elegant dinner party, or for your toddler’s lunch. Oh, and using only things that should be in your pantry at all times.

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