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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.

Vintage Maternity. Awesome.

What? You thought I’d be writing about St. Patrick’s Day? Sorry gang, the parade is out for us until the kiddies are bigger, and drinking is out for me (wine: okay!; car bombs: not okay!) for the foreseeable future. Chances are decent for an impromptu family get together later today, but my father is out of town on business and he’s usually the ringleader.

Anyway. I’m here to talk about sewing. Yesterday I went on a little field trip to the largest independently owned fabric store in New England, The Fabric Stash, on wind of a rumor that they have a good selection, open classes and a clothing designer on staff. (All true!) I picked up some fabric for my Folklore Bag, and was excited to start on it this morning.

And this morning I found out that my copy of the book was missing the pattern insert for this particular project.

After a quick phone call to Storey Publishing, a new (complete) copy is on its way. Very happy with the customer service, but am itching to get started on a sewing project.

Said itch has led me down the rabbit hole of vintage maternity patterns. Check out the awesomeness:


From the 40s. I swear to you this is a maternity pattern. I have no idea how – I mean, in my skinniest (and I have been pretty damn skinny at a few points in my life) there is no way my waist would ever have been that small. But pregnant? What?!?!?!?


From the 80s. Though completely opposite, these are not much better than the ones from the 40s. In fact, these are only a few short steps away from a burqa. Are they trying to hide they have a body altogether? Is there anything that could possibly be less flattering? I mean, really, you feel big enough when you’re pregnant without wearing a circus tent.

I am, however, completely in love with the next 2 patterns:

From the 60s and 70s, respectively. Now those are some cute, wearable maternity clothes. I might skip on the bloomers (perhaps they were a better idea back when the average age of pregnancy was early 20s, not early 30s, speaking from the state of my upper thighs these days), and the ankle length version of the 70s dress, but overall, I heart these.

Wish patterns these days were more than the dumbed-down, shapeless, fashionless tunics I have found so far. With home clothes sewing a dying (dead?) art, there’s just no point in developing a wide range of well designed patterns I suppose.

Sigh.

A meme. For you.

Just what we need around here – a meme to get things rolling again!

1.Explain what ended your last relationship?

Wow. We’re talking about almost 10 years ago now… not as long as some of you guys, but still, a long time. Short answer: infidelity. Long answer: State trooper sting operations, and a long, tangled web of lies.

(How’s that for a tantalizing answer? And no, you won’t get more of it on this blog. There are The Rules you know.)

2. When was the last time you shaved?

Ha! I’m pregnant, with a stall shower, and it’s winter.

3. What were you doing this morning at 8 a.m.

Making coffee. Everything before that is kind of fuzzy.

4. What were you doing 15 minutes ago?

Eating lunch. Mmmmm, waffles!

5. Some things you are excited about?

An upcoming long weekend away to a warm beach. No kids. No dogs. AND we have a direct flight out of Worcester airport, which is 15 minutes from my house, and parking is so easy, get this… it’s on the honor system. That’s right, the airport is so small, parking is on the honor system. So Easy!!

6. What is your favorite flavor of JELL-O?

Red.

7. Your prom night, what do you remember about it?

Hmmmm…. junior prom, I loved my dress, I had my hair done up in Shirley Temple curls, and my date (a friend) picked me up in a cute little sports car. Fun all around! Senior prom, I wore a sundress, birkenstocks, and wish that I hadn’t gone with such a jerk.

8. Do you have any famous ancestors?

My great-grandfather was a captain in the NYPD during Prohibition, and grew up with a bunch of the mobsters. (His wife used to vacation with Al Capone’s wife in Florida.) There is a book and 2 movies about him, and his pivotal role of upholding the law while balancing between the 2 worlds.

9. Last thing received in the mail?

A credit card offer? Supermarket flyers. Other junk. Bleh.

10. How many different beverages have you had today?

Coffee. Water. Which reminds me it’s time for my big glass o’ milk.

11. Do you ever leave messages on people’s answering machine?

Sometimes. Because sometimes there’s just no point in leaving a message.

12. Do you draw your name in the sand when you go to the beach?

Nope. I’m not much fun like that – I think it’s kind of pointless and my New England reserve whispers to me that that sort of thing is kind of narcissistic. However, Eric IS fun, and he always builds elaborate sand sculptures when we go to the beach. Like this. And this.

13. Any plans for Friday night?

Friday night is take-out night! Boring, but at the end of a long week, we’re both pretty excited about not cooking, and not doing dishes.

14. Do you like what the ocean does to your hair?

Once, when Eric and I drove cross country, camping out of the back of my Jetta in various state and national parks, I went almost a whole week only bathing in mountain streams, lakes, and on the last day before having access to a shower again, we camped on the beach at Carlsbad State Park in southern CA and the ocean was the cleanest we were going to get. By the end of the that week, my hair was in natural dreadlocks. It was pretty awesome, and kind of freaky, especially for a girl with super-fine, super-straight hair.

We must have smelled so bad.

15. Have you ever received one of those big tins of 3 different popcorns?

Yes. I don’t like to eat the popcorn, but Eric’s not as picky, and EJ loves playing with the big container.

16. Do you re-use towels after you shower?

Yes.

17. Describe your keychain(s)?

I don’t have one. After years of moving, and moving, and moving, keychains kind of became a pain in the ass.

18. Where do you keep your change?

I keep my change in my wallet. Eric has organized various spots for me to keep my change overflow. Cause he’s OCD like that.

19. When was the last time you spoke in front of a large group of people?

My last UCB show in March 2008, just before I got pregnant with EJ. (Actually, I threw up in the theatre bathroom just before the show, which was weird at the time because I wasn’t nervous or anything, but with the positive pregnancy test a week later, it made a lot more sense.)

20. What kind of winter coat do you own?

I have a dark blue, knee-length down coat that has been fabulous this winter. I also have a beautiful camel, walking-length wool coat, and a black, walking-length black wool coat with woven patterning, but those two (while very warm) aren’t exactly practical when kicking around in the country hauling a toddler through 3 feet of snow.

Souper February

Have I told you about my food manifesto? I’m sure I mentioned it in the early days of the blog, back in ’04 or ’05, but since the archives are down, you’re just going to have to take my word on it.

Anyway, a central tenet of my whole food world lies in the idea that soup is pretty much the perfect food. It has, truly, endless variations. You can get a wide variety of foods in a one-dish, single serving. You can make enough to eat all week AND freeze for later. It can be as fancy and impressive, or as quick and easy as you’d like.

I love soup.

Then Kellee (it is always Kellee, yes? My most favorite enabler and ringleader.) was all, oh my god, my friend started this thing called Souper February. We’re going to make a different soup every day during February and post it to Flickr. You should totally do it. It will be AWESOME. (Or something like that. It was in email form, and Kellee does not speak or type Valley High School.)

And I was like, um, Soup? Awesome. Every day? Um, that’s, like crazy. (See above disclaimer, except apply it to me.)

But, I love the spirit of the challenge and have decided to try for 2 soups a week. I am already behind, but my first soup of February was a little ditty from Jamie’s Italy. (Oh Jamie Oliver, sigh. I love your veggie garden and ragamuffin way of tossing together ridiculously delicious-looking food.)

Pasta e Ceci (Pasta with Chickpeas)
From: Jamie’s Italy

Ingredients:

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celery, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil
spring of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 – 14oz cans chickpeas
2.5 C chicken stock
3.5 oz ditalini (I used elbows)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil or parsley for garnish (optional) (I used basil)

Cook onion, celery, garlic and rosemary with splash of olive oil as gently as possible in covered saucepan for 15 – 20 minutes until veggies have lost all color.

Add chickpeas to pot, and cover with stock. Cook gently for 30 minutes, then remove 1/2 chickpeas with slotted spoon and reserve in another bowl. Using immersion blender, blend remaining contents of pot until smooth. Add reserved chickpeas and pasta, season with salt and pepper, and simmer gently until chickpeas are tender and pasta is cooked.

If soup is too thick, thin with water, and season with salt and pepper.

NOTE: Don’t try to get smart or cute, and decide to thin the soup with additional chicken stock, like I did. Jamie knows what he’s talking about. I used a total of 4 C of chicken stock, and the soup was too rich and salty. Water would have cut it beautifully, and let the natural flavors of the chickpeas, herbs and veggies shine.

A One Yard Wonder

Project: Mailbag Pocket Duo from One Yard Wonders

Materials: One yard of fabric bought from fabric.com sometime last year in a fit of sewing enthusiasm. Other sewing accessories: thread, scissors, a sewing machine… the usual.

Time to complete: 3 naptimes.

Useful Quotient: Super useful. We had no designated place for mail in our new house, the result of which was unseemly piles cluttering up our kitchen, and my desk.

Happiness Quotient: Exceeded my happiness expectations. I don’t generally find joy in the act of sewing, more in the finished objects (sewing is just so damn useful!)… but there was something utterly gratifying in sitting down for an hour each day, making solid progress, and then being Done.

Other thoughts: I am completely smitten with One Yard Wonders. I don’t know if it’s just that projects made from one yard of fabric seem so inherently manageable, or if the projects in it seem so freaking useful, but I’m happy I ran across it the other night at the bookstore.

Happy weekend everyone!

That is all.

Coming Clean

As I told you in my last post, there are Things that I have been keeping from you. Time to come clean, I suppose, before we can move forward.

Firstly. I have learned to crochet. And I love it. Maryse gave me a lesson at knit night a few weeks ago, and I am hooked (groan). (sorry, I am a total cheezeball.)

Here is a picture of my first little sampler swatch:

Nothing special, just rows of single crochet and double crochet, except I now have the skill set to make one of these, or these. That’s really the only decision left. Babette vs. Granny Square Blanket. Feel free to weigh in, I am susceptible to good arguments and peer pressure.

Secondly. I am pregnant again. Good news on all fronts: strong heartbeat, nausea is gone, energy is back, and I am not filled with the bottomless, irrational rage that came with my first pregnancy. So I don’t expect this blog to become a pit of darkness for the next 6 months. Lucky for all of us, really.

Thirdly. I have hardly been crafting this past month. (See “Secondly”) I have, however, gotten back on the horse this week with the most unlikely of my crafty pursuits: Sewing. I expect to finish my project today, and am excited to have something real to post soon.

Fourthly. No secret to anyone who has read this blog before I moved to NYC, but holy god I hate February with the fury of a thousand blizzards. I mean, really, it was Negative Five (absolute, not windchill. Windchill was Negative Twenty.) (Fahrenheit not Celsius.) the other morning when we woke up. There are many things that I am doing to mitigate my dread of its arrival, and one is to try to appreciate the good things that belong to February.

The days are getting noticeably longer, and the sunsets can be glorious.

Now, if only I could feel my toes.

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