Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Feast for All Senses

So, I've been cooking a lot of sweets recently (as you might have noticed). It's an easy way for me to get my cooking fix -- I can make a dessert, place it out in a public area, and let the vultures -- that is, college students -- descend upon it and feast. This is unlike hearty meal foods; these, I feel like I must store and eat myself. If I were to make a meal for every time I wanted to be in the kitchen, I would leftovers pouring out of the fridge. So I restrict myself to sweets for the most part.

The only problem is, sometimes the taste of sugar gets really old. This happened to me in the past week or so, and I found myself leafing through my various cookbooks looking for something new and interesting that has neither any sugar content nor meat (the missus' take on dead flesh is... limiting). I ended falling upon the Urban Italian book to find a few interesting pasta sauces. It turns out that both of them played heavily on senses other than taste. The first was a thin sauce of anchovies, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Its smell -- ah! It seemed like gods had come down to anoint my kitchen. But all hope was dashed when I actually took a bite. The texture, the taste -- everything was wrong! The cacophony of flavours eventually resolved itself into a dull burning which, thankfully, prevented me from tasting anything else. I'm never making that again. Blech!

So it was with great trepidation that approached the second sauce. As it was some sort of broccoli pesto, I was afraid that it would have the opposite problem: that it would come across as tasteless mushed greens. And I won't deny that even up to halfway through the recipe, it still seemed like that was the direction in which it was headed. But then something magical happened. At some point after blending the broccoli to a paste with added pine nuts and cheese, the flavour blossomed into something far greater than I thought it would. I'm not sure I can describe it, seeing as it was so unexpected. But the blanched greens mixed their fresh, though mild, taste with the more pervasive parmesan to occupy the whole of my mouth. Add pine nuts for a little texture, and you have a winner.

Of course, you're not done there. You go on to add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and roasted peppers to the mix. The result is one of the most colourful dishes I have ever seen. Now, I don't know what your take on colour in food is. While I recognize that it is not a necessary element, I would much rather present a dish that's interesting to look at. Scoff though you may when cooks try their hand at artistry, you can't deny that a dish like this will give you pause. It's so pretty, how could you not admire it?

Linguini with Broccoli Rabe Pesto, Oregano, and Peppers
For the pesto:
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbs grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese
To finish the dish:
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1/4 tsp red peppers flakes
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1 Tbs fresh oregano leaves
  • 3 roasted peppers // I won't recopy his recipe; suffice to say you should roasted them until their skins are black & blistered, with a lot of oil, salt, and pepper
  • 2 Tbs bread crumbs // Optional, in my opinion
  • 1 lb cooked linguini
Make the Pesto
Put a medium-sized pot of salted water on to boil to blanch the broccoli rabe.

Remove the leaves from the broccoli rabe, cutting them off right at the stem. Reserve the leaves. Trim the broccoli rabe stems so that 2-3 inches of stem remain below each floret. Cut these into thirds.

Blanch the stems and florets in the boiling water for 30sec, until the color has intensified. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

Blanch the broccoli rabe leaves in the boiling water until they're tender, 60-90sec. Remove with a slotted spoon to a separate bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.

When the leaves are cold, remove them from the water and squeeze out the excess water with your hands.

Combine the olive oil and the broccoli rabe leave in a blender and blend on medium until a smooth paste forms, about 30sec. Add 1/2 cup water and blend until the leaves are completely puréed, about 30sec. Add the pine nuts and blend on medium-low until smooth, about 15sec. Add the salt and the cheese and blend very briefly, about 5sec, to bring everything together. // Note: I used a food processor instead of a blender; the time to blend is then radically reduced.

To Finish the Dish
Heat the 2 Tbs of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat, then add the garlic and brown slightly for a minute. Add the broccoli stems and florets and the red pepper flakes and mix to combine.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the cooked linguini and pesto; blend well. Add the grated cheese and fresh oregano, and mix well to blend everything to a rich smoothness. Top with slices of the roasted red peppers, a dash more cheese, and a pinch of breadcrumbs. Voilà!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Winter Strikes Again

Remember last week's blizzard? You might have known it as the Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon. I'm talking about the one that blanketed most of the country with several inches (read:feet) of white fluff, to be accompanied by 60mph gusts, followed shortly thereafter by far-below-freezing temperatures. The storm in which many of us got to enjoy thundersnow for the first time, cozily contemplating the apocalypse? The storm that convinced the UChicago administration to stop classes for a day, an event that hasn't occurred in several decades? And then went and made them do it again? Yeah, that storm.

It's still snowing.

Granted, it's not the violent windy downfall that besieged us last week. After that experience, I barely noticed the delicate flakes currently drifting down from on high. But they're there. And a quick gander over to NOAA's forecast informs me that it is currently 13 degrees with a windchill of -3 degrees (Fahrenheit, mind you). Tomorrow is supposed to be colder.

Can I stay home?

No, probably not. But I can do the next best thing: make myself a big steaming pot of stew for when I get back. The stew I have in mind is one that has actually already been posted once on this blog. But I feel that Do, the Guinness-hating heathen, did not do it justice the first time around. Also, it's one of my most common go-to recipes throughout winter, so why not share it again?

The obvious selling point is that the stew has "Irish" in its title. As well as garner a little pride from Irishmen & women around (of which I am not one), this means that there's a certain amount (read:big heaping portions) of booze in the dish. In this case, the meat and vegetables stew for a few hours in a pint (or more...) of Guinness, which gives the softened chunks that subtle aroma of the bitter stout (the way a dancing elephant with a tutu and a neon sign is subtle). The preparation of the meat, as Do points out, is also a nice touch: before stewing, you cover the beef with a mixture of cornstarch and paprika, with a later addendum of salt, pepper, and (sure, why not?) basil. Some of this will get washed onto the veggies when you pour in the beer, but the rest sticks to the beef and offers a bracing seasoning for the cold weather.

The original recipe can be found at the Thyme for Cooking blog, which I've recopied here for convenience.

Irish Beef Stew
  • 1 lb beef suitable for stewing
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 carrots
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 pint Guinness
  • 2 tsp beef paste (or stock cube)
  • 1 tbs oil
  • 3 tbs cornstarch
  • 1 tbs paprika
Cut beef into 1 inch cubes. Cut onion into quarters, then slice thinly. Mince or press garlic. Cut carrots in half the long way, then into 1 inch pieces.

Combine paprika and cornstarch in a plastic food bag. Add beef and toss to coat evenly.

In a large sauce pan, enough to hold everything easily, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add beef and brown on all sides. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer at least an hour. If it starts to dry out, add more Guinness. If you would like the sauce thicker stir in 1 tbs cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbs water.

When ready to eat, remove bay leaf and serve with boiled jacket potatoes.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Chicago. Deep-dish. Pizza (?)

This may very well be the most controversial post on this blog. At least, it's about what seems to be one of the most controversial foods I've come across. That's right, I'm talking about Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.

When you think about it theoretically -- and as a good UChicago grad, I do -- pizza is conceptually very simple. All it consists of is a flattened loaf of bread covered with tomato sauce, cheese, and anything else you care to throw on it. But there exist so many different methods of actually preparing one that bickering about the correct and proper nature of the dish pops up in every region (unless you eat solely from Dominoes, in which case, shame on you). Chicago has its own specific style: the dough is much puffier and is pressed into the bottom and sides of a 2-inch-deep (roughly) pan. This makes it more of a savory pie, in which you can stuff enourmous quantities of anything you can get your hands on. With the base "crust" of soft, warm bread with all the various toppings you care for, the end result is thick, cheesy, and versatile -- you can go anywhere with the dish when you can fit the kitchen sink into it.

Flattened bread? Check. Tomato sauce? Check. Cheese? Triple check.
Pizza? Evidently still up for debate.

The problem I have is that many of my friends are from the East Coast, where pizza is traditionally served with a thin crust. No, wait, let me revise that sentence: I have many friends from New York, where pizza crust is thinner than crackers. I don't mean to say that I dislike thin crust -- heaven forfend! I love pizza in all its forms. But I preach a culinary gospel of diversity, which doesn't always jive with the New Yorker view of the world.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a universal argument against deep-dish. One person complains that it's like eating a lump of melted cheese. Having lived in Switzerland, I have no problem with this. Many others focus their arguments on the crust: about how that's simply not the way it should be made. I say, what's wrong with using a thick & hearty bread instead of something thin from time to time? Regardless of the specifics of the debate, there seems to be one common agreement: Chicago deep-dish is just not pizza.

Once we get to this point, both sides descend into sputtering disbelief, each appalled at the others' clear lack of reason. Sigh. Oh, my dearest New Yorkers. I love you all, and will try to accept all your quirks, as I'm afraid you will have to continue putting up with all of mine.

I decided to make a deep-dish a long time ago, mainly because I wanted to figure out the process: how does the preparation of something so thick differ from making a traditional pizza? I did my research online, but wasn't entirely satisfied with what I uncovered. Ultimately, I referred (as I always do) to Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. The process ended up being very convoluted: for the dough, he uses a rosemary focaccia recipe, which itself is based on a different recipe for pizza dough. At that point, he sends you past several hundred pages to find how to make the sauce, and then backwards to a different section on topping suggestions. I've tried to straighten out all the jumping around below.

It's not the perfect deep-dish. The dough puffs up a little too much during the initial baking (before you add everything else), so I would recommend the use of pie weights or uncooked rice or beans to help tamp it down -- a larger pan might have helped as well. Also, don't be afraid of letting the tomato sauce dry out: even though baking helped, mine ended up just a little bit runny. I probably should have boiled off its liquids a little longer. Clearly, more experimentation is called for. I did like my selection of toppings, though: mushrooms, spinach, peppers, and Italian sausage -- a very Chicago combination.

Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza
for the dough:
  • 3 cups flour, plus more as needed
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tsp salt, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary leavens, plus more to taste
for the sauce:
  • salt
  • 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil or butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1,1/2 to 2 lbs canned tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • freshly ground black pepper
to finish:
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • toppings of choice

Make the dough
Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a food processor. Turn the machine on and add 1 cup water and the oil through a feed tube.

Process for about 30 seconds, adding more water, a little at a time, until the mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky to the touch. If it is still dry, add another tablespoon or two of water and process for another 10 seconds. (In the unlikely event that the mixture is too sticky, add flour a tablespoon at a time.)

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for a few seconds to form a smooth, round dough ball. Put the dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let rise until the dough doubles in size, 1-2hrs. (You can cut this rising time short if you're in a hurry, or you can let the dough rise more slowly, in the refrigerator, for up to 6-8hrs.) The dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped, for up to a month.

Assemble the sauce
Put the olive oil or butter in a 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot or the butter is melted, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 2-3min. Add the tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the mixture comes together and thickens 10-15min. Taste, adjust the seasonings, and keep warm. (Or let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to several days; reheat gently before serving.)

Prepare the crust
Lightly knead the dough, form it into a ball, and put it on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle with a little more flour, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and let it rest for 20min.

Use 1 Tbs of the oil to grease a large jelly roll pan. Press the dough into a small rectangle and put it in the pan; let it relax there for a few minutes. Press and stretch the dough to the edges of the pan. If it resists, let it rest for a few minutes, then stretch it some more. Sometimes this takes a while, because the dough is so elastic. Don't fight it; just stretch, rest, then stretch again. Try not to tear the dough. Cover the dough and let it rise for at least 30min or until somewhat puffy.

Make the pizza
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Uncover the dough and dimple the surface all over your fingertips. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with the rosemary and plenty of salt.

Put the dough in the oven, lower the temperature to 375 degrees, and bake for 10min. Remove, and place the mozzarella and parmesan in the partially-baked dough. Add any other toppings. Finally, smear with a layer of sauce. Bake the pizza for 20-25min more, until hot and bubbly and browned on the bottom. Let cool for a few minutes before cutting out the first slice.

Buttermilk Biscuits

If you're like me, you probably don't take too much time to worry about breakfast in the morning. A bowl of cereal or oatmeal, maybe some toast, is all you need to expedite your way out the door and into a new day. Something fast & simple that you can make on autopilot, and if you're running late, can be skipped entirely with minimal consequences.

This is why I like baked goods for breakfast: their rarity alone makes them prized meals. But moreover, the time they take to prepare forces you slow down and not rush out haphazardly. Growing up, having my mother's breakfast biscuits, blueberry muffins, or even store-bought croissants were an indication that it was a weekend. We knew that there was nothing immediately pressing when my mother could bake first thing in the morning, so we could relax for a leisurely breakfast fresh from the oven.

Which is why, when I found a recipe for buttermilk biscuits sandwiches, I immediately decided to alter the recipe to make breakfast buttermilk biscuits instead. Why concern yourself with making an egg-ham-bacon sandwich monstrosity when you can enjoy the simple pleasure of freshly baked bread? It took a couple tries to lower the salt content and manage the cooking heat/time, but the result a delicious (and large!) pile of biscuits.

Buttermilk Biscuits
  • 4 cups flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 1,1/2 Tbs baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 sticks butter, cubed and chilled, plus more for spreading
  • 1,1/2 cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the salt, baking powder and baking soda. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut in the butter until it is the size of small peas. Add the buttermilk and stir until a shaggy dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface: knead until it comes together. Pat the dough 3/4 inch thick. Using a 2 inch round cutter, stamp out as many biscuits as possible. Reroll the scraps and stamp out more biscuits.

Transfer the biscuits to the baking sheets and bake for about 20-25min, until golden and risen, shifting the pans halfway through baking. Let the biscuits cool. Devour.