November 16, 2009

old school italian favorites

Lately, you could not pay me to eat sweets! I guess because I am baking so much now I almost never want to eat the stuff. This is probably a good thing. A sweet tooth has plagued me all my life, until now. I can totally leave it and I crave savory dishes full of flavor and texture.

So I've been cooking from a new Cook's Illustrated special edition called Italian Favorites. I would link to their website, but they just make you pay for looking at their recipes and that's annoying. You might as well subscribe to the magazine and have something to keep --or better yet, just buy one every once in a while when it looks appealing like I do.

I have a love-hate relationship with the magazine. I love the in-depth recipe testing and they always get everything right. But sometimes making a simple dinner from the magazine makes me feel like I'm doing research on a dissertation (all over again) and I need to read every single word of the two-page single-spaced essay. And that's no way to enjoy yourself in the kitchen.

But the Italian favorites issue is a keeper. My aunt, who is also an avid cook, came to visit me recently and then went on a wild goose chase looking for a back issue because she wanted to make everything in it. I called up the magazine and had it sent to her house. It really is a good one. Some of the 'Italian favorites' I've tried are the above 'Chicken Marsala'. I veered from tradition and made it with Cinzano instead of Marsala, but it was close enough and very good. I also made the Spaghetti Puttanesca, which I make all the time but this one was different. It added anchovies to the usual olives, capers and tomatoes which I thought worked well.

I also made the 'pork chops with vinegar and peppers' and it was surprisingly good. It, like all of the recipes in this issue, reminded me of things I ate in my childhood. My mom made pork chops just like that and the chicken Marsala was probably served in all of the old hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurants we ate in growing up in Las Vegas. There are recipes for Fettuccine Alfredo and Chicken Piccata, Penne alla Vodka and Shrimp Fra Diavolo. It doesn't get any more old-school Italian-American than that!

One dish I am definitely going to make as soon as I find the time is 'braciole': Italian stuffed steak --a Southern Italian classic. My aunt nearly lost it when she saw that. She told me stories of all the wonderful Italian dishes my grandmother (who died when I was 5) used to make when she was young and dating my mom's brother. She told me of nights when she would come to dinner and just watch her cook and then eat the most delicious things. We went through old boxes of my mom's and grandma's recipes while she was here, stopping after each one so she could tell me a story about how they made it.

old italian women (not my relatives) courtesy of

While I may not be able to re-create those family recipes exactly as they were, at least I can attempt some old Italian favorites in my own home and pretend that I was there. Thanks, Cook's Illustrated. You're not so bad after all.

November 1, 2009

baking my brains out

I don't know where the month of October went. It seems like I blinked and all of a sudden the days are shorter, the air is colder and orange, red and yellow leaves blanket my yard in all directions. I have local Tennessee pumpkins and home-grown butternuts on the counter, waiting to get roasted, and most of my time has been taken up with baking.

Ever since I started this great new partnership baking over at dose coffee and tea, it seems my little baking business has kicked into high gear. That may be why I have less time to blog about what's going on in my home kitchen. I now have a commercial kitchen to play in where I'm creating lots of new seasonal treats and having fun testing the market.

The guys at dose really know coffee and have great things planned so I appreciate the chance to work with them. As the holidays approach and my baking heats up even more, I thought I'd share a few of the things I've been up to lately:

For the first Edgehill Village Artisan Fair

marmellata thumbprints, apple spice cakes with cream cheese frosting and (local) pumpkin spice cakes with maple glaze

cinnamon plum coffee cake (now being made with Bartlett pears)

For East Nashville's Walden Artisan Market

lemony semolina cookies

...and apple tort (a family tradition)

For a Fall Fest fundraiser for East Academy

Halloween sugar cookies

It has been a busy, creative Fall and I am enjoying the changes. I have a baby shower and a wedding cake to do in November and then...Holiday baking for special orders and parties. I like this kind of busy when, after hours of work in the kitchen, I can take stock of all I've made, see the tangible results on the counter and feel good about my progress.

October 17, 2009

Cranberry bean salad with butternut squash

There is no bad way to eat butternut squash. Its warm Fall flavor is slightly sweet and when its full flavor comes out through roasting or sauteeing, it compliments so many other ingredients. I just have never met a butternut I didn't like. I know I should expand my squash repertoire and move into some other winter squashes, but I find that there is something so comforting about the butternut that keeps me coming back. It could be the pale salmon color and how great they look on the outside, compared to that eye-popping orange on the inside. (Orange happens to be my favorite color).

So another quest for butternut recipes this week led me to this wonderful side dish that would allow me to use the last of my borlotti beans from Italy. Borlotti are the beautiful red spotted beans called cranberry beans here. The color is wonderful and they look really cool when fresh and still in their pods. They have a color and a crunch that makes them the perfect compliment to softly sautéed squash and little bit of bitter greens.

I'd seen a salad like this before in one of my cookbooks, but found this recipe on As usual, I altered it to meet my needs. The recipe calls for bacon but I didn't have any and wanted to keep it vegetarian as I was serving it alongside a classic pot roast for dinner. The salad was also delicious cold the next day for lunch. Martha's recipe also called for broccoli rabe, which I love, but it is not yet available in my local market so I substituted kale from our farmers.

(the pot roast was a simple braised beef roast that I cooked low and slow in the oven with fresh herbs, garlic, red wine and beef broth and added chopped carrots and potatoes toward the end of the cooking time. So delicious. The perfect comfort dish.)

Cranberry bean salad with butternut squash (from

1. Beans (2 lbs) should be soaked overnight and then cooked with one onion, 1 bay leaf and sevel black peppercorns, with enough water to cover beans. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until cooked through about 25 min.

2. Drain beans, reserving a little cooking water. In a medium bowl, toss beans with 1 T each olive oil and cooking liquidl season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

3. Peel and cube 1 small butternut squash. Working in batches if necessary, sautee in olive oil until lightly browned and cooked through. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a bowl.

4. Heat 2 T olive oil and add 3 garlic cloves, minced. Sautee until golden brown. Add kale or other leafy green, saute until wilted and heated through, about 5 min. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Add beans and squash to skillet and cook just until heated through and combined. Drizzle with olive oil before serving.

October 8, 2009

Butternut squash and roasted red pepper soup

Fall is definitely in the air and I love it. Ever since I moved to the South, I am happiest when the weather turns from hot and muggy Summer to crisp, clear and beautiful Fall. I really appreciate the change in seasons in the Southeast, not least because I get to cook new things!

Now is the time for winter squash: butternuts, pumpkins, acorns and kabochas. I love them because they look and taste like Fall. Before I cooked so much, I used to buy them at farmer's markets and leave them on the counter or on a table on the porch and enjoy looking at them. But now that I try to cook and eat seasonally, I look forward to the arrival of squash and all the new ways I find each year to cook and enjoy them.

I remember being in Italy last Fall and being excited that the same winter squash that we have were found in all the markets (and the menus) over there. It was late September and we visited an organic farm in Tuscany where they had a storage room full of butternuts. I could think of nothing more than putting them to good use for torellini di zucca with sage butter sauce, perhaps my all-time favorite pasta dish.

(look at all those butternuts!)

Butternut is my favorite. This week I had three on the counter from the farmer and one big one growing in my garden, so I thought I should get creative. I threw one in the oven, sliced in half, to roast while I thought about ways to use it for that night's dinner. Just then, Ben Frank posted a link on facebook to his blog with a recipe for a creamy winter squash soup. The photo was so beautiful I couldn't help but click over.

There are a million recipes for butternut squash soup, but this one struck me as very unique. It combined the sweet flavors of roasted butternut, apple juice, roasted red peppers and the heat of cayenne peppers. In addition, it started with bacon! What could be better than that? So I immediately decided this was the soup for my roasting squash. I still had a few red peppers from the farmer and a neighbor had given me a handful of cayenne peppers from her garden last week. I threw the red peppers into the oven to roast along with the squash.

I followed Ben's recipe exactly, except I substituted a cup of chicken stock for the cranberry juice. But I did use apple juice for the rest of the liquid as he calls for. At first I thought that would be a weird addition for an already sweet soup, but because of the spiciness of the peppers, the apple juice was a welcome sweetness and of course, the flavor of apples and bacon cannot be beat.

I raved about this soup for a while after dinner. I liked it so much I even brought some in a small container to my neighbors across the street to share. I thought the combination of squash and peppers, roasted until all their juicy Fall sweetness comes through, and the heat of the cayenne and other spices such as nutmeg and allspice made for a really complex flavor combination that you don't get too often in chunky Fall soups. I will return to this recipe again, I'm sure.

And, taking Ben's cue that there's no better accompaniment to soup than a grilled cheese sandwich, I served the soup with grilled camembert, provolone and fig sandwiches that were deliciously rich. All together, a perfect Fall meal.

September 29, 2009

Apple-plum pie

As the weather turns cooler and the days get shorter, I welcome my favorite season and crave being in the kitchen with the stove on. I love baking even more than usual when the fruits of late summer-early Fall beckon me to create gorgeous fruit-filled pies, cakes and tarts. Now plums are on their way out, and apples and pears are just starting to appear at the farmer's markets.

Fortunately for me, there seems to always be an excuse to bake something. Like the backyard party we went to recently to which I took two homemade apple-plum pies.

I am always trying new recipes, especially for pie crust. This one is from Dorie Greenspan, a true expert on all things baked. Hers is for an old-fashioned mixed-apple pie. I tweaked it to include the plums and and left out a couple of things hers included in the filling, like tapioca and raisins, mainly because I didn't have them.
I think the 1/3 cup of vegetable shortening in the crust is what makes it "old-fashioned." You could leave it out, but it really does give an extra flakiness to the pie crust.

Everyone loved it at the party. It was a great complement to the end of summer fare the hosts provided for the last BBQ of the season, things like corn and bean salad, hot dogs and burgers, potato salad and beer.

I would serve this pie just as it is, with a small dollop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Apple-plum pie (adapted from Dorie Greenspan, in bon appetit, Oct. 2009)

3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup solid veg. shortening, chilled (optional)
6 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1 1/4 lbs of apples (peeled, cored and cut into wedges)
1 lb plums, sliced into wedges
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup golden or dark raisins (optional)
21/2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca (optional)
1 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon peel
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 tblsp. raw (turbinado) sugar (optional- for sprinkling on top)

Make dough using the food processor method (dries first, then add butter + shortening by cutting in and pulsing until it looks like cornmeal; then add ice water and blend until moist clumps form, adding more ice water if dough is dry). Gather dough into ball and divide in half. Flatten each disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours.

Butter 9-in pie dish. Roll out dough onto floured surface to 12-in round. Transfer to pie dish pressing down on sides and bottom, allowing overhang to extend over sides. Roll out second piece (for top) and chill both on baking sheet while preparing filling.

Preheat oven to 425. Combine apple and plums wedges, 1/3 cup sugar, raisins, tapioca, lemon peel, salt and nutmeg in bowl. Toss to coat fruit and let stand about 15 min.
Transfer filling to crust, mounding slightly in center. Dot filling with butter cubes. Brush edges lightly with water. Transfer second dough round atop filling; trim overhang, press edges together, then fold under. Using tines of fork, press on crust edge around rim of dish to seal. Cut some 1-inch slits with a sharp knife in top crust to allow steam to escape. Brush top lightly with milk or water and sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake pie 15 min at 425. Reduce oven to 375 and continue to bake until crust is golden, apples are tender and juices are bubbling over, about 50 min. longer. Let cool to lukewarm or room temperature and serve.

For more fall recipes, see this pretty apple cake, or this post with some of my Fall favorites: chard gratin, moroccan sweet potatoes and farro with chickpeas and butternut squash.

September 23, 2009


Why is it that there is something about every place I've ever lived (and that is a pretty long list now) that just leaves me wanting in some way. There's something lacking that's elusive and I can never explain to anyone what it is exactly, but I know it's just not there. I've lived in Rome, Florence, Boulder, CO., Oregon, Seattle, Las Vegas and now Nashville, TN. But none of them can compare to New York.

You know I'm not talking about quality of life, or beauty, or weather, community or the cost of living. All of those things can be found in other places and the places I've lived have New York beat on all of those fronts. But what matters to me most--the deal breaker of all deal breakers-- is the FOOD. And for this, New York must be the best city in the world.

I've been many times before and have always had great food, but no other trip was as packed with fantastic dining experiences as this one. We had four days and four nights of amazing meals, all of them a tribute to this gastronomically great city, and all of them a result of my brother's uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. It was his 40th birthday that occasioned this weekend in NYC with the whole family. And it was perfect that we spent it with him in his world, eating in his favorite places (all places where he's worked) and meeting the people who have influenced him on his new path of culinary discovery. I couldn't be happier for him.

So it was that the first night started out with one of the simplest and best meals of the weekend. Greg worked at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn when it first opened, less than a year ago. His friend, the chef and co-owner, Jean Adamson was the chef at Freeman's where he bartended for a couple of years and where he first started to love food. Jean played a big part in that.

She is the kind of chef I would like to be if I had those professional ambitions. She's competent, super skilled, understands seasonal food and classic preparations and is at once sweet and modest, capable and confident. A strong woman in a man's world.

Vinegar Hill House

I will let the real food critics' reviews do the talking, (Frank Bruni wrote about Vinegar Hill in August) and I'll just tell you briefly what we ate and enjoyed. There is a lot of great food to talk about here, so get ready.

A plate of farmstead cheese and salami with homemade crackers and pickled quail eggs was brought to the table first. It was perfect in every way. Then we had some salads: shaved market vegetables, little Japanese eggplants that were so simple and good, a watermelon salad with feta, olives and mint, a roasted corn salad and a simple plate of some of the freshest lettuce I've ever tasted. It was all beautiful and the ingredients really stood out as farm fresh and local. Indeed, we ran into Jean the next day at the Union Square Farmer's Market buying produce for that evening's menu.

For mains, we had housemade pappardelle with pork sugo, an amazing cast iron chicken, and what is arguably their most popular dish, the Red Wattle pork chop (above) that melted in your mouth. I think there was a fish on the table too but I don't even remember it. I do remember the desserts, however. A specialty of the house: rich chocolate Guinness cake and my favorite, an almond cherry crostata that was the perfect homespun ending to that meal. And that was just the first night!

Day two was spent walking around in Chinatown and Little Italy, where I visited DiPalo's Market and the historic Alleva Cheeses. Then we made our way uptown and strolled through the Union Square Greenmarket where the produce was practically jumping out of the stalls it was so attractive. It didn't hurt that it was a picture perfect Fall day in New York. We had lunch at a little walk-up pizza place where they served beer in 32-oz styrofoam cups and you sat on the sidewalk with loads of others lining up for a slice of their namesake artichoke and spinach pie.

Dinner was a treat of the sort that's hard to duplicate anywhere else except at Roberta's in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Carlo Mirarchi, the chef, and his partners own this club-house for foodies where a wood-fired oven brought from Italy fires out pizzas day and night, and a continuously evolving roster of meats --lamb, pork (heavy on the pork), beef, duck and chicken vie for space on the picnic table in a lively, young atmosphere. Wine is poured by knowledgeable servers into little mason jars and out back the shipping container used to ship the oven now holds a studio where the Heritage Radio Network presents webcasts on all things food and farming, and an organic garden sits on top.

I blogged about Roberta's when I visited my brother last November. I thought it was great back then and it's only gotten better. This place could not be anywhere else but in an industrial area of Brooklyn where creative people with heartfelt ambitions get together and roast a pig for fun or, with help from a donation from Alice Waters, fund a greenhouse on top of a shipping container in the back of the restaurant, soon to expand to more gardens that will supply all of the produce for the restaurant. Talk about local. It's is such a cool and inspiring place.

Oh, and the food. Read more about it here, but let's just say we rolled out of there happy and stuffed and well taken care of. Carlo brought us a salumi and cheese plate first, followed by apples with bacon and walnuts, then a delicious testa (pig's head) ravioli, and then a remarkably good tripe in a spicy ragu that was as good as any I've had in Italy.

We thought that would be it, but the formidable chef Carlo wanted to do something special for my brother who used to work beside him in the kitchen when they first opened, and brought out the largest pork shoulder I've ever seen. Slow cooked all day, it was perfectly charred on the outside, soft and juicy and falling apart on the inside and served with dark greens and tiny fingerling potatoes. An awesome dish.

[Writing this, I can barely handle this blog post and its litany of incredible food (imagine how much fun it was!) and I am so grateful for my brother's guiding us around the city's current culinary hot spots. I felt like a famous food writer or critic and I enjoyed every minute of it (and every pound I put on afterward). It is no coincidence that passion for cooking and love of good food runs in our family.]

Minetta Tavern
And now, for the grand finale: My brother's birthday dinner at Minetta Tavern. To say that we are lucky, again, is an understatement. This place was reviewed and given 3 stars by Frank Bruni recently, who says they are "serving the best steaks in the city" right now. (Listen to his own words and see the pics here, since I was too enthralled and the lighting to dark to take any).

this photo courtesy of the NYTimes.

It is impossible to get a reservation at this West Village hot spot and the celebs and big shots flock in to experience the latest in the Keith McNally empire of NY restaurants. A Paris bistro meets old timey New York steakhouse where the ingredients and execution are near perfection and the atmosphere is infinitely more fun than a stuffy white tablecloth dining room. We started with a glass of bubbly and a dozen Long Island oysters. Appetizers included an heirloom tomato salad that was superb in its simplicity, squid stuffed with salt cod, peppers, olives and preserved lemon, eggplant salad, steak, veal and lamb tartare and oxtail and fois gras terrine.

We could have stopped there and it still would have been one of the best meals I've ever had. But what came next exceeded all my expectations for what steak should taste like. First they brought out their famous Black Label burger with carmelized onions and pomme frites. We cut it into five pieces and raved. Then, the piece de resistance: a Dry Aged Cote du Boeuf with roasted marrow bones that they presented to the table whole and then returned with it sliced. And did I mention the tender New York Strip that accompanied that? It was more meat than I've ever seen, much less eaten. I've never tasted beef so melt-in-your-mouth good. They are justly famous for this and it is the way steak should be prepared, cooked, presented and enjoyed. Perfection.

I won't go into the chocolate soufflé or the pistachio gelato or the chocolate, coffee and vanilla pots de cremes.

To say this was one of the better meals of my life would not be an exaggeration. I felt like it was MY birthday! I know my brother enjoyed it too. It's always fun to be on the other side of the house pretending to be a customer in the place where you toil for hours sight unseen. I am so proud of him for being a cook at Minetta and working in a kitchen of that caliber. I met his chef, Riad Nasr, earlier in the day when we ran into him on the street. He seemed too nice to be such a killer chef. But that must be what makes it all so successful: there is so much heart in the food and pride in the place. An all-around superb dining experience.

Whew. I'm too tired and this is too long to go on about the other places that we visited during the day: Babycakes and Orchard 88 coffee, Ninth Street Espresso, The Donut Plant, La Esquina and Prune for lunch. What a culinary tour of delights. After all that, my stomach may need a break, but my heart is still in New York.

September 16, 2009


I'm still in produce surplus mode. Gearing up for a trip to NYC this weekend and knowing I won't be able to use all the beautiful veggies that arrived in my market basket this week and feeling strapped for time. This shining purple eggplant really tugged at my heart strings, though. "Do something with me, please! Don't let me go to the compost heap!"

So I spent a couple of hours in the kitchen yesterday afternoon. The time spent putting up produce for later in the year when we will be needing a burst of summer is time well spent, even if it means that after 3 hours in the kitchen I still have to make dinner. But I have these beauties to look forward to:

Eggplant and peppers in garlic oil. Oh how I look forward to cracking one of these open some cold day in January and spreading it over bruschetta with goat cheese, or layered onto a homemade pizza margherita. Or just offered up alone on a dish as an antipasto for guests.

I have a book called "Preserving the Harvest" that has been my go-to tome for learning about canning and freezing the summer's bounty. I have made strawberry-rhubarb jam, pickled peppers and shallots, and now this. All have been wonderful canning recipes and great ways to use the produce that's lingering around in late summer.

I roasted the sliced, unpeeled eggplant under the broiler for about 20 min. Then I did the same with the peppers until they browned nicely and softened.

The peppers were beautiful to begin with, most of them from our farmer and a few stragglers from our garden. but coming out of the oven with their skins blackened and smelling sweet they were even better. I let them cool in a brown paper bag, then peeled and quartered them.

While they cooled, I heated a cup of olive oil, 3/4 cup of vinegar of any kind, 3 garlic cloves, chopped, and a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Simmer that for about 5 minutes. Then, in 3 clean mason jars, I layered the eggplant and the peppers with large basil leaves in between.

Then I poured the hot garlic oil over each jar until it comes up over the veggies but leaving about an inch of headspace. I did not process these jars because I only made three and will give one away to a neighbor. They will last unopened in the fridge for a while and I don't think we'll be able to wait much longer than that. If I had wanted to store them long-term, I could have processed them in a hot water bath canner for 20 minutes.

On another occasion, I might have made this with my eggplant, like I did a few weeks ago. Melanzane alla parmigiana is one of the best ways I know to eat this late summer veg. I learned mine from Carla the Tuscan cook last Fall and it is particularly cheesy and delicious, a typical Sicilian dish made with several types of cheese, not necessarily parmigiano. I happened to have mozzarella and pecorino on hand and they blended well. The key is using your own homemade tomato sauce and I don't bread or fry the eggplant first. I slice and roast it in the oven on 400 until it's soft and lightly browned. Then, layer the eggplant slices with the tomato sauce and cheeses, add some fresh basil for color, and bake until bubbling and delicious-looking.

September 8, 2009

Too much of a good thing? *

If you're like me, you enjoy using different recipes for the same thing and never making the same dinner twice. I make a different pie crust almost every time I make a pie - which is pretty often. I also always seem to try totally new (and sometimes) challenging things when I've invited people for dinner. So it's never dull in my kitchen.

But sometimes when the summer nears the end and the veggies just keep on coming, I find myself getting tired of always coming up with new ways to use that yellow squash that never stops. This post is about some of the more successful ways I've used the surplus of produce this summer--dishes that I may just have to repeat next year.

1. Squash

yellow squash soup with shrimp, basil and creme fraiche

This soup was light and easy to make. It starts with sautéeing onions and yellow squash with thyme until soft, then adding vegetable broth, puréeing it, and adding a dollop of heavy cream at the end to give it balance. I sautéed the shrimp separately in olive oil and chile flakes just until done and added them to the soup with fresh basil and a drizzle of sour cream or creme fraiche before serving. Super easy and super fresh.

2. Corn

tomato and corn salad

I got tired this summer of eating corn on the cob so I started grilling or boiling it and and adding it to salads and slaws for extra crunch and sweetness. In this particular salad, I cut the corn off first and sautéed it in butter for just a few minutes before adding it to the tomatoes. A revelation. Corn does not have to be boiled! It was the perfect complement to this sausage and pepper sandwich. For another great summer salad recipe with corn, see my "farmer's salad" from an earlier post.

3. Potatoes

tortilla española

This is by far my favorite way to use potatoes in the summer. I learned how to make it while traveling in Spain when the gardener at the house where we stayed would bring potatoes and huge yellow onions in from the garden each day expecting us to know what to do with them. I learned quickly that this is the classic combination of these two ingredients and I never got tired of eating it. It's just a fritatta really, but the key is slicing the onions and the potatoes thinly and frying them first before adding the lightly beaten eggs. If you use a large skillet it can be inverted onto a plate pretty easily and then cut into pie-like wedges. In Spain they serve it cold or room temperature, drizzled with a good olive oil or dolloped with a dill sour cream. Serve alongside a simple green salad for the perfect summer lunch.

4. Peppers

pickled peppers with shallots and thyme

I found this recipe by Molly Wizenberg in bon appetit and loved the sound of it. I had a bunch of different kinds of peppers that made it really colorful. I really got into the canning this year and 'put up' 4 jars of of these peppers as well as a couple of jars of sweet pickles. I haven't tried these peppers yet, but I look forward to opening them up in the middle of winter for a fresh taste of summer veg!

**If you have a garden or joined a CSA this year, what are some of your favorite ways to use extra produce?

* This is my 101st post! (too much of a good thing?)

September 2, 2009

Italian green beans

As much as I love vegetables and enjoy eating seasonally and learning what grows where and when, I don't remember ever thinking this way when I was young. I didn't grow up on or even near a farm and come to think of it, neither did my parents. We just didn't have that context to draw from when thinking about food. But my mother was Italian and her family did preserve many traditions surrounding food that informed her cooking in an interesting way.

For example, these green beans that were one of my favorites. Whether we ate them in winter or summer, they were readily available like most produce. But now that I know they are a staple of late summer, I look forward to preparing them in my own kitchen as soon as I see them in the market. They almost have a Fall-ish taste to me now too. Maybe that is because they combine the produce of late summer--tomatoes and green beans-- and for me, somehow mark the transition from one season to the next.

There are many different varieties of green beans --some of them not even green, but yellow and purple, though they taste exactly the same. I prefer the ones sometimes called 'Italian green beans' or Romano beans --the long, skinny green ones--for this recipe. But I did find out recently that the purple ones turn green when you cook them anyway, so if you have these now in your CSA basket like we do, go ahead and use them for this recipe.

They need to be cooked only briefly so they retain their snap. My mom may have been guilty of cooking some vegetables overly long, as was the style in her day. But these green beans she cooked just perfectly and used just the right amount of chunky tomatoes and onions. She sometimes served them along with Italian sausage and that is what I was trying to emulate in this dinner. I love the way our taste memory can take us back to some earlier time when we enjoyed something in exactly the same way. When I took the first bite of this dish, all of those flavors combined in a way that transported me back to when I was young and first discovered how good a fresh green bean can taste.

Italian green beans

1 lb fresh green beans, washed
3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped, or 1 can whole-peeled
1 yellow onion
green or yellow peppers, chopped (optional)
1 lb sweet or spicy cooked Italian sausage (optional)
1-2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper

Start by sauteeing garlic and onion in olive oil. If adding peppers, add them now and let cook another 5 min. When softened, add the chopped tomatoes and cook for about 5 min.
Add the green beans to the tomatoes and onions and cover skillet with a lid. Let them cook until still al dente and mixed well with the other ingredients, about 7 min.
In another pan or on the grill, heat sausage and brown for a few minutes.

Season green beans with salt and pepper to taste. For a perfect meal, serve with sausage and some good crusty Tuscan bread on the side.

August 24, 2009

my tribute to Julia

I am not a French cook and I don't rely heavily on Julia Child's recipes in my own kitchen. But the 'Julia hype' was all over the blogs, the magazines and the airwaves this month and for good reason. When I got to thinking about how she influenced me just by who she was and what she did, I realized I, too, just had to pay tribute.

After all, she didn't start to learn to cook until she was 37 years old and when I read this in her memoir two years ago, it is one of the things that motivated me to start this blog and devote so many hours to learning and cooking and experimenting over the last two years in my own kitchen. That summer I also read Julie Powell's book, Julie and Julia, and loved it. She seemed like a girl after my own heart.

Julia's birthday was on Aug. 15, coinciding nicely with the release of the new film Julie and Julia, based on these two books. I went to see the movie on the afternoon of its opening day. I took myself as a treat and sat there in the overly-air-conditioned movie theater on a hot summer day, smiling and crying and thoroughly enjoying myself. I loved the scenes shot in Paris in the markets and Meryl Streep's impersonation was almost as good as watching old footage of Julia Child's early TV program, The French Chef. I watched those, too, last week on PBS, experiencing her for the first time in the original format and fell in love with her all over again.

So, I decided since I was having people over for dinner one night last week, why not combine our dinner party with one of Julia's menus for a celebration in her honor. I used the recent bon appetit article from the August issue as my inspiration (with links to those recipes here). Even though I have Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I seem to read it more like a textbook than actually cooking from it. There is something about it that is so technical but also so accessible and I can see why it was such a seminal cookbook that enjoyed 47 editions!

This menu started out with this beautiful, flaky tart, a pissaladière nicoise. It really was a delicious crust and the salty anchovies, black olives and sautéed onions were a classic combination. It was a basic pate brisèe tart crust, but in addition to the butter, there were 2 tablespoons of chilled vegetable shortening--not my usual fare, but it really did make for a flaky and beautiful tart crust.

The main course was poulet sautè aux herbes de Provence. In true Julia form, I bought a whole organic chicken from the market and cut it up into eight pieces myself. I was proud of myself for doing that, as if it were some major accomplishment. But really, growing up in the age of ready-made and plastic-wrapped everything, it makes me feel self-sufficient and somehow cool to be able to save money by buying a nice chicken and cutting it up myself. It came out great. As you can probably guess, the distinguishing factor of this preparation is the use of traditional herbs like thyme, basil and fennel seeds, plus garlic, and sautèeing the chicken pieces in a whole stick of butter. It was delicious, subtle in flavor, moist and had good color due to the browning in butter.

The sauce was a little too French for my tastes, combining egg yolks whisked with wine and lemon juice over low heat while adding the reserved pan juices a little at a time. It tasted and looked heavy to me and I ended up serving it on the side instead of pouring it over the chicken. But everyone loved it.

(photo courtesy bon appetit, because mine didn't look that pretty)

I also made Julia's Ratatouille recipe (above), which involves more steps than the one I usually make, but it was nice and fragrant and more of a stew than usual. I liked it, but it was no big revelation. The season is right for it though, and I just happened to have a large purple eggplant, peppers and tomatoes from the garden and I used yellow squash instead of the zucchini the recipe called for. I don't think it would have made a big difference.

I served a simple green salad with vinaigrette and a basket of crusty French bread on the side. We drank a lovely French chardonnay and I served a sample of locally made artisan chocolate from the new Olive and Sinclair chocolate company for dessert.

It was a simple and fun meal, one that I am not likely to make again soon, but a fitting tribute to a woman who certainly inspired me and who, almost fifty years later, continues to inspire so many cooks around the world. Thank you, Julia!