Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pesto Perfect!

There are fewer things that say summer so quintessentially to me than pesto. Always a seasonal favorite of mine, my mother always served pesto pasta to us kids while we were growing up.  For many years that basil that starred as the main ingredient often came straight from our backyard.  I remember the massive basil plants my mother used to keep that lined the trim of the backyard, growing along our fence, she always encouraging me to pick their flowers.  As the nutrients in our sandy soil eventually became depleted my mother gave up on growing her fresh basil instead opting to purchase it at many of the local fruit markets.  But she still made pasta pesto EVERY year and would even freeze her pesto in quart sized zip lock bags so that she could chip off the perfect amount for pasta dishes throughout the fall and sometimes into winter.  So when the time came for me to move out into my own place I found myself missing her amazing pesto and wanting to make my own.  My mother makes her pesto ONLY with pine nuts/pignoli, which is quite expensive.  So, when I was living in Brooklyn my mother would frequently ask me to stop at some of the Islamic grocery stores down on Atlantic Avenue where I would buy the pine nuts in bulk at a fraction of the price the Italian specialty shops were selling it for here in Staten Island.   Since then I’ve experimented with other kinds of nuts in my pesto and the results were quite good.  Walnut pesto & almond pesto hold up extremely well with a similar flavor result & are a less expensive option than pine nuts, which in some parts of the country are only available in small 8oz jars, shelf life unknown.  

While my mom stuck to her standard basil/garlic/olive oil/parmesan pesto recipes I experimented with other ingredients.  One of my favorites that I go to – is a sundried tomato version.   The warmth & sweetness of the sundried tomatoes are a perfect compliment to the basil and it is truly versatile for other uses.  Freeze this pesto like my mom did in zip lock bags or use ice cube trays for single servings (but be warned, if using plastic the garlic flavor WILL absorb and you will NEVER be rid of it).  I love this pesto tossed with pasta or mixed with vinegar for light salad dressing or even mixed with softened butter, creating a compound that is delicious spread on a crusty French baguette by itself or as part of sandwich.  Also delicious tossed with steamed green beans and a bit of lemon juice or mixed into the mayonnaise of a good red potato salad.  I recently served this mixed with a bit more olive oil and drizzled over goat’s cheese and an assortment of crackers- people were INTO IT.  The pesto possibilities are endless and I’m a big fan! I suggest you give it a shot! This is another beautiful no-heat necessary recipe & perfect if you might be embracing the whole “meatless Monday” movement.

Yields About 2 Cups of Pesto

½ Cup of oil-packed sun dried tomatoes
½ Cup of walnuts, pine nuts or almonds (your choice)
3 Cups of fresh basil
3 Garlic cloves
½ Cup of olive oil
½ Teaspoon of Salt
½ Cup of grated fresh Pecorino Romano
¼ Teaspoon of pepper

Toss all ingredients except the oil into your food processor and pulse the motor until coarsely chopped. Stream in or add the oil a little at a time until all combined- you may need to scrap down the sides of the processor and continue mixing. That’s ALL it takes! 

For the vinaigrette add about two tablespoons of white wine vinegar to about a quarter cup of pesto.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Käse, Queso, Fromage & Formaggio

However you Say It, Cheese = Delicious

Cheese, to me it’s one of the finer aspects of life.  On it’s own, part of platter, sprinkled on a dish or showcased as one of the main ingredients, OR perhaps when it is the main ingredient- it enhances, stands alone (as the cheese often does) and adds to anything it comes in contact with. Okay, I can clearly wax poetic and extol cheese ad nauseam!  So, if you, like me have established that cheese is awesome and you want to learn more, below is a brief overview of some things that could possibly take your cheese consumption to the next level.  Things CAN get a little bit complicated when you get into origin of the animal from which the milk comes, country of origin, aging, etc., so take it slow, take home some cheese to try from the supermarket every now and then, experiment, taste, try & educate yourself.  Generally, cheeses are separated into the following categories:  fresh, bloomy, washed rind, semisoft, firm, hard & blue. Think about these descriptives as they apply to the texture and not the cheesemaking process itself. 

  • Fresh- young, tart, smooth, lemony, creamy, no rind (goat cheese or mozzarella)
  • Bloomy- the name refers to the blooming rind.  Buttery, decadent, fluffy, rich, mild to mushroomy in flavor with an edible rind (Brie, Camembert)
  • Washed Rind- cheeses that are washed during the aging process in a brine, which can be a traditional salt brine or can be beer, wine or other spirits. These can be stinky, meaty, intense and aromatic with a bright pink or orange edible rind (French epoisses which is VERY stinky, Taleggio)
  • Semi-Soft- Early, pliable, think of hay, wet straw, leaves and melting (Fontina is a good example)
  • Firm- Dense but supple, fruited, sharp, has a natural rind that is not typically eaten (cheddar, gruyere, manchego)
  • Hard- Think about those GIANT aged wheels of cheese, that are dry, caramel-ish (Parmigiano Reggiano, Aged Gouda)
  • Blue- Easy right? Moldy,veiny, with craters that are complex & smelly (Blue, Stilton, Roquefort)   

When you try some of the above cheeses, the best option is to start with small pieces.  Don’t wrap your cheese in plastic! Cheese is a living, breathing organism and needs oxygen! Without it your washed rind cheeses will go bad and your Parmigian-Reggiano will dry out, so try wrapping these bad boys in a layer of wax paper and THEN wrapping in plastic. Try not to forget about your cheeses- we all know of that mystery foil wrapped thing in your fridge, chances are that’s a cheese you might have forgotten about. 

NOW, how do I put together the perfect cheese platter for my very adult cheese and wine gathering? Good question.  Pick one to two cheeses from each group from the above listed categories, serve at room temperature, cut the portions when the cheese is JUST out of the fridge (easier), arrange your cheeses from mildest to strongest and figure that each guest is going to eat 3-5 pieces.  Serve cheeses alongside appropriate food accompaniments, below are some examples.

·                                              Fresh
o   Goat cheeses are great with a drizzle of honey or a drizzle of chopped fresh herbs in olive oil
o   Ricotta- lovely with fresh fruits (think dessert) like berries and apricots
o   Mozzarella- obviously good with olive oil, basil and tomato

·                                              Bloomy
Grapes or a nice baguette to spread that cheese on! Think mild to 
offset the thick nature of the cheese

·                                             Washed Rind
Again, since many of these are stinky and spreadable a nice bread 
accompaniment is ideal- a raisin bread or a rye

·                                              Semi-soft
Since the cheese is creamy and woodsy, fruity acidic parings like 
cranberries, figs and dried cherries are good

·                                               Firm
o   Cheddar- apples and chutneys are great
o   Manchego- almonds, mustards & olives (Spanish pairings, duh)
o   Gruyere- ham and crusty bread (the ingredients in a Croque Monsieur)

·                                              Hard
Prosciutto is the classic for some of these guys and also arugula and 
balsamic to offset the earthy, nutty flavor

·                                              Blue
                        Think sweet pairings to offset the strong aspect of this cheese like 
                        dates pears and walnuts (yum!)

So, you think you got that? Pretty cut and dry, right?  Where did the above information come from? A few years ago this cheese expert appeared on the Martha Stewart Show, her name was Liz Thorpe and she’s second in command at the famed Murray’s Cheese in NYC, which is a legendary cheese store that supplies cheese to numerous restaurants throughout the city and operates a retail cheese store on Bleecker Street.  Murray’s (now in its second location) was founded by a Spanish Civil War Veteran named Murray Greenberg who relocated to NYC and opened his wholesale cheese and butter store in 1940. Back then the store was on Cornelia Street- since then it has changed owners a few times and changed locations, but the passion, quality and variety is 100% there. So, after I saw Liz Thorpe appear on Martha, I went out and purchased her books and a Murray’s Cheese Handbook. Liz is really hardcore, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend her books to beginners, instead opt for the Handbook if you want to learn the basics.  Murray’s offers a variety of cheese classes from basics (Cheese 101) to more in-depth regional specifics (Cheeses of England). If you are in the tri-state New York area, I highly recommend you take a class

I opted for the Murray’s cheese tasting and cave tour, which was fantastic. Murray’s receives their cheeses from various producers and continues the aging process in their specially built underground caves.  I know, caves sound exciting right?  Stalactites and dampness, but not really- they are carefully created rooms with controlled temperatures, and ventilation each varied for the specific cheeses housed within.  We scrubbed up, put our hairnets on and went inside THE CAVES.  Some caves were really cold, some very mild and two extremely stinky, smelling of ammonia from the aging process of those bloomy and washed rind cheeses described above. Some cheeses looked normal and some looked like they were scraped up from the tire of a sanitation truck. Regardless of appearance its safe to say I wanted to try them ALL!  Below are some highlights from the tour, NAME that cheese! Okay, I’ll do it for you!

This one below reminds me of Young Frankenstein when Igor is tasked to find the right brain and they are all labeled, he takes the "Aby-Normal" brain. 

Castelmagno (D.O.P)- Sometimes considered the real "King of Italian Cheese", has a recorded history dating back to 1277! This semi-soft cheese has a pleasantly milky taste with older aged varieties tasting having a more sharp mushroom flavor. The D.O.P refers to a controlled designation of origin, in this case from Italy "Denominazione di Origine Protteta"

Epoisses de Bourgogne (A.O.C)- This washed rind stinky cheese from France is said to have been banned from public transportation in France due to its smell! Dating back to the 16th Century, this little guy is salty and runny & good to spread on crusty bread. We really enjoyed this one, but beware, it is expensive!

Pecorino Foglie De Noce & Pecorino Ginepro (Firm Italian Cheeses)- The Pecorino De Noce (of Night) has a distinct black rind that sometimes comes with walnut leaves adhered to it. The flavor of the mature variety is that of walnut and pepper with a flaky texture. The Pecorino Ginepro are submerged in an aromatic bath of balsamic vinegar and juniper berries to age for four months. Being a goat's milk cheese, it has a sweetness paired with a mellow, wooly taste.

Fluer Du Maquis- Looks funky right? This semi-soft goat's milk cheese from France is named after the  wild flowers that grow in Corsica. The rind is crusted with herbs like rosemary and sariette that develops into a furry mass that believe it or not is STILL edible!  Tastes like sunny herbs that are salty and a bit sour. 

Caciocavallo Silano- This firm, Italian cow's milk cheese is known for its gourd shaped balls- is named for its method of aging where the pair of cheeses are tied together with a rope and strung over a beam as if astride a horse (cacio- cheese, cavallo- horse).  This cheese is typically pulled like a mozzarella
and ages to a salty finish similar to a provolone.

So, hopefully this is enough cheese porn to get you excited about trying some new cheeses! Thanks to Murray's for the excellent tour and their resource guides for which much of the above info was taken.  Go CHEESE!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No Heat Meals for Hot Times in The City

So, just as quickly as winter ended here in New York City, summer welcomed itself!  Rolling in during Memorial Day weekend, the season made it’s debut suddenly and without the luxury of a slow, lovely spring to transition us to the heat.  No time for “light jackets” or a few extra weeks to melt off those winter layers- just ninety something degree heat, immediately.  Temperatures are predicted to reach 97 degrees tomorrow in the tri-state area, possibly making this day the hottest temperature to be recorded so early in the summer season.   Keeping this in mind, I think it’s a good idea to consider some dinner options that a) require minimal effort, b) require minimal amounts of heat and c) require minimal amounts of space in your belly or at least, don’t have you reaching for your elastic waist sweatpants!   This week’s featured recipe doesn’t make you feel guilty after eating it, yet is delicious and satisfying.  This cold peanut soba noodles combines some ingredients I love like edamame, peanut butter and buckwheat noodles.  Who doesn’t like peanut butter and who doesn’t like eating those lovely, lightly salted edamame soybeans when you go out for sushi? 
This recipe combines several ingredients you would typically find in Asian dishes like a good soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, ginger and the good old standby hot sauce favorite, Sriracha! 

If you haven’t been to a good Asian grocer, I definitely recommend that you make the trip to one.  We have a HUGE Asian grocer here on South Avenue in Staten Island called Asian Food Markets that is phenomenal.  A full aisle devoted to soy sauce, tea & noodles, amazing produce that is cheap and fresh & yummy frozen items like mango ice cream, red bean ice pops, green tea mochi which I can’t resist purchasing.  When I hit this particular grocer, I load up on many things but ALWAYS end up with some baby bok choy, fresh ginger ($1.35 for OVER a pound of ginger, which I freeze), Japanese eggplant (perfect for stir fry), lemongrass and sprouts WHICH are really cheap there.  The shopping experience there CAN be a little intimidating since most items are not in English, but take your time, do a few laps around the supermarket and acquaint yourself with where things are.  Try something new out & don’t be afraid. Take it home and do a little experimenting, you won’t be sorry!

So, here’s the recipe! One other thing I love about this is that it calls for rotisserie chicken, a favorite weekday cheat item, which you can pick up ready-made at ANY supermarket for about $5.99. This recipe only uses a cup of shredded chicken, so save the rest and serve up some quick Mexican chicken tacos later in the week. Eat twice from ONE store-bought bird! How easy is that?

Cold Peanut Soba Noodles with Chicken
Serves 4

12 Ounces of Soba Noodles (buckwheat)
1 Cup of Frozen Shelled Edamame
½ Cup of Smooth Peanut Butter
2 Tablespoons of Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon of Soy Sauce
2 Teaspoons of Grated Ginger
1 Teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 Teaspoon of Sriracha Hot Sauce (less if you are heat sensitive)
1 Cup of Shredded Rotisserie Chicken
1 Cup of Diced Cucumber (I use seedless English)
½ Cup of Chopped Scallions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the soba noodles and edamame and cook as the noodle label directs (which is usually 2-3 minutes!) Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, drain the noodles and run under cold water to cool.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and Sriracha. Add ONLY ½ cup of the reserved cooking water and continue whisking until smooth.  Add the noodles and edamame, toss to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.  If the peanut sauce is too thick, add a bit of the reserved cooking liquid to loosen, if needed.  Divide amongst serving bowls and top with the chicken, cucumber and scallions. ENJOY!