Thursday, January 27, 2011

Build a Better Focaccia

I’ve started to notice a pattern whenever my boyfriend comes back from visiting his family during the holidays. He tends to come back with a variety of frozen foods in a selection of motley castoff Tupperware, an assortment of leftovers in quart sized zip lock bags (for Christmas he had half a dozen salad ingredients all individually bagged?) and he ALWAYS comes back with a store bought focaccia.   The store bought focaccia is usually shaped like a mini pizza and will have a variety of grilled vegetables like onions and peppers. I don’t mind the store bought focaccia, it’s actually NOT bad, however I do usually find myself loading it up with extras like parmesan cheese, garlic salt & red pepper flakes, just to kick the flavor up a little.  So, it had me thinking a little- what do I like about the focaccia?  The grilled/sautéed onions.  What do DISlike about the store bought focaccia? A noticeable absence of cheese and spices.  So randomly one day, while we were snowed in I asked, “do you want me to make focaccia?” The answer was a resounding “YES” so I got to making the focaccia. 

Here in Staten Island we are fortunate to have many Italian specialty food shops the majority of which sell ready made pizza dough packaged in bags for 99 cents each. Since I have no intention of messing with yeast or the process of resting the dough, etc., I just purchase the 99-cent dough. I usually buy a few at a time and freeze them.  I like to get whole wheat, so I can feel slightly better about myself.  They are great for homemade pizza and offer a quick alternative if you don’t feel like getting so labor intense with your meal preparation.  The result of my “Build a Better Focaccia” experiment turned out REALLY great.  This onion focaccia was delicious, satisfying, not too heavy and had just the right amount of cheese and spices. Give it a shot!

I’m also going to quickly post a little onion cutting tutorial from our friend Gordon Ramsey.  This video has changed my life when it comes to dicing and slicing onions.  No more tears, no more inconsistently sized pieces. You always want a consistent size when dicing so that everything cooks evenly!  I promise this video contains no profanity. Thanks Gordon!

 A Better Onion Focaccia

  •        3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  •        2 packages of store bought pizza dough (whole wheat or regular based on preference) I used the whole wheat for this
  •        2 medium red onions, sliced thinly
  •        A splash of cider vinegar
  •         ½ cup Parmesan cheese
  •        ½ cup of feta cheese
  •        Sprinkle of red pepper flakes to your taste
  •    Sprinkle of oregano to taste

Preheat oven to 425°, coat a baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  I’m not going to give you a dimension for your sheet- just make sure your rolled out dough fits on there! Stretch the dough to fit onto your sheet.  If you have issues with the dough springing back after you stretch it, I would recommend that you let the dough rest for about 15-20 minutes and try again! Stretch the dough out into a rectangle shape and drizzle the edges with olive oil or brush the olive oil on. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to sit while you prepare your onion topping.

In a skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil (eyeball it- it should be enough that your onions are coated and do not stick to your pan). Over medium high heat add onions, seasoning with salt and pepper.  Cook the onions, stirring frequently until they start to caramelize 10-12 minutes. Add your splash of cider vinegar and scrape up all the good brown bits from your pan using a wooden spoon. Cook another 1-2 minutes.

Grab your dough. Take your finger and poke indentations all over the dough- essentially creating wells. Top with the Parmesan cheese, onions, red pepper flakes & oregano. Bake until brown around the edges 25-35 minutes.  Sprinkle some feta on it once it comes out of the oven.  Cool for a few minutes, cut and enjoy!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Best Mac & Cheese I’ve EVER Had

The other day I had a really bad day at work. You know the type of day I’m talking about, you are annoyed, stressed, tired and generally feeling a little mentally beat up.  It was also a REALLY ugly day here in New York City weather wise- sleeting, snowing, raining, cold and gross.  I was heading home NOT planning on cooking dinner and relying on leftovers instead when I started thinking “I kind of want something EXTRA delicious today”, because it’s been such a crap day. Then I started thinking about the things I had in my fridge—cheese: Parmesan, Cheddar, and Gruyere. Milk, butter, heavy cream, yes, yes, yes! Bacon, pssh, of COURSE! So I decided to make the best Mac & Cheese I’ve ever had in my life.

The process of making a basic béchamel sauce is definitely something you need to master and add to your repertoire. This adds a really rich, creamy element to your dishes. The key is to not burn your roux AND heat the milk prior so that your result is creamy and smooth. Think about using a homemade béchamel the next time your recipe might call for a “cream of” whatever. I’m not a casserole type of gal, but if you are, consider a nice at-home version as opposed to something that might come out of the can.

I’m going to add that for whatever reason making a béchamel is kind of a therapeutic and sensual experience. It’s definitely all the whisking and creamy cheese that is involved. Who doesn’t love a saucepan full of what is essentially ooey, gooey cheese?

This recipe was SO satisfying and delicious. It’s definitely a decadent, stick to your ribs type of dish, so maybe reserve it only for your worst of days.  When my boyfriend grabbed his bowl, he put it down for two seconds and our scavenger cat RAN to the bowl with a speed I’ve never seen before and quickly grabbed a piece of bacon off of the top! The bastard. He knows a good thing when he smells it! I can honestly say that this Mac N Cheese holds up to many of the gourmet versions I’ve had at the fancy pants restaurants in Manhattan. I’m thinking next time I may play with a little truffle oil in the recipe, NOW THAT’S an idea!

The perfect beverage accompaniment in my opinion was a sweet tea vodka. Whenever I make something that is mildly reminiscent of a Southern dish, say Chicken fried steak or Buttermilk fried chicken, I reach for this drink. My best friend introduced me to Sweet Tea Vodka a few years ago down in Charleston, SC. The brand that comes out of there is Firefly, which I love. It wasn’t available up North near me until about a year and a half ago. You serve it with a little bit of water and a sprig of mint and it’s fantastic! It also comes in flavored varieties like Peach and Raspberry, which are also equally as nice.

The Best Ever Mac N' Cheese 

• 1 pound dry pasta (recommended: elbow macaroni, shells, penne, etc.)
• 1 teaspoon dry mustard, or to taste
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
• 2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
• 1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
• 1 cup, plus 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 cup milk
• 1/4 cup heavy cream
• 1 1/2 cups Panko bread crumbs
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 6 slices bacon, cooked, reserve 1/4 cup rendered bacon fat

• 1/4 cup unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup flour
• 3 cups hot whole milk
• 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In skillet, cook the bacon until crispy and golden brown. Remove the cooked bacon from the skillet, reserving 3 tablespoons rendered bacon fat.

Make the béchamel sauce:
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or an oven-safe skillet. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, avoid browning, about 2 minutes.  (You can also opt to make your roux with the bacon fat you have left over after cooking the bacon AND reserving a bit for the breadcrumbs). The texture that you are looking for is one of almost a clumping sand. I know that sounds disgusting, but this is how you know you are doing it right!

Add the hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring the sauce to a boil. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper, to taste. Reduce the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from the heat.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until nearing al dente, but not fully cooked; drain.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Over low heat, stir the dry mustard and cayenne pepper into the béchamel sauce. Gradually add the Cheddar, Gruyere, and 1 cup Parmesan cheese, stirring constantly until all of the cheese has melted into the béchamel sauce. Add an additional cup of milk and cream. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.

Transfer pasta and béchamel to an oven safe casserole dish and stir to coat evenly with the sauce. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, chopped parsley, and reserved bacon fat. Coat the bread crumbs and chopped parsley with bacon fat and sprinkle the mixture over the top of the macaroni. Sprinkle the top with 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.

Bake until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Top with crumbled cooked bacon. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

HomeGoods, My Retail Food/Drug of Choice

This past Monday, the final day of my vacation I decided to do a little shopping, which I always happen to find more enjoyable the less people there are around.

My retail drug of choice happens to be Home Goods. As someone who loves to cook, entertain and style her home, Home Goods is the retail equivalent of Mecca. I constantly find jewels there at low, low prices, which makes me feel less guilty about my spending habits, but I digress.

So, a few months ago, I had noticed that Home Goods AND TJ Maxx had received pretty huge shipments of Le Creuset cookware. They had a selection of French Ovens, Buffet Casseroles, Skillets, Teapots, Sauce pans and Ramekins- pretty much everything, ranging in price from $12 for a set of four ramekins to $250 for the larger 30 cm and 32 cm French Ovens. I’ve been periodically stalking these stores, waiting for a price drop. The prices were already good, but I still couldn’t bring myself to spend $200 on a French Oven. Needless to say, my stalking paid off, on Monday, there was the blue 25 cm French Oven I had been eyeing, priced down to $75! I snatched it up and searched the shelves for other items.

Unfortunately I grabbed the last piece that didn’t have chipped enamel! (this didn’t stop people from buying them as the woman behind me on line had the matching teapot!) With my new French Oven, I also treated myself to a much needed apron. Home Goods had a huge selection of vintage patterned aprons near the tea towels priced at $9.99 so I grabbed the most plain & ruffle free version which was white with a cool multi-colored atomic symbol like design pattern and set off to pay.  The line was massive and Home Goods has perfected the art of marketing towards the impulse purchase buyers. Instead of gum and candy, the checkout aisle is littered with kitchen tools, cookbooks and other assorted home knick knacks—these people know what they are doing! So I added to my purchases, a Casa Bella Microfiber Salad Bag for $3.99 and a cookbook: Feeling Saucy: Sensational Homemade Sauces to Stir Your Senses. I left feeling pretty pleased about my purchases and eager to get that French Oven going! If you’ve never been to a Home Goods store (BLASPHEMY!) and you are a food and cooking enthusiast, I suggest you get your ass there ASAP, and then tell me you don’t become immediately addicted. Le Creuset cooking experience soon to come!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Christmas Eve in a Spanish Home

This past holiday season, I spent Christmas and Christmas Eve with my immediate family in Staten Island.  It was very low key and relaxing and I got to spend some time with my mother bonding over food and cooking together.  My mother happens to be a cooking dynamo and all around Renaissance woman wrapped up in 5’1 package! The woman is seriously inspiring. I remember being a child and often coming home to a house with reupholstered furniture, new curtains and new hand embroidered table clothes & a smell emanating from the kitchen that was usually a combination of sofrito or marinara sauce & garlic! They truly don’t make women like her anymore and as an adult my appreciation & respect for her grows everyday.

So, with lots of preplanning and chatting prior, my mom and I decided we were going to make a traditional Spanish Catalan dish, Zarzuela de Mariscos for Christmas Eve. Zarzuela de Mariscos is a fish stew which as the name suggests, incorporates lots of fish, namely- clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp, scallops. (We left out squid, which is sometimes also included, but we were making Calamares Rellenos en su tinta for Christmas- TOO MUCH squid!)  We cooked ours in a traditional paella casserole dish, but any similar pot will work!

Serves 6

1 ½ pounds of live lobster
12 large shrimp
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup of finely chopped onions
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 small red or green peppers, seeds removed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons of finely chopped Serrano or prosciutto ham
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
½ cup blanched almonds, pulverized (you can use a food processor or old school mortar & pestle)
1 large bay leaf, crumbled
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron or ground some saffron strands
1 teaspoon of salt
Pepper to taste
2 cups of water
½ cup of white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
12 mussels, washed & scrubbed
12 clams, washed & scrubbed
½ pound scallops, cut in half

Cleaning the lobster
This is probably the most labor intensive portion of this dish, if you are squeamish about using live lobsters, you can opt to purchase only the tails from your fish guy.

With a cleaver or large knife, chop of the tail section of the lobster at the point where it joins the body. Twist off the claws.  Cut the main body section of the lobster lengthwise in half. Here you need to remove some of the icky parts that you don’t want to cook with- remove the stomach, this should look like a gelatinous sack in the head and the long white intestinal vein that is attached to it. LEAVE the roe and you can leave the liver which is a greenish brown color.

Shell the shrimp, but leave the tail attached. It’s helpful if you buy already deveined clean shrimp. If your shrimp have the vein, it’s pretty easy to remove, with a paring knife make a shallow incision down the back along the vein- just lift the vein out, should come out easy. Do this under cold water so you can rinse the shrimp as you devein. Set the lobster and shrimp aside.

In a heave 6-8 quart casserole dish heat the olive oil under moderate heat until a light haze forms above it.  Add the onions, garlic and red or green peppers and stirring frequently, cook for 5 minutes or until all are soft but NOT brown.

Stir in the ham and cook for a minute or two.  Add the tomatoes, pulverized almonds (this is a thickening method Spaniards like to use), bay leaf, saffron, salt and some pepper to taste. Raise the heat to a boil.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the liquid cooks down and thickens. 

Add the water, wine and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Stir thoroughly and add the lobster, mussels and clams. Cover the casserole, reduce the heat and continue to cook for ten minutes. Add the shrimp, scallops and continue cooking for another 5-8 minutes. Make sure to throw out any clams or mussels that have not opened!

Taste the zarzuela for seasoning and serve straight out of the casserole dish. You can also sprinkle it with a bit of chopped parsley.