28 February 2010

A date with destiny

Rows of gorgeous produce on display at Tri-County Produce Co. thrilled me beyond words this afternoon.  I was captivated not only by the cool fragrance of fresh vegetables and hints of soil, but by the abundance and visual feast of colors as well.  I started loading up my basket with abandon, but I was especially drawn to the bunches of the red-stemmed, leafy-green Swiss chard.

Something came into focus when a grabbed a bunch of that Swiss chard.  I knew that chard was destined for me, and that I would be relishing it soon.  Time stood still, and then in one continuous rush I had the chard in the basket and I was checking out at the cashier.  Before I knew it, I had driven home (sunroof open, eye on the chard making sure it was shaded), had washed and chopped the chard, and was steam-sauteeing it with some garlic, olive oil, and sea salt.  That was all it needed.  Or should I say, all I needed.  And was it amazing.  When then chard hit the hot pot, a totally unexpected nutty aroma was released, and then with time the minced garlic took on a burnished hue and the chard gently wilted, the flavors melding together.

I have to tell you I ate that whole bunch of chard right then and there, one luscious forkful after another.  I told you it was destiny.

1 bunch Swiss chard, washed, roughly chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs. olive oil
Sea salt, to taste

Heat olive oil and garlic in a large pot over medium-high heat.  When garlic begins to sizzle, add chopped chard (with water still clinging to leaves) and toss to coat with oil and garlic bits.  Cover pot and let steam, occasionally removing lid to stir chard.  When chard stems are tender (and leaves are still retaining a bright color), remove lid and let the moisture cook off.  Sprinkle with sea salt and enjoy!

It did occur to me that this would also be great tossed together with some nice al dente spaghetti for a super-easy meal.  Or not.  It's so good on its own that it might not last long enough to find its way to the spaghetti!

23 February 2010

Fresh for the first time

I have a confession to make: I just made fresh pasta for the first time.  Yes, you are understanding me correctly.  I have never made pasta from scratch before.

With my passion for cooking and my Italian roots, you might be astonished that it's taken me so long to break into the Realm of Fresh Noodles.  I, for one, certainly am!  What's worse is that I've definitely participated in conversations about the glories of luscious fresh pasta and how making your own is really the thing to do, all the while guiltily hoping it wouldn't come out that...gasp...I'd never done it before.  But today I decided to take the plunge and face the unknown, pasta maker or no.
My decision was bolstered, in large part, by a hunger for something tender and fresh for dinner, something that would mirror the spring weather that is bursting forth in Santa Barbara.  Yes, there are seasons in Santa Barbara, and with the recent warm weather and gentle rain showers we've been having, spring is in the air.  In Italy, eggs, fresh greens, sweet yeast breads, and tender beans are the foods of spring.  These inspired me to start thinking of delicately poached eggs, basil pesto, edamame, and garden-picked parsley; and some fresh fettucine would be just the thing to bring it all together!

As the aromas of garlic and basil started filling the air, my mom started gushing about how this was just the kind of food her Grandma Mary used to make.  Mary was the third wife of my Great-grandfather Domenico (the family tree is a little complicated), and she was the "northern Italian" in the family.  While most of my Italian relatives came from the Napoli region, Grandma Mary was from Carrara, and her cooking included things like homemade pesto and pasta.

Well, this is not Grandma Mary's pesto, even if it looks and smells like it!  Instead of using the traditional pine nuts, I decided to use edamame.  The soybeans provide their own lightly nutty flavor, the idea of green-on-green was alluring, and I was in the mood for something a little more light-hearted than the pesto recipe of tradition.  But my sauce doesn't stop with just the pesto.  Wouldn't it be so much more delightful if I topped this with a poached egg that, when cut into, would release a creamy sauce of golden joy over the pesto-coated noodles?  And why not add some salty bits of crispy pancetta, and complete this homage to pasta carbonara?

Fettucine with Basil-Edamame Pesto, Poached Eggs, and Pancetta
Serves 4

For the pesto:
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. olive oil
4 oz. fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup shelled edamame beans
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

For the pasta:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out
1/2 tsp. salt
3 large eggs
(or use 3/4 lb. dried fettucine, if you don't have time to make your own pasta)

4 oz. diced pancetta
4 large eggs
handful of fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped

To make the pesto, place garlic and olive oil in a small pan and warm over medium-low heat.  As the mixture warms, smash garlic with the back of a spoon to help release more flavor.  Remove from heat and let cool.  Place the basil and salt in the bowl of a large food processor and drizzle olive and garlic over.  Pulse until smooth, then add edamame beans and pulse until beans are roughly chopped.  Transfer pesto to a bowl and stir in grated cheese and freshly-ground black pepper.  (Can be made ahead; cover and chill until ready to use.  Bring to room temperature before adding to pasta.)

To make the pasta, place flour, salt, and eggs in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well blended and dough starts to hold together.  Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead for about five minutes.  Divide dough into thirds and shape into balls.
Cover with plastic wrap, to prevent the pasta dough from drying out, and let rest (this allows the gluten, which was developed during kneading, to relax--which will make rolling the dough out much easier!).  Roll out the dough as thin as possible (the pasta will plump up during cooking), then slice into strips using a pizza cutter.  Separate pasta strands to prevent them from sticking.  This part took me longer than I thought it would.  I think a pasta machine would not be a bad thing, though getting to exercise my rock-climbing muscles wasn't a bad thing either!

Once the pesto and the pasta have been prepared, set a large pot of salted water to boil (for the pasta) and saute the pancetta in another pan, over medium heat, until crispy.  Transfer pancetta to paper toweling to drain fat.  While pancetta cooks, poach each of the four eggs in a small pot of gently boiling water.

Here are a few tips that I use for great poached eggs:  Crack the egg into a small bowl first (not directly into the water).  This will make it easier to keep the yolk and white together when transferring it into the water.  Next, you have to decide if you want a smooth, compactly poached egg, or a poached egg with a feathery edge to it.  If you want the egg white to come out smooth, create a vortex in the water by swirling a spoon in the water and then lower the egg into the vortex.  (Some of the loose egg white will be dispersed by the moving water, but the rest of the white will be wrapped around the yolk with a smooth finish.)  If you want to keep more of the white intact and don't mind a ragged edge to your egg whites, you can simply slip them into the gently boiling water without creating a vortex.  The egg might settle onto the bottom of the pot, but after it's had a chance to cook up a bit, gently check with a spoon that it is not sticking to the bottom.  Let eggs cook for 3 minutes, then transfer to a warm plate and keep covered.

When the pasta water comes to a full boil, add the fettucine and stir to ensure that the strands are submerged and not stuck together.  Let cook for about 5 minutes, until al dente, then transfer to a large warm bowl and toss with the pesto sauce, adding pasta cooking water as needed to loosen the sauce.  Divide pasta among warm dishes, topping each with a poached egg, crispy pancetta, and a sprinkling of parsley.  Now you can serve it up and let your adoring guests take over for the final step.

I think this is the fun part: cut open the egg and let all the gooey, yummy yolk spill over your pasta, add on a dash of salt, and you've got one fantastic sauce!  Mangia mangia!


Yummm, isn't that yolk gorgeous?!

15 February 2010

Chicken alla Pizzaiola

Today was a close one...I had some chicken tenders and cooking orders to make something "substantial" for my hungry family.  With these petite strips of white chicken meat and only 30 minutes in which to cook dinner, my mind went bouncing around without really hitting on any idea except "pizzaiola."  The pressure was on!  Geez, you think the Iron Chef battles could be more intimidating?

Chicken alla pizzaiola captured my imagination tonight, and I decided to run with it.  Pizzaiola is a technique in which whatever it is that you're cooking gets topped with a tomato sauce (seasoned with oregano) and then is finished off in the oven, like a pizza.  I started dreaming of a gorgeous, red, savory sauce clinging to pan-cooked chicken under a bubbling layer of golden brown cheese....

Since I was in a hurry, I didn't get a chance to make careful note of my measurements (in fact, I didn't measure at all!), but I do so want to share this great dish with you.  Hence, today's recipe is coming in a slightly different form: as a play-by-play, if you will.  Hopefully this rough sketch will be just the right inspiration to get your creative juices flowing!

First, I heated up some olive oil in a medium-sized pot on medium-high heat, then added two cloves of minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, and a teaspoon each of dried oregano and dried basil.  As the oil heated up, the garlic started sizzling, and I used the back of a spoon to mash the warm garlic into the oil.  It started to smell reeeally good in the kitchen, let me tell you.  Before the garlic started to take on any color, I added 2 cups of tomato puree and stirred the garlic and herbs in.  As soon as the sauce started bubbling, I lowered the heat and let it continue to simmer so that the flavors could meld a little bit.  (Remember, I only had about 30 minutes, so unfortunately the flavor couldn't develop as much as would have wanted, but at least it was better than nothing!)  At this point, I started heating up my oven broiler and started a pot of water boiling on the back of the stove.  (When you're tight on time, you gotta think ahead to the next step!)

I next turned my attention to those chicken tenders.  I don't know about you, but every time I see or hear of chicken tenders, I think of restaurant kiddie menus pandering to the idea that kids shouldn't try exciting new foods....  I also start wondering, who separates all those tenders from the backs of the chicken breasts?!  But anyway, there were the chicken tenders and I had to do something with them.

I sprinkled each side with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, then dredged them in all-purpose flour, shaking off the excess.  These I placed right into a hot pan coated with vegetable oil (which has a higher smoking point than olive oil, and is therefore better suited to pan-frying) and cooked them until done through and golden brown on the outside, turning several times.  When they finished cooking, I placed them in a shallow ceramic baking dish, adjusted the seasoning of the red sauce with salt and pepper, and then poured 2/3 of the sauce over them, making sure each piece of chicken was completely covered by the sauce.

To stay on track with dinner, I salted the (now boiling) pasta water and tossed in some linguine, which, according to my package, needed only 7 minutes to cook.  While it cooked, I sprinkled grated mozzarella and Parmigiano cheese evenly over the sauce-covered chicken, then popped it under the broiler until the cheese was melted, bubbling, and golden brown.  Oh, what a gorgeous cheesey crust that was on top!

When the pasta had finished cooking, I tossed it in with the remaining sauce coat and then divided it among heated bowls.  Fending off a ravenous, clamoring self and equally ravenous parents, I topped the linguine with the pizzaiola-style chicken and a pretty sprinkling of finely-chopped fresh Italian parsley.  Dinner was served!  And we ate!  And it was good.

06 February 2010

Crusty Artisan Wheat Bread

I have been in the mood for some good bread lately.  But I've been somewhat perplexed, a little at a loss, because as much as I know I'd love to sink my teeth into some warm-from-the-oven bread, I simply can't figure out what kind I am craving!  Last night I started dreaming through a bunch of options: from sweet brioche to salty rolls, from dark rye loaves to crispy French baguettes, from savory focaccia to saltless pane toscano (though the idea of panzanella was alluring)...eh, none of those quite hit what I was in the mood for.

When I came across a recipe that boasted a final product of golden, cornmeal-crusted rolls, I started thinking I might be on the right track.  I took the principle of that recipe and went on from there, ending up with this beautiful loaf of connected, crusty rolls that looks just like an ear of wheat.

Such a fun, whimsical loaf!  And the recipe is really forgiving.  I started the dough yesterday and then realized I was just too tired to finish it then and there.  (Ever feel like that on a Friday night?)  So, I stored it overnight in the refrigerator.  This morning, I shaped it up, popped it into my lightly-warmed oven, and the yeast started doing its thing again.  In no time, it was puffed up and ready for baking.  It felt like such a luxury to breakfast on freshly-baked bread this morning, and the feeling of indulgence was only compounded by what a cinch it was to make!

I'm so pleased with how the bread turned out--nice and hearty and lightly sweet, with a crusty exterior and soft, chewy interior, and a nutty flavor thanks to whole wheat and cornmeal.  Like a true artisan bread, this is a little more dense than most store-bought breads, but I think that's what gives it such great bite.  The presentation is beautiful, too, making it a perfect bread to share with guests at dinner or over brunch.  For the best experience, serve it fresh out of the oven!

Crusty Artisan Wheat Bread
Makes a loaf of 12 rolls

1 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup warm water (105-115 F)
1 3/4 tsp. active dry yeast

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal, plus extra for the baking sheet
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup water

In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar and warm water, then sprinkle yeast over the top.  Let sit 10 minutes until foamy (if yeast does not become foamy, discard and start over with new yeast).

In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, cornmeal, and salt, then add to the yeast mixture.  (Note: for a lighter bread, substitute more all-purpose flour for the whole-wheat flour.)  Add the remaining 3/4 cup water and stir until well combined and dough forms.  Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes to develop an elastic dough.

Form dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat dough with oil.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.  (At this point, you may store the dough overnight in the refrigerator.)

Punch dough down and fold in thirds (as you would fold a letter).  Roll out into an 18-inch log and place on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with cornmeal.  Using kitchen shears, make 3-inch cuts into the log, alternating sides and at 1 1/2-inch intervals, keeping rolls connected at the center axis.  Gently pull rolls out to the sides to space them apart as much as possible while keeping them connected.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place 1 to 1 1/2 hours until doubled (I like to place them in a warm oven, between 80 and 100 F).  Preheat oven to 425 F.  Just before baking, remove plastic wrap and brush (or spray) with water.  During the first 5 minutes of baking, brush (or spray) with water 3 more times, to help form the crusty exterior.  Bake bread for about 20 minutes, until golden.  Serve warm.