Post #490 When in Rome . . .

July 11, 2016 at 12:58 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Partner/Spouse and I watch a lot of TV shows about other countries, and in the early days of our relationship it was a game to see if I’d been to that country or that city.  Sometimes, even to that restaurant.  After dozens of “yeah, I’ve been there”, the game paled a little.  It morphed into “where would you most like to go back to?” and usually the answer was whatever country/city was being featured in the show.  Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy.  I was able to spend several weeks in Italy, first in Naples, then in Rome.

Naples is usually cited as the birth place of pizza, and I ate a LOT of pizza while I was there.  It’s also the city where I was introduced to calamari, fried and grilled, and on a pizza too.  I made myself sick on gelato, and walked dozens of miles each week to see the city and its residents.  I went to small restaurants that had three seats in them.  I went to outdoor style restaurants that looked like a whole village had gathered inside.  I went to street fairs and ate popcorn covered in sugar (didn’t like it.)  I climbed Mt. Vesuvius and looked into the volcano, and visited Pompeii and sat in its amphitheater.  I also learned about the value of letting wine age.

We had an older woman on the trip who spoke a little Spanish which was close enough to Italian that we got in trouble a lot.  One Saturday afternoon, I wanted to get a little ham and some cheese and some bread to have for dinner that night in my room rather than go out.  I ended up with a chunk of ham that weighed 4 pounds, and a block of cheese that weighed three pounds.  And no knife.  And I wasn’t certain if the ham was cooked or not.  I ended up giving it all away, and went out for pizza again.

The place we were working at had a cafeteria and each day you needed to go downstairs to see what the two ladies would be making that day.  It was always freshly made, even the pasta, and all of it was delicious.  If you wanted it, you told them so they could have an accurate amount of ingredients.  There was never any waste.  That’s where I first had pasta and beans and fell in love with that simple dish.  I’ve posted about it in earlier blog posts so I won’t go into it again, but it’s an amazingly flavorful bowl of cannelloni beans and pasta in a sauce created from the breakdown of the beans.  Fresh herbs and a light dusting of cheese, and I’ll eat that for days.

One Saturday evening, a group of us were wandering around and found a plaza behind our hotel and a gelato shop.  I’m not a big ice cream eater, but everyone wanted some, so I bought a small dish.  It was so good, but I paid for it on Sunday.  And I spilled chocolate gelato on my white t-shirt, staining it terribly.  On Monday, one of the local staff told us where a cleaner was, so on Tuesday, along with a coworker, I went to the cleaner and in broken Italian and English we conveyed what we needed.  They weren’t certain my shirt could be completely cleaned, but my coworker’s shirt would be no trouble.  Three days later, we returned, and my shirt was sparkling white again, while his left with the shadow of the stain that was impossible to remove.  I had to listen to him complain about it for days, as though it were my fault somehow.

Rome was a city that seemed to be always on the move.  I’d spent a weekend in Rome while in Naples several years before, so I didn’t want to see the same things I’d seen before.  I was there with a fairly large group of people, most of home were personal friends as well as coworkers.  Several of them were walkers like myself so whenever I went out to walk I nearly always had people with me.  We ate all kinds of things on these walks.  Pizza was a regular consumable, and sandwiches were easy to get.  Made from fresh bread, cheese, and a cured ham, usually prosciutto, then toasted.  The crusts would break your teeth, but the centers were ambrosia.

I didn’t try it, but there was one thing we saw a lot of.  Turkish Ice Cream.  It’s made the same as the ice cream we’re used to, but a couple of other ingredients are added which give it a different consistency.  It doesn’t melt quickly, and it’s very very elastic and stretchy, similar to mozzarella.  Everyone loves it.  The vendors have to keep stretching it to keep it workable.  Some do that with sticks and a lot showmanship, while others use a machine like a taffy puller.  It was amazing to watch and I only wish I’d tried it just once to see what it tasted like.

While in Rome, I eagerly anticipated Thursday nights.  All the restaurants had designated it gnocchi night and not only was it inexpensive, but it was so GOOD!  I’ve eaten potato gnocchi most of my adult life, and here in the States, it’s typically a small potato dumpling, about the size of your thumbnail in tomato sauce or cheese sauce.  It tends to be heavy, a little sticky, but still very good as long as the sauce is good.  In Rome, they were little pillows of fluffy potato dough that seemed like they were full of air.  And the menu had a full page list of various sauces you could have on top of them.  My three favorites were al forno (cheese), al fungi (mushroom), and Bolognese (meat and tomato.)  Al fungi was my favorite, but it was also very popular so sometimes, it was sold out.  The portion size was immense and added with bread and a salad, I walked away from that meal burping.

My favorite dish while in Rome was Cacio e Pepe.  It’s incredibly simple, easy to make, and full of flavor.  It was created by the peasants and shepherds centuries ago, and not much about it has changed.  To get the full experience make sure your ingredients are as fresh as possible, and use large amounts them, but to your own taste.  Cacio e Pepe is spaghetti with cheese and pepper.  That’s it.  Set your pasta water to boil and measure out your spaghetti.  Salt the water as you normally would for spaghetti.  I like it a little saltier, but it’s to your taste.  While the water is heating up, use a pepper grinder to coarsely grind up to a quarter cup of pepper.  That’s a lot, but it’s worth it.  Grate a half cup of pecorino romano cheese.  When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, reserved 1/4 cup of pasta water.  Drain the spaghetti and put in a heated bowl.  Add cheese and pepper and toss until cheese is melting.  Add as much pasta water as needed to create a sauce.  Serve piping hot with bread.  Some people like to add a little butter or oil, but that’s up to you.  And some people use it as a side dish with grilled fish or chicken, but again, that’s up to you.

Enjoy

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Post #489 Favorite Kitchen Gadgets

July 8, 2016 at 8:16 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #489 Favorite Kitchen Gadgets

tumblr_o7ccw5xpTn1qzdiqvo1_500

I found the above picture in an article I read recently about this person’s favorite kitchen items; the ones they couldn’t live without.  And as it always does with these things it set me to thinking.  Is there a kitchen item I can’t live without?

See, when I started cooking, we didn’t have a lot of the gadgets and things I have today.  Mom wasn’t an inspired cook and made do with the things she had to get the job.  So I learned early on how to cream butter in a bowl with a wooden spoon.  We had two of those.  I learned to slice everything by hand because we didn’t have a mandolin, and the box grater had one side for slicing.  We had two sheet pans, and one round pizza pan.  One set of measuring spoons, and one glass measuring cup.  We had three millions bowls of various sizes.  We had three or four different knives and a cutting board.  We had casserole pans, cake pans, pie pans. I don’t recall if we had an hand mixer initially, but we had one later so either we had one all along, or I got one as a gift.  I got a wok one Christmas and a couple of wooden spatulas with it.  We had metal spatulas, but no rubber ones.

I actually appreciate the way I learned to cook.  Not having the electric gadgets around made me learn how to do things by hand.  I can whip cream in a ceramic bowl with a fork to a light frothy goodness.  Same with egg whites.  There are few techniques manageable by machines today that I can’t do by hand.  That’s not to say I WANT to do it by hand.  I’m a firm believer in the easier way.  But there’s a lot to be said for knowing how we got there.

So, my first kitchen essential (apart from plates and cutlery) would be bowls.  I like a large assortment in various sizes and materials.  It’s hard to mix things if you don’t have a bowl, or if the bowl is too small.  I also like bowls that are older, more antique-ish.  We have a HUGE purple bowl with a small chip out of it that we picked up from an antique store in Tucson.  We call it the bread bowl, but there’s no real practical application for this bowl.  It’s large enough to mix up 12 loaves of bread and heavy as a 12 inch cast iron skillet.  Right now, it’s hidden in a closet because there’s no place to put it.  We have several various formal serving bowls, too.    Not too matchy matchy, but all look good together.  Necessary when feeding a large group of people or a large amount of dishes.  Along the same line, I also like various serving platters large and small and various shapes.  We have a couple that are round and many that are oval.

My second kitchen essential are knives and sharpeners.  I can make do with a single sharp knife to get all my ingredients chopped and sliced, but having the right tool for the job makes life easier.  For my whole life, I bought those butcher block sets with a dozen different knives plus steak knives plus scissors and sharpening rods.  But on our latest move across the country, we decided to follow the advice of America’s Test Kitchen and bought highest quality knives individually as we could afford them.  They’re on a magnetized strip on the side of the fridge and always within reach.  We learned from ATK that the knives sold in sets are not the best quality, and I’d found that I replaced them several times over the years.  Plus, I got things I never used, like a cleaver.

My third kitchen essential is wooden spoons of various lengths and uses.  Right now, we have over a dozen various wooden utensils.  Wood is best although it gets stained fairly easily.  Wood doesn’t conduct heat so it’s safe to leave them in a pan for a moment.  Wood also won’t scratch sensitive surfaces on cookware.  Wood won’t last (although I’ve had a few pieces survive almost a decade), but it’s inexpensive and easy to replace.

My fourth kitchen essential is various pots/pans/skillets/sheets.  I lumped them all together because they are what you cook on or in.  I love cast iron although recently we moved over to a heavy duty nonstick cookware set.  We have various baking sheets, pots and pans, skillets, cooling racks, baking ware, etc.  We love browsing kitchen stores and finding odd pans that will do double duty.  No single use items for us!

My last kitchen essential is reliable measuring tools.  I bake a lot.  Baking requires exact measurements whether it’s in cups or teaspoons.  We have a full set of glass measuring cups from 1 cup to 8 cups.  We have two other sets of nesting metal measuring cups for dry ingredients.  We have three sets of measuring spoons.  A little excessive perhaps, but I don’t have to wash anything while cooking as I used to do as a kid.

Our kitchen has a lot more to than just these items.  You may remember a couple of posts in Tucson bemoaning the amount of stuff in one drawer.

drawer

We don’t have that here, but if we keep collecting as we do, it may end up that way.

So what are your kitchen essentials?

Enjoy

Post #488 Tired of That Yet?

July 6, 2016 at 11:03 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I recently read a food article on the internet that set me back to think for a few moments.  It was a compilation of opinions from executive chefs in LA and SF about what the most overused/trendy ingredients and foods were.  The results surprised me in one way, but not at all in another way.  I watch a lot of cooking programs on television, and I read a lot of food magazines and articles on the ‘net.  I keep up with what’s trending and I find the bulk of it is sheep following a shepherd.

One example of that is on the list and it’s kale.  There’s no great mystery about kale.  Kale has been used as the “greens” portion of a meal for centuries.  It’s cheap, nutritious, and can be made to be tasty.  It’s ubiquitous in Southern cooking.  But a few years ago, it was “discovered” and it was suddenly the go to veggie of the season.  There’s nothing magical about kale, and in its absence nearly any other green leafy vegetable can be substituted.  But to hear some people talk about it, it can cure all that ails you, and part the waters too.  It’s so versatile!  You can make smoothies with it!  You can make chips with it!  You can make flourless crackers with it!  You can make salads with it!  You can spackle your walls with it!

kale

Don’t get me wrong.  I like kale.  It’s okay.  But it ain’t all that!  It just wasn’t in the mainstream until recently.  So kale made the list of overused or trendy ingredients, and for good reason.

But some of the other items were surprising.

Bacon.  Who doesn’t like bacon?  Apparently, some of these chefs.  But, I get that.  It’s everywhere these days.  I posted about bacon some time ago and showed examples of bacon band aids, bacon toothpaste, and bacon donuts.  That last one would be okay if they used any other icing but maple.  You can make bacon bowls to put more bacon in.  You can make taco shells made out of bacon.  You can weave bacon and cook it so you have the perfect spread of bacon on your BLT or burger.  But after a time, I get enough bacon and I don’t want to see it in my ice cream.  So this one I get, and sort of agree with, but also disagree with.

One that I completely agree with is truffles and truffle oil.  A truffle is called a mushroom, but it’s really a fungus and grows underground.  It’s black and wrinkly looking and fairly rare so it’s fairly expensive.  It’s very strongly flavored and scented so a very little goes a very long way.  Most people who don’t have experience with it will use too much.  It’s easy to do.  Truffles must be sliced almost transparently thin using a special slicer; truffle oil must be used in droplets rather than spoonfuls.

Another in the category of “easy to use too much of” on this list from the chefs is saffron.  Saffron is the pistil from the crocus flower of a particular variety and must be harvested by hand.  It’s absurdly expensive.  Used in extreme moderation it lends a pleasant yellow-gold color to a dish and a bright flavor.  Use too much (which is easy to do) and the whole dish will taste like medicine.  Not the flavor you want to go for.  But because of its rarity, it seems to be everywhere and not used sparingly.  Sometimes, saffron isn’t what’s called for in a rice dish.  Really and truly.

Here’s one that surprised me.  This one chef said she’s tired of seeing chocolate all the time.  Think dessert and think chocolate.  But there are other sweet flavors that you can have for dessert that are just as fulfilling as chocolate.  My ex-wife used to say that too.  I never understood it.  I’d rather eat chocolate than almost anything, when it’s made right.  It is true, though, the bulk of desserts are chocolate based or chocolate enhanced.  It’s hard to get away from.

One trend and ingredient I whole-heartedly support on this list of the overused is smoke.  For a while, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into some new smoke-flavored product.  I nearly dropped my jaw when I saw smoke-flavored salt!  I like smokiness in my food when I’m in the mood for it.  But I want that smokiness to be natural rather than chemical.  You can get smoky rubs for meat; smoky sauces for anything; even smoky pellets to put on your grill.  I’ve watched chefs on television fill a metal cover with smoke and place it over a plate going to a table so when the diner takes it off, the smoke wafts in their face.  Far too much for me.  I don’t need smoke in everything.

Raspberry.  Who’d a thunk it?  I love raspberries.  I’ll put raspberry sauce on my raspberries.

Raspberry

The chef offered no explanation so maybe they’re just tired of them, or allergic, or don’t like berries.  But I like ’em.

One chef included peanut butter, and I kind of get this one.  Peanut butter has been around for about a hundred years, and it certainly is an acquired taste.  It has a strong flavor and a strong aroma.  It very easily overpowers any dish it’s in.  I really only like it in candy bars covered in chocolate, and in PBJ sandwiches with icy cold grape jam.  Any other way, I turn my nose up at it.  Yet I grew up on the stuff and spent many happy summer days getting it all over my face at lunch time.  I’ve found that you either like it or you don’t.

So what do you all think?  This is by no means a complete list, and a link to the original article is at the bottom should anyone want to read it.  But are there any other things you’d add?  How about take off the list?  Anyway, take care, and as always

Enjoy

http://www.eater.com/2016/6/14/11876542/overrated-ingredients-truffles-butter

Post #487 Happy 4th!

July 4, 2016 at 8:45 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #487 Happy 4th!

I’m taking the day off for the holiday.  Enjoy your day!

Happy 4th 1

Happy 4th 2

Happy 4th 3

Happy 4th 4

Happy 4th 5

NEW YORK CITY - JUL 4: New York City Manhattan Independence Day firework show in Hudson River as annual traditional event to celebrate the birth of United States, July 4, 2010 in Manhattan, New York City.

NEW YORK CITY – JUL 4: New York City Manhattan Independence Day firework show in Hudson River as annual traditional event to celebrate the birth of United States, July 4, 2010 in Manhattan, New York City.

Happy 4th 7

Happy 4th 8

 

Post #486 Three Miscellaneous Thoughts

July 1, 2016 at 8:30 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #486 Three Miscellaneous Thoughts

These are the thoughts:

Watermelon Salad

Cheese Salad

Flour Tortillas

Someone on a food group I’m a member of on FB (Food Interactive – Hi guys!) recently asked if there were any fans of salad in the group.  I think I’ve shown I am by the posts in this blog.  Salads are incredibly easy and variable.  You can make a salad out of nearly anything at hand so it’s a majorly seasonal kind of dish.  The first salad “recipe” I ever read was in a horror novel.  I still remember the character saying “I take every fresh vegetable I can buy and chop it into a bowl, plus hard boiled eggs.”  I tend to follow that pattern although I’m a little more cognizant of flavor combinations now.  Once, while in Tucson, I set down a bowl of salad and said, “If you taste lemon it’s because I added fresh lemon balm herbs to the salad.”  One of the people said, “Now that’s the mark of a real chef as opposed to just a cook.”  I just rolled my eyes at him.

There are a couple of salad ideas I’ve had in my head for some time and I’ve posted about one of them a couple of times.  The other is, I think, a totally new and unique idea, but I’ll leave that to you guys to tell me if you’ve ever heard of it before.

I like watermelon.

watermelon 1

Chilled and fresh, it’s likely the best thing on the planet.  My dad used to sprinkle a tiny bit of salt on it before eating to add a counterpoint flavor.  I once accidentally spilled lemon juice on it and loved the competing flavors.  I’ve written about watermelon salad before, but I’ve had an idea bumping around in my brain (there’s a lot of room for things to bump around in up there) and I think I finally see a way to make it.

Watermelon is juicy.  No matter what you do to it, besides drying it out in an oven, it always remains juicy.  Hence, its name.  As I wrote in an earlier post, you can sprinkle salt on it and put it in a colander to remove some of the juices, but a lot still remains.  So I decided to make a salad wherein the escaping juices get incorporated into the dressing.  But I also wanted some crunch to complement the melon, and some tart to counterpoint the sweet.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • 2 cups watermelon cut into half inch cubes (I kept the seeds in cuz I like them)
  • 1 cup English cucumber cut into quarter inch cubes
  • 1 small jalapeno pepper seeded and cleaned, then chopped roughly (omit if you don’t like spicy)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese cubes cut about the size of a pistachio nut
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup shelled and broken pistachio nuts
  • 2-3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2-3 tablespoons high quality extra virgin olive oil

Mix it all together and chill it for an hour.  Serve with grilled flesh of some animal and it’s perfect!  You can add mint or basil leaves just before serving.

As with any salad, you can take any combination of fruit and veggies and create something unique and tasty.  I was in college when I was introduced to putting cheese in salad.  This was back in the 80s, and it was Arizona, not a cultural hub by any means.  So the cheese that was added was always cheddar or parmesan.  Maybe other cheeses existed, but none went into a salad.  But I learned to love the flavor combination of cheese mixed with oil and vinegar.  As time went on and I experimented with different cheeses for various dishes and meals, an idea started percolating in the back of my brain.  Remember, lots of room there.

Cheese and fruit is often used to end a meal in place of a sweet dessert.  I’ve often made a light meal out of cheese and fruit and crackers.  Another dish that often comes at the end of the meal (rather than the beginning as is customary here in America) is the salad.  It’s supposed to be a palate cleanser and a way to end the meal on a light note.  A few years ago, I wondered if it would be possible to create a salad with just cheese and a dressing.

I prefer the sharper cheeses to the milder ones, although I do like the milder flavored cheeses.  To make a salad that I’d like, it would have to be a combination of those, but the dressing would have to complement both of them.  And I like a crunch factor, whether it’s croutons (dried up old stale bread crumbs) or nuts or seeds.

So let’s get this clear up front, I haven’t done this yet.  But I’m going to, and soon.  I’m going to take half a dozen of my favorite cheeses and the first I’ll select will be a sharp Vermont cheddar.  I’ll have to choose carefully so the flavors won’t fight each other, and choose from what’s available.  At least two will be very mild cheeses, and probably one will be queso fresco, or a fresh farmer’s cheese.  All of them will be cut into smallish bite sized chunks perhaps a quarter inch on a side.  To start with, I’m only going to make a small bowlful.  It’s easy to overdose on cheese.  For visual appeal, I’m going to try to make all the cheeses of the white variety except the cheddar.  For my crunch, I’m going to use pistachio nuts.  I’ve used them in three- and four-ingredient salads before and they’re very good, lending their own particular flavor to the mix.  But the dressing, that’s going to be simplicity itself.  Since the cheese and nuts will have a high fat content, I’m going to use the smallest amount of oil possible, a bare teaspoon, possibly two.  Olive oil most likely, but I won’t turn up my nose at any inspiration or suggestions.  Then I’ll add a fruited balsamic vinegar, again very sparingly.  I once had a bottle of pear balsamic that was delicious but I haven’t been able to find it lately.  I currently have some raspberry balsamic, but it doesn’t have as fruity a flavor.  I may just add some pear juice to a bottle and see what I get.  And for the salad, I may reduce the vinegar a little so it’s syrupy and the flavor intensifies.  That’s it.  Like I said, I fell in love with the flavor of cheese and vinaigrette a long time ago, so it will be interesting to see how this turns out.

So the final idea I’m writing about is for a friend from one of my food groups (Hi Tristan!).  She wants a recipe for flour tortillas.  The best way to make flour tortillas is to go to a tortilla factory and buy them.  However, since there just aren’t that many of those in our part of the world, I promised I’d blog about them.  The only really hard part is rolling them out.

Homemade Flour Tortillas (makes 12)

  • 2 cups AP Flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tablespoon chilled lard (I use Crisco instead)
  • 3/4 cup ice cold water (I keep ice in the water until just before using then remove it)

Sift together all the dry ingredients.  Cut the lard into the flour until it resembles coarse crumbs.  Do NOT use the finger rub method as this will warm the lard up too much.  You can use a food processor, but do not over process.  A few short pulses should do the trick.  I use a pastry knife such as the one below.

pastry knife

Add the cold water (remember to remove the ice) and mix with a rubber spatula until dough comes together.  Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until dough is no longer sticky adding flour in small increments when necessary.  Separate dough into 12 equal pieces and roll into balls.  Let rest for five minutes under a damp cloth to avoid drying out.  Heat a flat iron skillet over medium heat while dough is resting.  Do not oil the skillet; it must be dry.

Using a floured skillet, roll one ball at a time (leaving the others under the cloth) into a circle of the desired size.  I tend to go for 12 inches across for a paper thin tortilla, but you can experiment with whatever thickness you like.  Brush off any excess flour and put into dry skillet.  When bubbles start to form, flip the tortilla and wait for bubbles to form again.  Remove to a cooling rack and start rolling out the next tortilla.  The previous tortilla will be cool enough to stack when the current tortilla is finished, but you can spread them out a bit to make sure they cool quickly.  Continue until all the tortillas are done.  Allow to cool completely (!) before storing in an air tight container.  I generally use a zip lock back, the gallon size so they can sit flat.

To use the tortillas, heat them until pliable by whichever method you prefer.  You can heat them in a microwave.  You can steam them.  You can heat them in the oven wrapped in foil.  You can heat them on the skillet again just the same as when you were cooking them.  My favorite method (when I’m cooking with gas) is to heat them over an open flame on each side for a few seconds.

Enjoy

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