This week represents a new turn around the Mediterranean - to a cuisine I really know very little about except its love for olive oil and that which is fresh. I'm referring to Greek cooking of course - a cuisine that is for the first time gaining some real reputation in new york city, most notably inspired by the guy from Kefi who also co-owns and plans 3-4 other restaurants.
On the menu this week:
Orzo with tomatoes and feta (shrimp would have been good to get too)
Spiced Mahi mahi
Stay tuned for recipes, adventures, and probably pictures.
Last night I hosted a dinner to support the charter school I work for. I dubbed it Italia Organica (I'll let you figure out what's wrong with that) and put together a mixture of organic vegetarian dishes. It was probably one of the better things I've ever made. On the menu was:
1) Mixed Crostini (half with a marinated tomato spread, and half with a cannellini/pesto paste that was yum)
2) Mixed roasted veggies over bed of polenta and topped w/ roasted pepper puree
3) Roasted beet salad with vinaigrette and goat cheese
4) Wild mushroom goat cheese
5) Spinach salad with warmed goat cheese (I forgot to warm it)
You can find all the recipes on epicurious, so I won't spell them out here, but I will offer a few suggestions:
1) sometimes grilling is a better method to roasting veggies for the polenta dish. I would have preferred more of the grill flavor and springyness you get from the control of the grill.
2) the cannellini/pesto combo is a keeper and something you have to try
3) Keep the roasting of beets to a little over an hour. They're going to cook a little longer as they cool down, and then when you marinate them they'll soften up too. No overkill allowed here.
4) I've changed my mind about the risotto. Cook the crimini mushrooms before so they brown properly, then add about 2/3 of the way into the risotto recipe, but before adding the butter/parm. Roast the shitake and add at the end for both flavor and texture.
Soups. I've never actually made my own soup before, so this was a true pleasure just to begin this journey. Whether it's the economy, the season, or the abundance of really good soup recipes out there, I've noticed an upsurge in soup-cookbooks and even high-end soups in restaurants. And it's easy to understand why: put a few good ingredients together, spice it just right, and bam, you have something that tastes like it took you hours but wasn't that hard in the end.
This one came from Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution." It's somewhere between an Italian and Greek interpretation. While the recipe called for this soup to be served 'a la chunk' - that is, it is chunky and cooked form - I decided to pull out my immersion blender, add a tbsp of butter and a little extra virgin olive oil, and see what I could do. Topped with a little fresh chili and a dollop of greek yogurt, this was a quick, filling, and warming soup that will be added to the 'make again' list.
When I decided to explore other cuisines, I realized I couldn't run too far from the Mediterranean. And I'll be honest, chicken cacciatore is about as Italian (American) as it gets. However, it was chicken over polenta and that was different (at least for me).
I took a cacciatore recipe from Lidia Bastisomethingorother. It was good, but the cooking time of 35 minutes for the chicken didn't leave it as tender as I wanted. It's possible I overcrowded the pan or used too much white meat, but after reading some other recipes, it seems I should have just let it go for another 10-15 minutes.
But that's not why I decided to break the silence of nearly 3 months. I was hungry, had leftovers, and fish that wasn't going to last much longer. More importantly, I had a chocolate cake my fiance and her friend had just baked that needed about 10 minutes to cool. Ok, I needed a meal that took 15 minutes start to finish.
It's really simple:
1) Make couscous and set aside
2) heat sliced garlic (2 cloves), chopped basil (handful), cinnamon (couple dashes), chili (to taste), and moroccan spice in saute pan (with lid nearby). Toss in the cod (and shrimp if you have!), let it saute for a minute, add half a can of tomatoes (14 oz), pull to a boil, and then simmer for 8 minutes. Eat with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
Yum! Possibly better than the chocolate cake that followed, although it was close.
It didn't long for me to figure out that my cooking skills were almost entirely limited Italian. Sure, I had dabbled with couscous and few other random chicken things, maybe even stuffed peppers in some vague Spanish way. Truth be told, I've got an extremely limited repertoire.
While cooking through another cookbook will surely be a good way to get started, I was thinking something a little more social. Not quite like a dining club, but I want to learn to cook from friends and strangers alike in an informal setting. So how do you go about setting it all up in such a busy city?
A story. A friend of mine threw a housewarming at her place last night. I had brought over a couple different kinds of brew, but it was quickly apparent that beer was not going to take the spotlight. The host had spent the better part of the day cooking penne vodka, rice and beans, buffalo wings, pizza, roasted chicken, coconut shrimp, guacamole, salsa, and something I'm now forgetting. Then came the cheesecake another friend had made and brought over and the curry chicken that was just fabulous. Here, near the bronx, were about 3 of my friends who had some serious cooking skills. Moreover, despite the range of pizza, penne, and buffalo wings, it was the latin flare that really stood out.
I tell this story because I want to start cooking and eating with people from what they know best. Learn how to make rice and beans and guac from my friends whose families from from latin america and beyond. Learn how to bake bread from, well, bakers, and so on. More than the food, people are connected to their food heritages in ways that make for heartfelt stories that make the dinner all the better. I hope to start soon!
It was quite fortuitous that I had made my mushroom polenta a few days earlier. Important lessons learned: don't crowd the mushrooms, don't buy pre-packaged 'gourmet mushrooms,' leave more time than expected. I've made risotto before, but it's been a while, and it didn't help that Jamie doesn't always spell out which of the 'butter' segments to mix into the risotto at different times - it does matter. So I realized too late that I put way too much butter when softening up my onions and garlic. This set the stage for extra sauteeing time for the rice itself, and eventually a cooking process that went from 20 minutes to almost an hour.
he good news? The mushrooms came out delightful, and despite the extra-long cooking time, the risotto was a huge hit. (I think it was even better for lunch the next day, maybe there is something about letting it settle then reheating like a turkey)
Cooking 'through' Mr. Oliver's cookbook might have been an overstatement. It's not that I don't have the stamina for it. Some things are just not that feasible (like wild boar), some are beyond my equipment (like machine-rolled pasta dough), and some just aren't good (like anchovy related things). I'm willing to try something if someone hands it to me, but since I'm the one going to Fairway to pick up the goods, somehow anchovies don't make the weekly budget cut.
While I've made more recipes from Jamie's Italy than I have from any other cookbook, I'm not quite done yet, but I'm content to realize that I won't have done 'all' of them. You can call it a cop out, but I think it's just logical reasoning. However, here's what's in store for the next few weeks:
1) pizza (I'm seriously considering buying a pizza stone, but not sure that I've seen one that fits my tiny oven)
2) fresh pasta dough (I wanted to wait until someone had the grace to present my grandma's kitchenaid mixer with a set of pasta rolling tools, but my roller-pin will do fine)
3) more fish
4) more pasta recipes
It's strange to me that I haven't done more pasta, but that's what a project like this does. It forces me out of my comfort zone. It stretches me to consider new spices, techniques, recipes, and tastes. I am both a happier person and a better chef for it (the most recent wild mushroom risotto and shrimp frittata were some of the best things I've ever made).
As I finish out the remaining recipes in Oliver's book, I'm starting to look through my shelf to see what's next. In terms of cuisine, I'm pretty limited: french, spanish, greek, and American. I'll save American for last, but as I begin to flip covers of my french books I'm drawn toward Jaques Pepin. If I had barefoot, I would probably go for that, but for now, I'm staying away from buying more until I've used the ones I have.
A frittata is a fun thing to make. It's quick, tasty, and really easy to share. It also has one big problem: it's very easy to overcook, and an overdone frittata really isn't worth eating.
Jamie has a really good suggestion for avoiding this: start with a really hot oven (425), pre-cook your frittata in pan on the stove for a minute or so, and basically sear the outside of the frittata for 5 minutes or so.
All of this makes great sense assuming your oven heats things evenly. Not here. So while the frittata came out wonderful, I recommend that you use that '5 minutes' as a very loose guideline. It took me about 10 minutes to even get a firm top, and another 5 or so before I felt confident I would have more than goo when I took it out. Know your oven.
I was all set to make roasted mushroom risotto with a parsley blend when, after going through a thorough search of my cabinet, I realized I had no risotto. I had already peeled and chopped an excessive amount of garlic for roasting with the mushrooms. Everything was ready, except the rice. So I made a quick choice looking through what was left: polenta.
Bear in mind I've never cooked polenta before, but I figured that something as simple as polenta would be hard to screw up. In a sense, this is very true. It's hard to mess up polenta. But I also discovered over the course of over an hour of slow stirring and seasoning-correcting that it's also hard to make really good polenta.
Even with the parlsey, mushrooms, butter, parm, and garlic all mixed in, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I added some fresh thyme and a little rosemary. Better. Just as I was getting ready to serve, I had the consistency that I wanted, but it just lacked that taste that I loved about polenta in restaurants. I did what I usually do when something needs more flavor. I added a little olive oil. Bam. It went from ok to amazing. The earthy flavors of the mushrooms jumped out. The short-roasted garlic subdued and blended harmoniously with the other flavors, and even the consistency improved.
I know I got lucky, but I'm ok with that. But who knew polenta took an hour to make? I certainly didn't.
I've made pesto only a few times - my first mishap was in Italy when I first started cooking for myself (I was studying abroad and quickly discovered that I didn't have it in my budget to eat out for every meal. The solution seemed simple. Ask the nonne at the market what they're cooking and try to imitate).
Since then I've used blenders, forks, knives, and most other utensils to try my hand at it. It's never as good as you get in the restaurants. It seems like it should be simple - basil, garlic, cheese, oil, nuts. No cooking. No fire. Yet somehow, a really good tasting pesto seemed illusive. Until tonight.
I was searching through Jamie's cookbook for some quick prep dinners. Tomorrow is risotto night (first of the season, go figure it's going to be like 80 degrees). Jamie's recipe calls for the following: almonds, tomatoes, par
m, basil, oil, garlic. I liked the idea of tomatoes and almonds (instead of pine nuts) right away. I liked it even better that my hands would be used not only to mash the ingredients together in my new mortar and pestle (thanks Jason!) but also to squish and mangle the tomatoes. The ripe grape tomatoes were absolutely essential.
The results were simply divine. We rampaged through our servings, wishing there was more for tomorrow.