Sunday, December 12, 2010

True Ragu Bolognese

I want to share a dish I made way back in September, when the tomato season was just coming to a close, and weather for hot, savory comfort food was just beginning. The dish was something I had made many times before, but in a different form. In this other form, I think it can only be called “spaghetti sauce”: a combination of canned tomatoes, ground beef, onion, garlic, and various herbs, simmered for maybe an hour or so, then served over spaghetti pasta with parmesan on the side. I think that most North American families have some form of this recipe, and it is almost always a favorite. This time, though, I decided I wanted to do it right, or, more accurately, do it traditionally. I wanted to make a true ragu Bolognese. This is probably something that few non-Italians can describe correctly. I, myself, am no expert, but thanks to a little research and some experimenting, I think I can cover the main points. Here’s what you need to know: a true ragu Bolognese has tomato in it, but it is not a tomato sauce. It also has milk in it, but it is not a cream sauce. It has a good amount of meat in it as well, but it is not a stew. Its true nature is a thick, savory, luscious sauce that is suffuse with incredible flavor, and is a perfect balance of creamy and acidic.
I also decided that I wanted to really make the sauce and all of its components from scratch, so instead of using canned tomato sauce, I made my own with tomato sauce from the farmer’s market.
I also bought one-pound of bottom round and ground it myself in my food processor.
Were these steps necessary? Well, no, you can make an excellent sauce using a good-quality canned tomato product, and high-quality ground beef from your butcher, and you’ll save yourself a couple of hours. I liked knowing that everything was as fresh as you can get it, and that my own skills were really responsible for everything in that sauce. So, if you have the whole afternoon to make your Bolognese, and tomatoes are in season (don’t bother if they aren’t), I’d recommend making your own sauce and grinding your own meat.
Deb at Smitten Kitchen showed how to make a great tomato sauce, and this video will give you a good idea of how to grind your own meat. Don’t forget to keep that meat cold at all times!

I looked through a number of “true” ragu Bolognese recipes, but ended up using directions from Mario Batali here. Don’t just follow the recipe—watch the video. That’s where he explains the true techniques and why to employ them. I didn’t follow his recipe exactly, though—I made a few small changes.

To start, I followed Batali’s advice and sweated mirepoix in an enameled pot in butter and olive oil, keeping the heat around medium-low, and really trying to evaporate the water out of the vegetables. Listen to the man: this is not a sauce you can rush if you want to make it correctly.
For the meat, I used only ground beef, which worked out wonderfully, but I’m sure that the combination of pork, veal, and beef he suggests would be fantastic. Again, I made sure that I really rendered that meat, melting all the fat, cooking out all the liquid.

Now, here’s where I departed from Batali’s method the most: instead of using only tomato paste, I couldn’t resist using some of my lovely, homemade tomato sauce as well. So, I only mixed in a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, let that cook for ten minutes or so, then added two cups of my tomato sauce, and let that reduce by about two thirds.
Then came the milk, then the wine, each reduced down separately so that they can impart their flavors adequately.
I covered the pot, and let it cook for a couple of hours. Then, I added some fresh rosemary, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Finally, I combined it with parmesan and cooked spaghetti, creating a magnificent little piece of Italian heaven.
You may be thinking to yourself, is this really worth all the time it takes? Do I really want to spend several hours making some kind of glorified spaghetti sauce? The answer to both this questions is a definitive yes. This sauce exemplifies the concept of developing flavor over time brilliantly. The resulting ragu has so much complexity, so many wonderful flavor notes, that you will know as soon as you taste it that you could never make anything like this in only a half hour. Also, this is nothing so banal as “spaghetti sauce”: this is ragu Bolognese.

Ragu Bolognese
Adapted from Mario Batali at
Serves 4-6

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp butter
1 carrot, finely diced
1 medium onion diced
1 rib celery finely diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 ½ lbs. good quality ground beef
2 tbsp. tomato paste
2 cups excellent tomato sauce
1 cup milk
1 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from one sprig of rosemary, chopped
Parmigiano-Reggiano, to grate
1 lb. spaghetti, cooked in salted water

In a 6 to 8-quart, heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and garlic and sweat over medium heat until the vegetables are translucent and soft but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the beef and stir into the vegetables. Add the meat over high heat, stirring to keep the meat from sticking together until browned. Add the tomato paste, and cook, stirring, for ten minutes or so, until the tomato paste has caramelized. Add the tomato sauce and let that reduce by about two thirds. Add the milk, and allow that to reduce down until it is nearly gone. Do the same with the wine. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Stir in the rosemary, then season with salt and pepper, to taste, and remove from the heat.

When ready to use, the cooked pasta should be added to a saucepan with the appropriate amount of hot ragu Bolognese and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and tossed so that the pasta is evenly coated by the ragu. Serve with more Parm on the side.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spaghetti Squash Two Ways

This probably isn’t news to you: it’s fall and winter squash are in season. For many of us, the yellow, orange, and green colors, and the savory-sweet, nutty flavor of winter squash go hand in hand with leaves changing colors and sandals getting pushed to the back of the closet until next June. There are so many possibilities: acorn squash roasted to perfection with butter and maple syrup, butternut squash pureed into a spicy, comforting soup, and, of course, sweet pumpkin filling a perfect pie and topped with whipped cream. This week, though, I decided to tackle spaghetti squash.
If you purchase a spaghetti squash and wonder how it got its name, the answer will become evident as soon as you cook it. Grab a fork and begin to scoop the seemingly solid flesh of the cooked fruit, and it will immediately pull away from the shell in vermicelli-like golden threads. It’s kind of fun, and allows for a whole new realm of possibilities that other types of squash don’t offer. Unlike other varieties, spaghetti squash are not ideal for pureeing, which, though not the only preparation of winter squash, it must be the most common. You can actually treat these strands of squash as you would pasta. There were so many opportunities for experimentation, I knew I couldn’t choose only one. So, I tried two different methods for cooking the squash, and two different methods for preparing the flesh.
Night one was spaghetti squash with meat sauce. I cooked the squash using the method that was the quickest, and most commonly used in the recipes I looked at: steamed in the microwave. Now, the word “microwave” is normally an immediate deal-breaker for me—I use my microwave for reheating, not for cooking. Also, the microwave methods all involved wrapping the squash in plastic wrap, a practice that did not seem safe to me. The box may read “Microwave Safe”, but I usually steer clear of putting any plastic in the microwave—we don’t know enough about what may get leeched out of the plastic during the cooking process, and what kind of harm that may do to us. All of that said, I was intrigued enough to try this quick and easy method that so many recipes recommended. So, after halving the squash and scooping out the seeds, I turned half of it flesh-side down in a glass dish, added a quarter cup of water, covered it in plastic wrap, and microwaved on high for 12 minutes.

Well, it certainly worked: the squash came out fully cooked, and pulling away from its shell in beautiful, individual strands, just as it should. I added some salt, pepper, and a dash of olive oil and set it aside to work on my meat sauce.

I kept my sauce simple. I didn’t cook it for as long as I would cook a Bolognese, and I think it kept the flavors simpler and fresher, perfect for allowing the taste of the squash to come through. It was a basic combination of some local, grass-fed beef, mirepoix, garlic, wine, canned whole peeled tomatoes with their juice, and various herbs and seasonings. I let it cook down for about forty minutes: just long enough to let it concentrate a little and to bring out the flavors of the herbs.
I mixed the cooked squash with the sauce, scooped it back into the shell, topped it with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and baked it for about half an hour to allow it to concentrate just a little more. I loved this combination: the squash and the herby tomato sauce, along with the earthy taste of the grass-fed beef made me think of harvest, wet, fallen leaves, and the comfort of hot food on a cool night. In other words, it tasted like autumn.
On night two, I opted for a more classic cooking method for the squash, and a simpler preparation of the final product, more of a side dish than a main course. This time, I roasted the squash in a 375 F oven. I brushed a baking sheet with vegetable oil, sprinkled the halved squash with salt and pepper, placed in face-down on the sheet, and baked for about thirty-five minutes.

Need I say more? Just looking at that deepened color, and the golden edges of that squash told me right away that this method had produced a richer, more flavorful product than the steamed version. The rest was pretty simple: I melted butter in a hot sauté pan, added the squash strands and tossed it for a couple of minutes, allowing a little more of the liquid to cook out of it. I sprinkled it with a little more salt and pepper, and added a dash of nutmeg. It made for an unexpectedly light side dish, highlighting the combination of savory and sweet that makes squash so delicious and versatile.
These were two of many possible preparations of spaghetti squash. I liked both, but in the future, I will definitely be roasting my squash rather than microwave-steaming it. Try one of these recipes, or make up your own. You should do it soon, though: the squash season will be over before you know it.

Spaghetti Squash with Meat Sauce
Serves 4

1 tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. ground beef, preferably grass-fed
Salt and pepper
½ cup ¼” diced onion
¼ cup ¼” diced carrot
¼ cup ¼” diced celery
1 tbsp. minced garlic
¼ tsp. dried red pepper flakes
½ cup dry red wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
1 tsp. ketchup
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried oregano
1 spaghetti squash, halved, seeds scooped out
¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, or a large, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the ground beef season with salt and pepper. Brown until no pink remains. Use a slotted spoon to transfer beef to a side dish. Reduce heat to medium, and add the onion, carrot, and celery to the drippings. Sauté until vegetables have softened and onion is translucent, about ten minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook one minute longer.

Return the beef to the pot, and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the red wine and deglaze, scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir in the tomatoes, ketchup, and dried herbs. Simmer for forty minutes, stirring occasionally, and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.

Meanwhile, place the squash, cut side down in a large, glass baking dish. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the dish, then cover tightly with microwave-safe plastic wrap. Microwave on high for about twelve minutes, until shell can easily be pierced with a fork. (Alternately, roast the squash using the method in the recipe below.) Using a fork, pull the flesh of the squash away from the shell, separating it into strands.

Stir the squash strands in with the finished sauce, taste, and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Scoop the squash and sauce into the emptied shells, and top with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place on a baking sheet, and bake in a 375 F oven for about 30 minutes, until Parm has melted and browned slightly, and filling is heated through. Cut each half in half, and serve one quarter squash per person.

Butter-Sautéed Spaghetti Squash with Nutmeg
Serves 4

1 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 spaghetti squash, halved, seeds scooped out
1 tbsp. butter
½ tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 F. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil. Sprinkle squash with salt and pepper, and place cut side down on baking sheet. Roast squash for thirty-five minutes, until shell can easily be pierced with a fork. Use a fork to pull squash flesh away from the shell into strands.

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat, and add butter to it. When foam has subsided, add the spaghetti squash strands to it. Sauté for a couple of minutes, tossing, and letting some of the moisture cook out of the squash. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Friendship Restored and a Curry Recreated

I reconnected with an old friend this summer. While we were once inseparable pals, we had grown up and drifted apart. Before this summer, we hadn’t spoken in over three years. The realization of this fact is what prompted me to reestablish a connection with this friend—it was too sad to think that after years of being so close, we could have gotten to the point where we weren’t even talking anymore. We met for coffee, the first of a few meet-ups we had over the course of the summer, occasions for long conversations, catching up on what we had missed in each other’s lives during the preceding years. One of the things that we discovered during our conversations was a mutual appreciation for good food and finding interesting local restaurants. So, for our next get-together, my friend brought me to one of her favorite spots, a wonderful vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres.
 As with a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, the menu was intriguing, varied, and original. Maybe I just don’t eat out at meat-free places all that often, but I am always amazed at the originality I see on the menus of places like these—tempting combination of fruits and vegetables, beans and sprouts, tofu and tempeh, and grains and seeds. That said, a cursory glance at the menu wouldn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary: it contains salads, sandwiches, some chilis, as well as their famous “bowls” (basically, ingredients thrown together in a bowl), and some meat-free burgers. It is the manifestations of these more or less standard categories that are really worth mentioning. I was tempted by sandwiches of grilled eggplant and hummus, bowls of bok choi, pickled carrot and daikon, coriander, Thai peanut sauce, and grilled tofu or tempeh, and burgers stuffed with Portobello, caramelized onions, and chipotle vegan mayo. They have something called veggielox, their vegan version of salmon lox, to be found on a number of salads and sandwiches. They are also famous for their smoked coconut which supposedly tastes like bacon—you can try it on their vegan version of a BLT. Everything looked great, and I hadn’t even gotten to the smoothies and fresh juices.

I finally settled on a mango lassi and the Chana—a chickpea curry wrapped up in chapati, a South Asian flatbread, a lot like a tortilla. Maybe it was the company, or maybe it was the fact that I had accidentally parked four blocks away and had to walk in the rain, so I was wet and cold and hungry, but it was a memorable meal. The sandwich was wonderful—a hot, spiced, flavorful curry, encased in a thin layer of soft bread. The seasoning of the filling was spot-on. I could taste the complexity of the curry without being overwhelmed by too much spice. I could taste the coconut milk it had been simmered in, and I could tell by the bite they still had that the beans had been cooked from their dry state, not drained from a can. I also loved how the curry was studded with sweet, chewy dates, a perfect complement to the savory curry. I was inspired. As my friend and I chatted about life, and love, and food, I knew that I would be attempting to recreate this dish myself.
Of course, that is exactly what I did. It had been almost two months since I was at Aux Vivres, but the memory of the taste of that curry was still with me when I tried my hand at making it a couple of weeks ago. I used what I know about making curries and what I thought I remembered about this particular one to try to bring it back to life.

I admit, I used canned chickpeas rather than dried ones because the can was already perched happily in my pantry, begging to be made into curry. I also thought the dish would taste good in pita bread, and so, in my quest to make more bread, and because I was still on holiday and I had the time, I made the pita myself. Finally, I didn’t have any dates, but I had some golden raisins, so I used those instead.
The trickiest part was the seasoning: it isn’t easy to match the flavor of something as complex as a curry, but enough time had passed and my memory had faded enough so that I knew I wasn’t going to be too picky about matching what I had had in the restaurant exactly. I used what I had and just tried to make it taste good. I used curry powder, turmeric, cardamom, anise, cayenne, cumin, and poppy seeds. For a more authentic curry, the cardamom should have been in the form of pods, the anise, stars, and the cumin, seeds, but I only had the ground version of each, so they made decent substitutes. I cooked my seasoning concoction in hot oil, and then added a paste of ginger and garlic.
Next came diced onion, carrot, and potato. I added the drained chickpeas and the raisins, then deglazed the pan with a little water. Once that had reduced a bit, I added a can of coconut milk, and let it simmer and reduce until there was barely any liquid left in the pan. As it cooked, I tasted, seasoned, and adjusted.

I would say it was a success. Of course, if I could go back to Aux Vivres now and try the original, I’m sure I could find a hundred things that are different about mine, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Andrew and I agreed that it was a delicious meal, and so I’ve shared it below. We had it with green salad.
I have to thank my friend for introducing me to this restaurant, a tiny reason amongst many larger, more meaningful ones for why I am thankful that she is back in my life. She was at my wedding and it felt right—unlike this recipe, like it couldn’t have been any other way.

**Note: If the pictures seem worse to you than usual, it doesn’t mean you need to get glasses: I can’t use my usual camera, and I’m stuck with one that does not photograph food well at all. My other camera should be back soon, though!

Chickpea Curry
Serves 4
2 tbsp. curry powder (preferably madras curry powder)
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground cardamom (or, use 1-2 cardamom pods)
1 tsp. anise (or, use 1 star anise)
½ tsp. cayenne
1 ½ tsp. cumin (or, use 1 tsp. cumin seeds)
½ tsp. poppy seeds
1 tbsp. garlic, minced
1 tbsp. ginger root, peeled and minced
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 medium carrots, small dice
1 medium yellow potato, medium dice
2 15oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup golden raisins
½ cup water
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
Pita bread, tortillas, or chapati

In a small bowl, combine the spices (the first 7 ingredients). Place the ginger and garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt, and mash together with a pestle to create a coarse paste.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the spice mixture and cook and stir until the spices have darkened and are fragrant, 30 seconds to one minute. Lower heat to medium, add the ginger and garlic, and stir for one more minute. Stir in the onion and carrots, cooking until they have just begun to soften.

Stir in the potato, chickpeas, and raisins. Increase heat to high, and then add the water, scraping the bottom of the pan to pull up the brown bits stuck there. Add the coconut milk and bring the curry to a simmer. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer and reduce until there is only a small amount of liquid left in the pan. Stir frequently, and taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve in warm pita pockets, or wrapped in tortillas or chapati.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Overcoming Skepticism: Fried Squash Blossoms

Whoever decided to pluck the unopened blossoms from a squash plant, stuff them with cheese, and then batter and deep fry them was a wise individual indeed. This is a fact I discovered recently when I purchased and ate squash blossoms for the first time. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first: I couldn’t imagine that fussing with these delicate little flowers would be worth the end result.
Skepticism sometimes needs to be put aside, though, and I was able to overcome mine when recently, I saw a bright basket of yellow squash blossoms perched on a merchant’s table at the farmer’s market. The price tag was not very encouraging: at six for five dollars, the blossoms weren’t exactly cheap. You need about six to eight blossoms per person if they are to be the main course. I was intrigued, though, and I’m always interested in working with an ingredient for the first time.

A few things I discovered in working with these: they need to be used within a day or two, because they brown and wilt quickly. Also, they need to be handled with care, because the delicate petals of the blossoms will, again, brown and wilt if you treat them too roughly, or touch them too much. Holding them mostly from the bottom where there is a more robust stem tends to work, though.

All right, enough of the negatives, what’s good about working with squash blossoms? Well, once you’ve discovered how to handle them, they are actually kind of fun to work with. I chose a recipe from last September’s Gourmet, Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta. The recipe involved stuffing the blossoms with a ricotta, parmesan, and mint mixture, dipping them in a tempura batter, deep frying them, and having them with a fresh, chunky tomato sauce on the side. Stuffing them proved to be easier than I had expected: just pry the petals of the blossom gently apart, then fill the space within with the stuffing. Gently twisting the petals will form a light seal to close the blossom up again.
The filled blossoms are then coated in a basic tempura batter. If you have never worked with tempura batter before, a word of warning: it is much thinner than other batters you may have worked with for deep frying, like a fritter batter. It won’t coat whatever you’re frying the way the thicker batters do, but that’s fine: you only want that delicate coating to stay on food.
The blossoms go into half an inch of hot oil (375 F) to fry until golden brown, about three minutes. You should see lots of bubbling, hear lots of crackling, and the blossoms should crisp up quickly.
If not, your oil is not hot enough and you’re going to end up with a soggy end result. When they’re done, take them out with tongs to drain on paper towels. They should be crispy and golden, but the batter should be thin enough that you can see the yellows and greens colors of the blossoms peeking through underneath.
So after all this, was it actually good? Was it worth all the work? In my opinion, yes and yes. I loved how the fried blossom created a delicate, but definite crisp exterior to encase that creamy, savory ricotta filling. They were easy to eat, and would make a great appetizer or main course. Though the blossoms are delicate, the process wasn’t all that tedious after all. As it turns out, I can produce some decent food when I overcome a little skepticism. I think that’s a lesson worth remembering.

Here's that recipe link once again:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bake Bread

It’s generally accepted in this part of the world that resolutions—big plans to eat healthier, be more organized, volunteer more, and so on—are made on January 1st. When I was growing up, that never quite felt right to me. I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that September was a more appropriate time to be making changes: after a summer of fun and freedom, September meant back to school, a perfect time to vow to quit procrastinating, do extra credit work this year, and get involved in that drama club I’m always saying I want to join. Even as I grew older and summers meant getting a job and working most of the hot hours away, September was always a time for a new beginning, an opportunity to resolve to do better and to be better. Today, I’m still going to school, and will be starting up again in a week. As I mentioned in my last post, I have had an eventful summer: I planned a wedding, had a wedding, and now I’m married! I do feel a little like a new person, and so the start of this school year seems an especially appropriate time to start making promises to myself (and now, to you) about how I’m going to be a better new me. I won’t bore you with the list, but I do have one that seems relevant enough to share: bake more bread.
By making my own bread, I will know exactly what is going into my bread (you can never really be sure with a lot of the breads you can buy at the grocery store today—most are full of suspicious-sounding preservatives). Also, baking bread is fun—at least, I think it is. I love the multi-step process of making bread, from mixing, to proofing, to forming, to baking. I love learning about the process of feeding starters, building gluten, and fermenting dough. I also love how the bread-making process always holds a certain level of uncertainty, and how one can never learn everything there is to know about bread. Finally, making more bread gives me an excuse to use some of the wonderful wedding gifts Andrew and I received, notably my KitchenAid Professional 5 Plus Series 5-Quart Bowl Stand Mixer.
I am in love.

To kick off my new life as a regular bread baker, I decided to make a loaf of whole wheat French bread. It’s a basic, straight-forward bread, and seemed like a good starting point. One of the keys successful bread is accurate measuring and, whenever possible using weight measurements rather than volume measurements. Weights are far more accurate, whereas volumes can have some variations.
This dough can be mixed using the straight dough method, which essentially means tossing everything into a bowl and mixing it up—sort of. The rest of the process is your basic knead, ferment, make-up, rest, and bake. If you make bread already, you know the drill. If not, I’ve explained the process in detail below, with pictures.

At the end of the process, you have yourself a beautiful, simple loaf of bread, the kitchen smells amazing, and you have (I hope) passed a relaxing bread-baking afternoon.
Some resolutions are easy to keep.

Whole Wheat French Bread
From Professional Baking 5th Edition by Wayne Gisslen
Makes one 1 lb. loaf

0.5 lb. water
0.4 oz fresh yeast, or 0.2 oz active dry yeast
6 oz whole wheat flour
8 oz bread flour or all-purpose flour
0.3 oz salt
0.07 oz malt syrup or honey
0.3 oz sugar
0.3 oz shortening

First, if using fresh or active dry yeast, dissolve the yeast in warm (100 F-105 F) water.
Then, combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of the mixer. Pour the water and yeast mixture over that, and add the remaining ingredients.
To start the mixing process, use the paddle attachment on mixer to form a somewhat uniform dough.
Once the dough starts to come together, switch to the dough hook. With the hook, mix the dough on second speed for about 10 minutes—until the dough is smooth and elastic. Since this is a whole wheat dough, you won’t be able to get a great window, but it should be done once the dough is quite elastic and doesn’t break quickly when stretched.
Ferment (rise) the dough in an oiled bowl, covered lightly in plastic wrap, for about two hours (at room temperature), until it has doubled in size.
On a clean, floured surface, flatten the relaxed dough into an oval about the length that the loaf will be, using hands and/or a rolling pin.
Then, roll the loaf up tightly, and seal the seam is well.
Flip the loaf over so that it lies seam-side down. Tuck in the ends, and then roll the loaf under the palms of your hands to even out the shape. Place the loaf on a cornmeal-dusted baking pan to proof until it has doubled in size again (the loaf should be covered during proofing).
Before going into the oven, brush the loaf with water, then give it diagonal slashes along the top (this will create a more evenly-shaped loaf).
Bake the loaf at 425 F for around 20 minutes, with steam for the first 10 minutes. “With steam” means exactly what it sounds like: there should be steam in the oven during the start of the baking process, moisture in the air to keep the dough from drying out too quickly. There are a couple of ways this can be done. The way I chose is to place a dish with hot water on the bottom tray in the oven, while placing the tray with the bread above it. This way is simple, and works great.
Another option is to spray water into the oven every two or three minutes using a spray bottle. This way involves less dishes and less moving trays around in the oven, but it also involves a lot of opening and closing of the oven door, which means your oven temperature will not stay consistent.

Once the first 10 minutes are up, the water tray should be removed from the oven, and then baking continues until the crust has a rich, deep brown color.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Summer Pleasures

It’s summertime, and the living is easy. Actually, the living is quite wonderful. I’m enjoying the season for some of the obvious reasons: warm and sunshiny weather, time off from school and work, lots of festivals going on, and, of course, plenty of local in-season fruits and vegetables. This summer is extra-special for me, though. As I have mentioned before, I am getting married, and it’s happening this summer, at the end of August. I am so excited to be tying the knot, and after a year of planning, it’s amazing to think that the big day is only a few weeks away. To plan for this momentous occasion, I came home from Seattle to my lovely Montreal to spend time with the family, and make final arrangements for the wedding. In the middle of all this, there isn’t enough time for me to get a job, so it has been a summer of happy wedding planning, fun days with friends, precious time with family, and lazy hours drinking coffee and reading on the deck.
All of these summer reunions and celebrations seem to revolve around food. I have cooked meals, gone out to eat with loved ones, and spent hours sitting at the dinner table with friends and family, talking and laughing over many a wonderful meal. Cooking together, eating together, tasting together, and experiencing the joy of food together seems to go hand in hand with enjoying other people’s company. It is one of the many reasons why I am looking forward to a life with food.

A recent celebration of the summer was my Mom’s birthday. To mark the occasion, my sister and I cooked dinner for the family. Now, this was the first time my sister and I had ever cooked together. I should also add that my sister is, like me, in culinary school. It could have gone horribly wrong, and ended in an angry storm of broken dishes, ruined food, and hurt egos. It didn’t, though. In fact, things went remarkably well. As it turns out, my sister and I work very well in the kitchen together. We danced gracefully around each other, working individually on some components, and together on others. We agreed on almost everything, lent one another a helping hand when necessary, and had fun doing it. We spent the afternoon shopping at a nearby market for fresh ingredients. We brought them home and created a memorable meal that was elegant, and not too heavy.

We started with a couple of plates of hors d’oeuvres. I made Roasted Figs with Prosciutto and Hazelnut Picada.
Heather made mini Spanish Spinach and Tomato Pizzas.
They were both memorable, and are definitely bound to be repeated. My figs created a wonderful combination of warm, sweet fruit, paired with salty prosciutto, and nutty-salty picada. Heather’s pizzas were refreshing bites of spinach on perfectly crispy crusts, finished off with crunchy pine nuts.

For our main, we collaborated on an Asparagus and Artichoke Salad with Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette, a Carrot and Parsnip Puree, and Mushroom Ravioles. The ravioles were on the non-traditional side, as we didn’t close the two sheets of pasta that sandwiched the sautéed mushrooms, but rather left them open, so that it looked a little like a loose lasagna. The concept, from Laura Calder of the Canadian Food Network show, French Cooking at Home, made for a fun presentation.
To finish off our meal, Heather made Lemon Mascarpone-Stuffed Crêpes with Fresh Berries and Honey.
It was a perfect end to the meal: though the mascarpone was rich, this was offset by the tartness of the berries, and the drizzle of honey added just the right amount of sweetness.

We lingered over the meal for well over an hour, sipping our wine, and enjoying each other’s company. It was good for the taste buds, the stomach, and the soul. Happy summer, everyone!

Mushroom Ravioles
From French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating by Laura Calder, p. 110
Serves 4

1 ½ lbs. mushrooms (Heather and I used a medley of portobello, cremini, and oyster mushrooms)
¼ cup butter
A splash olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
½ cup stock
A generous handful of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, more for garnish
Fresh lemon juice (optional)
3-4 tbsp. chopped fresh dill or sage (we had neither and used thyme—it was lovely)
8 3”x4” sheets dried pasta
Dill sprigs for garnish (again, we used thyme)

Cut the mushrooms into quarters or eights, depending on their size, and set aside. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Pout a tablespoon of the butter into a sauté pan. Continue heating the remaining butter in the saucepan until it turns light brown. Set aside. Bring a large pot of water to the boil for the pasta.

Add a splash of olive oil to the butter in the sauté pan. Set the pan on high heat and when the oil is hot, add the mushrooms, sautéing until slightly coloured, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes more. Pour over the stock, and boil to reduce to a couple of tablespoons, a matter of minutes. Stir in the cheese. Taste, check the seasonings, and add a squirt of lemon juice if you think it needs it. Stir in the herbs, and keep the mixture warm while you cook the pasta.

Generously salt the boiling pasta water. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, and return it to the pan, tossing with the reserved brown butter. lay a sheet of pasta on each of four serving plates. Spoon the mushrooms onto the pasta. Top with a second pasta sheet. Drizzle over some brown butter from the pasta pan. Garnish with a dill sprig and serve immediately.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cooking Local: Beautiful Beet Salad

Seasonal farmers’ markets are something of a novelty for me. I’ve been to permanent markets in Montreal, where farmers sell some of their produce, but they just aren’t the same as the lovely little Redmond Saturday Market that I can walk to from my apartment. Redmond’s farmers’ market runs every Saturday from May through October, and seems to be different each week. There are some constants: the quiet farmer right at the entrance whose produce is all organic, though he no longer carries the USDA organic certification, because he “doesn’t need to pay the government to tell (him) something (he) already knows,” the various food vendors, like the crepe stand, the tamale stand, and the Hawaiian ice stand, the eggs and dairy stand where you can get chicken eggs that were gathered that very morning, and the farmer with long hair that runs all the way down his back, who always tells you what he’ll be selling the following week. What changes, though, is the produce on sale because, of course, as the season progresses, the crops that are ready for harvesting change. I try to go to the market without a plan in mind in terms of what I’ll buy: I purchase whatever inspires me and then I work with that.
Recently, what inspired me were a few items that came together in a salad I have made several times before. I don’t know when exactly this salad became popular, and I’m not entirely sure whether or not it’s still considered “in”, or if it has been demoted to passé status, but it is a favorite of mine. I helped to make it at a wine dinner at my school about a year ago, I’ve had it at Seattle’s amazing Crush restaurant, and I’ve seen it on the menu at several other establishments. I’ve also made versions of it at home, experimenting with slightly different ingredients each time.

The salad in question is a beet salad, made with some kind of green, or often a combination of a few varieties, tossed with a vinaigrette, usually balsamic, and dotted with roasted beets, chèvre, and often some kind of nut, usually walnuts or hazelnuts.

This time, I made mine with farmers’ market spinach, and green beans that I blanched and shocked (dropped into boiling water for about 45 seconds, then immediately plunged into ice water to stop the cooking process), unfortunately not from the market …
… farmers’ market beets, which I roasted and quartered …
… and amazing chèvre (goat’s cheese) that I got at Pike Place Market. I had the opportunity to chat with the farmer who makes the cheese and I got to hear all about how his goats live their lives, which was very cool!
I tossed my spinach and green beans with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, then laid it out on my fancy-schmancy square white plate:
I roasted the beets by wrapping them in tin foil, then tossing them in the oven for 45 minutes. When they were tender, I let them cool for a few minutes, then removed the skin simply by rubbing them with a paper towel—trust me, it comes right off! When the beets cooled completely, I quartered them, and then placed them gently in the salad.

Next, I dotted the salad with some of that amazing chèvre, and drizzled it all one more time with the vinaigrette.
I didn’t use nuts this time, but when I do, my favorites are walnuts. I think this salad is visually stunning, and absolutely delicious. The combination of roasted beets and goat cheese is heavenly. Actually, if you’re not a big fan of beets, but you’re willing to try them again, I can’t think of a better way: this salad will please almost any palette.

I won’t give a proper recipe, because you should definitely try making a version of your own. Try different greens, different vinaigrettes, and different vegetables. Go to your local farmers’ market, and see what inspires you!