Thursday, April 26, 2012

A gray day calls for nice hot soup!

It’s one of those early spring days here in Toronto that’s gloomy, damp and for some reason always makes me feel chillier than I ought to feel. Since I had to do a bit of spring gardening work in the backyard this morning, I came back into the house feeling cold and a bit miserable.

Fortunately, I found Vicki hard at work on our lunch. We had the ingredients on hand to make a quick and delicious soup that warmed me to the tips of my toes: Tuscan Bean Soup. It was ready from start to finish in about thirty-five minutes.

I believe Vicki originally found this recipe in one of our many cookbooks, but as usual, we messed around with it a good bit since making it for the first time. Another good thing is that it’s vegetarian and comes with a good balance of vegetables to give you a healthy shot of complete protein, always an important consideration when you’re not eating meat.

As always, good soup begins with the best stock. Today, we used our vegetable stock made with bags of frozen peelings, leftovers, herb stems and tomato skins from our sauce-making late last summer. When we get enough, we throw everything into our very large stock pot and put it on to simmer for a few hours. That happened earlier this week, and as we hadn’t packaged up the new stock to put it into the freezer, we didn’t even have to thaw it.

[Sidebar: This current batch of stock contained trimmings from celery, carrot, onion, leek greens, shallots, garlic, parsnips, and tomatoes, as well as stalks from parsley, thyme, rosemary and sage. All of these are things we save whenever we’re prepping food. So what most people would throw in the garbage or compost, we save for stock. It tastes fantastic and is basically free except for the energy needed to freeze it and later cook it. Afterwards, the remains go into the compost bin and break down very quickly. What’s not to like about that?]

Other than the stock, the rest of the ingredients in this soup are pretty unremarkable. About the only thing we might not have on hand all the time for this is the Savoy cabbage. Everything else are pretty well staple items in our kitchen.

So if you’re in the mood to whip up a warming soup that’s simple, quick, and tasty, you might want to give this a try.

Tuscan Bean Soup
Serves 4 as a supper dish 

Vicki’s eye was caught by this recipe as she was looking for a hearty fall/winter soup. She had her doubts when she saw cabbage because we don’t think of cabbage as a vegetable that Italians usually eat, but beans are definitely a staple of the Tuscan diet. So she figured, what the heck, she’d give it a try. It is fantastic and tastes even better when reheated. Cannellini beans are like navy beans, the ones used to make baked beans. You should be able to find them canned in the supermarket. Buon appetito!

3 Tbs olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 cup sliced leeks (¼" thick slices), white portion only
1½ cups redskin potatoes, ½" dice
1 Tbs minced garlic
6 cups vegetable stock
1 14 oz. can cannelloni beans, drained
6 oz. Savoy cabbage, shredded
3 Tbs chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 Tbs chopped fresh oregano
3/4 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot, and gently cook the onion, leeks, potato and garlic for 4-5 minutes until they are just beginning to soften.

2. Pour in the stock, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

3. Stir in the cabbage, beans and half the herbs, season and simmer for a further 10 minutes.

4. Spoon about one third of the soup into a food processor or blender and process until fairly smooth. Return the soup to the pot, adjust the seasoning, and heat through for 5 minutes.

5. Ladle the soup into heated bowls, sprinkle with remaining herbs and Parmesan cheese. Serve with a crusty baguette, or garlic toasts. To make garlic toasts, simply slice the baguette, drizzle some olive oil over each slice, rub them with a sliced clove of raw garlic, and toast in the broiler until golden.

Monday, April 23, 2012

It was supposed to be a nice Sunday fry-up…

Yesterday began as a quiet Sunday morning (with two concerts looming later in the day for Vicki) and we both felt like having something more substantial than our usual yogurt, cereal, and fruit. With some of the Sausage King’s fantastic breakfast links and double-smoked bacon, and eggs from our favorite supplier (organically-raised, pastured chickens), we had the makings of a classic British fry-up, something we have enjoyed at many B&Bs in Olde Blighty. Nothing beats one of these if you want to begin your day with a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast.

I decided to grill some tomatoes to go along with fried mushrooms, so we broke our usual vow not to buy these things out of season. Vicki came home with two that still had the stems and were hydroponically grown, so we stood a chance to have something better than what’s usually available. They turned out surprisingly well with the addition of a bit of balsamic vinegar drizzled over the top.

She’d also come home with some fruit juice because we’d already had two cups of coffee. Since she’d be concertizing in a few hours, Vicki didn’t need her nerves jangling from too much caffeine.

The juice was a Tropicana® product, so it came at a premium price. This brand’s whole image is built on real fruit juice, you know, better than average orange juice from fresh-squeezed fruit. They’ve branched out over the years to other fruit juices, but the image that sticks in a shopper’s mind is all about the fresh-squeezed orange juice, right?

Fresh is not what we got.

The 1.75 L container of “Tropicana® Tropics® Paradise Blendjuice has a lovely photo of a pineapple, a mango, a passion fruit (I believe), accompanied by an azure blue sea and a lovely phalaenopsis blossom. Vicki picked it up after seeing “100% juice blend” at the bottom of the carton. It also says in a small flash: “2 servings of fruit per 250 ml serving”.

The juice didn’t taste bad, but I looked at the label more closely while we ate, and I realized we’d been had. The back of the carton begins with:

2 servings of fruit in every glass*
No added sugar
Excellent source of Vitamin C
Source of Potassium

All good so far, right? Then I looked at the Nutrition Facts box. Next to Fibre was a big fat 0 grams. Hmmm... One thing that is especially important for anyone’s diet is fibre. That is one of the big reasons that fruit is recommended for everyone’s daily intake of food. Fruit is an excellent source of fiber, especially water-soluable fiber which you don't get from grains. To be fair, Tropicana did not promise us any fiber, but it was my expectation that there would be some in the juice. But that's what this is all about: playing to the buyers' expectations.

My eyes dropped down to the ingredients list: “Fruit juices from concentrate (pineapple, apple and passion fruit), carrot juice from concentrate, natural flavours, vitamin C, colour.”

To say the least, I was furious. I know why the put carrot juice in: it’s cheap and adds a color. But I’ll bet that people would think twice about buying this product if they’d included a bunch of carrots in the package photo. Apple juice is in there, too, again, probably because it’s cheap. And what's particularly tropical about carrots and apples?

What natural flavours are they using? That’s a pretty nebulous term and makes my antennae twitch. If the fruit juices used were from high-quality fruit, you’d expect them to have a lot of flavor, right? Why does this product need more flavor? I leave you to figure this out. Ditto for colour. Why does it need added color, and what was this color made from?

Finally, an “excellent source of vitamin C”. Why? Because they added it, just like you’d get ascorbic acid from a vitamin tablet. Most of it didn’t come from the fruit juices used.

I’ve previously done some research on the way Tropicana makes their products. I doubt if you’ve ever had a glass of any of their products that was made from absolutely fresh fruit. Even their orange juice is pretty highly processed: Click Here to view an article that appeared on the CBC not that long ago.

I’m not saying that this product will make you ill or anything. I’m just really incensed that they are leading consumers down the garden path. The packaging, the choice of words, and their advertising campaigns leads us to believe that we’re getting something just a few steps away from the orchard, minimally processed and better for you then the cans of concentrate you’ll find in the freezer section. You’re happy to pay more to buy a quality product. The only thing different from Tropicana® Tropics® Paradise Blend juice and frozen concentrated juice is that you're paying for them to add water.

What you’re being sold, while perfectly legal, falls far short of the expectation generated by Tropicana®'s advertising and product packaging. Great advertising? Sure. Completely honest and above board. I’m not so sure there. I certainly won’t be buying this product again. I will also stay away from all Tropicana® products in the future.

We should have just served water and slices from some very nice fresh Cortland apples that I bought from the Clement’s at the market the previous day.

Sorry for the mixture of US and British English. Blame it on the packaging. I wanted to quote it directly.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blechta kitchen staples: food

A reader of this blog has asked me to list the things we have in our kitchen. Boy, that’s a huge topic, and one that comes with a lot of pitfalls, since we cook very individually, which I’m sure most people do. I also always pull back from things like this because it’s too close to telling people what to do, and I have a natural aversion to that. But on the other hand, isn’t that what this blog is all about: my opinions on food. I guess I just have to get used to this “being an expert” thing, even if every day it’s hammered home to me that there is so much more I don’t know about food and cooking. In fact, that’s a terrific topic for a future posting.

Anyway, Helen (the aforementioned reader) is right. Maybe it is time to take everyone into the Blechta Test Kitchens here in beautiful downtown Toronto, and reveal what’s lurking in our larder. In a later post, I’ll also discuss the tools we use for cooking and why we’ve chosen them.

Certain things in every kitchen are considered staple items, and we’re no different. There are things we must always have on hand so we’re not constantly running to the grocery store. We also have a rough idea what we’re going to cook over the next week, so that I can do a sensible shopping when we make our weekly run to the St. Lawrence Market. It’s amazing how your fridge, shelves, and freezer can fill up with stuff if you don’t. Not having a shopping list is also a great way to have a lot of good food go bad – and to us, that’s a cardinal sin.

So what are considered staples in the Blechta kitchen? Our goal is to have enough food on hand so that we can get away without shopping for a week. I almost always go to the Market, but if I can’t, we’re good to go and don’t have to rely on the supermarket.

To start off, every fall, we preserve chopped tomatoes in 1, 2 and 4-cup Mason jars. Ditto for tomato sauce. Since we cook a lot of Italian food, jars are brought up from the basement at least once a week. Tomatoes also add depth to stews and casseroles, so in winter when we make these a lot, a bit of tomato is generally thrown in. We also preserve chutney, spiced peaches, dill pickles and currant jelly. The only canned tomato we use is paste. It’s possible to make it but difficult because it burns easily and you have to stir it constantly for a very long time while it boils down. We also freeze roasted red peppers that we do up over a wood fire, a favorite fall ritual.

We always have several dried pastas on hand, lately it’s made more with spelt than anything. Pasta is on the menu once or twice every week and spelt is better for you than plain white pasta. For most things, it tastes better, too.

As for grains, we always have white and brown basmati rice, white arborio rice, wild rice, kasha, cornmeal and rolled oats. White and whole wheat flour (or graham when we can find it) are on hand. Whole grain flours are kept tightly wrapped in our freezer. In our freezer we also keep walnuts, pine nuts, cashews and slivered almonds.

For fats, we have several different kinds of cold-pressed olive oils (we use mostly olive oil for cooking), canola oil, sweet butter, heart-healthy margarine, and a bit of rendered bacon fat. For vinegars, we use many so you’ll always find red and white wine, apple cider, tarragon and two different grades of balsamic, one for general cooking and one for very special salads (the expensive stuff). We always have white sugar, light and dark brown sugar and some very special honey from a friend in Quebec. Our freezer holds a liter jar of maple syrup from our source in Eastern Ontario. And there’s usually milk and yogurt on hand.

In the freezer you'll always find an assortment of sausages (from the Sausage King), a package of Berretta ground beef (grass fed when we can get it), a whole chicken and maybe some chicken parts (from Clement Poultry), bacon, and usually a pork steak. We keep canned tuna, baby clams and smoked oysters (something we love) in the pantry, and you can usually find a few salted anchovies lurking in the back of the fridge. Also in the freezer is a good assortment of stock: chicken, fish, beef, lamb, duck and vegetable. (Read about making it HERE.)

Our spice/herb shelves are full with nearly anything you can imagine, and during the growing season we grow at least a dozen herbs either in pots or the garden (bay, chervil, chives, cilantro, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, dill, and summer and winter savory). We always have a stock of juniper berries and Hungarian paprika as well as Spanish (sweet and smoked). We only use sea salt and have many different kinds, and we keep green, red, white, and black pepper in mills. Fresh garlic, shallots, lemons, limes and some fresh herbs in winter are on the top shelf of the fridge door. We have about 5 kinds of mustard (most from Koslik’s) and of course you’ll find low-fat mayo and ketchup. A lot of different rubs, Worchestershire sauce, tabasco, dry mustard, pickle relish, Asian chili sauce are also lurking around for use when needed. We have three different soy sauces on hand at all times, and use them more than you’d imagine. They work much better than salt in most sauces and stews.

For fruits and vegs, you’ll always find red and yellow onions, carrots, celery, various greens, several different kinds of potatoes (from Bob Taylor, “The Potato Guy”), some sort of apple and various fruits in season. We also keep some canned and frozen fruits and vegs for emergencies.

In the fridge’s dairy drawer, we stock parmesan, romano, cheddar and some sort of blue cheese (I’m very fond of blue cheese). You’ll usually find one or two other kinds, since we find it hard to resist when we’re at Chris’s Cheesemongers at the market. We always have some organic eggs from pastured chickens.

Last of all, you will never find us without a spare bag of Kick Ass coffee from Kicking Horse. Vicki could not get up in the morning without it.

So, what do you consider staple items?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Let’s go Hungarian!

Some of the first cookbooks I ever got were part of a Doubleday book club my mother and I joined, the Cookbook Guild, or some such thing. It was the usual deal: promise to buy a certain number over the course of a year and you’d get a bunch of free ones. Two of these remain among my favorites: Leone’s Italian Cookbook and The Blue Danube Cookbook. Both contain some wonderful recipes that we still make a few times a year, and both are a lot of fun to read. They certainly inspired me along the way.

I’ve inundated you all with enough Italian recipes over the past two months, so I feel it’s time to branch out a bit. Today, I’m going to delve into a chicken favorite from the latter cookbook, and share a quick, easy and very tasty recipe from one of the countries touched by the Danube River: Hungary.

Probably like me, you think of paprika when you hear the words “Hungary” and “cooking”. The first thing you should know (if you don’t already) is that Hungarian paprika is very different than the more usual Spanish paprika. They are certainly not interchangeable. So if you want to try this recipe, you’ll need to have some Hungarian paprika on hand. Fortunately, it’s not hard to find these days. I buy all my herbs and spices from bulk food warehouses, mostly because you’re guaranteed to get fresh if they are a busy place, and second, because they almost always stock some of the harder to find items like Hungarian paprika.

How to describe it? There is more depth of flavor than Spanish. Both are made from red peppers and some can be quite spicy. Mostly what you find under the generic term Hungarian is known as Delicate (csípősmentes csemege) or Exquisite Delicate (csemegepaprika) which is slightly more pungent. If you have a Hungarian food store nearby, check out some of the others. You’ll find them in all different colors, flavors and spiciness. Hungarians, as you’ll soon discover, are very into paprika.

As for this dish, Chicken Paprikash, the second word refers to the addition at the end of cooking of sour cream. If you make this dish without sour cream, it would be called Chicken Paprika. It’s worth a try, but we prefer the sour cream version.

It is simplicity itself to make, doesn’t take very long, and the only knock I can give it is that it doesn’t reheat successfully unless you don’t mind the sour cream separating. It tastes fine otherwise.

Chicken Paprikash
Serves 4-6

While you can serve this very easy and delicious dish with egg noodles, the traditional accompaniment in Hungary is “Noki”. If you’d like the recipe for these little gems, let me know. They’re actually pretty easy to make. Altogether it’s a satisfying meal on those cold winter evenings or in early spring when the chickens are young and tender.

Speaking of which, if you can find a source of farm-raised, free range chicken, buy it! You will be amazed at what real chicken tastes like.

1 large chicken (or parts equaling such)
2 Tbs bacon fat
1½ cups red onion, finely chopped
1-2 Tbs Hungarian paprika
½ tsp Salt
2 Tbs flour
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup sour cream (at room temperature) We use low-fat sour cream and it tastes just fine with this.

1. Cut up the chicken into pieces (we usually cut the breasts in half). Rinse and pat dry thoroughly.

2. In a frying pan, melt the bacon fat and cook the onion until it is golden. Remove to a bowl.

3. Sprinkle the chicken pieces on all sides with paprika. Add a bit more bacon fat to your pan if needed and brown the chicken a few pieces at a time.

4. Arrange all the chicken in the pan in one layer. Sprinkle with salt, cover and greatly reduce heat. Let chicken stew in its own juice for 15 minutes. Add a bit of water if the pan is getting dry. Chicken is cooked if its juices run clear when poked with a knife. Remove the chicken from the pan and keep warm.

5. While this is going on, heat up the stock.

6. Blend flour in with the gravy in the pan. Cook for 2 minutes. (We usually add a bit more paprika here, too.) Add heated stock, cooked onions and stir gently, scraping up any of the good bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the sauce has thickened, put the chicken back in and cook gently until everything is heated through.

7. Place the chicken in serving bowl, then stir the sour cream into the sauce. (Never boil sour cream! It will separate.) Check for salt and grind some black pepper into the sauce. Pour over the chicken and serve while piping hot.

Recipe is mostly from The Blue Danube Cookbook by Maria Kozslik Donovan

Friday, April 13, 2012

Our latest batch of Guanciale

If you’ve been following this blog from the beginning – or have looked back that far into the archives – you’ll know that one of the first posts was about my new-found interest in home charcuterie, or “making sausage and stuff like that” – if you don’t like high-fallootin’ cooking words.

One of the simplest of home curing recipes is guanciale, an Italian bacon-like creation that is found primarily in the central part of the country near Rome, although its fame seems to be spreading. We were able to find some in such small places as Gaiole-in-Chianti when we were in Italy last June. It was almost impossible to find in North America until relatively recently, too. Now, we can even pick some up two blocks from our house at Zito’s, an Italian grocery that opened last summer. If you want to try your hand at making guanciale, the recipe is HERE. The only difficult part of making this delicacy is finding the proper place to hang it. We’re lucky. Our basement is pretty nigh perfect. In the colder months, humidity is around 75% and the temperature is 55°F.

Anyway, we just brought our second batch of guanciale up from the basement yesterday. This one was different than the first in that I added more juniper berries and thyme. I also added about an ounce of Orvieto (white wine) to each package for the duration of the curing stage.

So what are the results? This batch has a more pronounced juniper flavor but I don’t notice the thyme much more. There is slightly more sweetness which is possibly due to the wine. The bit I sampled was raw, but this weekend we’re going to make our favorite recipe that uses guanciale, spaghetti all’amatriciana (recipe below), so we’ll be sampling some of the new batch after it’s been cooked, which may yield different flavor results.

I think we’re pretty much over our curing season as the basement temperature is on the rise. The humidity is also dropping which means that drying is speeding up – which is not a good thing since I believe this second batch has hung a bit too long. I’ll have to be watching this more closely in the future. I’ve also made some lonzino (cured pork loin) which dried out a bit too much – but it is very delicious. I’ll do a post on that at a later date.

On to Amatrice which is the originating town of today’s recipe. It’s in northern Lazio and its founding goes all the way back to Roman times, if not further. Since amatriciana sauce uses tomatoes, the recipe can’t be all that old since tomatoes were unknown in Europe before the settling of North America. As for guanciale, I haven’t been able to discover anything about its origins, but I suspect it goes back quite a long time, primarily because it’s so easy to make.

In any event, some bright person way back when decided to combine the flavor of fresh Italian tomatoes to their local meat delicacy and a match made in heaven was the result. Put simply, amatriciana is a fantastic dish. As a matter of fact, it’s become my redheaded wife’s favorite. When we arrived in Rome last June, very travel-stained after a horrible flight and a search for Vicki’s missing luggage, practically the first thing we did was leave the apartment we’d rented in the section of town near the Villa Borghese in search of a restaurant and some amatriciana. My photo to the right was taken at that restaurant and on the plates in front of me are two kinds of amatriciana: red and white – or as it’s also known, pasta all grigia, a recipe I’ll share on some future occasion, completing our guanciale trifecta (spaghetti alla carbonara being the third).

Spaghetti all’amatriciana is simplicity itself to make, but it is not with out controversy in its ingredients. (What else is new?) Romans add a bit of sliced, then sautéed onion to the sauce. If you’re from Amatrice, you apparently look on this addition with deep scorn, bordering on contempt. We’ve made it both ways, and I have to admit we enjoy the bit of sweetness that the onions add. Don’t use too much, though! Onion can easily overwhelm this recipe.

Spaghetti all’amatriciana
Serves 4

This is our idea of a great dish. Not only is it absolutely delicious, but you can put it together in about the time it takes to bring a pot of water to the boil to cook your pasta. Guanciale is a must. Look online if Italian food stores in your area can’t help you. It might be a bit hard to find, but accept no substitutes! With a glass of good Italian red wine, you’ll feel like you’re in a trattoria in Roma. Also, if you can find canned San Marzano tomatoes, all the better. They are the best sauce tomatoes in the world and worth the effort to source.

Unlike Carbonara, this dish isn’t at all finicky to make. It’s a perfect dish to make for company because it can be cooked ahead, stopping at step 4. Just bring the sauce back to a boil as the pasta cooks. Bucatini pasta is generally used by Romans for this dish, so use it if you really want to be authentic. Buon appetito!

1 lb dry spaghetti
1-2 Tbs Olive oil
6 oz diced guanciale (trim off any rind first) – okay, if you must substitute, use pancetta.
¾ cup thinly-sliced onion quarters
½ cup dry white wine
1 liter diced tomatoes (or one 28-ounce can)
½ tsp hot red pepper flakes
1+ cup freshly grated pecorino Romano (do yourself a favor and buy the imported stuff)
pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil, then fry guanciale over low heat until it’s crisp and browned. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon. Leave all the fat. You’ll need it.

2. Cook the sliced onions in the guanciale fat and olive oil until it’s translucent.

3. Add the tomatoes, white wine and pepper flakes, then boil the sauce fairly hard to evaporate most of the liquid. Meanwhile cook the pasta to taste.

4. When everything is ready, put the cooked guanciale back into the sauce 
and stir it a bit.

5. In the sauté pan over low heat, toss the pasta with the sauce to get it well-coated, then add the pecorino Romano and a good grinding of pepper. Toss thoroughly to melt the cheese into the sauce. You probably won’t need salt since pecorino is a fairly salty cheese.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Now here’s something really interesting…

While driving home from the St. Lawrence Market, having done my weekly shopping expedition with my son Karel, I was listening to Day 6 on CBC on the car’s radio. One of the interviews was with an American food consultant named Barb Stuckey (author of Taste What You’re Missing). The discussion centered around how sound can affect the taste of the foods we’re eating, or at least the perception of how that food tastes.

Like me, you’re probably going “huh?”

Well, the premise is that the sound of food seems to have a direct relationship to how it tastes. Citing studies and experiments, Barb told listeners it’s become plausible that if we hear the snap of a really crispy potato chip, for example, then when we eat it, the flavor of the chips will be perceived as better than if we didn’t hear the crispiness of the chip as well. Obviously, this would be the reason behind chip advertisements featuring people crunching away really loudly on the product being advertised. Cut down the volume of the crunch, and the chip isn’t perceived as being quite so tasty.

Another example Ms Stuckey used was an eggs and bacon-flavored ice cream that was tested. (I know that sounds rather disgusting, but someone did make an ice cream combining these flavors.) If the sound of bacon sizzling in a pan was played in the background while a test subject was sampling the ice cream, they perceived the flavor as being more bacon-y. If the sound of hens clucking was played, it was perceived as being more egg-y.

Lastly, she talked about wine and how the perception of the flavor of wines changes by the sort of music that’s played in the background while you’re sampling it. A Cabernet Sauvignon will taste more powerful and in your face if Guns ‘n’ Roses is being played, whereas if you play, say, a Madonna tune (or other pop music), then the same wine will taste softer and more fruity.

I stayed put in the car to listen to the end of the interview because it was so fascinating. I would certainly like to find out more. Marketing decisions are already being made using these techniques with doors on cabinets holding milk actually going “moo” when they’re opened. I guess the feeling is that the good perception of the milk will be enhanced by the sound of cows. So now we can be even more manipulated when we visit the supermarket.

But beyond this, we might be able enhance the flavor of our meals by choosing appropriate background music for the food being served. Restaurants would, of course, want to take advantage of this, but we could also at home. I guess a meal Chez Blechta will have to now consider having a soundtrack, rather than us just throwing on some music we’d like to hear.

If you want to hear the Stuckey interview with Brent Bambury, the host of Day 6, click HERE. The interview starts 8:13 seconds into the show. The player is just below the photo of the F-35 fighter at the top of the page.

I have a very sick computer which is why this posting is late. I hope it will not take long for my Mac to get out of the hospital, but I will try to keep posting on the two or three times a week schedule that I’ve been using. Stay tuned! Or as we say here at AMFAS, stay tuna-ed!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

When dinner just can’t wait…

I got caught out today. Most days, I’m on dinner detail. There are several reasons for this. Mostly it revolves around the fact that my wife has flute students most evenings. Unless she makes a casserole-type of thing, or something that can be heated up at the last minute, I’m the one who has the time to do our cooking – and I really enjoy doing it.

Another reason is that I’m much better at ala minute-type cooking, having worked in restaurants and also not being a redhead. (My gorgeous and talented wife does not deal well with stress in the kitchen.) Since a lot of our cooking style is based on having a number of things on the go, I’m elected by default.

So, getting back to today, I was supposed to have dinner ready around 5:30, when her one-hour break began. Unfortunately, work intervened, and I was hot at it on the computer when five o’clock came and went. At 5:08, my brain kicked in and I raced out to our kitchen. Fortunately, we’d decided earlier in the day that we’d have pasta with red clam sauce, so while it would be tight, I knew I’d get dinner on the table in a timely fashion.

Which brings me to the point of this posting: you can make a really good meal without spending hours in the kitchen. Often, when time is short, it’s easy to just say, “Let’s order out,” or “I’ll pick up a pizza on the way home.” But if you plan ahead and keep a few staple things in your cupboard or pantry, you can have the makings of an excellent meal, and be able to whip it up in less time than it would take to order take-out, wait and then pick it up.

We have collected a fair number of these time-saver recipes. I’ve already covered Vicki’s favorite, spaghetti al’amatriciana in one of my earlier blog postings. Another favorite is the recipe below: Linguine with red clam sauce.

I have no recollection of where we discovered this little gem, but we’ve been making it for at least twenty years. It has a small ingredient list, requires nothing fresh (if you don’t want or have the time to get fancy) and can literally be made in the time it takes to bring a pot of pasta water to the boil. Tonight, from start to finish, I had dinner on the table in seventeen minutes. With a glass of wine and a tossed lettuce salad, you’ve got a meal you’d be quite satisfied to pay $40 for in a restaurant or for take-out.

What’s not to like about that? Try this recipe and I’m sure you’ll agree.

Linguine with Red Clam Sauce

Serves 3-4

1 lb linguine (We currently use linguine made with spelt flour for this. Yummy!)
1 can whole baby clams (5.5 oz can)
1 can diced tomatoes (28 oz)
½ cup onion, finely sliced
1 or 2 garlic cloves
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano (or 1 Tbs minced fresh)
salt (to taste)
freshly-ground pepper

1. Put a big pot of water on to boil.

2. Dice onion. Peel and smash the garlic.

3. In a hot skillet put olive oil and heat until point of fragrance, add onions and garlic and sauté until soft (3-4 minutes).

4. Add tomatoes and clam juices and boil rapidly until mixture is getting fairly dry. Turn down the heat.

5. Around this time the water should be boiling. Add a generous amount of salt then the linguine to the pot and stir occasionally to keep it from sticking.

6. About two minutes before linguine is finished, put the clams in the sauce and just heat through. Add pepper to taste, check for salt and adjust, if needed.

7. Drain linguine and toss in the sauce.

If you wish, add some freshly chopped parsley to the sauce just before tossing. I usually add a touch of cayenne to my portion. And that’s all it takes to have a great meal!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

An Italian brunch treat: Strata

It’s a rather cold and drearily damp Sunday here in Toronto, the sort of day that makes me think of comfort food. That leads to poking around the kitchen to see what we have. Since we got up late (gigs last night), it was probably best to have something more in the line of brunch. Hmmm… What to do… We have some proscuitto I bought at the market yesterday, a nice bunch of basil (earmarked for pesto), a loaf of bread, milk, eggs. I realized we were halfway to having the ingredients for a brunch dish Vicki’s cousin first served to us on a Christmas morning in New York City a few years back.

Strata, meaning “layers” in Italian, is a lovely thing and easy to make. When you look at the ingredient list below, your first reaction might be, “Huh?”, followed by a quick flip to another recipe, but I urge you to carry on. Everything works together in a magical and delicious way, and while the ingredients may not be what you would expect, the result is truly excellent.

Another reason this is a great dish for serving at a brunch is that it’s made the night before, can be served hot, warm or room temperature, so if guest arrive in scattered waves, the main feature of the meal is still very eatable. All you do is throw it in the oven and bake for an hour, no last-minute fussing. That’s my idea of a useful feature of a recipe for entertaining.

Lastly, you can easily vary the ingredients. Throw in some oven-roasted tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, cooked spinach, bacon. A lot of different flavors will work excellently with the base of bread, eggs and cheese. In that case, you should probably call this recipe “strata-various”. Sorry… I just couldn’t resist.

Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Strata
Serves 6-8

18 slices firm white bread, crusts removed
6 oz prosciutto, thinly sliced
8 oz goat cheese, crumbled
4 oz provolone, grated (I suggest provolone picante from Italy, if you can find it)
¼ cup green onions, chopped
8 Tbs fresh basil, shredded
6 large eggs
2½ cups milk
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
½ tsp salt
3 Tbs butter, melted

1. Line bottom of a 13"x9"x2" glass or ceramic baking dish with 1 layer of bread (cut slices to fit). Arrange half of the prosciutto evenly over the bread. Sprinkle half of goat cheese and half of provolone over this. Finish the layer with half of the green onions and half of the basil.

2. Repeat the step above, creating a second layer. Cut the remaining bread into ¼" cubes and sprinkle over the top.

3. In a bowl, whisk eggs, milk, mustard, and salt. Season to taste with pepper. Pour this mixture over the strata; press down the bread with a spatula. Drizzle melted butter over all. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 350°. Uncover strata and let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Bake until the center is set, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven.

5. Now preheat the broiler and place the strata under it until the top is golden. Watch this carefully; it happens fast!

6. Cut into large squares and serve. This recipe also reheats quite well. Put it into a 350° oven for about 15-20 minutes. You only need it to be warm.

Buon appetito!