Thursday, August 28, 2008

Patlıcan Beğendi (Creamy Eggplant Purée)

Patlıcan Beğendi is a Turkish dish and the name translates roughly as "The eggplant pleased (someone)", and if you make this, I can assure you that the eggplant will certainly please you (patlıcan beğeneceksin for you language buffs, and note that the 'ğ' is not really pronounced, so it's more like 'beyendi' or 'beyenejeksin' depending on what you want to say)!

This dish was the first meal I had in Turkey, and I don't think I'll ever forget those first few bites! I had been backpacking all over Europe for four weeks with three friends - two Turkish, and one other American - and we had arranged to spend the last 5 days of the trip in the Turkish girls' native city of Istanbul.

While all backpacking trips involve a good deal of 'roughing it', the journey to Istanbul was a particularly difficult stretch. It took us a full two days starting from Venice in the morning, taking the train to the Italian port of Ancona, then a 19-hour ferry ride to Patras in Greece, sweaty crowded trains all along the coast of Greece up to Thessaloniki, where we spent a mostly sleepless night on the street outside the train station (they closed for cleaning from 2:30 to 5 am), and another long train ride to Istanbul, with some highly suspicious stops at the border in between.

As you can imagine, by the evening when we finally made it to Istanbul, we were filthy, exhausted and pretty darn hungry, having eaten little but train station sandwiches for the past few days. When we walked into the friend's apartment where we would be staying, it was like re-entering a long-forgotten world - oh yes, people do live in houses. Houses with showers! Beds! Private bathrooms! And of course, home-cooked meals!

After we had showered off all the Grecian, Italian, and Turkish dirt that had steadily been collecting on us and all our things, we entered the kitchen, where the friend's housekeeper/cook/one-time nanny had prepared this dish for us.

Now eggplant, like spinach, is a food I almost never ate back home in the U.S. Personally, I think a large part of the reason for eggplant's relative unpopularity here is it's name - who wants to eat something called an eggplant? Patlıcan (pronounced more like patluhjan), or Italian melanzana or the French (and British) aubergine are all much more attractive words!

However, my friend said this was her absolute favorite dish, and it smelled wonderful, so we eagerly dug in. And of course, she was right - this dish is amazing, especially when you've been living off of sandwiches for several weeks. It's wonderfully filling and warm and tasty - just the sort of thing that should be served to travellers who haven't been inside a home in ages. This dish was thus the beginning of the eggplant-eating section of my life, which I hope will continue for many many more years!

In any case, I hadn't actually thought about this dish in quite some time, but I bought some eggplants this past weekend planning to make some baba ghanoush with them, but then I went and made hummus, which is so similar that the prospect of baba ghanoush just wasn't exciting me, when I suddenly remembered this dish. A quick internet search for terms like "Turkish eggplant cream" quickly brought me to this recipe, in various forms, and I began to check those out.

I even went to some Turkish sites and painstakingly attempted to translate them to make sure I would do things correctly (I once knew some Turkish and I like to be as authentic as possible). In the end I came up with the following recipe, which I guarantee will please, delight, and otherwise satisfy your gustatory senses.

You will need:
2 medium-sized eggplants
A largish pat of butter
50 g flour* (I used whole wheat which I think helps add flavor and richness)
A medium-sized glass of milk (I used whey from a previous ricotta-making endeavor)
50 g Parmesan (the Turkish recipes call for kaşar peyniri which is apparently a sort of yellowish, sheep's milk cheese. Not having any of this on hand, I opted for parmesan, which was suggested by many of the recipes in English)

Some recipes also call for the juice of one lemon, which you submerge the eggplant in after roasting, but I skipped this. I did garnish the dish with some tomatoes, and the acidity went well with the creaminess of the beğendi, so I imagine the lemon juice would be good as well.

*The Turkish recipes called for one coffee cup of flour. Of course, Turkish coffee cups are much much smaller than American coffee cups - if you think of an espresso cups' worth, that's probably about right.

Preheat your oven to about 200º C/400º F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, then wash and dry the eggplants. Prick some holes in their skin with a fork to prevent them from exploding in the oven, and place them on the baking sheet. When the oven is hot, put in the eggplants and let bake for about 40 minutes, turning them every so often with tongs or some such implement to be sure they bake evenly.

Once the skin of the eggplants is all black and crackly, take them out of the oven, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and let them sit about 15 minutes to concentrate the juices. After the 15 minutes are up, unwrap and let cool.

Once the eggplants are cool enough to handle, remove the skins, holding the eggplants over a bowl so that you can catch all their juices, and let the eggplant flesh fall into the bowl. Mash up all the flesh to a nice creamy mush.

Heat the butter in a pot over the stove until it melts. Once it melts, add the flour, and stir. When the flour is goldeny, add in the milk (or whey), a little bit at a time, stirring continuously. After you've added all the milk, mix in the eggplants, then throw in the salt and pepper. Let everything cook about 5 more minutes, stirring from time to time, and then add the parmesan. Let cook one minute more, spoon into a plate and serve warm!

There is also a version of this called Hünkar Beğendi, which basically means "It pleased the Sultan" and involves adding meat. Not being a sultan, I was pleased enough with my humble eggplants, and a small garnishing of tomatoes, but if you like a bit of meat with your eggplant, I recommend looking it up!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dried Apricot and Sunflower Seed Whey Bread

I haven't been posting my bread recipes, mainly because they're pretty much all variations on the same theme: Mix some flour, water, yeast/starter and salt; Knead a lot, add in one or two fun ingredients, let rise; punch down, shape, and let rise again; bake, let cool, and eat!

However, I made this bread last night and as I was slicing some up this morning to make my sandwich for lunch, I sampled a little piece of it, and it was really truly incredible. I just couldn't keep such a wonderful recipe all to myself, and so I have shared it below so that you can make your very own dried apricot and sunflower seed whey bread!

I have to offer a small caveat that the deliciousness of this bread may have been partially due to my home-grown sourdough starter, which at just 2 1/2 weeks old seems to be improving tremendously in flavor with each use. While you can certainly use regular yeast for this bread, it may not turn out as rich and complex in flavor, and besides, growing your own starter is so much fun! It's like a cross between a science experiment and an easy-to-take-care-of pet!

But whether or not you have starter,
You will need:
About 400 g whole wheat flour
0.5 liter/2 cups whey
One medium spoonful of salt
Sourdough starter (yeast if you don't have any starter)
About 50 g dried apricots
50 g sunflower seeds

You may be wondering now 'where on earth do I get whey?'. Well, that's simple - you make ricotta, as I did here! That way you get to enjoy some delicious ricotta one day, and then make delicious whey bread the next day! Actually, I think whey will keep in the fridge for quite some time, but I used mine after only a day or two of storage. The only thing is that the whey was pretty cold when I added it to the flour, but I just kneaded a little extra. I suppose you could heat the whey first on the stove if you wanted...

In any case, assuming you have your whey, the first step is to chop up the dried apricots and set them aside with the sunflower seeds. I recommend using nice soft dried apricots if you can get them.

Sift the flour into a large bowl, and make it into a sort of "fountain" with a well in the middle. Pour the starter into the well, and start mixing it into the surrounding flour. Add some salt around the edges (farther from the starter) and continue mixing. A bit at a time, add in the whey, mixing after each addition until all the flour is combined with the whey to get a nice liquidy dough ball.

Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead for at least 10 minutes. The way I time my kneading is to go until the point when the dough starts to offer some noticeable resistance, and then knead a few minutes past that point.

Towards the end of the kneading, fold in the apricots and sunflower seeds, a bit on each knead so that they'll be evenly distributed. Right before you leave the dough to rise, fold it into thirds twice: take the right side and fold it into the center, and then do the same with the left. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat. This gives you a nicely folded-under little ball with a smooth top surface. Transfer the ball to a floured bowl, with the folded-under side on the bottom. Cover with plastic wrap or a cloth, and let sit in a warm, non-drafty place (like an oven that isn't being used, or a closet) for at least as long as it takes the ball to double in volume. Since I use whole wheat flour and sourdough starter, both of which are supposed to slow the rising process, I try to make the first rise be a minimum of 3 hours. Longer is better, but since I often start my bread-making when I come home from work, I only have so much time for both rises, the baking, and the cooling, before it's time to go to bed!

After the first rise, take the dough out of the bowl, punch it down (not too violently), and cut it into however many loaves/rolls/boulots you want (a dough scraper is very handy for this). Shape the pieces of dough and then, using a very sharp object, like a razor blade, score the tops of them to let some of the air release during the baking.

I had some fun with the shaping, as you can see below:

Move the pieces to a flat surface and cover with a floured towel. Let them rise again for at least an hour.

Half an hour or more before you want to put the bread in to bake, preheat your oven to about 220º C/425º F. You want the oven to be very hot when you put the bread in, because the first few minutes are the most important - this is when the yeast rises very quickly until finally the heat kills it off, so if your oven isn't hot enough, the yeast won't rise as much before dying.

After the oven is good and hot, transfer your loaves to a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (if you have a baking stone, that's even better - put it in the oven before you preheat it and slide the bread directly onto it when it's ready to bake). After about 10 minutes, bring the heat down to about 190º C/375º F and let bake for another 20 minutes or so, longer if necessary. You can check the doneness of the bread by opening the oven door and tapping the bottom of the loaves with a knife. If they give a hollow sound, they're done. You will also hopefully begin to smell some heavenly aromas while the bread is baking which will clue you in that the correct chemical processes are occuring.

Once the bread is done, move it to a cooling rack, and let it sit until cool, or at least until it won't burn your tongue off if you can't resist the aroma and have to eat some immediately!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cherry Tomato, Ricotta, and Caramelized Leek Tart

I still had some pastry left over from my last tart-making endeavor, and I'd been aching to try to make my own ricotta for awhile, and so I thought, what better way to take care of both of those issues than by making a lovely ricotta-filled tart?

I always have lots of cherry tomatoes and I loved the mental image of little cherry tomato halves sitting pleasantly atop my tart, so there was ingredient number two. As for the leeks, I had picked up a couple at the farmer's market this weekend on a complete whim, with no thought about what I would actually use them for. The sweetness of caramelized leeks seemed like it would complement the tartness of the cherry tomatoes nicely and thus, a tart was born!

And it was certainly delicious - the leeks went perfectly with the cherry tomatoes, and the homemade ricotta was so fresh... the only problem was I didn't make nearly enough of it! Who knew that milk was made up of so much whey and so few curds?

In any case, the recipe for one ricotta, cherry tomato, and caramelized leek tart:

You will need:
Pastry dough - I strongly recommend making your own, but store-bought will also do. I make my own as in the tart recipe here
One quart/liter whole milk, the fresher the better
Small amount of cream if desired (I didn't use any this time)
A few spoonfuls of lemon juice
1 egg
About 10 cherry tomatoes
2 medium-sized leeks
Olive oil

To make the ricotta, first set up a large bowl with a colander/strainer over it and place some folded-over cheesecloth on top of the strainer. If you don't happen to have any cheesecloth on hand, other types of cloth will do. People seem to especially recommend butter muslin, but I think any clean sort of cloth should work just fine.

Heat the milk and cream together with a little salt. Once the milk/cream mixture has reached a boil, immediately turn the heat down to low, stir a bit, and add the lemon juice. Stir some more, and when the curds (the solidish white things) start to separate from the whey (the cloudyish liquid part), pour the whole mixture into the cheesecloth and let it strain for as long as it takes. Mine was done pretty quickly, so I just wrapped the ends of the cheesecloth over the ricotta and let it sit until it was time to put it in the tart, but if you're not going to use it immediately, transfer it to the fridge when the whey has all strained out.

Homemade Ricotta

You can either keep the whey or throw it out. I felt bad about throwing it all out, so I put it in an old yogurt container and moved it to the fridge. Tomorrow I will probably be making whey bread in an attempt to use it up...

Going back to the tart-making, the next step is to caramelize the leeks. Tear off the very outer leaves, rinse, chop off the top part (with all the dark green leaves) and then slice cleanly lengthwise down the middle. The leaves will open out prettily, allowing you to rinse them out individually which is important, because leeks have a tendency to collect dirt inside.

Once your leeks are well-rinsed, chop them up into little rondelles, and heat some olive oil in a sauté pan (you can also substitute butter here, or a mixture of butter and olive oil). When the olive oil is hot, add the leeks, sprinkle some salt over everything, and turn the heat down to very low. Cover the pan and let sit for a good 30-40 minutes, stirring every so often. When the leeks are a nice brown caramelized color, they will be done and ready for the tart.

Caramelized Leeks

Preheat your oven to about 180ºC / 355º F. While it is heating, roll out the pastry dough and lay it into a buttered tart pan. Poke holes into the bottom and sides with a fork and then, when the oven has heated up, place the crust into the oven for about 10 minutes.

While the crust is heating, lightly beat one egg and add your ricotta to the egg. Add salt and pepper, and stir well. Chop the cherry tomatoes into halves and set aside.

After the 10 minutes are up, take the partially-baked crust from the oven and fill it first with the caramelized leeks, then with the ricotta-egg mixture, and finally place the cherry tomato halves on top in a geometric pattern of your choosing.

Return the tart to the oven and let bake another 15 minutes or so, then let cool, and eat up!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Penne with Red Snapper, Tomatoes, and Capers

When it comes to cooking fish, my experience before tonight was just about zero. Apart from canned tuna, I don't think I had ever once prepared a dish that involved fish. It's not that I don't like fish, because I do, quite a bit. It's just that I have a strange aversion to dealing with any kind of raw animal flesh and so I end up eating almost all vegetarian meals when I cook for myself, though I'll happily eat meat that other people have prepared!

However, I have been going through Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" which I highly highly recommend to anyone who ever cooks or is at all interested in knowing what's going on in all that stuff you put in your mouth, and I just arrived at the fish section. Reading all about fish muscles and fish preparation made me quite curious (for some reason I find myself fascinated by all the descriptions of the chemical processes involved in the breakdown of muscle by heat). Then at the farmer's market this morning, I noticed a stand with some nice fresh-looking fish fillets. Since I wanted something easy to prepare, I decided this was perfect and, after peppering the fish vendor with questions about the different types of fish, I decided on a fillet of red snapper.

I had some San Marzano tomatoes I needed to use up, and I always like capers with fish, so after going through all sorts of fish recipes online, mixing them all up, and adding a few of my own personal touches, I came up with the following dish, which turned out quite nicely for a first fish-dish!

You will need:
1 fillet of red snapper (or other fish that cooks well in a pan)
80 g penne
4-5 San Marzano tomatoes (you can substitute other smaller tomatoes like cherry tomatoes here, in which case you should use about 10-12)
A couple spoonfuls of capers
1 onion
A couple cloves of garlic
Lemon juice
1/2 small glass of dry white wine
Olive oil
Fresh parsley
Fresh basil

If you're using San Marzano tomatoes, begin by boiling them for about 30 seconds, running them under cold water, and then peeling and seeding them. Cut the remaining pulp into thin strips and set aside. If you're using something like cherry tomatoes, just cut them in half, leaving the peel intact.

Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. While you're heating the water, chop up the onion and crush the cloves of garlic with your hand or the flat edge of a knife.

When the water starts to boil, salt it and add the penne, stirring a bit to make sure they don't stick. In a frying pan, start to heat the olive oil. While the oil is heating, take the red snapper fillet, rinse if necessary, and cover with lemon juice. Then chop it into small pieces.

Once the oil is hot enough to make a few water droplets spattered onto it sizzle, add the garlic. After about a minute, add the onion. When the onion has become tender and translucent, add the red snapper. Sprinkle salt and pepper over everything, and let cook a few minutes, stirring frequently.

Pour the white wine onto the snapper, and let it cook until all the wine has evaporated. Once the wine has evaporated, add the tomatoes and the capers and let cook a few more minutes, again stirring quite a bit.

Drain the penne, and quickly throw them onto the mix of snapper, tomatoes, and capers. Turn off the heat, stir everything up, and then chop or tear up the parsley and basil and sprinkle over everything. Give it all a good last stir, and serve piping hot!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spinach and Ricotta Tart

Another yearning-for-Italy dish...

Spinach is one of many foods I never realized I liked until I lived in Italy. And little wonder! As with many perfectly yummy vegetables, American culture gives spinach an unjustly bad rap, following the logic that anything that's "good for you" can't possibly be enjoyable. Perhaps this logic stems from our Puritan heritage, or perhaps people just didn't know how to cook spinach well, but in any case, Italian attitudes toward food tend to be about as anti-Puritan as you can get! The prevailing attitude there is that delicious food should be celebrated and enjoyed with no guilt or worrying involved (how can you enjoy something if you're busy worrying about its caloric content?), and spinach has been rightly recognized as a delicious food.

In fact, spinach dishes are just about everywhere in Italy, and they almost always involve a pairing with that wonderful spinach partner, ricotta. Spinach and ricotta on pizza, spinach and ricotta pastries, spinach and ricotta piadine, and on and on. In honor of that tradition, I'm posting here the recipe for a lovely spinach and ricotta tart that I made the other day. Enjoy!

Spinach and Ricotta Tart
For the pastry you will need:
200 g pastry flour (as always, I used whole wheat)
50 g sweet butter
1 egg
A pinch of salt
Cold water, as much as necessary

For the filling:
500 g spinach
200 g ricotta
1-2 shallots
A pat of butter

Begin by making the pastry a couple of hours before you want to eat the tart. In a bowl, sift the flour and salt together and then add in the butter, mixing well. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg, and then add it to the flour-butter mixture. Stir well, adding cold water as necessary to get a nice sticky little ball of pastry dough. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.

Shortly before you take the dough out of the refrigerator, prepare the filling. First, wash and dry all your spinach leaves and set aside. Chop up the shallot(s) and then heat the butter in a pan until it starts to sizzle. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the shallot and let cook until tender. Add the spinach leaves, in stages if necessary, and then sprinkle everything with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and let cook for about 10 minutes.

Once the spinach is cooked, take the pan off the heat and let cool. Preheat the oven to about 355º F/180º C and take the dough out of the refrigerator. Transfer the dough to a well-floured surface and roll it out to a thin but uniform thickness. Place the dough into a buttered tart pan (or non-buttered if it's non-stick), adding and cutting off dough where necessary to cover the pan with an even amount of dough. If there's any extra dough, wrap it up in plastic and put it in the freezer to use for a future tart!

Poke holes in the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork and then heat in the oven for 10 minutes. While the crust is heating, combine the cooked spinach with the ricotta and stir well. After 10 minutes, take the crust out of the oven, fill it with the filling, and place back in the oven for another 15 minutes or so.

Remove from oven and let cool a bit, then eat up!!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Penne "alla Greca"

This is a wonderful pasta dish to make in the summer because it involves very little actual heating. Besides that, it's super-simple and soooooo good! Though the classic tomato sauce with vegetables will always be my favorite pasta dish, this one is definitely in the running for second place.

For one person, you will need:
75 g of penne or other short pasta
25-50 g of feta
10-12 cherry tomatoes
Half a medium-sized red bell pepper
One small red onion
A handful of kalamata olives
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper
Dill (fresh is better, but dried is easier to find and it works just fine)
Mint (same as for the dill)

In the version pictured here, I didn't have any dill or mint on hand (this is from when I was Italy and dill is almost impossible to find there), so I used some fresh parsley which also worked nicely

Set some water to boil in a large pot. While you're waiting for the water to boil, chop the cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters if they're very large, and dice the pepper and the onion. Combine the cherry tomatoes with the pepper and onion in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, dill, and mint, stir everything up, and then let sit.

Once the water has come to a boil, salt it, and add the penne. Then, pit the olives by crushing them under the flat side of a knife and chop them in half.

You should let the penne cook just until they are al dente, i.e., 'to the tooth', i.e., cooked through but still chewy and somewhat resistant to your teeth when you bite into them. Though with enough experience cooking various types of pasta, you can usually make a pretty good guess as to when the pasta has cooked just the right amount, the most foolproof way to get good al dente pasta is simply to test every so often by fishing one out and munching on it!

Once the penne are done, drain them, and then mix them into the pepper-onion-cherry tomato mix*. Add the olives, crumble the feta over everything and enjoy!

*If it's a really hot day, this pasta also works wonderfully well served cold - just run some cold water over the penne immediately after you drain them. I usually don't do this, but that's because I love the way the feta just melts in your mouth after it's come into contact with the warm pasta...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Vegetable Focaccia

Left with 2/3 of a block of pizza mozzarella and somewhat afraid to attempt a pizza in my 1970's-era oven (it's bright turquoise), I settled instead for a pizza-style focaccia. In other words, focaccia bread but covered with cheese and whatever vegetables I happened to have on hand.

For this particular focaccia I used zucchini, green pepper, black olives, and a small red onion. The onion and olives worked particularly well, and I'm thinking of doing another focaccia with just onion and maybe some rosemary, but only once I've used up all my mozzarella!

Here's what I used:
About 250 g flour (whole wheat as it's all I have)
Water - as much as needed to give the dough a smooth, workable consistency
1/2 packet yeast
Small spoonful of sugar
Small spoonful of salt
About 50 g pizza mozzarella
Half a zucchini
Half a green bell pepper
A handful of kalamata olives
One small red onion
1-2 spoonfuls of olive oil, depending on how oily you like your focaccia

As with most other breads, you'll need to prepare the dough several hours before you're actually going to serve the focaccia. I was busy doing things the day I made this and somehow didn't get around to starting the dough until about 5:30, so it wasn't ready until 9:30 that evening, but luckily at that point I was so hungry I was able to pretty much polish off the entire thing!

Just like with the pizza dough, you add the (activated if necessary) yeast to the flour. Then add a small spoonful of salt and another spoonful of sugar, start to stir everything together, and gradually add in water until you have a nice doughy ball. Focaccia dough should be somewhat wetter than pizza dough, although I didn't make mine too wet and it still turned out fine. I think the more important ingredient here is time. After you've kneaded the dough for roughly 10 minutes, let it sit in a covered bowl in a warm non-drafty place for at least 2 hours and preferably 3. My first rise this time lasted about 2 1/2 hours because I was getting hungry and didn't want to wait any longer!

After the first rise comes the part that really makes what would otherwise be normal bread into focaccia. Set the dough onto a baking sheet covered in parchment paper, punch it down, and shape it into a big, flat rectangle*. Using your finger, punch little holes all over the flattened dough. Then mix a spoonful or 2 of olive oil with about the same amount of water and spread the mixture over the dough so that it forms little puddles in the holes.

Let the dough rise again for a minimum of half an hour. After the half hour is up, preheat your oven to 400º F/200º C. Chop up the vegetables, slicing the pepper and onions into long thin strips, and the zucchini into paper-thin little rounds. Pit the olives by crushing them with the flat side of the knife until they give and the pit comes out easily, and then chop them in half.

Chop or grate the pizza mozzarella into little bits and distribute it evenly across the focaccia. Then distribute all the vegetables evenly, pop it into the preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. Let the focaccia cool until it's just warm enough to handle and then eat eat eat!!

*Another option is to make the focaccia in an oiled loaf pan. This will give you a crustless focaccia, which you will then be able to cover entirely with onions, or rosemary, or cheese or whatever else. I think this technique is better for focaccia that doesn't have too many toppings on it. If you're going to cover it with all sorts of goodies the way I did here, it's probably better to have a nice solid crust to hold on to while you're eating!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pizza Margherita

About one week after I left Italy and returned to the US, I started having terrible terrible yearnings for pizza. Hot, thin, crusty pizza with streeetchy mozarella and oozy tomato sauce... I couldn't stop thinking about it, or talking about it, as my friends and family will testify.

The funny thing is, I didn't go to pizzerias that much in Italy - maybe once or twice a month on average. I'd definitely gone far longer than a week there without eating pizza*, so why was I going through such serious withdrawal after only one week out of the country?

*A note: by pizza here, I mean the thin, round pizzeria-type pizza, not the fluffy square kind you get for lunch in Italy, which I ate roughly every other day.

I think my withdrawal was less of a sensory thing and more of a psychological one - the knowledge that even if I wanted a good pizza I wouldn't be able to get one was vastly depressing. Ok, there is some decent pizza this side of the Atlantic, but decent is not the same as incredibly unbelievably wonderful. Even the pizzas at my favorite local Italian restaurant which has some great traditional dishes and is owned by an Italian don't come anywhere close to the ones I could get for a mere 6 euros at any of the 3 crummy little hole-in-the-wall pizzerias that sat within 100 meters of my Milan apartment. Maybe it's the ingredients, maybe it's the equipment, maybe the technique, maybe the water for all I know. I do know that something about the pizzas here just isn't right, and every Round Table or deep-dish pizza place I saw sank me deeper and deeper into my pizza funk.

Other than shelling out several hundred dollars for a plane ticket to Italy, there was only way I was going to get out of my funk. I was going to do something I would have never dreamed of doing when I lived in Milan or in Florence where pizzerias are as common as Starbucks is here. Yes, I was going to bake a pizza.

I prepared. I went to zillions of Italian and American websites looking for help on ingredients and techniques. I learned all about ovens and the best conditions for pizza-baking, and I learned to be ready to accept that no matter what I did, my home-baked pizza would never be able reach the level of one baked in a real wood-burning oven; nevertheless, I did not weaken in my resolve to make the closest thing to a real pizza that I could.

As it turned out, the pizza was actually pretty easy to make. The trickiest part was simply getting it to slide off the peel onto the 500 degree baking stone and then scraping it back off the stone when it was done, but I eventually managed to accomplish those feats with no major bodily harm to myself or the pizza. So, for anyone feeling the need for a (nearly) authentic Italian pizza, here is what I ended up doing:

You will need:
Flour (Though white is almost the only type used, I used whole wheat and it turned out fine)
Sea salt
Tomato sauce (I used plain canned tomatoes)
High-quality pizza mozzarella (the kind that doesn't come in water)
Toppings - for the Margherita, I used nothing more than a few fresh basil leaves and the pizza was absolutely delicious. Remember that simplicity is often a good thing!

First you'll need to prepare the dough. If your yeast is the active kind as opposed to the instant variety, put it in a little bit of tepid tap water until it forms a sort of foam on the top, at which point you can add it to the flour. If it's instant yeast, just throw it in with the flour immediately. Add the salt and then the water a bit at a time, mixing until the water is well incorporated into the flour. You want pizza dough to be pretty floury - more so than for normal bread.

Once you have a good doughy mixture, turn it out onto a floury surface and knead for about 10 minutes. I always knead in the following way: fold the part closest to you up over the part farther away from you, press down quite hard a few times, give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Continue repeating until your arms are about ready to fall off. Then repeat some more. At some point you should notice a change in the consistency of the dough - it will seem to sort of fight back when you press it down. This is good. When you get to this point, knead for just a couple minutes more, than ball up the dough, put in it a bowl, cover the bowl, and leave in a fairly warm and undrafty place for a minimum of one hour. Do not leave it in the oven, because you will need to start preheating your oven long before the dough has finished rising.

In fact, I put the baking stone into the oven and started to preheat it pretty much as soon as I was done with the kneading. The whole thing about baking pizzas is that they need to get very hot very fast. For those of us who have not yet installed wood-burning ovens into our homes, the closest we can come is to use a preheated baking stone in an oven set to as high as you comfortably can set it (about 500º F/250º C usually). If you have a convection oven, that's even better because then the hot air will be distributed more evenly. Luckily, I was house-sitting for my parents at the time, and they have both a baking stone (a gift from me in fact) and a convection oven, so equipment-wise I was set. If you do use a baking stone, you need to put it in the oven during the preheating because the stone takes time to absorb heat. Thus, if you put the pizza on the stone and then put the stone in the oven, you're completely negating the effectiveness of the stone, and you would have been better off just using a baking sheet. If you do use a baking sheet and not a stone, it should not be preheated - it just goes in with the pizza on it, and you have to hope for the best.

After your hour is up and the dough has risen, you get to do the best part - the pizza-shaping! I was originally planning to just roll out my pizza into a nice circle, but while I was shaping it, I tried tossing it in the air a few times just for fun and I realized that each time I did, the dough came back down much springier and more pliable. I later read that it is in fact a good idea to keep the dough in the air as much as possible while you're shaping it, so even if your pizza-spinning skills are as terrible as mine, at least try giving the dough a few (gentle) tosses. Just don't drop it!

During the shaping, make sure you put your pizza onto a peel or some other thing that will make it easy to slide into the oven. If you're not using a baking stone, put the pizza directly onto the baking sheet you're planning to use. Finally, and this is the only way to get anything close to an authentic Italian pizza, your final dough disk must be thin thin thin! As thin as you can possibly get it without tearing. The pizza should be large, but it should not be thick. Those are lunch-style pizzas. They don't count.

Once the dough is in a nice big circle, spread your tomato sauce all over so that it covers everything but the very edge and thinly enough that you can still kind of see the dough through it. If you can't see the dough, it's probably spread too thickly. Then either grate or chop the mozzarella into little pieces and distribute them evenly onto the pizza. Finally, wash and dry the basil leaves, and arrange them in a pretty pattern on top.

Next, with oven mitts, and being very very careful, open the oven and use a large metal spatula to sliiiiide the pizza onto the stone (or just insert the baking sheet if you went with that method), shut the oven door, and let bake for about 7-8 minutes. My pizza took 7 minutes to bake, but I was using the convection feature and the baking stone, so if you don't use those things, it may take a little more time. Just make sure the pizza doesn't burn and simultaneously make sure not to open the oven door unless absolutely necessary (quite a trick if your oven doesn't have a glass door).

When the pizza is done and safely transferred to your plate, pour yourself a glass of good Italian wine, grab a fork and knife, and eat as soon as you possibly can without burning yourself!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pesto alla Genovese

During my time in Italy I actually ate surprisingly little pesto. Though most supermarkets carried several decent varieties, I almost always preferred to cook with produce from the open markets (I would go to the Papiniano market which is one of the absolute best markets in Milan and makes my local California farmer's market look like a paltry roadside fruit stand - and an overpriced one at that).

I do love pesto however; I mean, anything that contains this much basil pretty much has to be good. But making it fresh, grinding up the basil just minutes before you eat it, increases its goodness by at least a factor of six. If you have never made your own pesto, you have to try it - your tastebuds will thank you for weeks!

The process is simple - basically grind, grind, grind (the word pesto comes from the verb pestare which literally means 'to grind'), but some of the recipes I read were very emphatic that you had to grind things in a certain order. The order I ended up going with seemed to work wonderfully so I'm posting that method below, and if you want to try other ways, I'm pretty sure they will be equally delicious (again, lots and lots of basil - you really can't go wrong).

So, you will need:
A large bunch of nice fresh basil.
A couple cloves of garlic
Good extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly grated parmesan (and when I say freshly grated, I mean really freshly grated - stale parmesan is one of my culinary pet peeves, and in this dish especially you want the full flavor)
Freshly grated pecorino (see above)
Pine nuts
Ground-up walnuts
Sea salt

First you'll need to toast your pine nuts, either in the oven (or better yet, a toaster oven) or in a dry pan on the stove. Watch your pine nuts very carefully to be sure they don't burn! Mine burned a bit here, but luckily not enough to ruin the taste, although I had to throw a few of the really bad ones out. So be careful with your pine nuts! Remove them from the heat as soon as you think they even might be done! Then begins the grinding.

While I don't currently own a mortar and pestle (it's on my list), I used a metal bowl and a wood spoon for the grinding, and it worked just fine. Probably a little more work than if I had the marble, but for good pesto, I don't mind a little extra work at all!

Anyways, begin with the garlic. Not every recipe does this, but I think it worked wonderfully well here so I highly recommend it. Grind till the cloves are good and broken-up and then add the (well-washed and dried) basil leaves. Grind grind grind your basil leaves and savor the incredible aromas that come floating up while you're grinding. One of the best parts of making your own pesto is that it's almost as delicious to make it as it is to eat it!

About halfway through the grinding, add in a bit of olive oil and then continue grind, grind, grinding. When you're almost done, add in the parmesan, the pecorino, the walnuts, the pine nuts, the salt, and as much olive oil as you deem appropriate. While I like the olive oil, I would advise not using too much, as the basil provides a good bit of juice on its own and you want all the flavors to come through.

And that's it! Serve over pasta (or even just bread if you want!) and enjoy very verrrrry much!


If recipes came with warning labels, this recipe would have a big sticker across the top reading: Warning! Once you have made and eaten fresh hummus hot from the stove, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to ever eat cold, pre-packaged hummus again!

It's a bit like eating your first gelato in Italy or your first croissant in France - from that point on, every grainy sugary ice cream masquerading as gelato and every soggy cresecent-shaped pastry that dares to call itself a croissant will kindle within you a mixture of rage and despair for what is not but should be.

While I am less inclined to get as emotional about hummus as I am about gelato or croissants, a warm, home-made hummus is definitely far superior to any store-bought, refrigerated spread, and if you really like hummus I recommend you always keep a supply of chickpeas and tahini on hand so that you will be able to make your own when the urge strikes.

For this hummus, you will need:
Chickpeas (the amount depends on how much hummus you want to make. I'd say about 100 grams of dry chickpeas is good for a small bowlful).
Tahini (a few spoonfuls)
Lemon juice
Olive oil
Fresh parsley

The only ingredient that might be a bit difficult to find is the tahini. If you can't find it at a supermarket, try an international foods store or even better, a Middle Eastern foods store. Should you get really desperate you could try to just grind up a bunch of sesame seeds, as that's really all tahini is, but this doesn't seem to be a common practice, and there's probably a reason for that...

As for the chickpeas, I always use the dry kind and let them soak overnight. While it's certainly a lot less time-consuming to use the canned kind, if you do that you miss out on the best part, which is when you wake up the next morning to find that your little chickpeas have miraculously tripled in volume and you completely overestimated the amount you would need!

If you do soak the chickpeas, most recipes recommend changing the water anywhere from once for the entire soak to every few hours. I usually try to change the water after the first couple of hours and then let them sit overnight and change the water one or two more times the next morning. Hopefully, by the last change most of the little white shells that cover each chickpea will have removed themselves and floated up to the top of the water where they can be easily picked out. If not, I will actually go to the trouble of removing every individual shell by hand. While this is a pain, since I do not have a food processor and use the well-tested mash-and-grind method to make my hummus, removing the shells helps a lot by making the mashing quicker and easier, and of course it also leads to a smoother overall consistency in the hummus.

Once you feel your chickpeas have taken in as much water as they possibly can, change the water a final time and then cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. When the water starts boiling, turn the heat down and let the chickpeas simmer for a couple of hours.

After the chickpeas are good and simmered, strain them, setting a few aside for garnish if you want to make the hummus look more impressive, and mash the rest of the chickpeas up either mechanically (easy!) or by hand (satisfying!). If you go for the mechanical method, just add in the tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and salt at the beginning and press the 'on' button. If you prefer the manual method, stir in a bit of olive oil about halfway through the mashing and then continue to add trickles of it every now and then. When your chickpeas are nice and smooth, stir in the rest of the olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, and salt.

Chop up your fresh parsley and sprinkle that over the hummus, garnish with the set-aside chickpeas if you so choose, and serve nice and warm with a good bready substance. I like to add cumin seeds to my hummus because I love cumin and try to add wherever gustatorily possible, but you are certainly free to add your own flavoring(s) of choice or just leave the hummus as is and enjoy it that way!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tomato Sauce

I don't think I could ever get tired of eating spaghetti with tomato sauce. Whenever my culinary inventiveness has spent itself and I just want something easy and tasty, I stir up some of this sauce, sauté a few vegetables, throw it onto my spaghetti and voila - dinner!

There are a lot of different variations of this out there - some have you add carrots and celery, others a pinch of sugar, some require that you peel and seed your tomatoes, others that you just peel them, others don't require either of these steps, and so on and so on. My own way of making tomato sauce is pretty simple - just tomatoes, olive oil, onion, and maybe a little salt, but of course if you want to add carrots, celery, or anything else, go right ahead!

Though my ingredient list is pretty sparse, I do like to peel and seed my tomatoes. While this is a bit more time-consuming and messier than just chopping them up and throwing them in the pot, I prefer the smoother, pulpier consistency this gives the sauce. I have also heard that the seeds make the sauce more acidic, although I haven't done any in-depth testing to discover whether this is true or not. One tip I received for making tomato sauces less acidic is to add a pinch of sugar and then a pinch of salt, so if you do decide to leave the seeds in, you could try that and see if it helps.

But anyways, for the sauce...
You will need:
Lots of tomatoes (I use about 5 medium San Marzano tomatoes per serving of pasta)
1 yellow onion
Olive oil
A pinch of salt (and sometimes sugar too), if necessary

After much experimenting with different types of tomatoes, I have come to the conclusion that San Marzano tomatoes are far and away the best tomatoes for all sauce-making endeavors. Oddly, this is exactly what everyone else had already concluded ages ago, but of course I had to do my own tests just to be sure! And yes, San Marzanos (San Marzani?) are the best; they are wonderfully pulpy and easy to deal with and they give the sauce a great flavor.

San Marzano tomatoes

I do realize that they may not be readily available in all places - I couldn't find them in any of my local supermarkets and only one of the three or four tomato vendors at my farmer's market sells them - but please please try to find some if at all possible. If there are absolutely no San Marzano tomatoes within 100 miles of your kitchen, my second-favorite type for sauces is Cuore di Bue (literally Oxheart), but these are also difficult to find in the States. I bought some heirloom tomatoes that resembled Cuore di Bue tomatoes and they worked pretty well, so you could try that, or if you really can't find any of those types, at least use cherry tomatoes. Whatever you do, do not use regular round tomatoes. Good for salads, bad for sauces.

But back to sauce-making:
In a large pot, bring some water to a boil. While you're waiting for the water to come to a boil, chop up an onion and set it aside. When the water starts to boil, throw the tomatoes in, and leave them there for a very short time (30 seconds or so) to make them easy to peel. Slicing a small 'x' into the peel at the bottom end of the tomato before you boil it makes the peel come off even more easily - just be sure not too slice too deeply or you'll also take off some of the pulp!

After 30 seconds, I pour the tomatoes into my colander and run some cold water over them. Although I suppose this method does waste some water and time as I have to refill and reheat my pot for cooking the spaghetti, it's easier than trying to fish out the tomatoes one by one, and I like to use the time when I'm reheating water for pasta to chop up the vegetables that I add to the tomato sauce at the end. If you're less wasteful than I am, or simply in a hurry to eat, you can go with the tomato-fishing method and then use the same water to cook your pasta, assuming you are making pasta.

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and seed them. To seed them, I use what is known in technical terms as the 'skwuntching-out' method: I take a tomato, hold it over the sink, rip it open and skwuntch out all the juice and seeds. I then take whatever pulp there is (minus any bits of core naturally) and set it on one part of my cutting board. Repeat with all tomatoes until you have a lovely pile of pulp and a lovely red mess in your sink. One day I plan to find/invent a recipe that requires only the juice and seeds of the tomato so that I can actually use everything instead of having to waste so much, but I haven't quite gotten around to that yet...

Once the pulp is ready, heat up some olive oil in a small saucepan, and when it is hot, add your chopped-up onion. While the onion is sautéing, chop up the tomato pulp into smaller bits. Once the onion is soft and translucent, add the tomatoes, a bit of salt if you want (and sugar if you're afraid your tomatoes will be too acidic), cover the pot, and turn the heat to low. While your tomato sauce cooks, prepare your spaghetti, or whatever other pasta you want to use*, and then add the finished sauce along with some nice flakes of oregano, or grated parmesan, or both! While I usually sauté some peppers and zucchini and throw them in too, that's completely optional.

*A note about pairing pastas with different sauces/toppings:
I used to go about my life blithely unaware that it mattered at all which pasta went with which sauce. Months of living in Italy taught me just how backwards and wrong of me this was. Of course it matters which pasta goes with which sauce, just like it matters which belt goes with which shoes, and which pastry you eat on which holiday, and many many other things to which we non-Italians are completely ignorant. After poring over a fascinating book on the subject (700 pages all about pasta, how could I resist?) I discovered that, while the specific type of pasta is not too important, there is a very important difference between the more general type of pasta, that is, between long types of pasta (such as spaghetti, capellini, and linguine) and short types (fusilli, penne, farfalle, etc.). Basically, long types tend to absorb a lot of sauce, so they work best with lighter sauces like tomato sauce and no-sauce toppings like vegetables with a bit of olive oil, or clams. Shorter pastas are better for creamier or spicier sauces, hence the omnipresent penne all'arrabbiata and creamy dishes like farfalle con panna e piselli (i.e., peas and cream). Thus, you can happily substitute sedanini for rigatoni and you probably won't run into too many problems, but try it with tagliatelle and you're just asking for trouble.

I think there was also something about shell-pastas, but unfortunately, I don't remember what it said. Ah well, you can experiment and come up with your own pasta-pairing rules and then let me know!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spinach Frittata

Given the title of this blog, I thought my first recipe should be something that includes cheese and garlic. This spinach frittata meets that requirement and, even more importantly, it is delicious (and very easy to make)!

The recipe was given to me by a woman I taught English to in Milan. She was moving to Zanzibar to help her son and son's fiancée open an Italian restaurant, so many of our lessons centered on culinary vocabulary. One day I mentioned that I had recently made a Turkish omelette, and she told me about a wonderful spinach frittata she liked to make. As a little exercise, I had her explain the recipe for this frittata to me in English, and then I tried it out that weekend and it was indeed wonderful!

So, without further ado, Sra. Bellagamba's Spinach Frittata:

You will need:
200-300 grams of spinach
A few cloves of garlic, with the peel still on
2 medium-sized eggs
a couple spoonfuls of freshly grated grana padano*
olive oil

*grana padano is a Lombardian (is that a word?) cheese that is very similar to parmesan but milder. You can easily substitute regular parmesan here if you do not have any grana on hand or if you prefer more of a bite to your frittata.

The first thing to do is to wash and dry your spinach leaves. If you are like me and like to buy your produce from farmer's markets, your spinach will probably require a very thorough washing. When I want to make this frittata for a Sunday breakfast I will sometimes even wash the spinach the night before, dry them, and then refrigerate them so that I do not have to deal with a bunch of dirty spinach first thing in the morning before I've even had my coffee!

In any case, once the spinach leaves have been washed, tear them into smaller pieces and put them aside in a dish. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and while the oil is heating, crush the cloves of garlic gently with the palm of your hand, keeping the peels intact. Once the oil is hot enough to make a water droplet sizzle, add the garlic. After another minute or two, add the spinach. I suggest adding the spinach in stages - add enough to cover the whole pan and once that has wilted a bit, add some more, and so on until you have added it all. Sauté the spinach for about 15 minutes.

While the spinach is saut
éing away, break the eggs into a bowl and beat them, then stir in the salt, pepper, and grated grana.

When the spinach are done, add them to the egg mixture and stir everything well. Pour the mixture into the same pan the spinach were in (or a different one if you like to do dishes) and let it cook for a couple minutes, using a spatula to shape it and keep the bottom from sticking to the pan. When the bottom is a goldeny-brown, take a plate or a lid that will cover the entire pan, and place it over the pan. Remove the pan from the heat, flip it over so the frittata lands face down on the plate/lid, and carefully slide the frittata back onto the pan. Return the pan to the stove and let the other side cook for another minute or two, and voilà! A delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner is ready (I think I've made the frittata for breakfast and dinner although not yet for lunch). Buon appetito!