Category Archives: Italian Food

taking a deep breath… tuscan beans with tomatoes & sage

Folks, I’m taking a deep breath.  This post is about one of the easiest, most laid-back dishes in my repertoire.  While I did snap a few photos, I didn’t stress about the lighting or try to style the food or plating.  I just wanted to do an easy-breezy blog post since it’s been a while.

Most everyone I know has a lot going on- everyone has periods where things get crazy, time is maxed out, and they feel completely spread thin.  So I try not to go on TOO much about how nuts everything feels, because it’s like “boo hoo, you’re not the only one who has a million things to do and no time to do them in”.  But the past couple weeks were frantic even by my standards.  Blogging, of course, didn’t even make the list of things to do during this time, but I hope to rectify that in the next week or two before things get busy again with my sister’s wedding.

The Friday morning of Memorial weekend, I left for my sister’s bachelorette party in Nashville.  I had worked all week and tried to get things ready bit by bit- shopping for gifts, laundry, making sure there was food for the cats, a trip to the library for books on tape and Nashville guides, and all the other little pre-trip things that needed attending to.  Packing and straightening the house, of course, always gets left until the last possible minute.  So, as I was trying to get things together at 10:30 Thursday night, I got an unexpected call from my friend Youn, an old acquaintance from my Toulouse days.  He and a friend were traveling around the U.S. and wanted to know, could they possibly come and stay for a few days?  Of course! I replied, while inwardly starting to panic.  The house was reasonably tidy- I don’t like to come home to a mess- but it was nowhere near “house-guest clean”.  I would have to drive 10 hours, then spend a few hours cleaning Monday night, because I had to work on Tuesday and they were arriving that evening. Also sandwiched into the week’s schedule were two Scarlet Oaks shows, one of which was in Cleveland.

Long story short, I pulled everything together the best I could and we had a nice time (more about their visit in a later post), but coming back from a trip and then entertaining for 5 days left me wiped out.  Sunday I wanted to cook, but I knew I needed to do something hyper-simple.  My mind jumped to this dish of white beans with tomato and sage (one I’ve made many times before) because of the abundance of sage in my herb garden right now.  This is one of the easiest dishes I know, and it goes great with some grilled Italian sausages.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so our sausages were pan-grilled in the cast-iron skillet, but that actually made things even easier.  I threw together a green salad as well as some cucumbers with labneh (thick strained yogurt), scallion, lemon and parsley, we cracked open a bottle of red, and reveled in our simple feast as we breathed a sigh of relief at not having anywhere to be or anyone to entertain.  While I love having guests, a quiet evening with my sweetheart was just what I needed to get grounded and catch my breath.

If your sage is blowing up right now too, check out this post from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini on 45 things to do with fresh sage!

Tuscan Beans with Tomatoes & Sage (adapted from Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites)
printer-friendly version

This recipe is originally from a low-fat cookbook, and you can certainly choose to make it that way, but I of course like it with generous amounts of olive oil.  Obviously, you can cook the beans from dried, or use fresh tomatoes if in season, but the point is that you can open a few cans and have a pretty tasty and respectable side dish ready in about 15 minutes.  For the vegetarian folks out there, you could certainly serve this alongside veggie sausage or even some risotto to get the complete rice+beans protein combo.

2 15 or 19-oz cans cannellini beans*, rinsed and drained (I prefer the bigger cans if you can find them)
1 28-oz can good quality diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved*
3-6 cloves garlic, depending on size, to yield about 2 Tbs minced
about 25-30 washed sage leaves, to yield 3-4 Tbs minced
olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

*Another type of white bean can be substituted if necessary.

**My version appears more “saucy” because I used whole canned plum tomatoes and just squished them up with my hands as I added them to the pot.  Remember, this dish is all about whatever’s easiest.

Put a few Tbs of olive oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium-low heat.  When warm, add the garlic, stirring frequently (you want it to soften but not brown).  After a couple minutes, increase the heat slightly and add the sage.  Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the drained tomatoes.  Cook for a few minutes to blend the flavors, then add the beans and cook until heated through.  If the dish seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice.  Drizzle a little more olive oil on top if desired, and serve.

pumpkin-pecan and turkish delight cannoli (daring bakers)

I actually made my Daring Bakers challenge early this month, woot! Marvin informed me that we were going to a dinner party a couple weeks ago and volunteered me to bring a dessert, so I figured it was as good an excuse as any to roll up my sleeves and get frying.

I was a little skeptical about frying anything in my tiny kitchen without the aid of a deep fryer, but it turned out pretty much ok. I used my Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was deep enough to avoid any splattering.  The only collateral damage was a lingering fast-food grease smell that permeated the house for several days after!  I used pasta tubes for the cannoli forms, which was a little challenging but not impossible.

The cannoli were not difficult to make, but they were time-consuming.  Thankfully I had a pasta rolling machine, which greatly helped in rolling the dough to the proper thickness- I can’t imagine if I’d had to roll it out by hand, yikes.  The dough actually behaved very similarly to pasta dough and the machine worked very well at getting it to a workable consistency.  I hit a little bit of a speed bump when I went to make the dough- it was Sunday morning, I didn’t have any wine in the house, and you can’t buy alcohol until noon.  I didn’t have time to wait, so I poked around the pantry until I came across some Chinese cooking wine.  I sniffed it… it smelled close enough to Marsala, so into the dough it went.

For filling my cannoli, I bought ricotta but also bought some whipping cream which I whipped and folded into the ricotta.  It wasn’t traditional, of course, but it gave a wonderful light texture to the filling.  I divided my filling into two bowls and flavored one batch with about ¼ cup pumpkin butter from Trader Joe’s.  The other half of the filling was inspired by Turkish flavors; I used sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and a little orange flower water.  The pumpkin-filled cannoli got pecans on the ends, and the “Turkish delight” cannoli got pistachios and apricots.

I doubt that cannoli would be something I’d attempt again at home, not just because of the frying but because they ended up being a little on the expensive side after you factor in the whole bottle of oil I had to use, and the manicotti shells I bought to use as molds.  But it was a fun experience, and after the last challenge, it was nice to make something I had success with on the first try!  (For recipe, please visit our hostess Lisa Michele’s blog at the link below.)

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

pizza on the grill: a summer obsession

margherita on grillThis is an ode to one of summer’s perfect foods, pizza on the grill!  Ever since I figured out how easy this was, I’ve been making it on a regular basis during grilling season.  It took us a few tries to perfect the technique, but once you get the feel for it, it’s a breeze, and one of the quickest (and most economical) things you can make on the grill.  Plus, your friends will be blown away by how good it is.

I’m sure I’m far from the first food blogger to write about grilled pizza, but if you haven’t tried it, you’re in for a real treat.  It’s the closest I’ve come at home to the wood-oven flavor of a traditional Italian pizza (thin crust, not too many toppings*, crust charred just so in a few spots…).  It makes great party fare, as you can cut the pizzas up into small appetizer-sized slices and pass them around as they come off the grill, which is what we did at Sarah & Steve’s Memorial-weekend-Katie-visiting-from-Denver BBQ (yes, it’s taken me that long to post this! Sigh).  I made a double recipe of dough** and divided it up into four balls, each making an approximately 9″ pizza.

za'atar flatbreadThe first pizza we put on was actually more of a Middle-Eastern style flatbread brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar.  It got a little more charred than we would have liked, but it helped us gauge the temperature and timing for the subsequent pizzas.  I suggest doing a plain one to start with if you’re new at it, so you don’t waste a bunch of toppings if it does burn.  The dough tastes great just brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt- a “pizza bianca”, as it’s known in Italy.

margherita topping in bowl

pepper topping in bowl

Once we got our test pizza out of the way, we made two more pizzas, one with a classic Margherita*** topping (tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, salt & pepper) and one with roasted red and yellow peppers, feta, kalamata olives and basil.  I often don’t use sauce on my grilled pizzas, but if you want to, just make sure to go easy and use a light hand with the toppings in general.  You’ll want to use pre-cooked toppings, as the heat from the grill just warms them through rather than cooking them.  The varieties of topping combinations are as limitless as your imagination, but just keep in mind that for this style of pizza, less is more; you can’t achieve a crisp crust if it’s bogged down with too many extras.

pepper pizza on grill

I think I’ve made a convert out of Sarah, who used the fourth ball of dough a few days later to make another grilled pizza for her family.  If you have kids, this is a great recipe as it’s really easy to make individual-sized pizzas and let them choose their own toppings.  If you make the pizzas a little smaller, you can easily do two or even three at a time.

*There was a recent post on the Village Voice about “food words we hate“, and “toppings” was mentioned as a hated word.  Ever since I read that, I can’t stop thinking it does sound weird!  But what on earth could you replace it with, especially when talking about pizza?  Anyway, if the word “toppings” is bothersome to you, I apologize in advance for using it several times throughout this post, and welcome suggestions for alternatives.

**There is much debate about how to make the best pizza dough, what flour to use, etc.  I leave this up to you, as I think almost any dough you use will turn out pretty darn good.  One word of advice, though, would be to shape the dough by gently stretching it rather than rolling it.

***OK, technically, my sauceless pizza was a hybrid of Pizza alla Napoletana (cherry tomatoes and basil) and a Pizza Margherita (light tomato sauce, mozzarella & basil).  I usually use the cherry or grape tomatoes because in Michigan, for most of the year, they stand the most chance of having any flavor.

Pizza on the Grill (printer-friendly version)
This isn’t so much a recipe as it is some loose guidelines on the actual grilling process.  Although it is rewarding and not at all difficult to make your own dough (especially if you have a stand mixer), this is something you could have for a weeknight supper using store-bought dough.  margherita crop I’ve used the pizza dough from Trader Joe’s and had good results- you’ll just need to bring it to room temp and flour it a little so it won’t be too sticky.

As for toppings, like I said, the sky’s the limit.  Think of the dough as a blank canvas on which to paint flavor.  Don’t limit yourself to “traditional” pizza toppings- one of the best pizzas I made had no tomatoes, sauce or cheese; instead I used crème fraîche, corn, bacon and scallions.  It’s also a great way to use up odds and ends in the fridge! 🙂  Update: I recently posted a recipe for Tarte Flambée that can easily be made on the grill.

Directions: Arrange the coals so that there are more on one side than the other- this will give you two “cooking temperatures”.  Shape the pizza dough into rounds no bigger than 8″ or so in diameter.  Don’t fret too much about the shape, as rustic shapes work fine, but do try to get them as thin as you can without tearing.  Get your toppings organized and have them within easy reach- once the dough’s ready, you’ll need to work quickly so your crust doesn’t burn.

Put your pizza dough on the hot side and cook until the bottom becomes lightly browned (watch carefully to avoid burning), 1-2 minutes.  If the heat is a little uneven, give the dough a 180-degree rotation at some point.

Flip over the dough, place on the cooler side of the grill, and quickly add your pizza toppings.  Cover the grill and cook for 3-6 minutes, checking periodically, until the pizza is heated through and the bottom crust looks done.  If the crust begins to burn and the cheese isn’t yet melted (assuming you’re using cheese), you’ll need to adjust your coals by pushing some from the “cool” side over to the hotter side.

Please note that this isn’t an exact science, and the best thing you can do is be willing to go through some trial and error until you get a method and timing down that works for you and your grill.  You’ll be rewarded with pizza that tastes better than you ever imagined you could make at home!

asparagus-shrimp risotto & vidalia grilled cheese (recipes from “how to pick a peach”)

risotto plated 2I recently finished reading Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach for our first book club discussion, and thought it would be fitting to cook a couple of his recipes to enhance the experience.  Since the book is sectioned by season, I flipped through the “Spring” recipes for ideas.  Right off the bat there was a recipe that appealed to me in the Onions chapter for a grilled cheese with onions.  Like me, I’m sure most of you don’t need a recipe for grilled cheese; for me the recipe was more a reminder of how great a simple combo like cheese and onions can be.  He dresses it up a bit by using a fancy cheese, and dressing the onions in a little champagne vinegar and parsley. The other recipe I chose, Asparagus-Shrimp risotto, was dictated by the fact that asparagus is just about the only seasonal Michigan produce you can get in the farmers’ markets right now (with the exception of rhubarb, which was not in the book).

grl cheese vertical cropParsons’ grilled cheese is meant to be cut into strips and served as an appetizer with wine or (as he suggests) Champagne.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to eschew an opportunity to drink Champagne, but the only chance I had to make this was at lunch, alone, and seeing as how I had other chores to do that day, the Champagne was not an option.  Anyhow, the basics are: white bread with the crusts trimmed (I left mine on), very thinly sliced sweet onions grl cheese prep(Vidalia, Walla Walla, whatever) marinated in a splash of Champagne vinegar (I used white wine vinegar), chopped parsley, and some soft cheese (he suggests Taleggio, Brie or Taleme; I used Fontina).  Something I learned from the book is that sweet onions aren’t any “sweeter” than cooking onions; they just contain much less of the sulfurous compound that makes onions taste oniony.  It’s really kind of pointless to even cook with them, since what little onion flavor they have dissipates with cooking.  My Vidalias were so mild that I put an entire 1/2 onion on my sandwich and for my taste, it still could have used more onion flavor.  onions & parsley dishI was also a little disappointed in the Fontina; despite the fancy Euro name, it tasted almost exactly like Monterey Jack (but of course cost more).  I think a slightly more assertive cheese would be my preference if I made this again.  Either that, or I’d put a little Dijon mustard on it.  I also added a sprinkle of salt and pepper to my onions before putting them on the sandwich.  With a green salad, it was a simple but satisfying lunch, if not altogether nutritious.

asparagus in sinkThe Asparagus-Shrimp risotto was also familiar ground, but I thought I would try his method of making a simple, light stock out of the trimmings rather than use the usual chicken stock.  I have to say, though, 1/4 lb shrimp does not make for a heck of a lot of shrimp shells, so don’t expect a pronounced seafood flavor.  I actually save shrimp shells in the freezer for occasions such as this, though, so I was able to amp it up a little.  (I used more than 1/4 lb shrimp, too- more like 1/3 or 1/2 lb.)

risotto prepshrimp preprice in skillet

You probably know the drill with making risotto, but to sum up the recipe: 2 cups arborio rice, 1 1/4 lb asparagus (skinny works well for this recipe), 1/4 lb shrimp (or more), 1 onion, 9 cups H2O, 1/2 c dry white wine, 4 tbs butter, a few tbs Parmigiano.  Trim the asparagus, reserve the tips and cut the stems into 1/3-inch rounds.  Dice the onion and shell the risotto bowl squareshrimp; put the trimmings from the above ingredients into a stockpot with the water and simmer for at least 30 minutes.  Melt 3 tbs butter in a large skillet and add the asparagus stems and onion and cook until onion begins to soften; add 2 cups arborio rice and cook another 5 min or so.  Add wine and cook until evaporated.  Start adding the hot stock, about 3 ladles’ worth at a time, ladling it through a strainer, stirring as it cooks down, repeating the process as the stock gets absorbed.  Before the final addition of stock, add the raw shrimp and asparagus tips.  I like to cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces, so that it’s more evenly distributed through the risotto, but also so it cooks in the same time as the asparagus tips.  Since the stock is unsalted, you’ll need to add a fair amount of salt, which you can do at this stage.  According to Parsons, your result should be fairly soupy (it does tend to thicken up a bit as it sits).  Add the final tbs butter and the cheese, and enjoy with a green salad (I made a lemon-Dijon- Parmigiano vinaigrette) and a crisp glass of white.

lasagne of emilia-romagna (daring bakers)

This is the second month in a row that the Daring Bakers challenge has been a recipe I’ve already made, but it was certainly one I was happy to revisit!

lasagna-lead

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

If you’ve only ever had Italian-American style lasagna, this version is quite different.  There is no ricotta and no mozzarella, and barely any tomato in the sauce.  Instead, a rich meat sauce is layered with béchamel and a small amount of parmesan.   I do like the gooey, cheesy tomatoey version, but I don’t think I exaggerate when I say this version is heavenly.  Rarely have I tasted anything with such an intense meatiness.  And the homemade spinach noodles added just a hint of vegetal flavor to keep the whole thing from being too one-dimensional.  As Kasper puts it, the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”

The last time I made this recipe was about 3 years ago, and sadly, I think that is also the last time my pasta machine got used!  I can’t recall which sauce recipe I used that time, but I think I used half venison and half pork for the meats and it was delicious.  This time around, I stuck to the given recipe (veal, pork, beef, pancetta and prosciutto) with the exception of using pre-ground meat instead of grinding it myself.  This was partially due to time constraints, and partially due to economy- the ground meat was much less expensive.  (When I gave my shopping list to the butcher and told him what it was for, he said, “You’re going to grind these?” and steered me towards the already-ground meat.)  I was a little disappointed not to get to use my meat grinder, but as it was, I was short on time.  I had decided, since I was going to so much trouble, to have a few friends over for dinner to help me eat the lasagna.  And, as is typical for me, I was rushing to get things done at the last minute!

phil-noodleLast time I made the spinach pasta, it came off without a hitch.  This time, I used the food processor to mix the dough and I don’t know where I went wrong but it was a mess.  When I added the flour, it turned into a crumbly mixture about the texture of cornmeal.  I tried adding a little water and it still wasn’t coming together.  Then I thought maybe if I put it in the stand mixer and used the dough hook I would have better luck.  I added a smidgen of olive oil and then it turned pebbly but still wasn’t cohesive.  I added a little more water, kept mixing, and FINALLY it started to resemble pasta dough.  Luckily, my friend and former roommate Phil, who had stopped by to pick up some mail, offered to roll up his sleeves and help out by rolling out the pasta.  If he hadn’t been there, I probably would have had to resort to using boxed pasta because the sauces had taken longer than I expected and I was running short on time.  However, with his help I was able to have everything on the table just when I wanted to.

cheers

The dinner party went off without a hitch- everyone loved the lasagna and my friend Ian even said it was the best he’s ever had.  It was a lot of work, but I was glad to be able to share it.  For our first course, I made a carrot and avocado salad, and for dessert a blood orange sorbet, both of which I’ll post soon.  For now though, I’ll share a “photo essay” of the making of the sauce and lasagna assembly.

To make the sauce, you start off by browning a mirepoix (the “holy trinity” of diced carrots, celery and onion) with some diced pancetta:

mirepoix-prep

mirepoix-chopped1

mirepoix-prosciutto-in-pan

The next step is to brown the ground meats.  It’s funny because even though I’ve smelled meat and onions browning hundreds of times, it still almost takes me aback how great it smells each time.

meat-cooking

After the meat is browned, the recipe instructs to put it in a strainer and drain the excess fat.  I did do this; however, nothing really drained off.  Anyway, you have to remove the meats from the pan in order to deglaze the pan with the wine:

wine-reduction

The recipe instructs to transfer everything to a saucepan at this point before the next step of adding the remaining ingredients.

sauce-ingredients

First you add stock in 1/2 cup increments, cooking it off as you go.  Next, you add 2 cups milk.  I didn’t take any photos of this stage because frankly, it looked really unappetizing.  Before the milk reduces, it gets kind of curdly and the color of the sauce looks… well, not like something you’d want to consume.  After cooking for an hour, you add three plum tomatoes and cook for another 45 minutes.  Fortunately at this point, everything looks much more appealing.  I forgot to get a shot of the finished sauce, but you can kind of see it in the photo of the lasagna being assembled.

As for the pasta, I should have taken more photos but was discouraged and distracted by the fact that it took so much effort to get it to the right consistency.  The way the pasta machine works is that you start by rolling it through on a fairly wide setting and then once it goes through that setting smoothly, you go up a setting and continue the process until the noodles are the desired thinness (we went up to setting 6; I think the machine goes up to 12).

pastabike-dough

pastabike-noodle

In the photo above, you can see the dough tearing as it goes through the machine; you just have to keep putting it through until it goes easily before ratcheting it up to the next level.  The photo of Phil holding the pasta shows what it looks like as it gets to the right thinness.  Phil trimmed the noodles to fit into the 9 x 13 pan I was using, but we forgot to take into account the expansion of the noodles when cooking so they were a little long and I had to trim them when assembling.

noelle-lasagna-assembly

lasagna-mid-assembly

The only deviation from the instructions on the assembly was accidental- the final layer was supposed to only be béchamel and parmesan, but I hadn’t paced it out right and still had a little meat sauce, so that went onto the top layer too.  I think the main difference was aesthetic more than anything.

The only other slight deviation was that when serving the lasagna, I passed chopped fresh parsley at the table in addition to parmesan.  I’m a firm believer in the addition of a little parsley to brighten such a rich, heavy dish; not alot, but just enough to perk up your palate.

lasagna-side-view

I’ll finish things off with another photo of the happy diners (who, incidentally, supplied some very nice wine to complement the meal).  Can’t wait til the next one, guys!

happy-diners2

 

book review: “the zuni café cookbook” by judy rodgers

zuni-cafe-cookbookI know many cooks who, like myself,  enjoy reading cookbooks as one would a novel; curling up with them and reading several recipes straight through.  Not many cookbooks out there can qualify, in my opinion, to be worthy of this activity.  The writing must make you eagerly anticipate the work involved in creating a dish, to be sure.  But more than this, the author must give a sense of themselves and their culinary worldview that is compelling enough to make the reader feel a connection, as one would when reading a memoir.

Judi Rodgers’   The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is such a book.  I purchased it a few years back after it had gotten some good press in the New York Times and elsewhere, and quickly became enamored with Rodgers’ down-to-earth tone and earnest passion for tradition and ingredients.  Rodgers is a “graduate” of the Chez Panisse kitchen, but something about her feels more genuine than some of the other chefs whose careers were spawned there.  She went to France as a teenager and just happened to have the extreme good fortune of lodging with the Troisgros family, famous among food lovers for their 3-star Michelin restaurant in Roanne, France.  From this experience, her mind and tastebuds were expanded, and after traveling  and cooking her way through Southern Europe, she headed back to California.  After doing time at Chez Panisse and elsewhere in the ’80s,  she landed at Zuni Café in San Francisco, where she came into her own as a chef and restauranteur.  (I sadly haven’t had the opportunity to eat at Zuni, but here’s a lovely review from Pim of the blog Chez Pim that gives a good idea of the food and ambience.)

So, is this a cookbook full of expensive ingredients, complex preparations, and lofty ambition?  Well, yes and no.  Because of a focus on regional ingredients, some of the recipes would be purely academic to anyone living outside of California, such as a recipe containing glasswort.  Other recipes would require getting online to mail-order certain more exotic items, such as bottarga, a favorite ingredient of hers.  But there are almost an equal number of recipes that are inexpensive, incorporate leftovers, and/or can easily be made with things you would have on hand on a daily basis.  Case in point: one of my favorite recipes, Panade, which consists of stale bread, chicken stock, chard, onions, and cheese.  It gets baked in the oven, becoming a casserole of puffed, browned gooey goodness.  Another example is a recipe for Boiled Kale, Four Ways.  Whether the recipe is simple or complex, however, Rodgers takes pains to give elaborate, detailed instruction.  This does not come off as culinary bossiness, but as proof of her devotion to quality and traditional foodways.

Despite Rodgers’ predeliction for the food of France and Italy, the cookbook does include some typical American bistro-type food, such as hamburgers and Caesar salad.  Again, these recipes are all about the implementation of technique and quality of ingredients to get the best possible result (grinding your own beef for the burgers, for example).  I haven’t made the burgers, but I have made the Caesar Salad and can tell you it was one of the best I’ve had.  Other recipes I’ve made from this book: the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad (the restaurant’s signature dish and highly recommended), Chard & Onion Panade, Asparagus & Rice Soup with Pancetta & Black Pepper, Pickled Red Onions, House-Cured Salt Cod, Shrimp cooked in Romesco with Wilted Spinach, Sea Bass with Leeks, Potatoes & Thyme, and Orange-Currant Scones. (Like me, Rodgers doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and the number of dessert recipes reflect this.  In my opinion, however, this was not a shortcoming so much as an example of playing to your strengths.)

What ties together all the ideas in this book is an overriding desire to create “honest, generous” food using the best possible ingredients.  Rodgers presents us not just with a book of recipes, but a philosophy of cooking and eating.  A good percentage of the book is comprised of Rodgers’ careful, thoughtful instructions:  the salting of meat, choosing the best produce, suggestions for putting together a cheese course; advice on weights, measures, cooking vessels and the like.  It is telling that the cover photo, rather than showing a finished recipe, shows an image of carefully selected fruit, nuts and meat.  The book’s tone can best be summed up by a quote that Rodgers took from her mentor, Jean Troisgros:  “Méfie-toi du cinéma dans la cuisine”, or “Beware of theater in the kitchen”.  Elevated but without affectation, Rodgers’ book will inspire anyone wishing to take their cooking to the next level, without having to use culinary trickery or pretention to do so.

saffron-citrus risotto with seafood

risotto-plated-color-adjustAh, risotto… is there anything more comforting than a big plate of warm, creamy, starchy goodness?  The other night I was craving risotto and knew I wanted to include some shrimp and scallops that had been hanging around the freezer, but I wanted to take it to the next level and try something a little different. Typical me, I had bought some saffron several months ago without any specific recipe in mind, and it has sat on my spice shelf ever since, making me feel guilty. Now was the time to delve into that precious little vial! (I have since come to the realization that spices as an impulse purchase, even with the best of intentions, is not such a smart idea.) I consulted the Flavor Bible to see what other flavors might be viable- I wanted to compliment the saffron, not compete or cover it up. I was thinking something citrus, and finally settled on citrus zest with the notion that straight-up lemon juice would be too aggressive. My risotto was just right: the mineral tones of the saffron and the bright citrus zest perked up the dish and spinach-in-bowlkept it from being too heavy on the palate. And since it was a seafood risotto, I didn’t use any cream or cheese (and only a small amount of butter). Hey, I’m not saying it’s diet food, but as risotto goes, it’s lighter than most.  Oh, and as a side dish, I made some sautéed spinach with garlic, lemon and pinenuts. I do need a little something green on my plate if I’m going to eat all those carbs!

Saffron-Citrus Risotto with Seafood

1 1/2 cups arborio rice
4-6 cups water, seafood stock / fish fumet if you have it, chicken stock, or some combination thereof (see notes)
1 shallot, minced
1 celery stalk, diced small
a large pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp citrus zest (orange, lemon, and grapefruit)
1/2 lb uncooked shrimp, scallops, or a combination
4-6 tbs butter
1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
salt and white pepper to taste

Notes: I used a combination of chicken stock and water, since I wanted to add some flavor but didn’t want it to taste overly chicken-y. A good option if you’re using shrimp is to peel the raw shrimp and simmer the shells in a bit of lightly salted water to make a quick stock (strain before using). For the citrus zest, a Microplane is the best option, but if you don’t have one, use a zester and then mince the zest.  I really loved the combination of all three types of citrus zest, but feel free to just use one or two, or to substitute different types of citrus (with the exception of lime, which I think would be too bitter).

shrimp-in-skillet-crop

Directions: Put the stock and saffron in a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; when it reaches a simmer, turn it to low.  Put 2 tbs butter in a medium sized heavy-bottomed saucepan or stock pot over medium heat.  When it’s hot, add the shallot and celery and cook for 3-5 minutes or until the onions soften.   Add the rice and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add a little salt and white pepper, and the wine.  Stir and let the liquid bubble away.

Continue cooking over medium heat.  Add 1/2 cup of the warmed stock.  When the stock is nearly evaporated, add the next 1/2 cup, continuing the process until the rice is fully cooked.  The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry.  Stir frequently, making sure the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbs butter in a skillet for the seafood.  If you’re using both scallops and shrimp, give the shrimp a head start of 2-3 minutes before adding the scallops to the pan.  Cook gently until opaque, taking care not to overcook.

Begin tasting the rice after about 20 minutes of cooking.  You want it to be creamy but still a tiny bit “al dente”.  This could take up to 30 minutes or more.  When it reaches this stage, stir in the seafood and its pan juces along with the citrus zest, and stir.  If you want to take it over the top, add an additional 2 tbs butter.  Taste for salt, and serve.