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One for dough and dough for all

A good crust recipe provides the foundation for countless experiments in the kitchen, from double-crust pies to latticed fruit tarts, puffy quiches to savory appetizer bites. Once you become comfortable rolling out dough, the world of baked goodness is your oyster, since coming up with fillings is the easiest – and most creatively fulfilling – part of all.

For anyone in the Seattle area, I recommend taking the PCC Cooks class “Easy as Pie” for a great hands-on lesson in making crust. The recipe from the class, which I’m sharing below, is now my go-to guide for pies. It’s based around a food processor, so it’s quick and easy to clean up. And it’s easily adaptable; when making a savory dish, I just eliminate the sugar.

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This recipe makes enough for a double-crust pie (or a latticed pie, with extra crust for a little mini pie). You’ll need:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks of butter (1/2 lb), cut up in small cubes – Since using cold ingredients is very important in achieving a flaky crust, put the cubes of butter in the fridge until you need them.
1 teaspon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
About 6 tablespoons of cold water – Again, temperature is key. I usually fill a small bowl with water and ice cubes as I get my ingredients together, and stick it in the fridge, measuring out the amount I need just before using.

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt together in your food processor. Add the butter cubes and pulse several times, taking care not to over-mix. You’ll know when to stop when the butter cubes turn into pea-sized clumps:

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Next, add the water as you pulse the mixture. Since there are many variables that affect the dough coming together (like humidity, freshness of the flour), don’t assume you’ll need to use all of the water. I recommend pouring in about 3/4 of the estimated amount in a slow, steady stream, then assessing the consistency of the dough before adding any of the rest. It should be starting to clump together, but shouldn’t be a solid mass. If it sticks together when you press it between your fingers, you’re set:

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Dump the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap and mold it into a ball, bringing the four corners of the sheet of plastic together at the top. It’s important to do this quickly – the warmth of your hands will start to break down the butter, diminishing the flakiness of your crust. Cut in half and wrap each piece in plastic, flattening it into a disc, before placing in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough is in the fridge, you can come up with a filling. I’m still on a Washington State apple kick, so I thought I’d stick to good old fashioned apple pie here. For an apple pie filling you’ll need:

A large bowl of sliced tart apples (about 8 apples) – It’s up to you whether you want to peel them or not.
3/4 cup sugar
1 lemon (zest & juice)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch

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Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl (if you like the apples in pie to be soft and mushy, you can also put the mixture on the stove for 5-10 minutes). Roll out your first disc of pie dough and gently transfer it to a pie pan. Pour the apple mixture into the pan, making a slight mound towards the center. Dot with a few pieces of butter.

Roll out the second disc of dough and place on top of the apples. Cut off any overhanging dough, and crimp the crust using the index finger of one hand while pinching the dough with the thumb and index finger of your other hand. Cut a few decorative slits in the crust to allow steam to escape during cooking. Lastly, beat an egg and brush over the exposed dough to ensure a beautifully golden crust.

Bake for about an hour in a 375° oven, covering with aluminum foil halfway to prevent the crust from burning. Let cool for a few hours, even overnight.

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And there you have it – domestic bliss!

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Uncategorized

Apples to pears

I recently realized that I’ve been living in Washington, a state which produces more than half of the apples grown in the U.S., for more than a year without ever visiting a local orchard. So when I found myself driving through the Cascade mountains this past weekend, I jumped at the chance to go apple picking at a farm in Skagit Valley. Though Skagit Valley lies to the West of the Cascades together with Seattle, the majority of Washington’s fruit production is actually centered on the eastern side of the mountains. Even to the West at Jones Creek Farm, I was impressed by the wide variety of apples – more than 10 – available in a relatively small orchard:

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I was also happy to discover that the farm also has a crop of Asian pears available for “u-pick,” with three varieties to choose from. My favorite ended up being the Mishirasu, which has the slightly rough, spotted skin of common Asian pears, as well as the signature shape of its European counterparts, like Bartlett and Bosc:

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Asian pears are native to China and Japan, where they grew a few thousand years before being brought over to North America in the 1800s, most likely by Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Because of their crisp texture and most often round shape, the fruit is sometimes misconstrued as a cross between an apple and pear – its nickname is indeed “apple pear.” In actuality, though, it’s part of the Pyrus genus, the set of plant species which encompass edible and decorative pears.

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Back in Seattle, with a fruit bowl brimming with pears, I’ve had to get creative with my harvest. Because they’re very crunchy and watery at the same time, Asian pears are notoriously hard to break down in cooking, so making use of them raw is more manageable. (I also recently learned that they’re a common ingredient in Korean barbecue marinades because they contain enzymes which help tenderize meat.) Here I thought I’d share two different ideas for using Asian pears in salads. The first is based on the holy salad trinity of crisp fruit + sharp cheese + toasted nuts, while the second is a bit of a riff on the classic Waldorf salad.

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Mixed Greens with Asian Pears, Gorgonzola,
Toasted Pecans, and Maple-Balsamic Dressing

Here the name says it all: toss thinly sliced Asian pears with mixed greens, crumbled Gorgonzola, and toasted pecans. To make the dressing, whisk balsamic vinegar and maple syrup together with a tiny dollop of Dijon mustard, adding salt and pepper to taste, and then gradually whisk in some olive oil. Simple and elegant!

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Asian Pear Aioli Salad

This second salad is based on a recipe of a good friend of my mom’s, a woman who is famous for hosting big parties with tables overflowing with food. She adds celery root, cut in matchstick pieces, but here I substituted plain old celery, thinly sliced. I chose to leave the skins on the pears to add more color and texture to the salad, though you can also peel them for a more elegant effect.

Start by making a quick aioli sauce: to make about a half a cup’s worth, whisk together an egg yolk, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a chopped garlic clove, a generous pinch of salt, and a couple teaspoons of water. Then gradually whisk in 1/4 cup of olive oil, as well as another 1/4 cup of an alternative oil with a less powerful flavor, like grapeseed. Add fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Depending on how large a salad you want to make and how much dressing you like, multiply the quantities as you see fit. Then combine thinly sliced Asian pears and celery in a bowl with the sauce, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.

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Italiando

The fungus among us

It’s Fall here in the Pacific Northwest, which means we’re in the heart of mushroom season. From about September to November,  damp days promise an abundance of funghi – one of the many similarities between this region of the U.S. and Piedmont, the province in Northern Italy where my family is from. Even on a short hike near Hood River, Oregon this past weekend, I was able to find a bunch of different mushrooms along the edge of the path:

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I’ve combed through some mycology books in an attempt to decipher the spoils of my amateur “mushroaming,” and am pretty sure the big one to the top right is a short-stemmed russola, and the red one a lobster mushroom. For each of the rest, I’ve come up with a handful of possibilities which seem to be either “edible but not recommended” or “deadly poisonous.” Hmmm…

Not feeling quite up to hallucinating this weekend, I foraged my neighborhood grocery store for a local mushroom alternative, and came out with some beautiful golden chanterelles.

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One of my favorite ways to cook mushrooms is in risotto, the ultimate comfort food for chilly nights. It’s a logical choice for using fresh mushrooms in Northern Italy, because the Po Valley, stretching from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is filled with rice fields. Since the delicate creaminess of the rice contrasts so nicely with earthy flavors, risotto is a great way to showcase woodsy ingredients like mushrooms and walnuts in colder months, or nettles and asparagus in the spring.

When buying rice for risotto, try to track down the carnaroli variety. Because these kernels are a bit shorter, they tend not to overcook as much as other alternatives, such as arborio. That being said, it’s perfectly fine to use arborio; you just need to be more attentive to ensure your rice does not cook beyond al dente.

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This recipe serves around 8, with ample leftovers, and takes about 30 minutes to make.

About 6 cups carnaroli or arborio rice – The general rule in Italian cooking is “un pugno per persona” (one fistful per person), but that’s in the context of a larger meal where rice would be only the first of several courses. I usually serve risotto as a main dish together with a salad/side, so I estimate about 2 to 3 fistfuls per person.
About 3.5 quarts (14 cups) chicken stock – The calculation here is about 2 times as much broth as rice. I like to overestimate the amount just in case – you can use any extra broth when reheating leftovers the next day.
About 5 cups cleaned mushrooms – Here I’ve used chanterelles, but other types, especially porcini (even reconstituted dry ones), would also work very well.
1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup diced)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup dry white wine
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped
3-4 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

The first step is to clean your mushrooms, something done best with a glass of wine, sitting among good company. Here is my mom preparing chanterelles for cooking – wiping them clean with a damp paper towel, trimming the bottom of the stems, and cutting them in half (large pieces are fine, since they’ll shrink as you cook):

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Next, bring the stock to a boil in a large pot on a back burner of your stove. Season your broth with salt – that way the rice will absorb the salt together with the liquid. Once hot, continue to simmer over low heat to keep the broth warm as you make the risotto.

In another pan, sauté half of the onion in olive oil, adding the mushrooms a few minutes later. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to brown; season with salt & pepper, then set aside.

In either the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms in, or in a new one (so long as it’s big enough to hold all of the risotto- the rice will expand!), sauté the rest of the onion over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once the onion begins to turn translucent, add the rice, stirring continuously and keeping a close eye on it to prevent it from burning. Toasting the rice without liquid at this stage allows it to develop a slight crust so that it absorbs the broth gradually during the rest of the cooking process, rather than all at once. It’s a bit like searing meat before roasting.

After the rice toasts for roughly two minutes, add the white wine and stir gently, keeping the heat at medium high. Once the liquid is just about fully absorbed by the rice, add one ladle of broth, always stirring often. Continue to add a ladle of broth at a time, stirring and waiting for the liquid to absorb before the next addition, until the rice is just shy of al dente – this shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before you think the rice will be ready, stir in the mushrooms and check your seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then add your final ladle of broth (stir just to incorporate) and take the pan off the heat. This is the all-important stage called mantecatura, when cheese and butter are added to create the dish’s signature creaminess: add the parsley, 3/4 cup of Parmigiano, and 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter, then cover the pan and let sit for a minute.

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Stir everything together, and serve with extra Parmigiano on the side.

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Summer’s end sardines

In a final ode to summer, I thought I’d share one of my favorite dishes to make on the grill: sardines!

Grilled fresh sardines are a popular summer dish in the Mediterranean, particularly in Portugal, where the fish is prepared all over Lisbon on June 13th, the feast day of Saint Anthony. Legend has it that in Rimini, Italy during the 13th-century, St. Anthony was having trouble catching the attention of the townspeople with his sermons. Feeling dejected, he walked to the seashore and started preaching to the fish. Lo and behold, rows and rows of sardines stuck their heads out of the water to listen to him, drawing the attention of the Rimini locals, who were moved to convert by the miracle.

Here in the States, we still seem to lack faith in sardines. Many home cooks limit their use of the fish to the canned variety, and only recently have I noticed grilled fresh versions popping up on more restaurant menus. It’s time to liberate sardines from their tins!

Besides their salty deliciousness, there are several reasons to cook and eat sardines. The fish are rich in B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, among a host of other nutrients. They’re also an environmentally friendly choice, since they are plentiful, fished sustainably, and lower on the food chain than much sought-after tuna and salmon. The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, a handy resource when thinking about what fish to buy, classifies them as an underutilized resource. Converted yet?

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About an hour or so before you plan to start up the grill (charcoal works best), gut your sardines, leaving the rest of the fish intact, and marinade them in some olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

Once your grill reaches high heat, grill the sardines about 3 minutes per side. When the skin becomes crispy enough, the fish shouldn’t stick to the grates and should flip easily.

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I like to serve grilled sardines with salsa verde, an Italian-style green sauce made with parsley, anchovies, and capers (not to be confused with the Mexican version of the same name made with tomatillos). The anchovies and capers highlight the sardines’ briny flavor, while the fresh parsley offers a nice counterpoint to the charred skin.

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For the salsa verde you’ll need:
A bunch of fresh parsley
1/2 cup of capers
2-3 anchovy fillets (the kind jarred in olive oil)
A couple of garlic cloves
A dash of vinegar (I’d go with white wine vinegar here)
About 1/4 cup olive oil
Salt & Pepper

Depending on what kind of consistency you prefer (and how willing you are to wash kitchen equipment), you can combine all the ingredients in a food processor to achieve a smoother paste, or finely chop everything together by hand. I like to pile parsley, capers, anchovies, and garlic on a cutting board and chop them with a mezzaluna (“half moon”) knife. Then, after I’ve reached my limit of chopping and decide it’s fine enough for me, I transfer the ingredients to a bowl, stirring in a dash of white wine vinegar, some olive oil, and salt & pepper.

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Prime time for panzanella

It seems strange to be launching into tomato recipes at the start of September, but the growing season here in Seattle is a little behind most areas – only recently have the tomato plants on my balcony begun to produce in full force:

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I’ll never complain about a surplus of tomatoes, regardless of how early or late in the season they come. My go-to summer recipe with fresh tomatoes is panzanella, a centuries-old Tuscan recipe that was originally a way to make use of stale bread.

Back in medieval times, Boccaccio mentioned the dish in the Decameron, calling it pan lavato, or “washed bread.” Traditionally, old crusty bread is soaked in water then squeezed dry before being combined with fresh garden ingredients. I find that whenever I’m around bread never lasts long enough to get the chance to turn stale, so I toast pieces in the oven with garlic and olive oil to lend a bit of crunch to my panzanella.

There are myriad versions of the salad, but the basic components are always fresh tomatoes and crusty bread. Some people include red onion, cucumbers, olives, capers, or fennel, and in coastal regions of Italy like Livorno it’s not unheard of to add seafood. I’ve made a tasty version with good canned tuna (marinated in olive oil), cannellini beans, pickles, and red onion mixed together with bread and basil – something that might make traditional Florentines turn in their graves. But most often I like to stick with a tomato and mozzarella combination since it’s such a crowd pleaser.

For me, panzanella is all tied up in nostalgia. It reminds me of cooking with my college roommates in Montreal after outings to Jean Talon market in Little Italy, when I’d ride my bike home balancing a trash bag full of fresh basil between my legs. We’d make industrial quantities of pesto and pasta sauce with our finds, but the recipe that stuck most was panzanella. My roommate who is now fearlessly making her way through medical school tells me it gets her through exam season each year.

This salad is so simple – and there are so many possibilities for great variations – that writing out a recipe seems kind of ridiculous. But basically, I aim for an equal ratio of bread, tomatoes, and mozzarella, and add enough dressing for the bread to absorb in addition to coating the ingredients.

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Ingredients:

Tomatoes (roughly diced, or cherry tomatoes cut in half)
Fresh mozzarella (again, roughly diced, or bocconcini)
Crusty bread
A handful of fresh basil, torn
1-2 cloves of garlic
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar (traditional recipes call for red wine vinegar, but I prefer the flavor of balsamic)
Salt & Pepper

Cut bread into 1″ thick slices. Cut cloves of garlic in half and rub on slices, drizzling a little olive oil on top, before putting in oven to toast for 5 minutes at around 400 degrees. Once toasted, tear into bite sized chunks. Combine bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, and dress with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt & pepper.

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Eating Words

Eat your words

One of the things I like most about the Italian language is how eating and drinking form a central theme in proverbs and sayings – it’s a testament to the role that good food & drink play in everyday life. Here are some of my favorite foodisms:

A tavola non si invecchia.
No one grows old at the table.

Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca.
You can’t have a full bottle and a drunk wife.
(i.e. you can’t have your cake and eat it too)

Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco.
Not all doughnuts come out with a hole.
(i.e. you can’t always predict what’s going to happen)

Una ciliegia tira l’altra.
One cherry pulls the other.
(i.e. once you start you can’t stop)

Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo.
An old chicken makes good broth.
(i.e. old isn’t bad)

Chi dorme non piglia pesci.
He who sleeps doesn’t get fish.
(the Italian version of the early bird gets the worm)

Tutto fa brodo.
Everything makes good broth.
(i.e. everything is useful in the end)

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Forays into Foraging

Forays into foraging

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a baker. I have more of a craving for salt than a sweet tooth, and all the precise measurements involved in baking doesn’t really jive with my throw-everything-in-a-pot mentality. But having access to a bunch of great (and often free!) fruit here in the Northwest has encouraged me to experiment with pies and other baked goods this summer.

On my walk to work a few weeks ago, I noticed a tree full of plums less than a block away from my apartment. It didn’t look like anyone was taking advantage of all the fruit, since there was a bunch of half-rotten plums scattered on the ground underneath the tree. How sad, I thought, I need to bring them all home! The tricky thing was that the tree sat on the grassy strip separating a house + sidewalk from the paved road – private or public property? When I asked a reliable colleague in the produce department at work for his advice, he said technically the law was in my favor. So the next day I came armed with tupperware containers and knocked on the door of the plum house – I figured I would double check, especially since it looked like these folks had a chicken coop and probably fell under the hippie urban farm category. No one answered, and I went ahead and picked a reasonable amount of plums (hippies would want to share, right?).

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Then I did what any reasonable person with a pile of fruit would do: make pie!

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It turned out great – the combination of plums at different stages of ripeness made the pie more tart and interesting than your standard sugary recipe (though the varied crust color speaks to the many nuances of my circa-1964 oven).

And the possibilities for economical pie are endless – there’s actually a online map which locates public trees and plants that are free for the picking across the U.S. Here in Seattle, foraging is pretty popular, especially in the summer with all the berry bushes scattered across neighborhoods (and you can’t forget nettles in the springtime or mushrooms in the fall).  The city has also helped fund an impressive project called the Beacon Food Forest, which is transforming part of a public park in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, less than 3 miles from downtown Seattle, into 7 acres of edible trees and plants for Seattleites of all backgrounds.

My second foraging experience of the summer was combing Discovery Park for blackberries last week. My friend Rachel and I hiked one of the main trails in the park (just a 20 minute bike ride from my apartment), stopping to pick berries at large patches along the way. Between the two of us, we amassed about 4lbs of berries – we also ran into someone who was collecting 12lbs to make blackberry wine! He piqued my interest in infusing vodka with blackberries, but for now I stuck to good ol’ baked goods. Back at home, I made a blackberry crumb pie, with a walnut and brown sugar topping, and blackberry scones…and still had some left to freeze.

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