Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia

Are you as obsessed as I am with the Great British Baking Show / Great British Bake-Off? Originally aired on BBC, a few precious seasons have traveled across the pond courtesy of PBS (seriously, how great is PBS? Let’s keep it, even if that means making a few phone calls). I devoured the first season that became available in the U.S., then was forced with the second (which PBS called season 3) into consuming only in bite-size chunks, since I watched as it aired week by week. It was excruciating – all I really wanted was to binge. So when our friend D. told me she had bought season 2 (in Britain, season 4 [yeah, we’ve made the numbering all kinds of weird]), I couldn’t resist but do the same (and then, of course, it became available on Netflix a week or two later. Typical).

I won’t tell you who wins, in case you haven’t watched it, but I quickly developed some favorites, and one was Beca, the Welsh army wife who spun beautiful homey recipes into her bakes. One week, the bakers were asked to create breads with unconventional flours, to test their skills when gluten development was off the table. Beca made a focaccia using spelt flour and mashed potatoes, topped with rosemary sprigs and more potatoes, and I couldn’t hold myself back from the kitchen.

My version goes back to standard old bread flour, since when I wanted the bread I wanted it nowthankyouverymuch, and wasn’t willing to wander the grocery aisles looking for spelt. I’ve simplified just a touch, using the same kind of potatoes for both the dough and the topping, and I’ve replaced her suggestion of gorgonzola with whole cloves of roasted garlic. Upon consultation with another recipe or two, I bumped up the quantity of olive oil for a lovely oily crustiness that is a good reminder that focaccia really is just an extremely thick-crust pizza.

Including cooked and mashed potatoes in focaccia is not unusual, resulting in a dough with some heft and stickiness, but it bakes into such a satisfying, warm, golden rectangle that the clingy dough is ultimately worth dealing with, especially if you use a stand mixer to knead it. Unlike a regular loaf, this focaccia gets spread onto a well oiled baking sheet after its first rise, and prodded and stretched over the course of half an hour or so as it settles across the tray. As you persuade it to spread, you also aggressively stab at it with your fingertips to give it that classic dimpled look, which is somewhat satisfying if you’re, I don’t know, going through withdrawal because you don’t have any more episodes of a certain show to watch…

Since I ended up irregularly shingling the top of this bread with potato slices, I was a little bit concerned that it wouldn’t rise well in the oven, and that the moisture of the potatoes would make the spots underneath them seem a bit doughy and under baked (Paul Hollywood would not be pleased). Delightfully, the whole thing rose nicely, and yes, the surface underneath the potatoes did look a little anemic compared to the well browned exposed parts in between, but it was cooked through and made for a pleasant textural contrast with the crunch of the bread and the crispness of the baked rosemary sprigs.

Since it is – perhaps with the addition of some cheese – a near equivalent of a pizza, focaccia is practically a meal in itself. But it also pairs well with roasted chicken, or a bowl of soup, or a crisp salad. We even sliced the last few pieces horizontally, toasted them for a few minutes, and used them as the base for sandwiches. Much of the stress of shaping, scoring, and steaming associated with a boule or baguette is eliminated, making this a perfect project for a slow, easy day, and perhaps a glass of sparkling wine or an amber ale as an accompaniment for the warm, well-oiled square you can hardly wait to cut for yourself.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia
Makes one 9x13x3 inch loaf, depending on how much yours rises
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly (about ¼ inch)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3-4 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary sprigs, divided
1 bulb garlic, bashed into separate cloves
1 cup warm water reserved from cooking the potatoes
¾ cup olive oil + 2 teaspoons, divided

 

  • Cook the sliced potatoes in plenty of boiling water until they are tender but not falling apart, 10-15 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside half of the potato slices to cool. Mash the other half as smoothly as possible (I leave the skins on, so there will always be some shredded potato skin in there; that’s okay).
  • Once the potato water has cooled to just warm or room temperature (110F at the hottest), stir in the yeast and the sugar and let it sit about 10 minutes to dissolve and bubble.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the bread flour, the tablespoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of the rosemary leaves, finely chopped, in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running at low speed and the paddle attachment affixed, drizzle in ½ cup of the olive oil. Add the bubbling yeast mixture and 1 cup of the cooled mashed potatoes and mix with the paddle attachment to bring together.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth but still slightly sticky, around 5-8 minutes. If the mixture is not smoothing out or coming together, or it looks impossibly wet, add more flour ¼ cup at a time, mixing well in between additions.
  • Once the dough has come together into a smooth, slightly sticky ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at warm room temperature for about 1 hour, until it has doubled in size.
  • While the dough rises, heat the oven to 300F, put the garlic cloves in a small, oven-safe dish and drizzle them with salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, then cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the garlic cloves are soft and aromatic, around 20 minutes. Set them aside until they are cool enough to handle, and raise the oven temperature to 425F.
  • When the dough has risen, oil a 9×13 inch baking tray with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil (I know, it sounds like a lot of oil, but this is that sort of bread. Trust me). Spread it out with your fingertips to evenly coat the tray, then tip in the risen dough. Stretch and push it out over the width and length of the tray, dimpling it with your fingers as you do so. It will be reluctant.
  • Let the dough rise on the tray for 30-45 minutes, stretching it and prodding it and dimpling it as it rises. Though it will spring back at first, after the first 15 minutes or so it will relax and stretch more willingly as it puffs. You want to encourage it all the way into the corners, and be aggressive with your dimpling, stabbing right through the dough with your fingertips, otherwise the impressions will bake right out and you will end up with a smooth loaf, not focaccia’s characteristic cragginess.
  • After 30-45 minutes when the dough has puffed and stretched to fill the baking tray entirely, peel the roasted, cooled garlic cloves and press the whole cloves into the bread at random intervals. Add the reserved potato slices, leaving some space in between them, then add the remaining 1tablespoon of rosemary in small sprigs or individual leaves. If you wish, a final drizzle of olive oil over the top and a sprinkle of coarse salt is a nice final touch.
  • Bake in the preheated 425F oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is nicely puffed and a tawny golden-brown color in the spots between the potatoes.
  • Let it cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes before slicing in.

Save

Project Soup Foundations: Roasted Vegetable and Chicken Stock/Broth

food-blog-january-2017-0245This last week has been a lot. A new president, an elderly dog with suddenly severe mobility challenges, a new president, a state that seemed to offer a pointed meteorological response, particularly on inauguration day (and then clear, sun-swept skies for the women’s march the next morning – what up, universe!), oh, and that whole new president thing. I opted, as is my usual practice, to respond in part by shuffling into the kitchen. Cooking doesn’t do a great deal on a large scale, but it makes me feel safe and in control, and it is with those feelings that I gain a foundation of strength and confidence to undertake other, more consequential actions. So let’s talk foundations. The foundation – the basis – of soup is liquid. That’s not always the part you add first, and it often doesn’t feel like the most interesting part,* but it’s what separates soup from puree, or pasta, or pile-of-diced-vegetables-with-some-beans-and-meat-or-maybe-potatoes.

food-blog-january-2017-0163food-blog-january-2017-0169food-blog-january-2017-0175Obviously you have a lot of choice when it comes to choosing this liquid. You could, of course, work with plain old water, and per some rational arguments this does work, but most soups advocate for a stock or broth of some sort – usually the variety that most closely matches the “star ingredient” in the finished dish. I’d wager a guess that chicken and vegetable are the most common, with beef coming in a wavering third. There are many good options in the aisle at the store for all of these varieties – when I go with store-bought I opt for low-sodium – but what fun would it be if I told you to go out and buy the base of our project for the whole year? Nope. Doesn’t sound like me. We need a strong foundation. We’re going to make it ourselves.

food-blog-january-2017-0182food-blog-january-2017-0184The first hurdle to surmount is the question of broth vs. stock. These terms get used pretty interchangeably, but there is a difference. Harold McGee offers mostly an etymological distinction, citing the latter as deriving from “an old Germanic root meaning ‘tree trunk’” and the former as “more specific and ancient,” going back to the turn of the first millennium with the root bru, which means “to prepare by boiling” – quite similar to our word “brew” (599). Alan Davidson agrees, adding that though broth or bru at its inception just meant the liquid and its contents, in recent centuries the word has implied the presence of meat. A broth could be the resulting liquid of brewing down these ingredients, or a finished product in itself, like the broth of a soup. Stocks, on the other hand, Davidson positions as less finished, component parts of a dish-to-be (108).

food-blog-january-2017-0197More recently, though, at least in American cooking parlance, stock vs. broth tends to be a question of bones vs. meat. A broth is a liquid made from meat that has been simmering, usually along with vegetables and herbs for flavor. Stocks are made from bones as well as connective tissue, along with vegetables and aromatics for flavor, and the collagen extracted from the bones during the simmer results in a product with more body – a heft or thickness absent from broth. As Alton Brown notes, it is hard to remove all meat from bones when you are making a stock, which means that many homemade stocks are actually a hybrid between the two bases; that may be in part why we tend to use the words interchangeably. At least, that’s the answer I’m going for.

food-blog-january-2017-0199food-blog-january-2017-0223food-blog-january-2017-0235According to these defining principles, then, what we’re going to make here is one broth (no bones; all vegetables), and one stock (well, broth-stock. Brock? Stoth?). The ingredient lists are similar and the procedure is easy, if a little time-consuming: roast some veg or a chicken, pop the roasted veg or bones in a big pot, add flavoring agents, cover with water, simmer long enough to produce a bronzed, aromatic liquid. Strain, cool, and store. That’s it. Yes, it’s an additional step or two on your quest for soup, but it makes plenty, and then you’re set for a few months, depending on the frequency of your broth needs. Call it a project for a rainy day, which we seem to be having plenty of lately.

food-blog-january-2017-0210food-blog-january-2017-0207I particularly like making the effort just after Thanksgiving, when the bones and trimmings of that turkey carcass make enough meaty, strengthening, belly-consoling stock to service my soup, stew, risotto, couscous, and arroz con pollo needs for at least a quarter of the year.**

food-blog-january-2017-0213food-blog-january-2017-0211* it’s also not the most interesting or sexy thing to take photos of, so I hope you appreciate Lucy’s willingness to help out by posing with various vegetables (she couldn’t be bothered with the celery, so we stuck with onion and carrots).

food-blog-january-2017-0218** with the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, I increase the amount of water in the mix, but tend to leave the other ingredient quantities about the same.

 

Roasted Vegetable Broth
Makes 10-11 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours, if you are organized
The mushrooms and soy sauce here produce a final product that is darker in color than the broths you might be used to, but I like including them because they contribute such deep, earthy flavors. Don’t worry about the saltiness of the soy sauce – it’s only a few tablespoons in a tremendous three quarts of water. This leaves the finished broth slightly under-seasoned, so you can reduce it down into a sauce without worries, or add salt to taste as you use it for other dishes.
1 onion, stem end and root stub removed, papery skins still on, quartered
1 leek, dark green leaves removed, roots lopped off, halved and rinsed well between the layers
3 thick carrots, stems lopped off, cut in thirds
3 celery stalks, top and bottom tips removed, rinsed free of dirt, cut in thirds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
8-10 garlic cloves, skins on
8-10 shiitake mushroom stems or 4-5 whole shiitake mushrooms (you could use crimini instead, if you prefer, but I had shiitakes. Just go for a dark, flavor-rich mushroom that you like.)
¼ – ½ bunch of parsley, stems and leaves
2-3 big sprigs of thyme (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons soy sauce
12 cups (3 quarts) cold water

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F while you prep the vegetables. In a large bowl, toss the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Line a large cookie sheet with aluminum foil and scoop the vegetables onto it using a slotted spoon. Roast at 375F for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, add the garlic cloves and the mushrooms or mushroom stems to the bowl and toss around a bit to coat them with the remaining olive oil and salt.
  • After half an hour, remove the cookie sheet from the oven, toss the vegetables around a bit to prevent sticking and encourage even browning, and add the mushroom stems or whole mushrooms and the garlic. Put the cookie sheet back into the oven and roast another 20 minutes, until the edges of the onions and leeks are deeply browned and a bit crisp.
  • Put the roasted vegetables into a large stock pot or dutch oven (if you’re careful, you can just lift the whole sheet of aluminum foil and dump them straight in). Add the parsley, the thyme, the peppercorns, the bay leaves, and the soy sauce. Dump in the water, turn the heat on high, and clamp on the lid.
  • When the liquid in the pot reaches a boil, turn the heat down to medium low or low and keep it at just a simmer for 60 minutes.
  • After an hour, turn off the heat and use a strainer or fine mesh sieve to scoop out the vegetables and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
  • Roasted vegetable broth can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, deglazing vegetables; anything that needs a rich, earthy liquid as a base.

 

“Everyday” Chicken Stock
Makes 14-15 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours (not counting the time required to roast and pick the chicken)
Here we leave the vegetables in bigger pieces since we will simmer for a bit longer – that way they won’t break down entirely as the hot water extracts the necessary flavor and collagen from the bones. I use skin as well in the mix, because I like the extra flavor and seasoning it contributes. You can leave it out if you wish. I’m calling this “everyday” because though I realize you won’t make it every day, it is nice to have access to on a daily basis, which is why always having a few quarts stashed in the freezer is one of my kitchen goals.
Carcass (and remaining skin, if desired) from a 4½-5½ pound chicken, picked reasonably clean of meat (save for chicken tacos, or pot pie, or sandwiches, etc.)
3-4 whole carrots, stem ends lopped off
3-4 stalks celery, leaves and all (rinse or brush off any dirt at the root end if needed)
1 onion, stem and root ends removed, quartered (you can use or discard the papery skin; I’ve done both and there isn’t much difference to the resulting product)
10-12 cloves garlic, papery skins still on
½ bunch parsley, stems and all
3 thyme sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 sage sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 rosemary sprigs (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2-3 bay leaves
16 cups (4 quarts) cold water. We want to cover the ingredients by an inch or two (though some of the vegetables will float), but not add so much water that the final product is diluted – the bones can only give up so much flavor.

 

  • Place all ingredients together in a large pot. I like to use a big pasta pot with the removable strainer insert. You could, I suppose, make use of the strainer insert, but some of the smaller pieces (i.e. the peppercorns) are going to fall through, so I just use the empty pot. Saves at least one dish to wash later.
  • Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low or medium-low and simmer for 1½-2 hours, until the liquid is golden and aromatic, and the vegetables are extremely tender but not yet falling apart.
  • Use a fine mesh sieve or strainer to remove and discard the bones, vegetables, and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into a large pitcher and store in the refrigerator overnight. Excess fat in the stock will float to the top and solidify; scoop it off and discard it the next day.
  • Once the fat is discarded, strain the stock into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
  • Homemade chicken stock can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, risottos; anything that needs a fragrant, golden, poultry-flavored liquid as a base.

 

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Breadcrumbs

2016 Food Blog March-0614My warmest memory of risotto – and the one that probably says the most about me as a person and as the graduate student that I was – is one wintery evening in Oregon, when I was making risotto while preparing for class. This seems counterintuitive, I know. It is. One cannot truly invest in either the stirring required for risotto or the note-jotting, powerpoint slideshow constructing, or annotating usually needed for quality lesson prep. One can, however, position one’s hand just so to hold up and keep open a paperback book in one hand, while leaving the other hand free for a wooden spoon.

2016 Food Blog March-05952016 Food Blog March-0597The house was cold that night, and I was frantically reading Beowulf in preparation for a lecture the next day in a class for which I was a teaching assistant. Stir, read. Stir, read. Slow, random swipes through the pan, as I drowned myself in Beowulf’s deeds. I probably didn’t get much out of that reading session, but the combination is stuck: warm, creamy rice, and poor Beo fighting against demons of darkness, and of his own overweening.

2016 Food Blog March-06002016 Food Blog March-0602I’ve complained about risotto before, and it’s true that I often find it underwhelming. But when you combine its warm, melting heartiness against the brightness of spring vegetables, and when you declare that decadence befits a spring break that finally arrived – so you give yourself a week off from blogging because SPRING BREAK, people! – and then you layer on a poached egg and a shower of crispy crumbs shot through with garlic and lemon zest, you have a risotto that I’ll put down my book for.

2016 Food Blog March-0611This one features leeks – my favorite, and sadly so underrated, member of the onion family – as well as slim fingers of asparagus, barely wilted spinach leaves, and a rubble of peas stirred in at the last minute. There’s a generous shower of parmesan cheese at the end, and the egg yolk, still oozy but just thickened, forms its own rich, golden sauce for the risotto when you slide your fork down through it. Risotto isn’t difficult, but it is a bit co-dependent: it requires your presence in the kitchen throughout the process. Still, though, if you are organized and get all of your vegetables prepared while the broth is heating, you can have the whole thing done in less than an hour. What’s that? Two entries in a row with reasonable time spans? Happy spring, my friends.

2016 Food Blog March-0615

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Crumbs
Serves 6-8
30-45 minutes
6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large leeks, sliced into thin ribbons as described below
4 finely minced garlic cloves, divided
2 cups short or medium grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, black or white
2 1-2 inch sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound slender asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off, spears cut into two inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas
4 ounces baby spinach
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
6-8 eggs (as many as people you are serving)
1 teaspoon white vinegar, for poaching
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
zest from one lemon
salt to taste

 

  • In a medium pot, heat the broth while you prep the vegetables – by the time you are ready to add it to the risotto, it should be just below a simmer.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-low heat.
  • Cut off the root end and the dark green leaves of the leek. Slice the remaining log lengthwise, leaving two long rounded planks. Run these planks under running water, flipping through the layers with your thumbs, to release dirt. Then cut each plank in half lengthwise again, and slice horizontally across into thin ribbons.
  • Add the leeks and half of the finely minced garlic (so, the equivalent of 2 cloves) to the butter and olive oil in the skillet, and turn the heat up to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very tender but have not browned much, 5-10 minutes. To keep them from caramelizing, you may need to turn the heat down a bit.
  • When the leeks are translucent and quite tender, turn the heat up to medium-high and add the rice. Stir constantly for 2-3 minutes until the rice grains have become opaque and smell toasty. Pour in the white wine and continue to stir constantly until it is almost all absorbed.
  • Once the wine is almost completely absorbed by the rice, add about a cup of the heated broth, the salt, the pepper, and the thyme sprigs, and stir to combine. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the broth has been absorbed. The more you stir at this stage, the creamier the risotto will be, as what you’re doing is releasing starch from the rice grains into the liquid, which thickens and enriches the mixture.
  • As each cup of hot broth is absorbed into the rice mixture, add another, stirring frequently while it absorbs. Each addition will take a little longer to integrate.
  • In between stirring and adding, poach the eggs and make the breadcrumbs. For the eggs, heat water in a small pot until barely simmering. Add the 1 teaspoon white vinegar, then use a spoon to stir the water in the pot in a circle to create a tiny vortex. Quickly and carefully crack the egg into the vortex (or you can crack the egg into a small dish first, and pour/dump it into the pot), and use your spoon to encourage the swirling whites to cling to the central yolk as it spins in the water. After about two minutes in the barely simmering water, use a spoon or a rubber spatula to gently detach the egg from the bottom of the pot, if it is stuck. After about three minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the egg carefully to a bowl of warm (not hot!) water, and let it sit until you are ready to serve. Repeat for all eggs.
  • To make the breadcrumbs, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Toast over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, or until the panko is crisp and golden brown. Quickly add the remaining minced garlic and the lemon zest, and stir assertively to combine – these new wet ingredients may clump up together. Cook for about 30 seconds with the garlic and lemon zest incorporated, then remove from the heat, salt to taste, and set aside until you are ready to serve.
  • As soon as you add the final dose of broth, add the asparagus pieces and stir well. When the broth is almost completely absorbed, add the peas, the spinach leaves, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the 1 cup of parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate, and cook just until the peas are warmed through and the spinach has wilted but is still bright green.
  • To serve, spoon a mound of risotto into the center of a shallow bowl. Carefully set the poached egg on top, then sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of the breadcrumbs and serve immediately.

Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs

2015 Food Blog December-0665When I told my parents that my blog project for 2015 was meatballs, my dad immediately said “I know how you should start your first entry.” He recommended the children’s retelling of the old folk song “On Top of Old Smokey” which, rather than a lament about lost love, relates a warning tale about losing your meatball (all covered with cheese) as the result of a poorly timed sneeze. After rolling off the table and onto the floor, the poor meatball rolls out the door, into the garden, and collapses to mush under some shrubbery. Fear not, however! In the springtime, it grows into a tree, presumably studded with fresh, hot, cheesy meatballs.

2015 Food Blog December-0653Since my first entry was a.) already written and b.) decidedly middle eastern, Dad’s song suggestion didn’t seem to fit. It did make me reconsider, though, my initial proclamation against the classic meatballs usually crowning the spaghetti-and– combination. My objections were memories of uninspiring flavor and texture – the classic meatballs can be mealy and soft inside, and they are so drowned in red sauce their own flavors are rendered unapparent.

2015 Food Blog December-0646The decision to make the classic, then, required three challenges: the meatballs themselves had to be light, springy, tender, and flavorful – all of the techniques I’d been honing throughout the year would be put into application here – the pasta had to be perfectly cooked, and there would need to be sauce. The meatballs, as the feature, needed to have the right texture – I decided on milk-soaked breadcrumbs for tenderness, but not too many. Many classic Italian-American meatballs combine multiple types of meat – I chose pork and beef for a strong pairing of fat and flavor. Some meatballs also use ground veal, but I have ethical concerns about veal and so I choose not to purchase it. The pork, with its fattiness, and the beef with its lean flavor, would be perfect. Using pork as well as beef eliminated the need for an egg as a binder. Raw ground pork clings to itself and everything around it, so these meatballs hold together with no trouble.

2015 Food Blog December-0657Flavorings are, I think, the most important part of a meatball. Rather than a bland ball of, well, meat, I wanted these to be interesting in their own right. Parsley was a definite, and I decided I wanted some basil as well. Finely grated onion and garlic sweated down in a bit of olive oil would add flavor as well as moisture, to keep the meatballs from getting dry. Finally, there needed to be parmesan cheese. Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup features baked chicken meatballs oozing with cheese, and the salty gooiness is so appealing; I knew I wanted to imitate it with mine.

2015 Food Blog December-06582015 Food Blog December-0659Meatballs managed, there was then the sauce to contend with. Tomato sauce and I have a long, fraught history. I never much cared for the sort that dripped out of jars, and during my teenage years it flat out upset my stomach. The idea of meatballs burbling away in that acidic, over-processed stuff was beyond unappealing. But I’ve started making my own tomato sauces in the last few years, and I’ve found that rather than tomato paste and sugar, garlic and red wine seem to be the key flavoring components for a satisfying pasta topper. For this one, I started with Smitten Kitchen’s incarnation of a three ingredient tomato sauce, but couldn’t deal with the probably stellar simplicity of it, and succumbed to adding red wine, garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, and – my ultimate pasta sauce weapon – a parmesan cheese rind (I keep them in the freezer when there’s no more cheese to grate from them) to the original trio of canned tomatoes, an onion, and butter.

2015 Food Blog December-06622015 Food Blog December-0663While it would be sacrilege to call this anything like the “best spaghetti and meatballs” (in today’s world, that title is probably copyrighted anyway), it was a very satisfying way to conclude the project.* The meatballs were flavorful and tender and held together well. The sauce was deeply savory but still fresh and light and strongly tomato-y. Crowned with some fresh herbs and a fluffy shower of grated parmesan, it was worth holding onto, and certainly nothing to sneeze at.

2015 Food Blog December-0668*Though I’ll be back next week with a few end-of-year reflections on the project in its entirety.

Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs
About 90 minutes
Serves 4-6
For meatballs:
scant 1½ cups fresh bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
1 cup milk, cream, or half and half
¼ cup olive oil, divided
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ a large onion)
2 large or 3 small garlic cloves
½ pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
⅛ teaspoon pepper
½-¾ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup grated parmesan
For sauce:
½ cup dry red wine
28 ounces crushed tomatoes (I like the San Marzano brand)
3 tablespoons butter
½ a large, peeled onion
6 whole, peeled garlic cloves
3-4 inch hunk of parmesan rind, if you have one
2 stalks basil
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound hot cooked spaghetti
¼ cup chopped parsley
extra parmesan cheese, to serve

 

  • Use a food processor to make your bread crumbs, then add them to the milk in a two-cup glass measuring cup, and let them soak for 10-15 minutes.
  • Use the same food processor (you don’t even have to rinse it out) to process the onion and garlic – toss in the onion in a few pieces, and the whole garlic cloves, and pulse until almost paste – only very small, grated-looking bits will remain.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Scrape in the onions and garlic, sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat until tender and translucent; 5-8 minutes. Turn off the heat and move to a glass bowl to cool slightly.
  • While the onions and garlic are cooking, use the food processor again to chop the herbs and the parmesan cheese. Drain the bread crumbs by squeezing them lightly with your hand, then add the crumbs, the herbs, and the cheese to your cooling onion and garlic mixture. Toss together lightly.
  • When the bread and aromatics mixture is room temperature or only barely warm, add the ground beef, the pork, and the salt and pepper. Use your fingertips to combine – you want to evenly distribute the ingredients, but not overmix. Keep it as light as possible.
  • In the same large skillet you used for the onions and garlic, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Fry about 1 teaspoon of the meat mixture until cooked through, then taste for seasoning, and adjust in the remaining mixture if needed.
  • Roll the remaining meatball mixture into 16 equal sized meatballs (they will be about 3 tablespoons each) . Carefully place them into the skillet, not touching one another (you will probably need to do this in two batches), and sear, undisturbed, for about 2 minutes. When this first side is golden brown, flip over and fry for another 2 minutes, again until golden brown. When browned nicely on all sides, remove to a clean plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
  • When all meatballs are browned and removed from the pan, add the wine all at once and use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape around and remove the browned bits from the bottom into the wine, where they will act as flavoring agents. Add in the canned tomatoes, the onion half, the garlic cloves, the parmesan rind, if using, and the stalks of basil. Stir to combine. As soon as the sauce starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • This is a good time to start a pot of salted water for your spaghetti.
  • After the sauce has simmered 10 minutes, taste it and add salt and pepper as needed, but go easy on the salt – the parmesan rind will release some salinity, and the meatballs themselves will as well. Nestle in the meatballs and simmer another 10 minutes, then flip over each meatball and simmer a final 10 minutes, for a total of 30 minutes.
  • Discard the onion, garlic, basil, and parmesan rind, then drain the cooked spaghetti and add it into the sauce. Use tongs to gently work it through the sauce, coating it completely.
  • Serve directly onto warm plates, or carefully slither into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with herbs and fluffy grated parmesan cheese. I recommend a side of garlic bread, and maybe a green salad.

Arugula and Feta Pasta with Lemon Garlic Crumbs

2015 Blog August-0259I know what you must be thinking. I rhapsodize about meatballs, toss around semi-exotic ingredients you might have to go to multiple stores to obtain, advocate that you turn zucchini into noodles, and then disappear for almost three weeks with only a few photos to tide you over.

2015 Blog August-0227During those weeks, I must admit I didn’t cook much. We were traveling, making our annual pilgrimage to Oregon where we attended a wedding, stayed with good friends, single-handedly prevented the Cascadia quake by staying in a hotel that overlooked the ocean, N. bought a banjo, and I pulled a muscle in my back. (We also discovered the glory that is a chocolate stout float, but more on that in a few weeks.)

2015 Blog August-0237Not much makes you look forward to an eight-hour car ride less than having a pulled muscle in your lower back. Apart from trying to get comfortable and working to stay awake through the muscle relaxers I was taking (man do those things knock you out!), I sorted through what had become unexpectedly difficult to accomplish without the muscle just left of your spine: spitting out toothpaste without dribbling it down your front. Shimmying into a pair of shorts – your feet and ankles are suddenly so far away! Rolling over in bed. Hobbling across the street at a snail’s pace while the kindly drivers on either side regret waving you forward. Filling and then draining off a pot of pasta water.

2015 Blog August-0240Cooking, thus, when we got home, had to be simple at first, and required some of N.’s help for the parts that had become surprisingly heavy. Fortunately, I’d been hoping to repeat this simple little pasta dish: capellini, also known as angel hair, tangled together with lightly wilted arugula and salty crumbles of feta, topped with an aromatic, heavy dose of crunchy breadcrumbs flavored with garlic and lemon zest. The whole thing only uses two pans, it requires only a handful of ingredients, none particularly exotic, and it takes a mere twenty minutes or so to throw together, since most of the prep and cooking of the breadcrumbs can be done while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil.

2015 Blog August-02422015 Blog August-0243

2015 Blog August-0246If you aren’t accustomed to having arugula in your fridge, you should be – it’s a wonderful go-to green for salads and a refreshingly different take on pesto. Delicate but peppery, it’s also called rocket and is one of my favorite salad bases. As for the topping, I’m using panko – those delightfully brittle shards that are Japan’s answer to the breadcrumb, and unquestionably my favorite type. You wouldn’t want them for your meatballs, where the goal is light, springy absorbency, but once toasted, they make an addictively perfect crisp topping for basically anything. Since they don’t taste like much, I’ve bumped up the flavor with lemon zest, a healthy bit of grated garlic, and some red pepper flakes for N., who likes that hit of warmth on the back of the throat.

2015 Blog August-0249Coming home at the beginning of August is a bittersweet proposition, because at once it means a glory of summer fruits and more vegetables at the Farmers’ Market than my market bag or my wallet can handle, but it also means the first day of classes looms ever closer on the horizon. And as nice as it is to be home, the fact that it will be at least another year before we see all the friends we just hugged goodbye is a pang quite different from my slowly healing back muscle. This week, then, we’ve covered a bit of the bitter, with the peppery greens and the briny sharpness of the cheese. Next week, inspired by a bourbon-loving friend I didn’t get to see on this trip, I want to make up for it with something sweet.

2015 Blog August-0252

Arugula and feta pasta with lemon garlic crumbs
Serves 4 very hungry diners, or 6 less hungry diners
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon grated garlic (from about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
8 ounces capellini or angel hair pasta
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
5-6 ounces baby arugula
4 ounces feta, crumbled

 

  • Heat a large, lidded pot of well-salted water over high heat. When it comes to a boil, add the capellini and cook according to package directions. While you wait for the water to boil, however, make the breadcrumbs and prep the other ingredients, as detailed below.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko breadcrumbs, the salt, and the red pepper flakes. Toast over medium heat, stirring almost constantly to brown evenly and prevent burning.
  • When the crumbs are golden, which for me was about 2-3 minutes, add the grated garlic and lemon zest and stir well to evenly distribute. The zest and garlic will want to clump up, so stir assertively. Cook, stirring, for another 1-2 minutes until the mixture is fragrant and nicely browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • By now, your water should be close to or already boiling. Add the pasta and stir to submerge it. Cook with the lid off to al dente, following the package directions. As soon as the pasta is done, drain immediately into a colander or strainer.
  • Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil to the now-empty pasta pot and swirl it over medium-low heat to evenly coat the bottom of the pot. Add the lemon juice, then the pasta, and toss with tongs to coat evenly with oil and lemon juice.
  • Dump in the arugula and use the tongs to gently integrate it with the pasta. When the arugula is gently wilted, turn off the heat and sprinkle in the crumbled feta cheese. Use tongs again to toss so the cheese is evenly distributed.
  • Serve hot in large, shallow bowls, and top each serving with about 2 tablespoons of the crumbs.