Garlic Fontina Flatbread

Food Blog May 2013-1256I have a thing about garlic bread.  Achingly soft butter, a scattering of herbs, pungent, sharp garlic paste, spread thickly on sourdough baguette and broiled until the butter bubbles and browns and the garlic takes on a toasty depth; what’s not to love?  I make it in the oven, I make it on the grill, I’ve even tried turning it into a sandwich.  But all too often, the process of toasting leaves the edges of the bread blackened and the crust just too crunchy for my taste.  I want crisp toastiness, but I don’t want mouth-scraping shards of bread shrapnel.

Food Blog May 2013-1233Enter flatbread.  I don’t mean the dry, cracker-like stuff carelessly sprinkled with toppings and served up as an appetizer.  I mean something a little puffier, a little richer, a little cheesier.  A few months ago, I dabbled with a Food Network recipe for Spinach and Cheese Flatbread, and was delighted by the elastic dough that bubbled up into a soft-but-crisp rectangle.  It is chewy and golden, but not quite as sturdy as a pizza dough.  The bottom, slapped against a well-oiled sheet pan, gets just crisp enough to support all but the most ridiculously sized slices (don’t ask me how I know this.  Thank you), so you aren’t left with a square that wilts as you hold it.

Food Blog May 2013-1236As soon as I ate the FN version, I realized this was the answer to my garlic bread dreams.  The dough would be smeared with a loving, excessive layer of garlic-butter-herb-are-you-drooling-yet?-paste, sprinkled with fontina, which melts beautifully and has a mild funk I really enjoy, and baked until crispy toasty nirvana resulted.

Food Blog May 2013-1238My results approached sublimity, and the shortcomings were entirely human error, which seems fitting.  The paste didn’t spread very evenly because this is a soft dough: it threatened to tear when I applied a spatula, so I ended up smearing and dolloping my mixture with my fingers.  You could easily solve this by melting your butter instead of just softening it, and then pouring the mixture evenly over the dough.  Then, because I was afraid the butter and garlic would burn at pizza-cooking temperatures, I was pretty liberal with my cheese application, which meant that the toasty roasty golden color I was expecting didn’t quite happen.  Another minute or two in the oven might have helped, but we were hungry.  A little less cheese might have helped too, but seriously, less cheese?  Totally unreasonable.

Food Blog May 2013-1229Food Blog May 2013-1231Food Blog May 2013-1232In any case, the bread itself was puffy and buttery and decadent.  The garlic loses some of its pungency during baking, but retains that addictive sharpness and bright tingly aroma that makes it so good.  The dollops of butter became dimples of puddly richness that, upon reflection, reminded me a little bit of the center of a really good bialy.  The bottom of the crust is like an old-style pan pizza: golden with burst air bubbles and just oiled enough to leave your fingertips in need of a napkin.

Food Blog May 2013-1251This is a great happy hour snack.  Since it heats up the house, it gives you a great excuse to sit out on your patio, or deck, or picnic blanket, or camp chair.  It pairs well with a crisp, summery wine, and equally well with a frosty pint of beer (or maybe, since, you know, Cinco de Mayo, a classic Corona with lime, or a salt-and-cayenne-rimmed margarita).  You can use any combination of herbs you like.  I chose what was happening right outside my back door:

Oregano – I love the fuzzy leaves on this little guy. Food Blog May 2013-1241

Basil – back in late fall, I relocated a few stalks of basil from the supermarket clamshell container to a vase of water, and instead of wilting, they grew roots!  I shook my head, still in Oregon mindset, while planting them – they would never make it through the winter – but this is Southern California, so of course they did, and are now flourishing.  I’ve read that plucking the blossoms off encourages them to keep producing leaves, so every day or so I faithfully scatter the delicate white blooms. Food Blog May 2013-1244

Parsley – my parsley plant is looking a bit wild these days; it has bolted thanks to the heat. Food Blog May 2013-1246

But if you peer down inside, amidst the sunburned jungle, you can see there are still some stems worth serving! Food Blog May 2013-1249

As for additional toppings, you could add sundried tomatoes or thin rings of bell pepper or even jalapeno to the butter paste if you want to get fancy about it, and it would certainly fare well dipped into a bubbly saucer of marinara, if that’s your thing.  Either way, I think you should make this.

Maybe today!

Are you making it yet?

Food Blog May 2013-1255 Garlic Fontina Flatbread

adapted from Food Network’s Spinach and Cheese Flatbread

For the dough:
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (it should feel just slightly warmer than body temperature when you dip your finger in to test it)
2 ¼ – 2 ½ cups bread flour
1 tsp salt (I like coarse sea salt)
1-2 TB olive oil

 

For the toppings:
8-10 cloves garlic, minced (about ¼ cup in all)
1 stick very soft butter (1/2 cup)
2 TB each chopped fresh parsley and basil
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1-2 cups grated fontina cheese

 

  • Sprinkle the sugar and yeast over the warm water, stir gently to combine, and set aside to proof for 5 minutes or so.  The yeast will begin to bubble and smell like warm bread.
  • In a large bowl (I use the bowl of my electric stand mixer), combine 2 ¼ cups of flour, the salt, and the olive oil, and whisk together briefly.  The olive oil will create little streaks of moistness, like barely dampened sand.
  • Once the yeast mixture is bubbly, pour it into the flour and mix with the paddle attachment or a wooden spoon just until a sticky dough comes together.  Then, if you are using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed for about ten minutes.  If the dough is still relentlessly sticky by minute six, smearing tackily across the sides of the bowl and schlopping stubbornly on the bottom, add an additional ¼ cup flour to make it more manageable.  If you don’t have a stand mixer, plop your dough out onto a floured board and knead by hand.
  • After about ten minutes, the dough should be smooth and elastic, though still fairly sticky.  That’s okay.  That stickiness will keep it moist and supple and lovely.
  • Place the dough – more or less sticky as it is – into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Set it aside in a warm place until doubled.  This may take about an hour and a half, but my kitchen was about 80 degrees on the day I made this, so it only took mine an hour to puff triumphantly.
  • Gently deflate the dough and let it rest for ten minutes.  Then, stretch and spread it carefully on a well-oiled baking sheet.  If it stubbornly snaps back against itself and refuses to form a nice rectangle, let it rest another ten minutes and try again.  The gluten needs to relax a bit after all that rising work it has done.
  • When you have the shape you want, cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and leave it to rise again for half an hour, until it has doubled yet again.
  • While the dough rises, preheat your oven to 450F and prep your toppings.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the butter, garlic, herbs, and red pepper flakes into a chunky paste.  I haven’t added any salt here, because the cheese is salty, but if you are a sodium fiend sprinkle in some salt to taste.
  • Approach your risen dough with caution: you may be able to smear on the garlic butter paste with a spatula, but you may have to carefully coat the surface with just your hands.  It will depend on the texture and elasticity of your dough.  If it won’t spread the way you want and you get frustrated with it, microwave the paste for a few seconds until the butter is melty, then pour the mixture on instead of smearing.
  • Top your buttered dough with an even sprinkle of cheese, keeping in mind that where the cheese completely covers the buttery garlic paste, not much toasting will occur.  I’ll leave determining quantities and coverage up to you and your preferences.
  • Place your topped flatbread into the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the dough are puffed and nicely browned, and the cheese has turned golden and sizzles.  Let it cool on a countertop for 5-10 minutes, just to let the cheese cool from molten temperatures a bit, then slice and serve.

Food Blog May 2013-1252

 

Pizza Pretzels

I have these moments when I realize I’ve just said something.  I don’t mean this to sound like I’m unaware of or not in control over my own speech, but I am a classic case of speaking before I think, at least when it comes to food.
Food Blog March 2013-0882A few weeks ago, N. and I were on the verge of no longer enjoying our morning errands.  On Sundays, we frequently run errands before going to our local Farmers’ Market, and because one of us is occasionally a bit of a lazy slouch on weekend mornings (I’ll leave the guessing up to you), we often don’t hit the shops until after 10am.  This is not a huge problem, except that my body is programmed to begin its hinting that “lunch would be nice, please” at about 11:30.  By noon it’s more of a demand, and by 12:15 you’d better feed me, because I’m about to devolve into full-on hangry (which I remain convinced is one of the best portmanteaus ever invented.  It’s right up there with spork).  N. is keenly aware of this schedule, and yet for several weeks in a row we’ve found ourselves food-less during the half hour that takes me from peckish to crotchety to downright unpleasant.
Despite this, I retain a sense of snobbishness when it comes to choosing what I will eat to relieve this condition.  We play a game when it comes to choosing food, especially when the choices are undesirable; I affectionately call it the “bleh” game.  It consists of one or the other of us facetiously offering “we could eat there…” which inevitably engenders the titular response.  This game was in full effect as, plagued by my hangriness, we walked past one of those soft pretzel stands at the mall we were ambling through and N. suggested it.  I looked in at the pizza pretzels – studded with cheese that looked painted on, pepperoni grease slowly cooling and solidifying, and declared, loudly, “psssh, I could MAKE those.”
Food Blog March 2013-0904Suddenly, I was beholden to it.  N. isn’t always taken in by my crazy food schemes, but apparently the idea of a homemade pretzel masquerading as pizza was something he’d never known he always wanted.  It fell to me to create a version that wasn’t sodden with grease, wasn’t packed with questionable preservatives, and wasn’t luke-warm and pressed behind plastic with its sad, sorry brethren.  My typical response to this would be to turn to the internet.  This time, however, I had Nana’s sweet roll dough to guide me, and I wondered whether I could achieve my objective by creating a savory version of her lovely elastic dough.
Food Blog March 2013-0894
Removing the sugar and adding savory Italian herbs to the mix was a successful experiment.  The kitchen smelled like foccaccia while my dough rose, and I was thrilled with the flavor in the piece I pinched off to sample.  I divided my dough into eight little balls, rolled them into long stringy ropes, and surprised myself when careful looping and twisting resulted in a pan full of something that actually looked like pretzels.
But here’s where things started to go a bit imperfectly.  I topped my plump little pretzels with chunks of sundried tomatoes, mounded them with shredded mozzarella, and draped slices of pepperoni over the top.  They lost their definition and looked more like piles of cheese than like pretzels, but that didn’t bother me much.

Food Blog March 2013-0900

Upon baking, however, a bit of their charm dissolved.  In the time it took to bake the dough, the cheese didn’t brown or bubble they way I’d hoped.  Further baking time led to overly charred edges on the tomatoes, and the cheese that had fallen onto the parchment paper I’d laid down as extra insurance went from bubbling to black.  N. ate them with gusto anyway, devouring several for dinner that night and taking foil-wrapped leftovers to work for the next few days.  But I wasn’t satisfied.  Not only were there overcooked elements, but the result didn’t taste quite like a pretzel.  It was good, but lacking in that toasty, crunchy exterior that makes a soft pretzel great.  I’m going to give you the recipe I used, but first consider these alternatives and, if you try any, let me know how they work out.
Next time, I’m going to mix the sundried tomatoes right into the dough along with the herbs.  Their flavor will still be there, but I think they will stay chewy and moist instead of burning.  I’m also toying with the idea of stuffing the pretzels with the cheese rather than sprinkling it on top – this would result in an oozing, melty, stringy core to each pretzel, and it would allow you to boil the pretzels before baking them, which contributes to the classic texture of the exterior my version was missing.  I would flatten each individual dough ball into a rectangle, sprinkle it lightly with cheese (leaving a generous border on all sides to prevent leakage), then roll and pinch tightly before making a rope and twisting as before.
I’d then boil the pretzels (Alton Brown has a recipe that looks really promising, no surprise there), drape them with pepperoni or olives or onion, and bake as before.  This would, I suspect, eliminate charring, create a better texture, and perhaps introduce a more successful alternative to the travesty that is stuffed crust pizza.*
These would be delightful dunked in some garlic butter, or basil spiked marinara, or even seasoned and pureed roasted red peppers, if you’re into any of those sorts of things.  But either way, you’ll have a remedy for the sneaky Sunday afternoon hangries that far excels anything you’ll find at a food court.
 Food Blog March 2013-0896
Pizza Pretzels
Makes 8 sweet, slightly stubby 4-inch pretzels
2 tsp active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (stick your fingertip in; the water should be about body temperature)
1-2 tsp honey
¼ cup scalded milk, cooled
¼ cup melted or very soft butter
1 egg
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
2 ¼ cups bread flour
1 3oz. package sun dried tomatoes (not packed in oil – these would be, I suspect, too wet for this recipe)
½ – 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
24 slices pepperoni
  • Combine yeast, honey, and warm water in the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a medium bowl) and set aside for 5 minutes, or until the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread.
  • Meanwhile, heat the milk and combine with the butter, swirl until the milk is cooled and the butter is melted.
  • Add cooled milk, melted butter, and egg to the bubbling yeast and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until the egg is broken up a bit and things are slightly combined.
  • Add flour, spices, and salt (you could probably add any combination of spices you like, including crushed red pepper for some heat, or rosemary for a woodsy flavor.  I’d stick with dry spices, though, for easier distribution and that classic pizza flavor) and mix with the paddle attachment until a wet, sticky, uneven dough forms.  You could also add the tomatoes at this point, if you want to incorporate them directly into the dough.
  • Scrape clean the paddle attachment and switch to the dough hook.  Knead at medium-low speed for 5-8 minutes or until dough is smooth, elastic, and willing, if you pinch a bit between your thumb and finger, to stretch out about an inch without tearing.
  • Dump your ball of dough into a glass or ceramic bowl greased with olive oil and turn it over once or twice until it is coated in oil, then cover with a clean kitchen towel and stow in a warm, draft-free place for 1½ hours, or until it has puffed and doubled in size.
  • When you return to your dough, after you admire its impressive swell and the way it already smells of pizza, gently deflate by pressing your knuckles into the center of the puff.  Let it sit for a few minutes to get its breath back.

Food Blog March 2013-0885

  • Turn the dough out onto a barely oiled surface (I don’t have a marble stone or anything fancy like that, but I do have a pizza peel, which was a little small but otherwise worked just fine) and divide into eight even pieces.
  • If you want to stuff the centers of your pretzels with cheese, roll each dough ball out into a thin rectangle and sprinkle a few tablespoons of mozzarella over the surface, leaving a wide margin on all edges to prevent the shreds from escaping.  Then wind it up tightly and pinch the edges to secure.

Food Blog March 2013-0888

  • Whether you are stuffing with cheese or not, now is the time to roll the ball (or coil) of dough into a long skinny rope 18-24 inches in length.  The best way to do this, I found, is to use the palms of your hands and start in the middle.  Push the rope of dough firmly away from you, then back toward you, starting in the very middle and then, as the dough bulges toward the outer edges, follow it along moving outward until the rope is even in thickness and at least 18 inches long.
  • To form your pretzels, bring the ends of each rope toward each other into a horseshoe shape.

Food Blog March 2013-0889

  • Then, about a third of the way down each end of the horseshoe, make a twist.  Take one end of the rope and twist it fully around the other (that is, the left side of the rope should end up back on the left side once you’ve twisted it completely around the right end).
Food Blog March 2013-0891
  • Gently grab the ends above the twist and flip them over, pressing them into the bottom of the horseshoe loop to adhere.  You’ve made a pretzel!
Food Blog March 2013-0893
  • Place all eight of your formed pretzels on parchment lined baking sheets (I found I needed two), cover them with a kitchen towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.  During this time, you should preheat your oven to 375F.
Food Blog March 2013-0895
  • When the pretzels have risen again – it won’t be a dramatic change, but they will get a bit plumper – add your toppings.  If you’ve integrated the tomatoes and cheese already, just drape a few slices of pepperoni over them and you’re done.
Food Blog March 2013-0901
  • If you haven’t integrated the tomatoes or cheese, stud the tops of each pretzel with the tomato pieces, sprinkle with cheese, and then add the pepperoni on top.  Be careful not to get too much cheese on the parchment paper, as it will burn and lend an acrid taste to your pretzels.
Food Blog March 2013-0903
  • Bake your topped pretzels at 375F for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the dough is fully cooked.  The cheese won’t get quite as brown as it does on a pizza, but it will still be melty and delicious.
Food Blog March 2013-0910
  • Let cool for 5 minutes before eating, so the dough has a chance to firm slightly.
We had ours with a salad inspired by pizza toppings: spinach, artichoke hearts, olives, tomatoes, and some pine nuts for crunch, tossed with mustard lemon vinaigrette.
 Food Blog March 2013-0911
* I love, love the idea of stuffed crust pizza.  Forcing more cheese into an already cheese-laden dish?  Yes, please!  But the reality of it is so disappointing: a thick block of semi-melted sludge inside a soggy crust, like someone wrapped a stick of string cheese that had been lying in the sun for an hour in some sandwich bread and called it a day.  It’s a worthy notion, but the execution just hasn’t been perfected.

Pizza and Beer

Food Blog March 2013-0802Sometimes, a week calls for pizza.  But you don’t want the delivery variety dripping with grease and lazy with a smattering of mix-n-match toppings.  You want something fresher.  Better.  You want the feel of dough you can stretch under your hands and control over the size and shape of the pie and choice in the quality and variety of ingredients.

Homemade pizza.

N. and I have often talked about pizza memories, and how, when we were kids, pizza just wasn’t the same without a side of root beer.  It had to be in one of those hard plastic molded glasses, and it had to be with a clear straw.  And sometimes, you forgot you’d ordered root beer instead of Coke or Pepsi, and that first gulp with its spicy depth would be a tremendous surprise.

As we got older, the “root” part of the equation melted, and suddenly it was pizza and beer, plain and simple, one of the mother food and beverage combinations (is that a thing?  Like mother sauces?  It should be.  After all, beer is the third most popular beverage worldwide, and variations on pizza have been around since ancient Greece).

As I thought my way through this pizza plan this week, I wondered whether they had to be separate.  I mean, yeast makes bread dough and beer possible.  Beer is liquid, and there seemed no logical reason why it couldn’t be substituted for the water I’d ordinarily use to make a pizza crust.

Once this idea was lodged in my head, it wouldn’t go away.  This just seemed too perfect.  Beer and pizza, kneaded together – a truly complete meal.

Even though beer is essentially water with yeast and flavorings, I wasn’t sure what would happen when I mixed the two.  I heated a bottle of amber ale in the microwave with a couple teaspoons of honey, just until it was body temperature.  When I added the yeast and engaged the lightest of stirs, the whole measuring cup erupted with bubbles and I had a head at least three inches high.  This slowly collapsed, but I took it to mean the yeast was satisfied with its new spa treatment.

Food Blog March 2013-0772I used a combination of bread flour and whole wheat flour, and produced a spectacularly nutty tasting dough that was also the stickiest I’ve ever worked with.  It slithered and dripped off of my stand mixer’s dough hook and plopped thickly into the oiled bowl I coaxed it into, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that after its six hour chill in the fridge it turned into pizza crust.

Food Blog March 2013-0777When I liberated it and faced it again, it wasn’t the easiest dough to work with, but it did work.  It wouldn’t deign to be tossed like a pizzeria pie, but I stretched and spread and pushed it across a cookie sheet liberally spread with cornmeal, and it turned into a rustic, bubbly, delicious crust.  Topped with mozzarella, sausage, and sun-dried tomatoes, it baked into a glorious symphony of assertive flavors.  We sprinkled on a few leaves of fresh basil while it was still steaming hot, and declared it one of my best homemade pizzas. Food Blog March 2013-0780This is a sticky, wet dough, but it works.  I’m going to make it again and tweak the quantities of flour and olive oil, but trust me: this is worth fooling with for the flavor alone.  The beer comes through right at the end of each bite as a deep yeasty earthiness.  It lends the tiniest bit of bitter flavor that contrasts really well with the fatty sausage and tart sun-dried tomato.  And really, why shouldn’t it?  It’s beer, and this is pizza.  They were made to be together.

Food Blog March 2013-0797

Beer-crust pizza

12 oz. beer (I used an amber ale.  I think a darker brew would be even better)

2 tsp honey

2 tsp yeast

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp salt

¼-½ tsp black pepper Food Blog March 2013-0774

Heat the beer and honey in the microwave (or a small saucepan) until the liquid is body temperature – you should feel only the slightest heat when you dip in a curious finger.  This took about 45 seconds in the microwave for me.  It will take longer if your beer has been refrigerated.

Swirl the mixture to distribute the honey, then sprinkle the yeast over the surface and set it aside for 5 minutes.  If you stir the yeast in, you will get a tremendous amount of foam on the surface, so in case of overflow I think it’s better to just let it sit.

While you wait for the yeast to perk up, combine the flours, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.

When the yeast and beer have married to create a thick foam, stir in the olive oil, then add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients.  Using the paddle attachment (if you are using a stand mixer), combine at low speed just until ingredients come together into a rough, uneven dough.  Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes.

This dough will not pass the windowpane test.  It will not even stay together particularly well.  It will seem like an exercise in futility and disaster, and you will be sorely tempted to add more flour.  But if you resist, and plop it into an oiled bowl, and cover that bowl with plastic-wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, it will turn into something more like normal pizza dough.  I promise.

Food Blog March 2013-078390 minutes before you intend to bake, take the bowl of dough out of the fridge and set it on the counter to finish rising and come to room temperature.  After this time has passed, and the dough is considerably increased in size (it may not quite double, unless your counter is quite warm), stretch it to your desired shape – it easily makes a thick 9×13” rectangular crust, and might be coaxed into 2 medium sized, somewhat thin round crusts – on a cornmeal or flour speckled board or tray.  I just doused my cookie tray with cornmeal and pressed and pushed the dough directly on it until I was happy with the shape.

Food Blog March 2013-0789Food Blog March 2013-0786Food Blog March 2013-0792When adequately stretched, add toppings and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until puffed, crisp, and golden.  Wait 5 minutes before you cut it, to give the cheese time to congeal just a little.

Food Blog March 2013-0804We ate this in embarrassingly large squares and left enough in leftovers to serve as lunch the next day.  Cut slightly smaller and for slightly less voracious eaters (or if you add a side salad), this would be an adequate dinner for 4.

Counting Down

It’s interesting that as I left my 20s behind chronologically, I entered my 20s in this Bittman project.  As of this moment, on this particular Sunday afternoon, I have 25 Bittman concoctions left to make, most of them soups and desserts.  At a rate of two per week, I will finish by the end of this year.  This means we’re getting toward some major milestones, some very big deals, some lasts on the list.

The first of this pair is one such last.

“34. Combine cooked bulgur with chopped or grated apple, minced orange rind, grated ginger and chopped parsley. Back in an oiled dish, use as stuffing or serve as a salad.”

This was the final remaining entry on the “Stuffings and Grains” list. We left it till last for no particular reason, but during a week in which a collection of Valencia oranges sat languishing in our fruit bowl, it seemed like the right thing to do.

I’ve been fairly good lately about writing down ingredient quantities as I add them, but for this entry I never even lifted a pen.  It happens.  I can own up to it.  A week of non-stop grading, perhaps, made me leery of that inky instrument.  Or maybe it was our relative rush: leave it to me to design a complex, glaze-bearing dinner on a night we needed to eat early.  Some things must get sacrificed, and it turns out it’s not the glaze, it’s the notations.

Here are my approximations:

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 cups water, stock, or a combination of the two

1 large fuji apple, diced into small squares

2-3 TB finely minced orange rind

1 TB grated ginger (this is really easy to do when the ginger is frozen)

¼ cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Cooking bulgur is very similar to cooking rice.  I poured the wheat and the water into a pot and let it come to a boil before simmering for 15 minutes or so while I prepped my other ingredients.

After dicing the apple, grating the ginger, and chopping the parsley, I turned to the oranges.  Since Bittman specified “rind” and not “zest,” I used a y-shaped potato peeler to remove long, brilliant segments of rind.  I slid a sharp knife carefully between the rind and any white pith that got caught in the peeling, and then sliced into very thin strips, rotated them 90 degrees, and sliced again so I was left with tiny squares.

Before these happy bright piles all nestling on my cutting board got too comfortable, I tipped them into the pot of bulgur and carefully folded them in for even distribution with some salt and pepper to taste.  The experience of the still-chilly ginger hitting the hot bulgur was sinus-clearingly intense, but lovely.  An aroma-only aperitif.

With everyone incorporated, I dumped the pot’s contents into a greased baking dish and stowed it in a 350F oven for half an hour.

Orange and ginger suggested an Asian flavor profile, even though apples and parsley didn’t.  I decided to work with the dominant elements, though, and so I paired the bulgur with salmon and spinach.  The salmon would be rubbed with sesame seeds, powdered ginger, and orange rind bits before receiving a heavy sear and then an orange-juice glaze.  The spinach would be sauteed with garlic chips and sesame oil.

As with all things, this didn’t happen exactly as imagined.  It takes a long time, as it turns out, to simmer the juice of six oranges down into a thick glaze without burning their sugars.  Similarly, it takes time and babysitting to ensure garlic chips that are crisp, not charred.  And when you are trying to do all this on the same night as a homecoming football game you’ve promised to attend, certain shortcuts must be taken.

The salmon, while it seared beautifully, received not so much a glaze as a flood of boiled, ginger infused orange juice.  Still, when this liquid hit the hot salmon pan, it did bubble down into something thick and rich (if a little darker than intended).

The spinach, rather than the crunchy, spicy accoutrements I intended, had to settle for a last-minute sprinkle of sesame seeds to keep it company.

Still, the meal was overwhelmingly successful.  The salmon was outrageously delicious, and I’m going to have to make it again, writing down the procedure this time so I can share it with you.  The orange sauce perfumed the fish and kept it moist and buttery and tender.  Even though it was a bit darker than I’d planned for, the sauce took on caramel notes that seemed utterly intentional.

The bulgur was lovely.  It was toasty and fluffy and well seasoned.  The apple had cooked lightly as the dish baked, leaving it just softened but not without resistance.  The orange rind was delightfully not overpowering, but gave a warm spiciness to the grain.  It was good with the salmon, but would also be delicious with pork chops (playing on the traditional applesauce pairing) or, if you replaced the parsley with mint, a lovely side for leg of lamb.

In summary, a triumphant triumph: not only is the Stuffings category successfully completed, but it was completed with a success.

 

With the weather cooling (finally!) and the Soups category still looming largely untasted before me, I decided to try one to close out the week.

“21. Brown a little crumbled or sliced sausage in olive oil; a sprinkle of fennel seeds is good, too. Add chopped escarole, cooked white beans with their juice, and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the greens are tender and the beans are warmed through. Garnish with olive oil or Parmesan.”

I must admit I made some changes to these directions based on availability and personal taste.  I don’t like fennel.  It’s one of a very few spice flavors I just can’t take.  Over-fennel-ed sausage – like the kind that appears on many chain pizza restaurant pies – just doesn’t appeal to me, and the idea of fennel seeds crunching between my teeth and filling a mouthful of soup with their anise awfulness made their addition out of the question.

As for the escarole, I could find none.  I searched through mountains of salad greens at several local markets and this particular strain was resolutely absent.  But I did find a really beautiful bunch of kale and decided it would be a satisfactory substitute.

So here’s what I ended up with:

8 oz. bulk sausage

1 big bunch kale (chopped, this was probably 6-8 cups)

3 cloves garlic (some spice to replace the abhorred fennel seemed appropriate)

1 15 oz. can white beans with their liquid

2 cups chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

Eschewing olive oil, I squeezed the sausage into a pan and let it brown over medium heat, separating and crumbling it as it cooked with a flat-sided wooden spoon.

I rinsed, stemmed, and chopped the kale into manageable pieces, and when the sausage was cooked through, I tossed in the mountain of greens.  No, that’s not true.  I inserted handfuls carefully so they wouldn’t spill all over the stove, and ran out of room with only half my kale added.  N. came into the kitchen when he heard me laughing hysterically, and stared in amazement at the mound of kale pieces sitting inches above the top of my pot.  I had to press it down with my hand, compacting the frilled, tough leaves down toward the bottom of the pot.  It always looks like too much.  It’s always not.  In the time it took me to mince the garlic, the kale had already begun to wilt and settle more comfortably into the confines of the pot.

When I could barely smell the garlic and the kale was level with the sides of the pot (as opposed to threatening to spill over them) I added the white beans, their juice, and barely two cups of low sodium chicken broth.  One of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that when it comes to soups and salads, I like them to be full of, well, stuff.  Lettuce with the odd crouton is no good.  I want dried cranberries, and walnuts, and avocado, and gorgonzola.  Thin, brothy soups don’t please me either.  Give me big chunks of vegetables, or slurpable noodles, or rich shreds of meat.  In the days when I’d indulge in the occasional Cup’o’noodle, I always drank the broth out first so I could concentrate on the important part: the just dripping mounds of noodles left behind.

So this soup, for true enjoyment, needed only enough broth to make its categorization accurate.  A scant two cups and we were assured plenty of “stuff” in every spoonful.

While the soup simmered, I stretched, sliced, and sprinkle mozzarella onto some pre-made pizza dough.  Twisted and snuggled on a baking sheet, these when into the oven to become bread sticks.  Fifteen minutes later when they were sizzling and firm, the soup was done.

This is not a soup you want to let simmer for hours.  The beans, especially if you are using canned like I did, will eventually become mealy and then disintegrate.  The kale begins to lose its emerald brilliance after a while, and though it will still taste good, it won’t be as pleasing to consume.  Simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes max.

Then you get to shave on some parmesan and eat it.

Neither of us was sure we would like this soup.  But we shouldn’t have been so foolish.  N. has placed the products of this project on a pass/fail system.  This is what happens, I suspect, when you have two teachers in the family.  He announces his verdicts after dinner, and he treats them as though Mr. Bittman has just submitted an exam or a paper assignment.  “Bittman passes on this one,” he told me last night as we cleaned up.  It wasn’t just his happiness at pairing his dinner with the first Jubelale of the season.  He really did like the soup.  And I think he was right.  This was a fast, easy, delicious little warmer.  Cooking the kale in the sausage grease gave it some additional flavor and took away that raw bitterness dark leafy greens can sometimes have.  The beans got creamy and delicate, and the starch from their liquid thickened up the minimal broth I used.  Even without the broth, these ingredients seem like a stellar combination that should be taken advantage of at many opportunities.  Sautéed together, perhaps with the addition of chopped onion and maybe butternut squash or sweet potato, they could be a nice little hash.  Wrapped in pastry with some thickened gravy, they could be a pot pie.  Folded with some grated mozzarella and enclosed in pizza dough, they become a perfect calzone.  And as the weather continues to cool (I hope, I hope, I hope), gravies and pot pies and warm cheesy casseroles are exactly what I want to pair my remaining Bittman dishes with.

It seems a bit stress-inducing to start with a countdown.  It’s a looming certainty of what must be achieved.  “That’s a lot,” N. said when I told him how many were left.  But after tonight’s dinner, it will be 24.  And by the end of next week, it will be 23.  And by having you out there reading, it means I must achieve, yes, but it also means I’m promising something to you.  Food.  Words.  Proof of my experiments.  And stress-inducing or not, that’s a kind of accountability I like having.

25 to go…

Seattle: Day Two

This trip was extra special in the food indulgence area because we opted to stay at a bed and breakfast instead of the usual chain hotel.  At the Villa Heidelberg, our hostess serves what she calls a “hearty breakfast,” which consists of coffee or tea and fruit, followed by a hot dish that changes every day.  As we ate this hot dish the first morning – a croissant stuffed with Canadian bacon, cheddar cheese and sliced, cinnamon dusted apples, then coated in egg and baked until the pastry was even toastier and flakier than before and the apples were just softening – she explained that she has almost run out of room in her kitchen for her cookbook collection.  Other bed and breakfast establishments have five or six standby breakfasts they alternate between or cycle through, but she said that early in her career as innkeeper she got tired of making the same things week in and week out.  She keeps adding and adding to her repertoire, and with a side of maple syrup to absolutely drench this croissant in fantastic sticky decadence, we were well set to begin our adventures.

Despite this incredibly filling start to the day, when thoughts of lunch started to percolate as we strolled through Pike Place, I knew almost immediately what I wanted.  The smells in the marketplace were so good that you’d think it would be hard to decide.  But I knew.

The fish stalls here were impressive, and when I say that the place smelled like fish, I mean this in a positive way.  Even raw, the fish was so fresh and so reminiscent of the salty spray of the Pacific that even N. admitted it smelled good.  It didn’t hurt that the aromas of smoked salmon and fried seafood lingered around us as well, and this became my lunch quest: fried shrimp.

For $7.99, the sardonic but chatty expediter at one stall sold me this beautiful portion of beer battered and fried prawns with French fries.  It was like heaven.  Since N. doesn’t like shellfish, we never eat it at home.  Not only were these fresh, plump, perfectly toothsome prawns, but they were coated in delicious rich batter and fried until they had soaked in just the right amount of grease.  Enough to coat the fingers and shine suggestively in the corners of my mouth.  Not quite enough to weigh me down.  Perfect.  Well, perfect if I’d had a beer on the side.  Maybe a nice wheat beer with a generous lemon wedge.  And bringing the expediter home, where he would become our local bartender.  Then I could call it perfect.

Dinner this night was to be our belated anniversary dinner.  Since I’d just celebrated my birthday, I decided it could do double duty.  We chose Purple, a bistro and wine bar right downtown, and entered the enormous, dimly lit room slowly.  Solid heavy doors and ceiling to floor windows protected a huge spiral staircase winding around a column of shelves packed with bottles.  While I was still gaping at this collection of wine, we were seated and handed a binder full of beverage choices.  Our poor server had to come back three times to get our order, as I, still a bit of a wine novice, was completely intimidated by the gratuitous supply and tremendous number of options.  I selected a nice citrusy Gewürztraminer while N., always the beer man, had an Old Rasputin Stout.  He gave me a sip and I was surprised by its dark smokiness.

With so many wine choices, I was almost dizzy with the rush of having to choose accompanying food.  I get nervous at restaurants when I have a plethora of choices.  Do I opt for something comforting, familiar, guaranteed to be good, or do I branch out and order something that sounds adventurous – a startling mix of flavors that might be outrageously good… or a slight disappointment?  Here, though, I needn’t even have opened the menu; the first special on the front page was too good to pass up: risotto with roasted tomatoes, spinach, and Greek feta.

The poor quality here is due to the dim lighting, but I could just as easily claim it was thanks to my hands quivering from delight.  It sounds so simple, and as I looked down at my plate I feared I had been too cautious, but I was wrong.  The blend of flavors was stellar.  The rice was tender and flavorful, the tomatoes had sharp tanginess that matched well with the feta, and the whole thing had that unbelievable magical creaminess risotto gains from twenty minutes of tireless stirring while the rice grains – little sponges that they are – slowly suck in more and more broth.

While my fork danced around my plate, N. enjoyed a more hands-on experience, ordering a gorgonzola and fig pizza, replete with walnuts and rosemary, and a shy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.  The thick purple slices of fresh fig looked so alien on pizza, as did the hefty chunks of walnut, but the finished product was tasty and intriguing.  In my plans for recreation, I may try making a rosemary foccaccia dough as a base, and then replacing the fresh figs for dried.

Because it was a special occasion, and because our server told us the desserts were “tapas sized,” we decided we had to splurge.  With options like these, there was simply no leaving before we had a sample or two.  We decided to share two desserts: the red velvet cake with lavender cream cheese frosting, and the blackberry cheesecake with blackberry coulis and candied lime zest.  Despite being barely bigger than golf balls, both were triumphant.  The cake was moist and rich, and the lavender sprinkled atop the frosting was an unexpectedly good touch.  It had a sophisticated flavor somehow and a light perfume, making this more than just good cake.

The cheesecake was rich and exceedingly smooth, and I found the perfect balance was a generous dip of blackberry coulis and a sliver of candied zest.  I like a bite of sour citrus with my cheesecake, and without that tart, slightly bitter chew, this perfect little cylinder might have been bland.  As it was, if I were slightly less polite I would have licked my plate.  Hell, I would have licked both plates.

Thanks, Seattle, you were that good. 

Gourmet

On a warm, July day, when a person (and her husband) is unjustly required to spend the shining hours of the afternoon working, teaching, holding office hours, what better treat could there be than to come home and indulge in a little gourmet dinner?

As I’ve divulged previously, I like cannibalizing from restaurant menus.  Usually it’s not the dish I order, but another that was second or third on the list… or just barely missed the final, nervous, rushed decision as the server hovers above me… and I jot down the description on a slip of paper somewhere and try not to lose it in the subsequent weeks.

This time it was that Americanized, fancified Italian food-of-the-common-man: pizza.

Several weeks ago N. and I celebrated Friday by meeting some friends to drinks and dinner.  We’d already eaten, so we swore to each other we would only drink one pint (for him), and one glass of wine (for me).  Then we went to Agate Alley with our friends and ordered a huge, gluttonously greasy, spicy, salty, decadent basket of onion rings.  I ate so many…

While we patted our fingertips on napkins to try and assuage our greasy shame, our friend S. ordered a personal size pizza topped with prosciutto, gorgonzola cheese, brandied figs, and a bright salad of fresh raw arugula, piled high right in the middle.  I had never thought of putting figs on a pizza before, but it seemed so inspired.  Though S. ate hers without the porky delights of prosciutto (one of those vegetarian types, you know), the idea of wafer-thin slices of cured pork-belly lingered in my mind when I recalled the recipe.

So I, so often operating as Dr. Frankenstein in the kitchen, decided a recreation was required.  This pizza would be a hybrid – a loving, daring combination of Agate Alley’s delectable pie and the prosciutto and caramelized onion darling Ree of The Pioneer Woman has developed.  With a hunk of gorgonzola languishing in my cheese drawer, it was just the right thing to do.

Ingredients (mostly approximated):

1 lump pizza dough (I shamelessly bought mine, pre-made, from Trader Joe’s fridge section)

1 medium to large sweet onion

2 TB brown sugar

4-6 oz. prosciutto

5-8 dried figs, sliced

1-2 oz. gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

1 cup (at least!) shredded mozzarella cheese

Big handful of arugula or basil

While my pizza stone heated in the oven, I caramelized my onions per the Pioneer Woman’s directions.  Then, while I prepped all my other ingredients (grating cheese, slicing figs, playing with the dough), I forgot about the onions for a little bit too long and the brown sugar started to burn.  But I decided to just call that “extra-caramelized” and be happy with it.

With the dough stretched, plunked onto the hot, cornmeal sprinkled stone and already starting to shrink back in on itself (it never wants to stay in a 12-inch circle; why not?), I quickly piled on the toppings: a drizzle of olive oil, evenly spread mounds of mozzarella, trailing slices of salty hammy goodness, cheese crumbles, figs, and dark, dark mahogany clumps of onion.

Into the oven at 450F it went, and about 12 minutes later, gasping, I edged it out and clunked it down on my stovetop.  Lacking arugula, I sprinkled baby leaves of basil atop the whole thing.

It looked glorious.  The crust was crunchy on the bottom, the cheese was golden and bubbling, the prosciutto had crinkled and crisped, and the figs were these dark, seeded pockets of mystery.

We ate.  We ate more.  The combination of salty and sweet has been hyped for years now, but that’s because it works.  The sweet onions and tangy, sugary figs balanced the rich creamy funk of the gorgonzola and the perfect saltiness of the prosciutto.  I would have preferred arugula to basil, because the licorice overtones of basil weren’t the perfect match, but the fresh greenness was definitely welcome.

I would never have thought of figs on pizza, but I would urge you to try them in this combination (or just figs and prosciutto, I won’t tell).  Sliced thin, they warmed in the oven and just started to create their own glassy brulée atop their honeyed interiors.  With chewy dough, creamy bubbling cheese, crisp-chewy ham, soft sweet onions, the crunch of the little seeds inside each slice of fig, popping between the teeth and tickling the taste buds, was the perfect final flavor of each bite.

This would be perfect enjoyed with a crisp, semi-dry white wine, though the beer we drank with it was just fine.  It is supposed to be simple fare, after all.