Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.

Spaghetti with Miso Tomato Sauce

2016-food-blog-september-0763A lot of people focus, when they talk about their own recipes – the recipes they have created, or modified from already-existing dishes – on secret ingredients. There’s that one, singular item you add to “make it your own,” (or, if you’re the Colonel, maybe eleven). If you’re a certain kind of cook, you leave it out of your written recipes so no one can duplicate your masterpiece exactly, and they struggle for a lifetime trying to figure out why theirs doesn’t taste quite like yours. Secret ingredients puzzle your audience; they are intrigued but can’t quite identify that flavor combination – it blends just enough to keep it unidentifiable.

2016-food-blog-september-0737My one big secret ingredient used to be nutmeg in oatmeal chocolate chip cookies – it added another layer of warmth and interest, and it made one of my high school friends giggle about my cookies being aphrodisiacal. It was unexpected until you knew it was there, and then it made sense. My college roommate adopted it in her own chocolate chip cookies and at least once left it out of the recipe she passed along to a friend, so that the cookies would never be quite the same, thereby keeping them special.

2016-food-blog-septemberApart from that, my typical “secret ingredient” practice is just adding so many components that I likely won’t remember them all when I need to recreate whatever dish it was (clearly ideal methodology for a food blogger!). But suddenly, I have a secret ingredient. It fits all the qualifications: it adds a definite flavor without being obvious, and it would be difficult to guess at were you trying blindly to taste out every component of the dish.

2016-food-blog-september-07442016-food-blog-september-0747This came about by accident, as many of my masterworks do. We had just arrived home from our annual summer road trip, which meant a whatever-is-still-good meal. Pasta is easy here – a bag of spaghetti and a can of tomatoes are guaranteed to be fine and tasty – but being who I am, the urge to tinker kicked in and I was rooting around in the fridge looking for something to make it special. I found a container of heavy cream that, shoved to the very back, was not only still good, but almost frozen, and a tiny, hard, crusty little corner of miso paste. It looked okay, apart from being approximately the texture of granite, and in a moment of innovation genius “well, why not?” I tossed it into the sauce.

2016-food-blog-september-0749As secret ingredients go, this is a good one. No, you don’t necessarily want to buy a whole tub of miso paste just for this, since you’ll only be going through a tablespoon or two, but the number of other sauces, soups, and stir-fry dishes that it will contribute to makes it a great thing to have at the back of the fridge. (And really, if you bought the stuff for Deb’s recipe in the first place, you’ll need a new recipe to use up that last stubborn chunk that has been hiding in your fridge for months anyway.) The miso adds all the salt needed to the sauce, but it also contributes a lux, complex quality that gives depth the tomatoes and somehow makes the cream feel lighter – more sprightly.

2016-food-blog-september-0754In the final incarnation, I added leeks for an onion-y aromatic base, a splash of wine to deglaze, and a smattering of chili flakes, and I was delighted with all of these additions, though you could certainly leave out the heat, replace the leeks with garlic or shallot (or some combination), and I wouldn’t say no to marsala in place of the wine.

In any case, though, scatter the top with a chiffonade of basil or some parsley fragments, and challenge your dinner guests to guess what that extra flavor is – I bet they will be stumped, trying to determine our new secret ingredient.

2016-food-blog-september-0762

Spaghetti with miso tomato sauce
40-45 minutes
Serves 8-10
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons salt for pasta water
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup finely chopped leek, white and pale green parts only
½ cup dry white wine
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tablespoons white or red miso paste
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
½ cup heavy cream, at room temperature (adding to the sauce at room temperature, rather than cold, eliminates the danger of curdling)
optional: 2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley or chiffonade of basil to scatter over the top

 

  • Fill a large pot with water, add the 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions, stirring once or twice to separate pasta strands. When the spaghetti is tender but still has a slight bite, drain it and add it to the sauce as directed below.
  • While the pasta water heats, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is melted, add the leeks and turn the heat down to medium-low; sweat the leeks, stirring often, until they are tender. This should take about 8-10 minutes.
  • When the leeks are tender and translucent, add the wine and the red pepper flakes, stir to integrate, and raise the heat to medium-high. Simmer for 3-5 minutes to cook off some of the raw flavor of the wine.
  • Now, add the miso paste, using a wooden spoon or a whisk to break it up and integrate it evenly into the wine mixture. Cook 2-3 minutes to allow it to soften and distribute (the older the miso paste is, the more reluctant it will be to integrate).
  • Dump in the canned tomatoes and their juice, stir, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Periodically, crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon or with a potato masher (be careful: they squirt!).
  • When the sauce has simmered at least 20 minutes to let the flavors blend, and when the pasta is cooked and drained, take the skillet off the heat and stir in the room temperature cream.
  • Integrate the drained pasta (I use tongs for this), then place the skillet back over medium-low heat and cook, frequently manipulating the pasta with your tongs, for another two minutes. This lets the pasta absorb some of the sauce.
  • To serve, transfer to a large bowl or serving dish and, if desired, scatter the top with your parsley or basil. Warm garlic toast is a welcome accompaniment.

Summer Vegetable Tzatziki

2016 Food Blog August-0683Sometimes the most difficult thing about these posts is deciding what to call them. Cucumber yogurt dip sounds good, but because there is the same amount of tomatoes here as there is cucumber, such a title feels like a lie of omission. “Cucumber tomato yogurt dip” starts to sound clunky, and it excises the radishes that provide such a good peppery crunch to the whole thing. And really, if your title includes everything in the finished product, it’s not a title at all – it’s an ingredient list. I tell my students that titles are hard. A title is the summary of all summaries. It should catch the audience’s interest and encompass the topic at hand and suggest the writer’s stance on it. But then, you don’t want to fall into the trap of emotive language: “Delicious Cucumber Yogurt Dip” makes up your mind for you before you have a chance to taste the thing yourself. And while that may be a fine thing for something like a food blog, in writing as a larger practice, it can be a problem. Your evidence should make the argument for you, not your manipulation of alluring language (can you tell the fall semester is imminent?!). Besides, that’s a pretty bold promise!

2016 Food Blog August--4But we’re moving away from the issue: a late summer dip flush with vegetables, crammed with texture, bound by the creamy thickness of good greek yogurt. As I continued to dither over titles, I remembered another suggestion I give my students: play with your audience’s existing knowledge. In my intro level composition class, I structure our readings around the theme of “the journey,” and once ended up with a student paper entitled “Don’t Stop Believing.” Genius. Well then. Crisp vegetables, cool yogurt, herbs, just enough salt to pull the flavors together; let’s go with tzatziki.*

2016 Food Blog August-0657This is not the most pinterest-worthy pretty dish, because once you enrobe vegetables in a coating of yogurt, the whole thing takes on a blurred creaminess that I was concerned to see reminded me of those yogurt-based fruit salads of my youth that someone always insisted on adding banana to. But be consoled! Though this is, I suppose, technically a fruit salad in that the starring ingredients are only masquerading as vegetables, it is savory and crisp and cleanly refreshing, and there are no mushy browning slices of banana hidden amidst the bright flavors you were expecting.

2016 Food Blog August-0664Of course this is perfect with chips of all kinds, and would probably make a nice accompaniment to falafel or skewered meat. But since I was roasting a chicken for dinner, I wanted to avoid heat sources of any kind earlier in the day, so I had mine on well salted pita chips and, in spite of earlier vacillation over titles, ended up with this simplest of solutions: just call it lunch.

2016 Food Blog August-0665Note: alas, for all its merits, this tzatziki does not keep well, nor is it a promising “make ahead” option. The tomatoes and cucumbers begin to give off juice almost immediately, and though the yogurt is quite thick, it does get watered down within the hour. It is best, then, for those moments when you need something fresh and bright and cool and easy, and you need it NOW-thank-you-very-much.

2016 Food Blog August--2-2* I considered raita as well, but while cucumbers and yogurt are pretty standard for a tzatziki, raitas can have all sorts of vegetables in them, are often a bit thinner, and sometimes carry a hit of spice so that even as you are cooling off, you are heating up again. Tzatziki, with its dominant ingredients and its chunky reputation, seemed to fit better here.

2016 Food Blog August-0683

Summer Vegetable Tzatziki
Serves 2-4
10-15 minutes, depending on your chopping speed
1 cup greek yogurt (don’t sub regular yogurt; you need the thick texture to stand up to the wetness of the vegetables)
1 cup chopped cucumber, seeded if you wish
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
3 radishes, sliced, julienned, then cubed (directions below)
1 tablespoon your choice of finely chopped soft-stemmed herbs (I went with chives. Cilantro, parsley, basil, or dill are other possibilities)
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
⅛ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

 

  • This is laughably easy, guys. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine, then taste for seasonings and adjust accordingly. But I said I’d explain about the radishes, so here goes: remove the tops and tails, then cut into thin slices. Pile up a stack of the slices and cut straight down into skinny little matchsticks – this is a julienne cut. Then, if you want the pieces even smaller, cut up those matchsticks into tiny cubes. This ensures even distribution of radish pieces, and ensures you aren’t biting down onto a giant chunk, which is nice if your radishes are particularly peppery.
  • If desired, use a rubber spatula to pour and scrape the tzatziki into a pretty serving bowl, and serve with your choice of dippables.

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Tomato Basil Loaf

2016 Food Blog February-0424N. and I first discovered Panera when we were living in Eugene. This seems a bit counterintuitive, since Eugene doesn’t have any Paneras. But on a visit or two with my parents, and N.’s parents, it became an easy place to pick up lunch, or a dinner for a sunset hike, and I was quickly sold on their vegetarian sandwich, not just because it came layered with pickled red peppers and fresh greens and spicy spread and crumbled feta, but because the bread it used – a fluffy tomato and basil flavored loaf with an intriguing, slightly sweet streusel across the top crust – was addicting. When we could, N. and I started buying a whole loaf of the bread on our last day in California, to take home to Eugene with us.

2016 Food Blog February-0378Now that we are in Los Angeles, there are Paneras everywhere (in fact, I just checked: there are at least five within a 5 mile radius of our house). Despite that proximity, though, we don’t go there very often. There are several reasons for this, but mostly, if I’m going to spend my money on restaurant fare, I’m going to explore what Los Angeles has to offer rather than a national chain. Regardless, the tomato basil bread, with that intriguing streusel, remains a favorite of mine, and when “red” was declared as February’s Twelve Loaves theme, I decided this was the right time to try a little re-creation attempt.

2016 Food Blog February-0370My bread combines lush, densely flavored scarlet tomato paste with a generous dusting of dried basil. The loaf itself is moistened and sweetened with buttermilk and molasses, and though it does bake up more orange than red, it makes perfect sandwich slices for cucumber and mozzarella, or pesto chicken, or just well-buttered toast.

2016 Food Blog February-0375The challenge here was the streusel. There are a number of “copycat” recipes out there for Panera’s loaf, but few of them make any attempt at the dark, sweet, sticky crumble adorning the top crust. I finally found a suggestion for a glaze made from tomato paste and brown sugar, thinned with a little water, and brushed over the top of the loaf. Since my first attempt was a little heavy on the tomato paste in the dough itself, reserving some for the top seemed like a smart adjustment. It did look a bit distressingly like a meatloaf with the traditional ketchup coating when I first applied the glaze, but the flavor of the finished product was strikingly similar to my inspiration.

2016 Food Blog February-03832016 Food Blog February-03892016 Food Blog February-0394Panera’s loaf is scored straight down the center so that the top crust puffs and pulls away from itself in two fat rounds, leaving the top of a slice looking almost heart shaped. I decided I wanted to try something new, so I went for a twist instead, separating my dough into two sluggish, sticky logs and wrapping them around each other before depositing into a loaf pan.

2016 Food Blog February-04042016 Food Blog February-0406A second rise, a glaze, and a quick 40 minutes in the oven, and I was rewarded with a loaf that, despite not being truly red, may be as close to the original as I’ll ever get. The interior is tender and chewy and springy, and the glaze hardened into gleaming sticky shellac (though it loses its crustiness as it sits). The tomato and basil flavor are both easily discernible, and the combination of tomato paste and brown sugar burnishing the top crust is just the right toasty sweetness, since despite the molasses, the bread itself is fairly savory.

2016 Food Blog February-0416Because the dough is pretty sticky, the loaf is moist and tender, which also means it’s a bit delicate. Take care when slicing into it, and be sure to give it at least half an hour to cool before attempting a slice at all. Conveniently, we found we liked the flavor better once the bread had cooled completely. As noted above, the glaze resorts to stickiness after a few hours, but it is still quite tasty, and will “crisp” up again just slightly after a trip through the toaster. Slicked with salted butter, it makes a perfect accompaniment to lesson-planning on a blustery afternoon.

2016 Food Blog February-0430

Tomato Basil Loaf
Makes 1 large sandwich loaf
4-4½ hours, including rising and baking time
1 cup cold buttermilk
⅓ cup boiling water + more to thin the glaze
3 tablespoons molasses
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 ¾ cups bread flour (you may not use all of it) + additional flour to dust the board
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dried basil
½ cup tomato paste, divided
3 tablespoons brown sugar

 

  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, combine the cold buttermilk and the boiling water. This creates a yeast-friendly temperature without having to wait for the buttermilk to warm up. Stir in the molasses and the yeast, and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the surface of the mixture foams up and it smells bready.
  • While the yeast is working, combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt and basil in a large bowl. I use the bowl of my stand mixer. After the yeast has had a chance to wake up and is foamy, add the liquid slowly to the flour mixture and mix on low with the paddle attachment (or with a wooden spoon) to combine. Scrape in the tomato paste and again, mix just to combine.
  • Now, if you are using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook. If you are not using a stand mixer, turn out onto a well-floured board. Knead at medium speed for 5-7 minutes, adding in more flour if needed ¼ cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and takes on the consistency of soft, sticky play-dough.
  • Oil the inside of your work bowl (I use a non-stick spray), turn the ball of dough over inside a few times to coat it evenly, and then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and stow in a slightly warm spot for 1½-2 hours, until almost doubled.
  • Once the dough has risen adequately, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into the center to release the air, then let rest about ten minutes to get its breath back. Meanwhile, spray or butter a standard loaf pan.
  • Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into two equal portions. Roll each half out into a pudgy log about 9 inches long. Pinch one end of each log together tightly to connect, then create a twist by lifting the left strand over the right, then repeating (because now what was the right strand will be the left one) until you come to the other end of each log. Pinch these remaining ends together tightly, then tuck underneath the twist you’ve created and gently place it in the prepared loaf pan. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise again for 45-60 minutes.
  • About 30 minutes before you put the dough into the oven, preheat to 350F, and make the glaze by combining the remaining 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, and 1-2 tablespoons of hot water to thin to a barely pourable glaze. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap, brush the glaze over the top of the loaf in a thin layer, and gently slide it into the preheated oven. Bake 35-40 minutes, or until the interior tests 180-200F on an instant read thermometer.
  • Cool at least 10 minutes in the loaf pan, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool at least 20 minutes more before slicing and eating. We found the flavor was better once the bread had completely cooled.

 

#TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and run with the help of Heather of All Roads Lead to the Kitchen, which runs smoothly with the help of our bakers.

This month we’ll be baking breads with a RED theme in honor of National Heart Month, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars (red carpet) – any red ingredient goes! For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month’s mouthwatering selection of #TwelveLoaves enter last month’s breads featuring a “new to you” type of flour!

If you’d like to bake along with us this month, share your “RED” themed bread using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!

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.

Caprese Meatballs

Food blog May 2015-0898You may have noticed there was no recipe post on Monday. I could, were I a bit less honest, have sold you on the idea that this was related to the holiday weekend, or me traveling, or some such minor fabrication. But I don’t have a great poker face, so I’ll admit it was in fact because I’ve been feeling a bit of whatever the cook’s version of writer’s block might be called. I had cloudy ideas of things I could cook, I just didn’t really feel like figuring them out.

Food blog May 2015-0876Then I went to a wedding in Sacramento on Sunday, and saw a friend I realized I’ve known for over a decade, despite last seeing him something like seven or eight years ago. As we caught up, he told me he’d had to stop reading this blog because it always made him hungry, and licking his computer screen seemed like a bad idea. Despite the concerning image this conjured, it tripped something in my brain. Making you hungry is just what I’m after! That means – at least in his case – this blog is doing its job.

Food blog May 2015-0877Thereafter, the block was broken. On the drive back to Los Angeles (only while I was a passenger, of course), I kept having to text myself food ideas. One was these meatballs, which I’m posting off-schedule because I have to get them in while it’s still May! I know you aren’t reading this, J., but I hope you would want to eat them anyway, since it’s your fault thanks to you that they came to be.

Food blog May 2015-0878Previous to my little block, my sister and I had a rapid-fire email exchange of meatball ideas. One of her suggestions – a bruschetta meatball – eventually morphed into what I came up with here: a nod to a caprese salad in a moment when the juicy, swollen garden-ripe tomatoes of your dreams are far from ready. A beef meatball shot through with sundried tomato chunks, ribbons of basil, and roasted garlic. Seared and then simmered in a balsamic vinegar and red wine sauce. And then, the pay-off: the glorious goo of melted mozzarella cheese oozing out from the inside. We snuggled them down in a pillow of soft polenta and gobbled them up before the cheese inside had time to cool.

Food blog May 2015-0886Food blog May 2015-0885Though I prefer these meatballs piping hot with a molten center of oozing cheese, they are also tasty as part of a sandwich or an antipasti platter. In fact, they basically are the platter – tomato, herbs, cheese, and meat already included. They just need a drizzle of olive oil, maybe a few torn leaves of fresh basil or parsley, and a glass of wine to complete the picture.

Food blog May 2015-0889A word: as you’ll see from the procedure, these are delicate little beasts. I made mine without the egg I’ve added to the ingredient list here, and half of my meatballs were oozing cheese before they completed their simmer. They were still good, but didn’t have the melty surprise factor I was hoping for. The addition of egg should make the meat and crumbs bind more securely. Still, though, be gentle as you work with these, and be doubly triply sure the cheese is completely enclosed inside the meat mixture before you introduce them to the heat. Food blog May 2015-0901Food blog May 2015-0903

Caprese Meatballs
Makes 10-12 large meatballs
For meatballs:
4 cloves garlic + a splash of olive oil
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
½ cup milk or cream
½ cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, well drained
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives – I like to use my kitchen scissors
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
12 ounces (3/4 lb.) ground beef, at least 15% fat
1 egg, beaten
10-12 room temperature miniature mozzarella balls, or 10-12 small cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
For sauce:
Meatball drippings
1 tablespoon flour
1 ½ cups beef broth or chicken broth
1 cup dry red wine
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar or honey, optional
To serve:
Soft polenta, cooked according to package directions with water, milk, or broth
A few sprigs of basil for presentation, if desired

 

  • Place garlic and splash of olive oil in a small oven-safe dish. Cover with aluminum foil and roast at 300F for 20-25 minutes, until garlic cloves are soft and fragrant inside their skins. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skins.
  • Once you’ve ground your fresh bread crumbs in the food processor, combine them with the milk or cream in a small bowl and let sit for 10 minutes or so to soak.
  • In the belly of the food processor, combine the sundried tomatoes, basil, cooled and peeled garlic cloves, and chives. Pulse at 3 seconds intervals until all ingredients are very finely chopped. They won’t quite form a paste because there’s no liquid in the mix, but they should all be in very small pieces for easy meatball integration.
  • Dump the tomato and herb mixture into a mixing bowl. Drain the bread crumbs by squeezing them out with your hands, then add the crumbs to the tomato and herb mixture. Add the salt, pepper, ground beef, and egg, and use your fingertips to lightly combine into a fairly homogenous mixture.
  • (If you want to check for seasoning at this point, heat a very small puddle of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and drop in a teaspoon or two of the meat mixture. Let it cook, then taste. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.)
  • When you are ready to form the meatballs, flatten about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture in your hand, then enclose it around one of the room temperature mozzarella balls. It’s important for the cheese to be room temperature because otherwise it might not melt completely inside the meatball during the simmer. Be sure the cheese is completely sealed inside the meat layer; structural integrity is important! Repeat until meat mixture is used up, setting each meatball on a plate once formed.
  • Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Gently add the meatballs in a single layer and allow them to sear undisturbed for about 2 minutes per side. When nicely browned on all (or at least most) sides, remove to a clean plate while you make the sauce.
  • Reduce the heat on the skillet to medium and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour over the remaining oil and meatball drippings already in the pan. Whisk the flour into the drippings and let cook for a minute or two into a soft golden smear.
  • Slowly add the broth, whisking continuously to ensure no lumps form, then add the red wine and the balsamic. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the liquid reaches a simmer. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, turning the heat down if needed. The sauce will take on a velvety appearance and thicken slightly. Now give it a taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. If it is too acidic for you, add 1-2 teaspoons brown sugar or honey, but remember it will be less intense once ladled over meatballs and polenta.
  • When the sauce is velvety and slightly thickened, add the meatballs back in. Be gentle! We don’t want them to crack open.
  • Simmer the meatballs in the sauce, basting often (but not flipping – again, structural integrity!), for 15 minutes. Serve immediately over soft polenta with a spoonful or two of sauce.