Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Search Of

If you're old enough to remember the show that was hosted by Leonard Nimoy,  you're old enough to understand the importance of searching for the unknown, the unexplained, the mysterious.  But what am I in search of?  No, not extraterrestrials, not what happened to Amelia Earhart, not the truth about the Bermuda Triangle.  More pragmatic, more practical, but still mysterious.  It's pizza.  More accurately, perfect homemade pizza dough.  Okay, maybe not perfect.  Maybe pretty damn close?  Can someone lead me in that direction?  It seems like it would be so simple.  A mix of water, salt, flour, oil, yeast.

I try recipe after recipe, not tied down to one formula.  I skimmed Jim Lahey's My Pizza (having made his no-knead bread, I'm behind this man).  I think about the tools I use, the ingredients I have on hand, what I can tweak, what I should tweak, what I accidentally discovered (hello overnight cold rise!), and why I always forget I own a pizza stone.

I haven't tried Jim Lahey's yet.  That's next on the list.  The latest recipe I used was Alice Waters' recipe from The Art of Simple Food.  It's good.  Very good.  Alice's recipe got the overnight cold rise and since the recipe makes enough for two pizzas, the first was traditionally baked in the oven, the second was actually 'baked' in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop.  More like fried, with a touch of olive oil, then after adding some caramelized onion, cheese, and porchetta (Oh, porchetta!), I threw it under a broiler until the cheese melted and the crust charred.

The other recipe is from a book I bought awhile ago called,  The Cook's Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking by Carla Capalbo.  I bought it at the used bookstore around the corner and it's turned out to be a great little find.  Lots of practical, not over the top recipes and in the year or so that I've had it, I refer to it more times than I thought I would.  This version also got the cold rise treatment and was made solely by the cast iron/stovetop/broiler method.  Thanks to a pizza craving when Los Angeles had one of its ugly heatwaves last month, I couldn't wait for the temps to drop to satisy the craving, and that's when I tried the stovetop method.

I loved using my cast iron skillet so much, that I'm throwing cast iron pizza into the regular rotation.  For some reason, it just seems like it takes less effort.  Which, in looking at it objectively, doesn't.  Two steps compared to throwing it on a sheet and slipping it into the oven.  I don't know.  They're both good.

Porchetta and Caramelized Onion Pizza
Dough recipe makes enough for 2 10-inch pizza

Alice Waters' Pizza Dough Recipe

2 tsp dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup rye flour
3 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup olive oil

Stir together the yeast and 1/2 cup lukewarm water.  Add the rye flour and 1/4 cup of the ap flour.  Let this sit in a bowl until bubbly, about 1/2 hour.  In another bowl, mix the remaining ap flour with the salt.  After the yeast mixture is foamy, add the flour and salt mix, along with the olive oil and cold water.  Mix dough and turn out onto a floured board, kneading for about 5 minutes until dough is soft and elastic.  If your dough is wet, add a little more flour, tablespoon by tablespoon until the right consistency is met.

Here you can either put the dough in a bowl, covered and let it rise for 2 hours in a warm spot or put the dough in the refrigerator for an overnight rise.  Just remember to take it out a couple of hours before you want to use it.  


6 oz porchetta, sliced paper thin
1/2 cup onion, caramelized
1/2 cup Grana Padano, grated
1/2 cup Asiago, grated
2 tbsp basil, chiffonaded
red pepper oil, for drizzling (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees (if baking in the oven).  Stretch dough to roughly 10-12 inches. Sprinkle dough with cheeses and basil.  Spread caramelized onion and porchetta over dough.  On a pan, with a thin layer of coarse cornmeal, place pizza and put in oven.  Bake for 8-12 minutes.  When removed from the oven, sprinkle with the remaining basil and drizzle the oil.  

If you opt for the cast iron skillet method, make the dough big enough to fit into your pan.  Put pan over high heat and add a little oil (about 1 tsp or so).  Add dough and allow to cook, flipping over every few minutes.  Turn on your stove's broiler to its highest setting.  Top dough with porchetta et al and put pan under broiler.  Keeping an eye on the pizza, remove when you see a little char on the crust and porchetta edges look crispy.  

Basic Pizza Dough
From 'The Cook's Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking'
Makes roughly 2 10-inch pizzas

2 1/2 tbsp fresh cake yeast or 1 pkg dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
pinch of sugar
1 tsp salt
3-3 1/2 cups all purpose flour

In a bowl, mix the water and yeast.  Stir in the sugar and let stand until yeast dissolves and begins to foam, 5-10 minutes.  Mix in the salt and about a third of the flour, stirring and gradually adding the flour until dough easily pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth, about 8-10 minutes.  In a lightly oiled bowl, place the dough inside and cover with a moistened and wrung out dish towel.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 45-50 minutes.  Punch down the dough and knead for a minute or two.  Dough is ready for toppings.  Bake using either method above. 

Notes:  both recipes actually call for unbleached flour.  Obviously, all purpose will work the same.  I tend to have either or on hand, so use what you've got.  As for the rye flour, if you don't have any, swap regular flour for the 1/4 cup called.  I had it on hand and think it adds a subtle touch that you can't quite place your finger on.  Feel free to use whole wheat if you don't have rye.  The second recipe calls for cake yeast.  If you can find it, I highly recommend using it.  It's a hit or miss find for me, so I use the dry yeast.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Not a Fluke

Or The Summer of Plums.  I love stone fruit season and we are now right at the tail end of it.  Fall is officially here, but I'm holding on for a little bit longer before jumping headfirst into the season of apples, apples, apples, pomegranates, and more apples.

While I usually cannot eat enough nectarines and peaches over the Summer, this year I was a little disappointed.  There were great fruits every now and again, but only every now and again.  Plums, though?  I had days upon days filled with black plums, red plums, a pluot here and there, and even green plums.  At season's end, I'm thrilled to find Italian prune plums (also called Empress plums, though these are a little larger) in the stores and markets.  Not typically an eating plum, I personally love the slight tartness when you bite into one that's not overripe.  I love the bright citron flesh hiding underneath the silver wax bloomed dark purple skins.

This recipe won't be for everyone.  Orange blossom water lends a distinct floral (some might say, perfumey) undertone.  If you're totally against it, you could substitute a little almond flavoring, or even a touch of orange.  But...I think the orange blossom is a small enough amount that you won't feel as though you're chewing on a bouquet.  Mind you, I am the girl who loves rose-flavored candies and can happily work through a pack of Choward's violet gum in no time.

Plum and Orange Blossom Preserves
Makes about a cup

3 cups Italian/Empress plums, chopped (about 6-8)
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp orange blossom water

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring all ingredients to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Lower heat and cook until reduced by about a third, 20-25 minutes.  Preserves will thicken a bit.  Store in a glass jar.  This will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.  The possibilities?  On toast.  On French toast, instead of maple syrup (same with waffles).  Mixed with plain  yogurt and topped with granola.  Topping vanilla ice cream.  Mmm hmm...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meatless Monday

Okay...so I just did a little research.  Thank you, Google.  Thank you, Internet.  Did you know the Meatless Monday trend started 11 years ago!?!  I had no idea.  I think I only became aware of it a couple of years ago.  I have tried many, many times to do my part for this trend? tradition? (can you still call it a trend 11 years after its inception?  Does anyone know the rules to this?), but all too often absentmindedly end up having meat at some point on a Monday and think...oh, well...let's try again next week.

Today was one of those days where my eating habits are outright odd.  Sometimes when I'm home all day, I'll either graze for hours, or I won't eat much and what I do eat doesn't even really qualify as a proper meal.  Case in point...'breakfast' was a big taste of almond-peanut butter that I had just made.   The jar I use to store my peanut butter in was too small for the amount made and I didn't want to use a second jar.  I half considered toasting bread to have with my peanut butter, but I really didn't want to bring out the toaster, so there I was, spatula in hand, scooping almond butter out of the food processor bowl.  Lunch, a couple of hours later, was an avocado, sprinkled with a little sea salt and sumac, smeared on a couple of tostadas.  I guess from afar that might look like a meal, but it really wasn't.

So when the 5 o'clock hour came around I gave some serious thought to dinner and wanting to really have something more substantial than a spatula-full of almond butter.  Thinking back over the course of the day and realizing that I hadn't eaten meat, it was a prime opportunity to give this Meatless Monday a conscious effort.  A quick once-over of the contents in the fridge led to this.  I love mushrooms sauted slowly over a low flame, it draws out the earthiness and meatiness.  You can use any mushrooms you like, I tend to stick with white mushrooms (boring, I know).

Spinach and Mushroom with Short Grain Brown Rice
Makes enough for 2

1 cup short grain brown rice
3 cups water
sea salt

1/4 cup green onions, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3-4 cups spinach, fresh, chopped
6 white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/4 cup grated Asiago (or Parmesan cheese)
1 tbsp red pepper oil (optional)

Rinse the rice to remove any dirt or debris and in a large saucepan, add one cup of rice to 3 cups of water, and a pinch of salt.  Bring to a low boil, then turn heat to a simmer and cook rice until done (about 20 minutes).  Keep rice covered and fluff when ready.

In a skillet over medium heat, warm olive oil and butter until melted, then add green onions and garlic, sauteeing until garlic softens.  Add the mushrooms, slightly lowering heat, and cook until softened, about 10-12 minutes.  Add the spinach, stirring quickly, until wilted.

Plate the rice, topping with the mushrooms and spinach.  Drizzle with red pepper oil (or red pepper flakes) and shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wanna Swap?

I love Instagram.  Everyone can be a photographer (with varying degrees of talent).  There are a million posts of cats (I am extremely guilty of contributing to this), and there is no end to the food posts from bloggers and foodies alike (I am also guilty of contributing to this).  But...know what else I've discovered?  (Other than the shops people run on there.  I've bought more than my fair share of vintage kitchenware, linens, and jewelry over the past two years.)  I've discovered that there are an awful lot of great people on it.

AND it is through different groups of these great people that swaps are held!  Swaps--where you are partnered up, trade various bits of info about yourself, and go out and find something awesome for your partner.  I've done a vintage Secret Santa Christmas swap, a vintage planter swap, and a coffee mug swap (with a second mug swap happening soon!).  I also recently hosted my first cookbook swap!

I am sure it comes as no surprise that the love of cooking leads to the love of cookbooks.  I especially love vintage cookbooks.  Every once in a while, I like to pick a recipe from a vintage cookbook and see if it stands up to the hands of time.  I enjoy seeing food trends over the decades (aspic, fondue) and watch the progression (or decline) of food photography (like The Brown Period, as I call the 70s).  A post went onto Instagram, looking for people to sign up, and after about a week, I had nineteen people just as excited as I was to swap books.  Everyone received a short survey to help discern tastes and set the terms:  vintage and/or modern books accepted, extras okay, and keep it all under $20, folks!

And with that...'Cookbook Swap 2014' was underway.  Partners were partnered, surveys were surveyed, and the time limit to gather and send was set.  A couple of weeks later, the posts began to pop up.  Hashtagged #cookbookswap2014, swappers were showing off the contents of their #happymail packages that were being delivered.  Between the fun of picking out the 'just right' cooksbooks and kitchenalia, then watching the mailbox for your box of surprises, there's a feeling of being a kid on Christmas morning to it all.
The kicker?  As swappers were posting their pictures, even more people were asking about getting in on the swap, so it looks as though I'll be hosting another one in a month or so.  It will be the Fall/Pre-Holiday edition of 'Cookbook Swap 2014.'  Once again, I have to thank everyone who was a part of this.  The whole thing went off without a hitch, everyone came through, and everyone had a great time.  This just might turn into a regular occurrence.

What started it all...
A collage of the photos posted on Instagram.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Fresh

By this point, I think you know that when it's Summer, and temperatures are dancing the thermostat higher and higher, nearing the 100 degree mark, I like to make things to eat that don't require cooking.  Okay, maybe toasting bread for a sandwich, or a quick flip of a pita over an open flame to have with an antipasti platter, but no multi burners going, and certainly no oven turned on to roast a vegetable or bake a cake.

I make a version of this soup every Summer.  Based upon a recipe for Chilled Cucumber Soup from Real Simple, it is one of those repertoire items that is difficult not to turn to again and again.  It's easy, delicious, and can take a riff or two if you are so inclined.  I originally wrote about this soup a couple of years ago and shared my version.  Here I am again with the 2014 version.  Bigger.  Badder.  Faster.  Harder.  Or something like that.

Cucumber Spinach Chilled Soup
Serves 4 (as an appetizer)

3 Persian cucumbers, peeled and chopped
3 cups spinach, fresh
2 cloves  garlic, chopped
1/4 cup onions, chopped
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup water
1/2 tsp shichimi togarashi
pinch of salt

In a blender, add the cucumbers, spinach, garlic, onions, water, yogurt, and togarashi.  Puree until smooth.  Add the feta and blend for 15-20 seconds.  I like the feta incorporated just enough that you'll still have crumbles.  Season to taste.

Note:  If you don't have togarashi, you can leave it out or substitute with red pepper flakes or even chili powder.  Alternately, if you don't want a hint of spice, you can leave it out entirely.  If you're substituting frozen  chopped spinach, I would probably cut the amount down to 2 cups.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Taking A Cue

One blog that I read on a regular basis is David Lebovitz's blog.  You cannot go wrong with someone who has written numerous books on the subject of dessert and worked with Alice Waters.  It was his recent post on cherry compote that caught my attention, especially when he began the post claiming to have an affliction with buying too much Summer fruit when in season.  Mentally, my hand went up, guiltily, when I read that sentence, looking over the computer screen to the bowl of fruit on the table that was (and is) overflowing with plums (three varieties), nectarines, and peaches.  And let's not forget how I feel about cherries.  I get excited when cherry season arrives.  I always buy large amounts with big plans on making something truly special with them.  But then...I find myself standing at the kitchen counter, my hand repeatedly dipping into the bowl and eating one after another, after another...after another.  More times than not, I find myself with a pile of cherry pits, stained fingers, and nothing made from those glorious ruby orbs.

This Summer was looking like there would be no cherry-centric recipes made as I was on my third bowl of cherries and I still hadn't made it past the eating stage.  Then, I came across David's recipe.  Looking at the photos he posted, all I could imagine was spooning cherry compote over vanilla ice cream.  Let me tell you...since I caught strep throat last month, ice cream has been a consistent resident in my freezer.  You know...it soothed the pain of an awful sore throat.  Well...then it did.  Now, it just makes me happy.

Get out your cherry pitter (or chopstick), pit some cherries, and make this.  Be sure the vanilla ice cream is in the freezer and ready for it.

Cherry Compote
Adapted from a recipe by David Lebovitz
Makes a little over a cup

2 cups cherries, pitted
1/4 cup pure cane sugar
2 capfuls Irish whiskey (optional)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Pit the cherries and add to a large saucepan.  Make sure any juice from the cherries winds up in the pan too.  Add the sugar, extract, and whiskey.  Over medium heat, cook all the ingredients, until the cherries begin to break down.  Occasionally check the progress, since the cooking will cause the cherries and liquid to foam.  Since this isn't a large amount of cherries, it shouldn't be a problem if your pan is large enough.  Cook until the fruit breaks down a considerable amount and all the flavors have mingled (about 20-25 minutes).  Allow to cool for a few minutes before storing or topping ice cream.  

Notes:  I used a chopstick to pit the cherries.  It takes a little getting used to, but once you find a rhythm, it gets easier.  It's a little messy, but worth it.  Be sure to catch any juice from the cherries (there will be some).  I literally used 2 capfuls of whiskey, so if you're looking for an exact measurement, I'll guess it's close to two tablespoons.  Amaretto is another option to use, giving you a double punch of almond if you also use the almond extract, though you could substitute vanilla extract if amaretto is used. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Adult Beverage Time

A couple of weeks ago, a friend invited me to a play at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown.  We were there 45 minutes to an hour before showtime.  It was a lovely, early Summer evening, people were milling about the venue complex, having a drink or grabbing a quick bite to eat before the show.  We did the same.  She came back from the Mexican spot carrying a tumbler that was close to spilling over.  I knew it was for me.  I guessed sangria and asked before taking a sip.  Winey, fruity, and chilled.  It was a little too sweet, but that didn't keep me from drinking the whole thing.  Just enough to take the edge off the tension of driving cross-city to get from the Westside to downtown and not being too late.

For the past two weeks, I've been thinking about that sangria.  Thinking about how much I like sangria and why have I never made it myself.  I guess I think of it as a party drink, something that you make knowing there will be at least a couple people to share it.  The first time I had sangria was just such a scenario.  A Summer get-together, with a lot of food, a lot of drink, a lot of hospitality, and a pool involved.  That just doesn't happen here.  There are no pool parties, no cook-outs, no picnics.  I can make an old fashioned for myself and it's okay.  It seems kind of silly to make a whole pitcher.  But I decided to throw those thoughts out the window and make myself some damned sangria.  It was a holiday after all.  A day with nowhere to be and if I wanted to drink the whole thing myself, I could!

Can I tell you that one of the reasons I've been hesitant to make it is because I was afraid I'd screw it up?  Crazy, right?  I thought if I was missing some crucial element it would be disastrous and that ideal in my head would be gone forever.  Silly, silly me.  So in the name of quick research, I went to Pinterest.  Trusty Pinterest.  And found the best sangria pin EVER (even among the many sangria pins I've pinned to my board!).  The pin is not so much a recipe as a GUIDE, so I know where to improvise, see what's important, and what can be cut back or eliminated all together.  It's just what I needed.

I love how it doesn't have to cost a lot, unless you're making pitchers and pitchers full.  I fully encourage taking advantage of less expensive wines.  The 3/$10.00 Tisdale wines at Sprouts was just right, and use the seasonal fruit that you'll be able to find for good prices.  You probably have Cointreau, brandy, or rum in your liquor cabinet already.  I did not drink the whole pitcher in one day.  In fact, there is half a pitcher still chilling in the fridge.  The weekend isn't quite over yet.  Come this evening, I'll be pouring a glass.

Summer Sangria
Makes 1 pitcher

1 bottle (750ml) red wine (I used the Tisdale Sweet Red)
3 oz triple sec (or Cointreau)
1 cup club soda
1 6-oz package raspberries 
1medium nectarines, cut in chunks
2 medium plums, sliced
1 medium orange, sliced 
Juice of one large orange
1 oz agave nectar
Orange slices, for garnish

In a medium to large pitcher, pour in the wine.  Add the raspberries, nectarine, and plums.  Stir.  Add the triple sec and orange juice, stirring to mix.  Add the club soda, agave nectar, and orange slices.  Mix thoroughly, tasting, and adding more agave if you see fit.  

Chill for at least 4 hours or longer.  Garnish each glass with a orange wedge before serving.