Friday, December 30, 2011

The Most Important Tool in Your Kitchen…

I'm very fortunate to possess a well equipped kitchen. While I don't believe in "unitaskers" (gadgets that have only one limited use, like hot dog warmers, or miniature fruit pie bakers), I do have quite a lot of equipment. First and foremost, I would be lost without my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Not only is it wonderful at beating egg whites (who wants to invest in an unlined copper bowl and lots of muscle power to do it by hand?), but it excels at quickly kneading up a huge batch of pizza or bread dough, as well as creamy cake batters. But I'll bet you never thought of using a mixer for meatballs or meat-loaf! However, drop the ingredients into the bowl, let the Kitchen-Aid go at it with the flat beater, and seconds later you have a homogenous mixture without having to take your rings off and get your hands all yucky! You do have to be careful if you decide to use it for mashed potatoes, though--the high speed can quickly cause gluten to form, making the potatoes gluey and gross. I also have a couple of attachments for the Kitchen-Aid: a food slicer/shredder (which is nice because it dispenses into a bowl or pot, making continuous processing of large amounts of food easier than in the food processor, which needs to be emptied frequently), a food purée device (which handily removes fibers from any soft, fibrous food, leaving only the delicious soft stuff behind), and a meat grinder, (which allows me to make my own fat free ground chicken for stracciatelli meatballs).

I also love my Cuisinart food processor, a 30 year old model which is still going strong, despite a couple of cracks in the pusher tube. The newer ones have larger bowls, leak proof center tubes and mini-processor attachments, but mine still works well, grinding chunks of Romano or Grana Padano cheese, or blending chicken livers and sautéed onions into a smooth paté. When I first set up my kitchen I thought I had no need for a food processor, but that was before I'd ever used one.

Same thing with my microwave. I didn't think I'd ever want one (after all, what was the hurry?) but now I can't imagine being without it. It's an invaluable friend in my kitchen from my cup of tea and bowl of oatmeal first thing in the morning, to handily defrosting a batch of soup for dinner when I forgot to take it out of the freezer until 4 PM! I do think of it as a "re-warmer" more than a cooking device, though I will admit to steaming my share of potatoes or veggies (again, when I suddenly looked at the clock at 4 PM and thought, "whatever am I going to make for dinner?"), adding them to eggs for a quick and nourishing omelette.

A few years ago, I got an immersion blender, something I find myself using way more often than I ever imagined. Not only does it purée large pots of soup quickly and without dirtying seven other gadgets, but it has a mini-food processor attachment which I use to grind up small amounts of food, like a bunch of parsley, some lemon rind, a clove of garlic, some rosemary and a little olive oil for a delicious under the skin rub for roast chicken. It's also great for puréeing baby foods, should the need arise.

There are workarounds for pretty much all of these things, a sharp knife and a good cutting board for some, a whisk or a wooden spoon and a strong arm for some of the others. But with all my equipment and gadgets, there is really only one tool which is absolutely indispensable, irreplaceable, should be in each and every kitchen and used at virtually every meal. That item is the tasting spoon! Whenever you cook, whatever you prepare, the final step before presenting your creation to the table should be a quick taste. It is at this point that you can adjust seasonings, punch up the flavors with a shot of lemon or a sprinkle of some herb or spice, or even sometimes, return the food to the stove or oven for more reduction of a sauce. I've been guilty more than once of omitting this step in my rush to get the food served to a roomful of hungry guests, only to sit down and realize at the first forkful that the dish is severely lacking in salt (which alone is enough to shift a dish from delightful to disappointing). Of course these things can often be corrected at the table, but my goal as a cook and host is to put my best food forward and present something that is as delicious as I can possibly make it for my friends and family. They shouldn't have to correct my mistakes or omissions! So here is a recipe for Turkey Soup. The ingredients are variable as are the quantities, but this fact makes the tasting spoon even more indispensable. So keep a pile of spoons next to your stove or oven and use as directed!

Turkey Soup
Serves: 6 to 8

1 leftover turkey carcass, broken up
any leftover pieces of turkey, like the wing tips or drumsticks
any leftover turkey or chicken gravy or drippings
1 lb. carrots, fresh or frozen, scrubbed
4 stalks celery, broken in half
1 large onion, cut in half
14 oz. can whole tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
cold water to cover, about 4 to 6 qts.
2 or 3 potatoes, scrubbed and diced
frozen mixed veggies, peas and carrots, corn or any other veggies you like
salt to taste
alphabet noodles, acini di pepe, orzo or any other pasta shape, or brown or white rice

Begin day before serving. Over medium-low heat, bring turkey carcass, turkey pieces, gravy or drippings, carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, peppercorns, poultry seasoning and enough water to cover everything slowly to a simmer (may take 1 to 1-1/2 hours to reach simmer). Skim foam from top of soup and discard. Simmer on low for two to three hours or until vegetables are cooked and meat is falling off the bone. With a slotted spoon, remove all the solids to a large roasting pan to cool, then strain the broth through a sieve into a clean pot or large bowl. Carefully remove all the meat from the bones, shred or dice into bite size pieces and return to broth, discarding bones and skin. In a blender container, or with an immersion blender, purée the cooked carrots, celery and onion with a little of the broth, and return to soup pot. Refrigerate all.

Next day, skim the congealed fat off top of soup. Bring soup to simmer over low heat, add potatoes and cook until tender. Add whatever veggies you like in whatever quantities you prefer and simmer just until tender. Taste and add salt to taste, stirring well after each addition. You can also add additional poultry seasoning or pepper if you feel the soup needs it. At this point, soup can be divided into containers and frozen for future meals. When ready to serve, cook pasta or rice separately in boiling salted water, drain and add to soup just before serving. Serve with grated Romano or Parmigiano cheese.

Notes & Pointers:
By keeping the soup always below a boil, the turkey poaches and remains tender and moist instead of getting tough and dry. Tasting is vital in this recipe, since the quantities are indefinite! You don't want to end up with a huge batch of flavorless soup, so taste before freezing. Also, before serving the frozen portions, taste them again, as freezing can sometimes change the proportions of various flavors, requiring some fine tuning.

Friday, December 23, 2011

On Christmas Eve: A Little of This, A Pinch of That

Growing up in a first generation Italian-American family in Brooklyn, Christmas was a big deal. My father's entire family would gather at my Grandmother's house on Christmas Eve for our yearly party. With my grandparents, parents, my father's five sisters, their husbands and all 17 of us grandkids, you can imagine the chaos, especially when Santa arrived! (It was played by one of my uncles until the older grandkids got wise and pointed out to the younger ones which uncle was missing--then a neighbor was pressed into service.) Somehow it all worked out and we had a grand time every year. 

Of course, being Italian, food played a starring role in the celebration. My grandmother did the whole "Seven Fishes" tradition.....I particularly remember seeing, though not tasting, a cold purplish octopus salad. As the years went on and my Grandmother was no longer up to the task of cooking for everyone, the aunts and my mom would each cook a dish to contribute to the gathering. But they no longer slavishly kept to the traditional seafood feast, deferring instead to Americanized dishes their kids found more appealing--casseroles, baked chicken dishes, roast beef, etc. 

By the time all of us "kids" were married with kids of our own, the communal Christmas Eve tradition had been replaced by smaller, nuclear family gatherings. So now, Christmas Eve has become our family's special celebration, as my husband says, the "real" Christmas for us. Christmas Day is for the extended family but the Eve has become the day when just my husband and I, our three "kids" (including our lovely daughter-in-law) and now our awesome grandson, gather to eat, drink, and of course, open gifts! 

When deciding what to cook for our intimate celebration, we chose to incorporate some of the flavors of my childhood as well as the memories of my husband's Sicilian family Christmas Eve. We tweaked the dishes to suit our family preferences and included foods special to us, ending up with a meal that to outsiders probably seems completely strange and weird, but to us, it's just Christmas Eve! Here goes:

Crab legs, drawn butter, lemon (a wink and a nod to my family's 7 fishes)
A selection of pizzas (one of which was my husband's traditional Christmas Eve dinner)
Green Salad (just because it doesn't seem like dinner without salad)
Sparkling Cider, Beer, Wine
Homemade Christmas Cookies (it only comes once a year!)
Torrone (not the creamy nougat kind, but more of an almond brittle tinged with lemon that my mother's mother taught us how to make)

The pizza that my husband's grandmother used to make has little chunks of Romano cheese pushed into the dough before it cooks, then tomato sauce, grated Romano and oregano are added and the whole thing is baked on a blazing hot pizza stone for a crisp crust and a chewy interior. I also make the standard pizza with mozzarella, thick tomato sauce and Romano cheese. In recent years, I've added a three cheese white pizza to the table, as well as one that takes inspiration from Spanakopitas, the Greek spinach and feta turnovers, but adds delicious Asiago cheese for an amazing and unexpected punch of flavor. But they all start with an incredible (and incredibly easy) pizza dough.

Pizza or Focaccia Dough
Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 450°

Ingredients for dough:
1 pkg. yeast
1 cup warm water (NOT hot!)
1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
3 to 3-1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt

(quantities for each are for one recipe of dough)

For Focaccia (brush with extra virgin olive oil, then add:)
coarse salt & cracked pepper
oregano or rosemary (crumbled)

Spinach Pizza (combine all & spread on dough)
2 cloves garlic, minced & sauteed in oil
1 small onion, diced & sauteed in oil
1 (10 oz.) pkg. chopped spinach, defrosted & squeezed dry
1/2 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 lb. Asiago cheese, grated

Sal’s Special Sicilian Pizza
chunks of Romano cheese (press into dough)
tomato sauce
grated Romano cheese

White Pizza (combine all & spread on dough)
1 lb. ricotta
1/4 lb. Grana Padano or Romano cheese, grated
1/4 lb. Asiago cheese, grated
1 small clove garlic, minced or grated

Traditional Pizza
olive oil
tomato sauce
1 lb. mozzarella, grated
Romano or Parmigiano cheese, grated

To make dough, dissolve yeast in warm water in the mixer bowl. Add oil, 3 cups of the flour and the salt (add last so as not to kill the yeast). Using the dough hook, knead until a soft dough forms that cleans the sides of the bowl. If necessary, add some of the additional flour or a few tablespoons of extra water. Knead the dough for at least 3 to 5 minutes to develop the gluten. (Alternatively, stir the ingredients together with a wooden spoon until mostly combined, then dump out onto a floured cutting board or table. Knead by hand for 5 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Return dough to bowl.) Cover the bowl with foil and set in a warm, not hot, place to rise for about an hour, or until dough has doubled in size. (You can either set your oven on very low heat for a minute or two, then turn it off and let dough rise within the closed oven, or just put the bowl on your counter somewhere away from drafts and cover with a couple of thick towels to retain the dough's own heat. Just make sure the dough has approximately doubled before continuing, even if it takes longer than an hour.) Punch dough down and allow it to rise again for about 45 minutes. 

Preheat a pizza stone or unglazed lead-free quarry tiles at 450° for about 15 minutes. Form the pizza or focaccia (about 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick or as thick as you like it) on a pizza peel or wood cutting board, using plenty of flour beneath the dough. Add whatever toppings you like and quickly slide it onto the tiles. Bake about 10 minutes (depending on how thick you made it) until the edges are nicely browned. To BBQ, set the naked dough on the grill; cook covered at lowest heat for 3 to 5 minutes (watch for bottom burning!), turn, add toppings and cook second side until lightly brown.

Notes & Pointers:
When assembling the pizza, don’t use warm toppings…they will soften the dough and make it impossible to slide it off the peel! Or, if you’re not feeling brave, build the pizza on non-stick foil and slide the whole thing into the oven. The pizza will easily release from the foil once it is cooked. 

Don't be intimidated by the prospect of making your own dough--it is really quite forgiving. The only thing you can do really wrong is kill the yeast. Other than that, you can pretty much do anything. Not enough time? Let the dough rise only once. Your guests are late for dinner? Let the dough rise three or even four times, just punch it down every hour or so. Snowstorm cancelled dinner? Pop the well wrapped dough in the freezer and use it within a few months. Unwrap and defrost in the fridge in a covered bowl, then bring it up to room temp and continue where you left off. Even if you do manage to kill the yeast and the dough doesn't rise at all, just dissolve some fresh yeast in a little warm water and knead it into the dough, adding a bit of extra flour to make up for the extra water. It'll still be great--I know, I've done it!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Use Up Those Leftovers!

I am frequently faced with conflicting ideals in my kitchen....while I really like to practice frugal living, I also like to cook and serve healthy foods to my family. Part of what frugal living means to me is not wasting food or other resources. If a recipe uses only a portion of something I've bought, I am usually pretty good at coming up with some way to use the remainder before it spoils. This has led to some memorable (not always in a good way!) dishes. Fortunately, this habit has also led to some awesome recipes that I either found or created. One that comes to mind is a dish (it's so simple that it can hardly even be called a recipe!) that I fashioned one summer day to use up leftover antipasto ingredients--Italian cold cuts and cheeses--that weren't enough for a meal. I just cooked up some pasta, julienned the meats and cheeses, whipped up a light lemon vinaigrette to dress it all with, tore some basil over just before serving, and voila! Dinner!

In that same vein, it irks me to throw away the perfectly good egg yolks that are left over after making the delicious Almond Macaroons of my last post, so, although they are certainly not the healthiest cookies I make, I did find a "companion" cookie recipe. As Christmas cookies are a once a year treat in our house, I don't feel TOO guilty about serving them. And they ended up being one of my husband's favorites. 

Hand Grenade Cookies
Makes about 30 cookies
Oven Temperature: 350°

2 sticks butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. almond extract
8 egg yolks
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
slivered almonds for garnish

Cream butter with salt and sugar. Add remaining ingredients except almonds. Roll 1” balls of dough and placed on ungreased cookie sheets. Stick slivered almond into top for hand grenade effect. Bake at 350° for 10 to 15 minutes until lightly browned. This dough can also be rolled out and cut with cookie cutters. Bake thin cutouts for 6 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned.

Notes & Pointers:
About the name.....they were originally called, I believe, "Egg Yolk Cookies" or something like that. I stuck the almond sliver into the tops of the cookies just to dress them up a little for Christmas (I probably had them leftover from something else...), but they quickly got the reputation of “exploding” if you don’t eat the cookie fast enough after removing the nut! (I don’t know why!) However, I have never personally witnessed this. Ever since, they have been known as "Hand Grenade Cookies."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

No, Really....THESE Cookies AREN'T That Bad for You!!!!

In a world filled with buttery, eggy, fattening cookies, these are actually pretty healthy. They are a four ingredient wonder: almonds, egg whites, sugar, and almond flavoring. Who knew so few ingredients could yield such yummyness? And they have the added bonus of being gluten free if you or a friend or family member is sensitive. The secret to these is to just barely cook them...they should be lightly browned but still soft in the center. Normally cookies so soft would be impossible to get off the cookie sheet, but this recipe calls for them to be baked on aluminum foil. Additionally, I came up with the idea of freezing them while still attached to the foil, to make it even easier to peel the foil off the cookie (without leaving that delicious center behind). In my next post I'll tell you what to do with the leftover egg yolks (a decidedly UNHEALTHY cookie, but also delicious). It's all about balance... 

Almond Macaroons

Makes about 100 cookies
Oven Temperature: 375°

36 oz. whole almonds (by weight) or 6-3/4 cups (by volume)
3 cups sugar
8 tsp. almond extract
8 egg whites

Process 1/3 of the almonds with 1/3 of the sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Pour into mixer bowl. Repeat with remaining almonds and sugar. Blend in remaining ingredients with flat beater. Drop teaspoons of dough (or use a tiny ice cream scoop) onto ungreased, aluminum foil lined cookie sheets. Bake at 375° for 10 minutes until lightly browned, but still soft in center. Slide foil off cookie sheets and onto tray. Place tray into freezer and allow cookies to cool completely on foil (at least an hour). When completely cold, peel foil carefully off bottom of cookies. If cookies still break up, return foil to freezer until cookies are frozen solid and try again. Store in an airtight container.

Notes & Pointers:
These cookies couldn’t be simpler to make. Just be sure not to overcook them (they should still be soft in the center) and make sure they’re absolutely cold before peeling the foil off the cookies. If you want to freeze the leftover yolks, add one tablespoon of sugar to the 8 yolks, stirring gently to combine. Freeze in a tightly sealed and labeled container. Just remember when using them in a sweet recipe to reduce the amount of sugar by one tablespoon. If you are going to use them in a savory recipe rather than a dessert recipe, add 1 teaspoon of salt instead and remember to reduce the salt in the recipe when using them. Defrost the yolks in the fridge and use as soon as they defrost. Generally when I make these Almond Macaroons, I make the "companion cookie" (Hand Grenade Cookies) the same day. Neither cookie is very labor intensive and that way I get two Christmas cookies done at the same time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas Cookies as Health Food?

Some years ago, after gifting plates of Christmas cookies to my coworkers, one of them asked me for a recipe, which I typed up and gave to her the next day. She came back to my desk later and incredulously asked, "Do you know that this recipe has the same amount of butter as flour?" indicating that she would NEVER eat something so unhealthy (after, of course, finishing the plate of cookies). In fact the recipe has less than half as much butter as flour, but the larger point is that I wouldn't EXPECT Christmas cookies to be health food....they are a once a year indulgence and should be enjoyed as such. As a general rule, I try to cook and consume healthy, well-balanced, nutritious meals on a daily basis, however, as someone who really enjoys eating, I need to balance the healthy stuff with an occasional splurge. Allowing myself a piece or two of chocolate on the weekend enables me to stick to my diet the rest of the week. Tomorrow is time enough to resume your normal, hopefully healthy diet! Have some cookies (but only a couple)!

Shortbread Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 150 small sandwiches
Oven Temperature: 350° or 375° depending on thickness

3-1⁄2 sticks butter (that equals 1-3/4 cups butter, if you are keeping track!)
3⁄4 cup powdered sugar
1 egg
3-3⁄4 cups all purpose flour (17 oz. by weight)
seedless red raspberry preserves
semisweet chocolate chips, melted

Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and flour and beat just until blended. Divide dough into quarters, and roll each quarter out between 2 sheets of plastic wrap to desired thickness (approximately 1⁄4”). Slide cookie dough (still in plastic wrap) onto tray and refrigerate one hour or until solid. When dough is chilled, take out one portion, remove plastic and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Repeat with remaining portions of dough. Take all scraps from around cookies and put them between two sheets of plastic wrap and roll out, refrigerate until solid again and cut out. Repeat until all dough has been used up. Bake 1⁄4” thick cookies at 375° for 10 to 12 minutes, thinner cookies for less time at 350° until lightly browned. When cool, sandwich pairs of cookies, bottom sides together, with seedless raspberry preserves, then dip one end in melted semisweet chocolate. Place on waxed or parchment paper and refrigerate to set chocolate. Store in airtight containers with waxed or parchment paper between the layers. These freeze well as long as they are tightly wrapped.

Notes & Pointers:
Cookie recipes always seem to direct you to chill the dough, then roll it out. Once the dough is cold it’s impossible to flatten it out. The way I do it, rolling out the soft dough between sheets of plastic wrap is simple and you really don’t need to add any flour, which means the re-rolled scraps of dough won’t get tough. Try it…it works!