Category Archives: Food

I Hope Joanne Chang is Reading This

We threw a birthday party for Heather’s mom on Sunday, which meant we needed cake. Being who we are, we made a practice cake a few weeks ago. We went right to Flour, the cookbook from Joanne Chang’s Flour Bakery in Boston. We chose the Midnight Chocolate Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting. It’s not an ultra-dense death-by-chocolate style, but it’s still got a rich chocolatey flavor and a nice tight crumb. The author describes it as “the simplest way I know how to make a cake.” I can assure you it’s not very simple, but if you read the instructions twice before starting, it’ll come out fine. It turned out we didn’t need the practice cake, but saying “practice” definitely has a nice ring to it as an excuse to have dessert for breakfast all week.

Don't they look delicious?

Mr. Bookdwarf did think the milk chocolate frosting in our first edition wasn’t chocolatey enough, so when we made it the second time, we used dark chocolate. I thought it was great both times, but he’s the chocolate fiend, so I let him call it on that one.

Both times, we wound up with about twice as much buttercream frosting as we needed. Fortunately, a friend came up with an amazing, and possibly dangerous idea: Use the frosting to take another Chang specialty over the top.

Yes, we did it.

We made dark chocolate buttercream sandwiches with brown-butter vanilla Rice Krispies treats.

They are delicious.

Joanne, if you’re reading this, we suggest that they go on the regular cafe menu.

Sunday’s Supper

I made a pretty great meal last night and thought I would tell y’all about it here. It’s finally spring here in New England and the farmers markets have mostly all started up again. I love going to the one in Union Square on Saturday mornings. There’s the hustle and bustle of vendors mixing with people, saying hello after the winter break. This year, along with some other new vendors, Jordan Brothers Seafood started selling their fresh fish. I’ll tell you something I don’t admit often, I’ve never been a big seafood fan. I’m starting to like it a lot, but I still don’t have a lot of experience cooking it. No time like the present, I thought, as I bought a pound of fresh scallops.

What to do with them though? At first, I thought of making Angels on Horseback–that’s basically wrapping bacon around them and pan frying–but decided to do something a bit different. I remember eating a dish at The Mermaid Inn in NYC a few years back. It was a memorable dinner, not least because I literally ran into Keanu Reeves there. I had an entree of scallops on top of linguine with a spicy sauce. After a little research, I learned that it’s called Pasta fra Diavolo and was pretty simple to make. I even cheated a little by using some jarred tomato sauce, sacrilege maybe, but I was also making a complicated salad and focaccia from scratch.

For the pasta, I sautéed an onion, added a few cloves of minced garlic, then some red pepper flakes for a bit of kick and fresh oregano from my porch. When the onions were nice and translucent, I added about 1 1/2 TBSPs of tomato paste and 1 1/2 cups of the jarred sauce. I tossed in a bay leaf, also from my front porch, mostly because the bay leaf bush is getting out of control and I need to use it more! Meanwhile, I had a pot of salted water boiling to which I added the pasta. I used gemelli pasta though linguine seems more traditional with this dish. In a separate pan, I heated up a pan, added some olive oil, and then the scallops once the oil heated up to almost smoking. I’ve read that it’s really important to make sure they’re dry before cooking and to not crowd them in the pan. Scallops cook very quickly, about 2 minutes per side. Once nicely browned, I added them to the simmering sauce I had made. With the pasta cooked, I drained it and served it in bowls topped with the sauce and scallops.

For the salad, I wanted to recreate one I had eaten at Posto, a Neapolitan style pizza place in Davis Square. It was green beans, watercress, olives, and feta with a vinaigrette. I’ve tried to make it before with a little success. I think I hit it last night though as I’m realizing it’s all in the choice of olives. I blanched some green beans in water and shocked them in an ice bath. I’ve got a whole bin full of young salad growing on my porch, so I harvested some of those in place of the watercress. I used a French feta and French green olives. For the vinaigrette, I pulled some of my thyme, added some dijon mustard, s&p, olive oil and champagne vinegar.
Salad with Green beans, olives, and honey thyme vinaigrette

The focaccia was an attempt to make Jim Lahey’s no knead version using my bread starter whom I call Pierre. I substituted Pierre for some of the water and let it rise all day. I think it needed more time and a bit more water as it didn’t rise that much. I baked it in a cast iron skillet which produced a really nice crust, but the texture was too dense, sort of brick-like, a tasty brick of course.

We served the whole thing with a bottle of French ros&e. All in all, I thought the dinner turned out fantastically. Mr. Bookdwarf cleaned his plate as well!

Sunday Dinner

My New Pet

What did I get for Christmas this year from my lovely sister? It’s alive and I have to feed it. No, not a dog–bread starter from King Arthur Flour. It shows up like this:

Sourdough Starter

You have to feed it regularly and if you do that, you can make bread whenever you want. I’ve already tried it with mixed success. Making bread requires planning which I didn’t do. My dough sat for too long and the sour flavor really had too much time to develop. You can see photos of the process here. I baked my first loaf last night. It won’t win any beauty contests nor taste contests, but hey, I tried! I think it will take experimenting and lots of practice, which I’m eager to do. I’ll try again this weekend and post the results.

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My First Attempt at Bread

Follow up on Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

Just so you don’t blame the cookbook, I wanted to let you know, dear reader, that the cookies I made from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers were fantastic. While Mr. Bookdwarf worked on making the gnocchi, I made Walnut Black Pepper Cookies which Jessica Theroux made with Carluccia in Zambrone, Calabria.

It’s a very simple cookie recipe with no leavening agent added. You cream butter and sugar. Add some flour, crushed walnuts, honey, a bit of sugar and black pepper. This is from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s it. They used walnuts picked from Carluccia’s trees and peppercorns foraged from the Calabria’s wild coastlines. I also assume they used local honey. I don’t have walnut trees or Calabrian coastline nearby. I used what I had at hand. My walnuts were a  little stale and I didn’t add quite enough black pepper. But you know what? They were damn good. I ate the last one last night and they hold up for days. You know how you make cookies sometimes and they only really taste good for that one day? These were good for many days.

Even though I want to cook pretty much every recipe in Cooking with Italian Grandmothers at this point, I’m going to make them again, perhaps tonight even.

Sunday Dinner, also a Review of Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

On Friday I brought home a new cookbook called Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. It entranced me from the get-go.

Author Jessica Theroux spent more than a year doing exactly what the title suggests: Traveling around Italy cooking with grandmothers, the keepers of traditions and culture. It might sound like a gimmick, but it was a serious quest. In the introduction, Theroux explains some of her motivation to spend time in kitchens to learn the more rustic styles of Italian cooking:

Good cooking, the kind that feeds the soul and nourishes the body, is the result of listening openly and acting simply. All of the women in this book taught me something about the power of food to connect us; to ourselves, our history, our land, our culture, to our past and present moment.

I spent most of Saturday sitting on my porch in the sun reading this book, cover to cover.

Each chapter focuses on one of the grandmothers as Theroux introduces them and what she learned. She makes it to different regions of Italy and cooks several recipes specific to the region. Most of the women seem to cook by memory. Some forage and make something delicious out of whatever they find. Some prepare specific recipes. Old and young, they put a lot of thought, care, and energy into their food; it really shows as Theroux absorbs their lessons. The book includes lots of wonderful color photography of where she stays and of the food of course.

We decided to try our hand at the Gnocci con Ragu (Potato Gnocci with Tomato Beef Ragu). We’ve been making pasta for months, but this turned out to be more difficult than we thought!

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Forming Gnocchi

Our first crucial mistake was in undercooking the potatoes. They seemed all the way done, but when we tried to mash them for the dough, the centers were still a little firm. The recipe says to run them through a ricer or mesh strainer, but our strainer was too flimsy for the firm potatoes. So we grated them, which gave us a mixture that was both lumpy and glutinous at the same time. The flavor was good, but the texture made shaping them difficult. Cooked, they were soft like proper gnocchi, but they didn’t have the toothiness that we wanted.

We tossed the gnocchi into the ragu

Gnocchi in Sauce

The second mistake was with the sauce. It was a very simple recipe: Onions, beef, tomato paste, water, and precious little else. But the onions and beef didn’t brown up like we wanted. And when we added water, we put it all in at once, and it turned out to be more than we needed. Even after two hours simmering it was still too watery and it seemed underflavored.

That’s not to say that our dish was bad – I mean, we still ate two portions each. But before we serve it to friends we’ll have to practice a little more.

You can look up videos of Italian grandmothers making these recipes and they make it look incredibly easy, the same way Olympic athletes make their performances seem simple. But that ease is honed with decades of practice, and I guess we couldn’t expect to get it just right the first time.

Food Adventures in Watertown, MA

Unlike the Arax Market across the street, or Sessa’s in Davis Square, La Romagnoli and Son is not packed wall-to-wall with foodstuffs. Instead, there’s a carefully curated selection of only the best meats and cheeses, and a small refrigerator and freezer stocked with a couple of outstanding sauces.

And crucially, unlike any of the competitors, including Dave’s Fresh Pasta and Capone’s in Somerville and Cambridge, La Romagnoli & Son have a full kitchen, right in view. Not just panini, but pastas, fritattas and more are available, cooked to order, by the owner.

When we came in on Saturday afternoon, signora Romagnoli was patiently and carefully explaining a recipe to a sous-chef, in between taking and filling our orders. The special pasta that day was a carbonara. It was incredible, heavy on the cracked pepper and shot through with bacony smoke from the pancetta. Mr. Bookdwarf ordered an eggplant parm sandwich. He’s a fan of a greasy, sauce-heavy, spicy eggplant parm, but wanted to see what Romagnoli would do with it. She made it as he probably should have guessed she would. It was a reminder of what eggplant parmigiana ought to be: Flavorful bread instead of fluffy nonsense, excellent mozzarella instead of low-moisture part-skim commodity cheese, and exactly enough home-made sauce to dress the eggplant without hiding the flavor of the vegetable itself.

While we were eating, a crotchety old couple came in, asked a million questions, rejected suggestions of soup (“I don’t like beans”) and sandwiches (“I’m not a bread person”) and flavorings (“What’s pancetta meat?”). Signora Romagnoli handled them with aplomb, went off-menu, and brought them a dish that they seemed delighted to have. It looked pretty good to me, too, but by that point I’d already stuffed myself with carbonara and Mr. Bookdwarf was grabbing mints from the dish by the door and heading to Arax for Armenian string cheese and baklava.

We’ll be back.

Our Dorie Greenspan Cookbook Dinner Party

We started it last year with Frank Stitts’s Bottega Favorita cookbook: everyone prepare a dish or two from the same cookbook and we have a dinner party to see how the recipes work out. We’ve had many successful parties in this manner. Last Sunday was no different. A the resident cookbook junky, I chose Dorie Greenspan’s new cookbook Around My French Table since I’m such a huge fan of her book Baking: From My Home to Yours and of her blog.

One of reasons why I enjoy her cookbooks so much is that each recipe starts off with a lot of text either explaining the genesis of the recipe or a funny anecdote or something. As someone sits and reads a cookbook cover to cover, I love it. This book is not strictly French food either. It’s recipes you can imagine people making in their homes with all of the influence of various ethnic cuisines melded together. I chose to make the Chicken in a Pot (featured on the cover) which used preserved lemons and an Olive Fougasse. More detailed photos of the various foods made are here. At some point hunger won out and we sat down to eat before I could take more pictures.

I’ve been playing with new camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is so awesome but I have no idea how to use it. Taking pictures of food is hard! The color and texture don’t often translate. Plus I have no special lights and it’s getting darker earlier, so natural lighting is scarce. Here are two photos I took of the baked Olive Fougasse:

The first one was taken with the bread in front of the window with the sun shining on it.

Here's a photo taken with the sun behind me. It gives a better sense on how brown and rich the bread became.

In the second picture, the sun is behind me. Very different, no?

The recipes were so simple to make and utterly delicious. We had kir and gougeres to start, some cheese and crackers from Formaggio Kitchen and the Olive Fougasse. For the main course, we at the Chicken in a Pot, Delicatta squash with Apple and Grapes, Spice Butter Glazed Carrots, and Potatoes Au Gratin. We finished with a fantastic Apple Cake recipe with Cinnamon ice cream from Christina’s.

Like I said, check out the pictures here. There are dozens of recipes I want to try making from Around My French Table. I can’t wait.

Making Cavatelli using The Geometry of Pasta

I’m still working on the great pasta experiment. My schedule has been pretty tough the last few weeks. Turns out I have a rotator cuff impingement that requires physical therapy and I’ve been trying acupuncture to help as well. On top of that, I’m buying the Winter publishing lists. It makes for a busy schedule!

Mr. Bookdwarf and I went to the MFA on Saturday to see the Richard Avedon Fashion exhibit. Being the nerd that I am, I insisted we walk through the book store—it’s one of the best in Boston. Art books, yes, they have lots of those, but they also have a great cookbook selection as well. I ended up buying a copy of The Geometry of Pasta by Jacob Kennedy  and Caz Hildebrand as its black and white graphics intrigued me so much. Plus it has actual instructions on how to make various shapes. The concept: pairing pasta shapes with the perfect sauce. It’s alphabetical and each shape gets a lovely black and white graphic representation along with a recipe or two. I like the concept, though the instructions could use some illustration. I decided to give cavatelli a whirl.

Cavatelli are a tubular, rolled pasta. The length can vary depending on what sauce you make to go with it. I opted for ones about one inch in length. Kennedy suggests a dough with nothing but semolina and water. Neat! I used his formula, which was 1 cup plus 3 TBSP of semolina and 1/3 cup of water. I ended up needing a bit more water to get the dough to stick together, about 1 TBSP more. I kneaded it in my large ceramic bowl for about 5 minutes after the flour and water came together before letting it rest for at least a half an hour wrapped in plastic.

On to making the cavatelli! I didn’t need much besides work space, a pastry cutter, a pan for the shaped pasta, and some semolina for dusting.

Getting everything prepped

First you cut the dough into four pieces. Then you cut your first piece into four smaller pieces. Then you roll them out into snakes, at least that’s how I remember doing it with playdoh.
Rolling out the dough

Then cut each snake into pieces about an inch long. You can make the cavatelli shorter or longer if you like.

Cutting the rolled out lengths

Take your pastry cutter and scrape the piece of pasta dough toward you. It will smoosh and then curl back on itself.

Cut the rolled out lengths into inch size pieces

Here’s an image that explains it better:

You scrape the pasta piece across the board. It curls up on itself and voila!

At first you wonder what the hell you’ve done wrong, but they’re supposed to look like weird tubes I promise. Once you’ve done the first few, the rest go pretty quickly.

A cavatelli!

For the sauce, I Mcgyvered Kennedy’s accompanying recipe for Tomato with arugula and white beans. I had some heirloom tomatoes, the arugula, but also some sweet Italian sausage. And wine. Always wine.

The basic sauce ingredients: tomatoes, arugula, garlic, white wine

First, I sautéd the sausage and took it out of the pan. Next, I added some olive oil, then the garlic, and finally the tomatoes & white wine after a minute or so. The sauce was really chunky since I used large heirloom tomatoes. Mr. Bookdwarf came up with the brilliant idea of using the immersion blender to make a smooth sauce. Brilliant! It’s a lovely shade of orange. I added in the beans, the arugula, and the sausage and let it cook down a bit.

Letting the sauce cook down

At this time, you should start cooking the pasta. You have to let the formed cavatelli dry a bit before cooking. That way the inside and outside will be done at the same time. Boil a huge pot of salted water, toss in the pasta, and wait. They took about 5 minutes since the pasta is very dense. I saved a bit of the pasta water and added 1 TBSP to the sauce before spooning portions in bowls.

Cooked cavatelli

I topped it with the sauce and of course a sprinkle of parmesan. Doesn’t it look delicious?

The final dish

As always, I play the game of what would I have done differently. I wouldn’t change much here. The pasta was perfect and much easier then I was expecting. The sauce could have used more thickening. If you want to see more pictures of the process, you can see the photo set here. I’m looking forward to working out of The Geometry of Pasta again–I really want to make strozzapretti which translates as Priest Stranglers–but I want it to have more directions for the pasta shaping. It’s still a great resource to have at hand. On to more shapes!

More Pasta Adventures

How do the old Italian grannies know how to do this kind of stuff? There’s no special trick to it, just years and years of practice. They say that in some small towns, mothers would judge a potential daughter-in-law based on whether she had a good callus on her thumb. Work with pasta that long, you’re bound to get better at it. But there’s a lot of trial and a lot of errors.

For example.

This was our second attempt at trenette, the Genoese pasta traditionally served with potatoes, green beans, and pesto. Based on Giuliano Bugiali’s instructions, we’d adjusted our dough to include a mix of whole wheat and 00 white flours, rolled it thinner than last time, and gotten a crinkled roller to cut just one side of each noodle. We also decreased the amount of garlic in our pesto, which we made with basil from our porch.

It was hot and humid in our kitchen, so even sprinkled liberally with semolina, the ultra-thin noodles stuck together when piled in little nests. We hung them to rest on wire coat hangers instead, which worked pretty well. We cut up potatoes and green beans from our farm share, and boiled an enormous pot of salted water. The potatoes took about six minutes to cook. The green beans took about two minutes. We figured the pasta would take one or two.

Being that thin and that fresh, they took about thirty seconds to cook. And removing each strand of pasta off a coat hanger and putting it into the water took more than a minute. In other words, after an entire afternoon of cooking, we had mushy pasta.

Delicious, perfectly-sauced, mushy pasta.

Another thirty or sixty years of practice and we’ll wonder how anyone could find this difficult.

More Pasta Making Adventures

 Trenette Genovese

Trenette Genovese

I’m on a quest to make all of the different types of pasta that I can at home. Coincidentally one of my favorite summer dishes is Trenette Genovese that I discovered in Mario’s Molto Italiano a few years back; it’s a Ligurian dish of pasta, pesto, potatoes, and green beans. Already having made some pesto earlier in the week, I had at hand some small potatoes from my farm share and thought I had some snap peas from the farmers market to subsitute for the green beans. Turns out they were shelling peas! Oh well, I used them anyway with good results. I ended up with the alliterative dish of Pasta with Pesto, Peas, and Potatoes.

I’m discovering that there is not a lot of information on how to make various types of pasta. Pasta dough recipes flourish, but instructions on making the shapes are elusive. Trenette is a narrow flat pasta similar to linguine. I decided to try my hand at hand cut noodles. After making the dough by hand and letting it rest, I used the Kitchen Aid attachment to roll out the dough to pretty thin sheets. I dusted them generously with semolina and folded them loosely before cutting into strips with my largest knife. The trick was not letting the humid kitchen make the dough stick together.

Then it was a simple matter of boiling the water and throwing in the potatoes first. I decided it would be simpler to boil everything together. I waited until the potatoes were close to done, threw in the pasta for a minute or two and added the peas, which just needed a minute themselves. Drained it all and added pesto and of course some parmesan on top. The picture above is of the finished dish. It was delicious last night and tasted great served cold for my lunch today!