Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Postpartum Christmas

Long time no post! I know, I know! As you might have guessed by now, the little man with an apron was born. He came home Christmas morning, and is happy, healthy, and HUNGRY!

We opened Christmas presents after we got home from the hospital, but not surprisingly the presents were pretty underwhelming compared to coming home with our baby. Parenthood is kind of like becoming a vampire. I spend a lot of time awake in the night; I'm aware that a very familiar part of my life is now over; but I know that this new state of being has given me some super powers. I am far more efficient now. I was never one for sitting around or not keeping busy before, but now I'm a whirlwind of errand-running, chore completing, home appliance repairing, and diaper changing.

In terms of my foodie life, I continue to need to eat, and I continue to insist on eating good things. So, while I haven't had a chance to bake any more bread, I have made about 5 gallons of sauce, roasted a turkey for (a day late) Christmas dinner, and churned out a steady supply of soup for the Mrs. and my Grandma, who, with 8 siblings and 2 children of her own, has plenty of experience and energy to help us get situated.

I got some pretty cool food related presents, among them a pizza stone, 8" and 6" cast iron skillets, a pasta maker, and two cookbooks, Momofuku and Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game. I'm really pumped try out some Momofuku dishes, and I'll be sure to share pictures and recipes when I do. Admittedly, a book about butchering will cover a lot of things that don't come up for me. For instance, I will likely not slaughter any cattle in my suburban apartment. But I wanted the book to learn about how meat is prepared. Plus there is a recipe for venison pate in there that I'm looking forward to trying.

Last, I have a recipe to share. It's an eggplant parmesan that I've become locally famous for. And by "locally famous" I mean by my friends and family. I like it because if you ever have to deal with vegetarians and omnivores at the same dinner table, this is something that you can serve to everyone without complaint.

As a general rule, I don't like eggplant parm. I find it starchy, difficult to digest, and not particularly tasty whenever I've had it. But this is different. The recipe is my own concoction, developed in an effort to impress my then girlfriend, now wife. She used to be a vegetarian, and suggested that I make eggplant parm. Rather than saying that I didn't like it and didn't know how to make it, I went and did it. It turned out better than anyone else's that I've had.

I say this is my recipe, but it is not as though the ingredients are non-traditional in any way. I think it is the approach to the eggplant that makes it really good.

Before you start though, just a note about the sauce. While I usually make homemade sauce for my eggplant parm, for the most part you can get away with a decent jar sauce. If you do choose to make your own, you'll want to make it a consistency that is similar to store bought. Don't make your sauce too watery, and don't make it too chunky, otherwise the sauce somewhat distracts from the eggplant/cheese interaction. In a bowl of spaghetti, the sauce is the star, but in a plate of eggplant parm, the sauce is a supporting character, and the eggplant and cheese are the stars.

Family-style Eggplant Parmesan

1 large eggplant
About 2-3 quarts of spaghetti sauce
olive oil
canola oil
2 cups of breadcrumbs
3 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 cup of Parmesan cheese
1 lb. mozzarella cheese


Skin the eggplant and slice the eggplant longways as thinly as possible. I can't stress how important it is that the eggplant be sliced very thin. That's what makes my eggplant good. In a large bowl, mix the eggs and milk and whisk. Coat the eggplant slices in the egg wash and then coat the eggplant in breadcrumbs by tossing each slice individually in a large bowl of breadcrumbs. You might also add some dried basil and oregano to the breadcrumbs. Be sure to give each eggplant slice individual attention by coating with egg wash, then immediately coating with breadcrumbs. I usually bread the eggplant as space becomes available in the pan, rather than all at once.

Heat a large skillet (or two) on medium heat, add one part olive oil, one part canola oil. Use enough oil to moisten each eggplant slice, but not so much that you're deep frying the eggplant. Be aware that eggplant absorbs liquids, so the eggplant will suck up the oil. This softens the eggplant up, but be careful not to keep too much oil in the pan at once. You'll probably have to add more oil for every five eggplant slices.

Fry eggplant in skillet until golden brown, taking care not to burn the breadcrumbs. While frying the eggplant, preheat the oven for 300 degrees. Put cooked eggplant slices in a large casserole, laying them out in a layer on the bottom of the pan. When the bottom of the pan is covered in a whole layer of eggplant, cover the eggplant with sauce, then cover the sauce with some of the Parmesan cheese, then apply sliced mozzarella cheese on top. Add another layer of eggplant slices on top and repeat until you either run out of eggplant or space in your casserole. When completely assembled, cover in foil and put it in the oven for about 20-30 minutes, long enough to melt all of mozzarella cheese. Serve.

The important thing about the treatment of the eggplant is that you want to really break the eggplant down. You slice it thin, fry it thoroughly, then bake it. By the time you eat the eggplant, you get the flavor of the eggplant, without any of the starchy-ness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lost in the Sauce

Here in New Jersey, Italian-American culture is somewhat ubiquitous. Growing up, I didn't know that most people aren't Italian-American. I just figured I was one of a small minority of non-Italians in the whole country. I never really came to terms with how different that is with the rest of the country until I tried to make Eggplant Parmesan in Texas. Finding Mozzarella cheese was a major ordeal. And, the meal was well-received, but thought to be somewhat exotic. Italian food, exotic? It was an eye-opening experience and made me a little sad to find out that people have been deprived of mozzarella cheese for so long. Then again, it comes right back around because the only place I know of to get really great Mexican food outside of Texas is in Mexico. I'm sure California and Arizona and New Mexico do fine too. Makes me think that there should be some sort of system whereby we send some Italian restaurants down there, and we get some Mexican ones in return.

This past week with me being busy for finals, and the Mrs. patiently waiting for the little man to arrive, I put together a lot of comfort food type dishes. Nothing fancy, but the kind of food that keeps you full and warm. One of my favorites is Lasagna. But we also had a really outstanding Spaghetti and Meatball night recently. On Meatball night, I baked some of the fresh homemade bread dough that I had living in my fridge.

The good news about my bread was that it was beautiful and delicious. The outside had that incredible crunch-crackle sound that only good bread can produce. The bad news is that I still haven't mastered getting it to be as light as a real loaf of french bread. Still beats the store bought stuff though.

So, with all of that said, I wanted to share with you a little bit of New Jersey's home cooking. I saw that the Amateur Gourmet recently gave a recipe for Sunday Gravy, a meaty version of your basic marinara sauce. It goes by a lot of names, but for simplification sake, I generally refer to it as spaghetti sauce (which is made of but not synonymous with tomato sauce). Some people call it gravy. Some people call it Ragu, or Marinara. You can call it whatever you want, but I usually either say red sauce or spaghetti sauce. Or, as my Grandpa used to say, "sketty sauce".

Anyway, Amateur Gourmet just gave you a pretty good sauce recipe, so I'm not going to do that. I wanted to do something a little different. The fact is, you don't really need a recipe for spaghetti sauce. I don't think I've ever actually measured anything while making red sauce. My recipe often consists of whatever I find in my closet and fridge. Sometimes I put wine in it, if I have some open red wine. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I've got lots of peppers but not enough onions, other times, its the other way around. Either way I'm eating red sauce, and either way I'm putting in whatever I have. Sure I'd prefer to have this or that every time, but red sauce isn't the sort of the thing that I tend to plan out ahead of time. It's just something I throw together on a Sunday afternoon.

Instead of a recipe, I'm going to go over some basic principles that you should know about making the sauce. These are either common pitfalls, or little tricks that I've learned, or suggestions to make the sauce better. Much of it is common sense, but if you think I've missed anything, that's what comments are for.

1) The better your ingredients, the better your sauce.

Ok, this might be fairly obvious and truly does apply to all cooking, not just sauce. I bring it up though to remind you to try to strike the right balance between quality and price. Don't just buy a jar of pre-minced garlic, some dried out basil, and expect to have a noteworthy red sauce. You won't. But, on the other hand, we could blow $50 on red sauce ingredients if you got the best tomatoes in the store and had everything fresh and perfect. I don't think you want to do that either. You don't need organic shallots in your red sauce. Onions are just fine.

2) Don't use a cooking wine that you wouldn't drink yourself.

If you have "cooking wine" from the supermarket in your house right now, I want you to open up the bottle, and pour yourself a nice big glass of it. Have a sip. Disgusting, yeah? Why would you put that in your food if you can't stand the taste of it? I guess we're back to balancing quality ingredients, but this just had to be pointed out. Buy a bottle of red wine that is less than $10, and use that.

3) Treat your garlic the way you want to be treated.

Ever see the movie Goodfellas? There are a couple of lessons to learn about making sauce from that movie. First. Do you see those guys with a jar of pre-minced garlic? Hell no. They have fresh garlic, and they chop it really thin with a razor blade. They take pride in their garlic. They treat their garlic the way that they hope the garlic will treat them: with kindness and respect. You don't have to use a razor blade to chop your garlic, but chop it fine and with love. The Second sauce lesson from Goodfellas is my number 4 on this list.

Another pearl of garlic wisdom is that, like many ingredients in the sauce, they change character the longer they are cooked. Garlic is typically sauteed first as one of the first few steps of making a sauce. I do that too. But, I also chop up a little more garlic after the sauce has been cooking for a while. This garlic has more bite to it. The original garlic that you've added becomes a part of the character of the sauce, and has almost a smokiness to it. The second batch of garlic bites a little bit more and says, "Hi!, There's garlic in this!" You want to give it time to cook, so it won't be like eating raw garlic, but the second batch of garlic is just a little more awake than its long simmering brethren. Of course, if you don't care for garlic, don't bother with the second batch.

4) Stir-it, then Stir-it. Then Stir-it more.

The second Goodfellas sauce lesson is from the scene where Henry is being followed by the helicopter, making a drug run, and worrying about the sauce getting stirred. A good red sauce takes time. It would be a shame to put all that time in your sauce only to get a burnt flavor permeating the whole thing just because you didn't stir it. So, no joke. Stir the sauce. Otherwise, you'll be sorry.

When I start my sauce, I have all of my vegetables ready for sauteing. Prep comes first so that I am free to stir and stir and stir my veggies without risk of burning them.

5) Add your herbs and spices last.

There is a temptation to throw in all of your tomatoes and onions and garlic, then add basil, oregano, and whatever other herbs you plan on using. But save the best for last. Remember I said that garlic changes its character after cooking for a very long time? Well, so do herbs and seasonings. The flavor tends to die out after being cooked for very long. It's the difference between a raw chili pepper and a slow roasted one. Basil and Oregano are no different. If you cook them all day, their flavor will be significantly diminished. This seems to be more true of fresh herbs too. Dried herbs first seem to re-constitute, then eventually diminish too, but their sweet spot is a bit later than the fresh stuff.

6) Tomato Sauce vs. Tomato Paste vs. Crushed Tomatoes vs. Fresh Tomatoes

Always add fresh tomatoes if you can, but you can't, it is not the end of the world. You can still have a pretty good sauce with just the canned stuff. But, first you gotta know what all the canned stuff is. Tomato Sauce is a thin sauce that is very similar to the consistency of V8 juice. You can use this as your base, but you will need to thicken it up quite a bit. Tomato Paste is what you use to thicken the sauce. It is, you guessed it, a paste. A little goes a long way, and it needs to be stirred in order to meld with the sauce.

I rarely use tomato sauce in my red sauce, and instead opt for a combination of fresh tomatoes and a couple cans of "crushed tomatoes". Crushed tomatoes have a slightly chunkier consistency and make the sauce feel more like homemade than regular tomato sauce. I also puree some fresh tomatoes as the first ingredient after the sauteed veggies. With all of these tomatoes, but especially the fresh ones, you have to cook them for many hours in order to reduce their acidity. Don't even taste your sauce until you've been cooking it for at least a couple hours.

Both crushed tomatoes and fresh tomatoes tend to release a lot of water. This is what tomato paste is for. You add it and your sauce is less watery.

7) Meat? Yes. Or not.

Sausage, Meatballs, Pork ribs, Veal Shoulder, whatever. These are all great in your sauce. Try whatever you like. I usually just go with turkey sausage and turkey meatballs. You really can't go wrong.

Vegetarian? Add mushrooms, try eggplant. Zucchini has been done successfully.

8) Tomorrow is another day... to eat sauce.

Make as much of this stuff in one batch as you possibly can. It lasts a long time, can be frozen, can be used on a number of different recipes, and takes a long time to make. But best of all, magically, red sauce is always better the next day. After it has had some time to sit and mingle with itself your sauce will be even more fantastic than it was when you first tried it.

9) Ask your guests how they like it.

Everybody has different ideas about what red sauce should be and how they like it. I like a red sauce that you could pour into a bowl and eat by itself, very thick with lots of peppers, onions, garlic, and meat. The mrs. likes a less chunky, more pasty sauce. Others like a watery sauce. If you're having guests and plan on making some sauce for the occasion, ask them how they like it. Use tomato paste accordingly.

10) There is no wrong way.

Sure, it's possible to screw up red sauce. But there is no right or wrong way to make it. There is always some Italian guy who says "mutz-za-rel" instead of mozzarella and "mani-got" instead of manicotti and will tell you that the only way to make Italian food the right way is to make it the way that his grandma from Avellino used to make it. But, that's all wrong. Sunday Gravy is more about Sunday, spending time with family, than it is about gravy. The sauce is just something that brings you all together. If you like it, you made it right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Beans are kind of like Meat

People think I am meat obsessed. They are right. But, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a fine vegetarian meal. Just not everyday please. The problem is that while I will eat nearly anything with fins or feet, my wife doesn't. We eat a lot of chicken at home, and quite a bit of turkey too. But, for the most part, beef and pork aren't what's for dinner at our house.

Most days I can live with that, but sometimes I feel like if I have to eat one more chicken I might explode. It's gets old, even if you love chicken. So, I'm always struggling to find stuff to cook that can break up the monotony without having to make two separate meals. Enter kidney beans.

Kidney beans have significant amounts of protein, which is important both for big men in aprons as well as pregnant women (we have one of each in our house). And, of course, they have no cholesterol and are high in fiber, which regulates blood-sugar, keeps you full longer, and is just all around good for you. Oh, and by the way, they taste pretty damn good.

So, I throw tofu into the mix sometimes to get us away from poultry for a day, and occasionally I just make a vegetable pasta dish, but right now I'm really into trying to find more uses for kidney beans, since they seem to pack a lot of nutritional punch and can be used in some dishes where tofu isn't appropriate. In general, I find that tofu is great when it's done well, but it's very easy to do poorly and that just makes me want to eat the chef who served it. Total dinner guest faux pas.

So, I've already given you a pork and bean noodle dish. But I think this one is better, and it has no meat in it. It is inspired by Orangette's recent recipe for Tagliatelle alla Romagnola, which is essentially pasta, butter, Parmesan, and prosciutto. I was so excited that Orangette had posted something and I really wanted to try it out, but I needed to find something to replace the prosciutto. I also had some leeks that were getting to the "love 'em or leave 'em" phase of our relationship.

Anyway, this dish could be served hot, as I did serve it, or it could be chilled and eaten as a salad. Then again, at 39 degrees outside right now, chilled pasta might not be at the forefront of your priorities right now.

Kidney Beans and Ziti in Butter

1/2 lb. uncooked Ziti
5 Tsbp Butter (4 Tsbp to melt with the pasta, 1 Tsbp to saute the garlic and beans)
1 Tsbp fresh chopped basil
4 Cloves of fresh chopped garlic
1/2 cup of coarsely chopped Leeks
1 15oz. can of Kidney Beans
Grated Parmesan Cheese to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste

Boil a pot of water. You can chop your garlic, leeks, and basil as well as drain and rinse the beans during the time the water is heating up. When the water is near boiling, melt butter in a pan over medium heat. As soon as the butter is mostly melted, add the garlic. Be sure not to let the butter get too hot before adding the garlic, otherwise it will burn. Stir the garlic into the butter for about 1 minute. Add Leeks, stir and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the beans, stir gently and cook for about 5 minutes. By the time you've added the beans, your water should be boiling and ready for the ziti. The ziti is best served al dente, so give it about 6-7 minutes in rapidly boiling water, uncovered in the pot.

When the ziti is ready, drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Put the pot on low heat and add the mixture of beans, garlic, and leeks. Also add the chopped basil and 4 Tsbp of butter at this time. Stir the pot gently, making sure to coat all of the pasta with melting butter, while taking care not to crush the soft kidney beans. As soon as the butter is completely melted, it is ready to serve. Best to serve immediately, since this dish is light and doesn't retain heat the way a heavier dish might.

Add Parmesan if desired. I didn't, but it would be good either way. Resist the urge to add more vegetables or ingredients. The beauty of this recipe is its simplicity. It's nice to actually taste the beans and the leeks. They both have a lot of flavor to contribute that would be drowned out if you added too many other ingredients. Serves 4.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hunkering Down

Somehow there is a lot to report, but not much that has gone on of late. We're still waiting for baby to introduce himself to the world. Not yet at the due date, but close enough to keep a close vigil for signs of the little man with an apron.

In the meantime, I'm cooking as usual. I guess I should have already mixed the bread dough if I was planning on putting it in the fridge overnight tonight, but I always like to think there is tomorrow for these things. It is officially exam season in law school, so while I tend to have very little time to mess around in the kitchen, I do get the benefit of not having to be in class during the day. Sometimes that results in a little extra time here and there.

This weekend, the Mrs. and I went to the Christmas tree lighting in Montclair, New Jersey, where we live. Afterward, we went to our new favorite pizza spot, Leone's. I swear it had a website not long ago, but I can't seem to find it now. You'd be surprised to find out that even though we live in an area that is choc full of Italian-Americans, it can still be challenging to get a truly good pizza. Too many places serve some doughy pizza-like substance. Not to mention, we're surrounded by Papa John's and Dominos. "Better Ingredients" my ass. The Papa delivers up MSG and partially-hydrogenated oil in his garlic dipping sauce and dressings.

So, imagine my delight when we discovered that a restaurant sitting on our list of those to check out in our fair city turned out to have awesome pizza. No kidding. Really awesome pizza. So, after the tree lighting, we went to Leone's for a pizza and some calamari. Their calamari was surprisingly good too. I prefer my calamari with spicy asian sauce, but they have a garlic-bomb marinara that while difficult to digest, was an absolute joy to consume.

On the home front, I've been toying around with a few ideas, and I might as well share a recipe for one of them. It's not perfect, but it was tasty.

Remember the roast pork I wrote about in my first post? I had lots of fun coming up with all sorts of ways to eat the leftovers. But, like any resourceful person, I also froze some for a rainy day (or in this case, rainy/snow).

So, while in mood for some of that delicious pork, I used the last of it for this Pork and Beans dish that I dreamed up. It came to me as many good things do, while flipping through the pages of Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. If I could only bring one book to a desert island, and that desert island was well stocked with chickens, pigs, chili peppers and shao tsing wine, then this would be my one book.

Not to say that this recipe is in the book. It's not. But I just sort of flip through and close my eyes and get my imagination working. I look really silly when I do it. Also, the pictures have navy beans in the dish in addition to kidney beans. They were tasty too, but they didn't hold up to the stirring quite as well, so I didn't include it in the recipe. You could use black beans or any other beans you want for that matter.

Pork and Beans Noodle

2 cups of cooked roast pork, preferably leftovers, cut into bite size pieces
1 can of kidney beans
1/4 cup of shao tsing wine
1/4 soy sauce
2 cups of water or stock
2 Tbsp of Garlic Chili Sauce
1/2 cup of chopped leaks
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tsbp fresh ginger, minced
2 Tsbp fresh Basil, course chopped
1/2 lb. Shandong Ramen noodles
1/4 cup peanut oil

Boil water in a large pot first. When water is close to a boil, warm up a large wok or skillet on high heat. Add peanut oil and swirl to cover inside of wok. Add pork after the pan is warmed up a bit but before the pan gets extremely hot. Stir in the pan to coat pork with oil. Gently stir in beans, taking care not to crush or misshape too many of the beans. Put noodles in boiling water. Add garlic, ginger, leaks, and chili sauce. Stir gently. Add wine and soy sauce. Stir gently to coat all ingredients with wine and soy sauce. Don't let the mixture sit in the wok too long for any given time, be sure to stir often. After 8 minutes boiling ramen, strain the ramen noodles. Add the noodles, the water or stock, and the basil to the wok. Stir gently so that all of the indregients are mixed together, and the water in the wok is boiling hard. Turn off heat, continue to stir for another 2 minutes. Serve hot.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Meatloaf Again and Again and Again

Meatloaf gets a bad rap. There is always a "Not Meatloaf Again" joke waiting to rear its ugly head whenever anyone suggests making some. But in terms of comfort food, or "hunkering down for the winter" food, meatloaf just can't be beat. This is especially true in my house, where my wife is the primary maker of meatloaf in our family. And since she mostly cooks when I'm going to be home late, meatloaf spells comfort not just because it tastes like being a 9 year old kid at Grandma's house, but because chances are, if we're eating meatloaf I've had a long day and really appreciate a steaming, ketchupy meatball waiting for me.

So, this is her recipe, which I'm told comes by way of Martha Stewart. It features two other things that I think are under-appreciated in the culinary world: ground turkey and a muffin tray. Purists will scoff at my blatant disregard for the traditional pork, beef, veal combo found in classic meatloaf. But hear me out. Try this. It's good. I promise. Besides, if you ate ground turkey once in a while instead of gorging on pork, beef, and veal, you might be better off. Also, I think I've already made my views on veal known, but to recap: I try not to eat animals that I think have been mistreated or tortured, including most veal. Just try it. The little muffin sized loafs are the best part, I think. It's just prettier that way.

T's Turkey Meatloaf Muffins

1/2 cup ketchup (plus another 1/4 cup to spread on top)
1 1/2 to 2 lbs. ground turkey
1 medium onion, chopped
2 slices of whole wheat bread, torn into small pieces
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese
2 heaping tablespoons of relish
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 egg
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps dry mustard powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
Optional: 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper or a few dashes of Tabasco Sauce

Preheat oven to 350. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Fill 6 cups of a muffin tin with heaping mounds of the meatloaf mixture. Brush each meatloaf muffin with ketchup.

Bake about 45 minutes, such that the inside temperature of the loaf muffins reaches 170 degrees. Serve hot. Serves 4 (2 if you're hungry).

They'd probably make great leftovers too, but we've never had any left over to find out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A New Month and New Projects

So far I'm counting this blog as a success. When I wrote my first few posts, I figured I'd just see where the thing takes me. I didn't really tell anybody about it. Now, the blog seems to be developing nicely and I'm fairly proud of the product. In the next month, I will be joining FoodBuzz's community of featured publishers. That is potentially very exciting, as it should help drive more readers to the site, as well as introduce me to other foodies and their blog projects.

Of course, even more exciting: I am going to be a dad any day now. Between that and finals looming, I'd be surprised if you hear much from me this month. But, as always, I'll do the best I can.

As a form of motivational promise making, I figured I'd lay out some ideas for upcoming food projects. My Thanksgiving projects were all successful, my beer was a big hit. So what's next? Well, I'm still thinking of making some Mead, perhaps this is a Christmas project. Even higher on my list is French Bread.

Around here, we have some really great bakeries in nearby Newark and its surrounding towns. My favorite is Calandra's, a North Ward institution. But as with most things that I really enjoy, I had an uncontrollable urge to make my own. I never considered myself much of a baker, but I just couldn't resist.

Luckily, there is an incredibly detailed explanation for how to make good french bread in Volume II of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. By the way, anyone reading a food blog should own this cookbook. Just sayin'.

So, anyway, I gave Julia's recipe a whirl, but totally underestimated the amount of time that it would take to let the bread rise as fully as it wanted to. The bread I ended up baking was more dense than what I was looking for, but it was still vastly superior to the crap that you see in most supermarkets. I probably should have taken a picture, but when you have a ravenously hungry pregnant lady waiting on dinner you don't waste time taking pictures, my friend. I'll do it properly soon, and promise to take nice pictures.

And speaking of pictures, if anybody has advice on how to make my food pictures better, lay it on me. I really don't know much about it at all and thought I was doing pretty well until I saw FoodBuzz's Top 9. Those are some purdy muffins.