Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Want to read more about Cooking the Books and my thoughts on Chicago’s food scene? Check out this interview I did with Third Coast Review!

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

Continue reading

April in the Garden

I’ve been spying on my garden through the fence for the past month or so, watching and waiting to spot the first green tops of my chives. Last weekend, the first really gorgeous, warm weekend of the year, Peterson Garden Project gardens opened for the season, and I was out cleaning my plot, buying seeds, and getting a few cool weather plants in the ground.

Chives need a haircut

My chives are already about a foot tall and in need of a haircut. My oregano came back as well, along with a few radishes and a mess of dandelions. The dandelions and a bunch of other weeds got pulled, I added a little compost, planted some herb babies (cilantro, marjoram, and thyme), two Romanesco broccolis (a first for me), and got some seeds in the ground: carrots, radishes (French breakfast, Early Scarlet Globe, and Cincinnati Market), peas (a new-to-me variety that doesn’t need a trellis), and nasturtium.

Happy garden

This is my first year planting carrots, so I’m particularly excited about them. I got wee little fat ones called Paris market carrots that should be perfect since they don’t need much soil depth. Though as much as I appreciate the weather taking over watering duty since last Sunday, I think everything is sufficiently well-watered by this point and the rain can let up any day now…

Second-year Oregano

Next weekend I’m looking forward to getting tomato plants and other warm weather (we can only hope) vegetables from the PGP plant sale (I’ll also be making something to sell at their bake sale, so if you’re in the area, stop by!). I don’t have much of a plan for the rest of my garden this year–basil of course, sorrel (I’m nixing lettuce and greens otherwise, but I fell in love with sorrel last year), a few beans, a pepper or two, tomatoes wherever I can, plus another attempt at cucumbers. I found an amazing recipe for cornichon pickles last year and would love to make a batch with my own cucumbers.

Who else is gardening this year and what are you planting?

Cooking the Books – The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The grande dame of home cooking Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” No surprise, they’re also the best people to start a cookbook club with.

I posted about the first cookbook club in November (Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table). After this month’s meeting–a 15-dish extravaganza from the pages of the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook–I think this is the best thing I’ve done in the nearly four years I’ve been writing this blog.

We're an entertaining group

It’s all of what I love about dinner parties (great food, entertaining at home, not trying to split a check six ways or feeling rushed by a waiter trying to turn a table) and potlucks (trying lots of different dishes) without the not-so-great parts of each (paying for and cooking all the food yourself, that one person who always only brings a bag of Lay’s and a sleeve of Solo cups). Plus it’s a great reason to use the dozens of cookbooks I have overflowing my bookshelf.

The best part, though, is how quickly a group of strangers can become friends over a shared, homemade meal.

Dinner is served

Here’s how it works so far:

  • At each meeting, we pick a cookbook, date, and host for the next meeting. Many people in the group are willing to host to spread out the effort.
  • Everyone who’s coming adds themselves to a Google doc along with:
    • the name of the recipe(s) they’re planning to make
    • if oven or stove space is needed for reheating/keeping a dish warm
    • food allergies or other restrictions
  • We set a maximum of 15 for most meetings for the sake of space, conversation, and food (even with everyone only making a single recipe, we all go home with something for lunch the next day).
  • As much as possible, we stick to the recipe as written.
  • We meet, we eat, we drink (BYO, and the host usually has libations to share, too). We talk about the recipes we made, what worked and what didn’t, what other recipes we want to try (or have tried).

We picked the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for January’s meeting. I’ve had this book since Deb did her booksigning in Chicago, but have only made a handful of recipes (though the red wine velvet cake and the carmelized onion and squash galette are two all-time favorites). To stay true to the spirit of the club, we decided recipes from her blog were off-limits; cookbook only!

February’s cookbook is the incomparable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Want to play along at home? Pick a recipe, make it on February 20, and share what you made on Facebook! In Chicago and interested in joining the club? Send me an email!

A veritable Smitten Kitchen feast

When January’s meeting came around, these were the recipes at the table: Continue reading

So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

End-of-Season Garden Update

I’m overdue for sharing an update on my garden. While most of the fall seeds I planted didn’t sprout, or sprouted a bit too late for me to do much with (or something sprouted, but I can’t tell if it’s a weed or something I did on purpose), there’s still been plenty to harvest. I even found some surprise fennel in a corner of my garden!

September garden
One lone poblano

My peppers got a second wind, as did all of my herbs (who wants a boatload of chives?). I’ve loved seeing how the 3 little radishes I didn’t pick in spring have become these giant plants with their pretty white flowers and spiky little seed pods. I’ve also picked a ton of green tomatoes that are destined for a pickle jar.

Radish seeds, before the birds got to them
Parsley needs a haircut
More chives

For my second year of gardening, I think it was pretty successful, despite some bizarre weather. Next year I’ll plan to do more soil amending/fertilizing before I plant anything and fertilize more throughout the season. I liked and ate most everything I planted (the exception being ground cherries, which I just can’t get into, black tomatoes, which had zero flavor, and beans, which the bunnies got to first). Lemon verbena was my favorite new thing this year.

Gardens close in a few weeks, and I still have a bit of harvesting and cleaning up to do. I’m planning to dump some lettuce seeds and see if I can get them to sprout like last year, which will be quite a nice surprise come next spring. Until then, rest up little garden! You earned it.

Easiest Tomato Sauce

I feel like stock trader yelling “Buy, buy, buy!!!”, but it’s the tail end of tomato season and I just figured out the best-tasting, easiest sauce I’ve ever made. And good thing, too, after I indulged my “but it’s on sale!” tendencies and bought 63 pounds of tomatoes (in my defense, I thought it was only 40, but nope, 63).

End of tomato season

Since I first tried canning tomatoes based on the National Center for Home Food Preservation process, I’ve been trying to find ways to streamline things. This year was no exception and resulted in the easiest, least messy, most hands-off method yet. So easy that I honestly don’t know why I’d ever do it any other way ever again. Here’s how it works:

Wash tomatoes, quarter, roast, peel, roast some more

Congratulations, you’re done. Once the tomatoes are cooked, you can put them through a food mill or a blender, leave them in chunks, freeze or can them or eat them with a spoon.

Start to finish

The basic difference between this and the NCHFP method, which most every canning or preservation book or website use: oven versus stovetop. And that makes all the difference. I’m talking about one pan, almost no mess, and minimal waste versus multiple simmering pots and pans, bowls of ice water, a mess across my counter, piles of tomato scraps, and hours of splattering and stirring.

Quartered and cored

Yes, I sound a little like that infomercial with the guy who can’t eat a bowl of popcorn and hold a soda at the same time, but I swear, this really is so much easier. This method eliminates the three things I hated most about the traditional method of processing tomatoes:

  • The boiling water/ice water peeling step. It inevitably makes a mess (they never peel easily for me and coring and cutting that little X in whole tomatoes is a pain), takes more time and attention, and means more stuff to clean. I hate cleaning.
  • Less watery sauce in less time. Getting 20 pounds of tomatoes to a good sauce consistency takes a solid half a day on my stove and makes a righteous mess. See above re. cleaning.
  • Constantly being at the stove. Granted, the oven method isn’t totally hands-off, but it requires much less babysitting than a simmering pot. Heck, when I made these last night I put them in the oven then read a book. OMG.

Easy peel

This also tasted better than any other tomato sauce I’ve made. Combining the large surface area of a roasting pan with dry heat of the oven (if you have a convection oven, so much the better) means the water in the tomatoes evaporates faster and more effectively than in a pot simmering on a stove. And that means much more concentrated tomato flavor in less time than it would take on a stove. Plus, especially if you use a large sheet pan like the dark one above, the sugars start to caramelize around the edges as the water cooks off, adding incredible depth, richness, and sweetness to the sauce.

The best, easiest tomato sauce

I’ve already eaten this on pasta, as a base for baked eggs, and finished off that little bowl standing at the counter with a spoon. I cant wait to use this in chili, to make tomato soup with grilled cheese, spaghetti and meatballs….Do you think it would be totally crazy if I bought more tomatoes this weekend?

Easy Tomato Sauce
Continue reading

August Garden Update

An hour left to August, so how about a very last-minute update on how my garden did this month?

Things started small…

Starting small in August

Peas were pulled, tomatoes and tomatillos started hitting their stride.

August garden
2015-08-07 17.52.30
Tomato plot

I got my first hot pepper!

My first red pepper!

Those few little tomatoes turned into lots of goodies to harvest mid-month.

Tomato season
August harvest

I’ve spotted this guy hanging out on my tomatoes twice. I think he makes a good little mascot.

A garden friend

As for what’s coming up next, a few weeks ago I planted some end-of-season radishes, sorrel, broccoli raab, and lettuce, though only the radishes seem to have taken (I planted the rest of the seeds today, so we’ll see how it goes). I also let a few things go to seed (some on purpose, some out of laziness); radish seed pods are the prettiest things and I’m excited if I my laziness means I don’t have to buy more seeds next spring!

Paella

You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Beautiful!
Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.

Talking

For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.

Salud!

Paella Continue reading

Pan con Tomate

(Only a few spots left for my paella class on August 11! Sign up here or get a sneak peek at the class here.)

Why does bruschetta get all the toast-topped-with-tomatoes-and-olive-oil love? Nothing against half of my heritage, but the Spanish version, pan con tomate, deserves some attention too.

Pan con tomate

Tomatoes seem to be taking their sweet old time to get in gear this year, but with one lone tomato hanging out on my counter and having eaten my fill of tomato and lettuce sandwiches (for now anyways, I’m still planning a grand BLT with everything either grown or made by me. Yes, including the bacon and the mayonnaise), pan con tomate seemed like a perfect option. It helps that I’m obviously on a Spanish food kick lately.

Tomatoes, bread, garlic, oil, salt

Everyone’s pretty familiar with bruschetta at this point–toasted bread (where bruschetta gets its name) rubbed with garlic and usually topped with diced tomatoes, sometimes basil, and drizzled with olive oil. That’s the idea anyways. The concept has become so diffused that it seems like anything on a piece of bread shows up as bruschetta on a menu or in a Google search. Pan con tomate, on the other hand, at least requires tomatoes to be part of the equation.

Toasting
Bread on the grill is the best

Instead of dealing with my complete inability to ever keep the pieces of tomato from falling onto my clothes or the floor when I eat bruschetta (or requiring me to use a knife and fork, which is equally awkward), pan con tomate has you rub a tomato in all its juicy splendor right into the crusty bread. That is, of course, after a clove of raw garlic has been rubbed all over the toast that would, in any other application, tear up the inside of your mouth but instead grabs onto tiny bits of garlic. Rubbing the tomato into the bread is the messy part in this version, but it’s kind of fun. And at least more of the tomato has a fighting chance of getting to my mouth.

Rubbing the garlic
Mushing the tomato

Think this sounds like a recipe for soggy bread? Well…you’re not wrong, but if you toast it enough (or use day-old or slightly stale bread, which this is ideal for), the tomato juices soften the top and edges enough so that you aren’t risking a mouthful of tiny cuts with each bite. The inside of the bread retains some welcome texture and chew and, unlike bruschetta, which is more often just a vehicle for its toppings, pan con tomate actually melds the bread, garlic, and tomato into one delicious bite.

P8040056

Top it with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of flaky salt, add a gin and tonic (I saw more of these than of glasses of sangria in Barcelona), throw in a sunset view, and you’ve got about all I need on a summer night (with apologies to anyone who talked to me after dinner. Only in hindsight did it occur to me that I essentially ate several raw cloves of garlic.). Ok, maybe a salad or some slices of good Spanish cheese, ham, a spicy dried, cured meat…I’m sorry, where were we? Right, tomato bread.

Pan con Tomate, or Tomato Bread Continue reading