Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mozzarella and Pesto Grilled Cheese

The problem, for me, with grilled cheese is that it’s boring. Oh—that might not be fair to the grilled cheese—it might just be my own personal bias, but it’s true. When Adam and I first moved to Maryland, most of our money was spent trying to compensate for the drastic difference in living expenses between Pennsylvania and the DC area. We cut costs where we could, and the grocery list was one of the first to suffer. We targeted which meals we could have on the cheap, and grilled cheese was one of them. Along with spaghetti and hot dogs, we had grilled cheese every week. Plain. On white bread. And thus the boredom.

But it’s really not right to write off grilled cheese entirely. I mean, first of all, bread and cheese is a classic combination, and I really do love it. Plus, there are so many different ways to make grilled cheese that you can practically have a different cheese-and-bread experience every single time. Recently I’ve tried it on garlic toast, which was good, and on Dijon-coated bread with bacon, which was very good. Last night I made it Tyler-style with mozzarella cheese, pesto, and tomato.

This was the first time I made my own pesto. You know, I didn’t used to think I liked pesto very much. It was okay, but nothing to get excited about. Now I realize that I just never had good pesto. Tyler’s recipe is basic but delicious. It’s so fresh and flavorful, and I used two huge garlic cloves, which gave it a nice bit of heat.

You really don’t need a recipe for this, but it’s here if you want it. Just grab yourself some pesto or make your own, slather it on some bread (Tyler used sourdough), top with mozzarella and Roma tomatoes, and grill to perfection. I served mine with chicken noodle soup and it made a lovely rainy day meal. Plus, this sandwich really does take grilled cheese to a new level. I couldn’t exactly place my finger on it, but the taste really reminded me of another familiar dish. I think it’s vegetable pizza—mozzarella, herbs, garlic, tomatoes—those are the flavors of vegetable pizza, no? Whatever it is, it’s fantastic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For the Love of Sierra Turkey

Have you been to a Panera? Did you love it? Did you vow to go back every chance you could? No? Hmm. Then you must not have had a Sierra Turkey Sandwich, because, surely, all those who have had the Sierra Turkey Sandwich have experienced Panera Love, or at least Sierra Turkey Love.

I first discovered Panera when I was in college. I can't remember the first time I went though. My most vivid memories of it are going after I met Adam. (Adam is my fiancé, the only person I cook for, whom I've previously referred to by dumb names like Mr. Man because he didn't want me to use his real name. But I am now using his real name, so now you know it, and the next time you meet an Adam, just know that it's probably the very same one I'm referring to here, because Adam is such a rare name.) So anyway, Adam likes to assert his individuality by pretending to disdain popular businesses (you'll never get him to admit that he likes Starbucks coffee, but he does), so whenever I wanted to go to Panera, I would have to drag him. However, it only took a single visit there with me and only one bite of my sandwich before he, too, was overpowered by Sierra Turkey Love. Now whenever we go, he will refuse to order his own Sierra Turkey, but then he'll try to take half of mine. And I will oblige, because I'm that giving of a person.

You see, the Sierra Turkey is a simple yet wonderful blend of focaccia, turkey, field greens, and chipotle mayonnaise. I don't know what it is about these ingredients, but when they come together, it's delicious. There's a Panera within walking distance of where I live, but, to indulge my preferred hermit-like state, I had to learn how to make these at home. And the good news is that it's super easy, especially if you have a bread machine.

The Focaccia*
originally from Bread Machine Focaccia

1 cup lukewarm water
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus coarse salt for garnish
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, plus extra leaves for garnish
3 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

Add water, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, garlic, 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary, flour, and yeast to pan of bread machine. Select dough cycle.

When dough is finished, use floured hands to shape dough into a circle on a 12-inch pizza pan. Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough. Brush with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and scatter evenly with rosemary leaves and a pinch or two of coarse salt. Cover with plastic wrap and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake for 20 minutes in preheated oven. Allow to cool on wire rack before cutting and serving.

*Adam was thoughtful enough to point out that this recipe isn’t just like Panera’s, because Panera uses Asiago focaccia for the Sierra Turkey. I tried modifying this same recipe by adding a quarter cup of grated Asiago to the dough and a few extra shavings to the top. I wasn’t happy with the result though. I couldn’t really taste the Asiago, and I thought that the small amount I’d added had dried out the bread. So no Asiago focaccia this time, and I continue my search for a recipe. If you know a good one, do share!

The Chipotle Mayo
originally from Chipotle Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, seeds removed and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon dried crushed oregano

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl or, for a smoother result, blend in food processor.

The Sandwich

For two sandwiches, cut the focaccia in quarters and set aside two quarters for later. Cut the remaining two quarters in half through the middle so that you have four pieces, and spread the inside of each piece with a couple tablespoons of chipotle mayo. Layer the bottom pieces with greens (baby lettuces are good here, but I use arugula) and top that with about 1/4 lb. of turkey per sandwich. This part is really important, because the turkey can make or break the sandwich. Use the best, juiciest turkey you can get--I use Black Forest smoked turkey, thinly sliced. Finally, place the tops on the sandwiches, and, because this is how they do it at Panera, serve with kettle chips. I have a penchant for Grandma Utz's, just because they're the best.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ina's Tablescape

Not too long ago, I caught a re-run of Barefoot Contessa in which Ina was expounding the virtues of a simple and tasteful table setting. In this episode, Ina said—and this is a quote—“It makes me crazy when people start talking about things like tablescapes.” My first thought, of course, was whether this was a shot at Sandra Lee. Do people other than Sandra Lee talk about things like tablescapes? I suppose it’s possible. Who knows what goes on up there in the Hamptons.

Anyway, on yesterday’s episode, Ina was throwing a baby shower, and guess what she made in addition to Greek gazpacho and a roasted salmon nicoise platter? She made a tablescape! She didn’t use the word "tablescape,” but when you have a candy-filled train chugging across the same table where people are eating, you have a tablescape.

This is disturbing me a little. I mean, first, let’s talk about the meal. Spicy gazpacho soup and salmon nicoise are not traditional baby shower fare. Which is fine—I expect Ina to rise above the traditional and class things up—that’s her style. But when you pair a sophisticated meal with an unsophisticated tablescape, well, that’s when I become concerned.

I’m going to have to keep a close watch on Ina in the coming weeks. And a close watch on Sandra Lee, lest she try to one-up my girl by making a bigger, better trainscape.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Noodle Love II: Bucatini

I’ve had a package of bucatini sitting in my pantry for a couple months now. I haven’t known what to do with it. Bucatini recipes aren’t exactly abundant, I’ve found. So I decided that what I needed was just a special sauce, because this is a special noodle. I bought a pound of it at an Italian specialty shop, and I think it was $13 or something crazy like that. It tasted—I don’t know—my inability with words in painfully obvious here, but I just can’t describe it except to say that it had a quality that was distinctly different from the pasta I normally buy at the grocery store. It was heartier, somehow. The noodles were sturdy yet tender. It was delicious, and, although I often feel that pasta plays second fiddle to its sauce, the bucatini was the star of the show here.

Which is not to say that the sauce wasn’t also delicious. It was, and I’ll definitely make it again. I made Emeril’s oreganata tomato sauce, which had originally been intended for rigatoni, which I’m definitely going to try in the future. It’s an incredibly simple sauce made with tomatoes, cream, and fresh basil and oregano. This was my first time working with fresh oregano, and I really like it. It has adorable fuzzy little leaves that remind me of a miniature African violet. That’s them nestled on top of the butter below—aren’t they cute?

I often serve garlic bread with pasta, but when I have a lot of fresh herbs around that are beginning to move past their prime, my favorite way to use them up is to make fresh herb butter. Don’t ever be afraid of buying a bundle of fresh herbs because you only need a couple tablespoons and you don’t know what to do with the rest. Herb butter is incredibly easy, adaptable, and delicious. I served about . . . oh . . . maybe 10 slices of Italian bread last night, and for that I used 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter and a tablespoon of olive oil. Let the butter come to room temperature, then add a small handful of whatever fresh herbs you have on hand, finely chopped. Drizzle in a bit of olive oil, add a small pinch of salt and a smaller pinch of pepper, and combine thoroughly. It’s delicious on warm bread. I used a few thyme sprigs, a couple of basil leaves, a bit of oregano, a pinch of rosemary, and some parsley. But I usually don’t have that much variety, and I’ve made it with just parsley and thyme or parsley and basil and it’s always delicious.

Below is the recipe for the pasta oreganta. This sauce would work with any noodle, I think, but it was especially great with the bucatini. Bucatini is a tad difficult to eat; it’s long, so you want to twirl it around your fork, but it plumps up a lot when it cooks and is really too round and thick to fit around the tines. In those situations you don’t want too much sauce, or it’ll splatter everywhere as you’re trying to slurp up the noodles. This recipe makes just enough sauce to put a thin, even, delicious coating on a pound of bucatini.

Bucatini Oreganata
adapted from Rigatoni Oreganata

2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound bucatini
1 small onion, diced onion
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh oregano leaves
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup reserved pasta cooking water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Set a large stockpot filled with water over high heat and bring to a boil. Season the water with the kosher salt and add the bucatini. While the pasta cooks, set a 14-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and slightly caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the oregano and basil. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste and stir well to combine. Continue to cook the sauce until it is slightly reduced, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the heavy cream to the pan. By this time the pasta should be almost al dente. Drain the pasta and reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta and the reserved cooking water to the sauce in the pan and season with the salt and pepper. Continue to cook, tossing the pasta, until it is well coated with the sauce. Stir in the parsley and serve with Parmesan.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Breakfast Risotto

A while ago, I bought Mr. Man a rice sampler from Lotus Foods. Ever since, he’s been asking me to make risotto. I was in no hurry—not usually too huge a risotto fan—but when I found this recipe on Epicurious, I had to give it a try. Risotto for breakfast—who knew?

The recipe calls for Arborio rice, but I used Carnaroli, which is a short-grain rice that is ideal for risotto. It results in a very creamy finished product, which is exactly what you want.

I should mention that this recipe uses a non-traditional method. It calls for all the liquid to be added at once instead of a little bit at a time. You could make this the traditional way if you want, but for me, I’ll take the simple way every time if it works. And this definitely works.

Here’s the modified recipe. I didn’t change it much—just used andouille instead of Italian sausage and added some fresh thyme. I will say that I’m not really sure what makes this “breakfast” risotto. A reviewer on the Epicurious website suggested that, for a more breakfasty dish, you could make this with breakfast sausage and serve it with a fried egg on top. That sounds like a good idea.

Breakfast Risotto
adapted from Breakfast Risotto

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
3 andouille sausages, casings removed
1 small onion, chopped
2 small bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup Arborio rice or Carnaroli white rice
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used Pino Grigio)
3 cups chicken broth
Pinch of saffron threads
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Crumble in sausage. Add onion, thyme, and bay leaves. Sauté until onion is translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in rice. Add wine; boil until liquid evaporates, 1 minute. Add broth and saffron; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, stirring occasionally, until risotto is tender, adding more broth if dry, about 18 minutes. Discard bay leaves and thyme sprigs; mix in 1/3 cup cheese and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Pass cheese alongside.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

M&M Cookies

I’m not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. When it seems that I just can’t escape talk of love and romance, all I can think of is how obnoxious this must be to those who aren’t all coupled-and-loving-it. On the other hand, I do have a soft spot for the color pink, and I will jump at any reason to make cute cookies. So, just to be clear, this post is not in honor of Valentine’s Day. This post is in honor of cute cookies.

Just look at these:

When I saw these Valentine’s Day M&Ms, I had one thought: I have to make cookies with these.

I used the same cookie recipe that I always use. I found this recipe when I was in college, and it was the first time I ever made chocolate-chip cookies from scratch. And let me tell you something—I may not have known how to pick a man in college, but I sure knew how to pick a cookie recipe. These are awesome. Every time I make them, without fail, somebody asks what’s in them. People can sense that these are no ordinary cookie. There must be something in them, they think, that makes them taste so good. And they’re right.

My mom asked me for the recipe years ago, and I almost didn’t tell her. The recipe of course is not mine, but I was the only person I knew who could make them, and I guarded that role jealously. But, eventually, I gave my mom the recipe and revealed the secret ingredient. And now, dear reader, I’ll reveal it to you, too.

It’s a box of instant vanilla pudding mix.

This stuff makes the best cookies! These are incredibly soft, moist, cakey cookies. And now they have M&Ms. Pink M&Ms, no less.

Here’s the M&M-ified recipe, and it makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies. You can do tons with this recipe—change the flavor of the pudding, add walnuts or pecans or cashews, stir in some coconut. I’ve done it all, and it’s all been delicious.

M&M Cookies
adapted from Award Winning Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 3.4-oz package instant vanilla pudding mix
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 14-oz bag M&Ms

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper.

Sift together the flour and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar. Beat in the instant pudding mix, eggs, and vanilla until blended. In two or three batches, fold in the flour mixture. Finally, stir in the M&Ms until just distributed.

Drop cookies by rounded spoonfuls onto cookie sheets. Bake for 12 minutes in the preheated oven or until edges are golden brown. Let cool on baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Split Chicken Breasts

Ah, chicken. The great thing about it is that it’s so adaptable. It can be cooked in a million different ways and is a great base for any spice you can think to add and any sauce you can think to simmer it in. The downside is that you sort of have to add spices or simmer it in sauce, because if you don’t, chicken all on its own can be pretty bland.

When I was younger, my mom used to make stuffed split chicken breasts. I loved them. There was something about not just having stuffing alongside chicken, but actually having the stuffing tucked under the skin and nestled next to the chicken breast. I swear it made the stuffing taste better. The chicken meat itself was a bit dull, but that was okay. I just slathered it in ketchup.

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that that was disgusting. So instead, I eat them with the salt shaker right next to me, much like I eat a hoagie with a jar of mayo next to me. But I realize that's all wrong, too.

So I had to come up with a better way. Split breasts are pretty thick, and even if you can liberally season the outer-most part of the meat, it’s back to bland once you’ve eaten past that top layer. I needed a way to penetrate the meat and jazz things up throughout the entire breast.

That’s when I remembered all the brining talk that was going on around Thanksgiving. Brine your turkey!, everyone screamed. I was intrigued, but since I wasn’t making a turkey, I didn’t pay too much attention. But now, it all seems so clear. Don’t just brine your turkey, brine your chicken! No more ketchup! No more bland bird! This could be the answer!

I consulted Alton’s book for instructions. Alton’s recipes were for larger pieces of meat, so I just looked at them to get the approximate proportions of salt to water. According to his recipe for orange brine, you should use 1/4 cup of kosher salt per 1 quart of water, or 1 tablespoon per cup. So that's what I did. And you know what? It works. I was expecting the breasts to taste salty, but they actually didn't. The meat just came out so juicy and tender and perfect that there was no need to add anything extra to it. No more ketchup, no more salt shaker. As Blanche Devereaux once said, Why paint the peacock? Or something.

All you need is two split breasts, salt, water, and a gallon-size zip-top plastic back. Wash the chicken pieces under running water and place them in the plastic bag. Add two cups of cold water and two tablespoons of kosher salt. Seal the bag and massage the bottom a bit to distribute the salt throughout the water. Then put the bag in the fridge until you’re ready to cook. I need to experiment more to find out the limits of how little and how long you can brine for, but this time I did an hour and a half and it worked out well.

When time’s up, remove the chicken from the fridge and pat it dry thoroughly with some paper towels (Alton says not to rinse off the brine). Set the chicken aside, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and get started on the stuffing. You can use whatever stuffing you like for this. I usually just jazz up some Stove Top, which is very easy and very semihomemade. Just sauté a little bit of onion, celery, garlic, and thyme in some butter, add the stuffing mix and sauté for a minute more, then pour in just enough chicken stock to moisten the stuffing. You can toss in some fresh parsley at the end if you have it on hand.

When the stuffing’s cool enough to handle, it’s time to stuff the chicken. Gently separate the skin from the meat by running your fingers beneath it until you have a little pocket. Then work in your stuffing. Stuff the pocket full, but don’t try to pack in more than will easily fit—you don’t want to tear the skin. Once the stuffing’s in, rub some EVOO into the skin and sprinkle it with some seasonings. You can use a special blend or even just some fresh cracked pepper. If you choose to use a seasoning blend, make sure you use one that isn’t too salty.

I use a thermometer when I make these. I can’t be bothered to try to guess when my meat should come out of the oven, especially since I’m no good at it. These should cook until a thermometer reads 180. It will be, roughly, about 45 minutes. These are bone-in breasts plus stuffing, so they take a bit of time. About half-way through the cooking time, cover the chicken with a piece of aluminum foil. You want a nice dark crispy skin—not a burned one.

Since you already have the oven cranked to 425, it’s the perfect time to make my favorite side—roasted Brussels sprouts. One pound is a good amount for two sprout-loving people. You’ll need to cook them for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how crisp you like them to get around the edges. Wash the sprouts, trim the rough brown bit off the bottom, and remove any damaged leaves. Some people recommend cutting the sprouts in quarters, but I prefer halves—the more cuts you make, the more the leaves start to fall off. Pile your trimmed sprouts on a baking sheet, drizzle liberally with EVOO, and sprinkle with about a teaspoon of kosher salt and a 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Place the Brussels sprouts in the oven about 20 minutes after the chicken, and everything should be finished cooking around the same time.

It occurs to me that this post is very similar to the stuffed Cornish game hen post I did around Christmas time. The difference, though, is that stuffed chicken breast is much more practical for every day. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy, and, with a little time allotted for a salt-water bath, it’s delicious, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Meatball Heroes

I keep trying with meatballs. I have a bit of a troubled past with them. The first time I made meatballs I used Ina’s recipe; they were fine, but, after a while, the nutmeg in them got to be a bit much. I had a bunch of the mixture left over, so I made meatball pizza. Still too much nutmeg.

Then I made Rachael’s meatball pizza. It was good, but I thought the deep-dish focaccia crust was the star of the show there. Plus, those weren’t really meatballs on top.

So now I’m at it again with Giada’s mini meatball heroes. These meatballs are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. I wouldn’t exactly call that “mini,” but I guess it is on the smallish side. Anyway, I think this is officially my first real meatball success. These are perfectly moist without being too soft, and the flavor is just right. Mr. Man, who has claimed not to like meatball heroes, said this is the first good one he’s had. I don’t know that this recipe is radically different from most others, but there is a certain something special about it. What I liked most is the size. I have a really hard time eating a meatball sub without having a meatball shoot out the back and land on my lap, and I didn’t have that problem with these—they stayed securely snuggled in the bun. I think the cheese helped glue them in place. Definitely don’t skip the provolone and Parmesan on top, because they were the perfect complement.

This recipe makes a lot of meatballs. For two of us, I only made 12 meatballs, and I have plenty of leftover mixture stashed in the freezer. I’m already thinking about what to do with it next. Italian wedding soup could be good; so could meatball stromboli. Or maybe just good old spaghetti and meatballs. I was at Macaroni Grill not too long ago and got their mozzarella-stuffed meatballs—I might have to try making those on my own.

The recipe for Giada’s meatball heroes is here. I followed the directions for the meatballs exactly except I omitted the veal and, instead, used a pound of ground beef and 1/2 a pound of ground pork. After frying the meatballs I simmered them in about a cup of sauce, and while that was going I warmed the rolls in a 350-degree oven for 3 minutes. I then filled the rolls with sauce and meatballs, and I put a slice of provolone and a couple sprinkles of Parmesan on each one. Then I put them back in the oven for just a couple minutes to melt the cheese. I recommend putting only a small amount of sauce on the sandwiches themselves and serving the extra on the side—if you’re anything like me, a sandwich filled with red sauce is equivalent to an open invitation for a freshly splattered stain on your shirt.