Category Archives: cooking

BABY FOOD – ITALIAN STYLE

If you are a mother, there are many resources out there on how to feed your baby, how to feed yourself while expecting and breastfeeding and also many testimonials of women whose children are food intolerant, sensitive or downright allergic. It used to be that peanuts were the most common allergen but, now, a birthday party for a 5-year-old can become a culinary nightmare.

Even if your child hasn’t displayed any intolerance, chances are he or she will be a picky eater. Lord knows I was, with my poor mother, one of the best cooks to ever walk the planet, concocting ways to feed me what I didn’t like and walking every day to the elementary school with tiffin pots filled with home-made food. Kid you not. She can now scarcely believe I will eat (nearly) everything and that I ended up cooking for a living.

I am of the firm belief that feeding your child home-made food, cooked from scratch whenever possible, goes a long way in challenging her palate and keeping her immune system healthy. And although, at this point, my involvement with children is limited to giving them cooking lessons on request or admiring other people’s offsprings, I thought I would share with you the TV programme Barbara, a fellow Italian and LA mom, launched on YouTube a few months ago. What is different about what Barbara does is that she takes basic elements of wholesome Italian cuisine and cooks them in baby/children’s food form. She has been doing this for her son, Luca, for a while and now she is sharing it with the world.

The videos I am attaching are her latest on ricotta cheese (armed with my original recipe, Barbara takes you step by step on video) and her introductory show.

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PISSALADIERE

With a pizza fiend reputation that precedes me, it’s only natural that I would be interested in any incarnation pizza presents itself. Pissaladiere is, essentially, a tomato free pizza topped with caramelized onions, black olives and/or anchovies. And it’s heavenly.

Widely popularized by the Provencal cookbooks that flooded the market a few years ago but not a staple of French restaurants, it can also be found in the Italian region of Liguria, usually with the addition of mozzarella or other soft cheese.

All it takes to make pissaladiere is staple ingredients of any pantry: yellow onions, flour, water, yeast, olive oil and black olives. And possibly anchovies. I think they are a wonderful addition but I realize many people have a strong aversion to them. Your choice.

RECIPE

For pizza dough, click here

For topping

3 onions, thinly sliced

3 T olive oil

1/2 cup black olives, pitted

4 or 5 anchovy fillets, rinsed

Salt

 

  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onions. Cook for about 15 or 20 minutes, until golden.
  2. Stretch the pizza dough to a 12” round and top it with the onions. Transfer it to a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Scatter the olives and arrange the anchovies, if using.
  3. Bake at 375F for about 20/30 minutes, until the edges of the pissaladiere turn golden.
  4. Serve immediately.

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PERSIAN JEWELLED RICE

The day of the Spring Equinox also marked the beginning of Nowrooz, the Persian New Year, a 13 day celebration observed by Iranians the world over. Its roots are to be found in Zoroastrianism and it’s possible that Jewish Purim is an offspring of this New Year/Spring/life renewal celebration.

If you live in LA, it’s hard not to come across, if not Persian culture, at least Persian cuisine (and no, “The Shah of Sunset Boulevard” does not count as a cultural landmark). Along Westwood Boulevard a string of Persian restaurants and grocery stores await even the most casual visitor. Saffron ice-cream is a guilty pleasure of mine and, despite not being very well acquainted with Persian food, over the years I sampled a variety of delicious dishes; after all, the flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine are not dissimilar or, at least, they complement Mediterranean food.

I have always loved that Persian rice, also called Jewelled rice, that is often served with meat. Rich in nuts and dried fruit, it’s sometimes flavored with turmeric or, my favourite, saffron. Iran is worldwide famous for the best pistachios and saffron and both ingredients shine in this dish.

Using ingredients I had at home, and thus ending up bastardizing the result, I decided to give it a try, after having seen yet another reminder of the upcoming Nowrooz. What I particularly love about this rice, besides the sweet and salty blend of flavours, is the crust that develops at the bottom of the pan while the rice cooks undisturbed. Armenians make a similar dish, with fewer ingredients, and the crusty cake at the bottom is the prize.

I started with rinsing two cups of Basmati rice which I then par-cooked in boiling, salted water for about 5 minutes. I drained it and set it aside.

While the rice was cooking, I chopped an onion which I caramelized in a pan with some olive oil, for about 10 minutes.

What I had in the pantry included currants, dried cherries, some dried apricots that had seen better days, pistachios and sliced almonds. I used about 1/3 of a cup of each of the dried fruit (I chopped the apricots finely) which I added to the pan with the onion together with a sprinkle of cinnamon, cumin, allspice and black pepper.

Some of the recipes I consulted called for a non stick pot or a heavy Dutch oven. Petrified of having to throw a pot away by the end of the night, I opted for a non-stick, which might have been a mistake. I melted 4 tablespoon of butter in it, spread half of the rice, topped it with the dried fruit and onion mixture and finished with the rest of the rice. I went with the suggestion of letting the rice cook, uncovered and untouched, for about 6 minutes on medium heat (other recipes have you add the water and cover the pot immediately).

I then added about half a cup of water, sprinkled some saffron on top, covered and let the rice cook for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, I toasted the pistachios and almonds for a few minutes in the oven. After 30 minutes, I let the rice rest off the stove for a few minutes, spooned it in a dish and eagerly looked for the crust at the bottom. Whether it was the truly non-stick pan, or whether I didn’t cook the rice at the beginning long enough, I will never know. All I found were patches of crust here and there. Nonetheless, after having sprinkled the nuts on top, the rice looked and tasted amazing and it was a wonderful accompaniment to a roasted chicken.

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ODE TO SOUP

Frankly, I never quite understood the popularity of canned soup. Sure, it’s convenient, one stop dish that gets dumped into a pot and reheated in two minutes but making soup is just about the simplest thing even an inept cook can do. Not to mention, it’s the best way of getting rid of vegetables, fruit and assorted bits and bobs lurking in the fridge.

A few days ago, an old lady approached me at the restaurant where I work and asked me if I could tell her what our soup starter was. I was puzzled for a split second because I wasn’t sure what a soup starter was and, before I could answer, she said “You know, I am allergic to many chemicals”. At which point I reassured her that all our food is made from scratch. “Yes, but what is your starter?”. “You mean, how we start a soup? Well, it’s typically olive oil, onion, celery and carrot”. And that is just it, if you are feeling adventurous. But you don’t need all three vegetables – leeks or shallots can stand in for the onion and carrots and celery can be dispensed altogether. Then the rest of the ingredients just follow into the pot, with about 6 cups of water or vegetable broth or chicken stock or, in my case, a mixture of what I have handy. But water alone will be fine. Some herbs, about 30 minutes depending on what vegetables or pulses you are using and you are done. If you are partial to puree, take out your hand blender (or a regular blender) and go to town. Salt and pepper can wait until the end, once you have tasted  the depth of flavour the vegetables have imparted.

Nearly two-thirds of the way into my yearly cleanse, with most food categories banned from my diet  and in need of nutritious and satisfying food, a bowl of soup with a slice of gluten-free bread can make me happy. It’s nice to add some cream to purees such as mushrooms, carrots, corn but, restricted from dairy, I have been using potatoes to thicken my soups. Potatoes not only fill me up but they also prevent me from losing any weight that I really don’t need losing.

On a rainy Sunday night, more reminiscent of November than the first few days of Spring, inspired by a recent recipe in the Dining Section of the Times, I rummaged through the fridge and found most of the ingredients called for.

I sliced two leeks very thin and a quarter of a yellow onion which I sautéed in a few tablespoons of olive oil until soft and golden. I added half a shredded cabbage, which I let caramelize for about 10 minutes. Then three peeled and diced russet potatoes, the cup of chicken stock I had handy, plus five cups of water and a cube of vegetable stock went in. And I left everything simmer for about an hour, until the potatoes were cooked through. I added salt to taste and served it with grated Parmesan. It was hearty, warming and, above all, super easy.

 

 

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MANGO POT DE CREME – and a custard primer

Mango Pot de Creme

A custard is a custard is a custard. Or is it? In the pastry kitchen, very specific definitions apply to different custards  and, if you have ever wondered what the difference is between a creme brulee and a creme caramel, here is a little primer.

CREME BRULEE

A brulee (burnt cream) is an egg and milk based custard heated on the stove, strained and baked in a hot water bath in individual brulee dishes (which tend to be wide and short). Once cold, and before being served, it gets covered in sugar that is quickly torched thus creating a thin and hard caramel layer on top. The same effect can be achieved by sliding the brulee under a broiler for a few seconds, although the result won’t be as even as the one obtained with a torch. Its origins are murky but indisputably French. The classic creme brulee is vanilla flavored but a million flavor variations have been concocted. One of my favourite ones is passion fruit brulee.

POT DE CREME

A pot de creme is essentially made the same way as a creme brulee but the base is strained into individual ramekins that are taller than a brulee dish (hence the pot part). Also baked in a water bath and served cold, it doesn’t have a hard layer on top. The ratio of milk to eggs is slightly different as well, making the pot de creme a bit looser and creamier. Chocolate is a standard pot de creme but, again, imagination is the limit.

CREME CARAMEL

Creme Caramel, while still technically a custard, is baked in a mold whose bottom has been covered by a layer of caramel. The egg and milk custard is poured on top, then baked and, when unmolded, the loose caramel layer will cover the top and sides, giving the final dish a slightly burnt flavor. Creme Caramel is heavily related to FLAN, also made with a layer of liquid caramel and inverted before serving. In many Mexican and Central American traditions, flan is made with condensed and evaporated milks and, for an even thicker texture, with cream cheese.

BUDINO

Budino is a sort of pudding, the only one made on the stove and not baked, with milk, eggs, sugar, chocolate (or any other flavor) and then poured in a mold and refrigerated. Its consistency is fairly thick, between a custard and a jelly.

Here is a pot de creme recipe of my creation. It requires mango puree, which can be bought on-line or obtained by pureeing and straining fresh mangoes.

MANGO POT DE CREME – RECIPE – Yields 6 4 oz portions

1 C Heavy Cream

3/4 C Milk

3/4 C Sugar

1/2 C Mango Puree

7 Yolks

  1. Combine cream, milk, sugar and mango puree and bring to near boiling. Remove from heat.
  2. Place the yolks in a bowl, ladle some of the hot mixture in and whisk very rapidly. Repeat with a few more ladles and then add all the liquid.
  3. Strain through a tight strainer or cheesecloth.
  4. Pour the liquid into ramekins, place them in a roasting pan with hot water reaching about 1/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Cover loosely with foil.
  5. Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes or until set. You will know they are set by gently shaking the ramekins: the pot de creme will jiggle as a whole.
  6. Let cool and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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HUITLACOCHE

Ready in minutes

“Huitla what?” I asked my friend Marie.

Always intrigued by food I haven’t tasted before, Marie was telling me about huitlacoche (sometimes called cuitlacoche), optimistically dubbed on the can as “corn truffles”.

I had to admit I had never heard of such a food, despite living in Southern California where Mexican cuisine is as American as turkey and apple pie. Not an item found in many restaurants, probably because it’s not widely available in this country, huitlacoche is a fungus that attacks corn, especially during times of drought. The black spores that attach to the maize and then develop into tumours roughly resemble a dark fava beans and, in Mexico, are harvested and eaten as a delicacy.

 

The precious little can

Disease, spore and tumour are not words one would want associated with dinner fare but I was tempted and grateful when Marie’s husband brought back a can of this unpronounceable specimen from a trip to Mexico. When I opened the can, I was confronted with a black, tarry and slimy mess vaguely resembling squid ink. My brief research on Wikipedia revealed that one of the possible meaning of the Aztec name had something to do with excrement, another unappealing image one doesn’t want attached to food. But I soldiered on.

I chopped some shallots and sautéed them in a bit of olive oil.

Looks can be deceiving

I then added the huitlacoche and heated the whole mess.

Giant quesadilla

 

I poured into a giant flour tortilla, which I folded, sprinkled with cotija cheese and some Cheddar and placed in the oven.

 

Cheese makes everything better

When I finally tasted it, the taste was unexpected as it doesn’t match what you are seeing. Having gained the moniker of “corn truffle, I had imagined an earthy and woody flavour – instead, the first profile was the sweetness of corn, followed by a herby, nearly minty fresh taste. It was definitely  hard to liken it to anything else and not as acquired a taste as you might be think. It was definitely a good and satisfying meal, tumours and spores notwithstanding.

 

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MUSHROOM LASAGNA – The actual recipe

I find most American versions of vegetable lasagna way too rich and laden with too much cheese – mozzarella, ricotta, Gruyère or combinations of the three make for a cholesterol unfriendly and greasy dish that scarcely resembles the original. My mom’s lasagna is phenomenal because the flavour comes from just mushrooms and Parmesan and its creaminess from bechamel sauce, a slightly less rich alternative to gobs of cheese.

She makes her own pasta which is paper-thin and doesn’t compare to the thick sheets one finds in a box but for me to make pasta by hand I have to be extremely motivated. Last Sunday, I wasn’t.

1 1/2 pound mixed mushrooms

1 oz dried Porcini

5 T Butter + more to dot the lasagna with when assemblying it

4 T Flour

3 C Milk

1 C Parmesan Cheese, grated

1/2 pound lasagna sheets

1/4 ts grated nutmeg

A/N salt and pepper

 

  1. Soak the porcini in warm water for 30 minutes. Drain and chop. Clean the fresh mushrooms and slice.
  2. Sautee all the mushrooms in 1 T of butter and 1 T of olive oil. Add a splash of milk, salt and pepper and cook on medium heat until the mushrooms are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Set aside.

    Sautee the mushrooms until soft

  3. To make the bechamel. Melt the remaining 4 T of butter in a saucepan, sprinkle the flour over it and whisk until well incorporated. Cook for a few minutes until deep yellow and nutty.

    Butter and flour (roux) as the base for bechamel

    Slowly pour the milk in the pan, while whisking continually. This is the boring part – you will have to stand at the stove, whisking, until the bechamel thickens. It’s done when it coats a wooden spoon – you don’t want it too thick as it will harden in the oven. When done, take the pan off the stove, add the nutmeg, salt and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Mix well.

    Done when a layer coats the back of a wooden spoon

  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the lasagna and cook according to package instructions. So the sheets won’t stick, when cooked I lift them one by one out of the pan and place them on a board covered with a linen or cotton dishrag to absorb the water.
  5. Butter a 9”x13” pan. Spread some bechamel on the bottom of the pan and then add the mushrooms to the remaining bechamel and mix.

    Mix bechamel and mushrooms

  6. Cover the bottom of the pan with the pasta sheets, cutting them to fit so they won’t overlap. Spread some of the bechamel/mushroom mixture, sprinkle some Parmesan and dot with some butter. Repeat until you have run out of layers. Finish with a healthy sprinkle of Parmesan and butter.

    Start layering

  7. Bake at 350 F, covered in foil for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15. Serve right out of the oven.

 

 

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MUSHROOM LASAGNA – The prequel

Bad, bad blogger. In between taking the lasagna out of the oven and sitting down to eat it, I received some unsettling news and I forgot all about taking a picture of the final dish. I could still snap the leftovers in the fridge but they wouldn’t look as appealing. The lasagna was, once again, a craving for my mother’s cooking. During the “dark years” of my vegetarianism, my mother, whose cooking repertoire is steeped in meat dishes, was trying her best to feed me, all the while lamenting her lack of ideas and my objection to meatIn fairness, I wasn’t living at home any longer, I wasn’t even living in the same country but, every time I visited or during Christmas vacations, my mom would start plotting meals well in advance of my arrival. She still does. At least two weeks before I am due to land, I know to expect the question “What do you want to eat when you get here?”

“Mom, I will be so jet-lagged and stuffed from bad airline food, really, don’t make a fuss”.

The conversation never ever varies and I just don’t know why I don’t sit down and make a list of dishes I want instead of fighting her. It’s a bone she will not let go of until I give her an answer.

I have never been very good at deciding in advance what I want to eat. My youth was dogged by the same question every morning upon setting off for school.

“What do you want to eat today?” while I was reaching for the door.

“I don’t know” I would answer with annoyance in my voice and a shrug of the shoulders. Between 14 and 18, my last concern in life was food. The same question would be posed to my father who probably cooperated a lot more than I, given his love for all things edible. My sister, seven years my junior, didn’t earn meal question privileges until my father left home and I set out for college. Yes, it sucks being the youngest.

It wasn’t until decades later that I came to understand my mother’s predicament: the poor soul made lunch and dinner for a family of four every single friggin’ day, vacations, some evenings out and some Sundays excluded. If you have to cook two meals a day for most of your grown-up life, I am not surprised she needed ideas or at least a hint of what her crowd might favour on any given day.

The family would gather around the dining room table at 1:30, when I got home from school and then again at 8:00 pm for dinner and two courses were invariably served – a pasta dish or soup followed by a meat/fish dish with vegetables. Every day. Twice a day.  Frankly, with nary a help from Martha Stewart, I am not sure how she pulled it out of her hat. Sometimes new recipes would wind their ways into her repertoire, compliments of a friend or of some relative whose dishes she had tasted. All of us had our favourites and our dislikes – god, how I hated ossobuco, liver or, ghastly horror !, tongue…Tortellini, noodles with meat ragout, chicken cacciatore, duck a l’orange, rabbits with black olives were among my favourites and it took me a long time to realize that not everybody ate that way. At 13, I started craving fish fingers, tasted at a friend’s house and forever more banned at mine.

No wonder breakfast was totally ignored. I would wake up before everybody else, shower and sneak into the yellow kitchen to make myself a large cup of milk with a shot of espresso which I would down sitting at the kitchen table, all by myself, munching on a Buondi (a sort of Italian brioche dotted with sugar) or a piece of toast with jam. When I was old enough to have some pocket-money, breakfast morphed into a pit-stop at a coffee shop where a cappuccino and a croissant would be consumed standing at the counter.

Now, this started as a post about the mushroom lasagna I was craving and made last night and I am not sure how it ended up down memory lane. For the actual recipe and the pics, you will have to wait until tomorrw. Leftovers are calling me.

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SFRAPPOLE or Italian Carnival Cakes

Sfrappole

My friend Luisa, who is from Veneto, calls them “crostoli”. In Genoa, they would be referred to as “bugie”. I have been calling them sfrappole since I can remember but every Italian region will have a different name and a slightly different recipe. “They” are Carnival cakes, thin ribbons of dough, deep fried and sprinkled with powder sugar. Like some of the dishes my mother makes, her sfrappole are the best because they are ethereal, so thin and light they melt in your mouth when, so often, they can othewise be laden with oil and rolled too thick.

Every year, I make a point of NOT making them because I don’t have the self-restraint to stop at a few. I will break down if my mother is visiting and will ask her to prepare them for me (and then I won’t eat anything else for the rest of the day). Her secret is, as usual, some brandy or cognac, and no butter, which can be found in many variations.

Butter will make the sfrappole heavy and greasy. Or so my mother says. Here is her tried and true recipe. Measurements, coming from my mother, are approximate and I translated them as best I could. The dough should be elastic and not too stiff, otherwise you will have a hard time rolling them.

Fry them  2 or 3 at a time in a small pot, unless you have a fryier, which would be ideal.

RECIPE

1 1/2 C AP Flour

2 Eggs

1 T Sugar

1 to 2 T Brandy or Cognac

1 C Canola Oil

A/N Powder Sugar

  1. Put the flour and sugar in a medium bowl, make a well in the center and break the eggs in it. Beat the eggs and flour together lightly with a fork, pulling the flour into the center. Before all the flour is incorporated, add the brandy. If the dough seems too dry, you can add a little bit of water.
  2. Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes. Let rest 30 minutes.
  3. When ready to roll it, divide the dough into 2 balls and, using a rolling pin, roll the dough very thin, until almost transparent. If you have a pasta machine, use the lowest setting.
  4. Cut the dough into ribbons, about 3” by 1 1/2”. Set aside and repeat with the rest of the dough.
  5. Pour the oil in a small pot and heat on med/high until very hot. Dropping a little bit of flour in it will immediately sizzle when ready.
  6. Lower 2 or 3 ribbons at a time and let them get twisted. Lift them tongs when they turn deep golden. Place them on paper towels.
  7. When finished, using a sifter, sprinkle powder sugar on the sfrappole.

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SPAETZLE

My version of spaetzle

Monday was Germany. My dinners sometimes are spurred by something I read that stirred my curiosity or a dish somebody mentioned. Unless I am entertaining, I only cook twice a week (the rest of the time it’s just a bowl of cereal and a cup of rooibos) so I must make it interesting.

Recently, a colleague mentioned spaetzle, which brought to the surface of my dim memory dinners in mountaintop chalets in Tyrol when I was a kid, several feet of snow outside and delicious, hot and heavy dishes inside.

Spaetzle (which translates to little sparrow) is, essentially, a home made egg noodle. In Germany, at least in Sud -Tyrol, spaetzle machines can easily be found in most homes but all you need is either a colander with largish holes or a potato ricer. I went with the base of a pizza dish which had nice, large holes. Traditionally, spaetzle is mixed with browned onions and cheese and served as a side dish. I served it as a main course by adding some sausages to it and baking everything in the oven but, once the noodles are cooked, you can sautee the whole thing in a pan and just serve it.

RECIPE

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 1/4 C flour

1/4 ts nutmeg

2 eggs

8 oz Emmenthal cheese, grated

salt

3/4 to 1 C milk

2 your favourite sausage links, if using

  1. Brown the onion on medium heat until nicely caramelized. Add salt to taste. If using, cut the sausage into chunks and cook them in a pan until nicely browned.

    Caramelize the onions firstAnd the sausages

  2. Combine flour, nutmeg and salt.
  3. In a different bowl, whisk eggs and milk (start with 3/4 cup). Add wet ingredients to dries and mix with a spatula. The batter should look like a thick pancake batter – add a little more milk if too stiff.

    The batter should look a little less stiff than this

  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and place a colander on it (or use the potato ricer over it). Press some of the batter, a few spoonfuls at a time, through the holes. The spaetzle, like gnocchi, is cooked when the little sparrows come floating to the top.

    Here is what I used but a colander or potato ricer will do

  5. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a large, flat dish covered with a cotton towel.

    Press the batter through the holes

    They are ready when they float up

  6. Combine spaetzle, onions, and 3/4 of the cheese (and sausage) in a bowl, then transfer to a gratin dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is nicely melted.Combine everything in a gratin dish
  7. Alternatively, put all the ingredients in a sautee pan and cook on medium heat until cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

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