February 26, 2010

Ah Italia!

Forgive me for not posting in a while, but I just got back from a most wonderful, glorious vacation in Italy. Until last week, I hadn't been to Italy in about ten years, and I had forgotten how much I loved it, how when you've lived in a place it really gets under your skin and touches your very soul. The landscape. The people. Speaking my mangled Italian. And oh the food, the food.

How we ate. And drank. We all had our particular delights. Mr. Coffee loved getting reacquainted with the coffee. The Soccer Monster couldn't get enough of perfectly al dente spaghetti with tomato sauce. And the Vegetarian was thrilled with polenta and spinach gnocchi and pasta with pesto sauce.

And me?  I loved it all, though my favorite thing may have been simply the way food and drink are so important there. The small restaurant with outdoor tables good for watching the world go by, except that instead of being in a piazza it's beside a ski slope. The morning market in the Rialto in Venice, where they list the provenance of every beautiful vegetable or fish you might want to buy. (This being winter, a lot of the produce was from Sicily.) Italy may not be good for the waistline but the gustatory pleasure it brings is worth every calorie.

I was too thrilled with being there and too new to this blogging thing to remember to take any pictures of the incredible risotto or gnocchi or plates of polenta with sausage that I consumed, but I will leave you with two iconic images from my vacation.

This was the Nutella jar put out every morning at breakfast in our ski hotel. The soccer monster's eyes got big as soccer balls the first time he saw it. Honestly, the jar was almost two feet high. We were there during Italian school holidays and that jar was empty by the end of the week.

 And this was the prosciutto slicer that sat in the corner of the breakfast room of our Venice hotel. Cranking the big red wheel would result in a plate covered in thin pink luscious slices of prosciutto—as many as you wanted.

And believe me, I wanted a lot.

February 15, 2010

Risotto alla Crema di Scampi

Well, technically, it's a risotto alla crema di gamberi, since gamberi are shrimp. Scampi are more like saltwater crayfish.

This dish practically screams "Roma" to me because this particular risotto is very popular in Roman restaurants and one of the things I miss most from my days in Rome. In fact, when I no longer lived there but would go back to visit my parents, I would start thinking about this dish on the plane ride over.

One of our neighborhood restaurants made a particularly good version of this risotto, and I would begin plotting to have a meal there as soon as I arrived. Even Mr. Coffee, who is not a huge risotto fan, loves this dish and would always order it when in Rome.

For years I would google for a recipe and come up empty-handed, but the other day I found this one. (This is a great blog about Italian cooking, by the way, and well worth checking out.)

This risotto is different from most because you make a pureed shrimp-tomato-cream sauce and stir it in when the risotto is almost finished. The dish seems complicated but really isn't that bad, though it will use 3 pots and a blender or food processor, so get ready. Basically, there are three steps: shelling the shrimp and making a fumet, or shrimp broth; cooking the shrimp with tomatoes and cream and then pureeing the result; and making a risotto with the shrimp broth and adding the puree (along with some butter, of course!) almost at the end.

I've never seen this risotto in a restaurant in the USA, so I think it's one of those things that's well worth making at home.

I of course made mine in my pressure cooker (have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?), which cut down on the cooking time considerably. I suspect one could also make the shrimp stock and the shrimp-tomato-cream sauce in the pressure cooker before the risotto, giving it a rinse after each step and cutting down even more on cooking time. But I didn't do that.

The best garnish for this dish is some chopped parsley, but I didn't have any so I used dill instead, which was very un-Italian of me. If you want to go all fancy (I rarely do) you could save a couple of whole shrimp to garnish each serving with.

Seriously, make this.

I know I'm a little late, but this would make a great first course for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner.

Maybe next year.

February 8, 2010

Roasted Alu Gobi

That's roasted cauliflower and potato to all you non-Indian-food-eating folks.

Alu gobi is a classic Indian vegetable combo in which potatoes (alu—or aloo—or alou—there's really no end to the ways you can transliterate Hindi words into English) and cauliflower (gobi) are cooked together in a spice-laden sauce. The sauce can be soupy or it can be kind of dry and cling to the vegetables.

Now I'll let you in on a secret. I've never liked alu gobi much. Maybe it's because the cauliflower often gets sort of boiled in the sauce and I find boiled mushy cauliflower kind of off-putting—unless it's in creamy cauliflower soup.

Then I discovered roasting cauliflower. I assume most people know about this fabulous way to cook cauliflower, but just in case you don't, let me exhort you. GO ROAST SOME CAULIFLOWER NOW!

Roasting turns cut-up cauliflower florets into sweet, caramelized, succulent little morsels. And it couldn't be easier. Just cut up cauliflower, toss with a little oil and salt, and roast in 375 degree oven until tender. (You can fool around with the oven temp. Lower and slower makes them a little sweeter; higher and faster gets them a little browner. I compromise with a middling temp.)

To make a long story short, it wasn't much of a hop from roasting plain cauliflower to roasting it tossed in some Indian spices (a masala, if you will) and from there it was only a skip to roasting it with potatoes and then tossing them together in a bowl to let their flavors mingle.

A couple of things about roasted alu gobi:

1) If you're lazy efficient like me and only use one roasting pan, put the potatoes and cauliflower on separate sides, like this:

That way, if the potatoes get done before the cauliflower, it's easy to take them out. If you don't want to be lazy efficient, you can use two roasting pans. Just make sure you switch em up on the racks a couple of times to ensure even cooking.

2) I think this dish tastes best if made ahead and left in the bowl for a couple of hours. I think it tastes better at room temp anyway.

I added some chopped peanuts this time (I threw them onto the baking sheet about 10 minutes before the cauliflower was done) but they didn't seem to be a big hit—the Vegetarian pushed all of her peanuts to the side of her plate. (And she absolutely loves this dish!)

Also, though I used them here, I don't really love small new potatoes in this dish. I favor Yukon golds or some other yellow-fleshed variety. But hey, use whatever you have.

And feel free to mix up the spices. Add in some garam masala; leave out the turmeric. It should all taste good.

Roasted Alu Gobi
2 pounds potatoes, peeled (or not) and cut into pieces
1 head cauliflower, cut into smallish florets
peanut or some kind of neutral oil
1 tbsp ground coriander
2 tsps ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
peanuts, cilantro, or coconut to garnish (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 375. Mix all the spices, including salt and cayenne, if using, together in a small bowl.
2) In a large bowl, mix the potatoes with half the spice mixture and enough oil to coat. Spread the potatoes on one side of a lightly oiled baking sheet.
3) In the same bowl, toss together the cauliflower, the rest of the spice mixture, and enough oil to coat. Spread on the other side of the baking sheet.
4) Bake, turning pan occasionally, until vegetables are done. Potatoes may be done before cauliflower. If that happens, use a spatula to remove the potatoes to a serving bowl and continue cooking the cauliflower until done.
5) Toss vegetables together in the serving bowl and add salt if necessary. Garnish with chopped peanuts, chopped cilantro, shredded coconut, a drizzle of mustard oil—anything you want, really.

February 4, 2010

Pea Soup

Pea soup never looks truly appetizing in a picture, right?

Winter's chill turns one's thoughts to sludgy, porridge-like soups, and pea soup fits the bill.

Years ago, when I was young and broke in New York, I used to love the pea soup at the Kiev restaurant in the East Village. A couple of dollars would get you a steaming bowl of dill-laced Ukrainian pea soup and two thick slices of buttered challah bread.

The Kiev isn't there anymore (Isn't that what makes us old New Yorkers—knowing of places that aren't there anymore?) but I still use a lot of dill in my pea soup.  Maybe it's the Eastern European in me, but dill and soup just seem to go together.

I'm not giving you a recipe for pea soup today, because I never use one. I just kind of wing it, and you can, too. Pea soup is forgiving that way.

I usually start with some leeks sauteed in olive oil or bacon fat or lard or whatever you want. If you don't have leeks, you can use onions. Add some celery if you want. Or not. And some carrots. I don't use always use carrots, because sometimes I like my soup to be all green. However, carrots add some necessary sweetness, so instead I will often add a special ingredient:

They're pea leaves, and I get them in Chinatown. I just chop them up small and add them into the soup. I feel they ramp up the pea flavor and add a sweetness that would be lacking without the carrots.

I also add about a half a large bunch of dill, chopped, and the same again of flat leaf parsley. This time I also added some cilantro, because it was in my fridge. Really, you can't go wrong. Trust me.

Then add the peas, rinsed, and enough water (or broth) to cover them by about 4 inches. Add salt and a ham hock or hambone if you want. Add a smidgen of crushed red pepper. I do. This time I also added a handful of barley.

tangent: Did you know barley, besides being delicious and good for you, also has a very low glycemic index—for those of you interested in these things? Barley is great and I'm always looking for ways to get more of it into my life. Try it instead of rice in risotto or pilaf. Cook it in broth and mix with chopped vegetables, oil and vinegar, and feta cheese for a salad.

I make pea soup in my pressure cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?) so I bring the whole lot to a boil and then cook it under high pressure for about 10 minutes. But you could do the same in a regular pot, it'll just take you a lot longer. Bring it to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer and cook it for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

When the peas are done and have melted into a liquid sludge, check the consistency. Want it thicker? boil it for a while. Want it thinner? Add some water.

When it's the consistency you want, taste it and add salt if needed, and, if you like a slight acid bite, about a tablespoon of cider vinegar.

At my house we enjoy pea soup as is with a few shakes of Texas Pete or some other vinegary hot sauce. But you could also top it with croutons or creme fraiche or whatever your heart desires.

And you can make it with yellow split peas, too. They cook exactly the same way. So use whichever color peases you.

February 2, 2010

Seafood Salad

The other day wild shrimp were on sale and the bay scallops looked decent (They were dry. Always ask if the scallops are wet or dry and only buy the dry kind—the wet have been plumped full of a solution to both preserve them and bulk them up) so I bought some of each, without really thinking of what I would do with them.

When I got home, I got a craving for seafood salad, so that's what I proceeded to make. Forgive the pictures—my kitchen is so dimly lit, I am incapable of taking good ones after 3 pm. Which is unfortunate, as most of my cooking happens after 3 pm.

I had also gotten some delicious olive oil on the same shopping trip, and craving something glossed with that oil made me decide to do an Italian style seafood salad. I've had Italy on the brain lately for a variety of reasons, one of which is having had to speak Italian at dinner the other night to a friend's mother who didn't speak English. It left me with an intense yearning for Italy—the kind of yearning I haven't felt in a long while. But then, back when Italy was the family hub (before it switched to Thailand) and yearly visits were just part of the fabric of life, I would never have believed that ten years could pass without me setting eyes on the land of pasta and pietas.

I usually make more of a latin or asian style seafood salad with big, bold flavors—cilantro, garlic, lime. The Italian style one is much simpler. The point is to let the olive oil and the ingredients shine.

So take whatever kind of seafood you have bought (You would never find bay scallops in a seafood salad in Italy, but I say better to go with fresh than authentic) and poach it in simmering water until it is just barely done. We're talking about 30 seconds for calamari and not much more for shrimp or scallops. I poach my shrimp in the shell and then peel them.

Then just toss the warm seafood with very good olive oil, lemon juice, some sliced celery and chopped celery leaves, some chopped flat-leaf parsley, and salt and pepper. You won't need the salt if you poach your seafood in properly highly salted water, but I didn't salt my poaching water too much because I wanted to use it to make shrimp stock with the shells afterwards. (for risotto alla crema di gamberi, one of my all-time favorite dishes—more on that later.)

I like a lot of lemon juice, but that's very un-Italian of me. Really the lemon juice should just be there to boost the olive oil and let it dazzle.

Once you've mixed and tasted, throw the salad in the fridge for a couple of hours so the flavors can meld. Don't serve it too cold, though. Take it out about a half hour before serving and let it come to cool room temp.

Eat with crusty bread, followed by pasta with a simple tomato-butter sauce and a vegetable or salad.

Italian Style Seafood Salad
1 pound assorted raw seafood (or 1 and 1/2 pounds if using clams or mussels)
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1 tbsp chopped celery leaves
1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
about 1/4 very good quality first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
about 1 tbsp lemon juice or to taste
salt and pepper
Bring a pot of heavily salted water to boil. Add seafood and cook until just done, about 30 seconds for calamari and one minute for shrimp or scallops (more time for bigger ones, less time for smaller).
Drain, shelling shrimp if necessary, and place in a large bowl with celery, celery leaves, and parsley. Add olive oil and lemon juice and toss to combine.
Taste, and add salt, pepper, and more olive or lemon juice until it tastes right to you. The seafood and the olive oil should be the main flavors of the dish.
Refrigerate in a serving bowl for 2 hours and up to a day. Remove a half hour before serving.