Monday, June 29, 2009

Random rice

It is amazing, what is tucked away in the hinterlands of my fridge and pantry. With the exception of a trip to the farmers' market here and there ('tis the season, after all), I truly don't think I need to go to the grocery until at least the next millennium.

What I found in the hinterlands the other night:
  • Young garlic from the farmers' market (the cloves are starting to form but are not yet bulbous in that familiar way and are "wet" as opposed to papery and dry)
  • Red rice (from when I made this dish)
  • Aleppo pepper that I purchased because I had never tried it, then continued not to try it by placing the jar, unopened, in my pantry for several months
  • Leftover vegetable stock that needed to be used lest it expire
Husband and I had already decided to make chana masala for dinner, which I always serve with a random rice dish -- random meaning I mix whatever is handy in with the rice and hope it tastes nice with the chana masala. I considered the items in the aforementioned list: random rice ingredients if I've ever seen them. Plus, I was pretty stoked to let the farmers' market garlic shine like that.

Usually the random rice I make is serviceable, but not a star. It sometimes lacks assertive flavor of its own, but it nevertheless works as a starchy bed for the chana masala. Which is fine. But this rice. Well, this rice is good enough to hog the spotlight. And though it isn't much of a looker, it is so good I did make it two nights in a row.

The star of the dish is the young garlic. It imparts the rice with a mild but unmistakable garlic flavor and, well, it just looks so darned pretty when sliced thinly on the bias. The ratio of oil and stock to rice makes this dish a little creamier and less fluffy than traditional pilafs, which is OK with me as it complements the chana masala both in terms of bold flavor and thick, hearty texture.

More than anything else, though, this rice was satisfying because I made it with ingredients I already had on hand. No shopping list, no trips to the store, no wasting of uneaten food languishing in the fridge and pantry. I was inspired, for a fleeting moment, to join the Eating Down the Fridge challenge, at least in spirit. But then the next day I was making a quick strawberry jam and realized I had no lemons to juice. And to the store I went.

It was good while it lasted.



If you can't find red rice, basmati or jasmine rice works nicely. The point, after all, is to use what you have on hand.

3 T. olive oil
3 heads young garlic, including 3-4 inches of the green stem, thinly sliced
Pinch kosher salt
2 t. cumin
2 t. coriander
1 t. Aleppo pepper, or to taste (can substitute red pepper flakes)
1 c. red rice
2 c. vegetable stock

Place the olive oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the edges begin to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the kosher salt and cook another 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the garlic is translucent and begins to crisp on the edges.

Add the cumin, coriander and pepper. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, then add the rice. "Toast" the rice in the garlic-spice mixture, stirring frequently, for about 3-5 minutes.

Pour the vegetable stock over the rice mixture then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, 20-25 minutes. Stir the rice occasionally to prevent excessive sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Serve with your favorite chana masala (mine is Orangette's, which just hits the spot). You could also, of course, serve this rice alongside chicken or grilled salmon or anything, really. Or you could eat it by itself. I just happen to like its spice along with the complex flavor of chana masala.

Serves 2 as a side dish.

Bread Baker's Apprentice 7/43: ciabatta

Today I learned an important lesson about holes. Namely, the holes that make ciabatta what it is -- big vacuous spaces throughout the crumb that are the sought-after product of proper dough hydration and stretching technique.

It really is remarkable stuff, that ciabatta. I had no idea, being up until this point a ciabatta-eater but not a ciabatta-baker. I am, from this point forward however, a ciabatta-baker.

The dough starts with a poolish -- a fragrant pre-ferment of flour, yeast and water that I made three nights earlier and allowed to chill in the fridge, where it became wonderfully bubbly, vibrant and stretchy.

Though ciabatta dough can be enriched with olive oil and/or milk, I chose to make the original lean version of the dough, which consists of nothing more than the poolish, additional flour, yeast, salt and water. Bread baking really is alchemy.

After it is kneaded, the soft ciabatta dough is shaped into a rectangle then stretched and folded over itself a few times, with a rest in between folding sessions. Reinhart tells us to flour liberally the dough at each step, as it's a very wet and sticky product. It's also very silky and lovely, and you can see -- if you look closely -- the big characteristic air bubbles forming just below the surface of the dough.

Ciabatta is a hearth bread; it should be baked on a baking stone in a fiery 500-degree oven, which is a totally fabulous thing to do in the middle of summer let me tell you. No matter; good bread is worth a little sweat. The ciabatta also needs a blast of steam at the onset of baking to allow the bread to benefit from a "spring" -- that is, a last-minute, in-oven, rapid rise before the crust sets. Reinhart suggests placing a cast iron skillet on the floor of the oven, then adding a cup of simmering water to the pan when the bread goes in, then spraying the sides of the oven with water at 30-second intervals during the first minute and a half of baking. Which is all well and good, but man alive, does that water spit and jump and hiss all over the place. One would be wise to use an elbow-length oven mitt so as to avoid burns on one's forearms. I'm just saying.

Once all the drama with the steam was over, the ciabatta baked quietly and peacefully and perfectly, achieving a gorgeous flour-streaked crust that made the loaves look like they came from an actual bakery. And after the mandated 45 minutes of cooling, cutting into the ciabatta was a great thrill indeed. I wasn't sure what to expect: Would I have achieved the storied ciabatta holes? (Yes, to a degree that pleases me as a beginner ciabatta baker.) Would the bread be evenly baked? (Yes!) Would I be able to control myself and only eat a few slices? (Not on your life.)

The ciabatta tasted marvelous -- yeasty and chewy and ciabatta-y. I am looking forward to trying the recipe again, however, as there is definitely room for improvement. Namely, I'd like to work on those holes, make them even larger and more pervasive throughout the crumb. (I'm going to create an even wetter dough next time to achieve this.) And due to all that folding and liberal flouring of the dough during the shaping phase, I did end up with a little bit of raw flour on the inside of my bread. Next time I'll use a little less flour, confident that the sticky dough will be manageable without an excessive amount of the stuff. Finally, I'll need to determine a better way to handle that steam -- you know, without causing quite so much injury.

But the prevention of bodily harm takes a back seat to those holes. I need to work on those holes. They need to be magnificent. I am a woman on a mission.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not post the recipes for Reinhart's breads. But if you, too, care little for the skin on your forearms and wish to create a bread that you might not believe you baked in your own oven, turn your copy of the book to page 135.

Also, please do enjoy a few of my fellow Bread Bakers' ciabatta loaves:
  • You Eat Now makes a version of ciabatta that begins with the biga pre-ferment (as opposed to the poolish, which I used). Biga is more hydrated and provides for a looser crumb and bigger holes.
  • Paula at Bell'alimento has hole issues, too, but loves the flavor of her loaves. I can relate.
  • A Chef's Daughter achieves enviable holes, and adds mushrooms to her bread.
  • Haley at Appoggiatura uses the biga pre-ferment and works those holes like they're going out of style.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Snapshots from a traveler #2

Aboard the Andando sailing vessel in the Galapagos Islands. Mom (right) and Hillary helped reel in these yellowfin tuna as we traveled between islands. It was as fresh as seafood gets; our chef presented this as sushi -- with all the proper accoutrements -- no more than 10 minutes after I took this photo.

(Hillary was one of our co-passengers on board Andando. She and her husband, Norman, were British and very delightful. I presume they are still both of those things.)

Somewhere between Floreana and Punta Moreno, Isabela, Galapagos, Ecuador -- November/December 1999.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 6/43: challah

Here's something I learned last week: unexpected landscaping gets in the way of challah baking. And you can take that to the bank.

You see, my neighbors had 12 or so large evergreens in their back yard, which provided an excellent landscape screen that I did not adequately appreciate until it was gone. Sadly, the trees were diseased and they cut them all down last week. Which I totally get; diseased, dead trees = bad. And my neighbors had the courtesy to let me know of their plans. The problem is, our previously blissfully private back porch is no longer quite so sheltered, and my neighbors aren't going to plant anything else to replace the trees they cut down. What they did leave were four gigantic mounds of mulch from the chipped trees, dotting their back yard like gargantuan unsightly ant hills. And a collection of gardening equipment -- stacks and stacks of plastic pots, a plastic shed, a wheelbarrow -- that was previously tucked in behind the tree boughs and is now exposed for all to see. They don't live in the house (they rent it to a lovely family), so I'm thinking that because they don't have to live with it, what do they care?

Being the anal retentive gardener that I am, I immediately embarked on a quest for an aesthetically pleasing screen to block our porch from the slash-and-burn landscape next door. After many trips to several local gardening centers and a few lengthy conversations with landscapers and horticulturalists, I settled on three green giant thuja -- a reasonably priced arborvitae relative that is a little more deer resistant, can tolerate wetter soil and grows fast and thick. I begged Dad to come over with his pick axe to chop through my clay-y soil and plant my new trees. He complained a little, but eventually obliged, which I knew he would because he is awesome. A couple of hours of intense pick axe-wielding and topsoil-hauling later, I had the beginnings of reclaimed privacy. And I can even decorate my new trees with Christmas lights in the winter!

So. What does all this have to do with challah? Challah is the sixth recipe of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge, and we were supposed to have completed it by this past Sunday. Seeing as how I spent this past Sunday quizzing arborists on the merits of evergreen arborvitae versus deciduous dawn redwood, I didn't exactly get my bread baked. But you know what? Challah tastes really great no matter when you bake it. So all is forgiven.

Challah is a traditional Jewish celebration bread -- one of Husband's favorites. Reinhart's challah dough started out painfully sticky to knead; in fact, I was pretty certain that something had gone terribly wrong and that this would be my first Bread Baker's fail. But the more I kneaded it, the more it came together into a smooth ball that rose very quickly and evenly, bubbling and expanding right before my eyes. Reinhart offers a fool-proof method for braiding the dough, too: start in the middle and work your way to the ends. Brilliant! The next time I make tsoureki I will follow this braiding method and hopefully end up with a more even braid.

Far from a fail, the challah baked wonderfully into a large, crusty loaf with a soft and tender crumb. I couldn't help but bust into it this morning, slicing off three pieces and slathering them with jam and then eating them in the car on the way to work, crumbs falling all over my lap. Normally I wouldn't be so slovenly, but after my foray into landscaping and my new found dexterity with a pick axe, I figured a little messiness was par for the course.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not post Reinhart's recipes. But you know you want some challah. So put down the pick axe, pick up the book and get to kneading. The recipe begins on page 133.

Also, be sure to check out these excellent challah posts from fellow Bread Bakers:

Monday, June 22, 2009

What a garlic scape is

There are certain words in the English language that just rub me the wrong way. "Rub" is one of these words. It just makes me shudder. Apparently I don't like the sound of the short "u," because I also dislike words like "tub." Actually, now that I'm really considering it, I suppose I don't care for the long "u," either, as "tube" and "lube" are similarly unpleasant to me. So perhaps what truly bothers me is the letter "u" in combination with "b" -- "rule" and "yule" are not nearly as offensive. Yes, that's it. I have finally figured it out. Really weird, right? At least I can admit it.

You know another word I'm generally not comfortable saying? "Scapes." As in, "garlic scapes." A word like "scapes" should never be used to describe food, especially not tasty delicious food. Because it sounds much too much like "scabies" or "scrapes" or "scab" or "scapula." What a garlic scape is: a tender, mild, flavorful, gorgeous shoot -- attached to the garlic bulb -- that peeks its way out of the earth while the garlic as we know it continues to mature underground. What a garlic scape is not: an itchy skin condition, the result of an injurious fall, evidence of the healing of said injury, or a bone that connects the arm bone to the clavicle.

So. Can't we all agree to call garlic scapes something more reflective of their pleasing flavor -- something a little less of or relating to illness and injury? "Garlic shoots" would work; we have pea shoots and we all think those are sweet and lovely and cute. Maybe "garlic stems." Or "garlic tops." All preferable to the dreaded "scape."

Oh! It gets worse! Google tells me "scape" comes from the Latin for "shaft" or "stalk" -- and as such makes perfect sense to describe the shoot or stem of a plant. However, in addition to being a leafless stalk growing directly out of a root, "scape" can also describe the lowest part of an insect's antenna or the shaft of an animal part, such as antenna or feather. Yum.

You get my point. Now that I have disgusted you all with my narrative, allow me to proceed with a delicious recipe.

The crop from my favorite garlic farm -- a 10-acre operation just up the road from my house called the Thaxton Family Farm -- is, naturally, not ready yet. But what do I have to satisfy my local garlic needs as I wait for the Thaxtons' nuanced and flavorful garlic to be harvested? You guessed it: scapes. This past Saturday at the farmers' market the Thaxtons were set up with a table full of scapes, recipes for how to use scapes, and samples of said recipes. I stood in the early morning rain eyeing the pretty green shoots and tasting, among other things, a white bean and garlic scape spread. It was so good. Even if it was only 9:15 a.m. and I still had the flavor of pancakes and real maple syrup on my tongue.

I took a bag of 20 scapes home with me from the market and used some of them to make turkey burgers for our Father's Day cookout. While we grilled a steak for Dad -- a special day requires a special cut of beef for the man of honor -- the rest of us (non-red-meat) eaters enjoyed the turkey burgers. The scapes were a perfect and subtle addition, imbuing the meat with a mild garlic flavor and flecks of fresh green. The little surprise of goat cheese tucked inside the burger was a creamy, tangy foil to the burger's garlic and onion overtones.

Though the scapes are quite fragrant when chopped, their cooked flavor is not nearly as strong. For such a harsh and unforgiving name, they certainly are measured and pleasing in flavor. And as long as they are in season, I will continue to devise uses for them.

And nicknames.



20 oz. ground turkey
3 T. garlic scapes, minced (about 3 scapes)
About 1/4 of a large onion, diced
2 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Pinch kosher salt
1 large egg
1 c. panko
1 oz. goat cheese
1 oz. butter (I use Plugra salted butter)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the turkey, garlic scapes, onion, parsley, salt, egg and panko. Using your hands, mix thoroughly to combine.

Cut the goat cheese and butter into 4 equal pieces.

Working with a quarter of the turkey mixture, form it into a patty. Using your thumb, make a well in the center of the patty. Place one piece of goat cheese and one piece of butter into the well. Working around the circumference of the patty, fold up the edges of the patty to cover the cheese and butter. Set aside. Form the remaining 3 patties the same way. You can chill the patties for a few hours, or move them straight to the grill.

(Wrapped and ready to take to the Father's Day cookout.)

(Sister grips a plate in anticipation, while Dad steadies his sangria atop the grill.)

Grill for 12-15 minutes, until the center of the burger registers 161 degrees Fahrenheit. You can, of course, cook them indoors on a grill pan or in a bit of oil in a skillet. I served mine on a ciabatta roll with a bit of mayonnaise, though I think they'd be great with a few arugula leaves and a slice of tomato, too.

Makes 4 burgers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Snapshots from a traveler #1

You know, I've been thinking.

This blog is about food, people and places that have great meaning to me, and the stories that connect all three. I tell you a heck of a lot about the food. I talk about the people all the time. I gush in nostalgic fashion about the places.

But what I don't do, at least on a regular basis, is share glimpses of the places I've visited. There are many beautiful, interesting, inspiring, meaningful places on this earth. I am very lucky to have been to some of them. It seems nearly criminal to keep images of them locked away on my external drive.

And so it is that each Thursday I'll share a photo from my travels -- captioned, but presented without excessive commentary -- for your viewing pleasure.

Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy -- from the air, July 1984.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It is wise to pay attention

I have this friend, Chris, who makes really amazing salsa. He also makes really amazing drinks, but then again he is a bartender and is quite skilled in the arena of liquor. Having spent time in both southern California and Texas, Chris is somewhat of a Tex-Mex/Mexican/Southwest/Baja culinary enthusiast, bringing those life experiences to bear on some damn fine dishes, including the aforementioned salsa. It is legendary stuff: he makes it in large batches and then brings it to his bar to distribute to the well-informed, in-the-loop salsa lovers of our small town. The people appear, belly up to the bar, order their drinks, then say something like, "I heard you had salsa."

So a few weeks ago when Chris was talking about the tacos he makes that remind him of what he used to eat in Baja, I listened. It is wise to pay attention when Chris is talking tacos. Because, as shameful as it is, tacos for me usually involve an envelope of seasonings blazoned with the words "Old El Paso." I do doctor up my taco mixture, adding onions and herbs and additional spices, but still: the backbone of the tacos that emerge from my kitchen is, alas, store-bought. No wonder Husband isn't such a big fan.

As Chris described how he poaches the chicken for his tacos in a bath of stock, cumin seed, pickled jalapenos and various aromatics -- and then wraps the shredded meat and toppings in two layers of corn tortilla -- I started dreaming of a better taco way. He relayed the ingredients and method to me via text message and I got to work.

Just a little while later, Husband and I found that we had consumed an untoward number of tacos. And yet we didn't feel like we had to go put on our spreadin'-out clothes. These tacos are delicious, and light, and fresh, and perfect. Though we ate ours with a healthy dose of Chris' proprietary salsa, if you can't get your hands on any of that, your favorite quality -- or favorite homemade -- salsa will suffice. (When there is no Chris Salsa in my fridge, I use Rick Bayless' Frontera brand.)

That said, I highly recommend that you get in with Chris. Because when you're in with Chris, you are tipsy and full of salsa. And who doesn't want that?


Recipe from Chris O'Hare, Salsa Magnate

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large white or yellow onion, cut into chunks, plus 1/2 c. onion, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, cut into chunks
1/3 c. pickled jalapenos
2 T. cumin seeds
2 T. dried cilantro
Pinch kosher salt
6 1/2 c. chicken stock (you can use half stock and half water, if you wish)
20 corn tortillas
1/2 c. fresh cilantro leaves
Your favorite salsa, to taste
2 avocados, thinly sliced
Sea salt, to taste

Place the chicken breasts in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion chunks, carrots, tomatoes, jalapenos, cumin, cilantro, kosher salt and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and set aside. (You will be tempted to think of ways to reuse the lovely broth that results from this poaching; a few suggestions follow below.*)

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it into bite-size pieces. Place the corn tortillas, two at a time, in a dry skillet for about 30 seconds, to warm and soften them.

Assemble the tacos: fill two warmed corn tortillas with chicken, diced onion, a few cilantro leaves, a few avocado slices and salsa to taste. Sprinkle with just a bit of sea salt. (If you are wondering why the two tortillas: Chris says that using two insures against breakage. And of course, he is right. As corn tortillas don't bend very easily, having a second one there is a little insurance policy that your taco won't fall apart.)

Eat. Then make yourself another one, and another, and another.

*Note: Strain the leftover stock, reserving the liquid and discarding the spent vegetables. Store the stock in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Chris has informed me that he uses the leftover stock to poach pre-cooked turkey sausages. He says it adds lots of flavor to the sausages and makes them a lot less dry. He would be correct. It also adds a nice spiciness to the sausage, a welcome flavor addition at breakfast-time. Additionally, you can use the leftover stock to poach another batch of chicken for more tacos -- or any meat, for that matter, that you'd like to have a flavorful, spicy kick.

Makes 10 tacos, which serves 3-4 people depending on the level of hunger. In my kitchen, this recipe serves more like 2-3. I'm just not going to lie to you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 5/43: casatiello

So last week -- inspired by my buttery brioche -- I made the outrageous claim that I was going to start a running program. And now, one week later, I am pleased and -- quite honestly -- rather surprised to report that I have indeed started running: I'm on week one of The Runner's Handbook beginning runner's schedule and feeling pretty good. But it bears mentioning that I also made another brioche-like bread this week, called casatiello, which is full of butter and, oh yeah, cheese. And olives.

Thank goodness I got myself moving this week. Just in the nick of time, it would seem.

The fifth recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice is the aforementioned casatiello, which Peter Reinhart describes as "a rich, dreamy Italian elaboration of brioche, loaded with flavor bursts in the form of cheese and bits of meat, preferably salami." I don't eat red meat, but decided to make my casatiello with Genoa salami anyway and feed it to Dad, who never met a cured meat he didn't like. (In fact, he has been known to eat a stick of pepperoni for dinner, slicing off piece after piece until the whole thing has disappeared. Mom generally disapproves of such behavior, for the record.) I headed over to my very favorite Italian market, DeVitis, to buy the salami and provolone. Then I remembered that I had some olives in the refrigerator and decided to make two loaves, one meat-full for Dad and one meat-free for me. Everybody wins!

The casatiello dough is similar to brioche dough -- both are enriched with butter and eggs. However, the casatiello dough only incorporates one and a half sticks of butter versus the rich man's brioche's four sticks. So you see? Right there. Saving calories.

Casatiello also might be the most gorgeous dough with which I've ever worked. It's soft and stretchy and supple, and at no point did it make me want to kill myself. (Most doughs, at one time or another, occupy this hellish territory -- either it's too sticky and encases your fingers until it's well-kneaded or it's too dry and starts to feel like glue as you incorporate a little water or it just plain old has a bad attitude, the Mr. T. of gluten.) This dough was a pleasure to mix and knead. It didn't stick to anything and required little bench flour and just felt right. What fun.

I baked my loaves in paper panettone molds that I bought last December when I was feeling industrious and thinking I'd bake up some panettone for Christmas. I never did get around to that, but was very pleased to remember that I had the molds stashed away in the pantry. The dough fit the paper molds perfectly and rose and baked nicely in them. The finished casatiello looked at home in their paper cloaks -- somehow fancy and rustic at the same time.

As for the finished product, I can't vouch for the salami and provolone loaf. But I'm thinking if you liked salami you'd like this casatiello. The suspended nuggets of Genoa salami looked right at home in the crumb, surrounded by flecks of melted provolone. I can understand what Reinhart means when he describes this bread as a sandwich unto itself. I sent the loaf home with Mom when she came over to walk the dogs with me tonight; she's going to pack some up for Dad's lunch tomorrow but we're guessing he'll probably eat it for breakfast instead.

Now, I am qualified to say that the olive and provolone loaf is spectacular. I used flavorful wrinkly-skinned Moroccan olives along with the shredded provolone to enhance the dough. The olives permeate the crumb with their assertive but not overpowering salty flavor, making you want to eat slice after slice.

But you know, since I'm a runner now I'm trying to control myself. Emphasis on "trying."


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not share specific recipes. But if you have some salami, cheese and/or olives on hand and wish to experiment with an obedient and tasty dough, turn your copy of the book to page 129.

Friday, June 12, 2009

For that I thank them

Thank goodness.

My area's first farmers' market started last Saturday. And it's about time. When you live in a part of the world that is under a deep freeze for five months of the year, locally farmed produce simply can't appear fast enough. When the weather starts warming in April and May I start dreaming of fresh local ingredients. It seems like an interminable wait for the markets to get going in mid- to late June, but once they do, oh man. My kitchen fills up with things like spring onions and kohlrabi and green garlic and organic eggs from chickens who live a free-range existence at a heritage farm in the Cuyahoga Valley, only a few miles from my house.

I love the markets not only because it just makes sense to buy foods that don't have to traverse great distances to get to your table, but also because of the variety of produce available. You will have a hard time finding, say, garlic scapes at the grocery store. Just ask Husband, who recently traipsed around several states scouring supermarkets for spring onions on what turned out to be a fruitless search. With each store he visited came another text message: "None here. Just scallions." He even sent along this photo, snapped with his cell phone at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in Chelsea Market, along with the query, "Green bulb onions? Same thing as spring onions?"

Those green bulb onions look great, to be sure, but spring onions they are not. However, five minutes into this year's first farmers' market visit I spied a card table laden with bunches of spring onions. "You are my hero!" I exclaimed to the startled grower, more than just a little melodramatically. I bought a large bunch for $2 and happily skipped along to the next table, where there was a man selling homemade date-nut rolls. Perfect.

I had planned on sharing this recipe last month but couldn't, thanks to the aforementioned paucity of spring onions in my life. I tucked the recipe away, certain it would have to wait until next year, when I could maybe grow my own. But the farmers of Northeast Ohio had different plans for me and my spring onion soup recipe. And for that I thank them: this is a tasty and simple soup, reliant on little but the flavor of the fresh onions for its delicious bite. As you eat it, you will begin to dream of what you will find at the market next week, and what you might be able to do with it.

So, spring onions: check. Now I await the gorgeous spicy crop from my local garlic farm.



Of course you can make croutons from any bread you like. I happen to have a loaf of brioche in the freezer and find that their crispy buttery crunch adds a pleasing textural dimension to this flavorful soup. Whatever bread you do use, just cut a few slices into one-inch cubes, toss with a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper, then toast in a 325-degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

One more note: this recipe doubles very easily, should you purchase more than one bunch of spring onions at the farmers' market.

2 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and sliced thinly (about 1 c. sliced)
1 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. water
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. dried thyme
Brioche croutons, to garnish

Place 2 T. of olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the spring onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften a begin to take on a slight golden color, about 15 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, water, salt and thyme and stir to combine. Simmer the soup for 15 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Using an immersion blender, process the soup until smooth. (You can use a regular blender for this step, if you don't have an immersion blender.)

Serve with a few brioche croutons and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 2 as a first course.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A worthy alternative

Among the Italians I know -- that is, Italian family and friends in New Castle, Pennsylvania -- your red sauce defines you. What you put in it, how you cook it, how you serve it. Your sauce is yours and yours alone. The same goes for restaurants; I can't remember how many times I've heard relatives say something like, "Let's not go there, I don't like their sauce." Red sauce is a personal thing, a tangible representation of its cook's personality. And each cook's recipe never changes. Red sauce is an immutable personal culinary truth. 

My great grandmother would simmer her meat* sauce for days while her hungry grandchildren ran around underfoot (that's you, Dad). She wouldn't dream of a meatless red sauce. I, on the other hand, being a non-red-meat-eater, prefer to make a vegetarian red sauce that gets a big flavor boost from slowly roasting the tomatoes until they're charred and smoky around the edges. What is on my plate is very different from what was on my great grandmother's plate. But even though our sauces are separated by decades and method and a few large chunks of meat, Grandma Mastroianni and I are really cooking the same thing: a version of tomato sauce that says more about each of us than words ever could.

Given all of this, I don't ever go out of my way to try anyone else's red sauce recipe. Sure, sometimes I play with my own recipe, making turkey meatballs or adding ground turkey or skipping the oven-roasting in favor of a jar of whole peeled homegrown tomatoes. But at its essence I do not stray from my sauce. When there is red sauce to be made, it is always the same. (Even though I do spy recipes from time to time that indeed look amazing.) So imagine my surprise when, the other night, I decided I had to try Alton Brown's meat sauce. It was calling to me; I was drawn to it by a force much greater than myself. I think it was the method -- low and slow, allowing for ample opportunity to build multiple layers of flavor -- as well as the fact that Alton caramelizes the onions with a tiny sachet of star anise and clove. I had to have red sauce blessed by star anise and clove. End of story.

Alton's recipe calls for bacon, ground beef and ground pork. Though it horrifies my father that he has a daughter that would eschew such critters in her red sauce, I nevertheless swapped in turkey bacon and ground turkey. To a red meat lover, such a substitution is significant. To someone like me, it is no big deal. Preferable, in fact. And you know what? I don't see Dad turning up his nose at it, so clearly he is all talk. 

Anyway, I have to say that if for whatever reason I am not making my own red sauce, then I will be making Alton's. It is delicious. Packed with a multitude of flavors, each little component hitting your tongue according to its own tasty schedule: first bright tomato-ness, then sweet onion, then fragrant clove, then a bit of salt, then browned turkey. This sauce is best made on a weekend because it requires hours of simmering to develop its myriad flavors. Should you decide to make it on a weeknight, as I did, you will be eating dinner at like 11:30 p.m. Which is totally not acceptable to a normal person but what can I say? Husband and I are not normal.

In retrospect I suppose Grandma Mastroianni would not be down with adding turkey and star anise to red sauce. Nevertheless, this recipe brings me that much closer to what I imagine her sauce was like. Long, slow-simmering, making the house smell awesome, attracting family to the table. Those are the duties of a red sauce, and it looks like I've found a worthy alternative for my own personal arsenal.

*Dad clarifies what was included in Grandma Mastroianni's meat sauce: "Grandma's sauce sometimes had chicken in it and if Grandpa was a good shot that day, it would have a rabbit or squirrel or maybe even [pheasant]. It, however, never had turkey, bacon or star anise and most certainly was NEVER vegetarian. She made great fall-off-the-bone beef and pork sauce."


Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe for meat sauce and spaghetti

6 oz. turkey bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 T. olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
3 whole cloves
1 whole star anise pod
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic: 3 minced and 2 sliced
1 lb. ground turkey
1 1/4 c. white wine, divided
3/4 c. evaporated milk
3 c. chicken or turkey stock
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, finely chopped
2 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 T. dried oregano
2 t. dried basil
2 t. dried marjoram
2 T. tomato paste
1 T. ketchup
1 T. sherry vinegar
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/3 c. Pecorino cheese, finely grated

1 lb. pasta (Alton says to use spaghetti but the sauce works quite well with rigatoni, too)

Place 1 T. of the olive oil and the turkey bacon in a Dutch oven and cook over low heat until the bacon has rendered its fat and is crispy, about 12-15 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve for another use (or, snack on it as you make the rest of this sauce, because it's going to be another 4 hours or so until you eat).

Add the onion, salt and pepper to the bacon fat and stir to combine. Wrap the cloves and star anise in a few layers of cheesecloth and tie to secure; add to the onion mixture. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally until the onions caramelize, 45-60 minutes.

Add the celery and the 3 cloves of minced garlic and continue to cook over low heat until the celery is semi-translucent, approximately 30 minutes. Remove the spice bag from the pot.

Meanwhile, place a wide saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 T. of the olive oil and once it shimmers add the ground turkey. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is well-browned, 5-7 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.

Return the saute pan to high heat and add 1/2 c. of the wine to deglaze, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Transfer the bits along with the wine remaining in the saute pan to the onion mixture in the Dutch oven. Add the cooked turkey to the onion mixture and stir to combine. 

Add another 1/2 c. of the wine, evaporated milk, chicken or turkey stock, and mushrooms to the Dutch oven and stir to combine.  Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 3 hours.

Once the sauce has been cooking for 1 1/2 hours, place the saute pan over medium heat and add 1 T. of the olive oil. Add the 2 cloves of sliced garlic and cook for 30-45 seconds, but do not allow the garlic to brown. Add the tomatoes, oregano, basil and marjoram and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining 1/4 c. wine to the tomato mixture, along with the tomato paste, ketchup, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to combine. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Then increase the heat to medium-high and add the remaining 1 T. olive oil and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes. 

Transfer the tomato mixture to the meat mixture and stir to combine. Add the Pecorino cheese. Simmer over low heat as you prepare the pasta.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and return it to the dry cooking pot along with a few ladles' worth of sauce; mix to coat the pasta with sauce. Serve topped with more sauce and a sprinkling of Pecorino cheese.

Makes enough sauce to dress about 2 lbs. of pasta.