Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pesto for Peter

Have I ever told you that at one time in my life I did not care much for Italian food? Seriously! I really did not care for it! Oh I liked pizza! That was always good. But pastas... Meehhhh. Marinara bored me and was just not very good. Pesto was horrific. Alfredo was good for about one bite and then felt heavy. They were just there and never fabulous. And really the only thing I thought of as Italian was pasta and pizza. That was in high school. And then I went to Italy the summer after Junior year! Oh boy! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I could not get enough. After eating so much I was nearly comatosed at lunch, I lay there and counted the hours until dinnertime. I adored the pasta. I loved the pasta in France, Austria and Switzerland too!

My tastes must have changed. So I came back to the US ready to embrace Italian food and slurp it up with gusto. But the next time I had spaghetti... Meehhh! Blah, boring, blech, nadda. I was not interested. What was the difference? Why did I like it there?

It didn't take long to figure it out. Here at home I was used to mostly marinara sauce from a jar and dry pasta that was cooked a bit longer than the proper al dente. Or places like the Old Spaghetti Factory. It isn't horrible food there or anything but it is so... American? Or? Just not like the tiny little restaurants I frequented in Italy. In Italy, it was all very fresh, very good ingredients. The sauces were often simple but you could taste the ingredients and they did not overpower the noodles. The pasta was al dente.... just the right amount of bite to it and not the limp kind I was accustomed to. The portions were also smaller. Pasta is not the MAIN course but a small first plate. I don't want a huge portion of pasta normally.

Now I think you can find decent pasta at restaurants sometimes. Americans started catching on to the fact that the pasta should be al dente. Home chefs often began making their own sauces. It is definitely better. But it will never be the same as in Italy... How could it?

So when I make pasta, I always make my own sauces. It is really quite easy and doesn't take much longer than opening up a jar. I do use the dry noodles most of the time. It is easier to just have it on hand. My Italian friends use them. It is just important not to cook them too long. Once in a while I even use a jar of pre-prepared marinara or red sauce. It is palatable. But I can rarely leave it alone. I almost always doctor it up. Unless I am just making it for the kids. But when it comes to pesto sauce, I have tried jar after jar after jar and really I can barely stand to eat a bite. It is never good. I went back to the supposition that I really just don't care for pesto. Until I made my own! What else was I to do with some sad wilted basil?

After I whirred together a few simple fresh ingredients, I stirred it into some homemade pasta from my farmer's market. The pasta was warm and perfectly al dente. I took a bite. My eyes closed. Imagine a chorus of Alleluias swirling my head. This was heavenly! And so easy!

Simple Fresh Pesto

2-3 cups fresh basil leaves
2-6 cloves of garlic (I like a lot so I use 5 or 6 cloves)
2-3 Tbls. pine nuts
1/4-1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan

Olive Oil (amount is determined by what consistency you prefer)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, blend the basil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan. With the processor going, slowly add the olive oil scraping down the sides occasionally. Keep adding the oil until the pesto is the consistency you desire.

At this point I taste the sauce and decide if it needs more garlic, nuts, basil or cheese. Add and adjust to your taste along with the salt and pepper.

Best if used immediately but it should store in the refridgerator for up to a week. But really it is better right away. I do not heat it directly on the stove. Simply stir it into warm pasta. Or put it on top of some bread or pizza or an egg or a sandwich or... I am sure there are many things it would work well with.

I am dedicating this pesto to my friend Peter (and Kimberly) because I wish this is what I had made for him and Kimberly when I brought food over a few weeks ago. Instead I brought some curry soup that I felt was just not up to par. Not sure what was wrong with it.

So Kimberly, please try this for your husband. It is easy!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Do You? or Do-U-Not? Do... DOUGHNUTS!!

We all know that they are VERY fattening! They are not good for you, pure and simple. But do you or do you not just crave a doughnut now and then? Do you or do you not eat them from time to time?

Every so often I sure do crave a GOOD doughnut. And a few weeks ago this craving would not go away. I thought about them day and night for two days. I did not go out to buy any. I considered it. I even considered purchasing some at the market. Can you believe that? I don't know that I have ever bought doughnuts from the regular market. Then I started thinking some more.... My mom always loved her grandmother's homemade doughnuts. Why can't I make my own. Especially since I have a deep fryer now!

Yes. The decision was made. I WOULD make doughnuts from scratch. Now for the recipe. I took a look around my cookbooks. Not much to offer in the way of doughnuts. Then our great vast web. There are plenty to be found here. It seems most doughnuts were of the yeast variety. These are good and I shall try it sometime but when it comes to doughnuts, I usually want the cakier type of dense doughnut or old fashioned glazed doughnuts. Not to say that the chewy Crispy Cream yeast doughnuts aren't tasty. They ARE.

Upon perusal I found a few recipes I really wanted to try. But one really stood out. Because I love the old fashioned buttermilk doughnuts and because I happened to have some buttermilk that needed to be used before it went bad, I tried a recipe for Buttermilk Doughnuts that I found on Stephan's site, This Engineer Can Bake. His Recipe is sited as being adapted from Baking Illustrated.

While my doughnuts were not THE most perfect shape in the world, they did come out as very presentable and wonderful tasting. The only problem is that doughnuts are only really really good the day you make them. And one doughnut is really all one should ever eat in a day. So we all ate TWO! Then I gave some to my mom and grandmother. I also froze some as soon as I though it would not melt the plastic bag I put them in. The frozen doughnuts were pretty darn good several days later. I simply heated them in the toaster oven until warm all the way through. This is definitely the way to go if you don't want to eat them all and feel like a heavy ton of bricks.

Note: I do not have a doughnut cutter. But I do have a very sturdy round cookie cutter which I used for the basic shape. For the hole, I used the cap of a water bottle. It worked well enough but the doughnut holes (which I did fry up as well) were not so perfect looking because they sometimes stuck to the cap.

Buttermilk Doughnuts
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

Makes 15 to 17 doughnuts (assuming they all work out)

3 1/2 cups (17 1/2 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3/4 cup buttermilk
4 tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, plus 1 yolk

6 cups peanut/sunflower/safflower oil

Cinnamon Sugar

1 cup sugar (7 oz)
1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon

1. Mix 1 cup (5 oz) flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

2. Mix the buttermilk, butter, and eggs including the yolk in a 2-cup measuring cup. Add the wet ingredients to the dry; beat on medium speed until smooth, about 30 seconds. Decrease the speed to low and add the remaining 2 1/2 cups flour, and mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. Stir the batter once or twice with a wooden spood or rubber spatula to ensure all the liquid is incorporated. (The dough will be moist and tacky, like a cross between cake batter and cookie dough.)

3. Fit a candy thermometer to the side of a cast iron kettle or large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (or simply use a deep-fryer); gradually heat the oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, turn the dough onto a floured work surface. Roll with a heavily floured rolling pin to 1/2-inch thick. Stamp out the dough rings with a heavily floured doughnut cutter (the width of the ring should be about 3/4 inch or less), re-flouring between cuts. Transfer the dough rounds to a baking sheet or large wire rack. Gather the scraps and gently press them into a disk; repeat the rolling and stamping until all the dough is used. (Cut doughnuts can be covered in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 2 hours.)

4. Carefully drop the dough rings into the hot far 4 to 5 at a time, depending on the size of your pot. As soon as they rise to the surface, turn the doughnuts with tongs. Fry the doughnuts until golden brown, about 50 seconds per side (mine took about 3 minutes). Drain on a paper towel-lined baking sheet or wire rack. Repeat frying, returning the fat to temperature between batches and adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the oil from overheating.

5. Mix cinnamon and sugar in a bowl or pie plate. After the doughnuts have cooled for about 1 minute toss with cinnamon sugar to coat. Alternately, you can also use non-melting powdered sugar if it is available in your area.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fries Fries Fries... Hurray for Les Pommes Frites!

Did I ever tell you what I got for Christmas? Well one of the things was a deep fryer. I have always wanted one. I know it isn't healthy but aren't homemade fries better than those from a fast food chain? Or the frozen fries from the market? I think so. After all it is a potato! Along with the fryer, my husband got me a mandolin. In order to really get the french fries right, you need them to be similar in size and shape. The mandolin REALLY helps this out.

If you have been following along for a while, you may remember this post in which I made homemade french fries. Pretty sad when you compare to these beauties! I have made these frites three times now since the holidays and they just keep getting better. A deep fryer and the uniform size is such a great help in making a crisp french fry that is still soft on the inside. With the fryer, they are coming out crisp, golden, hot and full of the potato flavor at the same time. If you are doing french fries at home, this IS the way to go.

Note: Each time I used the mandolin and soaked the cut potatoes in ice water for at least 20 minutes. I then blanched the fries for about 5 minutes in the hot oil and let them cool off for about 10 minutes before refrying for the final result. I salted the hot potatoes after they were finished and while still hot.

One day soon, I plan to blanch a whole bunch of potatos and flash freeze them to use as needed without going through as many steps when we are hungry for these little sticks of yum!

Next time I post on fries, I'll do the sweet potato variety!

Starting Early

They say that "imitation is the best form of flattery." They also say that the earlier you start, the easier it is to learn and to become very good at something. Who are "THEY"???????? Well let's leave that conversation for another day unless you know the definitive answer!

Often when I am taking photos of my food and creations, my kids tell me to take a shot of their plate. I oblige even if their food is not very interesting or well plated. That is the beauty of digital after all. You can take as many photos as you want and it doesn't matter. But the other day, clear out of the blue when I was not working on anything special or using the camera, my daughter told me she needed the camera. You see she has been into making her own sandwich lately. She has a small knife that she likes to use for the mayonnaise and works very hard to make it just right. On this day she was extremely proud because she felt her sandwich was perfect to her specifications. Just the right amount of turkey and salami (her favorite sandwich) and when she bit into it, it kept it's shape and didn't fall apart as many of her creations usually do.

So this post is for Danielle (age 4 1/2). Above you see HER favorite sandwich on her favorite bread. She made it herself. (I cut the bread of course). She shot the photo herself as well. She took a few photos. Of the sandwich and our work environment and one of me!

Danielle's Sandwich Recipe
Use fresh good quality French bread or rustic Italian white bread. Spread an ample amount of good quality mayonnaise onto each piece of bread. Put down a layer of turkey and a few pieces of salami. Put the second piece of bread on top and eat.

Dear Danielle,
Hopefully years from now, you will still be able to find this blog or have some record of it and all the posts and photos. May you have become the beautiful young woman I know you can be and hopefully you will love to cook and take photos like I do and we can share our passion and new recipes together.

My not as messy as usual kitchen and funny pose and over done smile that I seem to make when my child is taking the photo! Another hot day in winter here in sunny CA! I am usually in a tank top.