January 16, 2011 Comments Off on risotto–meh…

Risotto has always been one of our favorites, and it was one of those dishes that blew our minds in Italy.  I made it a lot last year when I was on my own in Chicago and got pretty good at it–not quite to K’s standards, but passable.  I like the routine–a lot of patient stirring, plenty of time to let your mind wander while the arborio rice soaks up the wine and chicken stock, and a pretty wide margin of error when it’s al dente.  So, after a few runs at it, it’s not hard to get right.

I thought this would be tailor made for the kids, since it’s got a smooth texture and the taste is really nothing but rice, butter, salt, and a little bit of tang from the wine.  I told them what was in it, and they seemed game.  Nothing fancy, I promised.  No saffron, or shrimp, or mushrooms.  Just the straight stuff, and if you like it, then we’ll experiment.  (That’s mine up above with the lemon and the mozzarella pearls–not theirs…)

C took one bite and begged off, but after he got through the required three bites he changed his mind–a little.  Not the best, but not that bad, a 6.5 out of 10.  O was more critical, giving it a 5.75.  Both agreed they’d eat it again, but I doubt we’re going to get to porcini risotto before this experiment is over.

Now, the bread that went with dinner tonight?  That went down a treat.  All the loaves we’ve made so far have been pretty simple, and I’ve been looking for, you know, bread, like serious Italian peasant bread with a sturdy crust and some real chew to it.  The kind that gets thrown at you in no-star restaurants in Rome along with a bottle of olive oil and a slightly soiled dipping dish.  I watched La Strada one night last week after the kids went to bed, and there’s a great scene where Anthony Quinn is eating dinner, tearing huge hunks of bread out of a loaf the size of a football helmet and sponging up vast quantities of pasta and sauce with it.  That was what I was looking for.

And sure enough, in one of our cookbooks, there’s a recipe for “Rustic Italian Bread.”  So I went through it and figured that, assuming I had a whole day to tend to it, I could probably follow directions well enough to get it baked.  I made the biga last night and let it rise next to our bed–the warmest spot in the house.  (When I woke up this morning to go to the gym, I was starving and the whole upstairs smelled great).  That got mixed with simple flour, yeast, and water this morning, and then it sat in one of the new stainless steel bowls for three hours.  There’s a fairly complex folding routine to get the classic purse-shape, but I seemed to be able to do that OK, and after another hour’s rise I threw it in the oven, on top of a pizza stone, at 500°.  (My father-in-law will be pleased to know that I even used the pizza peel he made us a few years ago.  I felt like I should have been singing opera, while I was at it).

I took a peek after ten minutes and discovered that the simple, unassuming loaf had turned into Breadzilla.  A super oven rise, one that almost took out the broiler coil.  After half an hour it looked superb.  The crust was brown and black–probably thanks to the pan of hot water that went in with the pizza stone–and it had a nice, pleasing thunk, which I’d read was the mark of a done loaf.

The recipe called for a two-hour cooling period, which was agonizing since the whole house smelled, once again, of bread.  But the wait was totally worth it.  The crust was thick and just the right amount of tough, and the bread inside was dense and chewy–and still warm.  The kids just nommed it straight, but I got a (clean) dish of olive oil and it was almost like sitting in a cheap Trastevere pasta joint.  We’ve got a lot of it to get through, which I’m calling a good thing.

A quiet day around the house today.  We watched some football this afternoon and the kids have decided to be Bears fans this year, which will make much of the family happy.  I’m fine with that.  Riding tomorrow, and a school event in the evening, which means we’ll dine at a local establishment, probably Carlos O’Kelly’s.  I may nurse a Dos Equis and have leftover night at home, though, since we’ve got some Italian sausage leftover from pizza night.  And I”m just thinking that it would go pretty well on that bread.

And the risotto?  Well, we had a ton of leftovers.  Leftover mozarella, too.  All according to plan.  Tomorrow for lunch I’m going to fulfill a culinary dream two years in the making.  The greatest street food I’ve ever had, reproduced in our humble kitchen.  Maybe.  If I can do it without setting the kitchen on fire.


ciabatta–take 1

January 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

Oh, I am giddy with excitement…I’ve spent most of the day running back and forth between the kitchen and the office/dining room table tending to these two nicely rounded loaves.

When we were in Rome one of the things we really loved was the Italian bread.  You could get big loaves of it, load up on some prosciutto and mozzarella, and head out to the countryside with a sack containing what would be, back home, the greatest lunch ever.  Crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, light yet a bit tenacious, and yeasty, salty, chewy…va bene.

So I’ve been waiting to try out a real ciabatta recipe for long enough.  It wasn’t hard, but it did take some time.  The bread requires a biga, so I made that yesterday and let it camp out for a full 24 hours.  It smelled amazing (and it smelled a lot) this morning.  That gets mixed with the standard issue flour, yeast, water, salt, and baking soda for a good ten minutes.  It took me a while to realize that you can lock down the head of the mixer, and for future reference, if you do that most of the flour actually stays in the bowl.  Good to know.  Anyway, the kneading involves folding the dough blob eight times, waiting half an hour, and doing it again.  After which you split it, let it sit another half an hour, sprinkle water on the top to get a crispy crust, and bake the loaves for 22 minutes.  I brushed some olive oil on them near the end to try to get an even cracklier crust, but probably left it too long.

The result was pretty good–a bit denser than I remembered, so I did some digging and figured that our kitchen is probably just a bit too cold for the yeast to really do its thing.  K, I think, lets her doughs rise in the oven–not turned on, but with the light on to make it just a bit warm, and I may do that next time (though dear lord, I hope I remember the plastic bowl is in there before firing it up for some reason).  But the flavor of these was pretty astounding, no doubt thanks to the l-o-n-g biga rise time, and the crust wasn’t bad.  A few things to tinker with for next time.

Baking amazes me…a few cents worth of flour handled just right and with precise admixtures and you get something pretty transcendent.  Kids and I think we may split a loaf into four and use them as buns for our hammagas tonite…we’ll see how that choice goes over with the budding vegetarian daughter.  It won’t quite be prosciutto and mozzarella, but it won’t be bad, I’m thinking.


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