oh, my freaking heavens…

April 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

When O came home selling magazine subscriptions, I signed up for Bon Appetit on a lark.  I figured it would be like watching This Old House–impressive that there are people out there who can do that, and I suppose that, given the proper tools and education, I might be able to do the same, but in fact I’m quite content to sit on the couch and watch other people raise a barn roof/fold egg whites into caviar.

But, as reported previously, I might like this mag even more than, say, Scientific American.  The boy and I pull out the dog-eared copy with the good pimiento mac’n’cheese every other week or so, we’ve managed brownies, cookies, and a handful of pasta dishes out of it and haven’t set anyone ablaze.  There’s plenty that’s way above my head, but also enough that’s relatively simple and fun.

So, OK.  This month’s issue says–can you read that?–“The Italy Issue.”  Sold.  But that sub-header says “Pizza! Pasta! Gelato! How Could Your Kids Not Love Rome!”  The article is all about dining with kids in the Eternal City, and it has that breathless sense of “seriously!  You could take the kids and find things they’d eat, even in a trendy European capital!”

Well, this is not news to us.  The kids ate plenty of pizza, pasta, and gelato (sometimes in that order) the spring we were there, and they will do again this coming year.  The big deal is that there are about two dozen recipes for Roman specialties in the article.  And I’m thinking of this as a challenge.  Can we make all of them as a kind of run-up to the trip?  (And, can we make them all here, take notes, and then make them all there, with stuff like real Italian bread flour, etc.)  With softball and track likely snowed out tonight (and yes, I said snowed out on April 19), we’re going to make that pasta pomodoro on the cover tonight.  Full report later.  One down, something like 23 to go.  Impressionante.


baking day

March 1, 2011 Comments Off on baking day

So first things first.  The girl is in good shape.  Achey, and definitely up for the ibuprofen this afternoon when she got home from school, but fine.  The orthopedist’s office hadn’t called by the end of the day, so I phoned them and they basically said yup, we know about it, and we’ll get her in sometime this week, but it’s not falling off so it’s really not all that interesting to us.

So I sent both kids outside when they got home today, because it was spectacular out.  Temps up in the 50s, bright sun, etc.  It really felt like spring, enough that I cracked open the front and back doors and let a little fresh air in.  That’s always a big moment, because it starts to feel like we’ve been breathing the same air since November.

Anyway, the house also smelled fantastic, because I did this thing I’ve been doing where I get overly ambitious and plan too much with no backup.  So I have to follow through,  and I end up with the oven going pretty much all day.  Last night I realized we were almost out of 1) bread, and 2) cookies.  Neither of these represented an acceptable situation.

In addition, the boy wanted sloppy joes tonight, and I wanted sweet potato fries.  So I broke out my calendar and figured out how to get two sets of bread baking (since there’s no way I’m buying hamburger rolls at this point), a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies (by request, I swear!), a 40-minute sweet potato roast and a trip to the store in.  It was complicated, but as you can see it came together in the end.  And I got in a run, two full chapters edited, and a bunch of appointments for electricians, etc., made.

The ciabatta kicked butt, the sloppy joes were awesome on the sandwich rolls (I left them in an extra couple of minutes so they’d stand up to the extreme sauciness), the sweet potatoes were a little underdone but nommed, and the cookies are awaiting judgment by the panel.

I am having a glass of wine tonight.

an unctuous slab…

February 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Um, wow.  The boy and I may have just overdone it slightly.

We decided last night to combine our two favorite mac’n’cheese recipes–the lasagne in bianco that we found on Epicurious that was good, but a bit skinny, and the Cook’s recipe with a bechamel sauce made from evaporated milk.  We figured that if we took the basic lasagna strategy, but used the super-bechamel, we’d end up with something pretty amazingly rich and gooey, but with the nice, neat texture of lasagna.

And boy, howdy, was it ever good, but we probably could have used about half of the sauce and cheese.  I realized as we were doing it that I hadn’t quite figured the pasta ratio between the two recipes.  The lasagna had maybe a third of the noodle weight as the Cook’s recipe, but by the time we’d layered it up I’d put in almost all of the bechamel.  So it was saucy.  Really, really, saucy.

“Oh, MAN,” said the boy.  And I took a bite and was basically full.  It was awesome, but it was about the richest thing I’d ever tasted.  I ate about half of an inch-wide slice.

We nuked it tonight after riding for leftover night.  The girl took one bite and said “wow, it tastes like cake.”  That’s not really what lasagna–or mac’n’cheese, for that matter–is supposed to taste like, but I think even if we adjust this to get the sauce/noodle relationship to be a bit more grownup, it’s still going to be pretty amazing.

dinner–the full roma

February 3, 2011 Comments Off on dinner–the full roma

So with a full snow day today, I figured we could experiment a bit in the kitchen.  The kids were totally up for it, but they suggested we work around the concept of pizza for dinner.  I said sure, but we didn’t have any of the really good Peter Reinhart dough left.  It needs to sit in the fridge overnight, so I figured we’d try one of the same-day dough recipes and see how it stacked up.  The boy and I (as you may have seen) threw down after lunch, putting together a mean ball of yeast and bread flour, and I started hacking away at it an hour or so before dinner.

I made one tried and true marinara–actually the overly spicy amatriciana sauce from the other night minus the bacon–and told the girl we were going to try the potato pizza again.  I found a country-simple recipe that basically said slice the potatoes thin (ahoy, mandoline!), douse them in oil and rosemary, throw them on the crust, and bake the hell out of them.  My kind of recipe, really.  Our lazy crust worked fine–less yeasty than the Reinhart version, but easy to work with and serviceable, at any rate.  The amatrciana worked out well, and the boy recognized the heat and said he really liked it on the crust.  He also went through two glasses of milk, so this seems a worthy strategy to keep in mind going forward.  O and I discussed the potato pizza at length.  It was closer, we agreed, to the most awesomest pizza ever in Rome, but it was still missing something.  She correctly identified the rosemary as the key missing ingredient from last time, and thought the potatoes should be thicker.  “It was really like french fries–actual french fries–on the pizza, Dad,” she told me.  “But it’s still missing something tasty.”  I know exactly what that is, actually.  Salt.  A. Ton. Of. Salt.  I went and got the little jar of sea salt that was a complimentary welcome gift for signing up at the food co-op, and told her to sprinkle away.  “Closer,” she said.

What the meal was really missing, though, was the crucial second half.  We made it a point to go out for a meal once a week or so in Rome, and we usually went cheap and cheerful.  Trastevere, the neighborhood we lived in, was full of good neighborhood pizza joints that catered to natives and to tourists who had ventured one ring out from the centro.  These trattoria were one step up from the sidewalk pizza storefronts, so you got bread, K and I could get wine, and we could sit for a while and watch the street go by.  And, crucially, we could go on a walk through the neighborhood afterward, ending up at one of our three favorite gelato stands, grabbing cones full of silky, custardy goodness, and sitting in the main piazza to eat them.

And those gelati looked and tasted just about like this.  Oh, heck yes, we made gelato today.  It took most of the morning to get the custard put together, and some serious hawk-like monitoring to make sure we didn’t overcook it.  But we did it, and it was superb.

Gelato is at the high end of the ice cream decadence spectrum.  Where sorbet is basically fruit and sugar, and ice cream is basically cream and flavor, gelato is custard and flavor.  So the prep involved four egg yolks, whipping cream, and pounds of sugar–I used the organic cane stuff we bought the other day, and it made a difference.  Cooking that is a bit of a challenge, because you have to basically pasteurize the egg without boiling it.  Fortunately, my CIA deep fry thermometer was up to the challenge, and I was able to keep the mixture right at 170° until it thickened up.  It sat in the fridge all afternoon, and then we broke out the ice cream maker (a perverse thing to do on a day with 7″ of snow on the ground and the thermometer stuck at 2°…) and whipped it into shape.  It needed a good freeze after that, but we all agreed the effort had been well worth it.  It was silky smooth, just eggy enough, and full of vanilla flava.  And it didn’t hurt that we splurged and bought Ghirardelli semi-sweet chips–a touch of San Francisco in our Italian.  Fortunately it made a bunch, so we’ll be eating this through the weekend.  (For those keeping score, I ran five hard miles this morning, knowing full well that this might be coming).

And the punch line?  When I went out to do some late shopping after dinner, the co-op had a huge barrel of blood oranges on sale.  We had these for lunch all the time in Rome–they were a staple at the neighborhood market and both kids loved their super-sweet juice.  I brought them home and said “look what I bought,” and O knew instantly.

“This,” she said, “is the Romiest day yet!”  And she nommed one of these in about thirty seconds flat.

More snow days, please.  This was awesome…

amatriciana and movie night

January 30, 2011 Comments Off on amatriciana and movie night

We kept dinner simple tonight.  O, having missed out on french toast for breakfast, demanded equal time.  I had anticipated precisely such score-keeping behavior, and held back exactly half of the batter for just this request (I’m getting kind of good at this part of things).  The boy and I did an amatriciana sauce with some whole wheat pasta.  I had thought the change in noodles would be an issue, but he seemed fine with them, and we’ll probably do them again as they were tasty and marginally healthier.

Amatriciana is a really Roman sauce–simple, very quick, big flava.  Fry up some pancetta, throw some onions into the fat, dump in some tomatoes and cook them down until everything is saucy.  Twenty minutes if you do it right, and the result is onions, bacon, and tomatoes–and nothing else.  Easy to make after spending an hour getting home on the notorious Roman bus system, and something we ate and made while over there.

The problem, of course, is that the boy doesn’t like bacon.  I thought I could sneak it in, but as soon as I started frying it the gig was up and he was standing by the stove begging me to let him off the hook.  It’s OK, I told him.  You take the bacon out, fry up everything else, and then put the bacon back in.  I’ll leave yours out, and put it on my plate instead.  Everyone wins–no bacon for C, twice as much bacon for Dad.  He was cool with that.

I made half a batch, a bit chagrined that we had a refrigerator full of pudding from this afternoon’s adventures.  The problem with doing this, I’ve discovered, is that you forget you’re making half a batch at least once when you’re assembling the ingredients.  In this case?  Hot pepper flakes.  The boy took a bite and said it was good but salty.  I dove in and suggested maybe “spicy” was the word he was after.  “Yeah,” he said.  “This is more like Mexican pasta.”

“Oh,” said O, “speaking of that, can we have spaghetti tacos one night?”

“Spaghetti tacos,” I said, “where did you come up with that?”

“A Disney show we watch,” she said.  “Doesn’t it sound good?”

“No,” I said, “but we’ll make them sometime.”

Calvin thought I should keep the spice level up the next time we make this, so we’ll make a note in the cookbook.

It was my night to pick for movie night tonight.  Last week I got shafted because O’s pick on Thursday ran long (Seabiscuit, which I liked more than I thought I would).  A couple of weeks ago, the kids both agreed on Osmosis Jones, which just might have been the worst movie I’d ever seen, about kids who take an accidental trip into their father’s (still living) body.  “It’s awesome, Dad!” they told me.  “We watched it in science class!” C said.

“You watched a Chris Rock movie in science?” I said.  “This is a total rip off!   It’s an old Isaac Asimov sci-fi story, and they made a really awesome film of it back in the 60s.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I’d seen it in science class back in fifth or sixth grade.  Apparently science teachers of all generations say the hell with it every so often.

Anyway, they were game, and even though the special effects were 1966-cheesy and the physics behind the miniaturization was a bit questionable for C’s taste, the kids were both totally into it.  It was longer than I remembered–two hours–so bedtime was a bit late, but it was worth it.  “Our only hope is to find our way out along the optic nerve!” is going to become one of our trademark lines, we’ve decided.  And the boy thought Raquel Welch was stunning, which was not entirely wrong.

chips, chips, chips

January 25, 2011 Comments Off on chips, chips, chips

I’ve got a mandoline.  I’ve got a Dutch oven.  And I’ve got a deep fry thermometer.  I’m not afraid to use any of them.  Or all of them.  And tonight, we used all of them.  With pretty spectacular results.

At the kids’ request, we’ve fooled around with a bunch of potato chip recipes, all of them so far in the oven.  And all of them have basically just sucked in different ways–too thin, too thick, too burned, too raw.  We finally gave up and just made oven fries, but our two modestly successful attempts at actual french fries in the Dutch oven inspired us to try potato chips again, this time on top of the stove.

Now that we’ve deep fried a bunch of stuff, I’m used to the routine.  And with the thermometer, I’m not quite as worried about setting the whole kitchen on fire.  I know where the flour is, but I no longer keep it right by the stove when we’re frying.  I looked up a couple of recipes, and it seemed country simple.  The main tricks seemed to be to slice the potatoes as thin as possible, and to soak up as much water from them as you could.  So I got out the OXO mandoline and set it to ‘kill’ (I tried a couple on ‘stun,’ and they were clearly going to be too thick), and then took each one of the paper thin slices and spread them out on paper towels.  A bit painstaking, but the towels ended up soaking wet, so clearly it was doing something.

I heated the oil up to 380°, which is pretty hot compared to some other stuff we’ve made, and dumped the first batch in.  They needed some quick stirring to keep them from bunching up, but once they were separated they browned quickly–some of them were ready in less than a minute.  I scooped them out as they browned and spread them out on some more paper towels.  A couple of batches later, we had some crispy, golden brown chips, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and we had our side dish.

And they were superb–really crisp, light, and not that oily since we let them sit for a while on the towels.  It was like eating crispy air (though there were a few underdone ones that added a nice-ahem-raw potato note).  Cheap in terms of calories, fat, and sodium, too, according to Epicurious.

The main dish they went with?  A really half-assed attempt at a light Chicken Parm.  I didn’t tell the kids anything about the parm bit, but found this recipe on line that dispensed with the goopy tomato sauce (the kids, you may remember, hate goop) and the slab of mozzarella on top.  This one called for dredging the chicken strips in a mix of mustard and vinegar and then in bread crumbs and parmesan, all with a sprinkling of shredded mozzarella on top and not a tomato in sight.  It sounded pretty good, but basically it was oven-fried chicken with a lackluster hit of mustard and cheese.  Nothing to write home about. C ate most of his, but O took a mulligan, only her second in two weeks.  “Honestly, Dad, those kind of sucked,” she said, and I had to agree.  Her uncle once told his mother that about a bowl of cranberry sauce and ended up with it on his head, but in this case she wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know, so whatevs.  As long as she doesn’t use that phrase in front of her grandparents, I think I’m OK with it.

So, yeah.  Chicken parm leftovers for lunch tomorrow.  And probably Thursday, too.

salmon masala

January 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

Oh, no.  This one had nothing–nothing–to do with the kids.

Mondays are riding days, and we end up getting home late as it is.  So we’ve decided that instead of rushing dinner and homework, that will be our one out night per week.  Tonight it was Culver’s.  I love Culver’s.  Best fast food hamburger this side of the Rockies (In’N’Out, of course, is the best ever…)  But the Daily Burn would reach out and grab me by the aorta if I did that to myself these days, so I’ve decided that on nights when the kids choose something completely irredeemable (and let’s face it, Butterburgers are, for anyone over 18, irredeemable), I’ll take the opportunity to be completely self-indulgent and cook something for myself after they go to bed.

So Bon Appetit had a little throwaway page about South Asian spices (I have GOT to get me some Ghee…and I know where to find it) that caught my eye.  “Hey,” it suggested in an offhand way, “throw some Garam Masala and some apricot jam on a salmon fillet or two and broil them!”  That seemed to be relatively foolproof, so I bought some salmon last night…and again this morning (no comment)…and headed out today to find Garam Masala.

Bon Appetit, of course, mentioned a top-shelf brand that’s carried, they said, by Whole Foods, so I checked last night at the upper-crust natural foods store while buying my salmon, and couldn’t find it.  Same deal today at the supermarket (though I was impressed when the clerk suggested that Indian spices might be in the Hispanic foods section).  I had to buy fortune cookies today for the boy, though, so my backstop was the international student grocery, and sure enough, they had the low-rent version, straight from New Dehli and boasting that it was, as you can see, not only “flavourful and tasty,” but also “hygienic.”  My kind of stuff.  (Got some Moroccan sardines, while I was at it, and I’ve bet the kids $5 each they can’t eat one.  No takers).

So tonight I hustled the kids off to bed, burgers quietly digesting, and fired up the stove and the broiler.  Bittman’s book says to fry the salmon for 6 minutes and broil for 2, so I dropped the fillets into an oiled pan, waited a few minutes, and then hit them with the garam masala and the apricot jam.  I screwed this up–it would, of course, have been much easier to mix them into a paste and just spread that out on the fillets, but I powdered them first and then tried to spread the jam.  Huge cleanup job.  The masala had a really familiar smell.  My best friend in middle school was from an Indian family, and his mother was an amazing cook.  Their house always smelled like this.  I probably could have used more, but I was just a bit careful since it seemed pretty strong.

It should have gone on rice, but I had the peas leftover.  They were fine, but it needed a bed of something a little saltier or grainier, I guess.  As it was the fish was great, though.  The masala and the apricot glazed nicely in the broiler so there was just a bit of a crust around the edges, and they went nicely with the salmon without overwhelming it.  We don’t get great salmon here in the midwest, but these two were OK–nice and flaky and a clean taste that let the spices come through.

The only problem, of course, is that this used about a tablespoon of the masala, and I’ve got the whole box.  Salmon for dinner every night would be great–but expensive–so I’m thinking of sneaking this onto some baked chicken and just sliding it in front of the kids.  I’ll call it South Asian Barbeque and see if they notice…

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