Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In which we indulge our obsessions

I don't know where it come from or why it won't leave, but for the last 6 months or so I have had an all-consuming obsession with Greek and Mediterranean foods. It seems like all I ever want to eat is grilled meats with lots of lemon, olive oil and herbs, or salads topped with fresh salty feta and garlic-stuffed olives, or soft, warm flatbread wrapped around heavily-seasoned falafel patties topped with yogurt sauce and cucumbers. Seriously I just can't get enough of the stuff.

Most of the time I keep my cravings to myself, because although J enjoys the flavors of the Mediterranean as much as I do, he doesn't necessarily want to eat them every single day. And I can understand that. Sort of. Maybe.

However, during this week's meal-planning session he finally gave me the green light to indulge myself with a light, summery menu of marinated and grilled chicken thighs, hummus, fresh veggies, and a mixed pepper and feta tart. I only had to wait till Tuesday to make it, but its only a slight exaggeration to say it felt like an eternity.

It doesn't end there though. The tart itself was a bit of a treat for me because it gave me an excuse to use some of the brand new, utterly darling mini baking pans that I acquired recently as a birthday gift to myself. A trip to Bowery Kitchen Supply last weekend yielded 4 each rectangular and round mini-tart pans, oval brulees/gratins, and round rammekins, as well as 2 each mini-bundt and springform pans (and I can I just tell you, those springform pans are about the cutest little things I've ever had in my kitchen). Of course, having all these nifty little vessels to work with means that I absolutely HAVE to use them, like, right this very second. What can I say? When I get new things, I need to try them out.

This leads right into the final indulgence of the night - itty bitty personal-sized rum cakes, which is one of J's current obsessions. You see, last summer we joined my family for vacation on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we of course enjoyed plenty of good Caribbean rum but also discovered the joy that is the rum-infused cake that is so popular among island tourists. Traditional it may not be, but delicious it most certainly is. Especially when soaked with a syrup made from Cruzan Blackstrap Navy Rum, which has become our new favorite ingredient to experiment with, and topped with black pepper toasted coconut. Sound odd? Maybe, but one forkful will convince you that odd can also be very, VERY good.

The main meal was entirely my own devising, made on (again) a day when I would be home from work and got putter around to my heart's content. That being said, there's no reason you couldn't make it on a busy weeknight with a bit of early prep.

The rum cake was based on this recipe, which I mostly chose because A)it was far simpler than most other recipes I came across, and B)it didn't call for pre-packaged, processed ingredients like boxed cake mix or instant pudding. (Yes, I'm serious - nearly every recipe I saw called for one or the other or both.) Don't get pulled in by those recipes and their promises of easy prep and moist results - this recipe was a breeze to put together and created a dreamily smooth and creamy batter that baked into a dense but moist and delicious cake, made heavenly by a generous soaking in the blackstrap syrup.

Grilled Chicken Thighs with Lemon, Herbs and Hummus-Yogurt Sauce

This chicken benefits from the long marinade in tenderizing citrus, yielding moist, flavorful meat. The hummus-yogurt sauce is just about the simplest thing on earth, especially if you cheat a little bit by using store-bought hummus. Me being me, I made my own, though I'll save that recipe for another post. Do feel free to use your own favorite recipe though - the only important thing is that its nice and smooth so that the resulting sauce has a nice, velvety texture.

2 large chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on, trimmed of excess skin and fat (if you break down your own bird you probably won't need to worry about this)
Finely grated zest and juice of one lemon, plus 4 wafer-thin slices of a second (I used a meyer lemon for the slices because I like the subtle, floral flavor and scent in this sort of application, but I'm sure a regular lemon would work just fine)
2 cloves of garlic, grated or finely minced
1 tbsp each finely chopped fresh rosemary, parsley, and oregano
1/2 tsp each kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
sturdy toothpicks or bamboo skewers

1/2 cup each hummus and greek yogurt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Fresh veggies for serving (I chose blanched carrot sticks, sugar snap peas, and fresh cold grape tomatoes)

Combine the lemon zest and juice, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a bowl and stir well with a fork or whisk to combine. Set aside.

With your fingers, gently loosen the skin of the chicken thighs to create sort of a pocket between the skin and the meat. Slide two slices of lemon beneath the skin, and use the toothpicks or skewers to reattach the skin to the meat on the edges. I used 2 bamboo skewers per thigh, using a sharp knife to score and break them in half so their length wouldn't make them awkward to handle.

Place the thighs in a shallow dish and pour over the marinade, turning to coat on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to marinate for 4-8 hours.

When you're ready to cook the chicken, fire up your grill. We use charcoal, partially because we honestly can't afford a big gas grill but also because I just don't think that the flavor and smell of charcoal-grilled foods can be replicated with propane. Obviously you can use a gas grill if that's what you've got, or even a grill pan on top of the stove, if the weather's nasty or you don't have an outdoor grill. But I'm telling you, the charcoal-fueled open flame cooking method really made this dish.

Once your grill rack is good and hot, place the chicken thighs on the rack skin-side down and cook for 7-8 minutes, then flip and cook on the opposite side for another 7-8 minutes or until the juices run clear. (J, the grill master, would be able to give more detailed instructions on hwo to get just the right amount of charred, smoky goodness on your meat, but as he's currently busy practicing his Rock Band drumming I think he'll have to take a rain check on that little bit of instruction.)

Remove the thighs from the grill, wrap in aluminum foil, and set aside to rest for 5 minutes or so to let the juiced redistribute while you prepare the sauce. And by "prepare the sauce" I simply mean to mix together the hummus, yogurt, and pepper until evenly combined. There, wasn't that easy?

To serve, spoon a generous dollop of the sauce onto a plate and spread into a nice bed for your chicken and veggies. Arrange the veggies on the side of the sauce in an attractive manner, and nestle the chicken right in the middle of the sauce. Every bite of the chicken will come with a blanket of the smooth, tangy sauce. Cue the toe-curl and back-of-the-throat moans of pleasure.

Mixed Pepper and Feta Tart

6 sheets of phyllo dough
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup julienned red, yellow, and orange bell peppers
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp crumbled feta cheese
S&P to taste

If you've ever worked with phyllo dough, you probably know the drill here - layer the phyllo one sheet at a time, brushing a thin layer of melted butter over each layer before topping with the next. Then cut the whole thing in half width-wise (is that even a word?) and lay one half over the other to double the thickness. Cut this in half width-wise again to create two even portions for your crust. (Normally you probably wouldn't use so many layers, but since the tart filling would be a bit on the liquidy side I wanted to be sure it'd be sturdy.

Gently lift and press the dough pieces into two mini rectangular removable-bottom tart pans. There will probably be some overhang, and that's fine. Feel free to shape the edges prettily - I was impatient so I didn't bother.

Bake the shells in a 325 degree oven for about 15 minutes until just golden brown and puffed sligthly. Remove from oven and set aside while you prepare the filling.

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a medium skillet, then add the peppers, onions, and garlic. Sautee until they just begin to soften, then add the vinegar, sugar and oregano and cook until they begin to caramelize. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the filling between the two tart shells and top each with 1 tbsp of feta. Switch the oven to broil and place the tart pans on a baking sheet. Place under the broiler and cook until the feta starts to toast and get golden brown on top and the edges of the crust get dark - shouldn't take more than a minute or two. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. To serve, simply support the bottom of the pan and push upward to remove the ring from the outside, then gently slide the bottom from the tart and place on the plate (careful, phyllo is delicate stuff!)

Mmmmm, dessert.

As for the rum cake, all you really need to do is follow the recipe that I linked to earlier. If you want the exact results I got though, I recommend using a good quality amber rum in the cake, and make the syrup with half amber rum and half Cruzan Blackstrap. If you've never tasted really good Navy rum, man oh man are you missing out - its warm and toasty with very heavy flavors of maple and molasses, and though it could be a little overwhelming on its own, it provides just the right deep, dark note to this otherwise lightly-colored cake.

I also added some vanilla and coconut extracts to the cake itself and used equal parts white and light brown sugar rather than all white, but that's not at all necessary. I also baked four small rammekins-worth of batter for individual portions for J and I, and poured the rest into a 9" square baking pan for J to bring to work today - the rammekins took about 45 mins to bake, while the pan took about an hour and 15 minutes.

The coconut topping is incredibly simple but shockingly complex in flavor - just take some sweetened flakes coconut, the kind you get in a bag in the baking supplies section f the grocery store, and toast it up in a pan with a couple shakes of finely ground black pepper. Sprinkle it over the cake before serving and dig in!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A journey of a thousand miles...

We all know the way the quote ends, and we all know the lesson to be learned - that sometimes the hardest part of starting something new is exactly that: starting.

I've tried to get this food-blog-thingamajig started quite a few times by now, experimenting with themes and regular features and clever titles... and never got more than a post or two in before losing interest or giving up because it was too much work, too controlled, not controlled enough, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

I'm really good at making up excuses to be lazy if given the chance.

Thankfully, my boyfriend, J - who has been my partner in kitchen-crime and a great source of motivation and inspiration for the past three years - finally made me see sense. We were enjoying a particularly successful meal, one made better by the complete originality of a recipe we'd developed and executed together, when he said "I don't know why you keep trying to come up with crazy themes and challenges and whatever else for your food blog; THIS is what you should be writing about. This is what we do and what people will be interested in." And he was right.

Or at least I think he is; only time will tell. At any rate, here I am, with a fresh start and a fresh attitude, ready to bring our experiments and experiences in the kitchen to all of you curious cooks on the web, for better or worse. I have to admit I feel optimistic that this time I just might be able to stick with it!

So, to kick things off, I'd like to share one of our more recent meals that I was particularly proud of. You see, one of my great lifetime goals (and one that J certainly agrees with) is to learn to create really high-quality pizzas and other pizzeria treats (calzones, strombolis, garlic knots, etc.) at home. J makes a really fantastic marinara sauce, and I think we've got the topping to sauce ratio down pat, but as most home cooks can attest to, probably the most difficult component to perfect is the dough used to make the crust. I believe that a really great pizza dough can be used to make all those pizzeria goodies we love, but that means I've really got to get it right if I'm ever going to get ANY of them right. A little daunting, you must admit.

However, I'm up for the challenge, and for the last 2 years or so have been experimenting with different recipes from different sources, often making my own adjustments, in search of this perfect dough.

Most of my attempts so far have failed miserably in one area or another - too dense, too chewy, too bland - but this last one has been the most successful yet. Its based on the recipe in Williams-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking, which I've now made on 3 different occasions, making small changes each time. This time around it was flavorful, airy, and crisp when baked correctly (and I've tried two different methods - on the grill and in the oven on a pizza stone). It's still a bit on the thick side, but I have some ideas to fix that for next time. I do feel I'm getting closer though.

This meal was actually made with excess dough from the aforementioned grilled pizza, inspired by a trip home to Connecticut for a family party where my parents served stuffed breads from Bobby's Apizza, something I grew up on and have loved my whole life but haven't had since leaving CT. J, being from New Jersey, immediately recognized the breads as what Jerseyans (totally just made that up) apparently know as 'bolis - strombolis to the rest of the country. He loved Bobby's bread as much as I always have, and immediately requested that we make some at home the following week. Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.

As a filling for our 'bolis, we chose some fresh pork sausage with cheese and parsley from the Italian specialty store where we grocery shop regularly, some fresh green broccoli, and a mixture of 4 cheeses (fresh mozzarella bocconini, aged asiago, and a cheddar-jack blend). I also made a long-simmered sauce from some fresh plum tomatoes for dipping. This was a rather lengthy meal to prepare, and would have been moreso if I'd had to make the dough from scratch, but luckily we planned it for a day when I would be home from work and could spend as much time as I needed in the kitchen. Ah, bliss. I suggest, however, that you plan a day or two in advance to make these 'bolis, as the long rest included in the dough recipe really helps to develop the flavors in the finished crust. Its not necessary, but trust me, its worth it.

Don't be ashamed if this makes you drool just a little bit. Its ok. I understand.

Sausage & Broccoli 'Boli
with Homemade Marinara

The dough recipe will make double what you'll need to make two big strombolis, one of which was more than enough for the two of us for dinner (so technically you can use this recipe to serve four). The extra dough can be wrapped tightly in plastic and frozen for later use - just take it out of the freezer and let it thaw for a few hours in your fridge or on your counter when you want to use it. I suspect it would last for at least a few months this way.

Dough (adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking)

2 1/2 packages active dry yeast*
2 1/4 cups warm water (W-S recommends 106-115 degrees; use an instant read thermometer to be sure, yeast can be finnicky)
2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cups bread flour (AP can be substituted if necessary, but the texture will be different) plus extra AP flour for dusting and shaping
1 tbsp sea salt
Optional: a tablespoon or two of garlic powder, onion powder, and/or dried Italian herbs like oregano, rosemary, or parsley

In a large bowl, combine the water and sugar and stir to dissolve. Stir in the yeast and let sit for 10-15 minutes until the mixture foams heavily. (This may sound geeky, but I recommend hanging around to watch - if you've never seen yeast "bloom", its really pretty cool!). Add all of the flour, oil, salt, and any of the optional seasonings you decide to use (I skipped them this time around, but I usually like to use a mix of garlic, oregano, parsley, and black pepper in mine). Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough begins to come together and pull away from the sides of the bowl - it will be stiff, so use your muscles! (Or, use a stand-mixer for all this. I'm not one of those lucky people that has one. Not yet, anyway. But someday...oh, someday...)

Once the dough reached this stage, dust a clean counter or tabletop generously with AP flour and turn the dough out of the bowl. Dust the top of the dough with more lour, and probably your hands too, and get kneading. Its hard to say just how long you'll need to knead your dough - it depends on a lot of things, from the quality and gluten-content of the flour to the purity of your water - and you'll really just need to use your own judgement. The goal is a smooth, pliable dough that is slightly tacky but not sticky, and won't rip if you stretch it a bit. I think it took me about 10 minutes of kneading to achieve this. Don't worry if it takes longer though - just think of it as a good workout for your upper arms.

Once you've got your dough properly kneaded, form it into a ball and let it relax a bit while you wash your mixing bowl out and coat it with olive oil. Place the dough back in the bowl and cover with a clean tea towel, then place in a relatively warm place to rise for about 1-2 hours or until it's at least doubled its bulk.

At this point, you could theoretically go ahead and make your 'bolis, but I suggest this instead: divide the dough in half and place each half in a sturdy zip-top bag. Toss one half into the freezer for another use, and the other into the fridge to slow-proof for at least 12 hours, but the longer the better.

*This seems like a good place to slip in my note about the yeast. The original recipe called for 2 packages of yeast; I used the extra half because I had it leftover from a previous baking experiment that used very little of the stuff. I mostly did this A)to use up the yeast, and B)because I thought the extra yeast would improve the flavor and airiness of the finished crust. I was right, but the dough WOULD NOT STOP RISING. I swear, it was like some kind of alien blob. Even in the fridge, where the cold temperature should have (or so I thought) stopped the reproduction of the yeast, it just kept rising and rising, albeit a little slower than it did on my countertop. As such, although I really did like the flavor of the dough, I would recommend either sticking to the 2 package amount, or storing it in your fridge in a bag that is far larger than the dough itself to allow for further rising. However good the flavor ends up, its not really worth it for a sticky, doughy mess in your fridge unless you prep ahead.

Anyway, the next day (or two or three days later - I think that the longer you let it sit, the better the flavor will be, but I don't know exactly how long the dough will last, so I wouldn't let it go longer than maybe 4-5 days) you're ready to assemble and bake your 'bolis.


4 links fresh sausage (about 1lb)
1 small head of broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces (by all means, use the stems as well as the florets)
1 cup cheddar-jack shredded cheese blend
1 cup bocconcini, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
1/2 cup finely shredded or grated aged asiago
S&P to taste

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it on a rack as close to the center of the oven and let it preheat as well for a minimum of 30 minutes - the hotter the stone gets, the crispier the bottom of your 'bolis will get.

Heat a skillet large enough for your sausages over medium-high heat and coat the bottom of the pan with a small amount of olive oil (you won't need much - the fat from the sausages should help lubricate the pan). One the oil starts to shimmer a bit, carefully drop in the sausages - they may spit and pop a bit - and clamp a lid over them to keep in the heat and avoid splatter. Cook the sausages this way, shaking the pan every few minutes to let them brown on all sides, until the sausages are mostly cooked through, probably around 10 minutes. If they're still a bit undercooked in the middle, thats ok as they'll continue to cook when the 'bolis are baked.

While the sausages cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in your broccoli to blanch for 2-3 minutes or so - the broccoli should be bright green and only just tender, we're going for that "tendercrisp" texture that everyone's been talking about here. Lift the broccoli pieces out of the water with a large slotted spoon or spider and immediately dump into a bowl of ice water. This will keep them from continuing to cook from their internal heat, and cause them to retain that beautiful bright green color. Once the broccoli is cool, drain in a colander and set aside.

Once the sausages are cooked, move them from the pan to a cutting board and let them rest for a few minutes so that they'll reabsorb all their juices and cool down a bit, otherwise they'll be hard to handle. Slice the sausages into 1/4-1/2" slices and set aside.

Now, retrieve your dough from the fridge. Dust a work surface with AP flour and dump the dough onto the surface. Divide into two even pieces. Working with one piece at a time, stretch and roll the dough into about a rectangle. It doesn't need to be a perfect shape, but it should be an even thickness, preferably no thicker than 1/8-1/4".

Turn the dough so that the long side is facing you and being to layer in your fillings. You'll want to keep everything in the center of the dough in a vaguely rectangular shape, leaving enough room on either short side to fold over the top of the fillings, and about 1/2" on each of the long sides to seal the 'boli once its folded. Using half of each of your fillings, start with a layer of shredded cheddar-jack, then a layer of sausage slices, then a layer of blanched broccoli, then a layer of bocconcini slices, and finally a layer of grated/shredded asiago. Sprinkle the whole thing with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil if you like.

To wrap the 'boli, brush both of the exposed long sides with some water. Take one of the bare short sides and fold it over the top of the filling. Brush the top of that piece with some more water, and fold the other short side over it. Use your fingers to press the edge of the dough into the dough beneath it, gently rolling and crimping if necessary to create a tight seal. Then roll and crimp each end of the package to seal them as well. Dust the back of a cookie sheet with some flour or fine corn meal and carefully lift the finished 'boli onto it and set aside. Repeat the entire process with your second portion of dough, using up all your fillings. (Note: I also brushed the top of each 'boli with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled over some coarse sea salt and dry herbs, because I had neglected to add it to the dough itself - feel free to do this as well.) Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut some small slits in the top of each 'boli to allow steam to escape - otherwise the seams may split and the fillings will leak.

Once your oven has reach the proper temperature and your baking stone is hot, open the oven and carefully slide the rack out enough that the stone will remain stable but you can get to the whole thing easily. Being careful to keep your fingers away from the hot stone, carefully lift or slide the 'bolis off of the cookie sheet and onto the baking stone, making sure they are evenly spaced apart. Slide the whole thing into the oven and, if you like, spritz a bit of water into the oven before closing the door - this will help the crust to crisp up. (If you don't have a stone, feel free to use a regular baking sheet. You can even still preheat it, but be sure its sturdy enough to stand up to the high heat we're using.)

Bake the 'bolis for about 20-25 minutes or until the outer crust is crisp, golden brown. Cool on a wire rack until they are cool enough to handle, then cut into slices and serve with marinara sauce for dipping. You can use your favorite sauce or the recipe that follows.

Homemade Marinara

I tend to make sauce in sort of a flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants method; I almost never follow a recipe but follow my own intuition. As such, all quantities and directions here are approximate. I suggest that if you use this recipe, you simply use it as a foundation and adjust it to suit your own tastes - that's really the best way to develop your own recipe, anyway.

6-8 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and cut into large chunks
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
1/2 cup each diced white onion and carrot
2 cups beef or vegetable stock
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1-2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn or roughly chopped

Add 1 tbsp olive oil to a medium skillet and heat over medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer, add the onion, carrot and garlic and sweat until the vegetables are soft. Remove from heat.

Place all ingredients except the basil into a blender and puree until almost smooth. Pour into a large pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and continue to simmer for 2-3 hours - the sauce will deepen in color and flavor and thicken as the liquid gradually starts to evaporate. Remove from heat and stir in the fresh basil. At this point you can use the sauce as is or, if like me you prefer a smooth sauce for dipping or pizzas, either pour the sauce back into your blender and puree until velvety smooth, or use a stick or immersion blender if you have one (its much easier and will work much better). Incidentally, I realize I could have just cooked everything together in the pot first without pureeing the first time and saved myself a step, but I like the way the flavors meld when everything is blended up together and I honestly didn't expect to need to blend it the second time... I found that even after the long cooking time, the sauce had a bit too much texture for my tastes.