Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Slow-Cooked Octopus in Tomato Sauce

"Slow-cooked" and "Tuesday-night dinner" are two mutually incompatible concepts when you're a working woman. Incompatible unless your hard-working husband stays home and writes his articles while waiting for the octopus to boil/steam tender.

This octopus dish is another in Gabriel's repertoire of Greek cuisine. You'll find this particularly in spring when the octopi come close to the surface of the coastal Ionian sea and are easy to catch. But for us, frozen is just fine (the toughest octopus Gabriel ever cooked was a pricey freshly-caught one).

Here's how he does it:

2 small or 1 large octopus
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tsp Greek oregano
1-15oz cans of good San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

First clean the octopus, taking out the beak (pointy thing at the bottom where all the tentacles connect) and the eyes (eeeew!, no wonder I never make this myself!). Other than the beak and eyes, leave the octopus whole and place in a large pot with about 1/2 inch of water at the bottom. Cover the pot tightly and boil/steam the octopus for 1 hour, or until tender. This prospect sounds pretty risky to me since it seems easy for the water steam away and the octopus to burn, but this is what Gabriel does regularly, so I guess if you keep watching it, you'll be ok. Music to boil octopus by: Kitchen Man by Bessie Smith.

Once the octopus is almost done, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the minced onion. Cook stirring regularly until it's browned, then add the bay, oregano and tomatoes. Heat to a simmer, breaking up any larger pieces of tomato. Cut the octopus into about 1-2 inch pieces and add to the pan. Add the white wine, return to a simmer and cook 30-40 minutes or until the sauce is like a thick tomato sauce. Serve over white rice. Then kiss your kitchen man, 'cause he's your sweetie.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Wow! Simone and Valeria came to dinner last night and they brought an "experiment" with them: these deluxe zeppole. If you look for zeppole recipes online you'll mostly find instructions for rather standard fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. If you have ever been to an Italian-American street fest, you may have eaten some doughnut-like things in brown paper while walking down the street, but you would NOT be prepared for what we tasted last night.

What Simone and Valeria propose is an egg-rich cream puff dough (something like this) piped in concentric circles to make discs and then deep fried. This is then covered with "crema pasticcera" (pastry cream) piped in the same way and then topped with a small dollop of "amarena" (sour cherry preserves - I can't believe what they're charging for them on this site!). Valeria is from Naples, so she has a lot of experience eating these traditional Neapolitan St. Joseph's Day pastries, but this is the first time she and Simone made them. I think they did a great job.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Brown Bag Lunch #1: Hummous Mint Sandwich

I'm now in my second full week of work and I bring my lunch in whenever I can. It seems a bit anti-social to brown-bag it every day since there's only one other person in the office willing to do it. (I'm working on 'em though). So I go out with the co-workers about half the time. Tomorrow I'm bringing a home-made hummous and mint sandwich on my own sourdough bread.

Hummous Ingredients:
1 cup dried chick peas*
1 medium-sized garlic clove, peeled
1/4 cupo well stirred tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt to taste
sprinkle of ground sumac
1 tbsp chopped fresh mint

*Or any other bean, really since the other ingredients are strongly flavored, I thing you'll hardly notice the difference between chick pea hummous, pinto bean hummous and navy bean hummous. The honest truth is this hummous is made with Italian "borlotti" beans, a.k.a cranberry beans. That and the mixed-in sumac make the hummous redder than it otherwise would be.

The evening before you make your hummous, soak the cup of chick peas in a bowl of water. Make sure the level of the water is 3 times as high as the chick peas to allow for their expansion. (If you're reading this and you want hummous NOW, just get 2 15 oz cans of chick peas, drain them and follow this recipe from there. If you don't tell anybody, I won't either.) Music to soak chick peas by: "Where is the Love" by The Black Eyed Peas. I just love that song.

Boil the chick peas in abundant water for about 2 hours or until they are very tender. Cool and drain. In a food processor, place the garlic and whizz just to make sure it's in small pieces. I have forgotten this step in the past, dumping all the ingredients in together, and ended up with huge chunks of raw garlic in my hummous. Don't let this happen to you! Add the chick peas, tahini, cumin & cayenne and blend until smooth. If the mixture is too thick, start adding the lemon juice. Open the feeder at the top of the food processor and begin adding the olive oil in a stream. Add about 1/2 tsp salt and taste to see if you need more.

Spread in a shallow bowl, sprinkle the brick-red sumac and green mint on top and enjoy with bread.

Hummous sandwich serving ideas: Depending on the season, tomato or lettuce are great with this, also the traditional Middle Eastern pickled turnips (way better than they sound, and they're pink!) will give this sandwich a wonderfully tart kick.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Moroccan Spiced Mutton Chops

Gabriel headed out to the Halal butcher's and came back with a pound and a half of "lamb" chops for such a low price, something like $3 per pound or so. Well they're mighty big for lamb chops, looks like these sheep had rather full lives before they ended up on our table, so I'm going to play it safe and give them a good, strong, piquant spice rub so as to cover over any potential gaminess of the meat. Looking on the internet, I found a bunch of seemingly unadventurous spice rub mixes, so I've combined the spice rub pictured here out of my pantry with a vaguely Moroccan-Middle Eastern inspiration: For 1-1/2 pounds of chops: Starting at noon and going clockwise:
1/4 tsp sumac,
1/4 tsp coriander,
1/4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika,
1/4 tsp cumin,
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper,
1/4 tsp black pepper and (in center)
1/8 tsp cinnamon.
To this, add 1/2 tsp salt

Rub this mixture all over the meat, place on a rack at the top 3rd of your oven at 400-450F, and bake for 20 minutes. Aside from thick clouds of smoke, you will have medium-cooked chops that are deliciously brown and crunchy on the edges. Gabriel's take on the spice rub? Reminds him of North African merguez sausage. I call that a hit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Porcini Chronicles: The Working Woman’s Guide to Great Food

I’ve been working at an elevated pace since coming back to Milan from my luxurious, 3-week Christmas vacation. The day after I came back I started a new job instituting changes for the Erasmus program (that’s an EU-funded university student exchange program) at the U where I’ve been teaching English Composition and Scientific Writing for the last 2 years. I’ve also kept my Saturday English course at the Politecnico in Como (no George Clooney sightings yet) and am holding on to some favorite private English students. They are more fun than work, but… I’m pretty tired.

Needless, to say since I added the 9 to 5 to this work combo, I’ve been a little stressed. Aside from the boost in activity which is largely positive, there’s potential for loss here. There’s no more time to go to different Milan neighborhood markets on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays to get the freshest arugula, mandarins and porcinis. How will I find the time to make bolognese sauce over homemade pasta for Tuesday night dinner? Homemade bread? Summer vegetable terrine? and Bagna cauda?

Well, the answer is that this blog is going to get strategic. In the coming weeks and months, you will find tips on how to do much of your cooking for the week on Sunday, great recipes for brown bag lunches at work and more. For the sake of conviviality at work I’m going to have to have lunch out at the most profoundly disappointing restaurant in Italy at least a couple times a week, but otherwise, it’s hummous-tomato sandwiches with mint, tortilla española with arugula and prosciutto and carrot-orange buttermilk bread. All portable and good at room temperature. Recipes to come soon.

I think it’ll be fun. Not least because this Saturday, after finishing class at the Politecnico in Como, I happened to walk past a big Saturday market that I hadn’t known existed before, so I’m doing my veggie shopping there from now on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Would You Eat This?! Orange-Olive Salad

When I was a kid I hated everything. There was even a moment in my early childhood when I refused to eat anything other than apple sauce and so my parents were forced to hide the meat and veggies inside spoonfulls of it when they fed me. During college I branched out and the first direction I went was foreign, I was really picky about things unless you told me it was a delicacy in Spain or Thailand or somewhere. Well, I remember photocopying a page out of an Italian cookbook with this recipe: If people from the suburbs of Chicago loved the sweet, tart, salty combo of orange and olive salad, I would probably never have tasted it in the first place. Luckily this is a Sicilian thing. I really favor the ultra black, wrinkly "olive al forno" olives for this dish, but I guess you can use any black olive. Navel oranges work well too. This recipe is for 1 person, just multiply as your guest list grows

1 seedless orange, peeled
1 tbsp of the finest extra virgin olive oil
8 black olives
squeeze of lemon (optional)
salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Slice the orange into thin rounds and arrange on a plate. It's nicest if there are only 1 or 2 layers of orange slices, so you may be looking at a very large serving plate if you have a lot of guests. Scatter the olives evenly over the orange slices, drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle the salt and pepper. If your oranges are tart, I suggest no lemon juice at all. If they're sweet, add a squeeze or two. Press down gently on the orange slices with a spoon to get some juices going. Tilt the plate, scoop up some juices and baste the salad a couple times. You will have a juicy and delicious combination.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Floating Islands-Oeufs a la Neige

"Oeufs a la Neige" does not translate directly as "Floating Islands" but actually as "Snow Eggs". On a recent trip to Turin, we had dinner at our hosts' home and a really generous guest brought this dessert. She called them "peti di signora" (lady's farts! - so much more down home than the English or French names) and she mixed the caramel into the custard cream. I made this more canonical recipe for Christmas dinner for 10 people:

3 cups whole milk, warmed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

In a medium saucepan, whisk yolks and sugar until thick, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in warm milk and vanilla. Put over low heat and stir constantly until thickened, about 9 minutes. Cover and chill until cold, at least 3 hours.

8 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups whole milk plus extra water if necessary

Beat egg whites in large bowl on high until just foamy. Add salt and continue beating until the whites hold soft peaks (until when you take the beaters out, they make a peak that flops over). Once you've reached the soft peak stage, start adding the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until you have incorporated it all and the peaks glossy and stiff (no more flopping). Put the milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle (no boiling!) simmer. Using 2 large soup spoons, you will make quenelles out of the meringue. Scoop about the size of 2 eggs' worth of meringue onto one of the spoons. With the other, scoop from one side and lift the meringue onto the second spoon. You are trying to make a (n American) football shape. Keep transferring the meringue from spoon to spoon until you're there. Cook about 2 at a time in the simmering milk. After about 2 minutes, flip the meringues over to cook the other side. After another 2 minutes, remove on to a baking sheet. Continue until you have used up all the meringue. If the level of the milk gets too low for the meringues to float, add boiling water to correct it. Cool covered for at least an hour and up to 3 hours.

1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup water (optional)

Follow this simple recipe from "The Accidental Scientist" for foolproof caramel:
Caramelizing isn’t especially tricky. Caramelizing dry sugar is one of the easiest of the caramelizing methods. Other methods involve dissolving the sugar in water and/or adding an acid. Since melted sugar forms an extremely hot and sticky syrup, stir with great care so it doesn’t spatter.

1. Sprinkle the sugar evenly on the bottom of the saucepan. Heat it slowly over low to medium heat and you’ll notice it first begins to melt, then gradually becomes a molten syrup.

2. As it gets hotter, about 320° F, it changes to a pale, amber color. Then, within a matter of seconds, it becomes a rich, deep caramel and is at a temperature of about 338° F.

3. When it’s almost as dark as you’d like, remove the pan from the heat, as it will continue to cook slightly. If you let it get darker, or heated to 350° F, it quickly develops a bitter then burnt flavor.

Caramel option #1: Now, if you want pourable caramel, add the 1/8 cup of water, begin stirring over medium heat until you have a uniform consistency. Take off heat and let cool.

Caramel option #2: Do NOT add the water to this one. If you want an elegant-looking caramel cage decoration, invert 10 small bowls, spray the outsides of them with Pam (or other non-stick spray, or spread a bit of vegetable oil with your fingers), and take a fork, dip it into the hot caramel and drizzle it over the inverted bowls in swirls, jagged lines or whatever you fancy. These cool very quickly and can be removed easily.

Assembly: One nice thing about this dish, other than the delicious taste and not terribly fattening calorie-count is that you can make it all ahead of time. The caramel option #1 can be made the day before as can the custard. The meringues hold well for up to 4 hours in the fridge. It's the assembly that must be last minute. In 10 low bowls, pour on some custard, drop on 1 or 2 meringue quenelles and either drizzle the caramel sauce on top or place the hard caramel cage over everything. Serve with a flourish.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Oysters on the Half Shell

I know, I know, it's much too late for New Years Eve fancy food, but here's my oyster post anyway. When we spent January and Febrary, 2003 in Paris, I realized that oysters are not considered as chic or schmancy as they are where I come from. Winter is their season, and you can find them in the most average of resuaurants all over Paris. They are, after all a national product in France, so maybe that's why. Even though Gabriel is from Geneva, he grew up eating them in the cold months and they remain a personal favorite. If you can find them at the supermarket and you have a very sturdy knife (or, dare I dream? an oyster schucker?), give them a try.
If you have the luxury of choosing these guys at the store, pick the heaviest ones since those will be chock-full of the liquor (basically just salt water, I think) and so will be plump and juicy. You might want to crush some ice and lay it out on a platter to keep the oysters chilled and to hold the bottom shells straight so they won't lose the liquor before you serve them. You will see that of the two shells, one is flatter and the other more concave, like a bowl. Make sure to hold the oyster with the concave shell down so as not to loose that precious liquor.
Then find the part of the oyster with the "foot" (pictured here). That's the part of the oyster where the meat is attached to the shell. If you open the oyster there, you will be well on your way to easy serving and eating. If you pry open the oyster elsewhere, you could be in for some difficulties. The good thing is that oyster shells are often curved and the foot is found at the instep, or the inner curve. Hold the oyster with a clean but disposable rag. Pictured here, you see a section of an old pair of jeans, nice and sturdy to protect your hands. Take a very sturdy, broad-bladed knife (or if you're lucky, an oyster schucker as pictured above) and place it at the instep and insert. Slide the blade back and forth to sever the foot. Then twist the blade to begin prying the oyster open. All this is done slowly and carefully so you don't spill that liquor. (If you haven't guessed by now, it's ALL about the liquor.) This can take some practice to do well without getting tiny bits of shell in your oyster. If do you get bits of shell, though they are easy to see so you can just clean them out with a bit of paper towel. Arrange on a platter with crushed ice and serve with lemon wedges (my favorite) or tabasco.

After all that work, you're almost there! To eat, you need to separate the foot from the meat. This is easily done with any knife, just scrape around the cyllindrical foot and the meat will come free. Then, squeeze the lemon or sprinkle the tabasco and down the hatch! So fresh and delicious, they taste like the sea. Bon apetit!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Long Time, No See!

Hi Everybody, I'm back after a 3-week vacation back in Chicago and my first day of work in a new job. I'm still a little pooped but coming soon are:

1. A beautiful, delicious and not terribly fattening dessert called Floating Islands

2. A dramatic winter salad of oranges and dry Sicilian olives (great salad alternative for the tired, pekid tomatoes on offer in the winter)

See you all very soon. For now, I'm going to bed.

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