Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Culinary Obsession...

Amatriciana - Heaven on a Fork

There is something so delicious about this dish that it sparks my passion for great food. It is an amazingly pleasing bowl of happiness. Amatriciana is a classic Italian pasta sauce. The English translation is spicy tomato sauce, but its way more than that... it’s “Heaven on a Fork”. According to Wikipedia, Alla matriciana originates in the town of Amatrice in the Lazio region of Italy. It’s a recipe filled with just a few ingredients and big aromatic layers. I’ve tried with several different types of pastas, most recipes recommend Bucatini - a long hollow spaghetti. But I’ve also had it with Fusilli and last night we used Torcetti, a twisted shaped pasta. Recently I served it with regular spaghetti, but it really didn’t have the same textural experience as the other recommended pastas. I’ve found that you need pasta that will grab hold of the sauce.

So, why do I make this Amatriciana? I have to admit this has become an authentic obsession for me, one bite and I was hooked, hopefully forever. I have to be careful and not over make this recipe, cause frankly, if I could, I would eat it every day.

The first time I had this dish; was at a quaint little Italian restaurant in Sarasota, called Andreas. Normally, when we go out for dinner, we order different dishes and share. It makes for a romantic dinner and as foodies, we love to try new things. I ordered the Chicken Rollatini wrapped in bacon and it was phenomenal. I especially loved the mashed potatoes; I’ll have to ask Andreas if I can share his secret with you. If I can, that will be a different blog, and definitely worth the wait.

My husband ordered Amatriciana and he was hooked. John gave me a bite of his dish. With the first forkful, I too was hooked! It grabbed my salivary glands and never let go. I have dreamed about this dish. It literally seizes that spot in your mouth near the jaw line, almost hypnotic.  As you may learned by now, I tend to crave things, and once I get a dish in my head, it won’t leave until I eat it again. I try to recreate many of my favorite dishes out, since our nights out are limited by budgets. I have searched and searched the internet for “the” Amatriciana recipe. Let me tell you, many were close, but on making them, they just didn’t make the cut.

Then one night, my husband and I were in the mood for fresh pasta and I went straight to one of my favorite cookbooks that John gave me on our first Christmas together. It’s from Giuliano Hazan, fantastic famed chef on his own and son of the beloved Marcella Hazan - deemed the “Doyenne of Italian Cooking”.  He lives here in Sarasota and I had the luck to have him sign it for me, and it is one of my most prized cookbooks.  As we were browsing the different recipes I came across Giuliano’s Bucatini all’ Amatriciana recipe. We’ve made many of his recipes, but for some reason, I’ve overlooked this delicious treasure.  We were so excited; we jumped up and began cooking together. I will tell you, now that we are making pasta from scratch; John and I are doing a lot more cooking together, as opposed to me slaving away in the kitchen, while he is drawn into his Droid. My suggestion is that you have a special someone, make pasta with them... it’s a delectable way to do something together.

What makes this an A-mazing dining experience? The aromas coming off this dish while it’s cooking are mind-blowing! It’s a complete sensory experience, and the combination of ingredients will definitely tempt your senses. Cooking the onions in butter is seriously mesmerizing. I never knew I loved the smell of cooking onions so much; maybe my senses are growing with each dish. They say that your palate changes with age, not that I’m growing old gracefully. However, I’ll admit that I now love sautéing onions. Chopping raw onions are another matter, but if you need a good cry, onions are the way to go.
With every step, the fragrance builds and fills the house with luxurious scents. Next, adding the bacon (I substituted bacon for pancetta as the recipe calls for) already, my mouth is drooling with anticipation. This is dangerously awesome. After the bacon is cooked, adding the tomatoes and its juice confirms that I am just one stop closer a completed dish.

As a novice, cooking can be a victorious achievement, or a massive failure. Luckily, I haven’t experienced the latter. Just a few tweaks, but nothing burnt, or declared disaster.

Why am I so in love with this dish? Some dishes look good, some dishes smell good and some dishes taste good, but when you get visual, taste and smell combined together, you have a triumphant trifecta of culinary success.  And trust me when I tell you, this recipe has it all!

I invited my neighbor Tricia over for our Tuesday night get together so she too could get hooked on this dish. She brought one of my favorite sides: Tomato, Cucumber and Onion salad with vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. It is a southern summer classic, and the vinaigrette complemented the pasta perfectly. Also, since it’s Florida’s vegetable season, the tomatoes and cucumbers were excitingly fresh!  She also brought over a bottle of Lemoncello Crème for dessert. She suggested that since we were doing Italian night, this would be a welcomed addition, and she was right.  (Side note: last week, Tricia made us White pizza and YUM! It was awesome!) Thanks Tricia for introducing me to a fabulous delight!

The night was a success! The pasta was mouth-watering, the salad, a lovely foil and dessert, who doesn’t love a grand finale with alcohol. We had a bold red wine, a lighter red wouldn’t hold up to the powerful flavors of Amatriciana.

Giuliano Hazan’s Recipe for All ’Amatriciana
From his” The Classic Pasta Cookbook” 
(I recommend that you order this today – It’s a GREAT cookbook)

Recipe for 1lb. of Pasta
4 T.         Butter - (I only used half the butter to cook onions – didn’t add the other to the finished dish)
½ C.        Finely Chopped Onion
2 oz.       Pancetta – (I used 3 strips of Applewood Bacon) cut into thin strips
2 C.         Canned Whole Peeled Tomatoes with their juice, coarsely chopped
¼ t.         Red Pepper Flakes (more if you prefer spicy)
1/3 C.    Freshly Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
2 T.         Freshly Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese

Melt half the butter in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook until it turns a rich golden color. Add the pancetta (bacon) and sauté until it is lightly browned but not crisp. Stir in the tomatoes and red pepper flakes and season with salt. Cook until the tomatoes have reduced and separated from the butter: 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Giuliano suggests that you may prepare the sauce ahead of time and refrigerate until you are ready to use. Personally, I made the sauce earlier in the day so that all the ingredients build their flavors.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan or pot, add 1 tablespoon of salt and drop pasta all at once, stirring until pasta is submerged.

While pasta cooks, return the sauce to a low heat. When pasta is “molto al dente” (about 30 seconds away from al dente) drain and transfer to a serving bowl. Add sauce, butter (I skipped the additional butter) and the grated cheeses, and toss vigorously. Cover the bowl and wait 2 minutes before serving.

This is a FABULOUS recipe!

Until the next time, happy cooking!
SRQ Foodie

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sunday Dinner

Sunday Dinner
Well, I mentioned that I was feeling a bit nostalgic, missing my family and the food from my past. Sometimes the cravings are so overwhelming; I simply can’t concentrate on anything else.  So, this time I caved, I tried to recreate a typical Sunday dinner at my grandmothers.  I loved spending time at my grandmother’s house, especially when she was cooking, which back then was all the time. No instant dinners, no microwaves, everything was made from scratch, with the exception of boxed caked mixes for “unannounced” guests.  Granted it was a lifetime ago compared to what’s available these days, pre-made/ready-to-serve meals delivered to your door, and she lived in the country, so almost everything was fresh from her garden or a nearby neighbor’s farm. Mama D would go to Rada’s farm every week for fresh milk and eggs; she grew most of her vegetables and “put up” canned veggies and preserves for the winter. It’s funny, for the first half of my life; I would only eat Mama D’s home-canned green beans. She sent home jars, and jars of them with my mom for me.  When my mom ran out of them, she would try to sneak a store-bought can, but I knew they were not my Mama D’s.  With just one bite, I would look at my mom and say, “These are not Mama D’s!” My mom Ann would reply with a resounding “Yes they are. How would you know the difference?”  Taking that as a challenge, I would get up from the table, walk to the trashcan under the sink and dig through the trash until I found the can. Then pulling the empty can and raising high above my head, I would boast, “See, I told you they weren’t Mama D’s – I know Mama D’s green beans.” I was generally a good kid, always polite, watched my manners, and rarely talked back, but I am sure that I frustrated my mom when it came to green beans.   Well enough about my veggie issues, back to the subject of today’s blog.   

Side note: if you don’t have Mama D’s green beans, I’ve learned you can recreate them with canned beans. Here’s the secret, it’s not calorie conscious, but oh my, are they are good. One-can green beans, I use Publix Veri-Green, one small spoon of bacon grease, and tablespoon white balsamic vinegar.

Our Sunday dinner was good - not perfection, but it was good – definitely solid comfort food! This was my first attempt at making two of the four dishes. I relish my husband’s comments when he told me, “You know the old saying, if you’re having a dinner party, never serve a dish without trying it out first. Now you’ve tried and you can tweak it for next time.”    I was slightly disappointed with the results. (As you will read down the page) I followed the directions to a tee, and still not quite as picture perfect as shown online. I sort of blame the Food Network, the celebrity chefs make it look so easy and always fabulous, I keep forgetting they have sous chefs, stylists, and magical video equipment, and I have... me!

This was a traditional Sunday dinner like my grandmother prepared for us.  The menu: Fresh Picnic Ham, Au Gratin Potatoes, Slow-Cooked Green Beans, and for dessert, Homemade Blackberry Cobbler.  Compared to my grandmother’s talents, it was close, but certainly not her caliber, but none-the-less, we enjoyed it.

First up – the Fresh Picnic Ham
I used one of my culinary idols recipes, Ham in Cola (the proper English title structure), by Nigella Lawson. With my southern roots, we called it Co-cola Ham. Coke is a southern staple... so many dishes featuring this liquid addiction: Coke Baked Beans, Coke BBQ Sauce and the most famous, Coca-Cola Cake. It is really a simple recipe and has all the ideal components for a delicious dish.  I thought I brought the ham up to room temperature before beginning, but when we went to carve it, it was still a little rare in the center. So next time I would cook just a tad longer and check the core temperature. Yes, I know I should have, but was so anxious to eat, I forgot.

The first part of the process was easy... boiling the ham with onion in a liter of Coke. I have to admit, the glaze really made the flavor! Four simple ingredients: cloves, molasses, English Mustard and brown sugar – a magical combination.  I didn’t have whole cloves, so I sprinkled ground cloves sparingly, and it worked fine, I would say between ¼ and ½-teaspoon total. The glaze bubbled on the ham and started to caramelize, ah the smells coming from the over were heavenly.  It was slightly euphoric and a little mesmerizing.  Now you can see why I was so anxious to jump in with my fork and knife.  My only recommendation for this recipe is really to take its temperature before serving. Other than that, it was a rockin dish, and I would make it again, now that I’ve made it, I’ll know what to expect next time. Maybe.   Recipe below:

On to the next item... Au Gratin Potatoes
I don’t have a specific recipe, I sort of throw things together and luckily, there’s not much that can go wrong with potatoes, milk, butter, cheese and some spices. I boil my potatoes with skins on until they are beginning to cook, but not soft. My knife should be able to pierce the potato but not slide right in. Usually about 15 minutes on medium high heat. I start out with cold water and bring potatoes and water to a soft boil together.  While those are cooking, I take about a cup of milk, three tablespoons of butter and melt. Once bubbles begin to form, I add the cheese, usually about two cups, when I have my Provel Cheese, (I’ll save that for another blog, because it deserves its own page – my St. Louis friends will understand) if I don’t have Provel, then I use sharp shredded cheddar, salt and pepper to taste. Sometimes, I add a little nutmeg, and it adds another appealing layer and depth. Once the mixture is smooth and creamy, I turn off the heat and let sit until it’s ready for combining with potatoes. After the potatoes are at the density that I prefer, I slice and layer in a butter casserole dish. Between layers of potatoes, I add the creamy cheesy mixture. Once everything is combined, I place in a 350° oven until bubbling and brown on top.  Potatoes are at the top of the comfort food list, and Au Gratin potatoes have the best of everything that is comforting... milk, butter and cheese.  I will say the savoriness of the potato is a lovely foil to the sweetness of the ham. It was a lovely pairing.

On to the third dish... Slow-Cooked Green Beans
I know what you’re thinking not the green beans again! Well, yes, I’m going there. This is my grandmother’s recipe and there is nothing more comforting than slow-cooked green beans, southern style. Green beans, bacon, salt and pepper to taste, and the secret ingredient for a winning dish... a pinch of sugar. Yes, I went there, sugar! Begin with a small amount of water in a Dutch oven, add the green beans, (and this recipe is only for fresh green beans), two to three slices of bacon, large pinch of salt and I like pepper so, usually I use a little less than one tablespoon. Sprinkle about one-half tablespoon of sugar. Cover, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce to medium –low heat until tender. Oh, what can I say about this version of green beans, happiness on a fork. Tender, juicy, savory and oh, so comforting. Say what you will, but I grew up on this dish and it sincerely is a true taste of home for me.

Finally, dessert...
This is the whole reason for the dinner. I was having such a craving for my grandmother’s style of blackberry cobbler. I don’t know what sparked this desire, but I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I searched and searched for a recipe that was similar to hers. When I was a little girl, we spent many weekends each month at the farm. Upon arrival, my grandmother would take me by the hand and guide me over to where she had my surprise. Under a kitchen towel, she had a delicious treat waiting for me, her homemade blackberry cobbler. The crust was light, flaky and lusciously buttery. The filling – well to start, she put lots and lots of blackberries. Plump juicy blackberries that had the right amount of tartness and sweetness combined.  I loved my grandmother’s cooking; my mom told me it was because of the love that she had for me that made it so good. Isn’t it funny that that phrase is so believable and so true? Did you ever have a loved one make you a dish or meal, didn’t it taste so much better than if you made it yourself.  

My blackberry cobbler was good, it wasn’t Mama D’s, but it was yummy. I can’t tell you how many recipes I looked at trying to find one close to her recipe.  With all of my cookbooks, which are many, and Google I was slightly overwhelmed. Of all my cookbooks – which is another story (I think I have an obsession) not one had an actual recipe for cobbler! Southern cookbooks, Junior League cookbooks, Better Homes and Garden’s cookbook, Joy of Cooking and on, and on, and on – no cobblers. UGH! Online, I found more than my share of cobbler recipes, but most of them had a “biscuit” style topping, and not a pie crust topping as my grandmother used. I finally found one that I felt was as close as I was going to get. It was from a fellow blogger The directions were simple and the photos enticing.  The recipe was for two, using individual serving dishes. I used an 8 x 10 dish, and I used my own piecrust recipe. I am proud to say that I have mastered piecrusts.  The only thing different I would do was add more berries, but that was my fault, since I followed directions. The way I prepared it, I should have added one more bag of frozen berries.  And I have to be honest, I may have grated a little more nutmeg than directed... but I love grating nutmeg, it is a stress reliever, you just have to be careful not to grate your fingernails. You know who you are; you’ve probably done the same thing one time or another.

All in all, it was a delicious dinner and I am proud of the outcome. Now that I’ve made these new dishes, I’ll be more at ease the next time I am in the mood for a taste of home.   I hope that this inspires you to have a Sunday dinner with friends and loved ones, memories are wonderful, but creating new memories are “Just That Good!”

Happy Eating
SRQ Foodie

For the Ham:
    1 (4 1/4 to 4 1/2-pound) bone in ham
    1 onion, peeled, cut in 1/2
    1 (2-liter) bottle cola (recommended: Coca-Cola)

For the Glaze:
    1 handful cloves
    1 heaping tablespoon molasses
    2 teaspoons English mustard powder
    2 tablespoons Demerara (raw cane sugar) or granulated brown sugar

For the ham:
Peel and cut 1 onion in half. To a large pot or Dutch oven, place ham, the onion and pour over top, the 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. On a medium-high heat, allow to cola to come to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover, not tightly with lid, and allow to cook for 2 1/2 hours. It is 1 hour for every 2 pounds.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.

For the Glaze:
Pull the ham from the pot, and allow to rest on a cutting board reserving the cooking liquid. Using a sharp knife, trim the skin, leaving a thin layer of fat on the ham. Using the knife, score the fat diagonally into large diamond cut. In each diamond pierce the fat with 1 clove. Spread the molasses over the meat. Gently pat the powdered mustard and sugar around the meat, so it sticks to the molasses. Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil. Gently place the ham in the roasting pan. Cook the ham for about 10 minutes or until glaze is burnished and bubbly.

For braising the ham in advance and then letting the ham cool, take ham from the refrigerator, glaze it according to the recipe, and give it 30 to 40 minutes to sit at room temperature. Place in a 350 degree F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, then turning up the heat if you think it needs a more crispy exterior.

2 pints of blackberries (For me, two pints wasn’t enough, I would double the berries, along with the sugar and cornstarch)
1/3 cup of sugar
1 1/2 T. of cornstarch
A pinch of nutmeg
1 ready-made pie crust (homemade or store bought)

Step 1: If using frozen blackberries take out 2 pints and let thaw with sugar, cornstarch and nutmeg.

Step 2: When blackberries are thawed almost completely stir well and pour berries into a tart dish.

Step 3: Unroll prepared pie crust and cut to fit with a sharp knife or pizza cutter.  Lay the dough on top of the berries and tuck any dough that hangs over the sides. With a sharp knife cut slits in dough so steam can escape.

Step 4: Bake cobbler with a cookie sheet underneath it to catch any dripping juice at 400 degrees for 30 minutes and browned.

Single Pie Crust:
I got this from a cookbook my husband gave me, Pie Ever Day. A basic recipe.

1 ½ C.    Sifted All-purpose flour chilled
½ t.         Salt
8 T.         Unsalted Butter – cut into 8 pieces
4 – 5 T.  Ice Water

In the food processor, pulse flour and salt. Scatter butter over the flour mixture and pulse two or three times until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add one tablespoon of cold water and pulse. Continue adding water one tablespoon at a time until the dough holds together. Turn out onto plastic wrap. As you, wrap the dough in plastic, form into a disc. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.  This is a wonderfully flaky crust. If you have any leftover pieces of crust, cut into strips and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake until golden brown. This is also a childhood treat; my mom would always make this for me when she made a pie, and it was a delightful little snack.

Baking secret:  to roll out, place dough disc onto a floured surface. I have a canvas pie cloth that is Fabulous! If you make pies, this is a must-have kitchen tool.   

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dinner from my childhood

Feeling a bit nostalgic...

It's Sunday afternoon, and I'm feeling a bit nostalgic for a taste of home. I am planning on making an official “Sunday” dinner: Coca-Cola Ham, Au Gratin Potatoes, Slow-Cooked Green Beans and for dessert, Blackberry Cobbler. The ham and the cobbler will be my first attempts at making these dishes, wish me luck! After a few hours sifting through Google for cobbler recipes, I finally found a recipe that resembles my grandmother’s recipe. I was really getting frustrated... so many recipes called for a “biscuit” topping, or a cake-like cobbler,- I have a great recipe for that, it’s called Cup-a, Cup-a, Cup-a, (Which I’ll share later) but that is not how my
Mama D made Blackberry cobblers for me. The crust is chilling
and the berries are macerating – next step - is to actually bake it... hopefully, it will satisfy my craving. As soon as its complete, I'll write a blog and let you all know how it turned out.