Category Archives: At the Supermarket

Today’s post is brought to you by the letters C, S, and A.

This week’s haul from the CSA:

  • Roma tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Cucumber
  • Garlic
  • Chives
  • Callaloo
  • Bell peppers & jalapeños

 

First up? A stir fry. I cook stir-fry’s all the time, but it always – always – tastes so much better with actual fresh veggies. I can’t help but notice, every time I bring in the goodies from the CSA pick-up, that the veggies are so oddly shaped. I wonder, are they so visually unappealing that the local grocery stores wouldn’t carry them?

CSA veggies pre-stir fry

CSA stir fry finished

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The tomatoes from the farm had been picked at such a perfect time that when I picked them out, they were already perfectly soft, so I needed to go ahead and use them quickly. Having just finished off several quart-sized freezer bags full of chopped tomatoes I’d frozen a while back, I was very eager to make some homemade pasta sauce from scratch. So I did.

tomato sauce

We made tomato sauce in a similar way with the kids at cooking camp last week, but when I went to write it down for the cookbook we gave them at the end of the week, I couldn’t even bring myself to reveal my favorite, sorta-secret ingredients! So this sauce – one of my very favorite things in the world – has been on my mind a lot lately. Imagine my delight at seeing those ripe, delicious-looking Romas sitting in those crates!

Making my favorite sauce tonight must have also caused the whimsical feeling that made me decide not to just scoop the sauce onto some pasta on a plate. I found a covered ramekin somewhere in the dark recesses of my cabinets and made myself a mini baked pasta casserole, with rosemary-olive oil breadcrumbs (I made those, too) and Parmiggiano Reggiano.

baked pasta

The cuteness of this dish has made me all sentimental, so I’ll be spending the rest of the evening curled up with a bit more wine and a very sappy, (and also a favorite) movie, trying not to think about how soon I’ll be back at work …

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Cucina Miniscula

Long story short – I consider myself to be, more or less, an Italian home cook. I can cook a few Spanish dishes, a few French, a couple of Greek ones, even a couple of English ones (are there more than a couple? haha). But I really find myself constantly drawn to ingredients & techniques that are, above all, Italian.

I may or may not have Italian or Italian-American ancestry. There’s a lot of myth and mystery alike about that in my family. So I may not have an Italian-sounding name like Giada or something, but I can’t deny there is some kind of strong spiritual connection between Italy and my tiny kitchen (ahem … anyone know the patron saint of chefs/cooking?). Perhaps I should change the name of the blog to Cucina Miniscula.

Today, since I’m the latest person I know to give up cable in the name of financial stability, I was perusing the Cooking Channel website, and came across this: The Italian pantry essentials. I had been meaning to write a post on my own “pantry essentials” for quite some time, so when I came across that page, I thought: There’s no time like the present. And so, in no particular order, and without further ado …

Lemons. I’m never without lemons, or at the very least, lemon juice. North Carolina isn’t a big citrus-growing region, so I figure I might as well buy them year-round if they’re going to have to come from California anyway. I buy them by the bagful. There are very few things, in my opinion and experience, that a little lemon zest can’t improve. Tuna salad? Pasta with seasonal veggies? Warmed up Chinese leftovers? Even vanilla ice cream (trust me – just a dash, it’s amazing, and very Italian) takes to a bit of lemon like a fish to water. It’s my favorite way to make a dish taste like summer – my favorite time of year.

Pasta. I’m going to learn to make my own fresh pasta this summer. I bought the machine and everything. In the meantime, I always have some decent storebought dried pasta. Lately I’ve gone back to the less-waistline-friendly “white” pasta, but I still keep the whole wheat stuff around. There’s something very comforting about knowing that no matter what else happened that day, or how little cash I have at any given moment, there’s always a comforting bowl of pasta a few minutes away at home.

Grains. Ever since I read Food Matters, I’m a huge believer in the power of whole grains. My personal favorite is farro. I’ve even started eating farro for breakfast with a bit of yogurt!

Olive Oil. Until recently, I didn’t pay much attention to the varying degrees of quality in olive oils. I’m still generally fine with whatever the supermarket has (even their in-house brand is good enough for me), but I recently had my mind opened to the wonderfulness that comes with a truly beautifully crafted, delicious olive oil. NC foodie folks, I suggest you check out Green Gate Olive Oils on Stratford Road in Winston-Salem (or down in Pinehurst). They are super-nice, you can taste olive oils and balsamic vinegars all day long, and I promise you’ll find a new favorite ingredient. Plus – olive oil is SO good for you!

Vinegar. I literally have five different kinds of vinegar in my cabinet right now. My most-used is probably balsamic (currently enjoying the heck out of a red apple balsamic from Green Gate!), but one of my most popular dishes lately has been a potato salad that uses Champagne vinegar. And I’m not sure where I learned this; it might be some kind of subliminal message from Mama Italia, but … a few dashes of balsamic vinegar in homemade tomato sauce will make WORLDS of difference.

Pork. In various forms. I’m not into many actual pork dishes (although my own mamma made an awesome pork Milanese last week when my brother and I visited – molto bene!). But I have found pancetta to be a nearly-indispensable starting point for some seriously good eating. Hell, I cook it up with scrambled eggs for a bacon-and-eggs treat, and it’s a well-known fact among my friends that the only I’ll eat melon is with prosciutto wrapped around it.

Spices. Easily the most overcrowded section of the pantry (isn’t it like that in every home cook’s kitchen?), but there are a few can’t-live-without-‘em, must-have go-tos here. Fresh garlic, obviously. Usually a couple of shallots (I use them so much more frequently than regular onions that I keep ‘em with the garlic in the spice cupboard). Red pepper flakes, powdered cayenne pepper, paprika, dried oregano & thyme, bay leaves – those are the ones I actually have to replace because I run out, not because they’ve been in there forever.

Stock. Almost always chicken, and almost always homemade. Making stock is possibly the simplest kitchen task there is. I usually buy chicken whole or in bits other than breast cuts, so there’s often a good bit of “breaking down” to do before I actually prepare a dish or put things away in the freezer. Those broken down parts are what stock is made of! It’s so much better than canned, and it’s classic “waste not, want not.”

Cheese. Much like the selection of vinegars & olive oils in my pantry, I usually also have quite a variety in the fridge at any given time. I have yet to find an Italian recipe involving pecorino Romano that I don’t absolutely love, and you can’t beat a few slices of good Cheddar with a bit of good bread for a simple midday meal.

Butter & flour. I put these two together because I use them together, more often than not. Bêchamel sauce (aka mac & cheese – I’m fancy like that), cream sauce – all those classic, decadent European sauces start with a roux of butter & flour. For me, lately, the basic roux has been a springboard into discovering all kinds of flavors for sauces, casseroles, and more.

Tomato. I realize this is the one perishable (well, maybe other than cheese) on my list, but I’m really including puree, canned, crushed, whatever. Like I said about pasta, there aren’t many easier, faster, or more comforting quick meals than pasta and tomato sauce, and with a box of pasta and a can of tomatoes in my pantry, that comfort is never more than a few minutes away.

Last, but certainly not least …

Beer and/or wine. Actually, it’s rare that I’ll have both on hand. I am not a big believer in “saving” wines for “special occasions,” or whatever other silly reasons. If there’s wine in my house, it’s going into my belly one way or another. There are always two glasses of wine out when I’m cooking – one for me and one for whatever’s on the stove. As for beer, I’ve long acknowledged that I have beer-snob tendencies (although, still can’t beat dollar-domestics night at the local bar …), and this summer is the summer when I put my snobbery to the test as I learn about and attempt home brewing with my best friend Lisa. Much “taste testing” of different brews and styles has happened over the last few weeks and I think we’re actually going to try and make our own very soon.

 

On a somewhat related note, my dear friend and fellow blogger Healthy Mika just recently posted her entry into the “ABCs of Food” trend that’s making the rounds. As always, her post is excellently written, insightful, down-to-earth, and downright inspiring. And if you peruse her blog carefully you may get to see several embarassing photos of yours truly.

Buon apetito!

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I Want My Food TV

I am a bit of a food-show junkie. I can’t help it. I wish I could stop. I’ll happily tell you how much I can’t stand most of the “personalities” on most cooking shows, but while I do, I’m probably cooking you something I saw them make. Sick, I know, but for the past two straight days, I’ve been able to sleep in, thanks to school being closed for snow. By the time I get up the only things on TV that either don’t involve either Kathie Lee Gifford or sports I don’t care about are the cooking shows.

This morning in particular, I was watching one hosted by a chef I particularly don’t like (he reminds me of some of the preppy jock assholes I went to high school with), but whose recipes I am notorious for cooking anyway. And of course, it’s a “holiday special,” and I’m hooked.

A few hours later, I left the supermarket with: fingerling potatoes, carrots, cippolini onions, portobello and cremini mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, some pancetta, and a hankering for some good ol’ fashioned roasted veg – much like the ones I’d seen on the cooking show this morning.

I only cooked a handful of the veggies, since the roasting technique I copied was new to me. But it worked beautifully: crank the oven to 500, with a baking dish or roasting pan in, then pour veggies (coated in olive oil and with a sprig or two of rosemary) onto hot pan. Reduce heat to 425 and roast for about 20 minutes, shaking/stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, I fried up some polenta and started on a Dortmunder Gold from Great Lakes Brewery (Cleveland Rocks!).

The rest of the veggies will be finding their way to the roasting pan sometime this weekend. I’m keeping a simple menu this week, as I’m going to be quite busy baking holiday cookies and things – can’t wait to make (and eat) my annual Christmas gingerbread!

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As a wannabe food writer, I find myself immersed in “real” food writing much of the time (see previous post about reading Elizabeth David), most of it offline. I must’ve looked like a crazy person in Barnes & Noble today, strolling up and down the cookbook aisle. I picked out a Christmas gift there for a dear friend, and also got myself a gift – Food Matters, by Mark Bittman. I’ve been a fan of “The Minimalist” forever, and I couldn’t do much of the cooking I do without Bittman’s cookbooks. In fact, I got the inspiration for the title of my blog from a Bittman article from a couple of years ago. So, not wanting to waste a perfect opportunity to start reading, I took the book with me into the gym on my way home and started reading it on the stationary bike. Twenty-five minutes later I realized I should stop and go use a different machine, but found myself supremely disappointed that it would be impossible to read and use the strength training machines simultaneously. All of which amounts, in a far too roundabout way, to my very strong recommendation for the book. If you care at all about what you, your family, or your friends eat, buy yourself a copy (and one for them as well).


I need more lettuce in my life.

I’m not a fan of salads. My favorite salads are the ones that aren’t at all good for you (a couple of weeks ago I had an amazing Caesar salad at Liberty Oak, all cream, cheese, oil, and anchovy goodness). I try to eat a lot of spinach, as I’ve discussed before, to help with my anemia. But when asked whether I’d like to add a salad – no thanks, I’ll reply, I’m good with this big chunk of bread and butter.

I do try to eat healthy. I haven’t lately (remember pizza week?). I’ve also discovered that trying to cook all week with just a few ingredients or an essential theme isn’t working for me. Last week I gave up and ended up with a take-away sandwich for dinner twice. How freakin’ hard is it to make a sandwich?

So, this week, I had a little extra in the budget, so I decided to make a cafe/bistro-style week. I bought some local bakery bread and various deli things. I thought it would keep things interesting if I made a variety of sides to change up with the sandwiches. So I also bought some hummus, pita bread (to make chips), pasta & veggies for a pasta salad, couscous, a bunch of soups (yay VIC card!), and finally, yes … lettuce. And light Caesar dressing. I bought enough veggies for both pasta salad and Caesar salad. And the bakery threw in a small, day-old sourdough loaf (for free!) that I’ll make crostini and croutons with. So I’ve been in and out of the kitchen all afternoon today, making some of these sides in advance to make things easier and more of an incentive to come home to eat dinner instead of stopping somewhere to pick it up.

And to make a pretty promising culinary situation even more promising, as I was putting everything away I realized I had everything I needed to make one of my favorite stolen-from-a-restaurant meals: chicken, feta, lettuce, & hummus on open-faced pita. (I stole this from the Metro Gourmet Market, which used to be one of my very favorite places to eat downtown, but the place closed and then moved into the Wachovia building a few blocks away as “Metro 300.” Haven’t made it to the new one yet.)

This is going to be a busy week, according to my calendar, so here’s hoping things stay interesting in the kitchen; otherwise, the guys down the street at Jimmy Johns are gonna start making my sandwich as soon as they see me. Tonight, I think I’ll start with one of those Caesar salads and a roast beef panini. Yum.