Category Archives: Kitchen Experiences

In Which the Cooking Camp is a Grand Success

The week of cooking camp was a HUGE success! No cuts, no burns (on the kids, anyway), no lost limbs, no major spills or broken cooking implements. Plus, the kids seemed to have a lot of fun, and their families seemed to enjoy the lunch we cooked for them on Friday. Plus, I had a blast.

Here are a few photos of all the fun we had in the kitchen!

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Day 1 - chicken stir fry lunch

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Day 2 - a visit to the Old Mill of Guilford

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Day 2 - a visit to the farmers market

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Day 3 - Iron Chef Cupcake!!

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Day 4 - Homemade pasta & tomato sauce

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Day 4 - Homemade pasta & tomato sauce

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Day 4 - a visit to Homeland Creamery

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Day 4 - a visit to Homeland Creamery

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Day 5 - a cookout lunch for families - quite a spread!


In Which the Author Cooks With the Kids

This coming week, I am taking my culinary adventures to a whole other level: I am cooking with middle schoolers.

I’ll be spending time menu planning, ingredient shopping, recipe testing, and cupcake competing – which is not at all unlike my usual cook’s life, except for the cupcake part – with 25 or so 10-12 year olds. It sounds scary, typed out like that, even said out loud to my friends, but in all honesty, I’m really, really excited about doing it.

We’re kicking off our week with a trip to the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market tomorrow, and later in the week we’ll be visiting the Old Mill of Guilford and Homeland Creamery, too. We’ll be making bread, cupcakes, cookies, smoothies, salsa, guacamole, and quesadillas, plus whatever else the kiddos come up with. At the end of the week, we’ll have 70+ covers to serve as their parents & families come for lunch, and they’ll go home with their own homemade pasta and tomato sauce, as well as a cookbook of all the things they’ve made all week.

Yeah, no pressure. Eeek.

But in truth, I’m super-excited to haul my kitchen gear over there, put on my chef jacket and get these kids cooking.

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Testing out a kid-friendly pasta-making technique: wrapping the dough around drinking straws!

 


Dinner & A Movie

Of course I eat my green veggies …

photo 1 (12)…just cooked in pork fat …

photo 2 (14)…covered in cream sauce…

photo 3 (9)…and served over pasta.

(give me just a little credit … the reason it looks kinda thin is because I used skim milk. But then there was alllllll that cheese I dumped in there …)

 

Since it is finally streaming on Netflix now, I figured I’d take advantage of a night with no plans and cook a lovely pasta dish and watch my favorite Italian movie (and definitely one of my all-time favorites):

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The pasta was really good, all joking aside. I started with a base (other than the pasta) that is one of my mother’s Thanksgiving go-to’s: green beans and onions sauteed in bacon. Only for mine, I used pancetta, green beans, and asparagus, then skipped the onions and went for loads of garlic instead. She also tosses hers in balsamic vinegar – I tossed mine in “light” cream sauce.

In the spirit of my most recent culinary adventure in homebrewing (we’re currently brewing our first batch – an IPA), I had a glass of Sam Adams Latitude 48 IPA with this little creamy pasta concoction. It cuts through the cream and cheese and pasta heaviness beautifully.

My main preoccupation lately has been getting ready to start the first batch of homebrewed beer with my friend Lisa, so that’s where most of the latest updates are. If any of you readers out there have any experience in homebrewing, I’d so appreciate your feedback! And for those of you who have no idea about homebrewing, you can read it and laugh at our mistakes while learning some new vocabulary. Fun for everyone!


The Blank Canvas

The idea of “food as art” is not new. In fact, it’s a pretty common cliché. With all the competitive-reality-cooking shows out there, it’s not hard to understand why. And while I roll my eyes with the rest of you when some “cheftestant” spouts the “food is art” line, there is, like with all cliches, a bit of truth in there somewhere.

First of all, it is true that cooking is certainly a creative endeavor, and is naturally a form of artistic expression, not unlike painting or sculpture. Those of us that are blessed enough to both cook and write decently well know that there is truly art in a well-prepared, well-thought out, and well-enjoyed meal. But this is, still, an abstraction.

Where the art in food really lies is in its elements. There’s an obvious analogy to a painter or sculptor’s choice of medium or subject here, but I think it goes much deeper than that. It’s understanding this rule as the foundation for creating good food that makes good cooks great – whether they have worked in fine restaurants, appeared on “Top Chef,” or just feed their own family. It’s that understanding that I pursue as I write this blog.

A friend asked me a very simple question the other day. She simply asked me what she could make for lunch that would be easy and healthy. I realized, as I tried to think of something to say, that what she needed was elements, not recipes. She doesn’t need me to tell her how to cook or what to cook. She only needs a blank canvas that she can fill herself.

In my kitchen, there are a few “canvases” that I return to over and over again. Lately, it’s been pizza, with homemade dough. The only recipe I’m using is the one for the dough, and even that I’m changing and messing around with each time I make it. I’ve been doing the same with making fresh pasta lately too.

This desire to see food as both sustenance as well as art is part of why I’m so excited that I’ll be teaching cooking at a summer day camp for middle schoolers in a couple of weeks. I’ve already definitely decided to make pasta with them, and hopefully the pizza dough, too. It’s exciting to think of what they’ll come up with.

I used to go to the local craft store and buy canvas and paint, thinking that I could do something that would be as interesting as what my brother creates with paint and canvas, but I never could. I cook, and I write, and I’m sustained.


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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My Daily Bread

Success!

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” – James Beard

In case you  missed my extremely excited tweets of late last week, my most recent culinary accomplishment was an edible (not to mention nice-lookin’) loaf of bread. I’m now reveling in my newfound self-sufficiency, and even made a second loaf this weekend (after easily polishing off the first one). This one was the same recipe, but with 50% of the white flour replaced with whole wheat flour. It’s a much, much denser, and hard to judge that it was actually done, but it’s still pretty darn good.

Whole Wheat Bread - homemade!

Should go very, very well with an egg and some yogurt for breakfast this week.

I also improvised a beef & mushroom stew for dinner tonight (and lunch all week). What stew isn’t just perfect for a cold January night? And for cold January lunchtimes?

Beef & Mushroom Stew

 

As delicious as traditional winter food is, I’m still finding myself longing for the treats of summer. I saw a recipe for red potatoes with lemon & basil earlier today on a cooking show and just felt … kind of sad. I know there’s really nothing stopping me from just cooking something like that, but it’s also just not the same. It’s certainly nice that things like lemons, squash, fresh herbs, tomatoes, etc are readily available at the supermarket all year round, and more often than not I take advantage. It’s hard to do the whole “locavore” thing when the only local, available produce this time of year are sweet potatoes and … well, more sweet potatoes. One of the most wonderful things about living here in North Carolina is definitely the agriculture, but the best of it is definitely what’s produced in spring & summer – no matter how much I may love sweet potatoes.

At least I can always make my own bread. 🙂


Gimme a B, Gimme an R, Gimme an E, A, D!!

I am baking bread tomorrow.

I’ve said this many, many times before and I’ve failed every time. Each of those times, I really thought I had the perfect recipe. I used to blame it on the recipe, for one failure or another. But really, I know I most likely just didn’t follow directions properly (although there was that one recipe from a British cookbook where all the measurements were metric … ).

But I’m going to try again. What kind of wannabe up-and-coming food writer would I be if I didn’t do this an embarrassing number of times before I got something decent out of it? 🙂

This time, though, I’ll be using Jim Lahey’s No-Knead recipe. Its simplicity (as far as I can tell) gives me confidence. Keep your fingers crossed, y’all.

Meanwhile, I’m braving a bad cold and didn’t cook a thing today. A cook who doesn’t feel like cooking? It’s like a fashion designer only wearing elastic-band Wal-Mart sweatpants (although I’ve done that most of the day today myself). It’ll pass, but for now it’s ginger ale, pudding, and Emergen-C for me, and hoping the minimal work I have to do for the bread will help me bounce back.