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!

photo 4 (5)

photo 3 (7)


New Recipes!

Just posted: New recipes for How to Roast Your Own Peppers and Beer Baked Beans – which are, in fact, related. I also cooked both of them earlier in the weekend for another installment of our now-infamous Porch Parties. The beans were a huge hit – might have been *the* favorite of the night had they not been up against some killer, KILLER ribs. Anyway, I’ve linked them here but they’re always available on the Recipes page, along with many, many other yummy things. Mangia!


“Victory Breakfast”: Summer is finally here!

DSCF0104My summer vacation has finally started! I celebrated my first day of vacation with a celebratory breakfast (I like to say “victory breakfast,” for having made it through such a tough school year) at home: Eggs, bacon, fruit smoothie, coffee, and rosemary olive bread. The works.

I am working on a few full post ideas, doing a bit of research, but mostly just wanted to enjoy my first couple of vacation days. In the meantime, here’s what’s new:

  • I might be moving house in the next few months to a year! The tiny kitchen may no longer be quite so tiny. I have been in DSCF0342my current apartment for four great years and really love it, not to mention the wonderful neighborhood. But, frankly, my costs of living have gone up while my salary hasn’t, so it is time to look seriously at how to downsize some expenses, other than giving up cable and keeping the A/C off as long as possible. Plus, my priorities have shifted much more onto cooking & blogging, so it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to have a better workspace for that. Anyway, I’m only just getting around to figuring out how to sell, so it’s a ways off.
  • In preparing the apartment for a realtor friend of mine to come byphoto 5 (3) the other day, I revamped my “office” space a little – gone are the grad school textbooks from my desk! The DSCF0116laptop is back on the desk instead of on the couch! I really like the setup. I even hung up a favorite apron to give the “office” a little flair.
  • Updates for the Garden Diary page: Photos from the MPC container garden are now housed on Picasa!
  • Updated and new Recipes are coming soon!
  • And, of course, new MPC posts are coming soon, too … I’ve got a good one in the works about barbecue. In the meantime, if the mere mention of the word barbecue does it for you, you should read this from the latest (June/July 2011) issue of Saveur.

Booze + Fried Things = Good Times

I went to my first wine festival this weekend. I had a great time, tried some great wines (and some not-so-great), and brought several of them home with me. But I think I’m just not a big enough fan of wine to think of it as super-exciting. This particular festival is great if you like to experiment though – lots of fruit, lots of varieties of sweet wines, which are just not my thing. Where’s a decent pinot grigio or cabernet when you need one? But most importantly, I had a great time on a gorgeous day with two fabulous friends (including the one and only Healthy Mika)!

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I’m a good Southern girl, and that means I like vegetables fried (I also like my pulled pork with a tomato-based sauce, but that’s a whole other post). I took it one step further last night at our most recent cookout by frying up some asparagus and eggplant “fries” with seasoned flour and yellow-grits breading. They were both a success but the eggplant was my particular favorite. I also made this Old Bay aioli as a dipping sauce for them, and it was delicious. My friends and I agreed, though, that for some reason it tasted like solid butter. Delicious, but incredibly rich. Worked great with the crunchy texture of the grits-coated veggies.

Asparagus in the egg whites

Seasoned Breading with Yellow Corn Grits

Eggplant "Fries"

Fried Asparagus and Old Bay Aioli

Fried Asparagus with Grits

Eggplant "Fries" with Grits


Velocium quam asparagi coquantur

(or, a very nerdy post about asparagus)

 

Those great foodies, the ancient Romans, used this Latin expression to describe doing something quickly – meaning, “in the time it takes to cook asparagus.” And, like most good things in ancient Roman culture, asparagus was stolen from the Greeks. In the centuries since, asparagus has become an important vegetable to most European and several American cuisines, and in my tiny kitchen, it’s a staple.

You have to plan ahead with asparagus, especially during its very short season. Basically, if you’re able to buy absolutely fresh asparagus (grown no more than an hour or two away from where you plan to cook it), first of all, you should; and second, you should cook it as soon as possible. Of course this is true of pretty much all veggies but asparagus is particularly particular. Most folks recommend storing asparagus upright in a bowl or glass with a little water in the bottom. Turns out, not only should they be stored like flowers, they more or less are flowers, as part of the extended lily family. And, like flowers, you shouldn’t eat the dried-out or slimy ones. Er … hang on …

Of course, for most of us, decently good imported asparagus is almost always available. And – let’s be honest – most of us wouldn’t know the difference. Asparagus can grow pretty much anywhere there’s good, sandy soil, but it’s actually a perennial plant and has to occupy its space on the farm plot permanently, meaning it’s costing the farmer the space to grow it all the time and not just during its short season, on top of the price increase from having it shipped to your local supermarket. Most people who are determined enough to eat that many veggies in their diets are going to pay the out-of-season prices of asparagus to get it year-round – and why shouldn’t they?

Asparagus is good just about any old way – my personal favorite is to roast it, especially in a little olive oil and some bread crumbs (feeling indulgent? Throw some mozzarella on there, too). It’s also amazingly tender and perfectly salty when wrapped in prosciutto and gently roasted or grilled. This weekend I’m hoping to serve some just barely warmed, with some Old Bay aioli – ready and delicious, in the time it takes to cook the asparagus.

(photos by kpeeples/MPC 2011)

Sources
Asparagus. Retrieved 27 May, 2011 from http://cooksinfo.com/asparagus.

Asparagus. Retrieved 27 May, 2011 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/asparagus.

Herbst, S. & Herbst, R (2007). The New Food Lover’s Companion.