Archive for January, 2009

Too Many Meatballs

meatballs2

A few years ago, restaurants in New York City couldn’t open without meatballs. From the Little Owl’s adorable sliders and Apizz’s ricotta-enhanced monsters in Manhattan, to over the Brooklyn Bridge for Sicilian-style spheres at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, the city’s restaurants were offering all meatballs, all the time.

A look through my own recipe archive shows that I’ve also done some experimenting with the little guys. For our annual holiday party I’ve made both the pork-and-veal and beef-and-pork versions of Mark Bittman’s polpetti, otherwise known as tiny meatballs. They were so popular they disappeared as soon as they hit the table. And I never told you about Mario Batali’s turkey meatballs, which I made last year: The rosemary was so overpowering that I couldn’t bring myself to write about them. (Actually, I just looked for the recipe online. In contrast to the page I originally printed out, the current version online is completely different and does not mention rosemary at all. Hmm, very suspicious.) So far, my go-to meatball recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated’s America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It combines both ground beef and pork with breadcrumbs, parmesan, egg, and a touch of yogurt, creating rich, soft versions of this favorite comfort food.

But last week I tried another recipe, this one inspired by Luisa over at the Wednesday Chef. She had written a post about some marvelous pork and ricotta meatballs that she tried at a restaurant called A16 in San Francisco. (I guess that meatball trend also stretched out to the West Coast.) After reading about Luisa’s desire to replicate the meatballs at home, I decided I needed to try them too and searched for the recipe published in a recent issue of Food & Wine.

This recipe calls for ground pork, plus pancetta, ricotta, and other traditional elements such as parsley, breadcrumbs, and oregano. The meatballs are baked, not fried, in sea of crushed peeled tomatoes for 2 hours. When they finally emerged from the oven they weren’t as browned as we expected, but oh were they cushiony and rich, bursting with pork flavors from both the ground pork and pancetta. Light and soft, swimming in a thick sauce, they were the perfect food for yet another snowy evening at home.

Jim and I didn’t adjust the recipe at all, meaning that we wound up with enough meatballs for a family of six. We ate some leftovers with spaghetti later in the week and froze the rest for a weekend lunch in the near future. But it wasn’t a problem. I think most people, whether eating at home or in a restaurant, would agree: You can never have too many meatballs.

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My Lentil Soup

soup

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or, if this is your first visit, welcome!), you may have noticed that I don’t always publish a recipe when I cook a new dish and report the results. When I follow the instructions of someone else’s recipe, I’m more comfortable providing a link or a reference to the original. I just don’t feel like it’s my recipe to post unless I’ve significantly changed at least one of the steps or ingredients.

But of course I often cook from my personal recipe collection. I have a few old standards, dishes that I’ve made so often and tailored to my tastes that I fully claim them as my own. One of these is my lentil soup.

I adapted my recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, which also happens to be the first cookbook I ever bought for myself: A Fresh Taste of Italy by Michele Scicolone. Almost all of the pages are curled and dog-eared, splattered with various sauces and dusted with flour or cornmeal. During my first years out of college I basically learned how to cook from this book, and I still turn to it for advice when roasting a chicken or making pizza dough.

My lentil soup is a basic recipe, really, using brown or green lentils simmered with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Over the years I’ve added more tomatoes than called for in Scicolone’s original recipe. And instead of finishing the soup with escarole I add spinach, cooking it for a few minutes until it is just wilted. When I lived alone I made this soup at least twice a month during the winter, tinkering with it and memorizing the steps until it truly became my own. It comforts me in a way that no other dish does, perhaps because it’s attached to those early years of independence and culinary experimentation.

I made it recently after a long hiatus, during one of those freezing nights we experienced last week. As I spooned the soup into my bowl, I inhaled the familiar aroma of meaty lentils and sweet tomatoes. Hearty and rustic, with bright spots of orange carrots and green spinach swimming in a sea of steaming legumes, it was as satisfying as I remembered. And it was all mine.

Christina’s Lentil Soup (adapted from Michele Scicolone’s recipe for Lentil and Escarole Soup in A Fresh Taste of Italy)

  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped canned Italian tomatoes
  • 1 cup of brown or green lentils
  • 1 head of fresh spinach, washed and chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Rinse the lentils and set them aside, picking out any small stones. Set them aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften. This will take about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the lentils to the pot. Add 4 1/2 cups cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, covered, until the lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

When the lentils are cooked, stir in the spinach. It will look like too much, but spinach cooks down quite a bit. Cook until the spinach is just wilted. If the soup seems a little too thick for your taste, stir in a bit more water. You may want to do this when heating up any leftovers as well.

Serve hot, with grated cheese. Serves 4 hungry people. Enjoy!

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Cooking with Yogurt: More Than a Snack in a Cup

muffins

As a teenager, I would browse through the shelves at the supermarket, picking out cups of yogurt infused with my favorite fruits. I’d get home, open a container, maybe mix in some granola. As I raised a spoonful of the creamy mixture to my mouth I’d think, this is it…I’m going to love yogurt.

Nope, it never happened. There was something about yogurt’s sour taste that always made me grimace and recoil from the container after a few bites. I knew it was full of healthy stuff like protein, calcium, and vitamin B. But no matter how hard I tried, I failed to make my peace with it and it has never been a regular part of my diet.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered that I enjoy the effect of yogurt in baked goods. It adds extra moisture and tenderness to muffins and cakes, and can be used as a substitute for high-fat ingredients such as sour cream. Best of all, its sour aftertaste is camouflaged by whatever I am baking it into. I’ve even used yogurt as a binder in meatballs with successful results.

Over the weekend I made Food & Wine’s Spiced Yogurt Muffins. In place of the low-fat yogurt called for in the recipe, I used skyr, a thick, non-fat yogurt that is actually Iceland’s most popular snack. Perhaps because of the thicker nature of the skyr, the muffins came out a bit denser than I expected. No matter, as they still retained the soft, spongy texture that I had been looking forward to; they were positively squeezable. Cinnamon, allspice, clove, and nutmeg combined with a bit of applesauce to create muffins as comforting as hot apple cider on a cold winter day.

I see infinite possibilities for these muffins: Next time I make them I think I’ll add some chopped walnuts, and perhaps I’ll substitute some whole wheat flour in with the white. Whatever I decide to do, I’m sure the yogurt will make everything taste great. I have finally found yogurt-related peace.

 Recipe for Spiced Yogurt Muffins (adapted from November 2008’s Food & Wine magazine)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups plain low-fat yogurt or non-fat Norwegian skyr
  • 4 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners. (Food & Wine suggests spraying the cups with vegetable oil. I skipped this step, and once the muffins cooled, I didn’t have a problem removing the muffins from the liners.)

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg in a large bowl. Whisk all of the ingredients together. Break up any large clumps of brown sugar with a fork.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, butter, applesauce, and vanilla. Gradually add the yogurt mixture into the dry ingredients until just blended.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Fill each cup halfway, as the contents will rise a bit during baking. Sprinkle the granulated sugar and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg over the muffins. Bake for 18 minutes. Cool the muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Enjoy!

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Squash(ed) Resolutions

squash

New Year’s Resolution #1: Eat less meat and more vegetables.

New Year’s Resolution #2: Take better photographs.

Looking at the photo of last week’s winter squash gratin (above), I’m wondering if I should reverse the priority of these resolutions. That is one terrible photograph up there. And I wonder why I have such a small readership.

OK, so we’ve established that I will work harder on my food photography in 2009. But now let’s address resolution #1. I came back from the December holidays feeling meated-out. Beef Wellington, pasta and meatballs, pork three ways: You name it, I ate it. And I’m still feeling it. My focus for the new year is to get back on track with a balanced diet, eating as many different vegetables and healthy, home-cooked meals as I can.

Aiding me in this quest is the Fitness and Nutrition section of the New York Times, which I stumbled upon online a few months ago. Whenever I clicked around the Times’s site something from that section caught my eye, whether it was a delicious-sounding recipe or an intriguing article like that list of healthy foods all of us should be eating but aren’t. (There’s another resolution in there somewhere, but I just can’t deal with it right now.)

I decided that the section’s winter squash gratin would be my first vegetarian dish of the new year. Following the recipe closely, I roasted the squash, chopped the parsley and sage, beat the eggs and mixed them with the cooked squash, milk, and Gruyère cheese before topping the mixture with Parmesan and baking it for 30 minutes.

It emerged from the oven fluffy, bright, and steaming, and practically floated onto our plates. The two cheeses added a sharp, almost tangy edge to the sweet squash, but I have to admit, I didn’t fall in love with this gratin. It was missing something, and in retrospect I’m guessing it was the carbs. Perhaps next time I will sprinkle more Parmesan across the top to achieve a more intense brown crust. I’m also tempted to top the gratin with panko and see if it satisfies my yearning for bread.

Although my gratin was a rather lackluster attempt at vegetarian goodness, I haven’t lost faith in the Times’s Fitness & Nutrition column. I have a whole host of recipes to try in the new year, and I’m sure I will find a way to make this gratin work as well. I’m considering a stewed lentils and cabbage dish for next week. With recipes like this, I shouldn’t have any problems sticking with my resolution. To be honest, I’m a little more worried about the photography…

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Back to the Blog: Prague and Vienna

Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been away from the blog for so long. What have I been up to in the past month, you might ask? Well, let’s see: There was that week spent in Prague and Vienna in mid-December. Then I jetted off to Italy for work and promptly came down with a cold. Another week later I flew home in the middle of a snowstorm and hurtled full-force into Christmas and all the family-visiting, meat-eating it requires. Since New Year’s I’ve just been…recovering. I’ve cooked a few meals and seen a few movies, that’s about it. But I’ve missed my little blog and I hope to get back on a regular posting schedule now that the holidays are firmly behind us.

I guess the appropriate place for me to pick up my blogging is back in Eastern Europe. Oh, Prague and Vienna. I loved them both, Prague with its weathered town squares and grey skies, and Vienna with its overwhelming, magnificent grandeur. Jim and I passed the week walking, talking, and looking.

Prague, view from the Castle

Prague, view from the Castle

But eating? I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Czech or Austrian cuisine. Simply put, I missed my vegetables and I quickly grew tired of meat. But I really shouldn’t complain. Each city had its bright spots along the way, so here’s a quick tour:

You can’t visit Prague without trying the Czech sausages known as klobasy. Here’s Jim with one of our lunches from the Christmas market in Old Town Square. Served with thick slices of bread, these bright red sausages exploded upon first bite, their juices dripping down onto the plate.

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After finishing my klobasa I strolled through the Christmas market in search of dessert. Because of the sheer number of stalls offering them, a Czech pastry called trdlo was the obvious choice. For this snack, dough is wrapped around a rotating pin and baked over an open flame. When it has finished cooking, it’s rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts, creating a simple and comforting treat. We asked the vendor about the origin of the word trdlo, but she said it was complicated; we think it might mean “horse collar.” In any case, don’t I look happy eating one in that photo below (right)?

Trdlo at the Christmas market in Old Town SquareMe, enjoying said trdlo 

A few other culinary highlights in Prague included a lovely dinner in the romantic cellars of Vinárna U Maltézských rytíru (Restaurant of the Knights of Malta), where I enjoyed duck breast, a red cabbage-stuffed apple, potato gnocchi, and a sumptuous apple strudel; a festive evening of singing, beer, and goulash at historic beer hall U Flekù; and sweet, decadent “pancakes” decked out with whipped cream, sour cream, honey, and blackberries at the well-known Cafe Slavia. Here, take a look at this breakfast of champions:

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When we finally made it to Vienna, we had little more than a day to see the city. Jim and I walked almost every inch of that town in seven hours, taking in the ornate architecture, museums, and never-ending stream of Christmas markets. (As you can tell, we certainly got our fill of holiday cheer on this trip.)

We made sure to stroll through the Nachtmarkt, Vienna’s sprawling open-air food market. It offered everything from produce and pastries to fish and poultry, with small restaurants peeking out from between the food stalls. I would have loved to stop for a snack, but we were pressed for time and had to keep moving. We contented ourselves with the sights and sounds of the vendors selling their wares on a busy afternoon.  

market

We rested our feet and filled our stomachs with an Austrian meal at Zum Weissen Rauchfankehrer, a traditional restaurant in the center of the city whose name translates to “The White Chimney Sweep.” The meal was a little ornate for our tastes, with several courses and a more formal atmosphere than we desired, but it was wonderful to relax and enjoy a glass of wine after our intense day of sight-seeing.

With all this travel and activity, I’m sure you understand why it’s taken me a little while to return to the blog. But I assure you that I am done resting my tired feet, and I am ready to blog in 2009. I can’t wait to see what the year has in store for us!

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