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5 kitchen essentials

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As anyone with a passion for cooking will attest, we love our “stuff”.  My apartment’s small kitchen is stuffed to the brim with all sorts of gadgets, cookware, utensils, and electronics all designed to help me be better cook or – better yet – designed to make me FEEL like a better cook.  Because really, when you’re using a top of the line Global spatula to ease some salmon out of your Calphalon saute pan don’t you think, “wow – I’m JUST like Eric Ripert”?

But lately I’ve been thinking about what it is I really use the most in my kitchen.  You know, the things you couldn’t live without.  The things that always seem to be dirty because you use them for 80% of what you cook.  So here I’ve compiled a list of my five favorite kitchen items.  Sure there are plenty more things I use a lot, and that I could have added if this list was my “top 10”, but I wanted to stay focused.  So for those of you who don’t know what you really NEED, here is a good place to start.

Lodge 12″ Cast Iron with cover: $30

My lovely friend, Lisa, gave me this for my birthday a couple of years ago after we had taken a Mediterranean cooking class together.  Our instructor recommended that we all buy a good cast-iron pan.  She said we would use it for everything.  And since getting one, I have. It’s so versatile that it would probably be easier for me to list the things I can’t prepare with it than the things I can.  What I will say is that it sears meat beautifully, and is really the only way to make a proper Spanish tortilla                                              (recipe to come later).  Take care of it, and it should last the better part of a lifetime. 

Le Creuset 5 1/2 qt round dutch oven$245 (can be a little more or less)

Oh Le Creuset… even your name is fun to say.  But you’re even more fun to cook in!  This particular item was a very generous gift from my mother and is one I go to so often for preparing my favorite dishes.  It heats evenly, goes smoothly from stovetop-to oven-to table (and then to the fridge), and clean-up is a breeze.  It’s perfect for slow-roasting or braising meats, or making things like soups, stews, risottos, and even lasagnas – yes lasagna!  The 5 1/2 qt size is, in my opinion, is juuuuust right.  Any smaller and you’d be hard-pressed to fit a large chicken into it, but any larger and it becomes cumbersome and useful only on those rare occasions when you need to feed 10+ people.

Wooden spoons – from $2.00 each Okay, so I’m cheating a bit here.  I said 5 kitchen essentials, but now I’m saying “spoons” plural.  Because these are all of the same family, I’m counting them as one.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get holding a well-used wooden spoon.  It feels sturdy yet soft, cozy yet capable.  I simply love this tool and if I had my way, I’d probably have 50 at home.  But 2 or 3 will suffice.  I’d suggest picking up one fully round, one rounded with a slight edge (for getting into the corners of pans) and one that’s straight across, to be used more as a spatula.  These three will cover you for all your cooking needs.  But beware – do NOT ever put these into the dishwasher.  Warm soap and water is the only way you should clean them.

8″ Chef’s Knife. Good ones start at $50.

I use my 8″ chef’s knife for a lot – slicing, chopping, dicing, mincing – really everything.  When shopping, look for one with a blade made of high carbon stainless steel, and make sure the handle is riveted to the blade.  Ever had the handle of one of your cheap knives  crack off? That’s because it wasn’t riveted.

Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra on this item. It will last you forever with yearly sharpening and a little TLC – e.g. hand-washing , always using it on a wooden cutting board, storing them in a knife block (only if they’re clean and DRY- no mold thank you!).

8 qt. soup/pasta pot. $75

We’ve all been there.  Attempting to cook a lot of pasta in a pot that is not quite large enough.  Remember that pasta loves to swim through the water with freedom.  So if you want to cook it well, you need to cook it in LOTS of water (heavily salted, like the sea of course).  The one I’d recommend is from Calphalon, and it comes with bonus items, too.  Fun, right?! For $75 bucks, (or less depending on where you shop), you get the 8 qt. pot that is perfect for cooking all types of pasta – particularly long form types like spaghetti, linguine, pappardelle – as well as a full pasta insert (to make sure you get every one of those pesky strands out of the hot water), plus a smaller stainless steel steamer that fits on top of the pot.  This, my friends, is what we call a good deal.

So there you have it.  My top five picks, for kitchen must-haves.  Like I said, there are many more things you’ll need to be properly prepared for anything in the kitchen (3 1/2 qt. saucepan, set of measuring cups and spoons, good pair of tongs, strong wooden cutting board, half sheet pans for baking…) but writing about all of that could take me another week!

If you have any of these items, I hope you agree on how indispensable they are.  If you don’t, go pick ’em up!  Even the pricier ones will be a good investment since you’ll probably never have to buy another one again 🙂

Happy eating (and cooking)!

P.S. Stay tuned for a post on how to make the most unbelievable vodka sauce you’ve ever tasted courtesy of her highness Ina Garten.



Banana Butterscotch Pudding Cake

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It’s been a while since I’ve written about my adventures in the kitchen.  (Chalk it up to day-job overload…ugh.)  Which means I’ve been coming home (late) and quickly throwing something together without giving it much thought.  Well enough is enough!

Today I decided to make a recipe from Rachel Allen’s PBS program, Rachel’s Favorite Food at Home.  If you’ve never seen her show – make a date (or set your DVR) to watch an episode.  First off, everything is shot in her beautiful country home in Cork, Ireland, providing you – as only PBS can – with a 30-minute escape to a simpler, slower life.  Secondly, she makes food that you WANT to eat.  It’s not complicated for the sake of being fancy, and all the ingredients she uses are wholesome and in-season.  On top of that, throughout the program you feel like you’re in the kitchen of your best friend who also happens to be an incredible chef.  As she cooks, she provides really helpful tips on things people actually want to know, but aren’t able to ask – like why to use the type of oil she’s suggesting, or how to test if your jam is “set”.

The particular recipe I’ve chosen is actually not hers, but a take on a very famous dessert by Bill Granger – Banana Butterscotch Pudding.  I’ve decided to call it Banana Butterscotch Pudding Cake because that’s really more representative of what it is – at least to me!

It’s really fairly simple, and takes about a half hour to prepare and about 40 minutes in the oven.  I chose to make it for breakfast – come on, you all know you like cake for breakfast – but I think it would be lovely served after a hearty stew or roast.

Ingredients (translated into US measurements from a UK recipe)
For the pudding:
1/2 cup + 1 TBSP plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
1/2 cup + 1 TBSP sugar

1 egg, beaten
1 banana, mashed

1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
7 TBSP butter, melted

For the topping:
1/2 cup soft brown sugar
2 TBSP light corn syrup
1/2 cup + 2 TBSP boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the wet ingredients (egg, butter, mashed banana, milk + vanilla) into one bowl.  In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar + baking powder).  Incorporate the wet mixture into the dry.

Pur into a well-greased baking dish – I used a 9″ round pie dish with 2″ sides.  (Note – the 2″ sides are important.  If you use a 1 1/2″ side pie dish the mixture will boil over and spill out into your oven.)

To make the topping, in a small saucepan, bring the brown sugar, corn syrup and water to a boil.  Pour immediately (and carefully!) over the pudding/cake batter, distributing evenly in a figure 8 motion.  Don’t worry when the “topping” inevitably sinks to the bottom.  Bits of it will rise to the top while it’s baking and will form a nice crust.

Bake for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through when tested with a skewer.  Let cool for at least 15-20 minutes before serving to allow everything to set properly.

Top it with vanilla ice cream or fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream.  It’s delicious on its own, too 🙂

Happy eating!

Yummy Brunch – in 5 minutes!

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Oh how I love Monday holidays.  I get up late.  I brew some coffee.  I eat brunch!

Today, not really having a plan for my meal, I decided to see what I had in my fridge… hmmm, potatoes (leftover from brunch the other day at The Friendly Toast), some cherry tomatoes, onions, eggs, a couple of pieces of prosciutto, some Port Salut cheese…  I could work with that.  A scramble would be just the thing to start my day (um, afternoon) off right!

I started off by putting the two pieces of prosciutto in the toaster oven and toasting them until they got nice and crispy.  As that was cooking, I chopped up the already cooked potatoes and onions, and sauteed them until crisp (along with some salt + pepper).  To that, I added some butter + two eggs, and scrambled it all together for about 30 seconds.  (While that cooked I quickly chopped up the tomato.)

After the 30 or so seconds, I shut the burner off and threw in the cheese, tomato, and broke the prosciutto into bits over the top and covered the pan.

A minute or two later, when I took the cover off, the cheese had melted thanks to the residual heat, and the tomatoes had warmed through.  I mixed it together again and sat down for my super quick, super frugal and super delish brunch.

Happy eating!

Salted Caramel Ice Cream + Caramelized Onion Dip

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In anticipation for the Pats/Jets game last night, I wanted to whip up a couple of things that could represent what I believed would be the outcome of the game (naturally believing the Pats would CREAM the Jets)… how wrong I was.  But how right I was in my selection of dishes: Caramelized Onion Dip + Salted Caramel Ice Cream.

First, for the dip…

I started with about 2 cups of raw onions, sliced relatively thin.

I seasoned the onions with 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper and about 1/4 tsp of dill and garlic powder, and let them cook in about 2 TBSP olive oil for about 30 minutes in a large skillet (stirring frequently), until they turned a nice golden brown and could literally melt in your mouth.

While they were cooking, I took out a mini 3 oz container of cream cheese to let come to room temperature for easy mixing.  (One thing I love most about this dip recipe is that it calls for no mayonnaise – a condiment I particularly abhor – anyone with me?!)

Once the onions were cooled, I mixed them together with the 3 oz cream cheese and 8 oz of sour cream.  After fully incorporating the onions, I tasted, and realized it needed more salt + pepper, so I added another 1/2 tsp of each.

The result – an “oh-my-God-I want-more-of-that” dip.  Serve with ruffled chips, pretzels and veggies.

For the ice cream (since I know that’s really what all of you want to read about anyway!) I started by bringing 2 cups of heavy cream + 2 tsp really good vanilla just to a boil in a large saucepan.  After it boiled, I immediately took it off the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.  Then I strained the cream into a bowl to remove all the skin and chunky bits.  I rinsed the saucepan and wiped it clean, and then transferred the strained and smooth cream mixture back into it.

As the mixture cooled, I whipped together 4 egg yolks with 1/4 cup plus a couple TBSP of granulated sugar until it became light, yellow and fluffy (took me about 3 minutes at a pretty good whisking clip).

After I strained the cream (keep in mind, it’s still really warm at this point) I poured about 1/2 cup into the egg yolk/sugar mixture, and stirred it all together.  This tempers the egg yolks so that when it’s all transferred into the hotter mixture (and eventually brought to a simmer) the egg doesn’t cook.  Once fully incorporated, I added the egg mixture into the rest of the cream and slowly brought it back to a simmer.  Note – during this reheating process it’s VERY important that you continue stirring the whole time… no one likes lumpy ice cream.

The mixture began to thicken, and I knew it was ready to be taken off the heat when the sauce stuck to the back of a spoon and held its form when I ran my finger through it.

Next, I transferred the mixture to a glass bowl (you can use any other bowl you have that’s freezer-friendly) and placed in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to let cool.  If you live in New England you could also put it on your windowsill since it’s THAT COLD HERE!

After 30 minutes, I took the mixture out of the fridge, whipped it together again for about a minute and then placed it (uncovered) in the freezer.  At this point, you have the start to vanilla ice cream… from here, you can pretty much do what you want.  For my Salted Caramel version, I removed it from the freezer after an hour, whipped it together again, and then drizzle melted caramel (I  used store-bought from whole foods – i know, lazy!)  throughout.

After another hour went by, I took it back out and sprinkled about 1/2 tsp of Fleur de Sel over the top.  I just knew that the gorgeously delicate flakes of tasty salt were JUST what this ice cream needed to cut through the inevitable sweetness that rich and creamy vanilla ice cream and buttery caramel will deliver. Note – at this point, I covered the ice cream.  Ice crystals are not welcome here!

I broke it open the next day and YUM is all I can say.  It was heaven in a bowl.  Rich, smooth, and creamy, with just a hint of chewy caramel, and the bit of salt on top was juuuuust right.  See ya later Haagen Dazs 😉 I think I’ll make my own from now on…

Happy eating!

Marinated Beet Salad

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Some friends of mine have been complaining that they don’t know what the heck to do with all the beets they’ve been getting in their Boston Organics deliveries.  Well, one thing you can do if you’re sick of roasting, roasting and more roasting… make a beet salad!

With four smallish beets, some leftover walnuts and my absolute FAV goat cheese from Whole Foods, I made myself a proper beet feast.  I didn’t follow a recipe (which I tend to love to do), but rather thought about what I felt would go best with those sweet and tender veggies.  The results were super flavorful and very satisfying.  I’m already looking forward to leftovers…

First, I cut off the tops and bottoms of the beets and peeled them – very carefully.  For anyone who hasn’t worked with beets, they are extremely “stainy”.  Everything the bare beet – or it’s juice – touches turns pink.

Then, I cut them into quarters, or if they were a bit larger, into sixths.  As I was preparing them, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful these beets were… deep ruby colored, with just a hint of lighter pink marbling.  They actually almost looked like meat!  You can see for yourself below.

Next, I boiled them for about 20 minutes in heavily salted water.  Depending on how big your beets are going into the water, you may want to boil them for more or less time.  Definitely take a piece out and test it for tenderness before committing to pouring out the water.  You’d be bumming big time if you ended up with underdone beets.

While the beets were cooking, I did two things.  First, I made a marinade/dressing using some things from my cabinet.  I used equal parts acid to oil – 2 TBSP red wine vinegar and 1 TBSP Roses Sweetened Lime Juice + 3 TBSP olive oil.  To that, I added a healthy helping (maybe 1.5 tsp) of salt, a few shakes of ground pepper, and some dill.  I tasted it, and realized it needed more sweetness, so I added about 2 tsp of honey which made it JUST right!

Second, I toasted up some walnuts to give the salad a kick of crunch.  I put about 1 TBSP of butter into a saute pan and when it was bubbling hot, added a cup of roughly chopped walnuts.  As the walnuts browned, I added 2 tsp of sugar and continued cooking until caramelized.  Sweet + salty nutty goodness!

 

After draining the beets, I chopped them up into 1/2″ chunks, and while they were still hot, tossed them into the bowl with the marinade so as to better absorb everything.  I let that sit for about 10 minutes just to allow all of the flavors to really sink in.

When I was ready to eat, I topped the beets with a generous helping of goat cheese – and really, this goat cheese from Whole Foods is far and away the best one I’ve ever tried.  It’s smooth and creamy and tangy… a perfect companion to my marinated beets!

To that, I added the walnuts (and I added a lot – this was dinner after all…) and promptly dug in.

Happy eating!



Oh Baby! Bolognese

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My friend Winston gave me Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan for my birthday a couple of years ago.  He, who, by the way is an incredible cook,  said that was THE book that taught him everything he knows.  After making this Bolognese, I believe it.

A warning to any that want to try this recipe out for themselves, it’s a traditional Bolognese sauce, which means it takes hours (as in more than 2) to prepare, so I’d suggest picking a lazy Sunday afternoon to prepare it.  But if you feel like “going home sick” from work one day when you just need a cooking break, I fully support that as well… it’s THAT good.

Couple of tips – I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil (which is what the recipe calls for).  I also used about 2/3 cup onion and an entire 28 oz can of tomatoes (vs. the 1 1/2 cups).  As for pasta, I’d definitely recommend going with something fresh if possible.  I picked up some fresh pappardelle from DePasquale’s in the North End, but honestly, it was a little too thick for my liking.  Next time, a more delicate tagliatelle would be better.

Ray and I enjoyed this with a nice glass of Syrah, but the Pinot Gris we had opened to use in the sauce was good, too.

Happy Eating!

Marvelous Marcella’s Bolognese Recipe

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • ¾ pound ground beef chuck
  • Salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine (I had Pinot Gris on hand, so I used that)
  • 1-½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, torn into pieces, with juice
  • 1-¼ to 1-½ pounds pasta, cooked and drained
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table

1. Put oil, 3 tablespoons butter and chopped onion in a heavy 3-½-quart pot and turn heat to medium. Cook and stir onion until it has become translucent, then add chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat well.

2. Add ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble meat with a fork, stir well and cook until beef has lost its raw, red color.

3. Add milk and let simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating, about 1/8 teaspoon, fresh nutmeg and stir.

4. Add wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated. Add tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When tomatoes begin to bubble, turn heat down so that sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.

5. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it will begin to dry out and the fat will separate from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add ½ cup water as necessary. At the end of cooking, however, the water should be completely evaporated and the fat should separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.

6. Add remaining tablespoon butter to the hot pasta and toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.  (I am a firm believer in incorporating cheese into everything I eat, but this was so savory, it wasn’t even necessary – UNBELIEVABLE!)

Top Dishes of 2010 (According to Me)

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Hot Buttered Lobster Roll, Neptune Oyster

Since I spend nearly all of my disposable income (and time) going out to eat, I wanted to put together a list of my favorite meals from 2010.  Most of these are tried and true favorites that I tend to go back to over and over again, but some are new (like the Sportello Bolognese and the Ginger Scallion Lobster at Peach Farm).

Linguine with Asparagus + Poached Egg, Stella

The only real criteria to making it onto the list would be that each dish exhibit truly amazing taste – meaning, in my opinion, a perfect combination of complementary flavors and textures.  In short, it’s all supremely delicious and I would HIGHLY recommend anything and everything to you all.

Happy eating!

Brookline

Banana stuffed French toast at Zaftigs.  Perfectly crisp on the outside, soft and pillow-like on the inside, this challah french toast filled with sweet gooey banana and topped with fresh, tart berries and savory date butter is just what you need to start off any lazy Sunday morning.

Pan-seared Scallops and English Pea Risotto at Lineage (note – seasonal dish).  Mostly offered in the spring and summer months, Lineage does scallops right by patiently searing them to a rich caramel color, and serving with a delicate and creamy English pea risotto.  The sweet crunch of crispy shallots on top make for a fantastic finish.

Egg Salad Sandwich at Matt Murphy’s. Roasted asparagus, pickled onions and smoked salmon make this into something you want to eat again and again and again.

Spicy Basil Pad Thai at Rod Dee.  For those that are looking for pad thai turned WAY UP, try this on for size.  Seasoned ground chicken, tons of crisp, stir-fried veggies, and a spicy basil peanut sauce make this my go-to on cold winter nights.

Back Bay

Clam Chowder or Lobster Bisque at Legal Sea Foods. The clam chowder strikes the perfect balance of rich and creamy to salty tender clams and potatoes; the lobster bisque is a sweet and buttery bowl of pure lobster lovers joy.  Order a full bowl of either with caution!

Fort Point

Bolognese at Sportello.  Barbara Lynch has outdone herself with this one.  A warm and hearty sauce of tomato-y and meaty love perfectly tossed with the most spectacular homemade tagliatelle I’ve ever tasted.  Rich, tender and toothsome, this is one meal you never want to end (or share).

North End

Hot Buttered Lobster Roll at Neptune Oyster.  What seems to be one full lobster roughly chopped and tossed with at least one stick of butter, this roll is one best eaten with a fork.  The butter combines beautifully with the scarlet seafood to make a thick pink-ish salty and savory sauce you want to mop up with the plateful of crispy skin-on french fries that accompany it.  Wash it down with a cold, crisp glass of Albarino.

South End

Linguini with Asparagus, Poached Egg and Truffle Cream at Stella.  One word – bliss.  The piping hot bowl of pasta and asparagus comes topped with a perfectly done poached egg.  One tip – mix it all together immediately to get the rich and silky texture the chefs at Stella intend for this dish to achieve.  The delicate and earthy flavor of truffle takes this pasta to to otherworldly heights.

Vegetarian Paella at Toro.  Served exactly as you would find it in Valencia.  On top, crispy saffron-hued rice and charred bits of veggies, but break in to find it’s soft center.  Packed to the brim with brussels sprouts, cauliflower, fresh peas, corn and mushrooms, this is pure goodness in a pan.   Surprisingly, the half portion can feed two.

Mac + Cheese with Pancetta and Peas at Coda. Comfort food at it’s best.  This enormous bowl of silky, cheesy macaroni flecked with soft bits of pancetta and sweet peas is a perfect meal for those nights you just don’t want to cook for yourself.

Chinatown

Ginger Scallion Lobster at Peach Farm (no website; 4 Tyler St. Boston). Within minutes of ordering, a steaming hot plate of pan-fried lobster will arrive at your table.  Chock-full of flavor, and served still in its shell, (but cracked open for easy plucking!), this dish is best paired with the like-flavored ginger scallion lo-mein.  You’ll find yourself licking your fingers after digging out the last of the gingery-hot bites of tender lobster, madly looking around wishing there were more. 

Beacon Hill

Rigatoni Norcina – with ground sausage and a truffle cream sauce at Toscano.  A classic northern Italian dish that is so decadent it should be indulged in only on special occasions.  Housemade sausage is the highlight, and is ground up and mixed into the black truffle cream sauce.  The thick ribbed rigatoni makes the perfect vessel for scooping up every last bit.

Financial District

Duck Confit Flatbread at Woodward in the Ames Hotel – Light and crispy flatbread topped with smoky, tender duck, cranberries, onion and goat cheese.  A symphony of flavors and textures – all in one bite.

Cambridge/Somerville

Tomato Basil Sicilian Pizza at Pinocchio’s.  The lightness of this pizza dough is truly a work of art. One 4″x4″ slice looks as if it should weigh three times what it does!   It’s thick, yet airy and crisp (and doesn’t hurt the roof of your mouth when you bite down if you can believe it) and topped with just the right amount of thin-sliced fresh tomato, cheese, and thin ribbons of basil.  Delish!

The Cuban Sandwich at Chez Henri.   This golden and buttery pressed sandwich features soft and juicy slow-roasted pork, thin-sliced ham, and melted Gruyere cheese topped with the acidic bite of diced sweet pickles.  Served alongside a heaping portion of fried plantains with salsa, share this wedge of heaven with a friend at the bar over a bottle of light Pinot Noir while imagining yourselves on an island paradise. (Note – this dish isn’t available in the restaurant’s main dining room.)