Monday, March 24, 2014

The DASH Diet: Our Experience

Where oh where has the blogger been? She was going along strong and posting consistently. And then BAM she disappears out of nowhere. What. is. up.? 

Well, what is up is a great big pause in our culinary questing in order to diet. That combined with longer, busier work days, and more happening outside of work as well. All good things, but as these life tends to go, when some things increase, others must decrease. Alas, that has meant neglect of the blog.

But. I am excited to share a bit about this diet we started 3 weeks ago. 

But let me back up.

Neither my husband nor I have ever dieted. We have both always been very physically active and as a result haven't had to pay quite so close attention to our food intake. But the year of 2013 was filled with much travel, celebration, dessert baking, and little exercise. All of this amounted to both of us ending 2013 at our heaviest weight ever and each desiring to lose about 15 pounds. In 2014 as we settled into married life, grad school/work, and our new home State, we made an effort to eat healthier and be more physically active. And while we weren't gaining any weight, we also weren't LOSING those extra 15 pounds. As such, we decided we needed to go on a more structured diet.

And so the search for a diet began. We didn't just want to choose something that was popular at the moment without knowing the underlying rationale for, or evidence behind the diet, nor did we want to choose something that was unsustainable. So. After much reading and searching on the part of my sweet husband, we decided on the DASH Diet. This diet has consistently been ranked as the Best and Healthiest Diet plan, so that's a plus. And there is lots of great evidence backing it up. Also a plus. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. So, this diet was designed specifically for people with high blood pressure, and (if you find this kind of things important) there are randomized controlled trials supporting this diet in that realm. And it just so happens that eating in such a way as to lower your blood pressure also helps shrink your waistline. Win, win!

There is a really clear and easy-to-read book that goes through all the specifics of the DASH diet and has loads of helpful meal plans and recipes. But here's the basic idea- Phase 1 of the diet is a 2-week intensive phase where you reset your metabolism and get your blood sugar at a stable level, and then Phase 2 is a maintenance phase "to infinity and beyond" where you add back a number of foods that were off limits in Phase ,1 and maintain certain eating and lifestyle patterns to continue to lose and/or maintain your weight (and blood sugar and all that goodness).

Right, so Phase 1 as a "reset" phase pretty much means no sugar or grains. And let me just tell you- it's really hard, because it amounts to detoxing from the wonderfully addictive drug of sugar. But let me also just tell you, it's so very very good and stabilizing. You can have unlimited (nonstarchy) vegetables in Phase 1, moderate amounts of lean protein, and moderate amounts of light dairy and nuts. But you cannot have fruit, starchy vegetables, or any type of grain (i.e., potatoes, corn, rice, pasta, bread, barley, quinoa- none of that). Interestingly, you can have practically unlimited amounts of sugar-free Jello, which they suggest you eat after lunch and dinner to in some ways satisfy the craving for fruit and sweets. The point is not to count calories but to stay within ranges (depending on your size and appetite) of certain types of foods (vegetables, proteins, dairy). The big thing they say is to focus on what you CAN eat rather than what you CANNOT eat, and focus on taking it one day at a time and remembering it's only two weeks. Quite frankly, the other thing I focused on was the fact that I was losing weight like crazy. Something like 7 pounds in the first two weeks. I was tired and cranky and detoxing like a true sugar addict, but I was eating healthy and losing weight, dagonit.

And let me just say, we ate some pretty great meals in Phase 1. I took some pictures of them just to share some of the goodness. I linked to any recipes I got online. 

Grilled tilapia with lime and peanut coleslaw, homemade guacamole, and pepper slices (dinner)

"Mexican salad"- lettuce, tomato, red pepper, black beans, grilled chicken, avocado with cilantro-lime dressing (lunch)

Two fried eggs with black beans, salsa, and cheddar cheese (breakfast)

Grilled tilapia with an Indian tomato/ginger/garlic/onion/spices sauce and oven roasted cauliflower with turmeric and ginger (dinner)

Grilled cod  (with a delicious marinade my husband made) and grilled vegetables

Asian pork tenderloin, green beans with red pepper and garlic, and a side salad with soy ginger dressing (dinner)

Chicken parmesan, using Spaghetti squash instead of pasta and a homemade pasta sauce, plus a side salad (dinner)

Our little twist on "huevos rancheros"- fried eggs, grilled peppers/tomatoes/black beans, and cilantro (breakfast)

Grilled sirloin steak (5 ounces), with a whiskey mushroom sauce (adapted from here), grilled vegetables, and a wedge salad (dinner)

Roasted eggplant with a (low fat) yogurt tahini sauce (adapted from here) and spicy oven-roasted chickpeas (dinner)

As you see, this isn't one of those diets where you have to eat terrible foods all the time. We tried to think of it as a another type of culinary adventure, and worked to make really interesting and fun dishes within the boundaries of the diet. They are very clear that you need to eat all three meals and a snack in between each, so you aren't feeling hungry all the time. There are helpful guidelines for snacks too, which for us most often amounted to lots of light string cheese, hummus and vegetables, kale chips, and raw almonds. Interestingly though, in Phase 1 where you have virtually no sugar, despite eating very healthy foods, you feel tired and icky because your body is getting rid of so much accumulated gunk. Alas. Interestingly, this also effectively amounts to a Gluten-Free diet, so for those who need to or choose to go GF, the DASH Diet has great recipe options. 

I will say, this phase was considerably more expensive in terms of our grocery bill than our normal eating habits. We did not eat out during this phase, so that accounts for some of the excess grocery bill. But, to be honest, it's just more expensive to NOT eat processed foods and to eat primarily vegetables and lean proteins.    

We've now been in Phase 2 for a little over a week, we feel great, and I've lost another 2 pounds. I don't constantly crave sugar or junk food. In fact, I actually crave healthy foods, and I get a stomachache even if I eat more than modest amounts of rice, pasta, or bread. Apples and bananas taste incredibly sweet (and satisfying!) to me. I get full faster. I have more restraint and self-control with food. I have more energy. So, yes, I've lost some weight, and yes I hope to lose a bit more, but more than that, I've "reset" to healthier habits overall. And that's a win.

If you want more information on the DASH diet, the Mayo Clinic website has a good overview, as does this Chewfo page that clearly outlines what foods you can and cannot have in the two phases, as well as quantities and portions. 

Oh, and I do have a few Italian recipes in my Draft Post folder that we ate prior to The Diet but I did not have a chance to write about. I'll hopefully post those in the coming weeks. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Orecchiette with Sausage

I thought I was choosing a simple recipe. I thought it was going to be a quick Monday-night-after-work prep. 

Oh but no. 

I bought the ingredients in advance, except there was no broccoli rabe where we usually shop. So I intended to stop at another place on Monday on my way home to get broccoli rabe. Except that when I went there, I managed to purchase 6 other things and forgot the broccoli rabe. So my sweet husband kindly agreed to go back to purchase it after he got home from a long day at school. Except they actually didn't have broccoli rabe there either, so we ended up with broccoli. Which is fine, but it doesn't so much cook like broccoli rabe. So my timing and logistics were all conflustered. And then there was the orecchiette disaster. You can read more about that below. 

Suffice it to say, this recipe did not go well for us. However, I still think it's a rather simple recipe, and should you actually have broccoli rabe and know how to not fail at cooking orecchiette, you should assuredly be fine. And I will say, despite all the issues, in the end our meal tasted alright, it just wasn't so much the most wonderful process.

So. Orecchiette with Sausage from The World Kitchen.

Our toasted bread crumbs:

Cooking the sausage:

The infamous pasta:

The failed orecchiette:

And the final product:

The original recipe:

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup fine dried bread crumbs
1.5 lb broccoli rabe, trimmed
1 lb orecchiette, conchigliette, or other shell pasta
1/2 lb sweet Italian sausages, casings discarded and meat coarsely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano or Parmesan cheese

In a frying pan over medium-low heat, warm the tbsp olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and stir to coat them with the oil. Season lightly with salt and cook, stirring often, until the crumbs are an even, deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. Pour onto a plate and set aside to cool.

Bring a large pot three-fourths full of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the broccoli rabe and cook, testing often, until the stems are just tender, 2-3 minutes. Using tongs or a wire-mesh skimmer, lift out the broccoli rabe into a sieve and cool it quickly under running cold water. Drain and squeeze gently to remove excess moisture. Chop coarsely and set aside.

Add the orecchiette to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, according to the package directions.

Meanwhile, warm the 1/3 cup olive oil in the frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the sausage, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring and breaking up the sausage meat with a wooden spoon, until the sausage is browned, about 7 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe and stir to combine with the sausage. Cook until the broccoli rabe is heated through, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

When the orecchiette is ready, scoop out and reserve about 2 ladlefuls of the cooking water, then drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the sausage mixture and the cheese to the pot and stir over low heat to combine, adjusting the consistency with some of the cooking water if needed.

Divide among warmed plates, top eat portion with a sprinkle of toasted bread crumbs, and serve at once. Pass the remaining crumbs at the table. 

Our thoughts and notes:

As I said, we weren't able to acquire broccoli rabe. And our timing was kind of funny, so I just ended up cooking the broccoli in a separate pan with a bit of oil, rather than boiling it and then adding it to the sausage. That worked well enough, but just be careful not to let it burn.

I used a ground mild italian sausage, not in casings, and that worked well. 

What happened with the orecchiette is that all the shells got stacked and stuck together, so they didn't cook properly. Some were solo shells, some were group 2, 6, or 12 high. Womp womp. Now. Despite stirring the pasta soon after pouring it in the boiling water, I think we did not have a large enough pot for the quantity of pasta, so it did not have much space to separate. By the time I realized the problem, it was too late. We tried to stir, we tried to use tongs to pull the big clumps apart, but to no avail. When we poured it out in the colander, we thought there were enough properly cooked solo shells, so we literally stood at the sink digging through the hot pasta and pulling out single shells.  It was quite comical, really. At least we could chuckle about it together. 

In short, if you make this, I would suggest using a large pot and be sure to stir it quite a bit when you pour in the orecchiette. Or just use some other kind of pasta. Which is what we did the second night.   

This made about 5 servings.

If you make this as directed, let us know how it turns out!

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Spaghetti Carbonara

What is more simple, delicious, and comforting than spaghetti carbonara on a rainy (or snowy- pick your poison) winter evening? 

I looked at a number of spaghetti carbonara recipes for this, because every book in which we have Italian recipes has spaghetti carbonara. Well. They're all pretty much the same. With a recipe this simple, there is little variation to be had. The real differences are whether you use bacon vs. pancetta, Parmesan vs. Romano, and whether or not you add an extra egg yolk. Now, some may argue those differences are significant, but in the grand scheme of things, I think not. Though I started with the recipe from The World Kitchen, in the middle of making it I remembered Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (a memoir, with some recipes). And I remembered she had a spaghetti carbonara recipe. And I thought it might have included garlic. And obviously garlic is a necessity. However, many carbonara recipes - including that in The World Kitchen - do not include garlic. But I repeat- garlic is a necessity. In Italian cooking. In life in general. We may or may not use an entire head of garlic a week. At least. So. Use Ruth's recipe. And read that book, it's pretty hilarious.

The original recipe:
Contrary to the recipe so often used in restaurants, real carbonara contains no cream. The real thing also uses guanciale, cured pork jowl, but to be honest, I like bacon better. I think of this as bacon and eggs with pasta instead of toast. It's the perfect last minute dinner, and I've yet to meet a child who doesn't like it.

1 pound spaghetti
1/4 to 1/2 pound thickly sliced good quality bacon (I prefer Nueske's)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 large eggs
Black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese, plus extra for the table

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. When it is boiling, throw the spaghetti in. Most dried spaghetti takes 9 to 10 minutes to cook,and you can make the sauce in that time.

Cut the bacon crosswise into pieces about 1/2 inch wide. Put them in a skillet and cook for 2 minutes, until fat begins to render. Add the whole cloves of garlic and cook another 5 minutes, until the edges of the bacon just begin to get crisp. Do not overcook; if they get too crisp they won't meld with the pasta. Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl you will serve the pasta in, and beat them with a fork. Add some grindings of pepper.

Remove the garlic from the bacon pan. If it looks like too much to you, discard some, but you're going to toss the bacon with most of its fat into the pasta. When it is cooked, drain the pasta and immediately throw it into the beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly. The heat of the spaghetti will cook the eggs and turn them into a sauce. Add the bacon with its fat, toss again, add cheese and serve.

Our thoughts and notes:

We used pancetta instead of bacon, only because we had a few ounces left over from an earlier recipe. It was perfectly tasty, though I think bacon would be equally as delicious. And perhaps the next time we have a little extra bacon (but I mean, when is there EVER leftover bacon??), we'll use that. 

This is so very simple, and so very delicious. I think we made it in under 15 minutes. And it will warm your tummy and your spirit. 

Buon appetito!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Barley Mountain Soup

This is one delinquent blogger. 
First of all, I didn't take any pictures of this soup. 
And then there's the issue of posting about a not-so-romantic dish on Valentine's Day. Here we are doing this Italian culinary quest! So romantic, right? I mean, here's all the evidence you need of Italian food being romantic. And on this fine fourteen of February, I give you barley. mountain. soup.

With no pictures. 
I'm never going to make it in this blogging world.
But. In my defense. The original plan was to post the pesto recipe today and the soup earlier this week. And then life happened. As it seems to more and more often. So today you get barley mountain soup. Though, given the constant gray and rain in the Pacific Northwest and the near constant snow piling up on the East coast, this may make for a romantic snowed-or-rained-in Valentine's Date. 

So. There we have it. And now, Barley Mountain Soup from The Italian Country Table by Kasper. 

The original recipe:

2 medium onions
2 medium carrots
1/4 tightly packed cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 large garlic cloves
3 to 4 medium red-skinned potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup barley (organic if possible)
1/2 pound ham shank or hocks or shank of prosciutto
3 3-inch branches of fresh rosemary
1 quart buttermilk (optional)
About 4 quarts water
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely chop the onions, carrots, parsley, and garlic. Combine the barley, potatoes, and meat in a 6- to 8-quart pot. Add half the onion mixture to the pot with 2 branches of the rosemary. Add the buttermilk if desired. Then add 4 quarts water. Simmer 50 minutes or until the barley is almost tender. 

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the rest of the chopped vegetables to a golden brown.

Add to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Simmer another 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove the meat and bones. Break up meat into small pieces and return them to the pot, along with more water if the soup is as dense as stew. It should be a thick but soupy soup. Strip the leaves from the remaining 1 branch of rosemary and mince. Stir into the pot and simmer another 10 minutes. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Serve hot.  

Our thoughts and notes:

You guys, I really know nothing about buying ham shanks or hocks.
And the only thing I know about prosciutto is those delicious and delicate slices of salty meaty glory. And so (unsurprisingly) when I went to our beloved WinCo to buy the called-for shanks/hocks, I was terribly confused what to buy. Especially because I only needed 1/2 pound. And all the ham shanks were 5 pounds. No bueno. And hocks were nowhere to be found. And my wonderfully helpful husband was not on this particular grocery run with me to adroitly navigate uncharted territories. *sigh* So what did I do, you may ask? I bought a tube of pork sausage, like a good American. Now, I completely understand that this probably changed the very essence of the recipe, but alas. It is what I used. And the soup was pretty darn tasty. I do take comfort from the introduction of the recipe, which states, "Through the winter the people of northern Italy's Trentino region rely on this soup, made with barley grown in their fields and meats the cure themselves- sometimes it is a meat shank of ham, sometimes sausage, and sometimes speck, smoked and air-dried leg of of pork."

I was unclear about the rosemary. I thought that I was supposed to take the leaves off the 2 branches you add early on, because it never said to take them out at the end. But in retrospect, I think the intention is to put the whole branches in for flavor while the soup cooks and then remove them at the end, but then also add the minced rosemary at the end. The large leaves were a bit too much. So it goes. 

I used buttermilk, but I did not use a quart, as I wanted some semblance of healthiness in this soup. I probably used two cups. It did, as Kasper states in the intro, add a wonderful tanginess. 

I made 1.5 times this recipe and it made about 8 hearty servings. And this did not take near as much time or effort as the minestrone!

May I suggest you listen to this playlist as you prepare this romantic Valentine's Day soup?

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pesto Pesto Pesto!

Isn't pesto one of the most splendid sauces? And fresh pesto! Mmm! It makes me salivate just thinking about it. Since we got ourselves a real basil plant and have managed to keep it alive, we had the core ingredient for making some pesto. But then there was the issue of pine nuts. Now, for those of you who haven't been reading for 4 years, or for those who don't remember every single one of the 750+ posts I've written, I will direct you back to 2010 when I learned about pine mouth. Which amounts to me having an allergy of pine nuts that results in all food tasting like metal for about a week after eating pine nuts. Truth be told, I love pine nuts, but I have not eaten them since that incident. 

However, diving into the pesto realm, I thought I would give it a go, but only if we could find Italian pine nuts, rather than Chinese pine nuts, which are ostensibly the culprit of the allergy. Thus began our quest for Italian pine nuts. 

We usually shop at a wonderful place call WinCo, and they have a crazy expansive bulk food section that is crazy inexpensive. Literally hundreds of items you can buy in bulk. So of course they had pine nuts, and they were not terribly expensive. However, they did not have any label indicating from whence they had cometh. I even downloaded a QR Reader app so that I could scan the code in order to find out more info. No luck. I even asked a WinCo bulk food worker if he knew where they were from. He looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe so.

Onward to Fred Meyer. They also had pine nuts in their (smaller) bulk foods section. But they were $38 per pound. And on principle I am simply not going to even get a quarter pound of that craziness. A kind employee directed us to some packaged pine nuts, but they were also expensive ($17 for an 8 ounce bag). And from China. Cue frustrated sad music.

So my sweet husband - a man who is infinitely flexible and adaptable in the planning and execution of recipes, and who I think shines and thrives even MORE when there are road bumps along the way to a delicious dish - said we would just have to find a pesto recipe without pine nuts, and we would make it the bestest pine-nut-less pesto ever. He might not have said it precisely like that. But pretty close.

And so we found ourselves a pine nut free pesto recipe in Sylvia Sebastiani's Mangiamo. And proceeded like this:

The original recipe:

2 cups coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 to 2 sprigs parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Combine basil, parsley, salt, pepper, garlic, and oil in blender. Blend just a few seconds. Stop blender and push herbs down with a rubber spatula. Blend a few seconds, then sto again to push herbs down. Repeat this procedure until sauce is fairly thin, but not liquefied. Transfer sauce to a bowl and add cheese and reserve. 

Our thoughts and notes:

This is a pretty simple and straightforward sauce that is absolutely fresh and delicious. Even without pine nuts! We did not have fresh parsley, so we just used about a half teaspoon of dried parsley. We also only had Romano on hand, so we used that instead of Parmesan. This amount made enough pesto to go on 8 servings of  our potato gnocchi. I think that the addition of pine nuts would help thicken the pesto a bit, but we did not think it was lacking without them. We also talked to someone who has substituted almonds for pine nuts, with good results. 

My husband was right, it was pretty much the bestest.

Buon appetito!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Potato Gnocchi (Lombard Style)

-->We have been eager to try our hand at some homemade gnocchi on this Italian Quest. And here we are. This was very much a joint effort between the husband and I, and quite fun to make!
Maybe it's just me, but I always thought the only way to make gnocchi was with potatoes. But then we were looking through our cookbooks and many were made with semolina flour, not potatoes. So then I learned there were multiple kinds. Gnocchi di Patate is more common in Northern Italy and is in fact made by mixed mashed potatoes with flour and egg to form a thick dough that is then rolled out, cut, and boiled. Gnocchi alla Romana on the other hand is made by boiling semolina (think something like polenta) in milk or water, laying out the mash and cooling it, cutting it, and baking it. 

We intended to make both simultaneously in order to compare more directly. But then life got in the way. So we just started with potato gnocchi. It was almost a disaster, and I was sure they would fail and taste awful, but it turns out that these suckers are pretty forgiving, and they still tasted pretty good. This recipe is taken from Silva Sebastiani's Mangiamo, a book we borrowed from some friends.

Beating our potatoes:

Kneading the mixture:

Rolling out the dough:

Cutting the dough:

Boiling the gnocchi. They sink at first...

... and then rise to the top when they're done:

Top them with some homemade pesto, and you have yourself a great comfort meal:

The original recipe:
5-6 large Russet potatoes
1/2 stick of butter (4 tbsp.)
3 eggs, slightly beaten
2 tsp. baking powder
4 cups flour
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup grated Reggiano cheese
Salt and white pepper

Peel, chop, and cook the potatoes in boiling water until tender, like you would if making mashed potatoes. Let potatoes cool just a little bit, then transfer to a large bowl and mash.

Mix in butter, eggs, and baking powder. 
Sift in the flour.  Add salt and white pepper to taste. Mix and knead dough until smooth.

Roll out bits of dough into long rolls about one inch thick (or the thickness of your thumb).

Cut into 1 to 1.5 inch sections and press a little indention into it with your finger.

Drop the gnocchi into a large pot of boiling water, a few at a time so they don't stick to each other. When they rise to the top, remove immediately so they don't overcook.

Arrange in a baking dish then drizzle the melted butter and sprinkle the grated cheese on top.

In a preheated oven (350 degrees) bake for approximately 10 minutes until the cheese melts.  Enjoy!

Our thoughts and notes:

The reason we almost had a disaster was because our potatoes didn't mash so well. They felt soft when I cooked them, but then even with a hand mixer they didn't get smooth, so there were small chunks of potato. I thought for sure this would cause problems, and while it did make rolling out the dough a bit more difficult, in the end (after boiling) they seemed smooth. However, we subsequently read other gnocchi recipes that said to use a potato ricer. We don't have one, but we definitely will make sure our potatoes are softer and better mashed next time. 

So this makes quite lot of gnocchi. At least 7 dinner-size portions, maybe 8. We experimented with how to preserve it, and we unintentionally discovered that letting the uncooked portions sit out for an hour after dinner was a careless error on our part. Because, just as cut potatoes turn brown after sitting out, so does gnocchi. But more like gray grossness. So, don't do that. But here are some options:

1) If you want to eat them the next day or two, stick the remaining dough (we had cut them up, but you could probably just leave it in a ball) in the fridge in something sealed right away. This will keep them from turning gray. 

2) If you want to eat them longer than the next day or two, stick the remaining dough in the freezer. We actually cut a bunch up and froze the chunks, and you can boil them directly from the freezer. This blogger says they keep frozen for a few months. We might also try her idea for freezing them, as they do tend to stick together. 

3) The cooked ones reheat alright, but the freshly cooked ones are decidedly better, so if you make this full quantity but won't eat it all right away, do either #1 or #2 for what you won't eat that first night.
We did not do the last two steps in the original recipe, but instead made homemade pesto (recipe coming soon!).

We'd like to continue figuring out way to make them more aesthetically pleasing. The squarish blobs are ok, but I see such pretty ones in restaurants and want to figure out how to do that our next go 'round. 

Buon appetito!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Rosemary and Romano Focaccia

My husband was keen on this Italian culinary quest because it meant exploring some fun breads. He really enjoys making breads. I am thankful for this, because I have no real desire to dive into that realm. But as a culinary team we cover more ground. Winning!

So. We looked at a number of focaccia recipes, and the ones we found you had to let it sit overnight or all kinds of crazy long times. While we may likely have that kind of time if we planned ahead for it, the 4 hours we had allotted for our cooking extravaganza one Saturday was not sufficient. 


But. He dug out his amazing and incredible cookbook- The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg and found a focaccia recipe that would work well for us. This is a mammoth cookbook, by far the largest on our shelf, and it seems to serve my technical and detail-oriented baker of a husband well. Let's just say that this is not a cookbook that has pictures.

Right. So because I was also occupied in the kitchen making minestrone, and we may have had one or two other cooking/baking projects going at the same time, neither of us managed to get too many pictures of this creation. But I mean. It's bread. And it's brown. And the vast majority of the time it just looks like a ball of brown dough. Not so interesting. 

Anyhow. Here are a few.

Before going into the oven:

After coming out of the oven:

Now you see why I only took two. This was a tasty recipe, I'd say it was a rather successful first go at focaccia. 

The original recipe:

1 1/2 oz fresh compressed yeast (3/4 oz dry active yeast)
3/4 C warm water
1 TBS granulated sugar
8 oz high-gluten flour

2 C warm water
3.4 C olive oil
3 oz granulated sugar
2 TBS salt
1 lb high gluten flour
14 oz bread flour
1/4 C olive oil

Herbed garlic oil (1 oz each fresh rosemary, fresh sage and fresh basil; 1 C olive oil heated, 2 heads garlic, roasted and pureed)
1 ts kosher salt

Sponge: dissolve yeast in warm water, add sugar and high gluten flour, knead using dough hook for 5 minutes. Cover, let rise till sponge starts to fall.

Dough: add warm water to sponge with olive oil, sugar, salt and high gluten flour. Knead with dough hook and add enough of bread flour for a soft, smooth, elastic dough. Form into ball on floured surface, cut X into dough and pull out to form a rough square. Cover and rest 30 minutes.

Coat bottom and sides of sheet pan with 1/4 C olive oil. Place dough in pan and with oiled hands stretch out dough to all sides of pan. Let rise till doubled.

Stretch dough again to cover entire pan and let rest for a couple minutes. Press fingertips into top to make dimples. Let rise till 1.5 times original size.

Spread herbed garlic oil over surface of dough and sprinkle with kosher salt. Place in preheated oven at 475 degrees F then reduce to 375 degrees F when pan is placed into oven and bake for 25-30 minutes

Herbed Garlic oil: chop herbs finely and add to heated olive oil with garlic. Let stand for 1 hour.

Our thoughts and notes: 

Rather than make the herbed garlic oil, Spencer used oil, rosemary, and romano cheese. 

This quantity makes a lot. Like two full baking sheets of focaccia. Which you may need, but you also may not. We ended up freezing about half of it. You might want to cut this recipe in half.

Focaccia is best when fresh and still warm out of the oven. Its "shelf life" is pretty short, so either freeze what you won't be able to eat within a day or two, or only make what you will eat quickly.

Try this as an accompaniment to a good hearty bowl of minestrone

Buon appetito! 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Frittata with Leeks and Herbs

This was a super simple dish from The World Kitchen by Rick Rodgers that we whipped up Saturday morning for breakfast, as in our Italian quest we always seem to have extra fresh herbs lying around. You can easily substitute other veggies for the leeks, and it makes for a delicious accompaniment to bagels. Yes, you read that correctly, the frittata is the accompaniment, not the bagel. And yes the bagels were homemade. My husband is amazing.

The original recipe:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups (12 ounces) thinly sliced leeks, white and tender green parts only
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 large eggs
1/2 cup mixed minced fresh flat-leaf parsley, basil, and mint
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the butter in an ovenproof 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 15 minutes. You may need to reduce the heat to keep the leeks from browning too much.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs just until well blended. Whisk in the herbs and the Parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Pour the eggs into the skillet and stir to distribute the leeks evenly. Reduce the heat to low. Cook, using a spatula to lift the edges of the egg to allow the uncooked egg to flow underneath, until the edges and bottom of the frittata are set but the center is still moist, 13 to 15 minutes.
Preheat the broiler and adjust the oven rack about 6 inches from the heat source. Slide the skillet under the broiler. Broil the frittata until the top is lightly colored and the center is firm, about 1 minute. Using a wide spatula, carefully shimmy the frittata onto a cutting board. Cut it into wedges and serve it at once.
Our thoughts and notes:
This is simple and tasty. The only change we made was no mint. We didn't have it on hand, and even if we did, I don't think we would use it. Mint in eggs? No thanks. 

Buon appetito!

PS- My husband often uses this recipe for bagels. Because NY-Style is the way to go. Obvi.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wedding Planning- Faith Foundations

This is the third in a series on wedding planning. You can read the first and second here and here

What follows is a list of what we did that we found helpful in walking towards marriage, in the context of our underlying beliefs as Christians about the meaning and purpose of marriage. We really tried to remember that we were working towards a lifetime commitment and plan as much (or more!) for that as the wedding day itself. Depending on the length of your engagement, and how crammed your schedules are generally, you may or may not be able to do all of these. We did not in fact do them all in full, though we hoped we would be able to do so. These are simply some things we found helpful, approximately in order of how I would personally prioritize their importance.

Marriage counseling – find a godly couple whom you both respect, or go to a workshop through church (I tend to think the smaller the better, it’s super helpful to have individualized conversations). This can take a variety of formats, but it's helpful to cover all the "major" areas (e.g., finances, sex, family, conflict resolution) and have others asking you questions and providing their counsel.

Study the book of Proverbs together, one chapter a day, going through the book once a month for the months of your engagement, talking about the verses that stick out to you each month (and new ones will each month!). This is a simple and practical way to be in the Bible together. After counseling, this was the best thing we did, hands down.

Pray a lot. Like seriously, pray. A lot. Together. It will knit you together, will help you remember your dependence on the Lord, and you will see him work in such amazing ways!

Read The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller- of those we asked, "What books on marriage would you recommend we read?", this book repeatedly came up as THE book to read. We agree.

Interview 10 couples who have been married for varying amounts of time. Think of maybe 10-15 questions you would like to ask, make a list of couples whose marriages you respect, and start asking! This could also be done over the first months of your marriage.

Read and answer the questions on the Desiring God Preparing for Marriage e-Book, found here – we found these open-ended questions to be more helpful and useful than questions in a lot of “marriage prep” books. Some questions would spark an hour long conversation, and some were quick, but we really appreciated this particular set of questions.

Read Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity by Lauren Winner- I wish I had read this when I was single, but in any event, it was helpful for us in thinking and talking about sex.

Go through a catechism together (e.g., Westminster, Heidelberg, New City)- we thought this was a good way to cover the breadth of topics in the “what we believe” arena, and helped structure that conversation over a period of time, as we aimed to discuss one question a week while we were engaged and in the first months of marriage.

So there's our list. I'd love to hear from readers about anything they did in their walk towards marriage that they found helpful. Any great books you read? Resources you found? Feel free to share in the comments. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Italian Wine Case

Oh boy oh boy do we enjoy wine! My parents raised me to appreciate many of the finer things in life, and wine is high on that list. So of course an integral part of our culinary questing is wine. We have been investigating and trying a variety of options for purchasing wine, and one we have particularly enjoyed is Virgin Wines. We have joined their Explorers Club, in which you get a case of wine every 12 weeks. You can get white, red, or mixed cases, and we have found the wines they choose to be quite good. And by buying wine this way we can get higher quality wines for a lower price- we pay an average of $12 per bottle, but some of the individual bottles retail for $20+ per bottle. There are no fees to join, and you can pass on any case, or order another case that isn't in your "scheduled" time. 

Which brings me to The Italian Case. 

This case popped up on our Virgin Wines email at the beginning of the year- a case of 12 Italian red wines made up of 8 different wines. We thought it was perfectly timed with the launch of our Italian Culinary Quest, and jumped right on it.

The wines:
Collezione di Paolo Chianti 
Villa Farnia di Farnese Montepulciano 
Pillastro Selezione d'Oro 
Cordone Barolo
Principe Strozzi "Selvascura" Toscana IGT 
Poggio Al Lago Valpolicella Ripasso 
Corsiero Nero
Pietro Disarti Nebbiolo d'Alba 

We are stoked to try these as we cook our way through Italian cuisine. 


With this case we received a great offer for the Explorers Club to extend to friends. With our referral code you will be able to receive an introductory offer into the club and a $100 discount to start. Like I said, this is a great program because there are no fees and no obligation to do the cases every 3 months- you can do it less or more frequently, as fits your lifestyle and budget. But if you drink wine regularly, even amounting to $5-10 per week, this would be a good option to consider. Heck, you can get a pretty good introductory deal here, even without our referral code, but feel free to read more about the Club. Please leave a comment if you're interested in starting under our "buddy" offer- if we're facebook friends I'll be in touch with you there, or if we're not facebook friends, leave your email address and I'll contact you with more info. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Minestrone della Famiglia

In the midst of making this recipe, I almost felt like I should update my facebook relationship status. Because getting involved with this soup is a serious commitment. Then I considered how my husband would take the news, and I continued chopping. 

After enjoy the comforting freshness of this soup whose recipe was taken from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, I felt like it was worth it. 

So here we go.

My supplies:

The first round of sauteing (onions, carrots, beans):

Some more additions to the saute (adding potatoes, zucchini, and kale):

The second saute of the meats, onions, garlic, and sage (oh my word our kitchen smelled so delightful!):

As if that wasn't enough, add some herbs to the saute: 

Oh and once it was all together and all done, it was so comforting and delicious:

The original recipe:

2 medium red onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium stalk celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 large kale leaves, finely chopped
Rind from 1/2 pound or more (2 by 4 by 5 inches) of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1/2 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes, with their liquid
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Robust extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/8-inch-thick slice pancetta, minced
1 1/8-inch-thick slice good-quality salami, minced
6 large fresh sage leaves
1/4 medium Savoy or green cabbage, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tightly packed cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
1/4 tightly packed cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 1/2 cups cooked borlotti or pinto beans (rinsed and drained if canned), half of them pureed in a food processor
2 large stalks (with leaves) Swiss chard, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup small pasta (such as ditalini, acini di pepe, meloni, or stelle)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (optional)

For Grandfather's Minestrone for 8 People:
8 1/2-inch-thick slices rugged wholegrain bread, toasted
About 1/2 cup robust, peppery Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil

Set aside about one third of the onions. In a 6-quart pot, combine the rest of the onions and all the ingredients up to and including the tomatoes. Cover by an inch with water. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer very gently 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, film the bottom of a 10-inch skillet lightly with olive oil, Set over medium-high heat. Add the reserved onions, the pancetta, salami, sage leaves, and a handful of the cabbage. Saute to a rich golden brown. Stir in the garlic, parsley, and basil. Cook another minute.

Blend the saute into the cooked vegetables along with the remaining cabbage, the beans, including their puree, the chard, and water to cover everything by about an inch. Simmer slowly, partially covered, another 45 minutes. Add more water as needed so the soup has the consistency of a watery stew.

Season to taste, stir in the pasta, and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Serve hot or warm with olive oil, a peppermill, and the cheese passed separately. (Minestrone reheats beautifully and is even better the second day.)

For Grandfather's Minestrone: Lay a slice of toasted bread in each of eight soup bowls. Moisten each slice with about a tablespoon of olive oil and ladle in the minestrone.

Our thoughts and notes:

Well, firstly, be prepared to spend at least an hour chopping, if you're making this by yourself. I'd say I have average speed at chopping- not super fast like the pros, but I do move at a good pace. So unless you're a speedy one, allow for a lot of  chopping time. I made 1.5 times the recipe, and oh man, it was a lot of chopping. It was so very worth it though. 1.5 times the recipe probably made 15 servings. My 1.5 times-ing was a little loose- for instance, I only used the amount of onion called for in the recipe, but probably used double the amount of beans, but many of the veggies were 1.5 times the quantity.   

I did not use cabbage, celery, or swiss chard, the former because I forgot to purchase it, and the latter two because the the bunches of them were quite large and I did not have any use for the remainder. Plus I don't think celery adds all that much. We also did not add the wholegrain bread into the bottom of the bowl. However, we did use all the rest of the ingredients. 

At the first step, I sauteed many of the vegetables for a bit in the stock pot (as per my pictures above) rather than simply stick them right in water to boil. I read a bit about minestrone soups before making this, and one of the suggestions was to saute some or all of the vegetables to add depth to the soup. As I chopped up a new veggie, I added it to the saute, and finally added water and tomatoes to boil.

Now, I was skeptical about using water instead of stock. But again, what I read is that the intermingling of the myriad ingredients should produce enough flavor that you don't need to "waste" stock in this soup. I do believe we had a couple cups of canned chicken broth left over from a recipe my husband made that day, so I added it in, rather than let it go to waste. But with all the different meats and vegetables and herbs, water works perfectly well. 

To get a true rind from a high quality Parmesan cheese would have meant spending quite a bit more money on a soup that was already not-particularly-cheap. However, I was interested in the additional dimension and flavor it would contribute, so we got a moderately-priced Parmesan cheese that had a kind-of-sort-of rind and used that. It worked perfectly well. 

In sum, this is a super flexible soup, into which you can put a huge variety of ingredients, and incorporate a variety of techniques to add depth and robustness. I like the intro paragraph to this recipe in Kasper's book:
Good minestrone depends upon letting all the vegetables cook long enough to exchange personalities. The formula here is the essence of country soup making: Use what's in season, deepen the soup's character with plenty of onion, saute some of the vegetables for contrast and don't forget the beans and herbs for flavor and body. Then let heat and time do the work. This recipe evolved over years of gathering ideas from Italian country cooks. It changes with the seasons and my mood, so don't hesitate to play with what's listed below. There is one inviolate ingredient-the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. My frugal Tuscan grandmother always simmered leftover Parmigiano rind in the soup. With its incomparable flavor, no broth and little additional salt is needed.

The addition of grated cheese, salt, and pepper when you actually eat your bowl of soup is a must. It really adds to the soup. We did not add oil at the end, but I would love to hear from others who have done so. 

Lest you have come to the end of this an thought, "Golly, that is way too much work for me!" I will remind you that making 1.5 times this recipe makes about 15 portions. For us, that amounts to multiple lunches for each of us, some to freeze for a month from now when I have a craving for it, and some to give away to friends. Well worth it, I'd say.

I'd like to explore other minestrone recipes- do you have a particular minestrone recipe you enjoy? Any suggestions for making the soup better? 

Buon appetito!