Sunday, April 10, 2011

And dinner is…

I’m a creature of habit. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love lists and schedules and repetition and favorites and comfort.  To that end, sometimes I find myself craving the same wonderful recipes over and over, relishing in their familiarity and knowing that I’ll love how they taste every time.

Recently, thanks to the inspiration of one of my favorite bloggers, Dana Treat, I made Jamie Oliver’s pasta e ceci recipe (it’s pasta and chickpeas). After I made it once, I became slightly addicted and proceeded to cook it once a week for about a month, then finally made myself stop because a) I didn’t want to wear it out and b) I knew there were other great recipes out there that I should try to make, too. In other words, this dish is amazing. It’s easy. It’s healthy. It requires a minimal amount of ingredients, all of which are inexpensive and easy to find. I gave this recipe to my mom and then my entire family raved about it. A week later my brothers both asked if my mom could make it again.

Why is it so good? I think, for me, the simplicity and earthiness make the dish exceptional. Celery, onion, garlic, rosemary, vegetable stock, chickpeas and small pasta of your choice stew together to create a creamy, rich soup (or pasta dish – it can be considered both) that tastes like it must contain cream or butter or something else that’s sinful, but it doesn’t. Half of the chickpeas are pureed to make the base of the sauce and the rest, which mingle sturdily with the rest of the ingredients, provide toothsome texture and rustic bite to the soup, which is otherwise mostly soft.

Fresh basil ribbons and a generous pinch of both cracked pepper and finishing salt round things off nicely in the serving bowls. You could also drizzle some more extra virgin olive oil or shave some parmeggiano-reggiano over the top if you’re feeling frisky.

[cft format=0]

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookies

Often, when I bake, I’ll make a big batch of something and then never personally eat more than a bite of it. Sometimes I’ll bring this baked good to a get-together. Other times I’ll give it away. Sometimes it will be eaten mostly by my boyfriend, Scott, who will never let something good go to waste. Other times, what I’ve made will languish in the freezer while I secretly hope it’ll remain delicious and in tact for the next time I want to eat it.

It’s not that I don’t like sweets, because I DO.  Very much so. Most of the time I try to keep my sweet eating for weekends and special days, and my will power and lack of time will keep me from indulging. Other times I’ll consume enough batter to satisfy the craving before the oven has fully pre-heated. (Tell me I’m not the only culprit here!)

Anyway, I made something recently that I literally could NOT resist. Every last morsel was devoured quite happily within a few days. So what was it? Well, it was one of my favorite baked goods ever, chocolate chip cookies, baked in a SKILLET! Brilliant. Gosh, sometimes I wish I was more creative. Then I’d come up with amazing ideas like this one. And, blasphemous as this may sound, I think I might even prefer this to, say, these.

The skillet cookies, made with whole wheat flour instead of all purpose, are wholesome and hearty. Not only do the sugars and chocolate chips influence the flavor of these cookies, but the flour does, as well. It substantiates things and gives the cookies a deeper, denser flavor. Adding the cookies to a skillet makes things more rustic and less fussy; instead of measuring out balls of cookie dough onto baking sheets, just dump it all into one skillet and you’re nearly good to go.

You know when you eat a really good chocolate chip cookie and the outside is the slightest bit crisp while the inside is moist and gooey? Imagine that bliss magnified into the size of a large slice of pie. Served warm or at room temperature, this is surely one of the best baked goods I’ve made in a long time.

[cft format=0]

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Spinach & Artichoke Dip

Spinach & artichoke dip was one of those appetizers that I secretly hoped someone would order when we went out to chain restaurants in high school and college. There are worse vices, right?
These days, I don’t get around to eating much of this dip anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it often when I see recipes pop up on the food blog scene with glorious pictures of green dip speckled withhot, cheesy white crusts and accompanied by toasted crostini or tortilla chips.
Recently I had the need for a quick appetizer that would please many, and the thought of spinach & artichoke dip quickly came to mind. I wondered if I could pull it off without sabotaging the whole thing and it turnsout that I could. Be warned, though: this dip looks and tastes nothing like what you’d order in a restaurant. It’s not overwhelmingly cheesy or so well blended that you can’t tell what’s inside.  In this version, which is adapted a bit from Alton Brown’s recipe,there are chunks of artichokes and heaps of spinach throughout and the flavor of the vegetables still manages to permeate through the different types of cheeses.
While this dip isn’t particularly sophisticated, it’s fun to eat, tastes very good and, as you’d expect, gets some serious attention at an appetizer table. I have served it with both tortilla chips and also with crostini.That’s what’s pictured here.
[cft format=0]
Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cowgirl Cookies

Baking cookies reminds me very much of being a kid and helping my mom bake.  I can remember her extremely old school stand mixer and standing in front of it helping press the buttons and meticulously scraping the sides of the large clear bowl with a rubber spatula when the ingredients would get lodged up against them.

I’m not one of those people who recalls life changing experiences with my parents in the kitchen while growing up.  I know I was in there helping, but all of it is sort of blurry.  I can’t remember it.  Maybe it’s because my experiences in the kitchen took place when I was very young since, inevitably, weekends and weeknights became filled with sports and music practice as I got a bit older. That’s sort of sad, isn‘t it? 

That said, somehow this old experience resurfaced recently as I took my shiny new toy out of the box to bake with it.  My parents gave it to me for my birthday, this year, and it is awesome.  I have absolutely no room for it, but mixing things by hand was getting too irritating and time consuming so, naturally, I had to have a stand mixer. 

The first item I made with this mixer was a batch of cookies that are unlike any I’ve tasted before.  I guess I’ve been sort of sheltered with my perpetual consumption of chocolate chip, tri-colored and pignoli cookies, but these, called Cowgirl Cookies, are absolutely worth making for any sort of occasion (I made them for the Superbowl. Everyone absolutely LOVED them and they disappeared within minutes.)

These cookies are sweetened by granulated and brown sugars and then, even further, by butterscotch chips.  The oats and cashews, which are mixed into the batter right before baking, give the cookies a chunky texture that makes them seem sort of rustic and approachable. Their name fits them for that reason, because they’re sort of feisty and unconventionally cool.  And they’re so simple to make, too, requiring few ingredients beyond what you’re sure to already have in your pantry.

I used dark brown sugar in the recipe because the version I referred to didn’t state which one to use, and it was the only kind I had at home.  I’m sure either variation would be fine.  Also, the recipe suggests cutting the cashews in half, but I preferred even smaller pieces (not too small, though) so I roughly chopped the nuts before adding them to the batter.  Other than that, the recipe is really straight forward.

[cft format=0]

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Restaurants: Osteria Cotta

Inventive Italian cuisine is a style often attempted by chefs trying to bring a fashionable aspect to this familiar type of food. Despite its current prominence, few command the fare as well as Chef Andrew Kraft (formerly from Irving Mill) does at the Upper West Side’s new rustic Italian small plates joint, Osteria Cotta, where comfort food is presented in a new, stylish way. Cue funk and hip hop music.

There is a visible sheekness to Cotta that mimics a rustic, Tuscan hangout with wood paneling, brick walls and cast iron chandeliers. The restaurant’s lower level, which now offers “first come first serve” seating (can you imagine the sort of chaos this causes?), also sports a large television and an enlivened bar crowd. Where the restaurant’s mood really finds itself, though, is in the upper level dining room where wood tables and simple place settings are surrounded by walls lined with wine bottles and the daily specials hand-printed on simple chalk boards.

Impressive food is coming out of Cotta’s capable kitchen and, most notably, its tomato sauce is excellent. The sauce, served as a topping for pizza or an accompaniment for dipping, possesses an inherent sweetness and roundness that is superbly balanced and that augments every single dish in which it appears.

Cotta’s impressive list of small plates sports unique combinations with impressive flavor profiles. The salads pull their weight the least on the menu, but still manage to add lightness to the meal. For example, the endive and watercress salad with candied walnuts and gorgonzola ($8), is dressed too aggressively with balsamic vinaigrette, yet the vegetables are fresh and the cheese is sharp without overwhelming the lighter elements, creating a cool, fresh beginning set of flavors.

The fried fontina risotto arancini ($6) have a thin, fried crust and are light and toothsome on the inside. They are not fried just for the sake of being fried; the outer shell serves as a way to intensify the rice’s starchy, nutty flavor. The risotto is cooked perfectly and is subtly sturdy, free from any trace of mushiness. The glorious tomato sauce accompanies for dipping. If fried risotto balls are not appealing enough, other fritti on the menu include stuffed olives, mozzarella, zucchini and calamari.

There are several bruschette options as well: ricotta fresca with basil pesto, caponata with goat cheese, roasted garlic, and truffled egg, among others, adorn the menu. The ricotta fresca with basil pesto is topped with cool and refreshing fresh ricotta and is brightened by a touch of garlic and fresh basil undertones from the pesto. The truffled egg bruschetta is crowned with soft scrambled egg whites and a hint of truffle oil. Each bite is silky and smooth and is imbibed with the aroma of savory, warm truffle. The crostini on which the toppings are served are perfectly toasted and neither fall apart nor crack teeth.

The meatballs are another pleaser; the table in the corner raved for a solid half hour about how good they are.

One of the greatest menu surprises, the Eggplant Agnolotti ($11), is a homemade pasta dish that is reminiscent of ravioli, stuffed precisely with eggplant that is smoky, creamy, and roasted to perfection. The pasta itself is flawless and al dente, offering contrast to the silky eggplant. Add a touch of ricotta cheese and the infamous tomato sauce to these ravioli and these pasta pouches burst with warmth and body.

If a pizza with a good, hearty char is appealing, Cotta has got the goods. Pizza choices range from predictable (Quattro Formaggi, $12) to more unique (Pugliese – with mozzarella, sausage & broccoli rabe, $13). Just the Margarita pizza ($11) alone is enough to draw in any sort of pizza fan around. The crust is thin but not brittle, and the simplicity of the sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese and touch of fresh basil creates pizza that is comfortingly familiar and well composed. The crust’s char adds a layer of magnificent mystery and darkness to each slice.

At this point, there is only one thing to do. Order the Nutella and Ricotta Calzone. Two, even, if you are daring. Skip the chocolate cake and tiramisu, and dig into this creamy, carb laden, hazelnut and chocolate dessert. It may be a monster, but it is absolutely irresistible. For those who enjoy nutella and doughy treats, this is an outstanding way to end a meal at Cotta. In fact, for those who crave this sort of thing, it might be a good enough reason to visit Cotta, alone.

For a restaurant that has not been open long, Osteria Cotta is well on its way to developing a loyal following and expanding its reputation farther than the reaches of just the Upper West Side. There is visible care put into the food and because nothing is overly doctored or fussed with, there is a sense of comfort and closeness to home that emanates from the each dish. Cotta is not a typical Italian restaurant with white lace curtains and huge plates of heaping red sauce covered meats and pastas. Instead, it is that same food, presented more precisely, in a space that pulses with eagerness and freshness that can only belong to a newly opened restaurant.

Osteria Cotta
513 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10024

Subway: B or C to 86th Street
Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday
Best dishes: Risotto Arancini, margarita pizza, eggplant agnolotti, nutella & ricotta calzone
Noise level: downstairs is rowdy but upstairs is more subdued yet still moderately loud
Price: $$ (Small plates run from $6 to $18; Pizza and pasta from $10-$14)
Accepts all major credit cards

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Last Hurrah

It has been snowing here all day. Isn’t it supposed to be spring? I thought it was. Especially since it was nearly 80 degrees 5 days ago.

The weather has been cold all week. It’s as if this snowy, brutal winter is trying to hold on for as long as possible before spring gallops in to save the day and bring warm weather, blooming flowers and longer days.

Winter had a new meaning for me this year. It still had snow and Christmas and my 25th birthday, but it also had roasted vegetables and, most recently, the best lentil soup I’ve ever had.

Lentil soup has the ability to warm and nourish in a way that other food just can’t. Soup,
in general, is perfect for a cold day, but once you add lentils, it reaches a heartier, more rich level.

What I like best about this recipe is the addition of a garlic and lemon flavored chickpea puree. Taste the soup before and after you add this component and you’ll be amazed at how much body and depth the chickpeas add. 

I realize that, at this time of year, soup is hardly on people’s minds.  We want salad and fresh fruit, iced coffee and light pasta dishes that you don’t have to heat up. There’s flip flops and sun dresses and strolls in the park.

So, you might not want to hear about a lentil soup.  But, in case winter sticks around for its last hurrah in your neighborhood, you’ll be armed with a new lentil soup recipe that will make dinner heartwarming and perfect.  Oh, and the leftovers? Amazing.

[cft format=0]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Restaurants: Amada

In the heart of the Olde City just east of the Liberty Bell and other prominent historic Philadelphia sites, lies Amada, a trendy tapas restaurant that flickers quietly from its exterior on Market Street, beckoning locals and tourists alike. Amada, one of celebrity chef Jose Garces’ seven Philadelphia restaurants, rages with popularity and serves a mostly youngish foodie crowd that would probably be buzzing there whether or not the food was any good.  Such is the case with some celebrity restaurants. Fortunately for Garces, who rarely appears at Amada these days, his strong ship sails independently and manages to do a decent job of it, too.

The bar at Amada is a worthy first stop. The cocktails are complex and are layered with flavors in a surprisingly refreshing way. The Broken Hugs, made with grapefruit juice, tequila and agave offers a sharpness that leads the way towards bitterness and then sweetness. While each flavor is separate, none competes for prominence. Another excellent choice, the Labyrinth of Passion, muddles fresh, sweet strawberries with whiskey, balsamic and bitters. The end of each sip begs for another; the deep dark balsamic is cut by the strong whiskey and the sweet, final taste of strawberry toys with the palate in an attempt to tame all of the stronger components of the drink.

The tapas menu is quite long and encompasses an array of authentic Spanish options running from cured meats, cheeses, grilled fish and meat to flatbreads and a long list of vegetables. What you will be served at Amada is not just small plates for the sake of a dainty bit of food. It is food that is tastefully prepared with careful attention to balance. With the exception of an unfortunate, practically inedible Garbanzos con Espinacas (chickpeas with spinach, $6) plate, everything else is quite good.

grilled calamari

The grilled calamari ($8) is a perfect example of the refinement that Garces achieves at Amada. The calamari, cut into thin rings, is grilled compassionately and finished with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper. The subtleness of the fresh calamari, whose bite is easy and offers no resistance, leaps off the fork with lightness.  Another tempting dish, the Alcachofas y Setas ($14), tops artichokes, wild mushrooms, black truffles and manchego cheese onto crispy flat bread. The aroma of this pizzette is immensely stunning, as the combination of mushrooms and truffles tends to be. Each bite conveys warm earthiness that is exotic yet surprisingly affable. The Pimientos de Padron ($6), small fried peppers topped with sea salt, cayenne sauce and bleu cheese foam, is edamame-like in its ability to be consumed quickly and with ease. The foam, which is rather mild, gives the crunchy, fried peppers an element of welcome sharpness and the cayenne provides spicy elevation to all of the flavors.

mushroom and truffle flat bread
Pimientos de Padron

Other notable options are Pequillos Rellenos ($12), small red peppers stuffed generously with warm crab salad and the Tortilla Espanola ($7) which melds fried potatoes and eggs into a thick yet delicate, subtly seasoned round pie that is soft and chewy.

 Pequillos Rellenos
Tortilla Espanola

If a sweet treat appeals to you, expect a short list of usual dessert favorites, a few sorbet options, and a dozen or so after dinner drinks. The token chocolate dessert, the Dobos Tort, tastes rather similar to the chocolate lava cakes you might find at chain restaurants (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is not particularly interesting). The Tort de Manzana, small discs of apple pastry served with apple sorbet, is a chewy, cinnamon crusted, warm treat that finishes the meal as apple desserts usually do with a sense of contentment and finality.

The experience of eating Amada is mobile but not overwhelming; when one dish is finished, the next arrives with perfect timing, giving a steady pace to the meal that neither rushes nor bores. The space is relaxing and comfortable, giving the meal a laid back quality that lets the food take over and impress.

Garces has done good work with Amada, and it is not a surprise that he no longer has to check in and make sure operations run smoothly; his staff has taken his vision and translated it into practice, giving diners a place to revel in passionate cuisine and forget they are even in Philadelphia.

217-219 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Metro: Market-Frankford Line to Penn’s Landing

Thursday, March 17, 2011

World Peace Cookies

Our world is far from peaceful right now

There’s been lots of talk of gratitude around the blogosphere and Twitter ever since the earthquake and tsunami took place in Japan last week, and I have been trying to think hard about those words because they’re so true. Gratitude. What am I grateful for? The other night as I sat, warm and peaceful, on the couch enjoying a piping hot, hearty bowl of lentil soup, re-runs on TV, and the company of this lovely gent, I couldn’t have felt farther away from the tragedy that plagues Japan. It’s hard to imagine how deep and real the suffering is. How is it possible that we’re able to live unscathed after a tragedy like this while others feel such terrible anguish?  I don’t know the answer to that. Does anyone? I feel so lucky to be warm and healthy, to have food and shelter, and to be able to spend time with the people I love and enjoy life in every way possible. Life might not always seem perfect, but compared to how terrible it could be, it really isn’t so bad at all.

If you’re interested in finding out what you can do to assist with the rescue efforts in Japan and haven’t already done so, here are a few good options.

So, while the world may be suffering from tumult and agony and disaster that many of us will never have to experience, we continue with our lives, mindful of the anguish that others face. We live. We work. We hug loved ones close. And we cook, bake and eat.

These cookies are far from new news.  They’re incredible. If you’re worried about the richness that a chocolate-on-chocolate cookie might possess, I assure you that there is nothing to fear. These cookies are light, have the slightest bit of crunch, and they’re balanced and, just, perfect.  While they might not result in peace on earth, they might make your day a little brighter. And that’s something we all deserve every once in a while, right?

[cft format=0]
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rice & Beans

One of the heartiest, simplest dishes I can think of is rice and beans.  There are few other meals that are as cheap, healthy, and heartwarming.  So many cultures are rooted by rice and beans as a staple dish and eat it because it’s affordable and significant to their families and their roots. It reminds us of simpler, more basic things that are uncomplicated, hearty and earthy.

Yes, rice and beans can definitely get boring.  It’s unadorned and unfussy and reminds me that there are so many other, beautiful, exciting ingredients and foods that I enjoy eating. Eating it makes me grateful that I’m afforded the opportunity to eat rich desserts and cheeses and stuffed pastas when I feel like it. We have so many glorious choices, and so rarely do I sit back and feel true gratitude that so much diversity is available to me whenever I want it. Yet rice and beans remains steady and unwavering in its presence.

One of the most touching, thought provoking things I’ve read on the food blog circuit lately is what Sarah at In Praise of Leftovers and her family does during Lent. They eat rice and beans for dinner from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. There is something so selfless and abundant about a choice like that.  Even if you’re not interested in that particular idea, the blog itself is so serene and thoughtful and I’d definitely recommend stopping by.

My method for cooking the rice and beans is pretty easy, but it does involve a bit of thinking ahead. If you’re going to make the beans for dinner, for example, you should start soaking them before you go to work, or at some point in the beginning of the day.  The rest of the process is fairly simple.

As far as the rice is concerned, Saveur has a wonderful, fail proof recipe for cooking brown rice, which is my rice of choice to make at home. For months I completely avoided cooking it because I was sure I could not possibly make rice that wasn’t clumpy or nasty, but thanks to that recipe, the rice situation is much more pleasing these days.

To the rice and beans, you can add an array of different toppings.  I usually stick with lime, cilantro, onions, salsa, jalapenos, sour cream and hot sauce, but you could also add cheese, tomatoes and sauteed peppers, in addition to anything else you might find tempting.

[cft format=0]
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

Is there a combination better than chocolate and peanut butter?  That’s a hard one to beat. There’s something very simple about it since it’s a fusion we’re all familiar with, but it’s also more complex than, say, vanilla and chocolate or double chocolate. (though I’m not downgrading either of those – they’re wonderful, too)

Some cupcakes, like regular cakes, have the tendency to become dry. I hate when that happens. Thankfully, the recipe I used for these cupcakes doesn’t have that problem. Because it calls for buttermilk as one of its wet ingredients, it yields really moist, fluffy cupcakes that are light and delectable.  The chocolate flavor is subtle but very much present, and the peanut butter frosting, which has the perfect balance of sweetness from the sugar and bold richness from the peanut butter, makes each bite pop.

As far as frosting application is concerned, there are a few options.  One is to just take a thin spatula and spread it over the top.  Another is to pipe it on with a pastry bag. The third option, which is the one I used, is to fill a Ziploc bag with frosting, snip off the edge, and pipe it on. It worked well but wasn’t as neat and tidy as I would’ve hoped.

I do have a few notes about the recipe. When I made the batter, it seemed really, frighteningly clumpy. If this happens to you, too, don’t fret; once they are cooked and cooled, the cupcakes are perfect and don’t have lumps throughout. Another thing.  If you’d rather have a sweeter peanut butter frosting, I’d add a half cup more sugar. The frosting is great, but the peanut butter flavor is really prominent and if you don’t like that, more sugar will help cut it a bit.

I debated whether or not I should even post a photo for this recipe since my photos came out SO terrible. As I navigate these food photography waters (and nearly drown, mind you), I figure it’s best to admit that we all start somewhere.  And, thankfully for us all, I’ve acquired a new camera recently, whose photos should start to pop up here regularly once I rid my drafts folder of a few recipes that I made before I got it. So, please pardon the terrible photo. I thought I’d add it just to give you an idea of what the cupcakes from this recipe might look like.

[cft format=0]