Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Any Way Strata

In terms of a recipe standby that is not only always comforting and delicious but that I can also always make, no matter what is in the refrigerator, nothing quite beats strata. Imagine a frittata enlivened by hearty, savory bread and you get the idea. We first started making this strata years ago, and it’s always a hit for brunch. But, in my opinion, it’s even better for dinner. You can make it early in the day and let it sit for a few hours in the fridge before baking it just before dinner.

Aside from the ease of preparation involved, I also love how flexible the recipe is. Seriously, you can make this with just about anything. Have some bell peppers on hand? Saute them up. Spinach that’s not quite crisp enough to eat raw in a salad? Perfect for this! And the list goes on: broccoli, onions, asparagus, fennel, mushrooms, Swiss chard, zucchini, squash—they’d all work perfectly in this. And when coupled with gooey cheese and the more substantial bread, which soaks up the egg and almost takes on the texture of beautifully tender potatoes (hey, potatoes would be great in this, too!), you have a fabulous meal that needs only a green salad for accompaniment.

That said, there’s not exactly a precise recipe for this strata. The keys are cooking the vegetables until they’re tender and have given up all their moisture (no one likes a soggy strata, after all) and allowing enough time for the bread to soak up the eggs and milk. Play around with different vegetable, bread, and cheese combinations. (My most recent rendition included colorful bell peppers, fresh broccoli, and baby spinach; rosemary baguette; and nutty Parmesan cheese.) The possibilities are truly endless and the results are no less than delectable.

Strata—Your Way

Yield: About 8 or 9 servings (but less if I’m eating)

1 vegetable combination (choose from those I’ve listed below or create one of your own)
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder or ½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon dried Italian herb seasoning
9 eggs
2½ cups milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 cups of hearty bread (not sandwich bread), cut into ¾- to 1-inch pieces*
1¼ cups cheese, divided**

Heat 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. If using bell peppers, onions, or fennel, add them first to the pan, stirring occasionally, until they become soft and translucent (in the case of onions or fennel), about 5 minutes. Season with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add the remaining vegetables and cook, continuing to stir occasionally. If using spinach or another leafy green vegetable, add them last and cook until just wilted, about 1 minute. Continue cooking the vegetables until they are tender and all the moisture has evaporated.

(Note: If you elect to use potatoes, either sweet or regular, you need to make sure that they are completely cooked before they are put in the oven with the rest of the strata. You can accomplish this by either roasting the potatoes in the oven until they’re tender or boiling them in water until they’re tender. Add the potatoes to the rest of the vegetables before adding garlic powder and herbs.)

Once vegetables are completely cooked through, add garlic powder (or nutmeg) and herbs and mix thoroughly. Remove pan from heat and allow vegetables to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl whisk together eggs, milk, and Dijon mustard. Season with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine bread and 1 cup of cheese. Add vegetable mixture to bread and toss to combine.

Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and add bread-vegetable mixture. Carefully pour egg mixture evenly over bread. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup of cheese over baking dish. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Before baking, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake strata until the eggs are completely set and the top is browned, 45 to 55 minutes. If the strata begins to brown too much, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the baking pan to prevent further browning. Remove strata from oven and cool for 10 minutes. Serve immediately. Stored in the refrigerator covered in aluminum foil or plastic wrap, the strata will keep for up to 1 week.

*My particular favorite bread in strata is a hearty whole wheat loaf. Baguettes or other crusty breads also work well (and are even better if they’ve started to become stale).
**You can use practically any type of cheese, as well as combinations of cheeses. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, Monterrey Jack, and low-moisture Mozzarella are all wonderful choices. Be creative with your pairings of bread, cheese, and vegetables. For example, a Tex-Mex version could include onion, bell pepper, and mushrooms; a milder baguette; and pepper jack cheese, with some hot sauce added to the egg mixture.

Vegetable Combinations:
Choose 3 or 4 vegetables from the list below. In the end you’ll want about 4 cups of cooked vegetables.

½ diced onion, 1 diced zucchini or yellow squash, 1 diced bell pepper, 8 ounces sliced mushrooms, 8 ounces broccoli (cut into ½-inch pieces), 1 diced fennel bulb, 8 ounces asparagus (cut into ½-inch pieces), 1 medium sweet or regular potato (cut into ½-inch pieces), 8 ounces spinach or other leafy green (such as Swiss chard).

You can also use 12-ounce bags of frozen vegetables if you have some on hand. Frozen spinach is especially convenient. Take the bag out of the freezer when you begin to saute the vegetables and add them to the pan according to the recipe, making sure to let the moisture evaporate in the pan before combining the vegetables with the bread.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Best Oatmeal Cookies

Throwing around the word "best" in conjunction with the word "cookie" is a risky move. Few other foods inspire as much emotion as the humble cookie. Everyone's cookie recipe--or everyone's mother's recipe--is the one. You know the one: it's the ideal cookie that's a little crispy around the edges, wonderfully chewy in the center, and filled with enough goodies to hold your interest while you eat it.

In my family, these cookies are of the oatmeal variety, and dried cranberries replace the normal addition of raisins. We (usually) only make these cookies at Christmastime, which makes them all the more special then (and certainly a treat in the middle of the summer). As they were baking, I couldn't help but say that it "smells like Christmas."

Really, though, these cookies are the real deal. Although they require a little bit of advance planning, since the dough has to refrigerate for a few hours before the cookies are formed and baked, you are certainly rewarded with the final product. I'd pass up chocolate chip for these any day.
Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
Courtesy of my Aunt Lydia, a very long time ago

This recipe makes a lot of cookies, at least 2 dozen, but they keep for a few weeks in an airtight container at room temperature. When we make these at Christmas, we're still eating them into January. If they lose their chewiness, you can stick them in the microwave for about 30 seconds, which softens them nicely, giving them that just-baked texture. It's important to let the dough chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before the cookies are baked. This step firms the butter up, and prevents the cookies from spreading too much in the oven (which would ruin that chewy-to-crisp balance that you're trying to achieve). Because the recipe yields so many cookies, you'll need several baking sheets to make these. Bake the cookies two sheets at a time. If you don't have many baking sheets, make sure that you are placing the raw cookie dough on thoroughly cooled baking sheets, in order to avoid unevenly baked cookies.

Yield: about 30 cookies

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 pound (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup dried cranberries

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low, gradually add the milk mixture, and beat well. Slowly add the flour mixture and beat until just combined. Remove the bowl from the electric mixer and stir in the oats and cranberries. Place the dough in the refrigerator until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Adjust oven racks to upper middle and lower middle racks. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper (we use silpat liners). Shape the dough into balls the size of 2 tablespoons, placing on the prepared baking sheets about 3 inches apart. Once all the balls are formed, butter and flour the bottom of glass. Flatten the balls into 2-inch rounds.

Bake the cookies until golden but still soft in the center, 16 to 18 minutes, rotating the cookies from front to back and top to bottom halfway through. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes. Carefully transfer to wire racks to cool.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Easy Lemon Bars

My mom has a huge love for lemon bars. As someone who loves citrus in all applications, the culinary answer to a bar cookie and custard - all combined in one - is undoubtedly a hit.

My mom (okay, me, too) also has a huge love for Ina Garten. These lemon bars come from her cookbook Barefoot Contessa: Parties!, my personal favorite of her six books. I was most surprised by how quickly and easily these came together. Although the crust was a little sticky to assemble, likely because room temperature in the South during the summer is about 10 degrees warmer than normal, it baked up beautifully.

The filling could not be easier to whip up. Dump everything in a bowl and whisk until smooth: no separating of eggs, no sifting of dry ingredients. Seriously: dump and stir. It's that easy.

These lemon bars have an intense citrus flavor, the juice and zest of the lemons packing a dual punch. Serve these bars chilled or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar, and let your teeth sink in to the filling. This is undoubtedly a summer treat, perfect for any time of day: morning, noon, and night. As Ina would say, "How bad could that be?"

Easy Lemon Bars
Adapted from Ina Garten

I halved this recipe, which originally made about 40 triangles. We used a 7 by 9-inch glass baking dish, but an 8 by 8-inch pan would also do. Feel free to cut the bars as small or as big as you like; I think we ended up with about 16 modestly-sized triangles. These bars keep well in the refrigerator for about a week after you make them (if they last that long).

Yield: 16 triangles (or 8 squares)

For the crust:
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cups flour
A pinch of kosher salt

For the filling:
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup flour
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer). Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until just mixed. Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and gather into a ball. Flatten the dough with floured hands and press it into a 7 by 9-inch baking dish, building up a 1/2-inch edge on all sides. Chill.

Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over the crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the filling is set. Let cool to room temperature.

Cut into triangles and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Del Posto: The Best Italian I've Ever Had

I first heard about Del Posto while reading Serious Eats: New York, my most reliable source for New York City cuisine. This was months ago, back when I was subconsciously filing away any bits of information about New York restaurants that I wanted to visit on my two upcoming trips to the city.

However, after an unfortunate bout of miscommunication (oh, you didn’t make reservations? Neither did I...), I didn’t think that I’d have the chance to make it to this restaurant, and who knew when I’d be back in New York again. But my mom made a last-minute reservation for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon, and before I knew it I was across the street from Chelsea Market, in Del Posto’s lovely dining room, enjoying a gourmet feast.

It’s important to note that Del Posto is definitely the finest Italian restaurant I’ve ever been in. Having been in other Mario Batali and Bastianich restaurants (Otto and Becco, respectively), Del Posto presents quite a shift in atmosphere. We arrived for our noon reservation (we had a flight back to Atlanta later that day so planned on an early lunch) and were the only patrons there. The decor in Del Posto is decidedly upscale: marble floors, silver glistening every which way, a piano player in the back, and a beautiful winding staircase that leads to an upstairs dining area (no doubt a lovely place to eat for dinner and watch the hustle below). We were seated at a lovely table in the back corner of the dining room, which still provided us with a good view of the spacious dining area.
Del Posto, like many other restaurants in the city, offers a $29 three-course prix fixe lunch menu, with the choice of one antipasto, primo or secondo, and dolce. This was the entire reason we had come, so we both started off with that (and my mom opted for the additional wine pairing).

We were first greeted with a delicious amuse bouche: a trio of Italian gazpacho with caper-salt rims, which offered the perfect balance of sweet and acidic; a salmon mousse with wafer-thin polenta crackers; and a salty and crisp prosciutto ball. These certainly woke up our appetites.

Excuse the missing prosciutto ball... someone was really hungry.
Next came the bread basket, easily the best bread basket I’ve ever had at a restaurant (and complimentary,too!). All breads are baked in-house and each offers a different taste and texture so the offerings never become boring. To not try all would be a mistake. There was a mini-baguette, crispy on the outside and airy on the inside; delicious and addictive grissini, or thin Italian breadsticks; olive oil- and salt-dusted focaccia; and a multigrain olive roll. I liked the focaccia and grissini the best. It should be noted that the warm bread comes with both sweet butter and whipped lardo. As someone who forgoes butter on their bread and who doesn’t ever care to have bacon, neither of these offerings were that enticing, but the notion of whipped lardo excites most who dine here. My mom sampled the lardo just for the experience. Her verdict? “Tastes like bacon fat.”
While we grazed on the breadbasket (I was careful not to spoil my appetite but also not to miss out on this cornucopia of carbohydrates), our antipasto came. My mom had the snipped herb and lettuce salad, which came with a bellini citronette, a complex peach dressing that added great interest to what could have been a forgettable dish.
I went for the salad primavera, a wonderful twist on the usual salad with spring ingredients. The plate was divided into different components, each presenting a different seasonal vegetable: raw shaved fennel , tender roasted carrot, and crisp sweet peas. This was a beautiful but, most importantly, flavorful dish that greatly exceeded my (already high) expectations for the cuisine at this restaurant.
After more bread-munching, we got our second courses. I went for the whole wheat tonnarelli with spicy chickpeas, fried rosemary, and shaved bonito. This was outstanding. It arrived in a deep bowl, and the homemade pasta was perfectly al dente. There really is nothing like fresh pasta. The chickpeas had a welcome crunch, and the bonito (shaved so thin it looked like it was dancing as the dish arrived) added a touch of salt that flavored the broth beneath. This was a fine bowl of pasta, indeed.
My mom went for the salmon, cooked rare and served with fresh spring vegetables like peas and baby turnips. By the “mmm”s coming from my mom, I think she enjoyed it, and based on the forkful of salmon that I tasted, I’d concur.
Of course, a meal simply isn’t complete (in my book, anyway) without dessert. We ordered dessert along with the rest of our dishes, so it was hard to gauge exactly what I’d be in the mood for. I’ll reason that they make some of the desserts to order so this is necessary. But my mom and I were both happy with our choices. I had the chocolate ricotta tortino with olive oil gelato. The tortino was outstanding, a layered affair of fudgy chocolate cake, lightly sweetened ricotta cheese, and rich and dense ganache. The outer coating of pistachios provided a lovely crunch and contrast to the otherwise smooth layers of the cake.
A word about the extra-virgin olive oil gelato: I’ve consistently read about this creation in all kinds of media for the past year or so. A staple at another of Mario Batali’s restaurant’s, Otto, and now a regular flavor at many other ice cream and gelato shops around the city, this was one flavor I just had to try. Again, who knew when I’d be back in New York again? I’m not quite sure what flavor I was expecting, but this was crazy delicious. Not exactly savory but not overwhelmingly sweet, the gelato had a subtle saltiness. It didn’t taste overtly of olive oil, but the oil in a way perfumed the gelato and gave it a luscious texture. The gelato sat on a bed of chocolate cookie crumbs that, like the pistachios, gave the dish a pleasing crunch factor. Needless to say, I cleaned my plate (heck, I cleaned all of my plates).

My mom had the tartufo al caffe. The tartufo (Italian for truffle) was a misshapen orb of coffee ice cream encased in slightly bitter dark chocolate. It was accompanied by candied lemon peel, which added a bright citrus note to the dish. I’m usually not a fan of citrus and chocolate (or citrus in desserts overall), but this was especially tasty. There was also a dark chocolate sauce and tiny nubs of something that we could only describe as “cinnamon toasty things.” It seems as if this dessert, with its many flavors of citrus, chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon, would be disharmonious, but it was anything but, and a great surprise. (I still liked my dessert better, though. That gelato!)
Just when it seemed we were full to the brim, out come even more goodies. End-of-the-meal sweets came out, presented in a wooden cheese grater. There were olive oil gelato lollipops covered in chocolate and bread crumbs, which were a perfectly crisp coating; mini bomboloni (Italian doughnuts) with a sweet cream filling; glaceed red fruit (likely strawberry) with more crisp breadcrumbs (think fruit leather with a gourmet twist); and the cutest polenta tartlets. All were exceptional, but my favorites were the polenta tartlets and olive oil gelato lollipops (can you tell how much I liked the olive oil gelato?). These all went great with a steaming cup of coffee.

Extra-virgin olive oil gelato lollipops and cream-filled bomboloni (above) and glaceed fruit and polenta tartlets (below)
After this multi-course tasting of deliciousness (really six courses when you think about it), I was reluctant to leave. Now we had to head back uptown, to the crummy airport, and home to our definitely less exciting home. Still, I am left with a great memory of an even greater meal. The company was fabulous, and I only wish my sister could have enjoyed it, too (but she said the truffles, which the hostess presented to us as we left and which I left for her to enjoy after we left, were very good). I’m not sure when I’ll be back in New York City again, but I do know that this meal—from beginning to end—was exceptional. And that gelato!

Rosemary Jam Scones

For the past week, the temperature here in Atlanta has hit upwards of 90 degrees consistently. There have been a few rain showers (or the occasional thunderstorm) that have provided some brief, albeit welcome, reprieves from the heat, but even walking outside can be grueling.
Nevertheless, I still manage to turn on the oven and the stove at least once a day (love those roasted vegetables). The other day, it was to bake up some delicious, heart-shaped rosemary scones. I had first seen Giada De Laurentiis make them on her cooking show, and the combination of sweet and savory was incredibly enticing. But they take cream, and, well, we hardly ever have cream in the refrigerator. Flash forward a few weeks and we have not one but two cartons of heavy cream in the refrigerator leftover from making cheesecake and ice cream (luckily cream lasts a lot longer than regular milk does). It was the perfect time to make a batch of these dainty scones.
The recipe is particularly easy for a rolled-out dough. I'm a pretty slow baker, but I whipped these up in about 30 minutes, start to finish. The aroma of fresh rosemary was incredible, as was the smell of that delicious biscuit dough. It reminded me of Bisquick pancakes - but rest assured these taste much, much better (and are certainly worthy of turning on the oven).

Rosemary Jam Scones
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

You can make these scones in either the processor or by hand with a pastry cutter. I opted to just make them in one large bowl to make clean-up easier, but these come together so quickly and neatly that either method would be fine. I used Emily G's Santa Jam, which is a pomegranate jelly, but any berry jam would work. The original recipe called for a lemon glaze, but I think the scones are just fine without it. Try the glaze for an additional citrus note or to sweeten the scones up for dessert. I used a 3-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, but any similar size cookie cutter would work (you could also cut the scones freehand with a knife).

Yield: 12-14 scones

For the scones:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup fruit jam (such as raspberry or strawberry)

For the glaze (optional):
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, from 1 large lemon
2 cups powdered sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons water

Adjust two oven racks to the upper middle and lower middles racks of hte oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Food Processor Method: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, baking powder, rosemary, salt, and butter until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Gradually stir in the cream until the mixture forms a dough.

Hand-Mixed Method: In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, rosemary, and salt. Incorporate the butter with a pastry cutter, working the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Gradually stir in the cream until the mixture forms a dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 1/2-inch thick, 10-inch circle. Using a 3-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out heart-shaped pieces of dough and put on the prepared baking sheets. Gently knead together any leftover pieces of dough and roll out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut the dough into more heart shapes and add to the baking sheet. Using an index finger or a small, round measuring spoon, gently make an indentation in the center of each pastry heart. Spoon a heaped 1/2 teaspoon of jam into each indentation. Bake the scones for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown, rotating the baking sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Transfer the cooked scones onto a wire rack and cool for 30 minutes.

To make the glaze, mix together the lemon juice and powdered sugar in a medium bowl until smooth. Gradually add the water until the mixture is thin enough to spread. Using a spoon, drizzle the glaze over the scones. Let the glaze set for about 30 minutes. Serve or store in an airtight plastic container for up to 2 days.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why now?

I've often said that I could never start a Twitter. While I enjoy reading the daily (or hourly) goings-on of various celebrities, who would ever want to "follow" me? How sad is it to have only a few people who care enough about what you have to say that they'd actually like updates whenever you feel the need to tell the world what you're eating for breakfast or doing on a lazy Saturday afternoon or thinking about the most recent Sex and the City movie?

Why, then, would I ever start this blog? In many senses it's the same as a Twitter account, without the character limits. The truth is, I figured it was about time. How many hours of the Food Network must I log, how many pages of Cook's Illustrated must I (re-)read, how many batches of Ina Garten's Outrageous Brownies must I bake up before I finally succumb to the ever-growing blogosphere, nestled over here in the food blog category? I've been reading them for years (food blogs, that is) and my foray into blogging isn't completely uncharted territory. It just seemed time to start one of my own - a place where I'd have my own voice, because I'm pretty sure my friends and family could care less about the ultimate banana bread recipe, even though it excites me.

I hope you'll stay with me as I figure out this whole blog thing (including the photos). I've got a lot to learn, but I'm so eager to get started I can hardly stand it. So yes, it did seem time, especially as I enter college this fall. Plus, now that I am a true college girl, the blog name really fits. (Bonus points if anyone can figure out its origin.)