mommom’s measurements

It continues to intrigue me how much more connected I have grown to the food and culture of my Italian heritage since moving to Maine, where I am away from the family, bakeries, and cities that have always been there to sate my cravings for specialty desserts and cured meats. My critical palate for Italian food has led to me to focus on learning how to make my favorite foods from scratch.

Next in line was pizza dolce. I called my grandmother and finally penned down her recipe for pizza dolce, pronounced by my Southern Italian family as “pizza dulch.” Traditionally made around Easter, this sweet pie is an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta. The  grainy-smooth ricotta cheese results in a very  light cheesecake, and the vanilla extract, orange blossom water, and cinnamon combine elegantly on the tongue. My mom and her sisters have the recipe, but I opted to go straight to the source: Mommom.

She rattled off the ingredients list with no hesitation and no recipe. For the crust, she recommended mixing the dry ingredients and adding water “until it-a form-a the dough.” For the filling, she instructed to add “half a box” of this to “a small glass” of that, among other equally vague steps. Her delivery left me stranded in a territory where many feel uncomfortable: baking without an exact recipe.

I barely use recipes to cook, but when I bake, I am still pretty reliant on them. The old world cook embodied in my grandmother doesn’t sweat the small stuff because she doesn’t need to. She knows how her food should come out and has perfected recipes by look and feel. She knows how each ingredient will alter the outcome, and I can only hope to gain some of this intuition with the mainstays of my family’s culinary history. If this pizza dolce project says anything, it whispers, “You’re on the right track.”

when food isn’t food

Thanks to Reddit, I stumbled upon the filmmaker PES who creates stop-motion films with everyday objects as stand-ins for other everyday objects. My favorites are the food-related ones, obviously, but he has a beautiful new video called “The Deep” that features old metal objects as sea creatures. He also has one called “Roof Sex,” featuring furniture having sex on a roof, but that is for a different blog. Check them out, though. Hopefully they will whet your creative appetite.

And in food news, I am hosting a Producers & Buyers “Meet and Greet” tomorrow to enable growers to mingle with interested markets for the 2012 season. There have to be snacks at this sort of thing, naturally, so I have spent the past hours in the kitchen making:

  • Caramelized onion focaccia
  • Sweet lavender olive oil crackers (I described these as “romantic” earlier, and I stand by my statement)
  • Popcorn with nutritional yeast
  • Roasted beet salad with lemon vinaigrette and capers

Maybe some of the buyers will want to help me start a brand! A girl can dream.

eggs, history, and sweets

In An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, Tamar Adler weaves together methods about “How to Teach an Egg to Fly” and her opinion mirrors my philosophy: “meals still qualify as meals if they are eggless. But an egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to.” A fried or poached egg is the perfect punctuation mark to leftovers or odds & ends that need to be eaten. I love eggs, and this love will never grow old or tired. If I ever open a restaurant, I will hire a person to walk around and ask people if they would like a fried egg with that instead of a grind or two of pepper. They are that important.

The food historian in me has always wondered how eggs have become so integral to our diet. Egg-based pasta and noodles, egg drop soup, frittatas, potato latkes, lamb and egg tagines, omelettes — the savory applications are countless and wholesome. But what really gets me is the foundation eggs provide for the world of baking and pastry. Mastering the potential of an egg–its yolks and whites, separately or together–seems to be a precursor to mastering true desserts.

My 100 word preview of the Encyclopedia Britannia article on the use of eggs in baking elucidated only the how, not the when or who. I learned that yolks are 50 percent solid (60 percent of which is strongly emulsified fat), and they effect the color, flavor, and texture of baked goods. Whites, on the other hand, are mostly protein with no fat, and are most important for texture. They also hold air well. (NB: My use of the word “learned” above is very generous.) I was pleased when a slightly more aggressive set of Internet search terms led to The Food Timeline and an FAQ about eggs. It offered the following quotation from The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Sama:

In the Roman period pastry cooks made much use of eggs for desserts as well as cakes. Apicius (25 BC) invented baked custard: milk, honey and eggs beaten and cooked in an earthenware dish on gentle heat. Eggs really made their way into the kitchen with Apicius, who mentioned them frequently in the Ars Magirica.

Lynne Olver, the author of The Food Timeline, elaborates that once eggs were recognized as binders and thickeners, their culinary applications proliferated. But when asked about when this began, she notes: “The food historians do not venture into this territory.” When one reaches this wall, one must accept defeat. And I did just that, by diving into my egg carton, separating a few eggs, and utilizing centuries of culinary wisdom with no known origin. I made Meyer lemon curd (below) and almond meringues (in progress above), and reinforced that while I can eat lemon curd all day, I’m not big into meringue cookies.

This particular curd & meringue night was before Christmas, and I put the jar of lemon curd in my Mom’s stocking. I hear she stirred it into whipped cream as topping for angel food cake, another egg white-heavy treat. She allowed the yolk and white to meet and mingle on the dessert plate, and it sounded divine.

Tonight, I answered cries from my sweet tooth by revisiting this treatment of eggs: separating them and letting the parts grow independently bigger than the whole, creating cranberry curd and chocolate cookies. I utilized Alton Brown’s lemon curd recipe but replaced the lemon juice with unsweetened cranberry juice  and the lemon zest with orange blossom water. The result was ethereal, complete with tart, sweet, and perfume-y notes.

To care for my egg whites, I made François Payard’s Flourless Chocolate-Walnut Cookies. These are perfect for anyone who lusts after chewy brownies, so everyone. They taste like crunchy walnut Nutella. Unlike meringues, which are made from whites whipped into stiff peaks, these cookies utilize whites in their original form as the only liquid ingredient besides a bit of vanilla extract. They came out looking exactly like those pictured above and are now added to my list of future party favorites. Make them for your gluten-free friends, your Jewish friends (or self) during Passover (as recommended by the NYMag article), or if you would like the smell of chocolate and toasted walnuts to permeate your home.

Thank you, eggs, for making possible so many culinary wonders.

aliens of earth and sea

I was in New York City last weekend for TEDxManhattan “Changing the Way We Eat.” Embarrasingly, one of the most satisfying part of that trip was finding Romanesco broccoli for sale at Eataly. For $6.50 a head, I hesitated for a second because $6.50 is a lot for aesthetically pleasing cauliflower, but I have been on the prowl since I was 15 and seven years is long enough. Finally, this martian vegetable was mine!

I roasted the Romanesco broccoli, also known as fractal broccoli, with salt and pepper. When I took it out of the oven to cool down a bit, I shuffled all of the florets into the same corner of the pan and sprinkled it with rice vinegar to absorb as it cooled. I love how otherworldly it looks, and it is simply delicious. I hope that I’ll be able to grow it someday.

This meal had significantly more black in it than most meals I eat. The stuff on the right side is Lalibela Farm Organic Black Bean Tempeh from Dresden, Maine, roasted with soy sauce and sesame oil until the outsides crisped up. Tempeh is traditionally fermented soybeans and usually sold in stores vacuum packed to submission, petrifying in its wrapper in the vegan section of the produce aisle. This tempeh, however, is made with organic black turtle beans and it is unbelievably creamy and  fresh-tasting. It is the only tempeh I have been able to enjoy plain, but roasting it was over the top.

The other black stuff in the foreground is kombu from Ironbound Island Seaweed in Winter Harbor, Maine. The long pieces of dried seaweed were broken up and cooked in the pot with brown rice, salt, and a dried chile. I learned this technique from Justin at Mano Farm and it perfectly reconstitutes the kombu.

Topped with a sprinkle of red dulse flakes from the Maine Coastline, a fried egg from my colleague’s son, and a drizzle of sesame oil from nowhere near me, this meal was nothing short of perfect.

biography of a simple dinner

My cooking style these days often strays far from recipes and sticks close to the desires of my eyes, stomach, and mind. My ingredients also speak to me: that cabbage is finally getting old, I have way too many eggs (is there such a thing?), the hidden apple butter was suddenly noticed after months of unintentional neglect, or I take a whiff of Chinese five spice and all neurons fire “YES.” Since the messages from my mind’s eye and kitchen’s pantry change every day, I rarely replicate meals exactly.

But two nights ago, I had a simple, rustic meal for dinner that I repeated tonight and will repeat whenever the I have all of the ingredients at once:  a heaping pile of warm greens over country bread and ricotta, a celestial combination of some of my favorite Maine eats so far.

I caramelized leeks in a trifecta of butter, rendered bacon fat, and olive oil. Then, I threw in several handfuls of chopped kale that I had previously de-stemmed. This helps prevent kale from wilting, similar to how removing carrot tops keeps the root firm. (Important: I threw the stems into a jar  with garlic, fenugreek, and a dried chile and covered them with a boiling mixture of water, apple cider vinegar and maple syrup for an impromptu refrigerator pickle.)

While the kale was wilting, I toasted a thick slice of country bread from Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland. This bread is baked in huge 18-inch rounds at least 6 inches high, so the folks at Scratch sell more manageable quarter- and half-loaves as well. On my way back from visiting a friend in Portland for the weekend, I picked up a quarter loaf in addition to a dozen  perfect bagels, this establishment’s claim to fame and key to my heart.

After the bread was toasted, I rubbed both sides with raw garlic, a move that elevates toast from plebian to glorious, and smeared a generous portion of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese Basket-Molded Ricotta, a Rockport-based artisanal cheese made using organic Maine milk. I saw owner Allison Lakin speak at the Camden Library about her transition from museum jobs and an anthropology degree to owning her own cheese-making business, and I have been wanting to support this soul-sister financially ever since. Her ricotta is different, as it is left to drain to the point where it is sliceable. I opted to smear it (heavily) on the garlic-rubbed toast and never look back.

I poured the kale and leeks over the ricotta-smeared toast, and topped the whole thing off with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. Voilà: a dinner that managed, with each bite, to evolve through light, sweet, smokey, spicy, creamy, crunchy, salty, and chewy. And everything except the olives in the foreground and the olive oil was produced in Maine, within about 30 miles of my house. I’m real into it.

a christmas review

A celebration is rarely complete without food and beverage. My family, like most, has such ingrained food traditions that I come to expect certain foods on certain holidays. The winter holidays (namely, Christmas and New Year’s) are the most emblematic of these food expectations. Mom always makes approximately fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies the weeks leading up to the big day. Christmas Eve consists of fette dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, with dishes like baccala salad, fried smelts, and spaghetti with tuna marinara. And Christmas morning holds my favorite tradition of all: egg nog, clementines, and panettone.

By Thanksgiving, panettone have arrived at the seasonal displays at our local grocery stores in New Jersey, and around December 15th, there are already a panettone or two in the house waiting to be unwrapped: the most desired and fleeting gift of Christmas morning. This year, though, I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in Maine. As I might have mentioned here a few times before, Maine has few Italians and even fewer places to by Italian food. So one night, before venturing on the twenty minute drive to the nearest Hannaford to fulfill my panettone craving, I gave them a call to see if they had it in stock. After my inquiry was misheard as “melatonin” and I was transferred around between four different employees, I finally caved. I was making panettone myself.

Following Mario Batali’s recipe, I mixed the dough and watched it through the first and second rise, kneading it a bit here and there and finally adding the raisins. I was a bit hesitant about getting the shape right (right = pretty much a top hat), but the oven and the yeast seemed to do all the work for me. When I took this out of the oven, I almost sang.

Speaking of Italian pastry one cannot find in Maine, easily or at all, I visited New Haven, CT on my way back north and went to Lucibello’s Pastry Shop. The smell of butter and sugar smacks you on the head when you walk into this very unassuming bakery, coaxing you to buy their cookies and pastries. I got two pignoli cookies (probably my favorite cookie of all time) and a sfogliatella (or lobster tail, or lobster claw, or ricotta-filled pastry) for the bus.

when nothing else will do

After work, I rode to the Rockland Public Library to see John Piotti of the Maine Farmland Trust give a talk called “Are Farms the Key to Maine’s Future?” The short answer: Yes. The long answer: If $50 million dollars doesn’t get poured into agricultural conservation easements,  property value will force farmers (more specifically, family of deceased farmers) to sell their property to developers instead of other farmers. Luckily, the Maine Farmland Trust, which was founded 12 years ago, is optimistic about raising these funds and achieving their goal to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland by 2014.

One the drive home from this talk, my coworker shared that Waldoboro, the town where my office lies, used to be the pumpkin capital of New England, growing the majority of the pumpkin for canning by One Pie. As far as I know, nary a commercial pumpkin patch exists in Waldoboro anymore, but all this talk of pumpkins got my stomach screaming for pumpkin gnocchi.

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Gnocchi
Adapted from this recipe on Tastebook
Serves 2

I lost the recipe I used to use to make these, but after going through ten or so Google search results, I settled on a recipe that called for whole wheat flour. Normally, I look at whole wheat pastas in disdain because the larger flour grains fail at mimicking the texture of white or semolina flour, but I was running seriously low on all-purpose flour, so whole wheat would have to do. These gnocchi turned out so light and lovely regardless, and the choice of grain made me feel a little better about eating a bowl of (basically) flour and cheese.

When I made these in the past, I would pan-fry them in browned butter after a quick boil to add a contrasting textural element to the edible pillows, then serve them with fresh pesto. (Sometimes, I even opted for cilantro pesto with pumpkin seeds and red onion and cumin to make my Italian relatives turn in their graves.) This time, I had pesto butter (!) in the refrigerator from Borealis Breads, so I used that to cover my butter and pesto bases then topped my dinner with grated cheese and pumpkin seeds.

1 cup canned pumpkin puree (or homemade pumpkin puree, drained thoroughly)
1/2 cup Parmesean or Pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg white, whipped until frothy
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons of your favorite butter or oil

Fill a large pot with water (and some salt) and let it get boiling. (It takes about as long for a large pot of water to boil as it does for this dough to come together. Amazing!)

In a large bowl, combine pumpkin, cheese, salt, black pepper and nutmeg. Carefully fold in the frothy egg whites. Next, fold in the whole wheat flour, 1/4 cup at a time. Add the all-purpose flour until just incorporated. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a rectangle about 1-inch high. Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough into 1-inch pieces, as shown above. (Another method is to roll the dough into 1-inch-wide snakes and then to cut each snake into 1-inch pieces.)

Put some butter in a frying pan and set it to medium heat. Add your gnocchi to the boiling water, give a quick stir, and leave them be until they rise to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to the buttered frying pan. Toss a few times until they are at your desired level of doneness, transfer to a bowl, top with more cheese, and enjoy.

I was cooking for one so after I finished eating, I shaped the rest of the gnocchi and went at them with a fork to get a more traditional gnocchi look. (With the job I did, I think I caused my Italian ancestor grave-turning, but taste matters more than presentation, right?) I placed them all on a cornmeal-dusted cookie sheet, threw them in the freezer for about 90 minutes, and then transferred them to a bag. They will be ready to greet my tongue and tum in the ides of March when I am as likely to find pumpkin as I am to find gold at the end of a leprechaun’s rainbow.