Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A few photos and happy news......

I'm so far behind, people! Since the tomato soup we've made eggplant parm, three kinds of jam, canned tomatoes and spent a week in Big Sur and the Bay Area. After an excellent summer together, Eric has left me to return to Richmond (wah!)and I'm left to wallow in my lonliness.

Then, lo and behold, such happy news from the homestead up north to cheer me up. People: we have CHICKENS!! Not just your average egg-layers. These ladies (and their one rooster) are very lovely Polish hens. They are our new friends and family and I'm just dying to meet them. Apparently, they are quite friendly and like to be held. I must recognize that these are a gift to Aunt Karen for her half-centennial birthday coming up in just a few weeks. Of course, they are Aunt Karen's chickens. But I'm sure they already know who feeds them. Can they crow for Gramma yet? Before any naming ceremonies take place, may I request that we call one of them Francine?

Aside from the chickens here are a few photos of the Berkeley Farmers Market from this past Saturday. O.M.G. I wanted to BUY IT ALL. If we weren't hopping a plane in three hours, I swear I would have made friends with someone who owned a home in Berkeley so I could cook this produce for dinner.
To come: jam and a comprehensive restaurant review from our trip. Let's just say that I'm on a diet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Classic Tomato Soup with Croutons

I can remember watching Elmo and Big Bird on the couch as a four-year old, loudly slurping cream of tomato soup out of my white campbells soup bowl that had Mmm Mmm Good! printed around the edge and washing it down with cold (probably not organic) milk. It was 1985. There must have been Wonder bread too. Just the other day I thought of that bowl. Where has it gone? Then, I thought about the soup.

What is it about tomato soup that is so comforting and nostalgic? Perhaps its that tomatoes are essentially just really creatively constructed simple sugars that break down to sweet, complex flavors when you add heat. Perhaps its that adding cream to anything can make it taste better. Or maybe its because it reminds us all of the simple Sesame Street kind of days.

Whatever the reason for tomato soup being so gosh darn good, I wanted to make it like a grown up and eat it like a grown up......with wine, while watching Anthony Bourdain. The only thing that could have made it better was if I had eaten it out of my Mmm Mmm Good! bowl.

This recipe is one of my first ever truly "made up" recipes. Frankly, I found lots of recipes that sounded good, but it wasn't what I was looking for. I must have scanned at least 30 recipes from Epicurious, AllRecipies, Gourmet, etc. In the end this is mostly inspired by Ina Garten's recipe for Roasted Tomato Basil Soup.

Cream of Roasted Tomato Soup with Croutons

4 pounds tomatoes- I used a variety of whole, red, yellow and cherry

2 red peppers, cleaned and cut into wedges

6 cloves of garlic, cleaned and peeled

1 teaspoon kosher salt

generous fresh ground pepper

1/4 cup good quality olive oil

1/2 cup chicken or veggie stock

2 tablespoons sherry or white wine (you could probably also use vodka!)

1 tablspoon butter

2 finely diced shallots

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 large handful washed and torn basil leaves

2 springs italian parsely

Several sprigs of dill for garnish

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place your prepared tomatoes, peppers and garlic in a shallow baking pan and coat with the olive oil, salt and a few cranks of the pepper mill. Toss gently and put it in the oven to roast for about 40-50 minutes. When you take it out, let it cool for a solid 25 minutes to release and coagulate the yummy juices. In the meantime, wash and chop your basil and shallot.

Dump the contents of the baking pan (roasted tomato, pepper, garlic and all the liquid that has accumulated) plus the basil and parsely into the bowl of a food processor and process until its as smooth as you like it. I prefer it totally smooth, but you might prefer a rough, chunky chop. Let stand while you heat the butter in a medium sized pot (5 quarts is perfect). When the butter foams, drop into your finely chopped shallots and sautee for about 2 minutes to caramelize. Dump in your wine or spirit to deglaze the pan, then add the tomato puree. Bring it to a simmer and add the chicken stock. Let it simmer gently for about 20 minutes to thicken. Right before you are ready to serve, add the cream with a french whisk and let simmer a minute more to thicken. Garnish with dill and croutons.

The croutons are simple; they just require an appaling amount of olive oil. Start this in the morning or night before by cutting your bread to the desired size and letting them sit out to stale. In a bowl combine about 1/3 cup olive oil (for half loaf bread) with garlic powder, salt, pepper, thyme and dried oregano. Drizzle that over the bread as you toss quickly to evenly coat. Dump them on a flat baking sheet and stick them in the oven at 400 for about 20-25 minutes. The best time to put them in the oven is right when you take out your tomatoes!

I think a little yogurt or sour cream would also be excellent on top of this soup. Or a fat grilled cheese for dipping!

Friday, August 6, 2010


I have this friend who loves Ratatouille. Except she calls it "Rat. Tat. Two. EE" and I've never heard her pronounce it like the rest of the world does: "radatooee", a word that rolls quickly off the tongue. For someone who is as active as she, talks as fast as she does, and generally lives life rapidly, it throws me into a fit of giggles when she slows down to say each syllable of "RAT. TAT. TWO. EEE". It's completely endearing and an inspiration to take my windfall from a share I inherited at Clagett Farm and turn it into ratatouille. However you want to say it.

It's high eggplant and squash season and tomatoes are just beginning to reveal their glory. I received a little over 3 pounds of eggplant, 2 pounds of squash, a bunch of peppers, tons of herbs, and the cherry tomatoes were u-pick. Check out that color! The purple ones are called something like "black jewel" and their sweet taste and firm texture stood out from the rest.

I've made ratatouille several times before, but never with such stunning produce. This was going to be special. The secret to ratatouille is in the olive oil: to get that velvety texture, each vegetable is sauteed (almost need a hot temp) by itself in olive oil. Each veggie soaks up the oil, turning the final product into a luxurious stew of soft, golden veggies.

Ratatouille is something you with which you should take some "artistic freedoms". Most recipes call for eggplant, red and green peppers, onions, garlic, zucchini and/or yellow squash and whole, large tomatoes. This time around I had a few white mushrooms that needed to be put to use, used 1 large tomato and the rest cherry tomatoes, and I threw in basil, thyme and rosemary. If you love eggplant, use a ton. If you prefer zucchini, use more of that. You can't mess this up.

Take time to prep your veggies first: a range of textures and sizes will make your final dish more interesting. And if your eggplant is big and has lots of seeds, slice and salt it and let it sit over a colander to remove any bitterness. It will drip brown liquid that you'll want to discard. Rinse the eggplant slightly, pat dry and set aside. Then, heat your oil. I generally start with about 1.5 tablespoons of oil per vegetable. But the eggplant requires more, the peppers a little less.

So heat your oil in a 10" regular not non-stick fry pan and drop in your finely diced garlic (about two cloves...however garlicky you like it) and 1 sliced sweet white onion. After a few seconds of flash frying, sprinkle with salt to release the liquid. Sautee over high heat for about 3 mintues or until a few onions show some good caramel color. Remove it all to a bowl and set aside. Repeat this process with the peppers, eggplant, squash and zucchini.

When all of those veggies are done, use a larger pan or pot such as a 5 quart dutch oven or even a paella pan and heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil until it shimmers. Add all of your tomatoes and flash fry for about two minutes until they release their juices and the sugars start to thicken. Then, add all of the rest of your veggies including any juices they've left in their bowls plus your chosen diced herbs. Give it a few gentle stirs and pop it into a 325 degree oven for about 45 mintues. This will concentrate the flavors and bring out that velvety texture.

Serve it with a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesean over cous cous or rice. It's excellent reheated or at room tempterature and serves as a lovely bed for any grilled red meats or chicken. AND this gets better with time as the flavors blend. A third-day ratatouille is almost always better than the day you make it.

Eat at sunset with a bottle of pinot noir and some crusty bread, preferably while looking at a field of sunflowers. Now isn't that summer?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This just in: "DC Voters Choose Pizza"

There's a new match-up in town, and it has nothing to do with politics. Lately, we're arguing over our pizza. In truth, there weren't many contenders until a few years ago unless you count Jumbo Slice. If you count Jumbo Slice, your vote is immedietly disqualified on account of your probable drunkeness.

Take note of subject 1 below: Eric with jumbo slice, most likely at 3am, with a grease smudge on the lens of the camera. Brilliant.

So recently everyone's talking pizza! When did DC get to be a pizza town? Arugula Files just wrote about Pizzaria Orso, Mango and Tomato wrote about Pete's Apizza...Chowhound was talking about "We, The Pizza". All of this talk just makes me hungry.

I know that despite my age of "almost" 30, I still say that pizza is my favorite food and am immedietly tempted to add that "Full House" is my favorite show like any good 3rd-grader. But I like to think I have an evolved palette. Mature taste-buds. The good thing for my oh-so-sophisticated cravings is that DC has super grown-up pizza. It's not like Buffalo-style I grew up with, and don't get me wrong I LOVE Buffalo pizza, but here we have descriptors like "wood-fired" and "Neopolitan" whereas Buffalo sticks to descriptors like "half sheet with a bucket of wings and side of ranch dressing" (again, delicious).

Well, I must start my engines because I've tried almost NONE of these new pizza places. Awful for someone who claims pizza to be their favorite food, I know, but we generally make pizza at home. So in honor of joining the masses in arguing like a good DC-politico and taking part in my American right to vote, I've got to have an informed, educated opinion. I must try all the pizza in town. Well, not jumbo slice. I've had plenty of that. My list includes our city's recent openings of "boutique" pizza that you can't get past midnight. So sorry, Alberto's, even though you're kind of the darling of the jumbo slice.

The contenders, so far, include:

  • Pete's Apizza

  • Pizzaria Paradiso

  • We, The Pizza

  • Pizzaria Orso

  • Two Amy's (check)

  • Matchbox (check)

  • Radius

  • I figured that to be fair, Two Amy's deserved a revisit to refresh my memory. It had been a solid three years since my last visit and it has been around longer than many contenders on my list. So what a happy place to meet Dan and Caroline for dinner. Dan actually gets credit for the inspiration for this posting because he declared his favorite to be Paradiso. I hadn't had it, so I couldn't argue. I was bummed. I enjoy a good food argument.

    We needed a good sampling of the menu so everyone got to choose one appetizer: we had several cheeses and meats, including a gorgeous duck prosciutto and some burrata and a plate of squash blossoms for the table. Then each couple got a pizza: both classic Neopolitan, one with pepperoni and the other with cherry tomatoes and sausage.

    This is a prosciutto on what they described as a "sweet onion creame". Whoever thought to transform onions into little pillows of heaven needs to be knighted, STAT.

    The pizza is excellent. You can't argue that. The crust is chewy and stretchy and crisp is all the right places, the sauces are added in the right amounts and the cheese and toppings are top-notch. And my favorite part is that they serve it with a little creamer of olive oil for drizzling (liberally, in my case) a top your pie. Below is Caroline and Dan's pizza with sausage and cherry tomatoes. They are adequately priced and just the right size for sharing.

    The interesting thing about Two Amy's is this (which our server even said himself): everything ELSE is so good that many people actually go for the appetizers and small plates. If you go that route, you can easily spend a small fortune and not be full. On the other hand, it could totally be worth it. Here is our dessert: dark sweet cherries poached in spiced wine and served over ice cream. YUM.

    So, I'm not going to make a judgement call yet. Two Amy's sets the bar rediculously high for the quality of their pizza, service, other menu offerings and atmosphere. It harkens back to a true Neopolitan pizzeria. I quite feared that if Captain McClusky and The Turk were eating there that we may have seen a gun fight. Anyways. I loved it. But I want more. The cravings are getting stronger.

    Where is your favorite local place to get pizza?

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    Grampa's Chicken

    I can't take much credit for this recipe except for the fact that I'm inextricably, forever linked to this chicken. I mean, I'm certain that since I was born in December and spent the spring, summer and fall in the womb, at least half my make-up must be bar-b-qued chicken (or however you want to spell it....barbeque? Bar-b-cue?) Anyways, many of us farm kids went straight from the breast to the chicken. And you know what? That's ok with me.

    Pool parties, farm parties, birthday parties, sunday dinner, you name it....we had this chicken. It's integrity lies in the fact that in addition to how delicious it is, it can feed a lot of people. You see, this recipe calls for a whole quart of vinegar, a pint of cooking oil, a 1/2 cup of salt, and that's just to feed 12 people. Let's not get into the amount of oil it took to feed the crowd at my first communion party!

    This recipe posting is 100% dedicated to my late grandpa, Ed. He's the one who built the family grill barrel. He's the guy who added the extra essence of cigar flavor to the experience (and its never really been the same without him). He's the brains behind with the ingenious method of turning the chicken so that the skin stays intact and never tears. He's the man who made this chicken so gosh-darn special. Even though it's a family legend, I think we'll all happily call it Grampa's Chicken forever. Mom, Mike and Uncle Kenny have carried the torch forward, ensuring that we'll nourish other babes in the womb with The Chicken for years to come. But for now and for always, this one's for you Grampa.

    Marinade Recipe: bastes 12 chicken halves. Order your chicken from your butcher in halves. We get ours from Clark's Poultry and Seafood on Lake Street in Hamburg, NY.

    1 Quart Cider Vinegar
    4 Eggs
    1 Tablespoon pepper
    2 Tablespoons celery salt
    1 Tablespoon dried oregano
    1 pint cooking oil (canola or vegetable)
    1/4 cup salt
    2 Tablespoons poultry seasoning
    2 Tablespoons paprika
    1 Tablespoon Garlic Salt
    (my grandma also lists "shots of chosen liquor" and "1 case beer" in the recipe....but now I understand that the alcohol is solely for the basting of the chefs and has nothing to add to the actual chicken!)

    Beat the eggs until thick. Slowly add spices except salt. Beat well. Add oil, then add vinegar, stirring constantly. Stir in salt. Add thin coating to chicken for marinade prior to grill, then baste as you cook.

    For the method: I am literally copying and pasting my mom's instructions from an email.

    The secret basically is NOT TO RUSH the cooking process. You need a hot fire but the chicken has to be far enough away from the fire so it cooks slowly. You need 20 lbs. of charcoal briquets (not lump charcoal) for a "barrel" which will do 12 halves. The pit we used (in the photos) does 48 halves comfortably and uses 60-70 lbs of charcoal. Hot day no wind: 60 lbs, hot windy day with fire in wind: 70 lbs, cold day: 70-80 lbs. Mound the briquets up in the middle, soak down with very generous (whole bottle on big pit) lighter fluid. Let burn till you start seeing grey edges on briquets. Spread out briquets evenly in pit with shovel. Lay chicken skin side down on racks and watch carefully till skin turns golden yellow. Flip chicken over and baste generously. Continue to flip and baste approx every 10-12 minutes or so for the first hour. It must be watched carefully so your fire does not flame up and scorch chicken. If this happens, you have to move the chicken for a minute or two or if the fire is just starting to flame, you can raise your racks a little higher for 15-20 minutes. After the first hour, you will turn and baste a few more cooking time is anywhere from 1hr. 45 min. to 21/2 hrs. depending on weather, fire, amount of alcohol consumed while cooking etc. Chicken is done when you can freely twist drumstick in leg. Do not ever use grilling tools or tongs or forks on the chicken, you want the skin to remain intact. Always flip with racks or move chicken by hand with white gloves. Prepare racks by heating, cleaning and wiping with cooking oil or grill spray to prevent skin from sticking on initial placement.

    So take notice of the flipping method: you need an extra grill rack to place on top of the chicken. Two people hold the sandwiched chicken in between the grill racks, pick it up, move it over on top of the other chicken, flip (so the excellent juices baste the other racks) and set it back down in its original place. See the photos.

    This chicken is absolutely always served with potato salad, tomato salad or cucumber salad, and for some reason a handful of good old fashioned potato chips. And lots of napkins.....use your fingers for eating!

    There's one catch: to do it correctly, you have to build a spit. For some extra cash, I'm guessing my brothers would do it!

    Credit for the photos of Grampa goes to Uncle Brack, the family archivist.