Dinner On The Fly: Shrimp Creole with Wild Rice

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sometimes your husband "screws the pooch." In our house, this means he makes plans for dinner with us (The Fam) and then work intercedes and plans go to hell. Tonight's issue was we planned to go to dinner, so I didn't defrost anything or stop by the store. And yes I'm lazy and didn't want to go back out in the pouring rain with two small kids to get a box of spaghetti or the equivalent. So, determined to honor my laziness while refusing to cop out and order a pizza, I worked with what I had in the pantry and fridge and came up with Shrimp Creole over Wild Rice.
It ended up being a delicious dish and lesson for the kitchen: Always keep your fridge and pantry stocked with the basics in case an emergency pops up like this and you need to come up with something on the fly.
So what are the basic Pantry/Fridge Must Have's? Well, you need some boxed stock. Anything can be turned into a soup, so if all else fails chop and drop into a Dutch oven, cover with stock, let simmer and serve. I always keep a few boxes of different kinds -- chicken, vegetable, beef -- and work with those. Butter's another one. Butter, flour, and salt give you a basic crust. Now you've got a pastry you can stuff with anything, a base and topping for a pie, and if you add oats and sugar you've got a crumble. Keep it unsalted and in the freezer. Frozen shrimp is another. I like me some fresh shrimp, don't get me wrong; but some times we need a little help with last minute somethings and a bag of frozen shrimp thrown in a gumbo or creole as in this case will save your life. They defrost in warm water in 5 minutes -- much easier than chicken or beef! And always keep base ingredients in your fridge and pantry to make soups, stews, and dishes. I'm talking about aka The Trinity, The Solfreto, The Mirepoire. Specifically: onion, celery, bell pepper (doesn't matter what color), carrot, garlic. Always, always, always have these ingredients in your fridge and pantry. They stay forever if properly stored, and are the base for European and Latin cuisines, Creole, soups, stews, and various dishes alike.
In terms of canned stuff, I always keep a can of tomatoes, a can of tomato sauce, and a can of tomato paste. They can help thicken a soup or sauce and offer acidity and color to anything. I also keep some canned beans -- usually a can of cannelini, garbanso, and black beans -- to add to soups and salads.
If you're lucky enough to have a garden, then keep the basic herbs going year round as much as you can: parsley, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano. They offer a fresh taste and color to any meal.
With these basics in your kitchen, you can make anything!

Well, that said, I searched through my "challenge" for the evening and came up with Shrimp Creole. A simple Trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper served as my base. I used a can of tomato sauce and box of chicken broth for the sauce, some flour to thicken it, and frozen shrimp. Creole seasoning, a staple in my kitchen, and bay leaves brought the flavors home. Topped with some fresh parsley and we were good to go!

Shrimp Creole with Wild Rice
1 lb frozen shrimp -- defrosted, deveined and tails removed
1 small white onion, small chop
2 celery stalks, small chop
1 green bell pepper, small chop
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Creole seasoning
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 can tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes
1 box chicken broth (or vegetable or seafood)
fresh parsley for garnish
1 cup wild rice
vegetable oil

Heat 3 cups of water into a saucepan. When it comes to a boil, add a pinch of salt and add the wild rice. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until water is aborbed and rice is plump about 35 minutes. While rice cooks, prepare the shrimp creole.

Drain shrimp very well and set aside.

Heat 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large pot. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper, season with salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the flour and coat the vegetables well, then sprinkle with Creole seasoning. Add the tomato sauce and broth and bring to a boil. Make sure you stir the bottom of the pot so the flour and vegetables don't stick and burn; the liquid from the tomatoes and broth will help losen all that up for you.

Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and let simmer 10 minutes. Sauce will thicken slightly. Add the shrimp and cook for 4 minutes, or until cooked through and pink.

To serve, place some rice in the bottom of a bowl. Ladle the shrimp creole with generous sauce on top, and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve hot.

Ged Rid Of Your Garden Tomatoes! Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup with Grilled Cheese Panini

A HUGE thanks to my good friend Maryn for this gorgeous photo!!!

So I'v been asked recently by a few people for some recipes using tomatoes, and I keep giving out my Tomato Basil Soup recipe. It's my recreation of my favorite soup I'd have at Capriccio back in Stamford, Connecticut. It's really easy to make, and all depends on the perfect tomato. In a pinch (or winter!) you can use a large can of San Marzano tomatoes. But truly nothing is substitute for organic, fresh from your garden, ripe-vine tomatoes. This soup can be served piping hot or cold. I keep it simple and healthy with not adding cream, but if you want that extra decadence, go ahead and put a splash at the end after you puree the soup.

And the perfect partner is, of course, a grilled cheese sandwich! The classic combo of gooey melted buffalo mozzarella and garlicky fresh pesto pairs beautifully with the sweet, roasted tomato soup. Enjoy it. And don't forget the Nuttelino recipe for dessert!

Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup with Grilled Cheese Panini
For the soup:
1 lb fresh, overly ripe organic tomatoes (Roma, or vine-ripe works best for this)
1 small white onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 bay leaf
2-4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
pinch fresh thyme (1/2 tsp fresh or 1/4 tsp dried)
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 cups (i.e. 1 box) vegetable or chicken broth -- recommend Swanson's

For the sandwiches:
good quality artisan bread such as country loaf, rosemary, or herb (don't use chiabatta this time!)
fresh buffalo mozzarella
homemade or store-bought pesto
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

special equipment: panini press or non-stick pan with heavy press

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean up.

Cut the tomatoes in half and place on baking sheet. Season liberally with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Roast in oven 30-40 minutes, or until very soft and caramelized. Cooking time will depend on size of tomatoes.

While the tomatoes roast, prepare the base of the soup. Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf and thyme and cook another 2-3 minutes until fragrant. Add the tomatoes to the vegetable mixture (any juices and pan drippings as well) and using the back end of your spoon, gently break up the tomatoes while mixing them in with the vegetables. Add the stock and half of the basil (reserving the rest for garnish), increase heat to high, and bring soup up to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat back down to medium and simmer for 10 minutes so flavors can meld together.

After soup has simmered, it's time to puree the soup. Remove the bay leaf (and thyme stems if you included those as well) and puree in the pot using an immersion blender. Conversely, puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender. Return soup to a clean pot and reheat to desired temperature or let stand to cool.

Now make your grilled cheese sandwiches. Cut the bread into 1/4-1/2 inch thick slices. Brush both sides of each slice with some olive oil. Set aside. Take the mozzarella cheese and drain very well, then use a paper towel to wring out any more moisture -- the drier the cheese, the less soggy the sandwich! Cut the mozzarella into 1/4 inch thick slices and set aside. To assemble your sandwich, take a slice of bread and spread some pesto on one side. Top with a layer of cheese, then season with a little salt and pepper to taste. Take another s lice of bread and spread pesto on one side, then place on top of the cheese, pesto-side down to create a sandwich. Repeat with remaining bread slices to make as many sandwiches as you like.

Preheat your panini press. Gently place your sandwich in the press and close, and cook until cheese is melted and sandwich is nicely pressed together. Let stand 1 minute before cutting in half. Serve immediately.

If you do not have a panini press, you can still make this sandwich panin-style. Preheat a non-stick pan. Place sandwich in pan, then top with a weighted press; if you don't have a weighted press, then simply use a brick wrapped in aluminum foil or another heavy pot or pan. Cook about 3 minutes on that side and then flip over to toast the other side, another 3 minutes or until both sides are golden brown. Repeat with remaining sandwiches then serve.

To serve soup and sandwich together, simply ladle desired amount of soup in a cup or bowl. Top with a little more basil on top and small drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil if desired. Cut the sandwich in half diagonally, and set to side of the soup. Serve immediately.

Serving Suggestions and Notes:
Olive tapenade can be substituted instead of pesto. Again, you can use store-bought olive tapenade or make your own. To make your own, simply place about a cup of  pitted kalamata olives, a large clove of garlic, a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper and about 1/4 tsp of fresh thyme in a food processor. Pulse until chopped very fine. Then using your feeder tube, turn the processor on and drizzle olive oil until the olives come together into a thicker, spreadable paste just like a pesto. You can cover and keep your tapenade refrigerated for up to 3 weeks! Great for sandwiches, soup toppings, crostini, and dips!

I like playing around with different bread-cheese combinations as well. If you find a fabulous herbed artisan bread at the bakery, then go ahead and use that! Wheat's your thing? Try it! The point is you want a spongy and denser bread that's still light enough to press well and hold the cheese. Using a holey bread like chiabatta isn't good as the cheese and pesto will just ooze right out and make a very messy sandwich. You want it to be easy and clean enough to pick up and dip in the soup. Because the base of the soup is tomato, you can use virtually any herbed bread: rosemary, thyme, sun-dried tomato and olive (although that's a bit redundant, no?).

Likewise, any cheese would work as well. Just make sure it can melt relatively well. Great cheeses to work with for panini include: goat cheeses (including feta), cheddars, butter cheeses, brie, camembert, bleu cheeses, gruyere, swiss, any fresh mozzarella, and unsmoked provelones. Harder cheeses like smoked provelone, parmesan, romano, aged goat cheeses, or any aged cheeses like Rembrandt and manchego will melt a lot harder. You'll end up with a cheese that's half-melted and bread that will most likely be burnt as you stubbornly sit there trying to melt the damn cheese. Unless you plan on super-finely grating them, just stick to the soft, semi-soft, fresh cheeses for the paninis.

And you can go ahead and add more to the sandwich as well. Love prosciutto? Do it. I sometimes do this with a pesto-prosciutto-fresh mozzarella combination. If we're in Lent and fasting, I'll do grilled vegetables with the fresh mozzarella or goat cheese. Options are endless here! But I do have to say, there is something simply classic and perfect about a tomato-basil soup and mozzarella panini. Like Channel says, before you leave take once accessory off. Well, before you make this recipe, take one ingredient off the sandwich!

Enjoy it!

CRAPcakes: WTF Happened To A Most Favorite Appetizer???

Monday, September 20, 2010

I love crab cakes.

Correction: I used to love crab cakes. Honestly, what's not to love -- sweet and tender crab meat very lightly seasoned with hints of Old Bay, formed into a little patty cake and fried to give a crispy outside and soft inside. Usually served with a spicier red pepper remoulade sauce for dipping, it's a perfect bite of crabby goodness.

But like all simple and wonderful things, some asshole had to drop by and fuck it up. Now instead of gorgeous and fresh lump crab meat, we are told to use crap in a can. Why? Because it's cheaper. And easier. Crab in a can tastes like crab in a can -- it has a peculiar smell and tinny taste that makes me, at least, have to sniff it a few times to figure out if it's expired or not. That should be your first sign right there. So to mask the Isn't It Obvious This Isn't Fresh taste of canned crab, we are told to pile in every piece of shit in our fridge. Especially celery. Because celery has a very strong flavor to it, so the more you put the more it won't taste like crappy crab. So here is your second clue: when you prefer the taste of celery to something, it's probably not a good thing.

So that's not enough, right? Let's throw in a bunch of over powering flavors: salt and pepper ain't enough -- let's add Old Bay seasoning, some hot sauce or cayenne pepper, diced bell peppers, onion, maybe even a scallion or two, Worcestershire sauce, mayo, and bread crumbs to bind all this crap together. There - now it's fixed. We've managed to completely mask the taste of the shitty crab so it doesn't even taste like crab anymore, but rather like you opened your spice drawer and licked the side.


So just in case this isn't enough to make crab taste good, we've got to fry the ever-loving shit out of them, until they resemble a falafel rather than a crab.

I give you, courtesy of a repeat offender and culinary assassin, none other than Rachel Ray:

Her crab cakes look like falafel hockey pucks. I'm not sure if I should stuff them in pita bread or shoot them in a goal. I'm very, very confused.

A crab cake shouldn't look flat and brown. It shouldn't be loaded with crap. It shouldn't need a sauce on the side to help you digest it because it's so dry and lacking in flavor, the only way it's making it down your throat is with a remoulade sauce and a tall glass of water. And it's shocking how many people do this to their crab! Even my most revered Ina Garten has 18 ingredients going into her crab cake! WTF?! WHY????!!!!!! Don't believe me? Check it out here.

This isn't a crab cake anymore. This is now fried crab salad. And that just sounds disgusting.

So what is a good crab cake then, you ask? This:

[photo from cakesbychristineny.blogspot.com]
Chances are unless you've been to Maryland, you haven't seen one like that, have you?

There are techincally two kinds of crab cakes: Restaurant and Boardwalk. Boardwalk ones are deep fried (like a lot of beach and fair food) while Restaurant types are more meat and less fry, as pictured just above. Crab cakes originated out of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and have been an American treat ever since. But the problem is people have been morphing the two styles into the bastard you just spent $10 at the restaurant on your appetizer for. Either way, it's shitty and not even authentic either way.

My personal preference and the original crabcake notes specific differences than the hockey puck consumed and prepared today:

1. There is real and fresh crab meat there, all in big tender pieces; not canned meat pulverized into oblivion by tinning processing and overmixing.

2. It is devoid of any bell pepper, onion, scallion, caper, or other "filler" alike; the crab stands alone with minimal binders including cracker/breadcrumbs, mayo, some acid (lemon juice or mustard) and tradtional Old Bay seasoning, straight out of Maryland.

3. The accompanying sauce is light and compliments the cake; it's not super thick and heavy to make an already heavy hockey puck weigh a ton.

4. Keep it simple stupid -- a good crab cake will have a touch of Old Bay seasoning and some pepper -- that's it! No bullshit hot sauce, cayennes, and other funky seasonings to mask the crab. I actually had one dickhead put cumin in a crab cake. Seriously dude? Cumin does not a Southwestern Crab Cake make -- now you just made the crab cake smell like it has B.O.

5. They're just formed into a ball -- not a UFO. People like eating balls (meatballs, falafel, mozzarella); they don't like eating UFOs. Not that I'm aware of. If you prefer to eat UFO's then I can't help you.

No fillers, please. You'll need some egg and mayo to create a binder, and some crushed crackers or bread crumbs to told help the cakes puff up a little bit when combined with the egg. A dash of Old Bay seasoning will get you right where you need to be, with maybe a small dash of Worcestershire sauce for classic authenticity and a little tiny bit of mustard for acidity. And. That. Is. It. More than that, and you might as well buy a frozen box from Costco and pop it in the oven. Because even if you're using fresh ingredients, you'll stuff it with so much crap you won't know the difference.

Here's an example of a true, Maryland Crab Cake recipe:

1 lb fresh crab meat (claws and legs combination)
8 saltine crackers
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbsp mayo
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
small pinch of salt
vegetable oil for frying

Pick over the crab meat, removing any pieces of shell or cartilage, then place in a bowl. Crush the crackers until very fine, then add to the crab. Add the egg, mayo, mustard, Worcestershire, and seasonings. Using a spatula, very carefully combine the mixture, folding it more than mixing it, making sure the crab meat doesn't get broke up. Form the crab mixture into patties (can be anywhere from size of a golf ball to baseball). Place on a plate and cover with plastic wrap, then refrigerate for at least an hour. This will help them keep their form when cooking.

When ready to fry, simply heat some oil in a non-stick frying pan. Fry the cakes, about 3-5 minutes per side (depending on size) and remove. Serve hot.

Funny how the good things are usually the most simplest too! No finely chopping of various vegetables, no ridiculous combinations of cream, spices, and other crap; just crab and some oil. Done. Easy. Voila. Add a glass of wine and some microgreens dressed in olive oil and lemon juice and you've done a very elegent appetizer for a dinner party.

If you need the fucking remoulade sauce, then combine some mayo with fresh lemon juice, and some cayenne and paprika to give it a little heat and that reddish hue. That's all. Don't go in with the scallions and capers and garlic and such -- no need. Simple creamy heat for a tiny dip and you're good to go.

I know no one will listen to me. Real crab cakes are hard to do. You have to buy the crab, get the meat out yourself, then proceed. If you're luck you can buy freshly picked crab meat at your local seafood guy's counter. But trust me -- the taste is worth it.

I Love Beets! In This Salad, That Is...

I love beets.

Ok, not really. Actually I can't stand them. Probably because I was forced to eat them as a kid, and not fresh roasted beets, but those neon-red ones from the can. Yuck. So basically I've avoided beets for all of 20 years until recently when my friend Alison was out visiting, and we had an insanely simple but delicious salad with beets that now I'm obsessed with. The beet-bleu cheese-walnut combo is awesome, whereby the tangy bleu plays off the super sweet beet, and the toasted walnuts take it all home giving the salad a nice crunch for texture.

And I am now in love. With beets.
Spinach Salad with Roasted Beets, Walnuts and Gorgonzola
2-3 good-sized red beets (about a baseball's size) and/or 1 large yellow beet (optional)
1 bag fresh spinach
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp honey
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

Special equipment: aluminum foil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the stems and bottom off of the beets. I like using a combination of 2 red beets and 1 yellow one for color, but if you can't find yellow beets you can use 3 red ones (or 3 yellow). Wash the beets and then wrap in aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and roast in oven until tender, about 40 minutes or until pierced very easily with a fork.

While the beets roast, prepare the salad and vinaigrette.

Add the spinach in a large bowl. Set aside.

To make the vinaigrette, simply whisk together the olive oil, rice vinegar, and honey until thickened (or emulsified). Set aside.

To toast the walnuts, heat a small pan over low heat on the stove. Add the walnuts (no oil, no sprays of any kind -- the walnuts will give off their own natural oils when heated) and toast turning occasionally until just golden brown and you can smell the walnuts. Remove promptly and set aside in another bowl (leaving them in the pan will burn them as they'll continue to cook!).

Once the beets are cooked, remove the aluminum foil and let stand to cool a few minutes. Using a paper towel or two, gently peel off the beets' skin. This will be very easy to do; the skin will just come right off. Dice the beets into 1/2 inch cubes or slice into 1/4 inch thick slices and add to the spinach. Season the spinach and beets with salt and pepper to taste, then add the vinaigrette and toss gently, careful not to break up the beets or wilt the spinach. Top with the crumbled gorgonzola and toasted walnuts and serve immediately.

My Notes:
You can prepare the different components ahead of time (roast the beets up to 2 days before, clean and cut; make the vinaigrette a day in advance; toast the walnuts 4 hours before) and then just put together at last minute before dinner or a party.

When you're roasting your beets, make sure you place them on a baking sheet. Don't put them in directly on the wire racks in the oven like you would a potato because the sugars in the beets will caramelize and ooze out of the foil, leaving a horrendous black burnt mess on the bottom of your oven and on the racks. It's a nightmare to clean. So much easier to deal with on a simple baking sheet!
You can substitute with pecans if you don't like or are allergic to walnuts, but I really do like the walnuts with the beets and gorgonzola for this recipe.

And bleu cheese will do, but make sure it's on the milder size. A Roquefort will overpower the delicate beet, and a smoked bleu (Oregonzola) will totally kill the other components in the salad. Stick with a good, creamy gorgonzola -- it has a sharpness of a bleu cheese without overpowering it too much. Spanish bleus are also good.

Don't have rice wine vinegar? Try white balsamic vinegar. Don't have that either? Just use a good regular balsamic. And yes, add the honey -- I think it balances out the flavors well.

End of Summer: Pan-Seared Opah with Corn-Tomato Summer Salad

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

As summer nears its end here in the Pacific Northwest, it's time to get in the last of the season's beautiful bounty like tomatoes, corn, and hot peppers. I love this simple salad made with fresh corn that's gently sauteed, then tossed with juicy heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced hot jalapenos, and finished with a garlic-lime vinaigrette. Adding some peppery arugula adds color and flavor as well, and the warmth of the corn will gently wilt the peppery goodness so it melds in perfectly with the salad.
To go with, a simple pan-seared opah fish. But any white fish will do. By first pan-searing it and then finishing it off in the oven, you ensure a super crispy outside and buttery and flaky inside. Simply perfection, and a wonderful way to say goodbye to the dog days of summer...
Pan-Seared Opah with Corn-Tomato Summer Salad and Garlic-Lime Vinaigrette
opah fillets (boneless and skinless)
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 corn, kernels removed (or can substitute 3 cups frozen corn, thawed)
1/2 pint (about 1 cup) heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced thinly
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 handful (about a cup) of fresh arugula
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 limes, juiced

Wash the fish and pat very well with paper towel. Season liberally on both sides with salt and pepper (or to taste). If using one huge piece, then cut off the thinner part because it will cook faster than the thicker one; if using separate fillets the same size, then they will all cook evenly at the same time.
Heat a skillet* on high heat. Make sure your windows are open because it's going to smoke. Once the skillet is very hot (I mean very hot), very carefully add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Carefully add the fish inside and cook, searing both sides 3 minutes each (for a total cooking time in the pan of 6 minutes). Transfer to oven to finish cooking.
Depending on the thickness of the fish, you'll need to finish cooking it in the oven. If you're using a different white fish (like roughy) that is characteristically thinner, you won't even need to finish it off in the oven. Thicker white fish (halibut, sea bass) will need longer time. Other fish like tuna, swordfish, salmon will also need a little longer and depend on thickness. If you keep it in the pan, you will burn both sides; by cooking it in the oven, the heat will encompass the entire fish at once and cook it faster and more evenly with a gentler, less direct heat. Best way to tell if they're done is to look at the side of the fillet. Opah is a very cook-friendly fish because it tells you clearly when it's done -- the pink flesh (when rare) will turn white when it's done! This could be anywhere from 3-10 minutes, so make sure you're paying attention more to the change in color rather than time!
Once fully cooked, simply take the fish out and let it rest while you plate up the salad.
While the fish is finishing in the oven, make the salad.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan, and saute the corn until warmed through and tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add to a mixing bowl. Add the tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and arugula, and season with salt and pepper to taste. To make the vinaigrette, simply whisk together the lime juice and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil until emulsified (thickened). Add the garlic. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss well, careful not to break up the tomatoes and arugula (a spatula and folding technique actually work best for this).
To plate, spoon a generous portion of the salad on the middle of a plate and top with a fillet of the opah fish. Serve immediately.
My notes:
Jalapenos can be hot or not, depending on the amount of heat they received from the sun when ripening on the vine. Best way to determine the level of heat in the pepper you're using is to just taste a small piece. This way you can adjust to your liking if you want to seed it or not. If you want to omit the heat all together, just use a little green bell pepper.

Week Night Yum Yum: Pizza Siciliana with Arugula and Parmesan

Usually I make my own pizzas using store-bought pizza dough (or if I have time like on the weekend, I'll make my own from scratch). But sometimes even I need a bigger short cut than that. Enter...focaccia bread.
There are many different styles of pizza, one of which is Sicilian style. Using a much thicker, spongier dough, it's more like a focaccia bread with toppings than a the flatter or crispier pizza we're used to. Focaccia bread isn't hard to make on your own, but it takes time. With so many great artisinal breads out there, a really great short cut for those super busy week night meals is to use a great store-bought focaccia, then top it as you would a pizza.
I did this one with a simple and fresh arugula salad and good quality Parmesano-Reggiano shaved right on top. It was simple, extremely fast (hello 10 minutes prep-to-eat!), and very satisfying.
Pizza Siciliana with Arugula and Parmesan
1 store-bought focaccia bread
1 bag (about 4 cups) arugula
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
good quality extra virgin olive oil
good quality imported Parmesan-Reggiano
special equipment: cheese shaver or vegetable peeler
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place focaccia bread in oven (straight on the rack or on a baking sheet is fine) and heat through 5 minutes. While the bread is heating, prepare the salad. Simply combine the arugula, lemon juice, garlic clove, and around a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then gently toss. Once bread come out of the oven, cut into sections like a pizza (you can use a pizza roller or just a knife). Then pile the arugula salad high on top and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Top with shavings of the parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
My Notes:
Parmesan shavings are key for this salad. If you use finely grated, it will get lost in the salad. You want to bite into salty pieces of whole parmesan cheese for this. If you don't feel comfortable grating it yourself, you can buy pre-shaved parmesan cheese in the cheese section of your grocery store.
Since this recipe stands on only a few ingredients, all of the ingredients have to be best quality, fresh, and at their prime. If your arugula doesn't look the best, don't use it -- it will wilt too much and get mushy. Invest in some imported, good quality extra virgin olive oil to use just for these occasions. I often have my cooking olive oil and my "finishing" olive oil for salads, drizzles, and dips. I will invest up to $30 a bottle for a finishing olive oil because I want that perfect taste. Italian and Spanish olive oils work best for this; Greek, Middle Eastern, and American olive oils are better to cook with.
If you don't have Parmesan on hand, you can use any goat cheese (chevre, montrachet, even feta). If you have spinach and bleu cheese on hand go ahead and substitute those instead for the arugula and Parmesan. The point of this recipe is to have a nice hot bread on the bottom to contrast with a cool, crisp salad on top and salty bite of cheese. Go nuts with your combinations!

Broccoli WTF: A Yummy Soup Gone Horribly Wrong

Friday, September 10, 2010

On my personal family blog Rants & Raves, I often have a recurring feature called "_____ WTF." WTF -- "what the fuck" -- is basically a forum for me to bitch about something that's bugging me, or sharing a bizarre experience that defies all logic like when the cleaning ladies gave my newborn son a gigantic bear with a smoking addiction.

I think the same sort of post can be easily applied here to this food blog. So here we go. The first installment of WTF Foods.

One of my all-time favorite soups ever is Broccoli Cheddar Soup. It's creamy, rich, and so comforting when piping hot on a cold rainy day or when you're sick. I love it. I make it at home because it's so easy (but you need a blender or immersion blender!) and also get it at restaurants when I go out. But lately I've been seeing this incredibly easy soup dismembered. Beaten and tortured, then ladled into a ceramic bowl and served as literally a Crock of Shit.

It's not complicated. Boiled broccoli florets added to a trinity base (onion-carrot-celery), a small touch of garlic, salt and pepper of course, vegetable or chicken broth, then pureed in a blender only to be added back to a pot to have cream and sharp cheddar cheese added until thick and creamy, rich with the goodness of a fine medium-aged cheddar. You can literally make this soup half-wasted in 20 minutes. It's not hard.

But people fuck it up....

  • too watery.....it needs to be creamy! this is not a fat-free soup! add the godamn cream! if you want fat-free, then get the fucking chicken noodle!
  • too much carrots...this is called broccoli cheddar soup!
  • wrong cheese...if you use mild you might as well use velveeta and if you use velveeta, then stop reading this blog. if you use too sharp a cheddar then it makes the broccoli taste bitter. you want good ol' fashioned american sharp cheddar like Cracker Barrell. trust me...

But my biggest pet peeve with this soup is this:

Seriously? Seriously???? Whole mother-fucking broccoli florets in the broccoli-cheddar soup? Really?! We're so lazy that we can't even put broccoli in a blender and press a button? REALLY?!

And to add insult to injury, the broccoli was grossly undercooked.

This monstrosity comes courtesy of Panera Bread and Cafe which normally is fabulous. I don't know who was smoking the hash pipe back there, but this does not a broccoli-cheddar soup make! And as a huge fan of this soup, I found this blatant laziness infuriating. And even now, 2 weeks later, looking at the picture and writing this blog...it still infuriates me.

I half-expected to see julienned red bell pepper, mushrooms, and squash too to complete the obvious I Just Threw A Bag of Costco Mixed Veggies In Here theme going on.


So please. Can we please agree on one thing? If the soup is supposed to be creamy and pureed, can we please press "on" and puree the fucking vegetables? Please? Pretty please??