Thursday, February 25, 2010

Alas, Polenta Part Two...

I’m sorry to say that the last GDL recipe in my Connecticut kitchen was indeed Polenta. I figured it would be cleansing to get it out of the way so I could arrive in Richmond with the Polenta chapter out of the way… gone… never to be heard from again!

So I whipped up a batch of that nasty yellow gunk and attempted two recipes- Creamy Polenta with Gorgonzola Cheese and Baked Polenta. GDL calls Creamy Polenta an alternative to mashed potatoes. I would rather eat a bathtub full of mashed potatoes than the cupful of Polenta I ate last night.

To all those Polenta lovers out there- I’m sorry but that shit is nasty. It’s creamy and buttery but not in a good way like custard. It’s like, “oh my god this is clogging my arteries with every bite.” And the fact that it actually looks a lot like the fat that will eventually clog your arteries, just makes each bite harder to choke down.

So after a blissful night sleep knowing I would never have to face Polenta again, I wake up to an email from Jamie saying, “Try this!” and a link to a recipe for deep dish polenta pizza. The photo was like a big yellow beanbag chair absorbing tomatoes and melted cheese into the center of its blobby orifice.

Thanks James, thanks. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Meat" Balls with Tomato Sauce...

Again, no animals were harmed in the making of this GDL dish. I used Morning Star Farms Meal Starters Grillers’ Recipe Crumbles, which is just like ground beef only meat-free. I’ve used these “veggie crumbles” in tacos and vegetarian chili and you would never know the difference. However, thanks to last night’s cooking experiment I have now learned that there is one place where these crumbles do fail in comparison to the real McCoy… and that’s in meatballs.

Super disappointing. I had one frozen jar of marinara sauce left and a bag of veggie crumbles. With GDL’s Meatballs in Tomato Sauce I was one recipe away from clearing out half of my freezer (three-fourths if I polish off the bottle of vodka in there with the meal).

I stirred together the breadcrumbs, parsley, eggs, milk, cheese and crumbles and started to form the bite-sized balls. But the crumbles don’t bond together like real meat. They just, well… crumbled. So I added another egg for some extra glue and was able to form somewhat of a soy sphere. That is until it hit the skillet. Out of the entire mixture, which is supposed to make about 3 dozen meatballs, I was left with 6 balls and some browned crumbly bits.

Since everything gets combined with the marinara sauce to let the flavors blend, I decided who cares what form they are in- flavor is flavor, right? So I dumped the sauce on top of everything and brought it to a boil. After 5 minutes, I poured everything over some al dente penne, topped with more Parmesan and called it dinner.

The dish came out more like a chunky, meaty sauce. Full of flavor and texture. Although next time I may just bypass the crumbles altogether and pick up the ready-made vegan “meat” balls, last night I felt extreme pride seeing my three little “meat” balls perfectly perched on top.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Signature Dish The Sequel...

Friday night I went home to Boston for a fun-filled family weekend before my big move. I wanted to cook a GDL dish for my parents and after making Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage and Broccoli Rabe, I knew that had to be it.

I picked up the ingredients at Whole Foods before I left Connecticut on Friday night. Pasta, Broccoli Rabe, vegan chorizo sausage and a small baguette for garlic bread and I was on the road.

On Saturday afternoon my mother and I arrived home after a vigorous walk-and-talk with my Aunt on the beach to find my father tearing up floorboards (this was planned by the way, he wasn’t just destroying the house on a whim) in their old bedroom. My parents are in the midst of a huge renovation where my carpenter father extraordinaire is basically the sole laborer. Needless to say, we were all famished.

While their new master suite boasts the finest quality of… well everything, the kitchen appliances haven’t seen an upgrade for quite some time. I never noticed this until I finally could cook a proper meal for my parents and the pot of water took a good twenty minutes to boil. The electric burners had been reduced to an eight-inch circle of heat.

You know those cooking snobs that say (and please read this with your nose in the air and arrogance in your voice), “I would never use an electric stove! Real cooks use gas!” I am totally one of those snobs! My kitchen in Connecticut may not have much to brag about but an old gas stove it has and I love it. And it’s only just now I’m wondering if my new Richmond apartment has a gas stove! Is it too late to back out of all of this if it doesn’t?! Kidding.

So once the pot did boil, all went extremely smoothly and the dish was just as delicious as it was the first time. Even better, in fact because these were now Orecchiettes of Triumph! Not only was I cooking a fabulous flavorful vegan meal for my parents for the first time but I was also starting a new chapter of my life. And as we sipped our made-in-Virginia wine, I knew that with this much encouragement and support behind me, this was going to be one fantastic year of cooking in Richmond. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cooking in Chaos...

I am so excited about all that is going on at the moment- new job, new apartment, new town with my man. But at the same time, I’m totally spinning trying to get everything done. You see, I’m a detail-oriented person to an extreme and when there are so many details- like packing and shutting off utilities and turning on utilities and getting my medical records to a new state and switching banks and getting a new license and plates and at the same time finishing up one job and training for another- yeah… my head hurts.

So in an attempt to shut off the moving chaos and concentrate on my delightful cooking project, last night I made GDL’s Stuffed Mushrooms and Almond Cake.

The Stuffed Mushrooms were easier than I ever imagined they would be. I will definitely be impressing guests in my new apartment with them. Although, I have to admit that they can’t hold a candle to my Aunt Lorraine’s famous stuffed mushrooms that make a welcomed appearance every Christmas Eve. Sorry Giada.

Now a whole cake may seem like a silly thing to make when it’s just me in my apartment alone but hey- sometimes you just need to bake a cake. I bought some of the ingredients for this a week or two ago when I thought I’d make this for Jamie and me but at the time malt balls seemed much easier after a long hard day of window-shopping.

You start by whisking (and you know how much I love whisking!) the dry ingredients together- cornmeal, flour and baking powder and set aside. Then GDL says to use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to whip the butter and almond paste until light and fluffy. I am sadly without an electric mixer with paddle attachment so I beat the hell out of the mixture with my little rinky-dink hand mixer. It wasn’t exactly fluffy but I was too mesmerized by the almond paste to care.

I’ve never seen almond paste before so when I took the tube out of the box and unwrapped the foil, I imagine it was what scientists feel like upon discovering a new element. It looks like moist packed brown sugar but one whiff and you know its almond. It smells like those fabulous creams you see in spas and I had to stop myself from smearing it all over my skin. Instead I took a little bite and it was so sweet it felt wrong to eat it in its pure form like that.

Moving on, I added vanilla, powdered sugar, egg yolks and the dry ingredients to my buttery almond paste and poured the mixture into my buttered and floured cake pan. It baked for 35 minutes and my whole apartment smelled like a warm buttery bakery. The cake gets dusted with powdered sugar and it supposed to cool but I went in for a slice immediately. The outside has this beautiful golden brown crust to it and the inside is bright yellow and spongy. It reminds me of cornbread but almondy. So warm and lovely.

If only I could have a calming slice every time I get overwhelmed with my move. But if that were the case... we’re going to need a bigger cake.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Richmond Bound...

I know, I know. My cooking and blogging has been terribly neglected. If there are any loyal readers out there besides my mother and my boyfriend- I do apologize!

But I have exciting news. I have been offered and have accepted a position at a major media company in Richmond, Virginia. Have no fear- I’m fairly certain I will still have a cubicle so my project shall continue unfazed. However, there will be one fantastic change in regards to the project. I have secured an apartment with a… wait for it… wait for it… dishwasher!

So it appears my luck is turning around. Not that I was in such a horribly unlucky place to begin with but yes, things are good. I’ll have a new job, a beautiful new apartment and most importantly, I’ll be in the same town as Jared.

Oh yeah, and the dishwasher thing! Woo hoo!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gourmet Snow Day...

No matter how old we get, who doesn’t love a snow day? Yesterday’s blizzard gave me a much-needed day off. I’ve never been one to rush the supermarket before a storm and shop like I was stocking a bomb shelter. A year ago I may have made do munching on whatever was in the cupboards like a handful of Cheerios, crackers and peanut butter, popcorn, etc. But thanks to this project and thanks to Giada, I had quite the gourmet snow day.

I had plenty of fresh ingredients in my kitchen leftover from last week’s GDL concoctions but not enough to make any of the recipes in Everyday Italian. So thanks to my raised culinary confidence, I came up with my own creations.

For breakfast, I made blueberry pancakes with fresh whipped cream. I’ve never seen GDL use canned whip cream on Giada at Home. Whether it’s for a cake or just a dollop on her espresso, she will always take the time to beat some powdered sugar into cream. Well I happened to have some heavy whipping cream left over so I decided to give it a whirl (or a whip!) and… oh… my… god. I will never go back to canned whip cream ever again. It is so rich and creamy but soft and sweet at the same time. I plopped some on my pancakes and two scoops in my coffee and even swirled a finger around the bowl before cleaning up. Mmmmm.

Then for dinner, I thawed the rest of my leftover Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage and Broccoli Rabe and made a delicious simple salad I know Giada would be proud of. Baby spinach and white mushrooms with big Pecorino Romano shavings and an olive oil and lemon juice dressing. Delicioso!

I always knew I was a wannabe foodie but I had no idea how much I would enjoy cooking once I was given the basics and started to put them into practice. I will forever credit my mum and grandmother for my baking skills but the woman who taught me to cook is the one and only Giada. So GDL, grazie mille! 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Adventures in Polenta...

There is one chapter of Everyday Italian that I have been apprehensive to attack but at the same time remarkably curious about- Polenta. If I have ever eaten polenta before I don’t remember it or perhaps I ate it thinking it was some strange, smooshy vegetable.

To make fried polenta, GDL says to make a batch of fresh polenta and let it set in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Almost every night last week I intended to make this dish but time would slip away and if I started then I would end up gobbling up fried food around midnight and all the TUMS in the world couldn’t bring me back from that. So by Friday night I decided to skip the gym, come straight home from work and start on this strange substance.

You start by bringing a large pot of water to a boil. Then you slowly whisk in the cornmeal until it becomes thick. This doesn’t take that long. Before I knew it I could barley get my whisk through it. Then you turn off the heat and fold in the butter. The golden globby mixture gets poured into an oiled baking dish and sets in the refrigerator for two hours.

I know this isn’t news to anyone who has met me but… I like to clean. And when you have two hours to kill while your polenta is setting in the fridge, what a perfect opportunity to organize? So for two hours I blissfully putter around my apartment only to be plucked out of my cleaning euphoria by my growling tummy. It’s frying time!

What I remove from the chilled baking sheet can only be described as one of those big yellow sponges that you use to wash your car. Completely unappetizing but I get a faint whiff of butter and… grumble growl grumble!

I cut up the sponge into little domino-sized bites. They fry in a shallow bath of olive oil for 5 minutes on each side. One major design flaw of my tiny kitchen is absolutely no ventilation other than two tiny windows (one of which is painted shut) so it’s not long before the kitchen is filled with a subtle smoke cloud. I open the window and let the freezing February air suck out my polenta smoke. Crisis averted.

Earlier that day I took my GDL marinara sauce out of the freezer to thaw. So I sat down to eat at a reasonable hour with my fried polenta and marinara dipping sauce. The bites were tender with a crispy casing and the marinara sauce added a big punch of flavor. It was kind of like eating French fries or buttery mozzarella sticks but for all of the effort and the ingrained image of the car wash sponge, to be perfectly honest… it wasn’t worth it. And unfortunately, that wasn’t the only polenta recipe in the chapter. Let’s hope I have better luck with Baked Polenta or Creamy Polenta with Gorgonzola Cheese. Ugh, I’m going to need another bottle of TUMS.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Old Friends, New Recipes

This weekend my dear friend Jamie came to visit from Boston. Being one of my closest friends and an avid blog reader, Jamie was one of the first people I told about The Julie/Giada Project. I respect her opinion greatly but my favorite thing about Jamie is that you can always count on her to give you a perfectly positive view of things. Whenever I start to doubt myself or my decisions I know I can turn to Jamie to help me snort some sunshine up my nose like my very own happiness dealer.

Needless to say, she was totally down for cooking Saturday night. Since I completely fell in love with vegetarian sausage last week, I decided that we would make GDL’s Farfalle with Turkey (Tofurkey) Sausage, Peas and Mushrooms. After an afternoon of window-shopping and ogling travel magazines we hit the organic market for the night’s dish. The mission- peas, pasta, cremini mushrooms and Tofurkey sausage. The result- a giant bag of frozen peas, pasta, a small baguette for garlic bread and malt balls. A quick stop at Whole Foods got us the Tofurkey sausage and a lesson on various species of mushrooms.

Back at my apartment, we went to work with a full to the brim glass of wine. That’s how we roll. Jamie carefully wiped down the mushrooms and prepped the garlic bread while I boiled the pasta and then had an awkward moment with the sausage. You see, real sausage usually have casings but the last vegetarian sausage I used didn’t so I just threw the links in the pan of simmering oil. But they weren’t breaking up like the last soy-sage when I poked them with a wooden spoon. Shit! There are casings on them! I yanked them from the hot oil with my bare hands and placed a long slit down the side. After a full minute of tearing at the hot sausage, we realized I was pulling at absolutely nothing! No casings whatsoever! So back in the oil they went and the rest of the cooking went off without a hitch.

Jamie and I thoroughly enjoyed our Farfalle with Tofurkey Sausage, Peas and Mushrooms along with some potent garlic bread and more wine. Though the bars of SoNo beckoned our twenty-something selves, the rest of the night was spent in our pjs with malt balls and chick flicks and of course more laughs. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

National Pasta Association...

Did you know there is a National Pasta Association? Sign me up for those meetings! Are there taste testings? Debate over white versus wheat pasta? Or is it more like the Film Academy and they vote on Best Supporting Noodle and Best Sauce Holding Pasta Shape? And the award goes to… Orecchiette!

One summer when I was very young, my best friend’s Italian mother (the same one that would pack Nutella sandwiches for lunch) made it her mission to teach us every pasta shape in English and Italian. Nearly a decade later she was still quizzing us. And I’d bet good money if I were to knock on her door tomorrow, she’d say, “Julia! Come stai? What’s the Italian name for Bow Ties?”

So since work is absolutely mad at the moment and my kitchen needs to rest up for the next big endeavor (spoiler alert: Polenta!),  I decided this could be the perfect opportunity to do a little PASTA 101 courtesy of the National Pasta Association.

Campanelle: (Bells) Campanelle pasta resembles a small cone with a ruffled edge. Pair Campanelle pasta with meat, cream, vegetable or oil based sauces. Also, these shapes are great when used in pasta salads.

Farfalle: (Bow Ties) These brighten any meal with their interesting shape. Thick enough for a variety of sauces, or a perfect addition to a number of salads or soups.

Cavatappi: (Corkscrews) The tight spiral locks in the flavor allowing the shape to pair with both simple and sophisticated sauces. Pair Cavatappi with meat, cream, vegetable or oil based sauces. Also, these shapes are great when used in pasta salads.

Ditalini: (Little Thimbles) This versatile shape can be used as the base of any dish. Bake it, stir it into soups, or create great salads and stir-fry dishes.

Elbow Macaroni: A highly versatile shape that can be topped with any sauce, baked, or put in soups, salads and stir-fry dishes. Elbow Macaroni is traditionally used to make Macaroni and Cheese.

Fusilli: (Twisted Spaghetti) This long, spiraled shape can be topped with any sauce, broken in half and added to soups, or turned into a beautiful salad. Fusilli also bakes well in casseroles.

Jumbo Shells: Best when stuffed with your favorite mixtures of cheese, meat and vegetables.

Lasagna: Create original Lasagna casseroles by using chopped vegetables, cheeses and any kind of sauce. You can also assemble your casserole and freeze it for later meal.

Linguine: (Little Tongues) A great shape to compliment a variety of sauces. Also a good choice for salads and stir-fry dishes.

Orecchiette: (Little Ears) These “little ears” are commonly served with thick, chunky sauces or in pasta salads.

Penne: (Quills or Pens) Penne compliment virtually every sauce and are exceptional when paired with a chunky sauce. Penne pairs nicely with chunky meat, chunky vegetable, cream, or oil based sauces. Also, these shapes are great for baking dishes.

Pipe Rigate: A hollow curved pasta that resembles a snail shell. This shape has a wide opening at one end and the other end is flattened. Pipe Rigate pairs nicely with chunky meat, chunky vegetable, cream, or oil based sauces.

Ravioli: Square round pillows of pasta that have a filling consisting of ingredients such as cheese, meats, vegetables and seasonings. Ravioli can be served with a red sauce or it can be served with butter, oil or cream.

Rigatoni: (Large Grooved) Rigatoni’s ridges and holes are perfect with any sauce, from cream or cheese to the chunkiest meat sauces. 

Rotelle: (Little Wheels) The cartwheel is not a classic Italian shape, but due to the variety of color and entertaining shape they are crowd favorite. Because the spokes of the wheels are good for capturing flavor, these shapes are easy to pair. Rotelle pasta pairs nicely with meat, cream, seafood or vegetable sauces.

Rotini: (Spirals or Twists) Rotini’s twisted shape holds bits of meat, vegetables and cheese, so it works well with any sauce, or you can use it to create fun salads, baked casseroles, or stir-fry meals.

Small Shells: Shells make a great addition to soups or as the base of a wonderful salad. Try remaking your favorite Macaroni and Cheese using Shells, for a fun twist on a time-honored tradition.

Spaghetti: (A length of Cord) America’s favorite shape, Spaghetti is the perfect choice for nearly any sauce, or it can be used to make casseroles or stir-fry dishes. Go beyond tomato sauce and see what your favorite becomes.

Tortellini: Tortellini is a ring-shaped pasta typically stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables. Tortellini is commonly served in a broth or cream sauce.

Tubini: A medium-sized, tubular pasta shape, Tubini is perfect for chunky sauces and meat dishes. It also makes wonderful salads, baked dishes and stir-fry meals.

Hungry yet?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cross it Off the List...

Right after my 25th birthday, I read a magazine article called “11 Things Every Woman Should Do In Her Lifetime” Number 11 was “Make your own list,” which is exactly what I proceeded to do only titling it my “10 Things To Do Before 30” list. I like short-term goals. But number 1 on the magazine list was to “Perfect a Signature Dish.”

I may not have created or perfected it myself but GDL’s Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage and Broccoli Rabe is by far the best thing I have ever cooked in my life and I am proudly deeming it “Julie’s Signature Dish!” I’ve already put a triumphant black line through number 1 on the list.

Now fellow vegetarians out there- calm yourselves. I did not eat sausage. I instead bought a soy Chorizo sausage right next to where I buy my Tofurkey at Stop n Shop. I’m always slightly wary of these meat substitutes but this was so much like the real McCoy that I’m still waiting to throw up. Fortunately, my digestive system is in tact. I know, T.M.I. right?

Anyways, preparing my new signature dish requires minimal effort. The broccoli rabe boils in salted water for two minutes and then gets set aside. In that same pot and water goes the orecchiette for just eight minutes. While the pasta cooks, you brown the sausage (or in my case soy-sage) in olive oil and then add red pepper flakes and garlic just before taking it off the heat. The pasta, broccoli rabe and seasoned sausage all gets combined with a good helping of Parmesan and… ohmigod! It is so f-ing good.

The orecchiette act as cupped hands protecting the precious chunks of spicy sausage and the beautiful deep green broccoli bend around the pasta like arching acrobats. The garlic adds fantastic flavor and the pepper flakes a jolt of heat. I’m literally drooling over my keyboard thinking of the leftover bowl that waits for me patiently on my refrigerator shelf.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Case of the Mondays...

This weekend was so wonderfully relaxing that today I find myself cursing Monday and all of its Monday-ness. The only cure or at least a distraction from a dreaded Case of the Mondays is a regiment of reminiscing i.e. the following.

So, on Friday night I made Verdure al Forno, which means ‘vegetables in the oven’ and it’s simply a zucchini casserole with a creamy cheesy crunchy crust. Jared was due in at 9:30 and I was not going to have another sweaty scramble like last time so I started early. I chopped up my five zucchinis, grated my cheese and oiled my baking pan. I was ready.

Now tell me this isn’t completely confusing. GDL says, “Line a baking sheet with foil. Coat the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish with the oil. Arrange enough of the zucchini slices over the bottom of the dish in a single layer to cover.” Wait, am I baking the veggies on the sheet and then transferring to the dish? Why do I need to prep a dish and a sheet?

After a good five minutes of questioning and cursing, it dawned on me. I watch Giada at Home everyday at lunch and I have noticed that she has a total OCD quirk that involves placing a lined baking sheet under anything she puts in the oven. So that’s it! If you see a GDL recipe that involves putting anything in the oven, bet your ass there’s a useless lined baking sheet involved.

So once this was all cleared up I began layering my baking dish. Layer one- zucchini, salt and pepper, heavy cream, mozzarella and Fontina cheeses, breadcrumbs and Pecorino Romano cheese. Layer two- repeat. Layer three- shit, I’m out of zucchini. GDL says that I can use any vegetables I want so I check the fridge and… potatoes to the rescue! So Jared and I won’t be having hash browns in the morning but at least my Verdure al Forno won’t look absolutely pathetic.

The casserole comes out of the oven forty minutes later looking exactly like the photo in Everyday Italian. Verdure al Forno is delicious but rich and better in moderation. Perhaps as a side dish rather than a main course.

The next morning I woke up to Jared reading my blog on his iTouch (um, how cool is that?!) and then I proceeded to get him hooked on my Saturday morning tradition of coffee and CMT while I prepared GDL’s Frittata with Asparagus, Tomato and Fontina Cheese.

The diced asparagus and tomatoes get sautéed in butter and olive oil for two minutes. Then the eggs and cream mixture gets poured on top. Two minutes later it gets covered and all goes in the broiler for another four minutes. Problem! With the cover on, the pan won’t fit in my broiler so I pop it in the oven and pray. It takes a little longer than four minutes for it to look solidified and it never gets the golden brown top it’s supposed to. But I take it out, flip it on to a plate and… YUM!

Jared and I managed to eat almost the entire frittata in one sitting. I’m sure Giada would pooh-pooh my use of ketchup on my slices but what can I say? I’m French-Canadian. Scrambled fluffy eggs require ketchup. They just do.

The rest of the weekend was delightfully uneventful. Jared watched Julie & Julia with me (bless his heart) and I even improvised some Panini for lunch (check me out GDL!). A wonderful weekend!

Now back to Monday. Damn.