Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Valencian Noodle Paella - Fideuà

One of the most amazing and unforgettable things I ate in Spain was the Noodle Paella - Fideua.  It is the most addictive dish on the planet.  The tiny vermicelli noodles form crispy edges that you cannot help but pick on, way after you are full, you keep going in for one more savory delicious bite after another and after a while you are licking a clean paella pan.  When we came back from Barcelona I wowed to re-create it and just got around to it now in the dead of winter.  And the timing couldn’t be better, from the gray, cold and dreary New Jersey I was immediately transported back to sunny Spain, where summer is almost internal and the cool breezes bring the scent of the sea.  For an evening I was transported to a different world.
And speaking of different worlds, I have been pretty obsessed with everything Downoton Abby these days.  I keep trying to imagine living a life so clearly split by a few flights of stairs and I keep thinking that I love Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, would kill for those copper pots, they cost a fortune now.  I also keep thinking how much work must have gone into feeding the lot upstairs, all those meals and teas, days in and out, 6 or 7 course meals crafted on a wood burning stove.  And to think that this was not just any mediocre “English” food, cooks to aristocracy of those days were expected to put out classical French fine dining treats.  All that,ith just a help of a kitchen maid…. that must be the secret, all I need are a couple of kitchen maids to order around, and I can turn out spectacular dinner parties at a drop of a hat! 

It is as unlikely for me to acquire a kitchen maid as it is for everyone to start calling me “Ladyship” so for now I will have to improvise.  I can always turn couple of kids into kitchen elves, they may not like cutting onions but at least I don’t have to pay them.  
I could not tell you why my mind kept drifting from early 20th century English aristocracy to remnant of sunny Spanish holiday, while I was cooking a Fideua but I was happy to be far, far from here…. At least in thought.
Valencian Noodle Paella - Fideuà
This recipe fits a 24inch paella pan, but can easily be scaled up or down depending on the size of your pan.
1 lb fresh chorizo (Mexican or Spanish, preferably homemade – see the recipe for my Mexican chorizo here).
1 large yellow or Spanish onion diced
8-10 cloves of garlic minced
2 small super-hot chilies or 1 jalapeno pepper diced very fine (seeds and ribs removed)
1 red bell pepper diced
2 cups of slow roasted cherry tomatoes
32 oz of chicken stock ( you should always have a little extra on hand)
6-8 cups of vermicelli pasts (see Note)
2 generous pinches of Saffron
Olive oil
1 tsp of smoked paprika
30 -40 small pasta clams (either Little Neck or Cockles)
1 cup green beans trimmed and cut to 1 inch long
Lemon wedges for serving
Note:  If you have a hard time finding vermicelli noodles you can use fine egg noodles, however you will need to pre-cook the noodles first and use less liquid in the recipe.
Wash the clams by filling a large pot with ice cold water and letting them take a bath for at least 10 minutes.  Than place them in a large colander and keep those under running cold water until ready to use or at least 20-30 minutes.  This will ensure that all the sand and grit is released and washed away.
Preheat your oven or the grill to 425F.   Preheat a very large skillet with deep edges or a paella pan and  heat some olive oil.  Sear all of the sausage breaking it up into small pieces until it is nice and crispy.  Lower the heat to med-low and sauté the onions until translucent.  Add the garlic and both peppers and sauté a few more minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.  Add the tomatoes, stock and all spices and bring to a boil. 

Turn the heat to low and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes or until reduced by half.  Making sure that the vegetables and sausage are distributed evenly on the surface of a pan, stir in the noodles and spread them evenly covering the entire surface.  Bury the clams and green beans in the noodles, cover loosely with foil and transfer to a preheated oven.  Cook covered for 10-12 minutes than uncover and increase the temperature to 450F.  Cook until the clams are open and the edges form a crunchy crust.
Arrange lemon wedges around the paella pan and serve family style.  Everyone will be picking at the crunchy noodles on the edges and bottom long after they are done eating….

So now you know that I dream of kitchen maids and sunny Spain, what do you day dream about when you are cooking?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Holly Cannoli!

I can’t believe I made cannoli!  From scratch! And they came out exactly the way they were supposed to! I am so excited, but before I jump to recipe, I have a little cannoli story to tell….
I love a good cannoli, but it has to be really, really good.  Very few people have tasted a truly fine cannoli, you have to be lucky enough to live near or visit some of New York’s great Italian neighborhoods, where they still do the things old-fashioned way.  And once you taste that perfect cannoli, nothing less will ever measure up… and you will remember that true, authentic taste forever…I promise.
There is a young lady I know, who is very near and dear to my heart, for simplicity I will call her my niece.   She is an athlete and has to watch her diet, but she hangs out enough in my kitchen and that gives me the opportunity to sabotage her calorie intake just a bit ( I will not say anything further for fear of incriminating myself, her mother reads this blog…).  A few years ago, I took her along with my kids on “culture the kids up a bit” trip to New York City, and after a long day of explaining why a black square is considered priceless modern art and trying not to lose any of them on a subway, we ended up in Little Italy for dinner.  As we were enjoying our meal, I casually mentioned that for desert, we will go to a tiny special bakery I know for cannoli. My kids bubbled with excitement and my niece has asked “What is a cannoli?” at which point I almost fell off my chair.  A child living to eleven years and never tasting a cannoli!  Well, I just consider it a special form of child abuse….  Now I had to make good on my promise and we did get to taste what I think is the best cannoli in town.  Poor kid, she was so impressed and she kept remembering that day and that cannoli for years to come. 
Now, fast forward a few years, I thought she would make a perfect partner for my quest to make a great cannoli.  If am not allowed feed the kid all she wants, at least I can teach her how to cook it!  Besides, she is a teenager now, so if I can keep her in a kitchen for a few hours that is the time she can’t spend being wrapped around her boyfriend, or so I hope. 
Besides, you never know when the skill may become useful, maybe she’ll need to impress a future Italian mother-in-law, or worse… a grand-mother-in-law

Cannoli shells do take a bit of work, and by all means you can buy them unfilled from any neighborhood Italian bakery, but what a sense of accomplishment is making them yourself, especially if they turn out right.  You do have to invest in the steel tubes though.
The shells can be premade ahead of time and so can the filling (it will keep for a few hours in the fridge).  Fill your cannoli just as you are about to serve them or they will become soggy.
For the shells
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons of very cold butter cut into cubes
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp of salt
1 ½ teaspoon sugar
8- 9 tablespoons of Marsala wine
1 egg white lightly beaten for sealing the shells
Peanut oil for frying
For the filling
1 lb drained ricotta (See note)
½ cup of super fine sugar
Juice of one lemon
Zest of 1.5 oranges
1 tsp of vanilla extract
Small chocolate chips (optional)
Powdered sugar for dusting
Note:  This particular recipe calls for a really good quality ricotta. A good Italia grocery may have a homemade ricotta you can use, if not, go with what you can find in a supermarket. The most important thing is to drain your ricotta at least 4-5 hrs prior to making the filling (better overnight). 
Place the ricotta in cheesecloth in a colander over a bowl.  Put something heavy on top like a few cans of something and drain in the fridge.  Any excesses liquid will end up in a bowl and you will end up with a perfectly dry ricotta ready for use.
In the food processor combine the flour, butter, sugar and salt.  Pulse until the mixture resembles sand.  Pour Marsala wine a few tablespoons at the time; it may take a few less or more for the dough to come together forming a ball.  Knead the dough a little with your hand, shape it into a disk and refrigerate wrapped in plastic for at least one hour.
 Preheat your oil to 325-335F.  Divide the dough into 4 parts, roll out each part very thin (about 1/16 of an inch) and cut into circles with a pastry or a cookie cutter. 
Roll each circle into an oval and wrap it around a steel cannoli tube using the egg whites to seal the flaps.  Flutter the ends with your fingers so the form funnels. 
Fry for 2-3 minutes until golden brown and puffed up and you see blisters on the shell.  After frying place the tubes on paper towels and slide the cannoli off while it still hot.  You may need to twist it a bit for easier sliding. 
It really helps when one person is frying and the other one is rolling and preparing the tubes.  So if you got a niece or any other special kid, put them to work.
The shells should cool completely on paper towels, and should be kept uncovered until ready to fill.
For the filling, combine all the ingredients in a bowl of a stand in mixer, whip until fluffy and all sugar has dissolved.
Pipe the filling into each cannoli, garnish each end with a few chocolate chips and dust with powdered sugar. 
I tell you, sharing a “Holly shit, we made cannoli!” moment with my niece was one of the most gratifying moments my kitchen has ever seen.  Maybe they were that delicious, maybe they were so hard to make or maybe because we were in it together, learning, laughing, rolling….

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pomegranate and Almond Oatmeal Cookies

I am not a big fan of Valentine’s day.  It always seemed like this occasion was made up to break the long Christmas to Easter dry spell for retailers.  So let’s jack up the flower prices to high heavens and re-wrap stale chocolates in shades of red, and while we are at it, let’s give all those poor teddy bears from China good homes…  The restaurants hate this holiday the most, with Mother’s day being a close second.  The menus are slashed in half and simplified so that an over busy kitchen doesn’t have to deal with crazy custom requests.  You can’t get a reservation to any decent restaurants anyway unless you have made your Valentine ’s Day plans back in June and  even if you are lucky enough to get a reservation, you are rushed through dinner with a velocity of speed dating.  After all, there is a whole line of suckers, just jumping at the opportunity to shell out big bucks for a mediocre pre-fix, waiting to take your seat.  No, thank you!  I’ll take a romantic dinner any other day of the year (except Mother’s day).

The only good thing about Valentine’s day is that it is the day when my countdown to spring begins.  I can’t explain it, I know that spring warmth and bloom are far, far away, but it is in mid-February when I start the “Wait”… This is when I start getting anxious and winy and start mentioning every day that I can’t wait any longer.  It may also have to do with the fact that by mid-February my vitamin “D” deficiency hits the ultimate low and my cabin fever hits an ultimate high… I don’t know, it just seems to coincide with Valentine’s day….

So let the wait for spring begin… I start by buying the flowers that scream spring.. No more pom-poms in my kitchen… I clean my closets… I sweep the deck (yes, I know it will be the while before I can use it)… and while I am in a good mood why not bake something delicious?

Oatmeal cookies have a bad rep, first of all, they give an impression that they may be good for you.  And who would ever want to eat a healthy cookie?  Second, they tend to be either too chewy or too dry and most taste like cardboard.  The key to delicious oatmeal cookies are toasted oats and lots of butter.  A load of delicious additives such as dried fruits and nuts don’t hurt either.  And of you insist to think them healthy, go ahead, and eat them for breakfast instead of your granola… after all, it will be awhile until you have to squeeze into your bathing suit…

Pomegranate and Almond Oatmeal cookies.
Note: feel free to substitute the nuts and fruit for any other.

2 ¾ cups of old-fashioned oats
1 cup of sliced almonds (toasted or not)
1 cup of dried pomegranate (cherries are delicious as well)
8 oz butter at room temperature
2 eggs
1.5 tsp of vanilla extract
1 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup of granulated sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Spread the oats on a baking sheet and toast for 15 min until light golden brown.  If toasting nuts you can add them to the same baking sheet 5 minutes before the oats are done, otherwise they will burn.  Set aside and let cool. 

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg together.  Set aside.  Cream together butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, add vanilla an eggs and stir until combined.  Add the dry ingredients a little at a time and stir until just incorporated.  Stir in oats, nuts and fruit.

Use a small scoop or a spoon to form the cookies onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper.  Leave enough room as these will spread.  Bake for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of your cookies.  The edges should just begin to brown lightly. 

These will come out perfectly chewy on the inside, crispy on the edges and utterly heavenly.

And if you eat them in front of a spring bouquet of flowers, you can pretend that the snow in your driveway is going to shovel itself… It is spring over here!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mad house and citrus marmalade.

My absolutely favorite time is early weekend morning, when I am the first one up.  When my kitchen is still and quiet, just sunlight streaming through the windows and the dogs are still snoozing in the corners.  I am all alone with my cup of coffee, free to ponder the day ahead and enjoy these few moments of silence…This is what I like…  Now this is quiet picture is the absolute opposite of what my house is like lately.  It closely resembles a circus inside an insane asylum.  With the arrival of a new puppy, my morning begins way too early for any human, and by the time I get to that first cup of coffee, I have walked the puppy four times, fed her, cleaned up a few messes and screamed “No, Bad dog!” couple of hundred times.  It is exhausting….

There is not much difference between taking care of a puppy and baby, except that the puppy stage is over by 6 months and theoretically at this point a dog should have achieved its full training potential.  Now a full potential for a dog, in my mind, is learning a few basic household rules and most importantly learning how to control her drool when sleeping on my pillow… that’s the height of mastership.  With the baby you are still “on” for at least another 18 years or longer…. This makes a puppy a much more attractive in my mind.

Of course now I cannot concentrate on anything other than her poop schedule and all those wonderful cooking projects I had in mind for the ultimate winter comfort foods will have to wait.
  I wrote them down on my menu board so that I can have something to look forward to when things come down a bit and I get my sanity back.  I can’t wait to make cannolies ( I finally bought the tubes), fried chicken and waffles ( long ago promised and never delivered), New England clam chowder and spicy Asian noodles and duck meatballs in broth ( also long overdue).  I have wonderful plans for gnocchi and pasta but all those things will have to wait a little longer.  But they are coming, I promise, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I didn’t waste this week totally.  I made 24 jars of Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange marmalade.  I used three different techniques to make three different kinds of preserves.  First I made a combo Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon marmalade using the pressed pulp and added the zest at the end.  Then I made a pure clear Blood Orange marmalade, all pulp strained completely and again adding zest at the very end.  The third technique was my favorite, and it is what I am posting today, a Meyer Lemon marmalade made with whole lemons, no peeling, no straining, just a bit of patience.

I also made an interesting apple spice cake, courtesy of Alton Borwn’s recipe.  I have been itching to make it for a while as this cake uses a very interesting spice combination – ginger, allspice, star anise, rosemary, cardamom, seeds of paradise…   Looked interesting enough to try, the cake looks beautiful, but I am writing this before I got a chance to taste it so we will see…

All in all, not a completely wasted week, jam, cake, and the puppy did gain two pounds ( not eating jam and cake)…I must be doing something right.

Meyor Lemon marmalade
This recipe can be used for any citrus fruit.
25 – 26 Meyor lemons very thinly sliced and seeds removed.  Leave the zest on.
8 cups of water or enough to just cover the lemons
8 – 9 cups of granulated sugar.

Combine all ingredients in a large pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 min.  Turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 3 to 10 hrs.  Uncover the pot, bring back to boil, turn the heat to simmer and walk away… seriously, go write a novel or something… it takes a long time…. 3 to 4 hours or more depending on your pot.  The marmalade should reach a temperature of 230-245F on a candy thermometer or you can test a drop on a frozen plate.  If the drop “jells” right away when it hits the plate and does not run…. Your preserves are done.  The marmalade will keep for up to 3 weeks in the fridge or up to 6 months in the pantry if heat sealed into sterilized mason jars.

Spread it on a buttered baguette and you can instantly transport yourself to the English country side…. Anywhere away from here sounds very good just about now….