Thursday, June 28, 2007

Presto Pasta Night: Backpacker's Pasta Salad

It is hot here. I mean hot and nasty humid here. Yesterday it was almost 100 degrees with 82% humidity, the day before was almost as hot and humid and we have at least one more day to go of this stuff. I have no air conditioning here in Fairfield, so needless to say, the idea of heating up the room with any serious microwave cooking is not appealing (yes, the microwave heats up the room. There is an exhaust fan to dissipate heat built up inside the cooking compartment on all microwaves). All this means, I've been eating a lot of cold cereal and fruit for dinner the past few days.

Last night I wanted a nice pasta salad and since I've been working late to take advantage of air conditioning in the office, by the time I left the office the store I would have bought my pasta salad from had closed. So, I stopped by the big chain grocery store to scout out my options for pasta salad. They were non-existent except for this nasty looking macaroni salad at deli counter. Resigning myself to another night of cold cereal, I headed towards the door. On my way out, I walked by a big display of boxes of pasta salad

and I was struck with an idea of how I could make pasta salad in my room without having to resort to using the microwave. I would use a backpacking trick to soften pasta using luke warm water and letting the pasta soak for about 30 minutes or so.

Purchasing the box of pasta salad, a can of chopped ham, and some frozen peas, I hurried home. The contents of the box included a package of dried pasta mixed with dehydrated peas and carrots and a seasoning package. All you have to add is 1/2 a cup of mayonnaise, which I decided my light Miracle Whip would be a fine substitute. I dumped the pasta package into my 2 quart casserole dish

and got 2 cups of hot water from the bathroom sink. I poured the water on top of the pasta, added about a cup of the frozen peas, put the lid on the casserole dish and went out on the front porch of my boarding house to read. About forty minutes later I returned to find almost all the water had been absorbed by the pasta and it was perfectly al dente.

Next I added the chopped ham

And finally, using the light Miracle whip and only half the seasoning packet (pretty high in sodium, so I'll save the rest of it for another use), some shredded cheese, and faster than you can say "Presto Pasta", I had a nice, cool and tasty pasta salad for dinner.

It was perfect with a glass of cold wine while I sat in front of my fan reading and listening to the thunder.

Don't forget to head over to hostess and founder of Presto Pasta Night, Ruth's Once Upon A Feast tomorrow for the Presto Pasta Round-Up!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Daring Bakers Do Bagels (and they sure aren't Lenders)

(Cue Soundtrack: Rolling Stones - Under My Thumb)
(Scene opens on helicopter fly-over shot of mountain top as a horde of black masked women and one man wielding rolling pins, egg beaters, and wooden spoons spill over the peak)

When we last saw our intrepid Daring Bakers they were celebrating victory over the puffed pastry, pate a choux, diplomat cream, and caramelized sugar of the St. Honore Cake....

(Scene fades to black as the fifty or so Daring Bakers dance the dance of joy in the setting sun)

(Cue Soundtrack: The Strokes - The Modern Age)
(Scene opens in a 1960's modern office filled with scrambling workers and banks of tape based computers)

In true Daring Baker style almost as soon as we had conquered that mountain of pastry, we knew we couldn't rest on our laurels for very long and there being no rest for the weary, wicked, and whisked we immediately started clamoring for our next challenge. Thankfully, we did not have to wait for long, because almost within hours of finishing the last delectable morsel and crumb of cream filled pastry, the new class of Daring Bakers was announced meaning the June Challenge could be released to the now over sixty strong Daring Bakers....

(Cue Soundtrack: Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra [yea, I know...obvious])
(Computer monitor blinks to life on a dozing secertary's desk and letters begin to appear on the green screen)


Viewers, we are whipping a "one-eighty" and abandoning the sweet stuff to try our hands at making honest to goodness, no messing around, chewy and dense Kosher bagels!! This month's challenge recipe, a deceptively simple recipe at that, comes to us from two of my favourite people in all of blog world Queilla of the scrumptious All Things Edible and Freya, the feminine half of the dynamic duo behind Writing At The Kitchen Table. We were required to follow the recipe, which produced a plain bagel. Our only modification to the recipe could be what was on the outside of the bagel; with a preference to the savory toppings. OH BOY BAGELS!!!

(Cue Soundtrack: Margot Leverett and The Klezmer Mountain Boys: Liebes Tanz)

onion bagel

As soon as the challenge was announced, I knew exactly how I was going to approach this challenge. I was going for the more variety on the toppings the better. I was going as Bri at Jumbo Empanadas loves to say "BIG" and off to my jam packed spice cabinet I went in search of the most savory and interesting spices and toppings I could find.

Now, I need to take a little detour in this long post (Hey Lis! I'm going after your title for longest run-on sentence here!! HE-HE) because I have to tell you something about my spice cabinet and how MBH just doesn't get my spice cabinet. One the of the most memorable "discussions" MBH and I ever had in a grocery store was in the spice aisle. I was getting more cinnamon when MBH saw me grab a big jar and piped up, "You don't need that! You have enough brown spices. Can't you just use one of the other spices you have?" I proceeded to try to explain that just because a spice was the same colour as another spice it wasn't a substitute. If a recipe called for cinnamon and I was out of cinnamon I just couldn't grab any old brown spice and dump it in there, it wouldn't taste right. I got the look and the following was uttered (I swear to God. I am not making this up) "Well I don't know why the hell not! You need to use all the spices you have before you buy anymore" and he put his iPod earbuds in and continued on down the aisle. I just rolled my eyes, put the jar of cinnamon in the shopping buggy and gave the lady standing next me that other knowing look exasperated women all over the world get from time to time. She giggled, grabbed a big bottle of vanilla and we both walked away.

Anyways, back to bagels...

So I opened my spice cabinet and started pulling out jars, containers, boxes, and packets. I spread them all out on the table and two counters and after a few minutes a spice theme for my bagels began to form. I would tour the world's great cuisines; all on top of a bagel!

Along with the plain bagel the recipe made and the traditional onion and poppy seed (bought from Beacon Kosher in Brookline, MA; that sadly recently closed), I would span the world of spices in my cabinet. I would do France (Herbs Provence). I would do India (Tandoori seasoning). I would do Spain (paella seasoning packet).I would do China (five spice powder). I would do Africa (cumin, coriander, and saffron). I would do Mexico with cinnamon (the infamous brown jar from the spice aisle). Finally, I would do North America using a super special package of Maui sea salt that one of my best friends, Sara of I Like to Cook sent me after her vacation to Hawaii.

I would make the International House of Bagels! If there can't be peace in the world, at least there can be peace on the bagel sheet.

Making bagels is actually not any harder than making a loaf of bread (ok, I may have small advantage on the whole "making bread" thing). The only ingredient that the recipe Queilla and Freya had picked that is not commonly found in most cabinets is the malt syrup (you can order online or find it a some organic grocers/health food store or home brewing supply stores). This recipe also called for high gluten flour, like a bread flour (12% gluten or more) or if you are really lucky (or just have a ton of flour like me) you finally can use some of that high protein, super high gluten flour (15%) that you bought because the label was cool and you just had to have some in your cupboard (I've always had a thing for Sir Lancelot)

The dough came together fast and before I knew it, my dough had doubled (in about 25 minutes) and I was ready to make bagel balls (what I called the pre-formed mounds of dough on my counter). The recipe calls for you to prepare the water while the dough is rising, but my dough rose so fast (I'm serious, 25 minutes!), I was still cleaning up. So, I had to let my little bagel balls rest while I scurried around putting the malt syrup and gallon of water on to boil. Remember when I said my dough rose fast? Well look how big these dough balls are!

I mentioned that I was going big and the dough rose fast right?!

One other choice we were given for the challenge was the way we formed the bagels, we could either use the rope/form a circle method or the poke and spin method. Have you ever tried to roll really high gluten dough out? It springs back, won't hold its rope shape, is hard to get to behave (even after letting it rest). I tried a few with the rope method but I ended up with these logs that looked like the Pecan Log from Stuckey's. Besides, I've always liked poking at things.

After you form your bagel, you let it rest for a few minutes to "half proof" (start to rise again).

We were warned in the recipe that real homemade bagels aren't uniform in shape and size. Boy I'd say they aren't. My group looked like lopsided, poofy inner tubes.

By now, my kitchen had this unique smell; a cross between a German brewery (the malt syrup in the boiling water) and a really good bakery( all that flour and yeast). There was steam in the air from the boiling water and I was ready to give my bagels a bath. Boiling bagels is what gives them that smooth and shiny outside and this was the most time consuming part of making these bagels because they were so big, I could only boil two or three at a time.

According to our recipe, they should have sank to the bottom and floated up top. But mine all floated; not a single sinker. Floating bagels means a more bready bagel. Sinking bagels means the traditional dense and chewy bagel we were looking for from this challenge. Thankfully, I wasn't the only Daring Baker who had the same problem. The emails, IMs, and messages flying around our board all reported floating bagels. A few of us made second batches that included more kneading, less rising time, and other dough techniques, but even my second batch resulted in 12 floaters and two sinkers. After their bath, the bagels sit on a dish towel for a few minutes

(notice the shine?!)

And then they are transferred to a corn meal lined baking tray for topping!

Look at all those spices! (See Honey!! I really DO use all those spices!!! Now if I just had a way of knowing when I was almost out of one them...) On this tray is a Tandoori, poppy seed, Maui salt, onion, herb Provence, and Chinese Five Spice bagel. There were two more trays for a total of sixteen huge bagels.

Into a pre-heated 400 degree oven they went. The recipe called for them to bake for twenty-five minutes on one side and then flip them over for ten more minutes, but after about eighteen minutes mine were almost too done on one side and starting to get flat on the other. So, I flipped them and let them brown on the other side. Total baking time about twenty-five minutes. Out of the oven came my United Nations of funny shaped bagels.

So, how did the spices do?

The Tandoori, Mexican cinnamon, and African spice bagels didn't hold up their flavours very well after the baking. They were lovely smelling but, disappointingly, the spices got lost in the chew of the bagel. Plain, onion, and poppy seed were exactly as expected.

The hit of the flavours you ask? I liked the herb Provence and Maui salt topped ones the best; especially the Maui salt. It took on this lovely deep gray colour when it was baked and had this equally smoky taste. I ate it plain and with some smoked salmon. Yum!

Chinese Five Spice (as tested by Weedhopper) was another hit. I liked it too but I can't put my finger on why. The spice wasn't forward like with the herb Provence or Maui salted ones but had a pleasant taste and went really well with plain cream cheese.

Everyone at work who tried them agreed they were more bready than dense but still much better than anything they could have bought at most places. I work near NYC with a bunch of folks who live in NYC. You know, the home of bagels; so sinkers or floaters, I was pretty thrilled with that compliment let me tell you!

I definitely want to make these again and see if I can get some sinkers this time. But, before I do I'm going to Zabar's fish counter for the sturgeon!!

Yippee!! Another Daring Baker Challenge notched in my belt!

Now, YOU, go visit that scrolling side bar over there under the Daring Baker logo to see how the rest of the wrecking crew did on the Bagel challenge. If you want to find the recipe for these bagels visit our hostesses sites: All Things Edible and Writing At The Kitchen Table. And don't forget to bring the lox!!!

(Cue soundtrack: David Bowie - Shake It, roll closing credits)

p.s. You can listen to my bagel sound track, or at least snippets of it, by clicking on the song links. I actually own all this music and I did the batch of bagels featured in this post with Margo Leverett and The Klezmer Mountain Boys blasting on the stereo; the perfect mood music to make bagels.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Salad Stravaganza LALAland Style

A few weeks ago fellow food blogger, Daring Baker, good friend and surely one of the funniest ladies I know, Lisa from La Mia Cucina and Kelly of the wonderful Sass and Veracity, who is also a fellow Daring Baker and fast becoming a good friend, announced they were hosting a salad diet to end all salad diets food event to help all us Daring Bakers (and anyone else who wanted to join in) shed those unwanted pounds that snuck up on us all during the winter months and then were tackled by those additional pounds that making things like Red Velvet Cake, Crepe Cakes from Hell, and the seriously unreal (in the most fabulous way) Gateau St. Honore has put on top. Thus was born Salad Stravaganza.

I wasn't sure I was going to be able to participate in this event, even though it does fall in line with and may even help me kick start the 30/90 v2.0 plan that I'm about half way through. (Let's not talk about that right now,ok?) It has been a crazy month at work and the due date of June 25th was sneaking up on me quickly. But, on Wednesday night last week, I found a salad that just screamed "MAKE ME FOR SALAD STRAVAGANZA" and when a plate of veggies or fruit does that...well, who am I to disobey?

I was in Los Angeles last week for a business trip, a trade show for my industry actually. It was the first major event I've attended since I started the new gig in NYC and needless to say, I was excited to see colleagues and friends. I had a young consultant from our offices with me; which was fun since he is a rising star in the business and the type of person I like to mentor. I even had a Yoda moment half way through the first day, when it was taking us some serious time to walk from booth to booth because people I've know and worked with for over 15 years kept coming up congratulating me. Weedhopper asked if there was anybody in the industry who didn't know me about the time one of the heavy weights walked up gave me a bear hug, a slap on the back, and shook my hand all at the same time. "No Weedhopper...."

On Wednesday night after three days of being wined and dined, I took Weedhopper to LAX so he could catch a red-eye back to NYC (ah youth). Since we were in the neighborhood, I decided to treat him to a really nice dinner at a restaurant near LAX in Marina Del Rey that I always go to when I'm out in the Land of Plastic, Cafe Del Rey. I love this place because they have wonderful and inventive food and a wine list that always features some of the up and coming California vineyards. Even on Tuesday and Wednesday night you better have a reservation here. We settled ourselves at the bar since you can get the full menu served there and the bartenders are some of the nicest people you will meet. I ordered these wonderful braised duck spring rolls for an appetizer and Weedhopper ordered something that just didn't sound like it would be all that good, a Heirloom Brandywine Tomato and Watermelon Salad in a basil infused balsamic vineagar dressing. I mean this is tomato (acid) combined with something sweet (watermelon). Only in Lalaland would you find something this whacked on a menu parading as a salad. When his salad arrived, it was stunning. No, it was more than stunning. It was one of the most gorgeous salads I've ever seen. They sliced the tomatoes into thick slices and layered it with same sized slices of watermelon. Between the layers, there were whole leaves of basil. The dressing was poured over the top and drizzled down the side of the stack of tomato and watermelon. And the taste? I died and went to heaven. It was the best tomato salad I've had with the exception of the tomato and basil salad I had in Italy a few years ago.

So, when I got home on Thursday, I had one plan of action and that was to find a big huge heirloom tomato at the farmers market in Central Square or at Whole Foods on Fresh Pond and make this salad. On Friday, I biked to the Whole Foods and when I walked in, I found the tomato I was looking for in the form of a Marmande tomato.

Grabbing a really nice sized tomato and some watermelon, I biked home to pick some sun warmed basil from my garden and set about recreating the tomato watermelon salad I had fallen in love with in LA.

I started by dicing the tomato and watermelon into irregular chunks and slicing a handful of basil leaves. I tossed them with sea salt and pepper for seasoning and then drizzling a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the chunks of fruit (you remember, a tomato is a fruit right?). I then put the salad into the fridge for a few hours to allow the flavours to mingle.

And mingle they did. Look at all those shiny and tasty chunks of tomato and watermelon.

Ah, summer on a fork...

LaLaLand Tomato and Watermelon Salad
inspired by the Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad at Cafe Del Rey in Marina Del Rey, CA

Serves 2

1 large heirloom tomato (you want one with big flavour to match the watermelon), cut into chunks
1 1/2 cup seedless watermelon, cut into chunks
1 cup fresh basil, cut into thin slices
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, torn into small pieces
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

In a glass bowl or container with a lid, combine all the ingredients. Cover the salad and let sit in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight. Serve with crusty bread.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Serving Up a Side of Rebel in the Cradle of the Revolution

As you recall, last weekend was Birthday Weekend in our household and we headed to downtown Boston to partake of a good lobster dinner.

Recently, we've been rediscovering some of our favourite haunts in downtown Boston on Friday evenings as MBH is working in the financial district and my train from NYC gets in to Boston's South Station on at 3:30pm; making meeting for after work drinks and an early dinner perfect. One of the places we've "rediscovered" is the Green Dragon Tavern which is doubly special because not only is it the "Headquarters of the Revolution" and a darn fine Boston Pub but is where MBH and I first met seven years ago.

Both MBH and I are history and political junkies and the Green Dragon suits us like a well worn leather glove. The pub really and truly was the home of the American Revolution. Here is part of what they have printed on their place mats:

"The tavern has a rich history since it first opened in 1657. During the time of the American Revolution, The Green Dragon Tavern was a 'hotbed' meeting place for Boston Revolutionaries. It was deemed 'The Headquarters of the Revolution' by Sam Adams, Daniel Webster, and Paul Revere. The Sons of Liberty held meetings here and discussed plans for resistance to the acts of the British crown and Parliament."

The place mat continues to explain that it was at the Green Dragon that the plan to march on Concord and Lexington in April of 1775 and capture Sam Adams and John Hancock was overheard leading to Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott to make the famous "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere", immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem (Ironically, despite what Longfellow wrote and generations of American school children have learned, only Samuel Prescott actually got to warn the colonists; Paul Revere was captured just outside of Cambridge and William Dawes got captured, escaped, then lost in the dark). Later, the Green Dragon served as the first meeting places of other political groups like the North End Caulker's Club, from which we get the word "caucus" (at least according to the place mat). The original location of the Green Dragon was actually several blocks south of its present day location but was burned during the British retreat from Boston in late 1776. After the British occupation, the Green Dragon reopened and relocated several times before moving to its present day home on Marshall Street in the early 1800s.

Today, the Green Dragon is part of Somers Irish Pubs in Boston and is staffed with expat Irish bartenders and waiters. It is a warm and inviting place with dark wood paneling and a long bar. The menu is a typical Boston Irish pub menu with clam chowder, shepherd's pie, cottage pie, fish and chips, burgers, and steak tips as well as a traditional Irish breakfast on the weekend. But the one item that sets the Green Dragon apart from all the other pubs in Boston, besides a good selection of beers on draft, is its lobster special. For $14.95 you get a steamed chicken lobster (a lobster betwen one and one 1/4lb) served with corn on the cob, making it one of the best lobster deals in the city!

The only disappointing part of the meal was the Green Dragon recently removed Bass from their taps leaving MBH without his preferred libation. So, I used this as a chance to introduce him to Smithwick's Irish Ale. Even with this small disappointment, the meal was exactly what we wanted for a birthday celebration .

The Green Dragon
11 Marshall Street
Boston, MA
(617) 367 0055

Hours: 11am - 2am daily


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Eating Our Neighborhood: Deluxe Town Diner

This is the first post of a new series I'm calling "Eating Our Neighborhood", in which I'll explore the restaurants and food shops within walking distance of our house.

MBH and I technically live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, if you walk across our backyard, you are in Belmont and if you walk across the street to catch the bus, you are in Watertown. It is a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that is filled with the typical Boston/Cambridge triple deckers (click on the "triple decker" link, the pictures of the triple deckers are all in Cambridge). Our neighbors across the street are Italian and our next door neighbors are Greek; both houses with three generations living under the same roof. Our other next door neighbors are a young couple, but his family, who live in Watertown, are Armenian. Further down the street we have a second generation Irish family (two generations live together) and a refugee family from Somalia. The rest of the street is made up of a few couples of our age, an elderly gentleman who everyone watches out for and the newest neighborhood addition, a young family from Western Pennsylvania with three tow-headed toddlers.

One of the biggest reasons I love our neighborhood is its restaurants. Watertown is home to the third largest Armenian community in the US as well as a large Irish, Italian and Greek community. Within walking distance of our house is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the greater Boston area, three pubs, at least three pizza joints, two of the best Middle Eastern bakeries in New England as well as Iggy's Bread, numerous Middle Eastern and Greek Restaurants, a steak and chop house ripped right from the 1960s, and my favourite place in Boston for breakfast, The Deluxe Town Diner.

The Deluxe Town Diner is a classic New England diner complete with chrome fittings, a long counter with stools, glass pie and cake cabinets, daily blueplate specials, and an endless cup of hot steaming, strong coffee served in thick mugs.

MBH and I like to go to breakfast there about once a month. Ok, I like to go to breakfast there more than once a month and drag MBH with me at least once a month. You can get breakfast any time of the day and the all day breakfast menu items include all the usual suspects like two eggs any style, home fries, toast and coffee; omlettes made to order, and MBH's favourite steak and eggs.

The waitress barely has a chance to set the plate on the table completely before MBH scarfs down his eggs and devours the steak (thus the blurry picture, I had to take this fast or there wouldn't have been anything to take a picture of!)

I, on the other hand, linger over what have to be the best blueberry pancakes on Earth!

They are huge, fluffy, golden brown, melt in your mouth buttermilk pancakes exploding with blueberries and served with a huge dollop of butter. These pancakes have a tang to them that I can't describe with justice and would you take a look at all these blueberries!!

There are almost more blueberries than pancake! Along with my pancakes, I always get a side order of applewood smoked bacon. It is thick cut and very heavy on the meat light on the fat, just the way I like it. Sometimes I get a small glass of OJ as well.

The only thing MBH and I aren't fond of at the Deluxe Town Diner are the home fries. They serve the type of home fries you find all over New England, chunks of potatoes with the skin left on with seasoning salt and paprika sprinkled on them and then they are cooked on the grill with onion (sometimes). We are both shredded hashbrown people so we typically ask for them to "hold the home fries"; which they are happy to do.

The Deluxe Town Diner serves lunch and dinner as well and the menu is really well thought out with both diner food, some Middle East dishes, and even some vegetarian and vegan dishes. We've had good steak, pork chops, stuffed bell peppers, and burgers. Our out of town guests we've taken to the Deluxe Town Diner have enjoyed the meat loaf, mashed potatoes and chocolate milk. That said, I think breakfast is our favourite meal to have at the Deluxe Town Diner, home of the best blueberry pancakes in the world or our neighborhood at least...

Deluxe Town Diner
627 Mount Auburn Street
Watertown, MA

Hours: 7am - 10pm daily

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Big Four-Oh, the New and Improved Thirty

This weekend is birthday weekend around our household. MBH and I celebrate our birthdays within ten days of each other. MBH turned 44 last week, unfortunately it wasn't the usually joyous occasion as he was home in Tennessee to attend his father's funeral. This weekend, I cross another decade milestone and turn 40. So, we are going to have a joint birthday weekend that includes a trek to downtown Boston's mammoth Borders store and treat ourselves to a book we each really want (Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets book is mine!), dimsum in Chinatown or twin lobsters at The Green Dragon (we haven't decided yet, maybe we'll do both!), and then a leisurely stroll around a few of our favourite neighborhoods with a stop at Deluca's Market on Charles St. to pick up some wonderful cheeses to go with the rather indulgent and very expensive bottle of Bordeaux I bought to celebrate. Later, there may even be some type of decedent dessert involved. Who knows and that is part of the fun.

Last year, when I turned 39, I decided I wasn't going to be one of those people who struggle with the turn to 40. After all, according to all that we read, see, and are marketed, forty is the new thirty. Maybe and maybe not.

When I turned thirty my knees, ankles, and back didn't hurt in the morning when I first climbed out of bed and again when I get back in at night. When I turned thirty, I wasn't worried about my cholestrol, blood sugar, or for that matter that the bavarian creme filled puff pastry dessert I was making would put four extra unwanted pounds directly on my hips that would take six months to come off. When I turned thirty I didn't hate every article of clothing I owned and if I did I could actually find clothes I liked in the store (Thank you JJ Jill and Talbots dot com). When I was thirty I didn't just trip and fall while walking on dry ground or run into things like a gigantic pinball (OK, maybe I did but I did it much more gracefully than I do now). I completely grooved on my thirties.

Before you think I'm not looking at the bonus involved with turning forty and not looking at the good things that age brings, you'd be wrong. I am looking forward to discovering the new and exciting things in my life that this decade will bring.

One of the positive things I've already discovered about the "new thirty" is I can now buy those really funky little glasses I've always admired at the optometrist office but my younger self had never been brave enough to buy... because I now need reading glasses.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Presto Pasta Night: The Sweeter Side Of Pasta

Where did summer go??!! After a week of almost record high temperatures and late afternoon thunderstorms, fall has returned to New England. I've woke up in Fairfield the last two mornings to a very chilly fourty-five degrees and lots of dew and fog. I've even pulled the blanket back out and tossed it on the bed at night. Of course, with the chill in the air it has put me in the mood for warm and creamy bread and rice puddings.

As I didn't bake any bread to bring back to Fairfield with me last week, I didn't have any to make bread pudding. I also don't have a good way while I'm in Connecticut to make rice as it takes too long to do in the microwave and while the pre-cooked rice pouches are fine for savory dishes, they are too salty to make good rice pudding. Yes, I could buy a container of rice pudding from the store but I really hate the taste and texture of the deli rice pudding. Reminds me of elementary school cafeteria pudding...enough said. So, last night, looking for a way to satisfy my craving for a bread pudding and clean out my tiny fridge at the same time, I decided to see if the little bit of leftover fresh fettuccini I had uncovered would make a satisfying sweet pudding.

I had read in a few books on Italian cooking that pasta could be used in sweet desserts. Most often these dessert pastas appeared to be torta type dishes of a large flat noodle layers with fruits, mascarpone cheese, and cream. So, not finding any recipe online to use as a guide, I decided to approach this from a microwave pudding direction. Puddings are some of the easiest dessert recipes to make from scratch in the microwave. A little whole milk, cornstarch, and semi-sweet chocolate chips stirred together and zapped for about 3 - 4 minutes results in a creamy, almost stove top cooked pudding.

Since I was going to make an Italian influenced pudding and I had discovered a small bag of chopped hazelnuts I use to top salads and the container of instant hazelnut flavoured coffee in my pantry, I decided that a coffee and hazelnut flavoured pudding was in order. I started by preparing 2 cups of instant hazelnut coffee to which I added 2 Tbsp of sugar. I then added the fettuccini and let it soak for 10 minutes to infuse the coffee and hazelnut flavour.

I then brought the coffee and pasta mixture to a boil in the microwave, let the pasta sit for another 4 minutes and drained, reserving about 1/8 of a cup of the coffee. Tasting the pasta, it was almost perfectly Al Dente and had a delightful coffee flavour. I combined the pasta, the reserved coffee with 1 cup of light cream, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 Tbsp of corn starch, 1/2 tsp of vanilla and the hazelnuts in a 1 quart microwave dish.

I cooked it on high for about 3 minutes, stirred, and then cooked it on 50% power for 4-6 minutes until it had thickened and topped it with some whipped cream.

The pasta pudding was the consistency of a really good fettuccini alfredo but with the taste of tiramisu. And while it wasn't the prettiest of desserts, it was quite tasty and definitely satisfying...

Tiramisu Pasta Pudding

Makes 2 Servings

1 cup fresh pasta (a wide noodle like fettuccini will work best)
2 cups prepared hazelnut flavoured instant coffee
2 Tbsp of sugar
1 cup whole milk or light cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp of corn starch
1/2 tsp of vanilla
1/8 cup chopped hazelnuts

Prepare the instant coffee per the directions on the container to make 2 cups. Stir in 2 Tbsp sugar and add the fresh pasta. Let soak for 10 minutes or until the pasta take on a very dark brown colour. Heat the pasta and coffee to boiling in the microwave and let sit for 4 - 6 minutes until the pasta is almost Al Dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/8 cup coffee. In a 1 quart microwave safe dish combine remaining ingredients and the reserved coffee and stir. Add pasta. Heat on high, uncovered in the microwave for 3-4 minutes until the mixture starts to thicken. Stir and heat for 4 - 6 minutes on 50% power until the sauce completely thickens, stirring as needed. Remove for the microwave, let stand for 1 - 2 minutes to cool down and finish thickening. Top with a large dollop of whipped cream and sprinkling of cocoa powder if desired.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My Last MeMe: 7 Random Things About Me

I had sworn off meme's and wasn't going to do them anymore, but then Sara of I Like To Cook and one of my best blogging friends (and fellow Daring Baker), tagged me for "Seven Random Things". If it had been anyone but Sara, I would have thanked them but declined to participate. But, since it is Sara who tagged me, I'll participate in this one last meme.

So, here are seven random things you probably didn't know about me:

1. I was a Girl Scout troop leader for six years for the same group of girls from when they were Brownies to when they became Cadets and I don't have kids. I was the troop's "Cookie Mom" four times.

2. I have canoed in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota four times and once canoed 24 miles in one day.

3. I have hiked at least five miles on every major trail system on the East Coast but can't ride a bike more than three miles on Nantucket.

4. I have been to three Olympics (one Winter, two Summer), two Super Bowls, three NHL Championship finals, three Final Four games, two Kentucky Derbys, one Daytona 500, one Indianapolis 500 and four US Figure Skating Championships but not as an athlete and not as a spectator and I don't like sports.

5. I hate the feel of cotton balls or fuzzy cotton anything on my skin. It produces the same shivers as most people get when someone drags fingernails on chalkboards. Did I just date myself? Does anyone under 30 know what a chalkboard is?

6. I have a very large collection of turn of the 20th Century romance novels that I collect for the elegant and elaborate bindings and covers.

7. I once ate rattlesnake and it didn't taste like chicken (more like stringy pork) and Rocky Mountain oysters and they were disgusting.

Now for a recipe of something NOT disgusting:

Michigan Ranger Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen or so cookies (depending on how much dough you eat)

1 cup butter or shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs, beaten
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
1 cup dried Michigan cherries
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup butterscotch chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Cream together the butter and sugars. Blend in the eggs. Into a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and baking powder then add to the creamed mixture, blending well. Mix in the vanilla; stir in the rolled oats, cherries, coconut, chocolat and butterscotch chips and walnuts. Form mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or the whole cookie is golden brown for a crisp cookie. For a chewy cookie bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until edges are golden brown and middles of cookies are firm.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Bit of the New England Shore Between Two Buns

A few weeks ago, Freya and Paul the extraordinary minds behind Writing at the Kitchen Table announced they were on the search for the best burger ever. Well, let me rephrase that sentence, Paul was on the search for the best burger ever and Freya, like a good and supportive partner, was humouring him. So, the Big Burger Ballyhoo 2007 was born. Unfortunately, with all the craziness of the past month, I didn't get my entry submitted in time. But, not wanting Paul (and Freya) to miss out on what could have been the best burger ever, I present to you the New England Clam Bake Burger.

There is nothing like a real New England Clam Bake, where a large pit is dug in the sand near the ocean but far enough up the beach that the tide won't wash into the pit. The pit is then filled with large rocks and drift wood and the drift wood is then burned to heat up the rocks. When the drift wood has coaled, rock seaweed is collected and placed on top of the hot rocks and coals to create steam. On top of the seaweed, potatoes, onions and husk wrapped, salt water soaked ears of corn are placed. Then Quahog and Steamer (Cherrystone) clams and lobsters are placed on top of the vegetables. Sometimes, people will add mussels, scallops, quarter chickens and Linguica to the mix. All this is followed by another layer of seaweed and a wet canvas tarp with an onion or potato on top. This is then covered by a layer of sand to keep the heat in and marked with a stick or something so you don't lose it. Then you go play in the water, play a game of beach volleyball or badminton or lie around drinking beer for about four hours, checking occasionally when you are on the way to the beer cooler to see if the top onion or potato is cooked through. When it is, you uncover all the food and serve it with melted butter and lots of napkins. Yum!!!

The New England Clam Bake Burger is a mixture of scallop and steamed clam and lobster meat combined with a bit of french bread, Dijon mustard, egg, and chopped onion and green pepper to form a patty.

The burger is then seared in a pan and finished under the broiler for 3-5 minutes to make sure the scallops and egg are cooked throughly. Serve it on a melted butter drizzled big bun like you find at the good Portuguese bakeries in Fall River or New Bedford along with grilled summer vegetables and an ear of corn. There you have it a New England Clam Bake Burger.

New England Clam Bake Burger

Makes 4 big patties

1/3lb sea scallops
1/3 lb steamed Quahog or Cherrystone clam meat
1/3 lb steamed lobster claws
1/2 cup day old French bread crumbs
1 large egg
1 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
1/8 cup chopped onion
1/8 cup chopped green pepper
2 Tbsp milk or heavy cream
1/8 tsp pepper
dash salt

Chop seafood into tiny chunks, but not finely. Put in large bowl and add rest of ingredients. Using your fingers, combine the ingredients, making tiny test patties to see how the burger holds together. If too moist, add a bit more bread crumbs. If too dry, add a bit more milk or cream. When mixture holds a good patty form, sear in a non stick or cooking spray coated frying pan. Make sure each side has a nice toasted brown coating, about 3 minutes each side. Finish under a broiler for 3 - 5 minutes or until burger is cooked through.

Serve on a toasted bun drizzled with melted butter.