Saturday, November 28, 2009

Presto Pesto

The other day, I finally made something worth writing about: pesto. Pesto and I have a history. I didn't really know what it was, and was therefore mostly afraid of it until after I was married. I had it a couple times without feeling too strongly about it until August 2007. I had just found out I was pregnant, and it was the day I graduated from college, and my old roommate Alexandra was in town and having a dinner party for some close friends. She made this fabulous asparagus with orange zest dish and had piles of grapes and cheese (but I didn't eat any brie because I didn't know if I could in my condition). And she also made pesto. And the pesto was so incredibly amazing. I was truly and deeply inspired. I copied down her recipe and made it several times, even taking the recipe to a dinner group the following winter.
The whole school year I was pregnant with Bria, Sam and I would have international cuisine themed dinners with a group of my old school friends. We started with Indian and made our way through Thai, Mediterranean, French, Swiss, and Italian. We would get together in the evening and cook for hours and hours and then eat for hours and hours. And Amanda would always do the dishes. (Thanks for that, Amanda; I hate doing the dishes.) Those nights are wrapped in this magical, nostalgic, warm and shiny place in my memory-- I think they kept me sane that year as I was uncomfortably pregnant and working an awful, brain-deadening job.
So for Italian night we made homemade pasta to be accompanied by three sauces: a basic alfredo, Matt's secret-recipe marinara, and the pesto. Everything was so delightful and perfect and fattening and filling and mouth-watering. Except the pesto. Oy! The Pesto! The greatest misfortune of all time is that someone (no naming names!) made the pesto with 1 tablespoon of salt instead of 1/2 teaspoon. And there was no more basil or pine nuts or parmesan to hide the salty horridness of it all. I think a little part of all those present died that night.
And, interestingly enough, I have never been able to find that exact recipe since. I honestly have no idea where it ran off to, but I've just improvised my pesto ever since. Sometimes it's super spicy, sometimes it's very cheesy. But it is never, ever too salty. When I made it the other day, I decided to measure it out as I went along so I could share it. The way it turned out this time was rather thick. I really like it that way, because when you add it to the pasta, the residual pasta water and the heat of the pasta loosen it up, and it's so beautiful to stir it all together. But if you want a more thin sauce, just add more oil until it reaches your desired consistency.
It is incredibly easy and quick to make, which makes for a cinch of a dinner. You can even make it ahead of time and just pull it out when you make the pasta. It will become firm in the fridge, but will loosen up with the heat of the pasta. If I make this for dinner, I find I often need more than just pasta and pesto. I added bacon this time, and I was so pleasantly surprised by the results. It adds this rich flavor that is so different from the pasta; it really adds to the depth of the dish. And the crunch from the bacon just makes it more interesting and makes you feel like your getting a whole lot more with each bite. I definitely recommend topping your pesto with bacon, pine nuts and parmesan for a truly delicious meal.

1 c packed basil
2 cloves garlic
1 c parmesan cheese
2 small pinches salt
1/2 c pine nuts (lightly toasting these beforehand is a great idea)
3/4 c extra virgin olive oil
1 T pasta water

Place basil, garlic, parmesan, salt, and pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend until the mixture forms into a thick paste. Slowly stream in oil while continuing to process until the pesto reaches the desired consistency. Add the pasta water last and blend to mix in.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Carbo Loading

I think I have something to make up for my lack of posts.

Homemade bread.

Yes? Yes.
I love the idea of bread-baking christening a new home, and I've kind of been putting off the bread-baking until I was ready to call this new apartment home. And it was finally time. I unpacked the third-to-last box the other day (those last two-- I don't know when that will happen. Later, for sure) and so things are feeling more real here. (mostly because there is finally room to walk around in our bedroom. maybe only four inches to walk in, but it's walking space nonetheless.) Anyway, I find the whole bread-baking equals home-making thing terribly romantic. And since I thought it was about time to make this place feel more like home, I finally did it. The recipe I have for homemade bread has been passed down for generations in my family, but . . . I don't really like it. (Gasp! Multiple female ancestors are turning in their graves.) It's too crumbly. So, it's fantastic and wonderful when it's fresh from the oven or if you toast it, but once it's cooled and sliced, it just becomes this crumbly mess. I need bread that can function for all my bread needs. So, I went searching.
Everything I found on the internet was geared towards bread machines. I'm sure I could adapt any bread machine recipe to suit my needs, but I didn't want my work to go into recipe adaptation. So, I pulled out a cookbook I got for my wedding (from Annie's family, actually). Lo and behold! A bread recipe that didn't require a bread machine. So I decided to give it a whirl.
The results were fantastic. The bread was firm and hearty without being dry or stiff. The flavor was light and fresh, with that wonderfully homey and chewy quality. It was delightful for plain old bread (for which I suggest you slice thinly), and it was even more delicious for toast, which I spread with peanut butter and eat every morning for breakfast.
After the first two loaves, I decided I wanted something a little meatier, so I updated the recipe a little to create a honey oat loaf (as opposed to the original plain white). I made this last night and ate this toast for breakfast. I am in love with this loaf. It feels healthier and heartier. I love the substance the oat flour adds to the bread. I'm excited to continue working on this recipe, but here it is for the time being. (P.S. All the pictures are from the white bread, not this honey oat loaf, which looks much more lovely.)

Honey Oat Bread
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook Bridal Edition

6 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 oat flour (made by grinding raw old-fashioned oats in your food processor to a fine meal)
1 package active dry yeast (about 1 T)
2 1/4 c whole milk (I'm sure skim a fine substitute, but why not use whole when you can?)
2 T honey
1 butter
1 1/2 t salt

In the bowl of your mixer (with dough hooks attached), Combine 3/4 c oat flour, 1 3/4 c flour, and yeast.
In a medium saucepan, combine milk, honey, butter, and salt. Heat on med-low until warm and the butter nearly melts. In fact, I just noticed that the butter is supposed to nearly melt. I've completely melted it every other time, and it's been just fine. But not melting it completely would certainly save some time. Also, you don't want the milk mixture to be hot, as that would kill the yeast. It should be warm, but not hot, so let it cool a touch if you melt the butter completely.
Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and mix on low for about a minute, stopping in the middle to scrape the sides. Once it's completely incorporated, mix on medium or high for about 3 minutes. Return the mixer to low and start adding the flour gradually. Add as much flour as you can to create a moderately stiff dough. This usually means adding flour just until the dough pulls clean from the sides of the mixing bowl. Don't add too quickly-- you can always add more flour later if you realize it's too wet. Once all the flour is incorporated, turn the mixer to high and knead for 6-8 minutes. In my mom's words, you want to mix the heck out of it.
Kneading is an important process in bread-making because it allows the flours to release their glutens, which is what makes bread bread. It gives bread the right texture and allows it to rise properly. It's nearly impossible to knead the bread too much at this point, so just go to town. You know you're finished when the dough has a smooth, elastic texture. This is much easier to tell by hand, I find. So once I think it's ready, I remove the dough from the mixer and feel it. The dough should stretch without breaking and should feel smooth over the surface, without sticking to your hand. If it's not quite right, knead it with your hands for a couple more minutes. Once the dough has the right texture, form the dough into a ball shape and place it in a lightly greased bowl.
Cover and let it rise in a warm place until double in size (about one hour).

Once dough is double in size, punch the dough down with a single blow of the fist. Use your fingers to pull the edges to the center then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two equal parts, then cover and let it rest for ten minutes. At this point, you don't want to work the dough too much or it will become tough. Meanwhile, grease two bread pans. After the dough has rested, shape each dough half into a loaf shape, gently tucking and pinching into the desire shape. Place the loaves into their pans, cover, and let rise a second time in a warm place until double in size (about 40 minutes).

Bake the bread in a 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes. When it is done, the bread will sound hollow if you lightly tap the top. My bread took about 38 minutes, so don't be afraid to check it early. Immediately remove the bread from their pans and cool on a wire rack.
Be sure to eat at least one slice while it's still warm. I like mine best spread with unsalted butter and honey.

You can make the bread completely by hand or using a mixer. I've adapted the recipe to be made in my Bosch. I think making bread can seem really daunting, and as I typed this out, I realized that it is a very long and detailed and involved process. But, it's not difficult. I think the work is well worth it. Warm bread fresh from the oven is one of the most delicious and comforting things in the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Do It. Do It Now.

I've been away forever, I know. And I'm planning some really great posts, I promise. But until then, head over to The Wednesday Chef and try this recipe. Seriously. It is every bit as delicious as she says. (I'm not joking. I'm eating it right now and simultaneously dying of joy.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Salad for Salad-Haters

First of all, I am not really into salads. They are often boring, they are rarely filling, and wilty lettuce gives me the creeps. So, for the most part, I steer clear of salads. But my mom made this salad just before I moved, and I have been craving it ever since, so I made it for Sam last week-- and then ate it for several days in a row and shared it with some extended family. A couple times I found Bria standing with the fridge door open eating out of the salad bowl (including popping green onion in her mouth and chewing with delight), and every time I ate it, she perched down next to me and helped herself to everything in my plate, use her little fingers like tongs to pick out what she wanted to eat (usually the lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers)
The recipe comes from my Aunt Karen, and I have no idea where she got it. But I love the complexity of this dish. The wild rice adds such an awesome texture, depth, and flavor, it feels like this salad is a real meal. And the flavors aren't strictly lettuce and dressing-- the rice helps here too-- but all of the other vegetables blend so well together, it feels like a masterpiece in your mouth. And, despite never being a lover of salad, I have always been a lover of French dressing, so there you go. I give you Southwest Wild Rice and Black Bean Salad, adapted from Aunt Karen:

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 heads romaine lettuce, chopped into salad-sized pieces
1 bunch green onions
1 cucumber
10ish grape tomatoes
1 avacado
1-2 c cheddar cheese, shredded (or colby jack)
1-2 c blue corn tortilla chips, lightly crushed
1 rounded c wild rice (cooked)
1/2 t chili powder
1/2 t cumin
1/2 t cayenne
1/2 t garlic powder
French dressing (I like the creamy French)

In a small bowl, combine the wild rice with the spices. In a large serving bowl, combine other ingredients. Then, devour! This serves a TON, so if it's just for a couple people, either scale it back or enjoy the leftovers. If you do keep it, don't dress the salad, just add the dressing to each part as you eat it. Also know that the chips will lose their crunch and become more like bits of tortilla rather than tortilla chip. I didn't mind this, but it bothered Sam. The original recipe calls for one head of romaine and one head of red leaf lettuce as well as 2 cups of shredded pepper jack cheese and 1 c cheddar cheese. Both of my substitutions came from what I already had in my fridge and didn't feel like making a trip to the grocery store for. I'm sure following either method would turn out equally delicious.