Friday, November 30, 2007

Basic Tomato Sauce

Making tomato sauce from scratch is almost as easy as boiling water, and we think it tastes better than anything you can buy in a jar. It's surprisingly economical, too.

Hot cocoa aside (made with Chocolate Malt Ovaltine, which I still love), this tomato sauce was the first thing I cooked entirely on my own from start to finish. I was 7 years old, or thereabouts, when I discovered the recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan, and my wonderfully patient, indulgent mom ate many, "I want to cook tonight!" pasta-and-sauce suppers once I learned to make it reasonably well.

I must point out here that I absolutely, positively love Marcella Hazan. When I was a child, she made me feel completely at ease in the kitchen; as an adult, I've learned to rely on her for recipes which actually work (if you've had seemingly manageable recipes fail miserably, you'll know how comforting this is) and taste fabulous each and every time.

I still make this sauce, though L has mostly taken over the process, and we've made a few small changes along the way. To make things easier, and because the quality of fresh tomatoes can vary wildly, we take Marcella's advice and rely on San Marzano canned tomatoes, which are reliably consistent in taste and texture.

If you're making the sauce for pasta, toss pasta and sauce in a warm bowl as soon as the pasta is done. If you're making this sauce for pizza, spread a thin layer over the dough and top as you like. Of course, you can also use this in any recipe that calls for tomato sauce. For a change of pace, stir in a few tablespoons of chopped basil leaves for a bright, fresh taste that's fabulous on pizza, or add 1/4 cup heavy cream for a decadent sauce that is especially good over stuffed pasta. Add these additional ingredients as soon as you take the finished sauce off the heat.

Once you've tried it, it will come as no surprise that this has always been one of my very favourite recipes.

Basic Tomato Sauce
Adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
2 medium yellow onions, sliced or chopped as you wish*
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste (this will depend on the saltiness of your tomatoes)
Pinch of sugar**

Pour tomatoes, onions, and sugar into a nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover the pot and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the onions are soft (usually 40-45 minutes).

Uncover the sauce and stir in the butter or olive oil. Taste and correct for salt, then simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes. Use as you wish.

* If you want to keep the onions in the sauce, finely dice or roughly chop them. If you prefer to discard them (per the original recipe), cut the whole onions into halves, simmer them in the sauce, and remove when the sauce is done.

** Thank you, Lesha!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions + Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, it seems that my plans for posting Thanksgiving recipes were soundly thwarted by this nasty cold, which seems to be lingering far longer than winter sickness usually does. It's going away veeerrry slowly and so far is keeping me from getting a good night's rest, which means that I'm having trouble thinking coherently about cooking and parties and holiday fun.

This week, my thoughts have been more along the lines of, "why can't I sleep... I really just want to sleep... must blow nose again... owch, nose is so raw... why can't we have nicer tissues at work... how many more mugs of tea and soup can I handle before I break down and go searching for some really good French fries... milkshakes are good for sore throats, right?... urg, brain hurts, must lie down..."

The good news is that we hard our first lovely, gently swirling snowfall of the season a few days ago, which lifted my spirits considerably, despite the fact that the snowflakes didn't actually stick to anything!

I can, however, manage to post one recipe that I love to make during the holidays: baked brie with caramelized onions. It's a perfectly balanced, velvety mix of warm, creamy brie and savoury-sweet, intensely flavoured onions. Without fail, it gets rave reviews; everyone always wants the recipe, and whenever we ask what to bring to the next party, the answer always seems to be, "the baked brie!"

We'll bring the baked brie to the feast at L's parents' house, along with some fabulous olives from Provence that may or may not be made into tapenade tomorrow morning. We usually try to bring more dishes to share, but since we're both sick and brain dead, I'm glad that we made it this far, and I'm especially thankful that we both have Friday off from work!

Clearly, I didn't create this recipe, though as always I tweak it a bit. I use a little less than one 750 ml bottle of white wine, adding it in 1/2 cup increments to deglaze every 10 minutes or so. I go through this cycle a few times, at least, while the onions get darker and more fragrant. I also cook the onions at medium heat for 45 minutes to an hour, until they are soft, salty-sweet, caramel-brown and and wonderfully sticky. In any case, you can't go wrong by following the recipe to the letter, either- this will still be one of the best appetizers you'll ever eat.

Next year, barring any similarly nasty colds, I'll have more recipes to post. This year, I wish everyone happiness, good food, long walks and warm company. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving Planning

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted anything! Work has been particularly exhausting, daylight hours are short (I need to learn more about indoor photography pronto!), and it's dark and stormy out at least once a week. On top of all that, L and I are both at home today with rain spattering hard against the windows, steaming mugs of tea (Plantation Mint for him, Twinings Prince of Wales for me), a very warm and snuggly pup, and some kind of nasty flu. Clearly, life is trying to kick my ass right now.

The good news is that quiet days like this inspire me to get ready for upcoming holidays! With that in mind, I've spent some time this month poking through a few reliable sources for Thanksgiving inspiration.

The New York Times has an entire food section devoted to Thanksgiving dining. If you haven't already, I recommend taking a minute to sign up for login privileges- it's free, the Dining and Wine section is often a good read, and they don't fill up your inbox with annoying messages. This week's Thanksgiving articles are at best insightful and inspiring (mashed potatoes aren't as complicated as some people like to think and save-the-day vegetarian entrees- see column on the right for recipes), and at worst interesting breakfast reading (As Six Turkeys Tussle for a Title, Degrees Challenge Pedigrees).

As always, the Epicurious Complete Thanksgiving Guide and the Food Network's Thanksgiving section are both great resources, especially if you have time to read recipe reviews, though I don't recommend bothering with the "I substituted grapefruit juice for the wine, collard greens for the turkey, peppermint extract for the herbs and baking soda for the shallots, and it came out awful. This recipe is terrible" type reviews. As you might imagine, they're not terribly helpful, though I'll admit that they are often highly amusing!

And of course, the usual blogging suspects have started posting holiday recipes left and right (don't vegan pumpkin whoopie pies sound good?). I'd bet good money that they've been tested and retested, tried out on friends and critiqued in comments sections by devoted readers, so you know they'll be stars at your Thanksgiving (and/or holiday) table!

If you're interested in learning about how Thanksgiving celebrations have evolved, I recommend reading Giving Thanks by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra L. Oliver. Kathleen Curtin is the resident food historian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts (what a cool job, eh?!) , and the book profiles the recipes and history of Thanksgiving from the first celebration to present day traditions.

I'll be narrowing down my list of recipes and making grocery lists soon, and I'm sure that at least some of you will be doing the same. I'll try to post some of my own recipe suggestions and reviews soon!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Peanut Butter Dog Cookies

Some of you, or perhaps many of you, will remember the pet food scare the US experienced over the summer. The Science Diet and Evo foods that we give our pup Argos never appeared on the recall list, for which we were grateful and relieved. Even though our household was lucky enough to make it through the summer without incident, since then we've been extra careful about everything we give him.

I've made special-occasion meals for Argos before*, but for some reason, I'd never made everyday treats for him until last Sunday evening. We'd run out of his usual Science Diet biscuits without realizing it, and neither of us had the energy to run out for more. We had a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, which is odd, because L and I generally loathe peanut butter (our friend I's peanut butter cookies being the delicious exception). In any case, I realised that homemade dog treats would be a good way to simultaneously please us by using up the peanut butter, and thrill Argos by giving it all to him!

I found a few recipes online, but didn't love the sound of anything in particular, so I experimented with a few different recipes until I hit on a combination that satisfied all three of us. Yep, for the sake of learning something about experimental baking, L and I suffered through enough peanut butter to taste each batch between tweakings! Since our dog will eat, literally, just about anything- large chunks of wasabi and ice cubes included- I wanted to be sure that we turned out something more than a dry, faintly-flavoured cracker.

If you can turn on your oven, you can make these. I'm not always great with doughs that require a rolling pin, though for the first time in my life I seem to be improving on that front, which is why I haven't yet gotten around to buying cookie cutters. However, if I can make these, so can you. I used a small cordial glass to cut these out, and it worked beautifully; if you have a larger dog, you can certainly use a bigger glass or cookie cutter.

L's mom makes dog biscuits for Argos all the time, and he absolutely loves them. I don't know why we didn't try this earlier- they're very easy to make, surprisingly economical, dogs love peanut butter, and it's comforting that I can control exactly what goes into the pup's treats. These cookies have a fairly moist crumb, too, so if you have a small dog, you can easily break them apart for training purposes.

Argos' Peanut Butter Cookies
makes appx. 150 (1-inch) treats

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup natural
chunky peanut butter
2 large eggs
1/2 cup skim milk or chicken broth

1 large egg, beaten well (for egg wash)

Preheat your oven to 375'F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a standing mixer or large bowl, beat two eggs and peanut butter until well mixed. Add milk or broth and beat for 30 seconds.

In another bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. With mixer running or while stirring, add flour and baking powder mixture to wet ingredients in 1/2 cup increments until well incorporated.

On floured surface, turn out the dough. Roll out to 1/4" thick. Cut out using cookie cutters or a sturdy drinking glass.
Place on baking sheets and brush with egg wash.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Place on racks to cool, then store in airtight containers.

These can spoil quickly, so it's a good idea to keep most of them in the freezer, taking out handfuls (or bowlfuls) to thaw as you need them.

* Since proper dog nutrition is a tricky business, I would not recommend switching your dog to a fully-homemade diet until you've consulted a canine nutritionist and/or other trusted sources.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clothilde Dusoulier's Carbonades Flamandes/Flemish Carbonades

When you have invited company over for a meal, the weather is crisp and cool, and you don't want to be running around like a crazy person the day of the party, repeat after me: braises are your friends.

Braises, which tenderize meat through slow, gentle cooking in liquid, call for inexpensive and flavourful cuts of meat, are really hard to screw up (no fiddly timing or techniques), provide vegetables, protein and luscious sauce all in one pot, improve overnight, and please everyone at the table.

An earlier date in October marked L's parents' 35th wedding anniversary, so of course we invited them over for a celebratory dinner. Deciding what to make for a dinner like this inevitably leads me to internal struggle... do I go with something safe and perhaps a bit ordinary, or gamble on something new and both potentially fabulous and potentially a disastrous failure?

Thankfully, I found a solution. After flipping through a few cookbooks, I settled on Clotilde Dusoulier's recipe for
Carbonades Flamandes/Flemish Carbonades for the main course (you can read an interesting history of carbonades at her blog, Chocolate & Zucchini). We all love its southern cousin, boeuf bourguignon, and braises are very easy to tweak and equally tough to ruin, so I thought that this, with cups and cups of caramelized onions and Belgian amber ale, was a perfect fall version of sorts.

When we bought the stew beef, we purchased chuck blade steaks and asked the butcher to cut them into stewing cubes, to make sure that the meat we would be eating had stayed as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Since I very firmly believe that braises taste even better the day after they're made, I made the carbonades the night before, and I'm surprised that we didn't devour the entire contents of the pot that evening! For three hours, divine smells swirled through the house, the dog sniffed hopefully with his nose high in the air*, and every few minutes I found myself wanting yet another taste- strictly for testing purposes, of course.

Carbonades is traditionally served with pommes frites, so to save time and sanity, I served it with crispy oven-roasted potatoes, which turned out to be an equally delicious complement. Alongside roasted root vegetables (can you tell I was in a roasting mood?!), an arugula, walnut and blue cheese salad, an assortment of Belgian ales and raspberry lambic to drink, and a caramel apple cake for dessert, we had a fabulous, satisfying autumn meal.

One of the best aspects of this party was that we were able to do the vegetable prep, carbonades cooking and cake baking the day before, giving me the chance to spend time with everyone and actually enjoy the day of the meal!

The carbonades itself turned out spectacular- the meat was so tender that we hardly needed knives, the sauce was unctuous and velvety, and everyone had seconds. A few of us even had thirds! I'm always thrilled to find recipes that turn out so scrumptious on the first try- thank you, Clothilde!

* For the record, the pup really, really liked this dish... not that we gave him a small bowlful or anything.