Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pappardelle al Ragù

As promised, here is the second Rome-inspired post (and right in the nick of time since Passover starts tomorrow night and it's bye-bye pasta).  While I've made pasta from scratch multiple times, and even some marinara, this was my first ragù.  Considering that the ragù alla lepre (rabbit) on pappardelle was the absolute best dish we had in Rome, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make this ragù reminiscent of that experience (without access to rabbit, of course).  I won't claim to have replicated the original dish, but Garrett and I were both very happy with the flavor...and we learned a lot about ragù-making along the way.

The first thing you should know is that this is a time-consuming recipe.  Ragù absolutely needs time to simmer and develop flavor, and there are no shortcuts.  It doesn't require your constant attention, but I was tasting and adjusting the seasoning about every twenty minutes.  The flavor after the first twenty minutes, compared to after the full two hours simmering, was very different.  Even then, I wish it was more rich and full-bodied, but I chalk up its limitations to the quality of meat and wine I was using.  While I used a combination of ground beef, pork, and veal, next time I would either go with just pork/veal, or try something a bit more gamey, like lamb.  Another option I would like to explore is using pancetta (instead of olive oil) as a cooking base for the vegetables, since I think a bit of smokey flavor would also contribute to the body of the sauce.

Of course, you do not need to make your own pasta from scratch to enjoy the ragù.  In fact, I made the ragù yesterday and tried it with some standard store-bought spaghetti and it was great.  I actually really liked added bite the dried pasta had, whereas the homemade pappardelle is very delicate.  I'll leave that up to you and your busy schedule to decide.  Some good news is that the time you'll take on this ragù will pay off in time saved throughout the week, using the leftovers to pull together easy meals with grilled vegetables or even a quick lasagna.      

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Spaghetti alla Carbonara di Carciofi (Spaghetti Carbonara with Artichoke)

Listen, I'm not going to sugar coat this for you because I know you're already really jealous of the week I spent in Rome.  Yes, the historical sites helped me transcend space and time.  Yes, the piazzas and winding, narrow streets had that perfect paint-chippy authenticity.  Of course the people were enthusiastically kind, loud, and gesture-y.  But the food: effing amazing.

Now, like I mentioned in my previous post (where you can see some photos of the space/time transcending monuments and paint-chippiness), there's a lot of crappy food in Rome and it can be quite tricky to tell the difference between a restaurant dishing out frozen pizzas to tourists or making homemade pasta and ragu.  While in other cities proximity to tourist hot spots and kitschy decor might be dead giveaways that the place is a dud, that's not necessarily the case in Rome.  The landlord of the apartment we rented directed us to places I would normally disregard, but truly had that great blistered pizza crust everyone is searching for in life.  So, location, decor, and prices really aren't reliable indicators of whether a restaurant will disappoint or amaze.   I was left to develop my own investigatory process that mostly involved snooping around and peering over the shoulders of diners to catch a glimpse of their crusts and sauces.  

If you're going to Rome, my best advice for choosing a restaurant is to look at plates, and be prepared to feel fooled from time to time.  But, when you find a place that gives you exactly what you're looking for - freshly made pasta, homemade sauces, high quality ingredients, a wood burning pizza oven - don't be afraid to keep going back.  I mean, why waste your time on a wild hunt for another pizza/pasta place that's just as good?  And, by going back to a little place that you love, you're probably going to find the same host and waitstaff will remember you and your order, making your next experience seem even more local than your first.  If you have a short amount of time in Rome, just go immediately to Hostaria Farnese, on a side street between the Campo di'Fiori and Piazza Farnese.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


We had an excellent week in Rome, and there's a lot of food to be written about.  As I hoped, Garrett had the best pasta of his life (although we disagree about whether it was the pappardelle con ragu di lepre (rabbit) or the cannelloni al forno...both from the same restaurant between the Campo de'fiori and the Piazza Farnese).  We had a few great - no, unmatchable - pizzas, and others that reminded us that Romans can get away with a lot of culinary fraud at the expense of unsuspecting tourists.  I've perfected a rather scientific investigatory process for deciding which of the endless options for restaurants will serve up the real deal.
While I'm home with lots of inspiration in the hopper, business as usual is keeping me from the kitchen.  The initial draft of my thesis is due Wednesday, and the countdown to AP exams at school has begun.  I hope to experiment with a simple spaghetti carbonara this weekend...but we'll see.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Poached Cod, Fennel, and Citrus Salad

Last week, one of my students said to me: "My greatest fear is that I'll turn 50 and look back and my life and feel like I've done nothing."  I told her that was a really good fear.

Bearing in mind that to a 15-year-old being 50 is, like, way old, I think this way of goal-setting is quite healthy.  We are taught to set goals for the future, but not to set goals about how we desire to perceive our past in the future.  Perhaps we're so future-oriented that we forget that all we have to define our selves is by our past.  If we don't take care of our future past (follow along with me), then we're really just going to hate ourselves.  As much as we'd like to think so, we don't feel accomplished or any feeling of self-worth for what we haven't yet done.  I hate this post because it's reminding me a little bit of that one guy's egotistical Oscar speech...what's his name...Matthew McConaughey (had to Google it), but it's true, and I've been thinking a lot about it.

I guess my big problem is that I never really set any goals - for the future or for the future-looking-back-at-the-past.  Sure, from a young age I wanted to be financially stable and intellectually accomplished, but other than that I was trying to keep my head socially-emotionally out of water.  So now that I've reached the mile-marker age of 30 I don't really know how to measure how well I've done, but I certainly feel like I'm supposed to be measuring something.  Have I reached my intellectual potential?  Have I traveled enough to understand (something)? Am I saving enough money?  Will my friendships be life-long?  Am I a good family member?  Will my students go on to save the world like I hope?  And most importantly, is this it?  Answers range from "kinda-sorta" to "nope."

I approached my brother yesterday about sitting down to look at my financial situation and figure out what to do with the heaps of cash over-paid and under-worked teachers get.  I knew I would have to address the dreaded question: what are your goals?  And he said something like, "Well, you can't assess whether you're achieving the goals you don't have."  I guess that's the "planning" half of financial planning.  So, here I am with no clue whether I've done much with my life at all, and no idea what accomplishments I want to look back on when I'm 50.  

Except for this: I can now look back at my life and say I made the perfect salad.  It's crazy healthy, super easy, but fancy, and is perfectly balanced between sweet and citrusy.  I'm not even going to tell you much more about it.  But, chances are, if you don't make it then your future self will have major regrets. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Purim Baklava Hamantaschen


This Sunday Purim festivals will take place across the country, sending millions of bagged goldfish into the hands of irresponsibly giddy children, whilst confusing all the remaining Gentile children about why all these Jewish children with new goldfish are dressing up for Halloween in March.  Ah, yes, I have fond memories of the yearly Purim carnival held by my very kosher reform temple built on a lot that was once a BBQ restaurant.  I may have dropped out of Hebrew School just shy of my Bat Mitzvah, but I never missed the opportunity to dress up like Queen Esther and win me a bagged goldfish at the Purim carnival.

Purim's a great holiday all around, but the classic hamantasch cookie really elevates its status and makes up for the fact that other Jewish holidays require completely flourless desserts.  But, be warned, store-bought hamentaschen (if you're from a place where these exist) are notoriously bad, with this sort of muted sweetness characteristic of all cookies eastern European grandmothers make.  The jelly filling is gummy and stringy while the cookie is dry and bland, so it just tastes like its gone way past the sell-by date.  Meanwhile, homemade "hammies" offer up endless possibilities for yummy cookie dough combined with any filling your heart desires as long as it's shaped like evil Haman's triangular hat (QUEUE THE NOISEMAKERS).  Ok, if you aren't getting all these Purim references you're just going to have to google it.

So, it occurred to me that hamantaschen might be filled with another of my favorite desserts that one might find in Persia - sticky-sweet baklava.  It also occurred to me that that this might turn out like a twist on one of my favorite cookies across the board - Russian tea cakes - if I opted for a buttery shortbread cookie dough combined with a nutty filling.  I had to add an egg white to the butter/sugar/four dough to make it malleable enough to "triangulate," but this didn't alter the flavor or texture a bit.  I'm kind of afraid to do an internet search for "baklava hamantaschen" in fear that millions of others have already thought of this idea, so I won't, and instead I'll keep pretending this was my once-a-month stroke of genius. 

I tested two variations of baklava filling, pistachio-almond and hazelnut-almond, preferring the pistachio slightly (although Garrett disagreed).  Traditional 'taschen were, of course, in order.  If you go that route, which admittedly saves you lots of time, I recommend apricot jam filling.

In completely different news, I'm excited to announce that I had the opportunity to collaborate with the folks behind a new iPad cooking app called SideChef.   Their "thing" is offering a great interface for home cooks to try our new recipes with step-by-step instructions (with voice commands for dirty hands) and big, beautiful pictures along the way.  I'm honored to be one of their featured bloggers to help them launch.  Download it for your iPad in the app store and enter the code JENESSASDINNERS250 for some bonuses.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Kale and Meatball Soup


I really love dishes that are packed with greens so good that you're shoveling them into your mouth with gusto.  I imagine this is exactly how Popeye felt every time he downed those gobs of spinach that looked so strangely appealing to me as a child (but so did that pizza in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).   

I wish, like Popeye, that I could really knock someone or something out.  Lately I've been struggling with some anger issues (food-triggered anger issues).  And I'm not talking frustration or anxiety, but seriously mind-numbing anger.  Since I've been trying very hard to get back into shape and closely monitoring my diet, I've also been really beating myself up over every slip.  Nights have by far been the hardest.  When 9pm rolls around and it's been three hours since your last meal (because I can't make it past 6 to eat dinner now that I'm running again), it's almost impossible to avoid a visit to the fridge to quietly eat cheese alone.  

Obviously I'm not very good at impulse control - if it's in the house I'm going to eat it - so the more I can make large amounts of guilt-free meals, like this soup that can be portioned, frozen, and eaten throughout the week, the safer we are all going to be as a society.

I'm trying to remember that the beginning of new challenges are always the hardest bit, but I have a creeping feeling that this anger over my eating habits is really a mask for the growing discontent that the monotony of winter can bring on.  Waking up this morning to yet another snow storm and white-knuckle driving to my over-worked place of work was just psychologically brutal.  I know much of the U.S. is feeling the same way.  I had a vivid dream last night that I showed up for work and found some sort of magic school bus going to Paris, so of course I called in sick last minute and took bus to Paris (?#!).  The only other part I remember is being alone a riding to metro to neighborhoods I haven't seen before, just glad to be alone and away.    

Enough with the pity party - here's what you need to know about this soup: It's hearty and healthy with an Italian/Tuscan theme going on, but amped up with jalapeno in the base and cayenne in the meatballs.  I've pondered how it would work out vegetarian, and I think it would be just fine.  The meatballs certainly add a rich roundedness to the soup that balances the acidity and freshness of the vegetables.  While I wanted to keep the posted recipe paleo, I did reheat the leftovers on the stove top and cooked basmati rice in the broth. That was real good. Don't hold back for a second on how much kale and spinach to add.  Pack in as much as possible to add heft.  I can't say it's quite enough to kick the winter blues, but it certainly doesn't hurt.