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herbs & spices

Fried Padrón peppers, i.e. the goal dish of the pepper experiment.

Fried Padrón peppers, i.e. the goal dish of the pepper experiment.

When we first moved to New York, Michael mentioned the possibility of taking some planters and setting them up in an empty air-conditioning caddy as a way to grow some plants given how much sun that part of the building got. I never took him up on his offer, and in retrospect it was probably for the best: not only was I woefully inexperienced in growing things and keeping them alive (oh, the failed experiment of my New Haven garden still stings) but given that we were on the first floor, I feel like the temptation for some college kid to knock them off would have been too great and one day I would wake up and see terracotta and dirt all over the sidewalk.

Since our relocation back to Connecticut, I’ve embraced the container garden because our balcony is surprisingly well-suited for one: despite not getting as much sun as I figured would be necessary, the herbs I’ve grown over the last three years have thrived fairly well, and last year’s garden was in particular quite successful. I had a pot of oregano that yielded several batches of oregano pesto in the fall, and a bountiful amount of jalapeño and serrano peppers to throw into various recipes, and lots and lots of sage leaves to fry up in butter and serve with cutlets. The miserable winter killed off everything, sadly, as we don’t have a good indoor place to keep things, so once again I started afresh at my favorite herb nursery. Read More

Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Meatballs

As you may or not be aware, Elizabeth and I hail from southeastern PA.  Therefore we have family and friends in and around the Philadelphia and up and down the northeast from New Hampshire to DC.  Saturday morning, we were all a buzz amongst ourselves, bracing for the snow to make all other snows feel awkward for causing such a fuss, we made movements to secure a warm, delicious meal for a snowy night.

While plenty of friends (especially in Philly and Maryland) got Snow’d in a very real way, we of the Empire state of mind were only grazed by what I insist is less than six inches of the fluffy stuff (even though the weather service insists it was more).  Despite the lackluster blizzard, our dinner was delightfully appropriate for the forty-five minutes of powerful winter we saw.

San Marzano tomatoes

I’ve been fantasizing about San Marzano tomatoes lately.  The previous week I had decided on making fresh pasta and we tossed up on whether to do a mushroom or tomatoey sauce; we opted for mushrooms, but that’s another post.  This weekend then I made it up to myself.  I don’t love spaghetti and meatballs, but somehow it felt perfect at the time.  Elizabeth has been extolling the virtues of this light tomato sauce she whipped up while I was away several weeks back, and I wanted to give it the old college try–only this time, I insisted on adding a good amount of shaved fennel to the mix.  A liberal topping with shredded fresh basil brightens the whole affair.

I wanted to keep things very simple, so I decided to go whip up some meatballs… I mean, why not?   Again, to keep things light, we stuck to one package of 93:7 ground turkey.  I added 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs (a bit much, and had I had some white bread I’d have used that), one egg and I seasoned with 1 1/2 tsp each of oregano, dried parsley and my new Epazote from Penzey’s in the Grand Central Terminal Market.  I rolled the mix into twelve balls and cooked them at 400 F for 20 minutes in greased muffin tins.

So, on a dark snowy night, we encourage you to break from the norm and do something traditional.  Until next time, stay warm and cook on!

Sockeye Salmon with a White Wine Mustard Sauce with Piemontese-style Agliata

Sockeye Salmon with a White Wine Mustard Sauce with Piemontese-style Agliata Verde

While it’s been in the seafood case for a few weeks now, we’ve resisted the call of the sockeye because it had yet to come down in price to about 10-11 bucks a pound–until this week.  L was coming over to dinner and Michael had absolutely no idea what to cook, but she wanted to pay for it, so off they went to Stop & Shop to see what they could find.  I had proposed doing a light agliata verde–a Piemontese-style pesto of basil, mint, cheese, garlic and olive oil (and a little lemon thrown in for good measure), but it was up to the two of them to decide on a protien.

While we resisted the sockeye earlier in the week–the Alaskan cod looked too delcious and was cheap to boot–it felt right for the three of us, and Michael’s fail-safe mustard sauce is always delicious.  They also picked up some asparagus to roast, and while I can’t say that asparagus is my favorite veggie, I enjoyed these particular ones because they were thin, delicate, and not too fibrous.

For a meal that was conceived on the fly like this, the results were extremely satisfying, with the sauce adding just the right amount of flavor without being either bland or overwhelming.  And wouldn’t you know–the idea came from yet another Seriously Italian column, and it’s not the only one we’ve used in our cooking this week.  What can I say–Chef DePalma knows what comprises a simple, delicious, Italian-inspired meal!

Agliata Verde Piemontese

Adapted from Gina DePalma

  • 1 cup eached packed fresh basil and mint leaves
  • 3/4-1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup olive oil

Add leaves, cheese, lemon and garlic to a food processor, blender or mortar and pestle (if you’re feeling really ambitious), then season with salt and pepper.  Turning on the machine to puree (for a blender–use whatever is similar on a processor) drizzle in olive oil slowly, and blend until the whole thing turns into a smooth, but not too liquidy, sauce.  As Chef Gina mentions, this is perfect with either bread or hot pasta, and I bet it would also go well over beef, pork or chicken just as well.

Mangia! We’re headed to PA to visit our families as my grandmother is turning 90(!) on Sunday and we’re all headed to dinner Saturday evening–see you next week!

Sage seedling

Sage seedling

Despite growing up in a household boasting flowerbeds all over the property and a sizable vegetable garden, my gardening skills are sadly, wanting.  My first attempt at growing herbs several summers ago left me with a somewhat viable rosemary plant (a fact I am attributing to the plant’s inherent hardiness rather than my green thumb) and dead lavendar and sage plants.  Another try was slightly more successful my first summer in New Haven–we enjoyed fresh oregano and thyme for most of the summer before a drought killed them–but due to the flurry of activity last summer leading up to two weddings (including our own), growing our own herbs slide preciputously down the priority list.  With Romeo almost always having what we need (and usually a good price for the quality), we normally never had a problem going through a batch of parsley during a week’s time, and having fresh tarragon and sage for a weekend dinner would just signal a need to get creative with the remaining amounts for weekday meals.

Then we went to Italy and had access to a true bounty of herbs to use as we needed–and we realized that we only needed a sprig or two because the quality was just that much greater.  For much of the winter and early spring the thoughts of sprouting a more modest version were on my mind constantly, especially as we’ve taken to make brown butter sage sauces to go with our fresh pastas so frequently.  Michael was initially hesitant but I managed to convince him that it was a good idea and not too complicated, and Saturday we became the proud owners of this sizable sage plant and a smaller French tarragon plant (it seems to have thinner leaves than the tarragon we usually find in the market).  A modest $27 investment in a trowel, potting soil and some terracotta pots later, and we are in business.  To add to the fun, I picked up some rosemary and lavender seeds to try sprouting, though I’m not as confident in my ability to germinate actual seedlings from, you know, seeds.  But it’s worth a try, right?

Atlantic Croaker with Roasted Carrots and Grilled Salad Vidalia Onions

Atlantic Croaker with Roasted Carrots and Grilled Salad Vidalia Onions

A month ago, we decided to celebrate Elizabeth’s new job by spending her last free Saturday being creative in the kitchen.  In an earlier post, we told you about our trip that day to A1 Fish Market to grab a whole fish or two.   They required a little bit of dressing (I used shears to remove all the fins and a large knife to chop off the head and remove the remaining scales.  Luckily, the Good Eats ep about whole fish prepared me for this task).   Elizabeth had some fun photographing the dynamic duo below.

ZOMBIE CROAKERS!  RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!

ZOMBIE CROAKERS! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!

No, they're regular croakers.  Crisis averted.

No, they're regular croakers. Crisis averted.

I had initially pictured a large snapper-like preparation for my catch, but after being talked into the croakers, I altered the game plan.  We found a recipe suggesting a layer of blended onion and spices be applied to the dressed fish, then a coating of breadcrumbs and a joint in the frying pan is all that was required.  Thinking simple is best, we proceeded thusly.

Dressed crokers with the onion-spice paste and breading frying up

Dressed croakers with the onion-spice paste and breading frying up

We opted for a first pasta plate, a simple variation of a Mario Batali dish.  Little more than onions cooked with pancetta and red pepper flakes served with fettuccine, this can be a meal unto itself.  The only reason I don’t serve it more often is that the pancetta is so delicious, I eat unending amounts of it whenever it’s available.  Of course, top with parsley and Parmesan cheese.

Fettuccine alla Gricia

Fettuccine alla Pancetta e Cipolli

As you can see above, the final second plate contents were the fishies, some roasted carrots and grilled spring onions which we found at the market and had to have.  Grilling these guys is a traditional Spanish prep and usually a Romesco sauce is applied.  Fans may recall that yes, we have done that before.  As for the carrots, that’s a post for another time and I think I’ll hand that one off to Elizabeth.

Grilled Tuna, Swiss and Arugula Panini

Grilled Tuna, Swiss and Arugula Panini

Sandwiches can be either as light or as heavy as you wish them; the cubanos we had the week prior to this would easily veer on the heavy end of the spectrum, while this is arguably a lighter alternative that does what I feel a good sandwich should: provide a compact way to get something from most of the major food groups. The original incarnation of this sandwich came from an episode of Everyday Italian and included Provolone and frisee, which was a good combination, but given that frisee isn’t really part of our normal greens consumption and isn’t terribly nutrient-rich, arugula (or spring mix or baby spinach, depending on what looked good that week) works as an able substitute.

After a weekend spent visiting the family and a morning on the road, neither Michael nor I felt much like making a big meal, and this is a great option to keep in the pantry for those days. We did have to go out and get rolls and cheese, of course, but you could also use your favorite sandwich bread and your favorite cheese in the fridge if that’s not a viable option for you.

Grilled Tuna, Swiss and Arugula Panino

Serves 2

  • 2 5-oz tins of chunk light tuna in olive oil
  • 1 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp Zahtar spice blend
  • Juice of one half lemon, plus zest
  • 1/2 cup arugula leaves, divided
  • 1/4 pound Swiss or provolone cheese, divided
  • Two panini rolls or 4 slices of crusty bread of your choice

Drain tuna of oil, but reserve, and add to a large bowl. Add mayonnaise, zahtar spice, and lemon juice and zest; stir to combine. Divide mixture between the two sandwiches, and add the cheese and arugula. Brush the tops of the rolls with the reserved oil, and then place on a grill or panini press and cook until cheese is melted. Slice sandwiches in half and serve.

I found myself down in Westport this morning, and needing to kill some time, I decided to wander around Balducci’s for a while.  It was positively lovely–usually Michael and I will go there on a random Saturday on a gourmet excursion and have to fight for a parking spot and dodge shopping carts and irate customers, but at 10:45ish on a Thursday morning, not only did I have my pick of parking spaces, the store was experiencing delightfully light traffic (more likely because of the time of day rather than the general economic environment as my time visiting stores during an internship will attest), and I was at leisure to browse through the aisles at my own pace.

I didn’t want to be tempted by cheeses or other perishable goods this time around, so I focused on the fantastic selection of exotic spices and spice/herb blends that has led us to buy grains of paradies and tandoori seasoning during other trips; having no better half to curb my lust for the familiar orange-and-black tins in the comforting Futura font, I somehow managed to restrain myself in only buying two:

Spanish Paprika and Zahtar (otherwise known as Za'atar) Spice, from Balducci's

Spanish Paprika and Zahtar (otherwise known as Za'atar) Spice, from Balducci's

We were out of paprika, so I took it upon myself to pick up some fresh supplies; as for the Zahtar, well, I was inspired by the episode of Top Chef this season where they reconstructed Le Bernadin dishes and one of the fish dishes featured the spice blend, and I’m now fascinated with trying this in a number of iterations, including having just some bread and olive oil with a shake or two of this mixed in.

Hmmmm.  This olive oil and spice blend seems like a perfect accompaniment to the focaccia I’ll be making next week…stay tuned!

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