Friday, January 29, 2010

Six degrees of preparation: a can of tomatoes

I set up this blog initially to do my "six degrees of preparation" thing.  It started out a few years ago:  I always told people that, given a single ingredient, I could come up with four to six recipes for that ingredient.  Keep in mind that this wasn't a contest or an idle boast, just my notion of how any cook needs to be creative in the kitchen when confronted with one ingredient and a deadline to put a meal on the table.  It also assumes that the cook has a reasonably well-stocked pantry, too.

So, after a month or so of blogging recipes, I'm starting in.  A can of tomatoes.  I'm staring at a can of tomatoes.  For argument's sake here, let's say this is a 28-ounce or 35-ounce can of whole, peeled, Italian tomatoes.

Here's what I'm going to make:

Six Degrees of Preparation: a 35-ounce can of tomatoes
•  Marinara sauce
•  Puttanesca sauce or similar variants
•  Tomato soup
•  "Gravy" (Neapolitan meat sauce)  []
•  Quick "gravy"
•  Spanish rice

Any of these items would make the centerpiece of a good meal.

Now I have to put down the recipes for all these!

Dinner in NYC

I've given some thought to Kit's birthday dinner on Saturday evening in NYC.  First stop in NYC will be Union Square Greenmarket.  I'm meeting Kit at the Coffee Pot Cafe across the street. 

Other than the remarkable bounty available at the Greenmarket (, there are a couple supermarkets nearby, so we can easily supplement our purchases with supermarket items.  There's a Whole Foods on the south side of the Square on 14th St, and a Food Emporium on the east side of the Square.

Here's what I've come up with:

•  Assortimento di antipasti – cheeses, sausages, cruditès -- from the Market (OK, that means munchies.)
•  Pasta dish of some sort, depending on what's at the market.  I'm thinking pasta with vegetables, like cauliflower or broccoli rabe.  Or perhaps even a one-dish vegetable/sausage combo.  
•  Chicken marsala or francese (depends on availability of mushrooms, etc.), or a braised chicken dish.
•  Winter root-vegetable salad.  Considering what I can expect at the market, this is a certainty. 
•  Citrus sections
•  Sweet dessert as available at the market

We'll be five for dinner -- Kit, Barbara, Dan, Karen, and I.  

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Hey, I made dumplings tonite!  Been hankering to make these for a while.

1 lb ground pork
1 egg, separated
6 scallions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp MSG (Yeah, MSG.  Relax.)
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbp soy sauce

Separate the egg, adding the white to the meat mix.  Save the yolk.  Mix the meat well, as if you would a meatloaf mixture.

Get some wonton wrappers.  I used the circular ones, about 3 inches in diameter. 

Beat the reserved egg yolk with a couple tablespoons of water.  Pick up on wrapper, brush lightly with the egg wash, put about 2 teaspoons of the meat mixture into the center, fold the wrapper over, and secure the edges.  Lay them out as you make them.  I tried like hell to do the crimped edges, but gave up after a few.  It's damn tedious, and I'm not sure what it offers gastronomically.  Besides, my favorite dumplings, from Sang Kee, aren't crimped, and they're just the best. 

Uncrimped edge.

 Crimped edge.

I made about three dozen dumplings with the pound of meat.  I ran out of wrappers before meat.

I laid them out on parchment paper on a baking sheet, then froze the sheet for several hours.  Once fully frozen, I piled them into a zipper bag. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Birthday dinner

I'm headed up to NYC next Saturday the 30th to cook a birthday dinner for my friend Kit.  I'll take an early train, and go right to Union Square Greenmarket, where I'll shop for dinner.  There's a Whole Foods across 14th Street, so I can fill in the blanks there.

What should I make??

Banana bread

I had some bananas on hand that weren't getting any younger, so I whipped up a batch of banana bread.  My source recipe included an 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple, which I could never quite understand -- it overpowers the banana considerably, so I eliminated that.  I used a cup of smooth applesauce that I had in the fridge: it adds moisture without adding an overpowering taste.  I prefer to use melted butter to oil in this sort of quick bread.  The difference in flavor is noteworthy.

3 cups        all-purpose flour
2 tsp          baking powder
1 tsp          cinnamon
1 tsp          salt
2 cups        sugar
3                eggs
1 1/2 cups  melted butter (1 1/2 cups = 3 sticks)
1 1/2 tsp    vanilla
2 cups        mashed banana
1 cup         applesauce
1/2 cup      chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)
1 cup         chopped dates

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.  Make a well in the center of the bowl.  Add liquid ingredients.  Stir in nuts.  Mix well.  Pour into two loaf pans.  Bake at 350°F 45 to 60 minutes or until a pick inserted comes out clean.  Remove from pans.  Cool on wire racks.  Wrap well in plastic and foil.  Freezes beautifully.

Hey, I got to use my nifty, new loaf pans!

Quick pancake mix

The Cub™ loves his pancakes, so I find myself making them often for him.  

I cannot seem to keep a simple recipe for pancakes in my brain, so every time I prepare a batch, I have to dig out the recipe.  Mark Bittman has his basic recipe, and Alton Brown has his 'instant' mix, so why not try something like that?

I started with Alton Brown's 'instant' pancake mix.  It's fine, except that it relies upon buttermilk and baking soda for leavening.  I love buttermilk in my pancakes, but on a random Tuesday morning, it is highly unlikely that I"m going to find buttermilk in my fridge.  And without buttermilk, the baking soda will create no leavening. So that formulation is out.

Time to put on my chemist's hat.  Modifications are in order!!  Instead of relying upon buttermilk + baking soda, I will use dry whole milk + baking powder. 

KLIM® is an instant, dry, whole milk product, manufactured by Nestlè.  It's made in Mexico, and clearly is marketed to the Latin American market segment.  I have found the product only in Latin groceries, or in one of those 'only in America' circumstances, in the 'Latin' aisle at the Korean supermarket.  I have never found the product in a conventional supermarket. 

The product is similar to Carnation instant milk, but is full-fat, unlike Carnation.  I first came across a product like this (I don't know if it was the Nestlè product or not) in India, where powdered whole milk sachets are supplied with your in-hotel-room tea service.  It's brilliant!  It is far superior to powdered non-dairy creamers, both in flavor and in how it appears when dissolved in coffee or tea.  I started buying the product to keep at my desk at the office to add to my coffee.  The office coffee service offered only the powdered non-dairy crap, naturally, and it was a challenge keeping milk or half-and-half in the office fridge, because it had a tendency to disappear quickly. 

I had a couple cans on hand and so include it in my recipe:

6 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tbp salt
2 Tbp sugar
1 1/2 cups KLIM® instant whole milk powder

Mix well and store in an airtight canister. Heck I put the directions for a batch right on the canister.  No digging for recipes.   

To make a batch of pancakes (6-8 cakes):

1 cup pancake mix
1 egg
2 Tbp oil 
1 cup water  (I should say that this should be a 'scant' cup of water.  Perhaps start with 3/4 cup, and see how it is.)

Mix gently.  Do not overmix.  It's quite all right if the batter is a bit lumpy.  If the batter seems too viscous, add a bit more water. 

Ladle the batter onto a hot griddle or non-stick frying pan.  Bake until set and small bubbles appear on the surface, about 2 minutes.  Flip and bake the other side, another 2 minutes until cooked. 

Serve with butter and hot maple syrup.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rice pudding

I was invited to Dew & Tony's for dinner on Sunday night, and offered to bring dessert.  I made rice pudding, one of my favorites.

I've spent many years on a quest for the ultimate rice pudding.  In my mind, rice pudding should be soft and creamy, but not too rich.  It should be pleasantly sweet, but not overly so.  It should have a mere sprinkling of cinnamon.  It should ALWAYS have raisins.  (Those of you who are raisin-haters may stop reading now.)

Here's my best recipe, a true 'diner-style' rice pudding.

1/2 cup uncooked rice (I use a domestic long-grain rice, but basmati or jasmine rice is very nice, too)
1 1/2 c water
1 tsp salt
3 Tbp butter

 Combine rice, water, salt, and butter in a 4-qt saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stir a couple times, lower heat, cover, and cook 12-15 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed.


1 qt 2% milk (Yes, 2%.  I'm no low-fat crusader, but I find that a less rich rice pudding is actually more enjoyable than a rich one, made with, say, half-and-half or cream.)
1/2 cup sugar

Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat, and cook gently 25-35 minutes (depends on the rice), stirring occasionally, until the pudding is thickened and coats the back of the spoon.  Remove from heat.


1/2 cup raisins, which have been plumped in 1/2 boiling water, and drained.
2 tsp vanilla extract

Cover, and let cool fully.  Sprinkle with cinnamon.  Careful, not too much!

At this point, feel free to add some whipped cream to each serving.  Enjoy. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Meat sauce -- "Gravy"

One of the staples of Italian-American cooking is meat sauce, or “gravy” as it’s known to Philadelphians.  It's called that probably from the fact that “gravy” is a reasonable translation of the Italian ragù, which is what the Italians would call these tomato-based sauces used as a condimento for pasta.

There seem to be, generally speaking, two types of ragù one sees in Italy: the Bolognese style sauce, with bits of ground meat in the tomato base, and the Neapolitan style, flavored with meat, but without the ground meat in the sauce itself.  Both of these sauces are distinct from the many other tomato-based -- but meatless -- sauces one sees in the Italian cucina, sauces like the marinara (or as one might see it these days on restaurant menus, "pomodoro"), or variations on that like amatriciana (tomato base, with onions and guanciale). 

Bolognese style sauce was utterly foreign to us and our family; meat was used to flavor the gravy, but ground or minced meat was never part of the sauce itself.  Our gravies were made with sausage, pork spare ribs, brasciole, and meatballs, and the meat served separately from the sauce, usually as a second course after the pasta.

As in many other recipes of this nature, there is broad license to vary from the basic formula, especially in the quantity or type of meat.  One of the variations that I've grown very fond of is to add a couple shoulder-blade lamp chops to the mix of meats.  Lamb adds a distinct and pleasing character to the sauce.  Lamb-based tomato sauces are in fact quite common in the Abruzzo region. 

This recipe is a general guideline for making a meat sauce.  Not included is the recipe for brasciole, a thin steak filled with garlic, parsley, and cheese, then rolled, and sautéed, then braised in the sauce.  I find it invariably dry and tough.

Meat sauce
1/4 c    olive oil
2 lb    Italian sausage, half sweet and half hot, according to your preference, cut into links
1 lb    country style pork spare ribs (the meatier variety), or other fatty pork parts, such as hunks of pork shoulder (don't use very lean center-cut loin chops)
2    shoulder-blade lamb chops
1    medium onion, chopped fine
1    carrot, shredded
1/2    bell pepper, red or green, cubed (red is highly preferable if you can get it)
6    cloves garlic, minced fine
3    35-oz cans whole Italian plum tomatoes, puréed in a blender
1    6-oz can Italian tomato paste
1 c    red wine
Salt and pepper
1 t    Italian seasoning
1/2 c    parsley, chopped fine

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.

My go-to pot for gravy:  a 12-qt Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

 Brown the meat -- pork ribs, lamb chops, sausage.  Season each side. Set aside.

Pork ribs browning in the pot. 

Browned lamb chops sitting on the side.

The browned bits left in the pot after the meat has been browned and removed.

Add onion, carrot, garlic, and bell pepper to the pot and sauté a few minutes until they have softened. 

Carrot shredded and onion diced.

Minced garlic.

Sauteed vegetable mixture.

Add the tomato paste to the pot and cook for a minute or two.

Cooking the tomato paste with the sauteed vegetables.  
Puree the tomatoes either in a blender or food processor or through a food mill.   

Add them to the pot. Add wine. Stir to mix well.  Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning.  Add the browned meat back to the pot.

Bring sauce to a simmer, and then simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Taste the sauce.  Adjust seasoning if necessary.  A finished sauce will have a smooth, rich, non-acid flavor to it.  Don’t overcook it. 

Cook pasta al dente and toss with the sauce.  Pass cheese at the table.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I have been remiss...

I have been terribly behind in my postings.  I had that flurry of recipes and such last week, but this week has produced little.

I do want to post a list of items that I will eventually blog on:

  • recipes from the holidays -- Thanksgiving and Christmas
  • stock & soup
  • Thanksgiving menu planning
  • lentil soup
  • pumpkin fruitcake
  • pinwheels
  • potatoes lyonnaise 
  • cabbage and beans and pepperoni
  • disappointing fruit cake
  • calzoniti
  • zeppole
  • cooking for PITAs (pains in the ass)
  • misprounounced words -- mascarpone, chipotle, pinot grigio, paprika, bruschetta, vinaigrette
More to come.  Promise.

And nice photo, too.  That's the new All-Clad 5.5-qt Dutch oven I bought at Williams-Sonoma with the gift certificate I got for Christmas.  And a couple of loaf pans, too.