Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Pizza Chronicles: Part III

Fresh Basil Pesto

I was dreading making this when I read the recipe. It specifically said you should make the pesto sauce quasi-medieval style; by mortar and pestle. Pounding nuts and leaves together didn't sound like an ounce of fun, but Tassajara insists, "The texture and aroma of this pesto is quite different if you take the time to pound it by hand in a mortar and pestle. All of the volatile oils and flavor components get released when the cells get pounded rather than neatly cut by the blade of a food processor." Ok, if you say so. So I pounded away, and worked up the second sweat of the afternoon. But you know, once you start doing it, you realize it isn't as hard and primeval as it sounds! Plus, I used live basil (as in, it still came in clumps of dirt) and it smelled glorious. This whole pesto making experience was a pleasant surprise because it was a lot easier than expected. The recipe for the Pizza also called for Rosemary Garlic Oil, but that was pretty anti-climactic, so I won't go into too much detail about it. Basically, just mince some garlic, put it over hot oil and add rosemary. Ta-da! This will brush the crust of your pizza so it won't get dry.

Topping the Pizza!

Speaking of the Pizza. So now, after all the preparation of the dough and the sauce, we were ready to start actually topping the pizza! This is the super easy part. We rolled out the pizza dough into a circle and spread a layer of the tomato sauce on it. In retrospect, we should have put more tomato sauce on it, but oh well. On went everything else except for the tomatoes (because they would have gotten soggy in the oven), and into the oven it went. The recipe doesn't specify how much time you should leave the pizza in the oven, but we put it in for 15 minutes and it came out perfectly. After covering the pizza with tomatoes, we sat down to eat. Maybe it was because it was a big pizza after a hard day's work, or because I used whole wheat flour for the dough, or everything combined, but I am really glad that there were three of us eating it! It was extremely filling. This pizza fed Eduardo and me for three meals, and it was delicious. If you're ever in the mood for a good sweat in the kitchen and have a few hours to spare, make this pizza. It was very worth it!

Not only did the pizza feed us for three meals, we still had enough dough for one more pizza pie! What did we do with it? The last chapter of the Pizza Chronicles, coming soon.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Pizza Chronicles: Part II

Roasted Tomato Sauce

The oven was preheating to 500 degrees, in order to start on the tomato sauce. The tomatoes were coated in olive oil and put on a cookie sheet, shiny and whole. I love roasted tomatoes. They bring back fond memories of Eduardo's house, where Doña Patricia would fill tomatoes with cheese, mushrooms and olives and roast them over the grill for family gatherings. The skin of the tomatoes becomes blistered and soft, making it easy to remove. I like eating the skin, partially because it has a lot of nutrients, but partially because roasted tomato skin has a very satisfying texture and flavour. It becomes slightly sweet, and feels thin, but chewy. Eduardo and I were eating the skin we peeled off the tomatoes the whole time we were preparing them to be used for the sauce.

A note about the cookie sheet you need to use: it's best to use a cookie sheet with the sides lifted, as opposed to a flat one. If you were baking cookies, a flat cookie sheet would be better because the cookies bake more evenly. However, if you're roasting something juicy like tomatoes, you want a cookie sheet that will grab the juice and excess oil that comes out of the tomatoes.

Next came the onions. I guess this must have been a great recipe for me, because I also love cooking onions! I don't like raw onion, but cooked, onions become an entirely different vegetable. I can't help but recite Neruda's Oda a la Cebolla every time I cook onions;

luminosa redoma,
pétalo a pétalo
se formó tu hermosura...

In the saucepan went an entire onion, chopped, garlic and cumin. It smelled glorious. Once the onions became what neruda would call fina pluma de oro, or a fine feather of gold, we blended them with the tomatoes (the christening of our blender! yay!). Now we have enough tomato sauce to last us a loooong time.

Around this time my friend Alex called and said she wasn't going to a meeting she had after all, so she could come by earlier. She had sent me a message the day before saying she was in town and bored as shit. This was good, because we would need help eating this pizza.

To be continued...

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Pizza Chronicles: Part I

Eduardo and I have finally settled into our first apartment in Dallas! It is absolutely fantastic. One of the best features (as opposed to dorm life) is that it has a kitchen!! A NICE kitchen, with lots of counter space and plugs to use nifty gadgets with! And even more exciting, we now have acquired all the cooking supplies and tools I need for real cooking. Gone are the days of microwave meals and pre-made packaged goods. I'm excited. I'm so excited that I decided to embark on a pizza journey. I've never made pizza before, but I decided to go all out. I made everything, from the dough to the sauce. This is Tassajara's Pizza with Pesto, Ricotta, and Heirloom Tomatoes. I only used half of the dough I made, so I'll be making another pizza pie in the next couple of days, topped with another recipe for veggies from Tassajara :). But anyway. Here's part one.


I never really liked making bread, mostly because I'm not the biggest fan of bread (Except Doña Patricia's Challah. Mmmmm...). But you can't really make a pizza without dough, right? Oh well. Here I go. My first package of yeast was dead. After ten minutes, instead of being bubbly and active, it looked watery and sad. It looked like loose, soggy sand. Good thing yeast comes in packages of 3. Note to self: never, ever cook a recipe that requires yeast if you only have one package. If you only have one and it's dead, you're screwed.

The second package of yeast looked quite robust, so I figured it was ok to go ahead and add the rest of the ingredients. Remember how I said I never really liked making bread? Now I remember the real reason why. "Mix together by hand until a shaggy mass forms." Ewwwwwwwww!! I just shoved my hands into slimy, icky glop! If I ever put my hands in a baby's mouth while it was eating, I think this is what it would feel like. But I shouldn't scare anyone. This feeling only lasts a few seconds. After that, the dough becomes malleable and not gross feeling. Next comes the kneading. 12 minutes of kneading feels like a looong time! It's no joke that chefs need good upper body strength. I was literally sweating when I was done. I do have to say, you feel powerful when you're kneading, in much the same way some might feel powerful when lifting weights. That was it for now. Coated with olive oil, the pizza dough now sat on top of the oven, warming up and growing over the heat of a preheating 500 degree oven.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Cookies for Grandpa

My Grandfather is an amazing man. In his life, amongst other things, he has been an eighth grade teacher Honduras, an FBI agent in Venezuela and the Philippines, and a trade unionist in all of Central America- all of this after having been born into a conservative family from Iowa that had never left the United States! I can't count the number of women -of all ages and walks of life- who have told me that they want to take him home. “Get in line!”, I tell them. After all (at eighty-one!) he just married for a second time, after a life-long happy marriage with my Grandmother. You have to be a real bitter soul not to like Grandpa- he is always breath of fresh air.

He also was recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

This has really been a blow to my family. Grandpa has never been seriously ill, and apart from an overdose of tapioca medicine as a child, he's never had to endure any strenuous medical procedure. Now all of a sudden, he has to learn how to live with cancer.

I came to El Paso for the summer, after finishing my freshman year at SMU. Since then I've been sharing in hospital visit time with my mother, my step-dad John, and Clemencia, my Grandfather's lucky wife. I never realized how exhausting hospital time can be for the family members. It is boring and painful. During my visits, one thing that has stood out to me is my Grandfather's dissatisfaction with hospital food. Grandpa never- never- complains about anything, especially not in this fashion. After two days of watching him “tackle his food” with grimaces and comments like “That has got to be one of the most unfortunate culinary experiences I have ever had!,” I decided to ask him if there was any food from the outside world that I could bring him. He said he wanted cookies. This was a perfect moment to resume my cooking crusade. After being released from the hospital this morning, Grandpa and I went to the grocery store and got the necessary ingredients to cook Tassajara's Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

Challenge number one: Clemencia, in the traditional Latin American way, only had brown sugar in Panela form: a solid block that's too hard to cut through. I asked Grandpa for help, and he decided that he should grab a grater and grate the block of sugar into a powder that I could work with. After a few strokes at it, he stopped and said “Whew! This is going to be an... interesting project.”

“Isn't there any easier way to go about that?”, I asked.

Not with a Panela there's not.”

So we kept at it, me chopping pecans while Grandpa grated sugar. It was both a noisy and quiet experience. I took it upon myself to follow Tassajara's advice of not speaking while cooking. After a few more goes at it, Grandpa was able to give me the ¾ of a cup of brown sugar that I needed, even with a little to spare. Next came creaming the sugar with a stick of butter. Salted? Unsalted? The recipe didn't specify. I just went with regular salted butter. The egg I used caught my attention- a bleached white shell. That is not what eggs really look like! I was a little troubled, as I was expecting the naturally spotty, skin coloured shells that I grew up with. But in it went. With regard to the cooking time, it is possible that El Paso's extremely dry heat impacted it slightly. I added an extra couple of minutes to the cooking time stated in the recipe. As for the chocolate, the recipe specifically calls for 70% bittersweet chocolate, but the Albertson's I went to had either 100% cocoa, 62% or less. 62% is what I ended up using. It's probably a little sweeter than the authors intended, but it still worked fine.

All the while, I worked in silence. Grandpa left to the pharmacy, and I had the house to myself. It gave me space to appreciate the light coming in from the garden and falling on the water in the sink; the beauty of the ingredients and the flour dusted kitchen counter; my gratitude to be cooking again in a real kitchen after a year of dorm life. I thought about how much I wanted these to be good so I could give my Grandfather a break from awful food. I am a person who is usually loud and talkative, who listens to a lot of music and bursts into song with the slightest provocation. But in this silence I felt serene. This whole silent meditation thing works after all!

Yes- the author's comment that real chocolate bars or slabs cut by hand are better than chocolate chips is absolutely correct! The hand-cut, irregularly shaped chocolate gave the cookies much more character and flavour. The dough was creamy, and was complimented very well by the gooey chocolate and crunchy pecans. At first I thought there wouldn't be enough dough, but as is usual every time I cook from a U.S. cookbook, I ended up with many more cookies than I expected. The recipe said it made about 2 dozen cookies. I had 3 dozen.

Grandpa got home from picking up an antibiotic prescription just as I was putting the last of the cookies on a platter. He was tired from a long week of hospital treatments and doctor's appointments. He was ready to take a nap. He isn't a very effusive person, so when he tried a cookie, he wasn't very enthusiastic. “It's good,” he said, “They have a very nice consistency.” But there was chocolate left on his lips instead of dry, bland hospital food. That made me smile. When a loved one has cancer, it's hard to really know what to do. But you don't have to be a miracle worker to do good. A day of your time and a plate of cookies is enough to make things a little better.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

On the Eve of 2010

Well, seeing as this blog is mainly for me and my own enjoyment, I allowed myself to "hand in" this assignment late. A few days ago (cough cough), just because I wanted to, I made myself some James Creek Farm Ratatouille for dinner. This recipe has a lot of my favourite things: Eggplant, fresh tomatoes, oregano... yum all around.

Except that I found a worm in my eggplant while I was chopping it. EEEEP!!!!

That was quite a shock, I must say. After I was done very cautiously getting rid of the parts of eggplant that had been bitten through, I continued cooking. Everything went seamlessly. When it was all done, I felt like it was a bit sour for my taste, so I added about half a teaspoon of sugar. A bit unorthodox, maybe, but it actually made it taste very good! It lasted me 4 nights. I ate it with cubes of cheese a couple of nights, and with pasta another night. Very good indeed.

Why didn't I cook the pizza with my cousin the other day? Well, everything was going according to plan until there was a storm and a lightning bolt busted the transformer that brought electricity to my cousin's street. We were in the dark for 5 hours. By the time the electricity came back (or, should I say, the electricity company decided to send its team to fix the problem...) we were in no mood. Yay Costa Rican efficiency.

Happy New Year to all! Good eats and good living.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Back on the Road

After a plunge into finals, I have resurfaced with a 3.99 GPA for my first semester of college, and an eager desire to take up the Tassajara project again. Now that I'm back in Costa Rica staying at my boyfriend's house, I have access to a real (big!) kitchen to cook in to my heart's content. So, as my first adventure back into the world of Tassajara, we made ourselves an Arugula Salad with Radishes, Oranges, Feta, and Mint.

The pros and cons of cooking in Costa Rica: You don't have to worry quite as much as you do in the US about the organic quality of the food. We don't use half the pesticides and other chemicals that are used in US agriculture, so our food seems generally healthier. We also get a lot of really great, fresh produce. The downside is that since we're a small third world country, we don't get all the variety the U.S. has in its super markets. Blood oranges, for example. I've never tried them, so I really wanted to for this recipe. But alas, none could be found. We used navel oranges instead, which the recipe calls for if the blood oranges went awol.

Let me tell you: Toasting pistachios makes them fantabulous! Even more so than they are naturally. I thought that the 12 minutes the recipe tells you to toast them for sounded like too much, but I'm happy I believed in its wisdom. I thought they were perfect. My boyfriend thought they tasted too strong- to each their own, I guess. I gave Eduardo the meticulous task of taking the pith off the oranges and slicing them. The recipe says you need a serrated knife, but really, a normal knife was enough to slice through them like paper. I was apprehensive about the radishes. They never were my favourite vegetable. I was expecting to write this blog and say "I now remember why I hated radishes so much." But not at all! I was actually quite impressed at their subtleness. The feta cheese and the mint were perfect compliments. The sharp taste of the mint with the tanginess of the orange was contrasted beautifully with the creamy feta cheese and the smoky flavour of the pistachios.

We also made North African Vinaigrette as dressing for the salad. I have to say, I hate grinding out zest of any kind. If anyone has tips on how not to want to shoot yourself while doing this, it would be most appreciated. Invest in a good grater that won't make your orange zest get stuck. At first, the Vinaigrette felt way too oily, so I added some more orange juice. There was a lot of dressing left over after the salad was gobbled by the family (total success!!), so we put the rest in a jar for later use. Why waste perfectly good vinaigrette?

Tomorrow I'm headed over to my cousin Giannina's house, and we decided to make pizza. I will report then.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Reversed Entry

So, I kind of cheated and did a recipe from the book before starting this blog. My bad! Anyway, this is the first recipe from the first section of this book: Antipasto Plate.

I was visiting my mother over Thanksgiving, and decided to take advantage of the fact that I would have a real kitchen with real cooking supplies to work with. Yay! This was my contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner. The original recipe asked for "Chioggia beets," the likes of which I have never heard of. My step dad and I don't like beets anyway, so my mother decided not to spend her money on something only she would eat (hey, I'm working on an external budget here). We got eggplant instead, which happens to be my favourite vegetable.

The first thing I did was roast the mushrooms. A completely painless process that made the kitchen smell wonderfully. Once they were out of the oven, I rolled them around in some tarragon and left them there until dinner.

I have to interject that with regard to the Zen aspect of this cook book, I have to admit I probably scored a C on that this time. Since I was at my mother's house, and since she had all my CDs that we shipped up here from Costa Rica, I was on an importing frenzy so that I could bring my music back with me to Dallas. As soon as I started the work on the mushrooms, a friend from Costa Rica called over Skype. I hadn't spoken to him in months, so I answered and kept talking while I cooked. So yes, even if I washed my hands for 15 seconds and using deep breathing techniques, as instructed, and even if I did not put on my music while I was cooking, I have to say I was not totally focused on the preparation of the meal. I'll get better at this, I swear! Also, I guess it doesn't help that my step dad had the tv going in the background. ET phone home, ET phone home...

I grilled the rest of the vegetables using a George Forman Grill, which my grandfather is apparently obsessed about. I have to say the only hard part of this recipe was working with the bell peppers. First of all- "cook over hot coals." Huh?? Who has those in a regular kitchen? I just used the grill again. Then I was supposed to steam them in a paper bag, but a ziplock was going to have to do. And it did. The bell peppers came out of that bag looking like they had been in a sauna, and there was a lot of excess water. Now came the tedious part. Peeling the very wet bell peppers. Sure, I could have just chopped them in half and discarded the part with the peel, but I like conserving as much food as possible. So I spent my sweet time carefully plucking the skin off the peppers (by this time the tv was playing Mamma Mia). I guess I felt like a sculptor must feel while chiseling. That, or a bikini waxer.

Super trouper lights are gonna find me!...

Once that was done, I made some Reduced Balsamic Vinegar to go with it. It was just like making caramel. The result was actually the same. Instead of being liquid, I ended up with the equivalent of a vinegar praline. It actually even tasted somewhat sweet! In hindsight, there's a lot of things I could have done with that. I remember making a cheesecake once where I had to make caramel and quickly pour the bubbly substance over some almonds, so as to make brittle. In the future, I might use this recipe to make some kind of garnish.

When all was said and done, the recipe ended up tasting good. There's not too much that can go wrong with the taste of roasted and grilled vegetables and feta cheese.