Monday, December 28, 2009


This is a little more my pace--popcorn that takes five minutes ...

My mother instilled in myself and my sisters a love for popcorn. It's actually pretty excessive; I don't think I know anyone who likes popcorn as much as my mom. Here's the evidence: 1.) the people at Vic's Popcorn on 132nd and Center in Omaha know (or knew) my mom by name (she's a regular), 2.) if we or just she and my dad are planning on seeing a movie, my mom will purposely eat a light dinner to save room for butter popcorn, she asks for extra butter and will go back for seconds, 3.) we choose movie theaters based on the quality of their popcorn (AMC Oakview's is awful), 4.) she once sent me a 5-gallon bag of white popcorn and a 2-gallon bag of cheese popcorn before finals--the box was big enough to transport a three-year-old child.

Instead of getting a box of microwaveable popcorn at the store last time, I opted for a bag of kernels. I was without a microwave when I moved into a previous apartment. Unable to live without popcorn, I figured out that you can cook popcorn on the stove (duh, right?). My friend Lindsey gave me some spices for Christmas that flavored this popcorn nicely.

Stovetop Popcorn:
3 tablespoons oil or butter
1/3 cup popcorn kernals
salt, pepper and other seasonings
melted butter

Heat oil in a 2-quart pot, add the popcorn and cover with a lid. Once the kernals start popping, try to shake the pot a little so the already popped kernals aren't resting on the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat once popping subsides. Drizzle with melted butter and season with salt and pepper.

Not Mastering the Art of French Cooking

I don't want to speak too soon, but I believe the Midwest has just about recovered from the blizzard of '09--three straight days of snow. I was lucky to be trapped at my parents' house for the holiday with cross-country skiing as the only means of escape (not too shabby if I do say so). I received several food-related gifts this year (having a hobby makes me an easy person to shop for), two of which are related to Julia Child. One was the movie Julie and Julia (Meryl Streep is amazing) and the other was (obviously) Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And after my first foray into the tome of culinary instruction, I can safely say I will not be replicating Julie Powell's quest to cook through the book.

The first edition's foreward says the manual is for the "servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome or anything else that might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat."

I'm afraid I'm not one of those people--and I don't even have kids. I suppose on occasion I could splurge for a whole, live lobster or, I don't know, chicken kidneys, which, according to Julia are quite delectable. There are recipes for brains in here, people. I'm adventurous, but I can't see myself thinking one night, "Hmm, let's try that recipe for stewed brains just to say I've tried them." No. Not happening (my dad and vegetarian roommate along with every single person who gets invited over for dinner at my house is now breathing a collective sigh of relief). And, though I think I can say with confidence that I am whole-heartedly content with my waistline--more so than most women I've met--I must confess I do care about the volume of butter required to execute these dishes. Take for instance last night, I made crepes, stuffed with sauteed mushrooms and topped with brown sauce. I went through nearly an entire stick of butter between the three elements. And that was removing the cheese sauce that was supposed to go with the mushrooms. Granted, I didn't eat all of the meal myself, but still. And for time, there is no way I'm going to come home from work after 5 p.m. and begin a meal that takes three hours.

Right away as I start reading the cookbook, I'm thinking, "Julia Child would not like me." She insists you read the entire recipe beforehand and follow it to the T the first time through. What!? I almost never read past the ingredients and where it says how long something takes to make, and things usually turn out just fine. But last night, I did it. I followed the directions (for the most part) and read through the entire recipe before turning on the stove. And I ended up with a savory sauce, confidence in flipping crepes and a pile of mushrooms that were lovely even though I used Marsala cooking wine--something decidely "not French."

Katy braved the roads to drive 10 blocks to my apartment with Cordell in tow. He liked the crepes, though not stuffed with mushrooms. And I think that skill is certainly a keeper--I predict more dainty, berry-stuffed French pancakes in my future.

I'm not even going to attempt to transcribe these complicated recipes here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23

Just a photo from a potluck we hosted a couple weeks ago (this was the most ridiculous game of Jenga ever played, just saying). I'm looking forward to hosting another potluck in January--I've already planned on making more things than I could possibly enjoy taking on (get excited!). Merry Christmas. Here's a list of blogs I've been drooling over the past couple weeks. They've inspired me to save up for a new camera and to try a little harder:

{ Take }
{ Natalie }

* who I suspect is my neighbor based on this image

I enjoy the motion and warmth exuded in pictures that aren't completely in focus. A couple months ago, I went to see The September Issue at Film Streams. Aside from being in awe of the process of putting together a magazine on calibar with Vogue, I became completely enamored with Grace Coddington (along with every other person who saw that documentary). I love the simple personal style she and Tonne Goodman sport. The two of them, to me, are the epitome of style that comes from the inside out.

At one point, Grace (I'll use her first name) was setting up a photoshoot or perhaps she was looking at images. She said something like, "Everybody wants these sharp images. You lose the romance and movement. It's really such a shame."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Magic Mushrooms

I've taken quite a turn from my childhood loathing of mushrooms to today. A dish similar to this mushroom-laden toast was what first converted me. My mom occasionally made toast slathered in cream cheese with sauteed mushrooms pressed firmly into the cheese. I suspect what I actually liked was the cheese on toast and the mushrooms were only tolerable.

This meal -- as it was an entire meal -- encapsulates what I love about cooking for myself. I have complete permission to make myself a meal of buttered toast with a pile of mushrooms on it and call it a night.

Mushrooms and Toast: from Smitten Kitchen
big handful mushrooms
big garlic clove
2 pieces of toast
butter for the toast
about 1 tablespoon butter for sauteeing the shrooms
a good glug or two of marsala cooking wine

Chop the shrooms up into tiny bits and mince the garlic. In a skillet, melt the butter. Toss in the shrooms and minced garlic. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until the wine has reduced. Turn off heat and let sit for a few minutes to let it thicken.

Meanwhile, pop the bread in the toaster. Butter. Top with sauteed mushrooms. Serves 1.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Soup That Warms

Winter is in full force in Omaha, and I can't manage to stay warm. Last night I went to bed with the space hearter on with four blankets covering me, two pairs of socks, sweatpants and a T-shirt--still shivering. Heading to Dario's for late-night happy hour helped only temporarily to releave the aches and pains of sub-zero temperatures. Dario's is so cozy, and its Belgian beer takes the chill off. Someone said it reminded them of a ski lodge after hours--I just love that comparison.

Monday night after yet another bout of shoveling the driveway, this soup, with my cold hands cupped around the bowl, warmed me up.

Pappa al pomodoro is a chunky tomato soup with soggy pieces of bread in it, lending a creamy quality. This was my first time using tomatoes from San Marzano, which turned out to be really sweet (for tomatoes). The crispy topping was maybe the best part of the soup. The crunchy pancetta with toasted bread and the tomato soup reminisced pepperoni pizza. This whole thing roasted on the stove while I was out in the cold pushing snow and slipping on the ice.

Pappa al Pomodoro: by Ina Garten
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 fennel bulb (I substituted celery)
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups Italian loaf, cubed
28-ounces whole tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup red wine
1 tablespoon dried basil
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese

3 cups Italian loaf, cubed
2 ounces sliced pancetta, chopped
dried basil
olive oil
salt and pepper
In a large stock pot, saute the carrots, onions, garlic and celery (or fennel) in olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add the cubes of bread and saute another 5 minutes. Ladle in the the tomatoes, squishing each one with your hand. Pour in stock, wine, basil and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let sit partially covered for 45 minutes.
For the toppins, arrange the bread and pancetta on a baking tray. Preheat the oven to 375. Drizzle bread and pancetta with olive oil (because that Italian-style bacon needs more fat), basil leaves and salt and pepper. Toast in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp. Serve on the soup with parmesan cheese.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Marathon of Baking

After my mom had so much fun with the tortellini fest, she decided to dedicate an entire day to baking Christmas cookies. She feigned reluctance, swearing that she would never be able to last as long as me in our culinary half-marathon (hello, everything I make is pan fried in olive oil--it takes less than 30 minutes because I get hungry and bored easily). I was right. When it came time to rolling out the lemon sandwich cookies and there were still two cakes to be made for weekend parties, I slumped over and nearly petered out, while my mom, Megan and Emily carried on without me.

We made quite a mess (my favorite part of baking) and ended up with four varities of cookies, one chocolate bar and two orange yogurt cakes. Exhausting and exhilarating.

The favorite were the succharinis. I believe the Italian wedding cookies were the inspiration for the day. My mom was convinced they were difficult because my aunt Jean said they were. But Jean also left the paper in between slices of mozzarella cheese when making lasagna for her boyfriend 20 or 30 years ago. Just saying.
My mom said the cookies tasted old, not like the too-sweet and heavily frosted sugar cookies you can get at the store. Their texture was a bit drier than you're typical cookie--dry in a good way--nearer in quality to a biscuit but a bit sweeter. They're flavored with anise and whiskey (Scotch in this case. My dad came up from the basement and said, "You're using my Scotch?!" "Only a tablespoon, dad.").
My mom rolled out the dough, just like she remembers her grandmother doing, and twisted the ropes into a knot. Once baked, we dipped the knots in a Scotch-flavored glaze and let them set. Before I left that evening I could hear her on the phone with one of her sisters, "They really taste just like Noni's. I can't believe it." I fear we're unraveling the mysteries of yore to reveal that old fashioned tortellini- and cookie-making was never the feat we thought it was and that there really is no excuse for us not folding thin sheets of pasta in on itself or twisting ropes of dough into hearty cookies in the company of friends and family.

Emily was in charge of making those icebox sugar cookies. We were implementing all sorts of old timey techniques. First rolling out the dough, then shoveling dough into those "guns" circa 1973. Even one of the standing mixers we used was incredibly retro (see top photo).

Megan was quite pleased with her output as well. She took on making a three-step-plus peppermint-chocolate cookie. The process involved baking the cookies and adding peppermint icing and chocolate drizzle, with crushed peppermints to top it off.

5 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
6 eggs
3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 1/2 tablespoons anise seeds
1 generous tablespoon whiskey

For glaze:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon whiskey

Preheat oven to 350. For the cookies, blend all the ingredients together using a mixer (being careful not to break your spatula (see below)). Divide into handfuls and turn out on a well-floured surface. Roll into a rope and tie rope into a square knot. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Let cool.

For the glaze, bring the water and sugar to a soft boil on the stovetop. Add the whiskey. Continue until it forms a thicker syrup. Remove front heat and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Drop each biscuit into the glaze and remove with tongs. Let dry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Creature Comfort

Right now I'm enjoying day 2 of being snowed in. How often does it happen in adulthood that snow shuts down one-and-a-half days of work? (That should give you a hint as to how bad the snow is here in Omaha.)

My boss woke me up this morning at 7:45 a.m. I thought it was my alarm and hung up on him. He forgave me and told me not to brave the cold or the unplowed streets. I was jumping around like a kid while Meg took a shower and got ready to dig out her car. We made a solid effort at getting her out, but her wheels spun and spun. Hours later, the neighborhood still isn't plowed, and neither is most of our driveway. So methinks I shall stay bundled up under a fleece blanket, writing more, reading more, and perhaps watching Little Women.

This pasta would be the perfect lunch if only I had any bacon left: It's homey, salty, crunchy. Everything you need when the windchill is -18 and the snow in the driveway passes the one-foot mark.
Macaroni with bacon, parm and butter: from Orangette
Boil some salted water to make the pasta (cook until pasta is tender but crisp to the bite). Cook your bacon. Drain your pasta. Melt a small knob of butter with the macaroni and season with salt and pepper. Crumble the bacon on top and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Serve.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Quest for the Perfect Scone

I've pursued the perfect scone a number of times within the past year. I'll admit, I'm a little obsessed with perfecting the English biscuit, but there's only so much failure I can take. I suppose you can't call my previous attempts failures so much as near misses. Well, here's another for the books.

The thing is: I know inspired crisp-soft scones can be made. I've eaten them. When I worked at Crane Coffee, they sold a triangular cinnamon scone that had little chunks of cinnamon much the same way a chocolate-chip cookie is littered with semi-sweet morsels. Crane's scones were solid, dry and crumbled apart when you broke them. They also came premade in a pickle barrel.

Then recently while I was in Boston, a friend (Liz) and I stopped by the cafe in the Boston Public Library. Lo and behold, not only does the library channel the spirits of our nation's founding fathers but also turns out scones that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and just barely sweet.

Inspired by the holiday season and recent scone perfection, I made pumpkin scones, tweaked from a sweet potato biscuit recipe. The consistency of the scones turned out more chewy than soft and it was just shy of sweet enough. (I've suggested small changes to the recipe below, chiefly adding more butter, substituting buttermilk or cream for regular milk and adding a bit more sugar.)

Rolling out and kneading this dough was such great fun. I made a mess only of myself and not the entire kitchen--flour all over my shirt. And when I was getting ready for bed I noticed two streaks of flour on each of my cheeks--just the sort of thing I wish would happen in a romantic scenario (like in the movies). Except this is real life (and my real life no less) and that sort of thing only happens when no one can appreciate it or when the absolute wrong person is there to clean you up. *sigh*

Pumpkin Scones:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 cup butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup buttermilk or cream
1/4 cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 425. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and soda, salt and spices. Cut butter into 1/4-inch cubes and blend into dry mixture with a pastry blender until it forms small crumbs. In a small bowl, combine pumpkin puree, cream and sugar. Pour wet mixture into the dry mixture. Stir until the dough forms a uniform consistency. Turn dough out on a floured surface and knead for several strokes (this version of scones were the easiest ever to knead--before they were always too wet and sticky). Roll dough until it's 1/2-inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter (just bought one!), cut out the scones and arrange on a baking tray. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Since I can remember, my mom and her sisters have talked about great-grandma Noni's homemade tortellini. My grandparents would pack the kids in the car and drive from St. Louis to Carlinville, Illinois. My mom tells how she would sit on the countertop while Noni rolled out the pasta dough into paper-thin sheets, cut it into dainty squares, packed them with a pinch of meat and folded it upon itself, forming cute little pockets of stuffed pasta. She would make enough to last for a month of homey tortellini soup, a well-loved dish in my mom's family.

I think to my mom and her sisters (or really anyone who has bought a $1 bushel of spaghetti) making pasta seems as if it belongs to a different era. One of ladies who made an art of stay-at-home-wifehood. They probably stitched clothing for their families, worked out dainty needlepoint, made quilts, baked bread and, for the Italians, made their own stuffed pasta. I am absolutely in awe thinking of what they could do. I can barely feed a thread through a sewing machine.

We were sitting around the breakfast table the day after Thanksgiving, talking about grandmas Ella and Noni. Aunt Jean went on about how Noni would absolutely beat the dough into submission on the countertop. I think it was me who suggested we give pasta-making a try. Jean and Mom said we couldn't do it--rolling the dough would take forever. However, squeezing the dough through a borrowed pasta maker would be a cinch.

It's true, we almost gave up before we started. But pasta maker in hand and Jean on the phone with Aunt Marsha to get a recipe, we were in it with no reason to turn back.

We fiddled with the pasta roller until it bent to our will--or until we bent to it. And it produced, after seven turns through the crank, a sheet of dough so thin you could see through it.

Jean cut the first squares, placed the teeniest dollop of meat in the center, folded the square cross-wise to form a triangle, sealed the meat inside and pinched the acute corners of the triangle together to form the navel. And, elation. The impossible is possible!

We took turns pinching, rolling and stuffing, in between sips of wine.

We fed extra scraps to the dog, who turned out to the love the process just as much as the rest of us.

The typically submission dog stuck her snout up as close to the uncooked pasta as she could get it, even onto to the table.

For Stuffing:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound Italian sausage
1 small onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 egg
handful Italian bread crumbs

For Pasta:
6 eggs
6 cups semolina flour
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
Brown the meat with the onion, garlic, salt and pepper, and parsley. Drain off the fat. Mix together with one egg and enough bread crumbs to made the mixture a not-too-sticky mess. Let sit for an hour (we skipped that part).

Meanwhile, pour out the flour into a pile on a countertop. Form a well in the center and break the eggs and pour the olive oil into the well. Slowly and carefully stir the flour into the eggs and oil using a fork. Once the dough is smooth, knead the dough for five minutes, adding more flour if it gets sticky. Form into a ball, cover with a towel and let sit for 10 minutes.

Cut the ball of dough into 1/4-inch thick slices. Feed each slice through a pasta maker, according to its directions. Cut the flat dough using a pizza or pasta cutter into approximately three-inch by three-inch squares. Place a 1/2-teaspoon dollop of meat into the middle up the square. Dab your fingers in a bit of lukewarm water and run them across the edge of the square of pasta. Fold the pasta in half diagonally to form a triangle. Pinch the sides together, forming a seal around the meat. Dab some water on the acute angles of the triangle. Fold the acute corners under the chunk of meat. Repeat. Freeze immediately or serve. To complete cooking the pasta, boil the tortellinis in salted water until they float (takes about 2 minutes). Serve topped with lemon juice, olive oil and parmesan cheese or in a tortellini soup.