April 28, 2007

Pizza...Obsession or Healthy Devotion?

So many of the meals we try to make at home come from our desire to imitate delicious restaurant dishes. Eating at fantastic restaurants is fundamental to our understanding and high expectations for the food we eat. When you know how good something can be, how can you go home and eat cereal? Even when that profound experience I'm referring to includes pizza? Oui.

Although everyone says Washington, DC isn’t a pizza town, I have had some pretty good pizza here, although I have found a lack of authenticity. I desperately miss the thin and crispy Italian-style pizza found in Paris, with toppings like Parma ham and arugula, or chorizo with a cracked egg on top, but I am enough of a pizza lover that I’ll take it deep-dished, stuffed, chewy or crispy, as long as it’s done well.

Pizza Parma from Pizzeria Carmine in Paris

So far, there have been a few interesting pizzas that have left an impression on me. The first was at Rustico, in Alexandria, where they have a huge brick oven and generally create good quality thin crust pizzas. I remember loving their chicken, bacon and apple version. Next, we had some really yummy grilled flatbread topped with butternut squash, onions, spinach and feta during happy hour at Old Ebbitt’s downtown. So, it is with these two variations that I offer you the following ideas for some amazingly different and delicious pizza.

First, an easy pizza sauce. This makes much more than you need for one pizza, but I divide it into smaller freezer bags or containers and freeze it for the next time we make pizza. Thaw in the microwave before using. I’m not kidding around with the San Marzano tomatoes, either; their texture is much better than other brands of crushed tomatoes. Pizza making is serious business, right? One of these days, we’re going to get back into making our own pizza dough, which we used to love doing. But, when there isn’t time for that, we love the fresh dough you can buy at Whole Foods and form yourself.

Easy Pizza Sauce

1 28-oz can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 Tbsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried crushed chili flakes, or to taste
½ tsp salt
1 tsp olive oil

Combine all the above ingredients in a small bowl until well mixed. No need to cook it! Makes enough for maybe 4 large pizzas.

Chicken, Bacon and Apple Pizza with White Cheddar

1 cup leftover roast chicken
3 slices bacon, diced
1 granny smith or gala apple, diced or thinly sliced
½ onion, thinly sliced
Easy pizza sauce
½ cup grated white cheddar
1 small ball fresh mozzarella
Dried oregano
Your favorite pizza crust

Sauté the bacon in a non-stick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate to drain. Wipe out the pan and add a little olive oil. Sauté the onion and apple until slightly softened.

Form the pizza crust as thick or thin as you wish, on a pizza peel, if you have one, or a baking sheet if you don’t. If you have a pizza stone, preheat it in a very hot oven, at least 450 degrees. If using a baking sheet, 425 may be sufficient.

Top the crust with as much sauce as you like, some shredded chicken, some bacon pieces and the apple and onion mixture. Sprinkle with some cheddar, slices of fresh mozzarella, and dried oregano. Bake for 10 minutes, or so, until the crust is crispy and cheese melted.

Pizza with Butternut Squash, Sage and Caramelized Onions

A white pizza that makes an equally divine appetizer when entertaining, or dinner when simply hungry.

¼ whole butternut squash, peeled and diced
6-8 fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ large yellow onion, thinly sliced
Fresh mozzarella
½ cup aged parmesan, or asiago cheese

Caramelize the onions by heating some olive oil in a saucepan. Add the onions and cook over medium low heat for 5-7 minutes to sweat the onions until very soft. Season with salt and pepper and turn the heat up to medium high. Sauté, stirring every few minutes, until onions are browned and caramel colored. Remove from heat.

Toss the diced butternut squash pieces with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread on a small baking sheet. Roast at 375 for 15 minutes, until tender and slightly browned.

Brush your pizza crust with some olive oil and sprinkle with minced garlic. Top with the cheeses, caramelized onions, sage leaves and diced butternut squash. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Cool slightly before cutting and serving.

April 22, 2007

One of the most amazing meals I've eaten.

Herb Gnocchi with Butternut Squash, Mushrooms and Sage Brown Butter

My husband is a man of good ideas. Making homemade gnocchi has been up on the list for awhile now and Paul's discovery of this recipe makes the previous sentence a glaring understatement. He is the idea man when it comes to branching out in the kitchen.

This amazing recipe comes from Thomas Keller and lives up to all the lofty expectations for flavor, appearance and texture one has when attempting a recipe such as this. The 4-page recipe printout has more text than I am normally accustomed to, but despite the narrative quality of the recipe, this is actually a straightforward, simple dish. This is a perfect meal in my mind, and since you can cook all the ingredients separately and ahead of time, this is easy to serve to friends.

Keller, the acclaimed chef and owner of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, throws in just enough history and explanation to excite your taste buds, while the highly detailed instructions give you confidence while you are cooking. I won’t reprint the recipe here since even if I tried, I could never paraphrase or explain the recipe better than the master himself. So, go to epicurious.com for the full recipe, or his cookbook, Bouchon. After savoring every morsel of this meal, I will definitely be purchasing the book.

This tender gnocchi is Gnocchi à la Parisienne. In actuality, this is a pâte à choux, the same dough used for cream puffs, éclairs, gougères and other delicacies. It is a tender, eggy dough that Keller places in a pastry bag and pipes little gnocchi-sized pieces into simmering water. These are then drained, and later sautéed with diced pieces of sweet butternut squash, sautéed mushrooms and shallots in fresh thyme and drizzled with a brown butter sauce flavored with fresh sage and parsley. We realized that what makes this dish go from great to amazing is the subtlety of the flavors, especially the hint of lemon in the brown butter and sage sauce which balances so well with the sweetness of the squash.

This is an herbaceous meal, to say the least, as it requires the purchase of 6 types of herbs. Other than that expense, this bistro dish is actually quite feasible to prepare by the home chef. As we were eating this gnocchi and grinning from ear to ear, we managed to sip down some nice red wine and thought about how we could’ve been sitting at a good Parisian bistro. If someone had only baked a molten chocolate cake for dessert, it would have pretty much been our version of heaven!

We love that this gnocchi recipe makes more than you need for the actual dish, so we have another portion of them waiting for us in the freezer! Oh a joyful day that will be!

My only small complaint about this recipe is the amount of oil and butter used for sautéing the squash, mushrooms and gnocchi. Keep in mind that the gnocchi are drizzled with the brown butter sauce at the end, so I don’t think every component to the dish needs to be covered in so much oil. We also thought the amount of salt in the gnocchi recipe was a little too much. Other than those small things, this was fun and so satisfying to make!

the gnocchi ready to be piped into the simmering water,
just use a knife to cut off 1-inch pieces

the gnocchi simmer for just 2-3 minutes

the cooked gnocchi awaiting their sage butter bath

butternut squash sauteing in olive oil and butter

cremini mushrooms and shallots cooked with thyme
(Keller calls for shiitake mushrooms, which I couldn't find)

the brown butter sauce is accented with fresh parsley, the juice of 1/2 a lemon and chives

April 18, 2007

A Big Thank You!

Thanks to everyone who took time out of their busy lives to vote for me for Best of Blogs! I got runner-up and I couldn't be happier! Congratulations to Deglazed for winning! I appreciate everyone's support and willingness to stop by and read my blog from time to time. Thanks to everyone for reading!
Congratulations to my friend, Genie, of The Inadvertent Gardner, for placing runner-up in the Hobby Blog category! We continue to have much in common, Genie. =)

Back with more recipes soon!

April 15, 2007

Glorious Mashed Potatoes

Emily, my very dear friend, told me about these delicious and creamy mashed potatoes and she became even dearer to me after I tasted them. This is originally a Martha Stewart recipe, but I learned from ze French that Yukon gold potatoes are really the only choice when it comes to une vrai pommes puree. Martha’s recipe calls for russets mashed with caramelized onions and Roquefort cheese. I’m afraid my aversion to blue cheese hasn’t let me try that yet, but I love adding gruyere or parmesan instead. These are rich and creamy potatoes with little jewels of sweet golden onion spread throughout. Once you try these, I’m sure you won’t be making plain mashed potatoes again. Oh la la, I tell you, these are divine!

Maybe you don’t really need a recipe for mashed potatoes, but there are many schools of thought about how to make the “best” puree. If you own a ricer or food mill, feel free to use that, but I am pretty content with my hand masher. I don’t mind a few chunks, anyway. I am of the opinion that adding a lot of cream and butter makes the best tasting mashed potato, (duh) and a bit of sour cream or cream cheese (whichever I have on hand) for even more creaminess goes above and beyond the normal mash. However, as I am growing a little more concerned with my high-fat dairy intake, I have decided to cut back just a little. If I add sour cream, I might use milk instead of heavy cream, so do whatever you like, just don’t skimp on everything.

Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Onions and Gruyere Cheese

3 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
¾ - 1 cup milk or half & half
4 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ cup grated gruyere, parmesan or crumbled Roquefort cheese
Salt and pepper

Place the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until tender.

While the potatoes are simmering, finely chop the onion. Heat olive oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a stainless steel skillet. Add the onions and sauté over medium heat until softened and golden. Season with salt and pepper. Leave them alone for a few minutes at a time so they brown, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them rest while the potatoes finish cooking.

Once the potatoes are cooked through, drain them and put them back into the pot, letting the water and steam evaporate from them for a few seconds. Add the remaining butter and half the milk or cream. Mash the potatoes well, adding more milk or cream until the desired consistency is reached. Fold in the caramelized onions and season with salt and pepper. Taste and re-season. Taste again and refrain from “tasting” the entire bowl. Cover until it’s time to serve. Serves 8.

If you go see Emily's blog, you can see a picture of us taken in Paris, since she is more courageous than me for posting our picture! =)

April 5, 2007

Portobello Mushroom Pesto

I really want to love mushrooms. I love their earthy flavor and I enjoy them mixed into other dishes, I just don’t really love their texture. For instance, I love creamy mushroom soup or mushrooms in a sauce over a nice steak, but it’s hard for me to handle big chunky mushrooms anywhere else. It’s too bad, really, since I love their punch of flavor.

But then I was told about this recipe for mushroom pesto, and I have to admit, it’s my new favorite meal. Talk about a totally delicious dish, whether it’s for a busy weeknight or for entertaining (especially for vegetarian friends - this is one that impresses!) Pair this deliciously rich pasta with a salad, a glass of wine, and a killer dessert and you've got a damn fine meal; just be sure to invite me over, please!

I especially love the pairing of the Portobello mushrooms and sherry. It has a very rich taste, almost as if it has cream in it, but I think that comes from the pureed pine nuts and cheese. We made some generous adjustments to the amounts and were very pleased with the results. The original recipe calls for white button mushrooms, but the portobellos gave it much more flavor, I’m sure. I might like to try some basil next time, not just the parsley, but this was utterly delicious as written. I hope you’ll try it soon – I know I’ll be making again tout de suite. It reheats beautifully, too. I just love it when a recipe surprises me like this one did!

Penne with Mushroom Pesto
(adapted from Epicurious.com)

10-12 oz Portobello or cremini mushrooms, finely chopped in food processor
4 Tbsp olive oil
¼ cup medium-dry sherry
1 Tbsp worchestershire sauce
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup parmesan
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup fresh parsley
¾ lb penne rigate pasta, or other tubular pasta

Chop the mushrooms finely in the food processor (or a knife). Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a wide non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, sherry, worchestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Sauté until all the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are soft, about 10 minutes.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to the food processor. Add the garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, parsley and the remaining 3 Tbsp olive oil. Pulse until the pesto comes together and everything is finely minced. Taste and add a pinch of salt, if needed.

The pesto keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week if you cover it with plastic wrap pressed to the surface. Cook ¾ -1 lb pasta (depending on how saucy you like your pasta) until al dente and toss with the pesto and 2/3 cup hot pasta water. Serve with additional parsley and parmesan.

This is my entry for Presto Pasta Night over at Once Upon a Feast. Go check out the other quick pasta dishes for weeknight inspiration!

April 1, 2007

Best of Blogs? Really?


Thanks everyone! If you'd like to vote for me, do so before April 13th!
Thanks for reading! I'm amazed and flattered!

In my previous post, I pretty much wrote about how I wasn’t doing much cooking. Well, let me assure you - it doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating! More cooking and recipes will follow, but here are some fabulous restaurants I’ve tried lately!


Jose Andre’s latest installation to open in the district, it serves tapas-style Mexican and Latin food. Paul and I went with another couple and ordered a plethora of amazing dishes. Overall, we were very impressed with the fresh tasting food and unique and modern take on classics like tacos or enchiladas. We really loved the chicken and chorizo taco, a slow roasted pork taco, guacamole (with goat cheese), braised short ribs, salmon and passion fruit ceviche and some pretty decent margaritas. I wouldn’t say the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but definitely a cool atmosphere and great place to meet for drinks and snacks that are really inventive. 401 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004; (703) 413-8181

Julia’s Empanadas

These are pretty much the ideal thing to stuff in your mouth at midnight after a few too many drinks. These empanadas are baked, not fried, so while they are rich and tasty, there isn’t so much to feel guilty about. My favorites are the Jamaican, stuffed with ground beef, curry and diced potatoes with an ever-so-slightly sweet yellow cornmeal crust and the Chorizo empanada stuffed with spicy chorizo, rice and black beans. Both are pretty spicy and so very, very good. At about $3 per hefty empanada, they are probably also the cheapest take-out near Dupont Circle. 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009

Capital City Brewing Co.

Paul and I have discovered this brewery has a Shirlington location with happy hour every day from 4-7 pm with $3 beers and half price appetizers. I enjoy their Irish Red Ale and Capitol Kolsch, but all of their beers are on happy hour special. With plenty of outdoor seating, I envision us spending many warm evenings there after work. Their menu is predictable brewery fare and nothing to rave about, but the place is always packed. 2700 S. Quincy St. Arlington, VA

Tallula and EatBar

I've mentioned this restaurant before because of their amazing Moscow Mule cocktail. Even though we intended on sitting at the bar, our party of 4 couldn't find seating, so we put our name in at the restaurant. We figured we could still select from the menu of small plates regularly offered at the bar, however, we were told that the Eat Bar is now completely separate from Tallula (despite sharing the space) and that we couldn't even order the cocktails offered at the bar, unless is was a "classic." We were crushed at the thought of going without our Moscow Mules, which was pretty much the reason we went there in the first place, so we practically begged our waiter to ask, even though he assured us they couldn't do it. Well, of course, he came back and said, yes, indeed, they would be happy to meet our request. So, that was a rocky start, but we actually had a fabulous evening. They offer an amuse-yourself menu of about 10 small plates on the dinner menu, in addition to appetizers, salads and main courses, so we ordered a huge platter of those since we were in the mood for snacking. I had an amazing crab stuffed wonton, mini barbecued pork sandwich, fried cheesy risotto fritter, and crostini with goat cheese. They also offer more whimsical plates like the mini-chorizo-corndog and baby burger. Overall, there is a really nice mix of upscale entrees and down to earth classics. Just go to the Eat Bar for snacks (like charcuterie and cheese boards, bacon wrapped figs and fresh oysters) and amazing cocktails, but don't overlook Tallula for a great dinner.

Tallula is owned by the same group as Evening Star Cafe, Rustico and Vermillion in Alexandria. I've been to all of them except Vermillion and highly recommend them. The wonderful thing about these restaurants is that they limit the mark up on wine to about $10 per bottle, meaning that if they sell the wine at their store, Planet Wine, for $15, you won't pay more than $25 for it in the restaurant. This is a rare and beautiful thing, especially in DC, where with all the steakhouses and power-dining, one rarely sees anything on wine lists under $40. Tallula/EatBar 2761 Washington Blvd, Arlington, VA 22201; 703-338-5051.

I'm off to devour another dinner of Tyler's Green Chili Enchiladas. Happy Cooking!