Dinner for Three-Caprese Salad with Homemade Mozzarella

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Simply delightful

Well, it seems that I am still a completely unreliable blogger. Some things may never change. Since my last apology for not posting often enough, my wonderful boyfriend and my almost as wonderful best friend and cooking partner have gotten an apartment together. Which leads to the introduction of a new series here at Engineer Food, Dinner for Three, in which me and Larry and sometimes Will prepare a recipe (often from Bon Apetite or the NY Times) and tell you what we think. This being the first installment, however, I feel no need to stick to an established pattern. I’m funny like that.

This time I am going to tell you about a fantastic birthday present that Larry gave me:

Clearly, I was planning on being part of this documentation as evidenced by my wearing an over-sized t-shirt

That’s right folks, a very fancy, Williams-Sonoma cheese making kit. I meant to take pictures the whole way, but I was completely occupied with the whole making mozzarella thing. Sue me. While I was separating my curds and whey and slowly cooking in the microwave. Larry sliced up some tomatoes and bread and retrieved basil from the fridge.

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So damn pretty

Anyway, about 50 minutes after that horrific picture of me was taken, one gallon of whole pasteurized (but not ultra-pasteurized) milk was turned (with the careful addition of citric acid, rennet and some cheese salt)  into one pound of mozzarella cheese.

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Alright, the texture was a little off but it tasted right.

For Caprese Salad:

  • 2 Ripe Jersey Tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 Loaf of Bread, sliced
  • 1 Sprig of Basil
  • 1 lb Mozzarella Cheese (Making it at home optional)
  • Kosher Salt and Pepper, to taste
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Balsamic Vinegar

Difficulty Level-Extraordinarily Easy

Before eating, generously salt and pepper the tomato slices.

Cut each slice of bread in half, if they are significantly bigger than the tomatoes. On each half, place several small pieces of mozzarella, a tomato slice, some basil and drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Eat with a fork and knife or be a savage and just dig right on in. Enjoy with a light white whine (chilled Chardonnay pictured above).

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Baked Chicken with Pesto (and Bacon!) and some news

 I have some very exciting news for those of you who have been silently bemoaning how completely shitty my photography is. I (finally) got a Cannon DSLR! So now I can take pictures like this:

Honestly, I fell in love with this picture and didn't have any where else to put it.

Anyway…for the past few months, I have been searching high and low for the perfect pesto recipe. Last night, I found it. If you haven’t made Ina Garten’s (aka The Barefoot Contessa) Pesto, you need to. It is a religious experience. Words simply can not describe.

All you do, is take some basil, salt and pepper, nuts, cheese and garlic

 

And process them for a few mintes in ye-olde food processor.

After I made this wonderous dish, I thought to myself: “Self,” I thought, “you should throw some of that deliciousness down on some chicken.”

So I did

 And then I remembered something that everyone on the internet knows. Bacon is awesome, so I wrapped it all up in bacon and threw it in the oven.

And behold what I have wrought

Chicken with Pesto and Bacon:

  • 1 1/2 cups Basil, packed
  • 1tbs Walnuts
  • 1tbs Pine Nuts
  • 1/2 cup Olive Oil
  • 3 Cloves Garlic, chopped
  • 1/3 cup Grated Parmesean Cheese
  • 1 pinch each Salt and Pepper
  • 3 Chicken Breasts, halved
  • 1lb Bacon

For the Pesto:

Combine nuts in the food processor and process for 15 seconds. Add Garlic, Basil and Salt and Pepper. While processing, slowly add the Olive Oil and blend until the basil pieces get as small as they are going to. Add the Cheese and blend until combined. Makes 1 Cup.

For the Chicken:

Preheat the oven to 400F. Spread about 1tbs of Pesto over each piece of Chicken. Wrap in two to three strips of Bacon, and bake until bacon is browned and chicken is cooked (~45 minutes).

Italian American Gravy

This post is an exceptionally long one because it is a recipe I grew up with and is very dear to me. There was nothing better than the few times a year when I would wake up at eleven and come downstairs to see my dad standing over the stove stirring a gigantic stock pot full of tomato sauce with the smell of fresh meatballs filling the kitchen.
For those of you who have yet to be blessed by the wonders that unfold in your mouth when you eat gravy (some heathens call it sauce) and have no idea what awaits you, gravy is a typical red sauce with meatballs, sausage, large chunks of chuck steak and whatever cheap cuts of meat you can find. This is different from bolognaise in that bolognaise uses finely chopped or ground meats whereas gravy uses whole cuts, making it a full meal in one dish (a rarity in Italian cooking, which is heavily course-based).
When you buy meat for a gravy style sauce, don’t be afraid to reach for the tougher but cheaper cuts. You will be cooking them for a long enough time that, by the end, they will be falling apart.
The secret to perfect gravy is time. I try to start cooking about eight to ten hours before I plan on eating. Yes that is a long time. Yes it is worth it. Yes you need to plan ahead.
What you will need:
  • For the sauce:
    • Several cans of different brands of diced and pureed tomatoes. You will need about two large cans for every three people you are planning on feeding. It is important to have multiple brands because each company treats their tomatoes slightly differently, so you will get a greater variety of flavor combinations.
    • 1/2 a medium onion finely diced.
    • One clove of garlic, sliced very thin. (People who have followed my recipes know that I generally try to vampire-proof my recipes, garlic wise. Don’t worry, we’ll get there)
    • Salt, Pepper, Basil, Oregano and any other spices that suit your fancy
  • For the meats:
    • Equal parts ground veal, pork and beef. The Shoprite near me has a “meatloaf mix” where you can buy all three in one package
    • One pound chuck steak
    • Six to Eight Sweet Italian Sausages
    • Any other meats that strike your fancy. I got some spare pork ribs, but they didn’t fit in my pot. Try to plan so that about a third to a half of the total volume of your gravy is meat.
    • A head of garlic (less one clove)
    • Two eggs and about two cups of bread crumbs for every pound of ground meat
    • The same spices as above
Order of Operations:

A note in advance, I am going to list the parts in the order that they need to be started. Please note that you will still need to keep half an eye on the other portions of the meal.
Now that I’ve scared you, let’s begin!
First thing’s first: start the sauce
  • If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and plunge it into the cans of chopped tomato to puree it a bit. If you don’t have one, get one because immersion blenders are awesome, but in the mean time blend it in a blender.
  • Take the biggest sauce/stock pot you have. Yes, that one that belonged to your great-grandmother and has been sitting in the back of your cabinet for months after that one time you used it to make sangria. Put it on the stove and turn the heat on to high.
  • Into the dry pot, drop the sliced garlic and the diced onion, and stir it around until you begin to get little caramelized marks at the bottom of the pot. Add in a bit of salt, a lot of pepper, some basil and a touch of oregano. When you can just smell the spices start to singe, add in all of your tomatoes and re-add each of the herbs and such you added before.
  • Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and let it simmer. Get started on the meatballs.
  • Let it simmer for as many hours as you can. Stir it often to keep it from burning or sticking to the pot
Next: the meatballs
  • Preheat the oven to 375F
  • Get yourself a large mixing bowl and a foil pan
  • Put your ground meats, your eggs and breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt, a bunch of pepper a lot of basil and some oregano. (As a side note, and in no way related to my last batch of mildly disappointing meatballs, dried basil and dried oregano look very similar. Check the labels.)
  • Wash your hands
  • Get your hands dirty in that bowl and mix everything together until you have one gross, homogeneous ball of meat
  • Shape the meatballs by hand. I make about 2″ balls, but you can make them smaller if you find that intimidatingly large. Place them directly in the tin pan. You don’t have to keep them from touching, but also don’t pack them super tight (I was able to get a dozen in a large pan).
  • Wash your hands
Set and wait
  • Put the rest of your meats in foil pans. If for some reason you actually like the environment more than your convenience, you can use cookie sheets or keep the pans and wash them.
  • Take the head of garlic and remove cloves but leave them unpeeled. Scatter three to five pieces in each pan of meat and meatballs.
  • Put all of that in the oven for about two hours, or until all of the meat is cooked.
  • Take out the meat and put it in the tomato sauce (which has, by now, been simmering for about 2-1/2 hours)
  • Let that simmer for at least another three hours if not longer
When you have stalled as long as you can, serve with a hearty pasta like rigatoni or large linguine with grated parm and a nice red.

Spaghetti with Mussels Arrabiata

My find of the day the other day was that the Kings near me sells a pound of mussels for three dollars. Naturally I had to make something fantastic with them.
The biggest challenge with mussels is that you need to clean them. If you don’t, you will get sand and barnacles and fish poop in your sauce.  First you must sort them into living and dead. Any of them that are at all opened are dead and will begin to rot. You should throw them out. If any of them open in the cleaning, toss them too.
Place all of the remaining (live) mussels in a pot of cold water and grab a (disposable) toothbrush and scrub each of the mussels . I usually put them into a nearby bowl as I work. Throw out the water and repeat two more times. You probably won’t get much the third time but that’s how my Great-aunt Mildred always did it, so that’s how I do it too.
Not visible: the pile of sand at the bottom of that pot.

Next (or while your boyfriend is cleaning the mussels), begin preparing an arrabiata sauce.

Combine in a pot one small can of tomato paste, two small cans of chunked tomatoes, one small (tomato paste sized) can of water, a small. diced onion, salt, pepper, garlic, red pepper and a couple splashes of tobasco sauce (I would have used sriracha, but I couldn’t find any at my supermarket), and bring it to a boil for twenty minutes, then lower it to a simmer.

Warning, this is spicy
Once the sauce is simmering put on a pot of water to boil. When the water is boiling, put the mussels in the sauce and the spaghetti in the water.  The mussels are done when they are all opened (if one refuses to open three minutes after his brothers, just toss him) and the pasta is done when it sticks to the ceiling. (Don’t test that last one.) Lay the mussels and sauce over the pasta
Savory and spicy 

Italian Sausage with Peppers and Onions

This past weekend was Hoboken’s Feast of the Madonna Dei Martiri, the biggest Italian Festival in a very Italian-American town. This three day party is full of cannoli (including the one from Carlos’ Bakery of Cake Boss fame, which I diligently avoided), zeppole and fried oreos, pizzas, ices and, my personal favorite, sausage and peppers. 
How could you not love this?
Every time a festival comes to town, I cannot resist buying zeppole, and Will needs to get his fried Oreo fix, but we never buy sausage and peppers, because, frankly, I make them better. Here’s how:
Take a package of five sweet Italian sausages and put them in a hot, dry pan.
Sausages even look good raw.

While your sausages are cooking, cut a green pepper into centimeter wide strips and chop up an onion into chunks. Once the sausages are singed on the outside, remove them from the pan and cut them into quarters. Throw them back into the pan along with the vegetables, some olive oil, salt, pepper and a huge amount of garlic powder (or, if you are a vampire, no garlic). Cover it and let it cook on medium high, stirring occationally, until the onions are translucent, the peppers are soft and the sausage is cooked through.

As a non-vampire, I can never have too much garlic.

Take a small sub roll (or a hoagie roll if you are a heathen) and cut it open and in half and rip out the delicious doughy insides. If you can resist eating that now, you can dry it for some great bread crumbs. Place the mixture into the roll and eat it now or wrap in tinfoil and take it to go, Italian style.

I’m salivating with the memory

Back to Basics Beef Sauce

Hey all! Long time no see! Before the complaints begin rolling in, I am aware that I have completely failed in my daily posting.  Sadly the summer is over, which means I no longer have vast swaths of free time to shop, cook, take pictures and blog every single day.  So, I will do my best to post something new and exciting once a week for your culinary pleasure.

Anyway, updates! Since my last post, I finished my thirty meals in thirty days. If you want the recipes for my stab a chili, toppings-in burgers, hearty veggie sandwiches, pizza rolls, chicken cacciatorre or cold orzo salad, please let me know and I would be happy to oblige.

In other news, I finally made the hajj to Mario Batali’s Eatily. Let me just say, I am very lucky that I went with my boyfriend because I would have spent all of my money on gourmet cheese and pasta. As it was, I managed to pick up the most beautiful cremini mushrooms and the best looking onion I have been able to find in weeks. (One of the most heart wrenching trade-offs about the end of summer is that I lose my tomatoes but gain squashes and zucchini.)

With these gorgeous vegetables, I planned out a beef sauce.

Warning: This may be the best thing I have ever made

I supplemented my findings with two pounds of chuck meat, a small jar of tomato puree and some fettuccine from Shop Rite.

I decided that I was going to make this sauce while actually using the proper cooking methods for each individual step. Which, in this particular case, means lots and lots of butter.

Like, seriously, a lot.

I hate the idea of using butter in cooking, but you can’t argue with the results.  While a touch more finicky than oil, (it has a tendency to burn) the lower boiling point of butter means that foods cook more evenly.

I caramelized the onions and browned the mushrooms at the same time in two different pans.

To caramelize onions: This is a time consuming process but simple enough to do. In a pot, melt about three tablespoons of butter (on medium heat, it will burn!). Mix in salt, pepper, a crushed clove of garlic and a touch of basil. Pour into the pot a largish onion sliced in quarters and then across the grain so that you have strips of onion about 10 cm in length by 1 cm width. Keep it on medium or low heat, stirring occasionally. You want them to turn clear, and then wilt, and then turn a light brown.

To brown mushrooms: Slice the onions into 1 mm pieces and place in one sparse layer in a dry pan. Turn on the pan to medium low heat and let the mushrooms “sweat” out their moisture. Stir occasionally but try to keep them in one layer.  A common mistake when preparing mushrooms in this style is to “crowd” the mushrooms in the pan. The trick is to give them plenty of room between each mushroom, due to the minuscule size of my pan, I ended up doing them in three batches. After the final batch was completed, I put all of them back in the pan with a small pat of butter on high heat to sear in the flavor. When they are finished, throw them in the pan with the onions.

When you are finished, your onion pot should look something like this:

I’ll give you a second to roll your tongue back into your mouth
Let that keep cooking on medium while the mushroom pan (with all of the lovely mushroom juice) is busy cooking a slab of chuck meat, cut into 3 cm cubes. I specifically used chuck meat because a) it is cheap and b) the high fat content lends an increased flavor to the overall sauce. But mostly because it’s cheap. Cook it on high heat to sear the meat and brown it quickly. Toss the beef into the ever softening onion/mushroom mix and add in your can of tomato puree and one can’s worth of water.
Suddenly, sauce!
Bring that to a boil and let it reduce while you put a pot on for the pasta.  Season well with more salt, pepper, basil and some parsley. By the time the pasta is finished cooking, your sauce should have thickened nicely. Place a healthy dollop of your concoction over your pasta and enjoy!

Prosciutto with Strawberry and Olive Oil Dressing

This is a simple appetizer that is easy to make

I lucked out and was able to get some prosciutto at a reasonable price, so I couldn’t resist trying this idea out on an especially hectic Wednesday when I left the house at 6am and get back at midnight.

For this you will need bread, prosciutto, strawberries and olive oil.

Put some olive oil in a dish

Apologies for the pictures, I was too tired to set up even the half-assed lighting I usually have

Crush in some strawberries  and salt lightly

Crushing the strawberries is a fantastic source of catharsis.

Put some prosciutto on a chunk of bread with the dressing.

Simple but delicious