Food Buzz Badge

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mistakes Were Made

Let's face it, everyone makes a cooking mistake or three once in a while.  What is more important is whether whatever you're making actually survives those mistakes.

My parents arrived in Anchorage late Thursday night, and between wanting to cook something nice for them and continue using the CSA produce before it implodes in my refrigerator, I picked a summery, not-too-ambitious recipe from A16 to make Saturday night:  roasted young chicken with radishes and salsa verde.

Let's start with the first problem:  the book calls for young chickens of about six ounces, whereas the local grocery's "young chicken" is a behemoth five-pounder.  Um, no.  I (smartly, I think) decide to change to Cornish game hens, which the meat department tells me I might find in the frozen food section.  Oh boy.  Sure enough, I uncover four Cornish hens from behind a mountain of frozen chicken wings, take them home, and really read the recipe.  Wherein I find that the poultry should have been seasoned with salt the night before and then rubbed with an aniseseed-oregano combination first thing in the morning.  Oops.  It's 1:30 p.m. and I have frozen, unsalted, unrubbed hens.

I threw the hens in a warm water bath and realize that two of them must have been raised on steroids.  These guys must have been terrors on the farm, and I picture them as the Cornish game hen equivalent of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver:  "You talkin' to me?  Huh?  You talkin' to me?" By 3, these babies are out of the warm water, patted down with salt--which really does have a purpose, to draw out the moisture for a crisper skin--which sits for a scant hour before they get patted off and rubbed with the spices.  After that, it's into the fridge for an uber-quick sit with the rub. 

So far, so good.  Then I realize that to make the salsa verde, I should have homemade breadcrumbs.  Oops again, but nothing I can't remedy.  After that, I throw some parsley (should have already been chopped--oh well), capers, lemon juice, garlic, tiny dried red Italian peppers and olive oil into a prep food processor along with the bread crumbs and pulverize it all.  Delicious gloppy green goodness.  A couple of tablespoons of this gets tossed with thinly sliced red radishes for the side salad.

After some fine jerry-rigging, David got the steroidal hens onto the rotisserie that attaches to our grill.  I'm not optimistic at this point that any of this is actually going to work, so I start on the side dish that I know I can make work:  the A16 braised kale with anchovy and onion soffritto.

No one is more shocked than I am when the hens came off the rotisserie and looked, well, not totally unlike the photo in the cookbook. 

Ignore the fact that the radish salad appears to be emerging from the hen's behind.
 By the time I put the kale in the soffritto (the key to good kale:  undercook it--it continues to cook after leaving the pot), I realize that I have made way more sauce than necessary, but at this point that sort of mistake seems like an afterthought.  I garnished the kale with a little fromage blanc and called it dinner.

We had a ton of salsa verde left, but it tastes good on grilled bread as well as the chicken and radishes.  Frankly, I totally lucked out with this dinner.  Take that, A16!  I didn't even start to think about cooking this until a mere four hours beforehand and it was fabulous if I may say so myself.

Salsa Verde
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine Cookbook

1 cup parsley (I used curly because it was what I had)
1/2 tsp. capers, rinsed
1/2 tsp. dried red chiles
1/2 cup bread crumbs, plus more if the salsa is too thin
2 small cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Salt to taste

Blend the first five ingredients in a food processor until it is the consistency of a rough chop.  Drizzle in the olive oil until it reaches the desired consistency, and add more crumbs if you prefer a thicker sauce.  Give it a few more seconds in the food processor and then add the lemon juice and salt to taste.  Serve with sliced radishes, grilled bread, poultry or anything that needs a little extra pizazz.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Ah, A16, it was bound to happen.  You have let me down.

Wednesday brought our biweekly CSA box, chock-full of fresh fruits and vegetables, mostly from the Pacific Northwest.  When possible, David and I plan our evening meal around the contents of the box.  Neither of us is a vegetarian, but when there is an array of fresh veg that needs to be eaten--some of it right now--it's a good way to go.

Among the contents of our box was zucchini, one of my favorite summer vegetables, and white sweet corn.  I tried two A16 recipes, grilled corn and a raw zucchini salad.  The corn cobs, cut in half, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled over a pile of hot coals for about five minutes, was brilliant:  charred black in some spots, salty and soft and sweet.  It tasted exactly like summer should.

We also grilled some bread, which we served with a schmear of fromage blanc.
The zucchini salad is more or less zucchini shaved into ribbons--time consuming but not difficult with a good peeler--drained of some of their water content by salting them and leaving them to drain in a colander.  Dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, the ribbons are then tossed with chopped mint, parsley and green olives and topped with shards of Romano cheese.

And here is where the letdown happened, and I can't totally explain it:  the salad was simultaneously bland and overdone.  The parsley added nothing other than a little color, and the mint overwhelmed the delicate taste of the zucchini.  In a word, meh.

There is a similar salad on, which collects many of the recipes from Bon Appetit and the late, lamented Gourmet.  It has fewer ingredients and is vastly superior to the salad above:

Shaved Zucchini Salad
Adapted from

Juice of one small lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper

2 lbs. medium zucchini
Parmesan cheese for shaving
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Wash the zucchini and cut off the ends.  Shave into ribbons either using a paring knife or (preferably) a really good vegetable peeler.  Set aside and toast the pine nuts lightly.  Combine the first set of ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Letting the vinaigrette sit for about half an hour intensifies the flavors, but don't dress the salad until you are ready to eat.  When ready, toss the zucchini ribbons with the vinaigrette.  Shave Parmesan cheese on top and sprinkle with the pine nuts.

Now that's a zucchini salad.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kenai Adventures

The fun thing about traveling in you can't always plan to get there.  Forces often conspire in the form of weather or roads or fires to keep you to get where you're going, much less getting on schedule.  Such was the case last Friday.  A caravan of cars set out for Kenai, on the Kenai Peninsula, for a weekend of dipnetting and barbecues on the beach.  Most of the highways in Alaska are two-lane, and some are even unpaved.  Just past Girdwood, my husband, my friend Krista and I heard that the Sterling Highway was being shut down due to two accidents.  Trying to make the best of things, we doubled back to Girdwood and decided to stop at Jack Sprat for a glass of wine and to wait to see if the highway was going to be reopened.  We had been eating junk food in the car, but discovered that Jack Sprat was serving arancini, delicious balls of risotto fried and served with a tomato pesto and argula simply dressed with olive oil and salt.  Delicious, particularly with the glass of albarino I had with them.
All photos courtesy of Krista Scully
We went back to Anchorage for the night, and the highway reopened at 2 a.m.  The next day, we set out on a gray and rainy morning for Kenai.  Even though the plans for a beach BBQ were looking unlikely, we planned to set up in a friend's kitchen for a dinner.  A stop in Soldotna, just shy of Kenai, revealed the most gorgeous rainbow chard I've ever seen:

Despite the weather, the beach was packed with dipnetters.  I hadn't realized that it was acceptable in Kenai to head and fillet your fish on the beach and leave the remains--so much for bear danger!  For dinner, we had fresh salmon, chard with soffritto, arugula and fennel salad and the beloved burrata for dessert. 

The chard was a huge hit.  Here's the recipe:

Braised Chard with Soffritto
Adapted from the A16 Food + Wine Cookbook

1 head garlic, cloves removed and peeled
Half a small can of anchovies in olive oil, rinsed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup water

Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan;  bring to a simmer.  Once the garlic is tender, about 45 minutes, remove from heat and puree the soffritto with an immersion blender or in a food processor.  You can also roughly mash the ingredients with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon.

1 bunch chard, either green or rainbow
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt to taste

Using kitchen shears, cut the ribs  in 1/2 inch pieces.  Keep them separate, and then cut the leaves in 1/2 inch pieces as well.  Bring a pot of salted water to boil and plunge the ribs in for about six minutes, or until desired tenderness.  The chard will continue to cook after it has been removed from the water.  Skim the rib pieces out and then cook the leaves for approximately four minutes.  Empty the cooking pot and toss all the chard with the lemon juice, soffritto and salt to taste. 

This has a subtle salty, tangy flavor that will convert even the most resistant non-greens lovers.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tuna Conserva, Part Due

Tonight, I made part two of the four tuna conserva recipes in A16.  This one is meant to be the winter recipe, with radicchio as the base ingredient, but remade with baby mixed greens (a decent Alaskan substitute for radicchio), this made a terrific summer entree salad.  Essentially, it's the Italian version of tuna nicoise, with no hard-boiled egg and the additional of toasted almonds on top. 

It has a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and salt, and the only real effort to it is boiling some small red or white potatoes and tossing the salad by hand.  That is to say, it's a perfect summer meal.

My husband and I ate it outside with a bottle of Washington State rose and a little rosemary bread. 
The tuna conserva is definitely more work than good canned tuna in olive oil, but it's actually better than it was when I first used it last Saturday.

As an NPR addict, I was thrilled to actually know the answer to the trivia question on The World, but it's only because it had to do with Italy and cheese.  Specifically, the delicious, creamy concoction known as burrata, which I last had at A16 last month.  The story of the Italian cheesemaker currently living in Vermont can be heard here:

I've recently found that we have a cheese store in Anchorage that brings in Italian burrata, which was a cause for much rejoicing.  If you haven't had it, what are you waiting for?

I'm off this weekend for a dip-netting trip with friends on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.  Salmon stories to come!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Focaccia Follies

Yesterday was one of those beautiful Alaska summer days that we think of as hot--which is a relative term, in this case a temperature in the low 70s.  I celebrated the great weather by staying inside most of the afternoon cooking, although with the windows wide open. 

One of the regions I visted in Italy was Liguria, home of pesto and focaccia.  It isn't a huge tourist destination, although its largest city, Genoa, is still a major port.  I am sad to say that I ate very little focaccia there, although during lunch in Imperia, a town that an Italian man told me was where the Italians went on vacation, my husband and I shared a fat slice of focaccia with olives and sea salt.

Now, I am not a bread baker, and anything requiring rising and activating yeast makes me nervous.  The focaccia genovese from Italian Cooking at Home has not one but two periods of rising, and each time I was nervous that it wouldn't actually work.  Aside from it needing less olive oil for the topping and over-dimpling the dough, it turned out beautifully:

I finally put the tuna conserva to good use by making the preparation with dandelion greens and fava bean puree from A16.  I missed the part where the fava beans were supposed to soak overnight, but I got them in cold water in the morning and (aside from snagging the tip of a fingernail) I was able to take the skins off in the later afternoon.  The fava bean puree is like an Italian hummus and we couldn't stop eating it on the focaccia.  The final dish looks like this:

We ate outside with a bottle of Piedmontese white wine Arneis, a varietal you don't see much in the U.S. It has a full body with terrific minerality, perfect for a light summer dinner.

Good thing we enjoyed last night, because today has been mostly rainy.  Next up, a recipe incorporating the rest of the tuna conserva.

Friday, July 15, 2011

In the Beginning and Tuna Conserva

I come from a family of cooks.  My maternal grandmother lived on a land-grant farm in South Dakota, where she would cook the noon meal for those working in the fields.  She wasn't a great cook, but she knew how to cook rib-sticking meals for a crowd.  My paternal grandmother was a baker in small-town Nebraska.  She died when I was eleven, but I can remember her cakes to this day.  When I turned thirty-one, my mother sent me her recipe box for a birthday present.

My parents cook, too, good, healthy food.  As for me, I started cooking in college but didn't cook in earnest until law school.  After all, I had to do something other than going to class and the extra five hours of studying I did after I came home.  Most nights, it also gave me a chance to eat dinner with my then-husband, who worked nights doing television production.

Now cooking is the thing that relaxes me the most, even more than reading and exercising, or seeing friends.  My husband is also a good cook, but I prefer to be alone in the kitchen with NPR playing or Hulu or a DVD in the background.

Today my husband is on a company-sponsored fishing trip (poor him, and me for that matter--there'll be fresh salmon this weekend) and I'm tackling what looks like a daunting one-page recipe from A16, the tuna conserva.  In reality, it takes very little active time but is the foundation for four separate seasonal recipes. One of them calls for dandelion greens, which came in yesterday's CSA box, and dried fava bean puree.  The first step is to salt and refrigerate one pound of tuna.  Fortunately, fresh tuna is readily accessible in Alaska:

After covering it with salt, it gets refrigerated for two hours and then gently poached in a pot with a bit of water and some aromatics:

You then let it cool and cover it with olive oil.  I'll stick it in the refrigerator tonight and hope that it works for tomorrow's dinner.  Buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

La Bella Vita in the Last Frontier

I've long resisted the idea of writing a blog, or a live journal, especially since I write so much at work.  There it is briefs, pleadings, letters--technical writing that doesn't get too creative, unless the law isn't on my side.

But I love talking about food.  Ask my husband, my marathon training partner, my colleagues, my friends.  I spend more of the day thinking about what to cook than I'd like to admit.  Recently my husband and I went to Italy, and I was fascinated by the food, particularly the simple, hearty food of the type that Italian grandmothers, or nonnas, have been making forever.  The recipe is pretty simple:  take great ingredients.  Don't mess with them too much.  Serve and eat.

That's simplistic, but over the last month it's been my cooking philosophy.  My goal is to cook my way through several Italian cookbooks, including A16 Food & Wine, the Culinary Institute of America's Italian Cooking At Home and In Nonna's Kitchen.  There is a wild card, though--I live in Alaska, where it may be difficult to find all the ingredients.  My parents are coming later this month from St. Louis, which has an old, wonderful Italian neighborhood called The Hill, and I've asked them to check on whether they can bring me bottarga and ricotta salata, both of which I fear are unavailable here. 

My goal is to post what I've cooked in pictures and words, at least once a week.  I cook more than that, but life gets in the way too many nights to post more regularly.  If you're interested in food, particularly Italian food, please drop me a line with ideas or suggestions.

And we're off!