The Best Croutons and How Best to Eat Them

bowlofcroutons2

Fernand came to the café where I waitressed in sunny CA every Sunday afternoon for the same meal: an omelet, a baguette, and a side of Dijon mustard. He ate his omelet methodically, spreading mustard over each slice of bread first, spooning bits of his creamy eggs overtop next. A mustard-slicked slice of bread accompanied every bite of omelet.

I always thought this mustard routine was a little odd. Slatherings of butter, cheese, and jam made sense to me. Mustard felt foreign. But when I read the description in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook of Madeleine’s omelet, and more specifically of the croutons that lace that omelet, I wondered if Fernand, or the French, were on to something.

Before we get to the croutons, a little background might be helpful: Madeleine is the sister of Jean and Pierre Troisgros, the brothers who ran the restaurant Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, where Judy Rogers spent a year as a young teenager watching, tasting and recording everything that she could. During this year, too, at least twice a week, Rogers would escape to Madeleine’s home kitchen and delight in dinners of scrambled eggs filled with nutty hard cheeses and croutons or with lightly browned potatoes and bacon.

Given the generous amount of Dijon mustard and mustard seeds that dress Madeleine’s croutons, I suspect Fernand would approve of them wholeheartedly. And finding them in an omelet might just send him over the moon. Golden on the outside, chewy on the inside, mustardy throughout, these croutons are irresistible. And while they certainly are not as hard core as straight up mustard bruschetta, I should have known better than to question the eating habits of a French wine purveyor from Burgundy.

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3 Simple Tartines: Mushroom; Radicchio & Gorgonzola; Fresh Ricotta // Plus A Few More Ideas for Oscar Night

tartines

I have a confession. By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, we had eaten the steaks, devoured the torte and made soup out of the turnips. And then, as it turned out, Ben couldn’t even be home for Valentine’s Day dinner, so we postponed the romantic occasion till the weekend, when my mother would be in town, too, and we could all cozy around the table together and enjoy a meze-style dinner with what remained of the planned Valentine’s Day menu as well as one more addition: a braised radicchio and gorgonzola tartine, another Nancy Silverton creation.

Since discovering the hard-boiled egg toasts with bagna cauda in the Nancy Silverton Sandwich Book, I’ve had my eye on a tartine topped with gorgonzola, radicchio, honey and walnuts, a series of ingredients I have seen in combination before but never with quite so much flair. When made in its entirety, slices of grilled bread are topped with sweet gorgonzola dolce and a drizzling of honey, both of which serve to offset the bitterness of the radicchio braised with balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Spicy candied walnuts provide additional sweetness as well as crunch, a nice contrast to the creaminess of the other ingredients. A few of these components never in fact made it to our table, but even in a simpler incarnation — braised radicchio topped with gorgonzola — the sweetness of the cheese alone was enough to counter the bitterness of the radicchio, and the combination was just so lovely. It was this dish that the three of just couldn’t get enough of during our romantic evening together.

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Toast with Hard Boiled Eggs & Bagna Cauda // Also, Walnut Bread

hard-boiled eggs on toast with bagna cauda

Over the weekend while looking to employ the half dozen loaves of walnut bread cluttering my countertops, I stumbled upon this little gem of a tartine in Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. Silverton had apparently prepared this snack — grilled bread topped with hard-boiled eggs bathed in a warm anchovy sauce — for Mario Batali one summer evening when he stopped by the piazza in the Italian town where she had been vacationing. Smitten with the combination, Batali insisted that Silverton include this creation in her nearly completed book celebrating the Thursday-night sandwich tradition at her restaurant, Campanile. And, with the addition of arugula, she did.

It all sounded too idyllic — an Italian piazza, a summer evening, a vacation, a warm anchovy bath — not to try immediately. And so, my introduction to bagna cauda, a classic Italian sauce made with anchovies, garlic, olive oil, butter and lemon juice came by way of an untraditional recipient — hard-boiled eggs — at an unconventional time of day — breakfast — and I am sorry this meeting occurred only because I now have to accept that for 31 years I have been missing out on some serious goodness.

I have no excuse. I have been reading about bagna cauda, which translates to “hot bath,” for years in all of my favorite west coast cafe cookbooks — Zuni, Chez Panisse, Tartine[Read more…]

A Card, and 3 Simple Ways to Begin Your Valentine’s Day Dinner

Parmigiano Love

So often, for me at least, the best part of a dinner out happens shortly after I am seated, when the server sets down a warm roll with a pat of soft butter sprinkled with sea salt or a basket of freshly baked focaccia and a little dish filled with olive oil swirled with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. It’s these simple details that, when done well, distinguish the meal from one prepared at home, when such delights are often absent and when relishing every morsel is not always the order of the hour.

With that in mind, I have a few very simple ideas for beginning a Valentine’s Day dinner at home. If you thrive at arranging delicious things on plates, ideas 1 and 2 are for you. If you like to fuss a little bit more, idea number 3 might interest you more.

But before we get to the food, let’s discuss cards. You have to begin Valentine’s Day with a card, right? I’ve added four Valentine’s Day cards to the print shop, including the above pictured one, Parmigiano Love. Each Valentine’s Day card costs $3 and can be shipped to you for the price of a stamp (45 cents). [Read more…]

Homemade Breadcrumbs & Infinite Ways to Use Them

pasta with toasted bread crumbs, anchovies, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and basil

Homemade breadcrumbs slipped into our dinner regimen slowly, appearing on our salads to start, the kale caesars in particular, quietly replacing croutons altogether. But shortly after their introduction, perhaps encouraged by their warm reception, they made haste, and soon began garnishing our pastas, mingling with our roasted vegetables, delicately topping our fish fillets. These days they’ve gotten completely brazen, sometimes accompanying every item on the plate. I don’t know when this trend will fizzle, but I’m liking it very much at the moment.

The inspiration to start whizzing my stale bread in the food processor, storing the crumbs in the freezer, and toasting them in a skillet with olive oil at the dinner hour, came from two sources: a great chef interview on the kitchn in early November and the editor’s letter in this month’s bon appètit, which offered tips on how to be a better cook from seven renowned chefs around the world including Mario Batali who admits that “there’s almost nothing [he] wouldn’t put homemade breadcrumbs on.” I’m starting to share this sentiment. These crunchy, salted, olive-oil toasted bits are truly addictive. [Read more…]

Paul Steindler’s Cabbage Soup and A Peasant Bread Follow-Up

cabbage soup

When I’m home in CT visiting my parents, my favorite pastime is poking around the two basement refrigerators, the home of all sorts of treats my mother has been preparing — soups, spanakopita, Grand Marnier chocolate truffles — and stocking up on — smoked mussels, white anchovies, enough cheeses to feed the neighborhood — for weeks. It’s a little gourmet paradise inside those boxes, and it’s impossible not to sneak a peak (and a truffle) with every trip down to the basement.

The only hard part about being home for the holidays is refraining from eating all day long. From the first bite of homemade cinnamon oatmeal bread in the morning to the last bite of flourless chocolate-almond torte in the evening, my stomach barely gets a rest. There is goodness at every turn, and none so much (if you ask me) as at lunch, which hasn’t changed (during the holidays at least) in about a decade: a bowl of soup, a square of spanakopita and a slice or two of homemade bread. On this most recent visit, we feasted on Vermont cheddar cheese soup — my favorite — and rosemary butternut squash bisque with slices of toasted buttered rye bread on the side. It was heaven.

Five days of this soup-and-bread routine made me miss it dearly upon returning home to my all-but-bare refrigerator. But when a large head of cabbage and a few carrots sitting in my vegetable drawer caught my eye, my spirits lifted. With the exception of fresh dill, I had everything on hand to make another favorite soup of my mother’s, one she has been making since the early 80’s: Paul Steindler’s cabbage soup with caraway seeds, a recipe Craig Claiborne wrote about many years ago in The New York Times Magazine and eventually published in The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Loaded with vegetables — carrots, potatoes, onions and cabbage — a little bacon and a touch of cream, this is definitely a hearty soup, best served on a cold winter day with crusty bread and nothing more. For me, it’s the dill and caraway seeds that make it unlike any other I have tasted, the caraway seeds in particular imparting a lovely yet subtle flavor. [Read more…]

Gingerbread Biscotti And A Few Favorite Holiday Recipes

gingerbread biscotti in jar

Biscotti lovers seem to fall into two camps: those who view dipping as essential and those who view dipping as optional. As you can see from the photo above, I fall into the dipping-is-optional camp. I like my biscotti with a chewy center (a texture achieved by butter, which dipping-biscotti recipes generally do not call for) and a crisp crust, and I like them on the larger, meatier size — I want to eat one (not ten) and feel satisfied.

While I am partial to classic almond biscotti, these gingerbread biscotti are a treat this time of year. This recipe is just a variation of my favorite recipe with molasses replacing some of the sugar and the addition of traditional gingerbread spices: ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. With coffee or tea, a latte or hot cocoa, this dunking-is-optional treat will put anyone in the holiday spirit. [Read more…]

Orange-and-Ricotta Pound Cake & A Few Gift Ideas

orange-ricotta loaf

As five of us celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving down here in Virginia, the rest of my family journeyed north to Vermont to the shores of Lake Champlain for a wild gathering with my aunt and uncle. Upon returning, my mother gave me the full report: Of course, the turkey, which she had prepared, was over-cooked, gross and inedible but roasted Jerusalem artichokes saved the occasion as well as an orange-and-ricotta pound cake that her sister prepared twice during their five-day visit. [Read more…]

My Mother’s Peasant Bread: The Best Easiest Bread You Will Ever Make

peasant bread

When I tell you that, if forced, I had to pick one and only one recipe to share with you that this — my mother’s peasant bread — would be it, I am serious. I would almost in fact be OK ending the blog after this very post, retiring altogether from the wonderful world of food blogging, resting assured that you all had this knowledge at hand. This bread might just change your life.

The reason I say this is simple. I whole-heartedly believe that if you know how to make bread you can throw one hell of a dinner party. And the reason for this is because people go insane over homemade bread. Not once have I served this bread to company without being asked, “Did you really make this?” And questioned: “You mean with a bread machine?” But always praised: “Is there anything more special than homemade bread?”

And upon tasting homemade bread, people act as if you’re some sort of culinary magician. I would even go so far as to say that with homemade bread on the table along with a few nice cheeses and a really good salad, the main course almost becomes superfluous. If you nail it, fantastic. If you don’t, you have more than enough treats to keep people happy all night long.

So what, you probably are wondering, makes this bread so special when there are so many wonderful bread recipes out there? Again, the answer is simple. For one, it’s a no-knead bread. I know, I know. There are two wildly popular no-knead bread recipes out there. But this is a no-knead bread that can be started at 4:00pm and turned out onto the dinner table at 7:00pm. It bakes in well-buttered pyrex bowls — there is no pre-heating of the baking vessels in this recipe — and it emerges golden and crisp without any steam pans or water spritzes. It is not artisan bread, and it’s not trying to be. It is peasant bread, spongy and moist with a most-delectable buttery crust.

Genuinely, I would be proud to serve this bread at a dinner party attended by Jim Leahy, Mark Bittman, Peter Reinhart, Chad Robertson, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. It is a bread I hope you will all give a go, too, and then proudly serve at your next dinner party to guests who might ask where you’ve stashed away your bread machine. And when this happens, I hope you will all just smile and say, “Don’t be silly. This is just a simple peasant bread. Easy as pie. I’ll show you how to make it some day.” [Read more…]

Pizza with Lemon, Smoked Mozzarella & Basil

pizza with lemon, smoked mozzarella & basil

As much as I love lemons, the thought of placing them atop pizza never would have crossed my mind. Squeezing a wedge of lemon over a slice of white clam pizza — that’s natural; biting into whole slices of lemon, rind and seeds included — that takes some convincing.

But the story and photo of Kesté’s Pizza Sorrentina, a Neapolitan pizza topped with lemon slices, basil and smoked mozzarella, in the WSJ a few weekends ago sent me racing off to the store to find smoked mozzarella. Story goes that this pie was invented in Naples by a great pizza maestro’s daughter who created it for her lemon-adoring mother.

Never would I have imagined this group of ingredients to work so well together, but they do. And it makes sense. Lemon cuts the smokiness of the mozzarella; basil, even after seven minutes in the oven, adds a touch of freshness. The bites with lemon slices are big — tart and tangy and refreshing all at the same time; the bites without beg for one. But the beauty of the pizza lies in the balance: it would be a shame to overdo the lemon, to be flinging pieces aside rather than longing for more.

For lemon lovers, of course, this pie is a winner; but skeptics beware: it’s beguiling enough to win you over, too. [Read more…]