It’s no secret that I have a love affair with Italy—a country to which, thus far, I’ve never been. So after two days of beautiful Thanksgiving celebration, with all the standards and a few new foods, it’s also no surprise that my first post-holiday culinary retreat is slow-cooked Italian. Today, my inspirations were comfort (I’m exhausted from being coerced by my sister and mother to black Friday shop at ridiculous hours) and Giada, who earlier cooked a veal dish that made me head to the store for red meat, albeit not veal. I don’t really do veal. I won’t explain nor do I judge if you’re a fan. I’ve had veal. It’s delicious. And I don’t normally do it. I digress.
The scents in my house at the moment couldn’t be much more comforting. Upon arriving home mid-day Scott built a fire and has been burning brush since. A bit of that smoky wonderfulness has floated inside on a warm breeze through wide-open windows. I started the afternoon with a homemade stock that’s now simmering on the stove in a fall minestrone. I followed that with hot Italian sausage drowned in sweet tomato sauce, and have prepped simple sirloin steaks for greatness by salting and beating the heck out of them with a rolling pin. Soon they’ll be flash cooking in a thin layer of butter, meeting up with pork and bathing in a sultry, creamy and light sauce that’ll conjure a silky breeze across a bare shoulder.
Still savoring the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m sipping a Firestone Gewürztraminer that’s sweet but also mellow. Kind of buttery too, which is a welcome surprise because I adore buttery whites but don’t normally associate that characteristic with Gewürztraminer. This coupled with Diana Krall and select other slow-groove, jazzy songstresses imparting their takes on Christmas classics has added to a very relaxed vibe in my kitchen. I couldn’t be happier.
To the food. By now you may have noticed that I don’t generally list ingredients in recipe form. This post is no different. One day soon…I plan to post recipes. Well, lists of ingredients with loose instructions, anyway. For now, let’s begin with stock for the soup. The ends of onions, carrots, greens and mushrooms (etc.); the halves of lemon you’ve squeezed into something else; the leftover parts from a chicken you’ve recently roasted…all of these are the makings of a lovely homemade stock. It’s pretty simple, really, at least my take on it. You toss these items into a large Ziploc bag and store in the freezer. Add to it as you go, meal by meal. You’ll end up with a large bag (or several bags if you’re like me) of stock-making goodies. When you’re ready to put on a soup, pour a good bit of water into a large pot and add your frozen treasures. (You’ll obviously discard these when finished.) Cover and boil-then-simmer gently for a while—20, 40, 60 minutes or longer…whatever works for you. This is your stock. It’s unique to you and your life and everything you’ve cooked in the past weeks. I think that’s cool.
Make soup by pouring a little olive oil (or whatever healthy oil fits your dish…I almost always use olive) in another large pot and sauté things like onion, carrot, celery and garlic. These ingredients are great starters for a lot of soups. Let them go 10 minutes or so and start adding other ingredients. Today, I added leftover ham that I’d let sit out to thaw after being in the freezer, cut into small bits. Fresh pancetta would’ve been better here, but I had this ham…so I used it. Brown the ham or pancetta bits. Next came a can of diced tomatoes and some caper berries (along with a touch of the vinegar from their jar). Caper berries are like capers but larger, so you get even more of that gorgeous, pungent flavor. And then I added my stock. After a while, I dropped in colorful Swiss chard and red kidney beans. I could’ve used several other greens on hand, including brussel tops, turnip greens, kohlrabi greens, etc. The idea is that you add a lovely green and it makes the soup that much more beautiful, interesting and delicious. The kidney beans came from a can, which I drained, rinsed and salted. Feel free to insert your favorite bean here…and dried is even better but I don’t quite have the patience for pre-soaking. Remember to salt and pepper your soup along the way, several times—or commit to doing so later in each bowl—otherwise your soup may turn out quite flat.
You’ll remember that my craving for Italian also included the spicy sausage I mentioned earlier…which I browned in a large pan with onion and garlic before adding store-bought tomato sauce. (I don’t have a very good excuse for not having canned or frozen sauce from my own garden ~ next year.) Regarding store-bought tomato sauce, I spent a good bit of time in the pasta aisle one afternoon evaluating the options and I now, almost exclusively, use Bertolli’s Vineyard series. These sauces have less salt and additives than others and contain natural ingredients that I would use in my own sauce (and that I can pronounce). The spicy sauce will eventually be married with pipette pasta—though you should use whatever pasta floats your boat—and then tossed with fresh basil and parmesan. It’s fairly important to use good parmesan…and to never use the stuff that comes in a green cylindrical container. It simply bares no resemblance to the real thing and, as far as I’m concerned, will sabotage your efforts.
A classic Italian meal is comprised of several small courses, as opposed to one large main course, beginning with antipasti. Translated, anti means “before” and pasti means “meal”. This course is normally served prior to a pasta dish, or primi, followed by a meat course, called secondí. (One or two vegetables, or contorno, often accompany the meat dish and the meal generally closes with a sweet, or dolcí.) A Roman friend, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing my kitchen during his season in the states, explained that historically Italians served a less costly primi course such as pasta, risotto or soup to fill them up a bit prior to enjoying a more expensive protein dish. (I’ll share his authentic pasta all’Amatriciana and pork cutlet di pomodoro very soon.) Today, my minestrone serves as our antipasti and my sweet tomato pasta with spicy sausage is our primi followed by our secondí…a quick-fired, smothered sirloin.
Generally speaking, the filet is my choice cut of beef as it is the most tender and lean and delicious. But some days I want to try something different and today was one of them. I chose sirloin steaks for my dish knowing I would tenderize and thin them by covering with sea salt and parchment paper, placing in a plastic bag and, as previously mentioned, beating them with a rolling pin. Then I dropped them in a very hot, buttered pan—you must hear an immediate and strong sizzle—and seared them for a couple of minutes on each side. Pull them out and set aside, covered, while also turning down the heat a bit to medium. Next add a cup or so of broth from your soup or from a carton/can along with a can of diced tomatoes. Let this cook for 10 minutes or so until it has reduced and thickened. Add a half cup or so of milk, whatever sort you have, or cream if you want the sauce to be very rich. I save cream for days when I’m feeling very decadent and today we already have a good bit of fat from the meats involved so I opted for a lighter sauce. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring around a bit. At this point your ready to reintroduce your steaks, adding them back to the pan. I placed a couple of thin slices of ham on top of them, followed by sauce from the pan, and covered the whole thing for five minutes more to heat the ham. Your heat should be low now so you don’t cook the steak much further. You’re going for medium rare. If I had fresh herbs from the garden I’d be adding thyme or oregano here. Serve the steaks with plenty of sauce over top.
That’s pretty much it. I couldn’t have been happier with how the smothered sirloin steaks turned out. I’ll definitely make it again. Keep in mind that you could give the same treatment to chicken breasts or boneless pork loin and you’d be just as happy. You could also add cheese to the smothering…but we’re trying to be somewhat healthy here, right? Buon appetito!
P.S. It should be said that I do not speak Italian, so pardon me for any misfires here. Learning it is on my list and growing much closer to the top :)
It probably worked out for the best that my plans for today, which included errands and hitting the markets, got sidetracked by a rainy backdrop that called for cooking and other homemade projects instead. I needed to clean out the pantry anyway, so used that fact and a chat with gals over dinner last night as inspiration for our breakfast: Pumpkin Waffles with Sweet Apples and Kitchen Sink Grits.
I really did need to use bottom bits of a couple pancake mixes and a few other things to make room for, well, more. In addition, one of the purposes of this blog is to serve as a resource for those who are often stumped in the kitchen and confine themselves to perpetual recipe adherence. I’ve stated before, I’m not much of a recipe girl myself ~ sometimes for inspiration but almost never by the book. After chatting it up with girlfriends over dinner last night I was reminded that I very much enjoy helping recipe-ridden folks free themselves up to enjoy the process of culinary creation.
So, a box of wheat and another of white pancake mix became the base for scrumptious pumpkin waffles. I’m not a perfect little baker, by any means, but figured averaging the mix instructions, which were fairly similar to begin, plus tossing in a few special ingredients would work out just fine. And it did. Couple cups of mix, bout half that of milk, couple tablespoons of oil and an egg. Add half a can of pumpkin and pinches of fallish spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon and voilà…pumpkin waffles. You just want the batter to be thin enough to spread itself over the waffle iron or griddle without being too runny. Preference for thickness also plays a role. Add more milk if needed.
I love sprucing up syrups, and decided apples were appropriate today since 1.) I had some that wanted to be used and 2.) apples are yummy, quintessential fall fare. Little butter plus sliced apples and a squeeze of lemon (to keep ’em from browning) into a sauce pan. Touch of water and couple teaspoons full of brown sugar and this alone would’ve been a proper topping. I love the flavor of store-bought syrup too, and I don’t often enjoy it, so I squeezed some in as well.
That’s all very easy, right? If you don’t have, for example, brown sugar…it’s ok. You could easily have used regular sugar or honey or let the added syrup alone sweeten the pot. You might have decided that you really love apples with ginger, or chocolate for that matter. The point is that so long as you can imagine the flavors would be lovely together…they probably will be. Generally speaking ~ you can very often substitute what you like.
Next up, I had just enough grits left for one last performance and decided today to use spinach and tomatoes that were heading past their prime to create cheesy Kitchen Sink Grits. Instead of standard grits, which you might toss into a pot on the stove top, I decided baking in the oven was more my style this morning so in a flat pan I added the grits and water (it told me how much on the carton) and just started adding whatever else needed to be used that would work together. The spinach and tomato, some onion (I used dried b/c I was out of the real thing), a little cooked turkey bacon and jalapeno. And cheese, of course. Really any sort of basic cheese would work here ~ I chose shredded jack. A little butter and plenty of salt, because as we all know…grits do need salt. Oh! And I also added a can of rinsed corn because it seemed right to let the corn play with its gritty cousin. You know, everything but the kitchen sink :) Baked on 350 for about 30 minutes, until the cheesy top was browning. These are not healthy, exactly.
So that was breakfast, and really the only thing that would’ve improved the experience for me is a cup a joe from a new local favorite ~ Crema. Well, new to me I should say. I had a chance meeting with the downtown Nashville coffee shop last week over a client meeting and enjoyed what might have been the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. Or can remember at the moment. Tucked down by the river on Hermitage in the Rutledge Hill area, Crema was cool before the area started to be. The husband and wife team that started the shop a few years back is committed to coffee excellence as well as helping out in the local community. I’d heard that I must try something with espresso, the self-proclaimed coffee snobs’ specialty, so I ordered my favorite Americano. I had to interrupt conversation at my delight in tasting the smooth, rich, superior drink that I’d discovered. Really…possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. I can say that, despite an interesting location that doesn’t lend itself well to stilettos, I will (much sooner than later) be donning flats and marching right back to Crema. This time with my computer and plans to stay a while. Because I intend to drink an Americano and at least a couple other beverages, no matter how highly and disproportionately caffeinated I may find myself. And thanks very much Crema. You may have ruined other coffee experiences for me now. I suppose that was deliberate.
So yes, a cup of coffee from Crema would have been icing this morning…perhaps I’ll find an excuse to head back tomorrow ~
Come fall, I find myself inspired to put on large pots of soup…including a few standards as well as new creations. One that doesn’t get much play in my kitchen, however, is chicken noodle. Tonight I had the best possible inspiration for putting a warming Tuscan spin on the classic: my sweetie, who has come down with a cold and had to venture out in the rain to class. No other sort of evening seemed proper, right or possible. I would make chicken noodle in anticipation of his return.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this old-time favorite. Save my own bouts with colds and the like, I can generally take it or leave it. That is, until we’re talking a home-made version. Chicken noodle as a labor of love bubbling on the stove, not because you opened a can, is a whole different and wonderful story.
Tonight my home-made version was a bit of a Sandra Lee number, as I still had some editing to do and was looking for a shortcut or two. A couple of reigning themes in my kitchen include: 1.) eating late, b/c cooking, wine and music is an artful combination to be savored, not hurried, and is the favorite part of my day; 2.) using what you’ve got and not worrying about the rest; and 3.) doing as much or as little as will make you happy. For some reason I decided that buying a rotisserie chicken as well as store broth was going to make my life easier tonight. In retrospect, I probably would have reconsidered b/c it’s every bit as easy to toss a few chicken breasts in a pot or the oven as it is to deconstruct a whole bird yourself. Further, I have numerous lovely bags of stock-ready veg and chix remains in the freeze that would have easily turned into home-made stock. As it was, I opted for 2 different kinds of carton broth…Pacific low sodium free range chicken broth (because the ingredients are what they should be and sodium level is about as low as it gets) and a new Progresso Tuscany Broth, which has lovely thyme, rosemary and basil…nice b/c my herb garden is basically over for the winter. The final cheat was yolk-free noodles, because I don’t do noodles. Period. Something else to learn :)
Onion, carrot and celery into the pot, lightly cooked with salt, pepper and garlic. I didn’t have any fresh garlic (not normal) so powdered it was. Next up was the broth, followed by noodles once boiling. Really the last step was to add a couple of other lovelies along with the chicken. Tonight I wanted earthy and deep flavors, so I opted for mushrooms and baby bok choy. I was straight on in believing that the chicken, shrooms and bok would sing a happy melody together. It’s a combination I’ll explore further, and to be honest I could’ve veered off course and turned this trio into a chicken salad or other concoction. I didn’t…and they found their way into the pot. I tossed in some cayenne pepper, as decongesting seemed a good idea.
FYI, another couple of themes in the kitchen at Villa YaYa include not a lot of recipe following, quick fixes and improvisation. I love this about my kitchen, and it’s what makes it mine. Things don’t always turn out as you expect, and so long as you don’t panic…most “recipes” can be altered for a stellar result. Tonight I added entirely too many ingredients for the 4 cartons of broth I started with, so I added several cups of water to make sure my soup remained a soup…not a casserole. Making this fix while there was still plenty of simmering to be done, plus adjusting salt content, ensured that the flavor was amazing.
When my baby walked through the door this evening he was greeted with the aroma of a hearty and home-made chicken noodle served with crusty cheese bread. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t really a better remedy for a rainy day cold, is there?
Off to bed…
It’s 70 and sunny in beautiful Nashville, so perhaps you can understand why I might still be melancholy at the use of the last, perfect tomato from our garden. Even as it’s November and there are so many brilliant autumn foods to be enjoyed, my sweetie and I aren’t quite as diligent about planting for fall as we are spring and summer. This simply means I must source foods from other, better farmers than myself, which is not really a dilemma in these parts. But it’s also not quite as sweet as sauntering from the kitchen to our little plot of wonderful out back and deciding what looks perfect…right then and there. I am not, however, quite as saddened as I could be at this thought because I am the proud new owner of this:
In case you’re not aware, Blackberry Farm is a little slice of Heaven not far from the university where I went to school in Knoxville, Tennessee. Alas, my priorities back then were somewhat different than now and I never knew what a gem lay right outside my door. I’m looking forward to my first visit but do not need to have seen with my own eyes to understand that it is a magnificent place. A small, world-class inn that quite graciously treats its guests to an experience of living off the land, in season. Yes, please. Perhaps they need a little help in the kitchen?
I’m dreaming up a visit much sooner than later, but for now I can relish the tales, recipes and lovely photography that are this book. And what does all this have to do with my tomato? Well, I figure I could learn quite a bit from folks like Blackberry Farm proprietor and chef Sam Beall and his master gardener, John Coykendall, about farm-to-table living—year round—and this gives me a PERFECT excuse to make that visit. And to call it research :) Not to mention, who ever wants to be finished learning, after all?
Oh…and in case you’re wondering about that tomato, which was an heirloom Cherokee Purple and my favorite of all the varieties we planted this year, she did not disappoint ~ even after some recent cold spells. I’ll look forward to next year, Cherokee, and I very much enjoyed breakfast. Ciao!
I recognize that it is fall, and I’m loving every minute of it. However, I cannot run the risk of losing touch with the below recipe so I’m posting it here now…knowing two things:
- I will certainly be making a lot of this next summer when peaches are again at their peak.
- I can make mascarpone whenever I want.
It’s from the clearly talented Ashley Rodriguez.
It’s November…and our beautiful garden is not quite as lovely now as in April, July or September. It changes throughout our growing season, and we haven’t quite mastered anything beyond October. Until now.
I’d like for you to meet our green chile. She’s super sassy. And we have learned to do more with green chile these past few months than ever in our lives. Our fave, thus far, is my version of the chile popper. Yes, I realize I’m teasing with no recipe posts just yet. I’m sorry…I just don’t have the blessed time! But I will :)
xo ~ A
This CU-TIE-PIE had a lovely little home at the Nashville flea market until last weekend, when Mom and I liberated it and gave it a job housing Scott’s school assigments. That is…until it fulfills its life-long purpose of serving as the table escort for our wedding at Southall Eden :)
Once it is Thursday, and you’ve had a week that has tumbled you around like a dryer sheet…you generally need things in your life such as:
- Calgon (do they still make that? who cares. it conjures relaxation.)
- Pleasant aromas wafting from your kitchen…like garlic rolls. Mmmm.
- Candles. You musn’t forget.
- And calming, restorative, jazzy tunes
I’m not sure wafting is a word. It seems like it is. Regardless, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce my good friend Madeleine Peyroux. If you don’t already know her, you should. I am biased. She’s my go to girl (most mornings…whenever). She makes me happy and goes with most occasions. I’m a music lover, not a music critic, so I’m not going to get all descriptive here. I strongly recommend. Will make your life that much betta.
Oh, and I forgot to say that I’ve just obtained her newest release (above), which came out in June or something. Criminal, I know, that I haven’t accomplished this before now. The point is that I’m like a kid in the candy shop with that many more Madeleine tunes on my iPod. HOWEVER: if you really are just getting to know her…please try this first:
It is how I came to know her and I promise…you will not regret. Unless you’re weird.
xo ~ A
If you’re like me, any excuse will do for inserting pumpkin into your life – errr…mouth – this time of year. Pumpkin cakes with cream cheese frosting make even the not-so-sweet-toothed people in my life smile.
Recipe to follow. Once I stop eating these. They mesh quite well with coffee for breakfast…and pumpkin is fairly healthy, right?