Chopping the Italian Way

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I found out today that mezzaluna means half moon in Italian, which makes me happy, because the first time I ever used one of those crescent shaped chopping tools was in a kitchen in Tuscany. It was June of 2013, less than two months before my wedding day. For seven days, I shared an 18th century villa in the tiny village of Monterchi with 9 other women, most of them friends of my friend, Nicol, who had brought us all together for this once in a lifetime trip.

We had arranged for a cooking class from a native Tuscan chef named Giuseppina, who drove to Monterchi from her village, along with two assistants. They were going to teach us how to prepare a traditional Tuscan meal of chicken with sage, garlic and vegetables, home made pasta and tiramisu.

There was fresh sage, carrots, potatoes and zucchini to be chopped (all from Giuseppina’s farm) and garlic to be minced. I love garlic but have always had trouble with mincing, it’s so tedious and time consuming. Chopping can be too, as anyone who’s ever attempted a recipe with vegetables knows. So when Giuseppina brought out the double handled mezzaluna and asked for a volunteer to get the chopping and mincing going, I was eager to try. Williams-Sonoma has one similar to Giuseppina’s, check it out here: Double Mezzaluna | Williams-Sonoma.

To use it, you rock the curved blade in a back and forth motion across the cutting board. With the large double handled one, the motion feels almost like moving your hands back and forth on a steering wheel. I couldn’t believe how fast and easy it was to chop those vegetables and mince those cloves – even after a couple of glasses of chianti!

Who needs a cooking lesson the MOST?  This one!

Who needs a cooking lesson the MOST? This one!

Once back home, of course I added a mezzaluna to my wedding gift registry. And yay! Our friends Karen and Matt got it for us! I use it all the time and I love it! Ours isn’t a large, double one, but this compact, stainless steel one from Bed Bath and Beyond:
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Fits easily in the top shelf of the dishwasher and in the utensil drawer. Now I don’t dread chopping up anything, nuts, herbs, vegetables, whatever! And mincing garlic is a breeze. While browsing mezzlunas online I read one description that claimed they can chop 2-3 times more per stroke than a conventional knife! Believe it!

Karen blending in like a pro with the real Italian cooks.

Karen blending in like a pro with the real Italian cooks.

Soup Story

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Thank you to Stovetop Story for this recipe Spicy Soba Noodle Soup | Stovetop Story. I was so excited to try it because it seemed like a quick, easy and delicious choice for a cold winter weeknight after work. Excited, and also a bit…apprehensive. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my hubs is very meat and potatoes, and does not believe in meatless meals, let alone soup as a meal. His go-to response when something like kale or quinoa ends up on his plate has always been: “why can’t you cook something normal?”

So I have backed off on the superfoods/ancient grains and I make sure there is meat with every meal. Because despite how annoying that can be I want him to enjoy his dinner at home with me after he gets off a twelve hour shift. But yet… I WANTED that spicy soba noodle soup. So I decided to go for it and justified my decision by telling myself: he likes spicy food. He loves mushrooms. It’ll be so quick and easy. And I’ll make sure we have a good dessert. Yep, I actually whipped up a sour cream pound cake at the same time, that’s how easy the soup recipe is. Or maybe I’m just getting better at baking. (tip: make sure you leave your eggs and butter out at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before combining and mixing ingredients).

However, there were some slight hitches and modifications during the preparation of Stovetop Story’s recipe. First of all, it calls for pre-cooked soba noodles which I couldn’t find. That would have been REALLY easy. In fact, the first grocery story I went to didn’t have soba noodles at all. At the second store, in the international foods area, I found a slim package of uncooked noodles, labeled Japanese Buckwheat noodles. On the back of the package, it explains that the Japanese word for this type of noodle is soba. Which I already knew, because I used to work at an upscale Asian fusion restaurant. Besides the extra step of cooking the noodles, mine got a bit gummy after I drained them while waiting for the vegetable broth to boil. But it didn’t seem to make a difference once I added them to the broth.

As for the mushroom, I sliced up two Portobello caps instead of one and I’m glad I did. The mushroom, kale and spicy sauce are what make this soup. My first taste of the soba was, dare I say, a little like cardboard? But I added more mushroom and lots of kale (I used a pre-washed bag) and ended up really enjoying this soup. And I also recommend doubling up on the spicy sauce so you can add lots of it, too.

On thing that didn’t work for me…the freeze dried spring onions that I used instead of fresh green onions. I had them on hand, but had never used them before. I love fresh herbs but they can be pricey and usually end up getting wasted because you often end up with more than you need. Am I wrong? But these freeze dried things are NOT the way to go. They don’t even tell you how much water to add and so they became more like mushy onions or crusty onions.

But that was the ONLY thing I found any complaint with. It was a pretty and tasty soup. My husband on the other hand….well, I have to give him props for being game to try it. But most of his ended up in the garbage can. How that is possible, I just don’t know. But, he did NOT like it. And I was very disappointed. No more Asian cooking in my future unless it’s when he’s not around.

I felt kind of bad, I mean… I KNEW he didn’t have a taste for that type of cooking, and I did it anyway. But I learned a thing or two. I won’t be using those freeze dried onions again. And I can whip up a spur of the moment pound cake like nobody’s business!

Fresh  vs. freeze-dried (plus my room temp eggs for the pound cake)

Fresh vs. freeze-dried (plus my room temp eggs for the pound cake)

Cornbread Fail

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I followed the directions on the box. Combine instant mix with one egg and 1/3 cup of milk. Blend. Expect batter to be a bit lumpy as it said it would be. Allow to rest for 3-4 minutes before pouring into pan.

The cornbread turned out gummy and crumbly with a thin layer of something moist on top.

“What did you do?” My husband asked just before spooning a serving of red beans and rice into a bowl.

“I followed the directions on the box!” I said, but of course went back and looked again to see what mistake I had made. The only thing I can think is that after the batter “rests” it says you should stir before pouring into pan or tins. Which didn’t happen. It wasn’t fine print but it may as well have been. It’s a box. Of mix. You’re supposes to just…mix it up and put it in something. And not have it turn out AWFUL. This is why I sometimes stress out about cooking because WTF? Or am I just missing a natural instinct for cooking with ease? Maybe I should have just known to stir it again. All I know for sure is that I was so looking forward to cornbread with red beans and rice on a rainy day.

“Doctored Up” Gumbo

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Note to self: when shopping for groceries after work, if I come across a container of frozen gumbo in the seafood section and think “hmm that would be something different and EASY” remember it will have to be “doctored up”.

Now, mind you, the plastic container that I put in my grocery cart was not just any frozen gumbo. We live in a port city and have access to lots of fresh seafood, and this was from a local seafood shop known for their tasty gumbo.

So I bring it home and, while putting away the groceries Friday evening, I mention to my husband, “what do you think about gumbo for dinner tomorrow night?” I had already read the deliciously easy directions on the lid: allow to thaw in the refrigerator overnight and simmer on the stove. That was it. I had picked up a loaf of bread from the bakery for dipping and we would have a salad with it and….

“Well okay, but how are you going to doctor it up?” My husband asked.

Dang it.

“We still have some frozen shrimp out in the freezer that we need to eat. I always like to give it more shrimp. And you could sautee some onions and celery to put in it. And don’t forget to make some rice.”

Well okay. Peeling the shrimp would be the most time consuming part. But it WOULD make it taste better and we DO have shrimp in the freezer just sitting there. So okay. He’s right.

Saturday morning he was already gone to work when I got up and found this note on the kitchen table:
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His little way of helping me out. Aw, thank you honey! Because thawing the frozen stuff (usually the meat of course, and he is a MEAT and potatoes man) has been my nemesis. Apologies if I didn’t use the word nemesis correctly, but you know what I mean. Thawing meat just takes way too long, I don’t think it should be done in a microwave, it often just wears me out. Did I mention that my husband has to have meat with every meal?

Now listen, sometimes (often) he helps out with the cooking. Many times when he has the day off I will get a text that says “I’ve got dinner” and will come home and not have to do a thing. Or like the other day, I had planned to make meat loaf (“honey what do you think about meat loaf for dinner tomorrow?”)but ended up staying after school too long and as I drove home was racking my brain for something else to cook, unsure if I could handle thawing out that frozen ground venison at almost 4:30 pm. But lo and behold, I walked into the kitchen to find the meat almost 100% defrosted in the sink. HALLELUJAH! So you see, checking in with the husband about cooking plans CAN be a big help!

But back to the shrimp in the sink. I took the gumbo container out of the fridge and put it in the sink as well. Overnight thawing in the refrigerator NEVER works, does it? I went out about my day, went to exercise class, did some writing, then it was time to peel the shrimp. Fortunately, one of the skills my mother did teach me was how to peel shrimp, so I’m able to do it pretty quickly. De-veining the shrimp is the most difficult part, if anyone has any tricks to de-vein shrimp please let me know!

I sautéed the chopped onion and celery in a bit of olive oil, then added it all to the gumbo in the pot. By this time the husband was home from work and he doctored up the flavor with some spices from the pantry, including his “go-to” spice that he puts on EVERYTHING:
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The loaf of wheat bread went into the oven for 15 minutes at 350 which gave it a nice, crusty top. I set out a dish of olive oil mixed with some Herbs de Provence for dipping, made two salads, poured the Rex Goliath chardonnay and voila! We had gumbo for dinner!

And I Baked a Cake

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Here is the cake I made for my husband’s birthday. The cake plate was a wedding gift. It wasn’t on our gift registry and at first I thought, when will I ever use this? But I love it, it’s so pretty. And it really elevates the cake beyond the ordinary, don’t you think?
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My husband’s birthday was on Thursday, but the cake was baked on Tuesday because I had a hair appointment on Wednesday and planned to cook a big dinner of chicken and dumplings on his actual birthday, which I knew was going to be quite an undertaking. (see previous post). So between faculty meetings, hair appointment, school technology training, cooking and baking, I had to leave my classroom at three o’clock on the dot all week. Not easy for a teacher who is usually at school until AT LEAST 3:30 doing paperwork, grading papers or getting lessons ready for the next day. But I’m so glad I proved to myself that I can take the time to prepare such deliciousness for my husband and myself. Of course, it requires a lot of PLANNING – I literally had to write down on my calendar when I was going the grocery store and which day I was going to bake. And on said baking day, I slid a Stouffers family size lasagna in the oven and said “honey, we’re having frozen lasagna for dinner because I’m baking you a birthday cake tonight and I can’t handle baking and actual cooking on the same night.”

The chocolate cake and chocolate sour cream frosting are from the classic Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (you know with the red and white checked cover). I love that cookbook because my mom has one too and it reminds me of being little and looking through all the pictures of all the beautiful food.
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Mom always said “if you can read, you can cook,” which is probably why she didn’t really train me in any actual cooking SKILLS. But hey, I guess she was right. And, like anything else, if you want to get better at something, you have to actually just…do it. And leave work early if you can.

Chef John’s Chicken and Biscuits Recipe – Allrecipes.com

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This recipe was sent to my inbox from All Recipes Daily Dish. I decided to make it for my husband’s birthday dinner last week because he LOVES meat and potatoes, or what he calls “normal” dishes. Which is too bad for me because: a) I’m still learning how to cook.
b) I prefer to try recipes that are different and call for unusual ingredients. Like fish sauce, for example.

But I have to say, this chicken and biscuits dish is AWESOME! Chef John describes it as chicken and biscuits meets chicken pot pie meets chicken and dumplings all in one pot. It’s not only delicious comfort food perfect for a winter evening but it calls for some good smelling herbs which always makes cooking more enjoyable. And it is time consuming and somewhat laborious, so if you want extra points for effort, look no further. But don’t let that scare you. It’s well worth it and if I can do it, so can you. My experience did have some bumpy moments, but hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and make your dumpling/biscuit/pot pie without breaking a sweat.

I’ve linked the recipe here Chef John's Chicken and Biscuits Recipe – Allrecipes.com. The page includes a video of Chef John himself preparing the dish and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND WATCHING THE VIDEO FIRST. Which I did not do. And wished I had. Chef John will answer some of those questions you would otherwise be asking to the silent kitchen gods, such as, “how do you properly rinse a chicken?” Or, “Wait, is the chicken supposed to be fully submerged in the water?” The video will also give you a good idea of how to synchronize all of the steps, how long each step will take, and how in the hell to get a whole, five pound chicken out of a simmering pot.

A word about the herbs. The recipe calls for, among others, herbs de provence, fresh rosemary and fresh tarragon. I LOVE fresh herbs but they are expensive and I never use the whole bunch and end up throwing a good bit away (after putting them in the fridge and saying I will use them within the week). Before I got married I would always buy the fresh herbs, no matter. The husband however, sternly disapproves of this practice (especially the wasted herbs = wasted money part) and since this dinner was being prepared especially for HIM, I used dried instead. And I have to say, (remember I’m a fresh herb lover) that I don’t think it made ANY difference whatsoever. So go out and buy whatever dried herbs your pantry may be lacking and then you will have them on hand and it will be one less item on the grocery list next time!

I did do a quick Martha Stewart search on google and she says that you need a third LESS dried herbs than fresh. She also, fortunately for us math challenged people, specified with examples: if a recipe calls for one tablespoon of fresh, use one teaspoon of dried, since three teaspoons equal one tablespoon.

Now, I’ve been told that I’m too rigid when it comes to making EXACT measurements when cooking, and that I stress out too much if unable to follow the directions EXACTLY. So THIS time, when faced with the unexpected obstacle of no cayenne pepper to be found, I decided to be calm and wing it. I said to myself (after repeatedly exclaiming I could have SWORN we had cayenne pepper!) well…..cayenne pepper is hot so…what else is hot? Chili powder? Ok, chili powder it is.

This was almost a disaster and my undoing. I added the chili powder to the celery, carrots and mushrooms, along with the paprika, salt and pepper. While stirring the simmering pot, I began to smell…chili. And the vegetables began to look…brown. And I began to have an inner freak out, thinking that I had ruined the dinner…but I had to squelch those thoughts with all my might because right at that moment (of course) my husband came in, hovered his nose over the pot and told me I needed to add some water or SOMETHING because it was all about to get dried out to nothing. So I told him to go sit in the living room. Just. Go. Sit in the living room. And then I remembered that I was supposed to add the chicken stock, which certainly did help. Yay! And, ok deep breath. But the chili smell…. and I like chili… just smelled…wrong. Bad wrong. So I poured a glass of wine. And told myself there was nothing I could do now but keep going. Thank God for Herbs de Provence. Really, it’s aromatherapy in a jar. That and the dried rosemary and tarragon helped create a feeling that perhaps it might be ok, after all. And the biscuits! Those Pillsbury Pop and Fresh biscuits placed gently on top of the bubbling chicken and seasoned vegetables – glorious!

My husband said it was the best dinner I’d made yet! It was delicious, with a certain, je ne sais quois of spicy flavor and comfort. All’s well that ends well. And I can’t wait to make this again, now that I know what I’m doing!

Everyday Life.

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There’s a blog I love called Cupcakes & Cashmere | Elevate Everyday Life.. The person behind Cupcakes and Cashmere is Emily, an unconventionally pretty blonde who’s living the California lifestyle with her husband and expecting her first child. She shares posts, links and photos about fashion, style, beauty products, interior décor, even etiquette.

In every photo the lighting is beautiful, every lipstick shade just works, every outfit comfortable yet stylish. She’s like the cool girl who’s nice to everyone at school and you get to be a little bit cooler just by hanging out with her and learning from the tricks she’s always willing to share. Although one of her pet peeves is chipped nail polish, so I doubt she and I would ever become close friends since that’s something I’m too often guilty of. I don’t like chipped nail polish either but…it just happens sometimes. Which is one of the many reasons why I could never have a blog like Cupcakes and Cashmere.

But to elevate the every day? Fortunately that can come from inhaling the fresh lemony scent of dishwashing liquid while noticing the way the sunlight gleams on the plate as I rinse it under the faucet; smiling at the delicate floral pattern of our everyday china that I picked out for our wedding because I STILL think it’s SO beautiful. Or setting the patio table for dinner outdoors with cheerful plastic plates etched with bold red flowers and yellow butterflies. Or making my husband’s birthday cake from scratch even though the last time I baked a cake I was helping my mom in the kitchen at the age of about ten.

We all have our own little way.