Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

I can't let another holiday season pass by without writing about my favorite vegetable dish in the whole world.  Roasty, toasty Brussels sprouts.  The most wonderful veggie preparation of them all.  They grace nearly every holiday table I'm at.  And I'll bet I'm not the only one who brings a stalk of Brussels sprouts with her in her suitcase when traveling to visit her sister 3000 miles away for Thanksgiving.  Am I right, people?!
I'm a little bit of a weirdo.  But at least I own it.
Growing up, my family was not your typical family of eaters. We ate all the things our friends ate, but my parents also fed us quite a bit of atypical eats for youngsters. We were the kids sitting down to eat a bucket of steamer clams, making our own sushi, picking apart Dungeness crab, and loading our plates up on buttery Brussels sprouts.  We learned to love unusual foods, and to this day we're the least picky family of eaters I've ever known.  I have my mom and dad to thank for that!

They were just so perfect- I had to bring them with me!

If you've tried Brussels sprouts (named after the city that made them popular) and think you hate them, you don't.  You just had them steamed or boiled until they were mush and smelled like overcooked cabbage.  So try them like this.  Trust me, you will LOVE them. 
If you've never tried Brussels sprouts...what's wrong with you?!  They are delicious!  Seriously!  And don't be one of those people that says you don't like something when you've never tried it.  It doesn't work on me when my three year old niece says it, and it won't work if you say it.  Buy yourself a pound or two of Brussels sprouts and give this recipe a whirl.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
(Adapted from Barefoot Contessa)
1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (big pinch)
several grinds of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Remove any ugly or yellow outer leaves from the sprouts.  Cut off a bit from the the stem end, then slice each sprout in half.  Scatter on a large sheet tray and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Roast for 30-35 minutes, tossing with a spatula halfway through cooking, until they get a nice golden, crispy brown (I like mine really crispy).  Once removed from the oven, toss with a bit more salt and serve immediately. 
Enjoy! xo H

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving.  The most glorious holiday of the year.  The holiday where your sole purpose is to consume food.  No dressing up in goofy costumes.  No silly exchanging of presents and "small talk" with the dreaded in-laws (oh, wait...you still might have to do that).  Nope, it is a day that one dedicates entirely to the preparation and consumption of mass quantities of (largely unhealthy but) crazy delicious grub.

Best.  Day.  EVER.

Last year, my parents and I traveled down to Oregon to spend Turkey Day with my sister Holly and her family.  I wasn't flying in until the afternoon on Thanksgiving proper, so we decided to go avant-garde last year and go out for Thanksgiving.  As in, not cook anything.

It had never been done before.  By anyone in my family ever.

I mean, we're not crazy or anything.  We didn't want to take a gamble.  So we chose one of our favorite little restaurants located in McMinnville, Oregon called Bistro Maison.  This meal was crazy good.  We still think about it- the incredible chestnut stuffing, the luscious mashed potatoes, the vat of homemade gravy.  The most beautiful, delicious food on Thanksgiving you could ever consume, as only the French could do.  And I would know, because I went to France this summer and they do food right.

Sadly, no Freedom Fries this year.  Instead, Holly has installed austerity measures at her house, which means a homemade Thanksgiving for us. As Holly and I were working on the menu for our feast last night, I kept clicking and surfing to find some of my favorite holiday recipes from years past.  And I thought it might be helpful to share some of the all-star recipes I have come across over the years.  Here are some of my faves:

- Roasted Brussels Sprouts- the Barefoot Contessa rocked my world with this recipe years ago, and it's been a staple on my family's Thanksgiving table ever since.

- Apple and Sausage Stuffing- my go-to stuffing recipe.  Easy, and never fails.

- Creamy Mashed Potatoes- my friend Kate swears by these.  Best she's ever made.

- Roasted Beets- the most delicious beet recipe known to man.  I've made lovers out of the biggest beet haters with this recipe.  Stunningly easy and delicious.

- Cheesy Corn Casserole- easily my most popular recipe (and a constant reminder when I'm in the kitchen of the classic adage: "Keep it simple, stupid.")

- Roasted Asparagus- another huge veggie crowd pleaser.  Fast and dummy-proof.

- Chili-Spiced Roasted Acorn Squash- a new one to the repertoire, but worthy of a mention.

As for the turkey, Holly and I want to try our hands at brining this year, so we're testing out our pal Alton Brown's recipe for the perfect bird.  Keeping our fingers crossed! 

Gobble gobble!
xo H

Monday, November 5, 2012

Chili-Spiced Roasted Acorn Squash

I love fall.  The crisp autumn air, the crush of fallen leaves underfoot, and the abundance of pumpkins and apples in the local grocery store.  As much as I love the bounty that comes in spring and summer, I think I enjoy cooking in the chilly months the most of all.  Which is a good thing, considering the "chillier months" take up most of the calendar year here in Alaska.  Now is the season of comforting, soups, stews, roasts, and casseroles.

In the midst of enjoying the bounty of rich and hearty dishes at this time of year, I've noticed a peculiar thing happening in my wardrobe.  You see, it's shrinking.  I kid you not!  And at about the same time, I swear my scale broke.  8 pounds?!  I have not gain 8 pounds. Ridiculous.  I'm certain the recent splurges on cheeses, chocolates, wine, fresh-baked artisan breads, and...oh, you name it.  I'm sure they had absolutely nothing to do with it.  I'm just retaining water.

Ok, time to get real, Heidi.

For the most part, I eat a pretty healthy diet.  Lots of whole grains, lean meats, fruits and veggies.   But as a self-professed food-lover, I tend to indulge my passion a bit too much at times.  So its time to buckle down and try to fit back into my skinny jeans (that cost WAY too much for me not to fit into them- very cruel trend) before the chub-inducing holidays come knocking.  But just because I'm eating healthy doesn't mean I need to eat boring!  

Enter this dish: roasted acorn squash with the volume turned up.  I LOVE squash- hearty, filling, and full of healthy vitamins.  Also, very fall-y.  Is that a word?  Well, it is now.  It's perfectly paired with chili powder and cumin.  And no need to peel- the skin is edible!  The squash becames warm and buttery, with a little spicy pizzazz.  It's a great side dish pork or a spice-rubbed steak.  I paired it with simple seared salmon.  So start eating your veggies...I think you'll like 'em!

Chili-Spiced Roasted Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash
1 T. olive oil
1 t. salt
1 t. chili powder
1/2 t. cumin

Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Slice the squash in half long-wise, scoop out the seeds, and slice off the root and tail ends. Cut the squash in 1/2 inch thick half-moons. Place the squash slices on a shallow baking sheet and toss with the olive oil, salt, chili powder, and cumin Arrange the slices in a single layer and bake for 25-35 minutes until golden brown, turning once.


xo H 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Notes From My European Adventure

Courmayeur, Italy
Buongiorno!  I'm back from my crazy, amazing, fantastic, inspirational, exhausting, relaxing, and exhilirating adventure through France and Italy.  Three weeks that exceeded all my expectations, and that I'll never forget.  The food, the wine, the mountains, the sea...all while making great friends along the way. 

Trying to sum up this incredible trip is difficult for me.  I mean, I think I took about 1200 pictures on my phone, and yet none of them do it justice (although this first picture I've posted here might be my favorite).  Being in another country- with its different food, culture, and language- helped me get more in touch with myself.  When you're sitting on a balcony in a small Italian town, overlooking the Mediterrenean Sea and out of your own element a bit, you have this ability to start tackling the big questions in life.  No, not my usual questions, like...what shoes go right with this outfit?  what am I having for lunch?  why does my dog need to go in and out of the house 15 times in 15 minutes, and why do I keep getting up like a sucker to enable this habit?

No, I mean the big questions, like...what makes me happy?  What fulfills me in life?  Am I where I want to be?  And if not, how do I get there?  And of course, what is the next adventure on the horizon?  I also felt incredibly lucky and blessed.  I got to spend three weeks in some of the most beautiful places I've ever visited, with one of my best friends, and I really felt like I lived every single moment.  Nope, we didn't do it all.  We didn't even TRY to do it all.  We did just enough.  And it was perfect.

After a blissful week in Paris soaking in the City of Lights, Marika and I traveled to Chamonix, France to begin a week of hiking in the Alps.  Where we saw sights like this the entire week.

We set off on an adventure with 12 new friends on a G Adventures hiking tour.  Spoiler Alert:  I'm just going to tell you right now that this hiking trip was AWESOME.  When Marika and I decided to jump on board with this guided hiking trip, we both had our reservations.  Thoughts like...are we going to have to spend a week with a bunch of weirdos?  Are we going to die on the mountain from exhaustion?  Will we get to eat a lot of cheese?  (I would be lying if I said that my friend Jon's description of a particular French delicacy called raclette was not the leading reason why I wanted to go on this hiking tour.)  

I'll answer this first:  we got to eat cheese.  This, my friends, is a picture of a giant block of melty cheese that you scrape with a knife specifically designed for this purpose.  Here's Marika demonstrating the beautiful art that is: RACLETTE.  Oh my heavenly Lord, this meal was a dream.   

Here's the entire spread it was served with!
(I also have an inordinate amount of food pictures from my trip.  Not because they're pretty pictures.  Mostly because I just didn't want to forget any morsel!)

As for whether we spent a week hiking with a bunch of weirdos?  Well, you be the judge.
Dan, German Lady #1, me, German Lady #2, Gretchen, Polka Bandmate #1, Marika, Nancy, and...let's call him Hans
Although if we spent the week with a bunch of weirdos, then Marika and I (and Gretchen!) were the weirdest of all!
Our group hiking tour, the Mont Blanc Explorer, was led by our fearless guide Jose and took us through the alpine terrain of Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy.  It consisted of 11 loud, opinionated, fun-loving women...and Dan.  I'm not sure if Dan thought he hit the jackpot, or woke up in some kind of nightmare after being randomly placed in group consisting of entirely women for a whole week.  Whatever his feelings on day one, we certainly won him over in the end. 

We hiked through some of the most beautiful terrain I've ever seen, and I live in ALASKA!  Craggy mountains, icy blue glaciers, lush alpine tundra covered in wildflowers, and beautiful glassy lakes nestled throughout our hikes. 

It's impossible to pinpoint my favorite moment of our week in the Alps.  Taking the tram up to the top of the L'Aiguille du Midi was pretty spectacular.  The day hike that Dan, Marika, and I took that included an incredible meal at one of the mountain refuges along the way was awfully special.  Charcuterie, tartiflette, and cheese to die for. 
Or the last night when we came upon a German polka band playing in the middle of the street in small town France to a crowd of spectators, and Gretchen, Marika, and I deciding to get up and dance in the middle of the street...when NO ONE ELSE WAS DANCING.  That was unforgettable, , and a pretty special moment (I'm also certain that Jose and Dan were shocked and horrified...and kinda impressed, am I right boys?)   
I think the best part about it was the friendship.  We really had a special chemistry in our group.  I made friends I hope to have for a lifetime, and it's an experience I'll never forget.

After bidding all our new friends goodbye, Marika and I set off on a grueling day of train travel to Cinque Terre, Italy.  Or, as I like to call it, The Place Where Every View Is A Postcard. 
After a busy week walking laps around Paris, and a physically demanding week hiking in the Alps, the only thing Marika and I could really focus on when we arrived in Riomaggiore, Italy was REST.

Well, rest and food.  We never forgot about food.

The first day we arrived, we spent the entire day sunning (and shading) ourselves on our beautiful rooftop balcony.  We hit the jackpot with this apartment.  The views were stunning!

From our private balcony in Riomaggiore, overlooking the Mediterrenean Sea

On this day, we rested.  And we ate.  We basically only left the apartment to find food.  And we did- delicious local cheese, focaccia (which originated in this region of Italy), salumi, assorted antipasto, and PESTO.  Which is by far the best pesto I've ever tasted, in the area it is best known for. 

We also ate a lot of anchovies in Cinque Terre.  This region is known for it's fresh seafood, and we ate anchovies every day.  It was a foodie's dream.

We had salt-cured anchovies.


We had fresh anchovies with olive oil and lemon.

We had deep fried and stuffed anchovies.

We also had anchovies with potatoes, olive oil, and tomatoes, as well as pasta with anchovies.  It was our Italian version of Bubba Gump Shrimp ("He was my best good friend.")

Lest you think all we did on this leg of our adventure was eat, you are mistaken.  We also drank A LOT of wine.  And enjoyed a lot of blue water and sunshine


In Cinque Terre, the idea is not so much to play the tourist and locate every possible historical site in the area.  Instead, the idea is just to be in the moment. In that spirit, Marika and I attempted to spend every day just enjoying what the region had to offer, which was sunshine.  Sunshine in its food, in its people, and in every view.

We sunned ourselves at the beach in Monterrosso, we swam in the Mediterrenean in Vernazza, we hiked along the Cinque Terre trail studded with olive and lemon trees.  We met wonderfully friendly, happy Italians eager to share their excitement and love for this beautiful region of the world.  A trip full of memories to last me a lifetime.

So now, as I sit at home on my couch, cozily wrapped in my chenille blanket and staring out the window at the fallen leaves and frost on the grass, I can't help but dream about my next adventure.  While I let those thoughts stir for the next few months, I'm excited to get back in the kitchen and cook up delicious and comforting fall and winter dishes to share with you.  It's my favorite time of year to cook! 

Stay tuned...
On top of the world!

xo H

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Notes from Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

So sorry to neglect my blog these past few weeks.  I've been busy preparing for my big trip to France and Italy.  My friend Marika and I have been waiting for this adventure for almost a year, and the time has finally arrived!  We have spent the past week soaking in the City of Lights.  Paris is a magical place, full of intrigue, romance, mystery, and buttery, mouthwatering pastries!  I'd be lying if I said that my primary focus here has not been fixated on locating every delicious morsel Paris has to offer.  We may not have found them all, but it certainly wasn't without trying.

(You'll have to forgive the less then perfect quality of this post.  Blogging on my iPad from overseas is about as much fun as trying to have a conversation with a Parisian who doesn't speak a lick of English.  Which is to say, a bit of a challenge!)

One of my fondest memories from Paris will certainly be the French cooking class I took at La Cuisine Paris.  It exceeded all my expectations!  We started by meeting at the local outdoor market at Place Monge, selecting produce, cheese, and meats by whatever looked freshest.  With no fixed menu, the sky was the limit when it came to our meal, which was dictated only by what looked best at the market that day.  

Our instructor, Camille, was knowledgeable and friendly.  We settled on Salad Nicoise the traditional way (no tuna, no boiled potatoes, no green beans, and certainly no corn!), roasted little potato wedges, seared duck breast, currant and raspberry clafoutis, and an assortment of French cheeses.  Not bad for lunch, eh?  Here's a picture of the fruits of our labor!

When I return home to Alaska, I hope to post a recipe for the salad- it was undoubtedly the best Nicoise salad I have ever tasted!  The duck breast was perfectly seared, and the potatoes were crisp, golden, and buttery soft on the inside.  Paired with a crusty French baguette, and, oh, say four glasses of white wine (yup- got a little lit by the end of lunch), it was one of my favorite vacation experiences.  I can't wait to return to Paris and take another class!

We also loved meandering through Thursday's Bastille open market.  Row upon row of produce, cheese, and charcuterie vendors, not to mention booths pandering to the droves of tourists.  We successfully avoided most of those and picked up several delectable treasures for the most perfect picnic lunch EVER.

Not everything in Paris has been totally rosy.  We had a pretty perilous time trying to figure out the damn train to Versailles.  Paris's metro system is pretty easy to dial in, but the train system in Paris is not always second nature.  I told Marika that if she hadn't been there with me to help figure it out, I'm pretty sure I would have broken down in the middle of the train station crying for my mommy. :)

And then there was to Louvre.  Oh, the $&@?ing Louvre.  The day we visited the worlds greatest museum of art, we were exhausted after traipsing all over Paris.  We literally walked circles around the massive museum looking for a way to get in before almost giving up.  HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET INTO THIS DAMN PLACE?!?!  We asked one Parisian selling water how to get in, and the bastard sent us on a wild goose chase in exactly the wrong direction (we later read that Parisians love messing with tourists this way.  I was tempted to relocate the guy and punch him in the face.). This picture I took sums up how our I felt about our trip to the Louvre.

We finally asked someone who appeared official where the entrance was located.  In the glass pyramid in the center of the museum courtyard, of course.  She looked at us like we were a bit...touched.


God, did we feel stupid.

By then, we were so fed up with how the Louvre turned on us that we could barely muster the energy to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.  We did, but we didn't see much else.  Louvre fail.

On our last night in Paris, we enjoyed a quintessentially Parisian meal of jambon (ham) and melon, seared steak with shallot sauce, frites, several glasses of house wine, and the biggest profiterole anyone has ever seen.

It was as big as Marika's head, and we nearly polished the whole thing off.  We really did Paris proud.

Now Marika is dozing off next to me on our train ride to Chamonix to begin the second part of our trip- a week hiking in the French Alps!  Looking forward to beautiful views, picturesque mountain towns, and more exciting culinary treats!  Stay tuned...

Au Revoir!
xo H

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Barley "Risotto" with Pesto and Summer Squash

This weekend, the girls and I had a good ol' fashioned roadtrip. Meagan, Jenna and I piled into my Jeep and headed along the gorgeous Glenn Highway to our friend Kate's wedding near Valdez. The adventure was full of laughter, tears (of laughter), hilarious stories, getting lost, cursing at slow Canadian RV's, and almost running out of gas. No joke. I had to stare at this for roughly five miles:

We almost had to resort to hitchhiking to get to the wedding.  Along the way, we dined on such delicacies as Twizzlers, cheesy puffs, Oreos, sunflower seeds, and Gardetto's (I ate the rye crisps, Meagan ate the rest).  If we hadn't made it to the gas station in the nick of time, and they had found my car abandoned along the side of the road, they would have thought we were a car full of frat boys (I imagine this scene playing out ala Into The Wild, where Jenna, Meagan and I would have left the car behind to live our lives in and of the wilderness, picking berries and spearing fish to survive.  We wouldn't have made it 15 minutes.)

So, when I post a recipe as healthy as this, its important that you know I have a well-balanced nutritional diet.  Balanced in that I eat a healthy dose of junk along with my barley and veggies.

I had a barley risotto at one of my favorite restaurants, Maxine's Fireweed Bistro, not too long ago and I've been itching to try my hand at it ever since.  My friend Marika told me about this delicious pesto risotto she found on her favorite vegan food blog, ThePPK.com, and I decided to adapt it using barley instead.  Often my little "experiments" turn into utter disasters (need I remind anyone about the pork roast debacle of 2008?) but I'm pleased to announce that this one turned out fantastic!  The nuttiness of the barley paired perfectly with the buttery roasted squash and flavorful pesto, and the toasted pine nuts add the right amount of texture to balance out the meal.  Plus it utilizes store-bought pesto and the multitude of squash and zucchini found in every garden in Alaska right now.  It takes a little time for the risotto to cook, but it's easy and the patience pays off!

Barley "Risotto" with Pesto and Squash

Adapted from ThePPK.com

3 small yellow squash, or 2 small zucchini, sliced into thick half moons
6 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 T. olive oil, plus 1-2 t. for the squash
1 T. butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 c. pearl barley, rinsed and drained
3/4 c. store-bought pesto (unless you're feeling particularly industrious, which I wasn't)
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
toasted pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Bring chicken broth to a simmer in a medium sauce pan, then reduce heat to low to keep warm.  Melt the butter and a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat.  Add onion and saute for 5-6 minutes, until transluscent and soft.  (You should add salt at this time, and should season the barley with salt and pepper throughout the cooking process unless your pesto is particularly salty, which mine was, so I didn't even need to add salt.)  Add garlic and saute for 1 minute, until just golden.  Add the barley and stir for 1-2 minutes.

In the meantime, toss squash with a drizzle of olive oil, kosher salt, and ground pepper on a baking sheet.  Bake for 15 minutes or so, turning once, until golden brown.

Ladel about 1 cup of broth to the barley, and stir often until the broth is fully absorbed.  Keep repeating this process until about half of the broth is absorbed.  Then, add half of the pesto and stir.  Continue adding the broth and stirring until the barley is tender but still has a little bite to it.  Once the barley is creamy and tastes to your liking, add the rest of the pesto.  You may not need all of the broth.  Stir in the roasted squash.

Before the risotto is finished, toast the pine nuts in the 400 degree oven on a baking sheet for 5 minutes, or until golden brown.

Top with toasted pine nuts and serve.

Enjoy! xo H

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rhubarb Crunch

Here in the Last Frontier, it's the season of rhubarb.  With our extreme northern latitude, Alaskan summers are in hyperdrive.  In a place where sunglasses are often required at 10:30 p.m. (that is not a joke, lower 48ers), we produce such freaks of nature like this pumpkin  and this zucchini (nicknamed "Baby"- gotta love a gardener with a sense of humor!) 

**SIDENOTE: Ok, I was just going to include those two links, but then I became entranced with this dude's Alaskan veggie website.  Holy CRAP, get a load of these freaking vegetables!  I mean, the guy grew a 42-pound beet, for the love of all that is holy.**

Alright, so back to what I was saying. 

Because of our summer days full of crazy concentrated 20+ hours of sunshine, you'll see a behemoth that looks something like this in practically every yard in Alaska:

I found this monster rhubarb plant in my Mom's front yard after my sister Holly, my niece Claire and I drove from Anchorage to Fairbanks to visit family for the Fourth of July.   I decided it needed a little pruning, and whipped up a childhood favorite.

When I was growing up, my Mom often made us Rhubarb Crunch and served it up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream- a delicious dessert we enjoyed during the hot Fairbanks summers.  Rhubarb is the gift that keeps on giving- once you chop off it's limbs for dessert, it just grows new ones.  And the beauty of rhubarb is that once summer is over, you can freeze any unused stalks and enjoy this treat year round.

This dessert is dummy-proof, which is the only kind of baking I'm really successful at (need I remind anyone about the Flat Stanley birthday cake?)  Usually I wing it, especially since my beloved mother can't write a recipe down to save her life.  But I think it's best to start with a recipe if you've never made something before, and veer off from there once you have the basics down. 

For this tasty dish, simply toss the rhubarb with flour and sugar (it will make it's own "juice" once it cooks).  The crumbly topping consists of flour, butter, pecans, oats and brown sugar.  If you like cinnamon, by all means add a pinch.  But I'm not a huge fan, and my Mom never added it, so I skip it. 

Sprinkle the crumbly topping all over the rhubarb, and bake until bubbly and golden brown.  Mine took 35 minutes flat.

Usually folks call this type of dessert a "crisp".  But Mom always called it Rhubarb Crunch when we were kids, and the name stuck.

This delicious dessert comes out sweet, but not too sweet, and with a healthy dose of tartness.  Therefore, I think a scoop of good-quality vanilla ice cream (think Haagen-Dazs or Breyers) is essential to complete the dish.

The perfect summer dessert, shared with some of my favorite company in the world.  My family.

Me, Holly, Claire, and Milo (Photo by the talented Chris Beck)

Rhubarb Crunch
(Adapted from Everyday Food)

2 pounds rhubarb (about 8 cups), sliced crosswise 3/4 inch thick
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup pecans
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Coat a 9x13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.  In the dish, combine the rhubarb, sugar, and 1/4 cup flour until evenly mixed.  Set aside.

2. In a food processor, add the pecans and pulse until the pieces are small but not finely-ground.  Pour into another bowl and set aside.  Combine remaining 1/2 cup flour and the butter and pulse until the pieces are pea-sized.  Add the brown sugar, oats, and the pecans and pulse until combined.  Sprinkle the mixture over the rhubarb.

3. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until brown and bubbly.  Serve warm with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream.

Enjoy! xo H

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato & Bread Soup)

It's finally summertime in Alaska.  The grass is green, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming...and it lasts, oh, roughly 9 days.  Therefore, we Alaskans have to take advantage of every single second.  Enter two regulars on the Chena Girl blog: Ma and Pa.  I gently suggested (begged and pleaded) that Mom and Dad take a brief sojourn down from Fairbanks to Anchorage to bask in the comfort of my comfortable (teeny) home and assist me (or, make Dad do most of the work) in a few projects around the house.  I told them the forecast looked great (it rained for three days straight) and it was a perfect time to put a fence up on the back end of my property.

It's really a wonder that my parents love me so much.

So Mom and Dad came down last week to spend some time with their granddog, Milo, and to help me put a little sweat equity into my home.  Ok, so Dad put in some sweat equity while I followed him around the backyard trying to act like I was helping when really I just thought he should have some moral support out there.  We all have our roles to play.

Once it was clear to Dad that I was completely useless to him, save for some political small talk and multiple comments about how many of my raspberry bushes he was killing, I went inside to bug Mom and start making dinner.  The previous day, we stopped in at Bell's Nursery near my house to find a few blooms and ended up with a 5 pound bag of tomatoes from their fantastic greenhouse.  So I channeled my inner Italian grandmother and together with my Mom (who could pass as an American-accented Italian grandmother any day of the week and twice on Sunday) whipped up a batch of Pappa al Pomodoro, or Italian Tomato & Bread Soup.

I had this soup once when I visited Italy several years ago in a small village in Tuscany.  It was heavenly!  Silky smooth and utterly delicious, I couldn't believe how much flavor was packed into a soup consisting of basically tomatoes, olive oil, and bread.  After that, I ordered it every time I saw it on the menu.  When I came home to Alaska, I realized I could only truly make this soup during the summer when tomatoes were in season.  This is the closest I've come to those incredible bowls of soup I enjoyed under the Tuscan sun.

First, start by coring the tomatoes and slashing a small cross on the bottom of each with a paring knife like sous chef Kathy did:

Using a slotted spoon, carefully place the tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water for one minute, then remove them to a large bowl of ice water.  The skins will be easy to peel after this process:

Once skinned, slice the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds.  Next, chop them into smaller chunks (or tear them with your bare hands, like Mom did).

After the tomatoes are ready, heat up one 1/2 cup of good-quality olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot and saute the garlic for a minute or two until it is soft but not brown.  (Never let the garlic burn-it turns bitter and ruins the taste of any dish!)  Yes, the soup does require a heavy dose of olive oil, but there are so few ingredients and it's key to the soup's silky-smooth texture. 

**And now a note about "good-quality" olive oil.  I'm sure as soon as you read that, you thought, "What-- does the bottle say good quality on it?  How the hell am I supposed to know what's good quality?!"  At this point, all I can tell you is this: trust your taste buds!  Taste your olive oil!  Dip a little piece of bread in it once you get it home.  If it tastes good to you, then it will probably taste good in your food.  If it tastes sharp, or has an off-taste, then hide it in dishes where it's not the star.  It's true that you often pay for quality, but not always.  However, as a general rule of thumb, never by the cheapest bottle of olive oil you can find.  Because usually it tastes...well, like the cheapest bottle of olive oil you could find.**

Once the garlic is soft, add the tomatoes, basil, a generous amount of salt and pepper, and let it cook over medium heat until the tomatoes fall apart and became more sauce-like (stirring occasionally).

After about 30 to 40 minutes, add torn pieces of rustic bread to the pot.  The recipe I adapted says to remove the crusts, but they don't bother me a bit so I leave them in.  Fill with enough water to cover the bread, and add a few pieces of parmesan cheese rind if you have them (I always try to save mine-- they add great flavor to soup!)

Let the soup simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring it occasionally so that the tomatoes don't stick to the bottom of the pot.  Taste it frequently, too, adding salt and pepper as needed.  If the tomatoes aren't as ripe, add a few tablespoons of tomato paste to boost the flavor.  I also add a pinch of sugar to balance out the acidity.  Once it's ready, ladle it into big bowls, finish it with a drizzle of olive oil, and add a few torn basil leaves for garnish.  From the humblest of ingredients comes an incredibly comforting meal.

And a brand-spankin' new fence! 

The great thing about this soup is that it's even better reheated the next day.  The flavors develop more fully, similar to my favorite Ribollita soup, although you might need to add a bit more water to get the right consistency.  I also prefer to eat this soup after it's cooled down in the bowl a few minutes, as opposed to piping hot. 

Pappa al Pomodoro

6 lbs. large ripe tomatoes
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Leaves from 1 small basil bunch, washed and torn in large pieces
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 1-lb. loaves day-old course-crumb rustic bread (crusts removed if you like)
1-2 T tomato paste (if tomatoes aren't as ripe, optional)
1-2 pinches of sugar, to taste
parmesan cheese rinds, for flavor (optional)

1.  Cut the core out of the tomatoes, and make a cross incision on the bottom of each.  Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for one minute (in batches, if necessary) to loosen their skins.  Remove and place tomatoes in a bowl of ice water.  Peel and discard the skins, slice in half and squeeze out and discard seeds.  Chop or tear up the tomatoes into smaller pieces, and put them aside.

2.  Heat 1/2 cup of the oil in a large, heavy pot (like an enameled cast iron one) over medium heat.  Add garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes to soften, but don't let it brown (or it will get bitter).  Add tomatoes and basil (saving some for garnish), and season generously with salt and pepper.  Simmer, stirring occassionally until the tomatoes fall apart and become sauce-like, about 30-40 minutes.

3.  Tear or cut bread into small chunks and add enough water to cover the bread, about 5-6 cups.  Stir occassionally to make sure the tomatoes aren't sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Add remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil.  If you have any leftover parmesan cheese rind, add it to the pot for extra flavor.  Simmer over medium heat until bread and tomatoes fall apart and soup becomes thick and smooth, being sure to check seasoning periodically.  If the soup needs stronger tomato flavor, add a few tablespoons of tomato paste.  If it tastes a bit acidic, add a few pinches of sugar (I almost always do this to any tomato-based dish).  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a garnish of basil leaves.


xo H