Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Last week, Troy requested I make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Well, with the frenzy of baby shower preparations, it sort of fell by the wayside. I decided to make it for Sunday dinner instead.

Confession: I don't make spaghetti sauce very often because I'm lazy and it's just so easy to open a jar (the Barilla brand sauces are particular faves in our house). But my sister-in-law recently told me about a super easy recipe that mostly involves dumping everything in the pot and letting it cook. I wasn't sure if her exact recipe would work with meatballs too, but I figured using that methodology, I could throw something together on my own. So here's my recipe for spaghetti & meatballs. Note that there was lots of improvisation with the ingredients, based on what I happened to have on hand.

1 c. bread crumbs
1/2 c. milk
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1/4 hot Italian sausage
3 eggs
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (1 1/2-2 c.)
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
dried oregano
dried parsley
dried basil
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper to taste

1. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until all the liquid has been absorbed and bread crumbs have softened.

2. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly - it's easier if you use your hands.

3. Form the meat mixture into balls. The size is up to you. I prefer larger meatballs because I think they tend to be more moist & tender, but if you're in a hurry or prefer small ones, that's fine too.

4. Heat a large, heavy pot over high heat until almost smoking, then add the olive oil. Brown the meatballs on all sides, working in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove the meatballs and set aside. (I use my Le Creuset dutch oven. A thick-bottomed stainless steel stockpot would work too. I don't recommend nonstick because you won't get a nice sear on the meatballs.)

5. In the same pan, you should have at least a couple tablespoons of oil from browning the meat. If not, add some more olive oil and add the onions. Saute until they become translucent. Add the garlic and herbs. The combination and amount of herbs you add is up to your personal preference. I added about 1 tsp each of oregano & parsley, and about 1 tbsp of the basil.

6. Add the 2 cans of tomatoes and the bay leaf. Make sure you scrape up all the good bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring up to a boil and then add the meatballs back in, including any juices that may have come out of them.

7. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need to simmer longer if your meatballs are very large.

8. Season with salt & pepper to taste and serve over spaghetti.

My notes:
As mentioned before, I normally prefer to use fresh herbs, but to be honest, I don't often have them on hand unless I make a special trip to buy them for a particular recipe. I tried to grow my own, but I guess I have a black thumb because I cannot seem to keep them alive.

In my opinion though, dried herbs are perfectly acceptable in a dish that's going to be simmered for a long time, as long as they haven't been hanging around in your cupboard for the last year or two. I buy mine in small quantities from the bulk section at either Central Market or Whole Foods. That way they stay fresher, and you'd be shocked at how much cheaper it is too! I've refilled what was originally a $5 dollar container of brand-name thyme with 75 cents worth of bulk thyme. But I digress.

I don't normally put sausage in meatballs, but I happened to have that little bit of fresh bulk hot Italian sausage left and I wanted to use it up. Actually, I prefer a mix of beef, pork and veal in my meatballs, but I didn't see any ground veal at the store last week and didn't have time to go on a hunt for it.

My meatballs were fairly big - about kiwi-sized, but rounder. I ended up with about 18 of them, and they were cooked in about 45-50 minutes. It might have been less, but that was more or less the minimum time I wanted to simmer the sauce.

The verdict:
For an improvised last-minute meal, this turned out great! The only minor complaint I had was that both the sauce and the meatballs needed more salt, but then again, I'm a bit of a salt fiend.

I thought the sausage added a teeny tiny bit of heat to the meatballs, as well as some nice flavor, especially from the fennel. As I mentioned before, the sausage was thrown in on a whim, but I'm really glad it was in there since it also added some much needed fat. Both the pork and beef I used were relatively lean, and I think that on their own, the meatballs would have been dry.

Troy enjoyed this meal quite a bit, although he did say he wished the sauce was thicker and/or chunkier. He also thought it needed more seasoning, and maybe even more onions. His quote: "I've come to the conclusion in life that I don't think there can be too many onions in spaghetti sauce." But he otherwise declared it perfect. Go figure.

I think the true seal of approval came from our 2 1/2 year-old daughter, who ate THREE giant meatballs and two bowls of pasta! That's a definite rave in my book.

Changes for next time:
I will definitely use the Italian sausage again. The stuff I used today was from a local grocery store that makes their own fresh sausage, and it is far superior to any of the pre-packaged stuff.

I may use whole canned plum tomatoes next time and crush them up myself for a chunkier texture, and maybe leave the lid off at the end too to let it cook down some. I will also likely add another onion. I actually almost threw another in today, but I worried about making it too onion-y. I may try and throw in some ground or minced carrot too, both for an added veg factor and for a little more sweetness.

Adding a pic shortly...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Baby shower success!

It's rare for me to feel completely happy with anything I make, whether it's food or knitting or whatever, but I must say, I'm overall very pleased with how everything turned out for my friend's baby shower.

I actually relied quite heavily on the two Ina Garten cookbooks I have: Barefoot Contessa and Barefoot Contessa Parties! These were two of the first cookbooks I ever bought and I use them often. In fact, I think I've made almost every item in the first one, and at least half of the ones in the second. I've never been a fan of her Food Network series (I actually bought these before she had a show), but I'd say that more often than not, when I need something to make for guests, they are my "go-to" books. Her recipes do sometimes call for odd or random ingredients that I don't normally keep on hand (like say, extra-large eggs), but they are otherwise very well written and I've had consistently good results.

Today I made her Sour Cream Coffee Cake again, this time with cake flour and the full amount of sour cream (full-fat, of course). I thought that it turned out great last time with the all-purpose flour, so I was eager to see if the cake flour would make a big difference. I think it did, but then again, I'm picky like that. The one I made today had a much more delicate crumb, and was also lighter & airier (if that's a word). In retrospect, I think that the all-purpose flour version I made last time was a tad on the dense side. Today's cake earned raves all around, and there's actually only a small hunk left. Yay! I do think that I went overboard with mixing in the streusel topping though. It was prettier with more streusel on top last time.
IMG_10997 by you.

As I mentioned in the post from a couple days ago, I also made some cranberry scones. These also turned out very good, after a few adjustments. Instead of the 14-16 large scones, I made minis, cutting 2x2" squares in half diagonally. By the way, this is the type of recipe that is great to make ahead and then freeze. I rolled and cut the raw dough, then lay the pieces on a sheet pan in my freezer. Once frozen, I threw them all (unbaked) into a ziploc bag. If you cut them small like that, it makes a LOT; I baked off about 40 today and I probably have almost that many still left in my freezer. When it's time to bake, you don't even need to thaw them. Just plop them on a pan, give them a brush of milk or cream or an egg wash, and then sprinkle sugar on top. Bake at 400 for about 15 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. These are more biscuit-y scones, which I actually prefer. I think that next time I may up the sugar just a tad more.
IMG_10991 by you.

Last, but not least, I made Ina's Coconut Cupcakes, also from her first book. Warning: these are insanely decadent! I'm not sure I want to say exactly how much butter went into the cupcakes and frosting, but if you're curious, go ahead and click on the link above to the recipe on Food Network's website. I'm not really a huge fan of coconut, but these were fantastic! I did use a lot more coconut then she called for for the topping (probably double), and I also toasted the coconut until it was pretty brown because it was a bird-themed baby shower and I was going for a "nest" look. I attempted to put Jordan almonds on top to mimic the look of eggs, but they wouldn't stay on and frankly, I didn't think it looked that great.
IMG_11003 by you.

IMG_11002 by you.

Normally, when I plan a party, I go way overboard and get super ambitious about how much food I can make. Then as the date gets closer, I freak out and start dropping things and rejiggering my menu. For this shower, I knew that I was going to be on a time crunch and I tried really really hard to keep it realistic. I also tried to be extremely organized and do as much as possible in advance, even writing lists of things I wanted to accomplish each day this week. I think I achieved that goal. I rounded out my baking with a few simpler items: veggies, dips, a sandwich tray, green salad, fruit; I also asked some friends to pitch in with a few items. Here's some more pics of the food from today's brunch.

Summer fruit salad, one of my favorites. I only make this in the summer with super ripe fruit, although I've been known to occasionally sweeten it up with a couple of tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk.

IMG_10995 by you.

Tracee's delicious focaccia.
IMG_11008 by you.

Cara's very yummy mini cinnamon rolls
IMG_11006 by you.

And a shot of (almost) the full spread
IMG_11009 by you.

For more on the birds and crafty stuff, check out my other blog.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Recipe from another (book) planet

I'm starting to consider rethinking my approach to this blog. I've been cooking quite a bit lately...just not from the Pepin book. Oops.

In any case, I mixed up some mini cranberry orange scones for a baby shower I'm throwing this weekend. I won't be baking them till this weekend (no picture just yet since Troy and I ate the testers before I remembered to snap one). Like the coffee cake from a couple weeks ago, it's a recipe from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbook, which is one of my favorites. The recipe is also available on the Food Network website. I substitued orange-flavored cranberries for the dried strawberries. I meant to add orange zest too, but I forgot to buy an orange, so I used a little bit of Boyajian orange oil instead. By the way, if you've never used Boyajian citrus oils before, I highly recommend them! They are way better than any extract since they are the oil that's in the zest. I use orange & lemon oils all the time. In fact, the lemon oil is sort of the secret ingredient in my lemon cake. Shhh, don't tell!

I actually ended up having to make the dough twice. After baking and tasting my initial batch, I realized that not only were they not sweet enough, they verged on being really salty! Not that scones need to be sweet, per se, but these didn't even have a hint of sweetness. They weren't inedible or anything, but they did need a healthy amount of jam. Texture-wise, I thought they were great.

The second time around, I used 1/4 cup of sugar instead of 2 tbsp, and I also halved the salt (1 tsp). The results were WAY better. Unfortunately, I did forget to add the orange oil the second time, so they turned out to be cranberry scones instead of cranberry orange. Oh well, I guess you can't win every time.

I'm also making the sour cream coffee cake again, this time with cake flour and the proper amount of sour cream. I also used a spoon to swirl the streusel into the batter so that it'd be a little more evenly distributed. I had thought about trying to bake these as mini-muffins, but then I thought, why mess with near-perfection? The cake is so appealing to look at - and much less labor intensive.

More shower-food pictures and posts to come...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More non-cookbook cooking

Per the request of a friend, I made the lemon-raspberry swirl ice cream sandwiches from this blog yesterday. And let me just say, they are freaking super delicious. Totally worth the effort.

My very minor variations:
I did not have two 8-inch square pans, so I used one 9x12 baking sheet to make the cookie crust. Doing that meant my crust turned out smaller but thicker, which I don't really think is a bad thing, but it did make for fewer and/or smaller sandwiches. However, I do think that having the 8-inch pans would have made for more uniform-looking sandwiches, if you care about that sort of thing.

I also used a half-gallon of one of my favorite store-bought vanilla ice creams, instead of homemade and I think it worked out just fine. I'm not really sure I'd go to all the trouble to make homemade ice cream for something like this. I also left out the Limoncello, since A) I didn't have any; B) I hate having to purchase a $30 bottle of liqueur so that I can use 2 tablespoons in some recipe; and C) the friend I made these for is pregnant and can't consume alcohol. I'm sure it would have added some nice lemon flavor, but again, I thought they were pretty dang good anyways. I especially liked the touch of ginger in the cookie.

Oh, last minor thing was that I just used my microplane to zest the lemon for the raspberry compote instead of using big strips.

I will more than likely make these again. I think they'd make an excellent dessert for company. Another friend suggested I use cake pans to make what would look like one GIANT ice cream sandwich, which I thought would be funny. I may try the original blueberry version from Gourmet Magazine that this one is based on, just for kicks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I'm back! Well, mostly...

Sorry if it seems that I have fallen off the face of the earth in regards to updating this blog. Between all the traveling we've been doing this summer, and just the busyness of life in general, I have not been very good about keeping up. After spending almost 2 weeks in Iowa, I could not get my act together to do any sort of serious cooking, especially since we took another long trip to California just a few weeks later!

But I'm back now and slowing getting back into the swing of things. I have not had a chance to do any recipes from the Pepin book, but I have made a few other yummy things I thought I'd share.

First up are these amazing chicken enchiladas with a sour cream sauce, inspired by this recipe on my friend Jacki's blog. I made a few small changes: I cooked the chicken with a drained can of Ro-tel tomatoes and about 1/3 can of green enchilada sauce; then later when it came to making the sauce, instead of combining butter and cornstarch, I sauteed some chopped onions in butter and then added flour to make more of a traditional roux. I also added the rest of the enchilada sauce to the broth/sour cream mixture before adding it all to the roux to make the sauce. Troy declared these my best enchiladas ever! Sorry for the crappy picture - I grabbed my snappy cam since it was nearby and took one quick shot before we tore into them.

I'm also getting ready to throw a baby shower brunch for a friend in a couple weeks, so I've been playing around with some different ideas for the menu. Late last night, I decided to try out Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! recipe for Sour Cream Coffee Cake. I realized at the last minute that she uses cake flour, not all-purpose, and of course I did not have any, but I decided to just go for it. I'll add that while I do love her recipes, they almost invariably call for ingredients that I don't normally have on hand. Grr.

In any case, even with the all-purpose flour (I also came up a teeny bit short on sour cream), the cake still turned out fabulous. I was nervous at first because it did not look like very much batter, but boy did that puppy rise! It looked very very pretty coming out of the oven.

IMG_10927 by you.

IMG_10930 by you.

And after I added the maple glaze.

IMG_10933 by you.

IMG_10937 by you.

It was soooooo good! Very moist, very tender, very tasty. I do wish that I'd mixed more of the crumble topping in with the batter though, as the inside seemed a bit barren, but other than that I have no complaints.

IMG_10945 by you.

I also do feel compelled to mention that normally, when I make any kind of cake, I pretty much always alternate the wet & dry ingredients - in this case, the flour mixture and the sour cream - even when the recipe calls for you to dump it all in at once. But this time I decided to stick to Ina's instructions and added all the sour cream first and then the flour mixture (in 2 parts) and mixed till it was barely combined. I also resisted the urge to thin the batter out with some milk, as it was pretty thick. I'm glad that I followed directions (for a change, ha) because I think that's what helped keep the cake so tender. I think this is a definite keeper for the shower, and I will likely pick up some cake flour for the next run.

I also threw together a quickie little test appetizer: caramelized onions & goat cheese in a pre-baked phyllo shell. No real recipe, just sliced onions, caramelized in a pan with olive oil and a little bit of dried thyme and a splash of raspberry balsamic vinegar. Then I piled them into store-bought phyllo shells (found in the frozen section) and put a few crumbles of goat cheese on top. Baked them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes, just to warm everything up.

IMG_10943 by you.

They were good, but not great. I sort of added the balsamic vinegar on a whim, and I'm not sure it was the best idea. I think it took away too much from the sweetness of the onions. I think if I were to make these again, I'd probably omit the balsamic - or at least use regular, not raspberry, which was all I had. I'd also probably try to find vidalias or some other kind of sweet onion, and I'd use a lot more thyme as well, preferably fresh.

I had also never used the phyllo shells before and I didn't realize until I opened the box that they were already baked, and (according to the directions) ready to fill and serve. However, after tasting a couple filled tartlets, I realized they definitely needed to be baked again. The unbaked ones felt soggy in my mouth, even though I'd filled them just a minute or two before. Once baked, they stayed much crispier. I'm a bit on the fence as to whether these will make the brunch menu.

I'm thinking that it might be awhile before I get back to the cookbook, but stay tuned for other food-related adventures!