30-Minute Mozzarella

Clearly I have been on somewhat of a cheesemaking streak lately. I know that as I have been yammering on, lately, about the joys of making your own cheese, various friends have been looking at me like I have two heads. They will tell me that it sounds pretty cool, but they think that I am crazy for embarking on such an ambitious task. While I recognize that not everyone in the world is ever going to be super excited about making their own cheese, I need to reiterate, as I always do, that it is really, really, really easy. Like stupidly easy. I hesitate to say this as I do like the props I get for taking on something so seemingly “advanced”, but you guys. It is EASY. Now that I’ve tried a couple of beginner cheeses, I am definitely keen to explore the more challenging ones, and they certainly can get complicated, but stuff like mozzarella is easier to make than say, a loaf of bread.

In fact, mozzarella can take only 30 minutes to make. Seriously. So I command you to stop being intimidated by it right now.

Here is what I love about making my own cheese:

First, I love any kind of cooking that feels like a science experiment, or alchemy, depending on your take on these things, in that you take a couple of very simple ingredients, and through a chemical process, transform them into something new and very special. It feels like magic and I love it and get a huge sense of accomplishment from doing it.

Second, as I said in my post on ricotta, I genuinely believe in learning by doing. Cheese is one of my favourite foods, and I think I learn a lot about the cheese I buy from others and consume by learning to make it myself. I am down with any and all angles that allow me to deepen my love and understanding of cheese.

Finally, it tastes good. Really, really good.

If you are curious to try making cheese, then I strongly encourage you to try this mozzarella recipe. Because it is so easy, and you can make it for a weeknight dinner, it comes together that quickly. It will demystify the whole prospect of home cheesemaking immediately. The only caveat is that you’ll need to buy some rennet, which is hard to find in stores. I highly, highly recommend purchasing some online from cheesemaking.com. It is run by the great Ricki Carroll, the same woman who wrote the wonderful book that I am learning to make cheese from. Her prices are great, she ships really fast, and has no problem shipping this stuff to Canada. I think I had my supplies in less than a week. I bought the smallest container of this liquid vegetable rennet, which is enough to make a few dozen batches of cheese.

I have made Carroll’s “30-minute mozzarella” twice now. The first time, we ate it on grilled pizza, and then just the other night, I tossed it, still warm, onto a gorgeous caprese salad composed of heirloom tomatoes and basil fresh from our garden. The mozzarella has the most wonderful smooth texture, and it complemented the tomatoes beautifully. We ate it alongside sausages that Graeme had just made from scratch, also using our bounty of garden herbs, and it felt really, truly wonderful to savour this meal that had been so profoundly prepared from scratch. When making (as well as growing) your food yourself, it doesn’t need to be fancy to be something that you savour and enjoy with great pride.

I look forward to sharing more cheesemaking adventures with you in the future. In the meantime, enjoy the mozzarella.

30-Minute Mozzarella
Adapted from Home Cheesemaking. Makes approximately 200 grams mozzarella.

Ingredients:

  • 0.75 tsp citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup cool water
  • 2 litres/0.5 gallon whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized, that stuff is useless)
  • 1/8 tsp lipase powder (optional, also available for purchase on cheesemaking.com, just adds a bit of flavour), dissolved in 1/8 cup cool water and allowed to sit for 20 min.
  • 1/8 tsp liquid rennet, diluted in 1/8 cup cool water

When all your ingredients are ready, start heating your milk in a big saucepan on medium-high heat, and add the citric acid solution (and lipase, if using) when the temperature reaches 55F. Stir thoroughly.

Heat the milk to 90F, stirring often. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the rennet slowly with an up-and-down motion for about 30 seconds. Cover the pot and let it sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Uncover the pot, and check to see if the curds and whey have separated. It should look something like this:

The curd should not be too soft and the whey should not be too milky. If it is, let it sit a few more minutes until it separates more. Cut the curd so that it’s not one big lump.

Put the mixture back on the stove and heat until 105F, stirring very gently. Remove from heat and stir gently for 2-5 minutes, depending on desired firmeness (I think about 3 minutes is perfect).

Scoop the curds out of the pot with a slotted spoon, or drain in a sieve. Put the curds into a microwavable bowl*. Press the curds gently with your hands or a big spoon to pour off as much of the whey as possible.

Microwave the curds on HIGH for approximately 1 minute. Take the bowl out of the microwave, drain off the whey, and gently fold the cheese over and over with your hands or your big spoon (I tend to do the latter because it’s hot!) as though you’re kneading bread. You are trying to make sure the heat distributes evenly throughout the cheese. (It does not require nearly as much kneading as bread, though! Just a minute or so.)

It will look something like this:

Microwave the cheese twice more for 35 seconds each (and add salt after the second time if you are using it). Knead it after heating each time. After the third heating, it should be getting nice and smooth. Knead it until it’s elastic, and stretches like taffy.

If it’s not stretching properly, and is breaking instead, then it may have cooled down too much. Microwave it again.

When the cheese is ready, roll it into balls. It is AWESOME to eat fresh like this, while still warm, and I recommend that you do so. If you are not planning on eating it right away, place the balls in a bowl of ice water until they’re properly cooled down, as this will ensure it keeps a smooth, lovely texture.

*There is a way to do this without the microwave, if you don’t have one, but I haven’t tried it! With the microwave, it is super duper simple.

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta

It all started with yogurt. I am an inveterate yogurt-for-breakfast eater, as well as a snob about eating healthy, creamy, full-fat, no-junk yogurt, which can make for an expensive breakfast habit. So when I discovered that it was so damn easy to make your own yogurt, I was hooked. It felt like alchemy; just do a couple of small things to your milk, let it sit for six or so hours, and ta da! Tasty, inexpensive, and you get to thrillingly exclaim “holy crap, I made yogurt!” to anyone within shouting distance. We get a little obsessed with learning to cook things we would normally buy from scratch in this here household, and all of a sudden I was aware that there was this whole world of dairy out there just waiting for me to mess around with it. And so, I bought myself this veritable bible of home cheesemaking possibilities, and set to reading:

source

Once you enter the world of homemade cheese, you have got a whole lot of new vocabulary to learn, and I will admit that I found myself a little bit overwhelmed at first. That said, Ricki Carroll’s book does a great job of explaining the basics and building from there, helping me to understand the process of turning milk into cheese, and what the various possibilities are. Still, despite the fact that I should have known better, I had a hard time believing that it could be as simple as it seemed. Most “recipes” consist of little more than milk, and an appropriate souring agent that does the job of separating it into curds and whey. Hard cheeses get a little bit more complicated, but Carroll assures the reader that classics such as ricotta and mozzarella are really perfect for beginners and dummy-proof.

So last week, I decided to finally throw my hat into the ring and start with some ricotta. I know that all of you who already know how to make things like ricotta, or have Italian grandmothers who did this every day like it was like breathing, are probably laughing at my hesitation. As always, making my own ricotta taught me that the world’s more traditional foods are usually very straightforward and simple to prepare; how else would they have become so ubiquitous? Like my experimentation with yogurt, watching the milk transform into cheese felt like magic. As the mixture warmed up and nothing happened, I was skeptical. What was I doing? And then, as it slowly reached the set temperature, the curds started to appear and I knew that I was creating something.

All in all, including hanging the ricotta to drain more of the liquid out of it, the process took less than an hour. Apparently mozzarella, which I hope to attempt later this week, takes even less time! And it was too cool to watch it all happen, with seemingly little intervention on my part.As I watched the ricotta drip, I thought about the ricotta we buy in the supermarket, and how we generally treat it as a means to an end. It is not something I tend to get excited about eating in and of itself–it is an ingredient in a tasty lasagna, or some other more complex dish. But fresh, and straight out of my own section of cheesecloth, it was the star of that night’s dinner. I ate it with spaghetti and some homemade garlic scape pesto (the recipe here is fabulous), generously seasoned, and it could not have tasted more delicious.
I am therefore convinced that making your own cheese is awesome for three reasons: first, it tastes fresh and wonderful, and elevates often under-appreciated ingredients like ricotta to being central and show-stopping elements of one’s meal. Second, it is really fun to do, and feels like magical kitchen alchemy. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it is a way of learning about cheese. And I love cheese. It is one of my favourite foods, and I consume it with alarming enthusiasm. And it is incredibly instructive for me to start learning how it’s made, and by proxy what it actually is, exactly, both in terms of my appreciation for this beautiful food, and for my understanding of what makes a cheese tasty, or sharp, or creamy, or pungent, or nutty. Anything that deepens my understanding and appreciation of cheese is a good thing, in my book.

And so, let me share with you the ricotta recipe from Carroll’s book, adapted in two big ways: first, I scaled down the quantity considerably, as I imagine that if you are embarking on this for the first time like I was, you probably want to smart small in case it all goes sour (literally, ha!). Second, I couldn’t find citric acid, which is what she suggests as a starter (which is odd, as I’d never had trouble finding it in stores before–I think it was just an off day in my neighbourhood), so I did a bunch of sleuthing and figured out how to substitute the right quantity of lemon juice instead, which worked like a charm. So I will offer you both possibilities in the recipe below. Enjoy, and if you try it, tell me how it went!

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta
Makes about 1 cup of ricotta. Adapted from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheesemaking.

Ingredients:
1 litre whole milk
1/4 tsp citric acid disolved in 1 tbsp of water OR 20 ml (1 tbsp & 1 tsp) lemon juice
1 tsp cheese salt (optional–I didn’t use any)
1 tbsp heavy cream (optional and definitely made the cheese more creamy)

Add your citric acid or lemon juice and optional salt into the milk and mix thoroughly. In a medium saucepan, directly heat this mixture to between 185F and 195F (I did this over medium-high heat). Do not boil. Stir often to prevent any burning. Once it gets up to this temperature range, the curds should start separating from the whey (the leftover liquid). Make sure that the curds separate enough that the whey is not milky, and turn off the heat. Allow it to set, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

Line a colander with butter muslin/cheesecloth and ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot and hang the bag to drain, with a bowl under it to catch the drips. Carroll says to hang it for 20-30 minutes, but as this recipe makes only a quarter of the quantity she suggests in her book, it should be ready within about 15 minutes. It is really up to you how long you hang it for; do it until it reaches a consistency that you like.

The cheese is ready to eat immediately. If you would like to make it creamier, add some of the cream, and mix it thoroughly. Carroll says that in a covered container in the fridge, the ricotta should last 1-2 weeks, but we wouldn’t know, as ours was all gone within 24 hours.

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

Proof that we ate more than just ham in Barcelona

…a whole lot more. Hang in there folks, this will be a picture-heavy post, and I will try to minimize my yammering on in favour of letting the photos do the talking. And let me be clear: even the excesses of this third post about Barcelona do not cover the entirety of what we consumed there. There is still more that didn’t make the cut in the interest of keeping this post down to a “reasonable” (!) 29 photos. Needless to say, Barcelona is truly one of the greatest food cities I have been lucky enough to visit.

(See our two previous posts about Barcelona here and here. And if you want to skip this lengthy post and get right to the nitty gritty–our recommendations–scroll to the end!)

Also, let me assure you that we did do all sorts of cool touristy stuff while there; the Sagrada Familia and Parque Güell being among our highlights. I promise! See?

So we didn’t eat all the time. Just most of the time. Speaking of which, back to the food. While the copious amounts of pork and tomato bread that we consumed would likely have been enough to fuel us through our entire week in Barcelona, we did investigate a whole lot of the other delicious foods and drinks that the city has to offer. We did not have a single bad meal while we were there. We became addicted to small plates-style dining. Among the other highlights of our week in this glorious city, were:

Yes, of course, lots of delicious seafood:

Graeme and I both tried cockles for the first time in Barcelona. They were light and lovely.

These cod fritters, also from Paco Meralgo, which I haven’t shut up about in several posts, blew. my. mind. Perfectly fried and crispy, they were gooey and creamy inside. They had the perfect texture. I want to eat them forever.Aaaaaaand also from Paco Meralgo, Graeme and I have not shut up about this dish of octopus in a caramelized onion sauce. It is one of the dishes that brought us back to this restaurant on our last night in Barcelona as we rushed around the city trying to have each of our favourite dishes one last time. Look for something similar to this on the blog in the coming months–I am determined to recreate it at home. Or at least some lame facsimile thereof. Baby eels with mushrooms and garlic! If any of my girlfriends from grad school are reading this, you will recall our baby eel adventures from our trip to Portugal and Spain many moons ago. Graeme was super into this dish–the eels are chewy and super garlicky and now that I’m a less squeamish eater, we both really enjoyed them!Anchovies. Enough said.And paella. Oh our lovely paella. We scarfed down the best paella I ever ate after a morning relaxing on Barcelonita beach. I may not have mentioned this on here, but our trip to Barcelona was actually prompted by my having a conference to attend, such that there was a little bit of work in between all this eating. All of the work-related anxiety and exhaustion melted away after a morning on the gorgeous beach, which could not have been followed up by a more perfect lunch than this seafood paella, which takes over 30 minutes to arrive at your table after you order it, as it is all made fresh, from Can Majó, just off of the beach. If you poke around the internet, you will find lots of hang wringing over the sorry state of paella in Barcelona, but this resto was one that came up again and again in my searches for a good one. It was beautiful–the seafood was meaty and fresh, and the rice had an amazing texture and flavour. It was served to us in a giant paella dish, and we devoured the whole thing without a second thought.

Meats other than pork (and cheese!):

While pork was the star during our time in Barcelona, we did also enjoy a few other beautifully prepared meats. I will say that possibly my only food regret from Barcelona is how, obsessed with meat and seafood, we sampled very little local cheese. There just wasn’t enough time for everything! But I love Spanish cheese in general, and will have to keep exploring it back home.

These venison kebabs were perfectly grilled!

We had this duck pate in a pear crust at Onofre on the same night that we ate this epic charcuterie plate. And yet we finished the whole thing. Because it was silky smooth and impossible not to keep returning to. Behind it is a lovely cheese plate of aged manchego that went beautifully with all of our meat.

We picnicked on ham and tetilla cheese.  I love how creamy and refreshing this traditional Galician cheese is; it countered the pungency of our strongly cured meat really well. Graeme loves how, well, it’s named after its nipple shape.

Lovely grilled goat!

Tapas, tapas, and more tapas:

These heavenly chickpeas were served to us at Bar Pinotxo, the legendary tapas bar in the Boqueria market. While extremely touristy, this place lived up to the hype, and the chickpeas above blew my mind. I have no idea how they prepared them, but they simultaneously still had a bite to them and were perfectly creamy in the middle. It is not often that I get so excited about chickpeas, but I could eat these every day for the rest of my life. Patatas Bravas. Ideally in a creamy and spicy sauce, this ubiquitous tapas staple can be exciting or totally mediocre depending on where you find it. Above was our favourite plate of them–it had an awesome kick to it!

Ham and chicken croquettes; these came courtesy of Bar Pinotxo as well, but we ate many more croquettes during our time in Barcelona. That I enjoyed these so much was a real shocker to me, as at home I would consider croquettes a very dated, 1980s, bland and tired sort of dish. But it is a staple of tapas culture, and so many places we ate did a beautiful job of them, frying them perfectly so that they’d be crispy but not greasy, and melted and creamy inside. I am now wondering if it is time for croquettes to make a comeback!

Occasionally even a little bit of fruit:

In my family, we have a “thing” about peaches in Europe in the summer. My dad will wax poetic about the best white flesh peach he ever ate, in Paris, in 1970-something. I am more likely to go one about flat peaches. Both kinds suck when you buy them here in Montreal, and come to life on the other side of the ocean, full of sweet juice. We could not resist them.


Booze:

As might be clear from this blog, neither Graeme nor I tend to be huge wine drinkers. But in Barcelona we both fell head over heels for light white wines, which were just so refreshing in the summer heat, and a perfect accompaniment to light, small plates dining. Graeme sampled a great many beers in Barcelona, but even he eventually succumbed to the siren song of white wine. We generally skipped sweet drinks like sangria for these guys, amazed that we, for once, felt like we “got” wine, and the wonders it can do for a meal. We mostly drank pretty cheap wines but that didn’t matter; we even lugged one of our favourite, and cheapest, bottles home with us.

Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we also discovered L’Ascensor, the world’s most unpretentious cocktail bar, which despite being so down to earth has an incredible reputation for being one of the best bars in Spain. Above are some refreshing mojitos that we drank there, a wonderful reprieve from the lame sugary ones that seem to overpopulate cocktail bars these days. L’Ascensor reminded me that properly made mojitos are awesome!

Sweet stuff:

Another one of our Barcelona failures is how little dessert we ate! We were too stuffed full of meat! This is a ridiculous situation which, as you will see, we tried to remedy on our last night.

I became obsessed with this stand in the old city which sold a million different flavours of ice cream on a stick. How could you go wrong with this? It was not the most mind-blowing ice cream you’ll ever eat, but come on. Ice cream on a stick.We were in Barcelona for what we in Quebec know as the festival of Saint-Jean, which is also, it turns out, a festival in Spain. I was not a fan of navigating past 8 year olds setting off amateur fireworks in every part of the city the entire night, but I was a fan of the sweet bread that is traditionally eaten for this festival, which is pictured above. Crema catalana, is, effectively, Catalan crème brûlée. Which is to say that it’s awesome.

And then there was Espai Sucre, pictured above. This is where we made up for our paltry dessert eating. You may have noticed, in our Barcelona recaps, that we did very little fine dining while there; while there are, apparently, many excellent fancy restaurants in the city, we were on a fairly tight budget and had enough to explore on the regular proletariat side of things. We even had reservations for Ferran Adrià’s new tapas bar, and cancelled them. However, knowing that modernist cuisine has its roots in Spain, I did really want to go to at least one wacky modernist restaurant, and when we found out about Espai Sucre, which is an experimental dessert-only restaurant, with a pastry chef school attached to it, we decided that it would be a perfect way to cap off our trip. You can have an entire meal of desserts at Espai Sucre (I really recommend you look at their menu, it is insane!), but we did opt for the small, three-course each menus ourselves, as we had already wandered around the city filling up on the favourite dishes we had collected during our stay in Barcelona. I think dessert is a great way to explore modernist cuisine as dessert cookery is already so mad scientist-y to begin with. It did not disappoint. I ordered the “cheese” menu while Graeme ordered the “chocolate” one, and I will post photos of all of our dishes below.Goat “cheesecake” with raspberries, red pepper and ginger

Chocolate with vinegar, strawberry, mint and pepper

Extra virgin olive oil cake, white peach, green olive and San Simón
Truffle mushroom, butter, hazelnut, cocoa

“Idiazàbal”  cake with cherry + beet and black beer

Chocolate, prunes, oak, rum, tobacco

We capped off the meal with this delicious array of petits fours, which may have been my favourite part of the whole experience! I particularly loved the lime and rosemary pops (top left).

Overall, it was a fantastic meal; I was especially fond of my first course cheesecake, which helped me understand the point of “deconstructed” food, as it combined everything that is delicious about a cheesecake in new formulations so that it was at once novel, while at the same time…everything good about a cheesecake. The chocolate crumbles, in particular, were so perfect and really captured what is so awesome about cheesecake crust at its core. Graeme raved about his second course, and the earthiness that the chocolate got from the inclusion of truffles. Neither of us have every been that crazy about truffles but somehow they really worked in that dish and helped us get why they are so hyped. The “weirdest” dish was, of course, his third, due to the inclusion of the tobacco. It kind of worked, as the tobacco also lent a real earthiness, once you could get over the idea that you were, you know, eating tobacco. The problem was that the tobacco flavour was a bit too strong and  overpowered the dish, which did not help one get past the “I’m…eating…tobacco” feeling. It was the only one we both weren’t crazy about, but I think all it really would take for us would be scaling that tobacco down a notch, to be a complementary flavour and not such a dominant one.

Espai Sucre reminded me to be more open-minded about experimental cuisine. Graeme and I are both, at the end of the day, most passionate about traditional cuisines, and I will probably always prefer a simple tomato bread to deconstructed cheescake. But still, the work they do there is amazing and everything we ate was delicious, and luckily we are hungry enough that there is space in our bellies for both the old and the new. And we love trying new things so we felt really pleased with our experience at Espai Sucre as a way to cap off a fantastically gluttonous week in Barcelona. I totally recommend it as a great way to splurge.

It is easy to surmise what our favourite places were based on these long three posts about Barcelona, but if you want the quick rundown, here are our recommendations for eating and drinking in Barcelona:

Tapas:

Paco Meralgo:  Get the cod fritters, octopus in caramelized onion, tomato bread, and, even though we didn’t try it ourselves, the cheese-stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–they just looked that good!

Onofre: They specialize in wine and charcuterie. So eat those. The huge charcuterie plate is worth it. Their dishes are huge though, so beware when ordering!

Bar Pinotxo: This tapas bar at the edge of the Boqueria market is a perfect place to grab lunch. Eat a plate or two of their sublime chickpeas (and you know, seafood and meat and stuff).

Paella:

Can Majó: The paella is worth the wait. Reserve if you want to sit outside.

Cocktails:

L’Ascensor: Get a mojito. Relax.

Hamming It Up:

La Boqueria
: This market right off of the Rambla lives up to the hype and is a great place to explore the different hams, cheeses, seafood and fruits that Barcelona has to offer. Lots of places will let you buy little samples of various hams, which is how we started exploring.

Other Local Markets: There are excellent neighbourhood markets littered throughout the city, which are quieter but just as chock full of ham and other delicacies as La Boqueria, and they are well worth exploring as they are less crowded and allow for a more leisurely stroll. La Conceptió Market was right by our guesthouse, and so we spent a lot of time there, and everyone was incredibly friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

Splurging:

Espai Sucre: where you can live out your childhood dreams and have dessert for dinner! And get a taste of what Spanish modernist cuisine is coming up with these days.

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese

This past weekend, we braved the Grand Prix crowds (i.e. my least favourite crowds of the Montreal summer), to attend the enormous 40th birthday party of our dear friend Alan. It was well worth it. Alan is one of the kind of person who seems to know absolutely everybody in Montreal, which means that a huge, spirited crowd gathered to celebrate with him, including seemingly every person I’ve ever met. Graeme was kind enough to provide the beer for the event, while I asked Alan if he needed anything in terms of food. He told me he was worried there wouldn’t be enough savoury stuff for folks to snack on, and so off I went in search of something to make that would satisfy a large group of party goers.

The party was at a dance studio with limited kitchen facilities, so I wanted to make something that didn’t require reheating. I had also just come back into town from attending a conference, so I didn’t feel like I had time to create a million teeny hors d’oeuvres. What could be eaten cold, would be plentiful, and didn’t need to be put together portion by portion? I soon realized that the obvious thing to make was pizza.

Graeme and I have a few favourite pizza dough recipes. For your everyday pizza, covered in sloppy toppings, we keep coming back to the beer pizza crust recipe from Hellbent for Cooking. We have yet to find a better one. But sometimes I like a good rectangular bakery-style pizza, which seemed like it would lend itself well to being eaten in small portions at a party, and for that I always return to the foccacia bread recipe in my beloved Rebar cookbook. It makes an awesome foccacia, and if you slop some toppings on it, translates into a very tasty and fluffy bakery-style pizza.

I made two large foccacia pizzas for Alan’s party: one with roasted garlic, eggplant, wilted spinach and feta, and another with arugula pesto, tomato and goat cheese. I am going to post a recipe for the latter, but if you want to make the former then just make the same dough, and then cover it in olive oil, and the toppings I just listed. C’est tout! The arugular pesto is actually from the very same Rebar cookbook, grabbed from a separate recipe and plunked on top of the pizza. It is full of flavour and the most beautiful green colour when fresh. I recommend making double the amount and then saving some to throw on pasta for a really simple, tasty meal.

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese
Adapted from various parts of Rebar: Modern Food Cookbook.
Serves 6 for a main course, many more as an hors d’ouevre.

Ingredients:
For the dough:

1 3/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp/1 packet of yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cups unbleached flour

For the pesto:
1 cup arugula leaves, packed
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup grated Romano or other hard cheese
3 cloves roasted garlic*
1 clove fresh garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp chile flakes
1/4 tsp cracked pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

For the toppings:
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
100g soft goat cheese

To prepare the dough:
In a mixing bowl, combine the warm water, yeas and sugar, and let the mixture sit until it foams, for 5-10 minutes. Stir in the salt and olive oil, and then start adding flour, one cup at a time, mixing well. If you’re using a stand mixer, once the dough starts coming together, kneed with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and elastic. If doing it by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and kneed by hand until it gets there. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp cloth, or plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size. [I have started refrigerating dough overnight as I have come around to arguments in favour of a slow rise, but if you want to make it all on the same day, that has worked totally fine for me too, and should take about 1 – 1.5 hours depending on the temperature of your house.]

After the first rise, punch down the dough, cover it again, and let it rise until it more or less doubles again. Preheat your oven to 350F. Place the dough on a well-oiled 12 x 16″ baking sheet. Gently (gently!) stretch the dough to roughly fit the dimensions of the pan. Cover the dough with your toppings, and make sure that as you do so, the dough as a good 15 minutes or so to puff up a bit before putting it into the oven.

To prepare the pesto:
Pulse all the ingredients, except the oil, to form a coarse paste [I just used a magic bullet for this]. Add the oil and pulse to blend.

Brush the dough generously with the pesto, and then cover with slices of tomato and dollops of goat cheese (and really, anything else you think would be tasty!). Season with a bit of salt and cracked pepper. Place the pizza in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the crust is browned just the slightest bit–be careful not to overbake!

*To roast garlic, chop the tops of the cloves and place them in tin foil with a teeny bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Wrap with the foil and roast in a 400F oven for 45 minutes or so, until the cloves are nice and soft. Cool, and then remove the peels and enjoy!

Polenta and Me

I feel like I have been trying to master polenta for years; like most traditional Italian foods/ways of cooking, polenta is at once incredibly simple (just cornmeal and water, at its base!), but at the same time it takes patience and experience to make a really great one. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to cook up a polenta in about 10 minutes, and I could never figure out what the big deal about it was since it was kind of bland in taste and texture. Yeah. Sorry polenta, it wasn’t you, it was me. I have since seen the error of my ways.

In the summer, when we are in hardcore BBQ-ing mode (and we BBQ probably at least 3 times a week in hot weather; so much nicer than being stuck in the kitchen!), grilled polenta makes a frequent appearance on our dinner plates. The soft, fresh-off-the-stove hot stuff is perfect stick-to-your-ribs eating in winter, while solid, lightly grilled wedges make the perfect starchy accompaniment in summer. It is not difficult (and also inexpensive!) to whip up a giant batch that will satisfy a group, and it is awesome with whatever extra BBQ-related sauce you have sitting around. I love the varying textures that you can find in a grilled polenta: a little bit charred, a little bit melty, and at its best nice and creamy.

Last weekend, we had a couple of Graeme’s colleagues and their families over for dinner, and we served some grilled polenta alongside freshly-made Italian sausage, an arugula and grilled squid salad, some grilled asparagus, and this unbelievable tasty and pretty rhubarb cheesecake from Nami-Nami. This is literally the best cheesecake I have ever made; I urge you to go make it immediately. In fact, I will be making it again this weekend.

One of our guests is not a big meat eater, so Graeme and I were conscious that the polenta should be the kind of thing that could stand on its own such that it could be someone’s main course, rather than being relegated to a side dish. As such, I packed it with cheese and roasted garlic to give it more flavour and richness, and Graeme whipped up (off the top of his head, because he’s awesome like that!) an accompanying grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. Probably the least “fancy” part of the entire meal, this pairing was lovely and fresh and textured and we devoured the leftovers the next day. Simple, when done with thought and care, can be so damn good. There are a million ways to enjoy polenta on and off the BBQ, and we are happy to share what we did this time as but one drop in the tasty bucket.

Grilled Polenta with Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato Salsa
Serves 8-10 people.

Ingredients:
For the Polenta:

2 cups cornmeal (I like it as coarsely ground as possible)
10 cups water
lots of salt, pepper and some dried red chili flakes
1 head of garlic
1 cup ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (or other similar hard cheese)

For the Salsa:
3 ears of corn, shucked
4 or 5 tomatoes
A generous amount of fresh oregano, basil, or whatever other herbs you have on hand
Olive oil

To make the Polenta:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Take your head of garlic, and chop off the top of it so that the tops of all of the cloves are exposed. Place it on a piece of tin foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper. Wrap up the garlic in the tin foil, and roast it in the hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, til the cloves are good and soft. Take it out of the oven, unwrap and let it cool so that you won’t burn your fingers when it’s time to squeeze the garlic out!

Bring the water to a boil with some salt, then drizzle in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously to avoid clumps. Reduce the heat to low (seriously, as low as you can possibly go and still have the thing be cooking). Stir it. For a long time. At least 45 minutes. Don’t go more than a minute or two during this process without stirring. If it’s gotten super thick but still isn’t very creamy, add a bit more water. Stir it until it’s nice and thick and CREAMY. When it’s about done, add in your ricotta, Parmesan, and remove the garlic cloves from their skins and mix it all in. If you want, smash some of the garlic against the side of the saucepan to make it distribute more evenly, but don’t do that too much–it is an awesome surprise to discover whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic in your polenta! Then season to taste. I just used salt, pepper and some dried chili flakes, but you could add whatever you’d like. Be generous with the salt. Pour the polenta out into a lasagna-sized baking dish and refrigerate for at least one hour, until it is nice and solid.

Once you’re ready to grill, cut the polenta up into generous pieces; I like to cut it into squares and then cut those in two into triangles. This batch got me about a dozen such triangles. Either brush the polenta or your grill with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Grill until it’s nice and hot throughout, the skin is a bit charred and crispy, and it smells awesome. Serve with sauce.

To make the Salsa:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Lightly brush the tomatoes with olive oil, put them on a baking tray, and put them in the oven until they are soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Once they’re cool enough to touch, peel the skins off the tomatoes, roughly chop them, and put them in a bowl.  In the meantime, fire up the grill and roast your corn.  Once it’s cooked, slice the kernels off the cob and add those to the tomatoes. Chop up generous amounts of fresh herbs and toss those with the tomatos and corn.  Check and adjust the seasoning, and serve spooned over grilled warm polenta wedges.

Satisfying Salads

Lame as it may sound, Graeme and I both get a little bit over-excited about big, hearty salads–the kind that come in huge bowls and are a meal unto themselves. As the weather warms up, especially, big meal salads start showing up in our dinner plans more and more frequently, especially once we can make them using greens from our garden. I think my love of an enormous salad comes from my more general love of dishes that allow me to combine a million of my favourite ingredients on one plate; I go through over-the-top sandwich phases for the same reason. Also, a big salad begs for some kind of special bread-y accompaniment, which means that these sorts of dinners usually give me an excuse to either pick up something fancy at the neighbourhood bakery, or to experiment with some baking myself.

The other evening I decided to throw together one such giant salad, using lettuce, asparagus, avocado, goat cheese, grapes, shrimp and other bits that were hanging out in the vicinity of our fridge in a vaguely Asian-style gingery dressing. I whipped up some of these biscuits  to accompany the meal; they come together shockingly easily and have never failed me. It all tasted fresh and delicious. This was a really satisfying meal even after a long afternoon of slaving away in the garden, getting it all set up for the season. I share the recipe with you as an example of the kind of thing we often make at this time of year, but obviously it is barely a “recipe” and should not require one. For me, big salads are generally about combining lots of different textures and tastes to make each forkful an exciting prospect, and about including enough protein/fat so that they will be good and filling as main dishes. And I would love to hear from you, too, regarding the sorts of big meal salads you like to make; we are always on the lookout for ideas and for more creative possibilities!

Gingery Shrimp and Asparagus Salad
Serves 2.

Ingredients:
Dressing: [Note: this was too much dressing for 2 people.]
1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce
1/8 cup rice vinegar
Juice of 1/2 a lime
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger

Salad:
Big bunch of mixed salad greens
50g nice crumbly goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 an avocado, chopped
1/4 of a red onion, chopped
1 tbsp butter
12 shrimp (we used frozen precooked, but this would be even nicer with some fresh shrimp)
8 or so asparagus stalks, chopped into 1″ or so pieces
A dozen or so green grapes halved
A handful of slivered almonds

Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk thoroughly. Season and adjust the dressing to your liking.

Divide the greens, avocado, onion and goat cheese between two large plates or bowls. Melt 1 tbsp butter on medium-high heat in a frying pan/skillet and when it’s nice and bubbly, throw in your asparagus. Saute for a couple of minutes, then throw in the slivered almonds, to toast them. After about 5 minutes total the asparagus should be getting tender and the almonds should smell amazing; now throw in the shrimp (which, if you have thawed them from frozen, you have patted as dry as possible), and the grapes, season the whole thing and saute for one more minute or two, just until the shrimp get nice and browned and crispy. Divide the asparagus/almond/shrimp/grape mixture evenly on the two plates, pour some of the dressing on each, and serve.