Pipérade

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My mother could cook just about anything. I never realized she was so talented until I was older, of course. And it wasn’t always about what she learned from cookbooks, there were also the recipes she just knew instinctively. It’s sort of like why French women are all talented cooks. Why is that?!!

For example, I remember once as a kid asking my mother if she’d make me peach dumplings. She made them, no recipe, and they were incredible. I’d have to look up a recipe for peach dumplings, and I’ve been cooking for 40+ years.

Thirty-five years ago my husband and I took my mother out to a French restaurant when she was visiting us in Houston, Texas. It didn’t go so well, mostly because of the flying cockroach. She ordered Oeufs à la Neige for dessert and disliked it. “I’ll make it for you and you’ll see what it’s supposed to taste like.”

The next day at our house, she made Oeufs à la Neige without a recipe, and it was better than the restaurant’s. When I made it for this blog, I used a recipe.

The other day I was thinking about breakfasts growing up. Let me just say that there was no cold cereal at my house. Maybe when I was 11 I discovered my friends ate Cocoa Krispies and Cocoa Puffs at their houses, and I was a bit jealous. But I also knew that my breakfasts were wonderful. Even a humble bowl of oatmeal was served with butter and cream.

My mother was a whiz at eggs. She had chickens, so we had beautiful eggs – blue, green, beige, and white eggs. Even duck eggs.

Occasionally my mother would make an omelet-like pipérade. I grew up never knowing it was a real recipe, but it is, originating from the Basque corner of France (thanks, Google.) Mom was from the Northeastern corner of France, so she must have discovered this recipe in a cookbook along the way.

What makes this egg dish somewhat different from your basic omelet choices are the vegetables and ham, and no cheese. Here I will try to duplicate her recipe.

Piperade

6 eggs, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
2 ounces butter
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 ripe Roma-style tomatoes, chopped, seeded, or equivalent
1/2 teaspoon piment d’Espelette
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces Prosciutto, chiffonaded
Chopped parsley
Chopped basil

Beat the eggs and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

Heat the butter in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the green pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes. It should be soft and not browned.

Stir in the shallots and garlic, and sauté for 2 minutes, preventing any browning.

Add the tomatoes, adjust the heat if necessary, and cook off any liquid in the pan.

Add the piment and stir into the tomato mixture. Set the pan aside.

In a separate skillet, I used my cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat, and when hot, gently “sear” the ham. Remove from the skillet onto paper towels.

Reheat the same skillet over medium-low heat; you shouldn’t have to add more oil. Add the eggs, and gently move the eggs around and away from the sides with a spatula as if you’re making scrambled eggs.

Remove from the heat when the eggs are still soft, and spread the tomato mixture over the top. Then add the ham, parsley, and basil.

It was really tempting to not also serve crème fraiche with the pipérade.

But I added more piment and black pepper.

In reality there’s nothing exceptional about these eggs, but the dish is fabulous for breakfast, lunch, or brunch.

Just look at these soft eggs and all of the lovely vegetables and herbs.

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham

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A while ago I pulled out all of my Italian cookbooks to locate a specific pasta recipe, which I never found. But perusing these cookbooks gave me an opportunity to bookmark recipes and remind me of some I’d already bookmarked.

One cookbook was Molto Italiano by Mario Batali.

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Mario Batali is one of those chefs who really marketed himself into TV stardom, with many restaurants, cookbooks, plus Eataly that followed, all thanks to this stardom.

I remember his cooking show on PBS that I really enjoyed. There was no band, no audience clapping, just him cooking in a little kitchen.

At the beginning of every show he would pull down a wall map of Italy and give you some history on the provenance of the dish he was about to prepare – something I really appreciated. I didn’t feel “dumbed down” by Batali, in fact, it was more educational than entertainment.

There were always 2-3 odd people sitting off to the side, not saying anything terribly profound, which always made me wonder how I could get this gig because I’d be so much better at it!!! (Not really because I freeze even when someone pulls out an iPhone.)

In spite of Mario Batali being a household name, and easy to spot with his red hair and orange crocs, I do have a lot of respect for his knowledge and passion for Italian cuisine.

While perusing Molto Italiano I spotted a dish that really spoke to me.

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It’s baked pasta with ricotta and ham. Simple, like most all Italian recipes, but it sounded nice and comforting for this time of year. Plus my husband loves ham and I don’t make enough ham recipes.

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I’d recently mentioned that I don’t make casseroles. I don’t want to insult casserole lovers, it’s just that I wasn’t raised on them. And most of them look like regurgitated food, which is my biggest issue with them. I still remember my first experience with a casserole (tuna?) when my neighbor made one for us after my first baby was born. All I will say is that there were potato chips on top. I’m still traumatized by that.

So although casserole-like, this pasta bake is actually somewhat layered. It Is a delightful meal, served with a green salad, or with anything green for that matter. Here is the recipe:

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note: There is a glitch in the recipe that I will resolve below. I had to study the recipe for 30 minutes to figure out what was wrong!

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham
Pasticcio di Maccheroni*

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian cooked ham, preferably parmacotto, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 rib celery, thinly sliced
1 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce
1 1/2 pounds ziti
1 pound fresh ricotta
8 ounces hard provolone, cut into small dice
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until smoking. Add the ham cubes and brown for 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the carrot, onion, and celery and cook until the vegetables are golden brown, about 10 minutes. (I used onion, mushrooms and carrot.)

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Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook until the meat is just about falling apart, about 50 minutes. Transfer the meat to a large bowl. Keep the sauce warm.

This is the beginning of my misunderstanding of this recipe. One is to actually separate the ham from the sauce and place the ham in a large bowl. I found this impossible to do.

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Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.

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Cook the ziti in the boiling water for 1 minute less than the package directions, until still very al denote. While the pasta is cooking, place the ricotta in a small bowl and stir in a ladle of the pasta cooking water to “melt” it.

Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the meat. Add the ricotta, provolone, and tomato sauce and stir to combine.

It’s the above paragraph that really makes this recipe confusing. The pasta is supposed to be with the ham that has been removed from the red sauce, and the ricotta, provolone and remaining red sauce are supposed to be mixed together in a separate bowl.

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Grease a round and deep 12-inch pie dish or casserole with olive oil. Place a ladle of the cheese and sauce mixture in the bottom of the dish, followed by a layer of the pasta and meat mixture.

Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano over, then repeat with another layer of the cheese and sauce mixture, then pasta and meat, and Parmigiano. Continue until all the ingredients are used up.
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Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbling and heated through. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.
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You could always offer more Parmigiano, but I felt this pasta bake was cheesy enough.
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* Pasticcio, similar to its Greek sister pastitsio, also made with ziti, is commonly served at Easter.

Note: Because I couldn’t separate the ham from the sauce, I left it all together. To compensate, I added extra red sauce to the ricotta and cheese mixture. The whole pasta bake benefitted from having probably about 50% more red sauce in it, I think, than what’s listed in the ingredients.

A Basic Omelet

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There was a summer many years ago when I taught cooking classes to four little girls. They were two sets of sisters who were homeschooled. Their mothers, who were friends of mine, thought that cooking classes would satisfy many interests and teach quite a few skills to the girls. And indeed, I’ve always thought that cooking classes for young people are fabulous for not only learning about food, but also grasping important applications like math and chemistry.

During those classes we had a session on eggs – how to appreciate them for the wonderful little package of food they are, and how to treat them with respect in the kitchen. And one thing we made together were omelets.

Now, it may not seem that creative to put an omelet on my blog, but on the contrary, I think that an omelet teaches quite a few skills. Plus, there are a lot of terrible omelets out there, so perhaps I’m doing a community service with this post. I’d like to think so.

To me, there are a few criteria for making the perfect omelet:

1. good eggs
2. good cheese, for a cheese omelet
3. the right skillet
4. a lid
5. patience

Of course it goes without saying that the ingredients that you choose for your omelet have to be good. If you’ve ever had bad, old eggs, you know how wonderful and important it is to have access to farm-fresh eggs – the kind that are almost impossible to break open because the shells are so hard. And once you’ve emptied the egg into a bowl, you see a dark, almost orange yolk sitting high atop a firm white. That’s a fresh egg, and you will undoubtedly taste the difference, guaranteed.

The right skillet is important because you want your omelet to end up a decent thickness. Place your whisked eggs in too large of a skillet, and you will get a crepe-like omelet. Unless you like that kind, I don’t recommend too large of a skillet.

The skillet I use for my one-person, 2-egg omelet, is actually a crêpe pan. It’s got a flat bottom and flat sides. The outside diameter is 8″; the inside diameter, or bottom, measures 6″ in diameter.

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A perfect-fitting lid is also important for making a good omelet.

And then the most important aspect of making an omelet – patience. As Rome wasn’t built in a day, an omelet can’t be prepared in one minute. I know everyone likes fast food, but if you rush your omelet, it will taste and feel like something purchased at a fast food restaurant. Which would make me wonder why you’re even bothering to cook an omelet at home in the first place…

For today’s omelet, I chose butter, 2 eggs, Gruyere, and a little leftover diced ham. And here’s what I did.

A Basic Cheese and Ham Omelet

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 eggs
Cheese of choice – grated, or sliced fairly thinly and uniformly – I used Gruyère
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Diced ham (optional)

Have your cheese sliced or grated, and whisk the 2 eggs in a small bowl before you begin heating the skillet.
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Place the butter in a pre-heated skillet over medium heat. It should begin melting immediately, but not burn. If you think the skillet is too hot, remove it from the heat source for a minute. Cooking is a lot about common sense.
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You need to work fairly quickly at first, but don’t worry. It’s not a race. Just have all of the ingredients available, as well as the lid for the skillet. And don’t forget to adjust the heat on the stove. That’s why there are knobs.

Pour the whisked eggs into the skillet. You can see that the hot skillet has begun to “grab” the eggs and the cooking process has begun.

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Immediately place the cheese over the top of the eggs.
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If you’re using any accessory ingredients, add those immediately as well.

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Then place the lid on the skillet, and reduce the heat under the skillet to the most minimum available to you.

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Let the omelet cook slowly, with the lid on, over low heat, for about 4-5 minutes. At one point, the top of the omelet will look like this:

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Most of the cheese is melted, but there is still a bit of egg that need to cook through. At this point, remove the skillet completely from the heat source, but leave the lid on. After about 1 minute, the omelet should be ready.

I didn’t have enough hands to take the picture of the omelet coming out of the skillet, and, in fact, my husband only has one working arm/hand after bicep surgery last month, so I had to make do with simply showing you the omelet after I put it on the plate.

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Because there’s a generous amount of butter on the bottom of the skillet, the omelet should slide out easily. Do it slowly, and once half of the omelet is on the plate, simply use the skillet to flip the other half of the omelet back over itself. If you don’t care what your omelet looks like, keep it open-faced.

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The egg part of the omelet was cooked fully, although not nearly to the point of rubberyness.

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And the cheese was fully melted inside as well. I also like a little bit of browning on the outside of the omelet, but you can adjust this based on how hot the pre-heated skillet it.

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What’s important is that in spite of the fact that this omelet took a little time, the result is superb.

Boxty

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Of all things, my first boxty was not eaten in Ireland. It was, in fact, enjoyed in an Irish pub in, of all places, Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s called Kilkenny’s, and it’s been an established and popular Irish pub since 2002.

I really enjoyed the boxty, which I’d never heard of before. I only ordered it because I wanted something traditionally Irish since I was in an Irish pub. And of course it was good – it was a giant potato-based crepe filled with creamy goodness. I can’t really remember all of the details now, but because of that experience, I was determined to have one in Ireland… which I did just a few weeks ago.

We had lunch in Dublin at Gallagher’s Boxty House one Sunday. We went there knowing that it was a touristy sort of place, but I had to have my boxty. Gallagher’s Boxty House is an unassuming little joint of a restaurant in the Temple Bar area of Dublin.

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It actually seemed like only locals were eating lunch there – especially families with children. The young man who waited on us was 17, and the son of the restaurant’s owner. It was nice finding out it’s a family business.

But touristy or not, we all have a fabulous lunch. I chose the seafood boxty and it was delicious.

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That day in Dublin was Latvia Day, as we surmised after passing loads of people dressed up in their traditional Latvian garb. (Of course, we had to ask what the hoopla was all about…)

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Aren’t these women beautiful?!!!

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I only mention Latvia day because the presence of the singing and dancing Latvians added to the frivolity of walking around Dublin on a beautiful Sunday when everyone seemed to be outside enjoying themselves. And the parade that ensued went right by the Boxty house while we were enjoying our lunch!
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Okay, little things like that get me excited. But back to the boxty.

After returning from Ireland last week, I wanted to make boxty. I own a book on Irish cooking*, and it revealed that the boxty originated in the north of Ireland, actually. The word boxty came about from the fact that people cut holes in boxes in order to grate the potatoes to make this dish! I now appreciate my metal grater even more than ever.

There are also, not surprisingly, a few different versions of boxty. One is exactly like what I had in Tulsa and in Dublin – an oversized pancake with filling. Another version is a pancake on a smaller scale served simply with butter.

The third version, which I didn’t make today, is from a thicker pancake batter – essentially a dough. Round shapes are cut out of it much like our biscuits, and baked. I think I actually saw these on breakfast menus in Ireland, because they were described as hash brown potato cakes. I’m sure they were delightful but unfortunately I never had one.

Here’s my version of the giant boxty pancake with a creamed ham and cheese filling, and boxty pancakes with butter.

Boxty with Creamy Ham and Cheese Filling

4 medium baking potatoes, peeled
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups milk, I used whole
Butter

Chop up two of the peeled potatoes and boil them until done. If you’re not sure, stick a fork in the pieces to see if they are tender. When they are cooked, drain the potatoes; set aside.
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Grate the remaining two potatoes and place them on paper towels for a few minutes to drain.

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Then place the grated potatoes in a medium bowl. Add the flour and baking powder. Mash the two cooked potatoes and add to the grated potatoes in the bowl.
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Give everything a stir, then slowly stir in the milk. The batter should have some consistency, yet be somewhat thin as well.
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Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Use a generous amount of butter for each pancake. When the skillet is hot, almost completely fill the bottom of the skillet with the batter. Don’t make it too thick, but also fill in any thin spots or holes. Turn down the heat to medium, and cover the skillet with a lid.

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After a few minutes, turn the heat down to low to finish cooking the pancake. I discovered that it was nearly impossible to flip over these “pancakes,” so I just let them cook on the bottom side slowly.

After a few more minutes, slide the pancake onto a large plate, turn up the heat again, and make a second pancake. When the second one is done, slide it onto a separate plate.

Complete as many pancakes as you wish, then proceed with the filling:

Filling

1 recipe for white sauce
About 2 cups of chopped ham
6 ounces Monterey jack cheese

Make a white sauce according to the directions using butter, flour, and milk or cream, whichever you prefer.

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Stir in the ham and the cheese. I also sprinkled in some white pepper, but that is certainly optional.

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Add a generous amount of the filling to each boxty, and fold the other side over. Repeat with the remaining boxties that you made. The filing will generously fill four boxties, approximately 8″ in diameter.

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Serve immediately, or reheat later right before serving.

Boxty Pancakes

Make the same batter for the boxty using the grated and mashed potatoes, the flour, baking powder, and milk.

Add a generous amount of butter before adding the batter to the hot skillet. Make these the size as breakfast pancakes, turning down the heat to cook them through and prevent burning. It should take about 3 minutes on the first side, then flip them over and cook for about another minute.

To serve, add a tab of butter to the hot pancakes. These can be served as a side dish, or eaten as is. Personally I would have to have them with a side salad, or a few wedges of tomatoes.

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verdict: I think this boxty batter recipe pretty well tastes like my Dublin boxty. You could also substitute a crepe, but the potatoes really add something to the “pancakes.” And they’re not much work at all. The smaller boxty pancakes were good, but I prefer my own version of potato pancakes, that have less flour in them, and have much more texture. But both versions of boxty were fun to try!

* It’s called The Scottish-Irish Pub and Hearth Cookbook, by Kay Shaw Nelson.