8 amazing things I ate in 2012

I’m not among the ridiculous people who take photos of every single thing they eat. No, I’m only mildly annoying, taking pictures of about 75 percent of what I eat, then deleting 90 percent of that. And still, the variety of pork photos on my phone is astounding.

So, remembering my favorite things that I ate and drank in 2012 was easy: I just skimmed my photos.

Food is emotional for me. What makes a meal memorable is more than taste — there are people and places tied to the best ones. Some people have 800 photos of their kids on their phone. Me? I have cocktails and doughs and stews and tater tots and braised beef and lemons and soda floats and meatballs and champagne.

Here, in no particular order, are the edible moments I enjoyed the most in 2012:

1. Pizzas from the brick oven in our backyard. We had a wood-fired brick oven built this fall, which means that we can never move, but also that we’ve made a pretty deep dive into the world of homemade pizza. Even back when we used a pizza stone in our regular oven, I’m always amazed at how easy it is to make pizza from scratch — and how it’s better than 98% of the pizza at restaurants. (This 2% belongs to my aunt and uncle, who own an actual pizzeria.)

Making pizzas has also been a really fun way to entertain. We set out a bunch of toppings and let everyone make their own pizza, using dough we made the day before.

pizza from a brick oven

pizzatoppings

2. Rose. It was by far the winning wine for me this year. All summer long, from the little moments and to the big ones, it always felt right and refreshing. With rose, we toasted to our 1st wedding anniversary and to my best friend on her wedding day.

rose1          rose2

3. Charcuterie. If there’s cured meat on the menu, I must have it. The plate below is from Publican Quality Meats, a Chicago butcher shop that’s also a restaurant. We sat on the patio with friends on a beautiful, breezy, sunny summer day and I remember that the sweet coppa was spectacular.

I think it would be great if we had a “Charc Week” in conjunction with “Shark Week” this year. If any Bloomington restaurant owners happen to be in my audience, do you want to help me get that going?

charcuterie

4. Crostata. This is a simple, rustic Italian tart with jam that my Grandma Pia has made her whole life, and mine. When I discovered that an Italian baker here in Bloomington made crostata, I was immediately drawn to her, and in a strange turn of events, I ran her bakery for 6 weeks this summer. I made several batches of crostata each week, and though I wasn’t using my grandma’s recipe, it felt really special.

The type of jam varies by region. My grandma, who is from outside of Rome, uses cherry preserves. The baker in Bloomington is from the Venice region and uses apricot and raspberry.

crostata

5. Strawberry pancakes. I never order stuff like this, but this dish at Feast was one of the best breakfast decisions I made in 2012. The strawberries were roasted and I think the sauce was made with balsamic vinegar. These pretty pancakes were small — about the size of a coaster — and thin and stacked high. It was supremely girly. Not a culinary triumph exactly, but there was no question that it belonged here.

strawberrypancakes

6. Zuni chicken. Generally I do not like chicken but I loved this iconic dish from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. It’s a whole chicken roasted in a brick oven, served with greens and a warm bread salad that is likely harboring all kinds of terrible, delicious fats.

P1080167

7. Hot chocolate at the St. Regis Deer Valley. It’s the hot chocolate that put all other hot chocolates to shame. It was spiked with amaretto and Bailey’s, and, uh, likely made with whole milk. We were in Park City, Utah, for Sundance, enjoying some après-ski time on the terrace at the St. Regis. (So, let’s face it, I could have ordered a glass of water and it would have put all other glasses of water to shame.)

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8. Tiny garden tomatoes. I know it’s really braggy to include things from my own garden on a list of the best things I ate last year, but I really, really love having a garden and I love even more that some things happened to grow and went on to be edible.

There were some misfires (eggplant, I’m looking at you), but our two cherry tomato plants were nothing short of overachievers — they came early, stayed late, and literally snapped the additional supports we put up halfway through the season. And they were delicious.

gardentomatoes

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Cappuccino Brownies

cappuccino brownies

To. Die. For. I won’t even make you read through the rest of this post for the recipe: Here it is. Go forth and bake them. 

This summer, I worked in a commercial kitchen shared by cooking instructors, chefs, caterers and food business owners. What was I doing there? It’s a long, wild story, but I ran an Italian bakery while the owner was abroad. These decadent cappuccino brownies were not among the Italian bakery’s offerings, but it being a shared kitchen, I worked alongside a respected caterer who I got to know well. This was one of four or five dessert bars that are her signature sweets.

Her assistants cut them into the most perfect squares, dipping the knife in hot water and then wiping it dry after making every single cut. Edges are discarded and rulers are sometimes used. No one would go through this trouble at home — that’s partially why they’re so lovable.

Though I desperately wanted the recipe for her cappuccino brownies, it didn’t feel right to ask her for it. Seems like proprietary information to me.

And then. 

Last month, the caterer asked me to help her out in the kitchen for a few days while her assistant went on vacation. I assumed I’d be doing a lot of chopping and slicing and other prep tasks, but instead she handed me the recipes for the dessert bars, all tucked inside clear protective sheaths. 

Today, she said, we’re going to start by making cappuccino brownies. 

There it was, The Recipe, torn from Gourmet magazine’s November 1991 issue. It wasn’t an original recipe as I had expected. I didn’t have to sneak an iPhone photo while she rotated the chocolate-cherry-port bars in the oven. I just went home and Googled it.

These are more work than traditional brownies because of the three layers, with cooling involved between each — the rich, chocolate-y, espresso-y brownie layer; the cream cheese frosting layer with a brilliant dash of cinnamon; the glossy glaze layer with more chocolate and espresso. 

I made the cappuccino brownies twice for the caterer without any problems, but when I made them at home I did manage to mess up the glaze and had to redo it. But in the end they were perfect. 

I cut them into bite-size pieces but did not wipe the knife down each time, and they still got plenty of Oohs. Aahs. OMGs. and then, they were gone.

Photo

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The simplest apple tart

Maybe you’ve also seen this happen after a big holiday meal: the pies come out and everyone wants “just a little slice.” You rest your knife on the crust, showing where you’ll make the cut.

NOOOO! SMALLER! they will shout, mistaking you for a surgeon and your knife for a scalpel and your cut for a procedure where removing any more tissue than absolutely necessary would be a grave mistake.

Soon, that magnificent pie turns into a bunch of wimpy, mangled slices.

This is why tarts are genius. They’re like shallow pies that are rich and sturdy. Even teeny tiny slivers stay in tact.

Mark Bittman’s Simplest Apple Tart is a dessert that maintains its elegance even when under the knife. And, it’s sooo pretty.

This dessert is purely about the crust and the apples. It is simple, minimalist and delicious, and easier than pie. If you don’t have a tart pan, you can make a freeform crust. Very rustic chic.

The glossy top is the thing that makes it look like it came from a fancy pastry shop. It’s like top coat for your nails. Shine serum for your hair. All you do is thin out apricot preserves with water, and brush on.

Bittman’s recipe for Rich Tart Crust comes from his cookbook, “How to Cook Everything,” which is a 944-page ordeal without pictures.

So, you don’t know how pretty it’s going to be until you actually make it.

Once you’ve made the crust and chilled it, proceed with these instructions for the apple part of the tart:

SIMPLEST APPLE TART

By Mark Bittman

Makes about 8 servings

1 Rich Tart Crust, chilled
2-3 pounds tart apples, such as McIntosh
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional – I went without)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup strained apricot preserves (optional)
1 tablespoon water or any liqueur (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Prick the chilled crust all over with a fork. Line it with foil and weight the bottom with dried beans, rice or a smaller pie plate. Bake 15-20 minutes, until shell is no longer raw but still quite pale. Remove from oven, reduce heat to 375°, carefully remove weights and foil, and set shell aside to cool.
  2. Peel and core apples, then cut them into thin slices (about 1/8-inch thick). Use a mandoline. Toss apples with lemon juice to prevent browning. Arrange apples in concentric circles in the shell, with the circles overlapping. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon (if using), then dot with butter.
  3. Bake until the apples are soft, about 40 minutes. Cool for 20 minutes before brushing on the glaze.
  4. To glaze: While the tart is cooling, warm the preserves with the water or liqueur in a small saucepan over medium heat, until thinned. Brush the mixture on top of the tart. Serve at room temperature.
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Backyard brick oven

Something kind of insane has gone up in our backyard:

This is a brick oven. Oh, I mean, A BRICK OVEN. It’s so gargantuan that you really have to say it in caps lock.

It uses wood as fuel, and you can use it to cook anything you’d cook in a regular oven. Roasts, stews, whole chickens (Zuni!!!), bread, dessert. The difference is that a brick oven gets much hotter than a regular oven — as in, 800° and up.

Which means it’s perfect for making…

Pizza! And that’s mainly what we’ve made in the oven so far.

We start by building a giant fire in the middle of the oven, which is dome-shaped inside:

Then, we knock down the fire with a long-handled pizza peel and push all of the charred logs and ash over to one side, revealing a super-hot oven floor that will cook pizzas in under two minutes. The pizzas rest right on the brick.

I thought I’d share some photos that show its insides and how it came together, since that seems to be one of the main things that people want to know, in addition to who built it (a mason), how long it took (about 3 months, as a side project for the mason), what plans we used (ours came from Forno Bravo), and would we be able to take it with us if we ever moved (No. We will obviously be living here forever now).

In mid-July, a lot of materials and equipment showed up in our backyard. Cinder blocks were used to make the frame of the base of the oven.

         

The cinder block base of the oven was wrapped in limestone and a row of red brick for some visual interest. (Did you know: Bricks are called “soldiers” when they are laid vertically.)

When you’re firing the oven, nothing actually happens in this base. The cut out area is for storage; we had a rolling cart built to fit it, and it holds pizza peels and other supplies.

On top of the base, fire bricks were laid in a special herringbone pattern to create the oven floor. Fire bricks can withstand high heat and retain it, so they’re essential to the oven.

The sides of the oven went up using the same fire bricks. The wooden door is a placeholder for the oven opening.

This part was fascinating because it was starting to look like an oven!

Up until this point, I understood how the oven would come together. I had learned the term “soldiers” and how to use it casually in a sentence, so I was feeling pretty good about my knowledge of masonry.

But then we got to the dome, and I thought: How is this going to happen?

Well, here’s how it happened:

           

       

And then the project finished up really quickly while we were out of town for a few days, so I don’t have photos. But, basically, limestone sides went up around the dome, some super heavy duty insulation was stuffed around the dome, and it was closed up with more limestone.

Isn’t it fascinating to see the oven’s guts? Some people work the dome shape into the oven’s final look, but we preferred to enclose it so that it would have clean lines.

Right now, we’re experimenting with pizza doughs to find two go-to recipes: One quick-rising dough that can be made and used the same day, and another that rises for two or more days, for the times when we can plan ahead.

If you have a favorite dough, please share!

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Zuni Chicken

No one loves chicken. You never hear someone say, “I’m a chicken person.” It’s always, “I’m not a chicken person.”

I’m not a chicken person. Jeff is definitely not a chicken person. He’s allergic to it. All poultry, in fact. It’s sometimes inconvenient (at large catered events) but sometimes great because chicken is totally out of the picture for us at home and at restaurants. I wouldn’t order chicken out because then how would I trade half of my plate for half of Jeff’s? I’m getting nervous just thinking about not trading.

Anyway, there is one chicken dish that, despite not being a chicken person, I had always wanted to try: The chicken for two at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.

Zuni chicken is legendary: voted the No. 1 thing to eat in San Francisco before you die, and such. It’s a whole chicken roasted in a brick oven, served in pieces with sturdy greens and a warm, vinegar-y bread salad flecked with currants and pine nuts.

In a word: Phenomenal.

In two: Again, please.

I know this because I had it recently — finally — when I happened to be in the city a day before Jeff. It was my chance. Four of us went to Zuni on a Tuesday (8:45 was the most reasonable reservation we could get), paired off and ordered it.

There is no shame in admitting that this is one of the better meals you’ve ever had. This chicken, with blistered skin and meat that falls off the bone, is for non-chicken people. Equally OMG-able is the bread salad, which is like warm panzanella with quadruple the fat snuck in there somewhere.

Inside the cozy, elegant Zuni, we sat right behind the giant brick oven, which can hold something like 19 chickens at a time…

     

We have a brick oven at home, and I’ve been tempted to recreate it. But I think I’d rather just go back. (Also, see Jeff’s chicken allergy.) A snippet of a G-chat with my friend Casey with whom I shared my chicken:

Casey: ugh, remember when you were here and it was so fun.

me: totally. i need to figure out a way to spend half of my time in san francisco

Casey: you really do.

me: and zuni chicken will be just this thing we do on tuesdays

Casey: it’s what will replace Thirsty Thursdays now that we are older and more mature

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Friendsgiving

Do you celebrate Friendsgiving?

It seems like everyone I know has adopted this as a fall holiday. I started celebrating Friendsgiving after college when I moved out to Phoenix. My tight-knit group of friends were as close as family, and fought like family — so why not have Thanksgiving as a family, before scattering off across the country to celebrate the real holiday with our real families?

We have dinner with our friends a lot, but Friendsgiving feels different and special. It’s a tradition that I truly love.

It’s also a good excuse to get uncomfortably full on sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and stuffing twice in the span of a week or two.

Confession: I’ve hosted many Friendsgivings, but I’ve never made the turkey. Last year, Adam and Jessica came over early to dress the bird and stick it in the oven.

Jeff carved. I wouldn’t know where to start.

carving a turkey at friendsgiving

The table was set with pretty paper placemats that have a spot for writing in the menu.

I’ve made roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potato casserole for every Friendsgiving that I’ve been a part of. These dishes are my favorite and I absolutely need them to be there. I won’t leave it up to chance.

A new dish that I can’t wait to try this year is cranberries with brandied shallots, which I came across while reporting a story for Edible Indy’s fall issue. The story was about cooking with fall fruit, and the cranberry dish was my favorite of the recipes that Chef Ryan Nelson of Late Harvest Kitchen shared with us. I sampled it at the end of the photo shoot, and though I’ve never been crazy about cranberries before, I could have finished the whole thing.

CRANBERRIES WITH BRANDIED SHALLOTS

By Chef Ryan Nelson of Late Harvest Kitchen

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brandy
10 shallots, medium size, peeled and left whole
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
12 ounces cranberries
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

1. Combine the olive oil, sugar, balsamic and brandy. Pour over the shallots and place in a baking dish.

2. Add thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper.

3. Cover the dish with foil and place in a 500° oven for 18–20 minutes. Remove from oven.

4. Uncover and  return to oven for 3–5 minutes, until the shallots are caramelized. Set aside.

5. Place cranberries, brown sugar, and water in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes, until some of the cranberries begin to break down slightly. Remove from oven and cool.

6. Combine cranberries and shallots in a serving dish. Refrigerate overnight. Serve the dish between cold and room temp.

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Pumpkin carving

     

     

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