28 January 2012

Down Home Cookin', Paisana Style

Food is terribly exciting for me: the prospect of new flavors, new combinations, new favorites.  Remember the first time you tasted one of your favorite delicacies? I love that discovery. Perhaps I'm just a food junkie looking for that unattainable high. 

I've always gone through food phases.  I find something that knocks my socks off and have to try it in a myriad of ways.  This can be something as safe as my chocolate-hazelnut phase.  That's a pretty palatable obsession: chocolate-hazelnut gelato, biscotti, Perugina Baci candies, Nutella.  My sister and I really ripped up that phase. 

Then there are the riskier phases, like octopus.  There's nothing risky about the octopus itself.   One can't get hurt from an octopus, at least not a dead one.  One just runs a greater risk of tasting something unsavory with octopus than chocolate-hazelnut.  My octopus phase elicited some stellar discoveries such as the braised octopus at The Parthenon and the pulpo a la plancha at Cafe Iberico.  It also made my first Chicago apartment smell like the fish market for a week when I tried to recreate the dishes myself.  How else does one learn the important lesson of leaving the preparation of cephalopod to the experts? 

Then there are the phases that end up being more dangerous than one expects.  I had an anchovy phase that I didn't even realize was an anchovy phase.  I always loved my mother's anchovy gravy.  She makes pasta puttanesca as part if the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Also, boquerones were one of  my favorite dishes in Sevilla.  Boquerones are small, white anchovies, but I mistakenly thought they were smelts.  Tapas bars serve them up whole and fried.  The tiny bones and fins add extra crunch.  They also serve them filleted and raw--not really raw, marinated in vinegar, but not cooked with heat.  Also delicious.  I'm sure I've really sold you on boquerones. 

Upon my return to the States, I went to DeKalb to finish my final year at NIU.  One day at the fish counter I saw smelts.  I had the brilliant idea of cleaning them and frying them up just like at the tapas bars and recreating Sevilla for myself.  I learned several things that day: 1.  Boquerones are indeed anchovies, not smelts.  2.  I'm allergic to something in smelts that gave me hives up my arms upon cleaning them.  3.  After that, Sevilla cannot be recreated regardless of the amount of Rioja and Benedryl one ingests. 

On that note, I've  been thinking about comfort food. While most of my gastronomic energies are focused on the discovery of the new and sensational dish, sometimes it's comforting to eat something that you know has no scary surprises like lingering smells or hives.  Also, I've wanted to expand my repertoire of repeatable recipes--those appealing to  a wide audience, at least wider than the anchovy/octopus audience.  Not everyone finds comfort in new taste sensations at the risk of bad taste sensations. 

Comfort food means something different to each person, each family, and each region.  When I think of traditional American comfort food, several dishes come to mind: fried chicken, mac n cheese, and pie.  None of  those three would even rank in my top 100 foods, but if one went to a restaurant specializing in American comfort food, I'd bet each of  those things would appear on the menu. 

Based on those three categories, I went in search of comfort food, paisana style.  The official recipes are listed at the bottom of the post.

1.  Fried Chicken. 

I searched for the perfect fried chicken equivalent, a home style chicken dish with the flavors of my youth and home. 
Pollo alla Calabrese is yet another recipe from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino. I tried it in September with all fresh ingredients and again this week with dried and canned ingredients--fantastic each time.  This is true comfort food for me due to the combination of garlic, tomato, hot pepper and oregano.  My husband dubbed this 'the best chicken I've ever had'.

Polla al Ajillo: this is simply the Spanish version of fried chicken.  It's not breaded, but seasoned with paprika, fried in olive oil with garlic and simmered in Sherry or white wine with a bay leaf.  It's ridiculously flavorful, and the crispy garlic bits are heaven.  I can't think of anything more comforting than superfluous amounts of garlic.

2.  Mac n Cheese. 

Most people love macaroni and cheese. I do not. Really, I'm not trying to be uppity. I just don't like mushy food or orange cheese.  Even as a kid I passed on Kraft Mac N Cheese. I knew that shade of orange did not belong in nature. Don't even get me started on Velveeta.  My husband loves mac n cheese. While I don't do a true version of it, I often make him a pasta with cream sauce--butter, cream, and grated Parmesan.

Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream:  With loads of dried tomatoes in the root cellar, I started experimenting to kick his basic pasta dish up a notch. I succeeded. It's very rich, creamy, satisfying, and pretty.  In my book, it's as homey as it gets.  I served it with penne for guests, but I like it better on rotini.  I don't know if that actually matters. Rotini is just my favorite. 

Pollo al Ajillo and Penne with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream
3.  Pie

I've learned to enjoy pie, but I do not love pie. It can never be my comfort food because I'm never fully comfortable eating it.  The center is a little too mushy for my liking and I have real problems with hot fruit. I preserved several quarts of scrumptious peaches over the summer. After thinking of a way to prepare them without making them hot or mushy, I came up with shortcakes. 

Peach Shortcakes with Vanilla Whipped Cream: This couldn't be simpler or more delicious.  The shortcakes are dense and slightly salty, the peaches are sweet from natural sugars as well as the light syrup in which they were preserved, and the vanilla whipped cream is light and creamy.  I can't remember the last time I was so excited about a dessert.  My tasting panel also seemed to share my excitement. 

Don't hesitate to pour yourself an after-dinner drink of amaretto to go along. Peach and amaretto is a great combo.

Apple Fritters:  I saw these in an issue of Bon Appetit several months ago in a short piece featuring Jacques Pepin:  5 Unexpected Things You'll Find in Chef Jacques Pepin's Fridge.  I don't know why I was drawn to it, especially given my feelings for hot fruit.  I guess it seemed like a good apple pie alternative.  It just sounded so simple and to me, the simple good find is the ultimate find.  He barely gives instruction:  "There is nothing like a beer batter, which I make by mixing 1 1/2 cups of flour and a can of beer. To this batter I add coarsely cut apples, and I deep-fry spoonfuls of the mixture into delicious fritters, which I serve with granulated sugar." 

Although it smelled like the county fair in my kitchen (and still does), those fritters were one helluva Friday night treat.  We garnished them with granulated sugar per his instructions, but also finished them with sea salt which really brought out the sweetness.  They also transcend the 'hot fruit' genre for me because they don't have that mushy, hot fruit feel.  The bits of apple add texture to the light beer batter without being chewy or mushy.

I don't think these necessarily have to be a dessert.  They are a nice alternative to apple pie, but they reminded me more of a potato pancake.  We enjoyed them as an appetizer to pair with our Friday night New Belgium 6-pack.

My culinary strategy remains focused on the quest for the high, that first shockingly good bite of something new, the thrill of discovery. However, there is much comfort in having good familiar recipes, something reminiscent of home, dishes that are satisfying and predictably delicious.  Sometimes one is not in the mood for the risk required by the reward.  And, it's important to have something comforting and delicious to eat when your house reeks of octopus or your recovering from smelt hives.

Pollo alla Calabrese:  Baked Chicken with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Hot Pepper
from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher

3 pounds bone-in chicken legs and thighs, trimmed of all visible fat
3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut in 2-inch chunks
3/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into 1/2 inch-thick slices
3 garlic cloves, halved
3 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano or 1 Tbsp dries oregano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Ground hot red pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and position the rack on the lowest level.  Season the chicken all over with 2 teaspoons of the salt and several grinds of black pepper.  Put the potatoes, tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer.  Sprinkle the vegetables with the remaining 1/12 teaspoons salt.  Place the chicken in the baking dish, add the oregano (crumble the dried oregano, if using, between your fingers as you add it), and drizzle with the oil.  With your hands, toss the chicken and vegetables to coat them thoroughly with the seasonings.  Then make the bed of vegetables, arranging the chicken on top, skin side up.  Sprinkle the chicken with hot pepper to taste.

Place the baking dish in the oven on the bottom rack and bake until the skin is crisp and golden, 30-45 minutes.  Turn the chicken pieces over and continue baking until the chicken juices run clear, the potatoes are tender, and most of the pan juices have been absorbed, 20-30 minutes.  Serve immediately, spooning the remaining pan juices over the chicken.

Serves 4-6

Pollo al Ajillo: Chicken with Garlic
from Cooking in Spain, by Janet Mendel

1 chicken, cut in serving pieces
salt, pepper, and paprika
75 ml oil
10 cloves garlic, chopped
75 ml brandy, Sherry or Montilla
1 bay leaf

Rub the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and paprika and let them sit for 15 minutes.  Heat the oil in a pot and in it very slowly brown the chicken.  when it is turned to brown the other side, add the garlic, very coarsely chopped (many cooks don't peel it in order to prevent scorching).  When chicken is browned, remove the pot from the fire and add the brandy or Sherry and bay leaf.  Cover the pot and simmer until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes more.  If you like crisp garlic bits, remove them before adding the wine, then sprinkle over cooked chicken,

Serves 4-6

Note:  Above is the original recipe.  I used dry white wine instead of the Sherry

Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream

1 lb of pasta
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 pint of heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan plus more for garnish
salt/pepper to taste

Blanch sun dried tomatoes for 2 minutes.  Strain and chop.  Melt butter in saucepan over low heat.  Once melted add tomatoes and cream and turn off heat.  Stir well.  Boil 1 lb of pasta and strain.  Return pasta to pot, add cream mixture and stir to coat.  Add cheese and then salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with cheese upon plating. 

Serves about 6

Peach Shortcakes with Vanilla Whipped Cream

for shortcakes:

2 cups flour,
1/3 cup shortening
2 Tbsp sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Cut shortening into flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt with a pastry blender.  Stir in milk until just blended.  Drop in large spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet (makes 6 generous shortcakes).

for vanilla whipped cream:

1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp confectioners sugar

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk on fast setting until stiff peaks form.

Split shortcakes and fill with a layer of peaches and whipped cream.  Then top with peaches and whipped cream.

Apple Fritters
adapted from Jacques Pepin's above interview

Coarsely chop several apples.  In separate bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups flour with a can of beer.  Add chopped apples to beer batter and drop in hot oil by the spoonful.  Garnish with granulated sugar.  If you need some salt with your sugar like we do, finish with some sea salt.


  1. Excuse me... You forgot the breadstick phase of 8th grade. How soon we forget our roots!

    1. lol! I did forget that phase! Although, I feel like that was your phase and I just happened to be a part of it. Not that I minded.