Monday, April 25, 2011

Baked Ziti

Baked pastas are a great comfort food that even kids love. Pasta in a tasty sauce baked with cheeses until gooey on the inside and a little crusty on the outside. They may take a while to cook, but are fairly easy to assemble, making them a staple in most American households. The most straightforward, and easiest to assemble (an coincidentally, one of the most popular) is baked ziti.

Baked Ziti is one of the most popular baked pasta dishes

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hard Boiled Eggs for Easter

Easter means hard boiled eggs!
We've all done them a thousand times- or at least every Easter weekend. Most of us have discovered that something that seems as easy as hard boiling a batch of eggs is a great deal more difficult we first thought. It is very easy to end up with a batch of undercooked eggs with soft spots, eggs that refuse to peel easily, or eggs that are just overcooked and have that unpleasant looking layer of greenish stuff on the outside of the yolk. Maybe your eggs have exploded or cracked in the pot and leaked messy egg white all over the place. There are a thousand things that can go wrong with such a simple idea as boiling a few eggs...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Klee's Bar and Grill - Seaside Heights, New Jersey

Seaside Heights, New Jersey is one of the Jersey Shore's best known vacation spots, sporting an enormous boardwalk complete with amusement piers, beaches, T-shirt shops, and all manner of bars and small eateries. Of late, the town has gained national fame (or infamy) thanks to the popular reality show "Jersey Shore".

Reality TV madness aside- Seaside is much more than a place for college aged kids and young adults to go and party. Despite it's TV notoriety, it has been, and remains, mainly a family vacation destination- a place for people in the tri-state area to take their families "down the shore" for a reasonably priced family getaway. It should come as no surprise that among the myriad cheap pizza joints and other quick and dirty places to eat, there are also a fair share of places to go for a quality meal.

Crab Cake Sandwich with Dijonaise and Old Bay French Fries

That said, you're not going to find expensive Michelin Star restaurants within walking distance of the infamous MTV house. You'll find, if you know where to look, and/or get a tip from the locals, good honest food. When I was there this past week with my family to look around for a vacation rental, we were tipped off about one such place, and were not disappointed.

Klee's Bar and Grill, only a block away from the nightclub "Bamboo" where reality TV fans have seen "The Situation," "Snooki," and company misbehave on a regular basis, offers good quality Pub Style food at a fair price. We went in on a Monday afternoon in the off-season, and even then, the dining room had a good number of patrons- always a good sign.

I had the Crab Cake Sandwich with Old Bay Fries. The dish is unassuming and was everything you would expect from a decent Crab Cake. The Crab Cake itself was not pushing the boundaries of great food by any means, but was good in a comforting familiar way. The real star of the plate were the fries. They were simple, fried just right, and given a healthy dose of Old Bay for flavor. They too, were not breaking new and innovative culinary ground, but they were done right, and hit the spot- exactly what good pub food should do.

My wife had a Turkey Wrap sandwich with a Potato Salad that was made in house, and the kids shared a thin crust bar pizza. I got to sample a little of both, and just like my own meal, they were good and comforting. The turkey in the wrap was fresh, and the potato salad that came as a side practically upstaged the sandwich. The pizza had a nice thin crust, and just the right mix of cheese and sauce. The crust had a nice crunch to it- but the extra slice of pizza that I snaked from one of the kids to try had cooled off by the time I got to it. Even cold, the pizza was obviously much better than the over-sized wedges of utility pizza you'll find every few storefronts along the boardwalk. (that utility pizza has it's own charms, but Klee's pizza was just good).

Service was a little on the slow side, but it was obvious from watching the wait staff that it wasn't from lack of skill or caring- they were just plain busy with the lunch rush. Our waitress was friendly and helpful, despite being obviously extremely busy. I wonder if they were short a person on the floor, or were just hit with a larger than expected lunch crowd during a usually quieter off-season. In any case, the wait staff handled things about as well as could be expected under the circumstances- and didn't miss a beat as the lunch rush began to thin out. I was more than happy with everything.

So yes, even in the often misunderstood, and somewhat misrepresented Jersey Shore, there is good food to be had. As countless travel shows on cable constantly remind us, try to eat where the locals eat, and you'll find a place you'll want to go back to again. We'll most likely patronize Klee's Bar and Grill again when we return for our summer getaway.

We'll conclude with an obligatory photo related to said reality TV show...

Good food is within walking distance of reality TV hangouts in Seaside Heights

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pot Roast with Gravy - using leftover tomato sauce.

Who likes Pot Roast? I do! If you make it in a slow cooker, it's a simple "set and forget" meal that packs a ton of flavor. If your slow cooker is big enough, you can even turn it into a one-pot meal.

Simple beef pot roast with gravy made from the braising liquid

A pot roast is a great dish to put together if you have the time to set it up early in the day. It's also a great way to use up some of your leftovers. The basic idea is to take a somewhat tough, fatty cut of beef, and cook it slowly over four or more hours in a braising liquid with a few aromatic vegetables. The long cooking time breaks down the fats in the meat, and infuses everything with all of the flavors you put in your pot.

For my pot roast, I'm starting with a package of small beef chuck steaks- each is just about a single portion. For my braising liquid I'll start with the leftover tomato sauce (pizza sauce actually) I've been saving in the freezer. We'll add some potatoes, garlic, onion, and celery, season it, and let the slow cooker do it's thing for at least four hours. The remaining braising liquid will then become a base for a simple gravy.

Fist we'll start by cutting up about 3 or 4 potatoes into bite-sized chunks. I prefer to leave the skin on so they need a quick rinse first. The potatoes will absorb the flavors of our liquid and out beef, and add a little starch to our liquid which will make it a little easier to bring our gravy together later.

Potato chopped into bite sized chunks

We'll also want about 1 medium onion sliced into half-moons.

Sliced onions are one of the "aromatic" vegetables we'll use

We'll also want another aromatic vegetable - celery. On e large rib of celery sliced into small pieces should do the trick.

Celery is an essential aromatic for pot roasts and most soups

You can really add almost any vegetable you like to the mix- carrots or bell pepper are good choices as well.

Garlic is also a great aromatic to add, it goes well with beef, and well, I just like it a lot. I'll use about 3-4 cloves of garlic chopped fairly small.

Garlic is just good in my book, nothing a breath mint can't fix.

We'll need to consider our seasonings next. Since we're going to use a leftover tomato sauce as the base for our braise, we won't need to season too heavily. We'll need salt and black pepper for starters. Since the tomato sauce already contains a good amount of herbs and seasonings, we really only need probably one other herb. Thyme goes well with beef, and has a flavor that holds it's own in slow cooking, so I'll also add a little thyme. About a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half of each should do the trick, and we can always adjust later.

A little salt, black pepper, and thyme is all you need to round out the dish

Load all our ingredients into the crock pot, and add about 1-2 cups of tomato sauce. My tomato sauce is frozen leftover pizza sauce from "pizza night" where my wife convinces the kids to help her make home-made pizzas- so I don't have an exact measurement, and it's frozen into a block. This is a great way to use up some of those leftovers. It's always easier to make tomato sauces (what we Italian-Americans often call gravy) in mass quantities, so there's almost always some extra lying around waiting to be used.

Leftover frozen tomato sauce is an excellent base for a braising liquid

I just put everything in the crock pot, and start the heat to help melt the tomato ice-cubes while I get the meat ready.

The key to a great tasting pot roast is to give the beef a nice dark-brown hard sear before you put it into the pot. If you're using a standard pot over a low flame rather than a slow-cooker, you should ignore my instructions to load up the veggies first and you should brown the meat right in the pot, and leave all the nice brown stuff in there too- unfortunately, you can't do that with a slow-cooker, but since I have other chores to work on that mean I can't monitor and open flame all day, I'll settle for searing the meat on the flat-top.

Get your pan or flat-top hot, add a little oil or cooking spray. You'll want to season the meat on both sides with a little salt and pepper (the salt will bring moisture to the surface and help for the crust we're looking for). You're going for a dark brown crust on both sides of the meat, and don't worry about cooking the beef all the way through- it has a long hot bath coming that will finish the job. Try not to move or fuss with the meat- turn it once. If your pan/grill is nice and hot, it should do the job in a couple of minutes per side.

A hard sear is the key to flavor for slow-cooked beef
When your meat had that nice dark crust we're looking for, you can load it into the slow-cooker.

Everything is in the pot and ready to go

Our small amount of tomato sauce is probably not enough liquid to get the job done. Add about 2 cups of water (or beef broth if you have some!)- you want the meat to be sitting in the liquid. Give everything a stir, and put the lid on. Let everything cook for at least four hours, and give it a quick stir a few times to make sure everything is mixed together.

Let out beef pot roast take at least a four-hour bath in the slow-cooker

When you've finished cooking, the meat should be tender, and the potatoes should be basically soaked through with flavor. Most of the vegetables will have almost disintegrated- which is a good thing. Grab a slotted spoon, and fish out the meat, potatoes, and vegetables. You should be left with a dark liquid containing a lot of flavor and rendered beef fat. You can use the liquid as-is to top off your meat and add a little moisture, or you can turn some of it into a rich, flavorful gravy.

Gravy is actually a simple thing to make- we'll apply the same process I showed in my simple chicken gravy article. We'll start with a roux of olive oil and flour. You'll need another pan or small pot- add in about two tablespoons each of olive oil and flour over medium heat. Whisk the oil and flour together until it makes a paste, and cook it until it reaches a nice golden brown color. Don't let the roux sit for more than a few seconds without whisking, or you risk burning it.

Gravy starts with a simple roux of olive oil and flour

Add about a cup or more of our leftover cooking liquid- and immediately whisk. Add enough cooking liquid to make the gravy watery at first, let it continue to cook and reduce until you like how thick it is. Don't forget to taste and adjust seasonings if needed. The braising liquid should be very flavor-filled, so you probably will not need much adjustment.

Leftover braising liquid makes a rich, flavorful gravy

Serve your pot roast with your favorite vegetable, and the slow-cooked potatoes as sides. If you really like a lot of gravy, serve your pot roast on top of a bed of rice as well.

Simple comforting pot-roast makes a great family meal

Pot roasts are a staple of family cooking- it is simple to do, and can be set up in the morning, or around lunchtime, then needs minimal attention until its time to serve. Like most slow cooked dishes, it is rich and filling in that special way that only comfort foods can achieve. You can use up some of those leftovers too, basically anything that tasted good the first time around can potentially be another component to add to the slow cooker.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

10 food related things I want to try in the near future

I've had a laundry list of ideas I'd like to try out in the kitchen at some point rattling around in the back of my head. The problem is that I never really commit them to writing, and they often get lost in the shuffle between my demanding job, and the need for expedience in the kitchen so I can get the family fed while working on the myriad of non-food related projects around the house (including re-finishing the basement office room into an extra bedroom so we can give some relief to three young kids all currently crammed into one bedroom).

That said, I'm writing down some of these ideas in hopes that it will help get me on track to tackle some of these. Your comments and thoughts may help me refine some of these ideas, and/or encourage me to actually do them. Here they are, presented in no particular order.

1) Experiment with basic cheese-making.

I've had it in the back of my head that with a little care and effort, I could make my own ricotta with minimal equipment, time and specialty products. The "quick" methods start with whole milk, and actually make something that isn't technically ricotta, but is a good start. With a little more specialty supplies and more time, mozzarella and scamorza (and the whey by-products needed to make true ricotta) don't seem so far out of reach. I think it would be interesting to document my first attempts, success or fail.

2) Make my own pickles

This is another simple idea, all it takes is a mason jar, vinegar, salt, sugar, and a handful of spices/herbs. Cucumbers are the most obvious choice, but almost any vegetable can be pickled (pickled peppers is an attractive idea!)

3)  Moroccan preserved lemons

I've done this one before- a long time ago- It's fairly easy, and is similar to basic pickling, but with a very different spectrum of flavors. A mason jar and a whole bunch of lemons are the main requirements- plus a few weeks of patience. They taste great, and I've had the thought of doing them again some day.

4) Getting a vegetable garden going

My wife and I bring the idea up almost every year, but it's been tough with time constraints. Having fresh tomatoes all summer would be great, and I'd love to have fresh string beans, cucumbers, peppers, etc. I might be a little late to do it this year, but you never know. With the price of groceries rising, it may become a necessity soon, and I have a fairly large back yard to work with. I haven't done a garden on my own ever- as a kid I simply followed around my grandfather who seemed to be able to grow tomatoes anywhere there was dirt by simply willing it to be- so hopefully some of his green thumb has rubbed off. Besides- my diet has skewed a little too far towards meat and carbs... more veggies is a good thing.

5) Eat at an upscale restaurant.

With multiple young kids, limited time, and a tight budget, we really don't eat out very often, and when we do, it's usually somewhere local and/or inexpensive. About a week ago we ate at a very nice, tiny, local Italian place that makes great gnocchi, but problems with my phone kept me from getting a few snapshots. The last time we were at a high-end restaurant was for our first anniversary, and it was an experience. Of course with a tight budget, and major time restrictions, this is a very low-priority thing, but it's still on my wish-list.

6) Catch and cook up some Bluefish

I can count the number of times I've gone fishing in the past decade on one hand- but it's something I did as a kid often- Bluefish of various sizes were always the most commonly available fish- but they are considered to be very oily and gamey - not to most people's tastes. The smaller bluefish are much more mild in flavor, and are very easy to catch. The larger ones need either a little help during butchering and cooking to take away the more unpleasant flavors, or you just need to have a high tolerance for the oily flavor. Since they are so common in the coastal areas of the northeast, knowing how to handle and cook them properly can mean an inexpensive seafood treat.

7) Experiment more with my Linguini and Clam recepie

I've fooled with this old classic a few times in my past, but not in at least two years. I like to add in a little fennel, and use alternatives to white wine for the sauce- I've tried vermouth. I'd like to revisit this idea, and see if I can balance it a little better. My past attempts came out pretty good, but I think I may have overwhelmed the clam flavor, so adjustments will be needed.

8) Pasta with Calamari

This is a dish mom used to make that was always a favorite- squid pieces would go in the tomato gravy, and she'd also make squid bodies stuffed with breadcrumb braised in the gravy to go with it. It's fairly simple to do if you can get your hands on decent squid at a fair price.

9) Pasta con Sarde

Another favorite from mom - most pasta con sarde recipes use a combination of sardine, fennel, capers, and olive oil as a pasta topping. Mom used to make it as a red sauce- again in her sunday gravy. Most of my family isn't as crazy about sardines on pasta as I am, so I rarely get to do this one.

10) Broccoil Rabe and Sausage

I love this combination. It works great as a pasta topping, or even a pizza topping. I think I already have too many pasta dishes on my wish list, so perhaps I need to do something a little different with it- maybe a stromboli- or even a ravioli (can't get away from pasta can I?)

Have any suggestions, ideas, or comments? Please fill me in! I'd appreciate your feedback, and may even do requests. Thanks!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Sunday Gravy (or tomato sauce...)

For the first 20 or so years of my life, Sundays (most of them at least) meant that the house would smell like a pot of "gravy" all day- then in mid afternoon we would all sit down for a big dinner consisting of "macaroni" covered in "gravy," a big pile of meatballs, sausages- whatever meats were available that week- all braised for hours in the "gravy," and finally, loaves of crusty Italian bread to mop it all up.  That scent of tomato, basil, garlic, and meat always evokes strong memories of home for anyone who grew up in an Italian-American household. If there is an ultimate comfort food- most Italian-Americans of my generation would not hesitate to identify "macaroni and gravy" and that big plate of various meats, as that Ultimate comfort food.

Macaroni and Gravy is Italian-American for "pasta with tomato sauce (and meat)"
Most people make the mistake of calling the sauce I'm speaking about "tomato sauce" - however, anyone brought up in a household run by an Italian-American - especially one of southern Italian descent, and especially one in the northeastern United States, is more likely to refer to this as gravy. Part of that is tradition, and part of that is based on the actual recipe. Gravy, to most people, is a thick sauce based on meat. What I call the Sunday Gravy is essentially different from a tomato sauce because it is cooked with meat. In that respect, it is similar to what most people think of as gravy. The other distinction is that "gravy" is slow cooked for a long period of time- usually in large quantities - this aspect of the naming convention is more a matter of tradition. Generally, the same group of people also refer to pasta, any pasta, as "macaroni" even though macaroni is typically a specific shape of pasta (elbow pasta). Another fellow blogger, pegasuslegend, author of  "What's Cookin' Italian Style" posted an interesting analysis of this distinction, that traces the origin of the term "gravy" in this context back to Italian immigrants in the Long Island suburbs outside of New York City - specifically to an area near where I grew up (the town cited in this article is one where I actually lived for a few years after striking out on my own).

For many years, I took to calling the Sunday Gravy "tomato sauce" simply because the term would leave a lot of people confused. I, however, feel regret at leaving this (seemingly) little piece of my family's traditions behind- especially since it's about the most common meal of my youth. I will not make that mistake again- it's gravy. Call it what you will, to me, it's the gravy.

In any case, this is not a meal you can slap together in 30 minutes or less. It's typically the Sunday meal simply because it takes all day to get it right. You'll need some prep time up front- maybe 30-45 minutes (more if you're making meatballs!) and a long simmer time- at least two hours, but longer is better (usually four hours ands up being about right for me). That means that if you intend to have Sunday dinner at the traditional mid-afternoon time (between 2-4pm) you'll want to start in the morning. For a later dinner, starting right after lunch works. I will not describe this as a recipe- it's an experience, and a process. Each pot of gravy is a little different, and each has a story. Any recipe would only be a starting point. To do it right you have to taste as you go, and constantly adjust the seasoning, periodically stir, and generally fuss over it a bit. In that respect, it isn't just a recipe, or any old dinner, it's an expression of who you are as a home cook.

The first thing you'll need is a big pot, preferably with a nice heavy bottom. I like to use my best and biggest pot- it is actually big enough to make double (or more) the amount  of gravy I'm describing here- which is great if you're cooking for a large number of hungry guests. Even for an average (or above average) family, this will make more gravy then you will need, so be prepared to put the leftovers on ice, and start thinking of creative ways to put it to use later. The thing I like about my oversize pot is that it has a thick, heavy bottom, which makes it perfect for browning meats- an essential step for building the base layer of flavor we'll need.

A really big pot with a heavy bottom is essential for making the Sunday Gravy

The first thing you'll need to do is brown your meat. You should do this in your pot if at all possible- the brown bits it will leave behind on the bottom are the first layer of flavor we'll develop. The real question is- what meats to use. At the very least, you'll want to have some Italian Sausage- either sweet, hot, or both (if you're Sicilian, you'll probably mix a little of both since Sicilians like a little spicy surprise now and then). Other meats include meatballs - which can be a lot of work, braciole (rolled up slices of beef with a stuffing of seasoned breadcrumb), or even things such as pork hocks, beef oxtail, pig's feet, or meaty beef neckbones. The exact mix of meats is up to you- each will lend a bit of it's distinctive character to the gravy. I personally find that sausage is key - the seasonings in the sausage go a long way towards perfuming and seasoning the whole pot. This Sunday, I'm keeping it simple and sticking with sweet sausages since I don't have the time to set up meatballs (it's best to make them up the night before), and my family, especially the kids, aren't really ready for things like pig's feet yet. Whatever meats you choose, you'll want to cook them in olive oil until they have a nice dark-brown sear on them.

Start with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. When the oil is hot, put your meat in, and brown it on at least two sides- when done, set the meat aside. Try not to crowd the pot- work in smaller batches if you have to.

Brown your meats in hot olive oil first

You do not need to cook the meat all the way through. It will have more than enough time braising in the gravy for that- we are concerned with getting that nice dark brown color right now, extracting some of the fats and oils in the meats, and getting some of that good stuff stuck to the bottom of the pot.

The sausage browned, but not cooked through
When you are done with your meat, you'll probably have more oil in the pot than when you started- this is a good thing, the rendered fats are one of the flavor components we want to extract- even more important are the brown bits that should be stuck to the bottom. This is our first layer of flavor, and is the base for everything else yet to come.

The brown goodies left in the pot are the concentrated flavor your gravy needs

Our next layer of flavor starts with the onions. You'll need one large, or two to three small onions, chopped into small pieces (there's nothing wrong with larger pieces, but they'll blend in better if you make a small chop). Drop your chopped onions in the leftover oil, and season with a little salt and black pepper.

Saute your onions in the meat-infused oil

The onions will start to pick up some of the brown color left by the meat. Stir them frequently as they cook- you'll want them to turn translucent, and start to caramelize slightly without burning. When the onions begin to turn brown, add in about 3-4 cloves of garlic chopped as small as you can. If you have the patience, you can break out a razor blade and carefully slice the garlic into paper thin pieces and relive that famous prison cooking scene from the movie "Goodfellas" - but you really don't have to be quite that obsessive- a small chop or mince will do.

Chop your garlic as fine as you feel comfortable with

Add in the garlic, and keep stirring- let the garlic and onion cook for a minute or two. You may want to lower the heat a little before adding the garlic to make sure it doesn't burn. If the garlic burns, you'll need to toss everything in the pot, wash it, and start over. Once the garlic has a little time to give up it's flavors, clear a spot in the middle of the pot, and get ready to add your tomato paste.

At this point, I'll stop, and say a few words about the tomatoes. It's best to use fresh tomatoes if they're in season- however, the rest of the year, you'll have to used the canned stuff. This is not a problem- tomatoes actually handle being canned extremely well, so don't feel guilty going to the can. If you use fresh tomatoes- it's a long and tedious process to get them ready for use- they'll need to be parboiled, then peeled. If they have a lot of seeds, you'll need to remove most of them, then crush them. If you want to go that way, you'll need to score the skin of your tomatoes, then drop them in boiling water for about a minute, and carefully remove the skins before using them. You will probably need a significantly longer cooking time.

Purists will also refuse to use tomato paste. Tomato paste is simply tomatoes, skinned, and stewed, and reduced down until they become a thick red paste. If you forgo tomato paste, you will need to cook your gravy for a VERY long time before it thickens- turning a half-day project into an all-day (or even overnight project) - so even if you use fresh tomatoes I recommend keeping the tomato paste. It is also an opportunity to develop a little more flavor. You'll need one 6oz can of tomato paste (make sure the only ingredient on the can is "fresh ripe tomatoes") for every two 28oz cans of tomatoes. Canned tomatoes usually come as either whole tomatoes, crushed, or puree- they all work (and crushing the tomatoes with your hands is fun), but I usually go for a balanced approach and get crushed- they'll have some body to them, but save you a little work. If you have some fresh tomatoes, there's nothing wrong with chopping a few up if you want your gravy a little chunky.

Don't be ashamed to use canned tomatoes, especially if the brand name ends in a vowel
So, back to our gravy... scoop out your tomato paste, and drop it in the middle of your onions and garlic. The paste is so reduced already that you can actually give the paste a little bit of a sear, which means yet another layer of flavor. Start cooking the paste on it's own in the middle of the pot, and give it a chance to develop a little flavor- a touch of nuttiness that adds a little more depth.

You can develop flavor by "searing" your tomato paste
When the paste breaks down a little, and looks like it's getting a touch darker, you can mix it in with the onions and garlic, and continue cooking for another minute or two, continuing to stir. This should deglaze just about all of the brown bits of meat still stuck to the bottom, and bring your first two layers of flavor together.

Onion, garlic, tomato paste, olive oil
The ratio of paste to tomato is somewhat important. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you get it right. You can easily take even the most watery sauce and make it thicken just by cooking it long enough- but you want to have some level of control over the cooking time. When you get the ratio right, or at least close, you'll have the right consistency within the 2-4 hour range every time- and you may even have to add back a small amount of water to keep the gravy from congealing. The ratio that seems to work is 6oz of tomato paste to 2 lbs (two 28oz cans) of tomatoes, plus 42oz (one and a half 28oz tomato cans) of water. You have some room for error here, especially with the water, but you want to be close to this. Go ahead and pour in your two cans of tomatoes and one and a half cans of water, and stir.

One can of paste to two cans tomato to one and a half cans water is the magic ratio

At this point, we can start seasoning our gravy. Quoting exact amounts is futile- as the gravy reduces, you'll need to adjust. Also keep in mind that every batch of meats brings in a slightly different mix of seasonings. What I describe here is a starting point. The exact seasonings,and amounts are largely a matter of preference as well.

You will need salt and black pepper. Use enough black pepper to give the top of the gravy a light dusting (somewhere around a teaspoon to start with- you'll probably add more later), for salt, use about half that (we've already salted the onions, and the eats will usually carry some salt in too). Add in a few herbs according to your preference- I start with parsley (again, enough to dust the top) and oregano (I go light on the oregano since it's a strong herb- maybe a third the amount of parsley). For oregano, I stop adding it as soon as I can smell it- I'd rather not have it dominate like it would in a pizza sauce.

This is also where I like to get a little creative. I have mint growing wild in the back yard, so I almost always have fresh, or home-dried mint on hand. We always had mint in the garden when I was a kid, so a touch of mint tends to find it's way into everything- so if I have some handy, I'll add in a pinch or two of mint. I also like to have a touch of bite in the background without obvious heat, so I usually put in a small pinch of crushed red pepper. It doesn't need enough to have any real heat, but the small amount mixed in seems to fill in the cracks and bring things to life a little.

Exact seasoning is a matter of opinion- follow your tastes and your nose!
Basil is a must-have herb. I prefer it to be most dominant herb in my gravy, and it just makes the whole house smell great. Start with about four leaves (or more)- I usually prefer more. Roll up the leaves in your hand, and crush them enough to bruise the surface to help release the oils, then drop the leaves in whole. You'll know you have the basil right when it smells right to you.

Basil is an essential herb when making the Sunday Gravy
Usually, this is a good enough starting point. At this point, you can add about 1/4 cup of whatever good red wine you prefer. In my house, we rarely used wine in the Sunday Gravy- mainly because we usually didn't have any. If you have a red wine you like, feel free to use it- I will for special occasions, but for "everyday" gravy I go with the principle of poverty and leave it out. I get a similar effect by adding about a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar- which is a common pantry item for most Italian-American households.

You may add a little wine or a small splash of balsamic vinegar for an extra touch of flavor
At this point, stir everything together and give it a taste. Tomatoes can vary greatly in sweetness- so you really want to focus on that when you taste. If you read to much of a bitter taste at this point, there are two easy solutions. The "cheating" way is to add a small pinch of sugar to balance it out- as recommended by the Peter Clemenza character from "The Godfather"- I, however, disagree with this. The traditional way, according to my family, is to drop in one or two bay leaves- the bay leaves will balance things out as they simmer in the gravy. They are basically inedible, so you "should" remove them before serving, but in some households, the person that gets the bay leaf gets to do the dishes... your call on that.

Add your meats back into the gravy, and let it heat up until it begins to bubble. Reduce the heat down to a low simmer, and get ready for the long haul. You'll need at least two hours- preferably four, and longer if you use only fresh tomatoes. You'll want to check on your gravy, and give it a good stir every half hour or so. You'll also want to taste it periodically. Chances are you'll want to add a little more black pepper, or one or more herbs at some point. Keep an eye on how much water reduces out. If the gravy gets too thick, stir in a little more water. Over the course of your simmer, the liquid level will probably drop by almost an inch- use your judgment to determine how thick you want it to be. This constant fussing, tasting, and adjusting seasoning is the thing that will make your gravy great, and personalized to your tastes.

When the gravy is nearly done, you'll notice that you'll have a little bit of "skin" forming at the top, and pockets of oils from the meat. This is the good stuff. When you see this happening, you know that things are working. I've gone so far as telling my wife "you see that stuff floating on top- that's happiness right there." This "stuff" may look a little intimidating, but it is concentrated flavor. Don't skim it off, just stir it back in.

Happiness is the stuff that floats on top of the Sunday Gravy

Once you're happy with the gravy, start cooking your pasta. The details of this are a subject for another article- but I will point out that you should NEVER put oil in the cooking water for your pasta. Yes, olive oil tastes great on pasta, but there is a more mechanical problem- most of the oil just drains away, but the oil that actually sticks to the pasta forms a sheen that makes it difficult for the gravy to adhere to it, and you end up with mostly naked pasta and a pool of gravy. Leave the oil out of the cooking water- you'll have it in the actual gravy. The starches from the pasta will then be free to help the gravy stick to it. Any shape of pasta is good, it's up to you what you prefer. This Sunday, one of my kids wanted spaghetti, so spaghetti it is!

When you're ready to serve, fish out the meat. Don't be concerned if some of it breaks up- this is a good thing, and will just make the gravy more interesting. In a traditional meal in Italy, the pasta course and the meat course are two separate things, but since we're talking about Italian-Americans, we can serve them at the same time.

The meat gives flavor tot he gravy, and the gravy gives flavor to the meat.

Don't dump the pasta into the pot of gravy! There will be far too much gravy! Pour a ladle-full of gravy in the bottom of a pot or serving bowl, add the pasta, then top with another ladle or two of gravy. Toss the pasta until coated- you can always add a little more if you need to. In general, most Americans use too much gravy- there should be enough to coat the pasta without having a pool of gravy in your plate. You may, however add as much as you like, or even serve some of the extra gravy on the side for people who like more.

Garnish your finished "macaroni and gravy" with a little grated parmesan cheese (I like to sprinkle a little crushed red pepper on mine also), and serve with your meat and a nice piece of Italian bread to mop up any excess gravy. This is the meal that I most closely associate with thoughts of home- so much so that it was a very long time before I could bring myself to order pasta with "tomato sauce" at a restaurant- because no one could ever duplicate the family recipe. I'm very pleased to see that my kids, who can be picky in their own way at times, cleaned their plates.  In a way, the best indicator of how successful the gravy was is to see how much is smeared on the kids when dinner is over.

Goofy Gravy Faces usually means you did it right, and are have helped to pass on the tradition.
This is a long writeup, but this is a topic that, I think, deserves it. Even this level of detail only barely communicates how I feel about the Sunday Gravy. It's a process and a journey that you have to experience, and refine over time to really appreciate. Don't let anyone tell you to cal it mere "tomato sauce" - it's gravy.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Simple Meat Loaf

Meat loaf is one of the ultimate comfort foods- like many others- it is simple, but has literally thousands of variations. It's one of those things that you can use up some of the odds and ends in your pantry if you feel like experimenting. My meatloaf is usually a little different every time- and that's great. It's based, naturally, on my mother's recipe, with my own spin on it.

Meat loaf is a classic comfort food

Many people make meat loaf with a combination of ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal. It works great- if that's the way you roll, go for it. I've tried it as well, it works. However, for whatever reason, my mother almost always made it with just beef- so for me, meatloaf is a beef thing. Mom's recipe was basically the same as her meatball recipe- which is fantastic, but my sister was fond of joking that mom's meat loaf was just a big meatball with no sauce. It was still great, and one of the things I remember as comfort food, but there are places meat loaf can go, that mom's couldn't. The meat loaf I've evolved starts similar to hers, but I go for a less grainy, crumbly texture, so I use more binding than she would.

So, with that in mind, the binder you use- usually bread (or breadcrumb) and egg  is key to making meat loaf more "loaf" like and less "meatball" like. When I make mine- I start by building my binder- while I've used breadcrumbs before, I think you get a better texture by using actual bread. You could get fancy and use some kind of specialty bread, but I just go with a few slices of white bread. If they are stale, they will crumble more easily, but fresh works just as well. The binding base starts with about 4-5 slices of white bread, crumbled into a bowl, then I add two eggs (scrambled).

Meat loaf starts out as a humble pile of bread and egg

I've also found that it's easiest to mix everything together if I incorporate my seasonings into the bread mix before I add the meat. I often vary things here, but I tried to keep it simple this time- two onions, minced, salt, pepper, and thyme. I had a few fresh chives, so I added a few. I like to add a little something acidic so I went with a little balsamic vinegar (worchestershire works well too)- about two tablespoons. This is also a good time to check how wet your bread and egg mixture is- it should be a moist paste once everything is mixed. If it appears to be too dry, add a little liquid- beef stock is great, but I like to be a little different here so I added a little apple juice until it was wet enough- about 1/4 cup.

Binder and seasoning for meat loaf


It's not meat loaf without meat...

Many meat loaf recipes use different blends of meat- most often equal parts beef, pork, and veal. Just to keep the heart of mom's recipe alive, I usually stick with just ground beef. It takes a large package- about 3lbs- preferably 80/20 ground beef that has a good amount of fat content. This is the part that gets messy- break up your ground meat into smaller chunks and add it to your binder. The only way to do this is to get your hands dirty- so wash up, or put on rubber gloves and dig in. Knead the binding and onions etc into the meat. The heat from your hands should soften the fat in the meat a little making it easier as you go. You actually want to knead for several minutes even when everything is blended together to develop a little extra gluten in the bread.

Embrace your inner child and don't be afraid of a little mess.

Once your meat mixture is  combined as evenly as possible, form it into a loaf shape. If you have trouble getting it to hold it's shape, you may want to add a little more bread. Try to get the loaf nice and smooth without seams so it doesn't split open during cooking. When you're happy with your loaf, lay it in a metal baking pan that you've lightly greased with a touch of oil or cooking spray.

A meat loaf is born...

At this point, we can dress up our meat loaf a little- if you have bacon, wrapping the loaf with a few strips of bacon is always nice, but not necessary. If you, like me, like to have a nice crust on the outside of your meat loaf, you'll need to slather it in some kind of sauce. Barbecue sauces are a good candidate, but you also get great results with simple and traditional ketchup- put a little on and rub it into a nice thin coating.

Ketchup makes a nice glaze for any meat loaf

Make sure your oven is preheated to 400 to 450 degrees. If you have a digital probe thermometer, you can guarantee perfect results- set yours for about 140 degrees and insert the probe in the thickest part. 140 degrees is just about the point where the center will no longer be pink. If you like your meatloaf more medium, set it around to 130 - but as much as I like my steaks medium rare, meat loaf doesn't seem right to me if it's pink in the middle. The whole baking process should take about 45 minutes to an hour. Once you hit your internal temperature mark, take it out and let it rest for 10 to fifteen minutes. Your ketchup glaze should be nice, dark, and crusty.

Meat loaf with a a nice dark glaze

If you want something to do while the meat loaf rests, with a little effort the pan drippings can be transformed into a rich gravy or sauce. We won't go into details here since it's basically the same process I used in my chicken gravy post. Just heat up your pan drippings, whisk in a handful of flour, when the flour paste is cooked enough, add some liquid- beef stock is the obvious choice, but you can also use things like wine or beer. Season it, and reduce until you get to the thickness you like. I made this pan full of grease into a rich dark beef gravy using a bottle of a nice amber beer (don't worry kids, the alcohol cooks off rapidly) - a Samuel Adams Winter Lager.

The pan drippings make a great base for a gravy
I'm sure just about every reader will have their own ideas about how to make a meat loaf that differ from mine. I'm sure some people will even think I'm doing it completely wrong- but honestly, this meat loaf came out pretty good- it went over well with the whole family, including the kids. That's one of the things that makes meat loaf such a common classic dish- it's a very simple concept that can be spun in a ridiculous number of ways. Every dinner table in the western world has something at least vaguely similar- and every recipe is a little different (and some are VERY different) - but they all have their merits. Don't be afraid to experiment and find the combination and method that becomes your family's standby. I don't know that I've found one single recipe that I can say is the one... but I'm having a lot of fun experimenting.