Tag Archives: Italian

GUEST POST: CIABATTA

Hey folks…it’s bread week here at Blue Jean Gourmet!  I’m lucky enough to know the beautiful & talented Jessie Fila, a friend from high school who now works as a pastry chef at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton, Connecticut (full bio at the end of this post).  She generously agreed to guest blog for me, sharing her bread expertise & recipes.  Today she brings us ciabatta–which, wow, I’m still dreaming about–and later in the week, challah!

I don’t know about ya’ll, but baking bread has always intimidated me, so I decided Jessie’s guest posts  would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn.  I tested each of the recipes that Jessie sent, and let me just tell you–there was a lot of gratuitous moaning over fresh bread in my house each time.  Are these recipes simple?  No.  They do require time and attention.  But the thing is, they aren’t rocket science, either.  Just make sure you aren’t in a rush and enjoy the process, it’s very gratifying.  Big thanks to Jessie for being our bread evangelist!


I love bread.  I love everything about bread.  And I don’t think I’m the only one, considering the idiom, “the best thing since sliced bread,” is one of the most popular comparative phrases out there.  Truly, bread is by far and away one of my favorite things in the world.  I could never get into the no-carb or low-carb diets because then I couldn’t eat bread! And who doesn’t want to eat bread?

As much as I love to eat bread, I like to make bread from scratch by hand even more.  There’s something therapeutic, meditative, and sometimes hypnotic about kneading dough that helps me focus and reflect just as effectively as any good yoga class.  It’s also great exercise, building upper body strength, as well as working the core muscles.  Indeed, making bread is one of my more favored pastimes. There’s nothing more rewarding than slicing into a freshly baked, warm loaf of bread, knowing you crafted it by hand.  True, it is a labor of love, but it is well worth the effort.

The key to making delicious bread is understanding the ingredients and the process.  For most basic sandwich or rustic breads, such as white bread, a baguette, or ciabatta, the ingredients are simple:  flour, water, yeast, and salt.  Other breads, called egg breads, like challah or brioche,  call for eggs, butter, sugar, and milk in addition to the basic ingredients to help enrich the dough and make it less chewy, more dense, and flavorful.  There are, of course, many other types of breads, but for this week I’m going to stick to these two main types.

Most ingredients are straightforward in their purpose.  Flour is used to give the bread structure and stability.  When mixed with water, the proteins gelatinize; vigorous agitation and stretching help to develop these proteins into gluten.  This agitation and stretching is exactly what you’re doing when you knead dough.  In developing the gluten, you’re creating the unique dense and chewy structure of bread.  Most bread bakers use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour because it has a higher protein content and will therefore create more gluten, resulting in chewier bread.  Salt is used mostly for its definitive ability to flavor foods without adding its own flavor component.  Salt is unique in the food world in that it doesn’t have a distinct flavor, yet it manages to enhance the flavors of everything in the dish it is added to.  This is why even cookie and dessert recipes will call for a small amount of salt added to the dough or batter.

Yeast is the one ingredient in my list that can be most difficult to work with.  It comes in many forms these days, the most well-known being active dry.  Yeast is a fungi, and is therefore a living organism.  It is easily killed and is very finicky.   It likes two main things:  to exist in warm, wet environments and to eat.  The water we use in bread is warm, between 105 and 115° F.  If it is any hotter or colder, the fungi will not be able to survive and the bread will not rise.  This brings us to what yeast likes to eat:  the natural sugars found in flour.  When the yeast eats the sugars, it processes the food like any other living organism.  The yeast extracts what it needs from the sugars to survive and expels the rest as waste.  Yeast’s form of waste is carbon dioxide.  When the yeast gives off the gas, the CO2 gets trapped in the gelatinous structure the flour and water have created, otherwise known as gluten, pushing the dough upward, causing it to rise.  This is the reason we let the bread rise a couple of times before baking, to allow the yeast to do its thing and give off the gas that contributes a strong amount of flavoring to the bread.

The process for making bread is not as simple as making a cookie dough or a cake batter and is far more time-consuming.  To start off, the yeast must be activated, allowing it to give off the much-coveted CO2 gas, and once all of the flour has been added, the dough must be kneaded.  The kneading process is very rhythmic and is easy once you get the hang of it.  Once you have your dough with all of the flour incorporated, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface, such as a counter.  Shape it gently into a disk.  Grasp the dough with both hands at the top and fold the dough into the center of the dough.  Press down on the dough as if you were trying to fuse the top and bottom parts together.  While pressing, use the heels of your palms to push the dough down and away from you. Give the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the process until the dough is smooth.

Once you’ve kneaded the dough, it needs to rest and to rise.  The rising process can be repeated at least two times before the dough is shaped and baked.  After all the time and hard work, though, what we’re left with is a delicious creation is delectable on its own or with a small swipe of butter, but also serves as a key ingredient in many other dishes.  So, for each bread recipe, I’ve also included a few ideas for how you can use the leftovers (if there are any!)

CIABATTA
Recipe from Williams-Sonoma Bread

All bread takes time and effort to make, but ciabatta requires a little extra love and effort.  This recipe makes use of a starter, which is used to feed the yeast and serves to add more flavor to the finished product (sourdough is another bread that calls for a starter).

When timing the ciabatta, be prepared to make the starter at least 8-12 hours ahead of time so it has enough time to “proof” or ferment.

ingredients:

for the starter:
1 1/3 cups water, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon active dry yeast

In the bowl of stand-mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the water, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, and the yeast.  Mix on low speed for 1 minute.  Add the remaining flour and mix until smooth and soft, 1 minute more.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until almost tripled in bulk, 4-6 hours.  It will smell yeasty.  Refrigerate for 8-12 hours or for up to 3 days.

for the bread:
3 T warm water (105°F – 115°F)
¾ cup warm milk (same temp as the water)
2 tsp. active dry yeast
2-2 1/3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 ½ tsp salt
2 T olive oil, plus extra for greasing

When ready to make the dough, remove the starter from the refrigerator and let it stand for 1-2 hours. To make the dough, fit the mixer again with the paddle attachment.  Add the warm water and milk and the yeast to the starter and mix on low speed.   The mixture will be soupy.

Add 1 ½ cups of the bread flour, the salt, and the oil.  Mix on low speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Add only as much of the remaining bread flour as needed to form a very soft and moist dough, and mix on low speed for about 5 minutes, occasionally scraping the dough off the sides of the bowl and the paddle.  The dough should be very soft and sticky, pulling away from the sides, but still sticking to the bottom.

Cover the bowl with the oiled plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled or tripled in bulk, about 2 hours.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and sprinkle generously with bread flour.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface (it will deflate), sprinkle lightly with flour, and pat with your fingers into a 14 by 5 inch rectangle.  Fold the rectangle like a letter, overlapping the 2 short sides in the middle to make 3 layers.

Cut crosswise into 2 equal rectangles and place each half on the prepared sheet pan.  Cover loosely with plastic and let rest for 20 minutes.  Remove the plastic and sprinkle generously with flour.  Splay your fingers apart and press, push, and stretch each rectangle to make it irregular and about 11 inches long and about the width of your hand.  You want the dimples in the top; this is traditional.  Cover again loosely with plastic and let rest until tripled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.  Repeat the dimpling process again 2 more times during this rise.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with flour.  Bake until deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes.  Let cool on the baking sheet.  Serve warm with olive oil for dipping.  Yields two large loaves.

What to do with leftover ciabatta, besides just eating it?  Here are two ideas:

TUSCAN BREAD SALAD

ingredients:
½ a loaf of day-old ciabatta, cubed
2 or 3 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, chopped
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, cubed
Generous handful of fresh basil, chopped
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine.This is my favorite combination for this salad, but you can increase or decrease any and all of the ingredients to suit your fancy.

You can also try this with any veggies and any Italian cured meats, such as Proscuitto, .  Any oil and vinegar combination works well with this recipe, too, and it is also excellent with citrus juice.

ITALIAN BREAD SOUP (RIBOLLITA)

ingredients:
2 T extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can great northern white beans, drained (small cannellini beans work, too)
1-8 ounce can of tomato sauce
3-4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
½ a loaf of day old ciabatta
1 bag baby spinach
Parmesan cheese

In a heavy bottomed saucepot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaf and sauté until the veggies are softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the garlic.  Cook the garlic for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the sharp aroma has subsided.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the white beans, the tomato sauce, and the desired amount of stock.  I would start with the lesser amount; more can be added later if the finished product is too thick.  Allow to come to a gentle simmer.  Once the stock is bubbling, tear off the ciabatta, crust and all, into big chunks and submerge into the stock.  Once all of the bread is in the liquid, break it down and mash it around with a wooden spoon.  If the soup is too thick for your liking, add more stock.  I like mine stew-like and so thick a spoon can almost stand upright in it.

Once the desired consistency has been achieved, add the spinach in batches, allowing to wilt in between additions.  Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaf, and serve.  Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and drizzle with the olive oil.


Jessie Fila
fell in love with baking the summer after high school graduation when boredom led to a discovery that she is very good at pastry!  After attending college in Florida, she traveled to New York to complete her Associates Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from The Culinary Institute of America.  She loves dessert because it’s often the most memorable part of any meal, and can easily make or break a diner’s experience.  At home on days off, she cooks to relax and to feed her lucky husband Ken.

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SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

This weekend I watched my best friend eulogize his sister.  I watched his sister’s widower, who is thirty-one, eulogize his wife, telling the sweet story of how they met as undergraduates at Rice, their first date an Old 97s concert, their sixth anniversary just a few months ago, just a week or so before she died in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti.

The same week that Dave flew home to begin the long vigil of waiting for news of his sister, my dear friend Wayne sat in an ICU waiting room night after night, keeping company and logging time as his mother recovered from emergency brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass.

Today I spoke to Wayne on the phone—his mother is doing well, feeling strong and working her way through chemo and radiation—but Wayne’s fiancée Elizabeth, if you can believe it, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor of her own.  It woke them both up a few nights ago, Elizabeth gripped by a seizure, her body revealing its secret.

Understanding isn’t welcome here, friends.  Answers, even if we had them, would do no good.  The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, moral indignance to the contrary be damned.  If anything, what we can cling to is our insistence on aliveness, the instantaneous dose of perspective such news brings, like my realization that most of what’s on my to-do list is useless; my list of complaints and grudges, bullshit.  I know it shouldn’t take catastrophe to get me to pause, to “what the hell” and toss out my agenda in favor of face-to-face time with the people I love, but all too often, it does.

I sat across from Dave tonight, espresso cups balanced on a rickety table between us, as we have done so many times before in our decade of friendship.  Of course, everything has changed now, inextricably and irreparably and inexplicably.  I make mix CDs and I hug him tight and try not to say anything idiotic, hope furiously that loving someone as much as I love him counts for something in this long-run weigh-in with grief.

SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

Something about this dish screams “carpe diem” to me, perhaps because it’s so decadent without being fussy, comforting and dead satisfying.  It’s the kind of thing you make when you’ve abandoned any healthy pretenses and instead decide to serve up a bowl of something unguent, tangled mess of joie de vivre.

Disclaimer: this is not a strictly authentic version of carbonara, and I know that.  It is, however, a much less cluttered version than many you’ll find out there.  To strip down further, omit the parsley and use guanciale instead of panchetta, splurge on fresh pasta.

ingredients:

1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, crushed & minced with a little salt
¾ cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
black pepper
olive oil

optional garnish: chopped flat-leaf parsley

First things first—get the pasta going.  Cook it as you normally would, but be sure to save about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid when draining the noodles.

In the meantime, heat a little olive oil over high heat, then add the chopped pancetta and cook until it begins to brown.  When it does, turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic.  After about 5 minutes, your kitchen should be nice and fragrant.  Pour in the wine and let it cook down, another 5 minutes.

Sprinkle the red pepper flakes atop the garlic-panchetta brew.  In a separate bowl, crack and gently beat the eggs.  Add in the pasta water and beat further—this is to temper the eggs and keep them from scrambling when you add them to the hot pan, which you are about to do.

Bring everything together: remove the pan from heat, then add the drained pasta.  Pour the egg mixture over everything, tossing rapidly to coat.  Sprinkle on your cheese and grind in a generous helping of pepper, then mix again.

Serve hot, with parsley and a little extra cheese as garnish, if you wish.

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FOCACCIA

Yeast doughs don’t have to be scary, I promise.  They can actually be rather friendly, spongy and springy and smelling of earth.  You mix some humble and frankly unimpressive ingredients together (flour, water, sugar, salt, & oil), contribute a little sweat in the form of kneading, then leave it all in a bowl and walk away, only to come back in a few hours to find this:

Well, okay, the focaccia won’t actually make itself, but that would take the fun out of it anyway.  Then you’d miss out on the authentic, even sexy experience of standing at a floured counter, working through the contents of your mind via a big hunk of dough.  Not to mention the satisfaction of your teeth meeting the firm crust and pillowy crumb of bread you made BY YOURSELF.

You can top your foccacia with any combination of flavors you like; I will only recommend that you use good quality stuff.  Pair the fresh bread with a big, green salad and bottle of wine.  Finish with a cheese course if you’re feeling decadent.

This week, I asked my students to write Six-Word Memoirs and their examples were so fascinating, so varied, so revealing of who-they-are that I posed the question to my Facebook friends, too.  Some of my favorite results:

cheer for many, fan of few.
outgoing is fine, I try outrageous.
drop-out, divorced, drug-addict, better now, thanks.
I shouldn’t have told you that.

As for mine, I wrote half-a-dozen, felt like I couldn’t settle on one, but in writing this post, I am sure of it now: In the kitchen, I am free.

What’s yours?

FOCCACIA
original recipe from Saveur.com

I can’t rightly call this recipe “adapted,” since all I’ve really done is alter the method & play with the toppings.  Though the original recipe calls for you to top the dough with olives and tomatoes before baking, I found that this resulted in charred and chewy toppings—unappetizing, to say the least.

My strategy to combat this is two-fold: mix heartier toppings (such as caramelized onions, olives, or chopped rosemary) into the dough, save more delicate toppings (flat-leaf parsley, sundried tomatoes, or Parmesan) for topping, either towards the end of baking time or once the foccacia’s already been removed from the oven.

Basic dough:

1 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast

2 tsp. sugar

3 ½ cups flour, more for kneading*

1 T + 1 tsp. kosher salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt

Possible add-ins/toppings:

Caramelized or raw onions
Black or green olives
Parmesan or feta cheese
Fresh or sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, parsley, oregano

oven: 475˚
pan: cast-iron skillet, deep-dish pizza pan, or a shallow, enamel-glazed pot

Combine yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, & ¼ cup warm-but-not-hot water.  The official temperature requirements are between 110-115 degrees, and I recommend you use an instant-read thermometer if you haven’t made a lot of bread before.  After a few batches, though, you’ll get a feel for the right heat on your fingertips.

Let the yeast mixture sit about 10 minutes—it should be foamy.  If it’s not, toss it out and start again.  Whisk together the flour, remaining 1 tsp. sugar, & salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, 1 T olive oil, & 1 cup warm water.  Mix with your hands until it holds together.

On a floured counter or work surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  Curve the dough into a ball & place it in the bottom of a well-olive-oiled bowl.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel & let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, ~90 minutes to 2 hours.

After the first rise, preheat the oven to 475˚.  If mixing in ingredients, now is the time to do it, working any additions into the dough.  Liberally rub the pan you’re using with (still more!) olive oil, then transfer the dough to the pan, flipping it over once so both sides are coated in oil.  Gently stretch the dough to fit to it to the bottom of the pan.  Cover the whole thing with a kitchen towel and let it rise another hour.

Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.  Bake until golden brown and cooked through, approximately 30 minutes.  If the surface of the foccacia becomes too dark, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.  Top as you wish, either during the last few minutes of baking or once the foccacia’s come out of the oven.  Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving.

*You can make your foccacia whole-wheat by swapping out one cup of the all-purpose flour for the whole-wheat variety.  It’s pretty good!…though I prefer the more sinful regular all-white-flour version.

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SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

It’s always a good idea to revisit a classic.


My students and I are finishing up our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird this week and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.  I was so hesitant to teach this text—some of you know that I switched from sixth to eighth grade English for this year—because I just didn’t know if I could do it justice.  Never have I been asked to teach a book I hold so close to my heart, and I was scared.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in the seventh grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Zehring, was a goddess whom we all worshipped; we were captivated by her, and so then by extension, the book.  I’ll never forget the afternoons sitting in that classroom, listening to her read passages from the book aloud in her lilting Southern accent.  The intensity of the storylines surrounding Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, the innocence and feistiness of Scout, the quiet and courageous dignity of Atticus—all of it made a profound impact on me.

Since then, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird many times, marveling in the adept writing, haunted by the timelessness of the social commentary, being ever moved to tears at the end.  What if I couldn’t convey all of this to my students?  What if they didn’t “get it?”  What if I became unfairly frustrated with them because I was so attached to the book?


I needn’t have been so worried.  Coming to the book as a teacher has only deepened my respect for and awe over its power, especially as I’ve watched my students go from skeptical (“It’s so confusing!”) to interested (“Okay, it got kinda good.”) to deeply impacted (“OMG, I cried!”).  And, of course, they have shown me facets of the book that feel new, energizing.  They have renewed my faith that classic literature really is classic—that it can still be read and cherished in a Lady Gaga, podcast kind of world.

For a dinner classic, I urge you to revisit spaghetti & meatballs.  If nothing else, the basic marinara sauce is worth getting under your belt.  The meatballs, while time consuming, are crazy-delicious.  Lighter and more flavorful than the ones you might have grown up eating, these still satisfy that “bowl o comfort” craving at the end of the day.


SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

My philosophy is that if I’m going to go through the trouble to make homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, I’d might as well make a bunch of both.  The sauce freezes so well, and on a night when you really need it, will help you answer the inevitable “What are we having for dinner?” Think: pasta, pizza, chili.

You can also freeze the meatballs, of course, either on their own or in the sauce.  But don’t feel limited to serving the two together—the meatballs will work just as well on a sandwich or you can toss them into all kinds of soups.

This recipe is very forgiving, so feel free to improvise as you see fit.

for the marinara
:

2 large yellow onions, diced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced (may sound like a lot, but I promise it mellows)
½ cup red or dry white wine
3 (28 oz. each) cans whole tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 T dried oregano
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
olive oil
salt & pepper

optional: fresh basil, to finish

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook 1-2 minutes before adding the garlic.  Cook together until translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes more.

Crank up the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine.  Reduce that mixture down until it’s thick and syrupy.  Now it’s time to toss everything else in: the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic, oregano, & crushed red pepper.

Allow the sauce to heat up until it’s bubbling, then turn down heat and simmer the marinara for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour or two.   Serve as-is OR add meatballs to heat through (see below) OR cool and freeze the sauce for later use.


for the meatballs:

2 lbs. ground meat*
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup day-old bread, preferably white or an Italian-style loaf
approx. 1 cup milk, preferably 2% or whole
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp. lemon zest
salt & pepper
olive oil
vegetable oil

Sauté the onion & garlic in a small skillet with olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent (sensing a theme here?).  Set aside to cool.

Tear or chop the bread into small pieces, then pour milk over the bread, enough to cover all of the pieces.  Let sit for five minutes, then remove the bread, squeezing out any excess milk.   Trust me on this, okay?

Add the milk-soaked bread to a large bowl, along with the cooled onion & garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and generous amounts of salt & pepper.  Using your hands (really, you must, and it’s so much fun anyway!), mix everything thoroughly.

Again, using your hands, shape the meat mixture into meatballs of the size you prefer—I like mine with a 1 to 1 ½ inch diameter—and line them up on baking sheets.

I use a deep, very heavy-bottomed saucepan for meatball-cooking purposes, and an oil ratio of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vegetable oil.  The oil needs to get rather hot (not quite to smoking) and I recommend you wear long sleeves when you do this—safety first!

Cook the meatballs in small batches—don’t crowd!  Brown the meatballs on all sides (remember, you’re not cooking them through) and then return them to a clean baking sheet.  Depending on the size of your pan, each batch will take 8-12 minutes.

To finish the meatballs, you have a couple of options: toss them in the hot marinara sauce and let them simmer for about twenty minutes, or do the same with hot soup broth.  Otherwise, the meatballs can finish cooking in a 350˚ degree oven, 12-15 minutes if smaller, 15-20 if bigger.

Cool the meatballs thoroughly before freezing OR cook up some pasta and bust out the Parmesan.

*I have used all combinations of meats with great success: all ground beef, half beef/half pork, half beef/half ground turkey, all turkey.

TAKING STOCK & MAKING SOUP

Around here we say, “unfussy food from a fun-loving kitchen.”*  Essentially, what that means to me is you can make great food at home without slaving away for hours or blowing your budget on fancy ingredients.  The kitchen is a place where we should all feel free to make mistakes and make a mess, to play and focus, to relax and to express.  If it isn’t fun, or at the very least rewarding, we won’t do it.

To me, there’s no inherent virtue in fussy.  You know, three different curlique garnishes, half-a-dozen specialty ingredients, recipes that could fill a dishwasher with bowls and dishes just from the prep work?  I don’t do fussy for fussy’s sake.  But if the fuss is going to get me something, like crave-able onion rings,  light, buttery popovers, or delicate almond cookies sandwiched with jam and chocolate, then I’m totally in.

I first tried making my own stocks and broths in graduate school because I was on a serious budget, and it was the frugal thing to do.  Of course, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that once I started making my own versions, I wouldn’t be able to buy the pre-packaged stuff anymore.  Hours of slow-simmered goodness from your own stove, it’ll spoil you.

It’ll also make you feel worthy of your grandmother or [insert personal kitchen icon here].  Making homemade stock, which you can then use in homemade soups and stews, is the ultimate I CAN DO THIS moment.  Make your own stock and see if you don’t feel like a bona fide, authentic, oh-so-capable blue jean gourmet!

Oh, and have I mentioned how easy it is?  All you really need is an extended period of time at home so you can let the stock simmer and check on it from time to time.  Four to six hours later, you’ll have a house that smells like heaven (warning: this can drive dogs craaaaaazy) and stock that’s richer and more flavorful than anything you can buy in a box or a can.

Of course, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk to go along with it, and if you decide to make stock, you’re going to want to cook with at least some of it ASAP (freezing the rest for future use, of course).  So I’m including an easy, hearty dinner soup recipe that will serve your new stock well.

Should you wish to go all the way with the “fussy but it’s worth it” theme, might I suggest you tackle the infamous Boeuf Bourguignon?  Made famous by the fabulous Julia Child and then re-famous by Julie & Julia fever this year, it really is something you ought to make at least ONCE in your culinary lifetime.  I made some this summer for Jill when I discovered she’d never had it.  She’s still raving about it, I tell you.

More interested in chicken, chicken stock, & chicken soup?  Don’t worry, we gotcha covered.

*Coming soon to a kitchen apron near you!  Yes, really.  Stay tuned.

BEEF STOCK

To make your own beef stock, you can simply buy soup bones from a butcher or save the bones from roasts & steaks as you cook.  If you are working with bones that have already been cooked, you can use a stovetop method: simply sauté all of the same vegetables listed below in a stock pot with some olive oil until soft & fragrant.  Then add the water, bones, & seasonings.

4 lb. beef soup bones (uncooked)
2 red onions, quartered
3 carrots, chunked
3 ribs celery, chunked
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
2 T tomato paste
1-2 bay leaves
fresh thyme or rosemary
salt & pepper

optional: splash of red wine
oven: 450˚

Place the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan.  Drizzle with olive oil, then place the soup bones on top.  Season everything liberally with salt & pepper.

Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, then transfer the contents of the roasting pan (plus any delicious, accumulated juices) to a large stock pot.  Fill the pot with as much water is needed to cover everything, somewhere around 8 cups.

Toss in the herbs, tomato paste, & red wine (if using).  Bring the mixture up to a boil, skimming off any foam that initially rises to the top.  then let the stock simmer gently for at least four hours, allowing it to reduce.

Taste-test the stock before deciding it’s through.  When you’re ready, strain the stock & save the meat from the soup bones for your dog or another purpose.

If you wish to skim the fat from your stock, the easiest way to do so is to refrigerate the finished stock in a large plastic container.  When it’s nice and cool, the fat solids will rise to the top, making them easier to removed.

Me personally?  I like fat.  It tastes delicious.

Once thoroughly cooled, beef stock will keep well in the freezer for several months.

ITALIAN SAUSAGE SOUP

Inspiration for this soup comes from Jill’s mother—my version is a bit different, but like hers, it’s hearty, easy to make, & goes wonderfully with a pan of cornbread or sliced loaf of crusty bread.  Like most soups, this one just gets better after a few days in the refrigerator!

The more flavorful the sausage, the more flavorful the soup.  Splurge, if you can, on well-crafted product, preferably fresh sausage from a grocery counter (as opposed to something frozen or packaged wholesale).  A tip—if you are a fan of parmesan cheese, save the rind!  I always add them to my soups, especially this one, and they impart excellent flavor.

6 cups beef stock
1 lb. Italian Sausage (hot or mild—the choice is yours!)
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh or 1 package frozen spinach
2 cans chickpeas, drained
fresh (1 T each) or dried (1 tsp. each) basil & oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper (1 tsp. each)

Slice or crumble the sausage into a tall, heavy-bottomed pot.  Turn heat to medium and brown the sausage, in two batches if necessary.  Transfer the browned sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Without cleaning the pot, add a bit of olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until translucent.  If you’re using frozen spinach, you’ll need to thaw & drain it while the onions cook.  If you’re using fresh, wash & dry it well before adding it to the onions & garlic, allowing the leaves to cook down quite a bit.

At this point, return the sausage to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients: stock, chickpeas, herbs, salt, pepper, & frozen spinach (if using).  Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer on low heat for at least thirty minutes before checking for flavor and adjusting salt, if necessary.

Serve hot.  Feel free to grate some parmesan on top—but only if you want to.

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