Clam Dip

Clam Dip!Clam dip is one of those foodstuffs that seems to polarize people–either you are completely grossed out by the look, taste, and smell of the stuff, or you are looking to scarf the whole bowl by yourself. I have managed to make converts out of my entire family, and it has now become an expected addition to any party or holiday celebration. We certainly had a batch ready for New Year’s Eve, and it was long gone before midnight!

So here’s my theory: clam dip is gonna make a comeback this year, I can feel it. Retro food is still big, and what’s more retro than clam dip, right? So mark my words. 2013 will be the start of a clam dip renaissance!

1 box of cream cheese (8 oz)
1 box of (American) Neufchatel cheese (8 oz)
2 cans minced clams (13 oz total)
2 oz whole milk

Soften the cheese (I use a microwave, set on low). NOTE: When I first started making this dip, I used 16 oz cream cheese; if you use equal parts cream cheese and Neufchatel, you will get a less fattening–but less creamy–dip. You could use Neufchatel alone, but I don’t recommend it.

Whip the cheese until it is smooth. Add the milk a little at a time, continuing to whip the cheese. You should have a soft whipped cheese at this point, but something thicker in consistency than a dip.

Open and drain both cans of minced clam–reserving the liquidAdd the clams to the whipped cheese and combine. Now add 3-4 oz of the clam liquid, a little at a time. When you are finished, your dip may seem a little runny, but don’t worry. You will want to chill the dip for at least a half hour before serving, at which point it will thicken up considerably.

And what should you dip into your dip? Not your fingers, though some of my kids have been caught in the act. We pretty much insist on corn chips–not tortilla chips, but the other kind, and preferably the “scooping” variety.

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una braciola, due bracioleThere’s something special about a braciola. Maybe it’s because they tended to show up in the Sunday sauce closer to the holidays, but braciole more than any other meat dish remind me of being very young and hanging out with my cousins at my grandmother’s house. Nothing like a little nostalgia to get me hungry and inspired to cook!

For the uninitiated: a braciola is a beef cutlet pounded thin, then seasoned and rolled. I usually will use a round roast for this dish, sliced thin by the butcher, but according to my mother, the best cut to get for braciole is “whatever is on sale and looks good.” Needless to say: since this dish is yet-another example of poverty cooking at its finest, tenderness will have less to do with the cut of meat than with the length of time spent braising it.

What you season your braciole with is a matter of taste…or tradition. Me, I keep it simple. And as with anything involving fun food prep, it’s a great dish to prepare with little hands in the kitchen.

1-3/4 lb round roast, cut into 1/4″ cutlets
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
black pepper
olive oil
toothpicks or butcher’s twine
tomato sauce or other braising liquid

pre-roll prepPound the cutlets until thin, but not tearing through. Spread out as many as will fit on a cookie sheet and season with salt, pepper, parsley, and freshly grated cheese. Scatter evenly across the meat a pinch or two of minced garlic  (more or less, to taste). Drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Now comes the rolling. Start with the thinnest end and roll–firmly, but not too tightly. The goal here is for the braciola to hold together, but you don’t want the meat too dense. Now there are two schools as to what you do next: toothpicks or twine. Either toothpick the braciole shut to keep from opening (one or two should be sufficient), or bind them in a couple of wraps of butcher’s twine. I go with the twine because, well, that’s the way my mother did it. Only, she never had butcher’s twine and used cotton sewing thread instead.

browning bracioleNext, you will want to brown the braciole in relatively small batches. I use olive oil for this step. Brown on all sides and set aside.

The final step is a long braise, and this is where the Sunday sauce comes in. I am not going to get into sauce recipes–or what we called “gravy” in my house (and many other Italian-American households in the northeast), but the best braise for braciole, in my opinion, is simply to add them to a basic tomato sauce and allow them a long, slow cook: say, an hour and a half. When tender to a fork, remove from the gravy–I mean sauce–and transfer to a serving dish to accompany your pasta–preferably rigatoni.

You can unbind all the braciole yourself, but I would leave that to each family member. And if you are using toothpicks: make sure everyone knows how many they should find!

tanti braciole

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Black Bean Soup

Black Bean SoupOK, so we’re done with all of the turkey leftovers, right? Normally, Thanksgiving ends with a boiled-down turkey carcass, a dish my cousin affectionately nicknamed “residue soup,” but this year, we did rolled, stuffed turkey breasts, so no bird bones to use up.  Still, it seemed like a good week for soup of some flavor.

We do lots and lots and lots and lots of soups in this household, especially once the weather turns cold. Not only are they hearty and healthy, but they are a very affordable meal offering as well–so consider this recipe my very own “fiscal cliff” preparedness plan!

1 lb dried black beans
3 strips of bacon (optional)
8 cups water
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 medium sized yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon oregano
olive oil & crema or sour cream to garnish

I’ve got this thing with dried beans. I just about never pre-soak them. It increases my cooking time, but more often than not, I will start a dish like this in the morning, using a slow cooker, then I transfer the beans to a pot on the stove top when I get home at night to finish cooking. You do whatever you like, though, and adjust your cooking times accordingly.

Rinse the beans (removing rocks, etc.) and transfer to your cooking device of choice. Add in 8 cups of water and begin cooking.

Dice the bacon into small pieces and fry until crispy. Drain (most of) the fat and add the bacon to your bean pot. The bacon is optional–if you need a vegetarian version leave it out, though personally I have a hard time imagining this dish–or life, for that matter– without bacon.

When your beans are soft (8 hrs in a slow cooker; 2-1/2 hrs in a pot), heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a soup pot. Puree the green pepper, onion, and garlic in a blender or food processor, adding a small amount of the bean water if necessary. Add this puree to the soup pot and cook for two or three minutes. You can certainly saute the pepper, onion, and garlic as a fine mince, but as I have noted before, my kids prefer their pepper and onion hidden!

Now carefully transfer the cooked beans and cooking water into the soup pot. Add the salt and oregano, cover, and simmer over a low flame for another half hour.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a dollop of crema.

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Hayleigh’s Pancakes

Look at them: sitting there on the plate, no syrup, no butter, no nothing. Boring, right?

Well, that’s just the way Hayleigh likes her pancakes.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will already know that Josh has a much stronger preference for crepes. And if he has to have pancakes, he has to have them doctored in some way: chocolate chips, blueberries, or topped–thanks to the influence of Louis Jordan–with molasses.

Not Hayleigh, though. Pancakes are to be eaten warm, plain, and of course, with your hands.

1 egg
1 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons vanilla yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/3 cups unbleached white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Beat the egg in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar, yogurt, and vanilla extract, and mix. Now add the milk and oil. Combine until smooth.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. You could sift your ingredients if you so desire, but I’m always too lazy at that hour of the morning. As long as I’ve mixed the dry together before adding to the wet, I say that’s good enough.

Add your dry ingredients to your wet and combine. Set aside for at least fifteen minutes.

Get a frying pan or griddle good and hot. When a drop of water dances on the surface (but you knew that already, right?) you are ready to start cooking.

I do pancakes one of two ways–either using a small cast iron griddle that was once owned by Josh’s great-grandmother, or using an enormous, 16″ frying pan. The cast iron griddle gives a really nice finish, but sometimes cooking four pancakes at a time has its distinct advantages.

Finish with syrup, butter, powdered sugar…or nothing at all.

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Beans and Cornbread

Ever seen Dinner and a Movie on TBS? It’s off the air now, apparently, and to be honest it’s been a long, long time since I’ve watched the show. Basic concept–every Friday night, TBS shows a movie, and the two hosts cook up a dinner to pair with the film, always involving a bad pun.

Back in the 1990s, when I was watching more Superstation than SpongeBob, the hosts would advertise the upcoming movie throughout the week. While the film and/or recipe didn’t always grab my attention, what did always get me was the show’s theme song: Louis Jordan’s “Beans and Cornbread.”

For some reason, that song popped in my head earlier this week, and as one thing often leads to the next in my kitchen, I had my next slow cooker meal planned out.

For the Beans
1 lb pinto beans
6 cups water
2 strips of bacon
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 small bay leaves

For the Cornbread
1 cup corn meal
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 egg
3 tablespoons butter, melted

Rinse and drain the beans, then get them cooking in 6 cups of water. As with our pasta e fagioli recipe, I do not pre-soak the beans. I also use a slow cooker, getting it going in the morning while I’m doing breakfast, then leaving it to do its thing while I’m at work. Cut the bacon into small pieces and fry them until almost crisp. Add the bacon, chopped onion, and minced garlic to the beans and let them cook (and as with other bean dishes no salt yet or you will end up with tough beans). Let the beans cook until tender–at least 8 hours on low in a slow cooker, or 3 hrs in a simmering pot.

At this point, your beans will look closer to a soup than what you’re after. You are going to want to reduce the liquid just a bit until you get something closer to the density of a stew. At this point, I transfer the beans carefully from the slow cooker to a pot. Add salt, pepper, and bay leaves and allow them to continue to cook while you work on your cornbread.

I did not grow up eating cornbread, but rumor has it my version is not too bad. Really, it’s an amalgamation of lots of different cornbread recipes I’ve come across–so I guess it’s as much my recipe as any other hand-me-down. The key for me, though, is less about what goes in the cornbread than how you bake it–it’s got to be in a cast iron skillet.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the egg and add the milk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and combine. Finally, add the melted butter to the batter.

Pour the batter into a well-buttered 9″ cast iron frying pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown. If the edges look like they are getting too dark, lower the temperature to 400 degrees for the final five minutes or so.

By the time your cornbread is ready, the bean liquid should have reduced to a thick broth. Ladle out the beans into wide shallow bowls, then top the beans with a healthy sized wedge of cornbread.

Serve with some kind of smothered greens, and you’re good to go!

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Tomatoes in October

OK, I admit it. It feels a little wrong to be writing about tomatoes in the middle of  October. Pumpkins, sure. Sweet potatoes, no problem.

But tomatoes?

Of course, this tomato salad tastes much better in the middle of summer, with tomatoes that you have just picked off your own vines. That was how I always had it growing up–and of course the absolutely best insalata pomodoro ever was what my grandfather used to prepare with the fruit of the vine from his own backyard in Medford, MA (and who knew suburban Boston backyards could grow such amazing tomatoes?)

But you know, the tomatoes at the store yesterday said they were vine-ripened, and even if they did probably spend a little too long on a truck before getting into my hands, they didn’t look that bad….

one large tomato, cut into thin slices
one clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
salt, to taste
olive oil to taste

Arrange the tomato slices on a plate. Season with salt, and then scatter the minced garlic and chopped parsley over the top. Drizzle liberally with olive oil and set aside for at least fifteen minutes.

Serve as a side dish, or an appetizer–preferably with some nice, crusty bread.

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Hoisin Glazed Chicken

I can remember the first time I had hoisin sauce–it was a condiment for mu shu pork. I was probably not much older than Josh, and I loved it. Maybe taste buds are genetic, because Josh loves it too. True to its origins, it is a great accompaniment to pork, but we have found plenty of other uses for it as well–including chicken.

The first time I made this dish, I roasted a whole bird. That works fine, but this version is a little quicker. Plus, everyone gets plenty of dark meat, which in my household is a very good thing.

8 chicken thighs
4 teaspoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Whisk together 2 teaspoons of the hoisin sauce and the remaining wet ingredients in a bowl. Add the chicken thighs. Coat thoroughly and set aside to marinade for at least a half hour.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place the chicken thighs skin side up in a lightly oiled glass dish. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, until the skin is brown, but not burned. Whisk the remaining 2 teaspoons of hoisin sauce and lightly glaze each thigh. Return to the oven and cook for an additional five minutes. Glaze again and repeat every five minutes for a total of 15 minutes, or until the chicken is completely cooked.

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