Focaccia with cracked salt and rosemary

In honor of my upcoming cookbook, I am reposting this 2011 entry on rosemary and salt focaccia, a recipe you’ll definitely find in the book when it comes out. But more importantly, I wanted to share my experience of learning to make bread, which turned out to be a huge turning point in the life of this young cook and baker (read below). Now go and make some bread!

Learning to make yeast bread from a professional baker is one of those experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. What surprised me most was the emphasis on feel, rather than science and exact measurements.

Yeast, like human beings, likes warm temperatures and needs food and water to live. Pressing dough with your finger will tell you whether it has been mixed enough or whether it’s rested long enough to be handled again. The tell of a great loaf of bread is its weight, feel and sound when squeezed. It’s these sorts of descriptions that resonate best with me because they can be acted out, and once you have the hang of them, they’re always the same. This takes the intimidation factor out of making yeast bread.

One complaint my husband and close friends have gotten tired of hearing is how much I hate baking bread in my home oven. Not only do home ovens not get nearly as hot as professional ones, but they also lack a system for injecting steam inside the oven during the first few minutes of baking, which makes for better browning of the crust and helps the dough rise.

Professional bakers swear by placing a soaked brick in the bottom of the oven to add moisture. Others recommend spritzing the inside walls of the oven with water just before sliding in the bread. I haven’t yet invested in a clean brick for bread endeavors–Sean frowned on my plan to take one from the demolished warehouse next door. And I forgot to buy a spray bottle at the grocery store when I was picking up bread flour, so I settled for spritzing the inside of the oven with an unplugged iron. It worked quite well in a pinch.

Regardless of whether you are using a lowly home oven spritzed with water from the iron, stone hearth or professional-grade convection oven, I think the best way to create delicious focaccia is to add a preferment to your dough. A preferment (also called a starter, sponge or biga) is a fully formed dough–made ahead of time from flour, yeast and water–that is added to bread dough just before kneading.

I promise, taking the time for this this small extra step will give your bread a much more complex flavor and that slightly tangy quality that is a signature of great artisan yeast breads.

Salt and rosemary speckled focaccia

I’ve done this recipe–as I do all my baked items–by weight because it’s much more accurate and a lot easier. If you haven’t already, invest $20 in a digital scale. It is a wonderful kitchen tool that will help you tackle those oh-so-exact baking recipes without fear.

    Sponge:
    6 ounces warm water
    0.06 ounces active dry yeast
    8 ounces bread flour
    Dough:
    1 pound 4 ounces bread flour, plus a handful more for kneading
    14 ounces warm water
    0.06 ounces active dry yeast
    0.5 oz. salt
    1 ounce good quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
    4 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
    4 tablespoons cracked sea salt or other coarse salt

Sponge: Mix together the ingredients for the sponge. Allow to ferment, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place for 8 to 16 hours.

Dough: Blend together the flour, warm water and yeast in a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment. Mix for a minute on medium speed. Then add the salt and preferment, and mix on medium speed until the dough becomes very elastic, about 7 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a counter sprinkled with flour, and knead for a few more minutes (the dough will be quite sticky at first). Press your finger lightly into the side of the dough, if it springs back, the dough is ready. If not, keep kneading until you’ve reached this point. Brush the inside of a large bowl with olive oil, place the dough inside and cover it with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Ferment in a warm place for about 1 hour (or until roughly double in size). Punch the dough down with your fist to de-gas it, turn it out onto the counter and cut it into 2 equal pieces.

Meanwhile, oil 2 sheet pans generously with olive oil. Stretch each piece of dough into the pans. Be patient; you might have to work a bit to get the dough spread out.

Allow the dough to ferment for another 30-45 minutes, covered with a clean damp cloth, until it has doubled in thickness once again. While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 400°F. using a pastry brush, spread the top generously with olive oil, and poke holes at even intervals all over the top with your fingers.

Sprinkle all over with salt and chopped rosemary.

Just before you’re ready to bake, spritz the interior walls of your oven with water. Slide in the pans, and bake for 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Place on a rack to cool completely.

Note: If you want to store the bread longer than a day or two after cooling, cut it into the desired portion sizes, wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap then foil, and place in the freezer. The bread should maintain its quality up to 10 days or so. Thaw portions on the counter as you need them.

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Filed under Baked items

I made cheese!

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Sometimes really simple things get overblown in our imaginations. For me until recently, one of those things was making cheese. I’ve always had a very commercialized image of cheese-making that involves rubber overalls, galoshes, large rakes and rennet–an enzyme used to make cheese that, for me, conjures creepy images of forced cow digestion. But that’s probably because I watch too much TV.

Making fresh cheese at home is actually really easy–and it will make you smile and spontaneously cry out things like, “I made cheese today!”

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For this post I made paneer, which is basically Indian cottage cheese made with acid and no rennet (phew).

All you do is heat a gallon of whole milk and add lemon or lime juice a tablespoon at a time until the curds eventually start to separate from the greenish liquid known as whey. Then you rinse, drain and press the curds until you have a semisoft, mild cheese perfect for saag paneer, curries, egg and pasta dishes, or frying in olive oil and piling on a sandwich with roasted veggies.

But what it’s most perfect for is bragging. Because you made cheese!

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Paneer
adapted from Journey Kitchen, makes about 8 ounces

Ingredients

    1 gallon whole milk
    3 tablespoons lemon juice

Method: Line a large pot with double-layered cheesecloth. Make sure the piece is large enough to be bundled and hung up later on.

In a second large, heavy bottom pot over medium heat, bring the milk to a gentle boil and let it stay there for about a minute. Don’t let it boil vigorously. (If it bubbles up too much, turn the heat down and wait for it to come back to a gentle boil.)

Add one tablespoon of lemon juice and quickly stir it in with a wooden spoon. You should start to see very small curdles forming. Add the second tablespoon and quickly stir it in again. The curdles will increase, and you’ll start to see the greenish whey. Add the last tablespoon and quickly stir. Now, you should see the curds starting to separate more clearly from the whey (see below).

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Turn the heat off immediately. Pour the whey into the second pot through the cheesecloth, which will collect all the curdles. Bundle them up and rinse them briefly under cold water to remove the lemon flavor.

Tie the cheesecloth into a tight bundle and hang it over the pot to drain for about 30 minutes.

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Next, place the cheese under a weight to flatten it and remove additional moisture. I placed it between two large cutting boards with a heavy pot on top and let it sit for about two hours. Don’t leave it much longer than that, or it will become hard and crumbly.

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And that’s it! It’s best to use the cheese (that you made) as soon as possible, but if you can’t, wrap the cheese tightly in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week.

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Filed under Kitchen basics, Vegetarian

When octopus attacks

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I only tried to cook fresh octopus one time–maybe six years ago. Mom and I bought a dressed octopus from the grocery store and tried broiling it. After a few impatient minutes, we turned the oven light on to check on it, only to see its tentacles curling up sickeningly under the flame–like it was still alive in there.

“Gross,” Mom said. We gave it probably 15 more minutes before pulling it out. She tentatively sliced up one of the overly-singed appendages. We’d already decided we were disgusted, but just for good measure, the meat was chewy to the point of almost being inedible.

We later learned that the best way to cook it is very slowly and for a long time (either baked in a low-ish oven, poached or boiled), till it becomes tender. But I have a hard time bringing myself to try it again. I can’t unsee the curling tentacles.

So when I want octopus, I take the 10-minute train ride to pretty much any restaurant in Greek Town, where the octopus is perpetually tender, charred and salty–tossed in silky olive oil with lemon or red wine vinegar. When I want octopus at home, I pick up a little can of the oil-packed stuff at the grocery store in my neighborhood.

For this Spanish-inspired salad, I fried the octopus and a few mild peppers in olive oil and mixed them with shallot, raw bell pepper and parsley in a simple red wine vinaigrette.

That’s it. It came together in just a few minutes for a lovely appetizer.

Maybe some day, I’ll get over the horror of the curling tentacles and try cooking octopus again. For now, I’ll stick to the can.

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Octopus salad with peppers two ways
serves 2 as a side salad or appetizer

Ingredients

    2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for frying
    Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
    1 shallot, thinly sliced
    1 small bell pepper, large diced
    5 or 6 fresh shishito peppers (if you can’t find shishitos, use Anaheims)
    1 4-ounce can octopus (I like Matiz Gallego), drained
    1/4 cup parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Method: Whisk together the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Add the shallots and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium high. Toss in the shishito peppers and season with salt. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning every 30 seconds or so, until the skin is slightly blistered on all sides. Remove and set aside.

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Inmmediately add the octopus and a little more oil to the same pan if needed. Cook over medium high for 3 to 4 minutes, turning occasionally, until the octopus is slightly charred. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.

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Slice the stems off the cooled peppers if desired. Add them to the shallots and vinaigrette, along with the octopus, diced raw bell pepper and parsley. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve at room temperature.

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Filed under Appetizers, Fish/shellfish, Salad

Turning the page

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Hi there!

Just two short updates for you today on the Life of Marge while Penny takes a little nap.

1. I’m leaving my full-time position at FoodNavigator-USA next week to pursue freelance food writing. 

2. I’m writing a cookbook.

I love my FoodNavigator team and will dearly miss working with them every day. I feel pretty lucky that they took a chance on this lowly magazine writer/massive food nerd in the first place.

As for the cookbook, I don’t want to give away too much yet. Suffice to say, it will be a Chicago-centric tome dedicated to taking back the time so many of us are too busy for by getting in the kitchen to tackle some good ole home cookin’. Possible topics of inclusion are not limited to: Drinking too much wine, hosting white-trash dinner parties, butchering a fresh (eek!) chicken, making dirty Valentine’s Day cards, and cookie and dumpling recipes from old ladies.

JacobOver the next couple months, my dear friend and co-author Jacob (seen left, sniffing rubber cement) and I will be launching a recipe-testing blog, where we’ll no doubt bother any of you amazing folks who are willing to test some of the recipes we hope to include (and give honest, even mean feedback if necessary). More details to follow.

I’m not totally sure what prompted this career move. Maybe it was turning 30. Maybe it was spending a whole year producing more content than I ever knew I was capable of. Maybe it was realizing that I’ve filled my house with cooking tools, books about writing books and various writing surfaces for a reason. (Seriously, you can’t turn a corner without seeing a dry-erase board, chalkboard or notepad lying around.)

But I think the real reason was finally feeling confident enough in my own voice to want to make a real, lasting contribution as a writer who loves food and loves to cook. Obviously, there’s a good chance no one will buy the book–besides the family/friends we force to, of course. But then again, I never became a writer for the money.

OK, that’s it. I promise to return in earnest this weekend with a little post for a Spanish-inspired salad.

And thanks for reading. Really, thanks.

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Filed under Food writing

Romesco (aka magic sauce)

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Oh, how I love romesco. A pureed blend of roasted red pepper, tomato, garlic, toasted almonds, sherry vinegar and smoked paprika, this Spanish sauce has everything I love most: tang, sweet, salt + heat. The first time I had it was alongside a pile of charred green onions at a tapas restaurant. I dragged the singed onions through the coarsely pureed, orange-hued sauce and slurped them down like noodles. I ate every last bit of that sauce. When there were no more onions to dip, I switched to mopping it up with bread. I was a woman bewitched.

I’ve made several unsuccessful versions of romesco sauce in the years since that first encounter–most recently a recipe with torn bread that had the sad consistency of paste and far too much vinegar.

What I like about this version I’ve adapted from Bon Appetit is its balance and simplicity. Every ingredient has a job to do; all you have to do is whir them together in a food processor or mash them with a mortar and pestle.

Don’t feel constrained by romesco’s distinctive flavor. Like worcestershire sauce, you can put this sh** on everything. I like a few dollops over fried eggs or mixed in with al dente pasta, spread on good bread plain or with a few tomato slices and Manchego cheese, or spooned over grilled corn or ribeye steaks.

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Romesco sauce

Ingredients

    1 large roasted red pepper (good quality jarred red peppers are fine)
    1 garlic clove, smashed
    1/2 cup sliced or slivered almonds, toasted
    1/4 cup tomato puree (I like Pomi brand)
    2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
    2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne (depending on how hot you like it)
    1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
    Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method: Combine the pepper, garlic, almonds, tomato, parsley, vinegar and paprika in a food processor or mortar. Pulse or mash with a pestle until coarsely pureed.

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With the processor on low (or while stirring constantly with the pestle), slowly drizzle in the olive oil, and blend for another minute or so to combine. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve at room temperature.

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Note: You can store romesco in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

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Filed under Sauce, Vegetarian

Tomato watermelon + feta salad

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I know I shouldn’t complain when summer finally comes to Chicago, but where are all the 90 and humid days? It’s been a rainy one (which makes my herbs happy), and we’ve had maybe five days above 80 (which makes the SO, who is perpetually hot, happy). But after a particularly frigid/snowy winter in Chicago, I feel like we’ve been cheated out of the hot, dry summer we deserve–as if the weather should operate by some karmic code.

Maybe it will come to its senses in time for a sweltering August. Either way, this cool, colorful salad is dedicated to my dream Chicago summer–when it’s so hot and sticky that all you want are chilled and icy things, when the very idea of heating the stove or oven is laughable.

You may have noticed that the photos in this post are far prettier than my normal jerry-rigged, iPhone-filtered shots. I’m now shooting my food pics with a Sony a6000 (care of the SO!). I just have to learn how to use it.

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Tomato watermelon + feta salad
serves 4

Ingredients

    1/4 watermelon, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
    4 large tomatoes, sliced into wedges
    Juice of 1 lemon (a few tablespoons)
    1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
    3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
    1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
    4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
    A handful of crumbled feta, plus a few torn mint leaves and chives, for garnish

Method: Combine the watermelon and tomatoes into a large bowl.

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In a separate small bowl, combine the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the mint and chives to the dressing, and whisk to combine. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed.

Pour the dressing over the melon and tomatoes and crumble in the feta. Toss gently to combine.

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Pile the salad onto a large platter, and top with additional feta and torn herbs. Serve immediately.

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Filed under Salad, Vegetarian

Mama’s baked beans

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I’ve been eating my mama’s baked beans every summer since I can remember. Laced with ketchup, bacon, diced celery and onion, never was there a more perfect partner for Dad’s barbecue chicken thighs (or really anything grilled).

“So how did you come up with these?” I asked Mom a few weeks ago when I finally got around to learning how to make them.

“It’s your mom’s recipe,” Dad replied, smiling proudly.

“No, I think I got it mostly off the Great Northern beans can,” Mom deadpanned.

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This prompted a somewhat lengthy discussion of recipes from a jar/can/box, which Mom and I agree have become far too underrated among the younger generation of foodies. The truth is, big brands have big test kitchen budgets, meaning any recipe you get from a can or jar has likely been tested extensively and should be reliable.

Not only that, but this is one of few recipes in the world I would truly consider fool-proof. There’s very little prep and no pre-cooking required. Everything goes into one dish and it bakes for about 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp. If you want more bacon, add more. If you like it sweeter, bump up the brown sugar. If you prefer thicker baked beans, cut back on the ketchup. In other words, don’t overthink this one. It’s kind of a non-recipe.

Happy 4th, guys. <3

Mama’s (Great Northern’s) baked beans

Ingredients

    2 cans Great Northern white beans
    1/2 cup finely chopped white onion (about 1/2 a medium onion)
    1/4 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 large stalk)
    1/2 cup ketchup
    1/4 cup brown sugar
    Black pepper, to taste
    3 strips smoked bacon, cut into lardons

Method: Preheat the oven to 375F. Empty the contents of both cans into an 8″ by 8″ baking dish. Add the onion, celery, ketchup, brown sugar and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir to combine.

Top the beans with the bacon pieces, and slide the dish into the oven. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp and golden brown.

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Remove from the oven and let sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

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Filed under Baked items, Side Dishes

Things I wish I’d thought of

potatoes

I could start a whole blog dedicated to this concept–there are so many recipes and products I come across that feel as though they could have been a half-baked idea in the back of my brain at some point (shrimp cocktail-flavored potato chips?).

Then again, I’ve never been a full-time recipe tester. As a food industry journalist, I’ve mostly been at the other end of the pipeline, waiting for the physical manifestation of innovative food concepts to be spit out onto menus or in the form of consumer packaged goods so I can determine whether they are indicating the start (or end) of some trend or another.

That brings me to the latest edition of Things I Wish I’d Thought Of, salt and vinegar potatoes. Full disclosure: I wasn’t always a salt and vinegar chips gal. My husband has loved them for years, but until recently, I always thought their flavor was too overpowering. (I suspect the age-related dulling of my palate is partly to thank for my change of heart.) Now I love them. That astringent acidity that coats your lips followed by a satisfying, salty crunch. A heavenly chip.

This potato recipe comes from Bon Apetit, and it’s ridiculously simple. Cubed Yukon Golds are simmered in water and distilled vinegar to infuse the flavor before they’re browned in a skillet and finished with a sprinkling of chives and vinegar. Add a fried fish fillet and you’re in biz.

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Sea salt and vinegar potatoes

Ingredients

    2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
    1 cup plus 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
    Kosher salt, as needed
    2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    Freshly ground black pepper
    3 tablespoons chopped chives
    Flaky sea salt

Method: Combine the potatoes, 1 cup vinegar and about a tablespoon of salt in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until fork tender. Drain and pat dry.

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Melt the butter in a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and another sprinkling of salt. Cook, tossing occasionally, until crisp and brown on all sides, 15 or 20 minutes.

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Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of vinegar over the potatoes. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the chives and a few teaspoons of flaky sea salt.

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Filed under Side Dishes, Vegetarian