Thursday, October 27, 2011

Butternut Squash & Shiitake Mushroom Risotto

C'mon Autumn! Let's get that squash rolling!

Well, I hope that intro had a lasting cheer to it. Because that's as about as chipper as this post is going to get from here on out.

I am officially fed up with cooking for one. Somebody, please, just find me a book titled "Cooking When Living Alone for the Very First Time."

Everything else I can more or less manage.Yet being in the kitchen, every dish feels like I ought to be sharing it. Or it turns out enough to feed an army. Freeze it, you say? Ha. Welcome to single gal fridge, complete with the tiniest lil' freezie box you've ever seen. I don't even think my American ice trays would fit! Sound bitter? About those obviously cooking-free married men who invented my little fridge, you bet.

Cooking off the cuff always feeds more than it intends. You add some of this, some off that, and then of course you have to add some of that other stuff to balance it all out. Before you know it, you haven't even got enough tupperware to contain it all!

And, what happens when the dish turns out absolutely fantastic, like this butternut and shiitake risotto topped with sage, walnuts, Parmesan, and bacon? I mean really, it was ahmaaazing.

I had been happily stirring and slowly adding in the stock for the better part of an hour, tasted it, was blown away, then realized that the room was empty and the pot was full. I ate quietly.

I am sure things will turn around soon. They always do. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying my autumnal burst of flavours for days to come.

The base of the risotto is flavoured with the addition of some fennel stalks, the liquid from the dried shiitake mushroom soak, and Marsala. After you work in the spiced roasted squash and walnuts, top with fresh sage, Parmesan and bacon crumblings, be prepared to be transported to the most brilliant leaf-crunching autumnal experience a mouth can have!

Looking for more fall flavors? Check out last year's butternut squash and lentils and a few other tasty treats on a recent round up from the Kitchn.

(Edited Note: This dish freezes really well. The textures and flavours were all just brilliant after 2 weeks in the freezer. I shouldn't have complained so much about no one to share it with...hello no-cook dinners!)

Continue to Recipe...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Eating 'alla Romana' {Carciofi, Fettuccine, & Saltimbocca}

As promised, the second stop of the mother-n-daughter holiday has arrived: Rome. After eating our way through the Naschmarkt in Vienna, we headed south to check out what Italy had on offer.

A total of three days were spent in Rome (pictures are here). That's just enough time to take in the major sights and get a feel for the pulse of the city, which author Fred Plotkin describes as an "erotic charge in the air...It could almost be called a romantic imperative." And after those three days (or more specifically, the nights) I can confirm that he just may have it pegged correctly.

My mum's guidebook promised us the best artichokes are to be found in Rome. Wading through one tourist restaurant menu after another, we sampled many dishes. One place (I wish I'd jotted down their name) had the artichokes we were after. Fresh Italian carciofi with hints of lemon, garlic, mint, and parsley, are gently simmered in white wine and served with soft bread for sopping up the juices.

To recreate these Carciofi alla Romana at home, the herbs are easily procured, but the artichokes are not. In the recipe given below, canned artichoke hearts are used, which in no way compare, but do prove to be a quick an easy starter for any meal...and are just nice enough to serve to guests as well.

Towards the end of our stay, my mum and I ended up in a bookstore (or two...hardly surprising to anyone who knows us.) I picked up a great foodie find: Italy for the Gourmet Traveller by Fred Plotkin. Published just last year, this guide covers nearly every aspect of food in each Italian region. Not only are traditional dishes of each region described, but it also lists practical places - food shops, food bookstores, food festivals, and on and on. A recipe or two is given for each region, but I find the real value to be in the stories behind the dishes the author recounts from his experience (he gives are pretty good version of the Est! Est! Est! wine name origin.)

One of the dishes listed in my new foodie book, although not one we sampled, sounded pretty good to me this week. Fettuccine alla Romana: pasta with prosciutto, tomatoes, Marsala, and porcini mushrooms. It's traditionally made with chicken giblets (detest!), which I simply omitted and didn't find the resulting dish lacking in flavour whatsoever.

I've been eating a lot of quick dinners of pan-fried chicken breast topped with prosciutto lately, so when I came across Saltimbocca alla Romana for the first time it instantly appealed. Pork cutlets topped with sage and prosciutto. Simple, yet succulent. Even those with a stated aversion towards pork (and I know there are many of you) will find this style of preparing it to be pleasing, what with the added juiciness given by the prosciutto. And any excuse to enjoy fresh sage in the autumn is welcome by me!

These dishes were easily made together for a Sunday lunch in just over an hour. The flavours really balance well together, as all are 'alla Romana'.

Buon apetito!

Continue to Recipe...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch {Ceasar Salad & Ricotta Panna Cotta}

In an Italian restaurant, 12:00 noon on a Friday, sat the four women I was looking for. I knew them only by their English. Here was my first meeting of the local women's expat group. I was giddy. Almost blind-date giddy. I wanted to waltz up and declare, "Why excuse me, but are you the ladies who lunch?"

I did no such thing, however, as I consider myself as a girl with sense (at least, on some days, and this day was one of them). 
Meeting new people during the week, at a lunch no less, does not happen that often. For one, I work. Beyond that, I have always held a slight aversion to self-professed women's groups. It feels like staring into a Georgia O'Keeffe pastel flower, that is, the softer side of feminism. Either be bold, be one hell of a chick, or embrace gender neutrality. But the idea of acting demure and using my inside voice, and drinking only tea and water, and talking about what the husbands do, and only using understated adjectives to describe one's passions...well, little appeal I suppose.

In a resolution to bond more with the ladies, though, this is exactly what I did. And it was nice. Yes, I waited my turn to speak, and kept the curse words under wraps. But I also found myself laughing until I had stitches in my sides when a proper British lady spoke of the pink skivvies which peek out of the trousers of her young transvestite gypsy gardener as he tends to her holiday home.

Skivvies aside though, as expats without local family support, it becomes even more apparent that us girls need to help each other out. Even though expat woman's groups are great ways to connect, it can be the small ways that make all the difference. A deal. A swap. A mutually beneficial arrangement that serves a purpose, and gives girls a time to bond. 

In the last few weeks a neighbour and I have started a food deal. I am now without wheels, so grocery shopping is a pain and a half. And I am recently cooking for one, which is a bit of a change to get used to. So my neighbour drives me to the supermarket, where I can load up on all my heavy things. She is a bit younger, busy with studies and work, so in turn I cook us a meal. So far, so good. Such a basic concept, but for some reason it took us ages to come up with the idea! 
What are your ways for helping out and being helped by other women? I bet you can think of some way to ease your and someone else's lives at the same time. 

Last weekend, we had a light lunch to try out a new Caesar salad dressing, followed by a vanilla bean infused ricotta Panna Cotta. I admit, it sounds a bit like fussy lady food, but home-made Caesar salads are a great way to sneak in those healthy sardine omega-3s and iron. And Panna Cotta? It's all calcium, baby.

I think I'll like being a lady who lunches.

Continue to Recipe...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

We Are Broken, but Back! {And with Viennese Cake: Sachertorte}

It has certainly been some time. Why, all of September and half of October flew by since the last post. And when I finally did check in, my whole blog was broken!!! Well, the pictures at least.

It turns out if one fiddles with the 'Blogger' pictures in Picasa web albums, it affects the pictures on the actual blog as well. This is news to me. So please be patient as I slowly restore the pictures that have gone missing. I must admit, part of me has been cowering under virtual blankets afraid to look at the wreckage of the the big black gaping holes (with very threatening symbols no less) where my photos used to sit. Those angry exclamation points and triangles were just too much to bear.

Sachertorte from my kitchen. Bulbous, but scrumptious.
And of course I've been busy as well. That's how life works. September in the world of a teacher is absolutely...well, one can imagine. Rather than come back with apologies though, I think it much more foodbloggish to come back with cake! Viennese Sachertorte: the original, and the one from my kitchen.

In the middle of the September new-class chaos, I also took a holiday with my mum. She flew out from Wisconsin, and since she's visited Czech Republic before, we decided to check out some other places. Since Vienna is adored by both of us, we started with a couple days there staying smack-dab next to the outdoor food market - the Naschmarkt.

But back to the cake. Sachertorte is a Viennese legend. It originated in the Hotel Sacher over 175 years ago, and versions of it are sold in cafes across Europe. The original can only be had in Vienna, and I believe also their hotel in Salzburg. In the past, I've always arrived at Hotel Sacher's Café during their busy time. Morning, mid-day, evening, it's always been packed with people. But this time, we tried a late evening approach - ten or elevinish. Seats were procured and cake was had.

And I don't know if it's the elegant 'S' icon on every pane of glass in the cafe, or the Sacher Hotel chocolate seal atop each slice of cake, but it just tasted better than any other Sachertorte I've ever had. And there have been many.

Compared to American cakes, the sweetness of Sachertorte is quite understated. Yet the smooth chocolate icing and the apricot glaze between the layers gave it the sugar edge my taste buds badly craved. Then again, to balance that out, the whipped cream served along side was also unsweetened. But then, the mug of Hot Sacher Chocolate I ordered tipped the sweet scale over again. It seems to me that Sachertorte has held onto it's popular position in Central Europe for so long precisely for this sweetness balance.

THE Original Sacher-Torte
After having had the real thing, it dawned on me that someday I might move away and not be within driving distance of Vienna, and more importantly, of its cakes. I had better learn to create some semblance of flavours and textures that mimic the original. I read up a bit and decided the recipe from Kaffehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague as found on Epicurious would do the trick. I read the reviews and followed the recipe, only baked it at a lower temperature (350°) for 45-50 minutes (rather than 400° for 35 minutes, as other reviews had suggested.)

The result is pictured at the top of the post. Not nearly as elegant as the Sacher Original. And to be honest, this was my second attempt. (The first turned into the biggest cake disaster I've ever lived through. Entire thing went to the trash. It was completely my mistake. When beating the egg whites and sugar together I used a wooden bowl, rather than glass, and those whites would not turn into anything resembling firm peaks!)

The cake bakes up with quite a domed arch shape. Since the whole thing should be sliced in half, the top should be sliced evenly flat too. And cutting off those excess top bits should give you enough for a hearty taste-test as well.

The apricot glaze is just lovely, and it pays to brush it onto the cake layer with a big rubber pastry brush, slowly, so it can sink in to the cake. Oh, and somehow my version ended up receiving chopped toasted almonds on top - not usual on a Sachertorte. But almonds suited the chocolate and apricot/rum glaze, and what's more, I really didn't find the glaze visually appealing. It turned out a bit too thin. It might be worth experimenting with a different chocolate glaze than the one in the recipe, which is perhaps too basic.

While it's a bit of a do-ahead cake (best to bake the night before, to be glazed/assembled the next day) it doesn't keep very long. Even well-covered in the fridge it seemed to dry out quickly. It's a great cake to share. Although, come to think of it, every cake is theoretically made for sharing. But the drying-out concern makes this one particularly destined for sharing, and not guilting it's way onto your plate for days on end.
Disclaimer: I may have too-much-cake-in-the-kitchen trauma.

Vienna Tips

(For a very nice Vienna write-up, check out post from earlier this year at What's for Lunch Honey?)

St. Stephan's Cathedral

A great, great, great place to stay is right next to the Naschmarkt at Wombat's City Hostel. It's newly built with private rooms as well as dorms. Very nice and clean kitchen facilities...makes eating straight from the market so easy!

If cooking for yourself is not appealing on holiday, there are plenty of cute cafés tucked between the rows of veg at the market. And for a sweet fix while walking, duck into the Schoko Company shop (in the middle of the market area) for a wide selection of über-creative chocolate creations, especially ones by my fave Austrian producer, Zotter.

Beyond the Naschmarkt are plenty of museums and other attractions depending on one's interests. Yet, one place absolutely anyone can find worth visiting is Prater (Wurstelprater) - the amusement park.

Firstly developed in the late 1800s and reconstructed after the war, Prater is the amusement park with atmosphere. Classic rides, games, and nostalgic images abound...go at night and you won't be disappointed!

A few more Vienna pictures can be found in this Picasa web album.

Next food stop on the mum-n-daughter holiday: Rome. Psst...there will be artichokes!

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo
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