28 March 2011

Pasta and pizza, it's like a broken record

It seems I can't get away from noodles lately.

We had these sesame noodles for dinner tonight, and The Boy was in love. Peanut butter + pasta equals a happy boy.

And on St. Patrick's Day I fed a crowd of little boys some Irish Cheddar Mac 'n' Cheese. Really, it was a sharp white cheddar and orrechiette. It was so good that the moms on duty, my friend Kim and I, ate seconds and then shoveled one last bite over the sink while cleaning up.

How to: Start with a basic white sauce. Melt 3 tbsp butter in a medium sauce pan. Add three tablespoons of flour while whisking and cook a few minutes until it smells nutty. Add 2 1/2 cups of warm milk and increase heat to medium-high. Stirring often, watch for the mixture to bubble, but do not let it boil. Turn heat off and add about two cups of grated cheese. Stir until melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta and either serve immediately or for the baked variety, pour mixture and pasta into casserole, top with cheese and bake until brown and bubbly.

And if there was one thing I cooked as much as pasta, it may be pizza. This dish, well, it's just a combination of the two. On a recent weeknight I found myself staring at a bowl of leftover spaghetti noodles and wondering what I could do with them. I found this recipe for Pizza di Spaghetti and went with it. I just used plain, cooked spaghetti and not one covered with her tomato and olive sauce. It worked out just fine, and I went ahead and topped mine like a regular pizza. The Boy loved it. I thought a grown-up version topped with a warm salty mixture of sauteed mushrooms, pine nuts and maybe some goat cheese would be yummy.

I should also mention that I did this in two stages, cooking the spaghetti "crust" first, cooling, and refrigerating until dinner time. Then, I fired up the oven, topped it like a pizza and baked. I think the crust probably lost a little crispness, but overall, it worked out just fine and prepping dinner early keeps me a little more sane.

23 March 2011

Noodle, noodle, every meal

I'm a little embarrassed to admit just how much pasta we eat around here. If I were Italian, I suppose I could blame it on my heritage, but nope, just a mama who grew up in Middle America charged with feeding a toddler three meals a day.

We switch it up, and instead of feeling guilty about all of the semolina flour headed down the gullet, I pat myself on the back that my kid will eat anything from orecchiette to orzo. Well, almost anything.

I've made homemade noodles for most of my adult life and before that I watched my mom make them for holidays, special dinners or when I was sick. My mother learned to make them by watching her grandmother, a rural Oklahoma farm girl named Lucille who went by the name "Peach."

In my family, it's tradition to make the egg noodles short, wide and fat. They're cooked in a creamy chicken soup we always called Chicken and Noodles. While I do still make the original dish from time to time, I enjoy making them longer and thinner and adding them to my Chicken Noodle Soup.

Anytime I dust the counter with flour, The Boy drags his kitchen stool over, shouting, "Let me bake with you!" And while he always winds up covered in flour helping me make the noodles, it wasn't until just recently that he had a bite of one. Then he wanted more. And the leftovers the next day. And the uncooked ones in the freezer. I don't blame him, I'm kind of addicted, too.

Don't pass this recipe by because making homemade pasta sounds too difficult. It's not. And I don't have a pasta machine or any special tools. A pizza cutter makes things go quickly, but even a paring knife will do the trick. The batch makes quite a few noodles, so I use half of it for that night's chicken soup and then I freeze the rest for later.

Grandma Peach's Homemade Noodles

3 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 t baking soda
2 to 3 cups flour, plus more for dusting

Combine the salt, soda and 2 cups of flour in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, combine the milk and eggs, beating eggs slightly. Then add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix with a wooden spoon, adding enough of the remaining cup of flour to form a shaggy dough forms. Dump the dough onto a lightly-floured surface and knead just enough to make a ball. Pat down, add more flour to the surface and begin to roll, using a rolling pin. If the dough seems to tough, let it rest for about five minutes and return. Roll dough until it is slightly thinner than a chopstick (so a little thinner than pie dough), making sure that the surface is even. Then, dust the top of the dough with flour, and using a pizza cutter or small knife, cut the noodles to the size and shape you'd like. Next, transfer the cut noodles to a cookie sheet, laying them out in a single layer so they do not touch. (See note.) Place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least two hours. If you want to freeze the batch, do the same process, but place in the freezer until completely frozen then transfer to an airtight bag.

To cook, add noodles, either directly from the refrigerator or freezer to a near-boiling pot of chicken stock or soup. When the noodles float to the surface, they are done, about two to three minutes. Remove from heat and either serve immediately or cool for later. These noodles are tasty when first cooked, but they benefit from a day in the broth as well.

NOTE: If you don't add enough flour, the noodles will be very sticky to work with. To help alleviate some trouble, you can place the dough on a well-floured cookie sheet and cut them directly on the cookie sheet, so there is no need to transfer them.

13 March 2011

Eat pizza, not crow

For this post, I will surely owe a few friends a slice of pizza.

A group of my girlfriends have had a long-running discussion about whether or not to par-bake a pizza crust. To be honest, I'm probably the only one still interested in the conversation, but others' lack of interest has never stopped me from talking before.

I used to think that par-baking, short for partial baking, a homemade pizza dough was for amateurs. And then I had to make 20 pizzas for one event, and in the name of practicality, I had to find a quicker, easier way to bake 20 pizzas in an hour -- no big deal for the pizzeria down the street but a major feat for a home kitchen. It turns out that par-baking was right, and I was wrong.

And somewhat sheepishly, I've gone on par-baking pizzas and not saying a word. When I've served pizza for a birthday party, par-baked. When I made heart-shaped Valentine's Day pizzas for a kitchen full of boys, par-baked. And when I made a pizza to deliver to some friends, par-baked.

It's fairly simple. Prepare the dough as the recipe states and then form your pizza crust and bake it on a pizza stone just until the crust is firm enough to hold together and be easily lifted off the stone. Then remove it from the oven, cool on a cooling rack and top later. But just recently I took it one step further, and I made two individual pizza crusts, par-baked and then froze.

I would call myself a genius except that it's taken me years to figure this out.

With Daylight Saving Time, today was riddled with wonky naps, a constantly crying baby and a mom who couldn't take a 2-year-old drumming his set of pots and pans another beat. And then came the dinner hour, creeping up more quickly than I'd anticipated. "What to cook, what to cook?" I mumbled, foraging the the pantry, fridge and freezer.

The pizza crusts! They thawed within 10 minutes, and after another five they were topped and in the oven. Take that, Rachael Ray.

If you need a good crust recipe, this is my go-to. You can even sub half of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat and still get a good result. Here are a few more tips for the best par-baked pie.
  • To ensure good browning, use a pastry brush to baste the outer edge of the crust with olive oil just prior to par-baking.
  • Once a par-baked crust has been removed from the oven, cool completely on a cooling rack before freezing or storing for later use.
  • If your freezer is as full as mine, you might be best trying to freeze individual-size crusts. Actually, this is best, though, because then you could choose to bake as many, or as few, pizzas as you want.
  • If freezing, place a sheet of wax paper between stacked crusts to ensure they don't stick together and place in an airtight bag or container to freeze.
  • To finish a par-baked crust, thaw (if frozen), top with sauce and additional toppings and return to the oven either on a pre-heated stone or directly on the wire oven rack and finish baking until cheese is browned.
  • Par-baking is a fantastic way to take the edge off of entertaining with pizzas. You'll have time to clean up yourself and your kitchen from a fine dusting of flour, and you won't stress about shaping dough in front of an audience.

03 March 2011

Yogurt, plain and simple

Mommy likes hers with some oats on top.

Much like I have a rule about not buying kitchen tools that have only one use, I hate buying food or stray ingredients that work in only one dish. Come on, that bottle of fish sauce stinks and big, so if you're not going to use it but for the one time, don't buy it. That's how I feel about those small cherry-berry-blasted yogurt cups. What else can you do with them other than eat super-sweet yogurt?

I don't mind berries in my yogurt, although the idea of anything tasting like a Key Lime Pie other than a Key Lime Pie creeps me out ever since I read Fast Food Nation. (I don't have anything against Key Limes, it's those tasty "Key Lime" chemicals that are a turnoff.) That's why I go for the big tub of plain yogurt. Sure, all by it's lonesome, it tastes like, (drumroll) yogurt. But did you know that much like buttermilk, it can add tang to baked goods? And imagining an gyro without the Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki is kind of cruel. And a yogurt smoothie is this sleep-deprived mama's go-to quick breakfast.

An immersion blender makes quick work of a yogurt smoothie with blueberries, banana and spinach, sweetened with honey.

Breakfast for two.

My 2-year-old loves yogurt smoothies, or smoovies as they're known around here. Maybe it's merely the fact that he gets to slurp his meal through a bendy straw, but I don't really care. Usually while he's running around the house playing trucks, I toss in frozen blueberries, banana, a handful of spinach leaves and honey in yogurt and buzz it with my immersion blender. The brilliant purple is cool enough that he never presses me about what else is in the smoothie, and I feel like a decent mom for getting a few veggies in before 8 a.m. (And let's be honest, there won't be many other veggies at all unless we've got sweet potato fries on the dinner menu.)

Here's another smoothie idea that includes avocados and bananas, which couldn't be a more perfect marriage in my book. If that sounds too strange for your tastes, check out this recipe for chocolate chip banana muffins. And yogurt doesn't stop at breakfast. Swap it for sour cream in dips or mayo in dressings. It's blank canvas makes it an excellent baby food, too.

And should you find yourself staring at a tub of plain yogurt and craving a berry-sweetened cup of yogurt, mix a few spoonfuls with some of your favorite jam. You'll be surprised how much it tastes just like the stuff in the store-bought cups. Only better.