Esca-rolls (Stuffed Escarole)

This recipe for stuffed escarole comes adapted from Lydia Bastianich’s. (She is my all-time favorite television cook, but I think of her more as a teacher than a chef.)

Escarole is a bitter green that, in my opinion, is underused in the U.S., especially in home kitchens. Paired with sweet raisins, it makes for a quick yet complex side dish. Everything in this recipe, from the capers to the garlic, is a balance of bitter, salty, and sweet flavors.

These stuffed escarole, or as I like to call them esca-rolls, are elegant and seem a lot like they take a lot more effort than they really do. Rolling them is a little bit tricky, but once don’t worry if they’re loose. They’ll firm up a little when they bake.

When it comes to amounts of ingredients, I am horribly imprecise. If you make a small bowlful of the stuffing, there will be more than enough for five or six rolls; and the excess gets sprinkled on top any way, so it’s okay to make too much.
1 head escarole, rinsed
Hard cheese, grated, e.g., Pecorino Romano or Parmigiana (a few tablespoons, but less than a 1/4 cup)
Day-old bread cut into very small cubes, or fresh breadcrumbs, maybe between 1/2 cup and 1 cup
Chopped black olives, about a 12-18 olives
Capers, maybe a tablespoon’s worth
Olive oil
Pine nuts (pignoli), maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons, a handful
Golden raisins, soaked, about a small handful, maybe 1/4 cup
2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic, sliced
Set a large pot of water to boil.

Set an ovenproof skillet or small Dutch oven (or if you don’t have this, just a small skillet) over medium heat. Toast the pine nuts, dry. Set pine nuts aside. In the same pan, toast the bread crumbs lightly, 2 or 3 minutes. Set aside with the pine nuts.

Lower the heat and add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the same pan. Add the sliced garlic and let it cook one minute, until fragrant, but do not brown. Add the capers and olives. Cook another 30 seconds or so, just to heat everything through and let the flavors meld. Close the flame. Add the pine nuts and breadcrumbs back to the pan and toss to coat. Pour this mixture back into the reserved bowl. Add the cheese and toss to combine. Reserve the oiled pan.

When the water boils, use a pair of tongs to dunk the escarole, headfirst, into the water. Cook one or two minutes. Remove from hot water and dunk in cold water. Set upside down to drain. Gently squeeze excess water.
Preheat oven to 350.

On a large cutting board, trim the tip from the escarole, then cut lengthwise into five or six pieces, if you can manage. You may find that there are not many long, flat leaves, but it’s okay. You can make do. Try to pick a few long leaves and lay them flat to start. Fan a few smaller leaves around them. Put a small scoop – about a tablespoon’s worth – onto the leaves, then roll it up like a burrito. Place it into the reserved pan (or a different, oiled baking dish if you don’t have anything suitable that can also work on the stovetop) seam down. Repeat until you have five or six bundles.

Spoon the remaining stuffing on top of the escarole packages. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake, uncovered, until the top breadcrumbs turn golden.

Belize: Call for Recommendations

In February (2009), I will be taking a vacation in Belize, and I have no idea what to expect in terms of food, wine, and beer. On one traveler's blog, I very briefly came across a reference to lobster tacos. I can image seafood will be popular, and perhaps some vegetables that grow easily in the Americas, like anything in the squash family.

I won't have much of a chance to read up on Belize until after the new year. In the meantime, if anyone has recommendations for what to eat or where to eat (I'll be near San Pedro), let me know!

Chocolate Cherry Stout Bread

I've been making a lot of breads lately. This one is a sweet yeast bread that is quickly disappearing, as Boyfriend and I gnaw away on it all day long.

Chocolate Cherry Stout Bread
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 package dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
3 1/2 cups flour, divided
1/2 rolled oats
10 ounces of chocolate stout (any stout will do, really, including Guinness)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup dried tart cherries (Trader Joe’s has them)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (I used milk but would opt for semisweet the next time around, or a dark bar coarsely chopped)
1 teaspoon water
1 large egg white, lightly beaten

Add the sugar to the warm water, then add the yeast and stir gently with a whisk.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine 2 cups flour, and the beer in a big bowl. Add the yeast and stir with a whisk. Leave at room temperature (or slightly warmer) for at least four hours. Then refrigerate it another 4 hours or overnight. Be sure there is room in the bowl for the bread to rise, because it will!

Remove mixture from refrigerator, but do not uncover. Let stand 2 hours at room temperature.

The dough should be huge.

Add to it the cherries (soaked and drained). Stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine remaining flour, oats, and salt. Add this to the dough, stirring until a soft dough forms. It should be sticky and messy. Don’t add too much flour!

Place the dough in an oiled bowl (use canola oil, vegetable oil, or cooking spray), cover it loosely, and leave it alone for another hour or two.

Dust the top of the dough with flour. Turn it out onto a floured surface. Add the chocolate to the top of the dough and fold them in as if you were kneading the dough. You don’t really have to knead it, though. Just flip, fold, and turn it a few times to distribute the chocolate. Place it back in the oiled bowl. Leave it alone for a half hour.

Use either parchment paper or flour to line a baking sheet. Shape the dough into either one 9-inch round or two 4-inch rounds. Cut an X on the top of the dough. Let it rest on top of the warm oven, loosely covered with a dish towel, for 15 minutes while the oven is preheating to 400 degrees F.

Combine the egg white and remaining teaspoon of water. Uncover the dough and brush it with the egg wash.

Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 325 or 350 and bake an additional 20 to 25 minutes. The bread should be browned lightly and should sound hollow when tapped. Enjoy while still warm.

Herb Focaccia

I’ve been doing quite a lot of baking over the last few months, and one of my favorite recipes that I’ve nearly perfected is herb focaccia bread.

Any herbs can be used in this bread, though I think rosemary is essential. The most recent batch I made had rosemary, thyme, and chives, and I think that one was the best yet. And while I like cut tomatoes on the top, you could also use sliced yellow squash or zucchini, or nothing at all.

What I’ve done to come up with this recipe is read through about four online recipes, read the reader feedback from those four, and then assimilate all that with another bread recipe that I adore: The New York Time's adaptation of Jim Lahey's No-Knead bread, which appeared in the Times online about two years ago.

Herb Focaccia
1 (1/4 oz.) package instant yeast (you can use less than a packet, like 1/4 teaspoon, if you let the bread rise for a full 24 hours)

1 3/4 cups warm water – the temperature of the water is the most important thing in making this bread; it should be warmer than your body temperature, but not by much

1 teaspoon sugar

2-3 tablespoons mixed herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, chives, sage)

Scant 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting – the second most important step in making this bread is not using too much flour, so go lightly with it

1 teaspoon table salt

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon sea salt or coarse salt (or really, any special salt you like)

About a half dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or one plum (Roma) tomato, sliced into 1/4 to 1/2 inch rounds (try to get at least 8 slices)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Stir it gently with a whisk, then leave it alone for 10 to 15 minutes. If a foam develops, you’re in business. If there is no foam and the water just looks murky, start over because it won’t work. Either the yeast is old or the water was too hot or too cold. Just scrap it and start over.

Sift the flour into a large bowl with a pinch of salt. Add 1/4 cup less 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the flour and stir it with a whisk gently just to break up the oil a bit. Add the chopped herbs and stir until they are distributed evenly. Add the water and yeast mixture to the flour and stir it with a wood spoon until it is tacky. The dough should be messy and a little wet.

Take a new bowl, preferably a ceramic one, and oil it with about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Scrape the dough from the mixing bowl into the oiled bowl. You don’t have to knead it. Cover it loosely with plastic (either plastic wrap or a plastic shopping bag) and leave it to rise in a warm place for at least four hours. If you used less than a full packet of yeast, leave it to rise overnight.

Uncover the bowl and throw a little flour onto the dough. Throw a little flour onto your fists as well and punch down the dough gently. You can also do this with a wooden spoon that has been dusted with flour. Cover the dough again loosely and leave it to rise for an hour or so.

Preheat oven to 500.

Grease or oil an 8x8-inch baking dish or a pie plate. Turn the dough out into the dish and use the tips of your fingers to gently press it toward the edges, dimpling the dough as you go. Dot the top of the bread with the cut tomatoes, nestling them gently into the dough’s surface. Sprinkle each tomato with a small amount of coarse salt (just a few grains each). Brush the remaining olive oil onto the top of the bread, and finish decorating it with sea salt if you like or more chopped herbs (rosemary or sage work best).

Leave the dough in a warm place (like on top of the oven) for 10 to 15 minutes so it rises a bit more before being baked. Bake it in the center of the oven for about 5 minutes, then lower the temperature to 425 and continue baking until it’s barely golden brown on top.

Serve warm.

Serving suggestions: serve with olive oil and basil to dip, olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip; serve alongside Italian meat and seafood dishes.

No-Ingredients Chocolate Cake

This is the easiest cake I have ever made.

I found the recipe in a magazine maybe two years ago and made it solely because it didn’t call for any ingredients that I didn’t immediately have on hand.

No butter.

No cream.

No eggs.

No buttermilk.

No sour cream.

This isn’t even one of those mayonnaise cakes.

It’s as if the cake has no ingredients. It’s outstanding.

The only thing the average cook might not have on hand is cocoa powder. The rest is flour, salt, sugar, water, canola oil, vanilla, baking soda, and the secret ingredient that makes it all happen: white vinegar.

The original recipe called for a blend of all-purpose flour and wheat flour, but screw that. You don’t need it. You can use all all-purpose flour.

After I made this cake once or twice, I realized it was vegan. (If you’re making this for vegans, do double check that the cocoa powder you use doesn’t have anything weird in it.) It doesn’t taste “lite” or flavorless in any way, but it’s not really a special cake either. On the other hand, if you’re having people over or are in charge of bringing a dessert to a party, this is the easiest thing in the world to whip up.

One word of caution: do not lick the batter bowl. You might get a big kick of white vinegar. It's not pleasant, I assure you.

To change it up, you can use pancake mix instead of flour (which will mean it’s no longer vegan, I suppose). You can add instant coffee if you like. Add a half cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the batter for an extra chocolate punch. You can sprinkle the cake while it’s still warm with a liqueur – try coffee liqueur or Kahlua.

For a simple frosting-like topping, melt chocolate chips in a bain-marie; add a pad of butter and a few drops of water. Frost the cake (make sure it’s cool) by spooning a small puddle of the melted chocolate onto the cake and gently pushing it around with the back of the spoon. Let it cool and set. Decorate with a few sprinkles or, as I did, with a dried rose petal.

'No-Ingredients' Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 pinch salt
1 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder (unsweetened)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar (no substitutions here)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 if making a round or square cake. Preheat to 325 for cup cakes.

Grease an 8x8-inch pan or 8-inch round cake pan and dust with flour or sugar. Or, line a muffin tin with cup cake wrappers (yield is about 12 medium cup cakes).

Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl with a whisk (or sift them).

Mix all the wet ingredients separately.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients thoroughly. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until set, 15-20 minutes for cup cakes and 25-30 minutes for large cake.

Jamie Oliver Promotes New Book

I went to see Jamie Oliver at Barnes & Noble earlier this week. He was in town promoting his new book, Jamie at Home, which is about his new affinity for gardening and growing his own food.

Unfortunately, he barely spoke! He showed up on stage about 8 minutes late, gave a quick review of the theme of the book, noting that even New Yorkers with limited space can usually cram a few herb pots onto their windowsills and rooftops, answered three audience questions, and then got to signing. The whole thing was over in less than 20 minutes.

Earlier in the day, he was a guest on a local NPR show, so at least he spoke a bit more there and answered more intelligent questions. (The final "question" at the book signing was -- I kid you not: "I'm Korean. I love you and came from Korea to see you. Korean food is very healthy, mostly steamed and with little oil. I want to know if you like Korean food, will visit Korea, and I can teach you to cook Korean foods.")

While I'm not the biggest fan of Jamie Oliver, I do appreciate the activism roles he's taken on. He has experimented with helping under-privileged youth, former inmates, chicken farmers, and all of the U.K. by pressing issues about the sorry state of their grocery stores. I also had a chance to flip through some of his new book and look at the gorgeous photos of his garden and some of the dishes, which are grouped by season according to harvest.

One of the simplest but most appealing photos, which I could not find online, was that of pancetta-wrapped asparagus, broiled, and served with soft-boiled eggs in their own shells as cups. The idea is to dip the spears into the egg. Oliver even suggests serving the eggs in a paper egg carton; the photo showed one of those indigo colored half-dozen carton, which was a gorgeous color contrast to the bright yellow yokes. Even though I couldn't find the precise photo, imagine something along the same lines a the two images I've cobbled together here.

That Time a Pyrex Dish Exploded in My Hands, and a Recipe for Acorn Squash

A few nights ago, I was making acorn squash and mini pizzas, not an odd combination if you know that the pizza toppings included grilled yellow summer squash slices, caramelized onions, and feta; sliced plum tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, soft white mozzarella, and chives; skillet-cooked red and green peppers, parmesan cheese, and chorizo.

Acorn squash can be baked at around 325 or 350 degrees, but it needs to cook for at least a half hour, more if it’s quite large. I usually split one in half, prick the skin a few times, and then set it in a baking dish with about a half inch of water, letting it steam and bake simultaneously. It can tolerate higher heats, and it doesn’t easily burn or overcook, so it’s no big deal to leave it in the oven a little too long or at too high a temperature. After it is thoroughly cooked, I like to drain the water, flip the squash cut-side up, and dot it with butter and brown sugar, then stick it back in the oven for a few minutes, until the sugar crusts over. That’s the way my mother always made it, and I love the stuff.

Pizza on the other hand needs to go into a very hot oven. In my current apartment, I have a small but very powerful gas oven. The gas flames blast in that tiny chamber and can quickly reach temperatures above 450 degrees. Not all large ovens can do that, especially electric ones.

Timing the cooking of the acorn squash and the pizzas seemed fairly simple: leave the squash in the oven at 350 for about 25 minutes, then crank the heat right before the dough is ready to go into the oven. If the squash looks done, pull it out. If it’s not quite cooked through, leave it in a bit longer while the pizzas cook. (I also had a few beets wrapped in foil tucked into the back of the oven. My philosophy on saving energy in the kitchen is to save tasks like roasting beets and baking off the last batch of cookie dough from the freezer for a time when I’m going to have the oven on anyway.)

I poked my heat in the oven a few times to make sure the water had not evaporated from the baking dish. All was well.

When it was time to put the pizzas in, I pulled the squash only the see that baking dish had not been perfectly level, and so all the water had tipped to the front of the Pyrex, leaving the back end dried out. A bit of sweet smelling acorn squash juice had burned and bubbled onto the pan. Holding the pan with a dishtowel, still half in the oven, I tilted it so the water ran to the back of the pan.

Then there was an enormous sizzle. Then there was a little blast.

The whole back end of the dish exploded into the oven, onto the floor, down through the cracks into the broiler chamber. The front half the Pyrex cracked and crumbled in my very hands. I didn’t get hurt, but I froze for a moment, until Boyfriend came in, took one look at me and said, “Oh my god. You’re barefoot.”

I’ve heard stories of exploding Pyrex before. It happened to my mom and it happened to my oldest sister, too. In all instances, the glassware went from one extreme temperature to another. My sister said she took a dish out of the oven one time, but even with potholders it was too hot to handle, so she dropped it in the sink, which had a little water in it, and the whole thing just blew up.

In my case, the baking dish must have heated up to the same, or nearly the same, temperature as the oven, while the water was no hotter than 212 degrees, a 200-degree difference.

When it happened to my mom, I was there to witness it. I was probably 11 or 12 years old and we were at her in-laws’ house. She was making gravy. A 9 by 11 Pyrex pan was sitting directly over a low flame. She whisked away at the gravy, and I think when the explosion occurred, she had just added more liquid, presumably liquid that had not been warmed. A film of stinking turkey oil covered the oven, the floors, and my mother for days.

Okonomiyaki Night!

Twice recently, I made okonomiyaki (or as I called it for about the first hundred times I tried to pronounce it, “oko yummy mommy”). Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake with cabbage and an assortment of seafood, meat, and vegetables; part of the name translates to “whatever you like,” so it’s a bit of a free-for-all, not unlike how one might concoct an omelet or a pizza from a log list of suggested filling and toppings.

There are a few hilariously instructive videos online for cooking okonomiyaki, particularly Cooking with Dog.

Here are two basic recipes for okonomiyaki, one from, which has an ingredients list that doesn't call for anything you can't find in a typical grocery store, and another with more traditionally Japanese ingredients. Remember, you can substitute any fillings that you like.

I also read some blog posts to get advice, but having done a little trial-and-error cooking now myself, I have a few thoughts to add:

1. Cooking the okonomiyaki takes much longer than one might expect. On my most recent attempt, both pancakes were still wet in the middle, and they cooked for 20 minutes each (plus one of them sat in a warm oven while I cooked the other, and even then it was still wet). Boyfriend and I were able to eat the exterior part with no problem, and we merrily picked through the rest, snagging bite-sized bits of perfectly-cooked seafood from the mush.

2. A related point is that the batter needs to be a lot drier than one might imagine. The only comparison I have to this is to think about working with chocolate chip cookie dough. When the dough is mixed but the chocolate has not yet been added, the dough seems almost too stiff and dry – but mixing in the chips somehow loosens it up a bit. When the okonomiyaki batter is made, it should also be a little too dry; then when you add the chopped cabbage, it will relax. Additionally, when you add seafood, the fish will release a good amount of water, thereby making your batter even wetter. Starting with a batter that’s on the dry side will help accommodate these changes.

3. Fresh squid tubes are heaven-sent. Both times I made okonomiyaki, I only added seafood and green onion or shallot. Although I never have cooked with fresh calamari before, I decided to try adding it to the pancakes because I knew that, like scallops and shrimp, they only need a few minutes to cook. We added the seafood after the first side of the pancake had been browned, just before flipping it. That way, the seafood only cooked half as long as the rest of the okonomiyaki. In my neighborhood, which is very Greek, the cleaned baby squids only cost about $3 or $4 per pound. They are so delicious and so easy to rinse, cut, and cook that I would not ever make okonomiyaki at home without them. And their chewy texture really makes the dish more fun to eat.

4. Another way to ensure the okonomiyaki comes out great is to invite your little sister over to help make it, especially if she is a fan of Japanese food and knows how the final dish should look and taste. (Thanks, H!)

5. The flakes most people add to the top flutter from the heat of the pancake, giving the illusion of little crawling bugs. If, like me, this creeps you out, skip the flakes (although I have to admit, it's tastier with them on).

Those Who Vote Eat for Free

In addition to Ben & Jerry's giving away free scoops on Election Day (see previous post, 5 to 8 p.m. only), a few other outlets have joined the calling.

Starbucks: free tall cup of brewed coffee.

Krispy Kreme: free star shaped doughnut with red and blue sprinkles.

And if you live in Tampa, there's a Chik-fil-A (West Shore Plaza) giving away free food.

Wear your "I voted" sticker, and more importantly, go vote tomorrow! (Actually, at Ben & Jerry's, the staff will just take your word for it.)

Free Scoops for Voters

Ben & Jerry's is giving away free scoops on Election Day to voters. Enjoy!