it was a very good year

I’ve always had a strong desire to be Italian-American. Italians and Jews are sort of cut from the same cloth, but there is something about the concept of “Sunday dinner” and calling red sauce gravy that really works for me. Eating baked ziti and Italian deli meats all the time doesn’t hurt either. That being said, I am fully obsessed with The Sopranos after my sister forced me to watch it this past fall.

I remember growing up on the outskirts of The Sopranos–mainly, I remember the VHS box sets that rested beneath our television and I remember being barricaded out of my parents’ room each Sunday night to protect my sister and I’s untarnished eyes from curb stomps, gunshots to the head, and mafioso sex with women who aren’t the men’s mafia wives.

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I love any television show that can build such a rich, lush culture and world. It does such a marvelous job at creating this north Jersey Italian-American world, and I, for one, find it intoxicating. This 21 year old girl sometimes dreams of being a 48 year old male mafia leader, my stomach spilling over my pants as I smoke an expensive cigar at the strip club and nurse a neat scotch. It is just as fun, though, to act as the Carmela Soprano and bake a beautiful baked ziti for your family. Ever the world-builder, I constructed a playlist of Italian opera music, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra to float around our dining room as we ate.

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I used Smitten Kitchen’s ziti recipe, even though I went so far as to buy The Sopranos Family Cookbook for a single penny on Amazon. I’m just not sure it’s classy enough for me to actually cook from–I am very elitist when it comes to my cookbooks and I kinda bought it for the novelty of it all. We’ll see if I ever crack it open to cook from–or even to use some of fake-Carmela Soprano’s entertaining tips.

The moral of the story is that I love a good themed dinner. It was a very good dinner. My playlist is here if you’re interested!

my 10 kitchen mainstays

I am always interested to see what other people always keep in their kitchen.

  1. Full-fat ricotta cheese

This has been a more recent mainstay, but I just love ricotta. I have plenty of recipes that I love that feature ricotta (Smitten Kitchen’s baked ziti, the turkey and ricotta meatballs from Small Victories, etc.) so I love when I can buy a tub for a recipe and have leftovers. One of my favorite quick uses for ricotta is stirring it into a jarred marinara sauce to make a luxurious pink sauce for pasta. It totally transforms a bland store-bought sauce and makes it something special. It’s also the base of all delicious fancy toasts. Lately, I’ve loved toast spread with ricotta, topped with a smashed soft-boiled egg, and drizzled with honey and salt.

2. Dijon mustard

Obviously. As an emulsifier for salad dressings, a spread on sandwiches, or as part of a marinade, dijon is a real powerhouse. I love its flavor and go through jars constantly.

3. Brown sugar

I find myself using brown sugar all the time. I love it in my morning oatmeal and it’s also delicious on salmon when you mix it with the dijon mustard above!

4. Eggs

Another obviously. This is me.

5. Parmesan cheese

I have created a life in which, no matter how barren my pantry is, I can always–always–ALWAYS make an enormous bowl of cacio e pepe for myself.  Butter. Spaghetti. Parmesan. Pepper. I ALWAYS HAVE THESE THINGS. Trader Joe’s has great prices for their Parmesan because they keep the rinds on. This makes me feel better financially and if you keep the rinds, you can use them to flavor soups and pasta sauces.

6. Trader Joe’s frozen soup dumplings

I am so obsessed with these and I don’t even know if they’re actually that good. They keep me satiated when I am away from my one and only, Monkey King Noodle Company, whose soup dumplings I crave even when it’s 102 degrees.

7. Panko bread crumbs

Panko is a really easy way to make things a lot more delicious. I use panko the most in spaghetti pangrattato with crispy eggs and panko-crusted salmon, two dinner staples that are easy to make and pretty budget-friendly.

8. Salsa

My favorite salsa ever is Clint’s Texas Salsa, which, paired with crispy-thin, perfectly salted Xochitl tortilla chips…is close to a perfect meal. Salsa is essential for the easiest chicken tacos ever–boneless skinless chicken breasts, half a packet of taco seasoning, a jar of salsa, and a little bit of water in the crockpot on low all day. My mom introduced this “recipe” to me and it’s one of our favorites at home, one that I’ve just gotten to take with me to school after I got a combo rice cooker/slow cooker for Hanukkah. I also need salsa whenever I make breakfast tacos at home and it’s usually good on a rice bowl of some kind. Which brings me to…

9. Rice

Even more so now that I have my game-changing new rice cooker! I make a batch of rice that I keep in the fridge to reheat (and often make it crispy— seriously amazing). Easy, filling, endlessly adaptable in combination with so many of the other ingredients on this list.

10. Garlic

I am incurably obsessed with garlic. I literally don’t think anything could be too garlicky for my little taste buds. It is seemingly the base of every dish I make. I love garlic’s versatility: it can be made sweet and succulent by cooking it in olive oil, it can be rubbed on toast for an easy upgrade, and it can even be smashed into submission to make a salad dressing! I made spaghetti aglio e olio for the first time the other night and cooked it with 6 cloves of garlic (quadruple the suggested 🙂 THIS IS ME!). I will always always have it.

toasted coconut marshmallows

We’ve all seen the Stanford delayed gratification marshmallow experiment videos in Psychology 101– a child gets to eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes alone with the marshmallow without eating it…and get 2 marshmallows. Had the researchers been using these, might I say phenomenal homemade marshmallows, I think there would be far more children failing the test.

I got super into marshmallow making during the holidays. I first made them (using Ina Garten’s recipe) for the box I made for my Food 52 holiday swap-ee. I packed her box full of goodies then sneakily ate what was left of the marshmallows I made for her. And I’m telling you..homemade marshmallows are otherworldly. Decadent but light as a feather, completely melting in your mouth, the most beautiful sweetness! I was hooked on making them and couldn’t wait to try Ina’s toasted coconut version, pictured below.

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The addition of toasted coconut (one of my favorite ingredients…ever) makes these almost like a real dessert. Couldn’t you imagine it at a trendy restaurant with a tiny espresso cup full of the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had? I’m kind of loving that idea just for a dinner party of my own. A pack of these make wonderful hostess gifts or a sweet homemade gift during the holidays, and they are so easy to make.

-Sophie

chicken soup for the (flu-ridden) soul

“I want soup,” I said to my mother, thrusting Small Victories in front of her, open to the page featuring Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup. In January, I was feeling absolutely dreadful with what I would later learn was the flu. It was about 2 pm–not a perfect time to begin making homemade chicken stock. My mom implored me to find a different recipe that I wanted to eat, one that didn’t take upwards of 5 hours, but I didn’t want anything else. Throwing caution and a fully-fleshed out chicken stock to the wind, I sent my dad to the store with a grocery list and patiently waited.

My mom said she would make the soup for me, but I ended up doing most of it myself–she was doing other work, I was lurking in the kitchen sticking my nose in the stockpot, impatiently stirring, and waiting for the scents of onion, dill, and chicken to bloom.

Homemade chicken soup requires patience and time, neither of which I had an abundance of that day. While the stock simmered and developed on the stovetop, I made biscuits for the first time, using a quick recipe from Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook. Biscuits are one of those foods that seem so…ancestral. The paternal, Jewish Egyptian side of my family was likely not making any, but my mother’s old Texan side surely made their fair share. I wanted to use schmaltz in place of lard (thus bringing my two lineages to a beautiful collision) but our only container was frozen solid so I used shortening. I would love to thaw that schmaltz and try it out with these biscuits, though. They ended up pretty good, but what isn’t when slathered in apple butter?

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We ended up taking off the soup an hour before the suggested time because my father was impatient and hungry and old and it was 7:30 pm. It was a sublime soup. I don’t know what it is about chicken soup that does what it does to you. I was certainly not healed (you need Tamiflu for that) but man, it makes you feel like you’re being hugged.

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Did I mention I made all this WHILE HAVING THE FLU? One of the more impressive moments of my culinary life. I have loved Small Victories so much lately, and Julia Turshen’s beautifully simple, rustic, delicious approach to cooking. You must pick it up if you haven’t already.

-Sophie

food is medicine

This post was due for November, and we’re now in the second week of the president that led me to write this post and make this chicken in the first place. 48% of the population would agree with me when I say that November 9th was just the worst. That was a confusing day, a foggy day, and I couldn’t even stomach eating anything until about 2 pm when I went to get some breakfast tacos to eat in my car before I picked up the girl I nanny from school.

She is the sweetest girl, and I was so happy and so sad to see her that day. We had talked about the election as much as you could talk about it with a seven year old, and she goes to a girl’s school like I did, and we love each other. She got in my car and I asked how she was doing. At first, she said my car smelled bad from the tacos. But then she paused and said how sad she was. I talked to her but every word out of my mouth turned to tears and I didn’t want to cry even more so I think I stayed quieter than usual.

When we got to her house, her mom had made a bowl of guacamole and set it out for us with tortilla chips and two glasses of Topo Chico. All of us sat and ate and talked about the day, tried to reconcile everything and tried to come to terms with being so confused and so sad. Lila wanted to stop talking about it then. So I played with her and her little sisters, for a long long time. We played a game where I was in jail in their parents’ closet, my cell constructed under suit jackets and jeans where I was shielded from everything and just steeping in my own silence and sadness with such beautiful, effervescent little girls around me. That was that day. I barely wanted to leave closet-jail that night.

That Friday, I wanted to–needed to–really cook. At the time, I hadn’t for a while, becoming too reliant on Trader Joe’s actually-pretty-delicious soup dumplings. I braved Central Market on a Friday evening, picked up a chicken, and invited Kobi and my sister over to eat with me. I made Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken from Cooking for Jeffrey, the first meal I had cooked out of it. She has become a meme of sorts in circles that don’t actually understand her, but the existence of Ina Garten and the food she makes is truly one of my greatest comforts in this world. Watching her show grounds me when I’m overwhelmed and cooking her food calms me, reminds me of the brief healing power of a good meal– especially a roast chicken.

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When cooking with wine, she always says, “Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” I try my best to follow her every instruction (with the exception of homemade chicken stock only) but this one is simply unrealistic for me. This was perfectly delicious and beautifully comforting even with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck pinot grigio.

We took the cast-iron skillet into my bedroom since my roommates were congregating in the living room, set it on the floor, and carved the chicken as best we could. I sat with people I loved, mopped up pan juices from a skillet with a hunk of bread, and ate a roast chicken after what was probably the hardest week of my young life.

Food is all of these things: it is caring for people, it is nourishment, it is community, it is pouring yourself into something special. Eating a roast chicken on the floor didn’t fix the country that night, but it put a little more love in our hearts.

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-Sophie

ham, brie, & fried egg crepe

**THIS POST IS LITERALLY FROM JANUARY 2016. STRAIGHT UP I WROTE IT IN JANUARY. DON’T KNOW WHY I NEVER DECIDED TO DROP THIS GAME-CHANGER OF A CREPE**

When I was studying in France in 2014, I made it a point to document the components of each crepe I happened to eat. And I tried a lot of them. Roquefort, chicken, and bechamel sauce. Smoked salmon, goat cheese, creme fraiche, and chives. Nutella and shredded coconut. Chocolate, salted caramel sauce, and caramel ice cream. Ham, brie, and a fried egg. Speculoos on speculoos on speculoos. Recently, I went through my journal and made a comprehensive list of the crepe combinations so I could attempt to recreate them in America. The ham (jambon, I’ll say), brie, and fried egg crepe is a classic that I can go for at any minute of the day, though it was my dinner last night.

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I make crepes semi-regularly but for some reason this was the only one in recent memory that came out less than perfectly. Of course that’s how it goes. It still tasted great! A perfect combination of most of my favorite things to eat and a nice memory of France all in one.

-Sophie

father’s day

Since I first viewed it in September, Bon Appetit’s How To Make A Smash Burger At Home video has echoed through my mind as I fall asleep each night. Adam Rapoport’s silver-fox good looks, those lacy edges of that burger, that melty American cheese on a Martin’s potato roll…it is all the stuff of my dreams. I have wanted to make this burger for ages, and I thought Father’s Day was as good a time as any to try it out.

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The burger is made on a cast-iron skillet (very appealing to me) and not a grill, because as Adam so wisely explains, when you grill a burger, all the good stuff (i.e. fat) drips to the bottom of the grill. This totally explains why I hate all grilled burgers!!! I don’t know how I had never thought of it before.

I started these burgers and it all started relatively smoothly. The skillet was nice and preheated, the burger patties were loosely packed as instructed, but then CAST-IRON CHAOS ENSUED! I am used to the smoke alarm in my apartment going off any time I use my skillet, but it’s very sensitive. Thought my house might be different! But I started making more and more of these burgers, and the skillet got more and more smoky, and the house got more and more smoky, and then every smoke alarm in my house went off. Happy Father’s Day!

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I should have had all the cheese slices unwrapped before I started, which was such a rookie mistake. The burgers still turned out great though. I used brioche buns (even though Adam Rapoport advised against that) from the bakery I work at. We don’t have Martin’s buns in Texas, Adam!!! (how does the Austin Shake Shack get them and can they hook me up with their supplier?!?) I also made a delicious sauce of ketchup, mayo, onion powder, pickle juice, and celery salt. I was slurping that up.

I accompanied the burgers with a cole slaw recipe from one of my mom’s best friends. It’s pretty light, especially compared to most slaws. Lots of fresh herbs and really light on the dressing. I also made a simple caprese salad with summer tomatoes which are nearly at their peak! It was good for the burgers to be balanced with something fresher.

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My dad’s favorite dessert is a peach cobbler, with Texas peaches that are right in season during his birthday month of June. When I was working at the bakery on Sunday, they brought out this peach crumble pie and I knew he needed to have it for his dad’s day dinner. I bought it on the spot. It was delicious served with a dollop of Blue Bell vanilla.

The house doesn’t even smell like smoke anymore so these yummy burgers are a success in my book.

-Sophie