Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kapusta, From the Motherland

Today I'm giving a big shout out to my heritage and Ukrainians in general. This kapusta (Ukrainian for cabbage) is so bomb, but its a classic of all classics. Kapusta, or some variation of this dish, depending on what state food rations were available, is to Ukraine what pasta is to Italians.

This recipe is based on what my Grandma used to make for me all the time to bring to lunch at work. It's got that distinct Eastern European smell, which I love, and can be eaten hot, cold or whenever. I've also simplified the recipe somewhat, but I cleared it with my Grandma, since I'm a young man living in a Los Angeles studio apartment, it might not be too realistic for me to ferment my own cabbage to make sauerkraut, raise my own pigs to make kielbasa or forge my own iron skillet out of scraps stolen from the Iron mines of Minsk. Also, butter is not really a common thing in the eastern bloc, they use pure fat. Yeah, sooo, I don't really need to fatten up for any long harsh cold winter, or need strength working a double shift at the rocketbomb plant, I can use butter here. Luckily, for my purposes, we now have stores where we can buy these things. Yay capitalism.

Here's what you need:

1 medium onion (peeled and chopped)
1 jar natural sauerkraut (try to get one made with only salt, cabbage and water, no vinegar)
half pound of good quality keilbasa (about 6-8 inches in length) (chopped into rough cubes)
a good sized chunk of butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 bay leaf

Here's what you do:

1) Start sauteeing your onion in the butter for a few minutes, until they start to get soft, but not quite brown
2) Add your sauerkraut to the onions, but leave the juices. So you can either drain the entire jar completely, but I recommend just forking it out the jar into the pan. That way you get a little bit of juiciness in the mix, and you have extra juices to add later if need be. Add sugar, caraway, bay leaf at this time too.
3) Stir it all around, on low to medium heat and leave it until it gets nice and soft. After about 10 mnutes, add the keilbasa and then just let it cook on low for another 10.
4) Depending on the saltiness of the sauerkraut, the dish should be salty enough, but if you want, add salt and pepper to taste.

Congrats, you're done. It was that easy. So basic but so absolutely delicious. The caraway seeds are the magic ingredient that pulls it all together in my opinion. Serve it in bowls with a fresh peice of dark russian rye bread.

What to listen to: The cold wind swirling through the trees outside
What to drink. Russian Standard vodka. Straight.
In the eastern bloc, drinking vodka is always meant to compliment food, and it's looked down upon to drink it straight for the purpose of getting drunk. Also, vodka is never for mixing.

(I would recommend a Ukrainian vodka, but apparently they can't get their act together enough to ship some bottles over here. Regardless, Russian/Ukrainian vodka is all the same, heck they invented the stuff.)


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Standard Pizza

Homemade pizza is something I've really been getting into lately, and it all stems from how awesome it is to have a pizza stone. My journey to make my ultimate pizza has been going quite successfully, and I've gotten it down to basically two different kinds that I make. This is the first one, it's basic, but just incredible.

If there's one word I can give to you aspiring pizzaiolos out there, it would be: minimalism. With pizza, less is more. More, is, well, less. Too many toppings and your cooking times get all screwed up, the crust is cooked before the toppings are, and/or you're left with soggy wetness in the middle. Plus, you just spent all that time making your dough from scratch, you want to be able to taste it after all! I have a 2 ingredient max rule, not including cheese. Anything else and I would kindly ask that you leave the room and order from domino's. There is also evidence that too many choices leads to lower overall satisfaction, in life not just with pizza: the paradox of choice. If you are cooking for other people, or if you own a pizza restaurant and are seeking my advice (hey, it could happen...), my advice would be to offer less choice, stick to a few core selections and focus more on making every ingredient great. In essence, it's better to do two things great, than to do five things fairly good.

This is the point where I step down off my soapbox, and step into the kitchen.

Here's what you need:

Pizza Dough

Pizza Sauce
Low moisture mozzarella, the whiter the better (shredded)
Pepperoni (I like turkey pepperoni, don't be weirded out, its actually awesome)

Here's what you do:

1) Heat up your pizza stone in the oven at 500 degrees F, for at least 30 minutes, if not a full hour before cooking. I like my crust thin and crispy, and the hotter the stone, the crisper the crust. Your stone should be on the middle rack, but you can adjust as necessary, (when the stone is cold, obviously): higher = faster melting of cheese and cooking of toppings; lower = faster cooking of crust. Find your happy medium.
2) On your counter or your pizza peel, sprinkle with flour, then take your room temperature ball of dough and squish it with your hand to make a rough circle.
3) Start rolling it out, in all directions with a rolling pin. This is kind of hard to describe properly, without seeing someone doing it, but I'm sure you'll get the hang of it. Again, I like thin crust, so I will roll it thin.
4) Take your dough off the peel (if its not done already) and sprinkle the peel with some semolina flour. This will act like little edible ball bearings that enable easy transitions between peel and stone.
5) Now with your dough back on the paddle, spread out, it's is ready for its adornment. From here on it, if you've ever eaten a pizza before in your life, you know what the drill is: Spread a thin layer of sauce on the dough using the back of a spoon. Put the desired amount of cheese on the sauce, leaving one inch of crust around the edge for strategic thumb placement. Then lay out the pepperoni over top, covering as much or as little as you like.
6) Now it's time to slide the pizza onto the stone. This also take some practice, and I learned the hard way that you cant really move the pizza around for the first few minutes when it's on the stone, the dough is too soft and it will fold. So getting it right the first time is key. I like to slide the peel all the way to the of the oven, then slowly tilt it and bring it forward, leaving the pizza placed perfectly in the middle of the stone.
7) This step is pretty hard to lay down hard and fast rules for, because it all depends on how hot your oven is, and how 'done' you like your pizza. Ignore what your mother said about not opening the oven before the food is done. Just keep checking on it, till you see what you like. Once the pizza starts to cook, you can even slide your peel in and turn the pizza around if you see one half is cooking faster than the other.
8) When the pizza is done to your liking, take it out, and cut it into appropriate shapes with a pizza cutter. Now is the time to bask in the glow of a hard-earned sense of accomplishment. You can eat it right off the pizza peel for that authentic experience.

Now you know how to make a homemade pizza. The heart of this idea is the pizza stone. Without it, in my opinion, a great pizza isn't possible. I have had some pretty good ones, made on a baking sheet, but for your pizza to be truly transcendent (that's what you were going for, right?) the stone is your key to pizza nirvana. From here, the sky is the limit for what kind of stuff you want to put on your pizza, as long as you remember the 2 topping rule.

What to drink: As I mentioned before, I love Fat Tire, especially with pizza. It's got that bread-like flavor that goes superb with some homemade pie. (Fat Tire shares the title of my favorite beer with Guinness)

What to listen to: Led Zeppelin, How The West Was Won, CD1. Seriously. Why not? It's a great live CD, and pretty sure that if you time it right, Stairway to Heaven will come on just as you are about to eat your pizza and experience a truly heavenly experience.


Pizza Dough

Pizza dough. The foundation for any good pizza. Let's do this.

Here's what you need:

3 cups white bread flour
1/2 cup semolina flour (it's more granular, plus you use it for stuff other than baking, as you'll see in a minute)
2 tablespoons quick rise yeast
a squirt of honey
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tablespoon salt

Equipment needed:

Pizza Stone - Quite possibly my favorite kitchen apparatus, aside from my iron skillet, and the oven itself. It's a porous stone that stays in your oven all the time. This will give your crust, or bread, or anything you bake on it a great crispness that you'd find in a pro pizza oven. It stores heat too, so when the oven cycles on and off, you get a nice constant temperature. Not expensive at all, I got mine for $30 at Sur La Table.
Pizza Peel - Some people call it a pizza shovel. Whatever you call it, its the paddle thing that is used to get the pizza flat on the stone and to take it out and move it around. They come in aluminum or wood. I personally like (and have) the wood one, because it just so happened that the wood ones at the store were bigger than the aluminum ones. Larger paddle area = larger pizzas. There's something you need to know about untreated wood pizza peels (or cutting boards, or any wood used in the kitchen) and that's that you need to treat it with mineral oil a couple times before your first use, and again every time you wash it. This video from CHOW explains everything.

Here's what you do, if you're mixing it by hand. I'm not going to give you mixer instructions because I don't have a mixer, plus, the pizza becomes more rewarding after you've put some muscle into it. Also, maybe wear an old shirt, because you will get flour-y:

1) In a large mixing bowl, add the water, salt and honey. Stir it up with a large metal spoon, until everything is more or less dissolved, add the yeast, stir some more, then let is sit for five minutes.
2) Add the olive oil then the semolina flour, while stirring, avec spoon, with your other hand. Once that is more or less mixed, add the remaining flour and keep mixing. At this point, the spoon will be useless against the powers of the dough, so get your hands in there. I like to lightly coat my hands in flour before starting to mix, just so the stick-factor is reduced. Mix till there is a coherent mass. If your dough is too wet and sticky, add small amounts of flour, conversely, if it's too dry, add small amounts of water.
3) Does your dough look like a ball? Good. Okay you're done... No, just kidding.
4) Take out your pizza peel, (or just use an empty counter top) and cover it in flour. Drop your dough on the surface and get kneading. It's pretty much impossible to over-knead dough. Kneading develops the gluten in the bread, which is quite a good thing. This is the time for self-expression, or maybe even a little stress relief. You can pound the dough any which way, stretch it, fold it, whatever. Just follow your heart. Do this for about 15 minutes or so.
5) Wash and dry your big bowl, then coat the inside with a bit of flour. Put your doughball inside, cover it with a paper/kitchen towel and let it rise for about 1 hour. After 1 hour, punch it down, get all the air out of it, and let it rise again for another hour or so, until it doubles in size.
6) Once your dough has risen twice, (and you've punched it down twice) you have some options. Depending on how many people you want to feed, I usually cut the dough in to 4 pieces. Then I'll wrap three in saran rap, put them in a container and then into the freezer. That one baseball sized dough portion will be enough to make one medium pizza, so it can feed one or two, depending on who you are.

This concludes my dough recipe. I have been working on pizzas for a few weeks now, trying different doughs and procedures, and this is the one I like the best. Now you know.

But you may ask, "Yo, I wanted pizza, not dough, your blog sucks."
To you I say, "Yes, I understand, I split up the posts for pizza and dough, so it's easier to link back to. And YOU suck."

What do drink: We'll considering you'll be making this ahead of time, I would suggest something non-alcoholic like an Arnold Palmer. But then again, if you're making it the night of, then definetly Fat Tire. Yes, that's my final answer.

What to listen to: Making dough is a pretty organic procedure, especially when mixing and kneading by hand, invariably you'll want music to reflect this: Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing In The Hands

Now, lets get pizza!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mexican Mussels

Hey, Yo. I realize it's been a few days since I posted up a new recipe. I have been cooking, certainly, just I have been devoting a lot of my time to playing (nerd alert!) Myst III, and thus not posting. But that's another story for another time.

Let's get down to brass tacks.

Mexican Mussels are, in all likelihood, not eaten in Mexico. But just like chicken balls are "chinese food,'" for my purposes, the stylings of Mexican cuisine provided me with a delicious dinner, authenticity be damned!

Here's what you need:

2 pounds mussels, cleaned, debearded
6 Corona (if you've read my other recipes, you know what the other 5 are for)
1 Poblano pepper (chopped)
Bottle Tobasco Chipotle Sauce
A couple gloves of garlic (chopped)
Limes (or lime juice)
*Chorizo Sausage (uncooked)

*this ingredient is optional, if you're planning on eating the mussels as a meal, then put it in to beef up the dish and give it some more complex flavor, if as an app, you could leave it out for a fresher/lighter tasting starter.

Here's what you do:

1) In your iron skillet, heat up the chorizo (if you're using it), the garlic and the pepper, until all cooked and brown. Oh yeah, medium heat.
2) Add your bottle of beer, and a bit of lime juice and a healthy dose of the smokey Tobasco Chipotle, and let that start to bubble
3) Add mussels and cook, uncovered, while giving it a few good stirs, until most the mussels are open, you can feel free to add some more splashes of beer or lime juice as you stir.
4) When the mussels are cooked, give a final splash of beer, lime juice and thow on some cilantro, give one final stir and serve in the skillet.

What to drink: Tequila shots all around! Then enjoy that Corona.
What to listen to: This meal is quick and can easily get any party started. Therefore you'd want to listen to some music that is quick and can get a party started. Girl Talk, Feed The Animals perhaps?