Monthly Archives: January 2009

Ham and Cheese Breakfast Casserole from The Kitchn

Being an avid reader of other people’s blogs, as I’ve expressed here previously, I really love it when I find a “must try” recipe. While sometimes I find other people’s cooking experiments to be interesting and intriguing, many of them don’t inspire me to actually attempt to recreate their culinary endeavors.

One blog that I can usually find great ideas from is The Kitchn. I became hooked on it after a co-worker got me into checking out Apartment Therapy on a regular basis. I’m a huge fan of design and, as they often highlight solutions to storage/space issues (a perpetual New York apartment-dweller’s challenge), it’s one of my go-to sites on a regular basis. Their kitchen-oriented features are put together in a separate blog.

I was poking around in there a few weeks ago, when I was kind of in a cooking mood, and found a recipe that looked too good to pass up: “Ham and Cheese” Breakfast Casserole. Now, we didn’t grow up eating things like this for breakfast. Eggs were usually scrambled or in omelets, and then there was the waffles/pancakes category, and then the cold cereal or oatmeal option for the morning meal. Casseroles contained tuna (primarily) or maybe you could consider a baked pasta or chicken dish a “casserole,” but it wasn’t generally something eaten at breakfast.

One Easter Brunch when I was living in the DC area, pre-graduate school, I was introduced to the eggy-cheesy a.m. version of this one-pan dish. A roommate of mine and I were cooking for some friends, and she came up with the idea to throw a breakfast casserole together as it was a. relatively quick to do and b. required little attention once assembled beyond making sure it didn’t burn in the oven. She grew up in the Midwest, so I don’t know if these are more popular out there, but the only other time I’ve had this dish was in grad school, when another Midwesterner hosted a brunch and served one that was similar.

With the weather still being frigid to maybe-not-so-frigid around here, the idea of eating a warm, hearty weekend breakfast while lingering over a cup of milky coffee just seemed like something that would hit the spot. Fortunately, too, I live in a neighborhood where all the ingredients were within about a five-block walking distance and could easily be obtained during a brisk and brief Saturday grocery shopping excursion.

As directed, I assembled it the night before so that all the ingredients could meld together and so that the dry bread could soak up the liquid. I think that the only change I might make in future would be to figure out how to use up all of the loaf of challah in this dish, as I had some left over. I would also cut back just a little on the pancetta (I know, hard to believe that I am saying that, but it did seem to overpower the dish just a bit.). I think that a good French country ham might work, too, or some nice, thick-cut country bacon.

Once again, my oven did not disappoint. It is uncanny how it knows just how melted to get the top, with just the hint of crustiness on the cheese, but not enough to make it an inedible block of hardened fat. This was cooked through so that the bread was moist, the bacon’s crunchy, smoky, saltiness giving a kick throughout, with the thyme lending a bit of earthiness to the dish.

And, when plated, the dish’s stringy, gooey, lusciousness is even more apparent. It makes great leftovers, as well, as my stomach can attest to having enjoyed this several times for breakfast over the past week.

Buon appetito!

My Oven, My Self

I have to move out of my apartment in less than a month. This is not such a bad thing for several reasons: a. I can hopefully move into someplace better for a more reasonable amount, as the rental market in my neighborhood in New York has gotten very soft; b. I’m due to clear out cupboards and closets to throw things away so it is a good excuse to do this; c. I will get a completely renovated apartment, including super-new kitchen appliances out of it. The downside, and there’s always one of these, albeit a small one in this case, is that I have to give up my relationship with my current oven.

I can’t say that I love this oven, but it has been a trusted friend and companion these past nine years. It has also been infinitely more reliable than any guy I’ve dated during that time. A perfectly-calibrated oven, like the perfect mate, is not a casual thing to be tossed aside, unlike those clothes I will never wear again and that should not be packed up to go to my new home. I will be sad to leave it. It was an older model that had the added advantage of having a top oven as well, in which I stored the pans I used on a daily basis.

Ovens and I have had a tumultuous history, I realized. Growing up, my parents had an in-wall gas one that occasionally had to be lit with a match. The stove, a separate unit, was also powered by gas and had to be lit in the same way. When my parents redid the kitchen many years ago when I was in college, in-wall gas ovens were not available, so they replaced it with an electric dual oven unit. I’ve never really worked with it much, as I had moved out by then, but it seems to give good results.

The electric version of these items has always been a bit foreign to me, and I’ve never quite gotten the same feel for cooking with electric. As I grew up with a gas oven, I’m a bit more used to their temperaments (same with gas stoves), even though we have had a turbulent and firey past. This has been true no matter where I have lived.

After college, I lived in London for about eight months on a student visa. London in the late 80’s was a vast culinary wasteland in many ways – no liquor stores open on Sundays, peanut butter sold in the smallest-sized jars imaginable, brown sugar had to be sent to you from the U.S. in order to make cookies – but it also gave me one of my strongest oven memories. I’ve never seen this set-up before or sense, but one place I lived had basically a death-trap oven. You had to open the door, pump a button at the bottom of the oven (the ignition?), and then stick a lit match into a hole in order to light the pilot. You had to have just the right touch to light the pilot and then jump back before being burned. Needless to say, I did not do much baking in that house, it just wasn’t worth the risk to venture there.

Upon returning to the U.S., I moved into a much more modern condo rental and had my first experience with cooking with electric heat. Although I had good results with almost everything that I tried, I realized that I am a gas-cooking girl at heart. I like to see the burning flame and do the mutual dance of just how hot it needs to get to get the right results. I think that we just understand each other’s needs better when we can interact more transparently.

My next big oven adventure was when I lived in Italy several years later. Here is the tale of the two ovens. In the first place where I lived, the gas for the oven was also linked to the gas for the heating system for the apartment (i.e., they actually came out of the same unit). This version of the appliance required that a lit match be waved over the bars where the gas was coming out in order to ignite the flame. I realized, early on in my stay there, that too much gas was coming out of the oven. Unfortunately, I only discovered this as I was trying to toast bread for bruschette.

When trying to light the oven, I was not quick enough to jump backwards. There was a rather startling whoosh-boom, and the flames singed off the hairs on my right arm as I recoiled from the noise and the fire. The next day, I ran into the Sicilian agent for the landlord (I am not making this up.) when he was at our school, and I asked him to check the gas coming out of the pipes. I even showed him my arm as evidence and expressed that I knew that this was not normal. He mumbled something about gli americani not knowing how to use cooking equipment properly but came over to check on it the next day all the same.

While I was standing there in the kitchen waiting for his verdict, still glad that I had not been more seriously injured, he confirmed what I already knew: There was too much gas coming out of the pipes that were feeding into the oven. Although he managed to adjust the gauge, we still smelled gas every time we cooked, and, in the end, we just decided to keep the apartment’s large kitchen windows open for ventilation while making meals, even in the dead of winter.

The second place I lived in Italy had an oven with which I had a love-hate relationship. I think that we liked to torment each other, although we could never stay apart for long. It worked fine for the small things, like heating up breakfast pastries or toasting bread or baking a lasagna bolognese. However, for the more delicate tasks like cakes or my infamous brownies, it fell woefully short.

One batch of brownies, in particular, came out severely undercooked in the center, cooked to a perfect crust on top, and were charred on the bottom. This was after more than an hour’s worth of cooking time. I just sighed, turned the dial to zero, and salvaged what I could for the picnic in the hills for which they had been destined. The black clouds were looming over our relationship anyway for other non-oven related reasons.

After many years in Europe, I ended up in New York. The apartment from which I am moving is the one into which I moved when I set up house here. It has been a more fulfilling interaction this time around. We’ve made dozens of cookies, warmed up many a slice from the corner pizza shop, roasted chickens, baked gratins, and heated up my apartment time and again. I think that we’ve turned out some gorgeous dishes together.

For old times’ sake, this long, cold holiday weekend, I took the oven out for a one almost-final spin and tried out the chocolate chip cookie recipe from The New York Times from July of last year, when it was far too hot to be cranking the oven up to do anything. The cookies turned out perfectly, as I expected, because the we know each others quirks and foibles, but still manage to make it work out to a mutually-beneficial end. I hope to have as great a relationship with my new oven.

Buon appetito!

Baked Shrimp with Tomatoes and Feta

There are those magazines that one gets every month or week or so, whether at the newsstand or by subscription. Then, there are those that I call “trip magazines” as I only pick them up when I’m traveling and don’t have anything else to read. Generally, I try to stockpile some of my regular stash to take with me when I’m going somewhere, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

My boss handed me a few of her magazines, which she’d read on one of her previous trips, and I held on to them for my trek to Virginia for the holidays. This was great because she had ones that I enjoy, but don’t usually pick up for myself, even while traveling. I managed to snag some interesting recipes and health tips from the ones that she gave to me, and this weekend, while sparkley snow was falling from the sky, I put together a dish that might not be out of place in the warmer climes of the South of France.

I came across Baked Shrimp with Tomatoes and Feta by Ellie Krieger in Fitness magazine (the link is to the version on The Food Network site). It looked straightforward and simple enough. As a plus it would allow me to use the shrimp I had stored in the freezer (part of my goal to cook from what I already have on hand). As an additional bonus, I was also able to put to use a pan that I hadn’t used in a while. It’s one of those pans that you buy on special offer and think you can use it for everything, but somehow never do.

I’m not a big fan of feta, so I figured that I’d swap that out for a more mild goat’s cheese. That sort of got the wheels spinning. I’d have to buy dill to use in this recipe, but goat’s cheese made me think more along the lines of France, so I pulled out the Herbes de Provence from the back of the cupboard. I’m not sure that those have much more life in them so I need to use them up. Ms. Krieger notes that you should use low-salt tomatoes in this recipe, which then allowed me to feel as though I could throw in some chopped up Niçoise olives to give a bit of a briny, earthy kick to the dish. I did not add any extra salt at all to this dish, beyond what the olives gave to it.

With a crusty baguette, a crisp green salad, and a lightly chilled glass of Rosé, you could transport yourself away from the frigid temperatures that we’ve been having of late, and into the summer sunshine of the Mediterranean coast. I served it with orzo (per the recipe’s recommendation) and some greens. It was wonderful. The creaminess of the cheese balanced out the acidity of the tomatoes, which had helped to cook the shrimp just perfectly. The herbs and olives just brought out more of the personality of the dish. I’m also really glad I dug that pan out of the back of the cupboard because it worked out wonderfully. I’ll be keeping it on hand to use more after all.

Buon appetito!

This Year, I Resolve To….

On the first day of a brand, spanking, new year, it’s time to look back on my blog goals for 2008 and see how I did. In truth, I don’t think I managed to keep very many of the targets I’d set out for myself at the beginning of 2008. It was a rough year, in general, both on a personal and professional level, so I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself and should just look ahead to 2009.

Here’s the results:

1. Eat more whole grains – try to find some great new recipes using these
Not so good on this front, although I did find a recipe from Food & Wine that I enjoyed for farro, which is a grain I first encountered when I lived in Italy. I’m so glad to see that this has crossed the Atlantic and is now more widely available.

2. Snack better and try not to cave into the 3:30 p.m. sugar craving to head for the closest snack machine (it’s 4 floors away from where I sit)
I did manage to eat more fruit, instead of candy bars, but when the candy basket in our group is full, I can’t resist sneaking a few pieces.

3. Practice portion control – don’t let the lunchtime blood sugar slump take over and drive me to heap my cafeteria tray with lots of calorie-laden, starchy food
Once I started exercising more, this seemed to make me focus more on controlling my meal size. Unfortunately, there are those days when I do cave into the fried foods on the buffet.

4. Throw out duplicate recipes – test to find out the definitive version to keep for my files
Here’s where I did have some progress this year. I actually did a massive cull of my recipes and did manage to test a few. I do still need to be better about pulling new ones from magazines and just letting them sit there.

5. Keep recipe pulling from magazines under control
See above.

6. Start a book of Family Favorites recipes to share with my siblings – test and update them
I did make a start on this. I think I’ve realized that this is going to be an on-going project.

7. Make a binder of my own favorite “Keeper” recipes, with photos
Ditto #6.

8. Take cooking courses to improve my skills and knowledge
I’ve really loved the courses that I’ve taken at Astor Center. Their instructors are great and enthusiastic practitioners in their fields and the price point for the courses is just in my budget. I highly recommend them to anyone looking for those one-off cooking classes and can’t wait to see their additions for 2009.

9. Cook more dishes from the books that I already have
I didn’t do so well in this area, but I realized that I love using my cookbooks as reference sources and that I’ve honed my collection to a reliable few favorites.

10. And, most of all….I will not be jealous of the guy in my office who got Bacon of the Month as a present for Christmas!
Yeah…I am still jealous of him.

So what does 2009 bring? I think that in the spirit of going back to financial basics, which will be the goal for most of us, going back to cooking and eating basics is going to be the overall theme for me for this year:

1. Eat more great food. I live in a wonderful city for foodies and need to take more advantage of that. One example is the gorgeous blood oranges that have just arrived at my local grocery store. How beautiful does this look? (no photo retouching involved here)

2. Visit more great food. I mean, go see my friends who live outside of New York and explore their cities via their respective culinary heritages.

3. Continue with my recipe binder and with testing and revamping the recipes from my mother’s card file. One of my 2008 Christmas gifts will help with this, as I got a pan that is the same sized one as that in which many of the dishes I ate growing up was made.

4. Keep on track with resolution #8 from last year. This is something that feeds my tummy, my soul and my intellect. If I could afford to change careers, I would move into the culinary field, but I can’t at this point, so this is a way for me to learn while still earning enough to keep a roof over my head.

5. Working on learning the classics: sauces, techniques, dishes, etc. This dovetails with #4 and also with #9 from above. Of course, I still need to tackle making mayonnaise again!

6. Work on my food photography. I tend to be a point & shoot kind of photographer. There’s some amazing examples of food picture artistry shown on the web and in magazines. I’d like to be able to do that.

7. Try to really learn food & wine paring. I’ve taken a couple of courses on this and need to put it more into practice.

8. Learn better knife skills. Every year, for the past several years, I’ve looked into taking a knife skills course (or series of courses), but I never quite seem to get around to enrolling in any of them. This year, I’m finally going to get around to signing up for one – I swear.

9. In general, eat better, exercise more, and make better food choices. Hard to do, I know, when everything is so stressful at the moment, but having poor health and no energy is worse.

10. Most of all, toast a very happy and shiny new year with some old favorites from my own recipe file: Truffled Potato Galettes (swapping chives for the parsley and thyme) and a Sunrise Mimosa.

Buon appetito!