I haven’t always been a big cook. In high school, I rotated between phases of grilled peanut butter sandwiches, tortillas filled with cheddar and nuked in the microwave until crispy, and nighttime bowls of cereal. In college my palate expanded a bit, due to the blessing of a well-stocked cafeteria, but it’s not a stretch to say that I never so much as looked at an oven for those four years. Post college, I found myself living in an apartment with no cafeteria, and since there are only so many nights you can eat cereal for dinner before you realize you have a problem, I decided I needed to learn a thing or two.
One of the first recipes I learned and loved involved sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and barley, which happen to be three of my favorite things (“favorite things” post high school, of course). Until recently, I hadn’t made the recipe in a couple of years, and decided it needed to be brought back, but adapted to fill the needs of my super sophisticated taste. See, my “sophisticated taste” had gone through a cereal-for-dinner relapse while feeling sick for a couple weeks, so I wanted some extra veggies to make up for the nutrient deficit (In my mind this is how things work…don’t ruin it for me). To provide some vitamin oomph, I added a couple more of my favorite things: spinach and artichokes… Remember how I feel about artichokes? Yeah, it’s an intense love. Anyway, read on for a throwback recipe delicious enough to convert a kitchen novice into, well, someone who tries really hard.
As someone who likes to be perpetually busy, I don’t find myself with many nights all to myself with nothing to do. I prefer it this way, but relaxing nights at home are necessary every once in a while. Of course, being the way I am, I’m not great at sitting still during these nights at home. Instead of ordering takeout and watching reruns on Netflix, I usually make a fun, somewhat time-intensive dinner…and then watch reruns on Netflix while basking in my culinary accomplishment, and then probably cleaning the entire apartment…or you know, whatever.
Last week I knew I had an upcoming night of nothing, so I planned for the occasion by preparing some pizza dough the night before. My mom gave me a pizza and flatbread cookbook for my birthday in January, along with a pizza stone and pizza peel. As a true pizza freak, I started playing with my new toys right away. However, since homemade pizza dough was unfamiliar territory, and I tend to be a toe-dipper with new things, I had only made the book’s “Master Recipe.” How very vanilla of me, I know.
On the eve of my solitary evening, I decided I wanted to go crazy and make a new recipe from the book. That’s right folks, watch out for this girl. So, I took the bookmark off of the Master Recipe, and turned several pages until I found the instructions for whole wheat pizza dough. Why mess with Master Recipe perfection, you ask? Although I can’t deny my love of comfort food, I do like to make decadent things healthier whenever possible. I knew the wheat dough might not come together as seamlessly as the white dough, but I’d make it work. After all, I’m not above eating imperfectly crusted pizza…it’s still pizza and I’m still human. (Spoiler alert: I ate perfect pizza that was fit for a Superhuman, but I’m not above sharing it with mere humans, so proceed.)
Cooking in real life rarely goes as smoothly as recipes read, mostly because buttoned up, step-by-step recipes just beg to be messed with. It’s rare for me to find a recipe I won’t tweak at all, but writing a blog with recipes necessitates some attention to detail and process. Since I’m sharing a recipe with the online world (or at least 2 or 3 of you), I want to make sure I get things right. For someone who is accident prone and terrible at estimating, planning out ingredients and amounts adds a comforting level of confidence and control. While I’m glued to my measuring cups, and always within reach of my google machine for “how to” research, the boy likes to play things by ear in the kitchen…and in every single area of his life, but that’s another topic altogether.
When I’m not making a recipe for the blog, I can usually go with the boy’s improvisational flow. For instance, we have an awesome go-to sauce that combines mushrooms, white wine, broth, and cheese. We made it up on the fly once, and have made variations of it several times since. Although we’ve never measured the amounts, I figured the sauce was so good it needed to be shared.
For the pasta beneath the sauce, I wanted to experiment with something new. Gnocchi tastes so decadent, but my google research had taught me that the process of making it at home is deceivingly simple. Since I was elbow-deep in gnocchi process research, I asked the boy to get the sauce together. When he asked for some direction, I told him, “Do whatever you want!” Of course, I had bought the groceries, so I figured my ingredients spoke for themselves. I had a plan, and it was going to be so good.
Those close to me may claim that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. A more negative person may even use the term “Type A,” but I prefer to refer to myself as thorough. Whatever you want to call it, there’s one thing that’s certain: I’m not a fan of shortcuts. This is especially true in the kitchen. I feel incomplete if I use a store-bought-item that I could easily make myself. If the semi-homemade dish tastes good, sure I will enjoy it, but in the back of my mind there’s a nagging voice asking how much better it could have been. How much better it should have been.
Before you throw the even less-flattering label of “crazy” at me, know that there are times when I go against my better judgement and…cheat. Yes, people, okay? I let myself cheat. It feels so good to say it out loud. Regardless of kitchen values, there are certain situations where a girl needs to catch a break. For instance, this past Christmas I was elbow-deep in galette dough in preparation for Christmas day, and knew I didn’t have time for another from-scratch recipe for Christmas Eve. What’s a girl to do in such a predicament? Find an impressive-looking dish that uses simple (read: not time-consuming) ingredients of course, then make the magic happen…quickly.
We all have something that makes us tick. For some of us it’s an individual activity, item, or what have you, for others it’s combining a few favorite things in perfect harmony. The boy, for instance, gets his kicks from shooting at things, specifically deer, but he’s not too choosy. For me, there are several things I love, but there may be nothing I love more than when three of my favorite things marry themselves the last week of December: delicious food, beautiful things, and Christmas.
The Christmas fever starts for me around the second week of November. I resist the urge to break out the holiday tunes as long as possible, but I have yet to hold off until the socially-acceptable timing of post-Thanksgiving. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that come the third week of December, this girl starts to get a bit intense. I bake constantly, shop frequently, decorate with reckless abandon, and partake in many a cup of cheer (hot chocolate and Bailey’s…obviously). When Christmas Eve rolls around, my family usually focuses on the stars of the show: cookies. However, this year we planned ahead and had a cookie-baking bonanza a couple of weeks ago. Left with excited hands and no need for additional baked goods, I searched for a recipe that would be fancy, beautiful, and yummy enough to be Christmas-worthy. As I’ve explained before, finding a recipe that pleases all of my family’s palates is no easy task, so I decided to combine a couple of recipes that had been in the back of my mind for months, but had yet to be played with.
A galette is basically a jazzed-up and beautified version of one of my favorite foods: pizza. A homemade pastry crust acts as the base, and curls up over the interior, the contents of which vary greatly from recipe-to-recipe. For my purposes, I chose a few of my favorite, non-dividing ingredients: tomatoes, potatoes, and pesto, with some leeks to support the flavors.
Cold weather makes me want to curl up with something warm and rich. This craving sometimes comes with a need for cheese, other times for hot chocolate, maybe some soup, and more often than not pasta. The past week has been particularly frigid partially due to the dropping temps, but also because the boy turned off all my radiators last weekend without telling me. So as I sat on my couch, teeth chattering and blanket insufficient, I decided I needed to not only make something warm for dinner, but I also had to have an excuse to turn on my oven. And keep it on for a while.
Spaghetti squash wasn’t entirely foreign to me. I had attempted using it in place of pasta in my usual marinara-based recipes, but the slight sweetness of tomatoes did not mingle well with the spaghetti squash’s sweet flavor, no matter how I spiced it. Similar to how some couples are so alike that they are stuck in a state of unbalance, tomato sauce and spaghetti squash were just not meant to be. In a stroke of brilliance, I remembered a lemon cream pasta recipe I had seen in a magazine last year, and I thought maybe, juuuuust maybe, lemon would tame the squash sweetness successfully.
When I’m not busy at work I tend to daydream. Sometimes the subject matter includes beaches and frozen drinks decorated with umbrellas, sometimes it involves frolicking in a winter wonderland type of scenario, and other times it’s as simple as picturing myself a few hours later, listening to music, and making whatever the heck I want for dinner. Such was the case this past week, when around 3:00 I finished a task and found myself free to be with my thoughts. I was feeling adventurous, and the boy was at deer camp again, so I knew I could go with the random vegetarian flow and try something new without disappointing anyone other than little old me.
The Minnesotan tundra had started freezing over, so I wanted something warm and cheesy, but after a weekend of eating my weight in cookies and hydrating myself with wine, I thought I should try to fit in some wholesomeness too. At the grocery store that evening I decided to venture outside of my usual vegetable choices and wandered over to the pile of eggplants. So pretty, so exotic, and so confusing to me. I had a rough go of eggplant failure a couple years ago when, blinded by size and price, I grabbed two extra large ones at $.99 each thinking, “These will feed me for DAYS!” Unfortunately, despite several recipe attempts, I only got a couple bites in each time before deciding the spongy, chewy texture was more than I could handle. Two years older and wiser, I figured I wouldn’t let the eggplant win again, so I grabbed one and headed out to make…something.
After looking at the available assets in my fridge, I decided to do my own take on lasagna, but with layers of vegetables in lieu of noodles (stay with me here). I thought back to my days studying abroad in Greece, when my classmates indulged in creamy, mysterious Moussaka while I, the sole vegetarian, was given a slab of flaky Spanakopita. Although Spanakopita is one of my favorite foods because of this routine, I was always curious about the lasagna-esque Greek creation. I couldn’t see any reason why lasagna couldn’t be one with moussaka, and vice versa, for just one evening, so I decided to bring the two cultures together in an 8 x 8-inch pan.