Monday, December 23, 2019

Why You Should be Using Canned Tomatoes from Europe for Your Christmas Dinner

I was sent products free of charge as part of the Greatest Tomatoes from Europe campaign in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Earlier this year, I read Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It by Larry Olmsted and it really opened my eyes to how little and how much labeling matters in the USA. So many words used on packaged goods like "All Natural" and "Healthy" mean absolutely nothing. A ton of the seafood sold in this country is complete and total lies, from the its listed country of origin to its actual species. And don't even get me started on how deceptive wine labels are in this country!

Why does a government organization like the FDA let companies get away with stuff like this, you might ask? Quite honestly, because as long as people aren't getting horrendously sick, they really don't care. Much of the food industry in America is left to self regulate, so authenticity and honest labeling depends entirely on the integrity of each individual brand. 

In Europe, however, things are very different. Packaged food products are strictly regulated and labeled so that consumers not only know what they're eating and drinking, but also where it came from. Everyone knows that old chestnut about how real Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, but did you know that real Parmesan cheese can only come from Parma, Italy? So no, that white stuff in the green cardboard bottle you like to sprinkle on your pasta and pizza is no where near the same thing as a fresh cut wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. The city of Parma even tried to petition the US government to copyright the name of their signature cheese, but it was ruled that "Parmesan" was a descriptor word for cheese, and therefore could not be copyrighted. Same thing with Cheddar, which should technically only be from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, UK.

Soon after reading Real Food, Fake Food I attended a seminar hosted by the Italian American Chamber of Commerce, which talked about many of the same labeling standards on European goods and instructed us on what to look for. Have you seen a DOC or PDO label on something? That tells you the item has to fit very strict regional regulations in how and where it is made or packaged. Most often you will see those labels on things like wine and olive oil, which are more strictly categorized in Europe (the stuff we sell as Extra Virgin Olive Oil in this county, for instance, would be sold for lamp oil over there!), but once you start looking for them, you'll realize how many European products you could be getting to upgrade your pantry.

Take the humble canned tomato, for example. Used for everything from soups to sauces to jams, canned tomatoes are a pantry staple. Now, this is an objective opinion and not a fact, but a lot of American tomatoes just have absolutely no flavor. There is a reason Italian tomatoes are prized, and it has everything to do with how they are grown and when they are processed. 

When my mother and I began planning our Christmas dinner this year, we decided to make a big pan of lasagna, but with everything made from scratch. As I have taken up pasta making over the last year, creating the fresh noodles would be no issue. And since this was going to be a big special dinner, we decided we should only get the best ingredients. Real Parmigiano Reggiano. Real Buffalo milk Mozzarella. And of course, Italian tomatoes. 

But before we cooked up our big lasagna on Christmas Eve, I decided to test if canned European tomatoes are really all that different from American ones by making a humble Tomato Bisque. Of course, I had to give it a little twist of my own, so I decided to serve it like French Onion Soup by topping it off with a garlic crostini and a thick layer of melted cheese. If I wanted to be really pretentious about it, I could have called it a Re-Imagined Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese, but since I only want to be a little pretentious, I'm calling it Caprese Soup. My challenge to you, dear reader, is this: Make this soup twice, once using canned American tomatoes, and once using canned European tomatoes and see if you can tell the difference in color, texture, and flavor. If you can, I bet you'll suddenly be searching labels at the grocery store for products of European origin, just like me.

Caprese Soup

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or any good quality cooking oil)
1 medium yellow onion, roughly diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 14.5 oz cans of whole tomatoes
1 bunch of fresh basil, finely shredded
1/4 cup of heavy cream

Thin, crispy garlic crostini
1 cup shredded, low moisture mozzarella
1/2 cup slivered Parmesan cheese

Add the oil to a deep bottomed pot, such as a stock pot or a Dutch oven, and bring to temperature over medium high heat. Add onion and saute until the pieces of onion are translucent and slightly golden around the edges. Add in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add in the canned tomatoes and their juices, then turn down the heat to medium and simmer covered for about 10-15 minutes. Use a stick blender to puree the contents of the pot, then add in the fresh basil, stir, and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add in the cream.

Use a ladle to fill a stone onion soup bowl with the tomato bisque. Top with 2-3 garlic crostini, then mound on mozzarella and Parmesan cheese until the entire top is covered. Put under a broiler for 2-5 minutes, or until the cheese is completely melted and golden on top.

Makes 2-3 servings.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

One Dough, Three Cookies: Christmas Thumb Print Cookies with Nielsen-Massey

I was sent products from of charge by Nielsen Massey in order to accommodate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

So your boyfriend's best friend's girlfriend suddenly decided to throw a last minute Christmas party. And your office manager suddenly decided everyone should do a pot luck lunch before the holiday. And your kid suddenly remembered the band is holding a holiday bake sale in order to raise funds to get the dents hammered out of the tubas. Not to fear! I'm here to help.

Of course everyone thinks of cookies around the holidays, and everyone has their favorite flavor combos that remind them of their childhoods. The easiest way to please everyone without endlessly sorting through Pinterest for recipe ideas is to find one basic cookie recipe and riff on that.

I, personally, have a great affinity for thumbprint cookies, mostly because they are so versatile that they can be re-invented to accommodate almost any flavor combo. To prove this, I decided to use Nielsen-Massey's Holiday Flavor Bundle as inspiration and create three different thumbprint cookies from the same basic recipe.

First, I made the easy decision to pair the almond extract with cherry preserves. Cherry and almond are such a classic combo, and the bright red center and the creamy white cookie just look so darn festive. Top these cookies with some slivered almonds and watch them disappear (in my own personal testing session at my office, these were the first to go).

Secondly, I decided to be a little adventurous with the vanilla while still keeping within the realm of winter flavor. Nielsen-Massey's vanillas are, after all, top notch and deserve to be featured rather than used as an after thought. For this version, I finely ground some winter spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and cardamon) and mixed those into the cookie dough along with the vanilla extract. I filled these cookies with a sweet orange marmalade and topped them with a drizzle of melted white chocolate. This version of the cookie might have been my favorite, if only because it reminded me of the orange spice tea my mom used to give me when I was a kid.

Lastly, I decided the pair the peppermint extract with chocolate, because what else is a more quintessentially holiday flavor combo? I altered the base cookie recipe slightly by replacing a 1/2 cup of the flour with cocoa powder and I baked the cookies without any filling. While they baked, I made a quick ganache from dark chocolate, cream, butter, and some more peppermint extract. Once the cookies were cooled, I filled them with the ganach and topped them with crushed candy cane bits.

Tell me what cookie flavor combos you'd like to try in the comments below!

Thumbprint Cookie Base

3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp flavoring (such as vanilla extract, peppermint extract, etc.)
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with a hand mixer, then add the egg and extract/flavoring. Add the baking powder and salt. Continue mixing, adding in the flour 1/4 cup at a time until it is all incorporated and the dough has formed. If the dough it a sandy texture, use your hands to finish mixing it until it is one thick mass.

Scoop the cookie dough into 1 inch balls and place them onto a greased baking sheet or a silicon mat. Make an indent with your thumb to create a well in the middle of the cookie. If using a jam-like filling, drop it into the well now. Bake the cookies for about 15 minutes, or until the bottom edges start to go golden brown. Let the cookies cool on a rack for about 15 minutes, then if not already filled, top the cookies with whatever filling you are using.

Makes about 2 dozen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Wine and Cheese: 6 Tips for Building the Perfect Holiday Cheese Plate

I was sent products by Mary's Crackers and Mionetto free of charge. All opinions are my own and I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this post.

Forget the crudite, forget the charcuterie. If I show up to your holiday party and there is no cheese on your table, I'm leaving. And I brought a damn good White Elephant gift, which I am now keeping for myself. There is just nothing quite like a well curated cheese plate, and I'm not talking one of those pre-sliced, plastic wrapped deals that looks like they just dyed the same block of cheese product different colors. A good cheese plate needs variety, not just in flavor, but in texture. Hard cheese, soft cheese, fresh cheese, aged cheese. Like a wedding. "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something bleu."

I know, it can be intimidating to put together a really nice cheese plate yourself. But I have been doing it for years (I had a friend who once admitted mine was the only house he'd go to outside his own because he knew I'd always have good cheese on hand) and I am here to give you a few tips to help please all the cheese lovers at your next gathering.

1) Aged cheese, like Goudas, Parmesans, and Cheddars are the most common and approachable hard cheeses, but they do get pricey. Good news is, these cheeses are meant to be nibbled on in very small quantities, as they pack quite a punch, so you can get away with smaller wedges. Do not slice these cheeses! Break them into small hunks using a cheese spade. That way you don't destroy the crunchy calcium crystals that give aged cheeses their distinctive texture. Stay simple with something like a 5 year gouda or an authentic Parmesan (produced in Parma, Italy) and you can't go wrong.

2) Fresh cheeses are great for people who like cheese, but aren't fans of the funkier varieties. Fresh mozzarella and burrata are easy enough to find these days, but can be quite messy on a cheese board. I love putting out a bit of goat cheese, since it is sliceable and spreadable, but less of a mess.
Montchevre in particular makes a wide variety of sweet and savory flavors that are excellent. I highly recommend the Honey variety, as it's simple, yet effective. These are perfect for those who prefer to eat their cheese on crackers.

3) Speaking of crackers, CHOOSE CAREFULLY. A lot of flavored crackers will overpower your skillfully selected cheeses. You want something that will function both as a palate cleanser without drying out your mouth and as a vehicle for cheese without shattering into a million pieces after one bite. I recently tried a few varieties from Mary's Gone Crackers and I really appreciate how their extraordinary texture works with cheese. They are jam packed with seeds and whole grains, giving them a lovely crisp snap, but also the strength to not crumble to bits. They are also made with rice, making them gluten free! My money's on the Original flavor, the Black Pepper, the Classic Super Seed, or the Everything Super Seed. 

4) Back to the cheese; don't be afraid of the funk. No, I'm not talking about stinky cheeses. I'm talking about funky flavors. Cheese purists will turn their noses up at the thought of anything infiltrating their cheese's natural flavoring, but adding a bit of something something to a cheese can help make it more accessible to the cheese novices in the crowd. Instead of a simple brie, why not go with something like this Champignon Mushroom from Germany, which is a rinded soft cheese with mushroomy umami flavor. Or instead of a standard cheddar, how about on with truffles in it? Too many savory cheeses on your plate? Go for one of the many varieties of white stilton with fruit in it. I've seen everything from blueberry to mango to apricot, and I have adored them all.

5) Accompaniments are essential. If you really want to make it all about the cheese, I say skip any kind of cured meats all together. Same with nuts. If you want to also have meats or nuts, make those their own things and place them far away from the cheeses so people aren't as inclined to eat everything together. If you're lucky enough to have a decent cheese department at your local grocery store, you may find a variety of unique jams and spreads that will be great accessories to your cheese. Get at least one sweet, one savory, and acidic spread. I like to present things like slices of quince jelly, fig butter, and bacon jam. Just like the crackers, your accompaniments should not only work with the cheese, but function as palate cleansers between bites of cheese. 

6) This is the big one: Wine. What is a good cheese plate without a good bottle of wine to accompany it? Now, I am no wine expert by any means, but all I've ever heard from wine directors and sommeliers is that the most important rule is to drink what you like. The first thing I personally reach for when eating cheese is a sparkling wine. A bright, bubbly, slightly acidic wine really helps to cut through the fat of the cheese and prepare you for each new bite. I really like Mionetto Prosecco Extra Dry because it's affordable, but is still an excellent quality, not to mention completely organic, and it has a subtle floral flavor that I think works really well with most cheeses. If you would rather go all out, I would highly suggest visiting the nearest Wine Cellar location and having them help you pick out a variety of reds, whites, and blushes that will please a crowd. I recently stopped into the Schaumburg location and did a little in store tasting, where I fell in love with wonderful Chardonnay from La Voute and a red blend from Valcatrina that will both be served with my holiday cheese plate. Seriously, there are so many deals to be had at The Wine Cellar that I was actually able to buy 6 bottles of wine for under $75!

And that's it! Now go out there and celebrate Jesus with Cheesus!