Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quattro Stagioni

As we round the corner on spring, I'm certainly in high spirits about the spectacular color show that is undoubtedly ahead of us. Don't you just love the changing of the seasons? There's something to look forward to at every turn -- veggies and perennials to plant in spring, beach trips and blooming roses in the summer, Thanksgiving gatherings with dear friends in the fall, and mugs of mulled cider in front of the fireplace in winter. As I was pondering the changing of the seasons, I decided to make a Pizza Quattro stagioni for dinner. Roughly translated from the Italian, this just means Four Seasons Pizza. I did have one of these in Florence during a recent trip to Italy, and it was molto delicioso. From what I understand, it is simply a pizza with four quadrants, representing the four seasons. It makes for a very nice meal due to the variety in the toppings.

I'm not sure if each of the "seasons" is supposed to contain a particular ingredient, but I'm guessing that this is not the case, since I've seen many, many variations on this pizza. I simply used whatever was available in my fridge – zucchini, shiitake mushrooms, mixed olives, and red bell peppers -- to throw together this easy weeknight dinner. I guess this post is really more to inspire rather than to serve as a strict recipe. So, pump up the Vivaldi, pour yourself a glass of chianti, and get creative. Buon appetito!

Guide for Pizza Quattro Stagioni

Pizza base (make your own or buy them premade. I use a whole wheat Pita from the refrigerated section at New Seasons Market, and these serve as the perfect base for individual pies)

Sauce (I used Prego Garden Vegetable; I've used a homemade pesto before, and this is also delicious)

Toppings: I used sliced red bell peppers; kalamata and green olives; shiitake mushrooms; and thinly sliced zucchini. But of course, the possibilities are endless. I topped all pizzas with fresh basil, which added a very nice flavor. Rosemary or oregano would also be great as a spice.

Cheese: Since I was using fresh basil, I opted for the classic pairing of basil with fresh mozzarella, but any cheese that melts would work well. If I had some feta in the fridge, I would certainly have used this as well.

To prepare: Sauce your pizza base, top with "toppings", sprinkle cheese and spices on top, and bake in a 350 deg F oven till bases are browned, toppings are tender, and cheese is melted (about 15 minutes for my pizzas).

Great for a weekday dinner!

Sunny Saffron

Winter has been unusually mild here in Portland. Yes, we have had our fair share of rain and gloom, but at the end of January, I'm already hearing birds chirping and seeing buds blooming in the garden. Just this past week, I have been stopped in my tracks by the appearance of our very first crocus, awakening sleepily from its winter's rest.

So I thought it fitting that this first recipe of the New Year have something to do with saffron. Saffron, of course, is the highly aromatic spice that is derived from the stigmas of the Saffron crocus (Crocus sativa). Wikipedia has an excellent entry about Saffron, with the sections on the history of its trade and its chemical properties being particularly interesting. Therefore, instead of boring you with a regurgitation of the facts, I will simply direct you to :

Since saffron is the world's most expensive spice, worth much more than its weight in gold, it's a good thing that a little bit of it goes a long way. Spanish saffron is often considered to be some of the world's best. However, saffron cultivars grown in the Kashmir region of India, as well as Italian varieties that I have admittedly never tasted, are apparently a lot more potent and sought after for their strong aromas. Saffron can be purchased in specialty grocery stores or Indian grocery stores. Once you get over the sticker shock and actually bring some home, I guarantee that you will be rewarded with a flavor and aroma that will sweetly scent your home and mesmerize your senses.

Now that I've rambled on about how expensive this sweet spice is, I will make you all jealous by telling you that one of my friends recently gave me a whole load of top-quality saffron from her spice cabinet. (This was after I had already cooked my way through a large gift of Spanish saffron from another friend.) What can I say – I guess I'm fortunate to have friends worth way more that their weights in gold!

So, armed with this new reserve of the precious dark maroon filaments, I set out to create a saffron cookie to share with my colleagues at a work meeting this week. I'm glad to say that they turned out just as I had hoped: slightly soft, a pleasant yellow in color, and bursting with saffron flavor. Many of my colleagues had never (knowingly) eaten anything cooked with saffron before, and the cookies were a big hit. I would definitely make these again, especially if having friends over for tea or a fancy brunch. While these cookies are delicious, they are also extremely satisfying, thanks to the incomparable flavor of the saffron. If, like me, you have a bit of a sweet tooth, this satiating quality is definitely desirable in a cookie.

So, without further ado, here's my recipe for Saffron Cashew Cookies. Do leave a comment if you decide to give these a try; I'd love to hear how they turned out for you. Bon app├ętit!

Saffron Cashew Cookies

To make about 18 cookies, you will need:

1 stick (1/2 C) unsalted butter, slightly softened

1 egg

2 scant cups of unbleached all-purpose flour

¾ C granulated sugar

¼ C packed brown sugar

1 tsp of vanilla extract

1 tsp baking soda

A pinch of salt

3 pods of cardamom*

A (generous) pinch of saffron, crushed and steeped in 3 T of warm milk for a few minutes**

1 C (or more of roasted cashew halves or pieces)

* A note about cardamom: this is another spice highly favored in Indian cuisine and makes a wonderful accompaniment to saffron. I think it helps to really enhance the flavor of saffron, and if you can plan ahead, I highly recommend that you not omit this from the recipe. You can purchase ground cardamom and use 1 tsp in this recipe, but the best flavor will be obtained from actually buying green cardamom pods, and using a mortar and pestle to pound these into a fine powder. After you pound the pods a few times, they should open up. At this point, remove the skins, and continue to powder just the black inner seeds. This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn't, and the reward will be more than worth the effort!

Beat the sugars and butter together until creamy.

Add the egg and vanilla, along with the 'saffronated' (saffronized?) milk; beat to mix well

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and powdered cardamom in a separate bowl

Add flour mixture to egg/butter mixture and mix gently with a rubber spatula until well combined

(**Check to make sure your dough is a pleasant yellow color. If it isn't, you may not have added enough saffron. You can steep a little more in no more than 1 T warm milk at this time, and add it to your cookie dough, if you want).

Add cashews, reserving about 18 for garnish, and mix well to combine

Refrigerate the cookie dough for about an hour

Preheat oven to 350 deg F

Place the dough in mounded tablespoon-fulls on a greased cookie sheet

Flatten slightly with the tines of a fork

Press a cashew half on top as a garnish, if desired

Bake for 12-14 minutes till cookies are an even brown on the bottom

Resist the temptation to pounce on these as soon as they come out of the oven! They will be a lot better (and safer) once they cool slightly.

These cookies store well at room temperature in an air-tight container for upto 5 days. They are great on their own or paired with a hot cuppa chai.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cutesy Citrus

Check out these cute little clementines called Calamondins that I found at New Season's Market this week. They are the smallest ones in the pictures below. I also found some Kishu clementines that were oh so sweet, and super cute, as well. Go get some if you are in Portland!

Bottom left image, from L to R: Calamondins, Kishu Clementines, and a good ol' Mandarin orange

Friday, January 21, 2011

Happy New Year!

As a rule, I try not to make New Year's Resolutions (NYRs). Partly because they involve much too much introspection that can put a damper on all the year-end festivities…but also because of the guilt that follows when well-meaning resolutions are inevitably broken. However, try as I may to avoid resolving to do anything in particular in the upcoming year, holiday parties are ripe with people who use the NYRs topic as fillers for more meaningful conversations. I found myself in one such conversation way back in December, where I blurted out something about being more regular with my blog posts – I guess this had been weighing on my mind for a while. But now having mentioned this to a group of people, I feel that my mission is doomed, since, NYRs are inevitably broken. (I know I already mentioned that, but I think it's worth repeating.)

Anyhow, I have now been racked with guilt for 20 days for not having followed through on my "resolution", thanks to endless deadlines at work and grey, gloomy Portland days keeping me out of the kitchen and firmly planted on my red couch. But yesterday, on a rare crisp, sunny January day here, I saw my tulips starting to peek out of the soaking wet soil in my backyard. Then, on my way to work, I heard sparrows chirping a little tune. Could it be that spring really is around the corner? Are we really not that far away from birds and butterflies; hood berries and hummingbirds; flowers and warmth; (and yes, allergies)? Inexplicably, these little reminders of winter's impending departure have inspired me to follow through on my impromptu 'NYR'. I rushed to my computer eager to start posting up a storm, but sadly, I realize that I don't have any recent culinary creations to share with you. (Did I mention I've been marinating on the couch during my free time this month?) But anyhow, in the spirit of starting off on the right foot in this New Year, I want to sign off on this first post with some pictures of a few treats that sprang from my oven during the holiday season. I know, I know, Christmas has come and gone, and I have been lazy, but I promise that this weekend, I will drag myself to the kitchen and get the creative juices flowing again.

In the meantime, enjoy the pictures. And speaking of resolutions, dear reader, perhaps yours should be to leave me a comment on Clean Platter from time to time?