I am quite sure that some nice, jolly fellow is sitting — right now — by a roaring fire on the northern tippy-top of our planet, rocking in his superannuated rocking chair, stroking his long soft winter-white beard, making a list, checking it twice, sipping a mug of marshmallow-flecked caramel cocoa, and MapQuesting the most direct route to my apartment in White Plains so that he can drop off a large bundle of cash, no strings attached. Because I’m so nice.
As soon as that happens, Stephen and I will take the baggie, thank him, pack the baggie in a bag, grab the Pen, and hit the road.
We will start our journey in Cambodia and see where the wind takes us. You know — play it by ear, chill in countries that are cool with traveling dogs, sleep under the stars, sup on monkey brains, catch fish with our bare hands, swim naked in the moonlight. Make sure to take lots of pictures and post them on Facebook.
Until then, we are doing most of our traveling via the kitchen. We go everywhere!
Lately, we’ve been focusing on warm regions like Southern Italy and Greece — we both love the sweet and sour, agrodolce flavor profiles of their honey-and-raisin and lemon-and-olive tinged vegetable-rich recipes. Another frequent stop in our taste bud tour is the Sichuan Province of China.
Though Stephen fears the chili-flecked wrath of the country’s spiciest fare (in his mind, Dan Dan Noodles occupy the same vague, sinister and potentially intestine-melting territory as liquid bleach and molten lava), he loves the briney, saucy, vinegary verve that enlivens even their blandest block of boiled tofu.
As do I.
This week, I made Focaccia-Pizza, Honky Hot and Sour Soup and Cauliflower Dressed in Greece. All were riffs on classic fare from Italy, China and Greece, with our particular palates in mind — I degreased the focaccia a bit, while adding a zesty sauce and a mix of highly meltable, sweet and mellow American and super salty, assertively nutty Italian cheese; I added honky-approved broccoli and extra tofu to the soup; finally, I add pistachios to the lightly steamed cauliflower recipe for extra crunch and tweaked the classic sweet-sour sauce elements to pack an extra punch.
Makes 12 servings
For the focaccia:
- 1/2 cup plus 1 TBSP olive oil, divided
- 1 3/4 cup warm water, about 105 degrees (think of it as just slightly warmer than you are — it should not be hot)
- 1 TBSP sugar
- 5 cups AP flour
- 2 envelopes rapid-rise yeast (if using instant yeast, follow instructions on package and activate it in water separate from the other wet ingredients; remember to deduct the amount of water you activate it in from total amount in recipe)
- 1 TBSP kosher salt
- 1/2 TBSP dried rosemary
- nonstick cooking spray
For the sauce:
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Splash white wine
- 1 14.5 ounce can of chopped tomatoes
- 1 large roasted red pepper, diced (roast until black under broiler, about 10 minutes, skin, seed and dice; or use a jar of roasted red peppers)
- 1 tsp sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
- 13 ounces of grated and / or shredded cheese (I used 8 ounces of smoked mozzarella, 4 ounces of Pecorino Romano and 1 ounce of havarti; goat, blue, fontina and ricotta would all work beautifully). This amount of cheese seems a bit startling and obscene when it’s crouched in a pile, staring at you from the counter, threatening to do bad things to your arteries. Ignore it and move on.
- Spray a large metal bowl of cooking spray and set aside.
- Pour 1/4 cup of the olive oil on a baking sheet and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
- Activate the yeast if necessary. If using rapid rise yeast, throw in large stand mixer with salt, rosemary and flour. Using the dough hook, mix for about 20 seconds.
- Mix water, sugar and 1/4 cup of oil in small bowl. (If using instant yeast, add yeast mixture to the bowl in this step).
- Slowly pour water mixture into the flour while the mixer is running at medium speed. Dough will come together in about three minutes. Knead the dough by hand a few times, transfer to prepared metal bowl, cover with saran wrap and place bowl in oven until dough doubles in size, about 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prep the sauce. Warm 1 TBSP of oil in saucepan over medium heat. Throw in minced garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add salt and a splash of wine to deglaze. Add tomatoes and peppers and bring to boil. Reduce to active simmer and cook uncovered until it’s thick and luscious, about 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, puree in blender and set aside.
- Take the dough out of the oven, and roll it out onto a very well-floured surface. This dough is sticky. Don’t freak it (like I did) if it starts to stick — that’s part of its schtick. Just add more flour, stay calm and remember that Italian grandmothers are too tough to cry over dough, and so are you.
- Drizzle the dough with 1 TBSP of olive oil, add a dusting of fancy salt (I used sea salt) and a bit more rosemary for fun.
- Cover with saran wrap and keep in a warm place (not too warm, like the top of the stove) until it rises, about 20 minutes.
- Crank that oven up to 450 degrees.
- Par-bake the focaccia for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. I threw some Pecorino Romano on there too, because I like the taste of toasty cheese.
- Remove the tray from the oven, add the sauce and throw the cheese on. Remember to leave an inch or so of border for the crust.
- Cook until the cheese is bubbly, melty and golden in spots, about 10 more minutes.
- Wait five so it can settle down and dig in!
Nutritional breakdown for Focaccia-Pizza: About 390 calories and 18 grams of fat a serving. Italian grandmothers think you should eat more cheese and I agree — you’re skin and bones, my dear. Also, it’s packed with protein, calcium, B12 and phosphorus.
Cost breakdown for Focaccia-Pizza: About $9, or $1.33 a serving. I had the flour, sugar, spices and wine on hand.
Verdict / In the future: Stephen ate four pieces on Sunday alone. I ate three. I would change a solitary thing. Except… if I were just making it for myself, I’d swap out the havarti for blue or goat cheese.
Honky Hot and Sour Soup
Makes 5 really big servings
- 1 tsp olive or vegetable oil
- 6 or about 0.5 ounces of dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1″ fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 cups of broccoli florets
- 1 TBSP soy sauce
- salt, white pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
- 2 quarts of homemade or store-bought chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 package of firm tofu, cut into matchsticks
- 1 scallion, sliced into rings
- 3 TBSP red wine vinegar, 2 TBSP seasoned rice wine vinegar
- 3 TBSP corn starch, stirred into 4 TBSP cold water
- 1 tsp toasted sesame oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
- Reconstitute shiitake mushrooms in a small bowl by pouring piping hot water and letting them sit for 20 minutes. After the bloom, rinse them and mince into small dice, discarding woody stems.
- Heat vegetable oil in large stock pot.
- Add minced ginger and sautee for 30 seconds until aromatic. Add mushrooms and broccoli florets, saute for 3-5 minutes over medium until softened, but not taking on color.
- Add broth and soy sauce and bring to boil. Add tofu and scallions and bring to boil again. Reduce to simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.
- Add vinegars, salt and peppers and corn starch and simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Add oil and turn off the heat.
- Add the egg and stir vigorously, breaking it up into small pieces.
- Dollop into bowls and add an extra drizzle of sesame oil, if desired.
Nutritional breakdown for Honky Hot and Sour Soup: About 200 calories and 6 grams of fat per serving. Full of fiber, protein, calcium, iron, selenium, manganese. Very, very high in sodium.
Cost breakdown for Honky Hot and Sour Soup: About $9 or $1.80 a serving. I had the oils, vinegars, spices, egg, corn starch and stock at home.
Verdict / In the future: Unlike many of the other hot and sour recipes I’ve tweaked and fiddled with over the years, this one works the best. There is just enough vinegar and spice, and I like using the whole block of tofu — I hate it when my Hot and Sour is too brothy, an all-too common occurrence with take-out. It’s also so easy to prep and takes so little time, I could easily whip this up during the week.
Cauliflower Dressed in Greece
Makes 6 servings
- 1 large head of cauliflower, florets separated into bite-size pieces
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 2 red onions, halved and sliced thin
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 TBSP red wine vinegar
- 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- salt and pepper and red pepper flakes, to taste
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano and rosemary, each
- 12 green olives, halved
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup pistachios, chopped
- Steam cauliflower for 6-10 minutes or blanch in salted, boiling water for 2-4 minutes and shock in ice water bath, set aside. I prefer my vegetables al dente, so I steamed them for 6 minutes.
- Heat oil in dutch oven. Add onions and saute over medium-high heat for about 10-15 minutes until golden brown and starting to break down. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add wine, vinegar, tomato paste and stir vigorously, distributing the paste. Cook until liquid has almost completely evaporated and onions are glazed, about 7 minutes.
- Add crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper, spices, bring to boil, reduce to simmer.
- Add olives, golden raisin and nuts.
- Cook until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
- Pour over cauliflower, taste, adjust seasoning, and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Cauliflower Dressed in Greece: About 200 calories and 5 grams of fat. Super high in fiber, vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, Potassium. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Full of magical things that allow chain-smoking, boozing nations to live long, lovely, tasty lives.
Cost breakdown for Cauliflower Dressed in Greece: $4, or $0.67 a serving. I eat raisins, olives and nuts every day so I didn’t have to buy those — or the usual pantry suspects like oil, tomatoes, vinegar.
Verdict / In the future: When I offered this to Stephen, he told me that this is something Gwyneth Paltrow would eat and recommend on her newsletter, Goop. How he knows about Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter, much less is aware of its name, is a fact that is probably better left un-investigated, like the origins of the term toe jam, or how on earth Donald Trump gets his hair to stay that way, anyway. However nefariously he arrived in a world in which he is cognizant of Goop, after taking a bite from the tree of knowledge, he is clearly ready to Unsubscribe. No problem: more for me. I love the luscious, richness of the tomato sauce, the pungent, salty meat of the nuts, the sea-taste of the olives, the nectar of the raisins. Cauliflower is the perfect, slightly sweet blank canvas for the agrodolce fun.