Thursday, July 20, 2017

Za'atar Bread

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Za'atar is a Middle Eastern herb blend containing dried herbs as well as sumac and sesame seeds. It's ever popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, namely Lebanese as well as several other nearby cultures. It has a slight sourness to it (from the sumac), and is excellent sprinkled over labneh (a thick yogurt cheese), and is particularly lovely as a topping for freshly baked flatbread.

Before baking

This za'atar bread is easy to make, and bakes pretty quickly. It's a bit fluffier than a typical flatbread, but the dough itself is squishy and light, and beautifully spiced with za'atar, and cloaked with extra-virgin olive oil.


Za'atar Bread
Makes 6
(Adapted from Soframiz)

Dough:
1 cup warm water, plus more as needed
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons honey
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Topping:
1/4 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 tablespoons za'atar
Kosher salt or sea salt for sprinkling

Combine the water, yeast, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk by hand. Set aside until foamy, 5 minutes.

Add the flour, salt, and olive oil. Using the dough hook, knead on low speed until a smooth dough is formed, 5 minutes. If the dough is a little stiff, you may need to add an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons water.

Remove the dough from the bowl and, using your hands, knead into a smooth ball. Place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Divide the dough into six equal portions (about 4 ounces each). Lightly flour a work surface and place the balls of dough on the work surface to rest. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes.

Lightly flour a work surface. Brush a large baking sheet (18-by-26-inches) with 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Roll each ball into a 5-to-6-inch circle and place on the prepared baking sheet. Brush each dough circle with olive oil, sprinkle with a generous 1/2 tablespoon of za'atar, and drizzle with a teaspoon of olive oil. Lightly salt each za'atar bread.

Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 20 to 30 minutes. The dough should spring back when you touch it with your finger.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake the breads until they just start to brown around the edges, 15 to 20 minutes. These are best served warm.




Monday, July 17, 2017

Hibiscus Margarita

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If I could use one word to describe this Hibiscus Margarita it would be refreshing. A few other words would be beautiful, bright, pink, delicious, fruity, and boozy.


Dried hibiscus flowers are often used to make herbal hibiscus teas and also for agua fresca, a light non-alcoholic beverage. Hibiscus is also referred to as jamaica, so when purchasing dried hibiscus it may be labeled as such. You can find it online, in Latin American markets, and I myself purchased some at a local spice and tea shop.


You'll start by making a hibiscus syrup by soaking the dried hibiscus flowers (which look like little octopuses!) in boiling water and sugar.


After steeping and straining, I saved a few of the intact rehydrated hibiscus flowers to use as garnish. I just stored them in the syrup until ready to use. They aren't quite as delightful as hibiscus flowers in syrup, but they are still edible and not unlike chewy fruit leather.


The hibiscus margarita itself reminded me a bit of a less tart cranberry juice in flavor. It was not too strong, and like I said earlier incredibly refreshing.


Although a salt rim is traditional for margaritas, in this case I opted to rim my glasses with some raspberry sugar, which I purchased at the same spice and tea shop as the hibiscus. The color matched perfectly, and the flavor helped bring out fruity notes from the drink.


Hibiscus Margarita (Margarita de Jamaica)
Makes 6 to 8 drinks
(Adapted from Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales)

Hibiscus Syrup:
2 cups water
1 cup (1 ounce) dried hibiscus flowers (jamaica)
1/2 cup sugar

Single Margarita:
2 ounces hibiscus syrup
1 1/2 ounces tequila
1/2 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Ice cubes

Margarita Pitcher:
Hibiscus syrup
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tequila
Scant 1/2 cup Cointreau or triple sec
Scant 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Ice cubes

To make the syrup: Bring water to a boil in a small pot or saucepan. Add the hibiscus flowers and sugar, lower the heat to medium, and simmer steadily until the sugar dissolves and the syrup has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve, and let cool. You may reserve a few of the intact (non-broken) hibiscus flowers to garnish your drinks before discarding the remaining solids. Return the hibiscus flowers for garnish back into the syrup to stay saturated until ready to use. This makes about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups of syrup, and keeps up to 1 week in the fridge.

To make a single margarita: Combine hibiscus syrup, tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake very well. Strain into an ice-filled glass (rimmed with salt or sugar if desired) and serve immediately.

To make a pitcher of margaritas: Combine all of the syrup, tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and 2 cups of ice in a pitcher and stir very well, at least 1 minute. It's important to stir for a full minute so some of the ice dissolves. Pour the mixture into 6 ice-filled glasses (rimmed with salt or sugar if desired) and serve immediately.

*Note* To rim your glasses with salt or sugar, gently rub a lime wedge along the rim of your glass (you can also use a bit of water to wet the rim). Add some salt or sugar (a flavored/colored sugar like raspberry sugar is fantastic with this hibiscus margarita) to a plate and then press the wet rim of the glass against the salt/sugar, carefully rotating the glass until there is an even coating.

More traditionally, you may squeeze the lime juice onto a plate to a depth of about 1/8-inch, and fill a more hefty amount of salt/sugar onto another plate, but that is wasteful for rimming a single glass, especially if you are using a gourmet flavored sugar as I did.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

First Annual Boston Pizza Festival

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This past weekend I attended the First Annual Boston Pizza Festival at Boston's City Hall Plaza. This two-day event featured nearly two dozen pizza vendors, including a couple from Naples, Italy, the birthplace of Neapolitan-style pizza.


I'll be honest, I was a little nervous heading up to Boston on Sunday because I had read a lot of negative feedback on social media from festival attendees who were there on Saturday and complained of insanely lone lines to get into the event, and excessive crowding once inside.

Our very short VIP line to get in

Although the festival lasted two days, tickets were sold as general admission for $15 and VIP for $50, but once a ticket is purchased the ticket holder could attend on either of the two days. First of all, I think that is a terrible idea. It doesn't allow festival management to know exactly how many people will be attending either way. They also did not cut off ticket sales due to whatever the capacity would be for this location. VIP access allowed entry at 11 am as opposed to noon, which is when general admission begins, but this is not crystal clear on the Festival's website, which simply states the time as July 8-9, 11 am to 10 pm. There were people with general admission tickets who showed up at 11 am instead of noon.


We had purchased VIP tickets and arrived early to wait in a relatively short line to get inside. Believe it or not, the line for people with bags who had to wait for bag check moved faster than the line for people without bags, and I got in with my bag before my friends did in the no-bag line. As a VIP, we not only got to enter the festival an hour earlier, but unlike general admission, this first hour allowed us unlimited free samples of pizzas. When I say samples, in most cases these were large, full-size slices of pizza, and at one location they were dishing out entire individual size pies. We also got a goodie bag, and got to really enjoy that hour without any crowding or waiting in lines for pizza.


As soon as the general admission doors opened at noon, the difference in crowding was palpable, and as we exited the festival shortly after we saw an insanely long line wrapping around the block. This was a case where our experience was fantastic, not crowded at all, with unlimited free samples, and many of the general admission folks would understandably be unhappy regarding the extensive wait, and pay-per-slice mantra once inside.



I would happily come back next year to the Boston Pizza Festival, but only with a VIP ticket. I hope the festival founders have learned some useful lessons from this year's experience, because there were a lot of very unhappy folks who did not get to enjoy the festival as much as we did. A larger space to hold the event would be paramount if anticipating thousands of visitors. A more robust security process with even more folks checking bags and scanning tickets would allow for faster processing into the event space.

My lifelong dream to be a pepperoni has finally been realized!

With that said, we really did have an awesome time at the festival! There were lots of amazing slices to try, while a few others were a bit meager in comparison. Not having to pay per slice was great because it's impossible to know which are worth tasting, and to shell out money for a mediocre offering would have been disappointing.



With that said most slices were around $2, but others cost more depending on the toppings and such. I would guess that during the VIP hour we each sampled an average of at least 15 slices (don't judge!). At a minimum of $2 each (many of these were priced higher at general admission), that would be a minimum of $30-ish for pizza tastings on top of the $15 general admission ticket. That already brings you to $45. The VIP ticket was $50. Having a less crowded atmosphere, and the freedom to truly eat as much pizza as we would like (plus don't forget the goodie bag) was absolutely worth it to us.

The UpperCrust Pizzeria samplings

Some of our favorite pizzas from the festival were understandably from the two vendors from Naples. Da Peppe e Figli was our favorite of the two, but we also enjoyed Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, which offered up individual pies!





My favorite creative pizzas were from Oath Craft Pizza. I tried three different slices from them including the Bella featuring mozzarella, roasted cherry tomato, roasted garlic, ricotta, balsamic drizzle, Parmigiana, and fresh basil, the Spicy Mother Clucker featuring mozzarella, pickled red onion, spiced chicken, sriracha, secret sauce, and scallion, and the Luau featuring mozzarella, BBQ pulled pork, fresh pineapple, crushed red pepper, BBQ drizzle, and scallion. I loved them all! The texture of the crust was fantastic, and the toppings were perfection.


Luau

Bella

Spicy Mother Clucker

Another pizza we loved was from Wicked Cheesy in Tewksbury, MA. Their Got Whitey! pizza with mozzarella, provolone, feta, romano, fresh garlic, ricotta cheese, and spinach was excellent!

Got Whitey!

There were other non-pizza food and drink vendors at the event as well. We got some awesome extra-virgin olive oil, tomato sauce, and pizza sauce samples from Monini and Mutti.



We also enjoyed gelato from Gelarto in Turin, Italy. $5 for two scoops was totally worth it for their strawberries and cream, and hazelnut flavors, although I'm sure any of their offerings were delicious.



All in all, I personally have no complaints about my time at the Boston Pizza Festival. We loved sampling the very generously sized samples of pizzas from a variety of pizza vendors, and also really enjoyed the added extras like early admission, a gift bag, and other fun treats like gelato and cannoli to wash down all that pizza!

Nutella and strawberry pizza!



Monday, July 10, 2017

Bouillabaise (Provençal Fish Stew)

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Bastille Day is this upcoming Friday, and what better day to celebrate (even as an American) than by eating French food! I'm kind of obsessed with all things French. I have about a million French trinkets and such throughout my home, as well as not one but two Eiffel Tower key-chains hanging from my keys.


There are countless French dishes that I enjoy to make and eat, all of which would be perfect for this holiday. You could start with Salmon Rillettes or maybe some classic French Onion Soup. Perhaps one of my favorites, Beef Bourguignon will fit the bill. For dessert you could try Tarte aux Pommes and Chocolat Chaud, or puffy Tea Souffles.


Today I'll share another option for a classic French dish to add to the mix. This one hails from Provence, Marseille in particular on the Côte d'Azur. Bouillabaise is a Provençal fish stew with a fragrant broth of onions, leeks, garlic, fennel, tomatoes, and fish stock, enlightened with a bit of saffron and orange zest, and finished with a myriad of seafood.


Some recipes strain the aromatics out of the broth before cooking the seafood and serving, but I like the idea of serving a more rustic presentation where you can see all of the ingredients as you eat. You can use quite a selection of seafood here, but I've kept it quite simple with shrimp, mussels, white fish (haddock in my case), and lobster, which is optional and easily omitted if you can't get your hands on one or feel squeamish about cooking them yourself.


The most time consuming part of making Bouillabaise is prepping the seafood, scrubbing your mussels, peeling and deveining your shrimp, and cleaning your cooked lobster, but otherwise this Bouillabaise is not that complicated to make. You can even cook the broth ahead of time and then reheat it before adding your seafood last minute for a weeknight dinner.


Traditionally served with this glorious stew are toasted baguette croutons (or at least some crusty bread) topped with rouille meaning "rust" in French, a garlicky spread. I've seen a lot of different ways to make rouille. Some feature roasted red bell pepper, others are closer to aioli in preparation, and yet others include bread or breadcrumbs as the base. I adapted a recipe using a chunk of diced baguette as the base, and blitzed it together with garlic, cayenne pepper, and olive oil in a small food processor. It was absolutely divine!


Bouillabaise (Provençal Fish Stew)
Serves 6

Rouille:
One 3-inch piece of baguette, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 tablespoons water
2 garlic cloves
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Croutons:
The remainder of the baguette not used in rouille
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Bouillabaise:
1 pound shrimp (preferably wild caught), peeled and deveined, shells reserved
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Zest of one orange (use a vegetable peeler to make wide strips)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bulb fennel, trimmed, cored, and finely chopped, fennel fronds chopped and reserved for garnish
2 large tomatoes, chopped, or 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup white wine
5 cups fish stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 (1 1/4-pound) live lobster (optional)*
1-to-1 1/2 pounds white fish fillets (such as cod, haddock, or snapper), cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (feel free to use a variety as opposed to one type of fish)
1 pound mussels, cleaned

To make the rouille: In a mini food processor, sprinkle the diced bread with the water and let stand until the water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cayenne and salt and process until the bread and garlic are coarsely chopped. With the machine on, drizzle in the olive oil and process until the rouille is smooth. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.

To make the croutons: Slice the remainder of the baguette on the bias (diagonally) into 1/2-inch thick slices. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Arrange bread slices in 1 layer in a shallow baking pan and brush both sides with oil. Bake until crisp, about 8 minutes. Set aside.

To make the bouillabaise: Cut a large square of cheesecloth, and place the reserved shrimp shells in the middle along with the bay leaf, thyme, and orange zest strips. Tie the cheesecloth into a bundle with kitchen twine.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, leeks, garlic, and fennel, and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down, about 5 minutes. Add the saffron, white wine, fish stock, and the cheesecloth bundle of shrimp shells and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the cheesecloth bundle, holding it over the pot and gently squeezing it with the back of a spoon or a pair of tongs to release all of the juice.

If using lobster, very carefully remove rubber bands from the claws (use scissors to snip them). Place the lobster in the pot, cover and cook for 8 minutes (flip the lobster over halfway through if needed, to ensure it's entirely submerged and cooks evenly). Using tongs, remove the lobster, letting any bits from the soup drain back into the pot. Let the lobster cool slightly, and remove meat from the claws and tail, cutting into 1-inch pieces.

Season the fish and add it with the mussels to the simmering broth. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. When the mussels start to open, add the shrimp and the cooked lobster meat and finish cooking, covered, until the shrimp is cooked through, and the mussels have fully opened, another minute or two. Discard any mussels that do not open. Adjust seasoning of broth as needed before serving.

Ladle into bowls, garnish with chopped fresh fennel fronds, and serve with croutons and rouille on the side.

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