Sunday, July 28, 2013

Norman's Farm Market CSA!

I have wanted to join a CSA for a while now. The idea of paying up front for a weekly supply of local, fresh produce that forces me to learn new recipes and eat better always sounded fantastic to me. After all, my family loves vegetables, but we often rely on the same vegetables for the same dishes. And God knows how depressing frozen spinach and broccoli are in the summer. Also, the closest supermarkets here are Safeway (great if you are into flaccid cucumbers) or Whole Foods (great if you consider money issues distasteful). Takoma Park's farmers' market is great, but I always forget about it or end up spending $20 on peaches alone. I need the budget constraints and the commitment of a pre-paid CSA membership.

Norman's CSA - Week 1

After a lot of research and suggestions about CSA in the DC area from local users, I decided to try Norman's Farm Market CSA program. I joined for their 8-week Mid Season with a Large share that costs $210 (about $26 per week). There are jumbo and small shares, too. I was intrigued by their prices/quantities, the fact that the share included vegetables AND fruit, the inclusion of multiple local farms (more variety), and the convenience of various pickup locations and dates in case I miss the ones I chose.

Today was our first pickup at Norman's, and I am THRILLED with the experience. We brought home a heavy bag of amazing-looking fruit and vegetables, and our first lunch (pasta with zucchini and a tomato and cucumber salad) reminded us that vegetables really do have flavor. Really, it's like we've been just Skyping with zucchini for years.

People at the market were nice and helpful, my son had a blast, we supported local farmers, and there was nobody playing folk music as we made our picks. If that isn't a WIN, you have to tell me what is.

I'll keep you posted on the experience.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dealing with THE HUNGER while Pregnant

Here in DC we are experiencing a heatwave that might or might not disintegrate all of the capital's monuments and melt pretty much all of the contents of its shopping malls. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying my 30th week of pregnancy (that's in the seventh month for you non-pregnant people) with 19 lbs. gained in the past two months only (thank you, Italian vacation). I feel like an apatosaurus right after the giant asteroid hit, or whatever.

This is my second pregnancy, so there's not a lot of excitement and/or Mother-Earth-mindfulness this time. However, I wanted to share with you a recipe that is not properly of the ice-cream-and-pickles variety, but that is definitely craving-induced. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you the power snack of the future:

Whole Wheat Bread + Peanut Butter + Coconut Flakes

Right before it was stolen.
I'm finding that the pairing of PB and coconut is not completely unheard of online, but I still have not seen this particular sandwich. Perhaps I should call it a tartine, since it's open-faced... Okay, okay, let's not go overboard.

Anyway, if you try it and despise it I have another suggestion to satisfy your HUNGER. This potato chip bar from Chuao chocolatier. It tastes exactly like you imagine. Like Fried Heaven.

Monday, July 22, 2013

American Pasta: 11 Ways You're Doing It Wrong

Nine years ago I moved from Italy to the United States into a very gastronomically-conscious community, so I'll say from the start that I've had some good pastas here, especially from my friends of Italian-American descent.

I have, however, also witnessed and then consumed some proper atrocities. Pastas so overcooked, tasteless, and weird that they have become staple horror stories for my family and friends back home. This might sound mean, but let me assure you: It's not. Everybody is judgmental about how their traditions are carried out and interpreted, and since as Italians our only sense of pride these days is food, we're going to get pretty resentful and emotional about it.

In the future I will write a full post on how to prepare a perfect pasta that would please an actual Italian, but for the moment, check out these common mistakes and learn to avoid them:

1. KNOW YOUR PORTIONS. Italians do not eat a shovelful of pasta per meal. We eat about 2-3 oz depending on hunger level and/or occasion. Mega portions are frowned upon, unless you're a particularly active adolescent or a pregnant woman like myself (in that case, shovel over and suspend judgement). You don't care and want to eat more? Fine, but adjust water and salt accordingly, as explained below.

2. START WITH THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF WATER. Purists will ask for a quart of water per portion. I find that you can definitely get away with less, especially if you're preparing an unpretentious home meal. However, there needs to be enough water to cover the pasta comfortably. Spaghetti might stick out for the first minute or so, but then they should swim happily in the water. So, a sauté pan might work to boil 2 portions of penne, but you still want a taller pot for spaghetti and other kinds of long pasta.

3. YOU NEED WAY MORE SALT THAN THAT. Pasta water needs to be salty. You cannot just add a pinch of salt to a stock pot--that's completely useless. The rule of thumb is about one teaspoon per person, or for 2-3 oz of pasta. This will make pasta flavorful in itself and allow it to absorb more of the sauce once you get everything in the pan. Oh, you can add the salt once the water is boiling. Definitely add it BEFORE you put the pasta in.


5. STIR, NOW! Stir the pasta for about 30 seconds, less if it's not very crowded. This will prevent the pasta from sticking. Some people suggest adding some oil to the water, but that is based on a myth.

6. TIME IT, BUT TASTE IT, TOO. You want to read the cooking time of the pasta format you have chosen, but really, you should taste it, too. The amount of water, the size of your pot, how crowded the pasta is... these are all variables that can slow down the cooking time. Try the pasta a couple of minutes before it supposed to be ready. If you see the "soul", or a tiny white speck or ringlet inside the pasta, that means it should be ready in a minute. If there's no soul in your pasta, then drain it. No matter what, though, do not let the pasta cook for much longer. Good-quality pasta can tolerate a couple of extra minutes in the water, but cheap pasta will become a gluey mess.

7. DON'T LET IT DRAIN FOR HOURS. This I saw multiple times. The pasta is drained on the sink and then left there, in the colander, for a painfully long amount of time. If you want to shock an Italian, this is definitely the way. Pasta should be drained and then immediately mixed with the chosen condiment, in a bowl or back in the hot pan. If you let it sit, it will get cold, it will stick, it will become an inedible glue. It will suck beyond belief, and the damage will be pretty much irreparable. You might add a little bit of oil just to prevent sticking right after you drain it (and once I did exactly this, out of desperation, at someone else's house), but really, do not let the pasta sit in the sink.

8. SERVE THE PASTA MIXED WITH THE SAUCE. I was often served pasta and sauce in separate bowls. This basically has the same effect of letting the pasta sit in the sink. It will get cold and stick, and it won't mix well with the sauce once you finally mix it. If you're using an uncooked sauce, like pesto, mix pasta and sauce in a bowl and serve it. If it's a cooked sauce, then mix or even sauté pasta and sauce together in a hot pan.

9. EAT IT, NOW! Pasta should not sit there and wait for you to finish your cocktails, appetizers, or whatever. It should be eaten nice and warm and still al dente. If you let it sit, it will continue cooking and become horribly mushy. So once it's done, please serve it and eat it. The only exception is lasagne, which keep pretty well even for a couple of days (if prepared correctly).

10. DRY BASIL TASTES TERRIBLE. Many pre-made tomato sauces contain dry basil, which has a very off, dark, and overpowering flavor that immediately signals a foreign interpretation of pasta. Read the ingredients of the sauces you buy and make sure only fresh basil is used. Needless to say, do not add dry basil to any Italian preparation. Promise?

11. NO CHICKEN ON PASTA. Pasta works wonderfully with pretty much anything. In the end, you should think about it as bread. Instead of a sandwich, you're eating vegetables, meat, fish or whatever with this amazing starch. Still, a grilled chicken breast should never be placed on top of pasta. It's really hard for me to explain why, but the combination has a bland and microwave-y flavor no matter what spices and cooking method you use. If you really insist on pasta with chicken, that's fine,  just don't serve it to your Italian friends. They won't understand.

Now you can move on to the next post on the subject, Perfect Pasta: Dead Chef's Technique.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Spaghetti with Marmite

There are few strict rules about pasta condiments in Italy. Some are verbalized ("no grated cheese on seafood pasta"), others are unspoken because considered obvious ("no ketchup anywhere"). Since I moved from Italy some nine years ago, I found myself easing up on some of the sacred rules of Italian cuisine. I think it's only natural to adapt and relax when you're safely removed from judgement, and I suspect this is how some of the Italian-American dishes that baffle actual Italians came about. (Yes, I'm talking to you, "Italian" sub.)

Yesterday I broke one of the unspoken rules of Italian cuisine by letting myself be tempted by a recipe by Nigella Lawson, British cooking goddess and sex symbol extraordinaire. The recipe is spaghetti with Marmite, which could be an act of war in itself if it wasn't for the fact that most Italians have no idea about what Marmite is. I can tell you this, though: They would never dare spooning a brown and sticky by-product of beer with no real expiration date on their spaghetti.

Spaghetti with Marmite (pre-cheese).

In the recipe's introduction, Nigella explains why this pasta is not total lunacy and/or a diplomatic disaster, justifying this pasta with the previous existence of "a traditional day-after-the-roast pasta dish, in which spaghetti is tossed in stock" that I never heard about but that I'm not going to question because 1. I might be wrong and 2. I have a crush on Nigella.

Moreover, my Sicilian grandmother, in a possibly misjudged attempt to modernize her cooking, used to prepare an especially odd spaghetti with butter and soy sauce. This spaghetti with Marmite did not sound all that weird to me in the end.

Nigella's recipe calls for a mixture of melted butter, Marmite, and a little bit of pasta water, an addition I always applaud. Grated Parmigiano on the finished pasta adds even more flavor. I did not use regular spaghetti because I did not have any. I used instead some spaghetti alla chitarra imported from a recent trip to Italy: These are slightly thicker egg spaghetti with a porous, uneven surface that are traditionally made using a string instrument called, you guessed it, "guitar". As usual, I drained the spaghetti a minute before doneness and sautéed them in the diluted buttery Marmite for a few minutes.

Dead Chef's verdict: The first forkful was a little disappointing, only because Marmite's saltiness had not been communicated to my brain fully. After the third bite, though, I was hooked, which is the definition of the Marmite Effect on open-minded foreigners.

The Italian and American friends who heard about this experiment are skeptical, but my toddler and I, who ate two fantastic portions, are fans. Thank you, Nigella. Although I'm not sure my Italian passport won't be revoked for this.

Would/Did you try spaghetti with Marmite?