kitchen basics: a guide for the intimidated chef!

the other day, my friend greg and I were catching up over ice cream, talking about the past semester.  we go to different universities with very different food options, so its fun to chat about what we ate.  UVA is well known for having horrendous food and VT is equally as well known for providing sublime food experiences for its students.  the contrast is really astounding.  but, alas, it is expensive to keep a meal plan (which i ditched as soon as humanly possible) and greg said that he would be making his own meals, for the most part, in his apartment this upcoming year.  poor thing also confessed that he doesn’t know how to cook and felt sort of lost in the grocery store. 
does this sound like you?  are you terrified of the kitchen?  do you resort to eating cereal at all hours of the day just because you are unable to cook something different? 
don’t worry!  this next series of blog posts will focus on important tips and tricks in several useful categories that will take you from a scared to confident in the kitchen!  i’m not going to throw a bunch of food-jargon at you and you wont have to buy any fancy equipment.  this is specifically aimed at the college-kid who has limited a) time, b) budget, and c) interest. 
the goal of these posts is to zero in on some basic skills that will give you more freedom in the kitchen.  i’ll teach you how to shop the grocery store, how to stock your fridge with everything you’ll need for a full two weeks (on a budget!), how to cook up any kind of meat, how to take ingredients and make an actual meal out of them, what to eat with that meat, how to bake (!), and all sorts of other useful things. 
by the end of this series, you will be able to go in to a market and get the essentials that will allow you to make endless combinations of new and exciting lunches and dinners– without relying on ramen soup or chipotle every night! 
if there is something in particular you have always wanted to know how to make, or if you have a food problem that you’d like an answer to, feel free to email me ( or drop a comment!  i’ll have a q&a post as soon as i compile a good chunk of questions.
and now, OFF WE GO!

bakery shmakery. homemade rosemary focaccia is the way to go!

someone asked me in the midst of the Atkins craze a few years back if, being the foodie that i am, i would ever consider doing a low-carb diet.  my response was a loud outburst of laughter and then i answered with a heartfelt “no“.  my reasons are twofold:

1) i really really don’t like to eat chemically altered food, and fake sugars top that list.  i don’t trust things that emulate natural flavors.  to me, sugar is sugar and should be enjoyed in moderation, not in a “substituted” form.  i will choose a regular Coke over a ‘diet’ or ‘zero’ one million percent of the time (and i am not a big soda-drinker at all, so that’s where the moderation thing comes in).  but things like splenda, sweet and low, and even stevia are big no-nos for me.  low-carb things tend to use a lot of these fake sugars because they are free of calories– but the trade off is a truckload of chemicals.

2), i love pasta, rice, potatoes, and bread.  a lot.  again, i eat them in moderation and select the whole-grain options, but i just couldn’t see myself throwing them out of my diet.  while we are on the topic of bread– there are few things in this world that i love more than a fresh-out-of-the-oven roll or loaf of bread.  as my mother has always said, “bread is just a vehicle to get the butter to your mouth”, but i believe the opposite.  the bread itself is the prize.

this brings us to the delicious recipe of the day:  homemade rosemary focaccia bread.  for those of you who are so unfortunate as not to have tasted this kind of bread, it is full of olive oil, topped with big flakes of sea salt, and fresh rosemary.  it is the perfect bread for panini sandwiches, or to dunk in a little bit of table-olive-oil before an italian feast– or really just to eat on its very own.  it has a rich flavor and a dense consistency, and almost nothing in the bread world can beat it.  so i say “thhhbbbbbbtttt” to Atkins and invite you to enjoy this scrumptious recipe!

i searched far and wide for a focaccia that had the right balance of olive oil in the dough.  some breads can get really soggy and (as good as olive oil is) when you can taste the actual oil instead of just taste the flavor, you know you went too far.  this is adapted from Anne Burrell’s go-to recipe.

here’s what you’ll need:
-1 and 3/4 c. of warm water (warm to the touch– not boiling hot!)
-1 tablespoon of sugar
-1 package dry active yeast
-5 c. AP flour (all-purpose)
-1 c. good olive oil (1/2 c. for inside dough, 1/2 c. for top)
-1 tbsp. salt
-coarse salt (for the top)
-1 head garlic, in tact
-1 sm. bunch fresh rosemary

the first step is to proof the yeast, which should be nothing new by now (to all my trusty readers!).  in a large bowl, dump the yeast, warm water, and sugar (to feed the yeast) and mix around gently with a spoon.  this mixture needs time to rest (about 15 minutes) until you can start to actually smell the yeast activating.

while this proofs, you can start to get the dry ingredients together.  combine your 5 cups of AP flour in a large bowl (sift it if you’d like) and add the 1 tbsp. of salt.  mix well, making sure the salt is well dispersed.  by the time the yeast is proofed, it should look like this! it smells to me like the beginnings of warm bread, or a yeast-y beer, and will have formed a layer of foam.

with the super awesome bread hook attachment to your hand/stand mixer, combine the flour mixture, yeast mixture, and 1/2 c. of your olive oil.  if you don’t have a bread hook, a spoon and some patience will do just fine :).  mix until the dough is no longer lumpy (could be about 4 or 5 minutes) and gets a smooth consistency.

if your dough is still a little sticky, you can always add a few more sprinkles of flour when you turn it out of the bowl on to a floured surface.  knead the extra flour in a few times and you should be all set.

in the same bowl (wipe it out a little to get the excess flour off), coat the sides and bottom with the rest of the olive oil (about 1/3 c.).  add the ball of dough back in to the oiled bowl, cover tightly, and let it rest for at least an hour.  this is the first proofing.  the dough will have about doubled in size when you check on it later.

after it has proofed once, dump the risen dough on to an oiled baking sheet (or something long and rectangular with sides like a jelly roll pan) and start to spread it out to the sides.  this is where focaccia gets its signature “craggy” look– be rough with it when you spread it out!  take your fingers and punch holes in it as you stretch it.  if you don’t make actual holes, the dough will rise and smooth out.  the goal is to puncture the dough.  it should look like this:

now its time for the final proofing: take a tea towel and cover the pan.  let it rise again in a warm place for another hour.  when you check on it later, it will still be craggy but much puffier, like this:

now for the fun part– the topping.  this is my favorite way to flavor the focaccia, but feel free to mix it up and add your favorite things!   i reserved a few tablespoons of olive oil and drizzled it over the top of the dough.  i then took an entire head of garlic (peel on) and sliced it in half across the center (like cutting a roll for a sandwich) and with the cloves exposed, rubbed them directly on to the focaccia dough.  this adds a very mellow garlic note.  next, take a sprig of fresh rosemary and chop it in to rough and pretty pieces.  sprinkle this all over the top of the dough, pushing it in slightly.  the last touch is a sprinkle of fresh sea salt.  yummmmmm.

toss the dough in to a 425 degree oven for around 20 to 30 minutes, rotating every 10.  the oiled baking pan almost fries the dough on the bottom and the screaming-hot oven crisps the olive oil on the top making it golden brown and delicious!

after it has cooled completely (if you can wait that long after being teased by the heavenly aroma for half an hour), either use the loaf immediately for sandwiches or anything else your heart desires, or seal it up very tightly in a ziplock bag for later use.  the bread also freezes beautifully (i’d suggest cutting it in to sandwich size pieces first so you can just pull it out when you need it!) but will stay fresh for up to four days in the fridge.

now for my decadent masterpiece:

see?  wasn’t that easy as pie?  now i bet you will never go buy focaccia bread at a bakery again.  plus, your kitchen will smell wonderful each and every time you make it yourself :)

stay tuned for my next post where i will showcase this beautiful bread as the base for a prosciutto pizza and a caprese panini.

buon appetito!

what’s better than one cookie? a cookie inside another cookie!

firstly, let me apologize for my near month hiatus.  there is really no excuse, so i will fabricate one.  i got in a fight with this huge dragon and just now got out of the hospital.  yep, that’ll do.

i was reading all my favorite food blogs one day towards the end of the semester (when i probably should have been studying for finals) and a particularly interesting food photo caught my eye.  it was simple but striking: a chocolate chip cookie with a Oreo nestled in the center.  the center was revealed by the photographer’s “service charge” i assume; one clean bite.  even for someone who does not have much of a sweet tooth, i wanted one of those gooey confections immediately.
lucky for me, my best friend was coming to stay with me for a few days.  this was the perfect recipe to try at the exact right moment– like the Cooking Gods had aligned the stars.
Bonnie and i decided to go ahead and make the classic CCO (chocolate chip oreo) but we also wanted to play around with other combinations.  so we got some sugar cookie mix and Grasshopper cookies (like a thinner thin mint).  what we really wanted were tagalongs, but alas it was not girl scout season. 
i didn’t bother to make my own cookie dough for this recipe because the real point of these cookies is to see how crazy you can get.  but it’s totally up to you– make your own if you would like!  
we whipped up a batch of chocolate chip and a batch of sugar cookies (a bag of the mix, an egg, and a stick of butter) and made sure to refrigerate the dough for about half an hour before we used it.  this is actually important because if you are working with warm cookie dough it will spread like crazy in the oven and you will end up with stuffed cookies that look like UFOs.  i should also mention that this was a little bit of trial and error for us, so don’t worry if they don’t look perfect.

while the dough chills, get your “inside” cookies ready!  we used the Oreos and Grasshoppers.  but if you would like a different kind, go for it.  you could even put in those fun sized candy bars.

to make the CCO’s, take a small ball of the chocolate chip dough and press it in to the oreo on all sides.  you don’t want to use too much- just enough to cover the cookie completely (it should be a fairly thin coating).  you can think of it this way:  take as much dough as you would to make a regular sized chocolate chip cookie and stretch it around the oreo.
place the cookies about 6 to a big baking sheet (as they will spread some, so be careful!) and pop them in a 350 degree oven for between 8 and 12 minutes.  but definitely keep and eye on them so that they don’t burn!
when they come out, let them cool for about 5-10 minutes before you cut in to them.  this way they will keep their shape and not crumble!  Be patient :)
while these cool, take the sugar cookie dough out and go through the same process covering one or two Grasshopper cookies (stack ‘em if you’d like!).  the sugar cookie dough will naturally spread more than the chocolate chip will, so be very careful not to use too much dough. (they’ll be tasty, but deformed hahaha)  Reduce the time in the oven for these guys- between 6-10 minutes. 
we also tried a couple different variations: sugar cookie and oreo, chocolate chip and Grasshopper, and even a sugar/chocolate chip oreo (half and half!).  my personal favorite was the sugar cookie and oreo because it really showcased the oreo flavor, and i found it got lost among the chocolate chips in the other kind. 
all in all this dessert was so sweet, it’ll knock your socks clear off.  i don’t think it is humanly possible to eat a whole one by yourself, but these are great cookies to cut up and share. 

so i hope you enjoy these as much as our arteries did :)