Monday, June 14, 2010

Basic Training #4: Alfredo Sauce

Growing up, I learned to prepare sauces and soups in the exact same manner: by opening a can. Hence, they are general cooking weaknesses of mine. However, after learning a wonderful and easy marinara recipe from my friend Kristin, I was feeling a sense of independence from the jarred sauce. Though there is one traditional pasta sauce that I still depend on others for: Alfredo. I have never made an Alfredo dish at home because there isn’t a jarred version in existence that is edible. So I decided it was finally time I took Alfredo matters into my own hands.

I looked to three usual sources for guidance:, and On the Food Network site, I chose a recipe by Tyler Florence; then took two simple and similar versions from the other recipe sites. (See recipes below.) What I was looking for was a basic formula I could begin with, then experiment on using various spices. And I found that these three recipes used the exact same proportions of heavy cream and butter (if you cut the Tyler Florence recipe in half). The version, however, called for double the amount of Parmesan. So I decided to make two batches: one using a ½ cup Parmesan one using a full cup.

After I taste-tested the two versions, I would experiment with combinations of garlic, black pepper and nutmeg. I started by melting ¼ cup butter in 1 cup heavy cream over medium-low heat and simmering for 3-4 minutes.

Next, I whisked in a ½ cup grated Parmesan. Now, at this point, I was technically done. The flavor was mild, slightly salty and sufficiently cheesy. Upon starting this project, I assumed the ½ cup recipe would be weak in flavor, but I found it very tasty.

I started a second batch the same way and whisked in a full cup of Parmesan.

After it had melted I dipped a finger in the sauce and felt an immediate difference in thickness from the first sauce. The texture and taste were extremely different as well. Saltier, grittier and stronger in flavor, it felt more like a cheese dipping sauce than the light, creamy pasta sauce one expects from an Alfredo recipe.

To the first version, I began adding spices. I split the sauce in thirds, poured them into bowls, and in one I added crushed garlic, to another I added cracked black pepper, and to the third I added nutmeg.

My reactions were as follows:

Garlic. As much as I love garlic (and that’s a lot), adding raw garlic after the cooking process was over inhibited the flavors from blending and caused the garlic to overwhelm the sauce. I immediately recognized that a good Alfredo would need at least a little garlic, but decided it would taste better if it were added with the cheese during the cooking process.

Black pepper. An excellent addition. By itself, it adds a subtle enhancement to the sauce. Would be very good with garlic as well.

Nutmeg. This spice actually made the sauce LESS flavorful, somehow. It killed the creamy, salty aftertaste and tasted “homogenized,” like something from a cheap restaurant or frozen dinner.

For dinner that night, I poured the garlic version over pasta and topped with peas.

Overall, I was surprised to find how easy making Alfredo is: 3-4 ingredients and less than 10 minutes. PLUS!, it actually reheated well, as opposed to restaurant Alfredos, which separate when reheated. What I had left over, I put in a mason jar and refrigerated. Later that week, I scooped it out by the spoonful and reheated in a saucepan for a few minutes.

Below are the recipes I used as guides. You can modify them as you like to find your own preferred version.

Alfredo Sauce Recipes

1. Tyler Florence’s Recipe
• 1 pint heavy cream
• 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
• Freshly cracked black pepper
• Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

To prepare Alfredo sauce: Heat heavy cream over low-medium heat in a deep saute pan. Add butter and whisk gently to melt. Sprinkle in cheese and stir to incorporate. Season with freshly cracked black pepper. Top with more grated cheese and chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

NOTE: For my project, I halved the measurements in this recipe.

• 1/4 cup butter
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 clove garlic, crushed
• 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Add cream and simmer for 5 minutes, then add garlic and cheese and whisk quickly, heating through. Stir in parsley and serve.

• 4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
• 1 cup heavy cream
• Pinch grated nutmeg
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
• 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Toss the butter, cream, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and Parmesan.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Starting at the Beginning

"We take care of them, and they take care of us."
~Cindy Judd, Judd Ranch

Last weekend I ventured to my hometown of Pomona, Kansas. Before I took the 300-plus-mile trip there, I arranged a visit to a cattle ranch just a mile down Hwy 68 from my parents' house. Judd Ranch is a seed stock operation where they breed cattle, making them the very beginning of the food chain and a great place to start for anyone who cares to trace the origins of their food. The Judd family is  well known in the area for their 700 acres of gorgeous pasture land and their two seasonal auctions: one for bulls and one for females. However, I know the Judds because their oldest son, Nick, was in my grade. In a town as small as Pomona, there is only one class per grade, so you just move from room to room (subject to subject) every hour with the same group of 20 students for over 12 years of your life. So getting to know your classmates is not only easy, it's unavoidable.

The morning I arrived at Judd Ranch I met up with Cindy, the matriarch of the family and my tour guide for the day. It turned out to be an ideal day for a visit; the weather was beautiful, the whole Judd family was working so I got to see everyone, and it was the first day that the herd was re-entering the pasture for the season. Cindy explained to me how their operation worked, including some basic information on cattle breeding, as well as how their cattle are cared for. From March to November, the cattle at Judd Ranch graze on native grasses, and for the other four to five months, when there is no grass on the land to be eaten, they are fed a mixture of grains grown on the same lands owned by Judd Ranch.

The feed is made from a mixture of corn and alfalfa that is fermented on the property. It smells very much like olive tapenade, and the cows absolutely love it!

Since the cows were being turned out on the grass during my visit, we took a rambunctious little cart called a mule out to the many pastures and saw how the cows live for most of the year. It was very nice to see the cows happy and healthy, roaming on bright green grass and playing with their siblings or feeding from their mothers.

We also took a drive through an alfalfa field...

...and stopped to nibble on a bit of it, which tastes a lot like wheat grass juice, if you've tried it, or sort of like snap peas.

Cindy also showed me a watering technique they fashioned, in which they have piped water underground to large overturned tractor tires, so the cows can have access to fresh running water.

However, probably the most valuable thing I learned while I was at Judd Ranch is how eager family farms and ranches are to have people come visit them and learn about the origins of their food. In an industry where factory farms are the norm, and those factory farms are shrouded with secrecy, it is good to know that there are places like this where you can go to personally connect with your food.

If you're in the Pomona area (1 hour from Topeka, 30 minutes from Lawrence, and 1+ hours from the Kansas City area), I highly encourage you to contact Judd Ranch and schedule a tour. You can learn more about Judd Ranch at or by following them on Facebook.

If you're not in the Pomona area, I also suggest contacting local farms and ranches near you and inquiring about going on a tour. It's both educational and refreshing.

I will now close this post with.....(drumroll)......more pictures of happy cows!!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Basic Training #3: Roasted Veggies (Or, Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area!)

All you need is salt, pepper and olive oil and two things to keep mind: HEAT and SURFACE AREA. Heat and surface area. Heat and surface area. There are no more typographical ways for me to emphasize this, but imagine there are, and imagine I'm using them.

~Francis Lam, food writer for,
on roasting vegetables

Ok, roasting...something I’ve never been too clear on. How is it different from baking? What are the basic principles of roasting? What can and can’t be roasted? So when I magically bumped into two online articles on roasting in one day, I figured it was time to demystify the entire subject.

After reading Francis Lam’s article “How to Master Roasted Vegetables” on, I decided I would start with veggies and follow his advice: mind the heat and surface area (see quote above for dramatic representation of their importance). Lam insists you can roast nearly any vegetable, but he offers up a list of suggestions with how to cut each specimen for maximum roasting potential.

I chose three of my own favorite veggies based on varying factors: Brussels sprouts because they are presently abundant and healthy looking at the Soulard Farmers Market; Leeks because my good friend Chris suggested them; and Beets because they are one of my all-time favorite veggies and have the most deeply sweet and earthy flavor when roasted. (I know this because beets are the only vegetable I’ve ever roasted. However, after reading Lam’s principles of roasting, I think I was actually just baking them.)

In the NY Times article “Roasted Beets, Now Stainless” author Melissa Clark makes the promise of no fuchsia-stained hands once the deed is done. It is most commonly recommended to prepare beets in their skin because when cooked the skin falls right off. However, she posits that peeling the beets first prevents handling them when they are hot and their juices are primed to stain your fingers. I followed her advice, and my report is that there is still a bit of juice in the pre-cooked peeling stage that will spot your fingers, but it is NOTHING compared to the full-on Violet Beauregarde (Willy Wonka, anyone?) effect of peeling them when cooked. 

Alright, so I set about roasting vegetables. Lam’s principles of roasting are essentially thus:

1. Roasting is the presence of carmelization that comes from high heat while being baked. So the more carmelized you want your vegetables, the higher the heat you use. Of course, too high a heat and you get burning. So adjust the heat based on the level of brownness you want in your veggies. 400º is standard, so adjust from there based on your preference.

2. The amount of surface area directly touching the pan or exposed to the hot air will result in more carmelization. So don’t pile veggies on top of each other in your roasting pan, and remember that the smaller you cut your veggies the quicker they will cook through and brown on the outside.

With these rules in hand, I got started. I halved both the leeks and the Brussels sprouts because they are both leafy and fragile, so keeping their roots relatively undisturbed helped they stay in tact during the cooking process. I had read to cut the base of the Brussels sprouts after halving them, however I noticed this led to a lot of lost leaves, so I ignored that suggestion after trying it once. The beets I cut into approximately ¾-inch cubes.

I coated all the vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper, and started roasting at 400º. Being the smallest, I roasted the beets first. I only cooked them at half the recommended time and still felt as though they came out a little too brown and dehydrated.

The leeks and Brussels sprouts I roasted at the same time. I kept the leeks in for the recommended amount of time, and found the bottoms to be perfectly browned and the tops to be just slightly too dark.

The Brussels sprouts were the shining example of the night. Since the outer leaves get very dark very quickly, they fall away when handled and leave a lighter browning on the leaves below them. However, it turns out that having to cut the base off after the sprouts have roasted requires a significant amount of time, in which the sprouts get cold. But sprinkle a little grated parm on top, and don’t they look pretty?

This is one lesson that’s going to take more practice to master.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hey Kid! What's That You're Eating?


I know I'm a little late posting on this topic, but last Friday was the series premier of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC. And for the sake of those of you who saw it and don't need a recap, as well as those who didn't see it yet and don't care for spoilers, I'll make this post brief and to my own point. 

While Oliver's overall goal is to correct the eating habits of the entire city of Huntington, West Virginia, he starts in the schools, with the school lunch program. And most of the two hours of this premier was dedicated to his experiences there. He struggled with the stubborn lunch ladies and was baffled by the children's lack of food intelligence, or even their access to real utensils, leaving them to a menu of frozen, highly processed, handheld foods on a daily basis. 
The whole time I was watching this, I was thinking of how I ate as a child. During most of elementary and middle school, I brought my own lunch. It wasn't until high school that I started eating school lunch. And that was because of the bounty of junk foods available in our cafeteria. Aside from the school's pre-planned menu, we were sold a slew of a la carte foods. And that was where you went for the good stuff. Mornings before school brought monster sized chocolate chip cookies and Rice Krispy treats to the cafeteria. An enterprising a la carte stand in the lunchroom sold corndogs, mini-pizzas, chips, candy, etc. I believe that their excuse for selling us junk is that by high school age, one should be able to discern what is good for his or her body. That's just my assumption, though.

I really began to wonder, after watching that show and recalling my personal school lunch missteps, exactly who is responsible for the healthy eating habits of kids. Is it the parents? The school? A celebrity chef with his own reality show? At what age does the child become responsible for his or her diet?

For more school lunch insight (and great photos of school lunches), check out the blog Fed Up With Lunch, in which a school teacher has vowed to eat school lunch for the entire year of 2010 and documents the experience. You'll see some of the same issues as presented in "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," such as everything being prepackaged and frozen, minimal utensils being handed out to kids, and the disgusting interpretations of what passes for fruits and vegetables.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Dinner with Sallie: Part 2

You’re looking at the last bottles of salad dressing I’ll ever keep in my refrigerator.

As I had hoped, during my dinner with Sallie I learned the principles of making homemade salad dressings. She didn’t teach me to simply follow a recipe, but rather to understand the basic formula so I can improvise depending on the flavors I want to create. Essentially, Sallie taught me to make dressing by “feel.”

The Basic Formula
1. Juice a lemon. Measure juice to establish “one part.”

2. Mix one part lemon juice to two parts olive oil; Sallie suggests splashing in a bit more oil because she likes her dressing more olive-y and less lemon-y. So she also notes “the better the olive oil, the better the flavor of the dressing.” (p.s.- the general rule for all dressings is one part acidic, such as citrus juice or vinegar, to two parts olive oil)

3. Measure a “pile” of salt (as taught to her by a man from Mexico whom she met in El Paso) in your cupped hand (approx. a ½ teaspoon, but it’s sooooo much cooler to cup your hand and make a little pile of salt). Toss your pile in with the juice-oil mixture.

NOTE: Sallie uses kosher salt. If you’re using a finer-grain salt, such as sea salt or table salt, use less.

4. Grind in fresh pepper to taste.

5. Whisk with a fork. Dressing will last about a week when kept in an air-tight container and refrigerated. According to Sallie, Smucker's peanut butter jars make the best salad dressing cruets.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Dinner With Sallie: Part 1

"Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else.
Dinner is the evening."
~Art Buchwald 

I can recall—back when we actually had hot weather in St. Louis—spending a sticky summer evening on a restaurant patio, sipping cocktails and being devoured by mosquitos, with my good friend Sallie. The conversation eventually turned, as it always does, to food and cooking, and Sallie mentioned that she puts a ridiculous amount of effort into what is one of the simplest and quickest meals you can make for yourself: a salad. She insists on using fresh ingredients prepared specifically for balanced flavors, nuts toasted or candied minutes earlier in her kitchen, and homemade dressing. She has sworn off the bottle (of pre-made dressing, that is). And ever since that night, the idea of kicking my dependence on store-bought dressings in lieu of making simple, fresh, tasty homemade dressings has been lingering in the back of my mind.

So when I asked Sallie if I could cook with her, I intended for her to teach me the basic principles of hand-made salad dressings and share some secret recipes, perhaps. But as it turns out, that wasn't what this evening was about.

Sallie wanted to make a dinner out of it, to make it more than just preparing and sampling salad dressings. And what made this dinner different than most occasions on which you get together for food with friends, is that Sallie let me help. As it turns out, the simple act of participation turns "dinner with friends" into "an evening with friends." In addition to teaching me how to make salad dressings (more on that in Part 2 of my dinner with Sallie), she shared her whole kitchen and her love of cooking with me. Which—not that I didn't already have the bug—is highly contagious. Instead of a quick and dirty recipe lesson, I got to spend an entire evening talking about food, hearing her stories about where she learned certain techniques or bought quirky gadgets, sharing tips and tricks with each other. It was about so much more than learning to be a Good cook; it was about the power of food to create bonding memories.

We spent three and a half hours that night (with the help of my boyfriend) preparing a beautiful three-course meal, drinking wine, and forgetting that anything existed outside of Sallie's kitchen.

Recipes from my dinner with Sallie:

Course 1: Baked Brie with Roasted Garlic on French Bread

Roasted Garlic:
Leave paper on bulb
Rub with olive oil
275° for 40-45 minutes
Let cool slightly
Pop roasted garlic cloves out of their skin

Baked Brie:
Place wedge of Brie in pie pan.
Bake at 275° for 7-8 minutes or until melted

Cut baguette into ½ inch thick slices. Guests spread roasted garlic on bread, top with melted brie. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Course 2: Salad with Homemade Dressing

Toss field greens with paper-thin onions (to better control the strength of the onion’s balance with the other flavors), parsley, and grated fresh parmesan.

Add your toppings of choice. We added avocado and homemade whole wheat croutons with chilled asparagus on the side for nibbling.

You'll have to wait for my next blog post to get this recipe!

Course 3: Cheese and Almond Stuffed Zucchini

3 med. Zucchini
2 T. olive oil or butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 t. salt
6 oz. chevre, cut into small cubes
1 ½ c. finely chopped almonds (toasted if you like*)
½ c. whole grain bread crumbs
2 c. grated parrano or smoked gouda
½ t. nutmeg
¼ t. all spice

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise and, using a soup spoon, scoop out the insides of the zucchini to leave a fillable outer shell. Save the inner pulp and chop it.

Sauté the onions in the oil until translucent. Add the salt and chopped zucchini pulp and continue to cook on medium heat until the zucchini is soft. Remove from heat, stir in chevre cubes and cover for several minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the almonds, bread crumbs, grated cheese, nutmeg and all spice. When the chevre has softened, thoroughly combine all ingredients.

Fill the zucchini shells and place them in an oiled 9x14 inch baking pan. Add ¼ inch of water. Tightly cover the pan so the zucchini shells will steam. Bake covered at 350° for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until the filling has browned a little.

*To toast almonds, spread on baking sheet. Cook at 250° and watch them until they’re light brown.

Wine: There were many bottles, but the favorite of the night was Straccali 2007 Chianti.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Roots, Untangled

You need a stethoscope and a good good rake
some beer for snails and a rope for snakes
a flowerbed to fall in as the moonlight breaks
when you're the family gardener
~lyrics from "Family Gardener" by Minus Five

The seeds we planted three weeks ago for the Cherokee Real Community Garden have sprouted! We met Tuesday night to transplant the crowded sprouts into bigger cups and give them room to grow even more before they are planted in the garden this spring.

I was surprised at the pride I felt in seeing how quickly they had grown into delicate and brightly colored mini-plants. I mean, mostly they looked like weeds, but I could see their potential.

As I pulled apart the sprouts growing too closely together, it seemed as though they didn't want to be separated. Their leaves stuck together slightly as if having become accustomed to touching and desiring to stay that way. When I held the delicate little sprout clumps in my hand and broke apart the soil surrounding their roots with my finger, I saw that the wispy, hair-like roots had grown in spirals around each other, tying the group of sprouts together inches below the soil, where nothing and no one could see their connection.

It was in this act—the separating—that I felt the beginnings of my imposition on these plants. Sure, I placed them in the soil as seeds, but the water and light they needed to grow took over from there. It wasn't until I plucked them from their beds, untangled their roots, and transplanted them into different soil so far from each other, that I made an impact on their growth. It was the first symbiotic act in our relationship.

P.S.—Look how pretty and red those beet sprouts are!