On Bolognese

I think that the key to the best bolognese sauce all starts with your meat. For real. And honestly, for any of my ground meat-centric meals, I try really hard to stay away from just one kind of meat. I like the way flavors just intensify when you combine meats: beef with a little pork, or a little veal if I can find it, or even a little lamb, which has that really strong earthiness to it! And especially for bolognese, the meat is pretty darn important! Well, that and the kind of tomatoes you use.

How many of you reading this right now have noticed that jarred tomato sauce gives you heart burn? *Cooking Maggie raises her hand* Yeah, it’s not pleasant, however easy it may be to just dump the whole jar in after browning that meat and calling it a day. As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten a little more sensitive to acidic levels, which has made eating one of my favorite things in the world an incredibly uncomfortable affair. Thus, I was left with the task of finding a way to make my sauce from scratch, rather than from a jar or a can (because certain canned tomatoes have a TON of acid in them still).

I’ve already written about my tomato sauce (courtesy of Katie Lee from Food Network), and I found a pomodoro sauce from Bon Appétit that I’m super stoked to try out (and get this, THERE’S BUTTER IN IT! *gasp & delighted giggle*), but with the tomato sauce, I simply used it as a base guideline for my recipe, but added a lot of those other essentials that really help build body to this sauce. And what bolognese would be complete without your mirepoix (meer – puwah), which is just a fancy French way of referring to the holy trinity of veggies: onion, celery, and carrots. This already is adding some bright notes of sweetness and acidity, but also adding a little more texture amid soft ground meat and mushy tomatoes (and yes, I said mushy, but in the best, most delicious “I might put my face into this pot” kind of way, though perhaps soft is a better word) soft tomatoes.

And speaking of tomatoes, here’s my main tip for you (courtesy of my wonderful friend Melissa, who has been my guinea pig for many a dish in my kitchen): BOXED tomatoes. You heard me right. BOXED. And here’s why: boxed tomatoes, specifically Pomi, which you can find in your pasta aisle by the tubed tomato paste (I’m a total convert of this as well, love it), are typically BPA Free, contain no additives (literally the only ingredient listed on the label is tomatoes), so in my opinion, that’s an automatic win for the boxed tomatoes! And they just taste better. Honestly, compare an instant spoon taste between the two and I promise you’ll notice the difference.

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IMG_6393Oh, and finally, just because this is the pièce de résistance, definitely save some of that pasta water to loosen things up again after the sauce has reduced and developed a little more! It’s that last little *kisses fingertips* of salt that really takes a tomato based pasta sauce to that last level of mm mm goodness. If you haven’t been doing that, try it next time you make bolognese, pomodoro, puttanesca, or really just about any tomato based sauce, and I can almost promise you won’t be disappointed! Oh, and definitely feel free to top it all off with a little parm or mozz & some malden salt for that extra tangy pop of crunch! Now, excuse me while I go drool my way back to the stove to make some for myself. — Cooking Maggie


Cooking Maggie’s Bolognese Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 celery stick
  • 1 brown onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork (or veal, or lamb)
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste (from a tube, not a can, but if you do use a can, up the amount to 4 tbsp)
  • 1 box of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 large handful of finely chopped basil (plus more for topping)
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp dried parsley
  • Salt and Pepper

Instructions:

  1. Finely chop carrot, celery, onion, and garlic in a food processor.
  2. Cook this mixture in a large saucepan with olive oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes.
  3. Add ground beef and cook until well-browned.
  4. Add tomato paste, tomatoes, marjoram, basil, bay leaves, oregano, and parsley.
  5. Cook over very low heat for about 1-2 hours.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pasta, parm cheese, and fresh basil to top. Even top with some malden finishing salt for an added crunch and burst of tartness.
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On Back Pocket Pasta, Fregola, & a Quick Tip on Corn

A while ago, I wanted to try something new from the mass of cookbooks I have accumulated, and the one I wanted to open and dig into (quite literally) was Colu Henry’s Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Flyand more specifically, I wanted to try a pasta dish that would be new and fun! Thus, I found myself intrigued and pulled by her Creamy Saffron Risotto-Style Fregola, so I thought I would give it a go! I mean, I even found some Fregola at Gene’s Sausage Shop when I happened to be in the neighborhood, so how great is that?!

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But that’s when I looked in my fridge and saw the fresh ears of corn my grandfather had sent me home with after I had visited with them the weekend before, and thought, yes, that needs to go into this too, because, why not? It was fresh sweet corn, and that fresh pop of sweetness would be exactly what the doctor ordered amid the earthiness of the saffron and heaviness of the fregola. And then it hit me. Shrimp. Sure, this had crispy pancetta in it too, BUT shrimp & bacon go great together, so why not shrimp and pancetta? And shrimp has been used in all sorts of dishes with pasta and saffron, so why not here either? And lucky for me, I happened to have a pound of shrimp in the fridge that I wasn’t entirely sure what all to do with (funny how that sometimes works out, no?

But then this is where I found my next kitchen hack: shucking a corn cob by MICROWAVING IT FIRST! Say what?! Craziness! Though, it was craziness that actually worked, and I did test this out on two corn cobs, and by golly, it was easy & fast, and no silk threads in sight! AMAZING! The trick can be found on epicurious (linked here) and I’ve included some photos (AND A VIDEO!) below to show the process too! And for the two corn cobs, I did microwave it for 5 minutes because it was 4 minutes for one cob, so two meant I had to add a minute. (Also, I was filming the shaking with my other hand OTHERWISE you could use your free hand to kind of help guide it out of the husk.)

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Now, I love me some grilled corn on the cob, oh for sure, but ever since I can remember, I have a strong fondness and love for corn cut off the cob, smothered in butter and salt. And when using corn in a pasta, naturally, you cut those suckers off the cob! My own kitchen hack for you all is to catch those kernels in a bowl as you cut. Its easier than trying to will the little nuggets not to bounce off your cutting board as you make your way down the cob. And this way, all you need to do is add them in right before the pasta reaches perfect tenderness!

Oh, and did I mention this is a one pot meal? Well…one pan if we want to get really technical, and while I love cooking with my cast iron skillet, it is in fact a super pain to clean, but is, I think, the best vessel for getting that stunning sear on meat and shrimp, which I was going to end up cooking anyway! So in went the pork till it got crispy, then in went the shrimp (setting aside that lovely, dark pancetta), then in went the shallots (my new favorite obsession & replacement for onions in some, but not all, recipes), the pasta, the saffron infused chicken stock, and the vermouth (because I didn’t have any white wine, and knew I wouldn’t finish the bottle, so waste not want not when vermouth will work JUST as well).

Stir, stir, stir, then finish with the pancetta (which you can absolutely substitute for bacon if you can’t find it) and corn! Top it off with some basil, that scrumptious looking shrimp, and VOILA! You have yourself a dish that even the dog wants to eat (as shown by the terrible begging Tuggs performed the minute I sat down on the couch). And I mean, if I was a dog and got to see at how pretty that corn looked tucked into the pasta, yeah, I’d start shamelessly begging too! But that is the wonderful part about Henry’s cookbook. Every recipe I perused were approachable (even the ones that seemed really foreign & outside of the box for me), nothing about the methodology seemed complicated or beyond my skills, and the recipes were simplistic in the most beautiful and flavorful way. I love it when a recipe allows room for personal preference without losing the integrity of the meal itself, and sometimes I think that’s a rare attribute to most of the cookbooks I’ve looked at. She even calls her cookbook a “loose guide,” and I think that’s just wonderfully mindful that not everyone’s palate or tastes are the same, but still able to entice her readers with her delicious photos and rich flavors. And she’s not overly wordy about how best to approach making pasta so it’s perfect every time, and what kinds of items you might want to always have stocked in your pantry for those nights after a long day when a comforting bowl of warm pasta is just what the doctor ordered. If your mouth is watering right now, I highly recommend checking out her cookbook! Happy Eating! — Cooking Maggie

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On Making Pickles [and Eating Them Too]!

I love summer time veggies, especially when a particular coworker of mine brings in fresh produce from his garden! We’re talking tomatoes, all kinds of different peppers, and of course, cucumbers. And I’m not talking like, regular grocery store sized cucumbers. I’m talking about cucumbers that are as long as the tip of my middle finger to my elbow long, and thick like a can of Pringles. Yeah, they were MASSIVE, and incredibly fresh! As some of you may have seen on Instagram, I was inspired to twist up your typical caprese salad by adding some beautifully crisp and light cucumber slices on top of the tomatoes to add an additional texture and heighten the freshness of the plate! (I also topped it with my secret salt from Israel because I’m obsessed and have been topping everything with it as of late.) It couldn’t have been more perfectly suited for the more sweaty summer nights we’ve had in Chicago!

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But in addition to the normal produce he brought in, my coworker also brought in some very large pickling cucumbers, per the request of myself and my other coworker friend. See, he’s been making his own pickles for a couple of years now, and they are ALWAYS so scrumptious and perfectly balanced in brine and that short, sweet kick of heat. So naturally, I asked for the recipe so I could try it out myself, and not a week later, I had the recipe in hand and a couple of pickles to give it a go on my own!

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The recipe he had been using is from kitchn (the recipe link will be added below), and it’s a great one because it has a few variations and troubleshooting techniques on getting a better pickle texture for any home cook who also has a fascination with canning/jarring in their own kitchen! Where my coworker got a little creative in the process was in adding additional heat in the form of a jalapeno, cut into fourths long-ways, and then inserting them along side the spears of cucumber he had cut. He also recommended leaving the jalapeno seeds out if you didn’t want them to get too hot.

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The recipe is incredibly easy to follow, and incredibly easy to make! I don’t think it took more than 20 minutes to get the cucumbers cut, spices measured and divided, and the brine boiling. I did the refrigerator method because, lets be real, I love pickles too darn much that there’s no need for them to have a super long shelf life, but it didn’t seem too difficult to follow the full canning (boiling the jars after adding everything to them) method either. Perhaps for another day, another vegetable. I will also say, a good thing I thought to include in my preparations was a ruler, just so I could be as accurate and uniform about the size of the pickles. The recipe calls for AT LEAST a half inch of space between the top of the pickling brine & the lid of the jar, so I wanted to make sure my pickles were trimmed as evenly as possible.

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Once my pickles were set, in the fridge they went for about 72 hours, though you shouldn’t have to wait that long. About 24 hours should do it, but I happened to be traveling over the weekend, so I just let them sit and pickle away just a little longer. But once we got back, I immediately went to the fridge to pull out a spear from my one spicy jar, and man, this recipe, it’s legit. I’ll even go so far as to say they are better than any pickle I’ve eaten from a jar, and perhaps may never go back to store bought pickles….okay, maybe not never, because now I have the task of finding a store that carries pickling cucumbers (or a farmer’s market where I can stock up for a bit), and if I want to make deep fried pickles, that might require the pre-cut rounds, or whole pickles to cut myself…so maybe not never, but I would rather now pickle myself than buy them if I can. I will say though, since I did test these out on my book group on Monday, if you’re not the biggest fan of garlic, or find garlic to be spicy for your palate, definitely only put one smashed clove per jar. I love garlic, and some of my cloves were kind of small, so I added about 2-3 for each jar.

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So if you love your pickles, definitely take a half hour to try this out! I promise, you won’t regret it! —Cooking Maggie


How To Make Dill Pickles from kitchn
5 Ways to Give Your Pickles Better Texture from kitchn

On THE Mac & Cheese

I’m going to keep this short & sweet, but have I ever mentioned that I have an AMAZING Mac & Cheese (from scratch) recipe? Because I do. It’s rich, it’s decedent, it’s cheesey, and it’s gobsmackin’ delicious! And if you don’t believe me, then you should just try my very own “THE” Mac & Cheese for yourself! And you want to know the main secret to this dish? Obviously, it’s the cheese, but it’s a little more than that. It’s the ability to spice things up by combining different kinds of cheeses together to really highlight and enhance those cheesey flavors!

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But if you’re a traditionalist, then stick with cheddar, but a great combination that you can try is cheddar and gruyere. Or Cheddar and Manchego, which I have done and is incredibly scrumptious! You could even forgo the cheddar completed and sub in some raclette (cow milk cheese that lends itself REALLY well to melting, and if you don’t believe me, just search raclette cheese on YouTube and watch for yourself) or Monterey Jack! Maybe even throw in a little mascarpone or goats cheese to add a little extra creaminess to it!

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And while this recipe is pretty basic and doesn’t seem like it’s anything special, that’s where the personal touch of what kind of cheese you use—primarily influenced by the cheeses you like—comes into play! You get to really influence and transform this recipe in so many ways, like adding bell peppers, or adding truffle butter, or adding mushrooms (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m most certainly not, but some folks really love it), or better yet, BACON! Mac & Cheese is such a blank canvas, and it’s when you take that leap of faith into your own creative mode that you’re able to really tap into the potential of this very homey dish! So don’t be afraid to get gouda and crazy (I’m sorry, but I had to) with the cheeses! — Cooking Maggie

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THE Mac & Cheese
Serves 6-8 // Halve all ingredients to make servings for 2-4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pasta
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • 6 cups total sharp or white Cheddar (or combo it with another cheese! Manchego and White cheddar was a really great pairing, but I’ve also done white cheddar & sharp chedd, gruyere & white chedd, but plan to try harvarti and cheddar too!)
  • 2 tsp salt (add more for taste)
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • (Optional) 2 tsp crushed red pepper (for those who like a kick)
  • 2. T. butter
  • 1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Grate cheese, and start to boil the water for pasta (add a little salt and olive oil to water)
  3. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.
  4. Sprinkle in flour and whisk together for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add salt and pepper. Then SLOWLY pour in milk, whisking as you go until smooth. Add in cheese and whisk until completely melted and integrated.
  6. When pasta has been cooked, drain and place in baking pan.
  7. Pour sauce over top of pasta and mix to ensure every piece is covered in sauce.
  8. In a small pan, melt 2 tbsp of butter and add the panko bread crumbs, stirring constantly till golden brown. Then spread over the top of pasta.
  9. Bake pasta for 12-15 minutes.

On Summer Gnat Catching

Okay, how many of you out there are in your kitchen, or your bathroom, or anywhere else, and you spot not one, not two, but many of those little annoying bugs we like to call gnats? For most of us living in homes without air conditioning and windows that remain open 3/4 of the full year, you know exactly what I’m talking about, AND DO I HAVE THE TRICK FOR YOU, and I do guarantee it will work, without a doubt. After setting up my own homemade trap, I’ve caught three gnats in 24 hours, and expect to find more when I go home tonight, though I’ll never forget my very first Chicago apartment, after a week, I got a grand total of 24 gnats that had been infesting my kitchen, and after a month of consistently setting up a trap, I never had another gnat problem. It might not work immediately, but it DOES work.

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So what do you need? Apple Cider Vinegar, Dish Soap (LIQUID!), clear cling wrap (the regular kind, not the press & seal, which I don’t believe works as well), a bowl, and toothpicks (or a pen tip). If you don’t have apple cider vinegar, use wine or any other vinegar you have on hand.

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Put about 1 cup into the bowl, add a few drops (4 or 5) of the liquid dish soap (which will break the tension of the liquid so le annoying little buggies can’t sit on the surface). Then cover your bowl with the cling wrap so it’s nice and tight across the bowl. Then carefully poke holes throughout the wrap (about 10 just to make sure there are plenty of openings for the bugs to choose from). I even make two or three holes JUUUUST a tiny bit larger than the others in case of bigger gnats that can’t squeeze themselves into the tiny pin pricks, but definitely no more than three or you’ll end up giving them a chance to escape! Then leave the bowl where you have seen the gnats, and wait!

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In a day, maybe two, check on your trap and you should start to see a collection of the gnats at the bottom of your bowl. Leave your trap out for about 4-5 days, then rinse/wash your bowl, and reset as needed!

Here’s to keeping your home bug free for the summer! —Cooking Maggie

 

On Cooking Fish & Salmon Delish

I am proud to report that I actually made fish…and Frankie liked it! *pause* I made fish, and Frankie liked it…*double pause* is three times excessive? Well, I won’t say it now, no doubt I’ll say it later (mark my words), but there’s a reason I made fish: Frankie has unfortunately been dealing with a nasty case of pancreatitis for the past few months, but we’ve finally turned the corner in the right direction (thank goodness), and, while I won’t toot my own horn too much here, it’s primarily been because of my cooking, per his severe need to change his eating habits. After all, most changes in your diet that stick start at home.

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So! With my new mission to get him all healthy and still provide delicious meals at the end of long work days, I turned to a protein I am by no means familiar with, but felt comfortable enough to take some risks with. Fish, but more specifically salmon, which Mama Sully has continually told me was where she started when she learned to cook fish herself. It’s the least fishy tasting fish is the usual Now, this is not my favorite fish, I have to be honest, especially growing up. My mom would make this Salmon Casserole with cheddar cheese, onion, and biscuits baked on top, but when I was a kid, I would HATE those dinners…I’d even try to sneak large chunks of it into my paper towel and secretly throw it away (wasteful and really bad, I know), but as I’ve gotten older, my taste has changed. Funny how that works. And any time my mom makes her Salmon Casserole, I am allllllll over it! It is by far one of those meals that is just uber comforting, warm all the way down from bite to belly. And sure, the biscuit is still my favorite part, BUT I do find that my plate is more fish than biscuit more times out of ten.

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Now, there’s a ton of ways that you can cook Salmon, but the way I like to eat my salmon most is where I thought best to start off. Baked Salmon. There are SO many varieties that you can play with when it comes to cooking and dressing salmon, but most common with baked salmon, you’re either going to use a glaze to get this really beautiful caramelization on the filet that just seeps and permeates into the meat of the fish, OR you can crust it, like I did here, which you sear off first before transferring it into the oven to get that nice beautiful crispy crust on the outside, but maintain the moist and flaky inside! Oh, and my piece of advise for this is, if you are crusting one side, I recommend just going ahead and removing the skin from your fish. Two crusted sides could be a little much in my opinion, but if I were to just basic season my fish with salt & pepper, and make a sauce to pour over it, then I would keep the skin and stick to simply pan searing my fish. And while I know I could have used a non-stick pan, I love, LOVE my cast iron skillet and went that route since some pans don’t hold up well in the oven (which is why you should always double check the tag & online information before you buy a pan, but getting a good, heavy skillet is a worthwhile investment too).

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With the crust, I did not have a spice grinder to finely grind up the fresh spices, but that’s okay! I had a blender, and that worked JUST as well! And besides, while a fine dusting is the best for even coverage of flavor, it doesn’t always have to be that way, and as you can tell from my photos, my crust was a little on the chunky side, but I truly don’t think it makes a huge difference in the overall product you’re aiming for, so if your crust isn’t entirely perfect, don’t sweat it! A trick I did think to try was adding a little olive oil to make it a little more of a paste than a dry rub, and I think that can help with smoothing out a spice mixture when you’re using a blender.

Then this is where I got a little creative. I felt like the salmon needed a sauce, and I really like to pair tomatoes & capers with my salmon, so I thought I’d make a really lovely aromatic tomato sauce with capers, onions, shallots, and a little orange juice to make up for the lack of orange zest I was unable to impart into my crust (again, I found myself at a grocery store with NO ORANGES! Weirdest thing ever, so I went ahead and also added a little lemon zest to also enhance the citrus flavor). I even got a little extra crafty by slicing zucchini planks and cooking them in the sauce, rather than just heading over to my usual go-to of dicing and simple searing with S&P. It was really tasty, and definitely a trick I plan to use again in the future. Plus, it kept to the one-pan dish goal I was trying to maintain (rice aside because you can serve the fish solo if you really want to, but I love eating rice with fish, so I ended up dirtying two pans by the end of the night).

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And then Frankie ate it…AND LIKED IT! Which means, more fish dishes are a go, and boy do I have a few recipes I’ve had my eye on for quite some time! Look out for more fish friendly fares in the coming weeks!

—Cooking Maggie


Provençal Salmon from NY Times Cooking
[Note: I did not have fennel seeds, so I substituted with caraway seeds, which still maintained that slight licorice flavor, and because I didn’t have any oranges, I used orange juice in the sauce, and I included some fresh thyme to add an extra note of freshness]


Tomato Sauce with Capers & Orange Juice

Ingredients

  • 1 large vine ripe tomato
  • 1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium shallot
  • 1/4 cup white wine (or Vermouth)
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • 2 tbsp capers (or more if you really love them like I do, or less if you just like them)
  • Zest from 1/2 lemon (about 1-2 teaspoons)
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Salt & Pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Score an “X” on the bottom of the tomato and add it to the pot. Remove when the skin begins to peel back (roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute). Once cool enough to handle, peel the skin off the tomato and discard, then finely chop the tomato and add everything to a bowl.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet over low-medium heat (preferably the same skillet you used to cook the fish in). Add garlic & shallots, and cook for about 30 seconds, then add the white wine, broth, capers, and tomato. Bring to a brief boil, then lower heat to simmer the mixture and let it reduce for about 2 minutes. Add in the orange juice & lemon zest, then add in the butter, salt, and pepper (to taste). When finished, serve over top of salmon.

** This sauce is also great for white fish and chicken!