August 21, 2014

Caprese Quinoa Casserole

Everyone needs a good, hearty casserole recipe. It's even better when said casserole recipe makes enough for lots of leftovers, freezes well, and works for all your vegetarian friends. One last perk? It uses more of the delicious fresh mozzarella I taught you how to make a few weeks ago. This casserole pulls all the flavors from one of the most classic Italian appetizers, the caprese salad, into one big dish of comfort.

Caprese salads should really only have four ingredients: the mozzarella, the tomatoes, the basil, and the balsamic vinegar. This casserole throws in a few more, namely quinoa, garlic, and onions. The quinoa adds protein and binds it all together since you can't really make a casserole out of cheese and tomatoes alone. I cook it in salted water until it's done; don't overcook it because it will bake in the oven for a while later (although it's pretty hard to overcook quinoa since you leave it until it absorbs all the water).

To retain the simplicity of the caprese salad, I limit the vegetables to tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Yes, casseroles often have tons of vegetables or other components, but I wanted the flavors I chose to truly stand out. I saute some onions and garlic together to add a bit more flavor to the dish, particularly the quinoa, which otherwise wouldn't taste like much other than, well, quinoa. When you get a bite of the quinoa and the tomatoes and the mozzarella together, it tastes fantastic, but the quinoa itself won't absorb much flavor from anything other than the onions and the basil.

As for the tomatoes, caprese salads are typically raw; a few slices of juicy tomatoes are perfect. In this casserole, however, I wanted to emphasize the natural sweetness of the tomatoes as well as draw out some of their excess moisture. I decided to roast some cherry tomatoes (which are naturally bite-sized) as well as top the whole casserole with sliced tomatoes. The tomato--and mozzarella--slices on top prevent the casserole from drying out and also add and extra layer of yumminess.

The mozzarella is always my favorite part, so I use two types. Like I said, I layer a few slices on top to keep the casserole moist, and I also shred a few handfuls to mix in the casserole. It helps hold everything together so it doesn't fall apart on your plate, and it adds a delicious creaminess to the dish. I completely understand if you don't make your own mozzarella, so just try to get whole milk mozzarella if possible. It melts better and yields a much better texture overall.

Assembling the casserole is about as easy as it gets. Just stir together your cooked quinoa, roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions, shredded/chiffonaded basil, and shredded mozzarella and spread it into a big skillet or glass baking dish. Layer slices of tomatoes and mozzarella in whatever pattern you want, pop it in the oven, and bake it until it's browned, bubbly, and hot. Meanwhile, I like reduce some balsamic vinegar so that it's syrupy and more of a sauce, but you can always just drizzle some on top. It's the perfect touch for this comfort food, and it's a much more filling alternative to the classic appetizer.

1 ¼ Cups Quinoa
1 Pint Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 Small Yellow Onion, Chopped
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
¼ Cup Chiffonaded Basil
1 ½ Cups Shredded Mozzarella
6 oz Mozzarella, Sliced
2 Plum Tomatoes, Sliced
¼ Cup Balsamic Vinegar

Heat oven to 400ºF and grease an 11x7" glass baking dish.

Bring 1 ¾ cups salted water to a boil in a small pot. Stir in the quinoa, turn heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed.

Spread the tomatoes on a foil-lined cookie tray and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast for 10 minutes or until shriveled and tender. Heat some oil in a small pan and add the onions and garlic. Cook for 3 minutes or until translucent and fragrant.

Combine the quinoa, tomatoes, sauteed onions, basil, and shredded mozzarella. Spread the mixture into the prepared dish and top with the sliced mozzarella and tomatoes. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until bubbly and browned.

Meanwhile, heat the balsamic vinegar in a small pot over medium-low heat until thick and syrupy, 3-4 minutes. Drizzle over the casserole.

Serves 8
Recipe Adapted from Domesticate Me

August 11, 2014

Pizza Margherita

I've been visiting family in New York for the past few days, and one of the highlights (besides seeing all my relatives of course) is definitely the food. New York is a melting pot, and I've definitely had my share. I've had pasta and Chinese food and a few too many burgers, but my best meals were usually what New York is extra famous for: pizza. I was lucky enough to have both New York style pizza and extremely authentic Neapolitan pizza, and I still can't decide which was better. It was all so delicious that I was inspired to attempt my own at home. Despite the lack of a proper pizza oven, I think it turned out pretty well.

I'll start from the top. Two weeks ago, I taught you how to make mozzarella. Pizza is one of my favorite ways to eat mozzarella, and if you make a Neapolitan style pizza, you'll only need to slice up half the cheese the recipe makes. You can always buy mozzarella (I usually do), but pizza highlights the salty creaminess of the homemade cheese while also letting you save a lot of it for other purposes. If you do buy the cheese, I find that whole milk mozzarella melts and tastes better. You can shred or slice the mozzarella; I find that slices look prettier but shredded will cover the whole pie in gooey yumminess.

Some of you might be confused at this point. Is the cheese really the top? Well, I wanted to make a pizza margherita, which only has the crust, sauce, and cheese topped with some fresh basil and a drizzle of good olive oil. However, you can add whatever toppings you want. Some of my favorites are caramelized onions, sliced prosciutto, meatballs, and crispy bacon or pancetta. Keep in mind that a thin crust can only hold so many toppings, and if you use homemade mozzarella, you probably want to taste it more than whatever meat or veggie explosion you concoct.

The next step is the sauce. Anyone who has eaten Italian food with me knows how picky I am about it. It must be completely smooth, and if I find lumps or chunks, I will pick them out no matter how fancy the restaurant is. That's why I almost always use tomato puree for my sauce. You can use crushed or even whole or diced (though you might want to puree or blend those a bit) if that's your preference.

I do have one recommendation, though. I'm willing to sacrifice my velvety smooth texture for San Marzano tomatoes, which are only available crushed or whole. Yes, I know they are more expensive. A canned tomato is a canned tomato, right? Wrong. Certified San Marzano tomatoes are a special strain of tomatoes that can only be grown in a certain part of Italy, which has a unique soil composition. They definitely taste different (especially if you highlight them in a simple dish like a margherita pizza); I think they are sweeter and a bit more acidic with a more pronounced tomato flavor. You'll notice a difference, so splurge once to try it and you'll be hooked.

Now for my favorite part: the crust. Well, it's usually my favorite part, but maybe not when I'm using homemade mozzarella and San Marzano sauce. Regardless, this is a darn good crust. It's really easy to make, you'll end up with enough dough for two or three good sized pizzas, and it's a pleasure to work with. I often avoid making pizzas because I get so frustrated working the dough when the dough doesn't want to stretch or otherwise cooperate. This dough, however, is elastic and soft and can be stretched and rolled and molded really easily. You can make it extra thin or a little on the thicker side and it will still bake up nicely. There is a ton of yeast, and the initial yeast mixture practically triples in volume, so use a bigger bowl than you think (I learned the hard way). I add a bit of sugar to the yeast mixture so the yeast can "feed" on the sugar and rise even more. There's also some more sugar and honey in the dough because I'm a pastry chef at heart and I like everything a little sweet. Other than that, it's a pretty standard dough. All purpose flour works just fine here, so you don't have to worry about getting a whole sack of bread flour just to use part of it.

You'd think assembling a pizza would be simple enough, and it is. But I do have a few tricks to help. The main idea is to do everything as fast as possible once you have it all prepped. Crank your oven up as hot as it will go (at least 450F) and put your pizza stone in at the beginning if you have one. You want your stone to be nice and hot so your crust will start cooking as soon as it hits it. If you don't have a pizza stone and don't want to invest in one, just use a flat metal baking dish or cookie sheet but don't let it heat up in the oven; the metal will heat up quickly enough. Once your oven is preheated, pull out your stone, transfer your rolled out/tossed crust, and quickly spread on a thin layer of sauce and add the cheese. You want to work as quickly as possible so the sauce doesn't make the crust too soggy. Stick it back into the oven and cook it until it's as brown as you want it to be, usually ten minutes or fewer, so keep an eye on it.

I don't think anything will ever compare to a true New York style pizza or a real, authentic Italian pie. It's hard to compete, especially without a pizza oven (graduation gift anyone?). But I do think I've gotten as close as I can while still staying at home. Although I might not have an Italian grandma teaching me all her secrets or a brash New Yorker giving me instructions, there is definitely something to be said for high quality, made-from-scratch ingredients.

Pizza Dough:
2 0.25 oz Packets Active Dry Yeast
1 T + 1 tsp Sugar
5 Cups + 2 T Flour
2 Cups Warm Water (105-115F)
2 tsp Salt
1 T Honey

Whisk the yeast, 2 T flour, 1 tsp sugar, and 1/2 cup warm water together and let stand for 10 minutes or until foamy.

Combine the salt and 3 cups flour. Stir in the yeast mixture, remaining warm water, and honey until just combined. Gradually stir in 1 cup of flour. Knead the dough, adding the remaining flour as necessary, for 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic.

Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour.

Tomato Sauce:
Mince two cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil in a medium pot. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about two minutes. Stir in a 28 oz can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, 1 T sugar, 1/4 tsp basil, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, and 1/2 tsp onion powder. Season with salt and pepper, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Pizza Margherita:
Heat oven to the hottest temperature, at least 450F, and leave your pizza stone in the oven while it heats.

Roll one third to one half of the pizza dough out to the desired thickness. Slice or shred some mozzarella, and prepare toppings if desired. When the oven is preheated, quickly transfer the dough to the hot pizza stone, spread with some of the tomato sauce, and top with the mozzarella. Add the toppings or sprinkle with fresh basil. Bake for 6-10 minutes or until golden.

Pizza Dough Recipe Adapted from Pizzeria Bianco