Monday, November 23, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

What do you call a person who volunteers to make an elaborate wedding dinner for 60-70 people? Ambitious. Crazy. Out of their mind. Or.... Brenda.

At the start of September, my sister Angie got engaged... then decided she wanted to get married sooner rather than later. She and Ben are expecting a new baby in February, and with all the hustle and bustle that a new baby brings, coupled with the fact that Angie is planning to begin pursuing her nursing degree in the fall, she decided it was now or never. So originally, she wanted to do something really small. And I mean SMALL. She was perfectly happy at the thought of having just parents, siblings and her daughter and his son there. I thought it sounded great. Small, simple, and nothing like the zoo that surrounds most weddings. Don't get me wrong, I am a photographer and shoot weddings fairly regularly, but my personal style is much simpler than most weddings I am at.

My mom, however, had other plans. See, my older sister, Mely, got married at the town hall in Fayetteville, NC, days before her soon-to-be husband, Aaron, was deployed to Iraq, and I don't plan on being married anytime soon, to say the least. So she saw this as her big chance to have a beautiful wedding for one of her daughters. She wanted to invite family, friends, you name them. So, we made a list, and it turned out to be about 60-65 people. Ok. But then there was the October 18 wedding date that Angie and Ben had decided on. And the fact that planing a wedding in six weeks was a really daunting task, especially when it wasn't something any of us had planned for, in terms of budget. We began working out the details. Angie wanted to be married outdoors, and the arboretum at Conn College was perfect. Ben could rent the clubhouse at the local marina where his grandfather owns a slip at, for the reception. Then there was the matter of the food. My mom had a lot of ideas, and so did I. I thought that a fall themed menu would be fitting, and planned everything out. Here is the menu I created:

I started testing out my recipes, adjusting them to our tastes, I priced all the ingredients, and created a calendar of the week of the wedding, planning out each step of each recipe. My mom still worried that I couldn't do it. For some reason, she was under the misguided impression that I thought I was going to do it all by myself. I assured her and reassured her that I would delegate responsibilities as I saw fit in order to have everything prepared on time.

About three weeks before the wedding, my main concern was getting the ravioli made, because I'd insisted that because of price, we would have to make them ourselves. I would have just dropped it from the menu, but my sister and Ben tried the ones I'd made while testing my recipes, and loved them. So they stayed on the menu, and in the span of about one week, I made about 450 raviolis, with some help from my mom and roommate Melissa. It was a HUGE task for a novice to pasta-making, but we did it and they were delicious.

And then, the unthinkable happened.

About a week and a half before the wedding, we did a final count of guests. Our guest list of 60 had ballooned to 80 people, with relatives who live long distances away, who we had thought would never be able to make it, RSVPing that they would attend. In my book, the more the merrier, but when we went down to the marina to figure out where we would squeeze the extra guests, we realized it just wasn't gonna happen. We went into panic mode. What the hell were we gonna do?

We started calling around to area hotels, knowing we were going to totally blow our budget, but not having any alternative. Through a stroke of luck (and because the wedding was on a Sunday) the Mystic Hilton turned out to be easiest on our wallets (also, it helped that since it was just a week away at this point, the wonderful event staff there waived the room reservation fee). We ended up having a fairly standard wedding buffet catered by the hotel, all crises were averted, and it was a beautiful wedding.

But now I have 450 Pumpkin-filled Spinach raviolis in my mom's freezer. I decided I would package them in family sized quantities in ziplock bags and give them to family, friends, etc. And now, I think that pumpkin ravioli is SO appropriate for Thanksgiving.

If you've never made pasta before (which I'm going to assume you haven't, I mean, really, who does that, besides a little old Italian granny?), it is intense. You have to make the pasta dough, let it sit for a couple hours, make the filling, roll the dough out, portion the filling on the dough, CAREFULLY seal them closed, and cut them apart.

Here is the recipe:

Spinach Pasta Dough:
  • 1 1/2 cups semolina flour, finest grind
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and water squeezed out
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin oil

Pumpkin Filling:
  • 1- 16 oz. can of Pumpkin
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2-4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Salt and Pepper

Other Ingredients:
  • 1 egg, beaten, to brush pasta dough with
  • Flour, to dust pasta and pasta roller with
  • Semolina flour, to dust cookie sheets with

To make the dough:
Put the flours, and salt in a food processor and pulse to blend.
Add the eggs, spinach, and olive oil into the covered processor and blend until a ball forms. Cover dough tightly with plastic wrap and let rest for 2 hours at room temperature before rolling out or refrigerating. To make the filling:
In a saucepan, melt the butter, then add the pumpkin and cream. Stir until combined. Add the herbs, and simmer over low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the liquid has evaporated. Let cool before filling the ravioli.

To assemble the Ravioli:
Start by cutting your ball of pasta dough in half.
Then, begin rolling it into long strips by first shaping it into a long, flat piece. Then roll it through your pasta machine, starting on the thickest setting and gradually working down to the second thinnest setting. Once your strips are made, put about one teaspoon of filling for each ravioli about 1 inch apart on half of your rolled dough. Then, brush the other half with the beaten egg, and carefully lay the brushed side down over your filled pasta, being sure to seal the edges with as little air as possible left inside. Using a ridged pasta cutter or a sharp knife, trim the edges and cut your ravioli into squares. Lay finished ravioli on a cookie sheet dusted liberally with semolina. Freeze and package in ziplock bags.

I had never even considered making my own pasta before. The thought just never entered my mind. But I found this Wolfgang Puck recipe I thought sounded REALLY good, and wanted to try it, so I did. It was a lot of work. It took forever, even after I bought a pasta roller for $34.99 at Bed, Bath and Beyond (I originally tried to roll it out by hand, which was a BAD idea. It was really hard to do and I couldn't get it anywhere close to as thin as I needed it). I ended up using my mom's entire dining room table to do it, (since I was making such a large quantity- I made 8 batches!), and lined the whole table with sheets of parchment paper. I figured out that I was best off cutting the long strips into foot-long sections, so they would be easier to handle. I eventually got the feel for sealing them properly, without air inside (they can potentially burst when cooking if they have air in them), and found that if I let them freeze for about an hour I could transfer them to ziplock bags for more long-term freezer storage.

The original recipe includes a sage cream sauce to serve them with, but I think they are delicious with just a little melted butter, parmesan, salt and pepper, and a few sage leaves for a garnish.

Anyone interested in a bag of frozen, handmade, pumpkin ravioli?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Julie and Julia

Ok. Let's get this out of the way first. I haven't written since July 2nd. I no longer work for The Middletown Press..... loooooong story. Anyway, I have been focusing more on gaining more clients for my photography business, and in the mean time, I have been substitute teaching at New London High School. Although I absolutely loved my time at The Press, the excitement of doing something different every day, I don't miss the neurotic personalities or the demanding schedule that makes having any semblance of a personal life next to impossible. Basically, I made up my mind, and haven't looked back, or even wanted to look back.

Now, just because I havent written in four months doesn't mean that I haven't been cooking. Actually, I've been cooking any and everything I can think of. Pomegranate Chicken, Apple-Cornbread Stuffed Pork Loin (I didn't eat it though! Haven't eaten pork since I was 12 and don't intend to start now), Pumpkin Ravioli, Baked Potato Soup, Rosemary-Chicken Soup with Dumplings, Tiramisu Cheesecake, Pumpkin Bread with Maple Pecan Glaze, you name it. Not that I didn't want to write about all these things... I just couldn't bring myself to do it. It was part of my life at The Press, and that's not who I am anymore.

But this past Thursday, I decided to visit the library, to stock up on reading material. I went to the Waterford Public Library, which I'm not all that familiar with. I wandered through the large print book section, and my eyes fell upon the title, "Julie and Julia," which you probably remember from movie previews over the summer. I really wanted to go see it, but was dissappointed when I read reviews of it that said the Julia (who by the way, didn't learn to cook until she was nearly 40) parts were amazing, but the Julie parts, kind of lackluster. So I decided I wouldn't spoil it by seeing the movie before reading the book, and then promptly forgot about it, either way. I excitedly pulled the large print copy off the shelf, and flipped through it. LARGE PRINT. Ooops. So I searched on the online catalog, and located a regular print copy, in the biography section. Much better.

I began reading it Thursday night. I got through about 100 pages that day, and managed to read the remaining 200 on Friday. Honestly, I couldn't put it down. Julie Powell was a 29 year old temp, a little lost in regards to her purpose in life, and didn't find it until she embarked on a mission to "Master the Art of French Cooking," by cooking (and blogging about) every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child's defining manual on French cuisine in one year. Oh, and she was a Buffy fan. (Have I ever mentioned my obsession with the show? I taped it every week in high school, have seen every episode WAY too many times, and now have the entire series on DVD.)

By the end of the "Julie/Julia Project," Powell realizes the lesson in it wasn't learning to cook French food, but having the courage to do something that makes you happy (and maybe a little crazy, sometimes) and to live life the way you want, no matter how off the deep-end it may seem. For her, the process of learning it, "mastering" it, translates to living, having a purpose beyond just being a secretary everyday.

For me, it's kind of the same. And reading the book really reminded me of that. And so, my return to blogging:

I picked up a Tyler Florence book with at the library this week. It was full of delicious sounding, un-fussy recipes that would be great pretty much any time. However, I kept reading over the same recipe, over and over. Pork Dumpling Soup with Chinese Greens. Maybe, because I have been on a bit of an Asian kick lately (I've really honed my stir-frying skills), and maybe because it the book seemed hardwired to open to page 124, over and over. Maybe the last borrower kept it open to that page the whole time it was loaned to them? Whatever the reason, I was dying to make this soup. So when I stopped by my moms and overheard my father call out of work sick with a sore throat today, I thought, great, an excuse to make it. And of course, I changed the pork to chicken.


  • 3/4 lb ground chicken
  • 4 oz shitake mushrooms, stems removed
  • 1/2 medium turnip, peeled and grated
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 T grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 bunch fresh cilantro
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 t cornstarch
  • 1 T low sodium soy sauce
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 2 t dry sherry
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 t ground white pepper
  • 3 quarts chicken stock
  • 1/4 c low sodium soy sauce
  • 2 inch peice of ginger, quartered
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 green onions, halved
  • 1 dried red chile
Other Ingredients
  • 12 oz package square wonton wrappers
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 4 heads baby bok choy, halved lengthwise
  • 4 oz shitake mushrooms, sliced
Put all of the filling ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Set aside.

In a large pot, bring the broth ingredients to a simmer.
After simmering for 10 minutes to infuse the flavor, turn it off and cover.

Begin making the dumplings. First, brush the surface of a wonton square with the egg white, then put a teaspoon of filling on the center.
Fold two opposite corners together and seal edges to form a triangle. Then, take the 2 side points and dab with egg, then bring together, to form a "pope's hat" shape.

When dumplings are completed, strain the solids from the broth and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Add the dumplings and boil for 12 minutes. Then, add the bok choy and shitake mushrooms and continue boiling for 3 more minutes. Remove from heat and serve garnished with sliced green onions and crunchy chow mein noodles.

I served the soup with store-bought frozen egg rolls and sweet and sour sauce. My dad, who is notorious for being a big, BIG baby when he's sick, stopped coughing for long enough to eat the soup, saying that the broth was really good. And it was. You could taste subtle notes of ginger, onion, and just a hint of spicy pepper at the end. The dumplings, which looked pretty small when they were made, absorbed the flavorful broth and grew to at least twice the size they started at. The filling was delicious, I'm not normally a huge fan of sesame oil, but it was really good in these dumplings. I've never cooked with bok choy, and I liked it. The texture of it, along with the shitake mushrooms really added to the depth of the soup.

And just like that, in a weekend, following the lead of a 29 year old secretary, who followed the lead of a woman who learned to cook at 37 years old, I am back to Downtown Dish.