Monthly Archives: June 2011

Italian Steak Sandwiches

It’s impossible not to be inspired here, really. I could wax poetic about Italy all day, but I think it’s best to write this post channeling the same simplicity that I have noticed in the food here. Fresh and, often, sublime, yes. But also simple.

Since we’re talking inspiration, this picture depicts my view during lunch today (and every day):

Ha! Totally kidding. My back is actually facing the Mediterranean Sea where I sit at our table, so actually my view looks more like this:

Yes, life is good. And so is this sandwich. And its name is derived from the place it was born, and nothing more. I hope I don’t offend any Italians out there with a culturally inaccurate sandwich.

And for those of you who have been to Italy before, I have to ask: Where are the best places to go in Florence and Rome? And by “go,” I mean “eat.” Obviously.

Italian Steak Sandwiches:
Serves 4
2 medium-sized cuts of flank steak
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
2 medium sweet onions, cut in 1/2-inch strips
2 medium red peppers, cut in 1/2-inch strips
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 large loaf of bread (I used ciabatta, but I’ll opt for a less dense bread next time)
1 large mozzarella ball, sliced
A few sprigs of basil
Pesto or your favorite sandwich spread

1) Season steak on both sides with salt and pepper while heating a large pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add steak. Cook for about 4 minutes on each side. Set steak aside on a cutting board.
2) Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, then add onions and peppers. Cook for 2 minutes, then add balsamic vinegar. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3) Cut steak into strips. Slice bread into four sections, then cut each section in half again to make the sandwich. Add steak strips to the base of each sandwich, then layer with onion and pepper mixture, mozzarella, and basil. Spread pesto or other sandwich spread on the top half of the sandwich. Serve warm (I heated ours up on a pan with another pan on top, panini-style) or cold.

Grilled Chicken & Pesto Pasta

Happy Father’s Day! Sadly, mine is across the ocean from me, so I cannot cook for him today, but at least I can promise to make this recipe, or any other, for him when I return. (Dad, this blog post serves as a coupon, of sorts. Redeemable for whenever I’ve recovered from jet lag and financial destitution caused by the unforgiving euro.) I love you, daddy! Thanks for passing on to me your height, sardonicism, and love of cats. I’ve forgiven you for not endowing me with your math skills, don’t worry.

Holiday aside, I was recently accused of not posting enough chicken recipes. I’ve already shared a few of my thoughts on chicken back when I roasted a chicken for the first time, but I do not especially enjoy cooking meat in general, and avoiding meat purchases at the grocery store saves me a decent amount of money. When I do buy meat, I’m pretty particular about where it comes from. A local producer is preferable, but, at the very least, I always buy organic meat, for a variety of environmental and ethical reasons. Still, I’m not as particular as these people:

Nope. I haven’t reached that point… yet.

Since I’m always open to recipe requests, I searched for a simple, summery recipe where I could satisfy my friend Kasey’s desire for more chicken and my desire to become more comfortable in front of the grill. Hopefully I satisfied the former, although my cousin grilled while I prepared the other ingredients, so my grilling experience has not developed further. If one person’s on the grill and the other at the stove, you can knock out this dish in under 30 minutes.

Pasta has been on my mind a lot recently because tomorrow I head to Italy for two weeks. I’ve never been before, and I’ll be staying with my family on an agriturismo in Tuscany. My dreams are saturated with images of fresh, plump mozzarella, vibrant tomatoes and warm bread, all drizzled with silken olive oil, frolicking through lush Italian fields and into my belly. At the very least, I’ll write a mental draft of the version of Eat, Pray, Love that I’d actually want to read, entitled Eat, Eat, Eat. (Interspersed with some sleeping, sunning, and a short walk or two, but that title is significantly less marketable.)

Grilled Chicken & Pesto Pasta:
Serves 4
4 small, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
10 ounces of pasta (noodles are fine, but bowties would be wonderful, too!)
3 tablespoons reserved pasta water, divided
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes
1/2 tablespoon butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup milk, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons pesto (I’m going to try this recipe with homemade walnut pesto soon)
6 tablespoons cream
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped

1) Prepare grill to medium-high heat. Marinate chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper. (I let my chicken marinate for a few hours ahead of time, but right before should be fine, too.) Grill chicken for about 10 minutes, 5 per side, until insides are no longer pink. Set chicken aside to cool, then slice into generous chunks.
2) Cook pasta according to package directions and drain, reserving 3 tablespoons or so of pasta water. Set pasta aside to cool. Add 1 tablespoon of pasta water to a bowl with the sundried tomatoes to restore some of their moisture.
3) Whisk together 1/4 cup of milk and flour in a bowl and set aside. Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic to pan and cook for 1 minute, then add then milk and flour mixture, stirring constantly. Mixture should thicken almost immediately. Stir in pesto and remaining 1/2 cup milk and all the cream. Cook until sauce thickens (about 5 minutes). Add remaining 2 tablespoons of pasta water to the sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
4) Pour sauce on top of pasta, along with the chicken. Drain any remaining pasta water from the sundried tomatoes, then add to the pasta. Toss the pasta to coat thoroughly, then garnish with basil and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.

Cooking Again — Soon

You know what I’d really love to do? Fill mason jars with the wonderful, restorative, inspiring atmosphere that is surrounding me at the moment and send them to everyone back home.

In lieu of that, a brief summary of my past week: Neuschwanstein Castle, lentil “burgers” (now three-year-old approved), a UNC friend’s visit, biergartens, more biergartens, bike rides through German countryside, Dachau, and late nights with new friends. Oh, and lots and lots of walking.

What I have not done nearly enough of is cooking. Eating, yes. Cooking, no. I could pretend it’s because I’m busy, but actually, it’s because I’m enjoying being fed. My cousin is an excellent cook who has provided me with all kinds of new recipes that you’ll see here shortly.

But, on Thursday, I’ll be the one who’s cooking. (And then I need to cook a whole lot more for the remainder of the summer.) What should I make?

Strawberry Meringue Buttercream

That’s right. Get me in a foreign country renowned for its baked goods, and I’ll bake cupcakes that look like they came straight out of an all-American Martha Stewart cookbook.

After baking wedding cupcakes, I swore cupcakes off for, well, ever. Those suckers are so cloyingly sweet that I predicted my making them again would result in a lengthy sugar-induced coma, followed by my dramatic demise, frosting oozing out of every pore. I mean, I had nightmares about the last cupcakes I baked. I desperately want to move on to  a new baked-good food trend–perhaps whoopie pies, or macarons. Sometimes, however, my cupcake reputation precedes me. Or, as in this instance (and many others, frankly), I could not keep my mouth shut and, one afternoon, out poured my admission: I was in a class where my nickname was Cupcake. My cupcakes have won awards. My cupcakes bring all the boys to the yard. Et cetera.

This admission was followed by a shocking revelation: my family didn’t know what a cupcake was! As a self-assigned American Ambassador to Germany, I could not allow this ignorance to continue. Sure, the country already has yeasty soft pretzels, vibrant fruit tortes, and, my personal favorite, nuss-nougat croissants, but without cupcakes, Germany is a country still lacking in the ultimate vehicle for carbohydrates, butter and sugar.

Thus, I found myself baking cupcakes for one of my German family member’s birthdays. As much as I gripe about baking yet another dozen cupcakes, I derive great pleasure from the oohs and aahs that my cupcakes always elicit. Somewhere around the time that I take those little cakes out of the oven, they transform from the bane of my existence into my personal pride ‘n’ joy. Piping frosting on them is the closest I’ll ever get to being an artist.

My friend Kasey discovered this buttercream recipe, so I finally have a strawberry frosting I can be proud of, unlike last time. The recipe actually is Martha Stewart’s strawberry meringue buttercream, though I changed the wording in the directions to better represent how I interpreted the recipe, and included the European conversions I needed to make since I now lack proper measuring cups. I used the same chocolate cupcake base I always use.

Even I enjoyed the result of this cultural immersion experience. But, seriously, I need to learn how to make nuss-nougat-filled croissants before I ever delve into cupcake-making again. Recipe suggestions welcome!

Strawberry Meringue Buttercream:
Makes enough to frost 16 or so cupcakes piped fancy-style, 24 cupcakes when simply spread on
4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) strawberry jam, pureed in a food processor or blender

1) Set a heatproof mixing bowl over a pot of simmering water. Stir in egg whites and sugar, whisking constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is a glossy white. Remove bowl from heat and beat egg whites with an electric mixer until the egg whites form stiff peaks and the mixture is cooled. (It has to be cool or the butter will melt!)
2) Slowly combine butter into the egg mixture a few tablespoons at a time, beating well between additions. Add vanilla, then stir in strawberry jam puree until the frosting is smooth.