Focaccia Bread with Fresh Tomatoes and Rosemary

Ready to Slice

When I was growing up, there were essentially two kinds of cheese–Cheddar and Velveeta. Cheddar meant your family was in the dough for a change, and Velveeta was for when you were almost broke. We mainly had Velveeta, until American cheese singles came along.

How times change–now I am making regularly a classic Italian snack, in a piece of Lodge Tennessee made cast iron. The ingredients here are all either local or Italian.

Focaccia Dough

1 1/2 cups Tipo “00” Fine Italian Flour

Salt

1 tablespoon Italian Olive Oil

3/4 cup Water

2 teaspoons Yeast

1 teaspoon Sugar

Mix all the ingredients together, or dissolve the yeast and sugar in some water first. Knead, let rise, and and shape it as if making a pizza dough. This amount of dough will make two 11″ x 7″ Focaccia.

Toppings

Simplicity itself.

One medium Tomato, sliced, from the Festhalle

Hard Cheese, Grated

Chopped Rosemary, Rosemary grown by yours truly

More Olive Oil

Get Out the Grater

Freshness is the key to all Italian dishes. This cheese was new to me, when I stumbled across it at our supermarket, as a two for one deal. It’s a typically superior hard Italian cheese, this one being from the Italian Alps. It is considered to be the northern Italian equivalent of Parmesan, at a much lower price. That, alas, will not last long.

So there are more than two kinds of cheese, after all. The Piave is every bit as good as Parmesan. In a fit of nostalgia, I once bought organic American cheese singles from Whole Foods. That’s yuppie to the point of crossing over to the dark side.

Live Edge Cheese Board, Laguiole Acier Inox Cheese Knives, and the Story of the Mammoth Cheese

Bonjour

Combining my two favorite pastimes, woodworking and eating, was fun. It gave me two excuses–make more kitchenware, and buy more kitchen-alia.

The walnut cheese board is free edge, or live edge, depending on which terminology you prefer. George Nakashima, a master of this form, preferred free edge. Speaking of that, here it is.

Free or Live?

I left on the inner bark just to emphasize the point. I even have a borer hole–probably the last one that bug ever made, because the wood is toxic to our bug friends. The finish is walnut oil, naturally. I also made the best salad dressing I have ever had out of it. Apologies to all of the unfinished pieces of wood I have lying around.

Cut the Cheese

This Laguiole cheese set was bought from Fleabay for the price of a six pack. Some rubbing compound on the stainless, some sandpaper and walnut oil on the handles, and they look better than the ones that come out of the factory. From the grainy picture on the interwebs I thought they were walnut handles–after finishing them, I think they are rosewood instead.

Now it’s time to go to Nerdlandia and talk about the Mammoth Cheese that Mr.Jefferson was given as a tribute for his support of religious freedom. How big was it? A little over 15 x 4 feet big, and weighed 1230 pounds. Too big for my knives.

The Baptists of Cheshire, MA, had had enough of the Federalists and their lackey Congregationalist ministers down grading their religion, and saying that Jefferson would burn every bible in New England, and turn all their women into prostitutes (that last gem came from the President of Yale). Therefore, they made the Mammoth Cheese, and engraved it with the phrase “REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.” Then they hauled it down to Washington.

Jefferson threw a big reception for the big cheese, and made the church accept a payment of $200. Church elder John Leland, the mastermind of this clever scheme, thanked Jefferson for the “singular blessings that have been derived from the numerous services you have rendered to mankind in general.” Then they all had some cheese.

Later that same day, perhaps inspired by the cheese, Jefferson wrote one of the most famous Presidential documents in history, reassuring the Baptists of Danbury, MA, that the new constitution insured their religious freedom, and that the Jefferson administration would protect them. Here’s the key paragraph:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Letters of Thomas Jefferson

The wall of separation phrase was eventually adapted as case law precedent by the Supreme Court. Two years after the big cheese hit town, the US Navy produced a Mammoth Loaf of Bread, to go with the Mammoth Cheese. In typical fashion, Jefferson sent the loaf to the Senate, “along with with a large amount of roast beef, cider, and whiskey,” according to the National Constitution Center. The cheese lasted longer than the bread did. My guess is, knowing the habits of Senators, that the whiskey went first.

In honor of Mr, Jefferson, and his insistence that there be a Bill of Rights attached to the constitution, I will have a cheese plate, and a cheeseburger, on the Fourth of July. I think he had something to do with that holiday as well.

Tomato, Shallot, and Morel Omelette

If you want to make an omelette…

Though there was a small mountain of peas to shell, and a bowl of pecans to crack, nothing can stand in the way of MJ and myself enjoying a nice Sunday breakfast. As usual, we just went with the ingredients we had.

The Raw and the Cooked

Ingredients

3 medium Eggs

2 small Tomatoes, chopped

5 small dried Morels, reconstituted in hot water, chopped

1 medium Shallot

Morel soaking liquid

Grated or soft Cheese

Chopped Parsley

Salt and Pepper

This is an easy recipe, but we scored some authentic long shallots (Echalote traditionnelle longue) from France, and nothing goes together like morels, shallots and eggs.

First cook the shallots and morels together in olive oil. (It helps to have a really heavy cast iron skillet.) Add the chopped tomatoes, and simmer until softened.

Combine the eggs, cheese, and some of the morel juice, with salt and pepper.. When the veg and fungus is cooked, add the eggs to the mix. Cook on the stove top until the eggs begin to set firmly, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and pop the whole thing into a 400 degree F oven. That’s the entire whang dang doodle.

Thank you, Birds

This can also be made with some fried new potatoes as the base, in which instance it becomes a massive breakfast. The key is quality ingredients, as with all things.

The eggs were donated by our ISA Brown chicks, and the chopped parsley was harvested from a pot on our countertop. We grew one of the maters, and the other came from the Festhalle. Which reminds me that I have maters to get ready for canning.

I turned Italian, and have begun straining out my leftover morel juice for use elsewhere. There will be no flavor left behind.

Simple Enchilada Sauce

Bring out the Tortillas

This is from so far south, it’s from across the border. It is, however also a staple of most Tex-Mex style Mexican restaraunts. Fortunately, it is also dead simple to make.

Ingredients

Peanut Oil

Flour

Can of Tomato Sauce

Salt

2 or more Chipotle Peppers, and Adobo Sauce

If you have cast iron intestines, you can go the Rick Bayless route, and make this with nothing but Chipotle peppers. As I prefer living, I go the tomato sauce way.

Start by making a little blond roux with the oil and flour. I used a regular size can of sauce, or you can mill some canned tomatoes, as it results in the same texture. After it begins to boil, throw in Chipotles that have been seeded. How many is strictly a matter of preference. The same goes with the amount of Adobo sauce you add. It only cooks until it is warmed through.

We made roast pork enchiladas with Vidalia onions rolled up in a tortilla, covered with this sauce, and grated Cheddar cheese. It’s a quick and easy meal, which only needs to be baked until the sauce bubbles. After that it’s time to swine away.

Last Night I Dreamed About Tomato Sauce

I Really Did.

To quote my man Will Shakespeare, this is the “The stuff that dreams are made of,” as adapted by Bogey and John Huston in The Maltese Falcon. I woke up at six in the morning with the taste of tomato sauce in my mouth. It was then that I realized that I had been dreaming about it, possibly all night long..

It was a classic example of one part of what Dr. Freud said that dreams are made of, and this is not a particularly good translation, but it is the standard one: “the day’s residues.” For lunch the previous day I had a slice of leftover brick oven pizza, and it was still superb warmed up. It had Vidalia onion slices, Italian mozzarella, and a crust made from Caputo 00 flour from Italy. The star was still Melanie Jane’s tomato sauce. That’s what I dreamed about. Here’s her recipe, which will sauce two pizzas.

Ingredients

1 quart locally grown home canned Tomatoes–I believe these were Romas

1/2 of a diced Onion

Italian Tomato Paste in a tube–Tuscan, in this case, the brand being Tuscanini. (Aside–I had to buy this, as Toscanini is one of our favorite conductors of classical music, and his daughter married my wife’s favorite pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.)

Italian Pesto in a tube

Italian Garlic Paste in a tube–the secret weapon used by many pros

Oregano and Thyme

Salt and Pepper

This is considerably more complicated than what most Italians would make, but we aren’t Italian, at least the last time I checked. MJ then cooked it down to a concentrated strength, which gave me just enough time to get a roaring fire going in the brick oven.

Did it ever get hot. All I had was oak dead fall pieces, and they created an inferno. I didn’t burn the crust–I actually burned the sauce, as you can see from the little black line on my slice in the picture. I’ve never had that happen before.

It was still delicious. As I always tell people, don’t eat the burned part.

Pizza

Green, White, and Red–It’s either an Italian Flag, or Pizza Margherita

The forecast for Sunday was for a high of only 93 degrees F, so I decided to build a 900 degree F fire, and cook a couple of pizzas. Why the hell not?

Speaking of Hell, Dante would have Loved this

Fortunately, I spent most of my time indoors, making the crust and sauce. I will do a step by step explanation of this process in a series of posts, but here’s an outline of what to do. I will also give an alternative cooking method, for those who do not have a bakery-sized brick oven. The following is for a Pizza Margherita, one of the originals, and still the best.

Ingredients

Dough for two Pizza Crusts–1 1/2 cups OO Italian Flour, salt, water, yeast

Pizza Sauce, preferably made with Italian or locally grown Tomatoes

Italian Mozzarella Cheese

Fresh Basil

The basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven. It probably wouldn’t look too sporty, otherwise, after a couple of minutes of this.

Out of the Saucepan, and into the Fire

Other than eating this, the best part is smelling the basil cook on top of the really really hot pizza, right out of the brick oven. Simple and complex–the heart of a good pizza.

Herr Orff, one of my German Professors at the University of Alabama, came to class one Monday, and said, “I had some of that food that you people eat every weekend. What do you call it? Pit-sa. It was very good.” That actually is the correct pronunciation of the word pizza-if you’re German. Good thing he didn’t eat one of these. He might never have gone back to Deutschland.

Morel Omelette

Breakfast is Served

I may be the only person in North America who puts dried mushrooms on my Christmas list every year. First on the list are Morels, as they are something of an extravagance, and are five times more expensive than dried Porcini mushrooms.

I always get Morels from the Left Coast, from Pistol River Mushrooms in Oregon, and the quality is always superb. My two favorite Morel dishes are Turkey Breasts in Morel Cream Sauce, and this Morel Omelette. As it was a holiday this July 4th, why not go for the gold?

Ingredients

2-3 large Morels, rehydrated and chopped

Morel Water

1 sweet Pepper, chopped

3 Scallions, chopped

3 Eggs

1/4 cup diced Ham

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar Cheese

Parsley

Salt and Pepper

Diced tomatoes are also great in this, but I forgot to add them. Begin by cooking the pepper and the white part of the chopped scallion in olive oil. Then add the morels. In the meantime, mix the rest of the ingredients together, including the green parts of the scallion. When the veg is cooked, pour in the egg mixture, and have a 400 degree F oven ready. No omelette folding or flipping here.

After the egg mixture has started to set up, throw the whole thing in the oven. Have a cup of coffee and chicory, and listen to Beethoven or Wagner. Then take it out when it’s firm, and serve a couple of people with this. An English muffin goes well with it.

I never use all of the Morel water, as it is always full of grit from the wild harvested fungi. I should start using the method described by Marcella Hazan in the priceless Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There she describes how Italians will filter dirty mushroom soaking water through paper towels or a fine strainer, and save it for soups and stocks. Now that’s what you call a food culture.

Macs and Cheese–Old School

Put in a casserole, and warm in the oven

As the talented James Hemings and the fastidious Thomas Jefferson brought this dish from France to the brand new USA, I make this Frenchified Macs and Cheese regularly. It’s especially good with Easter Ham, or any other ham. Or anything else.

The plan here is to start with a béchamel sauce, turn it into a variety of mornay sauce, and then add the cooked macaroni, which in Jefferson’s day was just a generic term for pasta. Then it can all sit until it’s time to warm it in the oven.

Ingredients

For the Béchamel Sauce

2 tablespoons Organic Butter

2 tablespoons Flour

Organic Milk

Salt and Pepper

For the Mornay Sauce

1/3 cup each of grated Colby and Cheddar Cheese

1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan Cheese

For the Finishing Touch

1 cup Macaroni, cooked in salted water

Melt the butter in a large sauce pan. Add the flour, and cook while stirring for a minute or two. This is a blonde roux, so don’t let it darken. Add enough milk to make a fairly thin sauce, as the cheese is the main thickener. A thorough whisking will be required to remove all the lumps. Season, and taste.

The next step is crucial. Add the cheese, and heat to the point of melting. DO NOT let the sauce boil at this point. The cheese will separate into its various components if exposed to an excessive temperature. After the cheese has melted, add the strained macs. I use one of those Chinese spider strainer thingys to scoop them out of the pot. All that’s left to do at this point is to put the macs in a casserole, and heat them in the oven at suppertime, or any time.

Mr. Jefferson was often derided for being “more French than American” by his political enemies, despite the fact that he wrote The Declaration of Independence. The farmers knew better. Not long after his inauguration, a group of dairy farmers began making him what was billed as “A Mammoth Cheese.” The finished wheel of cheese was engraved with the words, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese weighed 1230 pounds when it reached Washington. How many servings of macs and cheese this made is not recorded.