How many times have you started cooking and said to yourself, “Oh, I forgot to get basil at the store…”? Well, if you’re like the rest of us it has probably happened at least once. I’ve learned my lesson and try to the have the most commonly used herbs on hand, which I grow myself. Growing herbs is surprisingly easy because they do most of the work themselves.
You have two options to choose from:
Growing from seed
Growing using a start (A start is a plant that already has an established root system.)
You can buy seeds and starts from any local nursery or home improvement gardening center (Lowe’s and Home Depot have some of the best priced for start plants. The following are websites for your gardening needs.
Many of these herbs do well indoors, but depending on your Zone/region you may have better luck growing outdoors.
Here is a list of commonly used herbs that are necessary for cooking (no matter what type of cuisine you make):
Genovese Basil (cultivar of ‘sweet basil’)
Purple Basil (popular in Asian cooking, has several varieties)
Coriander Seed (popular in Asian cooking)
Cilantro (the plant part of coriander seed, also popular in Asian cooking)
Green onions (scallions) – even those these are not classified as an herb or spice they are extremely easy to grow and can be done so by using store bought ones and cutting off the bulb, leaving about an inch or two above the bulb. Place in water to hydrate the roots for a few days then transfer to a pot or planter.
In most Mediterranean cooking there are just a handful of herbs that will be used for almost every dish.
Garlic chives (great for garnishing, salads, and panini)
I have found that in parts of Zone 9 and 10 (where I live in Florida) Oregano, Rosemary, and Thyme grow much better from starts rather than seed.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map:
There are a variety of books from your local library or bookstore that discuss growing, but sometimes it’s trial and error, as it was in my case. You can even take some classes from your community college or look to volunteer at a co-op to learn more.
Place a large rondeau (wide, fairly shallow pan with two handles) over medium high heat. Sprinkle a few drops of water in pan to ensure it’s hot before adding the vegetables.
Once pan is hot, add the onion first. Let them cook for a few minutes, you will notice that they start to sweat, but don’t let them caramelize. Once this happens turn the heat down to medium and add the carrots and celery.
At this point it is more of a preference of the chef as to how long you let the vegetables sweat. I usually let them cook for about 8 minutes or so (this is one reason I don’t let the onions caramelize because they run the risk of burning and adds that burnt taste to the stock).
Once the vegetables have been sweated, add the cold water, salt and Sachet d’épices. Reduce the heat to low heat and cook for about 40 minutes. If you are adding any other vegetables or vegetable trimmings, to include skins, then you may add them at this time. Depending on what type of flavor you are trying to achieve or the dish you are making be sure to understand that different vegetables will change the profile of the stock and may not go well with everything.
Be cautious as the stock begins to cook down; this is why I add a little extra, usually about 1 1/2 cups, cold water. Also, by having the extra water will give you right around 1 gallon of stock.
For best results, do not cover and stir occasionally. There is a term used called depouillage. This is the method of skimming the impurities from the surface of the stock as it boils. The impurities are very noticeable as it becomes that frothy, foaming like substance that gathers at the top. Take a slotted spoon to depouillage and discard the impurities. This is essential to having a good quality stock.
After the stock is done cooking, remove from heat and strain the stock. The best piece of equipment to use is a chinois, also know as a ‘china cap’. Begin the cooling process or if you may use it right away.
*Safe methods for cooling:
Ice-water bath – easy and commonly used method. Divide food into smaller containers, then place containers in a sink or large pot filled with ice water, stirring the stock to cool more evenly and faster.
Ice paddle – Plastic ice paddles are a great and easy way to cool stock. They can be filled with ice or filled with water and then frozen, if you have a big enough freezer
Please read my Techniques and Methods page for more information on the proper cooling methods.
*NOTE: Once the stock has been completely cooled another useful way you can store and use stocks are in the form of ice cubes. This allows you to use small amounts at a time and are very convenient for single use; not every recipe is going to be made for a large group. Cheap plastic ice trays are perfect for this. I usually freeze multiple trays then, once frozen, I transfer them to a container so that I can properly date them. You may either transfer them to another container or you may simply leave them in the ice trays and place the trays in a plastic zipper top bag. Just be sure to remove as much air as possible before placing in the freezer.
This recipe is quite easy, even for those with little or no experience. Before we get started there are a few things I would like to cover… Poultry is eaten around the world in abundance, but for the purpose of this recipe it is more specifically tailored after the country side of Italian cuisine, however, it can be adapted to any whole roasted chicken dish. In Northern and Central regions of Italy poultry is eaten often where as Southern Regions (certain areas may not be suitable terrain to successfully raise poultry) like Sicily, Calabria, Apulia, and Sardinia, poultry is not consumed as often sometimes not at all. Seafood, pork, lamb, goat, and wild game meat is more likely consumed, however, some recipes have been changed over the years here in America due to a lack of quality meats; lamb, game, and goat are not as readily available in certain parts of the states so we have to make due. Also, depending on the region different types of fats are used, olive oils are used more often in Central and Southern Italy. Northern Italy uses butter and animal fats over olive oil. I am not saying that olive oil is not used in Northern Italy, it’s just not used as much.
***PLEASE READ*** This is very important. While working in kitchens and attending culinary school we did not wash poultry. By washing poultry it can produce bacteria and increase your risks of getting sick.
Be familiar with FDA Food Safety procedures and protocol.
Here are some help resources you may want to checkout:
2/3 cup olive oil or 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 celery stalk, cut in half crossways
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp dried oregano
4 tbsp dried thyme
4 tsp coarse sea salt
1/8 tsp ground marjoram
2 tbsp fresh cracked pepper
2 tbsp + 1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 1/2 cups Vegetable or Chicken stock
Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, marjoram, and garlic powder. Set aside.
On a cutting board, preferably a yellow color coded one (yellow for poultry), remove any gizzards or packages from inside the cavity of the bird.
With a parring knife, make a small incision at the top (where the cavity opening of the chicken is). Work your fingers underneath the skin, separating the skin from the meat; don’t go too far back but work it down the top and sides of the breast.
Next, take 1/2 of the amount of butter or oil and massage it into the meat underneath the separated skin. This will help keep the meat moist not to mention it will add flavor.
Take the apple/orange, onion, celery and bay leaves and place them inside the cavity of the bird.
Using the remaining butter or oil and gently rub onto the skin. Be thorough and cover the entire chicken. Then sprinkle the herb and spice mixture all over the bird, covering every part you can (do not turn the chicken over to cover the bottom which is not necessary).
Place the chicken in a deep roasting pan. Pour the stock into the pan. The stock should not be cover more than 1/4 of the chicken.
Cover the pan with aluminum foil, making sure it is not touching the bird if at all possible. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (ovens vary so time may be different). The internal temperature should be 165ºF (the temp must be holding steady for 15 seconds) at a minimum and I don’t recommend anything higher than 175ºF. When collecting the temperature on the whole chicken place the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast but be careful not to get a false reading (if the thermometer goes into the cavity of bird it will give a lower/ false temperature).
Once the internal temperature reaches 165ºF, remove the chicken from the oven. Be very careful transferring the chicken from the pan to a serving dish, not only will it be extremely hot, but you don’t want it to fall apart as you pick it up. I usually use a pair of heavy duty two-prong forks to transfer it.
Carve and serve! A nice merlot, cabernet or chianti pairs well with the roasted chicken.
*NOTE: There are many types of side dishes that can accompany roasted chicken. Potatoes, asparagus, carrots, parsnips, roasted tomatoes, etc… Keep an eye out for more of my blogs as will be starting to compile menus for your enjoyment!
Over the years I have been able to compile a great number of recipes, both from my father’s family and my own. Since I love food to look it’s best as well as taste amazing, I have fine tuned my family’s recipes to fit a more elegant, vibrant, and modern twist of some terrific classic dishes. If you’re anything like me and almost everyone out there in the world, then you like pizza.
Many traditional pizza pies will have only olive oil, cheese, fresh herbs, and a variety of sliced vegetables or cured meats; Pizza actually dates back to the Roman days of Ancient Greece (which wasn’t referred to as ‘pizza’ and had possibly been around even before Romans occupied ¹Greece during the 1st millennium BC), where there were many kiosks or carts that made a flat bread style dough and added only cheeses, oils, cured meats and vegetables. It wasn’t until later that pizza had become what we know and love today. Now some people like all the crazy toppings like pineapple, BBQ chicken, steak, BBQ pork, and so on, but that is a far cry from what a pizza should be… My opinion is it should never go on a pizza, but that’s just my opinion. Pizza needs to be simple and have just a few ingredients as the toppings so that you don’t lose the flavor of each ingredient.
¹Earth ovens were used during this time as they were the most primitive form of a pizza oven. There are records that indicate portable earth ovens were being used during the Iron Age.
Pizza dough is critical and must be looked after properly. I like to make homemade dough, but when I’m in a rush or make several pizzas for a party I’ll use Ready-to-Use (actual unbaked dough) dough from my local grocer’s (Publix) bakery. It cost about $3.00 (Publix) and cuts the prep time down to more than half the time it would take to make dough from scratch, but there is something to be said for making your own dough. If you go the route of purchasing dough, then remember that you still must let it rise in a dark and warm (not pre-heated, rather natural temperature) area. For either store bought or homemade dough, after it rises you will kneed the dough for a few minutes then form it into a ball again and let it rise. I usually allow 30-45 minutes for the second rising. After the second rising you must kneed it once more for a few minutes; sometimes I will let it sit for about 10 minutes before I form the dough to the pan.
Recipes for flavored pizza dough:
3 cups King Arthur Sir Lancelot Unbleached Hi-gluten Flour
1 package active dry yeast (always check expiration date)
1 cup of warm water
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 tsp kosher or sea salt
In a large mixing bowl combine 1 1/4 cup of the flour, the package of yeast and salt. Sift the mixture to distribute the dry ingredients evenly. Next, make a hole in the center of the flour mixture and add the warm water and oil. If using the an electric counter top mixer, then blend the mixture for 1/2 minute on lower speed, scraping the bowl. Beat 3 minutes at a speed setting of
3 or 4.
*NOTE: make sure that you are using the dough hook attachment for your mixer. Stir in the rest of the flour mixture, but saving about 1/4 – 1/2 cup. Use a spoon or fork to mix together. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for about 5-8 minutes, adding a little flour to make the dough moderating stiff; the dough should be smooth and elastic.
Roll the dough into the shape of a ball and place in a bowl then cover with a dry towel and place in a dark, dry area, like your oven (turned off). Waiting until the dough has doubled in size before removing it from the bowl. I find that it works best if you knead the dough a second time for approximately 1 minute, then roll the dough back into the shape of a ball and placed back in the bowl then cover and let it rest in a dark, dry area. The dough will rise again and then you are ready to roll out the dough into the desired shape. This recipe will make an 18″ thin crust or a 14″ large round pizza. If making a rectangle shape, then it will make a pizza approximately 18″ x 12″.
*NOTE: The hi-gluten flour will help make the dough more elastic and helps to make it rise better.
1. Garlic and Cheese Crust
1 pizza dough (see recipe)
2 Tbsp Garlic Powder
2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
1/3 cup of grated Parmesan Cheese
2. Herb Crust
1 pizza dough (see Recipe)
1 Tbsp Garlic powder
1 Tbsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
1 Tbsp Dried Oregano
2 1/2 tsp Thyme
2 tsp coarse Sea Salt
3. Sun-dried Tomato Crust
1 pizza dough (see recipe)
1 tsp Garlic powder
1 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
1/3 cup Sun-dried Tomatoes, roughly chopped (must be drained well if using tomatoes kept in oil)
Pinch of Fine Grade Sea Salt
Whether you’re creating these Specialty crusts or your own, the special ingredients must be folded in the dough by hand and blended well to ensure that the dough has an even amount of ingredients throughout the crust.
Infused oils are another great way to and flavor to a crust, though I haven’t seen too many pizzerias or restaurants use infused oils. You can either buy infused oils or make them you self. Infused oils are relatively easy to make,all you need is good quality Extra Virgin olive oil and a creative mind.
The following are some good recipes to try.
1. Roasted Garlic Oil
1 1/2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Large Bulb of Garlic
Preheat oven to 375 F and adjust the rack on the lowest setting . Place whole garlic bulb on a sheet pan, leave the outer skin on the garlic. Place pan in the oven on the lowest rack and bake for about 10-15 minutes. Ovens vary so make sure to check the garlic to prevent it from burning.
Once the garlic is done, remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes. Once the outer part is cool enough to touch begin to peel the skin off and pull apart the cloves. Carefully peel the cloves and remove the soft garlic. Be care because the garlic could still be hot. Once all the cloves are peel place all of the garlic in a mixing bowl. With a fork, lightly press the garlic to release the aromas and flavors. Place garlic in an air tight container (I use glass mason jars) then add the oil. Close lid tightly and place ins a dark, dry area and leave for 48-96 hours. When you are ready to use the oil, it must be strained. Using a fine mesh strainer or a chinois strainer (also called China Cap; “chinois” is a French for Chinese) lined with 1 layer of cheese cloth. Because of the viscosity of the oil it may take a while, but the end product is worth the wait! Place strainer over a larger bowl or measuring cup (preferably 4 cup) and begin to pour the oil over the strainer. Once all the oil is strained, then pour into a clean jar and close lid tightly. Now you have a homemade infused oil. Shelf life will hold for about 2 weeks.
2. Rosemary Oil
1 1/2 Cups Olive Oil
2/3 Cup Fresh Rosemary leaves
4 Whole Peppercorns
Using wax or parchment paper, roll out a sheet about 2 ft long. Spread the rosemary out on top of the paper and with a rolling begin to gently roll over top the rosemary. The rosemary needs to be bruised in order for the essential oils to be released. Roll back and forth a few times. Place rosemary in an air tight container (I use glass mason jars) then add the oil. Close lid tightly and place ins a dark, dry area and leave for 48-96 hours. When you are ready to use the oil, it must be strained. Using a fine mesh strainer or a chinois strainer (also called China Cap; “chinois” is a French for Chinese) lined with 1 layer of cheese cloth. Because of the viscosity of the oil it may take a while, but the end product is worth the wait! Place strainer over a larger bowl or measuring cup (preferably 4 cup) and begin to pour the oil over the strainer. Once all the oil is strained, then pour into a clean jar and close lid tightly. Now you have a homemade infused oil. Shelf life will hold for about 2 weeks.
3. Pepper Oil
1 1/2 Cups Olive Oil
3 Whole Pepperoncini Peppers, drained of excess juice.
On a cutting board, cut the tops off of the peppers and make 2 small incisions lengthwise. Place pepperoncini in an air tight container (I use glass mason jars) then add the oil. Close lid tightly and place ins a dark, dry area and leave for 48-96 hours. When you are ready to use the oil, it must be strained. Using a fine mesh strainer or a chinois strainer (also called China Cap; “chinois” is a French for Chinese) lined with 1 layer of cheese cloth. Because of the viscosity of the oil it may take a while, but the end product is worth the wait! Place strainer over a larger bowl or measuring cup (preferably 4 cup) and begin to pour the oil over the strainer. Once all the oil is strained, then pour into a clean jar and close lid tightly. Now you have a homemade infused oil. Shelf life will hold for about 2 weeks.
When making a pizza, whether you’re using a sauce to spread over the dough or going for a more traditional pie, remember to use the freshest ingredients that you can; this is the difference between night and day. You might want to consider buying vegetables that are in season and local rather purchasing something that has to travel 500 miles to your destination. Food usually will look and taste better when using fresh ingredients.
Here are some ideas for you to try next time you make a pizza:
Mushrooms, green bell peppers, and yellow onion
Roma tomatoes, Italian sausage, and fresh basil
Black olives, green bell peppers, and Roma tomatoes
Pepperoni, Pancetta, green bell peppers, and diced tomatoes
Zucchini, black olives, diced tomatoes, red onion
Italian sausage, diced pepperoni, mushrooms, purple onion
Anchovies, Roma tomatoes, and purple onion
If using onions, the best way is to slice them thin using a julienne cut (long thin strip, think of a match stick).
Also, if using a marinara sauce, the sauce must be cooked down to remove excess liquid. Nobody wants to eat a soggy pizza. When you cook down the sauce you are basically cooking over med. low heat for and extended amount of time. A typical marinara will cook for at least 4 hours and no more than 6 hours. You have to keep a close eye on the sauce and stir frequently so that doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan. A pizza sauce should be fairly thick (consistency should be a little less thick than tomato paste). I usually use straight, 100% tomato paste and blend a few herbs and spices to it; this goes right on the pizza at room temperature before putting the pie in the oven.
The recipes above are ones that I use, but almost any type of spice and herb can be used to make infused oils. The juice from citrus fruits can be use as well, which would go well with seafood, but that will be covered in another topic later on.
I hope that you can enjoy these recipes and create a wonderful collection of mouthwatering pies, the possibilities are endless. Mangiamo!
Dining out is a wonderful experience and allows you to try new things and enjoy the company of others over great food and drinks, but you don’t have to go to a restaurant to have amazing rustic Italian food, it can be made fresh in the comfort of your own home. Let’s face it, homemade is always better! Even the most inexperienced cook can prepare a family style Italian meal, though there are just a few basic techniques one should learn before they begin.
1. Sauté is the method of frying in a small amount of fat/oil. Depending on the region of Italy or Sicily animal fats are preferred over oils, but as a general rule always keep Extra Light and Pomace Olive Oil on hand. Extra Virgin Olive Oil can be used, but be very cautious when using because it has a very strong taste and can take away from the other flavors. When you sauté make sure that you use a small amount of fat/oil and the fat/oil needs to be hot before adding your ingredients. Make sure not to use HIGH heat (med. – med. high) especially if you choose to sauté with Extra Virgin because of the low smoking point the oil possesses. The smoking point is the highest temperature that an oil or fat will have before it starts to smoke and burn, which will result in bad tasting food and/or a more serious problem like a fire.
2. Roasting is another method of cooking. By roasting, you are cooking the food by dry heat. For example, think about how a Thanksgiving Turkey is cooked; dry heat is essential, otherwise it’s not the method of roasting. Make sure that your roasting pan will fit in your oven and that the oven door will close properly (important to maintain the correct temperature). The best way to roast meat such as beef, lamb, and venison is by searing the meat in a hot pan (med. high heat) with no oil. This allows all those natural juices to be trapped inside the meat letting the meat retain moisture and flavors. When searing, make sure that if using a dry rub (spice and herb mixture) that the rub is massaged really well into the meat, then place the meat fat side down in the hot pan, turning the meat to brown all sides. Please keep in mind that you are only cooking the meat for about 15- 30 seconds on each side (the time depends on how thick the meat is.); this extra little step before roasting will make a world of difference in taste.
3. Braising is just another way of cooking meat and vegetables. The technique can be difficult when applying it for the first time. Braising works best by using a roasting pan with a cover (Roasting pans offer deep area for liquid and length/width for large cuts of meat). The meat and/or vegetables reside inside the pan sitting in liquid like, chicken, beef or vegetable stock, wine, and sometimes I’ll use the broth from homemade minestrone soup (steps for this will be explained in later discussions). *NOTE: The meat should be covered about 3/4 with the liquid. Again, the best way to help keep natural juices and flavors are to pan sear the meat. Plus, since the meat will be cooking in liquid, once all sides of the meat has been browned, then you can deglaze (dissolving the small particles of sautéed meat left in a pan by adding a liquid and heat). The beauty of braising is that you can use the same pan that you sear the meat in. Just remember before deglazing that the meat must be removed from the pan, then once the deglazing process is complete you can return the meat to the pan.
4. Grilling is very popular especially in the country side of Italy and Sicily. Grilling is a wonderful method, but must be monitored often because if there flare ups (fat and juices falling on hot coals or fire from a gas grill) it will char the food. Now you will here different opinions about grilling and what type of wood is better and the topic that is debated over the most…. Gas is better than charcoal and vise versa. Well, I’m here to tell you that most of it is a personal preference, however, there are some pros and cons about both. If you want the woodsy and authentic taste of the country side then using lump charcoal might be a better choice for you. Gas is great because you can control the heat much better than charcoal especially in windy areas, but charcoal tastes better when cooking whole fish or fish steaks, wild game, and pork. This is because the meat absorbs the flavor of the charcoal mixture. When I say charcoal I mean real Lump charcoal, not the Kingsford Briquets or similar products; those are made up of saw dust and burnt wood particles along with chemicals to bond and form the briquets, they’re ok in a pinch, but not my favorite and sometimes leaves the food tasting a little funny. The best charcoal to use for uncovered meats and vegetables is lump charcoal. If you are making parcels filled with vegetables or even fish then briquets are ok to use. A good way to enhance the flavor of the food is to make a charcoal mixture made up of lump charcoal and another type of hardwood pieces or chips like Apple, Cherry, Alder, Hickory, or Maple (60%[charcoal]/40%[wood chips]). Sometimes I will use Oak, but that’s because I have a plentiful supply. Grill can be frustrating to some because starting the fire may take a few tries if you don’t use lighter fluid. I don’t like to unless its the only starter I have. A chimney starter works very well and avoids the food to absorb the taste of lighter fluid. There is one myth that I would like to dispel… Never turn meat more than once, either on the grill or in a pan. This doesn’t make it cook faster or cook any better, in fact what it does is allow the meat to cook unevenly and you run the risk of serve raw or over cooked food. Plus there are more chances for flare-ups to happen which cause burnt meat.
5. Fried foods can be deep fried or pan fried. Even though you can find deep fried foods in the Italian cuisine it is not the primary method of frying. Pan fried foods are more common and many of them are cooked in a way that’s known as shallow pan fried. A small amount of oil is used, about a 1/4 way up the pan (typically using a larger frying pan: 12″, 14″ or 16″). The food is partially exposed on top forcing you to turn it over to finish cooking. As mentioned before (Sauté section) the rule for using oils apply here as well, though I like to blend Extra light olive oil and canola oil about 50/50, high smoking point for both oils and if you are going to eat fried foods, canola oil is one of the better oils to use for health and for the pocket. If you fry chicken breast be sure to butterfly the breast so that it cooks faster and evenly, you don’t want to serve raw chicken at your dinner party!
6. Steaming is a great, healthy way to cook vegetables. I like to use a little more advanced technique called Blanching. It’s the process of parboiling or steaming, the vegetables are not cooked completely, then I place them in an ice bath and prepare to freeze them. I do this because I prepare bulk vegetables ahead time. When I need them I will remove them from the freezer and steam them or sauté them, depending on the vegetable and dish. For all of the beginning cooks, let’s stick to steaming for right now until you have the hang of it. Once steamed vegetables are drained properly you can use them for many things like side dishes, add them to an entrée or use it as a garnish for a dish. For those of you who would like to try to blanch vegetables here are a few examples of vegetables that are easier to blanch and ice bath: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Pole Beans, and Sliced Carrots. By blanching the vegetables and utilizing an ice bath, it will help to preserve the brilliant colors.
These are the more common cooking methods that will help you create a wonderful meal, whether it’s for your family or for the 10 dinner guests that are arriving tonight.
*NOTE: I find that cast iron, stainless steel, and aluminum pots and pans work great for me because that’s what I’m used to working with while on the line in a restaurant, but in you like non-stick then by all means use them if you want, just not my preference. Also, DO NOT use any copper pots and pans if cooking with acidic foods, like tomatoes and citrus fruit because it will not only ruin the pans, but will release toxic chemical into your food. The acid starts to break down the metal… Not visible to the eye, so you won’t physically see your pots melting. Just some food for thought…No pun intended!