Monday, August 31, 2009

Spaghetti at Home

Tonight for dinner, I had whole-wheat spaghetti with red sauce, arugula, vegetarian Italian "sausage", and some leftover Nero d'Avola.

All of the components were better together. I was particularly happy with the veggie sausage from Trader Joe's. I used it in the other night's pizza, and was thoroughly unimpressed, but here the pasta sauce disguised its texture so effectively I could *almost* pretend it was real. The sauce was TJ's "rustico" sauce, chosen for its imported Italian tomatoes. I know that sounds snobby, but I really can tell the difference, and I prefer the Italian ones for their lower acidity and more plummy, round flavors. This particular sauce had the mellow acidity I like, but was quite overshadowed by red pepper flavors when eaten alone- which I do, often, as a weird snack. So it was a nice surprise to discover that the whole-wheat pasta and arugula (which I mixed into the sauce) balanced the sweet pepper flavors perfectly.

A note on Trader Joe's. I had never seen one before moving here, despite wishing for one for the last five or so years. I had expected something resembling a Whole Foods- a traditional grocery store model, turned organic- but cheaper. TJ's, with its emphasis on prepared food components, pre-made meals, and house-brand staples, is not at all what I expected, but I'm still finding its presence has completely supplanted my Whole Paycheck fixation. I haven't set foot in the local Whole Foods in my entire month here, even though it's less than a mile from TJ's. It just seems TJ's has almost everything I'd want from that sort of grocery store, and other things are best purchased at the ordinary market. My only complaint so far is that, while TJ's makes a delicious-looking array of granolas, NONE of them have less than 10g of sugar per serving. I hate sugary cereals. Otherwise, good job TJ's.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pizza in St. Louis

For dinner, I had quasi-homemade St. Louis-style pizza with arugula and red wine.

First, let me digress to point out how ridiculous this article is, particularly in light of its title. More than anything, I think the technique of cooking has been lost. We don't need more recipes, we need explanations and education. Good cookbooks teach technique. If you buy all your cookbooks for recipes alone, perhaps the problem is yours and not the cookbook's. Moreover, if you are a new cook scared off cooking completely by Julia Child's lengthy, detailed recipes (rather than, say, finding a less onerous cookbook), perhaps you are the problem.

So, dinner. I have a fondness for Chef Boyardee's pizza kits which predates both the presence of a Trader Joe's (hello pre-made pizza dough) and also my own extensive pizza-dough-making capabilities. Dates, actually, to the mid-Eighties. Thanks, mom.

The pizza kit, if you are not familiar, consists of a box with crust mix, can of tomato sauce, and Kraft parmesan cheese. It's maybe $2-3 at your local non-posh grocery store. My camera battery died, again, so no photos. The idea is to mix the crust mix with hot water, mix, let rise a few minutes, press into pan, decorate, and bake.

My cooking proclivities, much like Julia Child's cookbook, are not that simple. I modified the process by actually kneading the (very sticky) crust mix, and using olive oil to keep it from sticking. I wanted to use my pizza stone to cook it, but lacked a pizza peel to transfer it into the oven without incident. I improvised by patting the dough out onto the underside of a pan lid, then flipping it upside down over the (pre-heated) pizza stone and peeling it off. I then topped the dough with Trader Joe's rustic pasta sauce (better than the crap tomato goo it comes with), cheese, and vegetarian Italian "sausage", and put the stone back in the oven. Speaking of cheese, St. Louis has its very own pizza cheese. Provel is a processed cheese blend of swiss, white cheddar, and provolone. It melts into a gooey, smoky, buttery mess reminiscent of really, really good spray cheese. Useful but plasticky. Kind of like Velveeta, but tastier. The pizza turned out well...the sausage wasn't quite dry, crispy, or flavorful enough to truly imitate Italian sausage, but it wasn't bad for soy protein, and the pizza stone created a nice crust. The arugula salad nicely balanced the processed cheese's sweetness, and the wine (Nero d'Avola, $6, Trader Joe's) was very jammy, if a little too sweet. Not bad.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Amighetti's on the Hill

Sorry for the long absence. We just moved to St. Louis. More on that in a minute.

I know I promised a dissection of Feast's tasting menu, and I don't want to denigrate the (very good) food they serve by not discussing it in-depth, but it's already been covered by a number of good food writers- notably Frank Bruni and Food in Houston. I don't have a lot to add. The tasting menu was reasonably priced, with absurdly large (Texas-sized?) portions of each course. I had never visited an offal restaurant before, so every course held new and intriguing flavors for me. The pork rillons were particularly delicious, but my favorite course was the onion roasted inside crispy, seasoned chicken skin. So simple, but amazingly good.

On to St. Louis. I am (perhaps irrationally) VERY excited at the food possibilities in this town. My biggest complaint about Houston food last year was the lack of home-style, cheap Italian food, where they're at least cool enough to make their own pasta, along the lines of Denver's Romano's or Angelo's. Here in St. Louis, there is an entire neighborhood of Italian food. So far, I have tried Cunetto; the atmosphere and prices were good, but the food merely okay. I had the pasta with olive oil, garlic butter, and anchovies, and, although the sauce was nearly perfect, the pasta was quite overcooked.

Today for lunch, I had the lasagna at Amighetti's, even though I knew they are known for their sandwiches. My mistake. The portion size made it an excellent value, but it tasted like something I could have made at home without a recipe. I chose the full portion (under $7) rather than their "side" portion (under $5), figuring it would be meal-size, but it was more like three meals. Jon and I just ate the leftovers with an arugula salad and $5 nero d'avola (thank you, Trader Joe's) for dinner. For the record, Jon (who is food-apathetic, but a huge sandwich connoisseur) had their famous "Special Sandwich" at lunch and was unimpressed. Not bad, but I'll explore the other sandwich places on the Hill before returning.