Johanna: The Improviser

Never quite follows the recipe. Doesn't really measure. Tastes with her fingers. Somehow, it always works.

A Pie for Mikey

Posted: August 13, 2011 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

This post was hard to write. I don’t really have any idea how to encapsulate all the things I’m feeling. Just know that readers, family, everybody….I love you and I’m glad you’re in my life. And since today is all we are sure of, today especially, you are important to me.


Right now, I am sitting on my couch, with two people that I love very much. They are playing a video game called ‘Splosion Man, and laughing like lunatics. The windows are open, the fan is on.

I will be making Mikey Perillo’s favorite PeanutButter Pie tonight, for these guys that I love. And we’ll share it, and we’ll probably eat it all. A friend has instituted “family dinner”, where her friend family gets together and makes/eats dinner together at a scheduled time. The inaugural event will be at our house on Monday, and I will probably make another one for us to share then.

Mike Perillo, father, husband, and friend, died last Sunday suddenly, shockingly and heartbreakingly. Jennie lost her husband. Their two beautiful daughters lost their father. Judging by the crowd of people at the memorial service, I can only assume that hundreds of people lost a dear, good friend. I never met Mikey, and the first time I saw Jennie in person was yesterday morning, at the memorial. But she said “Josie” with such joy when I told her who I was, and hugged me like a friend. There was love everywhere yesterday, and support, and smiles, and food and, as Jennie memorably announced, “Eat up! And there are 10 different kinds of wine!”

Food can heal. And it can celebrate. And it can bring people together, which is what we’ve all been talking about for as long as there have been bloggers.

Maybe the most affecting part about the hundreds and hundreds of people who answered Jennie’s request and made Mikey’s favorite peanut butter pie and wrote about it (check it out on Food Network, Food52 and Facebook) is that people are taking this time to remember how precious life is, and share this pie and the words and feelings that come with it. Every single post that I read talks about making today special, and spreading the love and making sure that the people you love the most are aware of your love.


Photo by Barb of Creative Culinary

Photo from Barbara of Creative Culinary's lovely post.

My pie will probably have some tears stirred in. And it might get a little misty when I serve it, even if I don’t or can’t tell people why. But salted peanuts are the best. And nobody minds a weepy baker if the result is something like this:

I love you. I am happy to know you. I am blessed and lucky that you are in my life. All of you.

Have a slice of pie.


Posted: July 31, 2011 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

2011 has been a rough year.

A very rough year.

Looking back on a month that I *hoped* would bring good things, and started with such promise and success, I have to say that July …. you’re in the doghouse. You sucked too.
I lost my job this month.

So, instead of writing about anything that I’m cooking, or making, or whatever, I’m going to post pictures of the food I made for 4th of July weekend. The things that I made when it felt like everything good was on the horizon and nothing bad would happen.

Tuna tacos

I had recently learned that you could fry your own tortilla shells, and have now resolved to not eat soft tacos all that much. I tried to make puffy tacos from a respected recipe (I won’t link it until I nail it, I don’t want to embarrass myself) and that tanked on July 3rd, so I fried my small flour tortillas, and stuffed them with seared tuna, shredded lettuce, tomato, and an avocado-parsley-jalapeno crema. And they. were. awesome.

My first successful blueberry pie

Back in July, Shauna, the amazing Gluten-Free Girl, held a pie party on Facebook. And I decided to jump in. Blueberries were the only thing on my mind in early July, so on the 3rd of July, I made a blueberry pie. And it was awesome. And I’m amazed. I’ve had problems with blueberry-based pies, being too runny, being messy, not tasting right. But this one was fantastic.

For dinner on the 4th of July, I made fried chicken, and potato salad. I made the mayonnaise for the potato salad. Like, made it from scratch, from egg yolks and vinegar and lemon juice and olive oil and… I was so proud of it. And then I mixed the mayo with the potatoes and learned a fundamental issue: Your homemade mayonnaise will run all over the place, if your potatoes are too hot when you mix them. Which…. mine were. But oh well. It was delicious, and I mixed some of the dill we got from our CSA into it, and I will definitely be making mayonnaise again. For sure.

And then for dinner, we had this. The last slices of pie, with peach-pie ice cream that I made myself.

They were good times. It was a good weekend. And I need to remind myself of that, when things get hard and jobs are scarce and frankly, I’m getting a little afraid. I can be strong, and brave. I can get through this, and there will be pie. And fried chicken. And many other things. Good things. Again.

Anybody Here?

Posted: May 30, 2011 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Peek. Peek. Anybody still here?
I’m sure that everyone has noticed my distinct absence of late. And by “of late”, I mean “over the past 7 months”. As sometimes happens to people, I went through some hard times emotionally and personally this winter, and cooking just stopped being fun. Writing stopped being fun. In fact, most things stopped being a whole lot of fun, and started feeling like a whole lot of pressure and pain.

But, with changes in seasons, come changes in outlook, and as the spring started, I got a much-needed return to normalcy and joy. And so, here we are. Memorial Day. Day of grills, and outdoor day drinking, and the official unofficial start of the summer. Many people will be firing up their grills today, and indeed I can smell my next-door-neighbors’ smoker, already working. And yes, I am WICKED glad that I managed to score an invitation to go over to their place tonight and hang out in their yard and eat food and talk smokers. I WIN.


I recently received a gift of a subscription to Food and Wine Magazine. Their most recent issue was about grilling, and involved an article on the best way to cook a burger – on a grill, or on a griddle.


Let me just say, any recipe that requires a cast-iron skillet, and gives you a turkey (yes, TURKEY) burger that looks like that one up there? Is the ultimate.

Burgers are one of those things that people get pretty passionate about, while still being kind of easygoing. We all have our favorite method, but we’ll all also agree that you have to work REAL hard to make a burger that’s just flat-out BAD. The smashed burger method gives you a way to use whatever meat you want, make small, flat burgers, and get great results. There’s a LOT of surface area for this burger, which means there’s a LOT of caramelization. And you don’t have to worry about overcooking them, because you have to accept that these are NOT the kind of burgers that you can make medium-rare, whether you’re using beef or turkey (I don’t have to tell you that you cannot, under any circumstances, make a medium-rare turkey burger, right??) And best of all, there are literally zero special ingredients.

Shall we begin?
Turkey SmashBurgers

1. Begin with a pound to a pound and a quarter of your ground meat of choice. For beef, go with something higher in fat content, like an 85/15 or 80/20 — this is sometimes called “chuck”. For turkey, if you have the option, go with dark meat. Season the meat liberally with salt, and shake or grind in some pepper as well.
2. Mush, mash, and smash your meat until you have something cohesive. Form into balls, like you’re making mutant meatballs. If you’re making single burgers, obviously you only need one per eater. We like doubles in this here establishment, however, so make two smaller meatballs per eater. Take this opportunity, after you’ve washed your hands, to get your cast-iron skillet, cast-iron griddle, or a heavy skillet that is NOT NON STICK over medium-high heat. Also, turn on the vent system in your kitchen and/or open a window if you’re lucky enough to have one.

3. When the pan is hot, place the meatballs into the pan, and let them sizzle there for about 30 seconds. Then, smash them flat with the back of a spatula.
4. Once the burgers are smashed, cook for about 30 more seconds, maybe a minute, then top with thinly-sliced onions and flip. The onions will steam, and cook, and get all the juices from the meat that are already in the skillet, and transfer them into a vortex of deliciousness.
5. Cook for another 30 seconds to a minute, top with cheese, and cover to let the cheese melt. For turkey burgers, you are totally allowed to let them go a little longer, and trust me when I say that all these times are approximate, since who slices the onions before she puts the burgers in the pan?! Not this Improviser.

In the end, you get a burger that looks like this.

And let me just say, it is delicious. It may not be the thing you make for Memorial day, since you’ll probably want to use your grill a little more. But if it’s sturdy enough to hold your skillet, and since even mine is I’m pretty sure everybody’s is, you can have your first successful grilling of the summer, without worrying about ANYTHING sticking to the grill grates. :)

The Long Long Run

Posted: November 9, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

I apologize for the size of that photo up there, and for the fact that the goldish medal reflected on my teeth, making them look yellow. But I get to post one huge photo. I have earned this gigantic photo. Because this photo?

It was taken after I finished my first marathon.

On Sunday. The 2010 ING New York City Marathon. I averaged an 11:34 minute/mile pace over 26.2 miles, finishing in 5 hours, 2 minutes, and 48 seconds. I whailed into a wall at the 23rd mile, and was totally cooked when I crossed the line, but I ran 26.2 miles. And a year ago, I hadn’t even completed a 4-mile run yet. This is a fact.

I don’t know if any of you know any long distance runners (besides those of you who were out there cheering for me on Sunday, and to whom I am therefore eternally grateful), but they’re very interesting creatures.
Distance runners are constantly doing battle, waging war. We fight the weather, the elements, often running in the cold, the oppressive heat and humidity, or the rain/sleet/snow if we have to. We fight our friends and family members, who sometimes unknowingly make us think we can’t do it, or try to convince us to skip a run or not prepare properly the night before. We fight the distance, aiming to beat it and better it. We fight our bodies, our doubts, the pain and the sweat. We are constantly fighting.
And after all that work, most of us never even win. 44,829 people finished the New York City marathon this year. Only 4 of them came in first place. The rest of us? We did something that maybe we never knew we could do. I sure did.

50 weeks after I ran my first road race, I completed my first marathon. I’ve been training for 4 months. 3 times a week, every week, for 4 months, I ran. I didn’t drink on Fridays because I knew that I had to get up and do a long training run on Saturdays. I sweated through runs increasing from 9 miles to 20 miles. I covered 20 miles TWICE. And in the end, it all came down to 5 hours of my life. And I did it. I have never been as proud as I was on Sunday when I crossed the finish line. Except when they gave me my medal, and my mylar cape, and I was able to see my family and friends after and celebrate.

Sunday’s run was amazing. It was painful. It was difficult and it was glorious and I cried more tears than I knew I had to cry, and I am in more pain than I ever imagined I would be. I am grateful for every person in Bay Ridge, who gave me high fives and yelled “Go Yosie” at me, for getting me off to a happy start. I am thankful for every band that was out on the route, even the ones I didn’t listen to that closely. I am thankful for every single footstep, because I never knew I would take them all at once.
I ran 10 wonderful miles. I ran 8 Ok miles. I hit the Bronx and felt like hell, but somehow the pace picked up. And then I hit Central Park. And everything slowed way down. But I ran.

I am glad for every supporter in Brooklyn, for my wonderful friends who cheered me on in Queens. For the present Pretty Girls, all of whom were out to support me and cheer for me, who stood in the wind and held up signs and screamed. I am glad that when I hit the Queensboro bridge just before mile 15, I knew that I could get to the other side if I had to crawl, and I am glad that when I saw my friends again in Harlem, I apparently looked good despite how bad I felt 22 miles into the run. I am glad for Adi, who tried her damnedest to get to the City to see me, because others in her position absolutely would have given up or turned back. I am grateful to EDub, who also tried SO hard to see me. She did more than most would, and more than many did, and she didn’t even get to see me. But she was with me. I’m grateful to Mr K, to Grampa and to Pop, for lifting me up and carrying me when I thought I couldn’t run anymore, and helping me find that little bit more. I am grateful to every single person at First Congregational Church who kept me on the prayer list, and who sent their prayers and their energy to me around the time I started the marathon. I love every single person who couldn’t be there in person but told me they were pulling for me. I felt your energy.
I am blown away by my parents, my brother, my cousin Mike coming out to cheer for me. I am so glad that Erin, Jen, Marla, Rita, Bakezilla, Ben, Alyssa, Alex, Mom, Dad, Trev, KBam, EVo, John, and my wonderful, supportive, amazing boyfriend Jesse were there. I will never be able to thank you all enough.

Long distance runners are fiercely independent. We know that no matter what we say, the only things that are getting us through the next training run are our selves. We have nothing to rely on except for what we carry – our energy gels, electrolyte drinks, our clothes and our shoes. And what we carry inside us – grit, determination, independent spirit and the relentless will to finish. I trained with KBam for 4 months, and without her I would not have made it to the starting line. But I knew that the only way I could get to the finish line was to find it in myself. And I did. Even when I was sure I would stop, give up, never see Manhattan, let alone Central Park.

Even so. Every long-distance runner knows that we cannot do it alone. Without the crowds to lift you, you have no will to push. Without knowing that my family was out there, expecting me, I would have started walking the first time things got tough. Without Alex to run alongside me I wouldn’t have been able to push through the Bronx. Without the promise of hugs, and congratulations I would not have driven all the way to the finish.

Have you ever wondered what a runner eats?

Right after the race, I ate a huge plate of gravy fries, and 2 pints of Guinness. For my first dinner after running the race, my first proper balanced meal, I had broiled home fries, spicy black beans, and 2 fried eggs. This may not have been the most “from scratch” of meals, but it was hearty. It had protein and carbs. And in a world where being tired and sore does not mean you don’t have to get dinner on the table, it was just what the people I love wanted to eat.
And for that, as well, I am eternally grateful.

Chicken Tikka Masala Balls

Posted: September 30, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | 1 Comment »

One of my favorite things about this foodblogging thing is the sense of community we form. It’s like a huge, interconnected recipe swap, or one of those Junior League cookbooks with the spiral binding and the recipes for Jello Salad and the like. Only here, the recipes are all pretty much outstanding. And very little Jell-o is involved. Usually.

An excellent blog that I’ve recently come to know is Big Girls, Small Kitchen. These girls have a great wealth of knowledge, and are down to earth about what the realities of cooking in New York really are. Twitter also fosters those relationships, and makes you aware of things that you might miss otherwise.

About a month ago, Cara from BGSK tweeted that she had posted a recipe to Food 52 for Chicken Meatball Tikka Masala. Intrigued, I copied down the ingredient list, and made the recipe. The first time, I only made one substitution, using parsley instead of cilantro, because I don’t eat cilantro (soap =/= delicious). It was amazing.

Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph that cookthrough. But I knew this was something I wanted to blog about. So, darn, I had to cook it again. (sarcasm alert)

This time I had to make a few substitutions/changes. But either way, this is delicious, and the flavors only get better as they age, which means that the leftovers are even better the next day for lunch. I love that. I also love making meatballs, which means that this dish makes me super happy. One of the substitutions that I had to make, based on my grocery store’s limitations, was using ground turkey instead of ground chicken for the meatballs. I also totally forgot that I’d used up all my ginger, didn’t buy more, and had to do without. AND, as mentioned before, cilantro tastes like soap, which means I’m allergic to it, so I didn’t use it. BUT it was delicious, so we will press on.

Turkey Meatballs Tikka Masala
Adapted, gratefully, from Cara at Big Girls, Small Kitchen

Turkey Tikka Masala Meatballs

Begin by combining a pound of ground turkey, 2 minced shallots, a bunch of chopped parsley, 3/4 cup of homemade breadcrumbs (put 2 slices of bread in the food processor and pulse into crumbs), an egg, a tablespoon of tomato paste, and (since I didn’t have ginger) a teaspoon each of ground cumin, and either your favorite garam masala, or Moroccan 5-spice powder (thanks, Jackie!). Roll the mixture into golfball-sized meatballs, and saute in olive oil until they are browned on all sides.

Turkey Tikka Masala Meatballs
For the sauce, combine 1/2 a cup of canned tomatoes (mine had green chiles as well, a nice touch) and a tablespoon and a half of tomato paste in your food processor or blender, and whirl until they’re smooth.
Meanwhile. Get out a sturdy pan. If you have a cast-iron or stainless steel skillet, or even an enameled dutch oven, that’s what you want to use. You DO NOT want to use a non-stick pan for this. They don’t get hot enough. Trust me.

Before you do anything WITH your heavy pan other than put it on the burner, assemble and prep your other ingredients. Measure out the following:
1 teaspoon mustard seeds. Put those in a tiny dish or on a saucer.
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted, 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds toasted, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1-2 teaspoons (to taste) garam masala or whatever spice blend you prefer. These go in another tiny dish, that you can easily dump out.
4 minced shallots (or 2 minced shallots and a minced small onion), and 4 grated cloves of garlic. Put these on a small plate.
Now. Turn on your kitchen fan, we’re going for high heat for a minute.
Put your heavy pan over high heat, and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When the oil is SCREAMING HOT, add the mustard seeds, cover, and immediately drop the heat to medium. When the seeds stop popping (this will be about 15 seconds) add the shallots and garlic. Cook over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring and moving around frequently, until the shallots are getting nicely golden. Then, add the cumin, coriander, cayenne, etc and cook a minute or so more, to toast the spices.
Add the tomatoes, and reduce the heat a little. Simmer until the sauce has reduced to a paste-like consistency.
Turkey Tikka Masala Meatballs

Add in a quarter-cup of coconut milk, a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, and a quarter cup of water. Bring the sauce to a boil, and simmer covered for 10 minutes, to let all the flavors meld. At this point, add the meatballs back into the sauce, and let everything get happy. Serve the meatballs and sauce over rice, or with naan, or other flatbread. The leftovers are great for lunch the next day, or, if you’re like me…. breakfast. :)

Sunday Supper, and Savory Monkey Bread

Posted: September 14, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna, Sunday Suppers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Since my life has gotten hectic, and my Saturdays are currently swallowed by the dual demons of Getting Up Early and Logging Lots of Miles, followed by the spare visit from Post-Run Disco Nap, Sundays are where I look when I look forward to the weekend.

Part of the wonder of Sunday is that generally, especially as Summer fades through Indian Summer into Fall, there’s nothing to do except watch football and cook. Two of my favorite things to do. So this past Sunday, I decided to implement a process, whereby I make a big meal for Sunday Supper. It serves as a fuel-up for the week, and as a reminder that the weekend ain’t over yet. It gives leftovers for lunch on Monday, and the reminder that Saturday and Sunday aren’t that far away.

This inaugural week, Sunday Supper also gave me the chance to fire up my oven, which was repaired on Saturday, after not working since June 17. (No… I did not break it by kicking it when the Celtics choked away banner number 18 to the Lakers that night. As far as you know.)

The menu was straightforward, delicious food. On Sunday morning, I browned a brisket in my roasting pan on the stove, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then dropped it into my slow-cooker with 2 small chopped onions, 4 chopped stalks of celery, 4 chopped carrots, a can of low-sodium beef broth (yes, I know, canned. But sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do) and a can of no-salt-added chopped tomatoes. I set the slow cooker on low, and sat back to wait until the delicious smells got overwhelming.
Roughly 8 hours later, I shredded and chopped the meat, and pureed the rest of the items in the slow cooker into a gravy of sorts, and put everything back in the slow-cooker, this time on WARM, instead of LOW.

To go with the excellent brisket (I love Crock-Potting cheap, tough cuts of meat into delicious oblivion. It warms my soul), I made mashed cauliflower. Our CSA had given us a head of it, and while I’m not the HUGEST fan of cauliflower and broccoli, I figured that I shouldn’t let this veggie go to waste. So, I simmered it in milk, and once it was tender, mashed it with butter, salt, pepper, and some of the reserved milk. In all, it turned out delicious, and I was able to trick myself into believing that it was mashed potatoes. Well played, Cauli. Well played indeed.

The real star of the show, confirmed by the response the photo got on Facebook, was the Savory Monkey Bread I made based on Serious Eats‘ recipe.

Savory Monkey Bread

adapted (lightly) from Serious Eats

1. Scald 1 cup of milk. Scalding refers to heating milk up to 180 degrees, no more, no less. Let the milk cool to lukewarm. I judged lukewarm to be about finger temperature, when I stuck my finger in the pot of milk and it felt neither hot nor cold. I don’t know anybody named Luke, so I had to wing it.

2. Combine the milk, 1 packet of rapid-rise yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 2 cups of flour in a mixer. With the dough hook or paddle, beat until everything is well-combined. Cover with aluminum foil and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

3. Add another half-cup of flour,  half a stick of room temperature butter and a teaspoon of salt to the bowl, and knead with the dough hook (or by hand) until the butter is incorporated, and the dough is springy and a little bit sticky. I didn’t want to over-beat mine, and the original recipe doesn’t give a time guideline, but it’s nearly impossible to OVER knead your dough. I checked by touching it. When I could poke it, and it felt sticky, but it didn’t stick to my hand, I decided it was ready.
Form into a ball, cover, and let rise again for about 40 minutes.

4. While the dough is rising the second time, make the butter dip. I think next time, I will melt my butter, because it seems easier to manipulate than soft smushy butter with soft smushy dough.
Combine 1 garlic clove (or more, to taste) with a teaspoon of Italian Seasoning, a half-teaspoon each of dried rosemary and dried thyme, half a teaspoon (ish) of smoked hot paprika, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a whole bunch of grated asiago cheese (I probably used a quarter of a cup) in a food processor.
When the garlic is finely chopped up and the dried herbs start looking like little bits, drop in the other half-stick of butter and combine. This is a compound butter. Leave it on the counter at room temp.
I think that next time, I’ll melt the butter. Then, add the chopped up garlic and herbs TO the melted butter with the spices, and reserve the cheese for sprinkling.

5. Preheat your oven to 325. Grease your pan. I used a 7″ springform bundt pan, but you can use anything you’ve got.
Take the doubled dough out of the bowl, and cut it in half. Cut each half into 16 pieces (more if you feel like it), for a total of 32 (or more). I used my bench scraper, but you can also tear, use kitchen shears, or a knife.
Roll each blob into a ball, and smear with the compound butter (or dip the balls in the melted herb butter) and sprinkle with shredded parmesan, asiago, romano, or all three.
Put the blobs into the greased pan, stacking them on top of each other and trying to fit them into the little crevices so that they’re somewhat evenly layered. (Deb’s post on traditional Monkey Bread with Cream Cheese Glaze has great photos, as always, of the process)
If you’re like me, this is the moment to give the whole shebang another coating of grated cheese. Be like me. It’s fun.
Cover the pan, and let it rise for 30-40 minutes, until the little blobs of dough are filling up the pan.

6. Grate on a little more cheese right before you stick the pan in the oven. I won’t tell anybody.

7. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the dough is golden brown, and smells like you’re going to faint. Remove from the pan if you can (a springform was REALLY helpful for this) and let cool a little bit, until you aren’t burning your fingers trying to eat it.

This was a great way to kick off what I hope will become a Sunday tradition. Stay tuned to find out what happens next Sunday!

Quick Enhancer – Avocado Butter

Posted: September 7, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

I love avocados.

I also love butter.

The combination of the two is one of those things you never really think about, until one day, the lightbulb goes on, and you realize “Hey — buttery avocados….butter….holy moly!!”It’s one of those things that I feel silly giving a recipe for, because seriously, the name says it all — avocados and butter are the major ingredients.
Avocado Butter

To make avocado butter, as with all compound butters, I start with room-temperature butter. For me, there is only one kind of butter for this — salted. If you want to use unsalted, that’s ok, but remember to definitely add salt to the mixture — avocados love and need salt.
I use half a stick of butter to half an avocado. In the past, I have combined the butter and avocado with a fork in a bowl, although this time I made it in my Kitchenaid. Once the butter and avocado are combined, I add a healthy pinch of coarse kosher salt. After that, anything goes. I like to add lime zest, lime juice, cayenne pepper, and cumin. Not much cayenne and cumin, because you don’t want to blow your head off while eating your morning toast. Just enough to make you notice it.

Once everything is combined, and you’ve given it a final taste, do your best not to eat it all at once, and wrap it up in plastic wrap or foil, squeezing tightly to make a cylinder. Or, alternatively, put it in a tupperware or other airtight container.

I put this on toast in the morning for an extra jolt of nutrition. You can also cut a piece to put onto a piece of grilled or sauteed fish, or use it to top a turkey burger. It would probably be excellent in a grilled cheese sandwich as well. Experiment, and play around, but know that all you need to make this worth it is a slice of crispy bread.

Fried and Fabulous

Posted: August 26, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

After the gorgeous squash cakes and tomato salad from my last post, I have to get a little unhealthy on you for one quick second. But even this, this crazy entry about fried goodness, is totally fine. Because barring one moment where I totally ate fried okra 2 nights in a row, I don’t really eat fried food all that often. So whenever it happens, you just have to let it rip, and revel in every minute of it, because it’s delicious, and it’s a treat, and y’know what? The next day you’re probably going to want to go back to something light, cleansing, and guaranteed to help chase the grease from your pores.

Or at least, I usually do.

About a year ago, I developed a blog friendship with Nishta, from Blue Jean Gourmet. And around this time last year, Nishta mentioned (possibly on Twitter) that her sweetie, Jill, made some mean fried okra.
Fried okra
Being from New England, I had never seen okra in  person. I’d only ever heard of it as an element in gumbo. But, having something of a flirtation with Southern food all my life, and loving anything fried, I have been intrigued by the idea of frying okra (or really any vegetable) since I found out that this is something people just….do! My ancestors didn’t really deep-fry. You want a pot roast, or something involving cabbage? A way to figure out how to feed a family on a pound of beans and a hunk of salt pork? My people, the Yankees, the Scots and the Poles, we got you covered.
But breading/battering and deep-frying veggies? Shit, dog, that’s uncharted territory!

And when I see uncharted territory, I barge right in, because who knows when I might end up eating something like Jill’s fried okra.
Fried Okra mosaic
And trust me friends, Jill Carroll’s Fried Okra is something you want to be eating. These little nuggets of fried deliciousness are enough to make me contemplate running to the store and getting okra right now….when all the stores are closed. Honestly, follow Jill’s recipe. I did, except of course I added some cornmeal in with the flour I dredged in, and oh yeah, I deep-fried instead of doing a shallow fry, because it seemed less likely that I would burn the okra on my first try. Holy god this stuff is good. Seriously, even if you don’t think you like okra, make this. Please.

In exchange for the fried okra recipe, Nishta asked for my fried pickle method. I’ve been working on it for a while, and part of the wonder of this particular batch of fried pickles is that I made them using homemade pickles. Cucumbers that I sliced, brined, and processed by using this garlic dill recipe from Marisa’s exemplary blog. And these pickles? I made them basically the same way that Jill makes her okra.
Fried Pickle mosaic

I took my pickles, and put them in a big bowl. I drizzled buttermilk over them, and let them sit, although I have also done a basic flour, egg, flour dredge. When my stock pot of frying oil (usually vegetable or canola) has reached 370, I scoop the pickles out of the buttermilk, and into a combination of flour, cornmeal (usually in a 1:1 ratio) and salt. Oftentimes, I’ll use Old Bay or cayenne as well, but these are some speecy-spicy dill pickles, just the way I like them, so I left out the additional spices this time.

After a solid coating in the flour and cornmeal, I drop them in the oil, being careful not to crowd, and being REALLY careful that the oil temperature doesn’t drop below 350. When they’re nice and golden brown, I scoop them out to drain.
I’ve eaten fried pickles that were more like doughnuts with pickle filling, and while they’re interesting, they’re not my thing. I like a nice, thin coating on my fried pickles, and a good crisp. I think that the quicker you can get the coating to crisp, the better, because your pickle can also stay crispy.
Oh, and one last thing.

Always, ALWAYS chips. Never spears. Anyone who’s ever gotten burned by hot pickle juice running down their chin knows this. And if you don’t, well, consider this your lesson.

Summer Supper: Crisper Cleanout!

Posted: August 23, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

My favorite thing about the summer is when it gets hot and sultry out, and tomatoes burst forth with all their colorful, vibrant glory. I mean, look at this:
Composed Salad - Tomatoes

This is a salad (ok, in my world, it’s a salad) involving items that we got in our CSA share this week – 2 big beautiful heirloom tomatoes sliced, and a handful of beautiful little yellow baby tomatoes cut in half. Some parsley, also from the CSA. Salt and pepper. That’s literally all it is, and it’s the most beautiful thing ever. This salad is what I love best about summer. The funky old tomatoes, green and brownish and yellow, orange, pink, red, multicolored and mottled, they’re all finally coming ripe, and being their amazing selves. I love tomato season.
Fun fact: when Jesse and I started dating, he told me that he didn’t like tomatoes. I told him, honestly, that what he disliked was crappy tomatoes. A good tomato is a joy, and judging by the happy look on his face when I gave him his plate tonight, he has learned that lesson well.

The other amazing thing about this particular summertime is our CSA share. Where before, on a night like Sunday night, I would have needed to go to the store to get something to make for dinner, I could just open the crisper and see what veggies we had, or had left from previous weeks. I haven’t had this ready access to fresh, excellent vegetables since I was a kid and my parents and grandparents had gardens. And while just a week or two ago I was bemoaning the fucking omnipresence of zucchini (seriously, there was none this week in the share. I did a happy dace), Sunday night it was a lifesaver to have those squashes in the crisper.

Because it meant that I could make squash cakes to go with our tomato salad, thereby giving us a full on vegetarian meal, complete with the inclusion of fruity beer and cheese!
Summer Dinner

Squash Cakes
adapted from Epicurious

I pretty much stick to the recipe when I make these cakes, which I have made a couple times now. I hope to use the same recipe to make sweet potato cakes in the future, because sweet potatoes with some curry spices and cheese…. just the thought makes me happy!! In fact, it makes me wonder if I could do this with butternut squash and white cheddar, or acorn squash and goat cheese. The possibilities seem endless!!

Squash cakes.

I grated up 1 small zucchini, 1 yellow goose-neck squash, and 1 pattypan squash, put them in the colander, and sprinkled them with salt. Then, I squished the shredded squash with my hands, squeezing out the water after the half-hour was up, and rolling it up in a dishtowel to squeeze out some more water. When making the batter, I used 1/3 of a cup of Bluepoint Blueberry Ale, because I’m convinced that the quarter-cup I added the first time wasn’t enough. I also added 1/4 teaspoon of cumin and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, because I’m a punk.
From there, the only real change I made this time was using shredded mozzarella instead of goat cheese, because it was what I had in the fridge. I really like the way the mozzarella melts, and gets kind of crispy, so it’s a little like you’re eating pizza or the best grilled cheese. It’s also a little like you’re eating a latke, only a latke jacked up about 10 degrees. In fact, I bet this would be really good with straight up potatoes too, if you could squeeze out enough water, so if anyone’s interested in the attempt, let me know.

This was an awesome Sunday night supper, and used up a lot of the veggies that I was wondering what to do with, and how I could use them before they became a waste. Hopefully it can help you get rid of some of your excess zucchini, or help you appreciate your summer tomatoes a little better. Or maybe both.

Any summer favorites from you guys out there?

About Moi

Posted: August 16, 2010 | Author: Johanna | Filed under: Johanna | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I realized today that it is entirely possible that we either have new readers, or readers who still don’t know certain information about me. In the interest of bringing people some new stuff, or at least some new information, here we go with a few fun facts about the Improviser that you may not have known.

#1 – I really DO improvise a lot. Most dinners at our house are the result of me reading a recipe, thinking “wow, that sounds good” and proceeding to forget half of the procedures and just going with the ingredient list. I cook by feel, and I’m working really hard to train myself to use my senses more in my daily life, including cooking. This means that things may burn a little more often because I’m not setting timers. It also might mean that I have to guess how long something baked for – but if you cook my recipes frequently enough, you’ll get the hang of it.

#2 – I do not drink anything even remotely close to the recommended amount of water every day. Or at least, I didn’t, until this baby came into my life. Who knew that all it would take to make me drink water was a cute orange metal water bottle with a sport bottle top? I’m actually thinking about getting an even BIGGER KleanKanteen soon, because I love the little one, but I have to get up and refill it ALL THE TIME. The good thing about drinking this much water during the day is that when it’s time for hot yoga class, I don’t feel like I’m going to die. This is seriously the best.

#3 – My favorite comestibles are, in no particular order: chicken fingers, bourbon, french fries, chocolate chip cookies, macaroni & cheese, pizza, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lobster, spicy tuna rolls, strong dark coffee, chocolate croissants, and cookie dough ice cream. Oh, and buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy. And Gie’s Mince & Tatties. And Jaffa Cakes. And Diesels and Guinness and Vino Verde. And Riesling. And cheese in its many wondrous forms. You may have noticed that a lot of these things are the same foods that 9 year old boys love. That’s totally cool with me, since they’re also freaking delicious.

#4 – If I’m going the boneless-skinless route, I will from now on be choosing ONLY chicken thighs. No more boneless, skinless, textureless, TASTELESS chicken breasts for this girl – give me a little more fat, which means a little more flavor, and a little more *snap* in the texture. Give me more. If I’m paying the same money, I’m taking as much as I can flavor-wise out of it.

#5 – I have no problem, at all, with plunging a lobster into a pot of boiling water, clamping down the lid, and cooking the sucker.

#6 – I forgot to mention that one of my favorite things to eat is my dad’s Red Beans and Rice. And that by mashed potatoes, I mean my mom’s. By biscuits I don’t mean from a can. I love curry and chickpeas, and risotto (I forgot to mention risotto) and things that involve pumpkin, sausage, stock and cream. I also love cold leftovers, topped with a fried egg, for breakfast. Basically, anything topped with a fried egg.

#7 – I do not consider white chocolate to be chocolate.

Johanna: The Improviser

Never quite follows the recipe. Doesn't really measure. Tastes with her fingers. Somehow, it always works.

Alyssa: The Triple Threat

Can do it all. And modest to boot.

Bakezilla: We Use Mixers Too

She likes to bake. Actually, baking is the only thing she does. It's a passion.

Rita: The Kosher Chick

Restrictions have nothing on her.