Herb Roasted Cod

Herb Roasted Cod  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Herb Roasted Cod | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and this week I’m making Herb Roasted Fish for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and “challenges” along the way along with suggestions on how to adapt Ina’s recipe to a small kitchen.

Episode: “Italian at Home”

The Set-up: Ina, Jeffrey and their friends are recreating recipes from a memorable trip to Italy.

The Menu: Herb Roasted Fish, Creamy Parmesan Polenta, Celery and Parmesan Salad, Affogato Sundaes

0:49 – Ina and Jeffrey took a trip to Florence, Italy recently and it seems like he won the ordering game at Cibrèo when he ordered a baked fish. Ina’s making her version at home.

1:30 – The technique is a little different – the Herb Roasted Fish baked in parchment paper which allows the cod and seasonings to steam together as they cook.

2:45 – Wow, this comes together so fast. Once the fish has its own sheet of parchment it’s topped with a few sprigs of thyme, a couple large olives, and a smattering of salt, pepper and olive oil. #howeasyisthat?

3:19 – Now that the fish is prepped – Ina is brushing the edges with egg wash to help seal the packets. It’s like a little craft project.

4:22 – PS: I see Ina doing this on her lovely butcher block cutting boards, but I’d probably just work straight on the baking sheet and save myself some clean up.

5:38 – Dinner is going to be served “al fresco” and the table setting is suitably rustic: a linen-lined bread basket filled with fresh lemons and lemon leaves.

6:01 –The theme is modern square plates, napkins, glasses lined up in a row and Ina is channeling her inner butler; making sure the spacing is just so. She thinks the Italians are so effortlessly stylish, but she is too!

9:33 – On to the Celery and Parmesan Salad. Ina says that Italians use celery more than Americans and I agree – why have I relegated celery to a filler or garnish?

10:40 – Per usual, Ina is making her own dressing but this time it’s a lemon and celery seed vinaigrette, not her traditional mustard-based version.

11:55 – The dressing also involves anchovy paste – another ingredient I have an odd relationship with. When I don’t know it’s there we’re cool, but it kinda weirds me out.

12:14 – One thing about a celery salad is that it probably stays crisp (even when dressed) for quite a long time.

13:29 Over to Barbara and Bobby Liberman who are on the hunt for wine. They’re sticking with Italian vineyards – a red for appetizers and a white for dinner. Success!

14:36 – For appetizers Ina is going rustic and casual – a few salted cashews, marinated olives, and some artisanal potato chips.

15:07 – It really doesn’t get easier than this. Step 1: open package, Step 2: place in silver bowl, Step 3: profit.

18:42 – Jeffrey, Bobby, and Barbara are relaxing in the backyard over the appetizers and reminiscing about their trip while Ina cooks Creamy Parmesan Polenta.

19:35 – Full disclosure: I am horrendous at cooking polenta it regularly comes out too thick and gummy. So, let listen to Ina’s words of polenta wisdom instead - whisk first to prevent lumps, then stir with a wooden spoon over low heat. It sounds so simple!

20:18  – Jeffrey makes an appearance to top off Ina’s glass of wine and gets to help out by putting the Herb Roasted Fish in the oven. He also wins husband points for checking on Ina.

21:00 – Time to finish the polenta by adding the parmesan cheese and plate the Celery and Parmesan Salad with shavings of parmesan, toasted walnuts, and parsley leaves.

22:11 – Dinner is served! Barbara immediately recognizes the fish recipe and exclaims how lovely it is. Well played, Ina.

23:39 – A mutual agreement that no one knows how to ask for wine in Italian, even though Bobby can (allegedly) order a bottle in six languages. That seems like a miss if you ask me, time to take some Italian lessons Mr. Liberman.

27:22 – While her guests wind down from dinner Ina’s working on dessert: Affogato Sundaes, which combine both dessert and coffee by pouring espresso over vanilla and hazelnut ice cream. Sounds like heaven.

28:36 – She’s using a Nespresso machine to brew espresso shots. Some day when we have slightly more counter space…

29:54 – These are insane: coffee liqueur, homemade whipped cream, and chopped chocolate covered espresso beans. I want to do a face-plant into these bowls. Amazing.

Final Thoughts:
What a fun idea to recreate a memorable dinner from a trip with friends.

Trust Ina to make a themed dinner so elegant and effortless with simple ingredients.

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the power of a silver bowl to make everything feel special and intentional.

Herb Roasted Cod  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Herb Roasted Cod | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I’ve wanted to try cooking en papillote - French for "in parchment" - or al cartoccio – since this is an episode about Italian cooking – for a long time and as I watched Ina cook the Herb Roasted Fish I was inspired to finally do it. What’s a bit funny to me is that if you replace the elegant cod with something like trout you’re really just one step removed from campfire cooking.

Fish Selection - It is worth asking your seafood counter helper for thicker, meaty pieces of cod as I find they stand up to the roasting process better. If, you have some variation in size among the filets, then I’d recommend putting the smaller ones on the same sheet pan and staggering their into the oven by a minute or two. That way everything is done at the same time and is perfectly cooked.

Packet Construction – I tried two different ways of sealing the packets – Ina’s empanada style and what I think of as deli style (rolled toward the middle and then tucked under. In both cases without the egg wash to seal them closed they did leak a bit but the results were still excellent.

Seasoning – The cooking process is somewhere between poaching and steaming so it’s important to add plenty of seasoning so that the delicate flavor of the fish is enhanced and the liquid creates a delicious sauce. I made a few changes to Ina's original recipe swapping in butter butter for the olive oil and capers for the olives.

Herb Roasted Cod  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Herb Roasted Cod | Image: Laura Messersmith

Herb Roasted Fish in Parchment Paper (4 servings)

4 (8 ounce) boneless snapper or cod fillets
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup (2-3 lemons) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 teaspoons (3-4 sprigs) fresh thyme
2 teaspoons drained capers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Pat the fish dry with paper towels and place each piece on a sheet of parchment paper. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper, then place 1/2 tablespoon of butter under each filet. Drizzle with lemon juice and scatter the thyme leaves and capers over the top. Repeat with the other three pieces of fish evenly dividing the seasonings among the pieces of fish.

Beat the egg together with 1 tablespoon of water for an egg wash. Brush the egg wash around the edge of the parchment paper and fold it in half. Carefully fold the edge of the parchment paper under and around the fish to make a package. Place the package on a sheet pan and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Serve hot in the parchment paper.

Lightly adapted and rewritten from Ina Garten’s Herb Roasted Fish.

Small Kitchen Friendly?
1,000,000%. All I used were 2 rimmed sheet pans, a chef’s knife, small cutting board, measuring spoons (but really you could just estimate, this is a forgiving recipe) and a fish spatula. Parchment paper and paper towels are essential here.

The Verdict:
Lord this is good. Trust Ina to pinpoint a restaurant quality meal that takes so little effort you could almost forget you're cooking. Delicately poached code in its own buttery, lemony, faintly herbal juices while the capers add their own briny punch to the mix. Point 2: it will never cease to be a teat that in the time it takes my rickety little oven to heat up, I can have the entire main course prepped and ready to go.

Herb Roasted Cod  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Herb Roasted Cod | Image: Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake

Blood Orange Polenta Cake  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake | Image: Laura Messersmith

Are you a rule follower or a risk taker? In life I go by the book more than I should – I find myself teetering on the edge of a new adventure looking for reasons to step back; thinking of all the ways my plan could go awry when there’s no guarantee of success. A twist on the New Year’s Resolution I learned of recently is to choose a word – something like Family, Balance, or Health – and orienting your choices to support that goal. I’d like to dedicate this year to being Fearless.

I think that’s why I like cooking so much – even a misstep that ends in disaster is still a chance to learn. An under-baked loaf of bread, a pork tenderloin that is starting to burn but still hasn’t come up 140 internally, caramels that didn’t solidify and started to ooze on the plate. Frustrating? Sure. But, at worst they end up in the trash and I start again, at best they’re salvageable and end up as part of a funny story, which was the case the first time I made this cake.

No back up plan for our New Year’s Eve dessert just some homemade whipped cream to dress up a dry and relatively flavorless crumb despite plenty of butter and eggs. What happened?! I give our guests credit for pretending they liked it, but I could tell those were sympathy bites. Sorry, Joyce & Alex!

I loved the idea though and the cover photo on Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes by Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson was so beautiful, I had to go back to the drawing board. I went seeking guidance from no fewer than five other similar recipes the result: the cake I was actually dreaming of – rounds of glistening oranges, not too sweet, tender, and deeply citrusy. Totally worth the effort.

Blood Orange Polenta Cake   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake | Image: Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake (serves 6-8)

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/4 cup water
2 navel or Valencia oranges
2 blood oranges
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup fine polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon orange zest

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare a 9-inch solid cake pan or pie plate by brushing the bottom and sides generously with 2 tablespoons softened butter. Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and water and cook over medium high heat. Swirl the pan to help the sugar to dissolve without stirring. Boil for about 5 minutes until the syrup turns a light golden brown, 360 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat and pour into the buttered pie plate to evenly cover the bottom.

Slice the oranges about 1/8 inch thick. Remove any seeds and arrange the slices in overlapping circles over the cooled syrup. Remember, the cake will be inverted later so the bottom layer of oranges will be the top of the cake. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the all purpose flour, polenta, and baking powder. In a separate large mixing bowl, beat together the remaining sticks of room temperature butter and 1 cup of sugar on medium speed for about 5 minutes or until light and creamy. Decrease the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time mixing well in between. Lastly, mix in the orange zest.

Add the polenta and flour mixture to the wet ingredients a little at a time mixing on low speed until almost combined. Scrape down the bowl in between additions, and finish mixing gently by hand with a rubber spatula to ensure the dry ingredients are completely integrated, but the cake isn’t over mixed.

Spread the batter over the orange slices and bake at 350 degrees F. for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen before placing a large serving platter on top. Hold the two dishes together using oven mitts and invert the cake onto the platter. Dust with confectioner’s sugar and serve with whipped cream.

Re-written and adapted from Orange and Rosemary Polenta Cake (pg. 75) in Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes by Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson.

I received a promotional copy of this book via Blogging for Books, all opinions are my own.

Blood Orange Polenta Cake   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes! I used, small sauce pan, candy thermometer, 9 inch pie plate (or solid cake pan), medium cutting board, utility knife, two medium mixing bowls, a hand mixer, rubber spatula, microplane zester, measuring cups and spoons.

The Verdict:
If I were being entirely scientific the taste testers would have followed the metamorphosis of this cake through its various iterations culminating in the final gorgeous version. Instead, my parents were the beneficiaries when I baked the cake that finally delivered on it’s orangey, bright promise. I knew it was a hit when my mother passed up a bakery chocolate cake in favor of this one. I hope it has a similar effect when you make it too!

Blood Orange Polenta Cake   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Blood Orange Polenta Cake | Image: Laura Messersmith

Tomatoes Roasted with Pesto

Tomatoes with Pesto  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Tomatoes with Pesto | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Italian Old and New”

The Set-up: Ina is taking inspiration from classic Italian flavors and new combinations.

The Menu: Tomatoes Roasted with Pesto, Antonia’s Pasta Alle Melenzana (Eggplant Pasta), Three Italian Desserts

0:33 – We start out in Ina’s walled kitchen garden where the tomatoes are as high as an elephant's eye, or something.

1:02 – She claims that the first time she planted tomatoes she over did it and ended up with about “200,000 tomatoes.” Probably only a slight exaggeration.

2:19 – Ina has also collected a big bunch of basil from the garden destined to become the pesto topping our Tomatoes Roasted with Pesto.

3:11 – Pro Tip #1: Place the tomato slices directly on the sheet pan so that they brown a bit when roasted.

4:24 – Pesto has been whirled around and during the basil picking process we get Pro Tip #2: to keep basil fresh and green in the refrigerator, wash and very thoroughly dry it. Then store in a plastic ziptop bag with a slightly damp paper towel.

5:38 – The tomatoes are out of the oven and now get a generous slather of pesto and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese before going back in the oven to toast up.

6:26 – OMG those look so flipping amazing I had to pause and go to the freezer to take out the pesto I made last month, you know just in case….

10:07 – Back in the kitchen with Antonia an O.G. Friend of Ina to make, you guessed it: Antonia’s Pasta Alle Melenzana (Eggplant Pasta)! You can tell Antonia is good people because she has already added butter to the sauce.

11:40 – I wonder how Ina and Antonia came to terms with their different cooking styles? Antonia seems a bit more laid back with the measuring than our girl.

12:15 – I can already tell that I won’t be making this – it requires blanching and peeling tomatoes. Also, the eggplant look mushy which I cannot abide. Sorry, Antonia!

13:49 – Oh dear, and it requires smooshing the peeled tomatoes through a sieve. This is why canned tomato puree exists! PS: also not terribly small kitchen friendly.

14:31 – This is interesting – Antonia uses two types of mozzarella, a firmer packaged version and a fresh version. The first type creates stringy stretchy-ness the second adds a lighter freshness.

18:04 – Onward to the Three Italian Desserts! Ina says she’s looking for inspiration for these desserts in the liquor store. I’ll just bet she is!

19:33 – The first dessert is a twist on affogato – vanilla ice cream “drowned” in espresso, this time with a shot of hazelnut liqueur (aka Frangelico) and topped with chocolate shavings and chopped hazelnuts.

20:16 – I am 100% on board with Ina’s use of the Nespresso machine for this purpose, A. those things are amazing, and B. this dessert could only be made better through a generous helping of Nutella.

21:48 – Dessert two is a piece of pound cake drizzled with Amaretto, topped with a scoop of vanilla swiss almond ice cream and toasted flaked almonds. Good Lord, I thought the first one was good but I might switch allegiances…

22:52 – As Ina admits, dessert three is more assembly than recipe and mainly involves dipping things in Vin Santo, a Tuscan dessert wine. What I want to know is where Ina found those adorable clementines with their leaves still attached!?

26:27 – Time for Ask Ina! Andrew asks for an Italian recipe that his lactose intolerant vegetarian girlfriend can eat (ie. no meat, no cheese.) Ina suggests an antipasto platter with roasted red pepper, artichoke hearts, or eggplant caponata. She also suggests a simple marinara sauce over spaghetti.

27:43 - Tracy needs help with her watery lasagna. (Eww.) Ina recommends starting with a very thick sauce and thick ricotta, but says she thinks the culprit is the noodles. She says she just soaks them in hot hot water before layering. I suppose this means they’re quite undercooked and then absorb liquid from the sauce?

28:39 – Mark is making his own Italian bread and ask how he can make it taste better? Ina says he needs to add more salt, but after the yeast has had a chance to activate since salt inhibits its growth.

29:51 – Denise is hoping for advice on preserving some of the peppers from her garden. Ina recommends roasting them in the oven and keeping them in the refrigerator covered in olive oil. She signs of with the charge to “think Italian!”

Final Thoughts:
Some day I'll have a garden and then the pesto will flow like wine!

Ina’s ability to present a dessert of biscotti and wine with flair is incredible.

What do you think the weirdest “Ask Ina” question has been?

Tomatoes with Pesto   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomatoes with Pesto | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I decided to make the Tomatoes Roasted with Pesto mainly because it sounded delicious, but also because I’ve never roasted a tomato and if Ina says it’s amazing then it’s definitely something I want to experience.

You might think it’s impossible to learn something from such a simple dish, but never underestimate my ability to muck something up.

Tomato Selection – Ina says in the episode not to use heirlooms because they’re too delicate to stand up to roasting. I’d like to add that choosing a reeeally big tomato is also not advisable due to structural integrity issues. Shoot for a medium sized tomato that will yield slices about 1-1 1/2 inches in diameter (that’s across for those who forgot their 10th grade geometry.)

Tomato Slicing – Again, this is so elementary but could use emphasizing: really do slice the tomatoes about 1/2 inch thick. It will seem like overkill, an excessive amount of tomato when each one only gives you 3-4 slices. However, you’ll thank me when after nearly 20 minutes in the oven your tomatoes haven’t cooked into nearly spreadable (but delicious!) softened rounds.

Pesto – I needed basil for another recipe earlier this summer and whipped up a small batch of Ina’s pesto with the remaining leaves which I then stashed in the freezer with layer of olive oil poured over the top. I really can’t recommend this enough – it’s awesome to have something gorgeously summery tucked away that can be defrosted and put into play.

Tomatoes with Pesto   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomatoes with Pesto | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes! Assuming you’re making the pesto now, you’ll need a medium sized food processor and measuring cups and spoons. For the tomatoes a medium cutting board, serrated utility knife, microplane zester, rimmed baking sheet, and metal spatula are all you’ll need.

The Verdict:
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but Mike and I were still blown away by how good the Tomatoes Roasted with Pesto were. Never underestimate Ina's ability to make something classic even better. As Mike pointed out this dish is so simple and unassuming but the results are awesome. Deeply tomato-y from the roasting with the garlic-y richness of the pesto and sprinkled Parmesan cheese this recipe has all the classic notes of pizza, with very little effort and no delivery. At room temperature it made a perfect first course on toast and could easily be an amazing, low-effort appetizer for guests.

Tomatoes with Pesto   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomatoes with Pesto | Image: Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Let’s be honest, we’re at kind of an awkward stage these days – everyone is dying for spring, meanwhile it’s still cold enough for hats and gloves. I’ll admit that I’m beginning to give my puffer coat the stink-eye as I put it on for the 150th day in a row and I’ve grown a bit tired of the heavier braises and stews that feel appropriate on crystal clear winter days. What’s a beleaguered northeasterner to do when winter refuses to give up and all I really want is to cast off the cocoon?

I have zero control over the temperature, but at least I can decide what comes out of the kitchen so I’ve begun transitioning our menus to lighter flavors like this Tuscan White Bean Soup. It fits all in one pot and serves the dual purpose of providing a warming meal and packing in lots of fresh veggies. Perfect on a cold early spring day!

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup (yield: 8 servings)

3 ounces thick-cut bacon, diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 cup (1 medium) diced onion
2 cups (2 medium) large diced carrots
1 cup (2 stalks) large diced celery
2 teaspoons (2-3 cloves) garlic minced on a microplane grater
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
8 cups chicken broth
2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
4 sprigs rosemary
1 (3-4 inch) chunk parmesan rind (optional)
2 dried bay leaves
3 to 4 cups roughly chopped kale
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese for serving

Sauté the diced bacon in a large French oven over medium heat until crisp, remove from the pot to a paper towel lined plate. Add the olive oil, diced onions, celery, and carrots to the pot and cook for 7-10 minutes stirring occasionally until softened but not browned.

Meanwhile, mince the garlic very finely using a microplane grater so that it forms a paste. Add the garlic paste and red pepper flakes to the vegetables and sauté for 1-2 minutes until the garlic becomes fragrant and mellow.

Next, use a sieve to drain and rinse the cannellini beans. Strip the leaves from the sprigs of rosemary reserving the stems and finely mince the leaves. Remove the tough center ribs of the kale and roughly chop the leaves into large pieces.

Add the chicken broth, cannellini beans, rosemary stems, parmesan rind, and bay leaves to the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a low boil for 5 minutes. Reduce to a bare simmer, add chopped kale, cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the kale wilts.

Remove and discard the bay leaves and rosemary stems. Ladle 2 cups of soup into a blender or food processor and process at low speed until smooth. Return pureed soup to the pot and stir to combine. Taste and add kosher salt and pepper as needed.

Serve the soup with a sprinkle of the reserved chopped rosemary leaves, diced bacon, grated parmesan cheese, and a final drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. A slice or two of rustic bread won’t go amiss either.

Adapted from 30 Minute Tuscan White Bean Soup by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt via Serious Eats

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes! I used my trusty 5.5 quart Le Creuset French oven, a large cutting board, a chef’s knife, microplane grater, vegetable peeler, wooden spatula, sieve and measuring cups. If you want to add some creaminess to the soup, then a stick blender, food processor, etc. will be helpful as will a large spoon or ladle.

The Verdict:
This soup successfully navigates the tricky waters of balancing kale’s fresh green bitterness with the light, creamy cannellini beans. Rosemary and bay leaves offer depth and there’s just a hint of heat from the red pepper flakes and garlic. A bit of salt from the bacon (when did bacon ever hurt anything?) and parmesan round out the mix. A great transitional meal that comes together quickly! 

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tuscan White Bean & Kale Soup | Image: Laura Messersmith