Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cooking up a storm in the spirit of Christmas

When the holiday season is upon us, the kitchen becomes the place where you will almost always find me (more than usual, that is). I begin planning each day around everything that needs to be done in the kitchen, as preparation for holiday gatherings, dinner parties, gift exchanges, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's day. Not to mention the dinner that has to be eaten every other night in between! 

This is not to say that I don't absolutely adore cooking during Christmastime, but there is no denying that cooking for company with a deadline is ever-so-slightly more stressful that cooking on a nice rainy Sunday when you have nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. 

Now, let's get down to business. This holiday season my family will be entertaining a number of times. We have already celebrated a friend's birthday/Hanukkah/Christmas by having our annual bagels and lox feast on Sunday - one of my all-time favorite traditions because I absolutely love smoked salmon. Our next kitchen endeavor will take place on Christmas Eve day, when we spend the entire day in the kitchen, preparing for Christmas dinner. We make homemade tomato sauce and my grandmother's meatballs which are undoubtedly the best on the face of this planet. Throughout my childhood, these meatballs have become an integral part of Christmas. In fact, I don’t believe it would truly be Christmas without them. Each year on the day of Christmas Eve, my mother makes tomato sauce (courtesy of my Nonna’s recipe, of course!) and these meatballs. Over the years, I have started to take over the meatball preparation, as my mom says I seem to have my Nonna’s same knack for making them.

Next on the agenda is our actual Christmas Eve dinner which is rapidly approaching in a mere 3 days. This dinner consists of an Italian antipasto, complete with aged provolone, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, Genoa salami, olives, eggplant caponata, and homemade roasted red peppers (my mother's specialty). It is served with a crusty baguette, locally-made of course, and lots of champagne. We spend Christmas Eve with our closest friends, the Snapps. This has been a tradition for many, many years, and I assume it will remain this way for a long, long time. 

Naturally, we have a culinary tradition for Christmas morning as well. After we've made some coffee and opened a few presents, we always make ourselves an orange julius and then proceed with scrambled eggs, Pillsbury flakey biscuits and bacon. It may not be the healthiest meal, but it is our annual Christmas breakfast just the same.

After Christmas, we don't entertain again until New Year's Even when the Snapp family comes over again and we repeat our Christmas penne and meatball meal. Fortunately, repeating this meal means that we don't have much work to do, as we already prepared everything once for Christmas. 

Now, of course, we make many sweet treats during the holiday period. Every year we make a yummy raspberyy linzer torte and some buttery Viennese crescent cookies. I also generally tend to try making something new, and this year I am thinking perhaps a lemon mousse cake or an orange soufflé. Ideas?

The one last meal I have planned for this season is a very special one. Every year since high school, my best friends and I have had a little gift exchange party, complete with snacks and special drinks. Some years we have an elaborate dinner and others we just eat hors d'oeuvres all night long. This year we are going to do something particularly special. My best friend, Alessandra, and I are hoping to establish ourselves in cyber space with a website dedicated to cooking videos, recipes and photographs of our own creations, a website where people can share ideas and ask questions, and post their own photos and videos if they so desire. It is in the works, I promise! But to further its creation, we wanted to cook a special meal together and make our first video and first series of recipes as a duo. We haven't solidified the menu yet, but I can guarantee that it will be festive and delicious! Look for a blog post about it in the next week or so! 

I have to stop writing now, as I have some baking and craft projects to finish, but I will leave you with some photos from my own Christmas tree because, as you may have suspected, it is covered in sweet culinary ornaments! 

Love from the kitchen and Happy Holidays! 
Sera Jane

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Sierra Grille: Eating (Economically) With Class

I have come to the decision that The Sierra Grille consistently has the best food in Northampton. Just typing the name is enough to make my mouth water.
Last Sunday I ate a NY Strip steak with fresh corn and tomatillo salsa, Asian string beans and grilled asparagus, alongside a pint of frosty cold hard cider. Previous meals include smoked pork tenderloin with a Mediterranean sauce (feta, Kalamata olives and tomatoes) and a delicious hangar steak with sage butter, garlic kale and roasted acorn squash.
The first time I went, my initial impression wasn’t the strongest: a crowded bar, a slew of people waiting to be seated, and so much noise you could hardly hear yourself think. I let it go because it was Parent’s Weekend and therefore Northampton was bound to be particularly chaotic.
Upon being seated, I was instantly excited. The menu was so appealing in its every aspect. The appetizers were enticing, the entrees even more so, and the desserts perfectly sweet and unique. Best of all, there was such a great range of prices than any college student could easily find something tasty, filling and economically reasonable.
My suggestion? Go with a group of friends, choose one of the sweet rounded booths, order some drinks and a few smaller plates to share.  The menu is divided into a few great sections. The first is a page of small plates such as a heaping bowl of roasted garlic or a dish of spicy olives for a mere $4. Also available are salty, crispy, fresh French fries served with a variety of dipping sauces – always a good choice.
Now, the most exciting part? The freedom that the Sierra Grille gives you in designing your own entrée. Choose your protein: seared tuna, smoked pork tenderloin, hangar steak, tempeh, and tender chicken, among others. Then choose a sauce from a long list of tasty combinations including a fresh grilled corn and tomatillo salsa, ale caramelized onions and mushrooms, or a daily sauce special. Top off your custom entrée with your choice of two sides including various specials, tasty Asian-style string beans or grilled asparagus with lemon.
Did I mention the desserts? Each scrumptious treat costs a mere $4 and the Grille covers all the bases; fruit, chocolate, crème brulee, sorbet and gelato, to name a few. My personal favorite is the seasonal fruit crisp, filled with anything from raspberries, peaches or blueberries to rhubarb, apples, and strawberries.
As far as refreshments go, I have never seen such a great list of beers and wines that are all available in two to three different sizes, with a huge price range. There are glasses of wine for as little as $2 and 12 ounce beers for $3, with many options to chose from.
The moral of the story? Go to The Sierra Grille and enjoy a night out on the town, feeling sophisticated and spending as little as you like!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cooking in a college dorm kitchen

Or how I spent 3 hours making chicken, potatoes and salad, singing my bum off in the kitchen of Washburn House.

Earlier this week, I decided to offer up my services as a cook to the other girls who live in my house at Smith College. After some deep pondering, I settled on my great-grandmother's baked chicken, garlic mashed potatoes and a mock Caesar salad.

Unfortunately, much to my dismay, Washburn's kitchen is ill-equipped for much else other than microwave popcorn and instant Annie's macaroni and cheese. To solve this problem, I had to borrow a huge pot to boil the potatoes in from the dorm next door, and then I bought one of those cheap aluminum baking pans at our lovely local Stop & Shop.

After making a grocery list and pricing the whole meal out for the 13 people that signed up, I headed out to do some shopping. Shopping the sales and buying as little of each ingredient as possible, I was able to buy enough chicken, potatoes, salad, cheese, garlic, lemons, parsley, etc. for at least 16 people for only $50! 

Although I had to fight with the oven temperature (the chicken took about an hour and fifteen minutes when it should have taken only 40 minutes) and I had to use a glass platter as the cover to the potato pot, the meal came out very well! The chicken was moist and flavorful, the salad was tangy and full of cheese, and the mashed potatoes (smashed by my very own Breana) contained just the right amount of garlic. An overall success indeed! 

I know that this isn't the most exciting of posts, and the pictures aren't the most beautiful or enticing, but I wanted to share my cooking experience with you just the same. I used to think that I'd love to cook for my house every week, but I think that given the kitchen space, that might be impossible. There are no knives with a blade longer than 2 inches, no pots bigger than a quart or two, and the counter has an ever-growing film from at least the late 50's... I think I'll continue to cook every now and then, maybe in smaller batches, maybe something like a nice penne pasta with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and garlic.... Something to think about! 

Anyway! I already planning what to cook at Thanksgiving when I go home, so I'll keep you posted!!

Much love from Washburn's grungy kitchen!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How to properly celebrate your mother's birthday

Yesterday was my mom's birthday.
I spent the weekend at home in Vermont, enjoying the gorgeous fall weather, relaxing, cooking and spoiling her with cards and little gifts. The highlight of my weekend was yesterday afternoon when I trapped myself in the kitchen with tons of little projects with the hope of creating a very special birthday dinner. I decided that I would make her an Italian dinner using recipes I acquired in Italy as well as some newer ones I had found grazie alla Food Network.
Here's the menu:

Grilled rustic bread rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with cannellini beans and sauteed kale
Homemade tuna-stuffed cherry peppers
Primo Piatto:
Champagne risotto with asparagus and crispy prosciutto 
Baby arugula salad with onions and goat cheese tossed in a homemade mock Caesar dressing
Traditional Castagnaccio (chestnut flour torte) 

I started out by making the castagnaccio. What a disaster! First of all, let me start out by explaining this dolce to you. It is made purely with chestnut flour, water and olive oil. That's it. Nothing to make it rise, nothing to make it sweet. As perhaps you can imagine, the end result is a dense, gummy, chewy "cake" if you will, that might even bounce were you to throw it on the ground. Some argue that it traditionally contains some raisins and orange zest and is topped with either pine nuts or almonds, and fresh rosemary. I chose to make it this traditional way in hopes that there might at least be some interesting flavors to enhance the bounciness. Now unfortunately, I accidentally added one liter of water instead of one half of a liter. Hence the disaster. At this point I decided to add some cake flour until it became a more pleasant, less liquid-y consistency, figuring that  worst case scenario, it would be less bouncy and more floury. Turns out, it was perfect! Just the right gumminess, the correct smell, the correct color, and actually quite flavorful. For a gummy, bouncy chestnut cake that is! 

Next I prepared the aperitivi, or appetizers. Although I was hesitant, after trying tuna-stuffed peppers in Italy, I was hooked! They are so tangy and spicy and salty and delicious - just the right amount of salt counteracted by the sharp zip of the cherry peppers. Unfortunately (or perhaps not), preprepared stuffed peppers are hard to come by in the United States so I made them from scratch. I purchased a jar of Italian cherry peppers, Italian tuna, Italian anchovies and then grabbed a lemon, some capers and a dash of olive oil. After slicing the top off the pepper and scooping out the inside, I prepared the tuna (mixed with minced capers and anchovies, a bit of lemon juice and a bit of olive oil to hold it all together), and I stuffed the peppers. I let them sit so the flavors could come together and let me tell you, one hour later, I had some INCREDIBLE, very spicy, perfectly salty Italian tuna-stuffed cherry peppers. Definitely a success. 

For a second aperitivo, I toasted some Vermont-made rustic farm bread, rubbed it with fresh garlic cloves, and topped it with some warm cannellini beans, finishing with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Given that my mom doesn't even like beans, this was risky, but she loved it! The warm beans atop hot garlic toast with just that hint of salt and olive oil makes for a very comforting and cozy snack! I had planned on using kale to create a second topping for the garlic infused bread, but after going through the entire kale cleaning process and sautéing it in garlic, oil and hot red pepper flakes, we found that we were just a bit too full and decided to save the kale for omelettes and lunch on another day. It was still pretty tasty though! 

While we were digesting our delicious aperitivo, we ("we" being my  mom, dad and I, by the way!) shared a bottle of cava from Spain. We had tried to buy some Italian prosecco, but the cava was on sale and I'm not one to turn down a great bottle of bubbly when its on sale! 

Next came the fun, and most delicious, part - the risotto. Perusing the Food Network website, I had stumbled across this incredible recipe for Champagne risotto. I had to try it. Other than your usual risotto-making process, this recipe called for crispy prosciutto. I figured that would be pretty simple. Lightly oil a baking sheet, lay the prosciutto down, bake at 450 degrees F for 6-8 minutes. If only it were that simple! In order for that to work, one has to remember that when the timer goes off, it means that you need to REMOVE the baking sheet from the oven, not leave it until wafts of smoke start to fill the kitchen and you are left with  a pile of black, unidentifiable objects on an aluminum baking sheet. Ooops! Dad promptly left to buy more prosciutto. The second time around I achieved the proper result - perfectly crispy, warm, incredible-smelling prosciutto to be crumbled on top of the creamy risotto mixed with blanched asparagus. Note: I can never EVER follow a recipe without changing at least one small thing, and unfortunately, once I've done it once, I never remember what I changed ever again! This time, I will tell you that I added about a tablespoon of lemon juice just for some extra kick. It was an excellent choice! The risotto was creamy, rich, subtle yet flavorful and just all-around delectable! 

Finally, I threw together a very simple, no-fail yet still exciting baby arugula salad with onions, goat cheese and mock Caesar dressing (lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, fresh ground pepper and Dijon mustard whisked together and set aside for an hour or so). There's nothing like a crisp, green, fresh salad to soothe your palate and end a creamy meal! 

Now, that is what I call a birthday dinner! 

Much love from the kitchen!
Sera Jane

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dreamin' Big.

One of my biggest dreams in life is to write my own cookbook. I would title it, From Nonna’s Hands: Four Generations of Passionate Cooking (or something like that at least!). Tracing the recipes through my mother’s bloodline, I would start with the most traditional recipes belonging to my great-grandmother, a woman who, unfortunately, I never knew. I will move then to my grandmother, my nonna, who grew up in a time of constant struggle between “becoming” American and holding onto a strong Italian heritage. I will then arrive at my own mom, a woman who is capable of working 60 hours a week and still stirring up something magical in the kitchen. Through these three beautiful women (and with a little inspiration from Martha Stewart, The Food Network and AllRecipes.com) I have formed my own passion for food and cooking. Whenever I return home from Smith, my first trip is to the grocery store where I scoop up everything I could possibly need to prepare all my favorite meals along with some new experiments. Given that my mother’s side of the family is Italian and she was raised in a home where cooking with your grandmother was a crucial part of learning, I am trying to do my own nonna proud. I never did get to cook very often with her but through my mother I have been able to learn some of her secrets and I have made them my own. This cookbook would include tons of recipes, gorgeous photos, and plenty of anecdotes and stories detailing the lives of these women, myself included. I have a Lulu.com account, I have priced out the book, and I am just started to write it. It would be the greatest accomplishment I could ever imagine were I able to pull it off.

Sometimes I lay in bed dreaming about life and I get so overwhelmed with excitement that I can't sleep. I can SEE my cookbook coming together behind my closed eyes, I create perfect designs for my blogs and websites, and I am POSITIVE that I should go to BU for graduate school. I earn enough money from my cookbooks to pay for school, I am asked to write a second, I score a job writing a food column for the Boston Magazine, I find a killer apartment and decorate it with my best friends, I buy the perfect blue American Staffordshire Terrier and I name it Bella, and it goes on and on and on..... Everything is so much easier when you are snuggled up in bed with your eyes closed. 
If only life were that simple. 
Lots of love,
Sera Jane
P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for this cookbook. It's going to happen. Find it on Amazon.

"Epicure dishes out advice"

Last Thursday, an article that I wrote about food and cooking and restaurants in Northampton was published in the Smith College newspaper, The Sophian. Here it is!! 

On Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 I wearily drove to Boston and hopped on a plane to Florence, Italy, hugging my parents and bidding them a tearful goodbye. Within one month, after a slight encounter with a vicious army of bedbugs, I felt fully acclimated and ready to settle in to one of the world’s most enchanting and culinarily delightful cities – a city full of fresh fruit and vegetables, incredible (and enormous) home cooked meals and gelato aplenty. Although I have claimed to be both a food aficionado and critic since my first taste of Gerber mashed peas, I don’t think I truly understood the meaning of quality food until this particular cultural experience. {This may come as a surprise to many of you but I honestly can’t say that everything I ate in Italy was amazing. Take this salad for example: chilled rice tossed with a copious amount of mayonnaise, chunks of raw hotdog, hard-boiled eggs, and some vegetables. Now there is a meal that does NOT fit the Italian stereotype of incredible pasta, expertly prepared seafood and fresh sautéed vegetables.} What interested me most {about my culinary experience} in Italy was the broad range of cuisine that is actually considered very Italian (at least to the Italians themselves) –little baby pickled peppers stuffed with tuna, pizza topped with slices of hotdog and French fries, roast beef and potatoes, meatloaf, lentils. And because I tasted so many flavors I had never expected to be so delicious (that salad excluded), I started cooking up a storm the second I returned home to Vermont. Once I spent the entire day frying things: I invented my own recipe for Italian arrancini, using leftover tomato-basil rice salad and filling them with Vermont-made cheese curds (very delicious, I promise!), and then I made fried green tomatoes and Panko-encrusted eggplant and proceeded to make some incredible sandwiches starring these tasty fried veggies. Another day I spent hours making maple carrot cupcakes with a maple cinnamon cream cheese frosting. The biggest hit of the summer was my slow-cooker pulled pork which filled the house with the most incredible sweet and spicy smells you could ever imagine. After ten hours of cooking, this perfectly shredded pork was served atop a toasted bun with a tangy, homemade blue cheese dressing. So you see, I love cooking and I love food and the passion just keeps growing and growing. Hence this column! I hope you enjoy.
Much love from the kitchen,
Sera Jane

Sera Jane’s Top 5 in Noho
1. Amanouz Café, 44 Main St.
My suggestion: the Amanouz Royal Feast: an incredible (and very satisfying) assortment of hummus, falafel, tabbouleh salad, musaka and pita bread for only $5.95! Trust me, it’s worth it! 
2. Teapot, 116 Main St.
            Although it’s near impossible to choose a favorite meal at this Northampton staple, I have to suggest the Spicy Tuna Roll (if you’re into raw fish), the Ginger Beef and String Beans dish (for you meat lovers) and the Sautéed String Beans (for the vegetarians or veggie fans!). And yes, I do like string beans.
3. Green Bean, 241 Main St.
Here I suggest everything. Seriously. Grab a mug from the wall and fill it with coffee to your heart’s content and then order the Itty Bitty breakfast sandwich (goat cheese, tomato, and pesto with a fried egg) or the Zorba scramble (really tasty with tofu!!). Top it off with a flakey scone and homemade raspberry jam and you’re good to go!
4. The Northampton Brewery, 11 Brewster Court
            The Blackened Blue Burger is by far your best bet if you are craving a nice grilled treat. Topped with homemade blue cheese dressing and caramelized onions and cooked to perfection, you can’t really go wrong! Try their Caesar salad on the side for a healthy alternative to fries!
5. Viva Pasta, 249 Main St.
            The best thing about Viva is that you can create your own meal depending on what you’re in the mood for. Choose from their daily pasta and sauce selections and I guarantee you will leave happy. What’s my favorite? Probably the Sweet Potato Ravioli in a Maple Walnut Sauté!

SJ’s Little Recipe of the Week:
Need a quick snack? Getting tired of those Ritz crackers topped with cheddar cheese? How about Stoned-Wheat Thins with Goat Cheese and Fresh Noho Tomatoes? Top Stoned-Wheat Thins (or your favorite cracker!) with some fresh goat cheese (easily found at Cornucopia, Serio’s Market, Trader Joes or Whole Foods!!) and some sliced tomatoes found at the Northampton Farmer’s Market (Saturdays from 7am-12:30pm on Gothic Street near Urban Outfitters). Mmmm, a perfect break from studying! 

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Dear Everyone,
After finding a decent amount of success with my Florence blog, and failing to commit to my second blog, Sera Jane Goes to Work, I have decided to try one last blog - Sera Jane in the Kitchen.
As I am about a third way through my fall semester of my senior year, I am starting to panic. A slow-growing, coming and going, exciting and terrifying panic. What on earth am I going to do with my life? Should I work in a museum? Maybe I'll continue in the marketing world (I am currently a Marketing and Development Intern at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA). Or maybe I can score a job as the copier girl at the Food Network.... Should I move to Colorado? Washington D.C.? Boston? Should I find an unpaid internship and wait tables at night? Go to graduate school? Boston University has a really neat looking program for Gastronomy and Communications... That certainly sounds appealing....
Anyway, the fact of the matter is this: I am very hazy as to where I will be in May. Or June. Or August for that matter! So this blog is going to be my valiant attempt to enter the world of food on the internet. 
My best friend, Alessandra, and I have big plans. We want a website where we can post weekly recipes and videos of us preparing them, with a forum and comments and various member features like a "To Make" list and "Favorite Recipes" area, but mostly we just want to cook and share with the world. So until that kicks into gear, I am going to just write to you all about food and recipes and restaurants and events and whatever comes to my mind that you may, or may not, care about.
Thanks for listening! 
Much love from the kitchen,
Sera Jane