Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tomato love

Have you ever discovered a grocery store that you just plain love ? I have, and it's a local independent chain that caters to Italian, Polish, Middle Eastern and Hispanic communities and cuisines. Prices are good, selection is plentiful and the variety of produce is incredible ! It is THE place to go if you want to find things like tandoori, banana flour and other such edibles. Along with these, they always offer several varieties of tomatoes, from heirloom to obscure but delicious ones. I am a sucker for a new tomato. As long as it has a 4 at the beginning of the code ( a non gmo variety), I buy it and bring it home to "play" with. This recipe is a very good way to use those new to you kinds to see just how they stack up. It's easy, delicious and will keep for a few days in the fridge. It might save your sanity this summer when all of those garden plants start producing like crazy !

Tomato Salad

1/4 c Parsley, fresh; chopped
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
2 T Vinegar, cider
2 t Mustard, prepared
1 t Salt
1 t Honey
1/4 t Pepper
1 Garlic clove; minced
1 Onion; finely sliced
6 small Tomatoes; firm, ripe, cubed

Combine ingredients, mixing well. Place tomatoes in serving bowl, and pour dressing over all. Cover and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Oven vs Pizza- a public service announcment on how to overcome

Here is something for your consideration. Ignoring the fact that you have a temperamental oven, you decide to make  pizza from scratch. You make your dough from scratch, sauce from scratch, prepare and pre-cook the veggies, roll the crust out, top it and turn your oven on, only to discover this is a day it has decided not to work. Crestfallen, you toss the unborn pizza into the trash because there is no room in the freezer. You then call the repair people who show up the next day, at which time your oven works perfectly . You apologize, fearing that they will suspect you are a crazy person because this is the third such call you have made for the same oven with the same results, and unless it happens when they are present, nothing will be done except offer guidance to "keep an eye on it". So , the weekend rolls around again , you plan yet another pizza, and failure to ignite happens again. This time you are hungry, mad at the oven, frustrated, and something deep inside you is awakened. It is the stuff that bore Xena and all other powerful women you have heard about. Your thinking cap goes on, you rationalize that it is simply a matter of heat application, and the following is born

Rotoli con cipolle grigliate e mozzarella
( Caramelized onion and mozzarella rolls)

Make a pizza with your choice of toppings- this one was potato, caramelized onion and mozzarella) and roll it up jelly roll fashion. Slice into rolls about 2 inches thick. In a large skillet pour olive oil ( about an inch)and place on medium heat.Place the rolls in, cooking about 6 minutes per side with the cover on. Serve.

These were very, very tasty ! The cheese begins to ooze out of the bottom and brown, but this does not detract from the flavor at all. It was a real joy to salvage a meal  that could have been lost  due to appliance failure. I just might make these again, but use some other toppings that would stay put better. Such things are handy knowledge to have and pass along.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Peppers - a make ahead dish

Something I have been noticing about Italian Cuisine- Sunday Dinners in particular- is that a lot of foods are featured. Most of these are simple salad condiment sorts of things, but all are home made and use ingredients that are plentiful. Sunday dinners are not cooked exclusively on Sunday. Preparation seems to begin a few days earlier to allow time and chemical magic to do it's thing. The result is a tasty, nourishing dish that helps to make the meal something you want to linger over.

One such dish is not only very simple to make, but it can become something you will want to keep on hand all the time to toss on a sandwich, salad and so forth.
Marinated Peppers

6 to 8 Medium red peppers
2 1/2 Cloves Garlic
5 teaspoons olive oil
1 quart white vinegar
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
Hot Pepper Flakes - To Taste

Cut peppers into large cubes and place in a large bowl. Bring to boil all the other ingredients for 5 minutes.
Pour hot mixture over the Peppers and marinate for 36 hours in refrigerator.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Easter pies and evil ovens

It's the kind of morning where I am hearing Tubthummper playing in my head -

"I get knocked down
but I get up again
you're never gonna keep me down "

Be it a temperamental oven, illogical policies with business institutions or making pie crusts, I will not give up !!! I was reminded of this trait yesterday when my oven failed once again, after spending an afternoon creating a home made Pizza. Second weekend in a row. This time it is personal. In the mean time, I am reflecting on the good times of the past with this beast, when we worked in harmony to create such tasty dishes as this, a Easter Ricotta Pie
  It's something like a pineapple cheesecake in a pie crust, and very sweet ! When surfing for Easter goodies I found this recipe at http://www.weavethousandflavors.com/ and adapted it slightly for my own kitchen, who does not own a food processor and had to create it old school. I am hoping that in posting this recipe for an Easter dish my oven will  be inspired by the theological concept of Resurrection. It does not seem to respond to the usual Repair person or threats of Voodoo dolls. Gotta keep trying, and not let it get me down !

Easter Ricotta Pie (adapted fromhttp://www.weavethousandflavors.com/)
1-1/4 lb ricotta cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup + 2 tbs sugar
2 tbs cornstarch
1/2 tbs pure vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
3 large eggs
1 qty 8 ounce can crushed pineapple
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (to sprinkle)
Pie crust -
1-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 oz chilled butter cut into chunks
1 large egg & 1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbs sugar
1-1/2 tbs chilled water
    For the pie crust - cut cold butter chunks into flour and salt to make crumbs. Add egg & egg yolk, sugar and 1-1/2 tbs chilled water and mix till dough forms. Flatten the dough ball into a smooth disk and wrap in plastic cling wrap. Chill for about 15 minutes.
    Preheat the oven to 425 deg F
    While the pie crust is chilling prepare the remaining ingredients - Ricotta cheese - Measure the ricotta cheese by weight and place in a strainer over a bowl to catch excess liquid. 
    Crushed pineapple - Empty the can into a sieve. Press down to remove all excess juice & discard the excess juice.
    Orange - Using a zester, zest the rind and set aside.
    Eggs - Crack into a bowl and discard shells.
    In a mixing bowl add the ricotta cheese, cream, pineapple, pure vanilla extract, orange zest, sugar, cornstarch and eggs. Mix till smooth
    Liberally flour a clean working surface with about 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Roll out 3/4ths o the dough evenly, giving a quarter turn as you go, to a diameter 2-1/2" larger than the base of the spring foam pan.
    Press the crust into the spring form pan and dock in spots (poke holes into) with toothpick
    Add filling, and use remaining ¼ of pie crust to form lattice topped crust
    Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon if desired
    Place the baking sheet and pan in the hot oven and bake for 15 minutes. 
    Reduce oven temperature to 350 deg F
    Bake for an additional 35-40 minutes until the pie is lightly puffed up and the pie is slightly jiggly in the center when gently shaken.
    Remove the sheet and pan from the hot oven and allow to cool. Remove the pan sides.
    The pie can be served at room temperature or chilled in the refrigerator once it has reached room temperature. Slice and Serve chilled or room temperature.

    Today I am going to attempt intimidation with my oven. Play with a meat mallet and pound some meat paper thin and then transform it into a braciolle and simmer it on the stove top to make it jealous  and get the idea that if it does not behave, it misses out. I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down ....

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rollin' like a Sicilian

This past Easter we decided to to a full 5 course Italian Dinner, and I had a lot of fun surfing for recipes to include in those 5 courses. While such a thing sounds sort of decadent/elegant to eat, it is quite a commitment to figure what to include so that the flavors do not clash and the diners do not become over full before the end of the meal. While surfing, I stumbled across a dish that sounded like something my father in law, the Sicilian, was trying to describe to my mother in law.  He explained the finished product and his rough understanding of how it was made, but she kept hearing this all as a calzone.After about an hour of debate, he conceded that it was a calzone, but the look on his face said it really was not the same. It was not the fault of either- my mother in law is a Jersey Girl who was not exposed to a lot of the home dishes in Italian Cusine and my father in law is not a cook in any form. He can handle a microwave, but is totally lost when faced with any cooking term or procedure. For some reason the discussion stuck in my head, and lingered for about 15 years. I came across this recipe, and I knew that this was what he was most likely describing, and I had to make them so I could one day soon gift him with a supply. They are delicious, and a lot easier to make than they sound.


Miscateddri - Sicilian Calzone rolls 
( courtesy of someone's grandmother who I forgot to note)

For the starter:
1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup lukewarm water

For the dough:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon plus 1/3 cup olive oil

For the  meat filling:
½ lb pound ground pork
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the filling
1 pound spinach, or chard
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Black olives, sliced
2 onions, cubed
4 potatoes cut in small cubes
freshly grated black pepper
salt

To make the starter for the dough, in a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the lukewarm water. Set aside for 10 minutes until frothy.
To make the dough, in a bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and the 1 teaspoon oil. Add the starter and using a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, beat on medium speed until a soft dough forms, about 10 minutes. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into 2 balls. Place the balls in a bowl, add the 1/3 cup oil, and toss to coat the balls with the oil. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise until almost doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hr.

Prepare the filling. Add salt and pepper to the pork and set aside – this will be used raw.
Cook the onions in Olive oil until soft and golden and potatoes in olive oil until tender. Cook the spinach or chard in olive oil till wilted. Place meat, potatoes, onions, spinach and sliced olives each in a separate bowl.
.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two cookie sheet pans with olive oil or vegetable oil.
On a lightly floured work surface, with a rolling pin roll out a ball of dough into a large rectangle and about 1/5 inch thick (the thinner the dough is spread the better). Take one tablespoon of oil and spread all over the flattened dough.

Sprinkle on ingredients, as if topping a pizza First your meat, then your potatoes, your onions, chard or spinach and the olives.

Now take the edge of the dough and start rolling it with your hands as if rolling a large cigar , start from the right hand side and work your way to the left but be a little careful when rolling it because the dough with the filling becomes a little thin and will tend to tear. When finished twist slightly and squeeze lightly to insure a tight roll. Once you have finished rolling it, cut the roll every 2 to 2-1/2 inches long all the way across. Take each piece in your hand and twist both end into a flattened disc and place in the greased pan about 1-1/2” apart.
Bake the miscateddri until golden,  at 350 approx. 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm. If you make a large quantity you can also freeze them.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Love is sweet, but marriage is like an orange

People would be rather surprised at some of the truths of my life. I think that it is because I get lost in the moment in  outward appearances, and the other facts of my life sort of blend into the background. Good and bad thing in that. One of those facts is that I am, technically , married to the clergy. My husband is an Ordained Deacon who can do anything a Roman Catholic priest can do ( and has) except hear confession, consecrate the Eucharist and give Last Rites. I am , in a fringe sense, a Ministers Wife. He was Ordained in 1994, and life has presented some very interesting moments since then. One involved a wedding for a Hispanic couple who desired a very ethnically traditional ceremony that included many details that seemed colorful, exotic and meaningful, such as a Lasso d'amore ( Lasso of love, where the couple were bound together with a lasso). It was at that time that we learned of a cultural term for a spouse or beloved- naranja . It means my other orange half or soul mate.

In life since then with my own naranja, I have contemplated that word. Some observations I have made seem to hint at the real meaning of the word. Two halves together make something that looks like the sun, and like the sun they can bring light and life to the world. Unless they have gone bad, and then they stink up the whole house.When the two halves are together you can collect the zest- which is the most aromatic, flavorful part of the orange, Almost impossible to do with a half or a segment. A whole orange can be sliced , for a much more attractive garnish than a wedge would make- could speak of either sorrows or children. In the case of children, knowing both parents on the same level of day to day interaction makes the qualities of both easier to see in the offspring ( lessons are more caught than taught afterall). When you think about it, an orange is a pretty profound simile for a marriage !

Along with offering such deep thoughts, it offers some very interesting culinary options. You can simply peel and eat, add to baked goods, toss in salads, or combine it with something you may never considered and bring out entirely new flavor notes. Something like this Sicilian classic

Arance con oliva insalada

3 navel oranges, rind removed and sliced
1 small can sliced black olives
olive oil
white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

toss orange slices and olives in a bowl and drizzle with 2 parts olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar. Toss, add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I could hug a water buffalo !

One day, when I least expected anything beyond dinner, my life changed.  We had been grocery shopping and I spotted  something that was totally new to me, labeled Fresh Mozzarella.
it was also labeled with these funny words, which I came to learn meant Ovolini (egg size) 4 ounce balls, Bocconcini (bite size) 1.50 ounce balls and Ciliegine (little cherry size) .33 ounce balls.. ( pictured are ovolini and bocconcini). I brought it home, tasted it, and thus began a great taste love affair. It tastes like mozzarella that has been made with cream, gently cradled in butter and kissed by faeries. It is as if mozzarella put on a top hat, tails and went to a Royal Wedding. Heavenly !! Somewhere deep in my memory , I recalled my husband saying his mom would make a salad with slices of mozzarella cheese , tomatoes and dried basil, so we tried it with this fresh mozzarella. Pretty darned good. Then I discovered two shocking facts. First, this cheese is produced from the milk of this creature
the water buffalo ! ( pictured here is a male, which you will not get milk from, but you get the idea). Who knew ? Perhaps this cheese is the reason they are considered sacred in parts of the world . I would not argue against that concept ! Second thing was that the salad is often served in Southern Italy , using fresh basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I tried making it the authentic way, and was thus introduced to one of my absolute, favorite dishes of all times that is super easy to make and super delicious !


Insalata Caprese

1 lb Bocconcini
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
handful of fresh basil, torn
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup good, fruity quality olive oil ( I prefer Sicillian)
 
toss tomatoes, bocconcini  and basil in a bowl. Whisk together oil and balsamic and pour over the tomato mixture. Toss and serve.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ham- supporting our homeschool since 1995

I love being a homeschool mom ! I love being present for each new discovery my son makes, seeing firsthand how he overcomes challenges, and helping him to ponder through those things that trip him up. One other untold joy is being able to re-learn and learn things along side of him. It seems that many of us take for granted  so many things we were taught as part of our own education, but when you are a homeschooler, often you have to not only refresh your own mind about various things, but process them on a new level so that you can present them to your child in a way that your child not only understands, but actually cares about. Thus, you can often be found reading about the Battle of Hastings at 1 am and determining if you have enough apples, oranges and toilet paper to recreate the Bayoux  Tapestry in the living room next week because little BamBam absorbs a thing best by acting it out. People, other than homeschoolers, will consider this odd behavior. You consider it simply a part of your job description, and it is cool.

Till you remember you have to make dinner ( or breakfast, lunch, so on)

Planning becomes important, but the best laid plans get.....ignored some days for different reasons. Lessons go over so well your children do not want to stop, lessons do not go over so well and you try to salvage the day and find a better way to inform ,on the fly, the lesson inspires a wonderful discussion and together you wander down a dozen related rabbit trails, a deer or some other creature appears on your lawn and you break into an unplanned biology lesson,  the washer breaks, the toilet overflows, a neighbor or family member needs help and your well planned day goes not so according to plan. Suddenly it is dinner time and you have hungry people and the roast you planned on somehow never made it out of the freezer to defrost. You could do fast food, but you could also keep on hand the items for some tasty dish that can be prepared in a flash and make you look like supermom. This is one of those
 Amatriciana

1 lb spaghetti, cooked
5-6, 1/4 slices leftover ham, julienned
1 large red onion,chopped
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (  can sub with canned diced tomatoes)
red pepper flakes to taste
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Salt for seasoning to taste


Place half a cup of extra virgin olive oil to a sauté pan and add red onion slices and add to the frying pan.
Cook for a minute and add cherry tomatoes and red pepper.Cover and cook 5 minutes, or till tomatoes begin to break down. Add the ham and cook for 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the  seasonings. Remove from heat, toss in pasta and serve.

Curriculum is easy to come by. Managing the rest of life while schooling can be a real challenge. Few homeschoolers stop homeschooling for the lack of a geography curriculum, but many do because of Mt Washmore and the lack of a fridge that operates on Divine Intervention ( if I stare into ir for long enough, it will know what we could eat for dinner and toss it out at me) . Having a good collection of pantry /freezer stable, fast -fast recipes on hand  can be the most important thing for being able to homeschool all the way through high school and stay a happy family.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Perhaps an Exorcist would be more appropriate than a Repair Man

Have you ever suspected that one of your appliances hates you ? Some inanimate thing that you use as directed , but it seems to have a mind of it's own , and it continually thinks of ways to torment you ? I do, and it is my oven. For reasons unknown to me and the repair people, it chooses to work beautifully until I somehow insult it, and then it stops working. Until the repair people show up, and then it works perfectly and behaves completely. All will be well until Saturn goes purple or Mercury goes to Walmart or some obscure thing, and it does not work. Until the repair people show up. It dawned on me in the middle of the night  that it might be protesting what I ask it to make. Fresh bread, roasts, brownies- all serious temptation. I believe that something I made the other day was too tempting for it to create and not be invited to share a slice.
Ricotta Cake ! I claim innocence- I choose to make this in order to use up some leftover ricotta, and it is a very rich, tasty cake . So much so that it may have pushed whatever intellectual switch that rules my oven into a strike mode. Perhaps. I think it will have to be made by others, in a sort of scientific method thing to see if it does make an oven rebel out of jealousy or want.
Ricotta Cake

8 ozs WHOLE ricotta cheese
3 sticks of butter
2 3/4 cups of granulated sugar
6 eggs
3 cups of flour - sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

 Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
 Set out all ingredients to come to room temperature. Drain ricotta cheese in strainer. Grease a spring pan or
 angel food pan.Cream together ricotta cheese, flavorings and butter. Gradually add the sugar and salt. Cream until fluffy.Add eggs one at a time - mix well after each addition. Add flour one cup at a time - mix well after each addition. Pour ( or spoon) into pan. Bake for 1 1/2 hours .

For what it's worth, the repair people came yesterday , and once again the stove was working perfectly once they got here. I think I will have to make this cake again and see if it brings another oven fit :-) That.s my excuse, and I am sticking to it !

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monsters of the Deep

Why is it that we have no trouble eating what was once a cow, pig or chicken but get incredibly squeamish about eating something that comes from the sea ? I do not understand why something that originated from a creature like this
or this
is considered good to eat. These creatures have mouths large enough to bite off your head, and could kick your ribcage in. We also have no qualms about eating this guy:
who is not at all attractive and can eat basically anything and live.Can be rather vicious to humans as well .Yet, the mere mention of this beautiful person
seems to make everyone go EWWWWW !!! Poor octopus. It gets such a bad wrap ! Octopus is chewy, but it is almost completely edible ( minus ink sack , eyes and beak), is a good source of protein and absorbs any flavor you cook it with. When it is living is can adapt the color of it's surroundings- sort of a magical characteristic. I mentioned I was cooking an octopus the other day on Facebook, and it invoked horror by friends. It is sad , because it is something used fairly often in Southern Italian cuisine, and can be quite  delicious. I have eaten octopus cooked by others, but never made it myself until the other day. I must say that if you find it with the ink sack, eyes and beak removed, it is a fairly easy critter to work with ! This recipe is from David Rocco, mixed with pasta, as is often done.
POLPO IN UMIDO

2 pounds octopus, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 tablespoons extra virgin oil olive
3 cloves garlic, crushed
red chili peppers, crushed (optional)
5 anchovies fillets
20 capers
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
Bunch of Italian parsley, finely chopped
salt to season
1 lb congelitti (small shells), cooked

    In a pan, heat up extra virgin olive oil. Add garlic, chili peppers, anchovies and capers and let cook together
 for 30 seconds.Add octopus and stir. Stir in cherry tomatoes and parsley. Let cook on low to medium heat for approximately
 1 hour or until tender. Add salt to taste.

Mix with pasta and serve

Delicious, and not the horrifying thing that some would expect :-)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Italian Sausage done right

I grew up in a time when there was no McDonald's, Burger King or such. There was fast food- White Castle with their baby burgers and a million hot dog stands.Places that were, for the most part independent and not concerned with product labeling.  This was the reality of life in the inner Chicago suburbs of the 1960's Most meals were eaten at home, but sometimes snacks were bought, and it was in the form of Sliders , Vienna Beef Hot Dogs or Italian Ice. Fast Food just was not thought of as a meal option- something to think about in light of today's obesity problem. It is not calories ingested, but the amount of chemically altered foodstuffs in the name of brand recognition that is the root cause of today s obesity and other health problems in my opinion. A hot dog or sausage sandwich was something you got as an afternoon snack or late night munchy, and not a meal. Meals were eaten at home, cooked by mom or grandma. There were a lot more shakes and fries consumed,as snacks, and obesity was not a big issue. Plain and simple.

I am getting off my point here ! There were more hot dog stands than anything else, and as a child I was fed many a hot dog sandwich as a snack, while mom and dad ate Italian Sausage or Italian beef because it was assumed that sausage was too spicy for my childish pallet. So not true !! I longed for the day that I would be allowed to have Italian sausage, and it happened one fine day at my great uncle's 4th of July Picnic when I was 8. I happened to be standing near the grill, looking hungry, and he offered me a small section on Italian bread. It was good, but not as good as I had presumed them to be.

Through the years I have used and consumed Italian Sausage grilled, in "spaghetti sauce", roasted, on pizza, and it has always struck me as tasty , but nothing to write home about.  I sensed that there had to be a better way to serve it, and the other day I discovered a method that is probably the most flavorful way I have found to date. It comes from the Naples region of Italy- an area who's cuisine is a bit denser and "meatier" than that of places slightly south such as Amalfi or Capri.
Salsiccia napoletana stile italiano e Patate
(Neapolitan Style Italian Sausage and Potatoes)

2 lbs italian sausage, cut into links
6 large red potatoes with skins on, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Salt, pepper and about 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Extra virgin olive oil (about 1/4 cup)
1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Slice potatoes and place in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil (about 1/4 cup). Sprinkle with Italian seasoning, parsley, salt, pepper, garlic powder and grated cheese. Mix (preferably with hands) to coat potatoes  with above ingredients. Preheat oven to about 350 degrees. Spray a roasting pan with non-stick cooking spray. Spread potatoes on bottom of roasting pan. Layer sausage links on top of potatoes. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours (depending on your oven). Check after 1-1-2 hours. Remove foil and turn sausages to brown on other side. Brown for about 10 minutes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Kissing Culinary Cousins

It is said that our first friends in life are our cousins. With cousins we learn the rules of friendship- how to share our toys, how to solve conflicts and how to simply get along. Cousins inspire us, challenge us, and if they are very close to us in age, become our first rivals outside of our families. What your cousins are capable of doing is an indication of your own abilities, for better or worse. True amongst humans and true within the plant kingdom. Some are beneficial, and in certain families there are those members that are extremely toxic while the rest are perfectly upright citizens ( the nightshade family is one example). Within the same family you can find potatoes , tomatoes and belladonna - how's that for a world of difference ? With those edible members of a family, combining a few usually makes for very tasty results.

Within the parsley family you will find two cousins that do not seem to be related, but historically have been used in the same plants as medicine applications- fennel and carrots. Both have been used for digestive and menstrual complaints, an eye remedy and even an aphrodisiac. In the culinary world, both become very sweet when roasted. While you might not consider using these two in a dish, the combination brings a very flavorful party to the table.

Finocchi al forno con parmigiano e Carote
(Roasted Fennel and Carrots with Parmesan)

4 fennel bulbs (about 3 1/2 pounds) cut horizontally into 1/3-inch-thick slices
2 large carrots, peeled, cut diagonally into 1/3-inch-thick slices
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly oil 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Layer sliced fennel and carrots in dish, sprinkling  layers with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with thyme, then cheese. Drizzle with oil. Bake until vegetables are tender and  top is golden brown, about 1 1/4 hours.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Italian Easter Pie- a middle road option.

Life asks us to make choices many times. Do I wake up  early or get that extra 15 minutes of sleep ? Do I choose college or work ? Do I bake or fry ? Choices even apply to desserts- do I make pie, cake or pudding. It seems to me that there should be a middle road between all choices, and it was confirmed when I discovered this recipe.
Pasqua torta di riso-Italian Easter Rice Pie ! At first glance , it looks like a gigantic pot pie or something  ( and note- anything involving pastry crust is lucky to survive my attempts to bake it ). Unlike some of the other women in my family and heritage, I cannot make pie. My husband seems to think I can, but he is a pie junkie and applauds anything in a crust. Good thing, and for this reason I continue to attempt pastry. While this pie has about 9,000 things wrong with the crust after I followed the recipe ( and sharing a picture of a pie crust I made takes a lot more nerve for me than showing up naked for something), the interior is an entirely different story. Note- in re- reading the recipe I discovered that it called for only one layer of crust and not two like I made. Live and learn !
It is a cross between a cheesecake and a rice pudding that is just sweet enough to be satisfying without making you feel you have experienced a sugar overload. It is traditionally served at Easter, somewhat fiddly to make but absolutely worth the effort !
Pasqua torta di riso
(Italian Easter Rice Pie)Makes (one) 10.5-inch pie
Crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ stick unsalted butter (chilled)
1 extra large egg or 2 small eggs
1-2 tablespoons ice water, or as much as needed
Filling:
1/2 cup uncooked Arborio rice ( not long grain)
4 cups water or whole milk
7 large eggs
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon extract (or the zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 pound ricotta cheese (drained)

For the crust, combine flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a bowl; add chunks of chilled butter, and using a pastry blender or two forks, chop the butter until it resembles little pebbles. At this point, add the eggs and ice water, and stir with a spoon until the dough begins to form. Using your hands and working the dough as little as you can, transfer it to a lightly floured surface. Knead until the dough holds together. Form the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic, and chill while preparing the filling. (Dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before continuing.)

To make the filling, place the rice and water in medium heavy-bottom saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook the rice, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 15-20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the rice is sticky. The rice should still be firm as it will finish cooking in the oven. Remove from heat and set aside.

Add the eggs and sugar to a large bowl and using a hand-mixer, beat until well combined. Add lemon extract and vanilla extract, and beat on low for about 10 seconds. Add the drained ricotta and beat on low for a few seconds until just combined. Add cooked rice and mix with a rubber spatula until well combined, making sure there are no clumps of rice. Place in the refrigerator.

Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Coat the 10.5-inch spring form pan with cooking spray. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and roll into an 11- inch circle. Transfer the dough to the prepared pie plate, gently pressing it into the bottom and sides. No fluted crust is necessary since, like a tart, the crust is flush with the filling. At this point, set the crust in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes to get it really chilled, which will make for a flakier crust.

Remove the chilled crust from the freezer and pour the filling to about 1/4 of an inch below the top of the crust, as it will puff up slightly when baking. Note: If you have some extra filling left over, then you can pour it into a small baking dish or ramekins for a crustless version, and follow the same baking instructions.

Bake for 1 hour or until the filling puffs up, turns golden, and is “set,” meaning it should not be jiggly when you gently move the pie plate from side-to-side. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled

Leftover rice pie can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ham of a Thousand Days

We have all seen that Norman Rockwell painting of the picture perfect Thanksgiving where Grandma carries in a perfectly roast turkey on a platter, garnished in an attractive way , presented to a table full of admiring diners. People aspire to create that scene for their own celebrations. Me, I worry. While it appears to be everything right with the world, in truth it is Birdzilla. Destined to take over your fridge and you menu for at least the next week. Longer if you are a small family like mine. The Easter Version of this portrait becomes Ham of a Thousand Days
Yes, this mahogany coated hunk of porcine love ( glazed with brown sugar, mustard and pineapple juice) makes for a yummy dinner. Then, however, there are leftovers. You make sandwiches, add it to omlettes, make ham salad, scalloped potatoes with ham and start to wonder if you are ever going to eat through this thing. Big families have advantages with having many mouths to devour the beast, but if you have only one child, this can become a serious commitment. Almost like a marriage, and it is a challenging spouse ! Soon you start encouraging the child to eat ham as a snack, add it to breakfast oatmeal, attempt to find some stray dogs to feed it to and other such shenanigans. That is until you realize that any ham is simply Prosciutto that forgot to dress up. Once you crack that nut, it opens up a world of possibilities , like this dish

Rotini con prosciutto,spinaci e pommadori

1 lb rotini, cooked to al dente and drained
4 cloves garlic, de-germed and chopped
1 handful fresh basil, chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 container fresh baby spinach( lots- it cooks down to nothing)
1 generous fistful cooked ham, cut in julienne strips
1/3 cup heavy cream
olive oil

In a large pan, place olive oil and garlic, and cook till golden. Add tomatoes, crush slightly to increase moisture. Cook about 5 minutes and add the spinach. Cover and let cook till it wilts down- about 5 minutes. Add ham and cook till heated through. Add heavy cream and basil. Remove from heat , add pasta and mix. Serve.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cooking as carnage

We live in an age of attractive looking food. We go to the supermarket, pick up things that are prepped for our convenience, and often simply schlep them on a plate after a quick pass through the oven, microwave or skillet. Modern food does not require us to become that involved, or stand face to face with the fact that the thing you are about to consume was a living creature not long ago. Back in great grandma's day, if she wanted to make a chicken, pretty often she would have to kill that chicken, prep it and then cook it. For this reason, after all that work and carnage, she would never simply season it with a box of "Chickenriffic Meal Maker". She would take time to think about what spices would make this project taste best, cook it with care and use every last bit of the leftovers.

Today , we find our chicken dressed ( feathers removed), head removed and in many cases , skin and bones removed. Most of the nourishing parts removed, for your convenience. In order to get that old time, hard core experience, you can visit the seafood counter and select a whole fish, live lobster or these guys:
Behold the whole shrimp ! Shell still on, head attached, legs , antenna, eyes and digestive tract still present. The stuff of horror movies, to be sure. Looking at these makes me marvel at the idea of the very first human deciding that these would be good to eat, and most likely raw at that time of discovery. Working with actual raw shrimp is a little squeamish, but not difficult. Two parts in the preparation will make you go  "eewww !!". First, removal of the head- grab them by the body and head, pull to separate and wipe the red, weird looking, squishy, not grey stuff away. This is  something similar to blood, eggs and other things. Next, pull off the legs and peel the shell, leaving the tail on or not. Take the shells and heads and either toss them or save to make shrimp broth ( freeze if you are not going to use this day). Now for the second horrifying bit- removing the black vein. Let's be honest- it is not a vein. It is the creature's digestive tract, and it is not pleasant to eat. Take the tip of a knife, run it gently along side the black line and lift out the black line. Horror managed ! Now you are ready to cook the shrimp ( they are a quick cook- only till they turn pink which happens in about a minute). For this recipe you definitely want to use the raw shrimp, as the marinate adds so much to the flavor of the final dish. It looks a whole lot better than the above, and tastes just as wonderful !


INSALATA DI GAMBERI ALLA MENTA
(Mint Flavored Shrimp Salad)

1 lb raw Shrimp in the shell
1 Stalk of Celery, sliced
1 Spoon of Vinegar
juice of 2 Lemons
½ Cup of Olive Oil
Parsley
Leaves of Mint
Salt and Pepper

Shell the shrimp and de-vein.
Marinate all the shrimp for 30 minutes in salted water.
Then put them in a pot with boiling salted water and add the vinegar.
Boil until pink- about 2 minutes.
Put in bowl with the chopped celery, salt, pepper, oil and lemon juice.
Keep in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Finally, add the minced parsley and mint leaves.
Serve cold.

See? It did get better !

Monday, April 9, 2012

Memories of Holiday celery

I hope you all had a relaxing and enjoyable weekend. Ours was enjoyable, rewarding but far from relaxing. Instead it was a pro-active and passionate time, which was even better. We did not gather with our extended family because of Church commitments. Instead, we choose to have our very first ever 5 course full fledged Italian dinner, complete with wines to complement. It may take a week for my arms to recover, but it was wonderful and well worth it ! While I am not Italian, my husband is half Sicilian, and we have been having fun reclaiming Italian customs and  cuisine. Along the journey however, different ghosts appear to me, asking questions. Ghosts like this woman-

my Paternal Grandmother Elsie( pictured here holding my very young father), who was the holiday host of my childhood. Elsie was a very friendly, optimistic woman who had a strange sort of way of expressing her faith and thought the finest food on the planet came from a can.  It was something she embraced because of the times she lived through. Married two years before The Great Depression and raising a young family under wartime rations made for a style of cooking and eating that really embraced canned foods because they were shelf stable. She definitely had her traditional sort of standards with holidays however. Dinner must be served on the big table with the linens,set with actual china and the good silverware which was polished the weekend before the event. It broke her heart when it became too exhausting for her to host the holiday. Back when I was little however, we would gather early at Grams and she would let us kids set the table ( per her instructions) and set out the before dinner munchies ( always had to be green olives, black olives,spiced apple rings, spiced crab apples and pickled onions). Then she would set us to work on something one of my aunts insisted had to be included because it was fancy- stuffed celery. Take a stalk of celery,cut it into 4 inch lengths, open a jar of cream cheese with pineapples, spread inside and top with paprika. To my young, discriminating palette, this was elegant !





(me at six months old,  working on early silver polishing skills  )
When planning the meal this year and breaking from previous traditions, I heard Elsie imploring me to not forget the celery ! Think of the produce !!! Low and behold, I discovered that many an Italian Table includes celery, but not even close to the way of my family. It is served in a salad that is absolutely wonderful ! Perhaps a bit fiddly to prepare ( requires good knife skills), but is a delicious complement to fish and meats.

Mostarda di Sedano- or celery chutney !
Mostarda di Sedano
2 pounds firm celery stalks
3/4 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup fresh lemon juice

Remove any strings from the stalks. Cut them lengthwise into 1/8-inch matchsticks. Cut the sticks crosswise
into 1/8-inch cubes. This should yield about 6 cups.Put the sugar and salt in a saucepan and add the lemon juice then the celery. Cook at medium-high, stirring until the sugar and salt dissolve and the celery releases some of its liquid. Bring the syrup to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently.
Cover the pot and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover the pot and cook at a simmer, stirring frequently until all of the liquid is absorbed.Cool completely before serving. You can store the mostarda in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar for a couple of months.

I think if Elsie was alive today, she would have really liked serving this one. No grandchildren would attempt to lick the half filled jars clean in the assembly process for one !

Friday, April 6, 2012

Oranges and Spinach

Easter falls this weekend, and I hope it finds you all with plans to gather with friends and family to celebrate the day. Sadly we will not be gathering with either of our families, but this does not mean there will be no feasting involved. No matter what, people still need to eat and a holiday is a holiday no matter how many are gathered to observe. My husband and son will be singing at numerous services over the next few days and I will attempt to create too much food to fill too small of a space on my table. Isn't that what most holidays really wind up being after all ? And  those who become very emotionally invested in the events of The Triduum benefit from a good meal to bring them back to the mundane world after all has been ritualized and expressed. Feed that Baritone so he can go back to the mundane world of Production Planning and Management with a refreshed spirit and cleared head- so feed him I will !

Today is one of the last days of fasting and abstinence ( from meat, sweets and such), and it's easy to create something yummy when you simply think early spring. The late winter citrus fruits are still around, and they can make a really nice addition to a salad of dark greens. Most have heard of a spinach and strawberry salad, which is very yummy. Few have heard of an orange and spinach salad, which is just as yummy, but more colorful !

It really does not require a recipe- simply add baby spinach to a bowl, peel and thinly slice a red onion, peel and slice a blood orange and peel and section a mandarin ( or other) orange and toss on top the spinach.Drizzle with a simple olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing or a Maple Mustard sort of dressing. Remember to include some kind of oil so that your body will be able to absorb that good Vitamin A along with the spinach !

I will be taking a few days to keep up with my guys and cook like a crazy person ( who loves every minute of that). In the meantime , enjoy the holiday if you observe !

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Frilly and flavorful

I think I have a reputation as The Produce Whisperer in the grocery stores. Complete strangers come up to me and ask what different vegetables in the case are, how do I prepare it , what does it taste like and so forth. Three possible things cause this-1. I look like I like to eat 2. I do not look like a psycho killer or 3. I look like I might be going to the grocery store to pick up more than food.  The third is most unlikely, the second needs to be remedied perhaps . It is most likely the first. I have a look that says I am fed, content and not likely to eat living persons who approach me. I don't have that stringy meat look about me that says I have wasted too many meals on tofu or high fiber, low fat, taste free meals and perhaps understand how to make food taste good. I'm down with that !

One veggie that a lot of people ask me about is my good friend, Florence. As in Fennel ! It is fairly common in the grocery stores today, but many people have no idea what to do with it or how it tastes.I always think that if anyone wants to get serious about addressing the whole "eat healthy, lose weight" thing they would insist that grocery stores label the produce with ideas on how to use them, place recipe cards close by with useful ideas and offer free samples to taste instead of the free samples of lab experiments being passed off as food they currently offer.Imagine an experience at a Sam's club with several free samples of the produce instead  of yet another microwavable thing or "nutritional" bar or chemistry experiment/ baked good ( read the labels, kids). Do that and people may actually eat more veggies. Like Miss Florence.
 She's a beauty , White, curvy rump, straight neck and a riot of delicate, light green hair. She tastes like a stalk of celery spent too much time munching on black licorice ( perhaps that explains her very curvy bottom). She is a user friendly bulb that will happily join the party in a salad , a flavoring component like onions or as a roast veggie. Roasting brings out the sweetness of any veggie, and in the case of ole Florence, she becomes wonderfully sweetened , like a grilled onion with deeper flavor notes that remind you of anise. She makes a lovely complement to fish, and an outright happening party in the following dish

Finocchi al forno con pomodorini

2 bulbs fennel, trimmed of stalks and fronds, sliced thin
(you can eat these, but for even sized pieces with roasting, remove)
2 red onions, sliced in thin moons
1 pint grape tomatoes
olive oil
salt and pepper

Spread all veggies on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes, or till tomatoes wrinkle. Serve hot.

It makes me giggle when I think about how people will ask me how to prepare a vegetable, but leave me alone when I get to the meat case. It seems everyone knows how to make a roast, but vegetables intimidate people. Perhaps it is because we have few items of canned meat and way too many canned or pre-mixed , pre frozen veggies. Because of this "user friendly" state of things, the skill set for cooking veggies has perhaps been lost ?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Horrifying foods done right

I am always amused at how certain foods get a horrific reputation, simply because the person tasting them did so under not so great circumstances. Food, like sex, has a lot of ways to go about preparing it. If you only eat potatoes boiled, mashed and combined with milk and butter, you will never experience the french fries, potato chip, hash browns,roasted, gnocci or any other wonderful possibility potatoes have to offer in life. If you are only served said potato dish at the same meal over and over again, it would get to the point where you would not only refuse any pro-offers of potatoes, but begin to really dislike potatoes all together, and then the whisper campaign would begin saying potatoes are evil. Food, like sex, needs a whole lot of variety in order to fully appreciate what it really has to offer. Two foods that consistently get a bad wrap because people only know about limited uses for are kale

and anchovies.
The first has a reputation for either being used in a salad bar decoration or creamed and the second seems to be only known as a pizza killer. For these reasons , most folks would never taste them- let alone combine them !

Truth is, kale tastes very similar to spinach but has more body. Anchovies taste like concentrated oil packed tuna, and they have the power to add real flavor to anything they are added to. When combined with a food high in Vitamin A ( such as spinach or kale) , they create a dish that makes it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients. It makes for something that has good taste and is very good for you. Something like this dish
Spaghetti con pomadoro e cavoli
(spaghetti with tomatoes and kale)

1 bunch kale, stripped from stems and chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
5 cloves of garlic, de-germed and sliced
1 can anchovies, chopped
olive oil

Boil pasta till al dente and reserve some of the water. In a large pan pour in olive oil, sweat the garlic till golden and add the anchovies. They will literally melt into the oil. Add the tomatoes and cook till the skins start to look wrinkly, add the kale and about 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Cover and let simmer about 5 minutes, till the kale is wilted. Add the cooked pasta, toss and add more pasta water if the dish looks too dry. Serve.( even giving something a name in a different language adds interest)

A word about garlic- another "horrifying" food. Most people find it bitter because most people never remove the germ before cooking. Most garlic ( unless you get it fresh from the farm ) has been sitting around a while , and it begins to sprout. The sprouting is the germ, and it is horribly bitter. Remove the germ and garlic becomes wonderful ! To do this, peel your clove, split it down the middle and remove the thing that looks sort of like a green onion growing inside

germ removed. It works so well that it can make even this gnarly head delicious

Did you know that you can control the intensity of the garlic flavor ? The finer the chop, the more intense the flavor. Adding a whole clove makes for a very mild garlic flavor, while fine chopping like this
will add a much more intense flavor using the same amount of garlic. Much like if you have sex in the same way at the same time with the same person for a long enough time, things become very, very bland. Yet simple changes like different times, different places, different activities add real spice and flavor. Try kale ! Try anchovies ! Try chopping garlic in a different way ! Try a new use for an ironing board at 3 am on Sunday. Horrors are often life rafts in disguise.Different foods and different experiences allow a person to express their creativity. Yes there will be failures along the way, but talents never bloom using the same food in the same way over and over and over and..... Embrace the horrifying foods. You will be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Anything is better on a bun

The last few days have been exciting for me. I am a genealogy buff, and for the last 20 years I have been searching for clues on my mother's family with no success. Suddenly I found a clue that paid off big time, and I have been happily learning about those who were influential in the creation of the cake that is me. It's been a very interesting recipe , to be sure ! Such excitement makes mundane things like eating, sleeping and such feel like a distraction. In such times, nothing could be more welcome fair than a good sandwich. But a good sandwich must begin with good bread, or better yet a good bun !

Sandwich buns have been a little tricky to make. Not the dough, but the forming of the dough. It seems like a silly thing, but it can trip a person up. One day I came across a good technique, and rolls became a simple matter to create. Burgers, salad fillings and even the simple PB and J became a much nicer thing due to these home made rolls !


Sandwich Rolls
(Adapted from King Arthur)
Makes 6 rolls

    3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
    1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt
    1 large egg
    2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    3/4 cup water

Manual Method: In a large bowl, or the bowl of your electric mixer, combine all of the ingredients, stirring till the dough forms a cohesive mass and begins to clear the sides of the bowl. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, then allow it to rest for 10 minutes (which gives the dough a chance to absorb the liquid, and the gluten in the flour a chance to relax.)Knead the dough for an additional 5 minutes, or until it's smooth and supple. The dough should be quite stiff, but not at all "gnarly;" adjust its consistency with additional flour or water, as necessary. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl or dough-rising bucket, cover the bowl or bucket, and allow the dough to rise till it's noticeably puffy, about 1 hour.

Bread Machine Method: Place all of the ingredients into the pan of your machine, program the machine for manual or dough, and press start. About 10 minutes before the end of the final kneading cycle, examine the dough's consistency; it should be quite stiff, but not at all "gnarly;" adjust it consistency with additional flour or water, as necessary. Allow the machine to complete its cycle.

Shaping: Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface, and divide it into six equal pieces. Shape the pieces into round balls, and place them on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet and press gently to flatten the ball slightly. Cover the rolls, and allow them to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until they've almost doubled in volume.  Dip tops in milk and coat with poppy or sesame seeds,if desired.

Bake the rolls in a preheated 425°F oven for 15 to 17 minutes, or until they're golden brown. Remove them from the oven, and cool on a wire rack.

I make these in a triple batch  and freeze the extras so I can pull them out and have fresher rolls more often. Such a step allows me to continue the search and marvel at the lives of the people I came from in days gone by. That, and keeping up with the bird visitors here !

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lamb, the mark of the Black Sheep Rebel

Sometime  in the mid 1800's, one of the men who was to be my Great Grandfather came to America as a young man on his own, motivated by the aftermath of the horrible famine. At 15 yrs old he had the sponsorship of a charitable organization, the clothes on his back and a great deal of wits in his possession, and little else. About 15 years later he was  the father  of 12, read and spoke Gaelic, and reportedly had an affinity for lamb. Not the nice cuts we know as lamb today, but the tough, stringy, horrid smelling variety called Mutton. Personally I have never eaten mutton, but I am told that it was pretty nasty stuff that had a very strong, lingering smell. Mutton was a fairly common food amongst the Irish, and I imagine that the mutton was a form of comfort food for great grandpa. His son, my grandfather, hated the stuff. He could not stand the sight or smell of it- so much so that he banned it from being served in his home. This made my father, a rebellious soul, desire it. So as a child , we would have lamb chops on occasion. Always in the form of chops and always accompanied with mint jelly. My mother nearly ruined my ability to savor lamb because of the inclusion of mint jelly !

As an adult, I would buy lamb chops and serve them as my mother did until one day I  learned that lamb also came in the form of Leg of Lamb, Breast of Lamb, Lamb Roast and much more. I experimented, but always had that mint jelly on the side.I became more brave, experimenting with recipes using different herbs, and one day I kicked the mint jelly habit ! Finally, I came across what I consider to be , perhaps, the finest lamb recipe on the planet. Considering Easter is a week away and many people will be serving lamb, I think it's time to share this one
 (picture is not mine, but one taken from the net of this recipe applied to a rack of lamb)

Mustard and Herb Crusted Lamb

1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
3 tablespoons  chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon  chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 lbs  lamb  brought to room temperature
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Mix breadcrumbs, herbs and olive oil in a small bowl. Meanwhile place lamb in a roasting pan and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Brush the mustard on and then sprinkle and pat with the breadcrumb mixture to form a crust.Place in a 350 oven for 2 hrs, or until a meat thermometer reads 130. Let stand 10 minutes before carving    

I think if my great grandfather tasted lamb cooked this way he might actually lose any degree of homesickness, and perhaps my grandfather would have granted clemency to the lambs :-)


Saturday, March 31, 2012

Oh, Sophia !!!

Sophia Loren, what have you done !!!!!

You were the standard for beauty back in the 50's , and many women aspired to your measurements, fashions and eyebrows. Many an eyebrow plucking was done with you in mind. Your complexion was another goal , inspiring many a purchase of Noxema and Ponds Cold Cream.That was bad enough, but your culinary contributions have been the stuff of endless controversy to this day ! A simple pasta dish should never be the subject of such debate ! You had to go to Italy to film on location, encounter a group of coal producing men who offered to make you and the film crew a dish that was sort of a regional recipe. That was good- but did you have to write down the recipe and tell people it was exact ? Didn't you know that words like authentic and exact to a chef is the same thing as waving a red flag in front of a bull ?? What were you thinking ????

Spaghetti Carbonara is the controversial thing your brought back, and endless debates as to the dish having cream or not have rolled on and on and on. Foodies will quest for an authentic article. Me , if it contains cream and eggs, I am so there ! I have no idea if it is authentic-I only know this is good !

This is how I make it, and I do not remember who's recipe this was originally

Pasta Carbonara
   1 pound bacon, diced into 1-inch cubes
   salt and pepper
    6 eggs, at room temperature
    1/2 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
    1 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
    1 pound dried penne
    4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Heat a large saute pan, until hot. Add bacon and saute until golden brown and crispy, about 5 minutes.
 Season with black pepper and remove pan from heat.In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in Parmesan, reserving 2 tablespoons for garnish.In a large pot, boil 6 quarts of salted boiling water. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta in a colander.
Do not rinse with water; you want to retain the pasta's natural starches so that the sauce will stick. While the pasta is still hot, return it back to the pot. Add the browned bacon and mix well. Add the cream mixture and coat the pasta completely. It's important to work quickly while the pasta is still warm so that the cream mixture will cook, but not curdle. Add remaining Parmesan and chopped parsley.


Serve. Dig in, think of Sophia and ask yourself if this dish would be any better using an authentic recipe or not.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Breaking up with Zucchini

Every cook has a food that becomes a challenge. For me , it has been the zucchini ! There seems to be only one way to prepare it where it does not suck the life out of a dish, and that is carpacio style ( raw with olive oil, lemon juice, parm cheese and salt). In anything else it becomes like a very rude party guest with a bronchial infection. Why must a readily available, affordable veggie trip me up ?  Why does not happen with other related foods like cucumbers and melons ? Couldn't this happen with lobster or Kobe beef ? The other day I cooked my absolute last zucchini of my life in the following dish- Ratatouille over Ravioli 
Looks pretty, includes eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, basil and salt and pepper, but never has there been a more bland dish ! The zucchini absorbs flavor, but then sends that flavor packing to a tropical island where it can hide for all contact forever. Even the cheese flavor from the ravioli disappeared. After waking up my bored to death taste buds with water ( which incidentally had more flavor), I saw the look of politely restrained aversion on my families face and vowed never again to use zucchini in a dish .

Then in a couple of days I thought about the rules of basic good cooking ( start with flavor, bring it to its best and add more flavor), and came up with this very tasty dish

Salsiccia e melanzane oltre la polenta (Sausage Eggplant over polenta)

1 lb Italian sausage, cut into small pieces
1 Sicilian eggplant, cut into cubes, salted and drained
3 red bell peppers, cut into chunks
3 plum tomatoes, cubed
1 lb button mushrooms, quartered
4 cloves garlic, de germed and sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
polenta ( warm or cooled and cut into squares)

In a large pot, heat the olive oil and cook the garlic until golden. Add the sausage and cook until golden, then add the sausage and brown on all sides. Next add the peppers and tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or till they begin to release juice. Then add the mushrooms and eggplant, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium. Let cook for 30 minutes and serve over polenta

My way of making polenta may not be according to the book, but it works and is tasty. In a large pan I bring 8 cups of liquid to a rolling boil ( usually half chicken stock and half salted water) , and then whisk in 1 cup of yellow cornmeal- I use cornmeal because it is what I have on hand.Stir constantly and when the cornmeal begins to thicken I add a half stick of butter and continue to whisk. ( Some people add cheese, some people add cream, some add milk- there are a lot of variations). After a few minutes - a.k.a. my arm gets tired and I get bored with stirring- I pour it onto a greased cookie sheet to cool and cut into shapes OR I pour it into bowls to top with something. The cookie sheet method wins when I know dinner could well be delayed .

I'm sorry zucchini - it's not me. It's you !!! I can't say it's been fun. I will meet you again in muffins and as a salad, but you are never going to be included in hot dishes again.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Brain and bone cells are dying- send fat !

We live in an age of information. Within minutes of an event, we hear about it. If anyone , anywhere experiences something that someone might perceive as an injustice on some level, minutes later someone will raise a grassroots awareness campaign that allows people to know about the thing- but does absolutely noting to remedy the situation or help the victim. And then there is health information. Like much of the "scare stories" out there, they are based on someone's observation of something , and almost always that someone missed or failed to notice a large part of the facts and acted on the small part they observed only.

Back in the 1940's, there was a young scientist who collected data and observed that (mice running into a door and) eating high fat diets were dying early. Therefore, fat ( not the door) was evil and should be removed from the diet.( not literally, but his findings were based on such observational information). Thus began the low fat insanity. Doors however were completely innocent. This observational study then led to the concept that dietary cholesterol was also evil, sugar was good because it is fat free, Statins as a wonder drug and a lot of other nonsense. By 1980, with the full inclusion of Ansel Keys bad observations, heart disease took a sharp upswing, aerobics was in fashion( calories in , calories out /cardio is necessary myth), diabetes was on the upswing , ADD/ADHD rates exploded and suddenly a lot of Autistic children were entering the world. Coincidence ?

NOT in the least. The human body requires fat for the absorption of several fat soluble vitamins amongst other things. If you eat a low fat diet and eat foods high in these vitamins or take supplements, you are not nourishing your body. You are creating super urine and nothing else.What are the fat soluble vitamins you ask ? Vitamins A,D,E and K. Vitamin D has been talked about a lot these days. Years back it was known to be nesisary for bone development and health, but recent research has shown it to be important in the prevention of colon diseases including cancer,autoimmune diseases like Arthritis, Fybro and Diabetes ( yes, diabetes is an autoimmune disease) and hypertension. You need FAT to be able to absorb this nutrient. Vitamin K is produced in the intestines with proper bacteria ( eat Splenda and other artificial sweeteners including Stevia  and you will destroy this one) that is important in the function of blood clotting. It enters into the bloodstream with FAT.( notice a trend here ??) Vitamin A  aids in reproduction and the transmission of DNA ,helps your eyes and mouth to stay moist,allows  your eyes adjust to sunlight and more ( skip the fat boys and we can make a killing on Transitions lenses and Restasis drops !!!) Once again , your body needs FAT to absorb this nutrient.

Traditional cooking methods and those "grandma cooking" type recipes often included fat with those foodstuffs that were high in the fat solubles.Broccoli with cheese, Greens and Fatback, wilted spinach with bacon fat dressing and so forth. Not because Grandma had some secret key to the nutrition kingdom, but she understood and respected the most powerful key we have. Taste! Fat simply tastes good. We, as humans, were given taste buds and appetite for a reason- it naturally leads us to those things our body needs. Not a modern taste bud that has been so assaulted with  chemicals passed off for food for so long that it no longer knows what an actual carrot is, but one that eats actual food. When we kick the chemicals out of our diets , our tastebuds and appetites return to a normal state and we begin craving real food.

Here is one dish that features two foods high in vitamin A. Combined they make for 100% of your rda vitamin A and the fat used helps your body to actually absorb it.

Conchiglie con Spinach Pommedoro

1 lb medium Conchiglie ( shells)
salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter( no substitute)
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion - minced
1 clove garlic - minced
2 cups fresh spinach
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes - halved

 Place a large pot of generously salted water on to boil. While boiling, add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.  Into a medium saute pan add butter or oil. Cook over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until softened. Add spinach and tomatoes and cook just until spinach has wilted. Season with salt and pepper
Add drained pasta to saute pan. Toss to combine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Naughty girls need food too!

I believe I live to eat rather than eat to live.I encounter food ideas in things I read, lessons I teach about geography and history, in TV shows I watch and more. Most things spark my curiosity , compel me to find the ingredients and then learn how to cook it. Three meals a day, seven days a week and so many ideas leave no room to waste time on bad or uninteresting food !  There are dishes I want to make because the flavor contributions sound so interesting, those that strike me as a kind of magic because of the transformation and then those that appeal because of their history. The following dish is one of those. Pasta Puttanesca is it's name, and the story behind it is interesting to say the least.

Translated to English it means "Whore's Pasta", and there is some debate about the exact reasons that it came to be. Some have said it was created because all of the ingredients could be stored on the shelf so that the ladies could make a fast meal between clients without having to go to the market. Others have said that the Ladies of the Evening  were only allowed into the markets for a few hours on certain days of the week, so they had to stock up foods till their next market trip. I have third theory- when they made money they stocked up these things so that they had food to eat if they fell our of favor with the local gents. No matter what the reason, this pasta is quick to fix, can be complete pantry items ( use canned tomatoes instead of fresh) and very delicious ! As to the anchovy's, this was the first time I ever tasted them and I found them to be like salty, oil packed tuna and not the horror story many like to paint them as. They decompose into the sauce and all you are left with is flavor that melds beautifully with the other strong flavor. There are literally a million versions of this recipe, and here is mine inspired by David Rocco


PENNE PUTTANESCA

1 lb penne rigate ( penne with ridges)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, chopped
1 can anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers
1 small can sliced black olives
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1 head garlic, de germed and sliced thin
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dried parsley
salt and chili pepper (fresh or dried) to season

In a large pot, boil water for pasta. In a saucepan pour olive oil and saute till garlic is golden.
Add anchovies and walnuts- cook for a minute. Add tomatoes, cover and let cook 5 minutes.Add the olives, capers and red pepper- ook till pasta is about a minute before the al dente stage. Place pasta in the saucepan with a little pasta water and let cook till pasta is al dente. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.