Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Memorial Day -- Are You Having a BBQ?

Traditionally, Memorial Day means BBQ. All the grocery stores and supermarkets tout this as one of the biggest grilling days of the year, and everyone has their favorites--burgers and dogs, chicken, steaks, even fish. But whatever you grill, you will need to have some side dishes (man does not live on meat alone!). Of course, tradition plays a role here as well, with potato salad and cole slaw leading the pack. However, may I suggest something a little different, something a little out of the ordinary, but not so unusual as to turn off your guests. One of my favorite side dishes (or light meal, it's just that versatile!), is a Roasted Vegetable Pasta Salad. It has the added benefit of being both a grains and a vegetable course in one bowl. Whole wheat pasta is also an option to pump up the protein and fiber.

The original recipe called for orzo pasta, but I made it here with "farfellini"--miniature bow ties. Any shape will work, but something small allows the diner to get a sampling of tastes on the fork at the same time. And you don't want anyone to miss any of the fragrant, flavorful ingredients which, in addition to the roasted vegetables, include feta cheese, toasted pine nuts and a wonderful lemon vinaigrette. Of course, this is open to interpretation. I suggest my favorite vegetables for roasting, but feel free to swap in yours--just be sure that everything is well cooked and caramelized. I use pine nuts, but chopped walnuts or sliced almonds would work as well if that is your preference. Whatever you do, don't leave out the feta, as the intense salty flavor really pumps up this salad. The original recipe used only the juice from the fresh lemons, but I zest the lemons before juicing which I think adds much more robust lemon flavor to the dressing. This salad gets better as it sits, making it a perfect make ahead--just don't add the shredded basil and nuts until immediately before serving.

Roasted Vegetable Pasta Salad
Serves: at least 6 to 8
Oven Temperature: 425°

Ingredients: (Quantities are approximate)
3 lbs. of the following in any combination: red & green peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, red onion, all cut into 1 inch dice
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 lb. orzo or other small pasta, cooked & hot
grated rind & juice from 2 to 3 lemons, approximately 1⁄3 cup juice
1⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 oz. feta cheese, crumbled or cubed
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
salt & pepper, to taste

Toss all vegetables with olive oil and garlic. Roast vegetables in a single layer in a baking pan (in batches if necessary) at 425° for 35 to 40 minutes until cooked and beginning to caramelize. Pour veggies into large serving bowl as they are cooked. Once all veggies are cooked, boil pasta in salted water until tender. Add to bowl with veggies. In a separate small bowl, blend lemon juice, lemon rind, salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil. Pour over veggies and pasta, stirring gently to coat everything with the dressing. Stir in the feta cheese and scallions. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Immediately before serving, add the torn basil leaves and toasted pine nuts.

Notes & Pointers:
Quantities given are just a starting point. Don't be scared off by the 3 pounds of veggies, as they will lose most of their moisture and cook down quite a bit by the time they are caramelized. Be sure to salt this dish at the very end as the feta adds quite a bit of salt.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Caprese Classico? Not So Much. Caprese Delicioso? Definitely!!!

One of my favorite appeizers has always been Caprese, slices of fresh mozzarella layered with perfectly ripe tomatoes and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. However, perfectly ripe tomatoes are not always an option unless you grow your own and they are in season. Even the "vine ripened" tomatoes at the supermarket leave a lot to be desired. I found a recipe for roasted balsamic tomatoes, which I decided to use in my own variation of Caprese. Roasting the tomatoes reduces some of the moisture, concentrating their flavor, and the added balsamic intensifies both the sweet and tart aspects of the tomatoes, turning merely OK tomatoes into something wonderful. Of course, the dish is only as good as the rest of the ingredients. If at all possible get the mozzarella from an Italian market and ask them to salt it, giving it a final bath in salty water before it is wrapped. The balsamic should be a nice aged variety, and the oil should be the most fragrant extra, extra virgin olive oil that you can find. Top it all off with fragrant basil leaves and you will have a perfect start to a meal or even a delicious light lunch.

Roasted Balsamic Tomato Caprese
Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 275°

5 - 6 ripe plum or vine-ripened tomatoes
balsamic vinegar
1 - large ball fresh mozzarella, about 12 oz.
extra, extra virgin olive oil, best quality
fresh basil

Slice tomatoes into 1⁄4 inch thick slices. Lay them out in a single layer on parchment paper or no-stick foil on a baking sheet. Brush tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, covering all surfaces, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake at 275° for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and brush all surfaces with balsamic vinegar again and bake for additional 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, bring about 1⁄2 cup balsamic vinegar to a boil over medium heat and reduce to a syrupy consistency, watching carefully for burning. Slice mozzarella in half lengthwise, then into 1⁄4 inch thick slices. Arrange on platter alternating mozzarella and roasted tomatoes. Dish can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated at this point. Immediately before serving drizzle with the reduced balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Snip or tear basil into slivers and distribute over the dish.

Notes &Pointers:
As delicious as regular caprese is, this is light years ahead of it in “knock-your-socks-off” flavor!  It should be noted that fresh mozzarella bears little resemblance to the mass-produced packaged stuff we often eat on pizza. If you don't have a local Italian market, the store-made fresh mozzarella will substitute. Be careful when reducing the balsamic--it can go from syrupy to charred in moments!

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Birthday Dinner -- The Party of the First Part

So here's the first part of my recent birthday dinner....Lasagna Rollups. Think of it as an easier, somewhat healthier, version of lasagna (since there is no meat). The original recipe called for ricotta and Romano cheeses in the filling, along with a healthy dose of spinach, and I made it that way for a while, but to be honest, it was kind of bland. Then I came up with a cheese blend that I began using with my pizza dough for a white pizza, and decided, in a stroke of genius I think, to add that cheese blend to the basic filling. WOW! What a blast of flavor! Since it is predominantly spinach, I think it is still pretty healthy, and with all that flavor, it's easy to be satisfied with a smaller portion. Two rollups per person and a green salad makes a hearty meal, and comes in at around 600 calories. Just a couple of notes: the easiest way I've found to form these without ending up with either filling or noodles left over at the end is to count the number of lasagna noodles as I add them to the boiling water. I find that a one pound package of lasagna usually contains 20 noodles. In fact, I usually keep an open box of lasagna noodles in my pantry, so if I find a box that has fewer than 20 noodles or where some are broken and not fit for rolling, I pull an extra noodle or two from the open box--that way it's easier to apportion the filling and I know I always end up with 20 rolls. 

To fill the noodles, I lay a couple of sheets of plastic wrap out on my counter and lay out 5 noodles at one time. I divide the filling into quarters in the bowl, then apportion one quarter of the filling among the 5 noodles. After I roll those and place them into a layer of tomato sauce, I repeat with the remaining noodles and filling. Easy!

Lasagna Roll-ups
Serves: 8 to 10
Oven Temperature: 375°

1 lb. lasagna noodles
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 lb. container part skim ricotta cheese
10 Tbs. Romano cheese, grated
10 Tbs. Grana Padano, grated
8 ounces Asiago cheese, grated
2 (10 oz.) or 1 (24 oz.) pkg. chopped spinach, defrosted & squeezed dry
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. pepper
6 to 8 cups tomato sauce
additional Romano, for serving

Cook lasagna noodles in plenty of boiling salted water until not quite done (they'll cook more when the assembled dish is baked). Drain and set aside. Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft and beginning to brown. In a large bowl, combine the onion/garlic mixture, all the cheeses, spinach, nutmeg and pepper until well mixed. Set aside.

Prepare a large baking pan by pouring about 3/4 to 1 cup tomato sauce in the bottom. Spread some of the filling along each of the noodles to within about an inch of the ends. Roll up like a jellyroll and lay seam side down into the prepared baking pan. When all the noodles have been filled, cover the tops of the rolls with additional sauce. Cover pan with parchment paper (so the tomato sauce doesn't eat through the foil) and aluminum foil and bake at 375° for 25 minutes covered (or until bubbly), then uncover and bake an additional 5 minutes. Serve with additional Romano to sprinkle on top.

Notes & Pointers:
This can easily be prepared a day or two in advance. Refrigerate immediately after the rolls are filled and covered with sauce. When you plan to serve the dish, bake it off but lower the oven temperature to 350° and increase the baking time by about 15 minutes or so to allow for the cold start. Just make sure the center is hot and the sauce is bubbly.

Friday, May 4, 2012

To Everything There is a Season (or Sometimes You Just Gotta Let Go!)

Last week I celebrated a birthday--perhaps "celebrated" isn't exactly the right word. (Birthdays were a whole lot more fun when I was 12!) To keep things in perspective, I try to remember what my Dad used to say, "Getting old sucks, but it sure beats the alternative!" Fortunately, I had my loving family around to help ease the transition. I cooked dinner, since that's something I love to do, and everyone else cleaned up (as anyone who knows me, or has met me, or has passed me in a crowd knows, I HATE to clean!!!!). So I had the best of both worlds. Dinner was a reasonably healthy dish; Lasagna Rollups, filled with a healthy dose of spinach, along with part skim ricotta, and Romano, Grana Padano and Asiago cheeses, covered with homemade tomato sauce--delicious! Although there is quite a bit of cheese, the spinach is predominant in the filling, and the recipe makes a lot, so it's not TOO unhealthy--under 600 calories for a very hearty 2 roll serving. (I'll post the recipe for the tomato sauce and rollups in a later post.)

But being good for dinner leaves a lot of calories leftover for dessert, always my favorite part of a meal, though I don't indulge as often as I'd like to. So I made my absolute favorite dessert, Fudgey Brownie Sundaes, made with French Vanilla ice cream, which I find to be slightly richer tasting than plain vanilla ice cream. The brownie recipe is one I clipped from a newspaper or magazine many, many years ago. My daughter made an (excellent!) change to the recipe by using Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa Powder instead of regular cocoa powder, which makes them even more chocolatey. And this year, instead of just pouring commercial chocolate syrup over the French Vanilla ice cream, I made a dark chocolate Fudge Glaze which was slightly bitter sweet and provided an excellent counterpoint to the sweetness of the brownie and ice cream. The glaze is designed to harden on a cake, so I warmed it slightly to get it to a perfect pouring consistency before serving. Chocolate overload almost makes me forget getting a year older!!!

Fudgey Brownies
Serves: 6 chocoholics, 8 to 10 regular people
Oven Temperature: 350°

3/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2/3 cup canola or other light oil, divided
1/2 cup boiling water
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt

Stir cocoa and baking soda together in mixer bowl. With flat beater, blend in 1/3 cup of the oil. Add boiling water and stir on low speed until mixture thickens. Blend in sugar, eggs and remaining 1/3 cup oil; stir until smooth. Add flour, vanilla and salt; beat until completely blended. Pour into a greased 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan or two 8" square pans or two 8" or 9" round layer pans. Bake at 350° for 35 to 40 minutes for 13" x 9" x 2" pan, or 30 to 32 minutes for square pans or layers. Cool and serve from pan.

Notes & Pointers:
You can add nuts or frosting as you choose....either (or both) would be wonderful additions.

Fudge Glaze
Serves: enough to glaze one bundt cake, or 4 servings over ice cream

5 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
3 Tbs. butter

In small saucepan stir together cocoa, sugar, water. Bring to boil over moderate heat. Boil 1 minute. Add butter a little at a time, stirring after each addition. While glaze is hot, pour over cooled cake, keeping most of glaze on top of cake.

Notes & Pointers:
This glaze is bittersweet and beautifully shiny on a cake if you don't refrigerate it. Here again, I prefer the Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa Powder instead of regular cocoa powder, but either one works.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Tired of the Same-Old, Same-Old for Dinner?

I remember a co-worker and I were once discussing our typical dinners and she mentioned that if she ate one more chicken dinner, she was afraid she would start clucking!!! I know that chicken breast has a frequent starring role in our dinners and though I make chicken a dozen or more ways to introduce variety and excitement into our meals (topics for future posts), it still can get boring. One way of re-igniting your family's interest in dinner is by making an exciting side dish instead of going the boring steamed veg, baked potato and salad route (yawn). One of my new favorite side dishes is Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Honey. Sweet potatoes have much more nutrition than their white counterparts and the addition of honey, cinnamon and a bit of oil intensifies their already complex flavor. The trick here is to cut the potatoes into thin wedges or blocks, lay them out in a single layer on a non-stick surface (my personal favorite is parchment paper, but non-stick aluminum foil would work just as well), and set the oven temperature to 375°. The potatoes need time to cook through before they start browning and 375° seems to work well for that. The best tasting part of these potatoes is the almost burned edges, so don't be afraid to let them get very brown! I usually peel the potatoes, but feel free to simply scrub them well and leave the peel on, if that is your preference. Sweet potatoes are a little tougher to peel and cut up than white potatoes, but a good peeler, sharp knife and a cutting board gets the job done and this dish is well worth the effort. One other pointer, if you measure out the oil first, then measure the honey in the same measuring cup, the residual oil will keep the honey from sticking to the measuring cup and you won't have to spend 5 minutes scraping the honey off the sides of the cup!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Honey
Serves: 4
Oven Temperature: 375°

4 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tsp cinnamon
salt & pepper, to taste

Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into long thin wedges and arrange in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan on parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil. Heat remaining ingredients in a small saucepan until honey is melted and combines with other ingredients. Drizzle or brush over fries so all surfaces are coated. Roast at 375° for 25 to 30 minutes, brushing again with the oil and honey mixture halfway through the cooking time, until tender and all sides are browned.

Notes & Pointers:
Honestly, this will probably serve only two people because it will be hard to stop eating them! When I make this side dish for my husband and me, I divide the potatoes into 2 baking pans and as soon as they are cooked, I put one well covered pan into the fridge for another day--they are so good that I can't depend on us to stop eating at the halfway mark!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stirring, Stirring, Stirring My Brew.....

Stirring is a fundamental skill required for cooking. You're thinking, "Duh.....I stir my coffee/tea every's a no brainer, right?" Well, yes--and no. Stirring a thin liquid like your morning brew IS a no brainer. With that type of liquid, a cursory swirl with a spoon is all that's required to integrate the ingredients and keep the mass moving. Things get a little more fussy when you are cooking up a batch of chunky soup or stew, or a pot of thick tomato sauce, or, one of my personal obsessions, chocolate pudding. When you get in deep with the viscous stuff you really need to choose your weapon wisely and hone your technique or you will find burned portions sticking to the bottom of the pot after you serve. Trust me, that crusty burned stuff can affect the taste of the entire batch--and not in a good way! 

I recently made a batch of my favorite rich, dark chocolate pudding, an indulgence that is a completely different experience from the powdery stuff that comes in a box. As an avowed chocaholic, I find that most of the commercial chocolate offerings are too heavy on sugar and fat and too light on chocolate taste. Not so with this recipe. This pudding is incredibly chocolatey, courtesy of Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder, and because I use one percent milk, very low fat. By making it from scratch, you can adjust the ingredients to your own taste, which I did when I found this recipe, reducing the sugar, increasing the cocoa, and leaving out the heavy cream. If you find the chocolate flavor too intense (I can't believe I wrote that!), feel free to substitute any regular cocoa powder (which, it should be noted, is not the stuff you mix with hot water to make hot chocolate--this is unsweetened cocoa powder, designed for cooking and baking).

As illustrated, when I first start this recipe, I add all the dry ingredients to the sauce pot (one somewhat larger than strictly necessary to contain the ingredients...that way if my stirring gets over zealous at any point, I don't have to wash the stove!). I then add the milk and begin combining the ingredients rather briskly over medium heat with a wire whisk. Once the steam begins to rise off the milk, I know my mixture is starting to heat up allowing the cornstarch to perform its magic and thicken the mixture. It is at this point that I switch to a blunt wooden implement which will really scrape the cooked portions off the bottom without scarring my pot. I make sure to stir up the entire bottom of the pot vigorously and continuously, even around the edges, so that none of the pudding will stick and burn. As soon as it begins to boil, the cornstarch will have reached maximum thickening power and the pudding is done. Pour into serving dishes, cover and chill. As you can see from the picture of the empty pot, I left no pudding unturned! Sweet success, indeed.

Chocolate Cornstarch Pudding
Serves: 4 to 6

9 Tbs. cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
4-1/2 cups milk (1% lowfat)
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. cornstarch
2-1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

In a two quart saucepan, stir together cocoa powder, sugar, milk, salt and cornstarch. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with whisk until ingredients are combined. When it begins to thicken, switch to a blunt implement and scrape the thickened portions off the bottom of the pot. When bubbly and quite thick, remove from heat, stir in vanilla gently. Pour into 4 to 6 dessert cups, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Notes & Pointers:
Being the chocoholic I am, you know this is the darkest, richest chocolate pudding you've ever tasted! But since I use cocoa powder rather than whole chocolate and 1% milk, it's also guilt free and very nearly fat free, so enjoy as often as possible. I usually use extra dark cocoa powder.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Greek Feast Part 2: Spanakopitas

Spanakopitas (or Spanokopitas--I've seen it spelled both ways) are delicious, crispy phyllo turnovers filled with a savory mixture of spinach, feta cheese, onions and just enough egg to bind the filling together. They are really quite easy to make, if a bit tedious, since they are individually filled and folded. I have also seen, but never made, spanakopita pie, using the same filling but in a single large pan, with numerous layers of buttered phyllo sheets both below and covering the entire filling. It is then cut into portions to serve. For me, though, I love the "cute" factor of having individual servings, so I take the time to make the tiny triangles.

The first time I used phyllo dough, I unwrapped it and thought, "Isn't it nice that they put paper between the sheets of dough," then I realized the "paper" WAS the dough! The only possible pitfalls in this recipe are that the spinach must be absolutely dry or it will make the phyllo soggy. Pick up small handfuls of the defrosted spinach and squeeze until no more water exudes. The other thing to be aware of is that phyllo dough dries out quickly and actually shatters when dry, so cover any portions you won't be using in the next few minutes. I find the easiest way to apportion the dough is to cut the still wrapped roll of phyllo into thirds with a sharp serrated knife. Wrap two thirds of the roll in a plastic bag and seal well, pressing out all the air. Unroll the remaining third and start filling and folding. I usually use 2 sheets of phyllo for each triangle to make them a little more substantial. As soon as each triangle is filled, brush all surfaces with butter. That will keep them from drying out and ensure beautiful browning.

Serves: 6 to 8
Oven Temperature: 425°

1 small onion, diced
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 (10 oz.) pkg. chopped spinach, squeezed dry
1 egg, beaten
1/4 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/3 lb. phyllo leaves
1/2 cup butter, melted

Sauté onion in oil until tender. Stir in spinach, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in egg, cheese and pepper.

Cut phyllo leaves lengthwise into 2" wide strips (see hint above regarding apportioning the dough). Working with 1 or 2 strips at time, place one rounded teaspoon of filling at the short end of the strip closest to you. Fold the strip away from you to cover the filling so the bottom edge meets the left edge, forming a triangle. Then fold over the triangle you've just created. Continue folding the phyllo just like a flag is folded. It should end up looking like a triangularly folded flag. Place seam side down on buttered cookie sheet. Brush with butter. Repeat until all filling is used. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes or until golden.

Notes & Pointers:
These can be prepared ahead of time, and refrigerated or frozen until ready to bake. If frozen, reduce oven temperature to 375° and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. This makes a wonderful side dish to accompany Pastitsio (see my previous post) or a great appetizer on its own. Feta is one ingredient where I don't use a low fat alternative...low fat feta has absolutely no taste! In any case, feta is naturally lower in fat than most other cheeses.