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.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Greek Feast Part 1: Pastitsio

I learned to make Pastitsio many years ago, coming across this recipe in a women's magazine. I'm not sure how authentic it is, only that it is delicious. I do know that I shared the recipe with a friend who made it for her Greek Dad (a former chef, BTW), who seemed to really enjoy it. I don't know if he was just being kind, but I do know that whenever I have served it, to family and friends alike, they seem to love it.

It's a pasta dish that includes a well seasoned meat sauce along with a cheesy bechamel topping....what's not to love? As for the "feast" mentioned in the title, I usually complete this meal with homemade olive bread, spanokopitas (phyllo dough triangles stuffed with spinach and feta cheese), a green salad topped with crumbled feta, olives and a red wine vinaigrette, and, for a really special end to the meal, baklava (a nutty, honey drenched phyllo concoction)--all recipes for future posts.

The original recipe uses ground beef, but I usually make it with ground turkey breast now, to reduce the fat and cholesterol content. I don't skimp on the cheese, though, as that's where the dish gets most of its flavor--everything in moderation! For vegetarians, I use a ground beef substitute, with equally delicious results. A bonus to this dish is that it can be made the day ahead and baked on the day you need it. If you have refrigerated it overnight, plan to bake it a bit longer, perhaps 45 minutes to an hour, at a lower temp, around 300°, so the top doesn't get overly brown before the inside is hot.

Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 350°


For the pan:
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the filling:
1-1/2 lb. 97% lean ground beef or 99% lean turkey breast
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
dash pepper
1-1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the sauce:
3 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1-1/2 cups milk
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. (If I'm using a Pyrex pan, I do this in the microwave. Otherwise, I just sit the baking pan on top of the pot of boiling pasta until the butter melts.) Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of the grated Romano evenly into the pan. Set aside. Brown the ground beef or turkey breast, onion and garlic in a large frying pan and drain in a colander to remove any fat (if using turkey, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan and skip the draining, as there won't be any excess fat). Return to pan, then add the tomato sauce, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside. Meanwhile, cook the elbow macaroni in plenty of unsalted boiling water until barely done, drain, return pasta to the cooking pot and stir in 1 tablespoon butter. Pour half of the elbows into the prepared baking pan. Spoon the ground meat mixture evenly over the pasta. Top with the remaining elbows. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese over the elbows. Set aside. Whisk together the butter and flour in a 2 quart saucepan over low heat until bubbly. Add the milk and simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat. Beat egg in a small bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of the hot sauce into the egg, stirring constantly, then quickly whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan. Return the pan to low heat just until it starts to bubble again, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1/4 cup grated Romano. Spoon the sauce evenly over the pasta in the baking pan. Bake it uncovered at 350° for about 30 to 45 minutes or until lightly browned.

Notes & Pointers:
The dish has a total of 3/4 cup of Romano cheese so don't add salt to the pasta cooking water or the finished dish will be too salty!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Breakfast For Dinner?

I've always loved hearty breakfasts, though I never actually have the opportunity to eat them, generally breaking my fast with oatmeal or toast and tea instead. Who has the time to make big family breakfasts in the morning--pancakes, waffles, French toast, ham, eggs? When my kids were younger, even on the weekends someone always had some practice or other that made it impossible to have a leisurely breakfast. Plus, family members often get up at different times, so the early birds (usually me) end up waiting hours for the late risers to be ready to eat. So to be able to enjoy those breakfast foods I love, I started making "Breakfast For Dinner" one day a week, usually Friday night.

When my kids were teens and often had friends over after school, the rule of thumb was that whoever was still at our house at dinner time got an invite. This custom was especially appreciated by my son's friends who, as always hungry young men, frequently went from house to house to house, sometimes eating as many as three dinners in one evening! I remember the first time that I served "Breakfast For Dinner" to them....they thought I'd gone off the deep end! How strange! How weird! But to me it makes perfect sense. 

I vary the menu for excitement; buttermilk pancakes, of course, but also delicate corn meal pancakes, low fat and delicious apple pancakes, spiced squash pancakes, crispy French toast. Many of these recipes can also be made as waffles. When accompanied by some lean grilled ham and scrambled eggs, it makes a delicious and hearty meal, enough food to fill even teen boys!

Below is my recipe for classic Buttermilk Pancakes. I'll provide the recipes for the other varieties in future posts.

Buttermilk Waffles or Pancakes
Serves: 6 to 8
Oven Temperature: 250° (to keep them warm)

3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 cups low fat buttermilk
2/3 cup canola oil
4 eggs

Blend all the dry ingredients together with flat beater in a mixer bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil and eggs. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and beat just until everything is wet. It's OK for there to be some lumps in the batter. To cook waffles, barely cover well greased grids with batter. Cook according to waffle iron directions, usually until steam no longer escapes. For pancakes, heat a large non-stick frying pan or griddle, add a dab of butter and pour in about 1/4 to 1/2 cup batter (depending on how good you are at flipping pancakes!). Cook over low to medium heat until bubbles form (but not burst) on the top of the pancake. Flip it over and cook on the other side until lightly browned. Repeat with remaining batter.

Notes & Pointers:
This batter is very thick, so cook over lower heat than regular pancakes and be sure that they're cooked may want to cut into one or two of them to be sure. If the outside browns before the inside is cooked, lower the heat. BTW, when I make scrambled eggs, I always make three egg whites plus one whole egg per person. The single yolk makes the eggs still look and taste like eggs, but significantly reduces the fat and cholesterol.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Who Says Burgers Have To Be Beef?

BTW, these are oval because that's the shape of the rolls I had!

I don't know about you, but reading all the recent press about nasty ingredients being put into some ground beef really turns me off! And studies have been reported that link excessive red meat consumption with higher mortality rates. One way to avoid the additives is to buy good quality beef cuts and grind the meat yourself (if you don't have a meat grinder, you can pulse grind a small amount of meat at a time in a food processor--just don't purée it!). That way you can control the amount of fat in the meat, and are certain what's in it. If you want to reduce your red meat consumption, another route is to think outside the (burger) box, and go in a completely different direction. One of my favorite non-beef burgers is a Salmon Burger. They are extremely nutritious, satisfying (in that wrap your hands around a big hunk-o-burger and chow down kind of way), delicious, and are even inexpensive! A 14 to 16 ounce can of salmon runs about 3 to 4 bucks or so in my local supermarket, and feeds a family of 4 heartily. The eggs act as binder and add nutrition of their own. Because of the eggs, these do need to be cooked all the way through; I sauté them on low heat so that by the time the outside is beautifully brown the inside will be completely cooked. You can always check them with an instant read thermometer....interior temp should be 160 degrees. Also, they can be kind of fragile, so use two spatulas or a spatula and a fork when turning them to ease them over to the second side. Serve on your favorite rolls with some reduced calorie tartar sauce, maybe some oven fries and you'll be in heaven (but not prematurely!).

Salmon Burgers
Serves: 4

14 to 16 oz. can salmon, drained
2/3 cup celery, chopped
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
3/4 cup bread crumbs
3 eggs
1 Tbs. olive oil

Remove large bones from salmon (the small waxy bones can be left in and will actually add some calcium) and blend with other ingredients in mixer bowl using flat beater or with a fork in a large bowl. Divide into 4 even patties. Fry over low heat in oil for about 4 to 5 minutes per side until brown and cooked through. Serve on burger rolls with tartar sauce.

Notes & Pointers:
For an easy, lower calorie version of tartar sauce, stir about 3 Tbs. sweet pickle relish together with 1 to 2 Tbs. reduced calorie mayonnaise.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Delicious Memory From My Childhood--Updated For Today

When I was little, my mom learned to make the most delicious vegetable fritters from her older sister. They would both fry up a number of different veggies wrapped in a simple, but delicious batter. It was a foolproof way to get us kids to eat our veggies! One of my very favorites of these was cauliflower fritters, crisp exteriors enveloping a creamy, cheesy interior.....yum! The original recipe is fried in quite a bit of oil, something people didn't give too much thought to, back in the day. So when my husband remarked a while ago that he really missed those fritters that my Mom used to make, I set out to see if I could come up with a version which was healthier, but still delicious. I first tried spooning the batter onto nonstick aluminum foil and baking at a high temp, but the outside wasn't crisp enough. Next I tried shallow frying them in just a tiny bit of oil, but the insides wouldn't cook before the outside was overdone. I have to say, in all honesty, my first efforts were not pretty! My husband, always the trooper, ate them anyway. But I perservered, and several versions later, I have something that I am proud to serve. I use a combination of cooking methods; shallow frying (in about a teaspoon of olive oil) in a nonstick frying pan paired with a final bake on a cookie sheet at a high temp to finish cooking the interiors. It works and we can now enjoy these whenever we want to, guilt free!

Cauliflower Fritters
Serves: 4 to 6 (as a side dish)

1 head of cauliflower
4 Tbs. grated Romano or Parmigiano cheese
1 Tbs. flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 Tbs. fresh parsley, minced
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. pepper (or to taste)
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400°. Cut or break the cauliflower into floweretts, discarding the tough core. Steam them over simmering water in a vegetable steamer until completely cooked through and very tender. (Alternatively, microwave in a covered container in a half inch or so of water, stirring occasionally until completely cooked through and very tender; drain well.) In a large bowl, with a potato masher, mash the cauliflower into small pieces. Add all remaining ingredients except the olive oil and mix very well. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Drop the fritter batter by tablespoons into the frying pan, leaving a half inch or so between the fritters. Flatten them slightly with the spoon. By the time you finish filling the pan, the first ones should be brown on the bottom and ready to carefully turn over. When they are browned on the second side, transfer them to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining fritter batter. When the batter is all used up, move the cookie sheet to the oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes or until they are cooked through (if you have an instant read thermometer, push it sideways into one of the fritters; it should read 160°).

Notes & Pointers:
My favorite nonstick skillet is cast iron, as it is very heavy, holds the heat, and cooks evenly. You also don't have to worry about suffering the "Teflon Flu" from overheating some nonsticks (which if you've experienced once, you never want to repeat!!!). The fritters are quite fragile, so when you turn them over, use a spatula to turn them and a fork or a second spatula to ease them over to the second side. You will probably not need salt since there is quite a bit of salt from the cheese, but the best way to check the seasoning is to cook up a tiny bit of the batter and taste it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sometimes It's The Little Things

These are not actually Balsamic Walnuts (I ate them all before taking the pic!!!)
Almost without exception, dinner just doesn't seem like "dinner" to me unless I have some form of green salad. It could be as simple as a sack-o-salad given a quick rinse (I know it says pre-washed, but I feel better giving it a twirl through my salad spinner) with some bottled dressing, but a green salad seems to complete the meal for me. I'm not a big fan of the old iceberg lettuce-cucumber-hothouse tomatoes version of salad, gravitating more towards dark green romaine lettuce, Boston lettuce, red and green leaf lettuces, arugula, field greens--heck, even thinly sliced red cabbage frequently finds its way into my salad bowl. Of course, when to serve the salad is always a question, as some people prefer it as a first course, before the entrée, while others seem to feel it belongs at the end of the meal as a sort of digestive. Me, I like to have my salad right in the middle, in a nice big bowl suitable for tossing, next to my dinner plate. That way I can alternate a bite of this with a bite of that.... kind of lends variety to the meal, in my humble opinion. Sometimes salad IS my dinner, and one of my all time favorites is a mix of crisp greens, crumbled feta, walnuts and rosemary balsamic vinaigrette.....yum!

On my lazy days, I whack up a few leave of romaine lettuce, send them for a ride through my spinner, drizzle on a simple homemade vinaigrette and dig in. When I am creating a special dinner experience, I will go all the way, preparing balsamic glazed walnuts and a sweet and tangy dressing with either fresh sliced strawberries in season, or dried sweetened cranberries during the colder months. The combination of crisp greens (especially the really intense ones like arugula), crunchy candied walnuts and sweet but tangy dressing hits all the right notes.

Here is my recipe for Strawberry Fields Salad, the perfect fit for your most elegant dinner party.

Strawberry Fields Salad
Serves: 4 to 6

Ingredients for balsamic walnuts:
4 Tbs. sugar
4 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 cup walnut halves

Ingredients for salad:
2 Tbs. strawberry preserves or jam
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
mixed field greens or other salad
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced

Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil. Heat sugar, 4 tablespoons balsamic and walnuts in a large frying pan over medium heat. Stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon, simmer until balsamic is nearly evaporated and nuts are well coated. Working quickly, pour the walnut mixture onto the lined baking pan. Using two forks, separate the individual nuts. (Be careful as the walnuts are wicked hot!) Bake in 350° oven for about 5 minutes until light brown. Allow to cool completely at room temperature then break the pieces apart with your fingers.

In blender container or with stick blender, combine strawberry preserves or jam with 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar. Stream in the olive oil, a little at a time until an emulsion forms. Set aside. When ready to serve, arrange salad greens in a large bowl or platter. Scatter strawberry slices over salad, drizzle with dressing and garnish with the balsamic walnuts.

Notes & Pointers:
Watch the nuts carefully both while simmering in the frying pan and baking in the oven. The high sugar content makes them go from golden brown to burnt in moments. Also be very careful not to touch them until they are completely cool. Caramelized sugar can cause a nasty burn! The walnuts can be made a couple of days before you serve, just be sure to keep them at room temperature in an airtight container. Because of the sugar content, they will draw moisture from the air and get sticky if the container is not well sealed.

When strawberries are out of season, this is also delicious made with cranberries. Use whole berry cranberry sauce instead of strawberry preserves in the dressing and serve with sweetened dried cranberries instead of the strawberries.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Exciting News!!!!

"From Aunt Tina's Kitchen, With Love" is now available as an eBook!!! You should be able to find it for the Apple iPhone or iPad, the Nook, and many other eBook readers. Or go to for a direct link. Enjoy!!!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Peasant Food (A.K.A. Health Food)

The days of believing that a well rounded meal consists of meat, potatoes and a vegetable occupying equal portions of the dinner plate are over. Current scientific evidence keeps reinforcing the new belief that vegetables, fruits and grains should be the predominant sources of nutrition, with lean meats and fish relegated to a supporting role in our diets. We keep reading about the health benefits of the"Mediterranean" diet. As a first generation American born child of Italian immigrant parents, this is a no-brainer! These are the foods I grew up eating, the foods that say home to me, the foods I love. Of course, back when my parents were raising a young family, they were thinking more about how to feed a family of four well on a single salary and less about our future cardiovascular health, but the end result is the same. And in today's economic environment, inexpensive food that is also healthy is the holy grail. Below I offer a recipe which to me epitomizes "peasant food"--Pasta Fagiole.

As with many of my recipes, the variations are endless. Consider it a road map, not a prescription! Any variety of beans that you find tasty will work here (white beans, kidney, pinto, roman, etc.), as will any green veggie that looks good in the market that day (I've used escarole, kale, or, as I explain below, even napa cabbage). You can vary the starch, using whole wheat pasta for a nutritional boost, or even (ignoring the "pasta" part of the name) by substituting brown rice or barley instead. If you absolutely can't stand a totally meatless dish, feel free to sauté up a quarter pound of sausage separately (so you can drain off the fat) or some bits of lean ham and add to the pot just after the carrots, celery, onion and garlic are sautéed. Personally, I take my Fagiole straight meat, just beans, veggies, pasta and a few seasonings. However you vary it, be sure to finish the dish by drizzling a tablespoon or so of best quality extra virgin olive oil over each serving immediately before presentation. The fruitiness of the oil elevates the dish to new heights (and is heart healthy, too).

Pasta & Fagiole
Serves: approximately 6 to 8

3 (15 oz.) cans red kidney beans
3 (15 oz.) cans small white beans
3 (14-1/2 oz.) cans chicken or vegetable stock
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs. fresh rosemary, chopped
3 bay leaves, broken in half
1/2 bunch fresh swiss chard, shredded
1 (16 oz.) package baby spinach
salt & pepper, to taste
12 oz. small pasta (ditalini are nice)

Open all the cans of beans and rinse them well in a colander to remove the thick liquid. Set aside. Combine about 1 can of the white beans with 1 can of stock in a blender and process until liquefied. Set aside. (This thickens up the dish a bit and helps give it a more hearty quality.)

In an 8 quart saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add carrots, celery and onion and sauté until onions are translucent. Add garlic and sauté a minute or two longer, but don't let garlic burn! Add the reserved puréed bean and stock mixture. Reduce heat to low and stir in all remaining ingredients except for pasta. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes; remove bay leaves. At this point you can divide into portions and freeze some of this for later meals. Usually about 1 cup fagiole per person is sufficient. When you're ready to serve, boil about 2 oz. pasta per person in plenty of boiling salted water until just al denté, and stir into bean mixture. If you're serving the whole recipe at once, boil up the 12 ounces of pasta and stir into the fagiole just before serving. Drizzle each portion with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and serve with a crisp green salad and lots of crusty bread.

Notes & Pointers:
This dish freezes beautifully as long as you don't add the pasta. It makes an easy dinner after work. By the way, the photo that tops this post uses napa cabbage in addition to Swiss chard and spinach. As it happened, I had half a head of  cabbage left over from making Pad Thai over the weekend, so I improvised. Still delicious!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Joy of Roasting

When I was growing up (in the 50's and 60's...OMG that was a long time ago!) "cooking" usually referred to food that was braised, sautéed, steamed, or broiled. Except for the occasional holiday turkey or well marbled slab of meat, not too many foods were cooked with dry heat, A.K.A. roasted. Lately, however, it seems, everyone is talking about roasting things other than meats....especially veggies. I tried roasting broccoli for the first time a couple of years ago and was astounded at the interesting and unusually complex favors that the dry heat imparted. The little browned, nay, burned, bits at the ends of the flowerettes are intense, caramelized, crunchy and really delicious! Roasted asparagus or cauliflower are, to me, much more interesting than the boring steamed versions. (To roast any veggie, arrange in a single layer in a shallow pan, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 475 degrees or so until it's cooked to your liking.) The thing about roasting foods is that it gets rid of much of the water, an undesirable result if you're roasting a slab of lean meat, but lovely in a vegetable, since it intensifies the favors. (Of course, if you hate the veggie in question, that may not be a good thing!!!)

Tomatoes are one of the most waterlogged vegetables out there, so roasting is a particularly nice way to prepare them. Below I've combined my new favorite way of cooking tomatoes with one of my all time favorite foods, pasta, to create a Roasted Tomato Sauce. The caramelized onions and the basil are flavorful garnishes, though the pasta with just the sauce is also great.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Serves: 2

1 to 1-1/2 pints grape tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large or 2 medium onions
salt & pepper, to taste
6 oz. penne, or other short cut pasta
fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
Parmegiano or Romano cheese, optional

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with garlic, salt and pepper and roast, tossing occasionally, until tomatoes wilt and begin to brown, probably 15 minutes or so. While the tomatoes are roasting, thinly slice the onions and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper in another shallow baking pan. When the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven and set the pan aside. Turn on the broiler, broil the onions 4 inches from the element and allow them to brown, tossing them every few minutes until all of them are soft and some of them are very brown, nearly burned. Just before the onions are done, put the tomatoes back into the oven on the lower rack for a minute or so just to warm them. Meanwhile, cook pasta and drain well, reserving about a half cup of the starchy pasta cooking liquid. Using blender, puree about 1/3 of the roasted tomatoes until they are almost completely smooth. If necessary, add some pasta cooking water a few tablespoons at a time to make the desired sauce consistency (you probably won't use it all). Toss the puréed tomatoes with the cooked pasta to coat everything with the sauce, divide into individual plates, top with the remaining roasted tomatoes, broiled onions and torn basil leaves and serve.

Notes & Pointers:
Parmegiano or Romano cheese is optional, but I prefer the delicate taste of the roasted tomatoes without it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Quick Meal Sometimes Takes All Day!

I define a "quick meal" as one which cooks quickly start to finish, or, alternatively, one which has only a little hands-on time and spends the next hour(s) merrily cooking away with little or no attention on the part of the cook. A slow cooker takes care of the second option. While I don't have a countertop slow cooker, my oven does have a slow cook setting (which I found out about inadvertently when one of our cats accidentally turned it on). Osso Buco is a particularly flavorful and delicious slow cooked meal. While it is ideal for an elegant dinner party, it's also easy enough for an everyday meal. It's made with the cross cut (usually) veal shanks, a cut which includes a large marrow filled bone in the center.

The hands-on part of the dish requires simply browning the veal shanks well in a combination of butter and olive oil. While that is working, carrot, celery and onions are diced, then added to the pot for a quick sauté. Then everything is covered with white wine, chicken broth and diced tomatoes. It is at this point that the cook's work is done, for the entire thing goes into the slow cooker for the next few hours while the cook gets to decide what to wear for the dinner party, visit with guests, have a glass of wine, whatever. It is also very forgiving as it can cook for three hours or even four or five, only getting more succulent with the passage of time.

Right before you serve the Osso Buco, prepare the gremolata garnish. All that's left to do is cut up some crusty bread and toss a salad. Outstanding!

Osso Buco
Serves: 4

4 thick slices veal shank (about 8 to 12 oz. each)
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 carrot
1 onion
1 stalk celery
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1-14 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained, or 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded & diced
salt & pepper (to taste)
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley

In a stovetop safe crockpot insert or other large pot, heat the butter and oil over high heat until quite hot, but not smoking. Arrange the shanks in a single layer in the pot and allow them to brown well on all sides. (You will know when the bottom is brown when the meat easily releases from the pan. If it sticks, let it cook a few minutes more.) While the meat is browning, dice the carrot, celery and onion. Once the meat is well browned, remove it to a large plate and add the diced veggies to the pan. Sauté them quickly over high heat, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen all the browned bits of meat. When the veggies are tender, stir the wine, chicken stock and tomatoes into the pot, again scraping the bottom to be sure all the browned bits make it into the sauce. Return the shanks (along with any juices which have accumulated) to the pot in a single layer, nestling them into and under the veggies. At this point, the whole thing goes into the slow cooker for the next several hours. If you'll need to serve in only 3 hours or so, set the slow cooker to high. If you have more time, say 4 or 5 hours or even more, set the temp to low. Alternatively, this can be done in a conventional oven at 300 degrees for a couple of hours (if you use a conventional oven, place a piece of parchment paper over the pot before tightly covering with the lid. The extra thickness of the paper will ensure that the lid seals completely and the juices won't evaporate.) When cooked the meat should be falling off the bone. Taste the pan juices and adjust seasoning.

Just before serving, prepare the gremolata; mince together the lemon, garlic and parsley either with a blender, food processor or a sharp chef's knife. Using an extra large spatula or large slotted spoon, carefully transfer each shank to its own deep dinner plate. Spoon the veggies and sauce over and around the meat. Serve each portion of the veal with a spoonful or two of the gremolata sprinkled over the top.

Notes & Pointers:
This is one of those dishes which should really be seasoned right at the end, as there's no way to predict how much the juices will cook down by the end of the cook time. Though classically made with veal shanks, beef shanks can be substituted, but cooking time should be extended by about 25% to allow for the coarser texture of the beef. When serving, provide your guests with demitasse spoons for retrieving the delicious marrow in the center of the bones. This gelatinous morsel is prized for its flavor. While this dish needs no stirring during the slow cook process, you might want to check once to see if you need to add more stock, especially if your slow cook lid isn't particularly well sealed or if you leave it for the longest cook times.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Leftover Makeover

Often by Thursday or Friday night, I find myself with an assortment of leftovers from several different meals, none of which is enough for a dinner. Fortunately, my husband actually likes leftovers. Occasionally we'll have a tasting menu, with half a dozen tiny plates arrayed before us, each holding a couple of tablespoons of something, none of which "go" together. Sometimes, however, I prefer to repackage the same foods in a new form to relieve the boredom of the leftovers. Omelettes fit the bill exactly. You can put practically anything into an omelette, cheeses, meats, veggies, starches, and end up with something new and (hopefully) improved. Here's this week's Thursday night inventory of leftovers:

Few broccoli flowerettes (leftover from our Super Bowl crudités platter)
About 3/4 of a red bell pepper (ditto)
A couple of cups of plain ziti (from a choose-your-own-sauce dinner)
Some broiled onions (from the same dinner)

Here's the process: I diced and quickly sautéed the pepper and broccoli with some olive oil in an oven safe skillet until tender and beginning to brown. I chopped the onions into smaller bits with my chef's knife, so they would distribute more evenly through the eggs and added them to the pan after the rest of the veggies had cooked. I cut the ziti in half (again, so they would combine better) and stirred them in just before adding the beaten eggs, salt and pepper. (I usually use 4 eggs per person for a dinner, but discard 3 of the yolks. I find that the one remaining yolk is enough to make the eggs still taste like eggs, but substantially reduces the fat and cholesterol in the dish. However, use whole eggs or egg whites if that is your preference.) Once the eggs are added, I transfer the skillet to the oven and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until my instant read thermometer reads 160 degrees and everything is lovely and browned. Serve directly from the skillet, or loosen the bottom with a wide metal spatula and carefully invert onto a platter for serving.

Notes & Pointers
In this case, the peppers and onions were very flavorful, so I wanted them to be the predominant taste. If my fridge was harboring veggies that were more bland (like spinach, eggplant or peas), I might add some crumbled feta, grated extra sharp cheddar or even a sprinkle of Romano or Parmegianno cheese (all of which I always have in my freezer) to liven it up. If I had leftover rice or potatoes, I would use that instead of pasta (if I have no leftover starch, I quickly microwave a potato or two until barely done, dice and sauté in the pan until brown before adding the remaining veggies). Leftover herbs would add a ton of flavor, either mixed into the beaten eggs or sprinkled over top of the cooked dish. Bits of bacon, ham, sausage, chicken or other meats would be lovely additions. Pretty much anything Mom tells me that her mother used to make Omelettes with leftover spaghetti including the tomato sauce....I haven't tried that yet, but one of these days I will....I'll keep you posted!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Look! Up On the Table....It's a Side Dish! It's a Meal! It's RISOTTO!

I love having recipes which are adaptable to changing needs....that can be molded to fit the requirements of the day or the moment, or varied according to seasonal ingredients or to whatever leftovers are threatening to go south in my fridge. Risotto is a prime example of such a recipe. At its most basic, it is a hearty, delicious, comforting and elegant side dish. But the real beauty of this easy workhorse recipe is that it can morph into a main course with only a few variations. The basic recipe can be made with any kind of flavorful stock, chicken, beef, veggie, seafood or even plain water if you have no stock handy. The cheese that finishes the dish can be Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, Grana Padano, or even a combination.

Various meats or seafoods can be added to enrich the rice as can many different kinds of vegetables. Some of my favorite variations are listed below the recipe, in the Notes & Pointers section but these are only the beginning! Let your creativity soar. If you have any other leftover cooked vegetables or meats, stir them will be delicious!

Don't be intimidated by the thought that the rice must be attended each and every minute. All told it should take about 20 to 30 minutes to cook the rice to the al dente stage (still with a tiny bite in the center of the grains) but you don't have to be a slave to the occasional stir every 3 or 4 minutes when you add another half cup or so of stock will do the trick. The additions should be fully cooked before being stirred into the risotto during the last minute or two of cooking, just to heat through. All you need to complete the meal is a crisp green salad.

Serves: 4 to 6 (or more, depending on the additions)

1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 cups arborio rice
5 or more cups hot beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese

Over medium-low heat, sauté onion in butter or oil until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice to the pan and sauté for an additional few minutes or until the rice looks opaque around the edges. Keep the stock hot in another saucepan and add it to the rice a half cup at a time, stirring every few minutes over medium-low heat. Wait until each half cup of stock is completely absorbed by the rice before adding more. Stir frequently until the rice is just barely cooked. If you run out of stock before the rice is cooked, it’s OK to add a bit of plain water at the end. When the rice is cooked, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese and serve immediately.

Notes & Pointers:
The frequent stirring makes the rice very creamy. Traditionally risotto is made with arborio rice which is a short grain, very starchy rice, but regular long grain rice seems to work fine in a pinch; just don’t use converted rice which has had most of the starch removed.

For one delicious variation, prepare roasted vegetables as follows before you start the risotto:

2 lbs. of the following in any combination: red & green peppers, zucchini, yellow squash,
    eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, red onion, all cut into 1 inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2 Tbs. olive oil
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. Prepare risotto as usual, then stir roasted veggies in a few minutes before rice is cooked. Taste for seasoning…you may want to add a bit more cheese.

Another option is to add bits of cooked ham along with some green peas (frozen peas are just fine). Sautéed shrimp is another way to go. Or add the grated rind and juice of one or two lemons (to taste) just before rice is cooked for a lovely Lemon Risotto.