Perfect Appetizer: Spinach and Fontina Bruschetta

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This one's courtesy of Miss Italian herself, Giada de Laurentiis. I caught her show one afternoon while folding laundry, saw this recipe, and promptly went out to buy the spinach and fontina to make it. It was delicious and just perfect for a snack while in holiday hell right now if you're like me, or as an appetizer for dinner or any upcoming holiday cocktail parties. The green is super festive, the preparation is very simple and easy, and most importantly it's delicious. You'll love. Even the kids ate it and Little Boy hates spinach (but haha! he likes cheese so I fooled him! muahahaha!)

Spinach and Fontina Bruschetta
2 bunches fresh spinach
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + more for bread
1 large garlic clove (for bread) + 1 small garlic clove (for spinach saute)
pinch red pepper flakes
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf chiabatta bread
1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the bread into 1/2" thick slices and set on a baking sheet. Brush or drizzle with olive oil on top side, then place in oven and toast until top is golden brown, about 7-10 minutes (keep an eye on it!) Remove from oven and set aside. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.  While the bread is still warm but cool enough to touch, take the large garlic clove and rub the tops of each slice of bread.

Take the spinach and cut off the stems, leaving the tender leaves to work with. Place all the leaves in a large bowl (or plug up your sink) and cover with cold water. Let soak for 10 minutes -- this will loosen and remove any sand or dirt still on the leaves. Take and rinse out in coliander -- better, spin in a salad spinner. Set aside.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a saute pan on low heat. Roughly chop the smaller clove of garlic and add it to the oil along with the red pepper flakes. Cook on low heat for 4-5 minutes to infuse the flavors into the oil; hotter heat will burn the garlic and flakes. Add the spinach all at once, season with a good pinch of salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Don't worry if the amount of spinach looks massive -- it will cook down considerably in minutes into almost nothing. Once spinach is nice and wilted down, cover with lid and cook on low heat 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust seasoning to taste. Set aside.

To assemble the bruschetta, take the spinach and portion out on each slice of bread. Top with some cheese, then return back to the 350 degree oven to melt the cheese a little, about 5-10 minutes. Serve hot.

Oven-Poached Salmon with Lemon and Capers and "Ancient Lentils"

This is a very flavorful and healthy quick weeknight meal that's easy to prepare and just packed with flavor and good-for-you stuff. Salmon is drizzled with olive oil and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, then topped with slices of fresh lemon and briny capers and baked in an aluminum foil bag. The steam in the bag gently cooks the salmon, creating a very moist piece of fish and all the juices are concentrated in the bag, creating an instant sauce. Fresh thyme rounds out the flavor profile. It's bright, it's healthy, it's light and delicious and can be paired with any side dish.

This time however I was really feeling lentils. Salmon and lentils are a classic pairing -- usually lentils are cooked with carrots, celery, and onion in the classical French way and salmon is quickly pan-seared for a crispy texture. I love it and make that dish as well, but this time I needed something a little lower maintenance. So I used a old recipe for lentils from Ancient Rome -- lentils simply braised with onion and garlic, salt (they would have used this anchovy paste for salt but we'll just use kosher here!), pepper, and a bay leaf. It's quite simple and simply delicious.

Oven-Poached Salmon with Lemon and Capers
4 fillets salmon, skin on or off (up to you), washed and patted dry on all sides
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced thinly
4-6 fresh sprigs of thyme (or about 1/2 tsp dried)
1 Tbsp capers, drained from juice

special equipment:  aluminum foil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take out 4 sheets of aluminum foil, about 16" long or so. You want them long enough to enclose the salmon easily and still leave a little bit of room for air to steam inside. In the center of one sheet, place a piece of salmon. Drizzle the salmon generously with the olive oil -- about 1-2 Tbsp's worth depending on the size of your fish -- and season with salt and pepper. Add a couple of lemon slices right on top, a sprig or two of thyme (you can leave the thyme whole or pick the leaves off as I did in the picture), and the capers. Make a "bag" by taking the two long pieces of foil and meeting them above the salmon -- roll them together until fused. Take one end of the foil bag and press the foil together to seal one side, and repeat on the other. You want a perfectly enclosed "bag" at the end with a little room at the top for steam. It's vital you seal the seams on the sides and top very well so the steam doesn't escape; otherwise you'll overcook the fish and the liquid can seep out the sides.

Place the bag o'salmon on a baking sheet, and repeat with remaining ingredients until you have 4 prepared bags (or however many you're doing). Place in oven and bake 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish and doneness you desire. For example, a typical store-bought fillet is around 3/4" thick -- for restaurant doneness cook for 15 minutes; for a firmer, more well-done fish cook 20 minutes. If the fillet is thicker than 3/4" inch, add a couple of minutes to your liking; if thinner then cook around 10 minutes...etc.

Remove and carefully make a slit in the top of the bag to let the steam out. Then open the bag and serve either as is, right on the plate in the bag, or remove the fish with a spatula onto a plate and then pour the sauce from the bag on top of the fish.

Ancient Lentils
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small white onion, chopped small
3 large garlic cloves, roughly minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup brown lentils
1 turkish bay leaf
2 cups water or broth (chicken, vegetable, beef)

Heat olive oil in a pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add salt and pepper to taste, then the lentils and cook another 2 minutes to "toast" them. Add the bay leaf and water or broth and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Once boiling, reduce heat back down to medium, and stirring occasionally, let lentils cook about 15-20 minutes until plump and tender, uncovered. Ideally you'd like the liquid to be absorbed. If you find the liquid has been absorbed too quickly and the lentils are still tough, add more liquid until the lentils get done.

Cook lentils to desired doneness. Ancient Romans would cook them to the point where they were easily mushed, then would take a spoon and beat them by hand until some of them got pureed a little. Or, keep them more al dente (modern preference). Drizzle a little more olive oil before serving, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot or warm.

Winter Appetizer: Braised Kale and White Bean Bruschetta

Thursday, December 8, 2011

If you haven't tried kale yet it's a must. So incredibly flavorful, the bitter green becomes slightly sweet and nutty when quickly pan-braised and the fact it's just filled with vitamins and minerals and is so good for you, makes you love it even more. People often go for the milder tasting spinach -- nothing wrong with that -- but I encourage you to explore the other leafy greens at the market as well. Mustard greens, collard greens, kale, chards that come in an array of gorgeous colors are simply delicious and so good for you. And now with winter upon us, they're in season and tasting their best!

I combine bitter kale with garlic and olive oil, then braise it quickly right in the pan with some vegetable stock. At the end I add butter cannelloni beans, and top toasted baguette slices with the mixture. The final touch -- sharp grated pecorino-romano cheese, but parmesan works just as well.

This is a wonderfully easy and flavorful appetizer I make often in winter. It's perfect for holiday cocktail parties, a date night at home with glass of wine, or as an appetizer for a dinner party meal. It's very low maintenance and comes together literally in 20 minutes, start to finish, and can easily be adapted to serve more or less people.

Enjoy and here's looking forward to the first snow!

Braised Kale and Cannelloni Bean Bruschetta        serves 4-6 people
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + more for brushing bread slices
1/3 cup white onion, chopped very small
2 large cloves garlic, minced + 1 large clove to rub on toasted bread
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves roughly chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup or so of vegetable (or chicken) broth
1/2 can cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
1 french baguette, sliced into 1/2" thick slices on the bias
grated pecorino-romano cheese for garnish

Preheat broiler. Lay out the bread slices on a baking sheet and brush the tops with olive oil. Set aside.

Heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan (one with a lid). Add the onion and cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the kale all at once -- it will crackle and pop -- and season with salt and pepper. Gently coat the kale with the onion-garlic mixture to help it wilt down. Don't be offended at the amount of kale -- it will wilt down like spinach into nothing very soon. Cook kale about 3 minutes or until it softens, and then add the broth. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Stir and cook kale another 5 minutes with the cover off so the liquid can be absorbed. Add the beans and toss to combine. Taste and adjust with seasonings to taste. Turn off heat, cover with lid, and toast the bread.

Place the bread slices in the oven and toast until tops are golden brown, about 3-4 minutes depending on the strength of your broiler. Don't walk away -- they will toast up very quickly!

Remove the bread and quickly rub each slice with the garlic clove while still hot. Set out the slices on a platter and top each with the kale mixture. Then give a generous sprinkling of the cheese on each slice and serve. Can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature but hot or warm tastes the best.

Make Ahead Tip:
You can make the kale mixture up to a few hours in advance of a party. Simply reheat on low heat in a pan on the stove before ready to serve, and toast the bread right before you plan to serve it.

Holiday Breakfast: Swedish Pancakes Two Ways

Monday, December 5, 2011

I love Swedish pancakes. "Love" actually doesn't even begin to describe how I feel about them. Adore, treasure, obsessed are actually more accurate. They are such perfection -- so light and fluffy and delicate, a subtle sweetness in flavor that melts in your mouth. They're the opposite of spongy pancakes, or flat-as-a-board tortillas. They are, in a word, my favorite.

They are also shockingly easy to make. If you have the right tools. A good non-stick pan is a must for swedish pancakes. Butter to grease the pan each and every time will give you a perfectly formed cake without breaking the delicate lattice borders, and a simple batter that comes together in seconds can transform an otherwise boring breakfast into one fit for any special occasion.

version 1: traditional style served with lingonberry jam on the side
I base my recipe off of my good friend Chandra's recipe from her mother, a real authentic Swede herself. I add a twist by adding a small dash of vanilla to the batter for festive holiday aroma, and serve them two ways: some with traditional tart lingonberry jam whose color in particular is just perfect for the holiday season; and, an Italian twist for us Italians/Eastern Europeans, our other obsessions also known as Nutella.

version 2: using nutella

These pancakes will sure to delight any holiday breakfast and are perfect to whip up quickly on Christmas morning. I know you'll enjoy them as much as I do. Happy Holidays everyone!

Swedish Pancakes Two Ways
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
4 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 stick of unsalted butter -- for pan (you won't use all of it)
powdered sugar for dusting
lingonberry jam

special equipment: medium-sized non-stick pan

Whisk together the flour, eggs, milk, vanilla, and salt in a bowl. The consistency will be like very thin pancake batter. Set aside.

Preheat your nonstick pan on medium heat (I've found a level 5 out of 1-10 is perfect on my own range). Take the butter and holding one end with your hands, apply the other end to the pan, coating completely the bottom of the pan. You'll see the butter will begin to brown -- this is good and what you want -- it will help create that coveted lattice pattern on the edges. Ladle some of the batter into the pan. You want enough batter to thinly coat the entire bottom of the pan; too much batter and your pancakes will be a little thick, like a tortilla; too thin and they'll not be large enough. Take the pan with your hand and quickly swirl the batter around to help it coat the bottom evenly. Place on the stovetop and cook 1-2 minutes, until firm and you can pick it up with the spatula. Then gently loosen the sides of the pancake around the perimeter first with a rubber spatula. Then gently loosen the bottom, and pick it up, quickly flipping it over to cook the other side another 1-2 minutes.

Slide the pancake off onto a plate or working surface and place the pan back on the heat to rewarm for the next pancake. While it heats and working very quickly, fold over the cooked cake in half, then again to create the classic triangle shape. Set aside and repeat process with the batter until you've made your cakes.

To serve, lay out the pancakes in a decorative pattern either per plate or on a serving platter. Dust with a very generous dusting of powdered sugar and serve.

To serve with linonberry jam, add the jam on the side.

If making the nutella version, you'll have to spoon some of the nutella onto the pancake during the folding process: fold the large cake in half, then spread out some nutella (about a good tablespoon is fine), then fold the cake back over to create the triangle shape. Then dust finished nutella cakes with powdered sugar and serve.

These are best served piping hot, so it helps if you have an extra pair of hands in the kitchen -- one to cook the cakes while the other folds and serves (and stuffs if doing nutella). A garnish of fresh strawberries are also lovely.

*You can find lingonberry jam in the jam section of your grocery store. If you can't find it, Ikea actually puts out a really good version (not even kidding!)

**You can find nutella in the peanut butter section of the market. If you're up for an even more incredible pancake, add some thinly sliced banana to the nutella ones and a very small pinch of ground cinnamon on top. It's amazing.

Simple Thanksgiving Appetizers and Desserts

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Apologies for postings being fewer and farther between as of late. I too am getting ready for the start of the holiday season. But this year finds me in a predicament, because given my pregnancy condition, I need to take it really easy for Thanksgiving festivities. Normally I do a huge spread, but this year I have to scale down a little bit and be smarter about what I serve. The result? Super tasty, seasonal foods that will surely delight that are fun and easy to make. Here are my tips.


It seems almost silly for such a feast day to include appetizers, but they're a must and I'll tell you why. First, Thanksgiving is a whole day affair for most people, not one isolated 2 hour involved dinner. So as guests come in and out, lounge about the TV to watch football, or mingle while you're prepping in the kitchen, you have to keep them occupied. Think of appetizers on Thanksgiving as more a distraction so you can have time to put together the meal. Or, if you're not into the whole turkey dinner, you can make a day out of it simply from a bunch of great appetizers! Either way, have at least one thing out for guests to munch on so they don't get wasted on cocktails but be careful not to overdo it either; the star of the show is still the bird later!

Here are some tips for super easy to prepare appetizers you can throw together last minute or even prepare a week before. They're still elegant and festive, but no one will know you didn't slave away to make these too.

Puff Pastry is your best friend.
There's something so fancy pants about hot, flaky, buttery pastry dough. You can make your own (like if you're on Top Chef), but most of us will buy the premade sheets conveniently found in the freezer section of your local grocery store (they're usually near the desserts, pies, etc.). You can do a lot with puff pastry. The basics I like to do is squares, pockets, or pinwheels.
  • To do squares, you simply take the defrosted puff pastry and gently roll it out. Then crimp the sides of the pastry rectangle upwards, creating a wall. Then take whatever filling you like and spread it in the middle (the borders help keep the filling inside). Bake in the oven until pastry is puffed and golden (usually about 15 minutes) and then cut into squares.
  • To do pockets or triangles, simply cut the pastry dough into squares. Fill the middle of each square with a little of your filling, then using an eggwash gently moisten the borders of each square. Fold the square over itself (and over the filling) creating a triangle shape. Brush the tops with more eggwash and bake until puffed and golden.
  • Pinwheels are very easy to do. Simply roll out your dough and place the filling in one even layer, leaving about 3/4" inch of pastry border along the whole rectangle. Then starting from one side, gently roll the pastry onto itself, and continue rolling into a log. Pinch the sides a little and slice the log crosswise into 3/4-1" pieces. You'll see each piece will look like a pinwheel. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes.
The trick with puff pastry is to (a) defrost it properly -- overnight in the fridge is best or on the counter for an hour; (b) keep your fillings simple, and (c) use parchment paper on the baking sheets. The fillings you can use are endless, anywhere from a cheese souffle to confit of duck to wild mushrooms to caramelized onions. The key is not to use a saucy filling because it will make the pastry soggy. And the beauty of using puff pastry is that flaky crust. These are great appetizers because they can be made weeks in advance then kept frozen. When you're guests are ready to arrive, simply throw some in a preheated oven and you're done! They're also great to have on hand in case you have extra visitors you weren't anticipating, and need more food!

Smoked fish is an easy "help yourself" appetizer for guests.
Yes, I said fish. For Thanksgiving we often get so consumed with the turkey, we forget what was actually served at the real Thanksgiving! Fish! Being so close to seaside, you bet they feasted on various shellfish and probably cod or bass. You can take a note from history and offer some smoked varieties for your appetizer table. Simple smoked salmon is always a crowd favorite, or for more authenticity try smoked haddock or other fish in oil. Yes, canned food if bought right can be quite tasty. Serve with slices of good bread. If doing smoked salmon, I like thinly sliced pumpernickel bread the best. You can also whip up a super fast chive creme fraiche -- simply combine creme fraiche (or in a pinch sour cream) with a little lemon juice, small pinch of salt (remember the fish is already salty!), freshly ground black pepper, and some finely chopped chives. Place all the components on a platter and let your guests help themselves!

This year I'm merging two cuisines I love for Thanksgiving: Pacific Northwest meets Southern. And one of my appetizers will be a Pac NW style smoked salmon (it's flaky) with the above-mentioned bread and chive sauce. But you can do anything you like, from smoked mussels to even sardines. It will be a crowd-pleasing appetizer that will surprise your guests, and even get conversations going about the original Thanksgiving.

Figs are not only seasonal, but present so beautifully and are tasty too!
bleu cheeses. I take the sweet-savory step a bit further, and stuff sliced figs with roquefort or gorgonzola, then wrap them in bacon and roast in the oven for 10 minutes until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is melted. The combination is incredible, and goes with any cocktail. These stuffed figs also give a sense of the season, and are so beautiful on a plate. Everyone loves these. I'll be doing them this year again.

If you can't find figs, you can substitute with dates. I like using Medjool dates because they are the largest. Simple cut each date in half, remove the seed, stuff with cheese, wrap and roast at 375 for about 10 minutes until bacon is done. These will fly off the platter!

Fancy nuts are always great, especially if you're planning a cocktail hour!
I confess, I'm a fan of the mixed roasted nuts. Like the bulk ones from Costco. Look -- they just get the job done, ok? But for a holiday, I like to make it a little more special. Try getting specialty nuts like marcona almonds for a change. They are to die for and everyone will enjoy them. Or, spruce up a regular nut. Like Ina Garten's idea to take cashews and flavor them with rosemary. Simply take the nuts and place in a dry saute pan (this means no oil because the nuts will release their own oils). Heat on medium-low heat, and add salt (if not salted already) and fresh herbs. Rosemary is really great. Stir constantly in the pan to prevent burning. Once you can smell the nuts and the herbs, it's ready and promptly transfer it out of the pan and into a serving dish (leaving them in will burn them!) You can add a spicy kick buy adding cayenne pepper. Or do a southwestern flare with chile powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and some ground cumin.

The proverbial cheese ball feeds a crowd and can be done days in advance.
Oh yes I did...I said cheese ball. Look, as horrendous as it looks, it feeds a crowd. And when you're having a more casual Thanksgiving or one where football is being watched for hours before the feast, this might be a good bet to have on hand. The cheese ball involves a mixture of cheeses, formed into a ball, then usually rolled in nuts and served with crackers and a knife for self-service. You can make the classic cream cheese-cheddar-rolled in almonds-ball, or you can make it more gourmet. Try a combination of cream cheese, gorgonzola cheese, and a little honey mixed together into a ball, then rolled in toasted chopped pecans or walnuts for a treat.

The classic, the favorite, simple freshly baked bread with good butter.
Yes, I'm dead serious. Still, there is nothing that beats the comfort and taste of freshly baked, right out of the oven bread. A loaf placed at the appetizer table sliced and served with good European style butter is always a favorite, for adult and kid alike. You can make your own bread from scratch, or buy a really good quality loaf from your local baker or store like sourdough or oat grain. Warm it in your oven right before guests arrive, then slice a few beginning slices. Place the slices and loaf with the bread knife on a bread board, along with the butter and let everyone help themselves. I love how rustic and earthy this extremely easy appetizer is, and everyone will enjoy its simplicity and comfort as well.


The other hard part of Thanksgiving is the desserts. Often the desserts take more effort and time than the entire Thanksgiving main meal! If you're overwhelmed this year or just simply don't want to dip into the dessert pool, you have options to dress up ready made desserts or put together with minimal effort quick bake breads and turn them into delicious sweet endings to the feast.

Cranberry Cheesecake

You can dress up any store-bought cheesecake for any occasion, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Purchase your favorite cheesecake from the store or bakery. Then make a cranberry compote to place on top. This recipe from Emeril Lagasse is wonderful. Simply spread the cranberry compote over the cheesecake and serve. Your guests will think you've slaved away all day for it!

Caramel Apples
I saw this recently on a posting from hostess with the mostess for a Thanksgiving-themed dessert table and thought, "wow, that's one of those 'duh' desserts that makes total sense and why aren't we doing this more often?!" Who doesn't love a caramel apple? It's a riff on the classic apple pie, a Thanksgiving favorite, that's far less maintenance. You can make them yourself, or better yet buy them from candy stores. You can either set them on each guest's place setting with a cute note attached, and even decorate your whole table around the apple theme, or set them out on a beautiful silver platter and bring them in "turkey style." By this, I mean I love the pomp and circumstance of The Presentation of The Turkey. You can hit the same note in a fun and casual way buy doing the same thing with these apples for dessert! It will get a good laugh and everyone will be so excited to eat them.

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches
Take this super easy box mix from Williams Sonoma for pumpkin spice cookies and bake as directed. Get a good quality vanilla ice cream and form sandwiches. Voila! Kids (and adults) are beyond pleased for dessert. Consider it an easier version of the more labor-intensive pumpkin pie, with a super fun and casual twist!

Cider Doughnuts
Get help by simply purchasing cider doughnuts from your local doughnut shop! Everyone loves ending a feast like Thanksgiving with coffee or cocoa or better yet, a hot cup of mulled cider! What better to go with a piping hot beverage than doughnuts?! They're not just for breakfast, and again will surprise and delight your guests, especially if you have kids coming.

Pumpkin Bread with Orange Scented Whipped Cream
One of my all time favorite things from Williams Sonoma is their pumpkin bread mix. It's super easy to put together and tastes incredible. You can dress up a fancy bread dessert by simply baking this bread as directed, then serving it with freshly whipped cream. To do the cream, simply pour some very cold heavy whipping cream (it has to be cold!) into a chilled bowl (stainless steel works best if you've got it). Then either with a handheld mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a standing mixer fitted with its whisk attachment, begin whipping the cream on high speed until stiff peeks form. Add a little bit of vanilla extract and some freshly grated orange zest at the end, whip another minute to combine, and serve a dollop of the cream on a slice of the bread. Garnish with a sprinkle of finely grated nutmeg or cinnamon.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Although I'm usually a fan of From Scratch foods, even I have to be humbled that sometimes it just can't be that complicated and fancy. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and take a shortcut. Hope these help and Happy Thanksgiving!

Autumn Side Dish: Butternut Squash Lasagna

Friday, November 11, 2011

I love this recipe for a few reasons. First, It's really delicious. Second, it prepares easily and in advance, making it perfect for an upcoming busy weeknight dinner or even Thanksgiving. And thirdly, the colors and flavors and textures are very, very "fall."

Using sweet butternut squash and then roasting it along with garlic adds not only more caramelized sweetness, but an earthiness as well. To balance out the sweetness, I use sage and thyme, a pinch of nutmeg (or mace), then a combination of pecorino romano cheese and nutty gruyere. The creamy bechamel sauce brings it all together. The prep time can be a little daunting in the sense you have a multi-step process, but you can cut corners by using no-boil lasagna noodles and pre-cubed butternut squash. You can even find shredded gruyere cheese now in some stores. Enjoy.

Butternut Squash Lasagna
for the butternut squash filling:
1 (1 1/2 lb) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2" thick cubes
3 Tbsp olive oil + more for puree
1 small white onion, chopped small
4 cloves roasted garlic*
about 3 sage leaves (more or less to taste)
about 3 stems fresh thyme, leaves picked off (more or less to taste), OR 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
pinch of nutmeg or ground mace (about 1/4 tsp or to taste)

for the bechamel sauce:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups half n half
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese
1 cup shredded gruyere cheese

for the lasagna:
no-boil lasagna noodles -- or lasagna noodles par-boiled according to package instructions
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare the butternut squash filling first. Take the butternut squash and place in a large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on top, then season with some salt and pepper. Gently toss the squash until coated. Layer out on a large baking sheet (you may need to use two) and roast in oven about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and bottom is starting to caramelize. Once done, remove and set aside.

While the butternut squash is roasting, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onion and season with some salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat about 10 minutes, until softened and just beginning to caramelize. Set aside.

Combine the butternut squash, sauteed onions, roasted garlic, herbs, nutmeg, and a little drizzle of olive oil in a food processor. Process until smooth. Add a little more olive oil if needed to get a smooth but still thick consistency. Taste and adjust with seasonings to taste. This can be done up to 3 days in advance.

To prepare the bechamel sauce, simply melt the butter in a saucepan. When completely melted, add the flour all at once and immediately begin whisking. Cook on medium-low heat about 4 minutes in order to cook the raw flour taste out, but be careful not to burn the flour! Add the half n half, a little at a time, whisking as you add until all is incorporated into the roux (the butter-flour mixture, which helps thicken the sauce). Switch to a wooden spoon, add some salt and pepper to your taste, and cook until sauce has thickened a little, about 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and add the romano and gruyere cheese. Stir until the cheeses are melted in (the heat from the sauce should be enough to melt them, but if you have stubborn cheese, return the pot back to the burner on low heat to help it melt faster). Set aside.

To assemble the lasagna, butter or spray the bottom of a lasagna or casserole dish. Ladle enough of the sauce to cover the bottom of the dish. Add a layer of the lasagna noodles, then drizzle a little more sauce on top. Spread out some of the butternut squash puree, then top with more sauce. Then another layer of noodles, then sauce, then butternut squash, etc. until you end with a final layer of noodles and enough sauce to completely cover this top noodle layer. How many layers you will do will depend on the dish you've chosen to cook it in; you can have two layers of butternut squash or up to four even, so you'll have to gage it with your eye when assembling. Top the lasagna with the shredded mozzarella, then take the butter and "dot" small pieces all over the top. Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil (or if your dish has a corresponding top to use) and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes or until top has browned.

Note: if you're using par-boiled lasagna noodles you won't have to cook it as long; the above cooking time is based on using the no-boil lasagna sheets!

Let stand 5 minutes before cutting and serve.

Goes very well with turkey, roasted pork loin, roasted chicken, or by itself with a side of roasted brussels sprouts or roasted shallots.

*You can find already roasted garlic cloves at the supermarket now, usually in the salad kit section. If you can't find them or don't have time to go, simply take fresh garlic cloves and peel them, then toss them in the olive oil right along with the butternut squash. When you layer out the squash onto the baking sheet however, make sure you place the cloves on the top of the squash so they won't burn; they'll burn if they touch the base of the baking sheet!

Kitchen Basics: Baking Soda v. Baking Powder....The Mystery Revealed!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

They're both white. They're both used in baking. And they both look like crack. But often we have no idea which is which, and why we use one versus the other in recipes, or even more confusing, the times we have to use both! With holiday baking rapidly coming upon us like ants on a picnic, I jumped at the chance to write a posting about it at my good friend Chandra's suggestion. So, here we go!

Baking Soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate. This is fancy pants AP chemistry class lingo for "salt with stuff in it." In fact, the natural appearance of baking soda is more like kosher salt, but often it's ground up into a powder form that we all are familiar with. Specifically, it includes the combination of the chemical compound known as nitrate and sodium carbonate, which is effectively limestone. Sodium carbonate (basically a naturally occurring salt found in rock, plants, etc.) has been and is continued to be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from cooking to softening water in washing machines to aiding taxidermists in taking flesh off of skulls in the needless preservation of killed animals. But when combined with the compound nitrate, it becomes a cooking tool, so we'll just focus on that for now.

notice the sandier texture of baking soda

Sodium bicarbonate or baking soda in cooking is used as a leavening agent. This means, when added to stuff it helps the stuff rise. So this is why we use it in baking and not in savory cooking. Basically it reacts with the acid in your baking ingredients. So when your recipe calls for ingredients like buttermilk, yogurt, cocoa powder, vinegar, cream of tartar, coffee, etc. the acid in these ingredients will react with the baking soda to let the batter rise by way of releasing carbon dioxide. When you place the batter in the oven, the hot temperature activates the reaction, and the the air created from the carbon dioxide adds mass to the stuff you're cooking.

So basically baking soda when working with other acidic ingredients makes your stuff get bigger and puff up in the oven, which is what you're looking for when you're making cakes and stuff.

Now it gets complicated...

Baking powder is basically baking soda with extra acid added to it, then ground up into a powder form. Why would we need to add extra acid to baking soda you may ask? Well, what if you don't have easy access to more "expensive" ingredients like buttermilk, yogurt, oranges (orange juice is obviously an acid and was a rather luxurious commodity back in the day) or even cream of tartar (also considered a lower level acid)? Now you get to use baking powder to make your cakes, scones, and muffins and biscuits. The way baking powder works is all you need is flour, eggs, flavorings (spices, etc.), liquid (often plain milk) and the baking powder to make your batter or dough rise. So it affords you more options, which is why you'll see more often than not that baking powder is included in recipes instead of baking soda, unless you're specifically working with OJ or buttermilk, etc. that require the use of baking soda.

Baking powder works the exact same way -- the added acid to the powder combines with the other ingredients to create carbon dioxide, which in turn creates mass and volume when heat is applied.

baking powder has a more powdery appearance, like flour
Now, does this mean you can never use baking powder when working with other acids like buttermilk or yogurt? Absolutely not. What happens is you need to adjust the amounts. So if you have a recipe or are fiddling with a batter that has buttermilk in it and you're shit out of luck and only have baking powder to work with, simply reduce the strength of the baking powder by half. If you don't, you're doubling up on the the acid in the batter/dough, which will create a metallic or acidic taste after baking.

Another big difference between the two is timing. Baking soda reacts instantly to the liquid acid in the batter, so you need to mix it all, throw it in the pan, and get it in the preheated oven immediately before it begins to lose it's leavening power. If you don't, it won't rise properly in the oven and look weird. Baking powder on the other hand has a longer life -- you can let the batter sit for up to 20 minutes before putting it in the oven. In fact, some recipes may even call for you to do so. And you will notice when working with baking powder, it will begin to puff up and thicken if you leave it out before filling your cupcake tins or what have you. So for this reason many people prefer the kindness of baking powder's longevity.

To complicate things even further, some recipes calls for both baking powder and baking soda. WTF would you need to use both, if both of them are doing the same exact thing the same exact way? Turns out there is a method to the madness...

One teeny tiny caveat to using baking soda is sometimes baking soda by itself isn't enough to handle the work. Remember, baking soda puffs up the stuff you're working with, but it also neutralizes the acid from the other ingredients you're using. So it raises your batter/dough at the same time it balances out the flavors for you. Now, sometimes the ingredient you're using may be a little too acidic. Hello freshly squeezed orange juice or lemon juice! When the acid in certain ingredients are simply too overpowering, there's not enough oompf in the baking soda alone to lift the batter; all the energy is going to neutralizing the acid. So, baking powder joins forces with baking soda, so one can do the neutralizing and one can do the heavy lifting. And together they make cake.

This is why it's very important to read your recipes carefully when baking. Measurements need to be exact; a little too much of this will throw the balance off of that. And with baking unfortunately and unlike savory cooking, you can't taste as you go; you need to wait until the finished product to see if you fucked up or not. Which is why I personally hate baking cakes and all of it. But, with a little knowledge and research, you can make the call for a good recipe and one leading you down the path of disaster.

A couple of other notes to close...

These are considered "active" ingredients. They're ALIVE!!!!! You're basically using baking soda and/or powder in place of yeast (also alive) when baking. So you have to make sure they're not dead. To do this, simply pay attention to your expiration date -- if it's expired it's done, don't even try to push it like you do with the milk or yogurt a few days after. Second, you can take a tablespoon of the stuff and dissolve it in water -- if it bubbles or fizzes then it's alive and ready to use; if it duds it's dead.

Before any period of intense baking coming up like now, I just go out and buy a new container of each to be on the safe side.

In terms of the acidic compounds you should know commonly used in baking, they include (but are not limited to):
  • buttermilk
  • sour cream
  • yogurt
  • citrus juice -- orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, etc.
  • cocoa powder -- EXCEPT for Dutch unprocessed
  • chocolate
  • vinegar
  • honey
  • molasses
  • brown sugar (because it includes molasses in it)
  • maple syrup
  • fruit juices -- strawberry puree for example, canned peach, nectars, etc.
The reason I give you this list is to double check the recipes you're working with. Make sure the adjustment for baking powder has been made. Well, first make sure that if you're working with the ingredeints, baking powder is included someone in there! And if not, skip the recipe and try something else.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the differences between the two, and it helps decipher some confusion among baking recipes and making treats this holiday season. Happy baking!

Date Night: Butternut Squash Risotto with Spicy Shrimp

Friday, November 4, 2011

I love this dish.

I love the fall color from the butternut squash. I love the rich aromatic flavor of the saffron. I love the creaminess of the risotto. And the spiciness from the shrimp. It's warm and comforting as the nights grow darker and colder, the bright orange color from the sweet roasted butternut squash just reminding you with every bite how special this time of year is.

Risotto can be funky -- it's one of those "labor of love" dishes that requires constant attention. This is not a dish to throw together and then go busy yourself with other things. The good news is it's pretty easy to make and comes together quickly enough (around 30 minutes start to finish) so although it looks complicated, it's actually not. And it tastes so divine.

I used Ina Garten's recipe for butternut squash risotto as a starting point here but took it a few steps further. First, I kept the risotto restrained and caramelized the onions for a deep, rich flavor that's irresistible. Second, I paired the delicate sweetness of the butternut squash against a more aggressively spicy shrimp by using smoked paprika and cayenne pepper for a balanced "bite" to cut against the sweetness. The combination was incredible and truly a perfect dish. I used chicken broth for the whole thing, but if you're up for it you can sub 1/4 cup of the broth out with some white wine for even more flavor. But using chicken stock completely doesn't lose flavor at all. Enjoy and happy fall everyone!

Butternut Squash Risotto with Spicy Shrimp
for the risotto:
1 cup butternut squash, peeled and seeded, then cut into cubes (about 1/2 of a smaller butternut squash)
1 Tbsp olive oil for squash + 1 Tbsp for risotto, divided
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp saffron threads
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup arborio rice
3 cups chicken stock or broth (or 2 3/4 cups broth and 1/4 cup white wine)
2 heaping Tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese
finely chopped chives for garnish

for the shrimp:
1/2 lbs raw peeled and deveined shrimp -- extra large size
1 Tbsp olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
pinch of smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the cubed butternut squash in a bowl with the tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper to taste. Layer out on a baking sheet and roast in oven until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Set aside. This can be done even a day in advance.

While the butternut squash roasts, prep your shrimp. Wash the shrimp well and pat dry well with a paper towel. Place in bowl and add the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, the cayenne and smoked paprika and toss to coat evenly with the seasonings. Set aside. This can be done a day in advance, but note the shrimp will taste spicier the longer they sit in the seasonings.

Place all of the broth in a saucepan and warm up to a low simmer. Once simmering, cover with lid so it doesn't evaporate and keep the flame on very low. (You need to use hot broth when making risotto, so don't plan to use room temperature or cold at all for this.)

To make the risotto, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to a large saute pan or pot and the butter. Once butter has melted, add the onion and season with a small pinch of salt. The salt helps the onions caramelize. Cook about 10 minutes on medium-low heat stirring occasionally until onions are well softened and begin to turn a caramel color. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the rice all at once and cook for 2 minutes to toast, stirring often. Add the saffron and 2 ladles of the heated broth. You'll notice the broth will sizzle when it hits the pan -- this is normal. Using a sturdy wooden spoon, gently mix the rice with the broth. Stirring occasionally and keeping the heat on medium, let the broth soak into the rice. Once you've noticed the rice has absorbed all the broth you put in, add another ladle of broth, stir it occasionally again until the rice absorbs this amount. Keep doing this until you use up all of your broth and the rice is plump and tender, but still al dente to taste. Take occasional bites of the rice as you get towards the end to make sure it's softening. If you use up all the broth and your rice is still very hard, just add more broth and repeat the technique until it's tender, but the amount stated really should be enough.

Once the rice is al dente you'll notice it's also gotten considerably thicker and has a creamy texture to it. Don't cook it to the point where the liquid is 100% absorbed; you want to keep a little moisture there because the cheese when you add it will soak it up and you don't want the risotto to be too "hard." Quickly turn off the heat, add the butternut squash and parmesan cheese to the risotto and gently fold them in. Add some of the chives, reserving some for garnish at the end. Set aside and quickly cook the shrimp.

Heat a nonstick pan to high. Dump the shrimp in the pan and cook about 1 minute on each side, or until shrimp is cooked through -- turns opaque in the white parts and bright orange/pink and is firm to the touch.

Week Night Yum Yum: Stewed Halibut, Veracruz Style

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A little while ago I made a most fabulous dinner using a recipe from my friend Lisa. As you know, I have fish literally up the ass in the freezer from The Hubsters fishing trip over the summer, and I was running out of ideas on how to deal with halibut. I adapted Lisa's recipe for Huachinango a la Veracruzana, which is basically fish prepared Veracruz style. Tender fillets of fish are simmered in a briny but sweet tomato and olive sauce, then served over rice. It's sort of a stew but without all the fuss and long-term preparations.

Lisa's original recipe calls for red snapper, which you can most certainly use. But like I said, I had to get rid of some halibut so I used that fish with major success as well. Here's my version below (I omitted cilantro for certain pint-sized picky eaters) and subbed a couple of things. I highly recommend you check out her blog for the original recipe as well, and some great pictures. Enjoy!

Stewed Halibut, Veracruz Style

4 fillets halibut
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups diced canned tomatoes with juice, recommend San Marzano tomatoes
½ cup sliced olives (large pimiento stuffed)
splash of broth (chicken, vegetable, or fish)
1 small bay leaf
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp finely chopped scallions for garnish (optional)
lime quarters
cooked white rice to serve

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat until softened, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes, olives, broth, and bay leaf and stir to combine. Bring sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes.

At this point, taste the sauce and adjust with salt and pepper to taste. Remember -- the olives will seep out some of their salt so it's important not to salt the dish too soon, and rather wait for the olives' salt to cook out into the dish during those 15 minutes!

While the sauce cooks, wash and pat dry the fish. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Gently place the fish into the sauce and using a spoon, scoop up some of the sauce up and onto the fish. Add more broth if needed -- you want a little liquid there to keep the fish moist -- cover with lid and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the fish over and finish cooking them -- another minute or so, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Once they are white and firm to the touch, they are done.

Garnish with a sprinkling of the scallions. To serve, mound some cooked white rice onto a plate or bowl. Add a fish piece and a generous portion of the stew, and garnish with freshly squeezed lime juice.

Halloween Treats: Pumpkin Smiles and Scary Eyeballs! A Healthy Snack for Your Little Trick or Treaters

Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm a huge fan of the candy. Like, seriously. However, being a parent I feel I need to be responsible and balance out today's festivities with a little health factor. Healthy doesn't mean boring, especially for Halloween. With the color palate we're given to work with and ambience of the day, we have a lot to work with to make any food fun and totally festive.

For our Halloween party over the weekend I put out these healthy treats that tricked the kids into thinking they were having something sweet and special. Haha! Simple and healthy orange slices are renamed "pumpkin smiles" and are easy for kids of any age to eat. And green and purple grape "eyeballs" round out the perfect Halloween color scheme. As you can see, when put together the colors and shapes are irresistable. And you can feel good you're giving your little ones something a little healthy to combat the candy today.

Pumpkin Smiles and Scary Eyeballs
2-3 large navel oranges
3 cups mixed green and purple grapes, rinsed well

Cut the oranges into 1/4-1/2" thick rounds, discarding the ends. Cut each round in half to make half-moon shapes, or "smiles." Mix the grapes together. Layer the orange slices on the perimeter of a platter, then pile the grapes in the middle. Serve.

Halloween Treats: Spooky Ghost Cheese Ball with Crackers

Looking for some last minute, easy Halloween foods to spruce up today? This is something that can come together in literally minutes and is perfect for munching on while trick or treaters grace your doorstep. You can flavor the ball with any cheese combination you like, but I like simple cream and cheddar cheese. Finely chopped sundried tomatoes add a pop of color and tangy flavor as well. Enjoy!

Spooky Ghost Cheese Ball with crackers
16 oz cream cheese -- preferably at room temperature
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese (yellow or white, your favorite brand)
2 Tbsp sundried tomatoes in oil, drained and finely chopped
pinch of kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
small pinch of fresh thyme or basil leaves, finely chopped (optional)
about 1/2 cup cold sour cream
3 large black spanish olives
favorite crackers (I like ritz for this)

Place the cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Add the cheddar, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and herbs if using and mix well with a spatula to combine. Having the cream cheese at room temperature isn't necessary, but it makes this mixing process easier. If you're using cold cream cheese, then try using a handheld mixer or standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to make it easier on you.

Once combined well, simply gather up all the cheese spread "stuff" into a ball form or as close you can get to it. Place the cheese ball on the center of a plate or serving platter and using your spatula, smooth out the tops and sides to create a nice shape. Spread the sour cream over the cheese ball and down to the sides, then press the olives in to make 2 eyes and a mouth. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour, preferably 4 to make sure the form is set. This can also be served right away, but if you do that then try to use the cold cream cheese.

Garnish with crackers and serve. I've found a cheese knife helps for easy service.

You can use any combination of herbs you like -- rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley, chives, scallions finely chopped -- they all will go great with cream cheese. You can use any cheese combination you like too, but cheddar is always a crowd favorite. If you wanted, you can make a spicier version for the adults with some cayenne pepper or hot sauce added in. This version written above is perfect for kids to help themselves too during Halloween prep and before and after trick-or-treating.

Happy Halloween!!!

Halloween Treats: Orange and Purple Marshmallow Pops for Kids (and Adults!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I cannot thank my friend Virginia enough for turning me onto these marshmallow pops. They are so easy to do, and present so beautifully on a food table and are the runaway hit of every single party I've made them for. Kids go nuts for them, and parents do to. The options are literally endless once you've gotten the basic technique down, which is extremely simple. Even better? These are cheap to make and can make a lot.

Candy melts come flavored with a hint of vanilla. You can get or combine virtually any color you like!
Start off with a bag of jet-puffed marshmallows. Don't bother complicating things with homemade marshmallows; they will be far too soft for this project. Then get your candy melts in whatever color you like. I use Wilton brand you can find at any Michael's store or order online. For the party since it's a kid's themed one this year and Little Girl forbade me from doing anything remotely scary or gross, we did an orange and purple theme with hints of black and yellow. You'll also need lollipop sticks, also found at Michael's or can order online, colored sprinkles of your choosing, wax paper for them the dry on, and a couple of pairs of eager little hands to help you out.

bright orange and purple crystal sprinkles are hard to resist for any trick or treater!
Here are the ingredients for what I used exactly for this project:

Orange and Purple Marshmallow Pops
1 bag jet-puffed marshmallows
about 36 lollipop sticks
1/2 bag orange candy melts -- recommend Wilton brand
1/2 bag purple candy melts -- recommend Wilton brand
1/2 cup orange crystal sprinkles
1/2 cup purple crystal sprinkles
wax paper

Here's the step by step to make them:

1. Stick a marshmallow on a stick. Repeat with all the marshmallows and sticks. Each bag will give you about 34-36 marshmallows. 

2. Melt the candy melts. Place the candy melt chips in a microwave safe bowl. A glass bowl works best. Then on 50% power (or on the defrost setting), microwave for 1 minute, then at 30 second intervals until melted. Using a spatula, stir to combine and smooth out. You're now ready to dip.

3.  Dip the marshmallow stick into the melted candy and swirl it around to coat. You can coat as much or as little of the marshmallow as you like. I personally like the marshmallow part to be visible so people know what it is they are eating, but if you want the whole thing covered then go for it!

 4.  Tap off excess candy melt from the marshmallow. It helps if you gently tap the stick on the side of the bowl as you slowly rotate the stick between your fingers. You want enough coating so the sprinkles will set on top, but if you have too much of the candy part it will drip down and make a bizarre shape when it dries. Use your judgement.  

5.  Roll the dipped marshmallow in the sprinkles. I've found using a combination of gently tapping the marshmallow as you roll it in the sprinkles works best. You can cover as much or as little of the marshmallow as you like; for this I liked having the entire candy melt part covered with the shiny sprinkles, but I also like when some of the candy melt peeks out on its own as well. Up to you.

6.  Lay out a layer of wax paper on a sheet pan or counter top, then place dipped marshmallows on top to set. Using wax paper lets you remove them extremely easily after they're set and the candy melt is hardened. You can use parchment paper, but wax paper really is the best for this kind of thing. Once you've set them down, don't touch them until they're completely hardened or else you'll ruin the shape. It'll take about 2 hours for them to completely dry and be ready to be stored.

Chances are you'll have the candy melts that you melted left over. Don't throw it away! Simply lay out another layer of wax paper and pour out the melted candy like this. Let it set up again (about 2 hours), then crack it into pieces and store in a Ziploc bag for future melting projects!

You can make these up to a whole week in advance. You can keep them in the refrigerator uncovered! (if you cover them and put them in the fridge, the condensation from the moisture in the fridge will soften your sprinkles and make them soggy) or place in gallon-sized Ziploc bags and store at room temperature in a dark place away from heat or the sun.  

You can serve them in cups, canisters, out on platters, bundled up into plastic candy bags and sealed with a pretty ribbon and given away as treats, however you like! These are perfect to give away at kids' school Halloween parties, after church, to the neighborhood kids on Halloween, or put out for a party at home like I'll do this weekend. Again, you can use any color combination or sprinkle you desire -- the technique remains exactly the same. In fact, Wilton puts out seasonal colors and for Halloween right now you can get jet black for a super spooky treat or a creepy slimy neon green color. Love that green with some tiny bone sprinkles! Use your imagination and have fun with it.

And this makes a really fun and easy project to do with kids too. Mine loved dipping and twirling and sprinkling the marshmallows. It's a fun project to teach the kids at school too if you're a teacher. It's fun, it's cheap, and makes tons of treats.

Happy Halloween!!!

Week Night Yum Yum: Shrimp n' Grits

Monday, October 10, 2011

No picture....because it was THAT good, no one could stop one second to let me take the picture. Everyone devoured this dish. So, you'll just have to make it and see!

I'm going to get some slack on this one for using par-cooked grits, but in my defense I plead: (1) pregnancy and (2) sickness so please forgive. However, the "instant grits" does make this a super easy week night meal. So there.

Shrimp n Grits...the class combination of creamy polenta-style hominy grits with sweet shrimp flavored with savory andouille sausage, the trinity, and garlic is a time-honored tradition in many southern households. Browsing through a recent edition of Bon Appetit, I found a recipe for shrimp n grits as a breakfast item. Indeed, with the addition of a fried egg on top, you can make this traditional supper dish into a brunch delight. The other day I felt like breakfast for dinner, and the combination of warm, comforting grits with spicy andouille and shrimp and topped off with a creamy fried egg just sounded divine. Just needed the rain to start up to finish the atmosphere, and so it did.

Here's my version, adding a bit more flavor with the addition of the trinity in the shrimp part of the dish and scallions and parsley on top for the perfect topping. The best part? Breaking the yolk into the creamy hot grits. This is the definition of comfort food folks. Enjoy it.

Shrimp n' Grits
for the shrimp:
1 small white onion, chopped small
1 large celery stalk, ends trimmed and chopped small
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped small
1 cup andouille sausage, chopped small
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp vegetable oil + 2 Tbsp for eggs, divided
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp chopped fresh scallion

for the grits:
1 cup chicken stock
2 cups hominy grits (instant or par-cooked)
1 Tbsp good unsalted butter
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (orange or white is fine)
kosher salt
splash of heavy cream

Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saute pan. Add the andouille sausage and cook until browned and fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Lower heat to low, and using a slotted spoon, take the sausage out and set aside (you'll put it back in later). Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the onions, celery, and bell pepper all at once and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until tender, about 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and shrimp and stir to combine. Add the broth and using a spoon, gently scrape up the "brown bits" on the bottom of the pan. Cook until the shrimp are firm and turn bright pink. Add the andouille back in, stir to combine, and sprinkle with some of the parsley and scallions (reserving some for garnish). Set aside.

To make the grits, heat the broth in a pot and bring to a simmer. Add the grits all at once, and using a whisk, stir to combine. Cook the grits about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until creamy and golden and tender. Keep the lid on the grits when you're not stirring it, and make sure the flame is on low once you've added the grits. Once the desired texture of grit has been achieved, remove from heat. Add the butter, cheese, salt to taste, and a splash of cream and mix to combine. Serve piping hot.

*You can make the grits ahead of the shrimp or start them at the same time.

To fry the eggs, add the oil to another clean preferably non-stick pan. Crack the eggs (or do them one by one) into the oil and cook until the bottom is set. Use a spoon to gather the oil from the pan and throw it back onto the top of the egg to help cook the top a little if you dislike "runny" eggs; this is called "basting the egg." Cook until bottom is firm and set (you can flip them over too if you like them over-easy). Season the eggs with a small pinch of salt and pepper.

To plate, divide a portion of grits into deep bowls. Spoon the shrimp mixture on top of the grits. Add an egg to each dish, and garnish with a small sprinkling of parsley and scallion. Serve piping hot.

Autumn Date Night: Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking for a fancier dinner for a stay-home date night? Perhaps having a small dinner party coming over and want to impress them without getting too complicated? This is the perfect dinner for you!

Nothing is more comforting than a nice roasted chicken. However, even I get sick of the same ol' chick. When I feel like something different, something with a little more "awe" factor I go to cornish game hens. You'll find not only do they taste amazing, but they're even easier to prepare than a big roasted bird.

Cornish game hens look like mini chickens but taste a little more like turkey with a slightly gamey taste that's just wonderful. They can be prepared the same exact way you would a chicken or turkey -- brined or not, often roasted, flavored with pretty much anything -- and they take just a tad over an hour to cook. They are low-stress and make a stupidly easy food to make for a special occasion dinner or for company, because you can prep them in advance then pop them in the oven and actually enjoy your guests. For this recipe, I used simple salt, pepper, and good olive oil for seasoning and some fresh thyme and sage to stuff in the cavity for aroma and flavor. So easy and so good.

To go along with, I wanted something a little more special than rice or potatoes (which you can certainly do for this dish as well). Israeli cous cous is not only super easy to prepare, but it's fun to eat. Prepared just like pasta or other cous-cous, you can flavor it as you like and make it in advance, keeping it at room temperature until ready to serve. I wanted to go the spice route in the dish with the cous cous, so I cooked it with chicken broth (always adds richness) and flavored it with a cinnamon stick, then fresh scallions and mint, currants, and toasted pine nuts. It offered a wonderful contrast to the hen and the different textures were so much fun to eat.

To round out the dish, hearty (and healthy!) kale. The easiest of the three to prepare, I simply braised fresh kale leaves in some olive oil, garlic, and chicken broth until wilted and tender. I think the total prep-to-cook time was maybe 10 minutes, if that. Also can be done in advance and simply rewarmed right before serving.

Plating them together in a restaurant-style adds Fancy Factor to the dish and will be sure to impress. This meal is all inclusive, tastes amazing, and will delight your senses and guests. Enjoy it!

Roasted Cornish Hens with Spiced Cous Cous and Braised Kale
for the hens:
2 cornish hens
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
fresh thyme and sage leaves  (you can use any combo of herbs you like)
extra virgin olive oil

for the cous cous:
1 3/4 chicken stock
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (or olive oil)
1 cup Israeli cous cous
1 cinnamon stick
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh scallions
2 Tbsp fresh mint leaves, torn
2 Tbsp dried currants (or cranberries)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts

for the kale:
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves torn or cut into pieces
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wash the hens and gently pat dry with paper towels. Getting them as dry as possible will enable you to season them properly and let the brown properly in the oven. Either spray or rub with some olive oil an oven-proof dish that the hens can fit into snugly. Season the hens on the outside generously with salt and pepper, and inside the cavity as well. Stuff the cavity with the herbs and fit into the baking dish. You can tie the legs together with kitchen twine if you wish, but if you chose the right dish they will fit snugly enough so you don't have to tie them. Place in oven and roast for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until juices run clear when cut. The last 20 minutes of roasting, begin basting the hens every 10 minutes like you would a turkey to ensure even browning and nice color. When done roasting, let stand 5 minutes before serving so juices can redistribute.

To make the cous cous, heat the chicken broth and butter in a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the cous cous all at once as well as the cinnamon stick and salt. Give a stir, cover with lid, and reduce heat to low. Let cook stirring once or twice until all the liquid is absorbed and the cous cous is nice and plump and tender, about 10 minutes. If you have to, add more broth. Once the cous cous is ready, add the scallions, mint, currants and pine nuts and toss with a fork to incorporate and fluff up the cous cous. It is now ready to serve.

To make the kale, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan or pot until warm. Add the garlic and cook stirring often until the garlic just begins to turn golden brown. Add the kale all at once -- the water from the kale will make the oil jump and crackle, so don't be alarmed -- and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute the kale a few minutes, then add the broth. Cover with lid, and let simmer at medium-low heat until kale is nice and tender, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.

To plate the meal, spoon out some cous cous in the middle of a plate. Place the hen right on top of the cous couscous cous. Dot the kale around the cous cous (or serve on the side for people to help themselves). Serve.

*This recipe is enough for 2 people, with some cous cous left over. To make for 4, simply add 2 more hens and season them appropriately; cooking time will remain the same. And add 2 more bunches of kale to the recipe, and up the broth to 1/2 cup for the braise. The cous cous should be just enough for 4 people, but you can make more if you wish. Adjust according to cous cous package instructions.

Make Ahead Tips:

1) you can season and stuff the chickens the morning of or even night before the party; bring to room temperature (15 min) before ready to place in oven.

2) the cous cous can be done a few hours in advance and just kept covered at room temperature.

3) the kale can be done a few hours in advance, then rewarmed before serving.

Another American Classic: The Waldorf Salad

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Everyone's heard of the famous Waldorf Salad. Conceived at the Waldorf Hotel in NYC in the 1890s, it traditionally consisted of simply apples, celery, walnuts and a mayo-based dressing. It remained a popular salad appetizer for years, coming and going back en vogue over the years with different variations and updates to serving the classic combination.

Variations include adding a protein (usually chicken or turkey), green or red grapes, and lightening up the heavy mayo-based dressing with healthier yogurt. I took a cue from both history and modern, and made up a version I think combines both without compromising the integrity of the original salad. I add chicken for substance, making this a very servable luncheon menu just perfect for a shower or light dinner with the girls. I keep the sweetness coming from carefully selected apples, and add a balance of savory with onion and celery. The dressing is half mayo and half yogurt, the tangy yogurt being balanced out perfectly with the sweetness of the honey and apple cider. I think the combinations of all the ingredients are perfectly balanced in taste, and make for a very pretty salad.

This is great in smaller portions for a fancier classic dinner party or just perfect for a bridal or baby shower, lunch, or lighter dinner. Enjoy!

Waldorf Salad with Chicken
for the salad:
2 whole chicken breasts, boneless and skin less
3 Tbsp olive oil or nonstick cooking spray (such as PAM)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 sweet apples -- such as Fuji, Gala, or Pink Lady -- cubed
3 ribs celery, chopped small
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 cup walnuts
1 head boston or bibb lettuce, leaves washed and left whole

for the dressing:
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp good quality honey
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the chicken breasts with the olive oil (or spray them) and season liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Bake in oven for about 20 minutes or until cooked through. Once cooked, remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before cutting; this will let the juices redistribute and give a moister chicken. Cut the chicken against the grain into strips, and then into cubes. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 or even 3 days in advance. Conversely, you can use store-bought cooked roasted chicken breast and cube them into bite-sized pieces.

Place the apples, celery, red onion, and walnuts in a mixing bowl. Add the chicken. Set aside. Take the lettuce and portion out onto plates, about 2-3 leaves per person.

In another mixing bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing. Season it with the salt and pepper to taste, then drizzle it over the apple and chicken mixture. You want the dressing to very much evenly coat the salad, but not completely drench it; you'll probably have some dressing left over. Toss the salad in the dressing to evenly coat.

To assemble, simply spoon out the chicken salad mixture into the middle of the lettuce on each plate and serve.

Make Ahead Notes:
You can cook the chicken ahead of time as stated and make the dressing up to 2 days in advance. Cover each and refrigerate until ready to assemble. You can also wash the lettuce and even portion it out onto plates a head of a dinner party, cover the plates with plastic wrap and refrigerate until right before serving.

You need to cut the apples right before serving, however, to prevent them from oxidizing and turning brown. You can technically cut them and keep them in lemon juice, but I personally find the added acidity throws off the delicate balance of the salad. Just cut them before you're ready to toss the salad and serve it.

An Evening with Boardwalk Empire: Delmonico Potatoes, Officially My New Guilty Pleasure

Monday, October 3, 2011

I'm warning you right now, these potatoes are SO good but so fatty and bad for you. But you'll make this anyway and eat them and be in heaven.

For the main course of our Boardwalk Empire inspired menu, I took a cue from famous New York steakhouse Delmonico's at the time and did a simple Delmonico style top sirloin (salt, pepper, grilled) and their famous Delmonico Potatoes to go with. I did lots of research on the potatoes and found a few variations. The common theme includes: cubed potatoes, white sauce, melted cheese on top. Some variations had the potatoes cut in hash shape (or shredded), while others included breadcrumbs in the topping mixture. One even had sliced tomatoes. I took a really simple approach and added my own twist on top with some paprika for color. The potatoes are tender, savory without being overpowering, hot and comforting and just so amazing, complimenting the steak just perfectly.

par-cooked potatoes smothered in the white sauce

For this recipe I made it completely from scratch, cubing the potatoes myself and then blanching them in hot water. You can make this a totally week night friendly meal by using a bag of frozen cubed potatoes or even the hashbrown style potatoes (unseasoned -- just the shredded kind) instead to cut down on about 20 minutes of prep time. I also made the white sauce from scratch which is basically an alfredo sauce. Another corner cutter is to use a jarred alfredo, but I personally find making my own so easy and I can control the flavor and salt much better.

As for the cheese you must use cheddar. I used a sharp English cheddar because that's what I love and that's what I had, but any cheddar (white or orange) will do just fine. I used Hungarian paprika, but you can use regular if you like. Smoked would even be amazing in this. Just go light with the dusting -- you're using the paprika here for color more than flavor!

Delmonico Potatoes
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely minced white onion
kosher salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream (or 1 cup of half n half in place of the whole milk + cream)
2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
4 lbs brown potatoes (like russett or idaho), peeled and diced small then blanched*
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
pinch of paprika for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan or pot. Add the onions and season with some salt. Saute for a minute or two, then add the garlic and saute another minute, stirring often so as not to burn the onions and garlic. Add the flour all at once and mix in. You're creating a roux between the butter and flour, so you'll notice the mixture clump up together after about 30 seconds. Cook the flour out about a minute, then add the cream (or half n half) a little at a time, stirring it into the roux as you go. You'll see every time you add the liquid the roux will clump up; this is normal, just stir it well to make it all blend together. Once the cream has been added, add the milk slowly but all at once, and give it all a good stir. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn off heat.

Stir in the parmesan cheese (off the heat) until it's nicely melted into the sauce. If your pan or pot is large enough, add the potatoes right in and give it a good fold; conversely place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl then pour the white sauce over them. Don't stir the potatoes because that will break up the pieces; rather using a gentle folding technique to cover them with the sauce.

topped with shredded cheese, parsley, and a dash of paprika for color
Pour the sauced potatoes into a baking dish, then top with the parsley, cheese, and paprika. At this point you can cover and refrigerate until ready to bake (even make it a day before). Place in oven and cook until top is golden and bubbly, about 10-15 minutes. Remove and let stand for 2 minutes before serving. Serve hot or at room temperature (better hot!)

baked to golden, oozing perfection
*To blanch the potatoes, simply bring a pot of cold water salted with 3 Tbsp of kosher salt to a roaring boil. Dump the cubed potatoes inside the water all at once, and cook for about 5-8 minutes or until a knife can just start to penetrate though. You don't want the potatoes cooked like for mashed potatoes (too soft), nor for them to still be raw (too hard). When the knife or fork just begins to penetrate the outside, the poatoes are done.