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.