Roasted Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

Monday, October 22, 2012

From a culinary standpoint November is a wonderful month. Like September, it's a bridge month in terms of produce as fall fruits and vegetables combine with the nutrient rich dark leafy greens of winter. One wonderful winter staple is brussels sprouts -- their most tasty and cheapest in the winter months, you can put together a spectacular side dish combing them with equally affordable butternut squash. This dish not only tastes absolutely amazing, but it presents just so beautifully on the plate and holiday table. I think I loved taking pictures of this as much as I did making and eating it!

Tender and sweet butternut squash pairs perfectly with savory and bitter brussels sprouts. Both are roasted to bring out each vegetables' truest flavor, the caramelization adding texture to each bite as well. Seasoning is super simple -- good course sea salt and freshly ground black pepper on the course grind, all tossed with some good extra virgin olive oil. Vegetarians stop there. If you want to skyrocket this dish, go ahead and add the rendered crispy bacon and some garlic to the final toss.

This dish can be made in advance and rewarmed in an oven-proof casserole dish. It's perfect if you are charged with bringing over a side dish for the big Thanksgiving meal, or if you're hosting the big show yourself. Keep the bacon separate and toss it in right before serving to keep it nice and crispy. This dish goes beautifully with any roasted meats -- turkey, chicken, and pork most particular -- and is spectacular as leftovers with a fried egg on top.

Make as much or as little as you need. This recipe serves 4 people easily. Enjoy it and happy fall everyone!

Roasted Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
1 small butternut squash
1 lb brussels sprouts
about 3 Tbsp olive oil
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper set on course grind
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/4 cup crispy bacon (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take the butternut squash and cut off the ends, then peel the tough outer skin until you expose the dark orange flesh. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise then scoop out the seeds. (you can roast the seeds to munch on later or discard them) Cut the squash into bite-sized pieces, roughly the same size as the brussels sprouts you're using; the idea is to have everything about the same size so it's easy to eat and looks pretty.

Toss in half of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread out on a baking sheet and roast in oven until tender and sides are caramelized, about 20 minutes (depending on your oven's strength, start checking around 15 minutes). Turn them over once or twice during the cooking process.

While the butternut squash roasts, prepare the sprouts. Take the sprouts and cut off the tough stems at the base of each sprout. Remove any discolored or broken leaves around the outer layers, then wash the sprouts. Cut them all in half lengthwise, then toss in remaining olive oil. Season again with salt and pepper to your taste. Layer out on a baking sheet (you can use the same one the squash is on after they're done; just remember to scrape off any parts that got stuck to the sheet so it doesn't burn!) and roast in oven until tender but still strong, about 25 minutes. You want a nice caramelization on them, so try not to turn them over too much during cooking; once or twice at most will do you just fine.

Combine the butternut squash and sprouts together in a serving bowl while still warm, and add the garlic. Give a good toss. Top with bacon if using and serve.

*To make crispy bacon, simply take about 2-3 pieces of applewood smoked bacon and dice into small pieces. Heat a saute pan on medium heat and add the bacon right into the dry pan; no need to add oil because the bacon will render its own fat to crisp in within a few moments. Stirring occasionally, cook the bacon until golden brown and crispy, turning down the flame if necessary so as not to burn. Should take around 4-5 minutes. Remove cooked bacon from the grease using a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate or bowl lined with a paper towel to help the excess grease drain. Discard or save the bacon grease for vinaigrettes or other cooking. The bacon can be made hours in advance and simply stored at room temperature covered with a napkin or plastic wrap; or made the day before and refrigerated. But it does taste the best if made a couple of hours in advance at most.

Pirate Party: "Bad Eggs"

We're devils and black sheep, really bad eggs,
Drink up, me hearties! Yo ho!
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

For the food for Little Boy's pirate birthday party I really took a huge inspiration from the songs. Fortunately there was a lot to work with, and the famous "Yo Ho" song of course has the line about bad eggs. I knew immediately I needed to include some sort of deviled eggs for the party. But instead of "bad" they'd be really, really tasty!

I continued with the sea inspiration and chose to make a classic filling of very finely chopped salty smoked salmon, capers for added salty bite, and fresh chive for a light onion flavor to balance out flavor and color. I wanted to keep the palate rather muted in terms of spice to compliment the other dishes I was serving as well, and it worked out perfectly. The flow was just what I wanted on the table and the eggs flew off the plate.

Deviled eggs are a classic party appetizer -- they're a great small bite without being overly filling. For the host/ess it's great because you can make them well in advance of the party. The guests loved these and using lollipop sticks with a party circle gave a festive easy way for guests to serve themselves right off the plate. These "bad eggs" will make another appearance for the holidays coming up too, me thinks!

"Bad Eggs" aka Deviled Eggs with Smoked Salmon, Caper and Chive
7 eggs
about 1/4 cup European style smoked salmon (i.e., Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, etc.)
1 1/2 Tbsp drained capers
1 Tbsp finely chopped chives
3/4 cup good quality mayo
freshly ground black pepper

Place the eggs in a pot large enough to hold them but small enough where they stay a fit snugly. Cover the eggs with cold water and place on stove on high heat. Bring eggs to a boil and once boiling, shut the heat off and let eggs steep in that hot water for 15 minutes. Doing it this way will prevent the eggs from cracking in roaring boiling water where they can move around and crack into each other.

Drain the water and transfer eggs into an ice water bath. Once cold enough to touch, crack each egg and peel off the shell. Slice each egg in half lengthwise and pop out the cooked yolks into a mixing bowl. Set aside the whites.

Take a fork and mash the yolks until they are very small and crumbly. Add the smoked salmon, capers, chives, mayo, salt if you want it (remember, the smoked salmon and capers will be very salty!) and the pepper to taste. Mix well to combine.

You can stuff the cavity of the egg whites using a spoon, or transfer this yolk filling into a sandwich bag. Then using scissors, cut off the end of the corner at the bottom of the bag, creating a piping bag, then pipe the filling into the egg whites. Conversely, use a pastry bag fitted with desired piping tip. Whatever way you like is fine; I used the sandwich bag trick for the eggs above.

Cover eggs with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. You can also make the filling a day in advance and fill the eggs a few hours before your party.

Serve cold or at room temperature.

Skull Cheese Ball with "Hard Tack"

Saturday, October 20, 2012


One of the food items I knew I had to make for the pirate party was a cheese ball formed into a skull. Cheese balls are literally balls of cheese that guests can help themselves to and served traditionally with crackers or vegetables. You can make virtually any combination you like to suit the season and theme of your party. And this low-maintenance appetizer can be made even a couple of days in advance, refridgerated well, then brought out when you're ready for your party.

For this pirate party I knew I needed to keep the cheese on the whiter side of the color spectrum to achieve that skull color I wanted, so I chose a simple good quality fresh cream cheese as the base. I found a wonderful cream cheese at Whole Foods that tastes more like cheese rather than the commercial brand that has more of a gummy texture. I highly recommend you go that route if you can find it. Then for the real cheese flavor of the dish I chose a very aged English white cheddar. Some freshly cracked black pepper to the mix and that's all. The combination of white cream cheese and slightly ivory color of the aged white cheddar made a perfect skull color for the dish.

"Cheese ball" by no means translates to boring. I wanted my skull to have both visual appeal and taste really great and interesting, so I decided to introduce a jelly to contrast the flavors and colors and flavors of the dish. I decided to fill the sockets of the skull with a jalapeno jelly; the puce color was perfectly spooky and the sweet spicy jam paired just perfectly against the savory cream cheese and super sharp aged cheddar. As a whole the dish worked both aesthetically as well as on the palate, and I got a lot of compliments on it at the party.

To go with the cheese skull I chose to serve "hard tack." I took reference from historical pirates in what they'd actually eat and I found they would make this super hard crude cracker from flour they'd take on board and water from the sea. The dough was incredibly tough and hard to work with and retained a very salty flavor from using the salt water, hence the name. I didn't make it from scratch, but instead found some lovely sea salt crackers at the market and used those to great effect. The combination of the historically accurate crackers together with the festive cheese skull made a perfect pirate party appetizer. I will most certainly be doing this again for any future pirate parties as well as Halloween.

To serve such a dish, I chose a simple gold charger plate. I formed the cheese ball in a skull shape onto a piece of parchment paper. I made the skull 2 days before the party, covered and refrigerated it until the morning of the party. Then I took a sharp knife and cut around the edge of the skull, leaving the cheese to sit on the paper. Then using a sturdy spatula, transfered the skull (paper and all underneath) to the gold charger plate. If you plan to use a proper serving dish go ahead and form the skull right onto your serving platter and simply cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve. Fill the sockets with the jam before serving.

Skull Cheese Ball with Hard Tack
3 cups worth of good quality cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups shredded aged sharp white cheddar (recommend: English white aged cheddar)
about 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
jalapeno jelly or your favorite jam (optional)
parchment paper
sea salt crackers for serving

Place the cream cheese in a large bowl, then add the cheddar and pepper. Using your hands or a rubber spatula, mix all ingredients together until combined well. Roll the cheese mixture out onto a piece of parchment paper. Then using your hands, gently form the cheese into a large skull shape. If you find the cheese is sticking to your hands a bit, dampen your hands in some water and shake off the excess then mold the cheese. To make the sockets and mouth, take a teaspoon (like one you'd eat with) and make an indent for eyes. Then gently using the spoon, dig a little deeper into the cheese about 1/3 of the way down to the bottom to make space for the jam to fill in. Do a smaller upside-down heart shape for the nose. Then taking a toothpick or wooden skewer, draw down the lines for the mouth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or up to 3 days.

When ready to serve, fill the sockets with the jelly/jam and serve with the crackers around the skull or in a separate bowl next to it.

Serving suggestion:
Add a small cheese knife to the side to help guests serve themselves.

Shrimp and Spaghetti Mediterranean

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wednesdays are one of my two busiest days of the week now given our new school and activities schedule. As such, it has also been designated the official Pasta Night of the week. A wonderful dish that came together quickly was spaghetti tossed in good olive oil with tender sweet shrimp cooked in garlic and lemon juice, slightly wilted peppery arugula, sweet sun-dried tomatoes and for a salty bite some capers. For texture and an irresistible nutty bite, toasted pine nuts. If you really want to indulge, go ahead and add the red pepper flake-marinated feta cheese I made to go along with it. The dish was amazing -- wonderfully briny from the capers and lemon juice, balanced out with sweet bites of the shrimp and tomatoes, and fresh and hearty from the arugula and garlic. My kids adored this dish so much I'm making it again tonight since it's....Pasta Night!

I love it too because it's definitely fancy enough to entertain with as well. The dish comes together quickly and effortlessly, just perfect for a dinner party where you can actually enjoy the company and not be a slave to the kitchen. Serve some fabulous quadro di bufula cheese with spicy soppressata to start, then make this for the main course. Add a cold glass of white and some freshly baked crusty Italian bread for a perfect dinner the kids and adults will love. Have fun with dessert and serve a selection of gelato and a perfect casual dinner party is served.

This recipe serves 4 good portions, but can easily be doubled or tripled for a larger crowd.

Shrimp and Spaghetti Mediterranean
1 lb spaghetti (recommend No. 10 de cecco brand)
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lb raw large-extra large shrimp -- peeled, deveined and tails removed for easy eating
1 lemon -- zest and juiced
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 good handfuls of arugula (about 1 1/2 cups worth)
2 Tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tsp capers, drained
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts*
1/2 cup good feta cheese (recommend: Valbreso brand)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar

First make the marinated cheese. Take the feta and cut it into cubes then place in bowl. Add the red pepper flakes, vinegar, and 1 Tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil right on top and toss the cheese in this "vinaigrette." Let stand to marinade. This can be done a few days in advance and kept covered in the fridge until ready to use.

Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Once boiling, add a good palmful of salt then stir to combine. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions, about 10 minutes for al dente.

Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large, deep saute pan on medium heat. Add the shrimp in one even layer and season with salt and pepper to taste. As soon as you add the shrimp, add the garlic and lemon juice right on top as well and cook about 30 seconds -- the garlic will become fragrant  and the shrimp will begin to turn bright pink/orange on color. Turn the shrimp over and give the pan a good stir to cook the other side of the shrimp. Lower the heat to low and toss in the arugula, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes and mix to combine. Add a good drizzle of more olive oil -- you're adding it twice because the first time you're using it to cook and now the second time at the end for a stronger flavor. Remove from heat and add the pasta right in from the water. It's ok if some of the pasta water goes into the pan -- this will help thicken the sauce anyway so it's fine. Using tongs, gently toss the spaghetti with the shrimp and arugula mixture and add the pine nuts, then toss again. When everything is well combined, portion out into bowls and serve.

If using the cheese, simply crumble some of the cheese mixture on top in lieu of traditional parmesan; or go ahead with the parmesan if you like.

*To toast pine nuts, take a shallow dry pan and heat over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts directly into the pan (no need for extra oil because as they heat they will release their own essential oils to help brown themselves) and cook on low heat until golden brown on all sides. Make sure to stir often to prevent burning. Once toasted, remove promptly from the pan and into another dish; letting them sit in this pan will make them burn! Can be made a few days in advance and kept in an air-tight container in the fridge.

Week Night Yum Yum: Roasted Beef with Cherry Tomatoes and Watercress Salad

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Am so behind on blogging, but have some exciting stuff to share soon! Our vacation out east plus The Pirate Party coming up will be some great posts; I'm making some fabulous stuff for the party in particular that are seasonal and would work great for any Halloween parties coming up! But for now, some wonderful recipes to get you through the week...

First up we have a super simple roasted beef with cherry tomato and watercress salad. This is really fast to put together and tastes great. The beef gets doen in about 30 minutes or so (for medium rare) and the salad is sweet and savory, cool and crisp, and peppery from the watercress that just compliments the dinner perfectly. Get those leftover cherry tomotoes now while you can and make this dinner soon!

Roasted Beef with Cherry Tomato and Watercress Salad
1 (3-3/12 lb) beef roast -- rump, sirloin tip cut recommended
1/4 cup olive oil + more for salad
course sea salt
1 tsp red peppercorns
1 tsp green pepeprcorns
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 pint cherry tomatoes, washed and cut in half
1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, removed from stems
splash of white balsamic vinegar
1 bunch watercress, trimmed of stems

First prepare the beef. Take out the roast and leave it on the counter to come to room temperature. Take the peppercorns and either pulse them in a spice grinder until coursely ground or place them all in a sandwich bag -- let all the air out and close, then take an empty wine bottle or wooden rolling pin and gently mash the corns until coursely ground. Place the peppercorns with salt to taste and the 1/4 cup of olive oil in a small bowl and mix to combine. Take this mixture and rub it all over the beef on all sides. Let stand about 30 minutes so flavors can infuse.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take a large roasting pan or Dutch oven and preheat to high heat. Add the beef and sear it on all sides to form a brown crust -- this will help lock in the juices while it roasts. Once it's browned on all sides, pop in oven or transfer to an oven-proof baking dish and roast until a meat thermometer says 135-140 degrees for medium rare; 140 will give you medium-well on the sides and a perfect medium-rare in the middle. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes to rest. Prepare your salad.

Toss the tomatoes, shallot, and parsley with some salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Add the vinegar and some olive oil -- about a good tablespoon's worth -- and mix to combine. I like to serve the salad with the watercress leaves set out like a bed and the tomato mixture on top so people can take as much or as little of the peppery watercress as they desire; if you plan to eat the whole thing and love watercress, go ahead and toss it right in with the tomatoes into one big mixed salad.

Take the beef and slice it against the grain to desired thickness. Serve with the salad on the top or side.

I served mine with a side of tamale I had in the freezer, but a good fresh roll will do you just fine.