Monday, April 14, 2014

Stuffed Baked Potatoes

I don't know about you, but when I'm cooking a big dinner for a crowd, I like to get as much done ahead of time as possible. That's the key to enjoying your company and not stressing. So with the holidays ahead, you might be planning your meal for a large gathering and wondering what to serve as a starchy side dish. This one - a throwback to my days as a young wife in the 70s -  is easily made ahead a day or even two or three, and then heated up before serving. And it's pretty irresistible to everyone - unless dairy is on your no-no list.
Start by baking the potatoes - Choose the brown skinned Idaho-type baking potatoes. Bake for about 45 to an hour; cool until you can handle them, then cut in half and scoop out the insides, leaving a small perimeter of potato intact. In a large bowl (DON'T use an electric mixer or you'll have gluey potatoes), mash the inside of the potato with a hand masher and mix with the rest of the ingredients - milk, cheddar cheese, sour cream, melted butter, milk, salt and pepper.
 Top the potatoes with more cheese (and more chives if desired).
 Bake in the oven for another 20 minutes or so until the top is golden brown. Then watch 'em disappear.

Stuffed Baked Potatoes

8 large brown potatoes - try to find a uniform size so they bake at the same time
4 T. melted butter
3/4 c. milk
1 c. sour cream
8 oz. grated cheddar cheese
2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
handful of chopped chives

Scrub the potatoes well and pierce once to allow steam to escape while cooking. Rub the skins with a little olive oil or butter. Bake on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees, for about 45 minutes to an hour, turning once. Cool slightly and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out the inside of the potato and place in a bowl. Be careful to leave a small perimeter of potato intact and try not to break the skin. I use a grapefruit spoon to extract the potato.
Mash with a hand masher, and add the rest of the ingredients, but reserve a little of the grated cheddar cheese for the top. Pile the filling into the potato shells and sprinkle with the reserved cheddar cheese. You can make these ahead of time up to this point.
About 1/2 hour before serving, put the potatoes on a cookie sheet and place in a 375 degree oven for about 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and heated through.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Nigella Lawson's Lemon Polenta Cake

This may look like a savarin (say, what? savarin? - yes, savarin - a yeast-like babà type cake with a hole in the middle.)  But it's not.
It's just an impossibly moist, wickedly delicious, lemon cornmeal cake that happens to sink slightly in the middle. At least for me it did. But you know what? Just like in that Johnny Mercer song "Accentuate the … " You know the one I mean. Well, turn the negative into a positive by heaping some seasonal fruit in the center of the cake. People will think it was supposed to look that way. And maybe it was.
The little crater certainly presented the ideal vessel for this tumble of sugared berries.

Nigella Lawson's Lemon Polenta Cake

1 3/4 sticks (14 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
1 cup superfine sugar
2 cups almond meal/flour
3/4 cup fine polenta/ cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (gluten-free if required)
3 eggs
Zest 2 lemons (save the juice for the syrup)
Juice 2 lemons (see above)
Heaping 1 cup confectioners' sugar
Special Equipment: 1 (9-inch) springform pan

For the cake: Line the base of your cake pan with parchment paper and grease its sides lightly with butter. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the butter and sugar till pale and whipped, either by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon, or using a freestanding mixer.

Mix together the almond meal, polenta and baking powder, and beat some of this into the butter-sugar mixture, followed by 1 egg, then alternate dry ingredients and eggs, beating all the while.

Finally, beat in the lemon zest and pour, spoon or scrape the mixture into your prepared pan and bake in the oven for about 40 minutes. It may seem wibbly but, if the cake is cooked, a cake tester should come out cleanish and, most significantly, the edges of the cake will have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven to a wire cooling rack, but leave in its pan.

For the syrup: Make the syrup by boiling together the lemon juice and confectioners' sugar in a smallish saucepan. Once the confectioners' sugar has dissolved into the juice, you're done. Prick the top of the cake all over with a cake tester (a skewer would be too destructive), pour the warm syrup over the cake, and leave to cool before taking it out of its pan.

Make Ahead Note: The cake can be baked up to 3 days ahead and stored in airtight container in a cool place. Will keep for total of 5 to 6 days.

Freeze Note: The cake can be frozen on its lining paper as soon as cooled, wrapped in double layer of plastic wrap and a layer of foil, for up to 1 month. Thaw for 3 to 4 hours at room temperature.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Roasted Branzino

Whenever I see Branzino on a restaurant menu, I almost always shun other entrees and order it. Also known as European seabass, and sometimes "spigola" in Italy, it's one of my favorite fishes. Its white flesh is mild and buttery and is becoming increasingly available in supermarkets too. Don't be dissuaded if you've never prepared a whole fish. It's easy to cook and debone. 
Stuff the inside with a few lemon slices, some parsley, salt and pepper. Drizzle a little olive oil on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast it in the oven at a high heat.

Fillet the fish by inserting a knife along the side.
Place the knife into the fish just below the head, then run the knife along the bone and remove the flesh.

You can easily pull the main bone away from the fish and scoop out the bottom fillet. Be careful though, because there may be a few stray bones along the side. There's still a lot of succulent meat around the head and main bone, and if you're like me, you won't let that go to waste.

I couldn't resist.

Roasted Branzino
printable recipe here

1 whole branzino - about 1 - 1 1/2 pounds
lemon slices
herbed salt
(or kosher salt mixed with minced herbs like rosemary and thyme)
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil for drizzling on top

2 T. butter
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup white wine
1 T. capers
juice from 1/2 large lemon
minced parsley

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put the branzino on a baking dish and season it liberally inside and out with the seasoned salt and black pepper. Place lemon slices inside the cavity. Drizzle olive oil on top.
Bake it for 15 minutes. While it's baking, make the sauce by melted the butter and adding the minced garlic cloves, allowing them to cook at low heat for a couple of minutes. Crank up the heat a bit and add the white wine. Cook for another couple of minutes, then just before cooking add the capers, lemon juice and minced parsley.

Fillet the fish from the bone, being careful to remove the small bones along the side. Pour the sauce over the top of the fish and serve.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Wacky Chocolate Pudding Cake

It might look like a bowl of sludge under that scoop of vanilla ice cream, but don't be fooled. It's a bowl of chocolate heaven. Think hot fudge sundae combined with a little bit of cake and you're on the right track. It's a wacky chocolate pudding cake and when you see how it's made you'll know why it's called that. It's easy too, and makes enough to serve at least eight (with some ice cream, naturalmente!)
It's a recipe I got from one of the seasonal food magazines published by my local supermarket - McCaffrey's. 
It starts out with a batter that's really, really dry - almost a paste. Press it down into an 8 inch square pan.
Then it's topped with a mixture of brown sugar and cocoa.
And last, a covering of hot coffee (I used espresso). DON'T MIX. Just put it in the oven like this.
And 30 minutes later, you'll have a wobbly mixture that you're sure is uncooked. Fear not. Remove it from the oven and let it sit for a half hour - otherwise, you'll have a soupy mess.
After a half hour, it's ready to serve. The top will be cake-like, while the bottom will be more like chocolate pudding - or a hot fudge sauce. Perfect with vanilla ice cream or a big dollop of whipped cream.

Wacky Chocolate Pudding Cake
from McCaffrey's Supermarket "Real Food"magazine

1 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1/2 cup whole milk
3 T. unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 3/4 cups hot coffee

  • Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 8 inch square pan.
  • Sift the flour, sugar, 1/4 cup of the cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in the milk, melted butter, chocolate chips and vanilla until smoothly blended. Spread the batter (it will be thick - more like a paste) in the pan. In a small bowl, stir the brown sugar and remaining 1/4 cup cocoa powder together, pressing any lumps out of the brown sugar. Sprinkle the brown sugar mixture evenly over the batter in the pan. Pour the hot coffee evenly over the top.
  • Bake until the top feels firm and the edges just begin to bubble from the sauce that has formed underneath, about 40 minutes. As the cake bakes, it separates into dark chocolate sauce on the bottom and chocolate cake on top.
  • Let the cake sit about 30 minutes to cool slightly.  Spoon out portions of cake and sauce. Serve with ice cream. The cake can be made one day ahead and warmed in a low oven (about 275 degrees F.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Week In A Magical Italian Village

 Have you dreamed of publishing those family stories that might otherwise be lost in the future? What about those travel experiences you always wanted to put to paper, or those food memories from childhood? Now, how many times have you told friends to go for it, using the phrase "You only live once"? 
Well, how about following your own dream for one week while learning how to polish your prose, eating fabulous food and living in a magical village in an unspoiled region of Italy? 
It's a village where road signs might have distances between towns measured in the time it takes to ride a horse.
It's a village that has quiet, secret corners and small treasures waiting to be discovered.
Why not do yourself a favor and sign up for "Italy, In Other Words," a memoir writing workshop?   It takes place from June 15 to June 21st,  2014 and is held in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a medieval village in the Gran Sasso National Park. Located in the region of Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio has been named one of Italy's prettiest towns, or "I borghi più belli d'Italia." You'll stay in Sextantio, a unique hotel with rooms dispersed throughout the town. Yours might be warmed by this rustic fireplace (but don't worry - you'll have modern Phillip Starck bathroom fixtures):

This is the view from one of the rooms:


The wild poppies and mustard should be in bloom when we're there in mid-June.

Kathryn Abajian, college professor, author, and writing teacher, will lead the writing workshop, and she is gifting at elevating pedestrian words to poetry. 

You'll get plenty of daily, helpful feedback from the other participants in the workshop too.

 I'll be your cultural guide, taking you on nearby excursions. Some of the places you're likely to visit are Rocca Calascio, a mountaintop fortress dating back to the 10th century.

We'll pass by the church of Santa Maria della Pietà, built to commemorate what legend says was a victory of the locals over a gang of bandits.

We'll walk along ancient sheep trails where you might even meet a modern day shepherd:

 It's not unusual to have to stop along the road for a sheep crossing.
The bedspread in your hotel room is likely to be hand woven by women from the local area, and you'll see a demonstration on a centuries-old loom:
 We'll take an excursion to see how pecorino canestrato (sheep's milk cheese) is made - .
 And how maccheroni alla chitarra is made - an Abruzzo specialty.
 And you'll have plenty of opportunity to eat it at dinner.
But before dinner, have a seat in the cantina with your fellow students and enjoy a glass of wine with some cheese and locally made sausages.

 At dinner, take the opportunity to savor conversation and delicious food.
 Like these affettati (sliced, cured meats):

or  ravioli with gorgonzola and walnuts: 

Or arrosticini - succulent skewers of grilled lamb.

Get your feet tapping at the finale concert with DisCanto and their fabulous Abruzzese folk music:

 You don't have to be an experienced writer to sign up. You just have to have the desire to improve your writing.  Although we've had participants who were accomplished, published writers, we've also had homemakers, a postal worker and an artist in past years too. 
Want more information? Check out all the details here on the Italy, In Other Words website. You'll find contact information to register.  Hope to see you there in June. It's a week that will stay with you forever.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Roasted Cabbage

I have to admit that cabbage has never been one of my top ten favorite vegetables. Until now. Until roasted cabbage. I've cranked up the oven to 450 degrees and roasted lots of other vegetables from butternut squash to zucchini, but never thought to roast cabbage. But with St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, I picked up a head of savoy cabbage at the market and had to figure out what to do with it.
Well, why not try roasting, I thought? I cut the cabbage into 1/2 inch thick slices and swiped them with olive oil, and a sprinkling of ground black pepper and a blend of home-made herbed salt. 
If you don't have herbed salt, use kosher salt and your favorite mix of dried herbs - anything from sage to rosemary to thyme.
Place in a 450 degree oven for 10 minutes, then carefully flip them over and swish with more olive oil, herbed salt and pepper and roast for another ten minutes. Those crispy bits around the edges are hard to resist.  If the pieces seem a little too hard near the core, lower the temperature and leave them in the oven a little longer. 
I served these with baked ham, but for those of you with a leprechaun on your shoulder, don't forget the corned beef. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Roasted Cabbage
printable recipe here

1 cabbage (I used savoy cabbage but the other kind works too)
olive oil
herbed salt

Cut the cabbage in 1/2 inch slices
Place on a cookie sheet and brush olive oil over the slices, then sprinkle with herbed salt and ground black pepper.
Roast at 450 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, then flip over and repeat with more olive oil, salt and pepper on the other side and roast another 10 to 12 minutes.

If the parts near the core are still not cooked sufficiently, lower the heat to 350 degrees and leave in the oven a little longer.

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