Friday, January 30, 2009

Casale Sonnino Olive Oil

If you read this blog, you care about food and the basic ingredients you use in your cooking, including extra virgin Italian olive oil.

But are you really using extra virgin Italian olive oil? Or are you the unsuspecting owner of a bottle of hazelnut oil from Turkey, or sunflower oil from Argentina?

It's not so easy to know, even if you buy olive oil that you think is a well-known, well-respected, international brand. A lot has been written about fraud in the industry, including a well documented piece written a while ago in the New Yorker Magazine entitled "Slippery Business," the trade in adulterated olive oil.

Aside from the question of whether it's really olive oil, there's little way of knowing (assuming it is olive oil), how the olives and trees were grown and maintained, whether they were overly sprayed with pesticide days before picking, whether they were sitting around too long before milling, subject to bruising, whether all the olives came from Italy or whether the oil in the bottle really was the first cold pressing.

Casale Sonnino, vineyards and olive trees

That's something I don't give a second thought to when I buy olive oil from Casale Sonnino, a villa and vineyard in the hills outside Rome owned by my friend Clo Sonnino Treves.

The olives from the 700 trees on her property are hand picked by a small group of local women in the traditional manner. Nets are strung below the olive trees to capture any falling fruit before they hit the ground to prevent bruising. The olives are transported within days to a local mill, where Clo's son George supervises the pressing from start to finish. I can always be sure that their extra virgin olive oil is the first cold pressing from estate grown olives. Like grapes, olives for oil come in many varieties. Casale Sonnino olive oil uses Broccanica, Rosciola, Venina and the Tuscan Leccino.

Clo's daughter Claire says that last November's harvest produced a bumper crop and the most delicious batch in recent memory.

Casale Sonnino

I'm planning to put my order in soon since the shipment arrives from Italy in February. You should too if you want to try a truly artisanal, truly exquisite, unadulterated extra virgin olive oil. Contact Claire to find out about prices and/or place your order. She can be reached by email at claire@casalesonnino or at 516-767-7188.

She can also tell you about the Casale itself, an 18th century ancestral home that is rented out by the week to vacationing family groups, artists and travelers all year long. Their website is

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Four-Cheese Eggplant Parmigiana

So I'm in the kitchen --all set to start the recipe when I discover I have only three cheeses on hand. Suddenly it becomes a three-cheese, not four-cheese eggplant parmigiana sandwich like the delicious one I ate recently at "Tre Piani," in Princeton's Forrestal Village.
OK, I can live with that, I tell myself, but whoa -- then I realize I don't have any nice crusty Italian rolls. Should have checked the larder first. So my longed-for sandwich morphs into just eggplant parmigiana, with a salad on the side. Sometimes you gotta go with the flow.

There were no complaints -- we practically licked the plates. But next time I make it, I'm gonna go for the gusto and use all four cheeses, which I've included in the recipe below. The sandwich I ate at Tre Piani had a really sharp bite, and I'm guessing it was blue cheese, so I included some in mine. Naturally, you can use any combination or proportion of cheeses you like. Just keep Velveeta out of the picture -- please.

The cheeses may make this a really rich dish, but let's face it, they don't do much for your hips. So I made an adjustment for calories' sake and baked the eggplant slices, rather than fried them. Honestly, you'd never know the difference. And it may help come bathing suit season.

Four Cheese Eggplant Parmigiana

1 large eggplant
1 cup flour
1 cup bread crumbs
1 large egg, beaten with 2 T. milk
olive oil, to coat pan
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grated blue cheese
1/2 cup grated Asiago or Fontina cheese
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

about 2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce
(I used a good homemade sauce my brother Frank had canned and given to me)

About an hour before starting, slice the eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Place on paper towels and let sit for a half hour. Press down on the paper towels, then turn around to the other side and sprinkle with salt. After a half hour, press down on the paper towels again, or use more to get rid of excess moisture.

Dredge the slices with flour, then dip in the egg mixture and dredge with the bread crumbs. Spread a light layer of oil on a cookie sheet and place the eggplant on the sheet. Bake the slices for about 15 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven. Flip the slices and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

In a heatproof casserole, spread a layer of tomato sauce and add a layer of the eggplant slices, cutting them to fit the casserole. Mix all the grated cheeses in a bowl and spread half of the mixture over the eggplant. Repeat the process - tomato sauce, eggplant slices and the cheeses. Spread a layer of tomato sauce on top to finish. Bake lightly covered in a 375 degree oven for 25-30 minutes. Serves four normal appetites or two really ravenous folk.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Le Cirque and Lucia

It was supposed to be a memorable meal and evening at the opera. And it was, but not for the reasons we'd expected. We had dinner reservations at Le Cirque and tickets for "Lucia di Lammermoor" at New York City's Metropolitan Opera with the much-heralded Russian soprano Anna Netrebko singing the lead. We'd heard her sing last year in an ethereal "Romeo and Juliet" and couldn't wait to hear her in the Donizetti role. But more about the opera later.

First stop was at Le Cirque, which is taking part in New York City's Restaurant Week, a two-week promotion where dinner with three courses is offered for $35. Sirio Maccioni's temple to food is legendary, most recently through HBO's documentary, "Le Cirque: A Table In Heaven." The food was delicious, don't get me wrong, but it didn't exactly transport us to the culinary firmament.

Most of the diners at our table ordered the chestnut pappardelle with veal ragout as the first course. Good pick, but since everyone else was ordering it, I chose the "Le Cirque" salad instead. Dumb me - should have stuck with the pappardelle, which was probably the best dish of the evening.

My main course was cod topped with a shallot crust and served with a raisin sauce. About seven small cubes of roasted beets looked stranded on the other side of the plate. It tasted wonderful, but if you eat with the eyes as well as the mouth, I think my eyes were straying elsewhere. The fish and beets felt lonely on such a large space and were looking for company. Rice maybe? potatoes? Take a look and judge for yourself.

The diver scallops and chicken breast that other diners at our table ordered were both beautifully presented and well-cooked, but nobody was exactly swooning over them either. Good, but not great.

For dessert, nearly everybody at the table zeroed in on the chocolate fondant, which turned out to be a very small portion of chocolate lava cake, along with a quenelle of ice cream on the side. Trying to limit my fat intake, (in a nod to my expanding waistline) I felt righteous in ordering the citrus parfait. Wish I'd joined the crowd in picking chocolate instead.

Maybe we're just too picky, or maybe we're jaded diners who know how to cook well at home. We all agreed that we'd had a good dinner considering the $35 restaurant week price, but nothing so transcendent as to validate the prices normally charged by this upper east side restaurant ($98 prix fixe, or $120 tasting menu).

Next we were off to the opera to hear the lovely Netrebko, partnered with tenor Rolando Villazon, a duo that has sung together to rave reviews in the past.

Netrebko was returning to the stage after giving birth six months ago, and looked as beautiful as ever. Her voice didn't seem to have suffered much from the hiatus either, even if she doesn't have the vocal power as many Lucias from the past and even if she missed the high note in the famous "mad scene." Villazon's voice cracked once in the first act, but it was barely noticeable. By the end of the second act, uh oh, it happened again and this time you couldn't help noticing. He had to stop dead in his singing and compose himself before continuing. Poor guy. Something was amiss.

Before the third act began, the Met's general manager Peter Gelb appeared onstage and everyone expected him to announce that Villazon would not complete the opera. But no, he asked for patience in explaining that the tenor was not feeling well, but didn't want to disappoint his fans and would finish the opera.

We held our breath, since the third act is really the tenor's showpiece. Surprisingly, Villazon rallied. Maybe it wasn't the tour de force that you might want to hear from this Mexican singer, but it was respectable, especially considering he was ill. As for Netrebko -- a Joan Sutherland-style Lucia she wasn't. But she still carried the evening and we were happy to have been there.

I'll leave you with a really dreamy clip of Netrebko singing an aria from the opera "Rusalka." See if you don't fall in love with her too.

Thank you to Maryann of "Finding La Dolce Vita" for explaining to me how to add a video clip from Youtube.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lunch, Locavore Style

Here's what I consider a near-perfect lunch - a glass of wine, a hunk of bread, some good cheeses, cured sausage and pears.

We bought the cheeses and sausage at a winter farmer's market held at "Tre Piani," a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey's Forrestal Village.

The chef and co-owner of the restaurant is a founder of the local chapter of "Slow Food" so you know he cares about eating local and eating well. The three floors of the restaurant (Tre piani means three floors) were taken over by local food producers -- everything from creamy gelato to baked goods to sausages and cheeses. A jazz combo provided musical entertainment.

I had no idea that such fine cheeses were being made right here in New Jersey. Valley Shepherd Creamery, located in Long Valley, N.J. had set up a table highlighting a dozen or so of its cheeses. It was difficult to choose, but I ended up with one called "shepherd's logue," a raw sheep's milk cheese wrapped in herbs de provence, and a "crema de blue," a gooey cave-aged veined cheese.

Then I spotted a table laden with sausages from a place called Salumeria Biellese, located both in Hackensack, N.J. and in New York City. They make wonderful cured sausages, including one made with boar's meat, and the picquant Neapolitan-style one I purchased. As I was tasting a sample, it occurred to me that their name sounded familiar. Then it dawned on me that two weeks earlier, my son and I had eaten at Biricchino, a New York City restaurant. Turns out that Salumeria Biellese is right next door to Biricchino and both are owned by the same proprietor. Turns out that the waitress who served us was the woman helping set up the samples at Tre Piani. Small world.

Armed with our goodies, we headed home for a great lunch. The fig jam I made last fall would make a sweet accompaniment to the cheeses, and I still had a few slices of crusty homemade bread left from earlier in the week. A sliced pear, a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and we were set for our near-perfect lunch.

Now if only we were enjoying it with a warm summer breeze overlooking the Mediterranean -- that would have catapulted it to perfection.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fusilli with portobello mushrooms and ham

This dish was quickly thrown together with our first portobello mushroom harvest. I sliced the mushrooms, sauteed them in some olive oil and butter with a shallot and minced garlic, added a little white wine and some pasta water, salt and pepper and that was it. But it still needed some umph, which is why I thought to add the ham. If I were making this vegetarian, I'd kick up the heat with more cracked black pepper.

I had only a couple of slices of prosciutto cotto in the fridge, which was plenty for just two people. Prosciutto cotto is a very delicate cooked ham and could be kind of hard to find depending on where you live. But you could substitute regular baked ham, or even prosciutto crudo if you like. Another option that would be delicious is to fry up a slice of pancetta or bacon and add that. There are lots of variations, but to me, turning out a tasty dish with what you've got on hand is important - not only because you don't want to always be running to the store, but so that you learn to become resourceful and not waste anything either. It can lead to interesting combinations that you'd never have thought of otherwise.

I finished the dish off with a scattering of parsley and a dusting of freshly grated parmigiano cheese. Not bad for a quick meal, as my mother-in-law used to say.

For two people:

1/3 pound fusilli, or other pasta (or however much you eat)
about 3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. oil
2 T. butter
1/4 cup white wine
salt, pepper
2 slices prosciutto cotto, cut into bits
freshly grated parmesan cheese, to sprinkle on top
minced parsley

Get the water boiling and throw in the pasta.
Saute the shallot and garlic for a couple of minutes in the olive oil and butter, then add the mushrooms and saute until cooked through. Season with salt and pepper. Add the white wine and cook for a few minutes on high heat to reduce a bit. Add a little pasta water too at this time, but only a few tablespoons or so. As you can see from the picture, this is not a dish that is swimming in sauce, but you should have enough for a light coating of liquid. Lower the heat to a slight simmer until the pasta is finished cooking.

Drain the pasta and add it to the pot with the mushrooms, stirring around in the sauce to coat the pasta. Remove from the heat and put into a serving dish. Add the ham, top with parsley and parmesan cheese and serve.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Habemus Fungus

We grew these!
At home.
In a cardboard box.

Yes, that's right, these delightful portobellos popped up as little brown buttons a few days ago and quickly er...... mushroomed to these large beauties in a couple of days.

I ordered the mushroom kit as a Christmas gift to my husband and another one for my father. There were quite a few companies selling the kits via the internet, but I ordered mine from a company in California. Email me if you want specifics.

I got the mushroom gift idea when we were traveling through the Italian Abruzzo countryside last fall. There we were on a country road, tootling along (is that a word?) when I see a sign with an arrow that says "Fungaia" (mushroom growing place).

"Stop the car," I shout. "Let's go find the mushrooms." Always up for a new eating or gardening discovery, my husband quickly turns the car around. We end up a few minutes later at the fungaia - a quanset hut with a sign out front instructing visitors to ring the bell for assistance. Which we did. A few minutes later, a very handsome young Italian man appears to show us inside - a vast space filled with what look like bales of hay and two different types of mushrooms sprouting all over them. After a tour of the fungaia and a brief stop at the shop next door, we leave with a basketful of fresh oyster mushrooms (pleurotis), and a jar of mushrooms preserved in olive oil to take back to the U.S. Worth the detour, wouldn't you say?

So back to the kit... A few days after Christmas my husband followed the easy directions that came with the box. Only a few simple instructions and we were off and waiting. We would have had our first crop earlier, if only we hadn't initially stored the box in a place that was a little too cool.

Fast forward a few days to the dining room - a warmer climate than the guest room - when the little buttons appeared. A few days later and we were ready to harvest our first crop. Which is just what I did earlier this week. The mushrooms are supposed to keep producing with two very large crops and then a tapering off to smaller harvests. When all the nutrients are exhausted, the fungi stop doing their thing and go to mushroom heaven, or a compost pit in our case.

In the meantime, I'm going to have fun turning these into some delightful eats. Look for a recipe to follow. That is, if you can peel your eyes off this good-looking Italian dude who works at the fungaia.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I "Heart" NYC Restaurant Week

I can't get that pumpkin mousse with butterscotch sauce out of my brain -- oh please, somebody give me the recipe.

It's the dessert I ate last night at what was the sweet ending to a fantastic meal in New York City - and it was on sale to boot.

Well, not exactly on sale, but during restaurant week, which takes place twice a year in New York City, scores of restaurants offer a three-course lunch for $24 and a three-course dinner for $35. That can be a real bargain at places where just the entree can cost that much.

Restaurant week is also my excuse for arranging to meet a friend for dinner, as I did last night, at F.Illi Ponte, an Italian restaurant in Tribeca, bordering on Soho.

Neither the company, nor the food disappointed. The Italian restaurant, whose abbreviated name "F.Illi" stands for "fratelli," or "brother" has been around for a long time, and I've passed it many times, but I never managed to eat there. It's a little bit out of the way in a kind of desolate neighborhood by the waterfront, but the schlep was well worth it.

Right away, good vibes came our way along with the freebie munchies at our table, which by the way, overlooked the Hudson River. This wasn't just a plate of olive oil and a bread basket. Noooo - it was a small plate with chunks of parmigiano cheese and another plate heaped with the best caponata I've ever eaten - sweet and savory at the same time and oh so delicious.

My friend Lynn, and I ordered the same first course - funghi ripiene - (actually make that a fungo not funghi - the singular for mushroom - since there was only one. But hey, you're allowed a grammar error on the menu when the food is so good.) The roasted portobello mushroom was stuffed with crabmeat and breadcrumbs and served over whipped polenta and a shellfish sauce. A well-executed combination of flavors, textures and colors.

Lynn ordered strozzapreti in a duck ragout as her main course, topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta. I chose veal scalloppine in a traditional lemon, capers and parsley sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes and stewed escarole. We were on a roll, with both dishes cooked to perfection.

The piece de resistance however, was the dessert - a "Sapori D'Autunno," or "flavors of Fall." If this is Fall, I want to stay there forever. Imagine a velvety pumpkin mousse resting on a slice of spiced pumpkin cake, surrounded by dribbles of butterscotch sauce, poached figs and other dried fruits. Oh, I forgot the chocolate sauce over the mousse. OK, wipe that drool off your chin.

Somebody in that kitchen really knows how to cook. And in the off-chance the chef is reading this, would you mind emailing me the recipe? Please? And maybe the caponata too? Pretty please?

Stay tuned next week for part two of Restaurant Week, when "Le Cirque" is on tap.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cauliflower Sformato

Looking for an unusual first course for your next dinner party? Look no further. This is elegant, delicious and can be made a day ahead. It looks like it took a long time to make, but in fact, it whips together in about 15 minutes. And it goes down ... like buttah!

It's the culinary version of the little black dress - you can change it around with a different sauce, or use a different vegetable. There are endless variations ... mushroom sformato with cheese sauce; zucchini sformato with red pepper sauce; asparagus sformato with mushroom sauce, etc. etc. etc.

One of the most memorable versions I ever enjoyed was a ricotto sformato, or flan, that I ate at Cibreo's, my favorite restaurant in Florence, Italy. I should amend that to say trattoria, since I never ate at the bonafide Cibreo's restaurant, but rather at the eponymous annex next door. It carries the same menu but at half the price. You don't get the linen table service as in the restaurant, in fact the trattoria is downright casual, and you might have to share a table with a complete stranger. But to me, that's half the fun. And eating Cibreo's much-heralded food is the real reward.

So try this sformato with whatever vegetable you have on hand. I had a lot of cauliflower calling out to me. I didn't wait for a dinner party either. I made it just for the two of us, and was happy to have the leftovers for several more meals. Even if I wasn't at Cibreo's.

Cauliflower Sformato

(eight 3/4 cup servings)

1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
(about 4 cups)
1 3/4 cup milk or a combination of milk and cream
1/2 stick unsalted butter, plus more for greasing molds
1/4 cup flour plus 1 T.
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
salt, white pepper, to taste
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

tomato sauce, about 2 cups

Cook the cauliflower in water for about 10 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain, then put back into a dry pan and cook for a few minutes to help evaporate any remaining water. Be careful not to let it brown or burn.

Butter eight 3/4 cup oven-proof custard cups or flan molds and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the cauliflower in a food processor and puree it until perfectly smooth. Place it into a colander lined with paper towels to absorb any remaining moisture.

Heat the milk in a saucepan until warm and little bubble start to form. In another saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then add the flour and stir and cook for a couple of minutes until smooth. It will start to get "pasty," but that's fine. Add the milk and continue to stir constantly, using either a whisk or wooden spoon, for about five minutes. Add seasonings and cauliflower puree.

Beat the eggs and add the parmesan cheese. Add the puree mixture to the egg and cheese mixture, starting with a small amount, then increasing the amount a little at a time. You want to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs and cheese. If you add the pureed cauliflower mixture all at once, you risk curdling the eggs.

When everything is mixed, pour into the buttered molds and put the molds in a bain-marie or hot water bath. Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove the molds from the water and let them rest at least 10 minutes before trying to unmold. If you unmold too soon, they won't hold their shape. They actually hold their shape better the next day when you reheat them. I microwaved them in their molds, then flipped them out onto individual plates. Serve as is, or with a simple homemade tomato sauce, if desired.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Beginning

It's inauguration day in the United States!

This is primarily a food blog, so I'm going to resist the temptation to use this as a political soapbox.

But whatever your party affiliation, we have only one president and only one country. Let's all come together today and in the future to wish our new president and his family well. A little prayer wouldn't hurt either.

May he have years of good health and the wisdom to guide this country to a better place and to help make the world more peaceful, more prosperous, and safe for everyone who inhabits Mother Earth.

While I'm at it, let's also hope he helps to make Mother Earth a healthier place to live.

Now, time to celebrate.

"...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sloppy "Giuseppe" Sandwiches

This didn't start out to be Sloppy Joe, er... Giuseppe, sandwiches. It was supposed to be chili con carne, a hearty meal for a day when the temperature was so cold that only polar bears and penguins could face the outdoors.

But when I discovered I had no beans in the house, well, I had two choices. One, brave the frigid weather and go to the store, or two, turn the ingredients I did have into something else.

Needless to say, I did not venture out into the cold, cold night to fetch some beans. Instead, I transformed what would have been chili into a "Sloppy Giuseppe" sandwich - sort of like a Sloppy Joe, but without the vinegar or brown sugar found in most recipes for Sloppy Joes. I kept the chili powder and cumin I normally use in chili, but added the Italian twist with wine, tomatoes and basil, turning this "Joe" into a "Giuseppe" with definite Italian overtones.

Sloppy "Giuseppe" sandwich

1 pound ground beef (I asked the butcher to coarsely grind some lean meat from an "eye" roast)
1/2 cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup minced green pepper
3 T. olive oil
1/4 cup red wine
1 16 ounce can chopped tomatoes
4 T. chili powder
1 T. dried basil
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
dash freshly ground pepper

In a saucepan, saute the onion, pepper and garlic in the olive oil until wilted. Add the ground meat and saute until cooked through. Drain any fat that remains, then add the wine, tomatoes and herbs and spices. Simmer for about 1/2 hour and serve over crusty rolls.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

I was inspired by Marie of "Proud Italian Cook" to make this dessert, after she posted her recipe for a decadent Nutella Hot Chocolate earlier this week.

I got to thinking ... hmm, I have a jar of artisanal chocolate and hazelnut spread that was given to us last October by a young couple we met at a chestnut festival in Soriano, Italy. It's made with dark chocolate - my favorite - but after microwaving it in the jar several times to pour over poached pears and ice cream, it had hardened beyond hope. Maybe I could salvage it by melting it in some heated cream to flavor a rice pudding -- one of my husband's favorite desserts.
I had just enough for about three servings.
That was last night.
Now who gets to eat the one serving that's left in the fridge?
This is not going to be pretty.

Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

If you don't have Nutella, or an artisanal chocolate-hazelnut spread as I did, you can substitute about 3 tablespoons of cocoa.

1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 1/2 cups cream
3 cups half and half

1/4 cup Nutella, or a similar spread
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup arborio riceCheck Spelling
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. Cointreau, rum or any liqueur

In a medium saucepan, gently heat the milk and cream or half and half. Add the remaining ingredients, except vanilla and liqueur. Stir constantly over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes, until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and add vanilla and liqueur. Pour into serving bowls and cover with a piece of plastic wrap in order to avoid "skin" from forming. Serve as is or with whipped cream.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Trofie pasta with swordfish

I just love this twisted, squiggly pasta shape called trofie. They're fairly easy to find in the U.S. now, but years ago that wasn't the case. They are commonly served with pesto in the region of Liguria, which is practically synonymous with the basil-based sauce. But trofie are used with many other types of sauces too.

I first encountered them years ago on the isle of Elba at a little trattoria called "Osteria del Noce" where a cat named Osvaldo had taken up residence and was seated upright on a chair at one of the large dining tables, waiting for his meal. I noticed everyone else at the nearby table had ordered the trofie dish. I figured it must be good, even though I didn't know what it was. So I ordered it and it was exquisite -- laden with teensy weensy clams and local shellfish that are impossible to get here in the states. So I'm offering up a different version that still tastes great and is economical too. For two people, I used only six ounces of swordfish and 1/2 pound of trofie - and there was still enough leftover for a cat too - not Osvaldo, but my resident feline Rocky.

Trofie Pasta with swordfish:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 green pepper, minced, optional
1/4 carrot, grated
1 28 ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 T. tomato paste
2 T. capers
1/4 cup green olives, pitted and smashed (I forgot to add them this time, but it was still good)
1/4 tsp. dried basil flakes
salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
6 ounces swordfish, cut into chunks or small pieces

Saute onion, garlic, pepper, and carrot until softened. Add tomatoes, crushing with fingers. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 1/2 hour. This will make more than enough sauce for two servings. You may not want to use it all, but take some out to store or use
later. Add the swordfish and simmer for five minutes more before serving.

Monday, January 12, 2009

For Maria - Lemon "Angel Wing" Cupcakes

My mother Maria used to bake these cupcakes for me and my sister to take to school on our birthdays when we were young girls. She called them "angel wing cupcakes."

My mother was lauded for her wonderful Italian cooking, but not so much for her baking. Indeed, she used a box mix for both the cupcakes and the lemon filling, but to us they were the best cupcakes in the world. Like everything Maria did, she baked these with love.

My mother died 22 years ago, way too young at 64 years of age.

I haven't eaten these cupcakes since I was little, but I baked them yesterday - on my mother's birthday - in tribute to a loving woman who is still dearly missed.

Lemon Cupcakes

2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup milk

Sift together dry ingredients. In mixer, beat the butter until creamy, then add sugar and beat until mixture is well blended and light, about three or four minutes. Add whole eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, then add vanilla extract and lemon zest and beat a little more. Mix in lemon juice. The batter will look curdled but don't worry about it - when you blend in the flour mixture it will become smooth again. Add the dry ingredients alternating with the milk until completely blended. Fill cupcakes 2/3 full and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. I filled mine too full and had to trim off the part that spilled over after they had cooled.

When cupcakes are cooled, take a small paring knife and excavate a small pyramid shape from the top of each one. Set aside the small cut-out. Fill the hole with lemon filling. Cut the reserved pyramid shape in half and arrange on top of the filling. Dust with confectioner's sugar and place a maraschino cherry in center.

Lemon Filling:

1 cup sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
3 T. cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups water
juice and zest of 2 lemons
2 T. butter
4 egg yolks

In a pan, stir together sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt. Add water, lemon juice and lemon zest and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil. Stir in the butter. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with a whisk, then stir in a small amount of the hot lemon mixture. Continue to add a small amount of the hot mixture to the egg yolks, whisking all the while. If you add the hot mixture too quickly, you risk curdling the eggs. The idea is to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs with a small amount of the hot lemon mixture. Use it for the cupcake filling "as is," but if you're worried about raw egg yolks, put everything back on the range and cook another minute or two. The mixture should be thick, but will thicken even more when cool.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Very Late Buche De Noel

This is what I normally prepare for Christmas Day dessert, but this year I chose to make a Raspberry Bombe instead. As tasty as the bombe was, I have to say I missed the buche. The yule-log was missing from our yule.

So I took the opportunity to make it for a post-Hanukkah party this weekend. It doesn't have to be a holiday treat. It is sensational for any large, winter gathering, with shredded coconut strewn for snow and little meringue mushrooms sprouting up around the log.

It's not a project for the faint of heart, but if you're patient and follow the directions carefully, you can do it. If you can read, you can cook, I always tell friends who lament that they can't cook. Muster up your courage and go for it. Make sure you read the directions thoroughly before starting. If you really mess it up, you can throw it all in a glass bowl and call it a trifle. If you don't tell anyone it was supposed to be a yule log, they'll never know.
I'll never forget my first attempt at making a chocolate souffle, decades ago. It never rose to puffy heights, but my husband proclaimed the dessert "the best brownies I've ever eaten."

With a few small changes, this is adapted from a recipe for "bittersweet chocolate roulade" from an episode of "America's Test Kitchen."

This cake tastes best served at room temperature.

for the cake:

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons cold water
1/4 cup sifted cocoa, plus 1 T. for unmolding
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for baking sheet
1/8 t. salt
6 large eggs, separated
1/3 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1/8 t. cream of tartar

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 12 x 17 inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, cover pan bottom with parchment paper and spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray. Dust surface with flour and tap out excess.

2. Bring some water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Combine chocolate, butter and water in small heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set bowl over pan, reduce heat to medium low and heat until butter is almost completely melted and chocolate pieces are glossy and fully melted. Do not stir or let water boil under chocolate. Remove bowl from pan, unwrap and stir until smooth and glossy.

3. While chocolate is melting, sift 1/4 cup cocoa, flour and salt together into small bowl and set aside.

4. In bowl of standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With mixer running, add about 1 t. sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 40 seconds. Gradually add half of sugar and beat until whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer. Do not over beat. If whites look dry and granular, they are over beaten. Remove whites into a large bowl.

5. Beat yolks at medium speed until just combined, and add half of remaining sugar. Continue to beat, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary until yolks are pale yellow and mixture falls in thick ribbons when whisk is lifted, about 8 minutes. Add vanilla and beat to combine, scraping down bowl once.

6. Stir chocolate mixture into yolks, a small amount at a time so you don't scramble the eggs. With a rubber spatula, stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold remaining whites until almost no streaks remain. Sprinkle dry ingredients over top and fold in quickly but gently.

7. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing batter into pan corners. Bake until center of cake springs back when touched with finger, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes.

8. While cake is cooling, lay clean kitchen towel over work surface and sift remaining tablespoon cocoa over towel. With hands, rub cocoa into towel. Run paring knife around perimeter of baking sheet to loosen cake. Invert cake onto paper towels and peel off parchment. This is tricky and it's entirely possible that the cake will crack when you're inverting it, or rolling it, as it did for me. Don't worry if this happens. It can be covered with frosting.

9. Roll cake, paper towels and all, into jelly roll shape. Cool for 15 minutes, then unroll cake and paper towels. Spread filling over surface of cake, almost to edges. Roll up cake gently but snugly around filling. Put cake seam-side down on top and place in refrigerator for an hour to harden the filling a bit. This will make it easier to frost.

10. Remove cake from refrigerator and trim ends at a diagonal. Spread ganache frosting on cake, including exposed edges. Take the edges that you trimmed off and attach to the top of the log as little stumps, using a long wooden skewer to help prevent them from sliding off. Spread more ganache on the little stumps reserving a teaspoonful for later. Use a fork to make wood-grain striations on the surface of the ganache before the icing has set. Refrigerate uncovered. Before serving, remove wooden skewers and patch the hole with a little dab of some frosting. Bring to room temperature before serving, for best flavor.


Espresso-Mascarpone Cream

1/2 cup heavy cream
3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1/2 cup sifted confectioner's sugar
16 ounces mascarpone cheese

1. Simmer cream in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat and stir in espresso powder and powdered sugar. Cool.
2. With spatula, beat mascarpone in medium bowl until softened. Gently whisk in cooled cream mixture until combined.

Chocolate Ganache

3/4 cup heavy cream
2 T. unsalted butter
6 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1 T. cognac

Microwave cream and butter in measuring cup on high until bubbling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Place chocolate in bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. With machine running, gradually add hot cream and cognac through feed tube and process until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer ganache to medium bowl and let stand at room temperature for one hour, until spreadable.

Meringue Mushrooms

2 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
dash cream of tartar

Beat egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and sugar, gradually, until mixture forms stiff peaks. Place into a plastic bag and trim off a bit at the corner. Or use a pastry bag. Pipe onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, some in small cap shapes and some in long "stem" shapes. Dab the tops with water to smooth out any pointy tips. Bake at 200 degrees for 1 1/2 hours, then turn off the oven and leave in the oven another 1/2 hour. Let cool. Before serving cake, cut little holes in the bottom of a cap shaped piece and push a stem shaped piece into it. You can frost the bottom of the cap first if you like, but be aware that these will soften quickly once you frost them. Don't assemble the mushrooms until you are ready to serve the cake. When all the mushrooms are placed around the cake, dust the caps and the cake with more cocoa, for a "dirt" effect.

Avocado and Pomegranate Salad

There's a line in Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well," in which one of the characters says: "Go to, sir; you were beaten in Italy for picking a kernel out of a pomegranate."

For this recipe, which requires dozens of pomegranate seeds, there's no worry about being beaten in Italy. There's only the time-consuming task of removing those seeds from those pesky, pulpy membranes. The rest of the recipe is a snap.

What you'll end up with is a healthy and unusual salad that's colorful as a Christmas wreath and delicious too. It requires only two ingredients - avocados and pomegranates, plus some olive oil and lemon juice as a dressing. It comes to you via my friend Anna Rosa, who spends a lot of time in Italy, but has never once been beaten for plucking a seed from a pomegranate.

Here's the recipe:

Peel two avocados and cube. Mix in a bowl with seeds from one pomegranate. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice to taste.

Potato Latkes

It's a conspiracy. I'll never get rid of those extra pounds from the holiday. Cookies, cakes, ice creams, chocolates, rich roasts, luscious cheeses and fish feasts were all part of our Christmas holiday eating.
Newsflash: the holidays were extended this year. Hanukkah was moved to January.

Well, not really, but we were invited to a post-Hanukkah party by friends who normally host this gathering in December. The hostess made these addictive latkes as appetizers, which we devoured -- prosecco in hand. She also prepared an intensely flavorful brisket as the main course, while the guests filled out the menu with side dishes of eggplant rollatini, roasted artichoke hearts, spinach with pine nuts and raisins, fennel gratinee and an avocado and pomegranate salad. Not full yet? Let's hope not, because dessert included an apple galette, pound cake, rugelach, fresh fruit salad and a buche de noel.

It's not really a conspiracy. It's my good fortune to be included in the festivities by these gracious hosts and to share a fabulous meal with some of the nicest people and the best cooks I know.

Still, now you know why I left early for the gym this morning.

Here is my friend's recipe for the latkes, inspired by a recipe from Gloria Kausergreen's Jewish Holiday Cookbook.

Potato Latkes

makes about 20 latkes

3 large russet potatoes, about 2.5 pounds
1 lemon
2 extra large eggs
1 tsp. salt
2 T. flour
1 large onion
sour cream
caviar (my friend used Romanoff black caviar)
vegetable oil for frying

Peel potatoes and cut in halves or thirds. Soak in a bowl of cold water mixed with a little lemon juice to keep the potatoes from discoloring.
Peel onion, cut into chunks and add to the bowl with the potatoes.
In another large bowl, beat the eggs, flour and salt with a whisk, making sure the flour is fully blended with the egg.
Using the medium grating disk of a food processor, remove some of the potatoes from the bowl and begin to grate. Do not use the fine grating disk. The potatoes should look like strings when they come out of the food processor, so that when they are fried the latkes will look lacy.
Next take some onion and grate using the same disk. Alternate grating potatoes and onions, repeating the process in several batches.
After each batch is grated, put the potatoes and onions into a colander to drain off some of the liquid.
After all the potatoes and onions are grated and in the colander, take your hand and squeeze out handfuls, draining off the liquid.
Place the drained potatoes and onions into the bowl with the egg and flour mixture. Stir with your hands until the potatoes and onions are well integrated with the egg mixture.
Using your hands, pick up a fistful of the potato and onion mixture and squeeze forcefully into a ball, draining out as much liquid as possible.
In a heavy skillet, heat the vegetable oil to high, then lower the heat to medium or medium high, as needed.
Press the latkes into a flat, oval shape and fry in the oil, pressing down with a spatula to flatten even further.
Turn over and fry on the other side, until the latkes are crispy all over. Add more oil as needed. Drain on paper towels, and serve with a dollop of sour cream and black caviar.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sauteed Shrimp with Celery Root and Apple Puree

Pity the poor celery root. Also known as celeriac, it must be one of the ugliest vegetables ever. I mean who wants to even pick up that gnarly tuber with all those nubby, root-like things sprouting all over it, much less cook it and eat it?

Well, I took pity on the sad vegetable and gave it a home in my kitchen. And you should too, if you're interested in good food and new culinary adventures. It has a subtle celery flavor that pairs with nearly everything. I used only skim milk - no cream or butter in this recipe - yet it had a luscious, silky texture and was a perfect foil for the sauce oozing off the shrimp.

And for those of you avoiding carbs, this puree would be a great substitute for mashed potatoes or polenta, especially nestled beside pot roast or osso buco.

You may end up running for a Band-Aid if you're not careful when peeling the celery root. I found it safest to trim off the thickest, nubbiest parts with a medium-sized knife in one hand, rather than a vegetable peeler, pressing down on the top of the celery root as it lay on my cutting board, rather than picking it up and trying to trim it in my hand.

Sauteed Shrimp
(serves two)

8 large shrimp
1 shallot, minced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
salt, pepper to taste
4 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Saute the shallot and garlic in a skillet over medium heat with the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter, just until softened. Add the shrimp, turning the heat a little higher, and quickly saute on both sides. You don't want to cook it all the way through just yet, just brown the outsides. Remove the shrimp from the skillet and add the cherry tomato halves to the pan. Cook for another minute or two until the tomato starts to soften. Place the shrimp back in the pan, add the wine and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another couple of minutes, until some of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is reduced. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, and swirl around on medium heat until it looks like the sauce has emulsified, or thickened. Add the lemon juice and minced parsley, swirl again over the heat and serve over the celery root puree.

Celery Root and Apple Puree

(Adapted from "A New Way to Cook" by Sally Schneider)

1 celery root, peeled and cubed (about 1 lb. to 1 1/2 lbs.)
3 cups milk (I used skim)
3/4 tsp. freshly ground sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 Tablespoons white rice
1 apple, peeled, cored and cut into cubes
2 teaspoons unsalted butter (I omitted this)

Cook the celery root in a saucepan with the milk, (I used skim milk which works fine, but the original recipe called for 2 percent milk), salt, pepper and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Stir in the rice, lower the heat, partially cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the apples and simmer for 10 minutes longer, or until the celery root is very tender. (The milk will curdle, but the curds will be incorporated when the celery root is pureed.) Drain the mixture in a colander set over a bowl, but save the cooking liquid.

Puree the celery root in a food processor or blender until perfectly smooth, adding some of the cooking liquid if necessary. Scrape down sides until you have a fine puree. Add the butter if desired, but I left it out and it was delicious with just the drippings from the shrimp sauce. This puree is enough for four servings.

Monday, January 5, 2009

La Befana brings burnt almonds

The legend of La Befana is an ancient Italian tradition that takes place on January 6. The benevolent but ugly old witch with a hunchback, wearing a baboushka and ragged clothing, makes her rounds to children the night of January 5, leaving treats of candy (and sometimes coal or garlic for naughty children) inside shoes or stockings left out overnight.

The legend harks back to the 12th night of Christmas, or Epiphany, when the three wise men were searching for the baby Jesus. They found La Befana sweeping her doorway and asked her to join them, but she initially declined, saying she had too much cleaning to do. Later when she realized it was the Redeemer that the wise men were in search of, she changed her mind. She left right away, but unfortunately for her, couldn't find the baby. That's why she still goes out each January 5 on her magic broom, hoping to find the baby Jesus, while leaving gifts for other children as well. To this day, children in Italy still receive gifts on January 6 and celebrations and parades are held all across the peninsula. Two years ago on the night of January 5, we were skiing near Bressanone, in the Italian Alps, when we heard drums in the distance. Nearer and nearer came the sound, and along with the drummers appeared a parade of people dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages, with La Befana in a carriage at the very end, tossing out candies to everyone.

This year La Befana surprised us and flew across the ocean to my hometown in Central New Jersey. There at the meeting of "Le Matte," my weekly Italian chit-chat and coffee group, the ladies were gathered at my friend Vanda's home. Just when we were having our second round of espresso and pannettone, who walks in but La Befana, wart-y face, babushka and all! She even handed out burnt almond treats for the women -- at least the ones who had been nice this year. She truly looked wretched. I sure hope she makes it back across the ocean on that broom!

I'm including a recipe for the burnt almonds that La Befana handed out.

This recipe is taken from Delicious Day's blog entry, Semifreddo of Burnt Almonds. I made only the almonds, not the semifreddo. The original recipe is in metric measurements, so I converted and doubled the amounts. My almonds turned out crunchy, with a hard-shell candy-like exterior, and they were good, but I must have gone astray somewhere. The ones on Delicious Day's blog have more a more crystaline-sugary texture to them. I don't know what I did wrong, but I do know that I have a seriously burned pot that will require a lot of steel wool and elbow grease to clean.

Burnt Almonds

2 cups almonds, with skins
1/2 cup water
2/3 c. sugar
2 T. vanilla sugar (I used vanilla)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Boil the water, sugar, vanilla sugar, and cinnamon in a large saucepan. Add the almonds and let cook over medium to high heat while stirring occasionally. The liquid will have evaporated after 5 - 8 minutes and the sugar will cover the almonds with a dry crust. Now reduce the temperature and keep stirring until the sugar turns liquid again and coats all the almonds evenly as caramel. Pour onto the prepared tray. Quickly separate the almonds from each other with two forks (not with your fingers, very hot!) and let them cool (they keep for several days in an airtight container).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms

This dish is terrific for when company's coming. It tastes great, and it looks like you slaved all day in the kitchen. Don't tell anyone, but it takes only 15 minutes to assemble. Then you're home free.

Get everything prepared ahead of time, set it aside or keep it in the fridge until guests arrive. Then pop the pan in the oven and go chill out with your guests. Twenty minutes later, your main course is ready to serve. What could be simpler? But don't wait for company to come calling to make this dish. It's great any night of the week.

For two large servings:

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 medium -size white mushrooms, finely minced
1 T. butter
goat cheese, about 3 ounces
2 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt, pepper
minced parsley

Open up the chicken breasts and pound with a mallet to flatten. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Saute the finely minced mushrooms in the 1 tablespoon of butter until cooked and liquid has evaporated - about two minutes or so. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper. Spread the mushrooms over the chicken breast, then divide the goat cheese evenly between the two breasts. Roll from the narrow end toward the wider end. Tie loosely with twine.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a heavy, oven-proof skillet. I used a small, cast-iron skillet. Over medium high heat, brown the chicken rolls on all sides. This should only take five minutes max. Lower heat and slowly add the white wine. Don't add too quickly or over high heat or it could flame up. Season with salt and pepper and minced parsley.
Place an oven-proof lid on the skillet and bake for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Remove string and serve with juices from pan.