Friday, October 30, 2009

A Three-Day Celebration

October 2009 631

Those of you who follow this blog know that my birthday celebration began back in July, when I reunited with three of my high school buddies for a fun-filled trip to California. We are all marking a significant birthday this year (don’t ask) and while the other three reached their milestone earlier in the calendar year, mine was last week.

If ever there was a painless way to usher in a birthday, surely it was this year’s three-day celebration. The fun started with a drive north to New York, through the village of Sleepy Hollow and on to Pleasantville, where we visited Tony and Silvana Prospero of Prospero Winery. We bought several cases of their award-winning, red, white and dessert wines, as well as a case of Prosecco – all made from California grapes. That should be enough to hold us over until after the holidays, we hope.

October 2009 732

On the way home, through the picturesque country roads, we halted at a sign that said “Stone Barns.” Earlier in the week, I had watched a TV show filmed at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, hosted by Eric Ripert, chef at New York City’s noted “Le Bernardin.”  What fun to come upon it serendipitously on our drive.

October 2009 453-1

Stone Barns is a lush, 80 acres of rolling pastures, gardens and woods in Pocantico Hills, 30-miles north of New York City. It’s also the site of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant that highlights the abundance and freshness of organically-grown crops and animals that graze freely in their Hudson Valley pasture lands.

We inquired about eating there, but alas, the restaurant has a six-month waiting list. Moreover, the least expensive item on the menu is $75 – served only on Wednesdays and Thursdays - a three-course meal called the Farmer’s Supper. The menu does not contain specific dishes, but rather lists ingredients that are in season (like pears, squash or chestnuts) that may be served on a particular evening.

Even though we didn’t get to eat at the restaurant, we still enjoyed a delicious black bean soup and tomato and goat cheese focaccia at the more casual outdoor cafe, framed in by the stunning fall foliage.

October 2009 451-1

Day two started with a class I’m auditing at Princeton University. Just walking through the campus, ablaze with color, is a celebration all by itself on a fall day:


The day ended at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, where Renee Fleming was in top form in a near-perfect production of “Der Rosenkavalier”:

October 2009 519

The temperature was as warm as a September evening, tempting many people to head outdoors at intermission, some to gather at Lincoln Center’s glorious new fountain:

October 2009 515 But the real fun came on Friday night back in Princeton, when my friends and family hosted a dinner party in my honor. They made me feel like queen of the night. I even got a tiara!  It was a truly special evening, with tons of good food (that I didn’t have to prepare), lots of laughter, guitar-playing, singing and even a bit of dancing. Truly a birthday to remember.

October 2009 561

This is only some of the food we ate that night – filet mignon, lasagna Bolognese, peperonata, roasted cauliflower and home made, no-knead bread. Not shown are the terrific hors d’ouevres and the scrumptious salad. The lead shot is the birthday cake – my favorite – a chocolate truffle mousse cake.

Some advice on staying young given to me by my friends at the party:

  • Throw out nonessential numbers. This includes age, weight and height
  • Keep only cheerful friends
  • Enjoy the simple things
  • Don’t take guilt trips
  • Always remember: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Butternut Squash Lasagna

October 2009 315 Nothing goes to waste in our house – not even the kitchen waste from fruit and vegetable peelings and seeds  that my husband buries in the soil to add nutrients and reduce our garbage imprint.  As a consequence, tiny seedlings occasionally burst through the dirt in our garden and are ignored long enough that they become sturdy little plants. In this case, the little seedlings emerged unintentionally from a batch of vegetable trimmings that were composted under the soil earlier this year. By the time we noticed them, we had already allocated all the space in our vegetable garden to other plants. So we transferred the little fledglings to a spot in the front yard near the air conditioner and yew bushes.

By midsummer, the little plants that we initially thought were zucchini were sprawled all along the ground and clambered up the yew bushes, their tendrils and vines wending their way from one shrub to another. Before we knew it, we noticed what appeared to be butternut squash babies hanging amid the branches of the yew bushes.  What started as seeds in our kitchen vegetable waste bin developed into at least five or six healthy, hearty butternut squash! Now we were ready to go full cycle again and take the squash back to the kitchen.

I had already been thinking of making a butternut squash lasagna, and when I saw Marie’s version on  Proud Italian Cook, that just sealed the deal. I changed a few things in mine, like adding the sausage, but loved her idea of roasting garlic and letting it steep in the béchamel sauce along with a sprig of sage. You could easily make this a vegetarian dish, however, by eliminating the sausage. It would still be “crazy good” as Marie says.

When you’re spending the time it takes to make this recipe, you might as well use the best quality ingredients you can find. That goes from the squash and the sausage to the lasagna noodles and the parmesan. Grate your own from a good chunk of parmigiano reggiano. Please don’t use those green cans purporting to be grated parmesan.

Since I was making homemade lasagna noodles, I prepared the dish in two stages.

The day before serving, I peeled the squash and cut it into slices about 1/2 inch thick, sprinkled them with salt, pepper and rosemary, and roasted them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 1/2 hour.

October 2009 274

After they were nicely cooked and caramelized, I stored them overnight in the fridge.

October 2009 275

While the squash was roasting, I also roasted a whole clove of garlic, drizzled with some olive oil.

October 2009 280

I also cooked the sausage a day ahead. I took the casings off some really good, organic sausage, then fried them and broke them up into bits. This sausage is made from locally raised, pastured pigs and has very little fat. It’s delicious and is sold at Whole Foods in the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut area under the name “Simply Grazin.”

October 2009 278

The next day, I made the lasagna noodles. You can use store bought fresh lasagna noodles (Rana is a good brand) if you like and I’m sure it will be delicious, but once you’ve tried it with homemade lasagna noodles, it’s hard to go back. If you want to try it, use my pasta primer here.

October 2009 303-1   I made the béchamel sauce, and steeped the sage leaves and roasted garlic in it for a while.October 2009 304

I boiled the lasagna noodles. It took only one minute.October 2009 306While I prepared the ricotta mixture, I drained the lasagna noodles, draping them over the surface of the pot, and counter, making sure to keep some moisture under them so they wouldn’t stick to the pot.

October 2009 308 Now you’re ready to assemble. Start by spreading a layer of béchamel at the bottom of the lasagna pan. Layer in some pasta, then spread the ricotta mixture and some sausage over that.

October 2009 309

Now layer in some cooked butternut squash.

October 2009 310 Drizzle a little of the béchamel over the squash, and sprinkle over a little parmesan, then start over again, with another layer of lasagna noodles.

October 2009 311

Repeat the process until you have three layers of noodles. Finish with a layer of béchamel and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. You can add more layers of pasta and filling if you like, but be sure to increase the amounts for the béchamel and the filling too.

October 2009 312

Bake in the oven at 400 degrees for 3/4 hour or until golden brown on the top. You can pre-make everything and store it in the refrigerator overnight. In that case, make sure you remove it from the fridge ahead of time and let it come to room temperature. If not, you’ll need extra baking time in the oven to heat it through. It should look bubbly and golden on the top when it’s ready.

October 2009 314

The hardest part  is waiting 10 minutes before cutting to allow it to solidify a little. But if you wait, you’ll be rewarded with these compact, delicious layers of goodness.  October 2009 335

Here’s my recipe:

Butternut Squash and Sausage Lasagna

Printable Recipe Here

Homemade lasagna noodles or store-bought

1 medium butternut squash, sliced and roasted

1 1/2 pounds sausage, sautéed and cut into pieces

Ricotta Filling

2 cups ricotta

2 eggs

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

salt, pepper

1/4 cup minced parsley

Mix all the above ingredients together in a bowl.

 Béchamel Sauce

3 T. butter

2 T. flour

3 1/2 cups milk - I only had skim milk so I added:

1/2 cup cream

(or 4 cups whole milk)

salt, white pepper to taste

a few grinds of freshly ground nutmeg

a small bunch of sage

a few roasted garlic cloves

parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top and in between layers

Mix all the ingredients for the ricotta filling.  For the béchamel, melt the butter in a pan and add the flour, stirring a couple of minutes at medium heat to cook the flour. Add the milk and cream a little at a time, stirring all the while. (It’s best if you heat the milk first but I forgot to do this step and it was still ok. ) Use a whisk to break up any lumps. Add the sage leaf and some of the roasted garlic cloves. Season the béchamel with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes until the sauce reduces and thickens somewhat. You don’t want it super-thick like mayonnaise but you don’t want it to be as thin as milk either. Remove the garlic cloves and sage leaves.

Pour a little of béchamel on the bottom of the lasagna pan. Add a layer of the noodles, then spread some of the ricotta mixture over that, followed by some sausage and some squash. Pour a little béchamel over the squash and sprinkle a little parmesan. Add another layer of noodles, ricotta, sausage and squash, followed by a little béchamel sauce and parmesan. Finish with another layer of noodles, a generous covering of béchamel, then a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 3/4 hour or until golden brown on top.

butternut squash lasagna, simply grazin, homemade pasta, sausage

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Best Oatmeal Cookies Ever

October 2009 492

I’m not a big oatmeal cookie fan. I eat oatmeal for breakfast nearly every day, but cookies?  I’ll take some good almond biscotti any day.  Still, when the husband mentioned that he hasn’t had a good oatmeal cookie in years, I thought it was time to hunt down a recipe. I found this one on Sugar Cooking, but originally it came from Journey to Crunchville.

Is it really the best oatmeal cookie ever? That’s for you to decide. I will go so far as to say it’s a really good recipe and I’d make it again. The cookies are crunchy on the edges but chewy in the middle. If you prefer yours crunchy all the way through, leave them in the oven for a couple minutes more.

I also switched up the recipe by soaking the raisins in 2 T. of rum, rather than in the egg and vanilla. I think it adds a lot more flavor.

Best Oatmeal Cookies  Ever:

Printer Friendly Recipe here

1 cup butter, room temp
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 TBSP (yes tablespoon) vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger (I left this out. I’m not a big ginger fan.)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 cups oatmeal (quick cooking or old fashioned, not instant)
1 cup raisins (soaked in 2 T. rum)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

To prep: The key is to soak the raisins. This makes all the difference in the world. Beat eggs and vanilla together and then add the raisins, stir. Soak for an hour or two. I just walked by a few times and stirred it while I waited. (Note: I soaked the raisins in 2 T. rum for 3/4 hour rather than in the eggs and vanilla for an hour or two. )


Preheat to 350 F

Cream butter and sugars with mixer. In a separate bowl combine flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger & nutmeg. Stir the dry ingredients until well blended. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture and mix well. Now add in the egg & raisin mixture. Then add oatmeal and chocolate chips/nuts and combine well. (I used walnuts, but no chocolate chips.) Form into balls on cookie sheet. Bake 10 minutes. (I like them crispier, so I baked them for 12-14 minutes.) Let cool on cookie sheet for 2-5 minutes or until firm enough to transfer to wire rack.

Made about 3 1/2 dozen cookies, depending on how large you make them.

October 2009 483

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How To Make Homemade Pasta

October 2009 399 Grab yourself a cup of tea and pull up a chair. This is going to be a long one. Only because I want you to make homemade pasta and I’m going to take you through the process step-by-step, so you’ll have no excuses. I’ll let you off the hook if you don’t have a machine to roll out the pasta – only because rolling by hand is not easy. That’s because I use semolina flour in addition to regular unbleached flour.

Semolina, the inner, granular, starchy endosperm of hard wheat, has a lot more gluten and will give the pasta more bite.  After the finer particles in the flour have been sifted out, what’s left is the grittier, coarser semolina.

I used to make pasta with only regular flour and it’s good, but after you’ve boiled the pasta and drained the hot water, it sort of plops into the colander in one tangled mass -  the pieces are ornery and want to stick together, even though you haven’t overcooked it. There’s no real “toothiness” to it.  Semolina changes all that and gives you real “spring” in the pasta. I buy semolina flour in bulk at a local health food store, but it’s also available in small packages at our supermarkets, next to the packages of quick-cooking polenta. I also just found out that the flour maker King Arthur makes a “Perfect Pasta Blend” that includes semolina, durum and all-purpose flours. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s available by mail if you can’t find it in stores.

Semolina, which is also what I use when I make gnocchi alla romana, is much more yellow than regular all-purpose flour, as you can see in the photo below:

October 2009 182

Once you have the semolina, the only other ingredient you need is eggs. I know a lot of recipes also have you adding water or olive oil, but not mine. Mine is made the way it’s made in Emilia-Romagna, where my mother and her family are from. I don’t even add salt. You add salt to the boiling water later.

Here is a photo of how I used to make pasta for many years – the way it’s done in Italy by little old grandmas and the way many traditionalists still make it here. Start with a wooden pasta board. In this case, I inherited a fabulous pasta board from my mother-in-law. It’s probably at least 75 years old and has some cracks in it. But it’s humongous and filled with memories so I’ll ask my husband to keep repairing the cracks until they can’t be repaired any longer. Now most of you probably don’t have a pasta board, so use a large wooden chopping board – or just your counter top. But a wooden board is preferable because it gives the pasta more texture in the final product – useful for having the sauce cling to it.

OK, so you make a little mountain with the flour and then make a well in the center –now you’ve got a mini Mount Vesuvius. Crack the egg into the well and start beating the egg with a fork, pushing against the flour with your other hand to hold the volcano wall from collapsing.  The flour eventually gets amalgamated with the egg and becomes too dense to work with the fork. At that point, you have to use your hand.

October 2009 147 In the photo above, I used only one cup of flour and one egg. I did this just to show you what it looks like to do it by hand. But after making it this way for years, I then saw Lidia Bastianich mix pasta dough in the food processor and life as I knew it ceased to exist. If my food guru can make it in the food processor, so can I. And so can you. But if you want to be a purist, or just want the experience of making it on the board, give it a whirl. But I’m telling you – mixing pasta dough in the food processor is like finding the Holy Grail, the meaning of life, and George Clooney’s phone number all at once. 

Add the semolina, and the regular all-purpose flour to the processor, along with the eggs. Give it a whir until a ball starts to form. When you’re adding the flour, it’s best to hold some back because if you add too much in the beginning, it’s very difficult to form a good ball of dough. It’s always easier to add more flour if the dough is too sticky. In the photo above, the dough forms a ball, but there’s still a little clinging to the side of the food processor bowl. You can remove it from the bowl and put it on your board and start kneading in a little more flour until it’s no longer sticky.

You can use the same recipe each time you make dough, but it can come out different each time. That’s because a lot is dependent on whether you use large eggs, jumbo eggs or small eggs and whether it’s a humid or a dry day. When it’s humid, you’ll find you need more flour. When it’s dry, you’ll need less. It takes practice but eventually you’ll get a “feel” for it.

Now you knead the dough. Press your palm into the dough and push it into the board away from you.

October 2009 357

Pick up one end of the dough and fold it over the other end.

October 2009 359Then smush it down into the board using your palm like you did before.

October 2009 360 After you’ve kneaded it on the board for five minutes or so, the dough will start to feel a little smoother. But it needs to rest for at least a half hour to an hour more before you can roll it out. That allows the glutens to “relax.” I cover the dough with a bowl, but you can wrap it in plastic wrap if you like.

After a half-hour or so, you’re ready to start rolling. I use a pasta machine, something that would be considered heresy to my cousin Lucia in Italy who use a mattarello (or a very long rolling pin). She’s also the one I told you about a while ago who won the Miss Tagliatella contest in her region, so you can see I’m a novice compared to her. I’m sure she’d think I was taking the easy route by using a pasta machine.

Until she gives me some pointers and until I get a mattarello, (my husband has promised to make me one), I’ll continue to use the pasta machine and I’ll bet you will too. Cut off a small portion of dough and keep the rest covered. This pastry cutter is in the picture just to give you some perspective on the size of the dough to start with. It’s a piece about the size of a half a cupcake probably.

October 2009 292 Then smush down the piece with the palm of your hand to flatten it. This will make it easier to initially push through the machine.

October 2009 293

Keep some flour on the board and pat the piece on both sides with some flour.

Start by coaxing the dough through the largest opening of the pasta machine. On mine, it’s the #1 opening.

Here’s what the dough looks like after the initial pass through the machine and just before I am ready to put it through the #2 slot:

October 2009 362 Keep putting the dough through the rollers, moving up one number higher each time. Pat the strips of pasta with flour so it doesn’t stick when you’re feeding it through the rollers. My machine goes to #7, but I usually stop after rolling the dough through #6, which is thin enough. Here’s how long the above piece of dough looks after it’s been through the #6 roller. At this point, I usually cut it in half because it’s too unwieldy to handle.

October 2009 366

The dough should be resilient, but thin enough that you can almost see through it. At least that’s how I like it. You may like it thicker, or even thinner, at the #7 setting.

October 2009 285-1  At this point, you have to decide what shape pasta you want. If you want pappardelle, cut them by hand, using either a knife, or a pastry wheel. I like to make pappardelle about an inch to an inch and a half wide and I use a ruler to guide me in cutting along the long edge.

October 2009 153-1 For lasagna, keep the entire width of the pasta as it comes out of the machine, trimming the edges to make them even:

October 2009 302-1To make  tagliatelle or fettuccine, I feed the dough through the attachment that came with the pasta machine.

October 2009 368 You can also make even thinner pasta – tagliolini - with the attachment:

October 2009 155-1 You need someplace to put all this pasta while you finish rolling out the rest and clean up. If you’re pressed for space, hang a coat rack over your kitchen cabinet door and use paper-coated coat hangers like this:

October 2009 374 Otherwise, put some flour on a board and make little “nests” of the pasta. This allows you to store whatever you don’t use much more easily.

October 2009 173

If you’re not using it right away, make sure to dry it completely before storing it, otherwise it can turn moldy in a plastic bag or container.

Now serve it up with your favorite sauce, maybe even my mushroom truffle cream sauce.

The first time you make homemade pasta, it may take you a couple of hours to make a batch large enough for four people, but as you become more proficient, you should be able to complete the work in 1/2 hour (not including time for the dough to rest).

Thanks for hanging in through this long post.

Homemade Pasta Recipe:

Printable recipe here

Enough for about four servings:

3/4  cup semolina flour

3/4 cup unbleached white flour

2 large eggs

Place most of the semolina and regular flour into a food processor bowl. Keep about 1/4 cup of the flour or semolina aside. Add the eggs, then pulse the ingredients until a ball starts to form. Add more flour or semolina if it seems too sticky. Put on a board and knead, adding more flour as needed. Let it rest under a bowl, or covered with plastic wrap, for at least a half hour. Work the dough through a pasta machine per instructions with the machine. Make sure to flour the dough as you make each pass through the rollers, so it won’t stick.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pappardelle With Mushrooms and Truffle Cream Sauce

October 2009 193

It’s truffle season. White truffles, grown in Italy’s Piedmont region, are the most highly prized among connoisseurs – and naturally they come with a hefty price tag. On Nov. 8, 2009, the 11th annual white truffle auction will take place in the castle of Grinzane Cavour, near Alba.

Grinzane Cavour castleLast year, the top price came from someone in Tokyo, Japan who bid 24,000 euros ($35,700) for a truffle weighing 850 grams (a little less than 2 lbs.) In total, 118,000 euros ($176,000) was raised, all of which went to charity.

You can rightly assume we were not among the bidders, although we did have the good fortune to visit the castle a few years ago. While you may not be rushing to spend a princely sum on a pound of white truffles either, here’s an alternative that won’t leave you broke.  It’s not the same as eating fresh truffles, but when you have to choose between mortgaging the house or one of the prized tubers, why not try some truffle cream, truffle oil or truffle honey instead?

Gourmet Attitude, a company that imports fresh, preserved and frozen truffles to some of the toniest restaurants in the country (think French Laundry and Le Bernardin), recently launched a new line of truffle delicacies under the name “La Boutique de la Truffe.”  When they offered to send me some, I naturally said “yes” (in the name of furthering research for all you readers, mind you).

I added their truffle cream to a dish of freshly made pappardelle and wild mushrooms – photo above. 

I poured their white truffle oil over mashed potatoes and chives.

Sept. 2009 236 And I drizzled the truffle honey over a cracker spread with goat cheese.

October 2009 025All of the products had the pungent, aromatic flavor of truffles, even though they contain only a tiny portion of real truffles. We thought the honey and the oil had the strongest truffle flavor out of the three, but our favorite was the truffle cream. It had a faintly garlicky flavor, in addition to a musky, earthy taste. 

Maybe we were unduly influenced by the combination of the trio of mushrooms and homemade pappardelle that also contributed to our overall enjoyment of the dish. I have to admit, we would have loved the pasta even without the truffle cream. 

But should you find yourself with some truffle cream, try making this pasta sauce. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make home-made pasta, just make sure you buy a really good brand of pappardelle. But if you’re up for the challenge, I’ll be writing a how-to for homemade pasta in an upcoming post.

October 2009 188

Pasta With Mushroom and Truffle Cream Sauce

Printable Recipe Here

This makes enough for four good-sized pasta portions

2 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter

1 large shallot, minced finely

1 clove garlic, minced

1 lb. mushrooms  (I used a combination of shitake, baby portabellas and oyster mushrooms)

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 cup cream

1/2 cup milk

salt, white pepper to taste

a few grindings of freshly ground nutmeg

a small bunch of fresh sage leaves

4 T. truffle cream

minced parsley

parmesan cheese, optional

Place olive oil and butter in sauce pan and add the shallot. Sauté until wilted, then add the garlic and sauté for a minute or two. Slice the mushrooms and add to the pan, sautéing them until cooked through. Add the chicken broth, cream, milk and the bunch of sage leaves. Grind some fresh nutmeg into the pan. Let it come to a boil, then lower the heat to a brisk simmer and reduce until it has a velvety consistency. Remove the sage leaves. Whisk in four tablespoons of truffle cream. Pour the sauce over the pasta.  Sprinkle with minced parsley.

There are two schools of thought on whether to add parmesan cheese. In Italy, you would never be served parmesan cheese with most fish dishes (there are some exceptions).  Likewise, adding parmesan cheese to a dish with such pronounced flavors like truffles or wild mushrooms is also considered near-heresy. Follow your own palate, but try it first without the cheese and then decide.