Archive for the ‘Italian Cooking’ Category

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January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016

 

Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]

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December 10, 2014: Empty Platter

December 11, 2014

Empty Platter LayoutI have volunteered as a chef’s assistant for several months now for an organization that provides home cooked meals and a pantry supplies to needy families in the area.

When I started at my present job, I was still living on scraps as I had so numerous other bills. Food wasn’t as much as a priority as like…keeping my house and paying for gas for the car. The owners of my company suggested I try Open Table (the local food pantry assistance program) and thought I might benefit from their service. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of days when I finally came to the conclusion that my pride was deeply meshed with my stupidity, and it would be foolish to not take assistance from an organization that was specifically there to help people in exactly my condition at the time.

So I registered for the pantry service. One thing about a service like this is that there is always a little waiting around. You are given a random number that groups you in a queue according to that number. While waiting, I took in the whole environment. The first thing I noticed is that most of my fellow patrons seemed very appreciative to have the service, happy even…despite their obvious current setbacks. It was no wonder, as each Open Table volunteer…to a person was charming, sympathetic, and helpful. The volunteers themselves seemed happy to be there as well. I knew how hard it was for individuals like myself, but my heart went out most of all to the families. I wondered and worried about how many nights the parents had nothing to offer but the empty platter of hunger to their children.

As I waited, being a foodie, I could not help but be interested in the food they served (I never had the meals at Open Table as the pantry suited me fine, and I did not want to burden them any more than I had to.) I found the meals well-made, clearly geared for popular appeal, nutritious, well presented, and best of all…well received! I decided my first night that as soon as I didn’t need the pantry service I would pay them back a bit by volunteering where I thought I could do the most good…the kitchen.

So it has been for some months. And a more peasant kitchen experience I cannot imagine: there are a group of assistants, a group to clean, a group to serve and a lead chef. Everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed to do, often with being directed, and best of all they help each other, all with a pleasant chatter making the whole experience warm and fun. I was always capable of more, but I was happy prepping and cleaning. After all, to my mind I was paying back a debt. The notions that I was having fun, learning a bit, especially about cooking for a huge group of people, and keeping my knife skills sharp (yes…pun intended) were all bonuses.

I got a surprise the other night, when Jim, the lead chef this week told me, “We’re serving ham for the main course, but there will be a few people who cannot eat ham. I would like you to take these ingredients and make something pleasant for them.”

People tell me all the time about these cooking shows where they have challenges/eliminations like this. I’ve never seen any of them, but I imagine that this was like that…minus the TV cameras and lights…and fame…and money…and restaurant positions. On the plus side, I was doing it for coolest folks doing good works for the needy, and it was fun! I ended up making lightly breaded and fried Chicken Breasts, smothered in sautéed Mediterranean Vegetables. I left pleased. It was not my best dish ever (I usually plan way ahead of time) but I thought I did OK, considering the turn-around time.

I went back to work, but after a couple of minutes I had that “DOH” moment when it occurred to me that this would make a good blog article, so I went back down to try to get a shot of my dish. When I found it, the only thing that was left was the empty platter it was served on. At first I thought with a laugh, “Oh, it went over well” but then I remembered the reality: the staff packages the leftovers from the meal and gives them to people as they are leaving, the idea seeming to be to get every scrap of food into the hands of those that need it.

Looking down at that empty platter…something clicked…a switch was thrown. I don’t know if I can describe it, but I’ll try.

I’ve written before that making food is like another form of an expression of love. If I’ve cooked for you, the chances are pretty good (at least at the time of the meal) that I held you in such high regard as to give you the best of my creative industry. Friends and family…easy…cooking for them is pure joy. On the flip side, working in the French restaurant was not only hard work, but I never even saw a patron. The catering jobs I’ve done were smack down the middle. I enjoyed people I didn’t know…enjoying what I made.

So, I’ve cooked in a lot of different situations. Somehow, cooking at Open Table the other night was very different. I discovered that I had created something that could possibly stave off hunger for a few people, for a little while. Although I would never meet them, or talk to them about their troubles, I had been part of something that could make people’s lives (who need it the most) in the tiniest way…a little less painful. That empty platter of mine made someone else’s platter a bit more full. To me, that empty platter was the symbol of the highest expression of love to our fellow-men.

So. At this time of year we are focused on giving. If you truly want to practice “goodwill towards men” I urge you to donate to your local chapter of food and pantry assistance services like Open Table. There is almost certainly one in your town or close-by. Your money will be well-spent giving comfort to those who need it the most.

But you don’t have to listen to just me. People have been writing about the theme of caring for the poor (particularly at Christmas time) for some time. A popular traditional source is the carol by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in “Good King Wenceslas”

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

If you are looking for another contempory source, here’s what Bill Murray has to say about it all. Trust him. He’s a changed man.

 

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December 22, 2010: Perfect Parmesan Patty

December 22, 2010

I’ve loved Eggplant Parmesan since I had my sister Ellen’s wonderful recipe at New Years, in high school. Her’s was a classic eggplant parmesan: breaded and fried eggplant patties smothered in sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and it is soooo delicious, but every time I’ve made it this way I thought that it would so good to get rid of the mess and calories of frying. Most of the flavor comes from the eggplant, sauce and cheeses anyway, so, I’ve developed a way to BAKE the patties and get similar results.

Ingredients for Eggplant Patties: (preheat oven to 450°)

  • 2 Medium Eggplants
  • Fine Salt
  • 2C. White Flour
  • 4 Eggs
  • 1C. Milk
  • 6 C. Italian Bread Crumbs+2C. Panko

If you’ve made eggplant parmesan before, you know the drill: wash and slice eggplant in about 1/2″ slices. Rinse and sprinkle with salt all surface areas of eggplant slices  and let sit for about 20 minutes (this reduces the bitterness of the eggplant.) Rinse salt off. Have three bowls ready: in the first, white flour. In the second, beaten eggs and the milk to thin. In the last bowl, the bread crumb mixture. For each eggplant patty, dredge the moist eggplant in the flour, then into the egg/milk and finally into the bread crumbs. For all of these steps make sure to cover the whole patty.

Now BAKE the patties @450° for about 10 minutes per side (I use a cookie sheet with holes in it to allow more heat through, and put a piece of aluminum foil under to catch the crumbs.) I usually turn the broiler on to finish the browning as a last step (and watch the patties very closely, with the oven door open…the broiler will scorch the patties in NO time!) The baked patties should look like the ones above left. You most likely will have to bake two trays (at least) so this part takes time but in less time, less mess, and most important…less calories than if you fried them. Combine with your favorite sauce and cheeses and bake to get a delicious and guilt-free eggplant parmesan. This recipe makes eggplant enough make  13″ X 9″ X 2″ pan size parmesan.

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November 08, 2010: Portobello-Radicchio Hors d’oeuvre

November 8, 2010

Here’s a unique and healthy hors d’oeuvre that’s pretty, pretty easy, doesn’t take a lot of time and is good for those serving vegetarians (at least those that are lacto-ovo vegetarians, for those pure vegetarians just omit cheese.)

Portobello mushrooms are the hero of the mushroom world. Some mushrooms have more flavor and some have more distinct flavors, but none beat the “beefyness” of the portobello. Portobello are really over sized cremini mushrooms. The little sister of portobello are great in a soup or an omlette, but for this dish the size of portobello works best. Even kids like portobello. A couple of weekends ago I was making chicken with a velouté sauce in bouchées and little Katie was fine helping me prepare them but she gave me fair warning that she would not try the portobello I was putting on top! Not only did we get her to try them, but she asked for more!

Radicchio is actually leaf chicory (sometimes called Italian Chicory), not a lettuce, per se, and as such can be bitter on its own, but tends to mellow a bit when roasted. The grapefruit-sized red and white head that we find in our markets is Radicchio di Chioggia.

Portobello-Radicchio Hors d’oeuvre

  • 1 Head Radicchio
  • 2 Portobello Mushrooms (more if needed; 2 medium mushrooms will make 6 pieces)
  • Sliced (round) Provolone Cheese
  • Juice of 1/2 Lemon
  • About 1/4C. Olive Oil (virgin)
  • 2 Tblsps. Red Wine
  • Spices: About 1/4Teasp. of Salt, Pepper and Herb de Provence
  • Wooden Toothpicks (1 per each hors d’oeuvre)

If you can find untrimmed portobello, that would be the best. They will have a thick stem that’s pretty dirty. Here’s a trick I learned at the restaurant: you actually don’t have to wash a portobello, in fact it’s better if you don’t. Simply remove the stem where it is dirty with a sharp knife (keep the stem for stock.) Now, flip the mushroom so that the gills are up. Grab the skin part of the edge of the mushroom and pull. You will remove a piece of the top of  the mushroom. Keep pulling like this until you have gone all the way around. You might have a piece of the skin still on the center of a big mushroom which you can remove with a sharp paring knife (I put all the skin in a baggie and then into the freezer for the next stock I make.) You now have a clean mushroom. Slice into 1/2-3/4″ pieces. Oil a grill pan and under medium high heat grill the mushroom slices on both sides and put on a paper towel. [I like the style of grill pan shown above, so I can get nice “tiger stripes” on the mushroom slices, but any grill pan will do. ]

If you are careful you will be able to pull 1/2 of a leaf of radicchio at a time. Cut each 1/2 leaf to get a 1/4 leaf. Cut provolone slices in half. You will see that the edges of the provolone line up with (and are a little smaller than) each piece of radicchio. Put provolone on top of radicchio leaf. Wrap the mushroom  and tack at a 20° in and down through hors d’oeuvre. Place each hors d’oeuvre back on grill pan and baste with juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 Tblsps. red wine, and 2 Tblsps. olive oil. Add spices. Grill under broiler until cheese is melted and/or radicchio starts to grill. Baste a little with the wine/lemon/oil. Remove with tongs to warmed plate. Serve immediately.

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November 04, 2010: Broccoli-Raab and Pasta

November 4, 2010

Yesterday, after a fun day of baby-sitting Katie, I made Barbara, Nicole, and Katie dinner. I wanted to make an Italian meal, so I made:

“Pollo al Sale” (Chicken, sealed and roasted within a salt-dough crust. At the end of roasting, the dough is broken and discarded. The crust keeps the meat moist and tender while adding a slight salt taste to the meat.)

Sautéed Broccoli-Raab with farfalle pasta, black olives, garlic, red pepper.

The broccoli-raab dish is one of my standard dishes. It’s light, healthy, and combines the slightly bitter taste of broccoli-raab with sweetness of the sautéed garlic in olive oil with the heat of red pepper with the slight salt and cheese taste of Parmesan cheese. If you’ve never used broccoli-raab before, you will find it in most grocery produce sections today. It looks a little like if broccoli had gone to seed: thin stems with small broccoli-like florets at the top. This Italian veggie is too bitter to eat raw. Just slightly blanch and sauté with olive oil.

Sautéed Broccoli-Raab

  • 1 Head Broccoli-Raab
  • 1 Box of Farfalle (‘butterfly” or “bow-tie” pasta)
  • 3 Cloves Garlic OR 1 Clove Elephant Garlic (chopped fine)
  • 1/4-1/2 C.Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/2 Dried Red Pepper (cut into thin strips) OR 2 Red (hot) Peppers (chopped fine)
  • 1/2 Can of Medium Black Olives (pitted and quartered)
  • 1 C. Parmesan Cheese (more to taste)
  • Spices: (1/4 Teasp. of each) Coarse Salt, Pepper, Oregano, Basil

Set about 4 Qts. water to boil in large pot. Add a dribble of olive oil and 1 Tblsp. coarse salt to water. Cut the last part of stems off broccoli-rabb off (save for stock) and wash broccoil-raab well and dry slightly. Chop into pieces. When water comes to boil, blanche broccoli-raab for about a minute and remove from water with a slotted spoon, keeping the water boiling. Add pasta to pot of water for about 10 minutes until “al dente”. While pasta cooks, add broccoli-raab, spices, garlic, red peppers and olive oil to large pot and sauté for the time that the pasta cooks. Add black olives at the very end of  sauté. When pasta is done, drain well, add all ingredients to a large bowl and toss with parmesan cheese. Serve.

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October 29, 2010: Antipasto

October 29, 2010

My next door neighbor Scott had a birthday today, so as a present I asked him to suggest something that I could cook for him and his guests. He said the party’s concentration was on beverages but that he liked Italian food. That narrowed it down to “antipasto” which is Italian for the snacks one has “before the meal”. There are a plethora of these, but I settled on (from left to right) Left: small balls of mozzarella surrounded by a fresh basil leaf, dribbled with olive oil; Center: bruschetta (bread brushed with olive oil and spices, then toasted) with tomato, cannelli bean, garlic, olive oil, spices and topped with a dab of ricotta; Right: Balls of cantaloupe covered with prosciutto (thin Italian ham).

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