March 31, 2008

Last of the Winter Veg

As we make the transition from Winter to Spring, I find myself wanting to clear out the old in my pantry to make room for the new. This is one way to use up ingredients that have been sitting around in order to start fresh with the produce of Spring. Also, I feel really proud when I can be improvisational in the kitchen, coming up with meals from the dregs of my refrigerator, therefore saving myself a trip to the store.

It seems I've had a few things in the vegetable drawer that needed using: a butternut squash, some carrots and a rutabaga. This would make a nice roasted winter root veg dish. (I'm starting to sound like Jamie Oliver). I opted not to throw in the beets as they would have stained everything and the different shades of calming orange looked so nice I didn't want to ruin it with overly emotional red. And this was a one- dish kind of thing. I was in no mood to roast these few veggies in three separate pans.

I simply diced everything more or less the same size so they would cook evenly and be done at the same time, tossed them together with good sea salt and extra virgin olive oil (only a light coating)...

then laid them in a single layer on a baking sheet with sides and popped it in the oven at 400 for about one hour.

I stirred them a few times while cooking to get them to brown a bit here and there, and they were done when they felt tender. I learned from Alice that if you let them get too brown they'll taste bitter. These were perfectly done and sweet--imagine little pillows of candy that are actually vegetables that are good for you!

While they were nearing completion, I pan-fried a couple of chicken breasts briefly on each side after pounding them thin. Then I sprinkeled some chopped garlic and herbs on top and served them right alongside my vegetables.

A friend commented recently about all the pasta and baking that goes on in my kitchen and asked why I don't weigh 200 pounds. I think this dinner is an example of how I can, in fact, cook a healthy meal here and there that is deeply satisfying in its simplicity. Actually, more often than not, this is what we eat. The pasta and the desserts are just thrown in for a treat--not with abandon--but certainly with some frequency.

It's like life, I've been thinking--mostly a string of challenges and suffering, with a few happy and joyful moments thrown in here and there. And it's not all bad, as those moments are all too easy to create. For example, in the little orange ricotta cream with shaved chocolate* that I whipped up for dessert.

(*ricotta, sugar, orange zest processed until smooth, shaved bittersweet chocolate and a cookie)

...Or this yummy banana bread from Nigella with bourbon or rum-soaked raisins and walnuts-- a simple joy on a Sunday morning.

March 27, 2008

Dinner on the couch again?

I haven't updated you since Monday, I know. And it hasn't even been a particularly busy week so I have no excuse. Except to say that after last weekend's baking marathon, I guess I needed a little down time away from the kitchen. So, what have we been eating?

One night it was sandwiches on the couch. The night after Easter was a big green salad and nothing else, a day of cleansing after all that baked stuff. And, last night we went out. We went to a little neighborhood place called Eastland Cafe.

( can someone tell me how to insert a link in the text here? thanks)

I love the atmosphere--and the location several blocks from home--but the food is not as good as I always hope it will be. I'm not in business of giving restaurant reviews (unless of course I am asked to) so suffice it to say, our dinner was average and it was just nice to get out and share some time away from our kitchen with Daniel.

And, there was this little pasta dish thrown together one night at the last minute with ingredients on hand and an excuse to use up the sample sausage I had been saving. I got this at work --one of the benefits of working in a restaurant. It was a handmade rope sausage, labled 'mild' from a company out of Chicago called Fontanini. (

If I could find it in the stores here I would buy it everytime I needed Italian sausage, which is pretty often, as it was the best Italian sausage I've had in Nashville. It was mild but also very flavorful and well spiced, and it gave an extra something to this Italian meat sauce--something new and different--that kicked it up several notches.

I started by browning the sausage, then took it out, added onions to the oil and browned them too, added some garlic, some tomato paste from a tube (the kind I used to get in Italy; this one probably came from W.F.) and seasoned it with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and a little oregano. Then I threw in some mushrooms I had lying around, put the meat back in, and I let that cook and develop some flavor for 2-4 minutes before adding a can of diced tomatoes.

I let that gently simmer while I cooked my pasta: little 'chiocciole', comma-shaped guys. Capisci? They were actually big, over-sized commas, perfect for holding the sauce in their caves, and are my new favorite pasta. They came from the W.F. megastore, the brand Bionaturae, an organic semolina pasta from Italy.

Fresh-grated parmigiano sprinkled on top and a few leaves of fresh basil and parsley for color finished the deal.

If you hadn't noticed, pasta is my go-to meal when I haven't gone to the store or given much thought to dinner. But this one was so meaty and spicy and wonderful, it deserved much better than a last-minute meal eaten in front of the tube. But sometimes those are the ones that satisfy most.

I'll be getting back to some 'serious' cooking next week. Maybe. Not making any promises. I'm not good at that. Spontanaeity is more my style these days...

March 24, 2008

An Easter Egg Feast

In case you hadn't noticed, Easter is all about eggs. This may sound trite but for me this year it really was. Maybe because I am working as a baker right now and have learned a lot of fun things about the art of pastry, or maybe because my mom always did a lot of baking for holidays... either way I did an almost all-pastry Easter brunch this year. The only thing that was not made of pastry was the salumi and tomino cheese plate, which of course I bought at work.

Eggs are beautiful as well as symbolic. They are synonymous with Easter, not because of any Christian import, but because of the pagan ritual of Springtime celebrations that focus on Nature. Eggs symbolize rebirth and renewal, as well as fertility. They also happen to be the number one ingredient in baking.

The first thing I made, two days ahead, was this "Torta di Pasqua" (Italian Easter tart). It came from a magazine, La Cucina Italiana, which has recently been published in here. I learned from them that this is a traditional thing to make on Easter because it holds up for a few days, is even better on the second and third day, and travels well to the Easter Monday picnic I spoke of in my previous post.

It starts with a basic pate brisé, or non-sweet pastry dough, similar to pie dough. The filling is made with ricotta cheese, diced ham (I used Boar's Head Black Forest), fresh marjoram or thyme, salt and pepper and lots and lots of eggs (12-14 depending on the size of your cake pan). An 11-inch springform was called for, but not owning one that large, I used a 9 inch round cake pan instead. In the future I will use the springform as it makes for a much prettier presentation. The cool thing about this tart was that is is like a quiche, but also like a cheesecake, but one with a pastry top and whole eggs baked in the middle! You roll your chilled pastry out, lay it in the pan, pour in the filling, then make indentations with the back of a large spoon and crack a whole egg in each one, like so...

Then you lay your second rolled out disk on top, pinch the edges together, sprinkle the top with coarse salt and cumin (I used flax) or dark sesame seeds, and bake for about an hour or until the top is puffed and golden.

Next up, I had to counter the savory tart with something sweet so I made something else I've never made before: a Swiss Easter rice tart that I had seen in NYTimes Dining & Wine last week.

I made it on Sat. night. It was a simple tart, with a custardy filling made of white rice, milk, sugar, eggs, lemon zest and almond meal (or ground almonds mixed with a little flour). It was very easy to make. I love making tarts and my 10-inch removable tart pan is probably the most used pan in my baking arsenal. Everyone raved about the lemony, nutty, not too sweet tart. Who knew the Swiss could bake?

And, as if I hadn't used enough eggs or butter, I whipped up some Hot Cross Buns on Sunday morning just for fun. I'd never made them (or even eaten them) before, as they were not in our family's Italian repertoire. I learned to make them at work on Friday and it was easy enough to duplicate at home. You make a brioche dough first (c'mon, I know you all know how to do that), then add golden raisins and nutmeg and mix into the eggy, buttery dough, mix with the dough hook for a while, then chill overnight if you want. I find that working with yeasty things that need to rise, breaking it up into stages makes it a lot less overwhelming.

On Sunday morning I woke up, took out my dough, shaped them into little 3-oz balls, laid them aside to rise just like Jesus, and popped them in the oven after making the requisite little crosses on top with a knife. They baked in less than 20 min. and came out smelling divine just in time for my guests to arrive. I let them cool a bit, iced the crosses and handed them out with coffee for a little warming goodness before the main dishes.

(Long post, I know, lots of baking. Can't say I didn't warn you).

We sipped mimosas, nibbled on deviled eggs and egg-shaped cookies--as I said, I used a few eggs, but who's counting?-- and enjoyed my pastry labors in good company. I must look insane to some of you with all this work for one meal, but for me it's a labor of love. There is nothing I like more than making something from scratch that transforms into a beautiful and edible thing, to be shared with the people I love. My mom, whose favorite season was Spring and who loved baking as much as I do, would be proud.

March 22, 2008


It seems that Spring has arrived in Middle Tennessee: the daffodils have bloomed all over town with bright yellow bonnets heralding the warm weather to come, and people are out walking, biking and playing on this first official day of the new season.

Two things are going on at my house-- the preparation for an Easter Sunday brunch, and the start of my first ever vegetable garden. I have always wanted a garden, one that would not only look pretty but also produce something we can eat! Being from the Southwest, I've never been exposed to growing much more than a basil plant in the windowsill and geraniums on the back patio (although my dad has a beautiful garden patio in Las Vegas where he is growing all kinds of citrus fruit and tropical looking plants).

But here in the South it seems wet enough to grow stuff and I am jumping in head first. I'm like the new girl at school, not afraid to look dumb to expert gardeners and naive enough to think I can actually succeed at this, despite my absolute neophyte status.

So Daniel being from a family of capable people--a fix everything dad and a master gardener mom--has picked up a thing or two. He knows what we need at least to get started and from there it's one big experiment for both of us. (I'll be blogging about it here all season long as I envision an edible garden that will compliment my cooking experiments and hopefully turn into a healthy new obsession).

We started last weekend by digging up a plot of land in what we believe to be the sunniest corner of our backyard. We dug up all the roots with a pick-axe and a shovel, turning the earth over and over until the worms came out and the soil looked pretty dark. Then this weekend we got the manure (the cow variety) and added it to the soil, mixed it up quite a bit and raked it smooth. Next, putting a fence around it so Olive doesn't romp all over it.

(Break time--fried ckick peas and an american pale ale from Bluegrass Brewing Co., Louisville, KY)

In addition to asking friends and family who are experienced gardeners, I am using a book called "Dirty Knees" given to me by Betsy at work. She's an avid gardener and her mom wrote it. It's about organic gardening for the novice. Perfect. It has a month-by-month breakdown of what you should be doing, when to plant what, and how to do it in simple terms. It's great. Thanks, Betsy.

For Easter I have some friends and Daniel's parents coming over. Let's just say my stand mixer and rolling pin are working overtime--I've been at it since Friday night. Here is just a preview and there will be a special "Pasquetto" blog on Monday. (Easter Monday in Italy is traditionally a holiday too when people take their leftovers from the Sunday feast to the park for a picnic). I am making some yummy things in keeping with my family's tradition of doing it up on Easter. Stay tuned...

March 16, 2008

Vegetable bliss

I'm not a vegetarian, but lately it seems I am hard pressed to eat (or cook) meat. Maybe it was the story about the abused cows at a major meat processor that did it. But that story just confirmed what I always knew to be true about industrially produced meat in this country. Or maybe it's that for about a year now I have been only buying and eating organic, free-range --and sometimes local-- meat. (Going out is another story but it's rare that I order a steak).

Last summer I was delighted to find meat from local farms being sold by a nice couple from Pulaski, TN (D&W Farms) at the farmer's market. Every Saturday I would buy whatever they had: pork sausage, beef, lamb, and I even bought goat once (with which I made some delicious slow-cooked 'cabrito' tacos). For me, buying meat from people you could talk to who live less than 50 miles away was a revelation. Not only did it satisfy my conscience, but of course it tastes so much better. I also recently discoverd Todd's Butcher Shop on Charlotte where I can buy fresh, organic, sustainable and humanely raised meats from a really nice guy--a good, old fashioned neighborhood butcher.

So, although the meat consumption at our house is infrequent these days, the quality of the meat we eat has definitely gone up.

This is all to say that I made yet another totally vegetarian meal last night. And it was so good and satisfying I don't know why I ever need to eat meat. But then I'll remember duck confit or lamb tagine, or herb-crusted pork loin and I'll remember why...

I made a simple vegetable curry. It had all the winter stand-bys: carrots and potatoes, kale... and pigeon peas (these are a Jamaican style pea, from a can, and very tasty, but weird). It also had a can of organic crushed tomatoes and lots of spices like coriander, cumin, chili powder and ginger. Yum. And if it wasn't healthy enough already, I threw in some barley for thickness (white or brown basmati rice is another option). It was warm and hearty and felt like the most nutritious thing I'd eaten in a while. I served it with sweet mango chutney that I'd bought recently for no reason but that it goes so well with curry.

And because I'd been swooning over the golden beets at Whole Foods and this last time just could not resist, I made a roasted golden and red beet salad with toasted almonds, parsely, pecorino cheese and a tangerine vinaigrette. That's right. A tangerine vinaigrette (shallots, mustard, sherry vinegar and the juice of one small tangerine). I found this recipe in bon appetit and altered it a little. I'm not sure beets could taste any better.

For dessert --because I had to balance out all the healthy vegetable madness--I made a pear tart in the shape of a heart for Daniel because he's been extra sweet to me lately, and it's his favorite.

March 14, 2008

I won!

This is excting.

Since my blogging habit has been advancing over the last couple of months, I have found a lot of like-minded people out there who are passionate about food and love to share with others. I feel like I am part of a community that is fun and full of interesting people who are doing amazing things in their kitchens all over the country.

One of these people is Claudia who writes the fabulous blog called 'cook eat fret' (see favorites at right). I salivate regularly over her dishes, her professional grade photographs and love her sense of humour. So when she decided to make 'mole negro oaxaqueno' a couple of weeks ago (mole is sooooo hard and soooo time consuming and for that reason, something I've never undertaken), I was truly excited and impressed and it reconfirmed my sense that we really are kindred spirits. I, too, would undertake something of similar proportions (she wreaked havoc on her kitchen and it took her 9 hours!) just to say I could do it.

So when she decided to hold a contest for her readers to go along with her beautiful mole post, I was game. I commented on that post and in doing so, entered to win all of the ingredients to make the same dish (there are many ingredients), provided by Claudia. It was a random number generator that pulled the winning comment. I never thought I'd win because I never win anything. So, imagine my delight when I returned to cook eat fret a few days later and found out I HAD WON!!

This was great news: I had finally won a contest, and now I would get to (have to?) make mole negro oaxaqueno! I am ready! Ready at the first opportunity to spend a day in the kitchen, roasting and crushing chiles by hand and hoping that it turns out and makes my Mexican grandmother proud. I wish she were here to see it. Once I asked her how to make mole in my innocent youth, long before I embarked on my cooking adventures, and she relpied simply "Forget about it."

The coolest part about this whole mole thing is that Claudia came to my work today to drop off the prize and we got to meet finally. I read her all the time, she reads my little blog here, and it was so fun to meet in person. It's funny how you feel almost like you know someone from reading their blog. And then when you get to meet them in person it's almost like they're famous. That's how it felt. Like a little celebrity moment. Like earlier in the week when Jack White of the White Stripes (a regular at the place where I work) came up to the counter and ordered MY pastries! And then ate them! All!! So cool...Thanks, Jack and Claudia.

March 11, 2008

Risotto ai funghi

There is something so warm and comforting about a nice, creamy mushroom risotto when Winter is lingering. This is what I made when we decided to have an impromptu dinner this weekend with our neighbors, Nikki and Erwin from across the street.

She and I made a last-minute decision to run to the Turnip Truck for ingredients to make risotto as she wanted to learn how to make it and I wanted to cook. The guys apparently just wanted to drink.

We bought a mixture of shitake and crimini mushrooms, arborio rice, some chicken to serve after the risotto (I made a simple saltimbocca: prosciutto-wrapped chicken breasts with crispy sage) and we were off!

When I was in Florence in 1992, the first time I lived there, I took a cooking class with my good friend Tiffany Tiberti. That is where I first learned to make risotto. I still do it the same way, slowly and stirring constantly, adding butter and parmigiano at the very end to make it creamy, and it always turns out great.

I like the starchy, creamy rice with the woodsy taste of mushrooms. But in the Spring I sometimes make it with asparagus or artichokes, and once in a while I make the traditional 'risotto alla milanese' with saffron. You could make risotto with just about anything. I once saw an Italian chef make a gorgeous butternut squash risotto with a luscious, rich Aglianico wine. Mmmmmm.

Here is my recipe for mushroom risotto: (serves 4)

1 to 1.5 cups of short-grain arborio rice (carnaroli is a good variety but harder to find)
1/2 c of diced shallot or onion
3-4 c of chicken stock
2 T butter
lots of fresh grated parmigiano cheese
salt and pepper
a variety of mushrooms -shitake, crimini, oyster, porcini

Get your stock ready by simmering it and keep the heat on very low throughout the cooking of the risotto. In another pot sautee your shallots or onions in good quality olive oil. When softened, add your rice to toast it for a minute. As soon as you smell that flavor of toasted rice, add some stock to the pot, just enough to cover the rice and stir. Let it cook a good 20 minutes, stirring often if not constantly, adding stock every time the rice has almost absorbed all the liquid. The only way I can tell if it's done is by testing it. It should have a little firmness to it, but be cooked through and starchy. When the rice is close to being done, add your mushrooms and butter, salt and pepper, stir and cook a little more. When it seems done to you, stir in the parmigiano and turn off the heat.

*Be sure to let it sit for a couple of minutes before serving. You want to eat risotto right away, but letting it sit first allows it to become even creamier and gooey-er and the flavors of butter and cheese have a chance to meld with everything else. Serve with chopped fresh parsely, more fresh grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

March 8, 2008

Snow and savory tart

Friday evening and a nice quiet night at home. The weather calls for snow and though I laugh at the local news reports around here when it comes to forecasting winter weather (I'm from Colorado)--getting the salt trucks and the chains out, school closures and general hysteria--all for just a couple of inches! Still, I am hopeful that this time could be 'the big one'.

What to make for dinner? Something warm and comforting, simple but fun. We have all night and nowhere to go, so time is not an issue. I think about the savory tarts at work that I see being put together with all kinds of leftovers--veggies and combinations of things like sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms, onions, peppers--anything that happens to be lying around. What a perfect winter dish...

So I get in the kitchen and make a quick tart dough. I used Alice Waters's recipe but it's just like any buttery pie crust really.
2 c. AP flour
1 c ice water
1 1/2 sticks of butter

Get your ice water ready (about a cup but sometimes you need more), and cut your cold unsalted butter into small cubes, then put flour in a bowl, get out the dough blender (I used mine for the first time- much easier than getting out the mixer for such a small amount of dough), and cut the butter into the flour until it's almost like cornmeal, leaving some larger chunks of butter intact (this will produce that desired flakiness when rolled out). Then add your ice water pouring slowly with one hand while mixing with a fork with the other, until dough comes together enough to handle. Push it togther a bit and wrap in plastic, flatten into a disk (or two--this is enough for two 8-in. tarts, or one with a top) and chill for about 1 hour.

While the dough was chilling, I made my filling: carmelized onions, diced potatoes and rainbow chard with garlic. I sauteed each one separately in my skillet, then combined it all in a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper and left it to cool (if it goes in hot it could make your tart soggy on the bottom).

(Drink some wine, talk on the phone to my friend in Napa who's gettting married in May, drink some more wine...indeed it is snowing!)

The dough is ready. Roll it out into a jagged-edged circle about 1/4 in. thick ...

and place it in a pie shell, load the filling and fold the edges up and over. I egg-washed the rim of the tart so it would be nice and golden, then pop it in the oven for about 45 min.

(oh, and when it's 10 min. to go, you could add some shredded mozzarella to the top for extra goodness).

I love the anticipation of opening the oven door to see what you're going to get. It's like a little experiment each time and every time is slightly different with these rustic savory tarts. You could put anything into them and the crust is so reliable and yummy, very buttery and flaky--the perfect compliment to those bright and beautiful veggies. It's savory cooking and baking all in one! My perfect combination.

And this morning- Snow!!!

March 6, 2008

Looking back...

My event at marché honoring Peggy Markel is over and I am getting back to normal activities. But I wanted to post a few pictures from the event. It was well attended, people seemed to have fun and enjoy the photos of Italy and Morocco, and I felt like it went off without any (or very few) problems.

All in all, I learned a lot putting this thing on--about people and their motivations, about the world of p.r., about the way things don't always go exactly as planned but close is good enough (this is hard for the perfectionist in me), and that you can't always expect a reward or outward appreciation from the people who you most would like it from.

But in the end, the result was something I could be proud of. And the people who cared the most were there helping out and as a show of support for me, and this was so nice. The best part was when Daniel was refilling water glasses, and Kiki was setting up tables and cleaning up. I have worked in many restaurants over the years. This was an experience in diplomacy in many ways and restaurant politics are always there. But in the kitchen at least, everyone pulled together to help --on their day off no less- and I was very grateful. (That's Betsy putting the finishing touches on the ribollita and Betsy and Rocio, the awesome duo in the kitchen).

One thing I'll remember for next time is to eat and drink a little myself! I heard the food was great. Betsy made Lamb Tagine and Couscous (Morocco), Ribollita (Tuscany) and Eggplant Caponata (Sicily) and it all looked amazing...

Stay tuned for my next Nashville event. But not for a while...