Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Picky Stuff

I just launched The Picky Stuff, a blog dedicated to appetizers, hors d'oeuvres, cocktail party foods, and all fun little snacks that are perfect for picking. I'd love for you to stop by! Please check it out and follow on Facebook and Pinterest to stay updated on posts. Thank you! 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Grapefruit Dessert Trio

Grapefruit is kind of a misfit among the citrus group. It’s just a (totally unscientific) fact. When someone mentions citrus, you think Florida oranges, zesty limes, and tangy sweet lemons fit for a pitcher of lemonade; not bitter grapefruit. I guess it could take some getting used to. But even though it might be less portable and more intensely bitter in flavor than its squeezable cousins, I like it. I actually get cravings for fresh grapefruit juice and grapefruit segments. I think it’s refreshing.

When it comes to citrus desserts, it’s all key lime pie and lemon bars. Once again, grapefruit is overshadowed by the others. But not this time! Inspired by the underrated citrus fruit and its pretty pink color, I created three different grapefruit-flavored desserts. Using the juice and rind of ruby red grapefruits, I made mini grapefruit cupcakes with grapefruit mascarpone frosting, grapefruit sandwich cookies with grapefruit buttercream filling, and grapefruit sorbet. Whew, now that’s a lot of grapefruit!

The mini grapefruit cupcakes are perfect little tea cakes. They are topped with a delicious and light mascarpone frosting, which I happened to prefer over the cake itself, and candied grapefruit peel. The candied peel is a great touch for presentation but for serious grapefruit lovers only, as the flavor in the rind is so concentrated and intense, that even the candy and sugar coating barely mutes it. The cookies are just standard, simple shortbread cookies flavored with grapefruit, but their small size, light pink color, and buttercream filling make them especially hard to resist. And finally, if you have an ice cream machine, the grapefruit sorbet is the easiest of them all. To make it a little more interesting, I added a few tablespoons of triple sec.

Grapefruit Dessert Trio

Mini Grapefruit Cupcakes with Grapefruit Mascarpone Frosting
Yield: 24 mini cupcakes
- 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 teaspoons ruby red grapefruit zest
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
- Red food coloring (optional)
Grapefruit Mascarpone Frosting
- 4 ounces mascarpone cheese
- ½ cup confectioners sugar
- 1 teaspoon ruby red grapefruit zest
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
Candied Grapefruit Peel (Garnish)
- 1 ruby red grapefruit
- ½ cup water
- ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1) Prepare the candied grapefruit peel. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the grapefruit. Slice the peel into small strips. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the water and sugar to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the grapefruit peel and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and transfer to a parchment-lined sheet tray to dry, about 1 hour. Roll the cooled peel in remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until fully coated.
2) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a mini muffin pan with mini cupcake liners. In an electric stand mixer at medium speed, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one and time and mix until incorporated. Stir in the cake flour, baking powder, milk, grapefruit zest and juice, and mix until smooth. Add about two drops of red food coloring to tint the batter light pink, if desired. Pour the batter into the prepared mini muffin pan and bake until golden and set, about 30 minutes. Cool.
3) To make the frosting, beat the mascarpone until smooth. Add the grapefruit zest and juice, and the confectioners sugar, and mix until smooth. Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cooled cupcakes. Garnish cupcakes with candied grapefruit peel.

Grapefruit Sandwich Cookies with Grapefruit Buttercream Filling
Yield: 15-20 cookies
- ½ stick unsalted butter, room temperature
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1/3 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon grapefruit zest
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
- 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
- Red food coloring (optional)
Grapefruit Buttercream
- 3 ounces unsalted butter
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In an electric stand mixer at medium speed, cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Add the vanilla, salt, grapefruit zest and juice, and mix well. Gradually add the flour until a smooth dough forms. Add about two drops of red food coloring for a pink tint, if desired. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes. In the meantime, beat all of the buttercream ingredients together until smooth.
2) On a lightly floured surface, roll out the cooled dough to about ¼” thickness. Cut out even circles using a small cookie cutter. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Cool. Spread the buttercream over the bottom of one cookie and top with another to make a sandwich.

Ruby Red Sorbet
Yield: 1 pint
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups water
- 2/3 cup ruby red grapefruit juice
- 4 tablespoons triple sec
1) In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a medium bowl. Mix in the grapefruit juice and triple sec. Refrigerate to cool, about 2 hours.
2) Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Serve immediately or transfer to a container, cover, and freeze.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Homemade Pasta with Lemon & Parsley Pesto Sauce

It’s summertime and the food is easy. But if you’re like me, right about now at the end of the July you are already starting to feel a little bit of grill burnout. As much as I look forward to the lightly charred taste of a well-marinated chicken fresh off the grates, or the breezy simplicity of kicking back on the patio with some hamburgers and hotdogs, sometimes I crave the lighter, fresher tastes of the season.

Late summer offers some of the best fresh fruits and vegetables available all year. Local farmers’ markets and backyard gardens are beginning to show off juicy red tomatoes, sweet stone fruits, and fragrant herbs that speak to every sense. Such pure ingredients allow for the creation of simple dishes with big flavors that come naturally. It’s the lazy season, after all; you might as well let nature do all the work.

Enter: fresh pasta. It’s the perfect canvas for displaying fresh summertime flavors. In this dish, I combine homemade spaghetti with a light lemon and parsley pesto sauce that’s finished with creamy mascarpone cheese. Parsley pesto is very similar to the traditional basil version we all know but with a welcome, slightly subdued change of flavor. Diced tomato, crumbled feta cheese, toasted pine nuts, and toasted buttery breadcrumbs seasoned with parsley and lemon zest add a Mediterranean vibe with “yum” written all over it.

Except for making the pasta, this dish requires minimal work. Of course, you can make this recipe even easier with dry pasta and a jar of pesto sauce, but when a recipe is this simple, it’s worth it to put in the extra effort. I know that making fresh pasta is not for everyone. I get it—pasta is supposed to be a quick and easy thing—and believe me, I do not break out the pasta machine every time I want a bowl of macaroni. But fresh pasta is much lighter and more delicate than dry. Make the pasta and the pesto from scratch (or—shh—buy fresh). You will taste the difference.

It’s rare for me to go an entire month without a single post on Cook’s Book. In three years, I believe it’s only been once. I just made it this month! Part of the reason is that I am cooking up something new and exciting that will be launching soon. Keep an eye out for an announcement!

Pasta with Lemon & Parsley Pesto
With mascarpone cheese, tomato, feta, pine nuts, & toasted breadcrumbs
Yield: 4 Servings
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 cup toasted pine nuts, divided
- Parsley pesto (recipe follows)
- ½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 4 ounces mascarpone cheese
- Dry or homemade pasta, any shape (recipe follows)
- 1 medium tomato, diced
- 1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1) In a medium bowl, mix the breadcrumb, lemon zest, and parsley until well combined. Add the butter to a medium skillet over medium-low heat and melt. Stir in the breadcrumb mixture and toast, stirring often, until dry and evenly browned, about 8 minutes. Spread out on a tray or plate and set aside to cool.
2) In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta to al dente (remember, fresh pasta cooks much quicker than dry.) In the meantime, add the parsley pesto to a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add the lemon juice and mascarpone cheese, mixing until all are well incorporated. Keep warm.
3) Drain and transfer the pasta to the pesto mixture and toss to coat. Transfer the pasta to individual bowls and garnish with diced tomato, feta cheese, pine nuts, and toasted breadcrumbs.
Parsley Pesto
- 2 cups fresh parsley leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- ¼ cup of the toasted pine nuts
- ½ cup grated parmigiano reggiano
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
• In a food processor, add the parsley, garlic, pine nuts, and parmigiano and pulse until finely chopped. Add the extra virgin olive oil in a stream and continue to pulse until the mixture is well blended. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
- 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- Pinch of salt
- 4 eggs
- 2 ounces of water
• In an electric stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the salt and flour. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the eggs and water. Mix on medium-low speed until a ball of dough forms; the dough should be smooth and elastic and should not stick to the sides of the bowl. Add additional flour and/or water as needed. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Cover and let relax at room temperature for at least an hour. Roll out the pasta by hand or with an electric pasta roller and cut into desired thickness (spaghetti, fettuccine, etc.). Freeze or refrigerate if not using immediately.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bringing Tortoni Back

Dessert menus at Italian restaurants are pretty standard. You can be sure that the usual favorites like cannoli, gelato, and of course, tiramisu will always be there when you want them. Then there is tortoni; the ghost of dolci menus past. In its most basic form it is a cup of almond or amaretto ice cream topped with crushed toasted almond and a cherry. It’s a forgotten treasure, though if you’ve ever reveled in the simplicity of its creamy texture, toasty sweet flavor, and modest paper cup, you remember it well.

There was a time when tortoni stood right there alongside the best of them. As some baby boomers might remember, in its heyday it was a staple on the dessert menu of any red sauce restaurant worth its salt and the highlight at the end of a family-style meal. Over the years, it became somewhat of a misfit dessert, overshadowed and later pushed off menus completely by the popularity of its richer and more luscious cousins. If you ask, it might still be found lingering in the shadows of your favorite Italian restaurant’s freezer, at least I know that’s the way in New York.

My dad is the only person I know that regularly requests tortoni by name. For him, it brings back memories of my grandpa’s ice cream factory in Brooklyn in the mid-sixties, where as a kid he would watch and occasionally sneak a few of the fresh tortoni that were always being made there. Whenever he is lucky enough to get his hands on the dessert today he is rewarded with a taste of his childhood. Of course, it’s never quite the same. Asking for a tortoni these days will yield one of two results: The server with either look at you like you have five heads, or will bring you one that appears as though it’s been sitting in the freezer for the last fifty years. In the tortoni I’ve come to know, frostbite is practically one of the ingredients.

Tortoni, also known as biscuit tortoni, has a pretty vague history. It’s been around for quite some time, but has phased in and out of popularity over the years. According to this article from a 2009 issue of New York Times Magazine, it is speculated that the frozen dessert was created in the early 19th century by a Neopolatin man named Guiseppe Tortoni who owned the popular Café Tortoni in Paris and it was all the rage. It reached its peak in America in the mid-19th century then all but disappeared except for a brief resurgence in the mid-20th century. Well I say it’s about time for another tortoni revival!

If you look at the Time’s article you’ll notice that my tortoni is a little different from theirs, which is a makeover of a recipe printed in 1898 based off of the traditional tortoni where frozen mousse is used. Mine is a re-creation of the only tortoni I know, the kind like my grandpa used to make at his ice cream factory: ice cream, topping, cherry, done. Note that this dish, like chicken parmesan or penne al la vodka, is distinctly Italian-American—as is an Italian from Italy wouldn’t know this tortoni from Tony down the block.

To create my tortoni, I made frozen custard with a classic crème anglaise/vanilla sauce base and spiked it with amaretto for the distinct almond flavor that the dessert is known for. Amaretto adds a smoother, more refined taste, and is less in-your-face than the generic flavor of almond extract. For the topping, I used a mixture of crumbled toasted almonds and amaretti cookies. Amaertti cookies are like little almond macaroons; they are the “biscuit” in “biscuit tortoni” and they can be found in specialty Italian markets. Of course, it has to be served in a paper cup with a maraschino cherry or else you can just forget about it all together. And no frostbite is included, thank you very much. It’s a perfect little after dinner palate cleanser. Viva il tortoni!

Tortoni (Amaretto Ice Cream Cups)
Yield: 12 cups
- ½ cup blanched almonds, toasted and cooled
- ½ cup amaretti cookie
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1 vanilla bean
- 9 ounces egg yolks (about 14 eggs)
- ¼ cup amaretto or more to taste (can substitute with almond extract; add 1 teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition until desired flavor is reached)
- 12 paper squeeze cups (like the ones used for Italian ices)
- 12 maraschino cherries, drained, rinsed and dried
1) Either manually or using a food processor, finely crush the blanched almonds and amaretti cookies separately; mix together to combine and set aside. Prepare an ice bath with a strainer and metal bowl/container nearby.
2) To make the ice cream base, combine the milk, heavy cream, salt, and ½ cup of the sugar in a small saucepan. Scrape out the inside of the vanilla bean and add to the mixture along with the pods. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks with the remaining ½ cup of sugar until well blended.
3) To temper the egg yolks, gradually add about 1/3 of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Return the tempered egg to the remaining hot milk mixture in the saucepan and continue cooking until the mixture thickens just enough to coat the back of a spoon. You will know you’ve reached the right consistency, when you can make a clean line across the back of the spoon with your finger.
4) Strain the sauce into the metal bowl/container over the prepared ice bath to chill. At this point, add the amaretto. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours until thoroughly cooled.
5) Using an ice cream machine, prepare the ice cream according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Add the ice cream to the paper squeeze cups and top with the crushed toasted almond/amaretti cookie. Freeze for about 2 hours before topping each with a cherry so that they don’t sink. Freeze several hours more, then enjoy. Wrap individually and keep stored in the freezer for a delicious dessert any time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mexico City-Style Pork Burgers

When I think mayonnaise, I instantly think Hellmann’s; the words are practically synonymous. It’s such an icon among condiments, that it’s hard to imagine making classics like deli-style macaroni and potato salads, or a BLT without it. This year marks a century since Richard Hellmann first won the public over with the sandwich-transforming mayonnaise he served at his New York deli. It’s the same great-tasting blend of quality oil, vinegar, and now cage-free eggs that has led American families to trust Hellmann’s for generations.

Hellmann’s is celebrating their 100th birthday in a big way—world record-breaking big. This September, they will commemorate the milestone in New York City at their extravagant “Blue Ribbon Table”—the World’s Longest Picnic Table. What could be more fitting than a picnic for the brand we’ve invited to our own little picnic tables for years? The best part is that all creative cooks have a chance to win a seat at the event by participating in Hellmann’s “Making Over the Best” contest.

Have you ever wanted to cook with Chef Mario Batali? Well, this is your chance (kind of). As part of the contest, fans can virtually “co-create” a recipe with Mario by putting their own spin on one of six classic Hellmann’s recipes that he has recreated. Think that Fiery Chipotle Devilled Eggs sounds like something you can improve upon? Maybe you have your own interesting take on Chicken Wings with White Barbecue Sauce? That trip to New York could be yours. Check out all of the options on the Facebook app to see which recipe calls to you the most. The Juicy Salsa Burger is what caught my eye.

Mario’s burger, a simple well-seasoned beef patty topped with fire-roasted salsa, sounded delicious. To make the recipe my own, I ran with the salsa theme, creating a full-on Mexican-inspired burger with the toppings of a traditional Mexico City street taco: tomatillo salsa verde, fresh cilantro leaves and scallions, pickled red onions, cotija cheese, and lime crema—the works. And since I like my tacos with pork, I decided to make it a pork burger (with bacon for good measure). What I found most interesting about Mario’s burger was that he added the Hellmann’s mayonnaise directly to his beef mixture. I did the same for mine, which ended up working particularly great for pork burgers because it helped to bind and keep them juicy.

These burgers have got it going on. Between the bacon, cumin, and garlic seasoning of the pork and the bright kick of the raw tomatillo and jalapeno in the salsa verde, the balance of flavors is on point. The cilantro and scallions incorporate even more freshness to the bite, while the pickled red onion adds crispness, color, and sweetness without any overpowering onion taste. Just as with a taco, the cotija cheese is the perfect finish, especially as it is squished into delicious matrimony with the mayo and sour cream crema.

Now it’s your turn. Visit to watch Mario Batali share his modern makeovers on classic Hellmann’s recipes for inspiration, then choose a favorite and put your own twist on it. Enter your recipe and you could be sitting at the World’s Longest Picnic Table in New York City in September. Good luck! #Hellmanns100

As part of the brand’s 100th birthday celebration, Hellmann’s is also helping to provide one million meals to Feeding America this year to help the fight against hunger nationwide.

Mexico City-Style Pork Burgers
Yield: 5 burgers
- 2 pounds ground pork
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 tablespoons Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 6 slices bacon, diced
- 5 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 5 seeded buns
- Salsa verde (recipe follows)
- 1 bunch scallions (about 7 scallions), chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro leaves, picked from the stems and rinsed
- Pickled onions (recipe follows)
- 6 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled
- Lime crema (recipe follows)
1) Add the pork, cumin, mayo, salt and pepper to a large bowl. Heat a skillet over medium heat; add the bacon and cook until the fat has rendered and the bacon is done but not crispy, about 3 minutes. Add the bacon to the bowl with the pork, leaving the fat in the skillet. Cook the garlic in the rendered bacon fat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and any remaining fat to the pork and mix well until all the ingredients are combined.
2) Form five even burger patties. Grill the burgers over medium-high heat, about 5-6 minutes per side, until cooked through. Toast the buns. In the meantime, toss the scallions and the cilantro leaves together like a salad.
3) To assemble the burgers: Place a pork burger on each toasted bun. Place a generous spoonful of salsa verde on the burgers and spread. Top with the scallion and cilantro mixture, and several slices of pickled onion. Crumble the cotija cheese over. Spread the lime crema on the top bun of each burger, or place on the table for self service.

Pickled Red Onion (1 cup)
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoons salt
- ½ cup water
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
- Juice from 1 lime
- 1 red onion, sliced
• Combine the sugar, salt, water, vinegar, and lime juice in a small saucepan and bring to boil; pour over the onions. Store in an airtight container. Marinate for at least 1 hour before using.

Salsa Verde (1 cup)
- 6 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and roughly chopped
- 1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 5 sprigs cilantro, thick stems removed
- ¼ cup white onion, roughly chopped, rinsed under cold water, and well drained
- Salt to taste
• Combine all ingredients except for salt in a blender or food processor and process to coarse puree. Season with salt to taste as needed.

Lime Crema (about ½ cup)
- ½ cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- Zest and juice of 1 lime
- Salt and pepper to taste
• Combine the mayo, sour cream, lime zest and juice in a medium bowl and whisk until well combined. Add the salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Perfect For a Picnic: Coconut Custard Cups

Ever play the picnic game when you were little? You know, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…”  The way we played it, the thing you brought always had to begin with the first letter of your name. So let’s play. I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing…coconut custard cups! Oops, I guess I lost the game. But I do have the cutest and most convenient desserts at the picnic. Can I still come?

Memorial Day is fast approaching and it’s a big picnic day for many. I started to think about the things I really would want to bring to a picnic and kept coming back to pie. Pie might be a great conclusion to any meal, but it’s especially perfect for picnics. I always imagine it atop a red and white gingham tablecloth ready to be snatched up by Yogi Bear. Though my coconut custard cups are not the traditional picture of pie, your taste buds won't be able to tell the difference.  

This is what a slice of coconut custard pie in a glass looks like. Because you want to know what else says, “Take me to a picnic”? Mason jars. What could be easier than a dessert you can screw the cap onto, pack up, and go with? Everyone gets their own perfect sized portion, and there’s just something fun about eating  from a jar.

The custards are made with coconut milk and toasted shredded coconut along with other typical custard things like heavy cream and egg yolks, and they are baked right inside of the jars in a hot water bath. 4-ounce glass mason jars or ramekins are the perfect size; anything deeper than about 2 inches won’t cook evenly. To give the feeling of a piecrust, I caramelized sugar on top of the custards like crème brûlée and placed a buttery shortbread cookie on each. Use your favorite shortbread recipe, and cut into fun shapes if you choose. Happy picnicking!

Coconut Custard Cups
Yield: 6 servings in 4-ounce mason jars or ramekins
- 2 cups heavy cream
- ¾ can coconut milk
- 4 eggs yolks
- ½ cup sugar, plus ½ cup for brûlée topping
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup sweet shredded coconut, toasted
1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and coconut. Bring to a boil. In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks, ½ cup sugar, salt, and vanilla extract, until well-blended and lightened in color. Add the hot cream to the egg yolk mixture a little at a time, whisking continually. Stir in the toasted coconut.
2) Add the mixture to small 4-ounce glass mason jars, oven-safe shallow bowls, or ramekins, filling up to 2” high. Place the filled cups into a roasting pan with enough hot water to reach halfway up the side of each.
3) Bake until the custard is set around the sides, but still jiggles a little in the center, about 45 minutes-1 hour. Refrigerate 2 hours-overnight. When ready to serve, sprinkle the remaining sugar evenly over the tops of each custard, then brûlée or caramelize the tops with a blowtorch. Top with mini shortbread cookies, if desired.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Risotto Balls

I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, but I’m just going to say it flat out. I think that my risotto balls are the best. Toot toot!

These risotto balls are famous (at least in my family) and I make them a lot, especially on holidays. One of the main reasons why I've held back on posting about them is that I never really had a set “recipe.” I pretty much make a standard risotto and then add as much butter and Parmesan as I want until it tastes delicious. Of course, there’s a little more to making risotto balls than that, so I finally wrote down a recipe. But I will suggest keeping some extra butter and Parmesan on the side. You know, just in case.

To prepare the risotto balls, I start with a traditional white wine-spiked parmesan risotto, which I make sure is a little tighter than it typically should be. A well-made risotto is creamy but not thick, and smooth but not thin. In other words, it should spread a little when spooned onto a plate, not stand on its own. You’ll know you hit the right balance, when the risotto moves and ripples like a wave when you shake the pan. This is called all’onda (“wave”) in Italian. For risotto balls, I cook the risotto just past all’onda (emphasis on just), then cool, so that the rice holds together well when shaped.

Just a quick side note about risotto: Despite its reputation for being kind of a fancy dish, it is practically the easiest thing in the world to make. There is somewhat of an art to it, but it’s nothing the average Joe couldn't master. I did, after all. The result you want is for the rice (Arborio) to be fully cooked through while simultaneously holding the perfect consistency. The trick is to gradually add simmering hot stock, and to constantly, and quite vigorously, stir between each addition to develop the starch. All it takes is a little sweat and elbow grease. You’ll achieve extra richness and creaminess at the end by “finishing” with the butter and cheese.

I do not add meat ragu or peas to my risotto balls like it’s done in the traditional Sicilian way, though I very easily could. I choose not to because I feel that the risotto is so flavorful, that it speaks well enough on its own. So creamy, and cheesy, it is complimented only by the crispy panko breading. One surprise I do hide in the center is a tiny block of Fontina cheese, which melts ever-so-rightly when fried.

Just like making a meatball, I form the risotto with my hands, stuffing a cube of Fontina into each one as I go along. At about 2 ½”- 3” they are just the right size, so you can pop them into your mouth one after the other—and believe me, you’ll want to. Fun fact: Risotto balls are also called arancini, meaning “little oranges” in Italian, which describes their ideal size and shape perfectly. We’re having a regular language lesson today! A little breading of eggs and seasoned panko breadcrumb, and they’re ready to be fried. I deep-fry mine at 325-250 degrees to get them golden on the outside and melted on the inside.

The simple cheesy goodness of these risotto balls makes them the perfect appetizer, side dish, or snack. And when it’s a holiday, stack ‘em up high so that everyone can get a few. They can easily be made in advance and reheated. You’re welcome!

Risotto Balls:
Yield: About 12, 2 ½”-3” risotto balls
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons for finishing
- ½ cup finely chopped shallots
- 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fontina cheese, cut into 12 cubes
- 1 quart canola or other fryer-friendly oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- About 1 cup panko breadcrumb, seasoned with salt, pepper, and ¼ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1) In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 1-2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to completely coat in the butter shallot mixture. Lightly toast the rice, stirring continually, about 2 minutes.
2) Add the white wine, stirring continually, until almost fully absorbed by the rice. Using a ladle, add about ½ cup of the hot chicken stock to the rice at a time, stirring continually, making sure that each addition is fully absorbed before adding the next. Continue the process until all of the chicken stock has been used, or the rice is fully cooked and tender, about 25 minutes.
3) Remove the mixture from the heat. While it is still warm, stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, the ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, and the chopped fresh parsley, until fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The mixture should be slightly thick and creamy. Spread out on a sheet tray and cool completely before wrapping in plastic and refrigerating. Refrigerate 2 hours-overnight.
4) Preheat the frying oil to about 325-350 degrees. Form the cooled risotto into balls about 2½”-3”, stuffing a cube of the Fontina cheese into each. Roll each ball in the egg, then dredge in the seasoned breadcrumb. Fry until they are golden on the outside and the cheese is melted on the inside. If not serving immediately, reheat before serving.
**To plan ahead for a holiday or party: Make the risotto a day or two in advance (doubling the recipe if necessary) and refrigerate. On the day before the holiday/party or the day of, assemble and fry. Reheat in a 350 degree oven before serving.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A New Kind of BLT

BLT. Three little letters that represent one hugely popular and perfect sandwich combination: bacon, lettuce, and tomato. An arrangement of ingredients that when done right, strike an idyllic balance between savory, crunchy bacon, and juicy, crisp vegetables. With a thick schmear of mayo on nicely toasted bread, it is my diner go-to. Who is the genius that threw together such a masterpiece? I would like to shake their hand.

Could you, if presented with the challenge, create another equally delicious sandwich using that very same abbreviation, without using bacon, lettuce, or tomato? It’s not that easy! If you’re like me, you may come up with a few really kooky, sorta fancy, and/or kind of gross sandwich ideas. B, L, and T are some pretty big letters to live up to.

I ended up putting a twist on an all-American favorite. Ladies and Gentleman, a new kind of BLT: Barbecue Chicken Sliders with Lime Turnip Slaw. It's a stretch, I know. 

These little lovelies are based on classic pulled pork sandwiches, but are made with pulled chicken instead, tossed in a tangy sweet vinegar-based honey sauce inspired by North Carolina-style barbecue. If you do not like vinegary sauces, you can use any other homemade or bottled barbecue sauce that you’d like. There are no rules! The lime turnip slaw is made with carrots, cilantro, and Greek yogurt in place of mayo and is light, refreshing, and wonderfully crunchy. And while there may be no rules here, I definitely recommend trying the turnip slaw on these sliders/with any other barbecue dish instead of regular old cabbage coleslaw. Just sayin.

When placed between the buttery toasted goodness of mini buns, the familiar, yet different combination of barbecue pulled meat and slaw make for fun and delicious barbecue sliders. The classic BLT could never be beat, but using its simplicity and well-balanced bite of texture and flavor as my inspiration, I’d say these little sandwiches came out just about as close to perfection as the original.

Barbecue Chicken Sliders with Lime Turnip Slaw
Yield: 6-8 sliders
Lime Turnip Slaw
- 1 cup julienned or shredded carrots
- 1 cup julienned or shredded turnip
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt
- Cilantro, roughly chopped
- Juice and zest of 1 lime
- Salt and pepper to taste
Barbecue Chicken
- 1 ½ cup ketchup
- ½ cup honey
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3-4 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
- Slider buns, brushed with melted butter
1) For the lime turnip slaw, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Refrigerate.
2) In a large bowl, combine all remaining ingredients except for the chicken in a bowl and mix well. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Toast the buttered slider buns. Top the slider buns with barbecue chicken and slaw. Serve immediately.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Grandma's Icebox Cake

My Grandma’s icebox cake is a classic. For as long as I can remember (and long before that), it’s made its much-anticipated appearance at many a birthday party, barbecue, and celebration over the years. Made up of layers of graham crackers and pudding, sometimes she makes it with chocolate and vanilla pudding, other times just chocolate, but always with a tub of Cool-Whip on the side. A Napoleon of store-bought ingredients, it’s easy, no-bake, delicious, and like all classics, it never gets old.

I recently made my Grandma’s famous icebox cake recipe for the first time. Can you believe that I never tried it before? I guess I always felt like it was best to leave it up to the pro, or that it just wouldn't be the same if I made it. Plus, it always seemed like there was some special scientific process that went into getting the layers of pudding and graham crackers to meld together just right. Nope, there’s no special science; just a theory for what is perhaps the easiest recipe ever. And that’s exactly why Grandma likes it.

The number one secret: the pudding has to be “real,” as in, the cooked kind—not instant, which, by the way, has got to be one of the most taxing foods to come in a box. Lots of constant stirring! But it’s important for the pudding to be warm so that it can become one with the graham crackers. Technically, you can use instant pudding, you just may end up with a runny icebox cake (and nobody likes that). The cake is built up with alternating layers of graham crackers and pudding, which after a little rest in refrigerator, kind of melt into one another, suddenly turning the crackers into “cake.”

If you've never had icebox cake before, I suggest you whip up this old-fashioned favorite and give it a try. One of the best things is that you can make it last minute because it only takes about two hours to set. It is simplicity at its best. In my family, we always devour it down to the very last crumb. Enjoy, and don’t forget the Cool-Whip!

Icebox Cake
Yield: 1, 7 x 11 baking dish (about 12-14 people)
- 1, 14.4 ounce box graham crackers
- 1, 2.75 ounce box chocolate pudding, such as My-T-Fine (not instant)
- 1, 2.75 ounce box vanilla pudding, such as My-T-Fine (not instant)
- Whipped topping
1) Cook the pudding according to the directions until it is a thick pudding consistency. If not thickened enough, allow it to rest for about 5 minutes, but do not refrigerate or cool. The pudding should still be warm for the cake assembly.
2) Cover the bottom of the 7 x 11 baking dish with a layer of whole graham crackers. Add a scoop of chocolate pudding and spread to cover the graham crackers. Top with another layer of graham crackers. Add the vanilla pudding and spread. Continue to alternate between layers of graham crackers, chocolate pudding, graham crackers, and vanilla pudding, finishing with a layer of pudding. Crush leftover graham crackers and sprinkle on top. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve with whipped topping.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cheddar Beer Soup

The beloved and notoriously no-holds-barred Mrs. Julia Child once said: “I enjoy cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put in the food I’m cooking.” It’s a well-known quote that you might likely find painted on a novelty plaque hanging in someone’s kitchen. In the case of this soup, I can say the same thing about beer. Why not? It is Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, after all.

I just recently finished reading the book Dearie, a newly published biography on Julia Child, by Bob Spitz. Her story and how she ended up becoming the cultural icon and food hero we all know, is as the subtitle of the book aptly describes, remarkable. Though she came from a wealthy family, she struggled to find herself before her late thirties when she more or less discovered her destiny in the buttery simplicity of a plate of sole meuniére in Paris.

Cook or not, there are quite a few things we all can learn from Julia that stretch beyond roasting a chicken, how to make the perfect French omelet, or even cooking “with” wine. Julia teaches us to embrace who we are; no matter how awkward, or if your voice warbles, own it and just be. Also, never apologize or admit your faults. If you trip, keep moving. Chances are, no one will even notice. Strive to be the absolute best at whatever it is that you do. Keep trying again and again until you get it just right. And most of all, Julia’s story is a reminder that it is never too late to discover a new passion or to find a new path. You may not always know where the road will lead, but there is no plan for life. Keep busy, go on adventures, and do what makes you happy. Your destiny will find you.

Right now though, it is this recipe’s fate to hopefully find its way into your kitchen. As much as I love to make soup, I made this pot of cheddar beer potage with the hopes that it would be the last one of the season—kind of a friendly farewell to winter and its rib-sticking hearty fare. For this soup, handfuls of shredded sharp white cheddar are melted into the broth, which is made with a bottle of ale, for a flavor combination that is tangy and smooth. Diced smoked ham, spicy pickled jalapeno for garnish, and pretzels as croutons make it the perfect pub food. Remember not to add all of your beer into the soup. Take note from Julia and keep some on the side for yourself. Cheers!

Cheddar Beer Soup
Yield: 4-6 Servings
- ½ stick butter
- ½ cup smoked ham, finely cubed, plus extra for garnish (optional)
- ½ cup onion, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1, 12 ounce bottle of ale
- 4 cups (about 1 pound) grated white extra-sharp cheddar, plus extra for garnish
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Minced pickled jalapeno, for garnish (optional)
- Crushed pretzel rods or nuggets, for garnish
1) In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the smoked ham cubes set aside for garnish (if desired) and cook, about 2 minutes; remove and set aside. Add the ½ cup smoked ham cubes and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant.
2) Reduce the heat to low. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture and cook, stirring often, for about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, chicken stock, and beer, whisking as you pour. Bring the mixture to boil, and then reduce to a light simmer. Add the cheddar one handful at a time, whisking each addition until all is fully incorporated. Bring the soup back to a light simmer, stirring occasionally. Do not boil. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
3) To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with extra shredded cheddar, smoked ham cubes, minced jalapeno, and crushed pretzels.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Handmade Gnocchi and Balsamic Braised Beef

I haven’t been feeling very inspired lately. Even the kitchen, my happy place, has felt just a few steps too distant. I just haven’t been motivated. Maybe it’s a little bit of the winter blues, maybe it’s a little something more. When it comes to cooking, I've been preoccupied, plain lazy, and full of procrastination. You know the feeling. Just, blah.

I've wanted to do a gnocchi post for so long, but even this was something I had questioned scratching all together and putting off for another time. Why should I? I don’t feel like it. Who cares? I don’t care. Stop lying. Blah! When I eventually did decide to get up and do it, I ended up creating a dish that turned out to be quite inspiring after all.

Gnocchi was just what I needed. The feeling of squishing the soft dough in my hands, the trance of cutting out little pillow after little pillow, then rolling over each with the tines of a fork to make those signature gnocchi ridges; it was pasta-making bliss. Of course, that all came after the part where I got about a month’s worth of unsolicited cardio in trying to shove cooked potato through the holes of a fine strainer (note to self: invest in a food mill for future gnocchi-making bliss.) Ricing or milling the potatoes to fine confetti is an important step for fluffy, delicate gnocchi.

A take on classic meat and potatoes, I topped the gnocchi with shredded beef, which I braised for about two hours in a flavorful vegetable balsamic broth to tender fall apart perfection. I then strained the braising liquid and thickened it into a savory sauce that I tossed with the meat and ladled over the potato dumplings. The finishing touch: a dusting of lightly salty, tangy Ricotta Salata cheese. Talk about comfort food. It took most of the day to make, but my heart was in every bite.

Preparing and serving such a delicious, hearty meal ignited the spark of excitement that I needed. It roused my love of cooking and helped me to appreciate the dark cold days of winter, if only for the fact that it is the best time to enjoy such a cozy meal. Even better was the fact that I got to enjoy it in the best way possible—with family.

Gnocchi & Balsamic Braised Beef
Yield: 6 dinner portions
- 1 pound cooked potato, pushed through a ricer/food mill or fine sieve
- 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1, 2 pound semi-boneless beef chuck roast (or similar), seasoned with salt and pepper
- 2 cup onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup celery, coarsely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 6 cups beef stock
- ½ cup balsamic vinegar
- 3 sprigs thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 ounce butter (by weight)
- 1 ounce flour (by weight)
- Ricotta Salata cheese, grated, for garnish
1) For the gnocchi: In a large bowl, mix the cooked potato, flour and egg yolks until a dough forms. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into long, thin logs, and cut into ½” pillows. Roll the tines of a fork over the pillows, if desired. Place the gnocchi onto a lightly floured tray; cover and freeze (freeze partially if cooking immediately and fully if saving for another day.) Cook gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float, about 1-2 minutes.*
2) Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Sear the seasoned beef on both sides, then remove and set aside. Add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minute more. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and cook, 2 minutes. Add the beef stock, balsamic vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper. Add the seared beef to the mixture and bring to a boil. Cover the Dutch oven and place in the oven for about 1 ½- 2 hours, turning the beef occasionally, until the meat is fall-apart tender.
3) Remove the beef from the liquid and shred with two forks, making it as fine or as chunky as desired. Strain the braising liquid. In a small saucepan, cook the butter and flour into a roux. Whisk the strained braising liquid into the roux until thickened into a sauce. Ladle some of the sauce into the shredded beef; mix well.*In the meantime, cook the gnocchi.
4) To serve: Place the cooked gnocchi in bowls and top with the sauced shredded beef. Add extra sauce over the gnocchi, if desired. Top with the grated Ricotta Salata.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Couscous Cakes

There are crab cakes and corn cakes, rice cakes and potato cakes, zucchini cakes and funnel cakes, hot cakes and chocolate cakes; but have you ever tried couscous cakes?

In this completely customizable, quick recipe, cooked couscous is mixed with a few favorite ingredients, an egg, some flour, then formed into patties and pan fried for a side dish that is fun and flavorful. If you like couscous as much as I do, then you’ll love trying it this way.

Starting with a delicious couscous mixture is of course the secret to making a delicious couscous cake. My add-ins include crunchy toasted almonds, sweet dried cranberries, feta cheese, and fragrant citrus and herbs. As with any recipe, feel free to get creative and use whatever you like, but I’m telling you mine is pretty good.

The egg and flour help to hold the couscous together so that the mixture can easily be formed into patties, but the patties are still fairly fragile and need to be handled carefully when being cooked. A fish spatula is just the right tool for the job; they are specifically designed to handle delicate foods (hence, fish), and will help to keep your patties intact.

The couscous cakes become crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside when fried, with a lightly toasted taste. They are a great way to add excitement to a light meal, and go especially well with chicken dishes.

Couscous Cakes
Yield: 10 cakes
- 1 cup water
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- ¾ cup couscous
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- ¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted
- ¼ cup chopped scallions
- ¼ chopped cilantro
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- ½ cup orange juice
- Zest from 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 egg, beaten
1) In a small saucepan, bring the water and 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the couscous. Immediately remove from the heat and cover until all the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Transfer the couscous to a large bowl and fluff with a fork. Cool.
2) Add the cranberries, almonds, scallions, cilantro, feta cheese, orange juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper; mix well. Add the flour and egg; mix well. Form the mixture into small patties about 2” wide.
3) Heat the remaining olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Cook the couscous cakes until golden brown, then carefully flip (a fish spatula works best) and cook other side, about 2 minutes per side.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cooking Vegan

It’s January, and you know what that means. It’s time for all of us to start getting healthy. Time to start hitting the gym and eating better. Yep, it’s a new year, a new you! Up until next month when you forget all about your resolutions.

In the spirit of ambition, this month I’ll be featuring a few good-for-you recipes that will make sticking to your “get healthy” goals a little easier. I hope these simple, light and nutritious foods will help you to feel some glimmer of attaining wellness, even long after you’ve decided that you hate the gym and it smells. Starting with—for the first time ever—an entirely vegan dish!

Wondering what the difference is between a vegetarian, a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and a vegan? Read up on the various kinds of vegetarianism here.

Vegan Pumpkin Crepes with Vegan Maple Ice Cream and Maple Pecans 

Listen, burgers, charcuterie plates, and chunks of parmigiano reggianno cheese dipped in honey are a few of my favorite things. In the words of the wonderfully blunt Anthony Bourdain, “To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.” All in moderation of course. But I took on the challenge to cook something vegan anyway and was pleasantly surprised with the results.

I picked foods that, like me, are not very vegan: ice cream and crepes. A vegan breakfast/brunch/dessert made of items that usually consist mostly of heavy cream, milk, and eggs. I knew I could make them taste delicious without any of the dairy, though I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. Mostly I worried that the recipes would not physically come together without the products that typically help them to leaven, thicken, and set. It definitely took a bite of trial and error. 

The crepes are pumpkin flavor. Along with pumpkin puree, I used vanilla almond milk to take the place of what would be milk and heavy cream to make them, and used just a bit of baking soda to help the crepes set—no eggs necessary. Crepes are fun once you get into the rhythm of making them. Some tips to remember when making crepes: cook over medium-high heat, use a brush to lightly grease the bottom of a nonstick pan (with vegetable oil to be vegan), and have faith in your pan flipping skills! On top is a garnish of chopped maple-candied pecans. Try them on your crepes or in a salad.

Now let's talk about this vegan maple ice cream. Oh, this ice cream. It is so good! It’s made of just four ingredients, the main ones being full fat coconut milk and maple syrup. The light consistency is very refreshing and reminds me of a creamy Italian ice. Surprisingly, the coconut milk is not too overpowering; the maple flavor really comes through. It’s ice cream that you don’t have to feel guilty about eating (not that I personally ever feel guilty about ice cream).

Have I gone vegan? Not quite. But I have definitely been enlightened to a different way of eating.

Vegan Pumpkin Crepes with Maple Pecans
Yield: 10 crepes
- 1 cup pecans
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 ½ all-purpose flour
- 1 cup vanilla almond milk
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup pumpkin puree
- 3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for pan
1) Add the pecans to a small sauté pan over medium-low heat and toast. Stir in the maple syrup and simmer until reduced to a thick consistency, about 1 minute. Cool on a parchment-lined sheet tray. Chop.
2) Whisk all remaining ingredients together in a medium bowl until well blended. Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Lightly brush the pan with the vegetable oil. Pour or ladle the batter into the pan and swirl until the bottom of the pan is lightly and evenly coated. Cook the batter like a pancake, loosening the sides and bottom with a rubber spatula to prevent from sticking. When the bottom is lightly browned, flip the crepe in the pan to cook the other side.
3) Fold the crepe into quarters to serve, if desired. Top with Vegan Maple Ice Cream and maple pecans.

Vegan Maple Ice Cream
Yield: 1 pint
- 1, 13.5 ounce can full fat coconut milk
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
1) Whisk all ingredients together in a medium bowl until well blended. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Add the mixture to an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze overnight.