Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Super Easy Week's End Lasagna

It’s been an odd week. First, last weekend’s beautifully sunny, nearly 70 degree weather. Then, Monday’s thunderstorms. And, Friday’s 32 degree temps. Ice on puddles? You bet.

So, it’s no wonder that the weather has my body and appetite utterly confused. Last week, it wanted filling braised lamb shanks, pappardelle with hearty mushroom ragu, and tomato soup. More recently, it’s craving lighter foods, like spring greens, cold chicken salads, and vegetable-based dishes.

But Friday, wires got crossed. I was craving something warm and cheesy, yet something fresh, flavorful, and wouldn’t weigh me down. Some comfort at the end of a long week, and to celebrate the week's end. I was reading my Easter issue of Martha Stewart Living, and was excited to see my wishes were answered: “Zucchini-Ribbon Lasagna.”

I found the inspiring recipe in their “Fit to Eat” article on gluten-free recipes. Though I do not follow a strict gluten-free diet, I try to stay away from corn and refined carbohydrates, like some pastas, in favor of heartier, whole-grain alternatives. This recipe suggests zucchini ribbons as a tasty alternative! 

As I’m in a “temporary” home, as I am moving between houses and apartments, where the pot and pan selection doesn’t quite meet my (high?!) standards, I am taking all kinds of shortcuts in cooking meals, if I cook a meal at all. The pots are not in the sizes I am used to (I need a sautepan!), and I had to get creative in slicing vegetables without a mandoline. Thus, I took this recipe as a launching point, slightly altering it for my (and my dinner guest’s) tastes. The outcome? Utterly amazing. Complete with the drink of your choice, and a hearty loaf of a whole-grain bread (I wish I knew where the one we had came from – SO good!), we were happily satiated, and no food coma.

My Garden-Fresh Vegetable “Lasagna”

3 tbsp olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
salt to taste
1 jar tomato basil sauce, preferably made with San Marzano tomatoes (flavorful!)
12 oz ground lamb
3 small zucchini, thinly sliced (I used a cheese hand grater)
bunch of basil, rough chiffonade
1 small container whole or part-skim ricotta
1 bag part-skim grated mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375 (you can use convection for the first 23 minutes, if you’d like). In a small saucepan, heat 1.5 tbsp oil. Add onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent. Add tomato sauce and 1/2 of the basil. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a mere simmer to infuse flavor. Meanwhile, heat the rest of the oil in a sautepan. When hot, crumble the ground lamb in the pan and season it with salt. Cook til nicely browned. Set aside. Using a hand grater (or a mandoline if you’re lucky!), thinly and carefully slice zucchini into 1/8” thick ribbons.

Place 7-8 slices of zucchini, overlapping the sides, along the bottom of a 9” square baking pan. Top with a cup of sauce. Sprinkle 1/2 of the ground lamb on top, and dot with 5 tbsp ricotta. Repeat again with zucchini, but this time alternating the direction, sauce, lamb, and this time add a good layer of mozzarella. Repeat once more, with zucchini, sauce. Spread a thin layer of ricotta on top and add a solid topping again with mozzarella.

Place the lasagna on a cookie sheet (to catch drips) and bake, covered with foil (careful – the foil might stick to the cheese – I didn’t grease the foil top, maybe that would have helped?) for 23 minutes, or until the lasagna begins to bubble. Remove the foil lid and bake for about another 23 minutes, or until the lasagna is bubbly and top nicely golden. Let side for 10 minutes, and serve warm with crusty bread.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

One of my MOST favorite things

So, you say you like peanut butter?

I don’t think it’s fair for me to say I like peanut butter. I love it. If I were stranded on a remote island, with three things, I might have to say a cashmere blanket, apples…and peanut butter.

Furthermore, I’m a bit of a peanut butter connoisseur. I have definitely tasted my way through various peanut butters (Teddy, Smuckers, Santa Cruz Organics, freshly-ground, freshly ground honey roasted), and have eaten my way through nearly each flavor of The Peanut Butter Company’s flavors (white chocolate, dark chocolate…and many, many containers of their cinnamon raisin). Nearly. I drew the line at their “The Heat Is On” flavor, with something spicy. Maybe for pad thai, but not on my toast!

I wish I could say I’m a peanut butter purist, too, but I’m guilty of mixing chocolate chips of all sorts with peanut butter and microwaving it. Til smooth. And eating it with a spoon. My favorite is Whole Foods’ 365 Organic brand. Chunky or smooth? Well, I can’t decide. Really! I split my toast in half – one usually with smooth pb and apple or pumpkin butter, and then the other half with chunky pb and my homemade raspberry jam.

About a month ago, while I was still in culinary school, our pastry chef asked us to bring in some petits fours ideas (and recipes) as we needed to create a large new batch for the special cookie plates we serve our VIP guests in L’Ecole. I’ve had a fair amount of petits fours (some call it mignardises) in my life, quite a few not up to snuff, but a couple truly outstanding ones. But never one I’d consider perfect – a homemade mini peanut butter cup!

After doing some research (yes, both sampling peanut butter cups – namely from Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Long Grove Confectioners' – and looking at recipes), I developed a tasty solution of my own. And the outcome? Amazing…

Homemade Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

3 cups dark chocolate, broken into pieces
2 cups peanut butter (I like using all natural. And you can use half chunky, if you wish!)
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Salt to taste

Set out 4 dozen mini foil cups on two half sheet pans (like those Reese’s Mini PB Cups come in – try your local baking supply store). You can also use mini muffin tins or even regular muffin tins! I like metal more than the paper.

Melt the chocolate gently over hot water, stirring til all pieces are nearly melted. Remove from heat and continue to stir til all is melted. Brush the insides (bottom and sides) well with the melted chocolate in an even layer. Once all cups are coated, place in freezer until chocolate is hardened.

While the cups are chilling, mix together the peanut butter filling. I added most of each ingredient above, but depending on what kind of peanut butter you use (some have more sugar and/or salt than others), you may want to tweak the sugar and salt amounts). To aid in homogenizing the mixture, you can microwave the filling briefly until it is very soft and pipeable. Taste the filling for proper flavor, and then fill in pastry bag with tip (or ziplock!).

Take the chilled chocolate cups out of freezer and pipe filling into each, kind of forming a nice disk, as you will pipe more chocolate as a cap on top, but you want a nice, generous base of peanut butter. Places sheets back in freezer to chill before finishing with more chocolate.

Fill another pastry bag with the remaining warm chocolate, and pipe chocolate on top of chilled filled chocolates. Be sure that the chocolate top meets the chocolate sides, so that the peanut butter filling is completely enrobed. Again, place in freezer to harden.

I stored the chocolates in the refridgerator, but they are also safe to sit at room temperature.

THE party of the season:

Ok, my apologies as this isn't exactly foodie news...but nevertheless

Join me and fellow New Yorkers for a fabulously fun, cocktail-filled, crazy night of dancing, an opportunity to bid on a wide array of silent auction items, and an amazing live auction!


The New York Junior League's Spring Auction!
Friday, April 23rd
at Capitale
130 Bowery

It's THE party of the season:

Click HERE to buy tickets!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Everyone LOVES chocolate!

Did you know that this week is American Chocolate Week?
Nope, I didn't either...

That's why I want to take the time to write about one of my favorite things of all time: chocolate.

From chocolate souffle cakes, to Lindor truffles, to Sweet Lisa's Chocolate Mice, to a solid hot chocolate (particularly from the Montalembert in Paris...mon dieu!), there is a lot of goodness in between.

So, I need to share my favorite homemade Peanut Butter cups with you. Mmm...And, I know I owe a certain reader (you know who you are...) a salted caramel hot chocolate recipe. Yeah, we're still working on that one. The 60 degree weather today doesn't really help.

But now I want to hear from you - my readers: what are your favorite chocolates? Chocolate recipes? Share your comments below (and you may inspire me to whip one of your recipes up and share it with everyone!).

Here's to Happy Chocolate eating!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Little Bit of Tuscany in Rhode Island (in March)...

My favorite salad of all time from my time spent in Tuscany this summer was a grilled Radicchio salad from a tiny place in San Casciano del Bagni. Grilled radicchio, amazing olive oil, syrupy sweet balsamico. And a hunk of fresh bread to finish it off. 

A couple of nights ago, I realized I had some radicchio (Treviso -- oblong not round) in the fridge. And my grill was already going to cook some sausages. Instead of a plain jane salad, why not grill some radicchio? Chop and toss with some cheese, a bit of mixed greens, some avocado slices and a simple dressing made with olive oil, balsamico, salt and pepper? So simple, so tasty. SO good.

Mushroom Madness, Again

It's crazy. I love mushrooms. And some people I know will attest to my madness!

When in doubt as to what to have for dinner, I always seem to turn to fettuccine with a mushroom ragu of sorts. It's quite easy, and very tasty -- and lots of room for adjustment given whatever ingredients are on hand.

Last night, I whipped up a mushroom ragu with sauteed onion, shittakes, hen of the woods, and baby bella mushrooms. Deglazed with some sherry, and then finished with a bit of chicken stock, creme fraiche and milk. And of course, grated gruyere and salt. Perfect with some al dente whole wheat pasta, and a toasted walnut or two on top. And, I'm hoping its even better two days later tossed with some pasta water and truffle oil. Shall I let you know how it is tomorrow??

My Favorite Mushroom Ragu

Olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 package (about 2 cups) diced shittake mushrooms
1 package (about 2 cups) diced baby bella mushrooms
1 package (about 2 cups) diced hen of the woods mushrooms
2/3 cup sherry
2/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup creme fraiche
2/3 cup basil,  chiffonade
Grated gruyere, to taste
Toasted walnuts, for garnish

Heat oil in saute pan til hot. Add onion, season, and cook until translucent. Add mushrooms and cook until mostly tender and liquid has evaporated. Add sherry and stock and cook until reduced by half. Add milk and creme fraiche and cook 5-10 minutes on low. Season to taste and toss with warm pasta (reserve pasta water to thin sauce out). Garnish with grated gruyere and chiffonade of basil.

A filling winter dinner

This past weekend was a test of everyone's patience. Five days of relentless rain, bone-chilling cold. I don't know about you, but I just wanted to stay inside, curled up in bed til 10am, then reading all day in my PJs.

Unfortunately, I couldn't. My family just moved out of our home in CT (where I spent 5th grade through 5 years post-college. Probably the longest period of time in one home). It was, too, a 5 day ordeal, packing and shipping boxes to three different locations. Add to that the weekend's Nor'Easter (my former hometown got hit VERY VERY hard. Schools are still closed three days later!!!), which knocked down trees in our yard, blew water horizontally at our house, and proceeded to blow over our pergola just as the last two moving vans pulled out of the driveway. Go figure.

It was no surprise to me that, come Sunday, when I was grocery shopping for the week ahead of me, that my stomach kept screaming "Braise! Braise! Braise!" I wanted a warm, falling-off-the-bone-tender, comforting meal that I could re-fashion at least one other way to make two different dinners.

My solution? Braised lamb shanks. The issue? Last time, they didn't come out as well as I had hoped. Naturally, I was nervous about revisiting this technique. Little do you know, though, that I pulled a braised short rib for my final exam in culinary school. I have a new fearlessness and eagerness to conquer these little beasts =)

The last time I worked with lamb shanks, I followed a recipe. This time? My intuition. I seared off the shanks, poured off the grease, and then sauteed celery, onion, and garlic in the same pot. Singered (cooked) with some flour until the rawness cooked off. Added some chopped bacon, basil, chicken stock, red wine and turned to a simmer. Covered. And let sit. For three hours, maybe? I kind of lost track. Luckily, you can't really overcook lamb shanks, as long as you do NOT boil the liquid. Low and slow, for however long you have/need!

I made the lamb last night -- the longer the meat sits in it's braising liquid, the better it is. Tonight, I served the lamb simply, with garlic truffle roast broccoli (below). Tomorrow? I have some more whole wheat fettuccine which I may toss with some mushroom and braised lamb shank. Maybe some truffle? Top with some grated gruyere? Another perfect warm winter meal.

Braised Lamb Shanks, My Way:

Grapeseed oil
2 lamb shanks, seasoned well with salt and pepper
4 celery stalks, fine dice
1 lg onion, fine dice
2 cloves garlic, fine dice
4 slice bacon, fine dice
6 stems basil
3 cups red wine
chicken stock to just cover
Butter, to finish sauce

Heat oil til just smoking over high heat. Add seasoned lamb and turn heat a bit lower. Sear meat well on all side and remove from pan. Drain oil and add fresh oil. Add vegetables and season with salt. Saute til translucent (and celery brightly colored). Add bacon, turn heat to medium. Add lamb back to pot, and add basil, red wine, and chicken stock. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Turn to low, cover with top, and let braise for 3-4 hours.

Once the lamb is falling off bone, remove from pot. Strain out the solids and degrease the remaining liquid. Bring to a boil and cook until thick enough to cover the back of a spoon. Mount with a tablespoon or two of butter and season to taste. Serve over lamb shanks. If storing shanks over night, keep in sauce. Simply bring to a simmer before serving.

Garlic Truffle Broccoli

2 heads broccoli
4 cloves garlic, fine mince
olive oil
white truffle oil

Preheat convection oven to 400 degrees. Cut off florets from broccoli. Toss with garlic. Spread on silpat and toss with oils and salt. Add 1/4 cup water and place in oven. Cook until the broccoli begins to turn golden. Turn oven down to 250 and cook til tender. Season and serve hot.

Everyone's Favorite Pre-Dinner Snack

Who doesn't love avocado?

I recently just came back from a week long ski trip to my favorite ski area - Alta. Lots of snow, lots of sun, wonderful company, and fabulous food! The ultimate apres-ski snack, I think, is a strong margarita and spicy/garlicky guacamole. Well, while I'm on the subject of guacamole, I might as well confess that I think it is also the perfect "healthy"-snack-while-I-make-dinner treat, too. 'Cause I made some tonight, while I was famished and making dinner. Mmm...

I've learned a couple of things over the years that makes my guacamole all mine -- and much loved by those eating it.

To start off - if you need to hold the guac a bit, toss an avocado pit or two in the mixture. Not sure why it works, but it helps to keep the oxidation (browning of the lovely green hue) at bay.

More tricks? Finely mince your garlic -- DO NOT use a garlic press! If you have a molcajete (those lava mortar and pestle bowls), you can pulverize the salt and garlic together to make a paste. It's better, trust me, and there is a more pronounced garlic flavor.

Another secret ingredient? Serrano chilies, finely diced (please don't rub your eyelid like I did after chopping! It kind of burns!). I love the hint of spice, and certainly the added depth of flavor these add. One is PLENTY for two avocadoes (unless you're looking to set your mouth on fire).

My good friend from Mexico, Mercedes, will often add finely diced onion (for sweetness) and never diced tomato. But, I like the finely diced roma tomatoes, minus the seeds and pulp, for color.

Many argue whether to add lime or lemon juice. I love adding lime, but in a pinch will add lemon. I don't find the difference too earth shattering.

And what to serve with my guacamole? Considering corn and I have a rocky relationship, I only buy organic corn chips with a little (lot of?) oomph -- favorites being Blue Corn chips and Multi-grain (by Food Should Taste Good). Even better, a hunk of red bell pepper, or a big spoon!

Next time you're a little hungry -- or a lot -- while making dinner, whip up a batch of my guac, and enjoy!

Heavenly Guacamole

1 serrano chile, finely diced
4 small garlic cloves, finely minced
pinch of salt
2 avocadoes
1 roma tomato, finely diced
1/2 lime, juiced
salt, to taste

Mix together chili, garlic, and salt to form a paste (as best you can). Add avocado, tomato, and lime juice. Mix til only slightly chunky. Season to taste and serve as you wish!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Does an apple a day indeed keep the doctor away?

I'd like to think so.

Some of you who know me well know how much I like apples. My first word growing up wasn't Mommy or Daddy. Nope. Appie Juice. And though I may no longer like apple juice (give me fresh cider, please!), I'm still in love with apples....whether baked, sliced, covered in caramel, dipped in peanut butter, or just plain off the tree.

So, imagine by excitement to learn that the Renewing America's Food Traditions Alliance is working to make 2010 The Year of the Heirloom Apple.

Now, if I could only settle on a favorite apple recipe to share with you. Baked apples are what come to mind right now, but those don't count because they're so easy to make, and the flavor combinations are nearly endless.

What is your favorite apple recipe?