Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pesto... Presto!

Fresh basil, thyme, rosemary, and flat leave parsley from the garden rinsed and dried.

Toss in food processor with several peeled cloves of garlic, and bits of good Parmigiano Reggiano cheese..

Blend, then drizzle in extra virgin olive oil, and a season with salt and pepper. Blend again until evenly chopped..

Viola- pesto!! Spoon into an ice cube tray, cover, and freeze until firm. Empty into freezer bag or tupperware with lid and store in the freezer.

These pesto pops are awesome in the winter when garden fresh herbs don't exist, and on days when you are short on time, but need a fresh and flavorful finish.

Great for tossing in your marinara sauce (jarred or homemade), combined with lemon juice and hot sauce as an amazing marinade for meat or fish, or just add straight to a pot of cooked and drained noodles, toss in capers, cheese, and some balsamic vinegar for a fast and fresh side dish.

Warning: four cups of fresh herbs only yields about 10 ice cubes. So don't be disappointed. Each little cube packs a fresh flavor punch!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Is there a doctor in the house?

Cooking every meal from scratch with all natural, raw, and organic materials is like sitting on the beach from sunup to sundown sipping on cocktails. I would love to do it every day! Sadly, that is not the world in which I live. I guess that's why there is spray tan and jarred pasta sauce!

There are times when a little "doctoring up" of some ready made items can save the day and help you get a hot meal on the table without resorting to take out. I really don't subscribe to the Sandra Lee "Semi-Homemade" method nor have I used her recipes. But I DO appreciate having the ability to take shortcuts and still be able to do a home cooked meal in an economical and efficient way.

A couple of my favorite culinary doctoring procedures:

Pasta Sauce:  I buy organic marinara in a glass jar. You can get it with mushrooms, peppers, garlic, etc, etc. I personally prefer the traditional tomato, basil and garlic. It's a good base.
    • What it needs: more flavor and depth, freshness
    • How to get that: Start with a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add about a teaspoon of sugar, either freshly chopped basil, or a good squeeze of the basil from the tube (see Arsenal of a Dinnertime Ninja). Optional- a few tablespoons of dry red wine. Mix and then quickly add the jar of sauce. Let it heat up until it starts to simmer and bubble. Reduce heat.  Serve over- whatever you want! Great for pasta dishes, chicken or eggplant Parmesan, casseroles, or on a meatball sandwich!
Pre-washed Salad Mix: They have so many varieties available, and even the organics are affordable.
    • What it needs: fresh veggies and homemade dressing
    • How to get that: I keep things like cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions on hand pretty much all of the time. Just slice them up, and toss on top of the salad mix. For a dressing just give a couple shakes of balsamic and red wine vinegar, kosher or sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and dried herbs of your choice. Toss and coat the salad with the mix. Drizzle on a little extra virgin olive oil and top with crumbles of cheese (feta, blue, gorgonzola, goat cheese, parmesan...) toss again and viola! 
    • The darker the green, the more nutrient-rich it is. We love arugula, baby spinach and mache.
No MD required!

    Sunday, July 24, 2011

    I'm Winning!!

    Though you may not consider cooking a sport, I often do. I'm not talking about a Throwdown with Bobby Flay (though that would be fun!) but rather a competition with myself. My most recent triumph was an old favorite; Eggplant Parmesan. I've been making it for years, each time a little differently. It's been an arduous process of experimenting, tweaking, and trying to combine the very best methods from each preparation to get me to the ultimate, perfect, scrumptious version I gleefully prepared Friday evening. As you can see, I take my food very seriously. If I'm cooking over a hot stove in the summer, I darn well better make it worth it!

    Eggplant Parmigiana alla Angelina
    This dish is a bit of a labor of love. Though not difficult or requiring much technical skills, it does require several steps and a good dose of patience. I also find that I require a glass or two of wine to sip during the preparation.

    Round One:
    The skin is pretty, but tough to bite through... try slicing off stripes before slicing into rounds.
    Pick it: Select a firm and heavy (dense) feeling eggplant. Not too soft or bruised, but deep in color so you know it's ripe.
    Cut it: Slice off sections of the skin lengthwise, cut off top stem and bottom.
    Slice into 1/3 inch thick rounds.
    Eggplant rounds sweating on the stove top

    Sweat it: Lightly salt rounds with sea or kosher salt, and spread out onto cookie sheet. Put into oven on very low heat (200) until the rounds are beginning to wilt and brown. You can also do this in a large sautee pan on the stove top on the lowest setting. Flip the eggplant rounds and sweat for another 5-10 minutes. The purpose of this is to sweat out the excess water in the plant, and begin the cooking process to ensure tender, fully cooked eggplant in your final stage. If you skip this or don't sweat them long enough it will be like biting into raw zucchini. I am not a fan of that.
    Tip: They will seem slimy and weird, but that's the moisture being pulled out... and that moisture helps the flour stick in the next step!
    Eggplant rounds that have sweat it out in the oven and are ready for breading

    Round Two:
    Ready to bread with seasoned flour, egg wash, and special breadcrumb mix
    Bread it: Set up a breading station with 3 glass baking dishes. Dish one is flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Dish two is an egg wash with two eggs beaten with a tablespoon or two of water. In dish three is one of the secret weapons... a mix of panko (Japanese style) breadcrumbs and the traditional Italian seasoned breadcrumbs. Dredge the rounds in the flour, thoroughly coating both sides. Shake off excess flour gently, and place into egg wash, wetting both sides. Lastly, place into bread crumbs mix and pat firmly to be sure they stick and form a good coat all around. From here, they can go straight into a saute pan of olive oil heated over medium heat, or onto the baking sheet as a holding dock. It depends on how much you're making... if you can fit it all into one pan then put them straight in.
    Tip: Use tongs or another utensil to help or your fingers will become coated with more breading than the eggplant will.

    Brown it: In olive oil over medium heat (don't let it get to the smoking point) brown both sides of the breaded rounds. You may need to add in more oil before flipping since the breadcrumbs absorbs a bit. Once they are browned and crispy, set aside on paper towels back onto the cookie sheet.
    Tip: If cooking in multiple batches, it may be necessary to wipe out the pan with a paper towel to get rid of burnt pieces... just add a bit more oil and you're good to go!

    Breaded and fried eggplant rounds in baking dish
    Round Three:

    Bake it: Place crispy fried rounds into a baking dish with a very little bit of red sauce spread out on the bottom. Top with thinly sliced FRESH mozzarella cheese (not the hard brick or shredded stuff) and a dollop of sauce. Into a preheated oven they go, and bake at 375 for 15 minutes tops, until the cheese is melty and they sauce is bubbly.
    Eggplant rounds breaded, fried and ready to bake topped with fresh cheese and sauce

    While it bakes, cook up some Orzo pasta according to the box's directions. Orzo is a small, rice-looking pasta. But, it's NOT rice, it's pasta!! It has an awesome texture and size that is unique, easy to eat, and blends beautifully with the rest of the dish. Drain... do not rinse.

    Serve it: Finally, you are ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Serve up this scrumptions but surprisingly light dish by spooning out a bed of Orzo pasta onto the center of a plate, ladle on a bit of sauce, top with two rounds, another bit of sauce, and fresh basil.
    Eggplant Parmesan on Orzo pasta with fresh mozzarella and basil
    A FABULOUS side to accompany this is my Arugula Salad- with diced capicola ham, sweet grape tomatoes, capers, crumbles of aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and homemade lemon vinaigrette. It is to. die.for. delicious and light and healthy. It's basically what you just read. But here is the dressing: Juice of 1/2 lemon, extra virgin olive oil, few splashes of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, thyme. Viola!  
    Tip: either add the ingredients to a container with lid and shake well, or wisk... OR add the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, pepper and thyme directly to the salad, toss well, and then drizzle on the olive oil. If you add the oil first, it coats the salad and repels the acid (vinegar) and it will taste oily and leave a puddle of vinegar at the bottom of the bowl.

    A piece of crusty bread, glass of wine, and you have yourself a $50 restaurant-quality meal! Only it's in your own home, doesn't cost as much, the booze is cheaper, and you don't have to tip anyone or drive home.

    Now that, is WINNING!