Monday, December 2, 2013

The best gravlax I ever had ( and made)

I am sure somewhere in Florida right now, this picture would be a very common site, but this is New Jersey, and it is almost winter and this is not the tropics…it is a crazy orange lime tree that is wintering in my bathtub…  My citrus growing track record is by no means stellar, I am currently on my fourth lemon tree, which has been either blooming or dying for the last two years only teasing me with a crop.  Every time the damn thing blooms and little tiny lemons appear by the dozens and I get all exited, it gets sick, shedding all the fruit until I can get it healthy again to bloom, than the whole cycle begins again.  I have lives of countless mandarin trees on my conscience as well, so when I dragged home another citrus this past spring, my husband was very skeptical.  This little crazy tree is actually an orange-lime tree, which produces tiny round fruit, with bright orange skin and interior, this skin that smells like orange, juice that smells like oranges but the taste is purely lime.  Each little pod can give us much as ¼ cup of juice, I am not kidding, these things are bursting….and I have a gazillion of them.
As I was looking for a good gravlax recipe to make for Thanksgiving, I came across this article and it gave me a great starting point for my gravlax recipe, it also gave me an idea how I can use up some of my orange limes.  I changed the original recipe quite a bit but never the less have to give the guy credit for a wonderful idea. 
Gravlax is a Scandinavian recipe, and in the old times, pieces of fish would be buried in the sands of the shore, where they would naturally be cured by sea salt remaining in the sand.  Modern gravlax recipes calls for salt, sugar and dill and although I made gravlax countless times before I never got the proportions quite right.  Also, the idea of introducing citrus into a gravlax recipe never crossed my mind, after all where have you seen a lime tree on the shores of North Sea?
This particular recipe is the best gravlax I ever made or had, anywhere, ever… it was absolutely perfect and I will never make it any other way again.
A few notes…if you are not lucky enough to have orange limes growing in your bathtub like I do, just use a combination of navel oranges and limes (proportions below).  Also, this fish needs to be eaten in 3-4 days as it will spoil more quickly than any other cured by more salt.   Honestly, I don’t think this would be a problem; a real issue is not to eat the whole thing while you are cutting it.
The recipe is for 2 equal salmon filets totaling 2.5 lbs.  If you have less or more fish you need to re-calculate the recipe using a “by ounce” method (figure out how much salt and sugar is needed per ounce than multiplying by the amount of ounces you have).  The filets have to be equal size so they would “Sandwich” perfectly.
The recipe is also using more sugar than salt, don’t worry, your fish will not come out sweet.
2 Salmon filets 1.25 lbs each, skin on
4 tbs granulated sugar
2tbs + 1 tsp kosher salt
A large bunch of dill coarsely chopped
5 orange limes or ½ of regular lime + ¼ of nave orange chopped as fine as you can
Mix the sugar and salt, divide by half and season each filet evenly, do not rub the mixture in.  Top one of the filets with half of the chopped dill.  Place all the limes and oranges on top of the dill and cover with all the remaining dill (having the citrus insulated from the fish by the herbs will prevent the fish from being “burned” with the citrus acid). 
Place the second seasoned filet salted side down onto the dill.  You now have a little gravlax sandwich of two filets skin side out.  Wrap the fish sandwich in generous amount of plastic very tightly. 
 When you are done wrapping, wrap it again as it will leak no matter what, but you want the wrapping to be very tight.  Now it will go in the fridge for anywhere between 42 – 56 hrs.  Anything before 42 and your cure will not be complete, anything over the 56 and it will over cure…   You want to place it on a plate or inside a plastic container as no matter how well you wrapped it, it will leak.  You also need to flip it every 8 or 10 hrs, I usually do one flip in the early morning, one in the late afternoon and one right before bed. 
After at least 42 hrs, unwrap the fish.  Quickly wash off the lime, dill and reaming salt mixture with cold water.  Pat dry with pepper towel and slice thinly until only the skin remains.  Try not to eat the whole thing while slicing, it can be very tempting.
You can eat the gravalx on its own, serve with bagels and cream cheese or as I did with little pumpernickel bread and watercress, capers cream ( a bunch of watercress, 1 tbs of capers and ¾ cup of crème fraiche blended together until smooth).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving thoughts and holiday menu ideas

Whew….its over, I am exhausted but happy and thankful.  I am thankful for my family of course, for the warm words said around the table, for a chance to see people I don’t often do…. I am also thankful and happy for the fact that I executed the entire menu, that nothing burned and no one got food poisoning, that everything was more or less delicious and that I didn’t break a single glass while washing the dishes…  Here are a few lessons learned and some highlights:

If you have a chance to cure your own gravlax -  go for it, I discovered yet another recipe and honestly this was the best gravlax I ever made or tasted…. It will be in the next post so keep an eye out…

It totally pays off watching Iron Chef… I swiped the recipe for a modern clams Casino from Bobby Flay from the Thanksgiving battle he just did partnered up with Michael Simon… I tried to duplicate what I saw and this is a delicious dish with creamy clam, salty bits of pancetta, freshness from the pesto and crisp from the topping (recipe at the end of this post)…

Every Thanksgiving should begin by painting cookies with your child the night ( or two) before…it will be the last peaceful moment, you the cook will know until Friday morning…
If you going to invent a great appetizer, go all out... here is the roast of venison served on a crostini with truffled chestnut pure, sweet and tangy sauces, topped with crispy onions and enoki mushrooms 

Sometimes it does not pay to listen to Iron Chefs so much, I made the Cherry chili tart that won Alex Guarnaschelli the Iron Chef post and all I can say it was very creative if not delicious…. But now that I already made a trip to the city for Pastille chilies, I have another great idea for desert which is totally my own so look out Iron Chefs…

If you are going to make something like boudin blanc from scratch yourself, make sure you have at least once tried it made by professionals otherwise you will embarrass yourself… as delicious a the my white sausage and warm cabbage salad was… it was no boudin blanc…or so I was told by one of the guests who is in fact French. 

A great side dish... creamy polenta cakes with fall vegetables ragout...
If you decide to serve soup shots in chilled cucumber glasses, make sure you have a plan the real shot glasses...  Making shots out of cucumber only looks easy on TV
No pictures of the turkey or deserts because by the time the second and third courses are served, I am to tired, drunk to give a crap about the pictures… I always regret it later… because the bird was beautiful and delicious.  If you have a smoker and you are not smoking the turkey, it is a crime…. Only slow smoked turkey in my future, thank you very much (recipe at the end of the post)…

Thanksgiving should not be about the food, we all know that, but it is nice to know I can still make people cry for mercy as they crawl out of the dining room undoing the top button of their pants…

Baked Clams

12 large clams

4 tablespoons finely diced pancetta or bacon or spec or chorizo (I used pancetta for the clams and chorizo for the topping)

½ cup chopped fresh basil

1 garlic clove

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 tbs crème fraiche

For the topping

1 cup bread crumbs

2 tbs finely diced chorizo

2 tbs butter melted and cooled

Make the topping… in a small skillet crisp up the chorizo, than mix the rendered fat and melted butter with the bread crumbs ( food processor is very useful for this)… set aside

Scrub your clams, than place them in a shallow pot with ½ inch of water, cover with a lid and cook on medium for 1 minute or until they just slightly start to open up.  The idea is not to cook them but to open them.  With a dull or oyster knife, force open the shells, scoop out the clam meat and reserve the half shells.

In a small skillet crisp up the bacon or the pancetta, let cool.  In a food processor, make quick pesto by zapping basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper until the mixture is smooth and a little runny.  A little lemon zest is nice in here as well.  Chop up the clam meat, combine with pancetta, a little pesto and crème fraiche, mix well.  Stuff each half shell with the clam mixture, top generously with the chorizo bread crumbs and cook under the broiler for a few minutes until the toping is crispy and golden brown.  Serve immediately on a platter covered in thick layer of salt ( helps the shells stay in place and not rattle around)….
Smoked whole Turkey
The recipe is for a 20 lb turkey but can be easily scaled up or down.
For the brine:
1 gallon apple cider
1 gallon of water
2 large oranges cut up
2 apples cut up
1 lemon cut up
2 inch knob of fresh ginger cut up
1 ½ cup of kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
Whole head of garlic
A large bunch of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tbs of whole peppercorns
1 tbs smoked paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp mild chili powder
A large brine bag
Turkey stuffing (just aromatics and not meant as actual stuffing)
1 lemon cut up
1 apple cut up
1 stalk of celery
1 inch knob of fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves
One small shallot
A generous bunch of fresh parsley
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Montreal Chicken Seasoning
1 tsp smoked paprika
¼ cup of olive oil
1 stick of butter cut in cubes

Basting liquid
2 ½ lbs of butter melted and cooled
8 oz of amber beer
8 oz of apple cider
4 oz of orange juice
1 orange
1 small red chili pepper ( seeds removed)
¼ cup maple syrup
½ tbs salt
A large cheese cloth
Make the brine… combine all the ingredients in a large stock pot, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes… Cool the brine completely.  Rinse your whole turkey inside and out, place in a the brining bag breast side down and pour the brine over it, submerging the turkey completely.  Tie the bag securely and  store in the refrigerator for at least 36 hours or up to 4 days. 
On cooking day, take out the turkey, pat it dry inside and out.  Salt and pepper the cavity generously than stuff with all the stuffing aromatics…  With your palm of your hand separate the skin from the breast (try not to tear it) and stuff all the butter cubes between the breast meat and the skin.  Rub the outside with olive oil, season with seasoning spices and let it sit out of the fridge for at least 1 -2 hrs before going in the smoker.
Prepare your smoker, add the wood chips and make sure you get the temperature between 250F and 260F degrees…. Soak the cheese cloth in the melted butter and wrap it all around the turkey, it will prevent the skin from going too dark.
Make the basting liquid, combine beer, cider and oj in a sauce pan, add orange, chili, maple syrup and salt.  Simmer for 20-25 minutes until the liquid is slightly reduced.  Discard the orange and chili, add the rest of the melted butter.
Smoke the turkey at approximately 250F for 5 -6 hrs, basting every  30 -40 minutes with basting liquid.  You need to keep the cheese cloth moist and buttery otherwise it will stick to the skin.  Remove the cheese cloth the last 30 minutes of cooking and the skin will be perfectly crispy.
Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving, and if you have any basting liquid left over you can pour it on top of the turkey before carving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thanksgiving menu.

Every year around mid-October I start to freak out about my Thanksgiving menu.  I cook a lot and throughout the year I put together quite a few menus for large and small gatherings, cooking projects and Sunday dinners, but I go all out for Thanksgiving.  It is the most important meal of the year for me, I honor my family by showcasing my best, and everything I learned through the year and aside for a few favorite staples I do not like to repeat myself.

I have to have a theme, an inspiration of some sorts, whether a specific cuisine, a showcased ingredient or one dish that I am dying to make that I can build a whole menu around.  I had French inspired Thanksgivings, Mediterranean, and all American.  I had color inspired Thanksgivings, when I was obsessed with orange one year and yellow the next.  Last year’s inspiration was a “perfect byte” concept and this year I struggled to come up with a fresh idea… but that is what fiends are for.  I have a coworker who I call my “culinary” friend ( she is of course much more than that), she shares my passion for cooking and gets the lengths I go to ( Let’s just mention that every year she makes an edible animal to represent the Chinese symbol for the year…. The year of the snake was especially creative).  I bounced a few ideas off her and loosely came up with an October fest theme, but it didn’t quite fit my personality, besides I have baked pretzels before and have no desire to do it again.  We were taking a lunch stroll when she mentioned I should showcase venison somehow (God knows I have a lot of it this year), I started playing around with that idea and it hit me… The original Thanksgiving!  The settlers and the Indians did not eat turkey (well maybe wild ones), they had venison and clams and chestnuts and  corn and small birds…. Why not showcase the original Thanksgiving ingredients before we get to the Turkey, and while we are at it, why not use the original cooking techniques if I can, such as open fire roasting and grilling on coals. 

Also, because the second night of Hanukah happens to fall on Thanksgiving Day this year, I included a few modern twists on old and trusted Jewish favorites.
I sincerely hope that I will be able to execute on this very ambitions menu.  At this point I think that the only things that can derail some of the dishes are either lack of peculiar ingredients or the fact that there are only 24 hrs in the day…. Anyway, now that it is in print, I guess I am committed.

I am off to make my stocks now… as always, there will be highlights and tastes post after the holiday.


Thanksgiving 2013


Chilled cucumber shots with warm roasted squash and tomato soup, garnished with pop-corn

Lobster salad stuffed eggs

Homemade boudin blanc with warm cabbage salad, lentils and walnut cider vinaigrette

Tiny polenta cakes with fall vegetables ragout

Home cured gravlax with spicy brown mustard or watercress cream sauce served on pumpernickel bread

Clams on half shell baked with crème fresh and pesto and anchovy bread crumbs

Roast of venison served on crostini with chestnut pure, horseradish sauce and crispy fried onions

Pork roulade stuffed with apples and onions with spicy apricot balsamic sauce

Duck liver mouse with red-wine prune preserves

Micro-greens with fresh pomegranates, spicy pepitas and  pomegranate dressing

Apple, cucumber, radish and watercress salad with mint yogurt dressing

Fresh Zucchini bread with choice of sweet and savory butters

Main course

BBQ Smoked Turkey with apple cider, ginger sauce

Bourbon cranberry sauce

Potatoes and wild mushrooms

Roasted corn and tomato salad

Hericot vert with roasted hazelnuts and red pepper dressing

Red rice and quinoa salad with oranges and pistachios

Poblano pepper and cheddar corn bread


Fruit tartlets

Bourbon Pumpkin cheese cake

Assortment of macaroons (Lemon, Cassis, Chesnutt and Pistachio)

Assorted of decorated butter cookies ( Jam stuffed, sour cream and chocolate stuffed or salted caramel)

Cinnamon  doughnut holes with chocolate and berry dipping sauces

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Spaghetti and Clams

Whenever I travel, I always come back with lots of culinary inspiration and always with one perfectly captivating dish I just have to re-create.  A taste of southern Spain for me will always be a fideua, a taste of London is a scone with clotted cream and perfectly bitter orange marmalade, the Scotland summed up in a juicy, rare lamb chop…
I ate an array of amazing food in Italy this summer but one taste was so vivid, so unforgettable and so purely satisfying that I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  To think that a dish so simple can be the one most perfect byte to sum up all of Mediterranean coast cuisine…
As I am pouring over my past menus, cook books and recipe ideas to come up with yet another ambitious and barely executable Thanksgiving menu, I was craving simplicity.  And since I am again allowed to cook Italian food by my oh-so-spoiled family, I went to re-create the perfect byte of Italy – a simple spaghetti and clams.
It takes 5 ingredients to make it and about 15 minutes and if done right it becomes a dish you will crave over and over again.  It truly celebrates the essence of Amalfi coast cuisine, simple, great ingredients put together with love and tradition of centuries.
If you can get your hands on the wild Mediterranean clams, you are in luck… for the rest of make do with whatever your fish monger can master up.  You want the smallest clams you can find, the cockles or vongoles, little necks or the multitude of small clams from the Pacific that I am not too familiar with.  Anything wild caught will taste much better than farmed and god forbid you to use anything preserved.
And if you ever bought clam juice in a bottle, please don’t do it again.  It takes 30 seconds to get the real thing out of your clams and the taste cannot be compared to the bottled crap.

Now let’s talk pasta.  There is a reason why pasta comes in two varieties, fresh and dried.  One is not better than other, each has its purpose and I got a good lesson of which to use when while I was in Italy.  Fresh pasta is great with thicker sauces, such as tomato or cream and cheese based.  For seafood light sauces and broth type sauces you never want to use fresh pasta.  It will become soggy and the idea is to have the toothy (al dente) texture offset the sauces with less body.  This dish demands dry pasta and not the whole wheat variety, not the egg enriched pasta but the honest to goodness old-fashioned spaghetti made with semolina flour and water…  And why spaghetti?  Again, the 2,000 pasta shapes out there all have a reason or more importantly a science of holding whichever sauce they are made to carry.  Ridged, short pasta is a perfect vessel for a meat ragout, a nice bucatini is perfect for spicy Amatriciana or a fra Diavolo.  Linguini is great with larger seafood and broth such as shrimp and muscles, but is too thick for a delicate clam dish.  Spaghetti is perfect, not too thick, and not too thin, holds the sauce but does not “carry” it, a wound up fork fool is proportionate to the size of an average clam… in one word perfect.

I know, it may all be too scientific and too thoughtful, after all I was advocating the simplicity and food should not be so complicated. So without further complications, here is the recipe to the dish I crave every single day since coming home.

Spaghetti and clams

3 lbs of small wild clams
1 lb dry spaghetti
1.5 cups of dry white wine

8 cloves of garlic minced
Extra virgin Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish


Place all your clams in a large container and hold under a running cold water for at least 10-15 minutes.  This will help get rid of a lot of sand.  Than arrange all clams in one layer on a bottom of a shallow pan with a good lid.  Add just ¼ cup of water to the pan, cover and place of a low medium heat for 2-3 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let stand covered for another 2-3 minutes.  This allows the clams to open and release all the juice but not cook all the way.  Remove the clams and set aside.  Strain the clam juice through a cheese cloth to remove the remaining sand  and set aside.  Drop your pasta into heavily salted boiling water.
Clean the pan that  you cooked the clams in ( you may still have a bit of sand in it).  Heat 2 tbs of olive oil and add all the garlic, sauté on low heat until garlic just becomes soft.  Add back all the clams and the white wine, cook on low-medium heat for 1 min, add the reserved clam juice and cook for 2 minutes more.  Add the black pepper and the salt if needed.  The amount of salt will depend on the how briny your clams are, sometimes the juice they release is quite salty so taste the broth before you season it. 
At this point your pasta should be perfectly al dente, drain it and add it to the clams pan.  Toss in the broth for a few seconds and don’t forget to add the parsley.  Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnish with a bit more parsley.

That’s it….Mangiare!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pickled Green Tomatoes

You know the expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”?  So what are you supposed to do if universe gives you green tomatoes?  Lots of them, more than I can count. 
My tomato harvest this year exceeded all my expectations; there were hundreds of beautiful tomatoes that even managed to escape the squirrels.  There was only one problem, most of them never ripened. 
There is something weird about my backyard, all plants bloom later than normal.  In the spring my lilac just starts to bloom at the end of May, when others long forgot about it’s flowers.  My roses don’t peak until July and my vegetables don’t get going until August.  I plant my tomatoes with everyone else, one weekend after Mother’s day.  And everyone I know is proudly munching on their own tomatoes in August, where I only start to get little green ones.  By end of September, everyone is done harvesting, and I may have picked a couple red ones and my tomato bushes are breaking under the heaviness of beautiful but still green fruit.  And as October frost sets in I realize that sadly, these beauties will never ripen and I just need to cut my losses again this year. 
As I stared at basket after basket of green tomatoes to be thrown away, my husband suggested I pickle them instead.  A pickled green tomato makes a classic Russian vodka chaser.  You just have to remember to give those lots and lots of flavor as they have none of their own.  And these can last in the fridge for months , no need to fiddle around with mason jars and preservation process. 
So now I have enough pickled green tomatoes to throw a serious vodka party, or to give away as gifts or to sell at a market, if I am so inclined…. They are taking up half of my auxiliary  fridge and better be eaten by spring…

Pickled Green Tomatoes

Green or just slightly pink tomatoes
A glass or plastic container with a lid that can fit all of the tomatoes snuggly but not squeezed in
The recipe for the brine and spices below is for a 2 gallon container, but can easily be scaled up or down

For the brine

3 cups of white vinegar
1.5 gallons of water
1 cup kosher salt
¼ cup brown sugar

 Pickling spices

6 cloves of garlic, cleaned and slightly crashed
1 or 2 hot peppers cut in halves
½ tbs coriander seeds
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tsp dried oregano

Combine all the brine ingredients and bring to a boil.  Simmer until all salt and sugar is dissolved.  User right away.
Wash the tomatoes and fit them snuggly into the clean jar.  Along with tomatoes add the hot peppers, garlic and the pickling spices.
Pour hot brine over the tomatoes, making sure they are fully submerged.  Close tightly and refrigerate.
The pickled tomatoes should be ready in 7 -10 days.  These can last in the fridge for several months if they are submerged in brine.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Swordfish steaks and favorite things.

Just recently my son was mopping around the house complaining that he has nothing to look forward to…. Must be genetic, because the anticipation is what drives me and keeps me happy.  Looking forward to trips, cooking projects, and other fun things is my favorite past time and if nothing is coming up I get antsy…
And if I have nothing big to look forward I think of all the little things that can keep me going for now…. This time of year is look forward to the chilly air and the way the sun hits a golden maple tree in my back yard, to the feel of wearing favorite boots for the first time, to pumpkin everything, to lots of venison in the freezer, to the daunting task for coming up with the Thanksgiving menu and to confiscating my children’s Halloween candy and then eating all my favorite ones in secret.  I look forward to the my orchids blooming in the winter, to warm blankets and cozy pj’s , to getting snowed in on the weekend and heaving nothing to do but cook, eat and watch Breaking Bad.
I look forward to comfort foods and foods that will take me back to summer, back to Italy, back to the blue waters of Mediterranean…  what better choice than a nice, hearty, Swordfish steak. 
Originally, I was going to serve the Swordfish with Potatoes Au Gratin and Green Beans, but my Au Gratin didn’t work ( contrary to popular belief, some things do fail in my kitchen and more often than you think) so a few thousand calories were saved and a much healthier dinner was served.

The biggest trick to cooking swordfish is not to over or under cook it… it needs to be a perfect medium, because anything over is bone dry and anything under is just not flavorful enough.  You also want the freshest cuts, preferably not previously frozen and the stakes have to be at least ½ inch thick, although 2/3 of an Inch thick is the best.
Pan Seared Swordfish Steaks with Lemon Herb butter
4 Swordfish steaks – 2/3 inch thick at room temperature
¼ cup of fine flour (also called sauce or sauté flour)
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for the pan
For the sauce
½ tbs of rosemary minced
1 tsp of fresh thyme
1 tbs of fresh parsley
Juice of half a lemon
2 cloves of garlic
Salt / Pepper
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil ( the fruitiest you can find)
1 tbs of melted butter

Heat vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pan until almost smoking.  Salt and pepper the stakes on both sides and dip into the fine flour (shake off the excess).  Sear on each side until just golden ( 1 -2 minutes).  Prepare the sauce -  combine all the ingredients in the food processor or blender.  Process until smooth.    Dress the fish with the sauce immediately after taking off the heat ( you may want to slightly heat the sauce as well).  Serve hot.

Delicious, hearty but still light!  Unlike the 100 lbs of venison in my freezer, which I am very much looking forward to cooking!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stuffed Squash blossoms and last summer thoughts.

Every winter and spring I wait, and plan, and look forward to summer…”This summer I will…” and the list goes on and on, entertain more, run more, take day trips, swim the dog more, cook this and that, plant something, clean something, paint something, do nothing… And as the cooler night of fall set in, I sit here in my missed, cozy sweater and take stock… as usual; the summer flew by and was not as productive as I hoped.  As if an old woman regretting all the “could have done” of her life, I am saddened for the missed opportunities each and every summer… There was always something I wanted to do but just didn’t get around to it

When I saw gorgeous fresh squash blossoms at the farm, I had just a glimpse of hope that it may not be too late to accomplish at least one cooking project I intended for the warm months.  When zucchini blossoms start appearing at farmer’s markets around May, I always intent to make them, but never get the actual opportunity as these delicate flowers cannot be bought on a Tuesday or Wednesday and  live to see me free to cook on the weekend.  Flowers wilt, and quickly, just like summers…

Stuffing and frying flowers is not a big whoop, you just need a bit of patience and delicate hands.  And I don’t like them heavily battered either.  I lightly tempura them so that the fright batter is thin, crackly and translucent, almost like glass, preserving the flower’s color and shape.  It is what I would like to do to summer, preserve it in a little, crisp, see through shell, to hold up to the light, to admire it’s beauty , to taste its ever so short life…

One last pretty bite and it is time to cozy up with a mug of something warm, breathe in the crisp autumn air and think of something to look forward to….Ah, yes, Thanksgiving!

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Freshly cut blossoms of squash or zucchini (squash blossoms are actually easier to work with as they are larger.  Buy them just cut, preferably the same day you plan to use them, but you can store them in a cool, dry place for one day, but unfortunately no longer)

2 tbs ricotta cheese drained

½ tbs grated parmesan cheese

½ tbs chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil and mint work well alone or combined)

Salt and pepper

For the Tempura batter

1 cup all-purpose flour

A pinch of salt

1/3 to 2/3 cups of ice cold seltzer

Vegetable oil for frying

Whisk together the ricotta, parmesan cheese and herbs.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Gently open each flower and remove the pestle ( you can use your fingers for this or just snip it with scissors).  Stuff each flower with the cheese mixture using either a piping bag or a very small spoon ( I knew the baby spoons would come in handy one day!).  Gently close and slightly twist the petals around the stuffing. 

In a deep skillet heat 1 ½ - 2 inches of vegetable oil to 300F – 325F.  Prepare the tempura by whisking the four and salt and then seltzer.  Do not over mix, stop as soon as no large clumps of flour are visible.  The batter will be very runny.  Dip each flower into the batter and gently shake off the excess.  Fry 1 to 2 minutes turning carefully in the oil, until crisp and slightly browned.  Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.  You can finish them with a bit more salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Travels and Tastes of Italy - Rome

Every guide book on Italy will tell you: “ Beware of pickpockets and scams”, and honestly, getting scammed is part of the experience as long as it doesn’t cost you too much.  A guy working the Naples tolls into his own pocket rang every warning bell in my brain, I knew I was getting scammed as the 2 Euro toll cost me 12, unfortunately by the time I assembled all the gut feeling signs into a conclusion I was on the road, long past the tolls…. Oh well, it is part of the Italian adventure… thank god in was only 10 Euro worth….


Rome is Rome…. It is the city of cities, which endured thousands of years’ worth of history… grand, beautiful, dirty, touristy, spiritual, noisy, glitzy, chaotic, and very, very old…  So old in fact that when you are visiting the Coliseum and Palatine Hill you marvel at the splendor, the achievement, the advancement of that civilization…. How can it be that a civilization this advanced and evolved was simply forgotten, put to sleep for hundreds of years to be reinvented anew…
How can artists forget the craft of painting and sculpture, the engineers lose the ability to create magnificent buildings, build roads and bridges?  How could have the world plunged into the darkness of the middle ages?  And is our civilization doomed to the same fate?  Will archeologist uncover the I-pad a million years from now and marvel it’s advancement?  Will our skyscrapers invoke the same awe as the Roman forums?

Are all those tourists asking themselves the same questions or simply looking for a menu in their native language?

I swear, finding a decent place to eat in Rome is like searching for a needle in a hay stack.  The sigh of tour groups zipping through the main sites happily decentering upon any restaurant boasting a menu in their native tongue made me queasy.  I wanted something austenitic, Roman, not your 10 Euro compound Pasta / Pizza combo….

If you step away from the crowds just a bit and examine the menus with care you can still find great food in Rome. 
 It is known for its great fresh pastas, fresh to hold the richer sauces better… the wonderful Carbonara, the Amatrichiatta, the rich Bolognese….

And even here, the produce in season is the key….
End of August, beginning of September in Europe means mushrooms…. This is the time of year when my mother and I took a few days, just before school started and went away to pick Porcini.  This is the taste of my childhood, the taste that meant cooler nights, and shorter days, the crisp of new school uniform, the hearty soups during long cold winter….the strings of mushrooms drying on our balcony….it is a taste of fall…

The baskets of freshly picked Porcini were outside every restaurant   around the ancient center.  And when the waiter came to take my order I had only one request, I want those…. And keep the coming…

And they did... the beautiful fresh mushrooms, lightly grilled with just a touch of olive oil and garlic, slathered on toast of crispy bread, sautéed into a cream steak sauce…

If Romans did not have a dedicated Mushroom God, they should have… I would have worshiped him with delight.

There are many ways you can become homesick…. And with all of our love for travel after the two weeks were becoming restless, longing for the familiarity of our own beds, wider highways and stronger water pressure.  The glorious Italian food was growing tired and thoughts of Mexican and Sushi filled our heads…  For last lunch in Italy we came upon a Tuscan restaurant and happily devoured rabbit, hearty wild boar stew and suckling pig as the site of pasta and pizza was no longer bearable…. A last desert of fragolini with whipped cream and we were ready to park our tired legs on the plane home….
I have been forbidden from cooking Italian food for at least a few month but when I will make pizza and pasta again I will cook it while imagining the breathtaking views of the sea, the warm sunshine of Amalfi, the dizzying roads, the welcoming smiles of the people and the ancient streets…. And I bet a little of those thoughts will translate into my flavors….  Arrivederci, beautiful Italy, until we meet again!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Travels and Tastes of Italy

Amalfi Coast ( part 2)

A breakfast with the view


Deserts deserve a separate mention.  Italian gelato of course is always highly praised but there is difference between just gelato and home-made Sicilian style gelato which is all over the Amlfi coast.  It comes in every flavor imaginable and my key to trying most of them is my daughter who eats a minimum 3 of these a day. 

 I selfishly let her; with the only condition… she cannot order the same flavor twice throughout the whole trip… I think it’s a win-win deal for everyone involved.  And trust me, you have not lived until tasting a hazelnut gelato, or the pistachio one or the one with wild strawberries ( fragolini) or the mango, melon, peach, pear…. This is why I travel with my kids, they eat everything and provide two more tasting plates at each meal expanding my food experience tremendously.  And you thought I intend to culture them up?

So back to deserts, since Lemon is the key here, you get your Lemon domes, which are sponge cake soaked in Lemonchello filled with cream, your Hazelnut torts again filled with lemon cream and of course the sfogliatelle, which alone can easily be the only reason to come to Amalfi coast. 
 A thousand layers of crispy goodness filled with Lemon Ricotta cream…. I once looked at the process of making it and decided this will be the only desert that I will greatly admire but will never attempt.

All this gorgeous food needs to be washed down with wine.  I made it a point to only order local Campania wines, most of the time, just house wines and was not disappointed.  House wine is cheaper than soda here (something I keep telling my 15 year old) and it is great.  Grape varietals are unusual to our palates, something we are not used, but complex and delicious never the less.  And if you ask for a recommendation from the ever so friendly, familiar and truly hospitable restaurant staff, you will get an even better treat.

Imagine walking into a restaurant on  thundering evening to find your family the only customers… an owner comes out and starts chatting with you like he has known you all his life… You don’t get menus, he tells you he wants to ‘feed” you, you will like it… just surrender to his all Italian hospitality and you do…  We had an experience like this in Scirocco restaurant in Monterpertuso and even though Rocco’s food was great but not the best we tasted on our trip we came back to him on our last night…just to experience this unbelievable hospitality, the true old fashioned enjoyment from feeding people.  He asked us if we wanted wine, I said “Just bring me the wine you want me to drink” he brought one of the best wines I ever tasted… He showed up with a huge Florentine steak, and antipasti and some of home- made gnocchi and at the end of the night with a plate of all of his deserts….
The Scirocco family
A grand big smile, and invitation for my son to come and stay with him any summer and another bottle of wine to take home (“come back and tell me how you like it” -  he said, I would have come back anyway) and on our last night he kissed us all on two cheeks and shook our hands and made you feel like you had family to come back to anytime you wanted….

And he fed us mozzarella…. Nine years ago, sitting in a tiny restaurant outside of Florence’s Duomo I had a religious experience.  I bit into a slice of mozzarella and knew I can never forget the taste.  And I didn’t, I searched for it everywhere in the US, coming close but it was still not the same.  The pure taste of milk, unpasteurized buffalo milk….. Pulled by hand, melt in your mouth….when Rocco put this cheese on our table and I took the first bite I knew I finally found it…. This mozzarella needs not to be dressed with anything; it needs to be savored like fine caviar….

Campania region is where mozzarella comes from, and there are many varieties but all are split into cow milk Mozz and Buffalo.  Mozzarella is delicious everywhere in this part of Italy but if you happen to be down near Paestrum, this is where the buffalo mozzarella farms are.
 I decided to kill two birds with one stone, visit the ancient Greek temples and eat the best mozzarella on the planet, so what that it is 3 hours away along some of the most dangerous roads….
My family had no say in this one…. Although I think they enjoyed it, at least they very well pretended. 

This trip was not all about food or great views, we had to get a sense for the ancient way of life and visited Pompeii, Heraclium and Paestrum.  There is something about touching a 2000 year old house wall and imagining a family that lived here, touched that same wall, and walked the same streets…. I always found it fascinating, a bit haunting, and almost invasive into their long gone lives…. What did they look like, what was their daily life like, what did they eat?  Surprisingly, fast street food is not a modern invention… two millennia ago it was just as popular in bustling cities of the Roman Empire… Roman McDonalds….

 Like ketchup pumps, these urns dispensed a kind of fermented paste of fish and animal intestines that Roman’s found irresistible and smeared on everything… Oh how the tastes change!

Bathed in Italian sunshine, properly salted by the blue water of Mediterranean and well fed, we headed to Rome…. And yes, all roads do lead to Rome if you manage to decipher the Italian road signs and get through the tolls without adventure… we didn’t.

To be continued….