Friday, March 25, 2011

Girelle with Artichokes

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Some women get their kicks from a new pair of jeans or the latest high fashion heels. Me? I’m as giddy as a clothes horse at Chanel when I discover a new pasta shape. In this case, my infatuation was over a curly-cued, adorable pasta I found called girelle, a word that means spinning tops.

March 2011 237 I just loved the way they looked in their uncooked state – almost like a naval on a very pregnant gal whose innie has become an outie.  I had the urge to heap them into a big bowl and leave them on my coffee table, just to admire their whimsical, sculptural form. Well… almost…but my culinary urge overcame my aesthetic urge, bringing me to my senses and to this dish of artichokes and pasta, which I urge you to try. (That’s a lot of urges, isn’t it?) 

I used frozen artichoke hearts and they’re really quite good – plus they save you a lot of time and trouble of trimming fresh ones. If you want to use fresh artichokes however, there’s a primer on how to trim them here. Get the water boiling while you’re cooking the artichokes, because the whole thing comes together in about 15 minutes.

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Before you know it, you’re sitting down to a big, warm, delicious bowl of pasta and artichokes. So dig in.

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Pasta with Artichokes

serves four to six, depending on appetites

printable recipe here

  • 1 pound pasta (I used girelle, but orecchiette, farfalle, or other shapes of pasta would be great too)
  • 2 9-ounce boxes frozen artichoke hearts
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, or one large shallot, diced finely
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • minced parsley – about 1/4 cup
  • salt, pepper
  • a healthy drizzle of lemon-flavored olive oil  (I used a brand from Olio2Go - Gianfranco Becchina’s olio verde al limone), or if not available, juice of 1/2 lemon and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
  • parmesan cheese

Thaw the artichoke hearts. Using a saucepan, cook the onion in the olive oil until limp, then add the minced garlic. Let the garlic soften and add the artichoke hearts. Season them with salt and pepper. Add the wine and the vegetable broth (I was making asparagus that day, so I took the discarded ends and cooked them in water first to make my own vegetable broth. ) Cover the pot and cook the artichokes in the liquid over moderate heat for about 10 minutes. Check the pot occasionally to make sure the liquid doesn’t dry out. If necessary, add more broth, but this is not a soup-y sauce. Near the end of the 10 minutes, add the thyme and parsley. Turn off the heat and add about 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese and mix it all together. Place the pasta in a serving dish, drizzle some lemon-flavored olive oil on top (or the juice of a lemon and regular olive oil), add another sprinkling of parmesan cheese and serve.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pear and Cranberry Crisp

February 2011 117 I know spring is in the air, but I couldn’t let winter depart without posting this pear and cranberry crisp. It’s something I always order at the end of a meal at a local restaurant called Enoterra and it rings all the right bells. I’ve made plenty of apple and peach crisps in my life, so how different could it be to throw a pear and cranberry crisp together that tastes like Enoterra’s? Easier than you think actually.

I’ve still got some cranberries in the freezer and I had one more “Harry and David” pear in the fridge.  One of their large pears made enough crisp for two people (assuming you’re not a glutton) and I baked it in a small ovenproof dish. You might want to use two pears if you’re using the brown bosc pears from the supermarket that would also be delicious in this recipe. 

Start by peeling the pears, slicing them, and mixing them and the cranberries with some freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar and a few other ingredients.

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Then press it down firmly with your hand into a buttered oven-proof container:

February 2011 099 Top it with a crumbly mixture of sugar, flour and butter:

February 2011 100 And bake for a while until it’s browned and crispy on top and bubbling with goodness:

February 2011 121 Oh shoot, I forgot the vanilla ice cream! Guess I’ll just have to make the crisp all over again. 

Yes, that’s better. Excuse me while I retreat to a corner and indulge.

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Pear and Cranberry Crisp

Printable Recipe Here

  • 1 large pear (or two small pears)
  • 1/4 cup cranberries
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • a small grinding of nutmeg
  • a shake of cinnamon
  • 1 t. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. flour

For the topping:

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 3 T. room temperature butter

Slice the pears and place into a bowl with the cranberries. Add the sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon juice and flour. Mix everything together and press into a buttered baking dish. Press as hard as you can because the pears will release a lot of water and sink down into the dish.

In another bowl, mix the flour, sugar and butter with your fingers until you have small clumps. Sprinkle the clumps over the pear mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until browned. It’s a good idea to place the oven-proof container on a baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil in case there is some spillage.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Salad Days

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Winter is a time for indulging in stews, soups and other comforting foods that you wouldn’t want to eat in the heat of summer. But occasionally in winter, salads are the main course, especially after a shopping trip when a glance at the dressing room mirror is as scary as watching “The Exorcist.”

So here are a few of the salads I’ve been eating over the winter, in case you have the urge to try on some new blue jeans too. The salad in the photo above contains campari tomatoes (the only decent ones to be found here in the winter other than grape tomatoes), red onion, pea shoots, sugar snap peas, edamame beans, avocado, cilantro. My standard salad dressing is 2 parts olive oil, 1 part white balsamic vinegar, a bit of Dijon mustard, a small amount of honey, salt and pepper. Shake well and pour.

January 2011 146 This salad is Molly Wizenberg’s celery root, fennel and apple salad. The recipe calls for hazelnut oil. It’s expensive, but the salad just wouldn’t taste the same with a substitute. I omitted the parmesan cheese it calls for because it overpowers the hazelnut oil flavor, but I added some toasted hazelnuts and that enhanced it.

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For this salad, I used a mesclun mix, roasted red beets, cara cara oranges, red onion, and goat cheese – standard salad dressing as in first salad, but used sherry vinegar instead of white balsamic.


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This is a lentil salad made by boiling the lentils in water for about 1/2 hour and draining. Add whatever you like as accompaniments – I used celery, green pepper, carrots, onions, tomatoes and parsley. If I’d had some canned artichoke hearts I’d have thrown those in. For the dressing, I used olive oil, but added some lemon juice in addition to white balsamic vinegar, as well as a small amount of ground cumin, salt and pepper. Serve over radicchio and Belgian endive.

March 2011 201 This salad contains green beans, matchsticks of jicama, blood orange sections and slices of red onion. I used a blood-orange flavored olive oil from the Carter and Cavero store in Princeton, the juice of an orange instead of vinegar, salt, pepper and a squirt of honey, plus some salt and pepper.

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I thought I’d pull out my oils and vinegars to give you an idea of the variety I use – olive oils can be peppery, mild, fruity, plus that hazelnut oil I mentioned, and some canola oil for deep frying. My standard olive oil is extra virgin olive oil from Casale Sonnino, a villa and agriturismo near Rome owned by friends of mine. I can feel confident in knowing what I’m getting since the olives are grown on their property, hand-picked and pressed with supervision from the owners. I can’t wait to try Joe of Italyville’s olive oil too, from his Tre Olive brand. It should be ready for shipping soon.

Vinegars range from plain old white distilled vinegar that’s great for cleaning as well as pickling, to red wine, white wine,  sherry, and aged balsamic vinegar from Acetaia San Giacomo. I like fig vinegar occasionally too, but am all out of it for the photo.

I couldn’t finish this post without mentioning the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan on Friday. From our comfortable homes in the U.S. and elsewhere, it is terrifying to see the enormous devastation caused by these powerful forces of nature. Imagine being there. We cannot ignore the plight of those involved. Many organizations are accepting your donations. Be careful because scammers also come out in force during tragedies like this. Click on the following names of news organizations that have compiled lists of trustworthy places where you can donate: MSNBC, Time, AP.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Torta Mimosa

March 2011 174 This cake is named after the mimosa flower (acacia) that is given to women all across Italy on March 8 for International Women’s Day, or “Festa della Donna.” Even though women’s day is not widely observed in the U.S., in other countries across the globe, it’s a big deal – a day when people celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women.

In Italy, it’s customary to buy a branch, a bouquet, or a small bundle of mimosa flowers to give to your female friends, relatives, teachers, or anyone else you admire. They’re sold everywhere – from florists shops to supermarkets to little floral kiosks on the street.

March 2011 165 Here in the U.S. (at least on the East coast), finding the yellow mimosa flowers presents a challenge, but making a mimosa cake does not. The directions may look daunting, but it’s easy to make. It just takes a bit of time but if you make the cake ahead of time, you can freeze the layers then prepare the chantilly cream and assemble the cake on a different day.

I made the cake to share with my wonderful, supportive group of female friends in my Italian chit-chat group in honor of International Women’s Day. I also presented them with small corsages of the flower that came all the way from Holland. After making inquiries to buy the flower, and a few negative responses, a florist in Princeton -Viburnum – was able to order them for me. There are many more women in the group than in the photo below, but here are the ones who were present for today’s gathering, wearing their mimosa flowers.

March 2011 194 In addition to all my good friends in the Italian chit-chat group, I want to recognize and salute all the other female friends who have entered my life and enriched it so much over the decades. That goes for you too, my fellow blogger friends and readers. May you have the sweet fragrance of mimosas and years of wonderful female friendships in your life too.

Incidentally, if any of you Central New Jersey bloggers or readers are in the Princeton area on Sunday, come over to the Nassau Inn to see the judging of the pie baking contest in honor of PI day (Einstein’s birthday – March 14 - is the numeric equivalent of  PI - 3.14). Ciao Chow Linda submitted Alessandra’s crostata and it was chosen as one of the ten finalists. Professional bakers will be making all the pies and judges will announce the winners around 2:45 p.m.

This recipe for torta mimosa comes from and it’s not hard, just time-consuming. Click here for the complete directions with photos demonstrating the technique. Just a couple of caveats – the recipe for the syrup makes way more than you need. Cut it in half and that’ll be more than enough. Also, the cream filling recipe was a little skimpy. I added another half-cup of whipping cream near the end of the assembly of the cake to make sure I had enough of the cream to spread on top. The recipe doesn’t tell you this, but for the final layer – the one that you cut into crumbs and sprinkle on top – it looks better if you remove the browned crust along the edges and top of the cake layer.

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Torta Mimosa

printable recipe here

for the sponge cake

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 cup potato starch (flour)

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 6 eggs

For the chantilly cream

  • 2 cups milk

  • 2 eggs

  • 2 egg yolks

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 3 T. all-purpose flour

  • 1 lemon zest

  • 1/2 stick vanilla

  • 1 cup heavy cream, whipped (I would add another 1/2 cup)

  • 3/4 cup confectioners sugar

For the syrup  (You really only need to make half of this amount)

  • 1 cup water

  • 1/2 cup Kirsch (dry cherry liqueur)

  • 1/2 cup sugar

To make sponge cake, whisk the eggs and sugar in a mixer until firm. Then gently fold in, little by little, the all-purpose flour and potato flour, sieved together, using a spatula. Once the mixture is smooth, pour it into two  8 inch cake tins that have been buttered and floured. Bake at 325 degrees f. for 45 minutes. Once cooked, allow the cakes to cool.

Beat the heavy cream with the confectioner's sugar and set aside.

To make the chantilly cream, mix the whipped cream with the confectioner’s custard. To make the confectioner’s custard, cut the vanilla pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and put into a bowl. Using a potato peeler, take the zest from a lemon, being careful not to take any of the white part underneath. In a pot, bring the milk to a boil with the vanilla seeds and the lemon zest. As soon as the milk starts boiling, remove from heat. In a bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks with the sugar. Add the flour, previously sieved, and mix well.

Once the mixture is smooth, dilute it with a bit of warm milk, stirring while adding. Pour the remaining milk through a sieve to remove the lemon zest. Put the mixture back over the heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring continuously, allowing it to boil for two to three minutes. Remove the custard from the heat and allow it to cool. Once cold, fold in the whipped cream.

To make the syrup, to be used to soak the cake, bring to a boil a mixture of water and sugar so that the latter dissolves. Once dissolved, remove from the heat and add some Kirsch.

Assemble the cake as follows:

  • Cut the sponge cakes into horizontal layers

  • Line a glass bowl about 8 inches in diameter with bands of baking paper or plastic wrap. Arrange a layer of sponge on the bottom of the bowl

  • Using a small brush soak the sponge cake with the Kirsch syrup

  • Spread a layer of the cream on top of the sponge and cover with another slice of sponge.  Repeat the operation for three sponge layers, but reserve about 1/4 of the filling that you will need to cover the outside. Then, put the cake in the refrigerator and allow to rest for 30 minutes or more.

  • With the last layer of sponge cake, trim the brown edges and crust. Cut into small pieces and crumble more finely with hands, if desired.

  • Take the cake from the refrigerator and flip the cake onto a cake plate

  • Coat the outside of the cake with the remaining cream.

  • Spread the pieces of broken-up sponge cake all over the cake.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

February 2011 245

Bacon and eggs for dinner? Yes please, but hold the toast and bring on the three P’s – pasta, pecorino, and pepper. For an unctuous, addictive meal that takes less than 15 minutes to prepare, try spaghetti alla carbonara.

The dish is widely credited as originating in Rome, and any Roman worth her weight in bucatini knows that guanciale, (pork cheek) is used in this recipe, not American-style bacon. But finding guanciale in Princeton is almost as hard as finding a Roman who obeys traffic signals, so pancetta (unsmoked bacon really) is a good – no, delicious substitute. Actually, I’ve even used American bacon in a pinch and there were no complaints. But try it with pancetta and you’ll have them eating from your hands.

pasta eater

(This painting - “Pasta Eater – Allegory of Taste” by Luca Giordano, is owned by the Princeton University Art Museum. Unfortunately, for some reason, it’s not currently on display.)

Geometry of pasta

The recipe is included in this book sent to me several months ago. I’m finally getting around to writing about the book and I have to say, I was predisposed not to like it – no photos, just black and white drawings of pasta shapes. But the drawings started to grow on me – I love the graphic, stylish look of them.

Even though the book’s pages are structured in encyclopedic fashion, with entries from A (agnolotti) to Z (ziti), it’s not an exhaustive treatise on all the types of pasta in the world (it doesn’t include the anolini from my mother’s region of Emilia-Romagna for example, nor the spiral-y girelle I just found at a local Italian specialty shop). But it does contain recipes for hundreds of different shapes of pasta and sauces that best complement them, including one for bucatini carbonara.

I prefer spaghetti rather than the bucatini, and (heresy) parmigiano to the pecorino. While this dish tastes and has the feel of something decadently bad for you, it really isn’t if you take it in moderation. For two people, I used only two ounces of pancetta and two eggs, plus 1/2 cup parmigiano and cracked black pepper. That’s it. No olive oil, no butter, no cream – they’re not authentic and not necessary since this will be luscious and lovely without them.

Start by cutting up the pancetta into small bits. Some people like to buy the pancetta or guanciale sliced thickly, and then make little lardons, but I prefer a thinner slice. I roll all the slices into a log and then cut them into small bits.

February 2011 183 Get the pasta boiling while you fry the pancetta bits. You don’t need to use oil to fry the pancetta since it will start to exude its own oil after a few minutes. Take a serving bowl and warm it either over a pot of simmering water or in the oven for a few minutes – just long enough to take the chill off.  Beat the eggs in the bowl (you don’t want the bowl to be too hot or you’ll scramble the eggs) and add the parmigiano, whisking again.

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Drain the pasta, swirl it around in the pan with the pancetta, then add the pasta to the bowl with the eggs and parmigiano, mixing well.  Season generously with freshly cracked black pepper. Legend has it that the dish is named after the dish traditionally eaten by Italy’s carbonari – or “charcoalmen,” a secret society involved in the unification of Italy.

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Top with more freshly grated parmigiano and serve.

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Spaghetti Alla Carbonara

Printable Recipe here

(serves two)

2 ounces pancetta or guanciale (or American bacon in a pinch)

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup pecorino or parmigiano, plus more for sprinkling on top

freshly cracked black pepper

1/4 to 1/3 pound spaghetti

Cut the pancetta into small bits and fry in a sauté pan. You don’t need to use oil to fry the pancetta since it will start to exude its own oil after a few minutes. Start the pasta  boiling while you fry the pancetta bits. Take a serving bowl and warm it either over a pot of simmering water or in the oven or microwave for a few minutes – just long enough to take the chill off.  Beat the eggs in the bowl (you don’t want the bowl to be too hot or you’ll scramble the eggs) and add the pecorino or parmigiano, whisking again.

Drain the pasta, swirl it around in the pan with the pancetta, then add the pasta and pancetta bits to the bowl with the eggs and cheese, mixing well.  Season generously with freshly cracked black pepper, and serve with additional grated cheese.