Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bruschette/Crostini Ideas

Start with some grilled bread, rub with raw garlic and top with tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper and basil. That's what comes to mind when most people think of the word bruschetta. The word bruscare is Roman dialect for the Italian word "abbrustolire" which means "to toast." Bruschette (plural of bruschetta) have become ubiquitous on menus here and in Italy, topped with everything from arugula to zucchini. Crostini, on the other hand, are generally smaller and crunchier like croutons and can also be a perfect base for any number of toppings. The words have almost become interchangeable and it doesn't really matter whether you call these bruschette or crostini. Either way, they're a great vehicle for small bits of an infinite variety of foods. Just don't pronounce it broo-shett-a. Say broo-skett-a, please.

I gave a demonstration a couple of weeks ago on bruschetta making at Tuscan Hills, a store near Princeton, New Jersey that sells beautiful Italian furniture, pottery, linens and other irresistible items. My son Michael also participated, showing the audience how to make limoncello, a recipe he shared with Ciao Chow Linda readers a couple of years ago here.

I started with the basic bruschetta, but since summer is long gone, the only flavorful tomatoes to be found were the tiny grape tomatoes I used below. They make a decent substitute in winter.

But did you know you can make a perfectly respectable tomato bruschetta using canned tomatoes? I once ate this at an Italian restaurant in California and couldn't believe how good it was. So I tried it at home, using a brand of tomatoes that says "fire-roasted"(Muir Glen). I drained all the liquid from them, then mixed the tomatoes with olive oil, minced garlic, salt, pepper and basil. 

But let's expand the bruschetta repertoire a bit. This one is made using small cubes of roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions and pine nuts, topped with a sliver of parmesan cheese and balsamic reduction. 

 This bruschetta uses cannellini beans from a can, that are drained and rinsed, then smashed with a fork, and mixed with garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and a bit of rosemary.

 The sweet creaminess of smooth ricotta cheese is a great foil for the salty crunchiness of baked, crispy prosciutto.

 The sweet/savory contrast is also evident here, in one of my favorites: blue cheese and walnuts, topped with a pear slice and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. By the way, I don't use my expensive aged balsamic vinegar here. I pour about 1/2 cup of a supermarket brand into a pot with a couple of tablespoons of honey and let it reduce about 10 minutes until it's syrupy. 


The platter below also includes bruschetta with mozzarella and roasted peppers; with fig jam, mozzarella and prosciutto; and with goat cheese and grilled zucchini. If you're planning a party, you could even set up a bruschetta station with grilled bread and lots of toppings and let people assemble whatever  they prefer. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

    Buon Anno.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Don't Bake These Cookies

lekvar cookies
Are you a little crazed right now, rushing to finish everything before Christmas eve? You know -  decorating the house, shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, planning the feast for Christmas eve or Christmas day, and baking cookies too? Take a deep breath ..... and don't bake these cookies.

sweet taralli cookies
 I'm posting these recipes because they're part of my childhood cookie archive and I wanted to make sure I have the recipe written down for the future. But guess what? I'm not making them this year. These photos are from last Christmas. This year, I'm skipping them - not because I don't love them, but because I need to schedule in some time to just relax. I baked dozens of other cookies earlier in the month for a party we held for my dad's 90th birthday and I'm calling it quits on the cookie front. 

I want to be in a state to enjoy the holidays with family and friends, not collapse and rejoice that they're over.

I hope you manage to carve out a little time for yourself too amid the hustle and bustle of preparing for the holidays. So bake these cookies or any of your own favorites if you've got extra energy, or the spirit moves you, but if you need a little time to decompress -  go get a massage (as I'm doing tomorrow), attend a concert (ditto) or have coffee with neighbors (double-ditto).   

Lekvar Cookies

3 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup flour
1 tsp. vanilla
1 jar lekvar (prune filling) or any other kind of jam you prefer

Mix everything in a mixer and roll into a disk shape. Chill for at least one hour. Roll out 1/8 inch thick. Cut into 2 1/2 inch squares. Fill each square with a small spoonful of lekvar. Starting from a one of the four points of the square, fold over two sides toward the center. Moisten with a little water to help the dough stick together. Bake at 350 degrees for about 12 - 14 minutes. When cool, dust with confectioner's sugar.

Sweet Taralli

5 1/2 cups flour, plus more for working the dough
1 1/2 T. baking powder
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 T. vanilla


3 cups confectioner's sugar
4 T. water
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. vanilla extract
multicolor sprinkles for decoration, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Combine the flour and baking powder, mixing well. Set aside.
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl, then whisk in the sugar, butter and vanilla extract. Fold in the flour mixture. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly to mix. Separate into sixteen even sections. With each of the sixteen sections, roll into a log about 12-14 inches long. Cut this piece into four pieces and roll those until they're about four or five inches long. Bring the two ends together and pinch them to hold in the shape of a circle. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 minutes until the taralli are puffed and golden brown on the bottom. They will remain pale on top.

Cool on a baking rack, then combine all the ingredients for the icing in a bowl and spread over the cookies, using sprinkles to decorate.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Baccala Mantecato and Lidia's Holiday Special

There was always fried baccala on Christmas eve. And fried smelts. And fish as small as minnows that stuck together in clumps when they were fried. When you ate them amid a boisterous family at a table that stretched to include neighbors too, it was like munching on a cluster of crunchy, salty, baby fish - which they were. There were other fried fish too, including eels - slaughtered in the kitchen one year, leaving the porcelain sink and the white curtains bathed in red.

There was pasta too - with squid or with crabs - always in tomato sauce. There was sometimes conch, especially when I was a teenager and my brother in the Navy got leave and brought home the freshly caught seafood. There was a nod to American cuisine too (and the 1960s), usually at the beginning of the meal when my mom placed a fluted glass holding six plump shrimp and cocktail sauce on each plate.

After I married, my mother-in-law introduced me to her stuffed squid recipe, which then also became part of my Christmas eve tradition, even after I scrapped most of the fried fish. Now I include a seafood risotto, which soaks up the tomato sauce from the stuffed squid so beautifully. Some years I've made seafood salad, or octopus and potato salad - always a hit, but a budget buster. But hey, it is Christmas eve, or "La Vigilia" as it's known in Italian.

I can't drop the baccala completely, even if it's no longer dredged in flour and fried in deep fat. Now I'm more likely to use it in codfish cakes, or as an appetizer of baccala mantecato, a dish that is typical of the Veneto region, where it's frequently served with grilled polenta.

salt cod or "baccala"

These are some of the foods that will be on my table for La Vigilia, and I'll bet on a lot of your tables too, if there are Italians in your household. Strangely though, none of my mother's relatives (in Northern Italy) follow this custom. Even in my husband's family in Abruzzo - the south-central part of Italy -  the so-called "Feast of the Seven Fishes" or "Feast of the 13 Fishes" is not commonly observed. There might be a pasta with seafood, followed by a whole roasted fish, or maybe a platter of fried fish instead. But not the "abbondanza" of dishes that we here in the states think of as the gluttonous Christmas eve repast. By the way, it's said that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments in the Catholic religion, while the 13 fishes are symbolic of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

 I was reminded that Christmas eve is right around the corner, when I viewed an advance copy of a program that will be airing Tuesday, Dec. 20 on public television stations featuring  Lidia Bastianich. It's called "Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions." Here's a short clip to give you a preview:

The program really struck home with me when Lidia was shopping on Arthur Avenue with Mo Rocca and eels were slithering on the floor, and in her kitchen when she was preparing her Christmas eve feast with Stanley Tucci. "There's no vigilia without baccala and there's no vigilia without eel," Lidia says, as she starts cooking with Tucci in the kitchen that's familiar to viewers of her TV shows. This time, viewers are taken into her dining room too, as the abundant meal is spread out before guests, including Tucci's parents and Lidia's own beloved mother Erminia.

Aside from the Italian Christmas eve dinner, Lidia takes her viewers to San Francisco, inside the home of a Chinese family preparing for the lunar new year; to San Antonio, Texas where many generations of an immigrant family celebrate Christmas with Mexican traditions; and back to New York and the lower East side, where a Passover Seder is prepared at the home of one of the fourth-generation owners of specialty food store Russ & Daughters. Joining them is Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor, who prepares her mother's recipe for brisket.

"Everyone is longing for a taste of the past,"  says Reichl. "That's why holiday meals are so important. Everybody who has sat around the table in the past is joining us."

I admit I'm more sentimental than most - especially in this past year - but the people and traditions that were so lovingly on display in this video made me smile, but also brought tears to my eyes - and not just in the Italian segment. Each of the ethnic groups in the program has at its base a common denominator that goes beyond the ingredients, the markets and the dishes that are prepared. Watch for yourself next Tuesday and see if you don't agree with Stanley Tucci when he says that cooking and sharing these traditions is "... a way of passing on family history, emotions -- it's a way of connecting with somebody. It's a way of expressing love ... and that's the thing for me that makes food so interesting."

Here's a little bit of love coming your way, especially to Kathy of Birdy Chat, who is the winner of the tea from Mariage Freres that I offered as a giveaway. For the rest of you, here's my recipe for baccala mantecato.

Baccala Mantecato

Printable Recipe Here

1 pound salt cod, soaked for at least two days and cut into large pieces *see below

2 garlic cloves

1 medium potato, cut into chunks

3 cups milk

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup light cream

1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced

freshly ground black pepper

additional liquid from the poaching liquid, if needed

optional: 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  • Place the milk into a large pot and add the potatoes and garlic pieces. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost cooked, but need a little more time.

  • Add the codfish pieces and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of the cod.

  • Drain the potatoes, codfish and garlic, reserving the milk.

  • Place the potatoes, fish, garlic and black pepper into a food processor and add the olive oil and cream, and blend, keeping the machine running until you have a thick "paste." If you need to add more liquid, use the poaching liquid.

  • Put in the parsley and blend again. If the mixture is too thick, add more of the poaching liquid.

  • Add the cheese if desired. (To some, combining cheese and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious. Use at your own risk.)

*Note: When you buy salt cod, it's VERY salty and stiff as a board. Place it into a big bowl or pot that will fit into the refrigerator. Start by running cold water over the fish, in a bowl in the sink - for about 10 minutes straight. Then place the fish and the bowl filled with cold water in the refrigerator. At least twice a day, dump out the old water and replace it with fresh, clean water. The fish should reconstitute in less than a day, but it will still be salty. Sometimes I rinse the fish too many days (four or so) and I lose that familiar "salt cod" taste. Each year is different and each year the recipe turns out different.

This recipe will certainly keep overnight in the refrigerator, but it will stiffen up and become hard. It's best eaten when it's at room temperature or slightly warm and easily spreadable. If you don't want to make the grilled polenta (which spritzes oil all over the range!), serve with crackers or bread.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Leek and Potato Soup

If you're in Paris and your pocketbook allows, I'd be among the first to say treat yourself to an evening of haute cuisine at one of the city's top restaurants.  Indulge in dinner at Hotel Meurice's dining room, for instance, and you'll feel like you're among the privileged in 17th century Versailles, complete with rococo decor and waiters who gather at your table to ceremoniously release the silver domes atop your plates in a synchronized flourish. It's an experience that will stay with you forever.

But when you want a simple meal to nourish the soul and stomach, especially at lunchtime, there are a plethora of places to pop in for a quick bite. Paris is loaded with quaint bistros offering traditional fare at a reasonable price. Typical of them is the leek and potato soup I ate at one place in Montmartre. It wasn't quite enough though, so I ordered a platter of bleu cheese accompanied by a small salad and bread.

Savory tartes, or quiches are everywhere, such as this tarte with three cheese I ate at the pavillion in the Luxembourg gardens:

And that was after a little snack of roasted chestnuts at the entrance to the gardens.

By now, you know I've got a sweet tooth that longs to be satisfied, so I gave in every day. This cup of tea and berry-topped mini charlotte was obviously meant for me.

This small oval treat of tender chocolate cake, filled with cream and cherries, topped with a luscious chocolate ganache, just melted in the mouth.

After the overload of desserts, I took a pause from sweets when I got home and made the leek and potato soup instead, using a recipe I adapted from Debby of Foodie Wife.  Besides, I don't think I could ever duplicate that chocolate treat. But I have to admit, the leek and potato soup made chez moi was even better than the version I ate in Paris. 

Leek and Potato Soup

Printable Recipe

1 T. unsalted butter

2 T. olive oil

2 leeks, thinly sliced and washed free of debris

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic

1 quart chicken stock

a few sprigs of fresh thyme

2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup parmesan cheese

salt, pepper to taste

Put the butter and olive oil into a large, heavy pan and saute the leeks, onion and garlic until translucent. Add the potatoes, white wine, chicken stock, salt and pepper and cook at a low simmer, with the lid askew, for about 1/2 hour, or until the potatoes are fork tender. Remove the stems of the fresh thyme. At this point, I put the mixture into the blender, a small amount at a time. Be careful though, because it can easily splatter all over you and the kitchen. Instead of using the lid in its entirety, I remove the little plug that's in the center of the lid, and cover it with paper towel while the blender is going. It gives the hot liquid a way to release the steam without "blowing" off the lid. Some people like to use a stick blender, but I prefer a counter-top blender - your choice.

Put the soup back in the pot and add the heavy cream and parmesan cheese. Cook another 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with a garnish of caramelized onions and snippets of fresh chives and parmesan cheese toasts.

2 large onions, sliced and slowly sauteed in 2 T. butter until golden brown
fresh chives

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Raspberry Creme Brulee Tarte and a giveaway

I admit it. The scale doesn't lie. I was naughty in Paris. Let's not talk about the creamy cheeses and wonderful wines I indulged in. We'll go straight to dessert for this post - something I'm not averse to when you're in a city with the plethora of exquisite sweets that Paris offers. I ate pastries, cakes and ice cream at least once a day, sometimes twice a day. All of them were delicious and some of them were divine - including this raspberry creme brulee tarte from Mariage Freres, a place that holds sweet memories for me in more ways than one. 

Mariage Freres has several locations in Paris, including its flagship store and restaurant in the Le Marais neighborhood, the one I've visited on past trips. The business started back in the 17th century when King Louis IV and the French East India Company dispatched a man named Nicolas Mariage to Persia to sign a trade agreement, while Nicolas' brother traveled to Madagascar on behalf of the same company. Centuries later, other Mariage descendants opened the first retail establishment in 1984 and the tea is considered by many connoisseurs to be the best in the world. It's where Claridge's of London gets its tea and what Japan Airlines serves to its first class customers.   

You know they're serious about their teas when you're handed a more than 100-page booklet of descriptions of the various teas to choose from. 
The tins are lined up on a wooden shelf, resembling an old apothecary shop, while the waiters run back and forth to grab their orders from the tea-brewer.

The china teapot is delivered table-side inside a silver caddy to keep it at the perfect temperature.

Naturally, there are desserts to accompany the tea, including the raspberry creme brulee tart at the top. I've eaten it there before, but didn't see it on the menu this time. When I asked the waiter about it, he produced it from the kitchen for me, providing me with another trip down memory lane. But truth be told, I did start with a more appropriate lunch - an absolute work of art that turned out to be the most expensive cream cheese and smoked salmon sandwich I'd ever eaten. But then again, I've never eaten bread made with green matcha tea or a smoked salmon sandwich decorated with fish roe and pansies. 
Whether you simply have tea or eat lunch at Mariage Freres, be prepared to open your wallet.  It's not just a Lipton tea bag plunked into a mug. But the experience at Mariage Freres - from the service to the carefully prepared and presented food - is worth every centime. That's why I'd like you to share in a bit of the experience with me and why I'm giving away a tin of one of Mariage Freres' most popular tea varieties - Marco Polo. If you read French, you can read the description for yourself below. Otherwise, take my word for it that it's a blend of scents of fruits and flowers from China and Tibet, and its extraordinary bouquet is one of the most mythic of all perfumed teas. Just leave a comment in the comment section of this post - and an email address so I can have some way to contact you if you win.

You can also actually order Mariage Freres tea from the company's website (click here) and it will be sent to you from France. Some stores in the U.S. (like Williams Sonoma and Dean and Deluca) also carry a small selection of Mariage Freres tea. And if you're not afraid of facing your scale and want to try to recreate that creme brulee tarte ('tis the season - be brave and forget the calories), here's a recipe that will give you even more of the Mariage Freres experience.

Raspberry Creme Brulee Tarte

Printable Recipe Here

For tarte shell:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

  • 4 T. sugar

  • 1/4 t. salt

  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 4- 5 T. ice water

For custard filling:
  • 1/2 vanilla bean

  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream

  • 2/3 cup whole milk

  • 4 large egg yolks

  • 1 whole large egg

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • dash of salt

For the bruleed topping:
1/4 cup sugar plus 2 more tablespoons sugar

1/2 pint fresh raspberries

In a food processor, place the flour, sugar and salt. Give it a whir to blend everything, then add the butter and pulse a few times. Add the ice water until it forms a ball, or nearly forms a ball. You don't want to overwork the dough or it will be tough.

Roll it out on a floured board and place it inside a 12 inch tart pan, overlapping the inside edge to make it twice the thickness. Prick some holes in the bottom and place in the freezer for 20 minutes to a half hour. After you remove it from the freezer, blind-bake the crust at 350 degrees. To blind-bake it, place a piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper inside the crust and weigh it down with pie weights or use beans and rice, as I do. Bake it for about 20 minutes with the weights inside, then remove the weights (carefully) and bake another 10 to 15 minutes until the shell is golden brown.

Let the crust cool. When ready to make the filling, line the inside of the tarte shell with the fresh raspberries. Cook the filling in the following manner: Split the vanilla bean down the middle and place it in a pot with the milk and cream. Cook them together at a simmer for about 10 minutes or until piping hot, then turn off the flame and let the bean sit in the liquid to absorb the flavor more.Whisk the egg yolks and egg with the sugar and salt. Slowly add them to the milk and cream mixture until blended. If you're worried about any particles that may have formed, place the mixture through a sieve after everything is all mixed together.

Carefully pour the mixture into the shell over the raspberries. Place the tarte pan on a cookie sheet and bake in a 300 degree oven for about 25 to 30 minutes or until it's set but still wobbly in the center. It will set more after you remove it from the oven.

Before serving, sprinkle the remaining sugar on top and either use a blow torch or place it under the broiler for a few minutes, making sure to rotate the tarte to get the entire surface exposed to the flame until it's browned and crunchy.

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