Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cornbread Chronicles

Just in case you're having Christo's big cowboy chili  (or ribs or barbequed chicken) for Superbowl Sunday, don't forget to include some cornbread too.

 Actually, let me amend that statement. Fresh from the oven, smeared with some butter, this cornbread is so delicious all on its own. Top it with some fig jam and you could call it dessert.

This recipe, from Taste Of Home, turned out just the way I like - moist, with a tender crumb and full of corn flavor. My quest for some good cornbread took a few detours though, as I tried several recipes in the course of a week, trying to get it right.

The first one, which included chopped jalapeno peppers, was too dry and crumbly. I should have realized it when I was mixing it, since it was more like a crumb topping for a cake. I tossed it out to the birds. Fortunately, there was snow on the ground, so if they had parched throats after eating this, they could quench their thirsts. 

The second recipe (which also included jalapeno peppers, cheddar cheese and a can of creamed corn) was too wet and gooey, even though I kept it in the oven longer than called for. I threw it out to the squirrels - or who knows? Maybe that red fox that's shown up a couple of times in my yard lately ate it. In any event, it wasn't fit for human consumption. 

By now, I figured I'd better read a few more recipe reviews before baking cornbread. But what I did know was that I really didn't want jalapeno peppers in my cornbread. I wanted good old fashioned, plain cornbread.

So I read the critiques from home cooks following each cornbread recipe, until I found this one, where the praise was nearly unanimous. "This will now be my go-to recipe," one reviewer wrote. "Delicious. It always gets rave reviews," wrote someone else, echoing dozens of others.

So armed with kudos from dozens of bakers, I made this recipe, cutting back a little on the sugar, as some recommended.

 I didn't bake it in the 13 x 9 inch pan called for, but rather in a 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish. As a result, I increased the baking time by about 15-20 minutes. Bake it in muffin tins for a different way of serving it - or in a cast iron skillet. Just be sure to adjust the baking time accordingly.

It's a simple recipe, but really is a winner, and like the other reviewers, it will be my go-to recipe for cornbread from now on.

I'm afraid the birds and squirrels in my back yard will have to be content with stale bread -- or wait for another kitchen failure at some point in the future.

Buttery Cornbread


printable recipe here

2/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar (I used 2/3 cup and it was plenty)

3 eggs

1 2/3 cups 2 percent milk

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup cornmeal

4 1/2 tsps. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Combine eggs and milk. Combine flour, cornmeal, baking power and salt; add to creamed mixture alternately with egg mixture.

Pour into a greased 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Bake 22-27 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cut into squares. serve warm. Yield: 15 servings.

Note: I used a square 8 x 8 inch baking pan and baked it for 40-45 minutes.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Christo's Chili

Yes, the Superbowl is coming up soon and that's reason enough to make this delicious and hearty chili. Your friends and family will love this flavorful stick-to-the-ribs dish that's traditionally served before the big game.

But I made it for another reason - as a way to honor Chef Christo Gonzales, whose life was ended too quickly last week. He had a passion for life, for work, for his beloved New Mexico, his adopted home of New York City, and most of all for his son Jackson. Although we met only once in person, he always brightened my day with his Facebook musings and his blog posts on "A Little Bit of Christo." They were frequently about food, but more often than not, they were witty, thoughtful musings about life in New York City. Those who followed him will never forget his inflatable zebra Harold, his rooftop grilling, his tirades about those who "unfriended" him, his enviable mane of grey hair, or his "gotta feed the kid" hashtag that he used when lovingly cooking for his son.

 He arrived at his profession of chef relatively late in life, but set an example of how you can achieve your goals when you work hard enough and you care enough. In short, he touched a lot of lives in a positive way, even those who knew him only through the blogosphere. It's sad and it's maddening to think that someone this creative, this passionate and this giving will no longer be here to grace this world. But hopefully, he left "a little bit of Christo" in all of us who had the pleasure of knowing him, in a real or "virtual" way.

If you'd like to donate to a fund that was set up to held his son, click here for more information.

Christo's Big Cowboy Chili

printable recipe here

1 lb ground beef (or chicken or turkey)
1 large onion diced
3 cloves garlic minced
3 Tbs cumin powder
4 Tbs (use as much or as little as you want for level of heat desired) red chile powder (get it from New Mexico) 
1 small can tomato paste
2 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb dry of cooked kidney beans (I cooked a pound of dry beans in the pressure cooker you could use canned and it would probably work out to 2 quarts of beans) Make sure you have at least 3 cups of liquid with your beans
Avocado, sour cream and green onion for garnish

Brown the meat in a large skillet. When meat is brown add the onion and garlic and saute until soft. When the onion and garlic have softened then add the cumin and the chile powder and stir till everything is coated (if its not spicy enough add more red chile powder). When all of this is a nice deep red color then add the tomato paste and water. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add this mixture to your cooked beans and bean broth and simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve with your garnish and cornbread of you have it.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Veggie Ribbon and Ham Tart

Here's a tart that's guaranteed to frustrate you. If you stay with it though, you'll be rewarded with a tart that's a visual stunner and tastes wonderful too. But don't say I didn't warn you when your pastry collapses, when you don't have enough strips of veggies, or you run out of ham because you're eating it  instead of tucking it into the tart shell. Can you hear the swear words across the screen? Yea, just sayin'….. 

The first glitch came with the puff pastry called for in the recipe. It said to line a springform pan and prebake it for 10 minutes. Well, good luck with that, as the buttery dough decides to slide down the sides of the pan.

Oh, I know what I'll do.  I'll use a tart pan instead, and drape the dough over the sides, then trim the edges flush with the border. 

Oh really?

 Nah, the puff pastry did its thing and "puffed" up almost to the top of the pan. And yes, I pricked the hell out of it before it went into the oven -- to no avail.  

But I wasn't going to let some bully of a puff pastry keep me from making this tart, darn it. So I moved to plan three and scratched the puff pastry idea, making a traditional tart pastry instead - and it worked. Take that, you ornery puff pastry!

OK, so the next cast of characters are these veggies - green and yellow zucchini, orange, yellow and red rainbow carrots.

You could try using a vegetable peeler to make the strips, but I used a mandoline instead.

I didn't want any accidents, so I stopped cutting when the pieces got too close to the blade. Don't waste them though. They're perfectly fine for cooking as a side dish some other time.

You'll need some ham for this too. I used a "French" ham that I find at my supermarket. It's a very delicate flavor and the closest thing to prosciutto cotto I can find in the states. It's also very delicious, which is why I couldn't stop eating it out of hand, and ran out of it before I got to the end of the rolling. 

OK, so what you do first is parboil the veggie strips for a couple of minutes, let them cool, then start rolling, beginning with a strip of one of the veggies. Alternate with the ham and continue rolling.

The parboiled strips of veggies will stick to each other, and so will the ham. This part is not hard, but time-consuming. And I didn't cut enough of the veggie strips and had to go back to the mandoline and cut more - and parboil more.

The recipe called for a 6 inch diameter pan, but I thought that was too small to serve a group of people, so I used an 8-inch pan instead. It seemed as though I'd never get the spiral large enough, but I did - finally!

The next hurdle was transferring the spiral to the (pre-baked) tart shell. I used my hands and a large spatula, and while it was a little tricky, with some of the spiral getting dislodged, in the end I managed to put everything back in place and no one was the wiser.

This part is easy - pour the filling over the top and spread in between the cracks. If you roll your spiral a little looser than mine, you'll have more space for the filling. (But warning - it will undoubtedly be harder to transfer the spiral to the tart shell.) Now, you're practically home free - just bake in the oven.

And slice open to reveal a jewel of a tart that tastes wonderful, but that I will likely never make again. But maybe you'd like to give it a go. Maybe even using puff pastry (maybe you're a masochist?) 

If you do, please write me and let me know how it worked out. If you're still speaking to me.

Veggie Ribbon and Ham Tart

adapted from

Dorian Cuisine

(the site begins in French but near the bottom the recipe is also in English. My changes are marked in red, below)

printable recipe here

 1 package of ham (use Italian ham) (I used about 1/2 cup)

(I used two) 

 1 yellow zucchini 

1 carrot (I used at least six, of varying colors)

1 egg 

60g full cream = ¼
c full(heavy) cream 

30g grated cheese = ½ c grated cheese 

roll puff pastry
(I used a traditional tart pastry shell - my recipe for that is below)

salt and pepper

Start by cutting all the vegetables
into strips with a vegetable peeler.

Heat a large pot of salted water and
prepare a large bowl of cold water.

Put the vegetables in boiling water,
let ten seconds and then retract it with a slotted spoon and put them
in cold water to stop cooking, drain well and dry with paper towels.

Cut the ham slices in half lengthwise.

Start assembling spread four slices of
zucchini in length. The slices should overlap slightly in length.

You'll get a long strip of zucchini.

Cover it with the yellow zucchini in
the same way and with the carrot.

Repeat, green zucchini, yellow
zucchini, carrot and ham this time.

Repeat two layers in the same manner.

In the end we arrive at six layers (I had many, many more "layers.")

Cut a little too much if it exceeds the

Roll the vegetables and ham, with four
hands is easier to obtain a large roll. Drop the roller to lay flat,
then you should get the same as the first picture.

Cut the puff pastry to the size of your
pan and let the precooked for 10 minutes at 180°C/350°F
(HA! good luck with that).

Mix the egg, cream and cheese and pour
over the pastry. Place the vegetables and ham roll and press a
little. It should look like the second picture.

Bake for thirty minutes at 180°C/350°F.

Ciao Chow Linda's Pastry Shell (to use if you're skipping the puff pastry)

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 cup ice cold water, or more as needed

For the pastry, put everything except the cold water into a food processor. Pulse until it is the consistency of damp sand. Add the cold water and pulse a few more times, until the dough sticks together. Roll into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Let it rest in refrigerator a little (if you have time and patience, even a half-hour rest helps), then roll it out on a floured board and fit into a tart pan. Prick the bottom and sides of the pan with a fork. Refrigerate the tart pan for an hour, then bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Polenta Pasticciata

If there's one dish that says "winter" to me, it's polenta. You never used to see it on menus in Italy during the summer months, but now that polenta's become as ubiquitous as pasta in some restaurants, it wouldn't surprise me. Still, I reserve it for the colder months when it's as welcome as a down comforter. In the Italian cultural organization I'm part of, we hold a polenta festa each winter, where people from the community bring all sorts of dishes featuring humble cornmeal, including desserts. This year, I brought a casserole of polenta pasticciata.

If you're scratching your head at the name, maybe the messy remainders of the casserole above will give you some clue. It's hard to translate perfectly, but "pasticcio" in Italian means a hodgepodge, or mess, ("un bel pasticcio", for example, would translate to "a fine mess") so polenta pasticciata refers to a messy polenta, or one that's mixed up with a lot of other "stuff."

Make the polenta ahead of time and spread it out on a cookie sheet or baking pan. Let it cool, then cut into triangles (or squares or any other shape you like - remember, this is a "messy" casserole). Spread some tomato sauce on top, then layer with more polenta and more sauce.

For the record, I have never used commercially prepared tomato sauce. Maybe there are some good ones now, but I'd still rather make my own. (Well, that's not exactly true. There was that time we went camping and bought a jar of some questionable tomato sauce).

However, my friend Michelle, of Majella Home Cooking, who's a caterer, also cans 3,500 pounds (yes, that number's right) of tomato sauce every summer. This is tomato sauce of a whole different category that what you buy in the store. Fortunately, she sells some of her precious jars of tomato sauce, and I bought half a dozen jars to use when I'm in a pinch. You can read about her family's tradition of making tomato sauce here (and contact her to buy some sauce if you live anywhere near New York City.)

 The sauce is just ideal as a base for any dish that requires tomato sauce, and I've used it straight from the jar for my eggplant parmigiana and other dishes. For this recipe though, I wanted to jazz it up a bit, so I added some sautéed crumbled sausage and another ingredient I recently discovered at the supermarket….. canned cherry tomatoes from Italy. 

I'm not pushing this brand or any other. In fact, the first time I bought a can of these, it was a different brand and I can't remember what the name was. But both times, they were flavorful and sweet and added texture to the sauce. I think they'd make a great pizza topping too. 

After layering the casserole (I made three layers but it's not writ in stone), just sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese on top. 

 Bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and everything is thoroughly heated. I had to set the casserole off to the side to take the picture, before the crowd lapped up every last bite. 

Which is why I made a mini casserole just for me and baked it when I got home. 

Polenta Pasticciata

There's really no recipe with exact quantities per se here. Quantities depend on how much sauce you have, how much polenta you make, how large your pan is, etc. This is the kind of dish that doesn't have to be exact or perfect - remember it's a pasticcio - a "hodgepodge."

I started with about a cup and a half of polenta (I used the kind that cooks in five minutes, not the long-stirring kind) Cook according to package directions and spread on a cookie sheet. (I sometimes add half milk and half water to the polenta, and sometimes add some parmesan cheese too. It gives it more flavor. Make sure you add enough salt if you don't use the parmesan cheese.) 

Let the polenta cool, then cut into triangles or any shape you want.

Arrange a layer of the polenta triangles on the bottom of an oven proof casserole, then spread with a layer of tomato sauce. 

For the tomato sauce, I used a jar of my friend Michelle's homemade sauce (Majella Home Cooking) and added a pound of cooked and crumbled Italian sausage, plus a 14 oz. can of cherry tomatoes imported from Italy. Simmer all the sauce ingredients together for about 30 minutes before spreading on the polenta.

Spread some sauce over the polenta, then repeat two or three times, depending on how much polenta you have, how much sauce you have, and how big the casserole is. Finish with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Bake covered with foil (or a lid) for about 30-45 minutes, or until everything is piping hot, removing the foil the last 10 minutes. 

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Eggs in Purgatory

I don't know about you, but I've been on what feels like a non-stop cooking binge since mid-December. Don't get me wrong, I love cooking and having houseguests, but after the dust settles, I'm not likely to pull out the cookbooks and start whipping up something fancy for dinner. More often than not, I'll grab whatever's left in the fridge and throw something together. That's why in the last two weeks, I've made this dish twice for dinner - eggs in purgatory - a simple, quick to prepare, healthy meal of eggs poached in tomato sauce. Lots of countries have similar dishes and give it their special twist. In the middle East and North Africa, where spices like cumin are added, it's called Shakshouka. Similarly, Mexicans have their huevos rancheros, seasoned with jalapenos. Call it uova in purgatorio if you want to give it an Italian accent, as I did the most recent time I made it, adding some red peppers and a bed of ricotta cheese for the eggs.

There are as many variations as your imagination and tastes desire, but the basic recipe starts with a tomato sauce. I sautéed some onions and red and yellow peppers, then added some tomato sauce I already had on hand. I poured in a little red wine and added some spices too. 

Then take some ricotta cheese, and mix it with a little parmesan. Dab it into the sauce, then scoop out a little "well" into which you'll drop the eggs.

Carefully place the cracked eggs into the well and cover the pan. Let it cook for at least five minutes over a low flame, or put it in the oven at 350 degrees until the eggs reach the doneness you prefer.

For me, they're perfect when the egg yolk just starts to turn white on top, but is still runny most of the way through. The best way to eat these is right out of the pan, mopping up the yolk and the sauce with plenty of Italian bread. In Italian, this technique is called "la scarpetta," which literally translates to "little shoe." So "fare la scarpetta" means "to make the little shoe" or in more understandable English, using your bread to "lick the plate clean." 

And that's just what you'll want to do when you dig into this savory and satisfying dish. Your only regret will be getting to the last tasty morsel.

Eggs in Purgatory

or Uova in Purgatorio

1/4 cup minced red and/or yellow peppers

1/4 cup minced onion

1 garlic clove, minced

1 T. olive oil

1 cup prepared tomato sauce

1/4 cup red wine

a few shakes of dried basil (or fresh if it's the season)

a few shakes of hot pepper flakes

salt, pepper to taste

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

3 T. parmesan cheese

2 eggs

Sauté the peppers and onions in the olive oil until softened. Add the minced garlic and cook for a few minutes at low heat, then add the tomato sauce, the red wine and the spices. Let it all simmer at a low heat for about 10 minutes. Then mix the ricotta cheese with the parmesan cheese and divide into two portions, placing them in the tomato sauce. Make a "well" in each of the ricotta cheese portions and drop an egg into it. Cover and cook over low heat for at least five minutes, or until the doneness you prefer. Alternately, you could place the whole pan in the oven at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes. Enjoy with sliced Italian bread.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Chocolate Mousse

If you've already started your post-holiday detox, you may want to set this aside for another special occasion (or just go for it - dark chocolate is good for you, right?) 

Valentine's Day will be here before you know it, and any chocolate lover would be happy to dig into this. If you've got a gluten intolerant friend coming for dessert, as I did recently, this also would be most welcome. And most importantly, it's just plain delicious without being too heavy, like many chocolate mousse recipes, since this one contains no egg yolks, just the whites (well, and some heavy cream too).

It comes from a cookbook of recipes gathered together by the delightful tea shop and café called Alice's Tea Cup, with several locations in New York City. 

You can serve it in individual compotes or parfait glasses, as above, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and some chocolate shavings, or in one large bowl with crunchy meringue cookies on top, as in the photo below.

Whichever way you serve it, though, don't be surprised when it disappears in a flash.

Dark Chocolate Mousse

recipe from Alice's Tea Cup cookbook

(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

9 ounces dark chocolate pistoles or quality semisweet chocolate

1 1/2 tsps. instant espresso powder, dissolved in 2 T. hot water

2 1/2 cups heavy cream

5 egg whites (the eggs will not be cooked, so if there's any concern about food safety, please use pasteurized eggs)

1/3 cup sugar

extra whipped cream for topping

  1. Melt the chocolate in a small bowl in a microwave oven at 1 minute intervals, stirring after each interval so it doesn't burn. (If you don't have a microwave, use a double boiler or place the ingredients in a heat-proof measuring cup or bowl set inside a saucepan filled halfway with water, and bring the water to a simmer over medium heat; stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted.

  2. While the chocolate is melting, use a mixer to whip the espresso and cream in a large bowl until you have whipped cream, but don't overwhip. Set it aside.

  3. In a separate bowl, use the mixer (with clean beaters) to whip the egg whites until they start to look white and creamy. Then add the sugar and whip just to combine. Again, do not overship.

  4. When the chocolate is fully melted, pour it into a large mixing bowl. Add a scoop of the whipped cream and a scoop of the egg whites, and stir them thoroughly into the chocolate. In small alternating batches, fold the remaining whipped cream and egg whites into the chocolate until the mousse is smooth and even.

  5. Cover and chill for at least an hour to set. Serve from a large bowl, or use individual ramekins or parfait glasses. Cover and chill before serving, then top with a dollop of whipped cream.

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