Monday, November 30, 2015

Braised Lamb Shanks with Polenta

OK, so this may not be the most photogenic of meals, but it is among the most delicious. Step outside your comfort zone, you non-lamb lovers, because after this meat braises for a few hours and melds with herbs and other ingredients, you're left with an earthy, flavorful meat that just falls off the bone and practically melts in your mouth.

Most of the "gamey" flavor associated with lamb is from the fat, which is why I trim off any possible fat from legs or racks of lambs I buy. But these shanks, the last pieces left from last year's purchase of half a lamb from a friend who raises them, were nearly devoid of fat. The white part you see below is more sinew than fat, which breaks down in the braising process. Each of these shanks held enough meat to serve two people comfortably.

Start out by browning the shanks in a Dutch over over medium high heat, with a little olive oil to coat the bottom.

Add some onion, celery, garlic, and carrots to the pan, as well as wine, chicken broth, tomatoes and herbs - in this case thyme and rosemary from my garden and bay leaves from my potted plant. Most supermarkets these days sell a plethora of fresh herbs, but use dried if you live in the hinterlands and can't find fresh.

You could simmer this on top of the range, but if you place it in the oven at moderate temperature, you can just forget about it for two or three hours. No stirring necessary.

Open the lid to a divine aroma (and a messy pan, I grant you, but it cleans easily enough if soaked for a while). Carefully remove the lamb to a warm platter, and throw out the herb bouquet and bay leaf. Use a stick blender to make a sauce of the remaining ingredients (or pop into a standing blender and mix). 

Serve the lamb shanks with creamy polenta (as above - recipe here for a "no-stir" polenta recipe or here for slow-cooker polenta from Michele Scicolone). If polenta's not your thing (WHAT?!!), serve with mashed potatoes, noodles or rice, pouring the sauce over all.

Braised Lamb Shanks

2 lamb shanks (about 3/4 pound each)

olive oil, to coat bottom of pan

1 onion, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

2 large carrots, diced

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 cups dry red wine

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

3 or 4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

3 T. tomato paste

a few sprigs of fresh thyme

1 large sprig of fresh rosemary

1 bay leaf

salt, pepper

In a heavy casserole or Dutch oven, sauté the lamb shanks in a little olive oil until browned. Remove the shanks and add the onion, celery, and carrots to the pan, sautéing until softened. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.

Place the lamb shanks back into the Dutch oven and add the rest of the ingredients. Place a lid on the top and cook in a 350 degree oven, checking after two hours. It may need another 1/2 hour to one hour until the meat is fork tender.

Remove the meat from the pan, keeping warm on a heated platter. Remove the herbs and with a stick blender, puree the sauce. Serve the sauce over the lamb shanks, with roasted mushrooms and polenta, if desired.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

She's a looker, isn't she? But she's not just another pretty face. She's got good flavor going for her too. So pick up an extra bag or two of cranberries this season, before they disappear from grocers' shelves.

This cake would be welcome any time of year, but especially at Thanksgiving, when cranberries are traditionally served in some form or other.

The topping is sweet and spicy at the same time, with the combination of allspice and cinnamon kicking up the flavor. Like most upside down cakes, it's best eaten warm, when the cake texture is still soft. But you can make it ahead of time, and heat a slice in the microwave for ten seconds to recapture that fresh from the oven taste.

 I wish you all a peaceful Thanksgiving and a day filled with family, friends and good food.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 3/4 cups cranberries

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk     

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in center. Rub the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with 2 tablespoons butter. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar with the cinnamon and allspice. Sprinkle mixture evenly over bottom of pan; arrange cranberries in a single layer on top.

With an electric mixer, cream remaining 6 tablespoons butter
and 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla; beat
until well combined. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture to butter mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk, until well combined.

Spoon batter over cranberries in pan, and smooth top. Place
pan on a baking sheet; bake cake until a toothpick inserted in the
center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake; invert onto a rimmed platter.           

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mac N' Cheese with Butternut Squash

There's nothing like the intense flavor of summer vegetables - juicy, red tomatoes, crunchy, sweet Jersey corn and more ... but when autumn comes, I'm in love all over again with squash. This fall, I came back from Europe to a plethora of ripe butternut squash in the garden. 

They were used for roasting, for soups and before they were all gone, for this pasta dish that I saw on my friend Stacey's blog, originally from Cooking Light magazine.

If you've got vegetarians sharing the table at Thanksgiving, you could eliminate the bacon, and they'd never miss the turkey if you present this dish. The only problem is that the vegetarians will be fighting off the rest of the meat eaters who want a second helping of this mac n' cheese.

Instead of the traditional elbow macaroni, I wanted something a little more festive, so I used torcinelli, from an artisanal pasta maker, found at a local Italian grocery store.

The vegetables and the bacon were roasted together. I used another pan to roast the onions and mushrooms that were cut in half. Make the sauce while the pasta is cooking, then mix everything together, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese and pop it in the oven. 

To see more of what I'm cooking up everyday, pop on over to Ciao Chow Linda's Instagram feed:

Butternut Squash Mac N'Cheese

Serves 6-8

1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved
1 red onion, sliced 
3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

1/2 lb. mushrooms, halved

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut up into cubes
about six slices of bacon 
olive oil
kosher salt 
hot pepper flakes 
12 oz. pasta 

1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1/4 cup bread crumbs

2 T. butter

fresh sage leaves for garnish, optional


1 cup milk
2 cups of chicken stock
2 tbsp butter
1 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or your favorite cheese)
small bunch of sage leaves, chopped

Using 2 baking sheets, lay out the squash cubes, the brussels sprouts and the bacon. 
Drizzle the veggies with olive oil and kosher salt.

Roast in a 425F oven for 20-25 minutes, until the bacon is crispy.
If the bacon is crispy before the vegetables are tender, remove from the pan first.

On another pan, lay out the red onion slices and the 3 large unpeeled garlic cloves and the halved mushrooms. Drizzle w/ some olive oil and place the in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. 

Crumble the bacon and set aside. 
Remove the garlic cloves to a cutting board and set aside.

Using an 8" x 10" casserole pan, lay out the sprouts and cooked squash.
Using a fork or potato masher, mash down on the squash cubes to create a puree or mash. I like to leave some texture so I didn't make it a really smooth puree.

Add in the cooked onions, mushrooms and bacon pieces. Mix the vegetables together in the baking dish.

While your pasta is boiling, make the cheese sauce.

Smash the roasted garlic cloves with the back of a knife to remove the skins. Cut the garlic into pieces.

In a heavy saucepan, add the milk, roasted garlic cloves, cheese, butter, sage leaves and chicken stock and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer and whisk until it is a nice even consistency, only a few minutes. It won't be really thick, but don't worry, once it's in the casserole, the other ingredients will absorb the sauce and thicken it.

Season the sauce with a pinch of salt, black pepper and hot pepper flakes.

When the pasta is done, drain and add to the casserole pan with the vegetables. Mix together.

Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and vegetables and mix together.

Melt the 2 T. butter and mix in the bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle on top of the casserole.

Lower the oven temperature to 375F.

Place casserole back into the oven for 20 more minutes, until everything is blended and melted and bread crumbs are browned.

Garnish with sage leaves, if desired.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Roman Pizza Party in New York

When the opportunity arises to enjoy a meal prepared by Rome's pizza patriarch and one of New York's most talented chefs, it's a no-brainer. You make sure you get a spot at the table. So I did - at The Chef's Table, a New York City restaurant run by Food and Wine Magazine that invites different chefs to take over its kitchen about six times a year.
Last weekend, it was Nick Anderer, chef/partner of New York City's Maialino and the more recent Marta, restaurants that both feature Roman food, with an emphasis on wood-fired cooking at Marta. 
Gabriele Bonci is practically a household name in Italy and hopefully Americans will soon know more about him too. His hole-in-the-wall pizza shop called "Pizzarium" churns out some of the best pizza Rome has to offer, and I frequently catch him on "La Prova Del Cuoco," an Italian cooking show that's available to subscribers in the U.S. 
The menu and beverage pairing chosen and prepared by Gabriele and Nick was a real treat, starting with these supplí prepared by Gabriele.
First came classic supplí, with melted mozzarella tucked inside the crunchy exterior of the rice croquettes. Another supplí shared the plate, with bits of sausage and a pungent gorgonzola kicking up the taste. A dollop of creamy broccoletti provided a textural and flavor contrast.
Nick's lemony mustard greens, anchovies and a luscious stracciatella cheese joined forces with bits of sweet potatoes to make for a perfectly balanced salad.
And though a picture is worth 1,000 words, this photo can't convey the crispness and acidic flavor in this giardiniera made by Nick. I've never craved pickled vegetables more.
Accompanying the above was a wonderful Italian craft beer called Enkir, an ale made with ancient grains. You can buy it in the states at a few places listed here.
The pizza course came next, including the one in the first photo - a pizza patate alla carbonara. It's featured on the menu at Marta, and Nick explains how he came up with the idea for it here.  
Meanwhile, Gabriele created a pizza Amatriciana, like the eponymous pasta dish, made with tomato, guanciale and pecorino cheese.
A last minute sprinkling of cheese
The pizzas were served with a sparkling dry rosé wine from the champagne region of France - a combination I would never have thought of of, but which was terrific. Click here to find out where to buy it.
The main course, made by Gabriele, was a showstopper: a heritage pork shoulder baked in a pizza dough. Legend has it that during world war II, when food was scarce, Romans would steal a pig and bake it inside bread dough to conceal the aroma from neighbors.
At the restaurant on Friday night, once the outer shell of the dough was removed, the aroma wafted throughout the restaurant. After cooking for six hours inside the dough, it was fork tender.
If you felt a little more seasoning was necessary, no problem. Each table had its own tiny bowl of Himalayan sea salt, shaved from the 1,500 pound behemoth hanging from the ceiling.
The remaining courses were prepared by Nick, and included wood-fired Nebrodini mushrooms with wilted spinach:
And grilled broccoli and broccoli romanesco resting atop spiced chick pea hummus.
The main course was paired with a red wine from Lazio, Italy called "Ferro e Seta" (Iron and Silk) from Villa Simone vineyards. I didn't get a photo of the bottle, since it arrived decanted at the table. But we loved it, and I found out it's available at a couple of stores, including one not far from me, in Trenton, N.J. Click here for info.
There was still a little room for dessert and thankfully after filling up on all the previous courses, dessert wasn't too heavy. Nick prepared a intensely delicious concord grape sorbet that helped cleanse the palate, accompanied by an almond and chewy chocolate cooki
It was accompanied by a sweet dessert wine from the Piedmont region of Italy - Fosso della Rossa. It's available only at a few outlets here in the states. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

La Colombe D'Or's Almond Tart

It's one thing to eat at a cafe or restaurant inside an art museum, but when you can actually enjoy a meal in a restaurant surrounded by priceless paintings, artful dining takes on a whole new meaning.

I'm talking about La Colombe D'Or, a restaurant and hotel in St. Paul de Vence, a French village tucked in the hills between Nice and the Alpes Maritime. Its walls are filled with paintings by world famous artists who bartered their work for a stay at the inn, or a few meals.

The inn, started with three rooms in 1920 by a local Provençal farmer named Paul Roux, has about 25 rooms now but its art collection, which includes Picasso, Braque, Miró, Calder and too many others to mention here, would rival many small museums.

Several connecting rooms are available for dining, all decorated in an informal, yet elegant country style, with fresh flowers throughout.

The bar area at the entrance is cozy and inviting as well.

A large, carved fireplace mantel dominates one of the dining rooms.

Weather permitting, diners can sit outdoors, admiring a sculpture by Calder or a colorful ceramic by Leger:

A beautifully landscaped swimming pool, slightly visible through these windows, is also at the disposal of guests who lodge here.

Drizzly weather precluded our enjoying lunch al fresco, but I didn't mind, since nearly all the artworks are indoors, including this one by Pablo Picasso:

and this one by Spanish painter Joan Miró:

One of my favorites was this one by Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy:

But I practically grinned ear to ear when we were seating at a table with a Delaunay and a Matisse hovering above us.

The menu was practically a work of art too, written in colorful script on large pages that took up half the table.

The food was beautifully presented and delicious too. And though the prices weren't bargain basement, they weren't astronomical either (excluding that caviar for 200 euros, that is.) My first course of vegetable soup was only 12 euros, for example. The main courses we chose were among the top three favorite meals we'd eaten on our month long trip, including these perfectly cooked lamb chops,

My grilled filet of sole with a Dijonaise sauce was ever-so-slightly undercooked the way it should be, and I practically wanted to mainline that buttery, mustardy, hollandaise sauce into my veins it was so good. 

We left room for dessert, which in this case was a delectable almond tart with rum-soaked raisins. It was served with a wonderful dessert wine called Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, made from muscat grapes in France's Rhone Valley. After my last trip to Provence a few years ago, I searched out the sweet wine in New York City and was able to find it in several stores. Click here to find a store in your area that sells it - it's definitely worth seeking out.

And that almond cake is definitely worth making too, which I did after the chef from La Colombe D'Or was kind enough to give me the recipe. Although almond flour is the main ingredient, it has a sprinkling of pine nuts on top. The day before making the tart, I received pine nuts in the mail from Beatrice Ughi of Count on Beatrice to find quality food purveyors across Italy. In this case, the pine nuts came from the woods near Pisa, Italy and were perfect for my tart.

Start by soaking the raisins in rum the night before you make the recipe. I used a removable tart pan in a rectangular shape, but you could just as easily use a round one.

Spread the batter evenly in the tart shell and sprinkle with the pine nuts, then bake for about 40 minutes.

The result is a rich dessert, redolent of almonds and rum. Serve with a strawberry or two on the side, if available. I sprinkled confectioner's sugar on top, and although the recipe doesn't say it, I think the one I ate at La Colombe D'Or was glazed with something to make it shiny. The next time I make it, I'll try spreading some quince jelly on top when it comes out of the oven, to give it a nice sheen.

Even without the glaze though, the leftover last piece, eaten the day after I took the tart to a dinner party, was just as good as the day it was made. 

For more info on La Colombe D'Or, visit its website here, or read an informative article about the place from the New York Times here. If you do have a chance to eat or stay at La Colombe D'Or, you'll be joining the ranks of many celebrities and international figures who have dined or lodged there, including Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who were married here, or in more recent times, U2's Bono, who has also been a client there. But La Colombe D'Or, still owned by the Roux family, is neither stuffy nor elitist. Its staff treated us with impeccable service, even without a Hollywood pedigree or Rockefeller bankroll.

 It was an experience of a lifetime to dine here -- one I'll never forget -- and now I can make this almond tart whenever I want to channel that memorable day.

Tarte Amandine

recipe from La Colombe D'Or (in metric measurements, but I supply the American equivalent)


For the crust:

125 grams butter (about 9 Tablespoons)

125 grams sugar (1/2 cup and 2 T.)

250 grams flour (1 1/2 cups and 1 T.)

pinch of salt

1 egg

For the almond batter:

125 grams butter (1 stick and 1 T.)

125 gams sugar (1/2 cup and 2 T.)

2 large eggs

125 grams powdered almonds (1 1/4 cup almond flour)

10 grams flour (1 T.)

raisins - approximately 100 grams (slightly less than 1/2 cup) marinated in rum for about 12 hours

pine nuts - approximately 125 grams (I used 50 grams)

For the crust, combine all ingredients and roll out in a pie dish. (I used an 8" by 11" rectangular tart pan and had some dough leftover)

For the almond batter, work together the butter with the sugar, add the eggs, powdered almonds, flour and the raisins.

Pour the mixture into the tart crust and sprinkle the pine nuts on top.

Bake in preheated oven at 360 degrees F. for approximately 20 minutes or until golden. (It took about 40 minutes for mine to cook).

I sprinkled confectioner's sugar on top when cool, but next time may try to glaze it with quince jelly.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

La Vecchia Distilleria and Flourless Chocolate Cake

I hope the photo of this luscious chocolate cake lured you in and will keep you here to the end, where you'll find the recipe.

But this is really a story about a young man who had enough courage to move forward with a new venture and enough passion to go back to his family's time-honored method of producing a quality product. In this age of synthetic everything, it's reassuring to know that at "La Vecchia Distilleria," someone is making orange blossom oil and water using quality ingredients and time-honored methods. 

The person in question is one Pietro Guglielmo, a 34 year-old man I visited on my recent trip to Italy. Pietro lives in Vallebona, a small village in the Ligurian hills not too far from France. (Sorry I didn't capture him with his eyes open in this photo, but farther in this post, click on the video to see him in action.)

The products in question are orange flower water and precious orange flower oil, also called "neroli," essences that his family distilled for seven generations starting in 1856, but had to abandon after  circumstances forced the business to close.

Following the proliferation of inexpensive, chemically produced oils in the mid-twentieth century, the distillery closed in 1960, although his father and grandfather continued to make the product for local customers. That is, until 1984, the year that an unusually heavy snowfall killed off all the orange trees.

Below is a photo of Pietro as a young child, sitting on his father's lap with the old distillery equipment in the background.

Fast forward twenty years to 2004, when Pietro decided to plant about 150 new orange trees. What started first as a hobby is now a way of life, he said. The production is still small, with about 300 liters of orange blossom water this year. 

But now that the trees have reached ten years old, they will produce many more flowers, so he is hopeful that production will increase by 50 or 100 liters next season. 

The trees planted are a bitter variety of oranges, similar to what the English are fond of using for their marmalade.

 The flowers are harvested in May, and his entire family gets involved in the hand-picking, including his 92 year-old grandmother Ines. 

In order to obtain one kilogram of neroli, used in cosmetics and perfume, one ton of flowers is necessary. For the orange blossom water, used mostly in cooking, two liters result from each kilogram of distilled flowers.

The equipment today is a little more modern but the process is nearly the same: After the flowers are picked, they go into a large vat with water. The water is boiled and the resulting steam contains an extraction holding the aromatic qualities of the flower. The steam vapor travels through copper tubes into another container, where the water is cooled down. A glass container called a "Florence container" is then held at the bottom to catch the liquid, and because the oil is lighter than the water, it separates and rises to the top.

 To hear Pietro talk about it, click on the video below.

In addition to orange flower oil and water, Pietro distills other botanicals, including roses, lavender, thyme and rosemary.

He's had requests from perfumers in Grasse, France's perfume capital, to buy his orange blossom and rose petal oil, but since production of those is still quite small, he prefers to use the precious oil in the creams and oils he makes and sells himself.

He'll ship anywhere around the world, so if you're interested in a real artisanal, high quality product for your culinary adventures, or for a wonderful face cream, click here to find his website. You can also write to him at

As promised, here's a recipe for that flourless chocolate cake, infused with orange blossom water:

 The recipe calls for a 9 inch springform pan, but I used an 8 1/2 inch pan and also filled two mini muffin pans, holding 24 "cakelets" as well, since I was taking them to an event.

 Either way, serve with whipped cream, a slice of orange and orange peel shavings.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Orange Blossom Water

(From "A Brown Table" but adapted from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts)

printable recipe here

yields: one 9 inch cake (actually I made one 8 1/2 inch cake and 24 small "cakelets")


8 large eggs, cold

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter cubed at room temperature

11.5 ounces dark chocolate chips ( I used Guittard 63%)

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350F. (I baked it at 325F for about 40 minutes) Line
a 9 inch springform pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Grease
with butter and keep aside until ready to use. (I used a 8 1/2 inch springform pan and two mini muffin tins holding 24 mini "cakelets.") 

2. Place
the eggs in the bowl of a stand electric mixer and using the whisk
attachment, whisk the eggs on high speed for about 6 to 7 minutes until
the eggs have doubled in volume and appear pale yellow. Add the tablespoon of sugar. Keep aside.

While the eggs are whisking, place the butter and chocolate in a large
heatproof bowl and place it over a saucepan containing simmering hot
water. Stir with a silicone spatula until it is completely mixed.

Pour half of the whisked eggs into the bowl containing the chocolate
and using an outward to inward movement, fold the mixture to
incorporate. Add the orange blossom water and the remaining whipped eggs
and fold until combined and no visible flecks of the eggs can be seen.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 20 minutes
until the center of the cake is firm to touch. Allow the cake to cool to
room temperature in the pan. Then using a sharp paring knife run the
knife between the cake and the pan and release. Serve the cake chilled
with orange blossomed infused whipped cream and shavings of orange peel.

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