Friday, April 27, 2012

Orecchiette with Bacon and Peas

Pasta is wonderful meal by itself or as a side. And it's usually easy to prepare, not to mention inexpensive.

If you have children, they may just love this dish because of the pasta shape. "Orecchiette" means "little ears." It's the perfect shape for holding peas. Here, they are paired with a straightforward cheese sauce along with everyone's favorite, bacon. Traditionally, it would be pancetta. Leftover ham would work, too.

This is a forgiving recipe. If you have them on hand, use leeks or shallots. Any soft cheese will suffice, including Ricotta, even heavy cream. Cream cheese is what I had, so that's what I used. As always, just be sure to use a good Parmesan/Reggiano cheese. It's always the signature to any pasta dish.

Serves 1-3
  • 4-6 oz. orecchiette
  • 4-6 oz. bacon, chopped
  • 4 oz. cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, pressed or finely minced
  • Fresh thyme (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add pasta and return to the boil.

Rinse frozen peas under cold water to defrost. Drain and set aside until ready to use.

Add chopped bacon to a medium saucepan and fry just until it begins to turn color. You don't want it super crisp. Remove from pan to drain. Add a bit of butter/olive oil to the pan and add the onion. Cook until soft. Add the garlic and stir just until fragrant. If using, add a bit of thyme, just a few pinches.

Add the chicken stock and allow to simmer several minutes. Add the bacon and then the cream cheese. Taste for seasonings, adding more garlic if necessary, salt and pepper. Set aside. Add the peas.

Drain the pasta. Using a slotted spoon, begin transferring the pasta to the sauce in the pan, coating evenly. Some of the pasta will still be "wet" but that's okay. You want the "starchy" water to thicken the sauce. 

Grate fresh cheese over the mixture and taste for seasonings. 

Notes: I used 8 oz. of pasta but it was way too much. I also used the 4 oz. of bacon (four slices) but I felt it needed more. I added a splash of dry white wine along with the stock. If I had one, I would have grated a bit of lemon zest over the dish.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stewed Tomatoes with Dumplings

A can and a pan. It's amazing what one can create with those two items!

I had intended to make a small pork roast with this dish, but the stewed tomatoes with the fluffy dumplings turned out to be a meal in itself. This could easily feed several adults. Next time, I may just add some white beans and more stock.

This is from my grandmother's old cook book. It is one of those recipes that is versatile and adaptable. A bit of spinach or kale? Go ahead. Perhaps some chopped bacon? Why not? And certainly a sprinkle of cheese.

Tomatoes and dumplings was a popular Depression-Era dish. Many people had their own garden. And they canned or "put up" their own tomatoes. I used store-bought, canned tomatoes and cut them up using kitchen shears. A mixture of summer-fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes is wonderful*--serve with grilled hot dogs ... no buns ... potato salad. 

Serve with a grating of yellow cheese or a pat of butter.

For the fluffiest dumplings, use White Lily Flour if you access to it; otherwise, use cake flour or a combination cake flour/all purpose flour. The recipe below made seven, light wonderful dumplings. It's important to remember that when making dumplings, they will absorb the juices from the stew, hence the importance of adding some stock.

The Tomato Stew

  • 1, 28-ouce can whole tomatoes, chopped, with juice (about 3 cups)
  • 1/4 cup butter (not oil or margarine)
  • 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1/3 cup chopped celery
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Pinch of allspice or 1-2 allspice berries, crushed (optional but recommended)
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom pan. Add the onion, green pepper and celery. Cook until softened. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the brown sugar and, if using, the allspice. Bring to a slow simmer and cook partially covered for about 30 minutes, adding stock as needed. Taste and season with salt and pepper (if you like things a bit spicy, add a bit of Tabasco Sauce)

The Dumplings

  • 1 cup flour (White Lily or cake flour recommended)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cold butter
  • 1 tablespoon cold lard
  • Parsley, chopped (fresh or dried)
  • 2/3 cup whole milk

(Before making the dumplings, cover the stewed tomatoes and make sure it is on a medium simmer. Dumplings cook by "steaming.")

In a medium bowl, mix the dry ingredients. Cut in the cold butter and lard using a pastry blender. It doesn't have to be perfect. Stir in the milk and mix just until blended. Add the parsley.

Uncover tomatoes and drop six to seven large spoonfuls of batter onto the surface of the stewed tomatoes. Cover the pot and allow to cook for 10-15 minutes. They will almost double in size as they rise and puff out. They are done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

This was even better the next day!

Fluffy dumplings and stewed tomatoes. Great by itself or a side to chicken,
beef or pork. The brown sugar turns the tomatoes a deep red.

Notes: I added a slice of smoked bacon to the stewed tomatoes as they cooked and then removed it before adding the dumpling batter. I also used Self-Rising, White Lily Flour but still added a bit more baking powder.

* If using fresh tomatoes, save the juice. If you need more juice, you have several options depending on pantry staples: use a bit of tomato juice or V8 Juice. To some tomato paste, blend water, or chicken, beef, ham, vegetable stock. To a few tablespoons water, shake in some flavored bouillon of your choice ... Best of all ... add some water to tomato powder.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pizza with Shrimp

NOTE: Because I used a lot of mushrooms, the pizza was a bit more "watery" than I would have liked.
Next time I will saute them first.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Basic Pizza

Each time I make pizza, I'm reminded of its total beauty. It's a food we devour with our eyes! I mean, just focus on that photograph. Bubbly, browned cheese with fresh mushrooms peeking up. Pepperoni tinged crisp. And, oh, the peppers. Not the diced, masticated kind from a take-out joint. Real peppers. Baked tender crisp. I like to pick them off and slither them into my opened mouth.

Color, shape, texture--pizza has it all! It's an almost magical dish. We assemble it then watch as it literally melts into deliciousness. Like a painting, it begins with a clean canvas or dough. We brush it with tomato sauce. Add some splotches of mushroom and pepper. Build it up, all Jackson Pollack-like. 

It's a round food. I like round. Doughnuts. Pies. Cakes. Our Planet. And it's easy and quick to prepare.

Three mistakes usually made with pizza? First is the cheese. Never use just mozzarella. Sure, it's a fun cheese...all that goo and stringiness. But it really doesn't pack a ton of taste. Use cheeses that do, such as Parmesan, Gruyere, or buy a blend of Italian cheeses now readily available in the grocery store and already shredded. Lately, I've been using a cheese by Stella simply called Italian. It's a cross between a Parm. and a Cheddar. Or use a good Gouda. Or a smoked mozzarella. It's up to you.

But whatever you do, go easy on the cheese. More cheese doesn't necessarily make a pizza better. But it will make it greasier and soggier. Less is more.

Next, after baking, allow the pizza to rest. You will taste more of the flavors you added to the pizza when it's not piping hot. And there's nothing worse than a tongue burn from scalding, hot melted cheese.

Most grocery stores now carry balls of fresh pizza dough. It's what I use. Pizza dough is not forgiving. It is elastic and snaps back like a sassy mouth. Work with it. I find that stretching it out with the heel of my hand works best. I've never had it stick to the bottom of my pan.

I also use deli pepperoni and have them cut it a bit thicker than normal. I then cut each slice into quarters.

Really, I love pizza because it allows me to clean out my fridge and to use up all those heels of cheese I have packaged away. The other day I made an asparagus pizza using leftover spears, deli ham and goat cheese.

Use toppings you enjoy. Jalapenos is you like it spicy. Fresh tomatoes. Basil. Everyone loves pizza! That's amore!

  • 1 ball pizza dough
  • Pizza Sauce (I use Prego)
  • Onion, red or yellow, sliced thin and/or chopped
  • Garlic, thinly sliced
  • Pepperoni
  • Mushrooms, sliced (keep a bit thick)
  • Peppers, green and/or red, yellow, orange
  • Mozzarella
  • A blend of other cheeses
  • Optional: red pepper flakes, crushed fennel seed

Preheat your oven to 400-425 degrees.

Using about 2/3 of the pizza dough, begin stretching it into a 9 or 10-inch circle. Use the heel of your hand to push dough outward. (My dough does not stick to my pan so I do not oil or spray it.) The edges will be thicker (a good thing) than the center.

Spread sauce evenly over the pizza dough. Less is more. Don't drown it or you will end up with a soggy pizza. (I have pre-baked the pizza dough several minutes to form a crust before adding the sauce, but I really found no real difference.) Scatter the thinly-sliced garlic over the sauce. If using, sprinkle with a bit of crushed fennel seed and/or red pepper flakes.

Yes, I love garlic. Does it show?
Add the onion. Here I used circles, more for visual drama, but I really prefer them cut up.

Now add an even layer of mozzarella and begin layering your veggies.

Sprinkle with your blend of Italian cheeses. Top with pepperoni and then a final grating of cheese.

OMG! A masterpiece!
Bake for about ten minutes. Carefully slide the pizza off of the pan and directly onto the oven rack. This will ensure a crisp crust. Bake for another ten minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest on a wire rack. The wire rack will prevent the crust from becoming moist and soggy from steam.

Slice and enjoy!

(Don't judge me, but I love pizza with a glass of Manischewitz over ice. And sometimes I add diet Pepsi to it.)

Thats amore Dean Martin - YouTube

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tibetan Flatbread (Skillet Bread)

I approached this recipe with apprehension. Even trepidation. "Bread" from just flour and water? It was just too easy. 

I had learned my lesson in 2006 from the "no-knead" bread recipe that appeared in the New York Times which "minimalist" Mark Bittman praised. It was all the rage. Because I love bread and make it often, people E-mailed me that recipe and article. I literally dove into it.

Unfortunately, I was more disappointed than impressed. It tasted like . . . well . . . flour and water. And then I thought . . . what the hell? What is so wrong with a bit of yeast, kneading and waiting?

Our lives are spent kneading and waiting. Right? It defines us.

So, along comes Jacques Pepin talking about a bread you make in a pan. Mon Dieu! What would his best friend Julia Child think?

Well, I copied the recipe . . . but couldn't quite bring myself to make it . . . until I was out of bread. I just have to have bread and toast for breakfast. Period. It is my understanding that this bread is correctly identified as "Tibetan Flat Bread." There is nothing "flat" about this bread.

Wow! Okay. Drum rolls, please.




I have now made this four times in two weeks. And each time I savor each and every bite. 

This is all about the olive oil. Yeast gives bread flavor. In the no-knead recipe, there was no flavor. But here, the olive oil takes over without being overpowering. Use a quality extra-virgin olive oil. So far, I've only used all-pupose white flour. Soon I'll experiment by adding other grained flours, such as rye or spelt. Even herbs and seeds. Maybe some sugar.

The combination of steaming and frying gives this bread a tooth-satisfying, chewy-yet-crunchy texture. The edges are bliss! It's somewhere between a biscuit, English muffin, pretzel and Focaccia. And it keeps well. It also toasts beautifully. I've made thin slices to dunk into marinara sauces. Oh, my! Split it to make wonderful sandwiches! Just make it!

  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1.5 - 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup water
  • 1.5 - 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1.5 - 2 tablespoons water
  • 1, 8 or 8.5-inch non-stick skillet

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt and baking powder. Add the water. Mix until well-blended. It will kind of look like a thick pancake batter.

Coat the bottom of a COLD skillet with the olive oil. Pour the batter/dough into it. Wet your hands with water and pat the batter to the sides keeping it round and neat.

Drizzle the water around the perimeter/outside edge of the pan. Turn heat to medium. As soon as the water/oil mixture at the edge of the pan begins to sizzle and bubble, COVER. Lower heat a bit. Steam/cook for ten minutes.

(The first time I made this, I was kind of alarmed by the amount of oil and water. Don't be. The bread will absorb it. It's what you want.)

After ten minutes, the bread will have risen. 

Flip. The underside will have turned golden brown and absorbed the olive oil and water.

Loosen edges and flip. Cover. Cook for an additional five minutes. The flip-side will not be as pretty.

Remove from pan and allow to cool ten minutes on a rack before slicing. Because the "crust" is "chewy" kitchen shears or a sharp pizza wheel make easy work of cutting.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spring Lasagna with Asparagus & Mushrooms

Asparagus lasagna is a joyous welcome to celebrate spring and the end of winter. Tender new spears of asparagus and earthy mushrooms sing the praises of a long-anticipated thaw. I could certainly see it on an Easter menu, especially as an appetizer.

I paired this lasagna with simple, pan-seared shrimp with lemon and a bit of jalapeno.

I had planned to layer this with shrimp. But at the last minute, I backed out and chose shredded pieces of ham, instead. It was a smart move. The ham, together with the smoked mozzarella, worked wonders with the other ingredients. 

And, no, there is no easy way to prepare it. There's a lot of chopping. Mixing. Layering. Grating. But you can always do the chopping the day before which just seems to make things go easier. In fact, you can prepare the entire dish the day before and refrigerate until ready to bake. 

Traditionally, the asparagus is quick-blanched then dunked into an ice-bath until ready to use. Because my spears were pencil thin, I didn't bother. Had they been thicker, I probably would have split them lengthwise. You may, of course, chop them; I like the drama of the entire stem. It's your call.

Please do not omit the smoked mozzarella. I used a pre-packaged blend of shredded Italian cheeses to layer between the pasta. In the bechamel sauce, I used fresh-grated Grana Padano.

I used leeks with the mushrooms (and a bit of shallots)  only because I had them on hand. If you don't have them, just increase the shallots to 1/4 cup. I used Barilla no-bake lasagna noodles. Just be sure to soak them in hot water before using. I like them much more than the frilly ones.

I generally remove and discard mushroom stems. When using deli ham
for cooking, choose something like "ham off the bone"
which has some fat to it.

  • 1/2 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed (the weight is after the trimming)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
  • 1/3-1/2 cup chopped leeks
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2-3 cups sliced mushrooms (I used Baby Bellas--one 8 oz. container)
  • 2-4 slices deli ham (I use ham-off-the-bone)
  • 3/4 cup shredded smoked mozzarella
  • 1 cup mixed Italian cheese
  • 1/2 package Barilla No-Cook Lasagna Noodles
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Bechamel Sauce
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 1-2 medium garlic gloves, pressed
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • Grated nutmeg

Lightly oil a 10 x 7 baking dish. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F degrees.

Wash and cut asparagus to fit pan. Place upright in a glass or small bowl to drain.

In a medium frying pan, add a bit of olive oil. When hot, add the mushrooms. Stir until they begin to wilt and give up their juices. Then add the leeks and one tablespoon chopped shallot. Add the thyme. Cook until tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Place the pasta sheets in a pan of hot tap water while you prepare the sauce. A bread pan works perfectly.

In a medium pan, add the butter and cook over medium heat until melted. Add the shallot and garlic and cook just until tender being careful not to scorch them. Reduce heat if necessary.

Add the 1/4 cup flour and stir, cooking over low medium heat for several minutes. You want to "cook" the flour a bit without burning it or the shallots and garlic. When it turns "nutty," begin adding the milk in 1/3 cups, whisking well after each addition.

Add chicken stock 1/3 cup at a time. Continue to cook until thickened. Lower heat and allow to simmer for several minutes.

Add several grates of fresh nutmeg. Whisk and taste. Now add the cheese a little at a time and whisk until melted and incorporated. Remove from heat. Reserve one-half cup of the sauce.

Remove lasagna noodles from pan and, if necessary, cut to fit your lasagna pan.

Smear a thin layer of the sauce (just a couple of tablespoons) on the bottom of your pan. Cover with one layer of lasagna noodles. Cover that with 1/3 of the remaining sauce. Sprinkle one-third of your mushroom mixture over that. Arrange 1/3 of your asparagus over the mushrooms and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the smoked mozzarella and about 1/3 cup of the mixed Italian cheeses. Shred the ham over all.

Adding more cheese will not make your lasagna better.
It will only make it oily and greasy. Go light.

Repeat two more times ending with a top layer of lasagna. Spread that with the reserved 1/2 cup of sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Cover with greased foil and bake in a 350 F oven for 30-35 minutes. Remove cover and increase heat to 500 F and bake just until the top in golden brown.

Allow to cool 20 - 30 minutes before cutting. It needs this time for the pasta to absorb the cheese and the juices, otherwise you will have slices that are a runny mess.

Notes: I really debated to place asparagus on the top of the lasagna but decided against it. I really only wanted to do it for visual pizzazz. In the long-run, I figured they'd just get mushy and I prefer a golden-brown top. As soon as this came out of the oven, I put on some fresh oregano sprigs from the garden. Next time I'll put on more.

If your bechamel sauce begins to thicken, don't be afraid to add a bit more milk or stock.