Perfect Pasta Al Pomodoro

This recipe was staring me down when it arrived in my mail box. A glorious photo of perfect strands of bucatini dressed in a silky, bright tomato sauce. It was simple and looked like it came straight from the cute, Italian speaking waiter serving you at a side street cafe in Rome. At least that is what I imagined when I saw it, but it really was just the cover story on the latest Bon Appetit. The entire issue was dedicated to all things Italy and filled with great tips on perfecting how to make pasta. This recipe allows you to try to make pasta the way you get it in Italy or even your favorite Italian restaurant. You know how even spaghetti with tomato sauce tastes a bit better in a restaurant than at home? Well with a few steps, you can do it too. This pasta, a glass of red, and time to enjoy it will make you a very happy person. Promise.

Pasta Al Pomodoro
Bon Appetit May 2011
serves 4

Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a 12" skillet over medium low heat. Add 1 minced medium onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 12 minutes. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for 2-4 minutes. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes; cook for 1 minute more.

Increase heat to medium, add one 28 oz. can peeled tomatoes, pureed in a food processor, and season lightly with Kosher salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly and the flavors meld, about 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, stir in 3 large basil sprigs, and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot. Season with salt; add 12 oz. bucatini or spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. (you should just see a bit of white when you break a strand) Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water.

Discard basil and heat skillet over high heat. Stir in reserved pasta water to loosen sauce; bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring, until sauce coats pasta  and pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat; add 2 Tbsp. cubed unsalted butter and 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan; toss until cheese melts. Transfer to warm bowls; serve with more cheese, if desired.



Mustard Roasted Fish

This is by far and away your new dinner party best friend. If you are serving a crowd that you know enjoys fish, this is absolutely brainless and completely delicious. The steps are: mix a few ingredients in a bowl, place fish on baking sheet, cover with what you mixed in bowl, bake and serve. In a matter of 20 minutes, you made something that will seem to have taken much more work. Many recipes call for separate instructions to make a sauce for a protein, but this one is done while it roasts. No muss, no fuss, and it comes out perfect every time. It is from none other than the fabulous hostess from the Hamptons, Ina Garten. Her ability to simplify recipes, but at the same time make them seem like you were slaving away for days is why she is so loved. Great additions to this fish for a dinner party would be this beet salad, roasted potatoes, mini warm soft-centered chocolate cakes, and a bottle of Sancerre.

Mustard Roasted Fish
Back to Basics, Ina Garten
serves 4

4 - 8oz. fish fillets such as red snapper, halibut, or sea bass
salt and pepper
8 oz creme fraiche (found near the sour cream or cream cheese)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons drained capers

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. (You can also use an ovenproof baking dish). place the fish fillets skin side down on the sheet pan. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

Combine the creme fraiche, two mustards, shallots, capers, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper in a small bowl. Spoon the sauce evenly over the fish fillets, making sure the fish is completely covered.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until it is barely done. (The fish will flake easily at the thickest part when it's done). Be sure not to over cook it!

Serve hot or at room temperature with the sauce from the pan spooned over the top.



Orzo, Corn, & Avocado Salad

I have been eating this salad for 4 days. It is finally gone and I could not be more sad. Although, I am sure it is better if I lay off it for awhile as I needed an intervention. This pasta salad is basically guacamole salad with orzo and corn. It is amazing and I would recommend making more than you can eat in one sitting as you will want to eat it for days. Now writing about it makes me want to run back to my fridge to see if I have enough of the ingredients to make again. If you like guacamole (if you don't, I have no words) and have made it, this only has a couple more steps. It is the perfect side with any grilled meat, and it's bright flavors make it the perfect meal in itself. Like most salads I love, this one could be made with rice, quinoa, or any pasta shape as well. Add some shredded chicken or black beans and you have a whole meal. You will also need some will power, as not eating the entire bowl of it is really tough. I clearly have none.

Orzo, Corn, & Avocado Salad
Adapted From Cristina's Tuscan Table, 2008 (one of my favorite cookbooks)
serves 8

1 pound orzo
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh corn (cut kernels straight off 2 ears)
4 avocados
1/2 cup lime juice, divided
7 scallions, sliced in thin rounds
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (Italian parsley would also work)
zest of 2 limes
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta until al dente (just tender, but still has a bite to it). Drain and set aside. 

In a skillet, heat one tablespoon olive oil over high heat, add the corn, and saute until light brown. Set aside to cool. 

Remove skin from the avocados, cube, and drizzle with one tablespoon lime juice to prevent discoloration. 

In a mixing bowl, gently combine cooked orzo, corn, avocado, scallions, cilantro, lime zest, remaining lime juice, remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste, add more lime juice if you like. 

Serve on radicchio leaves or beautiful, ripe tomatoes.



The Empanada Expirience

Who doesn't love something that comes piping hot out of the oven, is wrapped in dough, and filled with a savory, flavorful filling? The answer is no one, because once you wrap anything in dough and bake it, it will be enjoyed no matter what. I am going to use the word empanada loosely with these recipes because these are not authentic empanadas. I decided to go with some different flavors and try out two different kinds of store-bought dough. I filled pie dough and pizza dough with a Mexican inspired chicken filling and a spicy beef mixture. Both of the fillings were awesome. Easily something to make on their own and serve with rice as well. As far as the better dough, it is a tough call. I prefer the pizza dough as it is not as heavy and I like the chewiness. The pie dough is amazing, but not for a whole meal as it is really rich. Pizza dough is better for dinner sized empanadas and pie dough is better for small appetizers. Both were great and easy to make. This is a great way to use up some leftovers as well. Just pack them in the dough with other delicious ingredients you have around and enjoy.

Forks & Amusement 2011
makes enough to feed 6-8 people

Chicken Filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 jalapenos, chopped (remove seeds if you do not like spice)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole roasted chicken breast, shredded (I use the store bought rotisserie chickens)
1- 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 handful of cilantro, chopped

To make: Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add in the onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno and cook until softened. Add in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add in the chicken, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and cumin. Cook for 5 minutes until well combined. Remove from heat, add in the cilantro. Set aside to cool.

Beef Filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of each: ground cumin, paprika, smoked paprika, crushed red pepper
1/2 cup red wine
1 - 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 cup frozen peas

To make: Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add in the onion and cook until softened. Add in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add in the beef, salt, pepper and spices. Cook until meat is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add in the wine and cook for 5 minutes until mostly evaporated. Add the tomatoes, and cook another 5 minutes. Add the thyme and peas, cook until the peas are no longer frozen, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.

To Assemble:
4 store bought pizza dough tubes or
2 package of pie dough (has 2 rounds)
1 egg, beaten lightly in a small bowl

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2 baking sheets

You can make the empanadas whatever size you would like. For both the pie and the pizza dough, you handle the same, but the pie dough is much less pliable. So be careful.

Sprinkle some flour on a big work surface, place the dough on it and sprinkle it with flour as well. Using a guide, like a glass, cut out circles in the dough. Place some filling in the very center of the circle, not too much. Fold the dough over itself to create half a circle and at least a 1/4 inch rim. Fold the edges up, pinch the edge with a fork all around to secure. Brush with the egg wash and place on the baking sheet.

Cook for 20-30 minutes depending on the size. They are done once browned and edges are cooked through.

Note: Assembly took some time to get used to. They were not that pretty, but they tasted great!



Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Asparagus

This is my attempt to bring Spring into the kitchen when outside it is still winter. It snowed this morning in Chicago, and it just makes today lame. I know I live in the Midwest and hate complaining about something like weather, but can we bring the temps above 50? What is not lame though, are these raviolis. I have been wanting to make ravioli for awhile, but I have no interest in making the dough from scratch. Using won ton wrappers is genius and makes it so easy. I had a pasta dish with these flavors in it on a recent trip. Incorporating them all into this was delicious and the dish comes together quite fast. Making the raviolis takes a little time, but once you get in a groove, it is done quickly. So my attempt at Spring is a little early, but at least you can try this and get a head start.

Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Asparagus
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

1 bunch of asparagus, ends trimmed
15 oz. part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish
zest of 1 lemon, plus some for garnish
salt and pepper
1 egg, whisked in a small bowl with a splash of water in it
15 oz package of won ton wrappers (in the refrigerated produce section)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices prosciutto, chopped
3 shallots, chopped (you could also use half an onion)
1/2 cup lemon juice
8 oz light sour cream

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, drop in the asparagus for 4 minutes until just tender, remove and place in a bowl filled with ice and water to stop the cooking process. Remove asparagus and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To make the raviolis: Separate one won ton wrapper and place on a clean surface. Brush the edges lightly with the egg wash. Place a heaping teaspoon of the ricotta mixture in the middle. Carefully fold over one corner diagonally to make a triangle. Press down gently removing any air bubbles and allowing for a border of the pasta, you do not want the filling too close to the edge. Press the edges together to make a tight seal and place on plate or board. Repeat with all the wrappers.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Once it is boiling, place a large skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add the olive oil and once hot, add the prosciutto. Cook, separating with a wooden spoon, until just starting to crisp up. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the shallot to the pan and cook until just starting to soften. Place the raviolis in the boiling pot of water.

Meanwhile, add the lemon juice to the skillet with the shallot and cook for a minute, turn the heat off. Whisk in the sour cream, asparagus, and salt and pepper to taste.

The ravioli is done when it floats. Add them to the skillet with the sauce and toss lightly.

Serve immediately sprinkling with a little lemon zest, Parmesan cheese and the crispy prosciutto.



Farro Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan

I love salads that you can make for a side and then enjoy as lunch the next day. This one uses a new grain for me, farro. It is an ancient Italian grain that was once used for pasta and bread before wheat was discovered. I was a little bit wary, as it sounded like it was going to be grain-like and taste like cardboard. But after the first bite, I was sold. Once cooked, farro almost has the consistency of pasta and has a ton of flavor. Obviously, I had to jazz it up a bit with some ingredients I had in the fridge, but it did not need too much. I love salads like this because you could easily make this with orzo, rice, pasta, or quinoa. It also makes a ton, so I have plenty of leftovers for tomorrow and I know it would feed a crowd for the future. Feel free to toss in any other vegetables that you love or use pine nuts instead of walnuts. I found the farro in the Italian foods section of the market by the pasta and rice. You might also want to check in the rice aisle by the grains. Bonus is it is a whole grain, full of fiber and protein. So eat up!

Farro Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan 
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6-8

1 lb farro
2 quarts chicken stock or water
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 2 cloves
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, more if you like it spicy
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 red or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts (to toast, just place in a hot pan on the stove until toasted, flipping over the nuts every once in awhile)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cover the farro with cold water and soak up to 25 minutes. Drain and place in a pot. Cover with the stock, add some salt. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered about 25 minutes, of until tender. Drain and set aside to cool in the fridge or spread on a baking sheet first to cool faster. (can be done the day before)

Meanwhile, combine the mustard, vinegar, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil to make the dressing.

In a large serving bowl, add in the cooled farro. Add the onions, bell pepper, and walnuts. Pour the dressing over that and add the parmesan. Toss everything to coat evenly. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve at room temperature or cold. can be made 1 day in advance.



Chicken Piccata

I am in a bit of a cooking rut right now. My creativity has been sucked out of me and cooking has just not felt totally right the last few days. For dinner last night I knew I had to make something, so I pulled this recipe together with ingredients I already had in the house. This is a much lighter and easy to make version of every one's favorite lemony Italian meal. I did not use any butter and chose a multigrain pasta. The flavors turned out bright, the chicken was moist, and all was better in the world. I think that being in between seasons makes cooking a bit confusing. I look forward to steady warm weather, crisp vegetables, and using the grill as my primary cooking source. Until then, it is fun to put together some every day meals for all of you.

Chicken Piccata
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

4 chicken breasts (about 1.5 lbs), rinsed, patted dry and pounded to even out the thickness to 1/2 inch
a couple tablespoons of flour
salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
7.5 oz of pasta like spaghetti or angel hair, half a box
3 shallots chopped (you could also use garlic or onions)
1 cup of dry white wine
juice of 2 lemons, plus a little extra for serving
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 handful of parsley, chopped
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil on the stove.

Sprinkle the flour, salt, and pepper over the chicken breasts to coat. Shake off excess and repeat on other side. Heat a large skillet to medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once hot, add the chicken to the pan.  Brown and cook on both sides, about 7 minutes.

Remove chicken from the pan and cover with foil or place in oven to keep warm. Add the shallots. Cook until just starting to soften, about 2 minutes. Turn heat to high. Add the wine to the pan and scrape up the bottom bits, cook until wine has reduced by half. Add in the lemon juice and the stock and continue to cook until reduced a bit and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package. Drain and set aside.

Remove the skillet from the heat and add in the capers and lemon zest. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place the chicken on serving plates and spoon some sauce over the chicken. Toss the rest of the sauce with the pasta in the skillet, allowing it to soak it up. Divide the pasta among the plates. Garnish with some parsley, parmesan cheese, and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.



Chimichurri Three Ways with Grilled Vegetables & Skirt Steak

          If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I like sauces. But not the kind that take all day and a ton of skill. More like sauces or condiments that are easy to make and pack some serious flavor. Chimichurri is like ketchup in some South American countries. It is the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats of any variety and is fantastic swirled into rice or drizzled on grilled vegetables. I happen to love the classic style of this sauce, but I wanted to experiment with some different flavors. I took the classic recipe and replaced cilantro for parsley in one, and in the other I added spicy gardinera. If you like spice, the gardinera chimichurri was fantastic. It is spicy, salty, and fresh. My obsession with cilantro makes the other variety perfect for me as a summer staple I can top anything I take off the grill with. To make this dinner a bit more interesting, I wanted to try grilling potatoes. If you do not have a vegetable basket for your grill (I highly recommend one), then you can use foil instead. The cipollini onions are so tender and sweet with the rustic potatoes that I could not help plucking all of them out of the basket before they were even off the fire.

Tip: Like I have been saying in other posts, as long as you are grilling you should make more for leftovers. Whether you grill steak or chicken, make double and turn the leftover protein into a salad or sandwiches the next day.

Chimichurri Three Ways
Forks & Amusement 2011
makes 1 cup of each

For the Classic Style:
3 cloves of garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes (more if you like it hot), 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt & pepper to taste, 1/2 cup packed fresh flat leaf parsley

For the Cilantro Chimichurri:
3 cloves of garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes (more if you like it hot), 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt & pepper to taste, 1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro

For the Gardinera Chimichurri (spicy!):
3 cloves of garlic, 3 tablespoons  hot Italian Style Gardinera, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt & pepper to taste, 1/2 cup packed fresh flat leaf parsley

To make each sauce, simply put the ingredients for that particular chimichurri in a blender, food processor, or mini-chopper and blend until all the ingredients are chopped up and combined well. If you feel the consistency is too thick, add some water. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Repeat with each sauce.

Grill your favorite meat, such as skirt steak or chicken breasts with some salt and pepper. Serve with sauce for dipping.

You can also grill cut up yellow zucchini and red bell peppers and top with this sauce as I did above.

Grilled Potatoes & Cipollini Onions
Forks & Amusement 2011
makes 4 sides

1 lb russian banana potatoes or fingerling potatoes, halved
8 oz cipollini onions
olive oil
salt and pepper

In a large pot of salted water, cook the potatoes until just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove potatoes from water and place in the fridge. Add in the onions to the same water with the skins on. Cook for 10 minutes or until just tender. Drain and cool in fridge until able to handle.

Using a small paring knife, cut the bottom off each onion and slip the skin off, keeping the inside of the onion in tact. Place in a bowl with the potatoes. Toss all the vegetables with olive oil to coat and salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat grill to hot and place a vegetable basket on top if grates are too far apart to hold the vegetables. (you can use foil as well). Grill until potatoes and onions are tender, but not falling apart, have great color and taste yummy. About 10-15 minutes. Serve with chimichurri on the side.



Lemongrass-Cilantro Chicken

I am determined to try as many fresh, flavorful chicken dishes that I can find. Like you always hear, you can never have enough ways to prepare chicken. What I think everyone should have in their arsenal is at least three really great marinades that you can make easily and stick some chicken into before roasting or grilling, like this. You should also have one great recipe for cooking the whole bird like this one. And lastly, you should always cook a few extra pieces to have as leftovers you can cut up for a sandwich, wrap, throw in a salad, or just have for a snack. It is the best advice I can give you to stretch the time you already spent in the kitchen. This recipe had me at cilantro (which I know not everyone is a fan of and you could skip it or use flat leaf parsley instead) and lemongrass. You can find lemongrass by the fresh herbs in your market. It has amazing flavor and yes, tastes like lemons. I made the marinade for the chicken and the dipping sauce when I was cooking the day before. This way all you had to do was make some rice and grill the chicken the next day. Leftover chicken would be great in this salad and you could stretch this meal for lunch or dinner. If you are already cooking, think about what you could be making more of to turn into something else the next day. Honestly, it is every multitasking cook's secret weapon.

Lemongrass-Cilantro Chicken with Honey Dipping Sauce
Food & Wine Magazine, February 2011
serves 4

1/3 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon white vinegar ( I used rice vinegar)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (in Asian food section of market, it does not taste like fish)
Salt and Pepper to taste

2 large stalks of fresh lemongrass, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 packed cup chopped cilantro
4 large shallots, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 boneless chicken chicken breasts halves, with skin (I used skinless and just grilled as usual)
salt and pepper
1 cup mint leaves (I used cilantro instead)
lime wedges for serving

1. Make the sauce: In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and honey and cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, about 1 minute. Pour the mixture into a heatproof bowl and add the crushed red pepper. Let cool to room temperature. Add the vinegar and fish sauce and season with salt and pepper.

2. Prepare the chicken: Using the side of a chef's knife or rolling pin, bruise the pieces of lemongrass. Transfer to a large, shallow dish. Add the cilantro, shallots and oil and mix well. Add the chicken and coat thoroughly with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring the chicken to room temperature.

3. Light a grill or preheat a grill pan. Scrape the marinade off the chicken breasts. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and grill, skin side down, over moderately high heat until the skin is lightly charred and crisp, about 3 minutes. Move the chicken to a cooler part of the grill or reduce the heat to moderate and grill for 2 minutes longer. Turn the chicken and cook until white throughout about 5 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes.

4. Slice the chicken crosswise 1/3 inch thick and transfer to plates (I skipped this). Sprinkle the chicken with the mint leaves and serve with the lime wedges. Pass the dipping sauce at the table. Serve with rice.

Make Ahead: The hone dipping sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve at room temperature.

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