Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tomatoes with Fresh Mozzarella

While this is not nearly as much of a "recipe" as some posts on this blog, this colorful plate certainly does pack some punch when it comes to presentation. The simplicity of the flavor, color, and presentation really make this kind of a standout dish, and it so simple. The secret is all really in the quality of the ingredients: without fancy sauces or anything to hide behind, the quality of the tomatoes and cheese shines right on through. Go ahead and splurge a little on this one at the farmer's market or a high-end grocery store. You'll be happy you did.

It's great by itself, or you can serve it with some toasted bread drizzled with a little olive oil.

Tomatoes with Fresh Mozzarella

  • Fresh, slightly firm tomatoes
  • Fresh mozzarella (yes, it has to be fresh: there's a difference)
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Balsamic vinegar
(If you're using pine nuts: toast the nuts by placing them in a flat-bottomed pan over medium heat. Shake the pan regularly to mix them around, being very careful to not let them burn. Continue for a few minutes until both sides are golden brown. Remove from heat.)

Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella into me dium, even-sized slices. Layer alternately on a platter (if you're using red peppers, too, layer them in as well). Drizzle with the olive oil (and vinegar), then top with torn/chopped basil leaves (and pine nuts).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pretending-to-be-Southern Banana Pudding

In my increasing quest to become more southern, I've been playing around with some of the local cuisine. Some of my attempts have been proving more successful than others. This one, "Not yo' mama's banana pudding," was a find, let me tell you, from Paula Deen, the national face of televised southern cooking.  I've made a few tweaks, and added some decidedly non-Southern garnishes.

Banana pudding is something of an institution here in North Carolina: the perfect conclusion to a meal of barbecue pork and hush puppies. Although there is precious little "cooking" involved in this recipe, the results are pretty amazing. The texture is a light lighter and more fulfilling than a run-of-the-mill from the box pudding, and the flavor is a lot deeper, too. My native southern friends were impressed (one even said it was better than Grandma's, and that, my friends, it a compliment I will proudly accept).

Paula's recipe has you make all these separate combinations of ingredients, then add them together at the end, but I have always just made it in a Kitchenaid stand mixer, adding one ingredient at a time, and it's turned out great for me.

Now, when you defenders of Southern cuisine look down at the list and become irate at instant pudding mix (vanilla, nonetheless), even the suggestion of nuts and chocolate, or the lack of any kind of heat source, just remind yourself of the prep time: 10 minutes, tops.  I know that Grandma probably spent hours over the stove, slowly simmering the pudding to banana perfection, but I have quickly whipped this up as a last-minute dessert enough times to know that sacrificing a little authenticity is definitely worth the payback in awesomeness and easiness.  

Pretending-to-be-Southern Banana Pudding

  • 1 8-0z package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 5-oz box instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 2 cups cold milk
  • 1 12-oz container whipped cream
  • 2-3 cups vanilla wafers or other-similar cookie (chessman, butter cookies, graham crackers, etc.)
  • several sliced bananas
 Optional garnishes:
  • About 1/2 cup toasted almond slices
  • Chocolate shavings (I use a vegetable peeler on the side of chocolate bar)
With a hand-mixer or stand-mixer, blend together the cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk until smooth and homogenized. Add the pudding mix and the milk, and continue to blend until smooth. Carefully fold in the whipped cream, and layer with the cookies and sliced bananas. The pudding will firm up as it cools.  Just before serving, top with fresh banana slices, cookies, and nuts and/or chocolate (if desired).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Peas with Basil, Lemon, and Pecorino

I'm on a bit of a quest. Most green vegetables have gotten a bum wrap out of life. Generations of children are force-fed soggy, steamed, flavorless piles of supposed health food, and we wonder why Americans don't eat their vegetables. If you can, just disconnect your childlike aversion to all things healthy, and you'll find there's an awesome world of healthful deliciousness just waiting out there.

I've seen many examples of a cold pea salad with fresh mint and pecorino, and I have to admit, I am a big fan of those recipes. However, I was looking for a way to prepare the peas warm, and I just didn't think those recipes would be good warm. So, I experimented around just a little and found a very nice combination, if I may say so myself. Sub basil for the mint (and tone down the amount just a bit), add some garlic and shallots to give it a little depth, and you've got yourself one nice vegetable side dish.

Peas with Basil, Lemon, and Pecorino


  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 medium to large shallot, chopped into thin strips
  • 2 bags high-quality frozen young peas
  • 1/2 lemon
  • several large, fresh basil leaves (5-6)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Fresh pecorino cheese (you can substitute fresh parmesean, if need be)
Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a large, flat-bottomed frying pan or wok. Add the garlic and shallots, stirring until browned and slightly crispy. Add the peas, stirring constantly (you don't really need the peas to cook through: just heat up, really). Once the peas are warm, add the juice from half the lemon, and zest some of the peel in with a zester. Stir thoroughly.

Reduce the heat on the stove to low. Finely tear or snip the basil leaves, and add to the peas. Grate the pecorino over the peas to form a thin layer, then stir to combine. Salt and pepper to taste.

When serving, top with a few pecorino curls (you can make them with a vegetable peeler).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Herb Roasted Red Potatoes

Roasted potatoes are a standard that pretty much anyone should have in his or her repertoire, and I have been really happy with this particular version. It's quite versatile, and I've been able to serve it with all sorts of different dishes, just by adjusting the herbs and additional vegetables you put in. You can use just one herb or a combination of many. Or if you are a potato purist, you can do it with just the potatoes themselves.

Herb Roasted Red Potatoes

  • 3 lbs red potatoes (baby or regular will work)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons chopped, fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, parsley)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/3 red onion, or 1 scallion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • A few strips of crispy bacon
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the potatoes into bite-sized pieces; this usually means cutting the baby potatoes in half, or full-sized reds in fourths or sixths.

Place in a roasting pan with any additional vegetables, and drizzle several good glugs of olive oil over top, then toss until everything is nicely coated. (If adding mustard or garlic, whisk them in a bowl with the olive oil in advance, then pour over the potatoes).

Even out the potatoes into a single layer. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the fresh herbs. Place in the oven for 40 - 50 minutes, until potatoes are crispy on the outside, but tender inside when pierced with a fork. If they appear to be getting too done on one side, you can flip them about halfway through cooking.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Braised Carrots with Orange and Rosemary

This recipe I gleaned from the illustrious home-town hero, Sara Foster. She owns and runs two specialty-food markets / delis / catering companies here in Chapel Hill / Durham, and let me tell you, Foster's Market is quickly becoming one of my favorites. On the surface, her creations may seem simple, but the secret is in high quality, honest, "homey" food. She succeeds, in that goal, too.

This is an elegant-looking side dish which is really rather easy to compare. I fear that since the introduction of the bagged, peeled, washed baby carrot, some people may have forgotten what a real carrot looks like. Choosing carrots with the tops still attached gives a very "farmer's market" feeling to the dish (even if you didn't actually get the carrots at a farmer's market, you don't have to tell anyone). However, you really do need high-quality, fresh ingredients: beautiful, healthy-looking carrots, fresh rosemary, and a big juicy orange. There are no crazy sauces or anything else in this recipe: just a great big pan of simmering freshness.

Braised Carrots with Orange and Rosemary

  • 2 - 3 bunches medium to large sized carrots, with the tops still attached (about 10 - 15 carrots)
  • A few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • A few tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 large, juicy orange
  • 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • salt and pepper to taste
Cut the tops off the carrots, leaving about 1 inch or so. Peel the carrots, being sure to get all the dirt and grossness off the top around the greens. Rinse off in some water.

Melt the butter and heat the oil in a large, flat-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, so all of them are lying flat on the bottom of the pan (I made this for a crowd, so I had to use two pans). Cook for 6 - 8 minutes until you have a nice, browned side, then flip and cook about 6 minutes more. You just want some color on the carrots during this step.

To the pan, add the water, orange juice, the chopped leaves of the rosemary sprigs, and some salt and pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and let simmer for about 10 mintues, until the carrots are soft, but not mushy.

Spoon some of the juice over the carrots, and serve while hot. If you want, you can boil the juice in the pan until it reduces to make a thicker sauce, but the carrots are quite flavorful, and probably don't need it just by themselves.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chicken, eggplant, and polenta with roasted-red pepper sauce

Now, I've got to admit that with this one, there is a story. Once upon a time, after an evening of black-and-white silent movies accompanied by a live organist at a tiny little theater in Salt Lake City, we were off in search of something to eat. Now, I'm not gonna' lie to you, we weren't in exactly the hippest part of the valley, so our chances of finding some amazing place were probably low. Undeterred, we continued down the dodgy little lane, and there it was. Sitting on the side of the road, a rather dumpy little place boasting Greek, Mediterranean, and Persian food. Sounded promising, even though one of our group had spent several months on a cruise around the world with a Greek captain, so they had lamb and pasta every night (needless to say, she was a little sick of it). Inside, the decorations were tacky, Egyptian-themed, and seemed to have too many artificial flowers for a small building. The local clientèle had us convinced that this was a mafia hangout. However, we were inside and committed, so we sat down and perused the menus.

Then the fateful moment came: the waitress explained the daily special. I've been smitten ever since. I have tried to recreate this recipe multiple times, the only catch is, that event in the shady part of town was so long ago, I don't really remember how it tasted, but I still have fun playing around with this recipe.

I hear polenta isn't hard to make, but I just use the store-bought stuff because it eliminates one extra step in the multi-component meal. The hard thing about this recipe is you have to do about three things at exactly the same time right before you serve, but I have faith that you can do it.

Again, the recipe makes enough for a party (8 people), so adjust as needed.

Chicken, Eggplant, and Polenta with Roasted-Red Pepper Sauce

  • 2 large red bell peppers
  • 1 8-oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon chopped or minced garlic
  • oregano, to taste
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 8 chicken breasts
  • 2 large eggplants
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 packages pre-made polenta
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • extra virgin olive oil for drizzling and sauteing
  • feta cheese, for garnish
Remove the gree stem from the peppers, and cut them into 3-4 large, flat segments. Coat with a little olive oil. Place them on a hot skillet or grill, skin-side-down, for a few minutes until the skin is black and charred. Remove from heat. To help loosen the skins before peeling, place the peppers in a bowl covered with plastic wrap or foil, and let sit for a few minutes. When they're cool, peel off the skins and place the flesh in a blender or food processor with the tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, some salt and pepper, and a few good glugs of olive oil. Blend until smooth. Stir in the cream. This step can be done in advance, and the sauce can be placed in the fridge if you're going to do this earlier in the day.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken breasts in a roasting pan, coat with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for about 10-12 minutes, until they have a nice, golden crispiness to the tops. Pull out of the oven and cover with the red pepper sauce.

Switch the oven to broil. Slice the eggplant into 8 slices each. Heavily salt both sides of the slices, and let them sit out for a few minutes. This will draw out some of the water and allow them to stay a little more firm when roasting. Wipe off the salt with a paper towel, and brush with a little olive oil (the eggplant absorbs the olive oil very easily, so just don't pour it on and expect to spread it around: use a brush). Lay them out on a baking sheet, and top with some pepper and Parmesan cheese. Broil them until the cheese is crispy and you have a crust on the top, just a few minutes! After you pull them out, quickly replace with the roasting pan of chicken and sauce to heat it up. This is the tricky part: keeping everything hot until you serve.

Meanwhile, cut the polenta into slices. Saute a little on both sides until warm in a pan on the stove. When they're ready, put a few on a plate, then top with a slice or two of eggplant, then one of the chicken breasts with plenty of sauce. Top with some feta, and serve immediately.

Oven Temperature

Life lesson learned: calibrate your oven. Who cares what the dial says on top? Who cares if it's gas or electric? Your oven may be lying to you.

I just recently moved. I am very excited about my new house; it has lots of "potential" if you know what I mean.

My last oven was 110-degrees hotter than the dial said. My new oven is 75-degrees colder. Therefore, there is a permanent resident to the inside of my oven: a trusty thermometer. He stands there like a watchdog, warning me when my shady oven is being less than honest.