Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Everywhere I look there is another recipe for asparagus baked in parchment paper. You know how you can never have heard of something and then suddenly it is everywhere as if everybody (except moi) knew about it all along? So it is with the asparagus and parchment thing (a technique very old hat when it comes to baked fish.)
Why not asparagus?  I happened to glance at some of the recipes I saw published (was it Mark Bittman in the NY Times for one?) and decided to improvise my own version guided by the spirit of the idea. One of the recipes I noticed said STAPLE the parchement closed, which I jumped on as a piece of genius advice.

Stapler in hand, I piled my cleaned asparagus onto a sheet of parchment paper, chopped up a lemon, drizzled everthing with olive oil, s & p and added some sliced red pepper for a little color. Baked at 400 for 15 minutes.
WONDERFUL!- so easy so good! The asparagus get the full flavor of roasting but retain all their moisture. I am ALL ABOUT PARCHMENT right now. Don't you think it would work just as well with green beans, or broccoli or anything? gonna try.
Steamy and hot from the oven the aspargus, just released from the parchment, are still plump, firm and green.

Amanda- I suspect that asparagus are as difficult to pair with wine as mint. Is this so?

Asparagus are notoriously difficult to pair with wine.  A stalk of asparagus is like the red-headed step-child of food and wine pairing. Though loved by many a foodie, it is the pariah to many serious wine lovers painstakingly concocting the ultimate food and wine pairing. However, this does not need to be the case. I say RELAX. The mention of asparagus when planning a wine dinner seems to turn everything topsy-turvy for some reason, and evokes an element of fear in the food/wine coordinator. 

There are plenty of wines to choose from. True - there are certain chemicals/amino acids in asparagus that will bring out the worst in your wine - literally change it. This is unavoidable and is simply a matter of chemistry. And this of course, can be terribly disappointing. So, to begin with, there are two general rules when it comes to what not to drink. Stay away from oaky wines, i.e Chardonnay, and tannic wines, i.e Cabernet, Merlot, etc. I would say stay away from red in general. If you must have red for some reason, stick with something like a Pinot Noir, preferably Burgundian.

For whites there is a plethora to choose from. My first choice is Gruner Veltliner. Asparagus screams for something crisp, light with great acidity. And absolutely yearns for a wine with an earthy, minerally, grassy quality. Avoid "fruity" wines. Go for clean and vibrant and racy. Gruner is that grape (and a favorite of mine, I might add). It is primarily grown in Austria, and is intended to be enjoyed in the near term. Drink it young. I love the Grooner Gruner Veltliner, a great "party" wine, priced very well at $9.99.
Sauvignon Blanc is another great choice. Look for one from a cooler climate, like a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume from the Loire Valley in France. Talk about minerality! These wines will perfectly complement your asparagus! Other choices include a crisp Pinot Grigio, a dry, racy Riesling from Germany (be sure it's DRY), or even Champagne.

Don't be intimidated by the reputation Asparagus has regarding wine. There are plenty of options out there! But this is definitely a food pairing that requires some thought, or you risk sipping a glass of wine that will not taste very good!

Friday, April 23, 2010

you say potato

If you ever find yourself anywhere near Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens be sure to treat yourself to a dinner at Danny Brown Wine Bar and Kitchen. If fact, come out of your way to go there. This cosy chef-owned bistro features a warm, charming room, impeccable service, a wonderful selection of wines and fantastic food deftly prepared in the open kitchen. I LOVE Danny Browns and my life in Queens has taken on a new richness once I discovered this treasure of a culinary outpost. DB has one dish on the menu that I would gladly eat as my last meal on earth; their grilled calamari with white beans and rosemary topped with fresh arugula. It is a perfection of flavors and textures.
On a recent visit I ordered a small plate of Hand Made Potato Gnocchi, English Peas, Fresh Ricotta, Mint & Alphonso Olives to accompany the calamari. As expected, the dish was simple and perfectly prepared. Each ingredient enhanced the other. Danny Brown gets everything right as far as I'm concerned and when it comes to my meals I get concerned :-)

The garden centers in Queens are bursting with possibilities for the kitchen garden these days.

Inspired by this dish I decided to recreate a version of it at home.

Never having made potato gnocchi before I did a quick online recipe search and noticed that most of the recipes warned that the technique was tricky and would take some practice to get the right texture and density. Hmmmmmmmm?? Skeptical and curious, I did find one recipe without that caveat which differed from the other recipes by using yellow flesh potatoes rather than Idahos and no eggs. Ah ha. Could that make the difference? I went with the yellow potatoes version and had NO PROBLEM AT ALL with the recipe.

The gnocchi came out perfectly! Give it a try when you are in a relaxed mood. The mint pesto that I improvised to pair it with was a cinch. This is a perfect recipe for a dinner party, it is so pretty and makes a fancy impression. The gnocchi can be prepared in advance up until the boiling stage. Try it!

-from www.e-rcps.com

2 lbs yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn.
Salt to taste
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

SCRUB the potatoes and place them, unpeeled, on a vegetable rack set over - but not in - a large pot of boiling water. Steam until tender all the way through but not falling apart (a kitchen knife passes all the way through with some resistance). You can also boil them to the same tenderness.
IT'S important that the potatoes not be overcooked. (Overdone, they will absorb too much water and take up so much flour that the gnocchi will sink like heavy little stones to the bottom of the stomach.)
AS soon as the potatoes are tender enough to push through a vegetable mill, remove them from the rack and when they can be handled, but while they're still hot, peel them and pass them through the vegetable mill into a large bowl. (Don't be tempted to try a food processor for this; it will turn them to glue.)
ADD a healthy pinch of salt and all the flour to the potatoes, working in the flour with a wooden spoon; then knead the dough gently for about 5 minutes on a lightly floured board or wooden work surface.

TASTE and knead in more salt if you wish, but be careful not to overwork the dough - it should be soft and supple.
DIVIDE the dough into 5 or 8 equal pieces.
ROLL each piece into a rope about 3/4 inch in diameter and 8 to 10 inches long. Cut each snake into regular pieces about 3/4 inch long. Continue until all the dough has been rolled and cut. IF you wish, roll each gnocco (yes, that's the singular of gnocchi) over the large holes of a cheese grater or along the tines of a fork to impress the soft dough with a pattern.
BRING a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil and drop in the gnocchi. (Do this in two batches if it's easier.)
BOIL the gnocchi until they rise to the top, then remove them with a slotted skimmer and transfer them to a heated platter or bowl.
SERVE immediately, with the mint pesto (these gnocchi have a wonderful, delicate taste and can be served with a bit of melted butter or a few drops of good olive oil, and grated Parmesan, Simple Tomato Sauce, or Butter and Sage.)
SPOON half of the sauce over the gnocchi and mix gently, then garnish with the remaining sauce and a little grated cheese, if desired.

Mint Pesto
2 cups mint leaves loosly packed
1 quart boiliing water
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teas. salt

Blanch the mint leaves in the boiling water for 2 minutes to fix the bright green color. Remove mint from the water and put in a food processor (don't worry if the leaves are still damp, you want a little water to loosen the pesto up). Add the salt, garlic clove and half the olive oil and begin to blend. Slowly drizzle in the rest of the olive oil and as much water as is needed to get a smooth, loose consistency.
Spoon over gnocchi.

Recently, I've been attending many, many wine and food events. There just happens to be a lot on the calendar right now. Not that I'm complaining. It's always an education for me. Sometimes there will be a food and wine pairing that surprises me. I love such surprises!

I immediately thought "white" when I read Deb's recipes for the Gnocchi and Mint Pesto. I didn't go with my first choice, however. I thought this one through a bit. The past few events I've attended have inspired me to "think outside the box" a little, and go with something a little unpredictable.

I'd actually like to try this dish paired with an Italian Merlot. I prefer the "old-world" style of Merlot from Italy, as compared with the "new-world" style of Merlot from say, California. The old world versions tend to be earthier, "dustier". They can also exhibit characteristics reminiscent of mint and eucalyptus, chocolate and licorice. This combination - the gnocchi with it's mint pesto, and such an earthy, elegant red - would be an interesting match. The fat in the olive oil would serve to soften the tannins in the wine (Merlot can be very tannic) as would a nice, healthy sprinkle of shaved parmesan!

Don't be afraid to take big chances with your food and wine pairings! The bottom line is, if it tastes good to you, that's all that matters. There is no such thing as "white with fish, red with meat" as far as I'm concerned. If a big, full Cabernet with a light, flaky fish tastes incredible to you - then that's what you should be drinking. But, at the same time, it doesn't hurt to consider some general tips when pairing, either!

Gaja Ca'Marcanda Promis is actually a wine I'd love to try with Deb's recipes. It is a supple, elegant blend of Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese. Not cheap, at a price of about $40 - but worth every penny! Perhaps I already have the menu set for my next dinner get-together! Thanks, Deb!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

a locavore meal, almost

Locavore: one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible
Spent the afternoon with a dear friend who I have not seen in a long time, sustainable food blogger and committed locavore Mary Nelen. Mary, who writes the blog Valley Locavore,  filled me in on what is going on in her community of Northern Massachusetts where a strong DIY food ethic flourishes. She boasted of canning and preserving and shaking hands with farm animal. All very cool and admirable. We decided we would make lunch together during our visit. Mary supplied the broccoli rabe from a farmers market and I rummaged through my fridge at home to pull out some tofu (locally made!) and shitake mushrooms (I have no idea where they came from, oops) and some red quinoa I thought Mary might be interested in.
I also contributed a large handful of fresh herbs that I pulled out of my garden just before leaving the house to meet her (how much fresher can you get?)
The Upper West Side where Mary was staying was in full bloom Spring mode.

Our plan was simple, we would gab away with each other a mile a minute and give barely a fleeting thought to the meal. Kind of like cooking on auto pilot. I made the quinoa while Mary prepped the broccoli rabe.
I guess we could have used a slightly larger pan for the broccoli rabe.

The kitchen we were borrowing was minimally stocked and equipped. I did a quick sautee of the mushrooms and then the tofu which we cut into cubes. We found an onion in reasonable shape, chopped it up, sauteed it with the broccoli rabe and then threw in all the chopped herbs. The tofu and mushrooms went back into the pan and we mixed it all together.
The herbs coming up in my garden now are mint, lemon balm, sorrel, chives and oregano. I roughly chop them all together and add them to almost any dish right at the end of cooking to add freshness and depth.
We cooked the shitake mushrooms and the tofu separately, just enough to get a little brown crust for flavor and texture.

The finished dish: a mound of steamed red quinoa surrounded by the sauteed vegetables and tofu.

It was a simple, tasty, easy and healthy meal, which meant we could drink wine and not feel guilty.  What can I say, talking makes you thirsty. We drank white wine which seemed a good choice. How did we do Amanda?

A good friend, delicious, easy lunch, and a nice bottle of wine. Sounds like a pretty great afternoon! Question - you don't blanch the broccoli rabe first? Just toss it right into the pan? I'm always in a quandry about that whenever I prepare it. I never really know when to blanch and when to just sautee. Any recommendations or thoughts on this?

Yes, I am in agreement regarding your wine choice! I think any light, crisp white would really work fine here. I wouldn't give it too much thought. Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, Pinot Grigio - all fine, simple choices. You and Mary had set out to have a fun, easy afternoon together which does not require hemming and hawing over a wine. Just go with something fun for an occasion like this. I find that Prosecco is always a great afternoon libation to enjoy with friends, especially as the warmer weather hits. Prosecco is a staple on my block for afternoon/early evening barbeques. This light, refreshing, frizzante wine from Italy is always a huge hit.

Prosecco is made from a grape by the same name, and hails from the Veneto region of Italy. Very versatile, you can really enjoy it with a wide variety of fare. It's great for brunches, showers, and large get-togethers - it is Italy's answer to Champagne, minus the hefty pricetag. For great examples of this inexpensive sparkler, look to producers Bisol, Riondo, Caposaldo and Zardetto.

Choosing a wine should never cause stress or too much thought. Wine is best when shared with friends. As long as the "indulgers" enjoy it - that is all that matters! But I do recommend keeping a few bottles on hand as Prosecco is a great bottle to open for unexpected guests!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Can't Beet This

If you are enamoured by wine, and have a love of food, I highly recommend entering the wine industry. One of the many perks of the trade is being involved with, and attending, a myriad of food and wine events. Not to mention tasting upwards of 5-10 wines daily, sometimes in the company of the new-on-the-scene, or world-renowned winemaker. Definitely makes for an interesting, exciting career!

The other day I was thrilled to be invited to a luncheon featuring the wines from Stephan Asseo and L'Aventure. These wines would make any California wine lover's palate jump for joy. The wines are superb, (definitely not cheap), and are always very well received by the experts. And, they are very limited in production.

We dined at Chez Catherine in Westfield, NJ - a very quaint, pretty, classic French Bistro owned by Didier Jouvenet since 1979. A five course meal was prepared for our table of eight, each course paired with a different wine. Michael Young, marketing director for L'Aventure, talked about the wines as we sipped, ate, and indulged.

Michael making a toast. All of the glasses in front of the empty seat to his right are mine :)

The highlight of my meal was the Baby Beet Risotto with Ricotta Salata. It was so mouthwatering-ly delicious, and so, so pretty! The Risotto was paired with the L'Aventure Optimus, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot. This is a big, juicy wine full of spice - but it worked with the dish. Probably because of the cheese content of the risotto, rendering it creamy and flavorful. The Risotto was definitely able to stand up to this wonderfully concentrated, fruit-forward wine.

Deb - last summer you shared a recipe for Risotto with Tomato and Fennel with us. To date, this is one of my favorite recipes of all time. It was incredible. Do you think you could give us your own take on the Risotto I have written about? I would love to re-create it!
The Baby Beet Risotto with Ricotta Salata (and finished with a touch of Parmesan Foam)

I'm fine with omitting the Parmesan foam! Deb, how would I go about tackling this?

Hmmm... "enamoured by wine and have a love of food" that sounds like me! What would I be doing in the wine indusrty? Do they need more tasters? :-)

Your beet risotto dish looks lovely. The color alone gives it a festive air, perfect for a formal Spring lunch or dinner. Truth be told, beets have never been high on my list of things I like to eat. It wasn't until I went to culinary school that I learned to appreciate their role in a vegetarian diet. Obviously the color can't be beat (ha!), but that inky red juice can wreak havoc during kitchen prep on hands, clothes and countertops and overwhelm a dish that may not have wanted to be red in the first place. 

No, I didn't cut myself! Just some of the mess of beets.

I am still not a beet lover and am only interested in them if they are well roasted with a serious caramelization going on, which somehow tames the cloying sweetness of your average beet. That's right, I don't like beets. 

If they are cut small beets and carrots take about 35 minutes in a 400 degree oven to roast.

Sooooooo, if I were to make this dish I would approach it a little differently and start by cubing up a beet  and roasting it, then make the risotto and stir in the roasted beets at the end. Rather than a homogenous pink it would be more of a white risotto with dramatic flecks of red. I decided to experiment a little further rather than just shooting my mouth off- so here I go:

Two Beet Risottos

With the first risotto I attempted to recreate (or at least approximate) the dish Amanda sampled at her tasting (did you say there were openings in the wine business, Amanda?) I boiled the beet till tender, then chopped it up fine and added it to the risotto early in the cooking process. I used the water I boiled the beets in as the liquid for the rice to further dramatize the color of the dish. The scarlet-pinky color in Amanda's photo reminded me of classic Borscht so for fun I added a shot of vodka to the saute pan and finished the dish with sour cream. I never achieved the exact color I was after (darn those beets) and I believe I would have to add more sour cream to get there.

My borscht-style risotto never quite got as pink as the one Amanda sampled at her tasting.

With the second risotto I allowed myself to play with the idea of a beet risotto that would appeal to the non-beet lover. In addition to the roasted beets I included some roasted carrots to add some additional color. Near the end of cooking I added some chopped swiss chard for yet another color.

Rustic kitchen style beet risotto. 

The results:
Both dishes tasted very good. The "borscht" style risotto was very rich from the sour cream and had a pronounced BEET taste. The second risotto- the more country kitchen version, was great too, with more variety of flavor and a lot less sweet. I begged my teenage daughter (who does not like beets) to try each one for me and she balked. I begged further and got her to try a tiny bite of each. She instantly liked the rustic version better and asked me if she could finish it. Yeah, sure!

Borscht Style Beet Risotto
1 beet peeled and quartered
3 cups of salted water 
3 Tbs. Butter
2 Tbs. extra virgin Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 teas. salt
1 cup arborio rice
1 /4 cup vodka
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup grated romano or parmesan cheese

Place beets in a sauce pan with the salted water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until beets are tender. Remove beets with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Reserve the cooking liquid and keep it on a low simmer. When the beets are cool enough to handle chop them finely.
Heat the butter and the olive oil in large sauce pan. When butter is warm and melted add the onions and 1/2 teas. salt. Sweat the onions a few minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir in pan until all grains are coated and begin to look a little clear. Add the finely chopped beets and cook another minute. Pour in the vodka and let the pan simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Begin to slowly add the simmering beet water by the ladleful, allowing the liquid to absorb into the rice before adding the next ladleful. When the rice becomes creamy  and bit al dente, but cooked through, add the sour cream and grated cheese, stirring to combine.
Serves four

Rustic Style Beet Risotto
1 beet peeled and cut into small cubes
1 carrot peeled and cut into small cubes
1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 teas. salt
3 Tbs. Butter
2 Tbs. extra virgin Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 teas. salt
1 cup arborio rice
3 cups simmering salted water or vegetable stock
1/2 cup swiss chard, chopped
1/2 cup grated romano or parmesan cheese

Pre heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss beets and carrot with the olive oil and salt and roast in the hot oven for 35-40 minutes until tender. When cooked, set aside to cool. Once cool enough to handle, roughly chop the roasted vegetables into even smaller cubes and set aside.

Heat the butter and the olive oil in large sauce pan. When butter is warm and melted add the onions and salt. Sweat the vegetables a few minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add rice and stir in pan until all grains are coated and begin to look a little clear. Begin to slowly add the simmering water or stock by the ladleful, allowing the liquid to absorb into the rice before adding the next ladleful. the rice is done. When the rice is creamy and a bit al dente but cooked through stir in the swiss chard and allow to cook for 2-3 minutes. Add more hot water as necessary. WHen the chard is wilted, stir in the roasted beets and carrots stirring to combine. Add the cheese and adjust seasoning.
Serves four

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Presto, pesto!

Life has never been the same once I learned (by heart) Marcella Hazan's basil pesto recipe from her seminal tome The Classic Italian Cookbook. It is the classic of the classics and the very first pesto recipe I had ever encountered waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back when.  These days I make pesto in every imaginable configuration- substituting all kinds of herbs and nuts and combinations there-of for the traditional basil and pine nuts, but retaining the tried and true proportions of herb to nut to garlic to olive oil. The results are always happy, which just encourages my wayward instincts.  The real payoff for me is that ALL four kids in my household will actually eat pesto in all its mutations and THAT alone is worth getting happy over.
I like to mix vegetables in with the pasta and the pesto, steaming them in the same water I cook the pasta in. Some good choices are broccoli, peas, green bean, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini.

The family was all home and hungry this week when I looked in the fridge to find spinach and parsley. Perfect. Went for it. Replaced the pine nuts with pepitas and we were good to go. Dinner in minutes and everybody ate!
My friend Dawn in Brookfield, CT. gets a head start growing her own pesto herbs from seed. 

Classic Pesto
by Marcella Hazan (& substitutes by ME):

-2 cloves garlic, crushed with side of knife (there is no substitute for garlic!)
2 Tbs  pine nuts- I generally use more (pepitas, pecans, walnuts, cashews, macadamia)

-1 teas. salt
-2 cups fresh basil lightly packed (spinach, parsley, arugula, cilantro)
-1/2 cup of olive oil- I generally use LESS
-1/2 cup freshly grated parmesean cheese

-2 Tbs. Romano pecorino cheese
-3 Tbs. Butter, soft- I NEVER put this in, seems unnecessary to me

Place the garlic, nuts, salt and basil and half the olive oil in a food processor in that order,start to process and as the machine is running, slowly drizzle in enough of the remaining olive oil to  get a smooth paste. Remove pesto to a small bowl and beat in the cheese and butter (if using) by hand. If serving pesto over pasta ladle in a few tablespoons of the pasta water into the pesto to thin in out a bit before tossing over the pasta.

I never thought of making pasta with pesto for my children. At ages 4 1/2 and 6, they still shy away from anything green. It makes for very difficult food preparation! Though my son does love salad, thankfully. If only they would try pesto,I know they would love it. What's not to love?

I am going to make a point of trying this pesto recipe with macadamia nuts. My favorite! And I can't wait for my basil to start growing in abundance! I started it from seeds, as I did parsley. So I should have no shortage of pesto this summer.

White or red would work just fine with this recipe, including any and all versions! Just depends upon your mood. In particular, there are many styles and varieties of whites that would be delicious with pesto. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Albarino. My inclination would be to look towards Italy for the perfect match. Vermentino. Currently grown in several Mediterranean countries, it is most commonly associated with Northern Italy, specifically Liguria and the island of Sardinia. The wines are crisp, citrusy with bright acidity. For an afternoon lunch on a warm Spring day, I would lean towards white. It is a refreshing wine, and will also pair very well with a variety of vegetables as well as seafood.

I recently tried the Casanova della Spinetta Toscana Vermentino 2009 (their first vintage) and it was spectacular! It is medium-bodied with flavors of peach and apricot on the palate. Just so enjoyable and very affordable ($15.99)

For red, I would choose something with a bit of old world earthiness, such as a Rosso di Montalcino. The earthy quality of the wine would do well next to the pesto. Rosso di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese, and is considered to be the younger sibling to Brunello. You can enjoy the Rosso with a variety of cheeses as well. This stunning Sangiovese is a little pricier (but well worth it) at around $21.99. Argiano is a great producer to go to for incredible, classic Tuscan wines.

Monday, April 12, 2010

GaGa, ooh la la

What a glorious weekend! I took a long walk on Sunday, from my home in Rego Park, Queens through Flushing Meadow Park to the Queens Botanical Garden. The Spring flowering bulbs where at full peak and offered an overwhelmingly sensual experience. I flung myself on the grass next to the flower beds and breathed deep. The perfume floating out of the blossoms warmed from the sun was intoxicating. My mind slowed down to the point where this cliche was the only way to describe the blissful moment. AND the insane riot of color on the fleshy, velvety petals had me humming Lady Gaga songs as I made my way through the garden paths.

Walking back home I made a point to stop by at least one of the many Ecuadorean food vendor carts located on the eastern edge of the park.

The large jugs of bright green hot sauce (aji criollo) on the picnic tables drew me in. All I needed was a vehicle to get the hot sauce into my mouth.
Featured on the grill of Mi Pequeno Turruno were sweet potato croquets served with a salad. My second selection was something I had never seen or tried before- baked sweet plantains stuffed with mozzarella cheese, a combination that proved inspired: sweet, salty, mushy, yummy. Delish to everything!
sweet potato croquette
Baked stuffed plantain stuffed with mozzarella paired with a large helping of Ecuadorean hot sauce!

I came home and made my own version of the hot sauce with onions, garlic, lime juice and jalapenos.

I was able to find a recipe for the plantains online- a straight forward preparation as I suspected.
I am not sure what one drinks with this dish. Maybe something comes to mind Amanda?

These recipes are from the web site The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz

Aji Criollo (Ecuadorian Hot Sauce)
4 jalapenos, seeds removed
1/2 bunch of cilantro (stems and leaves)
1/2 cup of water
3 garlic cloves
Juice from 1/2 lime or lemon
3 Tbs finely chopped white onion (scallions can also be used)

Put all ingredients in food processor and blend.

Sweet Baked Plantain with Cheese
6 ripe plantains, whole
1-2 Tbs melted butter or oil, use as little as you want
6 thick slices of mozzarella

Pre-heat oven to 400 F
Peel the plantains, place them on a baking sheet and rub them with butter or oil.
Bake the plantains for 30 minutes, then turn each one and bake for another 15 - 20 minutes or until golden on both sides.

Remove the plantains from the oven, made a horizontal slit on the middle of each plantain, and stuff them with cheese slices

In a few minutes the cheese will have melted, serve immediately, with or without hot sauce.

Well, yes. This is a bit tough. But as in relationships - "there is someone for everyone" - so it is with food. At least in my mind. There is a libation out there for all things edible, and I am on an endless quest to find the best partners. I guess you could call me the "yenta" of food and beverage.

The sweet potato croquette and salad could certainly be a meal in and of itself. But I see the stuffed plantain as something "fun" served at a party. Therefore, I wouldn't pair something specifically with that dish. I would pour something that is just very versatile in general. As it is Spring, and I am in a "warm weather" frame of mind, my taste buds are affected greatly, and what I crave has changed with the weather. I am now in a Sangria state of mind, and I would highly recommend this chilled delight as an accompaniment to the wonderful recipes with which Deb has provided us. Red or white would work fine.

I originally discovered my latest favorite white Sangria recipe from Fine Cooking magazine. It is irresistable! Be careful though, it is so utterly refreshing and wonderful that it goes down incredibly easy! I think it would be marvelous next to the stuffed plantain topped with the hot sauce. And the abundance of fruit in the Sangria would serve perfectly to quell the heat from the jalapenos.

For white Sangria, I typically use an inexpensive, fruity Spanish wine (the same holds true for red). Many times I'll use an Albarino. The particular recipe I like is a Peach/Pear Sangria. Start off by peeling and dicing a variety of pears and peaches. Then, take 1 bottle of white wine, add 2 cups pear nectar, 1 tablespoon of simple syrup, 1/4 cup of gin, 3 tablespoons of triple sec and the fruit. I usually put it in the refridgerator for about 4 hours to let the fruit absorb the sangria a bit. I typically do not add ice to the pitcher, but rather chill it in the fridge. I prefer to add the ice to the cups. That way, the Sangria does not get too watery, especially if it is outside in the sun.

This Sangria is wonderful and easy, and I highly recommend it! Especially with stuffed plantains and Ecuadorian hot sauce!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

a beginning in the garden

They say that nothing worth having comes easily. Or something like that. I spent the blistering hot day with my son, hauling 60 pound bags of stones and mulch from Home Depot to my little backyard for some much needed landscaping. The only way to get to the yard is through the house. 15 bags of stones, 6 bags of mulch, much sweat and aching muscles resulted in this:
It may not look like much to you but, I am so proud! I don't really have much of a green thumb, just a very green heart and that passion translates into a willingness to put some muscle into the task of taming my garden. I have ordered some plants including heirloom tomato seedlings from farmer Pam, MD at Hook Mountain Growers which will go into the ground in a few weeks.

Generally I like to keep my cooking simple, but there are certain recipes well worth the extra steps. One that comes to mind is a goat cheese galette that my uptown sister loves to make, including the one she presented to our buffet table this Easter. She got the recipe from cookbook writer and chef Joanne Weir. It is ridiculously good. Swoon worthy in fact. Not the quickest thing to make, as it requires four cheeses and a pastry from scratch. But the time is well spent on this rich, satisfying treat. Enjoy!
Rustic in appearance and insanely loaded with flavor.

Goat Cheese and Green Onion Galette-by Joanne Weir
A galette is a fancy way of saying “a thin pie.” This one has a crunchy dough, rich with butter, that is a perfect casing for creamy ricotta, crème fraîche, mozzarella, fresh green onions, and Parmigiano. You’ll see why this has been one of my all-time favorites for years. 

These are my sister's notes on the recipe:
I do the pastry in the food processor. Form it into a disk and chill before rolling.  I also experimented this time with the vodka secret that America's Test Kitchen recommends, adding vodka to the pie dough so you can work with a wetter dough, and then the extra liquid alcohol evaporate out.  I ended up using 4 T water and 2 T vodka, which made a dough that was very easy to work with.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled in the freezer for 1 hour
1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 bunches green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
5 ounces goat cheese
4 ounces ricotta cheese
3/4 cup coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Put the flour in a bowl and chill in the freezer for 1 hour. Place the flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt on a cold work surface. With a pastry scraper, cut the frozen butter into the flour until half of the butter clumps are the size of peas and the rest are a little larger. Make a well in the center and add half of the ice water. Push together with your fingertips and set aside any dough that holds together. Add the rest of the water and repeat. Form the mixture into a rough ball.

Alternately, this can be made by judiciously pulsing the ingredients in a food processor, using the same technique, until half is the size of peas and the other half a little larger. Pour the mixture out onto your work surface and add the water as above. Do not add it into the food processor. Form the mixture into a rough ball. Or this can be made in an electric mixer using the same technique.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough into a 14-inch circle and trim the edges. Place on a large baking sheet and refrigerate.

Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the green onions and cook until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Mix together the green onions, goat cheese, ricotta, mozzarella, crème fraîche, and Parmigiano. Mix well and season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator. Spread the cheese mixture over the pastry, leaving a 21/2-inch border around the edge uncovered. Fold the uncovered edge of the pastry over the cheese, pleating it to make it fit. The filling will be exposed in the center of the galette.

Bake the galette in the oven until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes, then slide the galette off the pan and onto a serving plate. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Serves 6

Don't know how you do it, Deb. But you always seem to provide the perfect recipe at the perfect time. Next Friday I will be going to a friend's son's Communion. Guess what I will be bringing to the celebration afterwards? While the recipe does sound a little time consuming, it does seem pretty straight forward. Interesting tip about the vodka. Never heard of that before.

Definitely a wine from the Loire Valley in France seems entirely appropriate here. For simplicity sake, you can get a basic Sancerre or Pouilly Fume (both made from Sauvignon Blanc). Or, you can do what I would do - veer off the beaten path of wine and be a little experimental. Also located in the Loire Valley region are two great appellations called Saumur, and Saumur Champigny.

The reds are light and fruity and come from Saumur Champigny. A wine from this appellation, made from Cabernet Franc, is a great match for this goat cheese galette. In the Saumur appellation, the wines are typically light, crisp and lively with bright acidity. They must be at least 80% Chenin Blanc, the remainder being Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Both these reds and whites are terrific with goat cheese. The red can even be served slightly chilled, perfect for a warm Spring day!

Saumur Champigny is a favorite bistro wine in Paris, thought it is not very well known here in the U.S. One producer whom I am very fond of is Domaine Lavigne. It is a family-run operation and they are serious about their wine-making.  Their Saumur and Saumur Champigny are two of my favorite warm-weather wines, and they are very affordable at $14.99 and $16.99 respectively. Try to find the Saumur and taste the pear, peach, lemon flavors for yourself! I'm sure you'll agree it's a great choice for the galette!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


After a long Winter the emergence of Spring just seems so, well, improbable! Suddenly bare tree branches are loaded with cloudy powder puffs. Intensely perfumed flowers pop up from the bleak, brown dirt. It is amazing and catches me by surprise every year. That must be the reason it holds such delights. We have endured much weather to get here.

 Spring arrives in Queens, at last!

Easter with the family was a happy, sunny day.
Our family of passionate cooks rose to the occasion and we feasted on seasonal treats like artichoke hearts, asparagus and peas. I recreated the stuffed fish I had made in the Caribbean, giving it a Queens, NY spin by adding fresh sorrel from my garden to the stuffing.

The other dish I contributed to the table was a rice pilaf. My idea was to infuse the rice with sauteed red onions for some decorative flecks of pastel color. What I did not expect was that while the rice was cooking the red onions turned the entire dish pink. Sadly, not the most ravishing pink you would want, more of a grayish pink. Undaunted I garnished the pilaf with bright green pistachio nuts and chopped parsley to give it a little holiday swagger. The flavor was mild and savory, which is what I was going for, a perfect foil to all the rich dishes on the table. Nobody commented on the color. whew.

Pink(ish) Rice Pilaf with Pistachio Nuts
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. butter
1 red onion, finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup rice
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water or stock
1/2 cup pistachio nuts, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Heat olive oil and butter in a sauce pan. Add the onions, celery and garlic and cook at a low heat for 10 minutes till vegetables are soft and translucent. Add the rice to the pan and stir to caot the grains with the oil. Continue to sautee the rice, stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Add the water or stock and the salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cover, simmer for 20 minutes. In a small non stick pan toast the pistachio nuts at medium heat for about 6 minutes, then add the chopped parsley and toast an additional 3 minutes.
Remove cooked rice to a serving platter and garnish with the nuts.
Serves 4

I'm right with you on the ubiquitous signs of Spring! It is sooo exciting! A few weeks ago, I took my kids to the store and bought a nice variety of seeds, dirt, and a "starter" kit. We planted sunflowers (their choice), parsley, oregano, chili peppers, basil, parsley, chives and thyme (all my choices), and more is yet to come. Several days later, little sprouts began popping up, and now they are thriving! I cannot wait to transfer them to their own planters and set them outside where they can flourish beneath the sun!

Deb's Rice Pilaf sounds simple, delicious, and looks pretty. There are no strong seasonings in it - everything seems pretty mild. Therefore, no one particular wine is jumping to mind. This rice can really work with red, white, rose, sparkling - whatever you prefer. The one word of advice I will give is to concentrate more on the main dish being served. Deb served the stuffed snapper with stuffing flavored with sorrel. Either a light, crisp white or a lighter-style red would be fine.

For this particular combination, the snapper with the pilaf, I would actually pour a Champagne, especially for a festive, sit-down dinner. People generally think of Champagne as something to toast with, or sip as an aperitif before dinner. Champagne actually is made to be enjoyed with food, and makes an incredible accompaniment to many a meal! It just pairs so beautifully with so many different cuisines and styles of cooking.

Louis Roederer Brut Premier is a light, creamy Champagne that would be a delight to quaff alongside this type of meal. It works well when paired with lighter foods. There are, however, bigger, more powerful Champagnes that are made to be savored with heavier foods. Another Champagne to seek out which is absolutely lovely is the Paul Roger Brut NV. At $34.99, this is a true bargain in Champagne!

So - to sum up - when serving a single meal with various components, I would focus on the main course when pairing a wine with it, as opposed to the "sides". But, if you are serving a 3, 4 or 5 course dinner, it's most fun to pair a different wine with each individual course!