Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Easiest cream sauce - ever!

It's no surprise that I've once again turned to the BLT cookbook. It's even less of a surprise that I loved this recipe. Cream sauces don't make many appearances in my house. It's partially because they're always high in fat and partially because they can be tricky. Not this one. Imagine a cream sauce where you dump everything in a pan and walk away. Crazy, right? I promise you, it works.

Here's how, complete with my modifications.

Creamy Rosemary-Parmesan Gnocchi

  • 1 lb gnocchi
  • 2 cups heavy cream (or 1 cup cream, 1 cup half and half)
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Rind from one Parmesan cheese (optional)*
  • 1 pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • White truffle oil (optional)

In a large saucepan, combine the cream, rosemary, garlic, nutmeg and cheese rind in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil then simmer about 15 minutes until it thickens to coat the back of a spoon.

While sauce is cooking, cook gnocchi according to package directions (I made homemade which work great too!) Drain them well.

When sauce is thickened, remove the rosemary and cheese rind. stir in the grated parmesan.

Add the cooked gnocchi to the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir to coat evenly.

Serve drizzled with truffle oil and sprinkle with a little more cheese.

*Note - The rinds of parmigiano-reggiano need not end up in the trash. wrap them in plastic and store them in the fridge or freezer. Toss them into soups and sauces to add extra flavor. Yummy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

This week's soup: Baked Potato

Baked potato soup has got to be one of the most comforting soups around. Warm, thick and packed with home-cooked flavor, it's rich and satisfying on a chilly day. I've never made my own - until now! I found a recipe for a potato cheddar soup that's made in a slow-cooker and decided to give it a try (and a few twists).

Baked potato soup

4 large or 7 medium russet potatoes
4 cups chicken stock
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup half and half or heavy cream
1/4 cup chives
6 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
3-4 oz. smoked gouda, shredded
4-6 slices bacon, cooked to crisp

Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/4 inch thick. Layer them in a slow cooker and pour 2 cups of chicken stock over them. Cook on high for 2 hours or until potatoes are just cooked through.

When potatoes are cooked, transfer them and the cooking liquid to a blender. Add the garlic and puree to desired consistency. You can make it smooth or leave it a little chunky if you prefer. Pour the mixture back into the slow cooker and stir in the rest of the stock. Stir until combined, then add both cheeses and stir again until the cheese melts into the soup. Stir in the half and half or cream chives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Heat on low for 30 minutes.

To serve, sprinkle with the crumbled bacon or just stir the bacon into the soup.

NOTE: when adding the last two cups of stock, add it a little at a time so you can control the consistency. For thicker soup, add less, for thinner, add more.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fast Burger: Five Guys

We don't eat a lot of fast food, so I was hesitant to try Five Guys. I'd read the reviews on Zagat, though, so we decided to give it a go. Immediately upon entering, you'll notice bags of potatoes stacked around the place. A large whiteboard announces the location where the potatoes were grown. We've been to Five Guys twice now and our first potatoes were from Idaho and the most recent visit gave us potatoes from Washington. In both cases, they turned into yummy fries.

When we ordered our burgers the first time, we both ordered regular cheeseburgers, Jeff added bacon to his. You're then asked what toppings you want and there's a huge list of free toppings: the typical lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles are obvious ones. But there's also fried onions, sauteed mushrooms, A-1 Steak sauce, BBQ sauce, and many more. I went with lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mushrooms and fried onions. Jeff got all those and a few more.

We also ordered a regular-size fries to share and a soda. We were given a number and went to await our burgers. What we got was a bag of hot, freshly-made food that weighed a ton. We removed two burgers, each with a number stuck on it so we could easily find the right burger. The rest of the bag was full of fries. We're talking enough fries to feed about 6 people. They were hot and crisp and not too greasy.

Upon unwrapping the burger, we realized that regular is two patties! I could barely get my hands around it, let alone my mouth. But it was tasty (and more than a little sloppy.) You could tell the ingredients used were fresh - lettuce was still crisp, onions crisp tender, and mushrooms just right.

On our second visit, I went with a single patty burger and was still stuffed. And we opted for Cajun fries instead of regular. Spicy and full of flavor, they're a great change from regular fries.

Five Guys is not a place I'd go to frequently, simply because burgers and fries aren't the healthiest option, but when I'm in the mood for a burger, it'll be one of my first choices. Visit their website to find one near you.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back in the kitchen: Grilled asparagus soup

After a relaxing vacation, I was happy to settle back into my kitchen. As temperatures get cooler, I thought soup would make a great first course on Saturday night. Weber Grilling has a recipe for Grilled Asparagus Soup. It's been an off year for asparagus, but my local store had it on sale last week so I decided to try it out. Before I even started, I'd made the decision to change the recipe quite a bit. It calls for a hefty amount of tarragon and we just aren't big on tarragon so I added a bit of thyme, some Parmigiano-Reggiano, among other things... My version follows. Give it a shot, and leave a comment with your favorite soup ideas. I'll definitely be looking for some new ones this fall!

Grilled Asparagus Soup
adapted from Weber Grilling
  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 4 scallions
  • 2 Tbsp. Olive oil
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup packed spinach leaves
  • leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • pinch of smoked sea salt (use regular sea salt if you can't find smoked)
  • pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 2 slices Prosciutto (optional)

Rub the olive oil on the asparagus and scallions. Grill both 4-6 minutes - you want grill marks, but you want the veggies to still be firm. Remove to a plate and allow to cool to room temperature.

While it cools, place prosciutto slices on a wire rack on a baking sheet and bake at 400F for a couple minutes until it starts to turn darker pink. Remove from oven. It will crisp as it cools (I did this in my toaster oven to avoid ehating the whole oven.) Set aside.

Cut asparagus into 2 inch pieces. Reserve 4 asparagus tips. In a saucepan, combine the asparagus, scallions, spinach leaves and stock and bring to a boil. Add the sea salt and pepper to taste. Boil for about 4 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. Puree in a blender or with a stick blender.

Return the soup to the stove and stir in the heavy cream and cheese.

Serve warm. Crumble one slice crisped prosciutto over each and garnish with reserved asparagus tips. Sprinkle with additional cheese if desired.

Makes 2 servings and can easily be multiplied.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why we cook: A note before vacation

The clock is ticking until I board the plane for two glorious weeks of vacation. I have no new recipe to share (my August DB challenge is all ready to post if I can find a computer in Spain). Instead, I have a few thoughts on a recent baking endeavor...

Imagine this: 90+ degrees outside; humidity over 80%. My hair tied back in a frizzy mess as I crank the oven to 400 and get started on Mom's birthday cake. The chocolate buttercream can come out of the fridge for just minutes at a time or I risk having chocolate soup on my hands. 6 layers of cake go into the oven, one at a time. As I pull one of them out, a blast of heat comes from the oven, burning my eyelashes. Not a pleasant feeling, that's for sure.

So why bother? Why do so many cooks labor though conditions like this when there's a bakery just around the corner?

A few hours later, cake at a safe room temperature for buttercream, I light the candles and watch as my little niece nearly scrambles onto the table to help grandma blow them out. The fascination in her eyes is something only a child can possess. But wait, it gets better.

The fork is pushed aside as she takes one finger to scoop some chocolate frosting. Into the mouth it goes and then two fingers reach out for more. Soon she's using her whole hand, smiling as bright and wide as can be...

This is why we cook. I know I forget sometimes, so my thanks go to my two year-old niece for reminding me. I'll make her chocolate cake in any weather as long as that smile comes with it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Farmer's market find: Blackberries

Juicy, plump blackberries! Who could resist them on a sunny summer morning at the local farmers' market? Not me! I happily paid the farmer and poured them into a bag, carefully carrying them as I rode my bike home. I rinsed them, nibbled a few, then started making muffins!

The muffin batter is pretty standard with buttermilk, flour and all the rest. A little lemon zest brightens the flavor and a crunchy pecan-sugar coating makes these babies irresistible. And they're simply chock full of fruit. So they're healthy, right?

Blackberry muffins

For the topping:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. flour
  • Grated zest of half a lemon
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped

For the muffins:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 cups blackberries

Preheat oven to 375F. Line 12 muffin cups with liners or butter them.

To make the topping, mix together the sugar, flour and lemon zest. Add the butter and mix until combined. Mix in the pecans and set aside.

To make the muffins, combine the dry ingredients, including the zest. Add the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Gently fold in the blackberries, trying not to break them. Don't overmix.

Divide the batter among the 12 muffin cups. Sprinkle the topping over them.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack.

NOTE: you could very easily substitute other berries in these. Blueberries would be excellent with the lemon zest as would raspberries. Or try a mix of berries!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Elegant fish: Curry-infused cod with braised leeks

Mom always told me to read a recipe thru completely before starting... I didn't listen. I typically scan the list of ingredients and go on my merry way. I must say it has caused some rather tasty mishaps over the years. On other occasions, it's created some undue stress in the otherwise peaceful haven that is my kitchen. On Saturday, it was a little bit of both.

I decided to try the Curry-Infused Cod with Braised Leeks and Crispy Potatoes from Cooking with Curtis by Curtis Stone. I love leeks, I love curry, and cod was on special. Perfect! So on Saturday at about 3 p.m. I decided to get things prepped. I read the first few lines of the recipe and realized I was supposed to infuse the oil for 24 hours and then marinate the fish for 12. I had about 4 hours total, maybe 5 if we ate a little late. Hmmmm...

So, I improvised. I took a few shortcuts and I must say it turned out wonderful. Maybe not what Curtis intended, but I'll make it again and probably repeat my blunders - I might cut back a little on the spices, we shall see. What follows is my version... (by the way, the smashed potatoes are super fun to make!)

Curry-infused Cod with Braised Leeks and Crispy Potatoes
adapted from Cooking with Curtis
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. fennel seeds, ground
  • 2 tsp. madras curry powder
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed oil
  • 2 portions fresh cod, skinless
  • olive oil
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin strips
  • 1 celery stalk, cut into thin strips
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 leeks, white and light green parts only, trimmed close to the root so they hold together, then quartered lengthwise
  • 1 1/4 cups chicken stock
  • 12 baby new potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cold
  • salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the spices in a small pan and heat until fragrant. Stir in the oil, then let it come to room temperature. Strain it to get and large spices out. Pour it into a shallow dish and add the fish, turning to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours.

Bring a pan of water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook for about 15 minutes until just cooked. Strain and set aside to cool slightly. Once cooled, lightly smash each (this is wicked fun) with the bottom of a saucepan. You want to break the skin, but the smashed potato should stay in one piece.

Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a pan and add the carrot, celery, onion and garlic. Sweat for about 3 minutes then add the leeks and stock. Simmer until the veggies are tender. Remove the carrots, leeks and celery to a plate and keep warm. Swirl the cold butter into the pan and let it reduce for a few minutes.

Heat a frying pan with a little olive oil. Add the potatoes, sprinkling them with salt and pepper to taste. Fry on both sides until brown and crispy.

Heat a third pan, preferably non-stick, and add the fish, cooking a few minutes on each side until just cooked. Sprinkle it with a little salt, too. My fish was thick so it took 4-5 minutes a side. Thinner pieces will only need 2-3 per side. A toothpick stuck in the fish should encounter no resistance.

To finish the sauce, puree it with an immersion blender.

To serve, arrange some of the vegetables on the plate. Top each with a piece of fish. Pile some potatoes on the side then pour the sauce around it.

Serves 2. Can easily be doubled or tripled for more people.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's Greek to me! Greek pepper and onion pie

Last night, Mom came over for supper. I was thumbing through the newest addition to my cookbook collection, Vefa's Kitchen, and was inspired to make Greek. We haven't been to Pithari in awhile, so it was a nice change. I decided on mixed souvlaki with chicken and pork and a Bell pepper and onion pie. This was huge for 3 of us so Mom got leftovers and Jeff and I will be having it again.

If phyllo intimidates you, this is a great recipe to give it a try. It's simple and rustic and comes together quickly. I was also great to serve company because all the work is done ahead so it can bake while you visit. And with fresh seasonal peppers at the farmers' market, who could resist? Have it on its own for a vegetarian dinner or serve with simple grilled meat and tzatziki.

Greek Bell Pepper and Onion Pie

10 sheets of phyllo, thawed
1 each large red, yellow and green bell peppers (3 total), cut into thin strips
2 large onions, thinly sliced
4 scallions, chopped
2/3 cup + 4 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
8 oz. Feta, crumbled
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 large tomato, sliced

Preheat oven to 350F.

If needed, trim the phyllo sheets to squares a bit larger than your baking dish. Brush a round baking dish with olive oil. Lay one sheet of phyllo in the dish then brush with olive oil. Let the edges hang over. Lay another sheet on top, rotating it a bit so the corners don't line up with the corners of the first. Repeat until you have 5 sheets lining the bottom of the pan.

In a large saute pan over medium high heat, heat 4 Tbsp. Olive oil. Add the peppers, onions and scallions. Cook until just softened. Remove from heat. Add the parsley, eggs, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper to taste and crumbled feta. Stir to combine. Pour into prepared pan and smooth out the top. Lay the tomato slices over the top.

Cover with a layer of olive oil, this time tucking the edges in. Brush with olive oil. Repeat until you have 5 layers on top. Brush the top with olive oil and fold in the corners from the phyllo sheets on the bottom of the pan to create the edge of the crust. Score the pie for 8-10 servings.

Bake for about 50-55 minutes, until golden and crisp. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Daring Cooks: Spanish rice with Cuttlefish!

This month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge came from Olga from Las Cosas de Olga and Olga’s Recipes She chose a delicious Spanish recipe, Rice with mushrooms, cuttlefish and artichokes by José Andrés, one of the most important Spanish Chefs at the moment.The recipe is from his US TV show Made in Spain.

A quick note about my lack of photos: I sit here blogging on my laptop because my desktop, where ALL my pictures are stored, has a nasty virus and won't let me on the internet. So until that gets sorted, you'll have to imagine my yummy rice!

How appropriate that we had a Spanish dish this month! It whetted our appetites for our fast-approaching trip to Spain. (Yes, we do plan vacations around food... and drink... Can you say "Rioja"? But I digress...

And what a good recipe it was! After many stops, I finally found baby cuttlefish. I also added some shrimp, chorizo, chicken, and a little lobster! YUM! I couldn't find the Spanish rice called for but Whole Foods carried a short grain brown rice. It gave the dish a nutty texture so common with brown rice, not to mention all of the health benefits. To make sure the chicken was super-tender, I sprinkled it with salt, pepper and smoked Spanish paprika, then browned it before letting it simmer with the rice.

A fabulous dish - and very adaptable. Use whatever meat or seafood suits you. Throw in some veggies and you're on your way to Spain... Oh wait, I'm on my way... can you tell I'm excited!? We leave in just over a week, so check back to see where we're headed.

Rice with mushrooms, cuttlefish and artichokes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 4 Artichokes (I used 1 can drained and quartered)
  • 12 Mushrooms (button or Portobello)
  • 1 or 2 Bay leaves (optional but highly recommended)
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • 2 Cuttlefish (you can use frozen cuttlefish or squid if you don’t find it fresh)
  • “Sofregit” (see recipe below)
  • 300 gr (2 cups) Short grain rice (Spanish types Calasparra or Montsant are preferred)
  • Water or Fish Stock (use 1 ½ cup of liquid per ½ cup of rice)
  • Saffron threads (if you can’t find it or afford to buy it, you can substitute turmeric or yellow coloring powder)
  • Allioli (olive oil and garlic sauce, similar to mayonnaise sauce) - optional

1. Cut the cuttlefish in little strips.
2. Add 1 or 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and put the cuttlefish in the pan.
3. If you use fresh artichokes, clean them and cut into eights (or quarters for smaller ones)
4. Clean the mushrooms and cut them in fourths.
5. Add a bay leaf to the cuttlefish and add also the artichokes and the mushrooms.
6. Sauté until we get a golden color in the artichokes.
7. Put a touch of white wine so all the solids in the bottom of the get mixed, getting a more flavorful dish.
8. Add a couple or three tablespoons of sofregit and mix to make sure everything gets impregnated with the sofregit.
9. Add all the liquid and bring it to boil.
10. Add all the rice. Let boil for about 5 minutes in heavy heat.
11. Add some saffron thread to enrich the dish with its flavor and color. Stir a little bit so the rice and the other ingredients get the entire flavor. If you’re using turmeric or yellow coloring, use only 1/4 teaspoon.
12. Turn to low heat and boil for another 8 minutes (or until rice is a little softer than “al dente”)
13. Put the pan away from heat and let the rice stand a couple of minutes.

(a well cooked and fragrant sauce made of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and onions, and may at timesdifferent vegetables such as peppers or mushrooms)

Cooking time: aprox. 1 hourIngredients:
· 2 tablespoons of olive oil
· 5 big red ripe tomatoes, chopped
· 2 small onions, chopped
· 1 green pepper, chopped (optional)
· 4 or 5 garlic cloves, chopped
· 1 cup of button or Portobello mushrooms, chopped (optional)
· 1 Bay leaf
· Salt
· Touch of ground cumin
· Touch of dried oregano

1. Put all the ingredients together in a frying pan and sauté slowly until all vegetables are soft.
2. Taste and salt if necessary (maybe it’s not!)

Allioli (Traditional recipe)Cooking time: 20 min aprox.Ingredients:
· 4 garlic cloves, peeled
· Pinch of salt
· Fresh lemon juice (some drops)
· Extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish preferred but not essential)

1. Place the garlic in a mortar along with the salt.
2. Using a pestle, smash the garlic cloves to a smooth paste. (The salt stops the garlic from slipping at the bottom of the mortar as you pound it down.)
3. Add the lemon juice to the garlic.
4. Drop by drop; pour the olive oil into the mortar slowly as you continue to crush the paste with your pestle.
5. Keep turning your pestle in a slow, continuous circular motion in the mortar. The drip needs to be slow and steady. Make sure the paste soaks up the olive oil as you go.
6. Keep adding the oil, drop by drop, until you have the consistency of a very thick mayonnaise. If your allioli gets too dense, add water to thin it out. This takes time—around 20 minutes of slow motion around the mortar—to create a dense, rich sauce.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Brown-butter toffee blondies: sticky, chewy, yummy!

Yesterday morning was rainy and gloomy and not too hot so I decided to turn on the oven. By the time I did, the humidity had kicked in, but I pushed ahead anyway. I made a fresh batch of granola and then got to work on these brown butter toffee blondies. They get a nice crust on top and the middle is chewy and moist. Big chunks of walnuts add even more texture. They're definitely sweet, but the brown butter gives them a much deeper flavor. They come together pretty quickly, too, although I'm always amazed how long the butter takes to get to the color I like.

Brown-Butter Toffee Blondies
adapted from Martha Stewart Cookies
  • 2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 2 1/4 cups flour, plus more for pan
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup walnuts, broken into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups toffee bits (with or without chocolate, your preference)

In a pan over medium heat, cook the butter until it's golden brown (see photo below). Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9x13 baking dish; line the bottom with parchment then butter and flour the parchment. Shake off any excess flour.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine both sugars and the butter. Stir until combined. Add the eggs and mix on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to combine. Add the flour mixture, walnuts and toffee bits and mix until combined. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow the blondies to cool in the pan for a little while then loosen the edges with a sharp knife. Turn them out onto a cutting board and peel off the parchment. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back to Morocco: Summer Lamb Tagine with Zucchini, Red Peppers and Mint

Maybe it's the delightfully fun look of the tagine on my stove or maybe it's the bold flavors of Moroccan food, but lately I can't get enough! I tried another tagine from Basan's cookbook. As usual, I made some modifications and we still found it a bit blah so the recipe below is what I would've done or what I will do next time. Basically I've added a couple of things and increased the amount of spices and changed the technique a little... all in the name of flavor - big Moroccan flavor. As with the other tagines I've created, a heavy pot will work just fine, too!

Also, the cooking time for this one makes it challenging for a weeknight. I prepped everything in the morning. I had my tagine out, meat cubed, aromatics chopped and spices all measured. All I had to do was cut some mint while the oil heated. Then while it cooked, I headed out to do some gardening (a short adventure because the mosquitoes got me...).

Tagine of Lamb with Zucchini, Mint and Bell Peppers
  • 1 half boneless lamb leg, trimmed of fat and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 4 Tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 2 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh chopped mint, plus 2 Tbsp. for garnish
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 zucchini, cut on a diagonal into thick slices
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into large strips
  • juice of half a lemon

Lightly crush the spices with a mortar and pestle.

Combine the lamb, spices, 1 Tbsp. mint, garlic and ginger with 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large bowl. Mix well and refrigerate for a couple hours.

Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a tagine or large heavy pot. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the meat and spices. Season with salt and pepper. Allow the meat to brown a little and then add just enough water to almost cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 90 minutes. Skim off any fat that rises to the top.

Add the vegetables and cover again. Let cook about 15 minutes longer until vegetables are crisp tender. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Taste to see if more salt and pepper are needed.

Sprinkle with remaining fresh mint. Serve with couscous.

Serves 4.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Restaurant review: Splash of Thai in Westfield

Located on the south side of Westfield, Splash of Thai has been a favorite of ours since we moved into the area three years ago. Its modern decor is stylish and friendly service makes every visit a pleasure.

On the menu, you'll find all of the classic Thai dishes, including curries, noodles and more. Be sure to check out the daily specials for the chef's freshest creations.

For starters, we love the fresh rolls. Chilled rolls of shrimp, vermicelli, vegetables and fresh mint are wrapped in a rice paper and served with crushed peanuts and a sweet dipping sauce. Another winner is the crispy duck salad. A flaky, light wonton bowl is filled with fresh lettuce, apple slices, red onion, and strips of crispy duck then tossed in a spicy-sweet dressing. The grilled beef salad is equally good. The calamari salad can be a bit chewy.

Other winning appetizers include satay, curry puffs and an occasional special of fried calamari and shrimp, both lightly battered and served with a sweet plum dipping sauce.

Move onto the entrees and there's plenty to choose from. Our favorites are green curry with chicken (beef or shrimp are also available) and Mussaman curry with beef. The green curry is spicy and sweet, and full of tender white meat chicken and loads of fresh veggies including bok choy, Thai eggplants, peppers, bamboo shoots and more. Served in a beautiful white bowl with a side of steamed rice, it'll warm you and fill you! The Mussaman curry is less spicy and includes potatoes, plenty of tender beef, chunks of tomato, peanuts and fresh avocado.

For noodle lovers, Pad Thai is outstanding and the drunken noodles are spicy and full of fresh meat and seafood.

Splash of Thai also offers a wide range of fish and seafood dishes. The most outstanding we've tried is the Three flavor Red Snapper. When ordering, select the whole fish for dramatic presentation. The whole fish is fried in a very light batter and served with a spicy tamarind sauce. Always cooked perfectly, this is one of my all-time favorite fish dishes.

For dessert, Splash of Thai specializes in made-to-order chocolate souffle.

On all but our most recent visit, we've opted to eat in, but take-out is available. Portions are as big as what you get in the restaurant and the food was ready and hot when they said it would be.

Note that the restaurant is BYOB, so bring your favorite bottle to enjoy with your meal. They also have a location in Somerville.
Splash of Thai on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meal in minutes: Angel hair with shrimp and feta

This is a dinner I've been making for a few years now. It's become a regular in our house for two reasons: 1) we love it and 2) it can be prepared in no time at all. (Don't believe me? I timed it tonight and it took less than 30 minutes, start to finish. Start the water then chop the garlic and shallots; while they cook with the shrimp, chop the tomatoes. Done in minutes!)

When summer tomatoes and basil are at their peak, this tastes best, but in winter, though a little more expensive, the two ingredients create a little taste of warmer weather.

To make it even faster, use cooked, peeled shrimp. One must: use fresh basil. I made it once or twice during the winter using dried instead of spending the money for fresh: never again! And good tomatoes make a big difference too. I almost always use vine-ripened. They're seldom mealy and add great flavor.

Angel hair pasta with shrimp and feta

1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 small or 1 large shallot, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
4-5 vine-ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
4 oz. crumbled feta (more if you like!)
1 small bunch fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb. angel hair pasta

In a large pot, bring water to a boil for the pasta.

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the shrimp and wine. Cook until the shrimp are just cooked thru and the wine has mostly reduced.

Add the tomatoes. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes until the tomatoes are slightly cooked, but still very fresh. This is not a traditional tomato sauce!

While the shrimp and tomatoes are cooking, cook pasta according to package directions.

Add the basil leaves, tearing the larger one if you like, and crumbled feta. Stir and let cook until the feta is incorporated but still a little chunky. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Divide pasta into pasta bowls and top with the tomato and shrimp mixture. Top with a little crumbled feta if you like.

This serves two with generous portions (and sometimes leftovers depending on how hungry my husband is!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Now that's a salad: Bacon-wrapped cippolini with goat cheese

For some reason, I've been on a kick where I like to make fancy salads. Maybe it's all the fresh vegetables at the farmer's market or maybe it's that I've found a bunch of recipes that catch my eye. Whatever the reason, my husband has been loving them which is quite startling given his usual hum-ho attitude toward salad! Of course bacon always helps.

This salad is based on a recipe in Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen. I love roasted onions and bacon so I thought this would be a great addition to a simple dinner of mushroom risotto with sauteed veal.

Salad of butter lettuce with bacon-wrapped cippolini and goat cheese

  • 1 head butter lettuce
  • 8 cippolini onions, end trimmed and peeled
  • 4 slices of bacon
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 slices from a log of goat cheese (about 1 oz. each)
Preheat oven to 400.
Heat oil in an ovenproof pan. Add the onions and saute until golden brown on each side. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, wrap each in half a slice of bacon then place in the pan seam side down. Sprinkle with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Then sprinkle the thyme over the onions.
Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes. The turn on the broiler to crisp the bacon. Remove from oven. Set the bacon-wrapped onions on a plate. Set the pan over medium heat and whisk in the soy sauce and vinegar. (You can get rid of a little of the bacon fat if there's too much in the pan). Bring to a boil then reduce until slightly thickened. Strain.
Arrange lettuce on plates. Place 4 onions on each then drizzle with the dressing. Place the goat cheese in the center and serve immediately.
Serves 2

Salad Of Butter Lettuce With Bacon-Wrapped Cippolini Onions on Foodista

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summery lemon cakes with grilled pluots

Last Saturday, the farmer's market once again led me to try something new. Pluots look like plums, but are hybrids of plums and apricots. Sweet and juicy, they have greenish skin and bright pink flesh. I couldn't resist buying a container of 6 of them. I knew we'd never eat all of them (I had already bought peaches and raspberries), so I knew I had to serve them with something. I also gave one to my parents to try.

As I rode home, I decided on lemon cakes. I'd seen a recipe in Food Network Magazine that sounded interesting. So before the sun got too hot, I cranked up the oven. It was also a great opportunity to use my new mini bundt pan!! It makes 6 little cakes in 3 different designs.

One unique thing about this recipe is that it is prepared in a blender. So I hauled out my blender and started whizzing away. I made a number of modifications from the original and I also served them with grilled pluots. Here's my recipe. This makes 6 small or 12 mini bundt cakes. If you don't have the specialty pan, use muffin cups or whatever, just watch your baking time.

Lemon vanilla olive oil cakes with grilled pluots
For the cakes
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla paste (or vanilla extract)
  • 1/4 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
For the glaze
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • Confectioners' sugar (about 1 cup)
3 pluots, quartered, pits discarded (peaches or nectarines make a good substitute.)
Preheat oven to 350F. Brush pan with melted butter. Dust with flour, shaking off any excess.
Mix flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl with a fork. Set aside.
Pulse sugar and lemon zest in a blender until combined. Add eggs one at a time, blending between each addition. Add vanilla. Gradually pour in the olive oil and milk. Pulse until it forms a thin batter.
Add the flour mixture in 2 additions, mixing and scraping the sides between each.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in center of oven for about 25 minutes until cakes just start to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes then invert onto a rack. Cool slightly.
While cakes are in the oven, make the glaze. Whisk together the butter and lemon juice then whisk in confectioners sugar until glaze is the consistency you like. drizzle over the cakes.
Before serving, preheat the grill over medium-high heat. Grill the pluots, flesh-side down, for about 3 minutes per side. You want some grill marks to form, but you don't want them to turn to mush. Repeat on the other side.
Serve cakes with grilled pluots and a sprig of fresh mint.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Eye-popping color, simple salmon

Recipes appeal to me for a number of reason, as I'm sure they do any cook. Some catch my eye because of unique ingredients or techniques, some because of their level of difficulty. This salmon recipe was all about color. Bright green sugar snap peas, sunny yellow peppers and fresh pink salmon - simply gorgeous. The flavors and textures vary as well, providing a range that's sure to please your palate.

I adapted this for two from the August issue of Bon Appetit (find it on epi). At this time of year, most of the ingredients are easily found at the farmer's market. You can make the pistou a few hours ahead so the flavors come together. I made it after work and the whole meal took me about 35 minutes. Easy! (and super healthy - salmon's chock full of Omega 3's and snap peas have lots of fiber.)

Salmon filet with snap peas, yellow peppers and dill-almond pistou

1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup finely chopped scallions
1/2 cup skinned almonds, toasted, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow bell peppers cut into strips about the size of the snap peas
8 ounces sugar snap peas, trimmed, strings removed
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup water
1 12-14-oz. filet of salmon, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
Lemon wedges, for serving

Make the pistou: Once the toasted almonds are cooled, combine them in a small bowl with the dill and scallions. Add a drizzle of olive oil and salt to taste then set aside at room temperature.
Heat 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the peppers and cook until slightly softened. Add the garlic, snap peas and water. Spinkle with a little salt. Cook until the snap peas are heated thru but still crisp and the water has evaporated. Stir in a heaping tablespoon of the pistou and stir. Pour the vegetables onto a platter and set aside.
Sprinkle fish on both sides with salt and pepper.
In same pan over medium-high heat, add 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the fish, skin side down. Cook about 3-4 minutes until skin is crispy. Turn the fish over and cook about 3-4 more minutes until just cooked through. Arrange on top of vegetables. Put a scoop of pistou on each piece of fish.
Serve with lemon wedges.
I served this with a simple side of Trader Joe's Harvest Grains - a mix of Israeli couscous, red quinoa, orzo, and baby garbanzos. I cookd the grains in chicken broth then added a little dill, lemon and some fresh chives.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Restaurant review: Emma's Brick Oven Pizza

On weekends, Emma's Brick Oven Pizza and Cafe in Cranford, New Jersey, usually has a line to the door. This no-reservations, BYO pizza and pasta place definitely draws a crowd. Perfect for families, it's a great place for an inexpensive dinner out. We've eaten at Emma's many times. If there's a line, don't fret; it moves pretty fast.

Lately, we have our meals picked out before we even get there, so we hardly glance at the menu - but have a look. The front page is all about pizza. Build your own or select one of their specialty pies. Inside you'll find three pages of salads, appetizers, pastas, entrees, panini and more. Our preference is for the pizza - thin-crust brick oven pies. Yum! We've tried the pasta, and it's not bad, but Emma's is our stop for pizza. If we want pasta, we head across the street to Bel Paese.

For starters, the fried calamari is enough for at least two people and has a light batter. Served with homemade marinara, it's a great start to a meal. We've also tried the mozzarella en carozza - basically a fried mozzarella sandwich - crispy, gooey, cheesy and wonderful! Salads are large enough to share as well.

When it comes to pizza, we haven't found another place in our area we like nearly as much. The pies are made fresh when you order and each is fired in the brick oven that occupies center stage in the restaurant. My favorite is the vodka pie. Homemade vodka sauce is spread over the crust and then topped with mozzarella, bits of prosciutto and a few mushrooms. A sprinkle of Parmesan completes the pie. This is a pie for garlic-lovers. A personal size has 4 slices - I usually bring at least 1 home. My husband opts for the classic margherita pie with pepperoni, mushrooms and onions. Emma's uses fresh mushrooms and red onions which are cooked, but still a bit crunchy. The marinara sauce has fresh basil that adds another layer of flavor to the pie. And the pepperoni is cooked to perfection - it gets a little crisp on the edges and isn't drowning in grease.

On other visits, we've tried the pesto bianco pie. This white pie has mozzarella and pesto ricotta. Add broccoli or broccoli rabe for a vegetarian meal that's outstanding. The Emma pie has provolone, fresh sliced tomato and basil, another winner.

With a BYO policy and friendly service, Emma's is a great place for a casual lunch or dinner. It's hand's down our favorite for pizza.

Have another favorite in the area? Leave a comment and let me know!

Emma's Brick Oven Pizza & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dry Curry of Shrimp

This dish is based on a recipe from Neil Perry's Good Food. It's a good example of my inability to follow a recipe exactly. I always change something. Usually I add more of at least one ingredient: garlic, cheese, etc. In this case, I had to substiute yellow mustard seeds for black as I could not find black. I also read a bit too quickly and prepared the tomatoes wrong. Maybe not wrong, but differently. But, you know what? It tasted great and I'd make the same changes again!

Served over white rice flavored with a little sea salt and sesame oil, we really enjoyed it! I had planned to serve it one night but we ended up going out so I had all the ingredients prepped. That done, it came together in minutes. So if you're pressed for time, do the prep a day ahead!

Dry Curry of Shrimp
  • About 20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 vine-ripened tomatoes
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tsp. yellow mustard seeds (use black if you can find them)
  • 2 dried red chillies, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground pepper
  • about 12 1-foot long Asian long beans (snake beans) or a bunch of green beans if you can't get snake, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • juice of 1 lime

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Preheat oven to 300F. Cut and X in the bottom of each tomato, then dunk into the boiling water for about 10 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and then dunk in cold water. When cool enough to handle, peel the whole tomatoes. Put them on a baking sheet and drizzle with just a little oil. Roast them for about 1 1/2 hours. When you take them out of the oven, put them in a bowl to cool a bit then mash the flesh with the back of a fork.

Pound the ginger and garlic with a mortar and pestle to form a rough paste. Remove and set aside.

Crush the mustard seeds with the chilli in the moratr then stir in the turmeric, salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a wok, heat about a tablespoon of oil. Cook the ginger-garlic paste until lightly colored and caramelized. Add the spice mixtures and stir until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cook until just slightly thickened, about 3-4 minutes. Pour into a bowl and then wipe the wok clean with a damp papertowel.

Heat another tablespoon of oil in the wok and stir-fry the shrimp over high heat until cooked, working in batches if needed. Set them aside in another bowl. Add the beans and stir-fry until they are heated thru and bright green. Add the shrimp and tomato mixture and mix together well. Finish with the lime juice.

Serve over steamed rice - use white, brown, jasmine or even basmati.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Farmer's Market finds

You know you're a foodie when... So many things could finish this sentence but when summer kicks in, I know I'm a foodie when I get more than a little excited to see what's at the local Farmer's Market in Scotch Plains each Saturday morning. As the season progresses, the choices change offering new surprises each week. Last Saturday, one of the farms was offering gorgeous striped beets and fresh-picked zucchini blossoms. I had to have them!

I bought one bunch of beets - 4 medium-sized beets with white and pink concentric circles inside. And I grabbed a bunch of zucchini blossoms. I decided I'd use both to make a salad of goat cheese stuffed zucchini blossoms with marinated beets and caramelized walnuts.

Sweet tender, roasted beets combine beautifully with the tang of the goat cheese. The blossoms add a bright punch of color and the walnuts add some crunch. For a little extra flare I added a little basil chiffonade and a sprinkling of chopped chives.

And note well, I served this with country-style lamb chops and homemade pappardelle with wild mushroom ragu and my husband's response was that the salad was the best part! He never says the salad is the best part!!

Roasted beet and Goat Cheese-Stuffed Zucchini Blossom Salad

Serves 4

  • 2 large or 4 medium beets (red or striped)
  • 1 4-oz package goat cheese, at room-temperature
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 scallion, chopped
  • 12 zucchini blossoms
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Walnut Oil (optional)
  • Sherry vinegar (optional)
  • Caramelized walnuts (see recipe at bottom)
  • 4-6 fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade just before serving
  • a few chives, chopped for sprinkling
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Sea salt

Preheat oven to 400F. Scrub the beets then rub each with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Wrap each in a piece of foil then roast for 1 hour or until easily pierced with a knife. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

In a shallow dish, combine the red wine vinegar, parsley, and garlic with about 7 Tbsp. of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Peel the cooled beets, then slice each into 1/4 inch thick slices and set in the dressing. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

In a small bowl, combine the goat cheese, scallion and just enough egg to moisten the mixture (probably about half of the egg). Set aside. Gently open each blossom and remove the stamen and any bugs. Fill each with about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp. of the cheese mixture. Twist the top to close.

When ready to serve, place three slices of beet on each plate, leaving the dressing behind. Heat 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sautee the blossoms until golden, about 2 minutes on each side. You may have to do this in batches.

Lay three zucchini blossoms on each plate. Drizzle a little walnut oil and sherry vinegar, if using, over the beets (or use some of the marinade if you prefer). Then pile the basil chiffonade on the beets and sprinkle with the chives. Finally, sprinkle with some caramelized walnuts and serve.

Caramelized walnuts
1 cup walnut halves
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Spray a small baking sheet with sides. Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan until the sugar is dissolved. Allow the mixture to boil until it caramelizes. When it gets the color you like, turn off the heat and stir in the walnuts. Pour the mixture onto the sheet and allow to harden. Break it into large pieces and put it in a zipper sandwich bag. Smash the caramelized nuts into small pieces with a rolling pin. Sprinkle on salads, munch on them, serve with ice cream...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Restaurant review: Craft

We kicked off 4th of July weekend with a memorable dinner at Tom Colicchio's Craft in New York City. The restaurant itself is beautiful - sleek and modern but with comforting colors. Blond wood tables and leather on the walls provide a warm atmosphere, as does the gentle light from filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

Upon being seated, we were welcomed by our waiter, served some water and then presented with the menu. The menu at Craft is somewhat different. There are several sections of first courses, then main courses and then sides. The idea is to pick a main and sides that go well together - in other words, to craft your own meal. For some that might be intimidating but the waitstaff answer any questions politely and knowledgeably. For me, it was a chance to have a little fun! The menu was full of fresh seasonal ingredients with some not-so-common things too!

Jeff and I each selected a first course that was a little unusual. I picked stinging nettle agnolotti. These were delicious little agnolotti stuffed with a bright green stinging nettle mixture. Simply prepared, they were garnished with just a touch of fresh cheese. Jeff thought they were a little plain, but I enjoyed them. He ordered the pig Ballotine (vegetarians beware!). The waiter had to explain to us that Ballotine is made by using the snout, feet, ears and other interesting pig parts. They're seasoned and cooked in a roll and then thinly sliced. It was served cool on a platter with tiny fresh seasonal vegetables that were lightly pickled. I tried it (with some hesitation) and it was really quite good - the meat had a rich deep flavor and the tiny morels and other veggies provided a perfect contrast.

For our mains, I chose braised halibut which was finished with an almond foam. Jeff selected braised short ribs. We shared garlic risotto and their signature hen-of-the-woods mushrooms for sides. I love halibut and I order it or cook it as often as I can get my hands on it. This was the best cooked halibut I've ever had. Each bite was tender and juicy.

The braised short ribs simply melted in your mouth. The best word I can think of for them is luxurious. Silky and rich, they were perfectly caramelized and were served with a few tiny onions and carrots.

The risotto and mushrooms were both perfectly prepared as well. Not a bite remained!

We don't always have dessert but we felt like trying something at Craft. We shared their Boston Cream donuts. Two small homemade Boston cream donuts were served with a small dish of cheesecake ice cream and a shot glass of malted chocolate milk. On the side was some homemade blueberry compote full of big juicy blueberries. The dessert was definitely good, but the dinner itself was much better.

We finished off the meal by sharing a glass of Moscato d'Asti, a sparkling white dessert wine that we first tasted not long ago at Esca. A crisp cool finish to the meal, we order it whenever we find it on menus.

Throughout the meal the service was gracious and attentive. Our wine glasses were never empty and we were well cared for.

I've watched Tom Colicchio again and again on Bravo as one of the judges on Top Chef. After dining in his restaurant, he may in fact be more deserving of that title than those he judges. If you find yourself in New York and want a perfectly executed memorable meal, try Craft.

P.S. On our way out, they gave us each a homemade zucchini muffin which we had for breakfast the next day. It was moist and full of fresh zucchini and cinnamon! Yum!
Craft on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Merguez lamb: not your typical weekend lunch

Five days a week, I pack lunches for my husband and myself. Usually. it's some type of sandwich so on the weekends, I like to do a little something different and summer's the perfect time to fire up the grill. Last weekend we tried some Merguez Lamb Sausages. You can find them at some grocery store and specialty markets. I got ours at Barth's Market in New Providence, NJ.

These North African sausages are zippy so I made some tzatziki to balance the spice. I served them on ciabatta rolls that I had cut in half then sliced like a hot dog bun. And we topped them with thin-sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Served with a cold Sam Adams in a frsty mug and we were well on our way to enjoying a sunny Saturday afternoon.


  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 small cucumber, shredded or minced, excess water squeezed out
  • sea salt
  • lemon juice
  • 2 Tsp Extra Virgin Olive oil
Combine all the ingredients, adding salt and fresh lemon juice to taste. Best if made a few hours ahead so flavors can meld.

I use fat free Greek yogurt for this. I was a little skeptical the first time but it has the flavor and consistency of regular without all the fat. I like Chobani or Fage brands best, but any Greek yogurt would work. If you can't find Greek, you can use plain yogurt, just strain it over a bowl in several layers of cheesecloth for a few hours first to get the same consistency.

Also great on marinated chicken, lamb or beef kebabs.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June Daring Bakers: Raspberry Bakewell Tart

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

This month's challenge was a fun one - I brought it to a father's day celebration at my sister's house and everyone loved it. It even put up a good showing against mom's homemade blueberry pie and my brother-in-law's homemade ice cream!

I decided on raspberry for my filling since the market had big red juicy raspberries that were irresistible. I also love raspberry and almond together. To make the jam I simply combined three pints of the berries in a saucepan with 1/4 cup sugar and let it cook until it was thickened. It was a bit tart but combined perfectly with the frangipane.

Bakewell Tart…er…pudding
Makes one 23cm (9” tart)
Prep time: less than 10 minutes (plus time for the individual elements)
Resting time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Equipment needed: 23cm (9”) tart pan or pie tin (preferably with ridged edges), rolling pin
One quantity sweet shortcrust pastry (recipe follows)
Bench flour
250ml (1cup (8 US fl. oz)) jam or curd, warmed for spreadability
One quantity frangipane (recipe follows)
One handful blanched, flaked almonds (optional)

Assembling the tart
Place the chilled dough disc on a lightly floured surface. If it's overly cold, you will need to let it become acclimatised for about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry to 5mm (1/4”) thickness, by rolling in one direction only (start from the centre and roll away from you), and turning the disc a quarter turn after each roll. When the pastry is to the desired size and thickness, transfer it to the tart pan, press in and trim the excess dough. Patch any holes, fissures or tears with trimmed bits. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Remove shell from freezer, spread as even a layer as you can of jam onto the pastry base. Top with frangipane, spreading to cover the entire surface of the tart. Smooth the top and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. Five minutes before the tart is done, the top will be poofy and brownish. Remove from oven and strew flaked almonds on top and return to the heat for the last five minutes of baking.
The finished tart will have a golden crust and the frangipane will be tanned, poofy and a bit spongy-looking. Remove from the oven and cool on the counter. Serve warm, with crème fraîche, whipped cream or custard sauce if you wish.

When you slice into the tart, the almond paste will be firm, but slightly squidgy and the crust should be crisp but not tough.

Sweet shortcrust pastry
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes (minimum)
Equipment needed: bowls, box grater, cling film
225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp) salt
110g (4oz) unsalted butter, cold (frozen is better)
2 egg yolks
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract (optional)
15-30ml (1-2 Tbsp) cold water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Grate butter into the flour mixture, using the large hole-side of a box grater. Using your finger tips only, and working very quickly, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Set aside.

Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract (if using) and quickly mix into the flour mixture. Keep mixing while dribbling in the water, only adding enough to form a cohesive and slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes

Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Equipment needed: bowls, hand mixer, rubber spatula

125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5oz) icing sugar3 (3) eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract
125g (4.5oz) ground almonds
30g (1oz) all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar together for about a minute or until the mixture is primrose in colour and very fluffy. Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The batter may appear to curdle. In the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. Really. It’ll be fine. After all three are in, pour in the almond extract and mix for about another 30 seconds and scrape down the sides again. With the beaters on, spoon in the ground nuts and the flour. Mix well. The mixture will be soft, keep its slightly curdled look (mostly from the almonds) and retain its pallid yellow colour.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Restaurant review: Pithari Taverna

For fabulous Greek food, you could hop a flight to Santorini or Crete, but why not grab your GPS and head to Highland Park, New Jersey? Pithari Taverna is the real thing. The owner, Tassos Stefanopoulos, will welcome you into the casual restaurant, which is decorated in traditional Greek blue and white. Take a peek into the open kitchen where the chef really is Greek!

When you're seated, you'll be served a selection of olives in garlicky extra virgin olive oil and a basket of fresh warm pita cut into triangles. Don't miss dipping the pita into the oil! The menu at Pithari is extensive, offering all of the traditional Greek dishes you'd expect.

For starters, we've tried a number of options, but there are two we never miss. The grilled octopus is other-worldly - there's a reason the menu boasts, "We are famous for it!" Served in a shallow copper pot, three tantalizing tentacles in a simple mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano will leave you begging for more. If you've never tried octopus or think you won't like it, forget your fears of this eight-armed creature and order this appetizer! Tender, juicy, and extremely mild, it's not to be missed.

Our other favorite is saganaki. Kefalograviera, a dense Greek cheese, is lightly batted and then fried. Served on a sizzling platter, drizzle it with a bit of lemon and eat pieces of it on the pita. A little salty, a little chewy, and a lot cheesy, it's a great start to a meal and a crowd-pleaser.

You'll notice that the list of entrees is quite lengthy. Broken into a few categories, there's something for everyone. The first group are traditional Greek specialties, things like Moussaka, Pastitsio, Spanikopita, several lamb preparations and more. Under that is a section of Souvlaki and Gyro offerings. I don't typically order chicken in restaurants, but the chicken souvlaki is tender, juicy and packed with flavor. Served with tzatziki and your choice of starch (get the lemon potatoes), it's a simple, yet hearty meal perfectly prepared.

On the next page you'll find grilled offerings and seafood entrees. Fresh fish is a specialty at Pithari and they always have some Mediterranean fish available. You might find red mullet, porgy, orato and more, all imported fresh!

On our most recent visit, I tried a new dish while my husband went for an old favorite he hadn't tried in awhile. His dish, Arni Fricase, is a hearty stew of lamb, Greek artichoke hearts and dill in a lemon egg sauce. For a stew, the sauce is lighter than you might think. Definitely rich, the lemon lightens the taste and dill adds a unique flare!

I opted for Arni Kokkinisto Makaronada. This one had chunks of lamb as well, but the sauce was tomato based and it was served over a bed of homemade pasta, similar to a bucatini. Between lamb and pasta, I found bits of feta and they also gave me some grated Greek cheese to sprinkle on top. The lamb simply melted in your mouth and the pasta was cooked perfectly. The portion was huge so we took half home (especially after saganaki and octopus).

Sadly, I had no room left for my favorite dessert. Galaktomboureko is made from layers of fillo topped with a silky custard and more fillo. The whole thing is drizzled with Greek honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Few desserts are this good. Period. (I've been known to get one to-go if I'm too full!) Authentic Greek coffee is a great companion to this lush dessert.

Pithari Taverna is a restaurant we visit again and again. We've brought family and friends there and all return for more. Authentic Greek food in a casual setting with a gracious host - who could ask for more!?

Pithari on Urbanspoon
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