Category Archives: ITALIAN CUISINE

TIRAMISU

Starting in the early-90s, you couldn’t go into an Italian restaurant in the Seattle area without finding “made in-house” tiramisu on the menu. These days, sadly, good restaurant tiramisu is difficult to find. (Mostly what’s offered appears to be mass produced.)

So I decided this past weekend, it would be fun to make a “made from scratch” tiramisu for our JazzVox guests. (I love that expression – made from scratch. I have used a lot of different ingredients in my 50 some years of cooking, but I have never found an ingredient that calls itself “scratch”! Is there something I’m missing here?)

Anyway, I first developed this recipe to serve along with 4 other desserts for Mr. C. and my wedding reception nearly 25 years ago. I searched through many Italian cookbooks at the time, taking a little bit from each recipe until I came up with my own version.

Now the first thing you will notice is that mascarpone is not one of the ingredients in my version. That’s because 25 years ago in Bellevue, to the best of my knowledge, the only shop that sold mascarpone was DeLaurenti’s on Bellevue Way. And at the time, a small container was over the top expensive. However, thankfully, while I was researching Tiramisu, I happened upon a recipe for homemade mascarpone, which of course I used. (I mean, I truly loved each and every one of the 40 some people who attended our wedding. But there is a dollar limit to how much I am willing to spend, even if there is no limit to my love!) So I used the fake replacement version for my wedding dessert, and have been using it ever since.

Grappa brandy is another ingredient which I use that differs from the standard.  Grappa is alcohol which is made by distilling pomace, the leftovers of winemaking. (Think grape seeds, skins, stems, a few leaves, the random bug carcass, etc.) But for whatever reason I started with grappa, and now find absolutely no reason to change to the more traditional coffee liqueur, rum, amaretto, or Marsala.

Grappa has a strong, unsweetened flavor, and I feel it works perfectly to offset all the sugar in this dessert. Oh, I should mention that I do use a bit of coffee liqueur in the whipped cream frosting, which I believe qualifies my tiramisu to remain in the “almost traditional” category, that is, if anyone is tracking that sort of statistic.

In conclusion, if you want to make a dessert that will pamper not only your own taste buds, but those of the others you graciously decide to favor with your culinary expertise, make your own tiramisu. You won’t be sorry, and neither will your family or friends.

  • 12-oz. cream cheese, room temperature
  • 6 T. + 3 c. whipping cream, divided
  • ¼ c. sour cream
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 4 egg yolks, room temperature
  • 1½ tsp. vanilla
  • 1 c. strong espresso, room temperature
  • 2 T. grappa brandy
  • about 50 ladyfingers (Savoiardi)*  
  • 2 T. powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp. Kahlua (or other coffee flavored liqueur)
  • 4 oz. good semi-sweet chocolate, shaved

Whip together the cream cheese, 6 tablespoons of the whipping cream, and sour cream. Set aside. (This is homemade mascarpone cheese.)

On low speed, mix the sugar and egg yolks together for 2 minutes. Add vanilla and beat on high for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is pale yellow and sheets off the paddle/beaters when lifted. Reduce speed to low and add “mascarpone” 1 large tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. After the last addition, beat for 2 minutes, cover bowl, and refrigerate until thickened, about 60 minutes.

After mixture has thickened, whip 2 cups of the whipping cream to soft peaks and gently fold into the mascarpone cream filling. Return to refrigerator and chill for at least an hour.

In a high-sided dish large enough to hold a third of the ladyfingers in a single layer, spread about a cup of the filling evenly over the bottom. (Remove the dry ladyfingers first.) Mix the room temperature espresso with the grappa brandy in a small shallow bowl. Quickly dip both sides of the ladyfingers you have just removed from the dish in the espresso mixture and place them over the layer of cream filling. Gently pat each ladyfinger to make sure it is well “seated” into the cream mixture. Spoon 1/3rd of the mascarpone cream filling over the lady fingers. Repeat process 2 more times with layers of dipped lady fingers and cream filling. Gently pat all over. When done, lick your fingers before washing them in soap and water. Place dish in the refrigerator while you prepare the topping.

Whip the last cup of whipping cream to stiff peaks. Add the powdered sugar and Kahlua. Remove the dish from the refrigerator and frost with the Kahlua flavored whipped cream. Sprinkle with shaved chocolate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

*I buy Roland (made in Italy) ladyfingers at Cash & Carry. I’ve tried twice making my own ladyfingers. But both times they turned out too soft and spongy. I didn’t use them either time because I knew they would turn to mush in this recipe and my tiramisu would be too watery.

 

CHICKEN IN A SAVORY TOMATO SAUCE

I must be getting old. I seem to be tending towards my version of “fast food” more and more. I’m not talking about using a microwave to hot up a processed product or one I fetched from the deli case at my local grocery store. That may come when I am older, but for now I still have the strength to cook something from scratch. Thank goodness! But the recipes I seem to be drawn to these days are centered around how quickly I can get the dishes on the table. (Sounds like I have regressed to my days of being a working mother and planning quick and easy meals for my poor starving children. Yikes!)

Scary thoughts of parenting aside, and as I said above, I seem to be leaning more and more towards quick and easy recipes that don’t take hours of prep work. And this chicken dish fits the bill nicely. Plus it is absolutely delicious.

Now I know this recipe does have quite a few ingredients. But there is not too much prep work, which if you really analyze what takes most of your time in preparing a dish, it’s the time you spend washing, peeling, chopping, dicing, etc. The simple gathering of items out of the refrigerator, pantry, or spice cabinet is the easy part. So never be intimidated by the amount of ingredients in a recipe. However, pay close attention to the list of ingredients before starting a dish. The worst thing in the culinary world is to be happily cooking away and find that the next ingredient called for is a cup of homemade béchamel, velouté, or espagnole that you don’t just happen to have tucked away in your refrigerator or freezer.  At that point, the 5 ingredient wonder dish that you were so excited about becomes a nightmare! (I just used béchamel, velouté, and espagnole as examples. The missing ingredient could be as simple as ketchup or Dijon mustard. Regardless, if you haven’t got the ingredient on hand, you have a problem that might take a bit of time to solve.) 

So taking this dish as an example, after you have cut up the chicken, chopped a bit of onion, and minced a garlic clove, you are pretty much home free, prep time that is! The rest is just frying up the chicken, plus a bit of hunting/gathering, and a modicum of time to deal with whatever you are going to serve this on or with while the sauce merrily cooks away on the stove. This recipe may look, at first glance, like a lot of work. But believe me, it comes together fairly quickly. And the results are fabulous and pretty darn nutritious too.

So some day when you have chicken breasts thawing on your counter, and aren’t quite sure what to prepare with them, give this dish a try. It is nothing if not totally evocative of all foods Italian. And what could be better than that?!?!

  • 2 T. all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. seasoned salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced in half lengthwise, then cut into bite sized pieces
  • 2-3 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ c. chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes, with liquid (Italian tomatoes, if possible)
  • ½ c. chicken broth
  • ¼ c. white wine
  • 2 tsp. brown sugar
  • 2 T. white wine vinegar
  • 2 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. chili powder, or more to taste
  • 1 tsp. mustard powder
  • ½ tsp. celery seed
  • 1-2 dashes hot pepper sauce (I use Frank’s Red Hot Sauce)

In a zip-lock bag, combine flour, seasoned salt, and pepper. Add the chicken breast pieces and gently shake the bag until the meat is evenly coated with the flour mixture. Heat the olive oil in a large covered skillet over medium heat, and brown chicken on all sides. Remove from skillet and set aside.  

In the same skillet, add the onion, and cook over low heat for about 7-8 minutes or until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, chicken broth, wine, brown sugar, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, kosher salt, chili powder, mustard powder, celery seed, and hot pepper sauce. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning. Add the reserved chicken and cook only until heated through.  

Serve the chicken and sauce over rice, pasta, or whatever takes your fancy. (I use brown rice that has been steamed with chicken broth instead of water.)

 

OLD FASHIONED SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS

Every once in a while, all I want for dinner is a big old plate of spaghetti and meatballs. And when the urge hits me, I fix this recipe.

I have been making this sauce and these meatballs for decades. This was one of my standby recipes when my children were young, because they all loved it, spaghetti was fairly economical to make, nutritious, and I enjoyed preparing it. (And yes, even after work!) So not only is this spaghetti delicious, it brings back wonderful memories.

It was also one of the recipes I fixed when after a long weekend morning of cleaning the house, doing 43 (or so it seemed) loads of laundry, and working in the yard, I would get a wild hair about 2:00 pm to have company for dinner! (Dear God, what was I thinking?) So I would pick up the phone and call our dear friends and invite them over. Then off to the store, back home, start some bread, make this dish, cut up greens for a salad, throw some brownies together, put the box of wine in the refrigerator along with some Miller beer, and Bob’s your uncle! Where I ever got the energy for those kind of days I will never know! My only excuse is that I was young and didn’t know any better.

Now that I’m a wee bit older and definitely a whole lot smarter, I have to plan company dinners down to a gnat’s eyelash. I go so far as to prepare comprehensive excel spreadsheets, complete with time tables that reflect any and all tasks that can be done ahead of time. (Many would call it being anal-retentive; I call it being prepared!) Some would even go so far as to blame it on my age! And they would be right! I simply can’t work as fast or as long as I did in my thirties. Regardless – I can still do it, and that’s what matters.

So if you too love spaghetti and it’s a nostalgic part of your past, call, text, email, twitter, or whatever!?!? your friends and invite them over for dinner. And no, you don’t have to go so far as to serve them box wine, although I’ve been told they are making some really good box wines these days. (There are just some food and drink items from our past that should stay relegated to the very back recesses of our brains. For example: I have my memory of boxed white wine safely filed away between Annie Green Springs and Ripple in the back part of my brain. And I can’t even remember where I stashed my memory of Singapore Slings, but I sincerely hope that wherever it is, it stays hidden for the rest of my life!)

Oh, BTW, it’s OK if you don’t have wonderful memories of spaghetti and meatballs. It’s never too late to begin making your own nostalgic memories. Have fun!

Meatballs:

  • ½ c. finely chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 T. chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ tsp. ground savory
  • ½ tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • ½ tsp. seasoned salt
  • ¼ tsp. paprika
  • ¼ tsp. dried rosemary
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • pinch ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T. milk
  • ¾ c. oats
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. seasoned pork sausage

Combine the onion, granulated garlic, parsley, savory, thyme, salt, paprika, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, eggs, and milk together in a medium bowl. Add the oats, ground beef, and ground pork and stir just until combined. Using an ice cream scoop, form balls and place on a lightly greased rimmed baking pan.

Bake in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until the balls are baked through. Remove from oven and set aside.

Sauce:

  • 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ c. chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 (28-oz.) can chopped or diced tomatoes (Italian tomatoes preferably)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano (I use Mexican oregano)
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 T. chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1-2 T. butter, optional
  • ½ lb. spaghetti, cooked al dente
  • grated Parmesan, garnish

In a large covered sauce pan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes. (Take the lid off part way if the sauce is too thin or allow to gently burble away until the sauce reaches your desired thickness.) Remove from heat, discard bay leaf, add the basil, and adjust seasoning. If the sauce tastes acidic, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavor.

Just before serving, add the meatballs and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the al dente spaghetti, and serve immediately. Pass Parmesan.

 

ITALIAN SAUSAGE, SPINACH, AND MUSHROOM CASSEROLE

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Of course you already know that I am a pasta fanatic. And in all honesty, this casserole is one of the reasons why I can’t seem to stay away from any type of dish that consists of a sauce and various other accoutrements that surround shaped and boiled semolina flour and water. This casserole has everything I find necessary to fulfill my “must have pasta” need. It has meat, veggies, cheese, and a killer cream sauce. When combined, it is just a fantastic amalgamation of flavors. And it’s pretty too!

So next time you’re in the mood for pasta, and especially when you have a small army to feed, make this dish. Now, I’m not going to tell you that it‘s a quick dish to prepare. Because it does take some dedicated kitchen time. But I will say that it’s an easy recipe to follow, and not too expensive compared to a lot of lasagna type recipes that call for vast amounts of expensive cheese. Plus it’s a lovely change from a tomato sauce based pasta dish. And, this pasta can be made well ahead and kept in your refrigerator until needed.

So everything considered, it’s a great dish to have in your special treat and company repertoire.

So give it a try. What’s to lose? Well for sure it’s not weight! Because this definitely is not a low calorie casserole. But then, I’ve never enjoyed a low calorie casserole in my life, so what would I know about how to create one? Never mind – just enjoy!

  • 1 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. fresh button mushrooms, sliced
  • ¼ tsp. oregano
  • pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 T. minced fresh parsley
  • 10 oz. fresh baby spinach, chopped
  • ½ c. unsalted butter
  • 6 T. flour
  • 2 c. milk
  • ¼ c. dry white wine
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. beef base
  •  c. dry penne pasta, cooked al dente
  • 2 c. grated Mozzarella cheese
  • paprika

Heat olive oil in a large fry pan. Add the Italian sausage and cook until browned. Add onion and mushrooms. Fry until the onion starts to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Stir in the oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, parsley, and spinach. Remove pan from heat. In a medium sized saucepan melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Let cook for a couple of minutes, then gradually add the milk. Cook over low heat until thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in the white wine, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, and beef base. Add to the sausage mixture, along with the cooked pasta. Adjust seasoning. Scoop into a lightly greased 9×13-inch pan or casserole dish. Top with Mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with paprika. Bake uncovered in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the casserole is bubbly and the cheese topping has melted and started to brown. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Note: This recipe can be doubled or tripled easily. It can also be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator until about 2 hours before you need to pop it in the oven. Letting the casserole come to room temperature before heating allows all the ingredients to warm more evenly.

 

 

BAKED CHEESY CHICKEN FLORENTINE CASSEROLE

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I don’t know why I am on a chicken and ground beef kick this spring, but I can’t seem to talk myself out of using one of these 2 rather ordinary meats in most of the recipes I am working up lately. So much so, that a hunk of smoked salmon I have in my refrigerator is giving me the evil eye every time I open the refrigerator door. And with every good reason. It keeps whispering that it too would make into a tasty dish if only I would take my eyes off the more plebian chicken and ground beef for even an evening! (I hate it when an ingredient is right! But I still seem to be focusing on lean chicken and ground beef as choice ingredients in both casseroles and salads.)

So for at least the foreseeable future, I am going to be offering more recipes that feature these 2 wonderful and readily available protein sources.

I also have been working on low fat, low calorie, and terribly nutritious recipes. Well let me just state right up front – this is not one of them! This is an in-your-face, all the way, super rich, decadent, and not every day kind of indulgence. The sauce is so rich that you really won’t believe how easy it is to prepare. And in combination with the prosciutto, diced chicken, and spinach (at least spinach is healthy), you and your family/guests are in for a culinary treat.

So next time you want a casserole that can be prepared ahead of time and is sure to impress your family and friends, if they don’t have a coronary while eating it that is, feature this dish at your next get-together.

The bones of the recipe come from the Group Recipes site with just a tiny embellishment from me.

  • ¼ c. (4 T.) unsalted butter
  • ½ of a 5 oz. pkg. of thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped
  • ¼ small onion, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • ¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1½ c. chicken broth
  • 1½ c. milk
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 2 c. chopped cooked chicken breast meat
  • 1 c. shredded imported Gruyère cheese
  • ½ c. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ½ c. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • ½ of a 9-oz. pkg. fresh baby spinach leaves
  • 8 oz. thick egg noodles, cooked al dente
  • paprika, garnish, opt.

In a large Dutch oven melt the butter over medium heat. Add prosciutto and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and set aside to drain. Add the onion to the same pan and cook over low heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute.  Whisk in the flour, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the broth, milk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg – whisking until smooth. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until thickened.

Remove from heat and stir in the cooked chicken, Gruyère cheese, mozzarella cheese, and half of the Parmesan cheese; stirring until well combined. Stir in the uncooked spinach and the cooked noodles. Adjust seasoning.

Spoon mixture into a lightly buttered large casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese and paprika. Bake uncovered in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until casserole is hot and bubbly. Remove from oven and let sit 5 minutes before serving.

Note: Can be made 1 day ahead and refrigerated or frozen up to 1 month. If frozen, thaw completely in refrigerator before cooking. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before baking. (Take out of refrigerator about 1 hour before you plan to place it in the oven.)

 

 

RICOTTA CHEESE GNOCCHI IN A GORGONZOLA CREAM SAUCE

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I believe most of you already know that I absolutely adore pasta and sauces. And why not? They are part of the five main food groups along with coffee, chocolate, and bacon. So of course I love them. They also happen to be the main reason I am filled to the brim of slimness. But that’s another story better held for another day.

Because today, I want the spotlight to be shining directly on this dish, which includes both a fabulous pasta which can be served with a variety of sauces and an incredible cream sauce which can be paired with a multitude of various pasta shapes. (See – it’s really not just all about me all the time!)

The gnocchi recipe is from Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. The sauce, well it’s a combination of recipes I have been preparing for years. But this time, the sauce was unbelievably delicious. And the gnocchi? Well let’s just say that if Mr. Zakarian walked in my home today, I would be down on my knees kissing his feet! OK, maybe I exaggerate about kissing his feet. But I would probably become so effusive with my complements that he would prefer if I just kissed his feet than to listen to any more of my verbal barrage. (I’m sure some of you feel the same way about my written ramblings.) But I digress…..

But truly, this is the sort of dish you would expect to be served in an excellent Italian restaurant. The gnocchi are like little soft pillows of flavor. The sauce is creamy and so tasty. And when garnished with toasted walnuts, it even has that crunch we all so dearly love.

So next time you want to treat your family and friends, fix this recipe and watch everyone at your table roll their eyes or gently sigh in response to the amazing flavors and textures in this pasta dish. And believe me, if I can make this gnocchi, you can too. All it takes is a little leap of faith in yourself. And of course it doesn’t hurt that it’s about the easiest and fastest pasta to make. No pasta machine required. Just a bit of extra flour, a pair of hands that don’t mind getting a little covered in flour, and a sharp knife or pastry scraper. And preparing the sauce? Very simple. Just have all your ingredients ready when you begin your sauce. You don’t want to be chopping parsley or toasting walnuts at the last minute. Have fun with this recipe and happy eating.

Gnocchi:

  • 1 (15-oz,) container whole milk ricotta cheese
  • ½ c. finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1½ T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 lg. eggs
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • semolina flour, for dusting 
  • Combine the ricotta cheese, Parmesan, olive oil, eggs, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the all-purpose flour in 3 parts, stirring after each addition. Dust a work surface (I use a pastry cloth) with plenty of flour. Scoop the dough out of the mixing bowl, and with floured hands, knead about 4 times before gently rolling into a ball. Cut into 4 quarters using a floured pastry scraper or a sharp knife.Roll the first wedge of dough into a dowel shape about 5/8-inch in diameter. Cut the “dowel” into 5/8-inch pieces. Place the gnocchi on a semolina or regular flour dusted baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Set aside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen your sauce is ready, cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes. (The gnocchi will float to the top of the water when it’s done.) Transfer the cooked gnocchi directly into the pan with the sauce using a flat headed strainer or a slotted spoon. (Be sure not to crowd your pan. When I cook the gnocchi I divide the tiny little pillows of dough in half. And since the gnocchi only take a couple of minutes to cook, and your pot of water is still hot, there is no problem with the first set just languishing in the lovely sauce while the second set cooks. (Save a small amount of the pasta water in case your sauce is too thick.)Note: Uncooked gnocchi can be frozen for up to 2 weeks.

    Gorgonzola Cream Sauce:

    1½ c. heavy whipping cream

    1/8 tsp. kosher salt

    freshly ground black pepper

    smidgen* cayenne pepper

    5-6 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola cheese – not the creamy or dolce (sweet) kind

    ¼ c. finely grated Parmesan cheese

    3 T. chopped Italian parsley, divided

    ½ c. chopped toasted walnuts, opt.

Pour the cream, salt, pepper, and cayenne into a heavy pan, bring to a simmer, and cook until it reduces by almost a half, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in Gorgonzola cheese, stirring gently until almost melted.  Stir in most of the parsley and the Parmesan cheese. Carefully toss in the cooked gnocchi. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with a little of the pasta cooking water.

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Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with walnuts and the remaining parsley. Serve immediately.

*For accuracy in measuring a smidgen, pinch, or a dash of something, get yourself a set of measuring spoons. They are ever so helpful. Plus being cute as can be. What I did one year was buy several sets and tied them into the bows of Christmas packages for my girls and other family members. And of course, kept a set for myself.  

 

HERB AND GARLIC FOCACCIA

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When I want to serve really good bread to guests, I usually make it myself. And I know, that sounds rather conceited on my part, but it really isn’t my conceit showing. It’s my thrifty side coming to the fore. Because as much as I adore the people who come to our home for JazzVox concerts (anywhere from 25-40 any given concert), I’m simply not ready to spend $10 just for bread! Especially when I can build the bread myself for a fraction of the cost! Plus, if truth be known, I really like to bake bread.

So for our last concert, I fixed this new focaccia recipe adapted from the Inspired Taste website. Now in all honesty, I never got to taste the bread. Neither did Mr. C. But from what I was told, it was wonderful! (It sure looked good and smelled like Italian heaven.) People were still asking for the bread long after it was gone. (That’s always a sure sign the bread is good!) And the best part, it had been darned easy to build. And for someone who had 7 people to fix breakfast for and 41 people to feed a full meal to at 2:00 in the afternoon, I didn’t have any extra time the morning of the concert to fuss with an involved bread recipe. (And yes I am well aware of the fact that I am crazy. You need not feel obligated to remind me of this rather obvious character flaw!) But in my defense, I really did have everything under control. And having a really easy bread recipe picked out, was absolutely necessary to the success of my master plan. And yes, for these events I have a strategy mapped out that would make a NASA project planner envious! Complete with spreadsheets, timetables, and check-off lists. (Got to at my age! Just sayin’!)

So, next time you want a simple and tasty bread, remember this recipe. It makes a lot of focaccia, but it freezes beautifully. I hope you get a chance to try this wonderful focaccia. I know I’m going to be making it in the near future. But this time, I’m not going to share it with anyone. Well – maybe Mr. C. Oh, alright. If you happen to be around, I’ll let you try it too. But only one piece and for sure, you aren’t going to be taking any home with you! Well, maybe just one piece…..

  • 1 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus a small amount for greasing the dough  
  • 2 T. chopped fresh thyme or 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 T. chopped fresh rosemary or 2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • pinch kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • tiny pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 c. warm water
  • scant 2 T. active dry yeast or 2 envelopes
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 5 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • coarse ground sea salt or kosher salt

Combine the olive oil, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes in a small saucepan. Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes or until aromatic. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.  

In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the warm water, yeast, and sugar. Stir a few times then let sit for 5 minutes. Add 2 cups of the flour and a ½ cup of the cooled olive oil mixture. Stir until all the flour has moistened. Let sit for another 5 minutes.

Add the remaining 3 cups of flour and the kosher salt. Once the dough comes together, knead the dough until smooth adding additional flour if necessary. Pour a small amount of olive oil over the dough, and turn until the whole ball of dough is lightly greased. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean tea-towel and let rise for 1 hour in a warm place.

Use 4 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil mixture to oil 2 – 9 x 13-inch rimmed baking sheets or 1 – 18 x 13-inch rimmed baking sheet.

Transfer dough to the baking sheet(s) then press it down into the pan(s). Use your fingers to dimple the dough, then drizzle the top with the remaining olive oil mixture. Add a very light sprinkling of coarse ground sea or kosher salt. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes until it puffs slightly. Bake in a pre-heated 450 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. When cool, cut into desired size pieces. No butter or olive oil  dipping sauce required. (In my estimation.)

 

BOLOGNESE SAUCE (RAGÙ ALLA BOLOGNESE)

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Once in a while I have an “aha moment”.  And usually when this happens I wonder why in the world I didn’t think of this (whatever it might be) sooner! Well one of those “aha moments” occurred this last week when I was preparing Lasagna Bolognese. I had prepared the red sauce for the lasagna and was giving it a taste to make sure the seasoning was correct, when it hit me that this easy sauce, with the possible addition of a grated carrot and a stalk of celery, would be perfect over al dente spaghetti. Add a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, and Bob’s your uncle!

And yes, I have other recipes for spaghetti sauce, but this particular recipe uses very simple ingredients, doesn’t take all day to simmer, and always turns out wonderfully. Plus it freezes beautifully.

Now I know what those of you who are Italian sauce experts will be thinking when you look at the list of ingredients. (And yes, I can read minds!) Where are all the rest of the herbs usually in a recipe for ragù, like thyme, rosemary, Italian seasoning, for example? And what about wine? Where’s the wine in this recipe? Well the answer is quite simple really. Additional herbs are simply not necessary. And frankly, wine can sometimes make an Italian red sauce taste too acidic.

Now don’t get me wrong, I sometimes use wine in my sauces, but this one just doesn’t need it. Neither does it need any sugar, especially if you use canned Italian tomatoes. And then, even if the sauce is a slight bit acidic, a tablespoon or two of butter right at the end takes care of the problem in a second. (I really do try to stay away from additional sugar if at all possible.)

So next time you want a hearty Italian meal that your entire family is sure to like, make up a big old batch of this sauce, boil up some spaghetti (al dente of course) and grate up some Parmesan cheese. Serve with a simple green salad, and perhaps some garlic bread, and you have a recipe for success. And of course, since you didn’t pour any wine in your sauce, you should have plenty to pour in your glass. And if this sauce doesn’t fairly scream out for a nice rich cabernet, pinot noir, or Sangiovese as an accompaniment, I’m not the proud owner of “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan. And I’ve got my copy right in front of me as I write!

  • 1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. bulk Italian sausage (either chicken or pork)
  • ½ c. chopped onion
  • 1 small carrot, grated
  • 1 stalk celery, very finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 (28-oz.) can chopped or diced tomatoes (Italian tomatoes preferably)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ c. loosely packed fresh basil chiffonade*
  • 1-2 T. butter, optional

In a large covered sauce pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the sausage, chop it into small pieces as it cooks, and sauté until nicely browned. Add the onion, carrot, and celery; sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and pepper.  Stir to combine ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.  When the sauce is done, remove from heat, remove bay leaf, add basil, and adjust seasoning. If the sauce tastes acidic, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavor.  (Even better if made a day or two ahead.)

Please note: This is a very thick and chunky sauce. If you prefer a more “saucy” sauce, add a small can of tomato sauce along with the chopped or diced tomatoes.

*Chiffonade (pronounced “shif-oh-nod”) is a knife technique used for cutting herbs and leaf vegetables such as lettuce into thin strips or ribbons. To chiffonade leaves of basil, stack the basil leaves and roll them into a tube. Then carefully cut across the ends of the tube with your knife to produce fine strips.

 

ROASTED MUSHROOM LASAGNA WITH BÉCHAMEL SAUCE

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Since I knew I was going to have a large crowd (41) for last Sundays JazzVox concert, I decided to fix a big ole Italian meal. Complete with appetizers – Caponata Alla Siciliana, Marinated Goat Cheese, and Crab and Artichoke Dip. (I didn’t get a picture of the Crab and Artichoke Dip, so I am going to have to make it again very soon before I can post the recipe. Oh the sacrifices I must make for this blog!) Followed by Lasagna Bolognese, vegetarian Roasted Mushroom Lasagna with Béchamel Sauce (this recipe), romaine salad with Italian Salad Dressing (soon to be published), and Herb and Garlic Focaccia (again – soon to be published). And for dessert, Italian Dream Cake and Glazed Italian Lemon Cookies. Look for the cookie recipe in the near future also.

And for those of you who are looking at the menu and saying to yourself “is this woman crazy making all that food”, I offer a simple response. Yes she is! I mean – yes I am!

But if you are going to lavish food on 41 hungry people, 10 of whom are teenagers, you simply need to fix a large quantity with multiple choices. And what better dish or dishes to feed a large crowd than lasagna? Now granted, lasagna is not a quick dish to prepare.  But none of the steps taken individually are difficult to construct. It’s just that there are a stinkin’ lot of steps! (I sound like I’m trying to persuade you not to make this lasagna, but that’s not the case. But, I’m also not going to lead you down a primrose path! (For those of you who are too young to know the meaning of “being led down a primrose path”, it means “being led to a life of ease and pleasure”.) Or as Lemony Snicket* would define it “being in and out of the kitchen in less than 30 minutes”. Simply not going to happen!)

But if I do say so myself, it is time well spent. The lasagna is creamy, herby, and full of mushroom flavor. And it’s vegetarian. So next time you need or want a veggie main dish, give this lasagna a try. It’s just really, really good.

*For a wonderful read that contains more vocabulary words and definitions (some real, some just for the circumstance) than your average grade school English primer, check out one of Lemony Snicket’s books in the charming children’s series “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. If all of the 3 R’s could be taught in such a delightful way, there would be a lot more children achieving than left behind. And if Lemony Snicket were telling you about this recipe, he would undoubtedly tell you not to make this dish. That you should try a recipe that was simpler and quicker to prepare. That you should fix a dish that you knew you would like. That you would be upset with the final product. But then, he tries with all his might to dissuade youngsters from reading his books too if all they like are happy endings. (His books never have a happy ending!) But unlike his books, this recipe does have a happy ending. It’s called a happy mouth. Enjoy!

  • ½ onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 lbs. mixed mushrooms (cremini, button, Portobello, shiitake) sliced between ¼-inch and ½-inch thick
  • 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 T. unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 T. finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ½ c. flour
  • 6 c. milk (whole milk is best)  
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. white pepper or black pepper to taste (white pepper actually has a sharper flavor than black)
  • 1 lb. lasagna noodles* (I like Culinary Circle Authentic Bronze-cut Lasagna noodles)  
  • 1 c. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1½ c. grated mozzarella cheese 
  • 1½ c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 T. chopped Italian parsley

Place the onion and mushrooms on a large low sided baking sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil. Cut 2 tablespoons of the butter into small pieces and place on top of the mushrooms. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Using your hands, toss the vegetables together until they are evenly coated with the oil, butter chunks, and seasonings.

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(Before the mushrooms are roasted.)

Place in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and browned. (Turn once during the baking process to ensure even browning.)  Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the fresh rosemary. Stir. Set aside.

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(After the mushrooms are roasted.)

Meanwhile to prepare your béchamel sauce, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute of until the garlic gives off its aroma. Whisk in the flour and cook for a couple of minutes or until the roux starts to turn a delicate golden brown. Slowly whisk in the milk and bring to a slow boil, stirring the entire time. Boil for one minute as the sauce continues to thicken. Remove from heat and whisk in the salt and pepper. Set aside. Reserve 1 cup of the béchamel sauce. (This will be spread on the lasagna half way through the baking process.)

Before cooking the noodles, have all the other ingredients prepped and ready to go. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until al dente (firm to the bite). Drain the noodles and run under cold water. Drain again.  

To assemble:  Spread ½ cup béchamel sauce in a buttered 10×16-inch baking pan.  Arrange 1/3rd of the lasagna noodles over the sauce. Spread half of the roasted vegetables over the noodles, followed by half of each kind of cheese, then half of the béchamel sauce. Repeat, beginning with another third of the noodles, remaining roasted veggies, and remaining half of each cheese, except the Parmesan. Save out about a quarter cup. Layer on the remaining noodles. Carefully cover the pan with foil that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray and bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil; spread the reserved 1 cup béchamel over the top and sprinkle with the reserved quarter cup of Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered for an additional 15-20 minutes or until the lasagna is bubbly and lightly browned on top. Remove from oven, lightly cover with the foil you used earlier, and allow the lasagna to sit about 15 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with the parsley just before cutting into portion sized pieces.

*Hint: when deciding how many noodles to cook, spread the bottom of your pan with a single layer of uncooked noodles. Triple that number and you have just the right amount. (Seems too easy, doesn’t it?)  

 

ITALIAN MEATLOAF

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We recently purchased half of a Highland* cow together with Mr. Cs sister Katie and her husband Rick. When we received our quarter of the beef, we had 34 – 1 lb. packages of very lean ground beef among all the other cuts. Now that’s a lot of ground beast! Our beef had been packaged exactly as Rick and Katie’s. So at Christmas time when they were visiting for the holidays, Katie asked me what I planned to do with all the ground beef? Since I happen to really love ground beef, I answered that I already had several recipes that called for ground beef. But when I looked through my recipes, I realized I didn’t actually have that many. So I thought about my favorite cuisine – Italian. What about an Italian meatloaf, I thought to myself? So I set about figuring out a recipe.

Now the one thing that meatloaf absolutely must be is moist. If it is dry and has the consistency of sawdust, you might as well use it as a doorstop! So in order to offset the leanness of the beef, I added an equal part of pork Italian sausage. (You could use chicken Italian sausage, but the meatloaf would not be quite as moist.) And the recipe turned out to be very good. Absolutely moist and full of the Italian flavors that we so dearly love. And the topping, which is basically a simple marinara sauce, is a nice alternative to the usual ketchup and brown sugar variety.

So if you want a new slant on meatloaf, give this recipe a try. It is a wonderful way to prepare a large meat dish using 2 fairly inexpensive cuts of meat. Plus planned-overs can be used in a number of different ways – sandwiches, cut up in small squares to use as “meatballs” for spaghetti, or crumbled on a pizza, to name just a few.

So however you serve this dish, your family and friends are bound to like it. And for your young children who think of meatloaf as a boring alternative to “real” food, like McDonalds hamburgers, for example, don’t call it meatloaf. Call it something fun like Monday Moo Meat or some other fun name depending on whatever night you are serving it to your family. Then serve it with a potato dish like Oven Roasted Steak Fries with Fry Sauce (on this site) and carrot sticks, and your kids will love it. Or they might possibly think you have slipped over the edge. That could also happen! (I always felt it was better for my children to think of me as slightly crazy rather than as your average boring mother type! I succeeded too!)

*Highland cattle are a Scottish breed. They have long horns and long wavy coats that are black, brindle, red, yellow, white, silver or dun colored. And, this is the hard part, they are just stinkin’ cute! But, as cute as they appear, they are raised primarily for their meat. So as long as I stick to thinking of these darling critters in terms of small white packages that live in my freezer, I’m OK.

  • 1 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 T. Italian seasoning, divided
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ c. minced fresh parsley
  • 1 c. finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 T. milk
  • ½ c. Italian style dry bread crumbs
  • 1 lb. bulk Italian sausage* (pork or chicken)
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 (8-oz.) can tomato sauce

Heat the oil in a small fry pan. Add the onion and fry until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for one minute. Take all but 2 tablespoons of the cooked onion and garlic out of the pan and place in a large mixing bowl.  Set the pan, complete with contents aside. 

To the bowl with the cooked onion and garlic, add one of the tablespoons of Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, parsley, Parmesan, eggs, milk, and bread crumbs. Stir until thoroughly blended. Add the Italian sausage and gently stir until completely blended. (I use the meat serving fork from my set of tableware to help break up the meat as I stir it into the other ingredients. I find it to be the best tool for the job.)  Add the ground beef and do the same. Pat into a lightly greased 9X13-inch baking dish. 

Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Meanwhile, add the tomato sauce, remaining 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning, and a pinch of kosher salt and pepper to the pan with the 2 tablespoons onion and garlic. When the meatloaf has baked for 25 minutes, remove it from oven and slather on the sauce. Return the meatloaf to the oven and bake an additional 15 minutes or until the meatloaf reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. (If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, ask Santa for one next Christmas. They are the best thing to hit the culinary tool parade since high temperature spatulas!) But seriously, the meatloaf should be done after about 40 minutes. So don’t panic if your kitchen does not contain an instant-read thermometer. I didn’t have one until about 3 years ago, and I’ve been making meatloaf for a heck of a lot longer than that!    

*If you don’t happen to have bulk Italian sausage around, you can add 1 teaspoon of fennel seed and ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes to either plain ground pork or bulk breakfast sausage and achieve a good enough replacement.