Thursday, March 31, 2011

Crepes with zucchini filling

If I start annoying you with my never ending babble about spring vegetables, please do tell. I don't want to become one of those persons that annoy the crap out of me because they keep talking about the same stuff over and over again, repeating themselves until you pass out from boredom. The thing is, I mostly cook for just myself, which means that a bunch of asparagus or a bag of zucchini go a long way. So bear with me as I cook my way through pounds of vegetables. I seriously can't help it. I see a farmer's market and I just lose it and end up buying tons of veggies. I guess it could be worse, though. Right? I could be hoarding expensive shoes. But I don't. I just buy tons of cheap ones. And tons of vegetables. 

CREPES WITH ZUCCHINI FILLING

2 eggs
2 cups of milk
1 cups all purpose flour
Butter

1 small onion
1 zucchini
Olive oil
1/2 chili pepper

2 cups tomato puree
1 garlic clove
A few leaves of fresh basil
Salt and pepper

Mix milk and eggs in a large bowl. Slowly incorporate flour, mixing with a whisk. Season with salt and let rest for 20 minutes.

Finely chop the onion and sautee it in a little olive oil in a large skillet with the crushed chili pepper. Chop zucchini and add to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring until zucchini is cooked and tender. Process with a food processor until smooth.

Prepare tomato sauce by simmering the tomato puree with a crushed garlic clove, season it with salt and add basil at the end. 

To make crepes, heat a small skillet over medium high heat. Add  teaspoon of butter, let it melt then immediately pour a ladleful of batter in the skillet. Cook for two minutes. Flip. Cook for another minute. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

Fill crepes with pureed zucchini, fold and serve over tomato sauce. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Five-spice salmon and leeks in parchment

As a child I loathed fish. As a teenager I still loathed it. It took me a 5000 mile move to Florida to get me to like the stuff. Fish in Florida was different. It was delicate and it came with all kinds of fruity sauces.  It tasted of Caribbean vacations and summer nights and drinks at sunset. In other words, it didn't taste like fish at all.

There was one exception though. Salmon. Salmon was the first fish to make it into my plate... or, actually, I should say into my mouth, because there was no actual plate involved. It involved a screaming child, an unprepared set of parents and a smoked salmon sandwich. To this day, every time I see or eat smoked salmon I can't help but thinking about these modern parents I see going everywhere —China, the post office, on a walk— with a bag full of food for their kids. My parents never carried food for me. There was absolutely no eating allowed in the car and, in general, eating in between meals was frowned upon. It will ruin your appetite.

But there was one time where this strategy backfired. Big time. It all happened when I was a toddler a few months short of 2. En route from Milan to the United States my parents and I had a layover in London. And I got hungry. So hungry that I started screaming on top of my lungs. I wanted food. And I wanted it right away. The only option seemed to be a little cart where an old man served smoked salmon over thick, salted butter and brown bread. Not exactly baby food. But, hey, desperate people do desperate things. My dad bought a sandwich and they shoved it in my mouth. I instantly stopped crying. And I ate the whole thing. From that day on, salmon and I were friends. And for about twenty years after that day, salmon was my only friend of the seafood variety.

Later on, I learned to enjoy fresh salmon as well as the smoked kind. I have to thank Tommy for this, because he's the one who made it for me for the first time, baked with a Mexcian style salsa on top. And that was beginning of many other fresh salmon recipes, including this one that my great friend Carolina and I made at her place last week. One last note: if you have never tried wild caught salmon, do so immediately. I cannot stand the farm raised variety and once you'll try the wild kind, you'll never go back either.

FIVE-SPICE SALMON AND LEEKS IN PARCHMENT
(adapted from Cooking Light)
Serves 4

2  teaspoons  whole fennel seeds
8  whole black peppercorns
2  whole cloves
1  whole star anise
1  (1 1/2-inch) cinnamon stick
4  (6-ounce) skinless salmon fillets
1/2  teaspoon  salt
1  leek, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
Preheat oven to 425°.
Combine first 5 ingredients in a small skillet over medium heat; cook for 1 minute or until fragrant. Transfer toasted spices to a spice grinder or coffee grinder; grind until fine.
Cut 4 (12-inch) squares of parchment paper. Place 1 fillet in center of each square. Sprinkle evenly with salt and spice mixture; top fillets evenly with leeks. Fold paper; seal edges with narrow folds. Place packets on a baking sheet. Bake at 425° for 20 minutes or until puffy and lightly browned. Place on plates; cut open. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Farro with porcini mushrooms and pancetta

Day 2 of spring. While the weather gets better and better, I'm sorry to report that my allergies have completely taken over my life. Last night my eyes got so puffy I couldn't even put in my contacts this morning. So on top of the general feeling of discomfort that has affected me for the past few days, I am now also blind as a bat. Ok. That's a slight exaggeration since I'm only -1.50 on each eye, but still. When you are used to wearing contacts and seeing perfectly, not being able to do either thing drives you insane. And before you all tell me to wear my glasses instead, here's a dirty little secret about me: I never bought them because, I figured, why have glasses when contacts are so much better? Sheer genius, I know.

Anyway, the point is I needed some comfort food to make me smile after a whole day of sneezing every ten seconds, so I decided why not farro? It's easy, it's cheap and it's good for you. Farro is one of the most ancient cereals known to men and it's a staple in many central and southern Italian regional cuisines —it's also low in fat and sugars and high in fiber, which are only some of the reasons why I've been preparing it so often lately. It also happens to be cheap, not to mention the fact that is good cold, hot, prepared as a dry dish or in soups. Seriously, what's not to like?

Last night I decided to make it warm, with porcini, pancetta and roasted pinenuts —mostly because I had all the ingredients on hand and the recipe on the Barilla farro box sounded really yummy. I'm usually not one to make recipes found on boxes, but let me tell you: this one was delicious. And comforting. And easy. It was all that I needed after the sneeze-fest that was my day yesterday.
FARRO WITH PORCINI AND PANCETTA
Serves 4

9 ounces quick-cooking farro
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
4 ounces minced pancetta or bacon
2 ounces pinenuts
1 small red onion, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
EVOO
salt and pepper

Get porcini ready by soaking them in warm water for about 20 minutes and then shopping them. Warm up olive oil in a large skillet, add pancetta, porcini and onion and sautee for a couple of minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Toast pine nuts by cooking them on high in the microwave for 4 minutes.

Cook the farro in abundant salted water, drain and add to the skillet with other ingredients. Sautee for a minute, stirring constantly. Top with roasted pine nuts and serve.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring vegetable risotto

Happy first day of spring, everyone! It's a gorgeous sunny day here on Lake Lugano and the forecast calls for more beautiful, warm days ahead. Other than the fact that I'm suffering from pollen allergies —my eyes are so puffy right now it looks like someone has beaten me— I couldn't be happier to enter the new season. While I lived in Florida I missed the winter —real, snowy, cold winters that is— but I have to be honest, this year when February rolled around I had had enough of it. I was ready for spring. So when I woke up today and I saw the sun shining in the sky and felt the air warm on my face, I took a deep breath, sneezed a couple of times and then smiled to myself. Spring is officially here.
And what better way to celebrate than cooking up some delicious spring vegetables? I had bought some wonderful asparagus, baby green peas and spring onions. I had a million ideas going through my mind at once. Savory pies. Pasta. Terrines. Soups. And then I decided. Risotto. I tend to consider risotto a winter dish because of its rich creaminess and comfort-food potential, but then again that's just one of my crazy notions most people don't understand or agree with. So why not make risotto with spring vegetables? I had never tried, but spring is all about rebirths and god knows how much I need a rebirth right now. So here it goes. If you have never made risotto before, make sure you follow the directions very carefully and make sure you have 20 minutes to dedicate to the risotto, because you can't just leave it there, cooking. Risotto is a needy dish, so give it your undivided attention —it's definitely worth it.

SPRING VEGETABLE RISOTTO
Serves 4

11 ounces Arborio or Carnaroli rice (short grain)
a glass of dry white wine
1 spring onion, minced
a pot of piping hot good quality vegetable stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of butter

8 ounces asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into bitesize pieces
2 spring onions, chopped
4 ounces baby green peas
1 package saffron
1/2 cup heavy cream
a dollop of butter
salt and pepper

Prepare the veggies: melt a dollop of butter in a large skillet, add two chopped spring onions, let it saute for 30 seconds, then add asparagus, season with salt and pepper and let cook for 10 minutes, adding a little stock every now and then so that the vegetables don't stick to the pan. Add peas and cook for another 10 minutes. In the meantime, mix cream with saffron. When the vegetables are cooked, add cream mixture, stir well and cook on high heat for a few seconds, then remove from stove, cover and keep warm.

Prepare the risotto: in a cast iron dutch oven melt one tablespoon of butter, add minced spring onion and cook it until translucent, stirring constantly. Add rice. Let it toast on the bottom of the pan for a few seconds, then add wine and let it evaporate. Add a couple of ladles of stock, stir well and continue cooking it until stock has evaporated. Add one ladle of stock, stir and cook until evaporated. Repeat this step until rice is cooked (but not overcooked!), about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cheese and veggie mixture, stir well, cover and let it rest for a couple of minutes. Serve immediately.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fish Provencal

                                       

I have not fallen off the edge of the Earth like some of you have kindly asked through e-mail and Facebook. I've not been crazy busy either, unless you count stalking a certain semi-famous Italian hip hop artist "being busy". Most people would call it acting like a teenager, I guess, and I don't blame them. That's exactly what I was doing. Because sometimes it's easier and it's definitely more fun than acting all grown up. It also makes you forgot about the rut you are in, if you know what I mean. I had such great expectations for 2011 and so far it hasn't really been that great of a year. Especially when it comes to finances. Being unemployed is killing me and, unfortunately, it greatly reflect on my cooking. I don't mean to sound like a big crybaby, but as I'm typing I'm drinking instant coffee and for lunch I'm going to have a homemade cream of cannellini bean (without the shrimp the recipe calls for), because that's all I can afford right now. 

This fish Proven├žal is the last "luxurious" recipe I've made a few days ago, before I had to start eating out of my pantry and paring up the most incredible foods (hello canned red kidney beans and ricotta!). It's a very easy, very gratifying dinner to make, although next time I will definitely pan sear the fish before putting it together with the sauce so it gets all nice and browned. Other than that, Cooking LIght has once more nailed a great recipe.

FISH PROVENCAL
From Cooking Light
  • 1  tablespoon  olive oil
  • 2  garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 1/2  cups  slivered onion
  • 1/2  teaspoon  salt, divided
  • 2  cups  chopped peeled plum tomato (about 4 tomatoes)
  • 1 3/4  cups  thinly sliced fennel bulb (about 1 small bulb)
  • 1  cup  dry white wine
  • 1/3  cup  chopped fresh basil
  • 1/4  cup  chopped pitted kalamata olives
  • 1  tablespoon  tomato paste
  • 1/8  teaspoon  crushed red pepper
  • 2  teaspoons  capers
  • 1  bay leaf
  • 1/2  cup  water
  • 1/8  teaspoon  black pepper
  • 6  (6-ounce) halibut or cod fillets

Preheat oven to 450F.
Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, and add garlic. Cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly; add onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato and next 8 ingredients (tomato through bay leaf); cook for 10 minutes. Stir in water. 
Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt and black pepper over fish; place fish on top of onion mixture. Wrap handle of skillet with foil; cover and bake at 450° for 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Discard bay leaf.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spring's bounty: spring vegetables recipes

I don't care what the calendar says. Although we have to wait until the equinox, March 21st, to officially say that spring has started, I think that we are free to feel as if it has started already given the beautiful weather we have been having here on Lake Lugano.  High temperatures have been in the high 50s and low 60s, the sun has been shining for the most part, and there's definitely something in the air that screams "spring's here, wake up people!"

I noticed this —actually I noticed the opposite of it— happening in September, when summer was quickly giving way to the fall. I remember noticing how locals embraced the last days of warm weather, the end-of-summer parties, the celebrations. And now that winter is pretty much over, I see them celebrating again, which puts me in a great mood. I knew I missed the alternating of the seasons when I lived in Florida, but I hadn't realized how much. It dawned on me the other day when I saw how much everyone in town was enjoying sitting outside the cafe', sipping coffee and drinks, unbuttoning their jackets as they soaked up the sunlight. So I followed suit. I unbuttoned my coat and sat with a couple of old men and played cards with them while they told me how they could feel the beginning of spring in their bones. 

Don't get me wrong, the trees still look like it's winter and there's no flowers blooming around. But there is further proof that the new season is upon us and said proof can be found at the market. No matter if it's a farmers' market or a grocery store, you can tell —mostly by the price— what's fresh and in season. Asparagus, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, artichokes, cauliflower, spinach, fennel, leeks. Stuff that not only is good for you, but is also delicious. Except for artichokes, which I loathe, but are still good for you. 

So here's a little collection of recipes that showcase spring's bounty. Some of them are from a long time ago, so please excuse the poor photo quality.

MOCK CREAM OF CAULIFLOWER: Let's start with a recipe that is incredibly good for you. First of all because, as the title suggests, it doesn't really have cream in it, so it's light and easy to digest. Second, it's extremely good for you. When you put together cauliflower and turmeric you give yourself a very powerful anti-cancer boost and we all know that's always a plus. The third thing that makes this a very-good-for-you recipe is that is extremely low in fat, so if you are on a diet or you're still trying to fight off some of that holiday weight (I know I am) this is a great way to feel satisfied without eating unnecessary calories. A win-win situation, right? 
"ITALIAN FLAG" MAHI MAHI: There's nothing truly Italian about this mahi recipe, but if you look at the result the dish has the colors of the Italian flag, hence the name. The green on the bottom is a spicy broccoli puree which goes well with the fish, but is also very good on its own. When I was growing up I wasn't a big fan of broccoli, mostly because of their consistency. I now like them, but at first I would only eat them if they were pureed. What a pain in the ass, I know. The truth is, I still prefer them pureed, although I might be the only person over the age of 12 to admit it. 
BRUSSEL SPROUTS WITH PECANS: I know it sounds crazy, but believe me when I say that this recipe is more than just worth trying. It's freaking delicious —and this comes from someone who a couple of years ago would have never put the words 'brussel sprouts' and 'delicious' in the same paragraph, let alone in the same sentence. And if bitterness is what you are worried about, don't be. This dish is not bitter at all. I promise.  
SPRING VEGETABLES SAVORY PIE: This is one of those go-to recipes when you have a ridiculous amount of vegetables dangerously getting old in your fridge. You know you can't eat all of them in one setting, but it also kills you to think that —at the rate you are going— you'll be throwing half of them in the garbage within a couple of days. Solution? Make a savory pie. Buy a refrigerated pie crust, throw in some good quality cheese and a couple of eggs and use up those veggies. This particular one was made with green peas and asparagus, but when it comes to savory pies, the sky is the limit.


ROASTED CAULIFLOWER PASTA BAKE: More cauliflower coming your way! What can I say? After a life long of hatred against the poor vegetable I now adore it and can't get enough of it. I even like steamed cauliflower, for crying out loud. So imagine how much I like when you take it and mix it with cheese and bechamel sauce and pasta and put it in the oven until hot and bubbly...






ORECCHIETTE WITH BROCCOLI: ...and speaking about another pasta recipe that I love and enjoy no matter how many times I eat it, here's the queen recipe for the spring. Orecchiette pasta with broccoli. As you will read in the original post, this isn't my recipe. It's my best friend's father's recipe —and now that she lives on her own it has become her signature dish as well— so I'm just borrowing it. Enjoy, everyone, it doesn't get any more Italian and spring-like than this!

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