Thursday, September 30, 2010

Polenta with wild mushrooms

Polenta. Fresh wild mushrooms. No need to add many more ingredients, for this dish is so good because it's so simple. And it taste like the beginning of autumn, cool mornings and falling leaves, and all the other lovely things we associate to early fall. Some find the fall sad and don't welcome the cooler air and the shorter days, but I've always loved the fall —maybe because I was born in the September  (yesterday as a matter of fact!)— and I'm very excited about the fact that this year I'll be spending it near the woods, the lake and the mountains of Switzerland.

Other than the yellow and red leaves and the brisk lake breezes, I'm looking forward to the fragrance of wood burning in the fireplace, and to the stews, polentas and roasts one only eats when the temperature drops. I'm also looking forward to the year ahead of me and to see if being 30 is all it's cracked up to be. Yesterday my birthday was one of the best of my life so far and if that is an indicator of the year that lies ahead, I think I will enjoy a pretty great year.

Serves 4

1/2 cup instant polenta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound fresh porcini mushrooms, stemmed, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound fresh finferli mushrooms, trimmed
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup Madeira or Marsala
Cook polenta according to package directions. When it's almost ready, stir in Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and butter. Keep warm.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over high heat. Add mushrooms, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in parsley and thyme. Add Madeira, and cook, stirring to scrape up browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until liquid is almost evaporated, about 2 minutes. Taste, and adjust for seasoning.

Spoon warm polenta on the bottom of each dish and top with mushroom sauce. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pasta with zucchini and saffron

There's been an almost imperceptible shift in the weather around here, one that made me at the same time a little happy and a little sad. I think it's safe to say that summer is pretty much over and the high temperatures are now lurking around the 76 degrees mark at best, while the Northern winds make the evenings and nights a lot chillier. 

My last 'real fall' was the fall of 2001, a mere couple of months before I moved to Florida and said goodbye to well definite seasons. Sure, the weather changes in the Panhandle too, but the end of summer doesn't come in September and it surely doesn't make you melancholic. On the contrary, by the time November rolls around most Floridians are so ready for the heat and the humidity to be over they can barely stand the excitement of wearing a sweater for reasons other than trying to survive the a/c at the grocery store or at the post office. 

Around here, though, things are different. People throw 'end of the summer' parties and they mean them as in 'let's have one last party outside before the weather turns to shit', not as in 'finally the stupid summer is over'. They also do things like swimming one last time in the lake before season is over or they already start talking about summer with nostalgic tones, which I like, because I always thought best to start being nostalgic in advance. 

The season is changing at the grocery store as well, where they are literally giving away tomatoes and zucchini and other summer staples, which is how I've found myself with the vegetable drawer of my incredibly small fridge filled with zucchini. So I had to come up with a few ways to use them up before I live for France tomorrow and this, my friends, is one of ways I came up with. Easy and fast, very end-of-the-summer like. 
Serves 4

1 pound spaghetti
4 large zucchini, cut into matchsticks
1 shallot, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cups vegetable broth
2 packets of ground saffron
Salt and pepper

Cook pasta according to directions.

In the meantime, heat a little olive oil in a large skillet, add shallot and saute until fragrant. Add zucchini, season with salt and pepper and saute for a few minutes, until slightly less crunchy. Add saffron to hot broth, then slowly add broth to skillet and let it cook until most liquid has almost evaporated.

Add cooked pasta to skillet, stirring to mix. Season with fresh ground black pepper and serve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thai chicken with basil

The first time I had chicken basil I was at a small Thai restaurant in Naples, Florida, a place called Siam Thai. Although it was a stone's throw away from glitzy, snobby 5th Avenue South —Naples' downtown area— the place was  family-ran a hole in the wall that featured the right dose of depressing Asian decor, including a couple of posters of Thailand that had seen better days and a mismatched cutlery. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite restaurants in the area. 

It also happened to be literally a minute away from my office, which is how, on a fall afternoon in 2006, my friend and coworker Dan and I ended up sitting at one of the tables in the dark dining room. Since basil is one of my favorite ingredients and Thai basil sauce happens to be one of their spiciest, I feel in love with the dish immediately. In the following four years I ordered chicken basil at every Thai restaurant I went to, although the one from Siam Thai —much like first love— was hard to forget and remains to this day my favorite.

Enter Tommy. Whenever we eat something at a restaurant, even when it's delicious and flirting with perfection, he always says the same thing. "I bet you can make this better at home." Which is sweet, really, although not always true. Or at least I don't think it's true. He seriously does, he tells me. Anyway, because he said that, I found myself buying a Thai cookbook to try and make chicken basil at home. It's an easy recipe and I have to admit that I make a killer basil sauce. But better than Siam Thai's? I don't think so.

Serves 2

2 chicken breast halves, cut into strips
1 small onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Bird eye chilies, to taste, sliced
6 tablespoons (or less if you don;t want it fiery) chili garlic sauce, such as Huy Fong
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
A big bunch of basil, washed and torn

In a wok heat up some oil ( I usually use canola), then add garlic and chiles. Stir fry over medium high heat for a couple of minutes, stirring and making sure that the garlic doesn't burn. Add onions, chicken and chili garlic sauce. Stir and cook until chicken changes color.

Add soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar and stir some more, cooking for a few minutes longer. Remove from fire, add basil and serve immediately.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Best of the summer: five great recipes for when it's hot out

Summer is almost over and I realize that a post such as this would have been more useful in, say, June, but I just had the idea last night and thought it would be nice to publish some "best of" round ups every once in a while to be reminded of recipes posted months ago that otherwise will be forever forgotten. So here's my first one. Five great summer recipes for you to enjoy before the fall begins. 

SPICY CORN ON THE COB: Corn is a summer classic. It's good any way you make it, but when you grill it... the grilling adds a certain something to it. Doesn't it? And in this case, there's more to it than just corn and that delicious grill flavor. There's a savory and spicy paste made with butter and all kinds of good spices that make it to die for. Click here to find out how to make it!

BASIL GELATO: No, I have not lost my mind. Trust me. Basil and gelato go hand in hand much more than you would guess. I won't lie to you and tell you that on top of being delicious it's also easy to make, because it isn't. It's kind of a pain in the ass, but it's worth it. I served it with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar and everyone, even a very difficult-to-please guest, loved it. Wanna try it? Here's the recipe.

KILLER RIBS: Of course I had to include at least one main dish to make on the grill, and these ribs are by far the best I've ever tried. The recipe originally comes from Roy's Restaurant, where my mom liked them so much she asked how to make them at home. Ever since then, this are the only ribs that can be found at out table. Sweet, savory, spicy, they have it all. And, of course, they are juicy and tender. To try them, find the recipe here.

ZUCCHINI BOATS STUFFED WITH COUSCOUS: I invented this recipe on a whim, last Labor Day weekend, when we were trying to put together some type of lunch we could enjoy on the boat at White Trash Beach in Bonita Springs, Florida. I had made a batch —a very large batch— of couscous and I had a truckload of zucchini. So why not use the two together? It turned out to be a refreshing, healthy dish, which is what we needed to go together with the massive amounts of beer we consumed that day. Here's the recipe.

LOBSTER AND AVOCADO CEVICHE:  no cook meals are a must in the summer. This ceviche won't increase the heat in your kitchen and it's so delicious you can serve it either for lunch or for dinner if you have company. Lobster can be substituted with big, plump shrimp if you prefer. You can find the recipe here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pasta salad with avocado, tomatoes and olives

In the past few days I've seen lots of status updates from my American friends counting down the days till the three day weekend, looking forward to Labor Day. I have to admit I had completely forgotten all about it being right around the corner —I have a whole new set of holidays to remember here, and my memory is what it is, so keep track of everyone's holidays proves to be difficult. Anyway, good old Facebook helps me remember some of them, and I thought I'd post a recipe that is ideal for Labor Day grilling and parties. If you are tired of good ol' macaroni salad, that is, which I am since many of you might know by know that I'm not the biggest mayo fan.

So, for all of you who don't like mayo: there's absolutely none in this recipe. The pasta salad gets its creaminess from the avocado, which is not only delicious but it's also good for you. The other ingredients —fresh tomatoes, olives, evoo, Parmesan cheese, olives— compliment the avocado flavor nicely and the result is a refreshing dish that is a little different from your usual pasta salad.

And now I'm off to Bologna —not to eat like a pig, for once, but for the Arcade Fire concert. So excited!


1 box of penne pasta or other short pasta
1 avocado
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
A handful black olives
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil

Cook pasta according to directions, drain and let cool, drizzling with olive oil so that it doesn't get gluey.

In a food processor pulse the avocado with the cheese and enough olive oil to obtain a smooth cream.

When pasta is cold, add avocado mixture, black olives, tomatoes and season with crushed red pepper and more olive oil if needed.


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