Saturday, April 19, 2008

Birthday Dinner Menu

My dear friend Cheryl (aka "Auntie Bear") had her 50th birthday last week, and we had a birthday dinner celebration over here last night.

I made a really simple and healthy appetizer of roasted chickpeas. If you haven't tried these you're missing out. They're so easy and so good; you just drain a can or two of chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) toss them in olive oil and roast them on a rimmed cookie sheet in a hot oven (450) for 20 minutes or so until they are brown and crispy. Serve them warm, liberally seasoned with sea salt - or for something really delicious try them with smoked paprika. I thought I had invented that idea, but apparently Martha beat me to it - true of so many things . . .

For the entree, I planned a simple, classic menu: broiled tenderloin steaks, served with baked potato and Caesar salad. As a "condiment" for the steak, I made
Braised Leeks and Mushrooms, one of my favorite side dishes from Cooking Light.

I had the dessert recipe in my tickler file for almost a year: Toasted Coconut Refrigerator Cake from Real Simple. I used the vanilla pudding recipe - it was all I could do not to eat it ALL warm, straight from the bowl - but made a loaf cake from scratch with a recipe from my beloved Fannie Farmer cookbook.

It was one of those times when I probably should have followed the recipe . . . that little loaf cake rose and rose and rose while baking; I cooked it almost 30 minutes longer than the suggested time, but it never threatened to over-brown and I wanted to be sure the inside was fully cooked.I wanted to serve the cake in its original shape, on my rectangular ceramic dish, but that was not such a good idea. Trying to assemble the layers of loaf cake and pudding folded together with whipped cream was a challenge, and resulted in the layers slipping and sliding all over the place. Even after some time to set in the fridge, the end result was a large white blobby mound. Sprinkling the toasted coconut on top helped the presentation - a little. However, no one complained that the dessert was homely because it tasted really good! The dense cake and the sweet, soft pudding/whipped cream mixture was heavenly.

We all ate enormous pieces and then spent the rest of the evening moaning about how full we were - a success all around.

Tutti a Tavola!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Oven-Blasted Asparagus: A Rite of Spring

Here in the Northwest, winter is dragging on. They're predicting cold temperatures again this weekend, perhaps even some snow.

I'm more than ready for warmer temperatures and sunshine. Thank goodness hope has arrived in the form of fresh asparagus! Those stalwart spears look so perky and cheerful, it's enough to (almost) make me forget that the weather is awful.

Oven blasting is a technique I learned from Mauny Kaseburg, one of the founders of I use it to cook vegetables all year long; cauliflower and red peppers are one of my favorite combinations. I also love snap peas, carrots, and green beans; they all take on a wonderful, almost caramelized flavor when cooked quickly at a very high temperature. Oven-blasted asparagus is in a category of delicious all its own.

I've perfected my oven-blasting technique over the last few years, and although cooking times for asparagus will vary depending on how thick the spears are, the basic method is the same.

I start by preheating the oven to 500 degrees. Then I wash and prep the asparagus, bending each stalk gently until it breaks naturally. When the oven reaches 500, I put my large cookie sheet inside and let it get nice and hot (5 minutes or so). I pull it out, drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of good-quality olive oil over the surface, add the asparagus, and toss with tongs to coat.

I blast the asparagus for about 4 minutes, shake it around in the pan a little, and cook for another 3-4 minutes. When it's ready (it looks brown in places and quite shiny) I pull it out, sprinkle it liberally with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper - then try not to eat it all myself before even getting it to the table!

This very simple preparation is delicious just as it is, but a garnish of fresh lemon juice and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is lovely too, and makes a nice presentation for guests. If you want something truly special, splurge on a bottle of Katz & Co. Meyer Lemon Olive Oil and drizzle away - heaven!

Tutti a Tavola!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Come Into the Light with Dark Milk Chocolate

With all the recent hoopla about the potential health benefits of dark chocolate, and the current "single-origin" super-dark chocolate craze, milk chocolate has been relegated to something foodies are embarrassed to admit they like.

As it turns out, there's no need to be a snob about milk chocolate; it actually takes far more finesse to create a fine milk chocolate than a dark chocolate. This is simply because there are more variables - i.e. ingredients - to manage.

Dark chocolate is cacao mass and sugar, with the frequent addition of lecithin and/or vanilla. Milk chocolate requires milk products in some form, and striking just the right balance of true cacao flavor with mild sweetness is an art. From the New York Times, February 13, 2008:
“Producing milk chocolate,” said Andrea Slitti, a chocolate maker in Tuscany, “is much more complicated than producing dark chocolate, as you can see in the marketplace: there are far more good dark chocolates available. At each step, we have to work to keep the clean taste of milk and not overwhelm it with the strength of the cocoa mass, then balance them both with sweetness.”
I've been in love with Slitti lattenero bars for quite a while. In the interest of full disclosure: I discovered Slitti because I freelance for - where they carry a great selection of Slitti eating and baking chocolate, including the divine lattenero 51%, my absolute favorite.

I regularly buy premium dark chocolate to share with my family (chocolove is a favorite - try the Dark Chocolate 68% with Crystallized Ginger); but when I splurge for Slitti lattenero it's all mine; I actually hide it, then nibble on it slowly, in blissful solitude.

Tutti a Tavola!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ricotta Blueberry Citrus Muffins

I went in search of a recipe using ricotta in muffins and found Dorie Greenspan's Ricotta-Berry Muffins on I modified it a bit: I cut the butter in half, added a smidge more ricotta (just to finish the carton) and added 1/4 cup orange marmalade, because I love marmalade! The batter was pretty stiff and a bit dry; I was worried that the reduced butter would be a problem, but mmmmmm . . . they're really good - and you can see how nice they look! I can't wait to make them with fresh blueberries and some fine June Taylor marmalade - perhaps her amazing Meyer Lemon . . .

Tutti a Tavola!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pomodoraccio: Naughty or Nice?

I have no idea why these delicious tomatoes were given such a name! Pomodoro means tomato in Italian; the suffix –accio has a negative connotation, as in naughty, nasty, contrary, rascally, unruly, etc. etc. and this label is totally undeserved!

Pomodoraccio are hand-harvested Roma tomatoes that are “semi” sun-dried, then packed in oil and spices – and they’re lovely. Their texture is velvety and smooth, and their flavor is much milder and sweeter than the usual sun-dried tomato. You can eat them straight from the jar, or use them in a whole variety of ways: they’re very versatile and make a wonderful pantry staple.

Put Pomodoraccio – whole or sliced - directly from the jar onto an antipasto plate; toss them – along with some of their marinade – with freshly-cooked pasta; or you can top a pizza or make a super-simple bruschetta with soft goat cheese. Try blending them into your favorite mayonnaise for a delicious sandwich condiment, or even put them “straight” on your sandwich, as you would fresh tomatoes, but with an extra kick. I recently chopped a few and added them to a can of store-bought tomato sauce, which immediately softened its sharp edges.

All in all, I think these beauties deserve a new name!

Tutti a Tavola!