Saturday, October 22, 2011

Involtini a la rustica al fresco

By the way, my brother, who is still here for several days, actually rode his Harley from Virginia to Texas, something I neglected to mention in my list of superlatives about him and his cooking the other night.  He has also managed to repair several things I didn't even know were in need of repair.  Is this guy a Renaissance Man or what?  Sorry ladies, he's taken.  But this should be encouraging to you: there are still nice men out there that your mother would approve of.  Those nice men will also climb up on your roof and clean out your gutters.  Those nice men will also sit at your dinner table and eat your prissily elegant food without so much as a wimper.  And they will ask for seconds.

Thursday's weather was beyond sublime, perfect picnic weather.  Cloudless, piercingly bright and a luscious temperature of 78 degrees.  During our evening meal, we dined al fresco on a beautiful rustic table (one of the projects my brother completed for me), shared a bottle of Petronius Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy), and plates of eggplant and zucchini involtini with a simple mixed salad on the side.  The Petronius has lots of fruit with a medium range of tannins and good structure to complement the marinara that formed the base for the involtini.  I also think that a lighter red, like a soft, not-too-assertive zinfandel or a rounder, richer pinot noir would have been good accompaniment.

The involtini are relatively simple and I've used some shortcuts which don't compromise quality, but this dish does involve a longer process than you might think, so I've written out the recipe to indicate where you could make them ahead and then finish the final steps when you're ready to cook and serve them.  They are fabulously light and flavorful, and impressively beautiful on the plate in their pool of marinara sauce.  I garnished them with fresh basil leaves and they made a very elegant supper indeed.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

Involtini a la rustica

1 large zucchini
2 medium eggplant
olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper

32 oz. ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped arugula, spinach or parsley (or a combination)
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups panko (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
1 Tbs. finely minced parsley (or 1 tsp. dried)

3 cups good-quality marinara sauce (or make your own)
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
basil leaves for garnish

1.  Wash and trim the stem-ends of the eggplant and the zucchini.  
2.  Cut both vegetables lengthwise into long slabs about 1/4 wide.  Don't worry if your cuts are imperfect; you can piece slices together later.
3.  Brush both sides of the vegetable slices generously with olive oil and place on baking sheets.  Season generously with salt and pepper.
4.  Roast in oven at 375 degrees until softened and slightly caramelized, about 20 minutes.  Do not let the slices get crispy--they must stay pliable.
5.  Set aside vegetable slices to cool while you prepare the filling:  combine ricotta, parmesan (less 2 Tbs.), eggs, nutmeg, onion powder and garlic powder.  
6.  Mix well and then season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
7.  Lay a cooled vegetable slice vertically on a flat surface.  Put about 2 Tbs. filling at the widest end and roll vegetable slice up around the filling, placing seam-side down in a well-oiled baking dish.  Continue with remaining vegetable slices, piecing together as necessary.

You can prepare this dish ahead to this point, then cover and chill the involtini until you are ready to finish and serve them.  Prepare up to 24 hours ahead if you'd like.

8.  Measure the panko into a shallow dish, setting aside 2 Tbs. for finishing.
9.  Roll each involtini in the panko and replace in baking dish.
10.  Combine reserved parmesan, reserved panko, and minced parsley.  Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
11.  Sprinkle panko/parmesan mixture over involtini.
12.  Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until tops of involtini are lightly golden and crisped.
13.  Meanwhile, gently heat marinara sauce.
14.  To serve: place a pool of warm marinara on a plate or shallow dish.  Arrange involtini on top of the marinara.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with basil leaves.  Serves 6.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

And tonight's guest is... brother, who, bless his little pea-pickin' heart, drove almost 1400 miles in 3 days from Virginia to see his sister.  And, on top of all the honey-do's he did today (hey, he asked for it), he even cooked dinner for us tonight.  I swear, I have not heard my husband make so many appreciative noises in quite some time.  Clearly, the honeymoon is over.  I'm not jealous--no, not one little bit.  Really.  It was a wonderful thing to walk into the house just after 7 p.m. and smell something incredibly delicious, pour a glass of wine and then visit about our mutual days until dinner was on the table.

What we ate was absolutely stunning.  Garlic Peppercorn Pork Brisket, Roasted Jumbo Sweet Potatoes with Ancho Chile, Cinnamon and Brown Sugar Butter, Roasted Tuscan Kale and Flash Fried Spinach with Garlic and Nutmeg.  And to drink along with: Talmadge Pinot Noir 2008 (CA), rich with spice and cherry-berry flavors, light enough for pork and just enough body to hold its own against the rich peppercorn and mushroom sauce that accompanied the brisket.  A lovely combination.  Do try it.

Garlic Peppercorn Pork Brisket

This recipe is a keeper.  The only thing I would do differently is add more beef broth to the pan gravy, since I like a thinner sauce.  If you like a thick, rich sauce that clings, however, then leave things as they are.

Roasted Jumbo Sweet Potatoes with Ancho Chile, Cinnamon and Brown Sugar Butter

Roast jumbo sweet potatoes, either in foil or just in their jackets at 375 degrees for at least one hour.  Meanwhile, combine 4 Tbs. butter with 1 tsp. ground ancho chiles, 1 tsp. cinnamon and 2 Tbs. dark brown sugar.  Use the chile/cinnamon butter to season the potatoes.  Oh, yeah.  Seriously yummy.

Roasted Tuscan Kale

OK, I admit that I'm having a secret love affair with Tuscan kale.  If you can find this variety, with its beautiful deep green spear-shaped  leaves that have the texture of fine pigskin leather, then you are in luck.  Wash it, trim the stem ends, then toss the whole leaves with EVOO, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast on a baking sheet, using tongs to turn a few times, at 375 degrees for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until it reaches the desired state of crispiness.  I will eat this on the astral plane long after I leave this world.

Flash-Fried Spinach with Garlic and Nutmeg

Make your saute pan screaming hot, add a little EVOO and then quickly add about 8 oz. baby spinach leaves.  Add a few thin slices of garlic and some kosher salt. Toss and stir fry quickly.  Remove from heat and grate a little nutmeg over the top.  Serve immediately.

May your tastebuds dance!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How to stuff almost anything

I love gifts.  And a friend whose husband has a garden recently gifted me with a large bag of fresh squashes, peppers, and eggplant.  The eggplant: long, elegant Japanese eggplant, will be transformed into a side dish for tonight's dinner (and that dinner is a long-anticipated dinner with friends where we'll be learning how to play Four Winds Mahjong).  But meanwhile, let me tell you what I've done with the squashes and peppers!

The squashes were fairly large, pale-skinned and soft, similar to the kinds of tatuma squashes you see in local grocery stores during the summer.  I thought about hollowing out and stuffing those squashes, something I love to do with all kinds of larger, gourd-shaped vegetables.  For those of you who are Mollie Katzen fans, then you will likely have a beloved and heavily-stained copy of Moosewood Cookbook, and you will have likely tried Mollie's recipe for stuffed eggplant (and there are three versions!).  When you have the time, do look up this cookbook at a local bookstore and at least glance through it.  It is completely vegetarian and entirely charming for its hand-printed recipes and whimsical line drawings.

I ended up stuffing all kinds of things during the week because I made a lot of stuffing which was a riff on Mollie Katzen's idea.  Only my stuffing wasn't vegetarian.  It had brown rice, aromatic vegetables, hot Italian sausage, fire roasted tomatoes and raisins.  And I made a really rich, really lovely four-cheese bechamel sauce to adorn everything after it came out of the oven.  My husband liked the stuffed miniature bell peppers, but I liked the squash the best.  I also stuffed some cabbage leaves, but they were a bit disappointing since I think I was really looking for my grandmother's holupki.  And this was not my grandmother's holupki.

The stuffing recipe follows.  If you stuff squash or eggplant, you need to cut them first lengthwise and grill or bake them until partially softened.  I've been known to bake my eggplant in a shallow bath of dry sherry and water in a steep-sided pan that I've covered with foil.  Now, that is some seriously good eggplant to stuff.  After the stuffing vessel is cooked and softened, scoop out the seeds (if it's a squash), and mash down the insides with a spoon.  Then you're ready to fill your lovely edible vessel with stuffing.  You can use a winter squash for stuffing as well, but make sure that it is well-softened before filling since winter squashes take a lot longer to cook. 

Sausage and Brown Rice Stuffing

       Make this recipe your own by substituting quinoa or Israeli couscous for the rice, or use white rice if that's what you have on hand.   Sometimes I add toasted pine nuts for        extra richness.

4 links spicy or mild Italian sausage, casings removed
1/2 cup diced onion 
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, stemmed and minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups hot cooked brown rice
1/2 cup diced fire roasted tomatoes, drained and juice reserved
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup toasted pinenuts (optional)
1 medium/large cooked or grilled halved squash or eggplant, or halved, seeded and stemmed 
    red, orange, yellow or green peppers (or a combination)
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup juice from tomatoes
1/4 cup dry sherry
Four Cheese Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)
chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish

1.  Brown the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks.
2.  Add onion, jalapeno and garlic to sausage and reduce heat, sauteing until onion is slightly caramelized.
3.  Salt and pepper to taste.
4.  Add hot rice, fire-roasted tomatoes, raisins, and pinenuts, if using.
5.  Mix well and combine.  Set aside.
6.  In a sided baking pan, combine beef broth, tomato juice and sherry.
7.  If using squash or eggplant, place skin-side down in pan, then fill with sausage stuffing.  If using peppers, fill then place in pan, nestling against each other to stabilize them.
8.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes; uncover and bake 10-15 minutes more.
9.  Serve hot, adorned with Four Cheese Bechamel Sauce and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serves 2 to 4 generously.

Four Cheese Bechamel Sauce
      I used Monterey Jack, Parmesan, Manchego and Pecorino Romano for this sauce, but feel free to use whatever you have on hand.
2 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. butter
salt to taste
1 cup milk, heated
1/2 cup heavy cream or half and half
1 cup grated/shredded cheese, any combination
white pepper to taste
scant 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1.  Combine flour and butter in a small saucepan.  
2.  Cook over medium heat until butter is melted and flour is incorporated.
3.  Salt to taste.
4.  Add heated milk slowly, stirring with whisk until no lumps remain.
5.  Cook until thickened and just starting to boil.
6.  Stir in cream and shredded cheese, stirring well until cheese melts.
7.  Add white pepper and nutmeg.  
8.  Keep covered and warm until ready to serve.  Makes about 2 cups sauce.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The devil made me do it

The weather yesterday was heavenly.  Not at all the kind of weather that devils relish.  No unbearable heat, no hailing brimstone, no whiffs of sulpher.  Most importantly, no fires out of control.  Just pure, angelic sunshine, accompanied by nothing but blessed zephyrs.

Cooler, softer, kinder weather is finally here.  The days are crystalline and cloudless with a sun that has traded its relentless oppression for a slow, distant warmth.  The nights are heading in a deliciously bracing direction.  It's getting darker earlier, and I can see a sliver of moon through the tree canopy in my back yard, just after the sun falls below the tree line and that rich, intense Maxfield Parrish blue coats the sky like a bolt of luxurious liquid velvet.

We want to be outdoors again in the late afternoon and especially the evenings because the weather is just too enjoyable to be missed.  Last evening, with an elusive breeze just barely rustling the leaves overhead, I wanted to prolong being outdoors as long as possible.  I had a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, and the latest copy of Food and Wine.  I was relaxed.  I was in my element.  I was content.

Dinner was in the works.  Earlier that day, I had been leafing through Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book (New York, A. Knopf  1980).  I had found the recipe for pollo alla diavola--charbroiled chicken marinated in pepper, oil, and lemon.  I thought about the clarity of the day.  And I thought about the clean simplicity of lemon, pepper, olive oil and chicken prepared on a grill.  I thought of that wonderful grilled Caesar salad I had wanted to try.  And I thought of a deconstructed, grilled ratatouille, enriched with olive oil, brightened with fresh herbs and finish with fresh lemon juice.

Wait.  Back up the truck!  Yes, I just mentioned "pepper" in the previous paragraph.  I know that some of you doubt whether or not I can be trusted with pepper after my recent paroxysmal pepper parody.  I am happy to say that, on this particularly balmy evening in early October, I was on my very best behavior where piper nigrum was concerned.  And I was very careful about how much pepper got into the food.  Hopefully, you will all believe that I have now redeemed myself.

We dined late last evening, outside, under the canopy of trees and stars.  The air was seductively cool and gorgeous and the food was "very satisfying to an outdoor appetite," as Marcella Hazan states in the introduction to her recipe.  Here's what we ate:

Grilled Caesar Salad

My suggestions for revisions to the original recipe:  use two egg yolks instead of 1 whole egg in the dressing.  And yes, use the anchovies.  Caesar salad is not Caesar salad without them.  Also, after cutting your hearts of romaine in half, brush cut surfaces with olive oil before grilling.  Follow the suggested grill time to retain crispness, and you will still have a little caramelization on the romaine.

Pollo alla diavola

As Marcella says, don't skimp on the pepper, or your chicken won't be alla diavola, "hot as the devil."  You can butterfly a whole chicken and flatten it if you're familiar with this technique (or follow the instructions here), or you can use chicken leg quarters as I did.  I also added a whole lemon, sliced, with the marinade for extra punch.

1 2-lb broiling chicken, butterflied (or 4 leg quarters)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 whole lemon, sliced
1 Tbs. crushed peppercorns
4 Tbs. olive oil
2 or more tsp. salt

1.  Butterfly the chicken if preparing a whole one.
2.  Put chicken or leg quarters in a large zip-top plastic bag.  
3.  Pour in lemon juice and add lemon slices, crush pepper and olive oil.
4.  Close bag securely and massage chicken a little, distributing marinade well.
5.  Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 8 hours, turning bag over from time to time.  I like to use a pan or large bowl to hold the bag just in case it leaks.
6.  Prepare a fire and position grill about 5 inches above the charcoal.  I used a gas grill and threw some lump hardwood charcoal on the lava rocks for great flavor.
7.  When the fire is ready, sprinkle chicken generously with salt and place skin-side down on the grill, laying a few lemon slices over the chicken and broil until skin is brown and blistered.
8.  Turn chicken and baste with marinade.  Salt generously and place remaining lemon slices on chicken.
9.  Turn after about 10 minutes and continue to cook again on each side, or until thigh meat is tender when pierced with a fork**, basting with marinade from time to time.  If you run out of marinade, use olive oil.
10.  Season with additional crushed pepper and salt before serving.  Serves 4.

**I turned the gas grill to the lowest setting I could and still have flame, covered the grill, and completed cooking the chicken this way.  The entire process takes about 45 minutes. 

Grilled Deconstructed Ratatouille

1 small eggplant, cut in half and each half cut into quarters
3 Roma tomatoes, cut in half
1 medium green pepper, cored, seeded and cut into quarters
1/2 white onion, cut into thick rings
1 large clove of garlic, skin on
olive oil
kosher salt for sprinkling
extra olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper for seasoning
8 fresh basil leaves
1 tsp. fresh marjoram leaves
fresh lemon juice, to taste

lemon wedges, for serving

1.  Lay the eggplant wedges, the tomato halves, green pepper quarters, onion rings and garlic clove on a baking sheet and drizzle generously with olive oil; sprinkle generously with salt.
2.  Grill vegetables on medium-low flame until slightly charred and eggplant is soft, about 20 minutes.
3.  Roughly chop vegetables and squeeze garlic from its skin when they have cooled enough to handle and toss into a medium-sized bowl with a little extra olive oil, salt and pepper.
4.  Tear basil leaves over grilled vegetables and add marjoram leaves.  You can substitute 1 tsp. dried basil and 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram if you don't have fresh herbs available.
5.  Season to taste with small drizzles of fresh lemon juice.
6.  Serve with lemon wedges.  Serves 4.

Wine notes: You want a crisp, bright white such as sauvignon blanc or pinot gris with this menu.  A lighter red, such as a beaujolais, a spare zinfandel, or even a Cotes du Rhone would be good choices.  Ask your wine experts at Spec's for help.