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My Baking Strategy: How to Use the Riches of the Internet to Fuel Your Baking Fire

Let me be clear: when I bake, I don't invent the recipes. I am able to create the delicious baked things I make because of the tireless efforts of the millions of dedicated bakers who've come before me. Let us all pause to thank the internet gods that we live in a world where you can Google a recipe for literally anything. [Gratitude pause.]

When I bake, I simply do my research. I usually start with a vague idea of what I'm going to make (cake, cookies, brownies, etc.), and just Google recipes until I find one I like. My criteria for picking a good recipe are: a) is the recipe from a trusted source, such as a popular cooking blog or website? b) is it highly rated, with mostly positive reviews? and c) does it seem to fit my idea, or does it veer too far away from my concept?

When I was deciding on these cupcakes, I knew I wanted to take the idea of a Pumpkin Spice Latte and turn it into a cupcake. I knew that there were plenty of pumpkin spice recipes on the internet, and I assumed there were espresso frosting recipes. It's both incredibly freeing and slightly soul-crushing that any recipe I could ever think of is already Google-able. But that's the great thing about baking–someone else has drawn the roadmap, and you just have to stop for those scenic opportunities along the way.

I used a pumpkin spice cake recipe from Sally's Baking Addition–a baking blog I highly recommend–and a frosting recipe I found on Group Recipes. From there, it was up to me to tweak and adjust as I saw fit (my recipe below reflects the changes I made). Baking is science, but it's still up to you as a cook to feel it out and go with your gut–and your tastebuds. I thought 4 cups of powdered sugar in the frosting recipe sounded like overkill, so I added the sugar a cup at a time and tasted it after each addition. For me, 3 cups made it plenty sweet. For you, maybe you think it needs that extra cup. In the cake recipe, I roughly doubled the amount of the pumpkin pie spice mix the recipe called for, because I love spicy, intense flavors. It tasted awesome to me, but if you want to use less spice mix, do so. It's all up to your personal preference.

Remember that in baking, just like in savory cooking, tasting every step of the way is key–so go on, lick the batter off the spoon ;-) YOU know best what you and your family will love, so tweak things as you go. Soon, you'll have YOUR very own recipes to call favorites. Happy baking!

RECIPE: PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE CUPCAKES

[For the pumpkin pie spice mix]

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1.5 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

[For the cake batter]

1 and 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice mix
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk

[For the frosting]

2 sticks of butter, softened
One 8-oz. package cream, at room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
about 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
cinnamon for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin liners and spray the edges of the pan with nonstick spray.

2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and pumpkin pie spice mix together.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the sugar, pumpkin, vanilla, oil, milk, and eggs. Use the whisk attachment and whisk till combined; scrape down the bowl sides and whisk just a little longer.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of the stand mixer and whisk until JUST combined (do not overmix) -- you can also just do this by hand with a spatula.

5. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and bake about 20-25 minutes, until a knife inserted in a cupcake comes out clean.

6. While the cupcakes are baking, wipe out the stand mixer bowl and add the butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and espresso powder to the bowl. Using the paddle attachment, whip until well incorporated. Add the sugar about a cup at a time, and whip until it's light and fluffy. Transfer to a piping bag with a star tip if you're going to pipe the frosting on.

7. Remove cupcake from oven and cool to room temperature. Pipe the frosting on each one and top with a dusting of cinnamon. Enjoy!

Doing It The Hard Way: Why It's Worth It To Make It From Scratch

I've always loved the phrase "labor of love." I like it because it's honest: love is work. And things that are too easy probably aren't as great as they seem. This pasta dish is that expression made edible. It isn't difficult per se; it just takes time. As an insufferably impatient person, I think that the act of making pasta from scratch and simmering sauce for hours is a valuable exercise in discipline and self-control. Perhaps after a lifetime of making pappardelle, I can call myself a patient soul (ironically, only time will tell).

Believe me, I'm as tempted as you are to cut corners. It would be so easy–so much quicker!–to just grab the dried pasta from the pantry. Time truly is the ultimate luxury. If you have it, spend it doing something that fulfills you and nourishes you. Maybe even something that challenges you. Or simply doing something that relaxes you. Making this from-scratch pappardelle and slow-simmered beef shank ragu, for me, is a way to do all those things. And it's way cheaper than therapy.

The thing about from-scratch home cooking is the sense of pride you have when it's done. Any old thing can quell your appetite–but something that feeds your soul? To me, it's worth the time it takes to make something really special. I think that doing things the hard way–the way our grandmothers had to do them–is a way of showing gratitude. Gratitude to the earth, for giving us delicious gifts. Gratitude to the creators and craftsmen before us who forged the tools and techniques that yield amazing meals. And gratitude to ourselves, for allowing time for reflection, relaxation, and indulgence.

So if you make this at home (and you should, because it's so, so yummy), I hope the ritual of doing it the hard way brings you peace and satisfaction. Because it will certainly bring you back to the kitchen for seconds. Happy cooking!

Servings: 4 generously, 6 more reasonably

INGREDIENTS

 [for the meat ragu]
2 T. grapeseed oil
2 one-inch-thick beef shank pieces, cut horizontally (across the bone) [or substitute 1.5 lb. stew beef of your choice]
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. tomato paste
1 cup full-bodied red wine
2 28-oz. cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed with your hands
leaves picked from 5 sprigs of thyme
semolina flour for sprinkling
grated Grana Padano for serving

[for the fresh papardelle]

3 ½ cups all purpose flour, plus more for sprinkling
4 eggs
big pinch of salt
1 T. olive oil
1-2 tsp. water if needed

DIRECTIONS

 1.    Make the sauce: In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Liberally salt and pepper each beef shank, then sear in the oil on both sides until nicely browned. Remove from the pot and set aside on a plate.

2.    Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the fat in the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the garlic and thyme leaves. Cook for another 1-2 minutes.

3.    Add the tomato paste. Cook, stirring to coat all the vegetables, for about 2 minutes.

4.    Add the red wine and stir the pot with a wooden spoon, scraping up any browned bits from the pot. Boil the wine until it’s reduced by half.

5.    Add the tomatoes to the pot, crushing them with your hands as you go.

6.    Nestle the beef shanks (along with any liquid from the plate) back into the sauce. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, about 2 hours, occasionally stirring the pot.

7.    After about two hours, the meat should have started to come loose from the shank bones. Remove the meat and bones from the sauce to a cutting board. With a knife, fully separate the meat from the bones and cut the meat into chunks. Return the meat and bones to the pot and cook for another hour.

8.    After cooking for about 3 hours, remove the bones and any large, visible pieces of cartilage from the pot and discard. With tongs, remove the meat chunks to the cutting board, and with two forks, pull the meat apart into small pieces (this should be very easy now).

9.    Return meat and all juice to the pot and continue to simmer for another half hour. Taste and adjust seasoning (the sauce may need more salt). Simmer until ready to serve.

10. While the sauce is cooking, make the pasta: on a large cutting board or clean countertop, place the flour in a mound and make a deep well in the center of the flour pile. Crack the eggs into the well, add the salt and olive oil, and use a fork to whisk the eggs, incorporating the flour from the edge of the well, until it comes together in a shaggy mass.

11. Knead the dough until it comes together, kneading for about 7-10 minutes, until it’s a smooth ball. Sometimes the dough gets really tough to knead; if it does, simply let it sit on the cutting board for about 5 minutes until it loosens up, then continue kneading.

12. Cover pasta dough with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

13. Cut dough into 8 equal sized pieces. Get a pasta roller ready (I use the hand-cranked kind, but an electric one is good, too). Run the pasta dough through the widest pasta setting. If it seems sticky, dust with a little flour. Run it through a second time, then turn the machine to the next setting. Run the pasta dough through each setting twice, reducing the width each time. Stop one number before the thinnest setting.

14. When you have rolled out each piece of dough, cut the pieces into 8” long strips, trimming the raggedy edges with your knife. Using your knife, cut the pasta into 1”-wide ribbons. Alternately, you could use a wide noodle setting on your pasta machine to cut the strips, but I like the rusticity of the hand-cut noodles. They should all be about the same size to ensure even cooking, but a little variance makes it homey. Lay the pasta out on parchment paper or use a pasta drying rack. After about 30 minutes, sprinkle the noodles with semolina pasta and pile into a loose nest until ready to use.

15. When you’re ready to serve the pasta, heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. Ladle some meat ragu into the pan. Boil a large pot of salted water, and cook the pappardelle for a few minutes, until it’s al dente (2-3 minutes should do it).

16. Use a spider or slotted spoon to remove the pasta from the water, draining it as you go. Place into the sauce in the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon while shaking the pan to gently coat the noodles with the sauce. Transfer to a shallow bowl for serving, and top with grated Grana Padano. Enjoy!

Easy Peasy: Simple Stew & a Creamy, Dreamy Cocktail

Sometimes, I forget: it doesn't always have to be complicated. I love recipes and ingredients, and sometimes I find myself managing a pot on every burner plus something in the oven. I love over-the-top meals, but some nights you want to just get to the part where you scarf it all down.

This stew is perfect for those I'm-so-tired-I-almost-fell-asleep-on-the-subway nights. Those please-lord-send-an-angel-to-unload-my-dishwasher nights. And yes, those I-don't-feel-like-cooking-but-if-I-eat-Thai-takeout-one-more-time-I'll-go-crazy nights. It takes one pot and one baking sheet (which I cover with parchment, so you don't have to wash it). It's done in about 30 minutes, and you won't be shopping for an ingredient list that rivals a Tolstoy tome.

So embrace the simplicity. Because when you layer flavors–savory, spicy, acidic, rich, and fresh–you don't have to do much else. You can simply enjoy it. 

ROASTED POBLANO, PORK, & SWEET POTATO STEW

INGREDIENTS

2 T.olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 large poblano peppers
1 serrano pepper, minced
1 pound ground pork
salt and pepper
2 T. cumin
about 6 cups chicken stock
juice of 2 limes
about 2 T. sherry vinegar
1 large sweet potato, cut into chunks
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 bunch cilantro (3/4 of the bunch chopped for the stew, 1/4 reserved for garnish)
sour cream and queso fresco for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

1. Put oven to broil and place a rack on the top level. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Broil the poblano peppers on one side till they're blackened and bubbling (I mean REALLY blackened). Flip over and blacken the other side. When poblanos are done, remove from oven, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to steam for 15 minutes, then remove the skins (they should peel off easily). Remove the stems and seeds, then roughly chop.

2. In a large dutch oven or pot, heat the olive oil. Saute the onion, seasoning with salt and pepper, until beginning to soften. Add the pork, more salt and pepper, the serrano, and the cumin. Brown the pork, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Add chicken stock and sweet potatoes. Bring the soup to a boil then reduce to medium heat.

3. Add the beans and poblano peppers, cilantro, lime juice, and sherry vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in shallow bowls, and top with sour cream, queso fresco, cilantro leaves, and serve with hot sauce if you want. Enjoy!

And as for the Russian S'more? I'm pleased as punch with myself for whipping this little baby up on a whim. A word of caution: this drink is not for the teetotalers and lightweights among us. It tastes like a sweet campfire memory, but it hits you like hail on a nylon tent. It's the kind of cocktail you'll only want one of–it's rich, it's sweet, and it's strong. I named it after that old classic, the White Russian, because it's made with half & half. And the S'mores element comes from Marshmallow flavored vodka, chocolate liqueur, and a graham cracker crumb rim.

Grab some good friends, build yourself a backyard campfire, don your most autumnal flannels, and sip a S'more! Cheers to my favorite season, Fall!

THE RUSSIAN S'MORE

1/4 cup Smirnoff Fluffed Marshmallow vodka
1/4 cup Godiva chocolate liqueur
1/2 cup half & half
1/2 cup crushed graham cracker crumbs
small marshmallows
grated chocolate and cinnamon, for garnish
 

DIRECTIONS

Lightly wet the edge of a cocktail glass. Dip the rim in crushed graham crackers. In a cocktail shaker (or, if you're like me, and don't have one, just use a pitcher or jar), add the vodka, liqueur, and half & half. Add ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into a mug or glass over ice, being careful to avoid splashing the rim, and garnish with marshmallows, grated chocolate, and cinnamon. (If it's too strong for you, add a little more half & half or ice.)

By Request: Olive Oil Cake & Cauliflower Trio

People ask me all the time: What was my favorite MasterChef moment? It was, by far, cooking for 50 of this country's most renowned chefs. Getting to team up with Jaimee and Victoria (both of whom I'm friends with in real life) was amazing; it was like we were cooking together on a leisurely Sunday afternoon! And when the kitchen doors opened...in the words of Gordon Ramsay, "Wow. Wow wow wow." We were blown away.

I think the red snapper and cauliflower trio dish was probably the most sophisticated thing I cooked all season–but the surprise is, it's something most people could make at home! Besides getting the fish skin really crispy, there's nothing about the technique of the dish that any home cook couldn't replicate. And now, you'll be able to make a cauliflower trio that's very similar to the one we made for the judges and chefs. The rules of the show permit us from sharing the EXACT recipes, but this one will really hit the spot. Trust me, if you serve this up with a nice piece of baked fish or braised lamb, your guests will insist that you audition for the next season of MasterChef ;-)

CAULIFLOWER THREE WAYS

INGREDIENTS

2 heads of cauliflower [NOTE: on the show, we had access to a HUGE range of produce; I used white, purple, and orange cauliflower in my three different preparations; I couldn't find them to make the recipe recently, but trust me: the flavor is no different. If you can find three colors, great! If not, just use white cauliflower for all 3 versions]
1/2 gallon whole milk
salt and pepper
fresh parsley, chopped
about 2 T. olive oil
about 3 T. currants (or raisins, or omit this entirely)
2-3 T. prepared harissa (a spicy North African condiment)
drizzle of olive oil

1. CAULIFLOWER PUREE: Bring the milk to a boil with some salt in a large pot. Boil one head of cauliflower florets till they're very, very tender. Have a food processor ready; using a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower from the cooking milk into the food processor (it's ok if there is some extra liquid; this will help the puree be smooth). Puree until very smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

2. CAULIFLOWER "COUSCOUS": This is cauliflower that has been made to look like the Mediterranean semolina pasta, couscous. Use half a head of cauliflower for this. First, cut it into florets. Place the florets in a food processor, and pulse until the cauliflower resembles couscous. In a pan, heat the olive oil. Saute the cauliflower with the parsley and currants, seasoning with salt and pepper, until the cauliflower is tender but not mushy.

3. HARISSA-ROASTED CAULIFLOWER: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl, toss half a head of cauliflower florets with the harissa and olive oil until coated. Bake on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper until very tender, about 20 minutes.

Not to toot my own horn, but I felt really good about my finale dessert. I came into the competition feeling less than confident about my baking and dessert skills, so it felt like a real triumph to pull off a big finish in the final round. That dessert was quite complicated, with several pieces involved, but this is a simplified version of the cake that maintains the same exotic spirit as the original.

Semolina cake, brushed with warm syrup, is a classic dessert eaten throughout the Middle East. It's very lightly sweet, with an almost cornbread-esque texture. It's the kind of cake you could very easily eat several pieces of–sorry about that, folks. Despite its exotic origins, the recipe is simple. I based it on a recipe from Yottam Ottolenghi's excellent cookbook, Jerusalem (a must-buy for any fan of Middle Eastern flavors). I made several changes to his recipe, reflected in my version below, most notably, incorporating grapefruit as the citrus element. That said, you could use lemon, orange, and even lime. This cake is very forgiving and truly a bit of a canvas for creativity. Hope you enjoy!

CITRUS & OLIVE OIL SEMOLINA CAKE WITH CARDAMOM-YOGURT WHIPPED CREAM

INGREDIENTS:

3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1/2 cup apricot marmalade
4 large eggs
grated zest of 1 grapefruit
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 1.5 Tablespoons semolina
2 tablespoons ground almonds
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream
pinch of cardamom
about 1/2 cup full fat Greek yogurt
about 3 T. sugar
chopped almonds, for garnish

Syrup:
1/2 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1 cup sugar

DIRECTIONS

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the olive oil, grapefruit juice, marmalade, eggs, zest, and sugar. Whisk all together until well incorporated.

2. In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients (flour through baking powder). Reduce the mixing speed to low and add the dry ingredients. The batter will be quite wet.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9" round cake tin. Pour batter into tin and bake 45-50 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

4. While the cake is baking, make the syrup: in a pot over medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the grapefruit juice. Set aside and keep warm.

5. When the cake comes out of the oven, poke the cake all over with a toothpick or wooden skewer. Pour half the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Wait a few minutes then pour the rest of the syrup over it. Let cool.

6. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream with the sugar and cardamom until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in the yogurt until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to use. When cake is cool, spread the cream-yogurt mixture over the cake. Garnish with chopped almonds and an additional sprinkle of cardamom.

Why You Should Be Eating Seasonally + Butternut Squash Gnocchi Recipe!

Growing up, the concept of "seasonal eating" was completely foreign to me. By the late 80's, Americans lived in a world where you could get strawberries in January, squash in March, and corn in May. In fact, you could get any fruit or vegetable at any time. To me, the season determined little more than my outfits.

While I'm thankful that we live in a world where you can get any fruit or veggie your heart desires year-round (for instance, the cauliflower 3 ways I cooked in the MasterChef top 3 challenge–that was filmed in March), it's quite taxing on the environment to grow everything all the time. Ever noticed how MOST apples are mealy?! That's because they're ripe in autumn (Run! Don't walk! Go get ALL the apples! Right now!). It saddens me that apples don't always taste good, but it reminds me that ultimately, we are part of Nature; we can't control it. A perfectly ripe apple in the crisp fall air? We humans just can't top that.

Which brings me to my point: I love the Earth, but I REALLY love the delicious things the earth gives us. And I love them when they're at their MOST delicious–which is when they're in season. Picture it: Roasted cauliflower and sauteed kale on a cold winter night; biting into that first sweet spring strawberry while wearing your first t-shirt of the year; a fresh summer watermelon on a hot day; and a sweet, fragrant roasted autumn squash. Perfection: just as Nature intended.

Right now is the best time to start your annual squash binge! And this recipe is a great place to start. See below for recipe and gnocchi-making tips!

GNOCCHI TIPS:

- Use restraint with the flour; it's easy to add too much, and tempting, because it makes the dough easier to handle, but resist the urge! Or you'll end up with gummy gnocchi.

- In this recipe, don't skip the potato ricing step or the drying out of the butternut squash puree. You need as dry of a dough to start with as possible.

- Don't overwork your gnocchi dough. It doesn't get kneaded like bread; it gets gently rolled out. This is not the time to flex your dough muscles.

- The rule of thumb is: when they float, they're done. That's not ALWAYS the case, so check one before you wreck 'em all. Just taste one–if it's still doughy inside, let it cook a little longer.

RECIPE: BUTTERNUT SQUASH GNOCCHI WITH SAUTEED KALE AND ITALIAN SAUSAGE

[Makes about 4 servings]

Gnocchi:

- 1 butternut squash, about 1 pound
- 2 medium russet potatoes
- 1 egg, beaten
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup parmesan
- about 1 and 3/4 cups flour (add more in sprinkle-fuls if the dough is just too wet to handle)
- a little more flour for sprinkling on your work surface

Sauce:

- 2 bunches kale, chopped
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 Italian sausages, removed from casing
- 4-6 tablespoons of butter
- 8-10 sage leaves, torn

DIRECTIONS:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the squash with a vegetable peeler, then cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Poke holes in the potatoes with a fork. Roast the squash and potatoes together until they're both very tender. The potatoes will probably cook faster, so check those first. My squash took about 90 minutes, so give yourself time.

2. When the squash is a little cooler, puree it in a food processor. Transfer the puree to a dry pan and cook it about 5 minutes to get most of the moisture out. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes–the skin should come off easily. Then put the potatoes through a potato ricer into a bowl. The idea is that you have twice the amount of potato flesh (i.e., 2 cups potato, 1 cup squash) to butternut squash flesh, so you may have extra squash puree you don't use.

3. Add the egg, salt, and parmesan to the bowl with the potatoes and squash. Add the flour and mix it all together. If the dough is too sticky to work with, add more flour a tablespoonful at a time. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Cut it into about 8 parts. Roll each part out into a skinny log. Cut each log into slices (rounded rectangles). If you want, roll each rectangle off the back of a fork's tines to get those cool lines. Place them on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper, lightly flour them, then refrigerate till you are ready to boil them.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Meanwhile, brown your sausage in a pan, breaking it up into small pieces. When it's done, remove it and set aside in a bowl. Leave some fat in the pan. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and saute for about 5 minutes. Then add the kale and saute that until it's wilted, seasoning with salt and pepper. When done, add to the bowl with the sausage but keep that pan on.

5. Boil your gnocchi in a couple of batches. Test one when it floats; if it's done. strain them out with a slotted spoon. Add the butter to the pan the sausage was in. Let it melt and add the sage.

6. Strain your gnocchi out of the water and place them right in the pan with the sage and butter, without overcrowding the pan. If some are done before you have room in the pan, place them in a bowl until you're ready. Let them cook in the pan till they have a little color. Add some of your kale/sausage mixture and shake the pan to get it all mixed up. Repeat this till you have it all done. Serve in shallow bowls with more parmesan on top! Enjoy!

What "Deconstructing" Meals Can Teach Us About Creating The Perfect Plate + RECIPE!

For awhile there, everything was "deconstructed." There wasn't an upscale restaurant anywhere that wasn't hell-bent on taking classic concepts, stripping them down to their bare bones, and rebuilding them into something different. That basic premise–taking something familiar and reworking it–is the core of what chefs do with everything they create. There are a finite number of ingredients on the planet, but infinite ways to arrange them.

Now, seeing something "deconstructed" on a restaurant menu seems a little dated, but as a creative exercise, I think it's fun to play around with at home. I recently got to spend a great Friday night in with my dear friend Jaimee (yes, adorkable, tattooed Jaimee from MasterChef), cooking and drinking wine and catching up. We wanted to cook something that was not too involved (we wanted to hang out, after all!), delicious, not too expensive, but would also look great in pictures (we wanted to Instagram the final dish).

Chicken is always great for a wallet-conscious meal, and when Jaimee texted me to say she could bring biscuits she'd made from the restaurant where she works as a pastry chef, something just clicked in my mind: Deconstructed Chicken & Dumplings. From that initial idea, I simply had to work backward: I thought of each component of Chicken & Dumplings, then thought about how to integrate them into a complete plate that was inspired by the original dish but was altogether different.

The chicken would be a pan-roasted chicken leg, and the biscuits would be our dumplings. For the carrots, I wanted to do a simple roasted carrot (roasted carrots are so good, so easy, and just perfection). We decided on simply sauteed peas with shallots; for the celery, I thought we could do a quick-pickled celery for a garnish, and for the sauce, Jaimee contributed a sinfully delicious chorizo cream gravy (majorly yummy). And just like that, we had taken an old idea and made it new.

I think that the idea of "deconstructing" a dish (which really means examining each component of a dish and reworking how it would appear on the plate) is a great way to get more creative in the kitchen. Going through the mental exercise of breaking something familiar down into smaller components and then rebuilding the components can teach us a lot about what makes a great, tried-and-true recipe. I hope this recipe inspires you! Happy cooking!

"DECONSTRUCTED" CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

INGREDIENTS

2 skin-on, bone-in chicken legs
2 T. neutral oil
salt and pepper
1 T. butter

1/2 bag frozen peas
1 shallot, minced
1 T. butter
salt and pepper

Carrots (the kind that are skinny with the tops still attached)
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper

2 ribs celery, julienned
1/2 c. white vinegar
1/2 c. sugar

1 link raw pork chorizo (not the aged Spanish kind)
1/2 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. flour
about 1 cup milk
salt and pepper

2 fluffy buttermilk biscuits (try this recipe: http://southern.food.com/recipe/southern-buttermilk-biscuits-26110)

DIRECTIONS:

1. If you don't have pre-made biscuits brought to you by a MasterChef, bake your biscuits.

2. Make the chicken: pat the chicken dry thoroughly with a paper towel and liberally salt and pepper it, especially on the skin side. Heat oil in a pan. Add chicken, over medium high heat, skin-side down. Cook undisturbed until the skin is brown and crispy. Flip and finish cooking on the other side, covering the pan if necessary to cook the chicken through (make sure it's 165 degrees with a meat thermometer).

3. Roast the carrots: preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss carrots with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Roast until tender and charred in places, about 35 minutes.

4. Make the peas: Melt butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add shallot and cook a few minutes. Add peas and season with salt and pepper. Cook until hot and tender.

5. Make the pickled celery: in a pan over medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar. Place the celery matchsticks in a heatproof bowl and pour the liquid over top. Let them sit for about 10 minutes, then remove from the liquid and set aside.

6. Make the gravy: cook the chorizo with the shallot and garlic over medium high heat until browned. Sprinkle flour all over the meat and fat in the pan and cook for a few minutes. Whisk in milk and bring to a boil. Cook till thick, stirring the whole time. Season with salt and pepper.

7. To plate: Spread some gravy on a plate. Place a biscuit on top. Lay the chicken on the biscuit. Scatter the peas around. Place the carrots by the chicken. Garnish with the celery.

Tangled Thai "Zoodle" Salad: A Great Excuse to Buy a Spiralizer

How can you resist something called ZOODLES?! It sounds like a line of neon Spandex clothing from the 80s! The word "zoodles" (a delightful portmanteau of zucchini and noodles) will be familiar to any of you who have researched Paleo diets, gluten-free recipes, or simply spend a lot of time on Pinterest. I'm not Paleo (you may recall why), and I'm definitely not gluten-free, but I'm always looking for ways to turn veggies into the true centerpiece of a meal–and zoodles are a way to do just that.

In order to make zoodles the way you see here, you'll need a spiralizer (pictured below this paragraph). This is the exact model I have, and I got it for about $30 on Amazon.com for the express purpose of making zoodles. You can also spiralize carrots, potatoes, squash–just about any oblong vegetable. You're only limited by your imagination. Don't get me wrong–I have no intention of replacing the noodles in my life with zoodles. Zoodles are simply another way I can enjoy noodles! MOAR NOODLES!!!

That said, if you're aspiring to a gluten-free or reduced gluten diet, are trying out Paleo or Whole 30, or simply want another way to enjoy delicious veggies, zoodles are for you! And this is a great, simple recipe that's as healthy as it is yummy. Enjoy and happy cooking!

TANGLED THAI ZOODLE SALAD

Peanut Sauce (measurements are approximate, adjust to your preferred taste):
1/2 cup soy sauce
several dashes fish sauce
3 T. brown sugar or honey
1/3 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup warm water
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon hot chili paste (sambal oelek or Sriracha)

2 large zucchini, spiralized into zoodles
1 medium carrot, julienned
1 large red bell pepper, julienned
1/2 red onion, sliced into very thin rings
1 fresno (or serrano or jalapeno) pepper, sliced into very thin rings (omit if you do not like spice)
fresh cilantro leaves
chopped roasted peanuts

DIRECTIONS:

1. Whisk all peanut sauce ingredients together. Taste and adjust: you may want it sweeter (add more honey), or tangier (add more rice wine vinegar or a squeeze of lime juice), or thicker (reduce the warm water and add more peanut butter), or spicier (add more chili paste). Leave to sit. The longer it sits, the better it tastes.

2. Boil some water and set a colander or fine mesh strainer above the pot (not touching the water). Place the zoodles in the strainer and steam for 4-5 minutes, until they're a little tender (do not oversteam or they will become mush–you can also skip this step and leave them raw if you like raw zucchini). Remove the colander, and when the zoodles are cool enough to touch, toss with a pinch of salt and leave in the sink to drain.

3. When they're done draining, gently squeeze them with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture. Toss in a large bowl with the carrot, red bell pepper, onions, peanuts, and cilantro. Drizzle the sauce on top and toss again. Enjoy!

 

Fusion is Not a Four-Letter Word

One of the greatest things about being on MasterChef was getting to spend so much time with other food-obsessed people. Sure, they were our direct competitors, but people who are passionate about something generally find it hard not to talk about that thing when they’re around like-minded people. So, while it was probably not a great strategic move to share recipes and knowledge, we all did. We just couldn’t help ourselves.

A couple of my MasterChef friends who hailed from the New Orleans area introduced me to something called Corn Maque Choux (pronounced “Mock Shoe”). It’s a creamy, spicy side dish made with fresh corn, red bell peppers, and jalapenos. It’s the perfect late-summer side dish, and it had been on my mind lately because my husband loves corn (truly, you’ve never met a man more devoted to corn than he is).

However, being the stubbornly creative person that I am, I just couldn’t bring myself to simply make the dish. It was too easy. I wanted to take the spirit of Corn Maque Choux and build a meal around it. After a few days of rumination, a pasta craving helped put a fine point on what I wanted to make: pasta with a Corn Maque Choux-inspired sauce. I love corn and pasta together (I make a darn good fresh corn papardelle), and Cajun pastas are one of my favorite things on earth (relegated to chain restaurant menus though they may be).

The result ended up being something that had that elusive Emerilesque BAM!–a little Italian, a lot Cajun, and fully American. It’s “fusion,” but hopefully not in a contrived way. It’s simply two delicious things coming together to be greater than the sum of their parts. And if you want to make Corn Maque Choux the traditional way, don’t wait another second. It’s a super yummy side dish, and corn isn’t going to taste any better than it does right now.

My corn-loving husband’s verdict on this fusion creation? “I can’t stop eating this.” The highest praise indeed.

pasta5.jpg

RECIPE

Inspiration: here’s a recipe for traditional Corn Maque Choux that I referenced: [link]

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Corn-Maque-Choux-350113 

INGREDIENTS

For the poached chicken:

3 cups water

1 lemon

salt

2 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts

For the pasta:

3 T. butter

1 T. olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced small

1 and ½ red bell peppers, diced small

3 ears of fresh corn, boiled then kernels cut off

1 jalapeno, diced small, with or without seeds to your taste (seeds make it spicier)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 T. paprika

½ cup dry white wine

1/3 cup reserved chicken poaching liquid

leaves of fresh thyme picked from 10-12 sprigs

pinch dried oregano

½ pint of heavy cream

salt and pepper

½ bunch cilantro, chopped

¾ lb. rigatoni

 

DIRECTIONS

1.    Poach the chicken: bring water to a boil with a generous pinch of salt. Cut a lemon in half, squeeze the juice in the water then just drop the lemon halves in. Bring down to medium heat, add chicken, cover, and simmer until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from poaching liquid (reserving the liquid) and cool until you can touch it, then pull the meat from the bones. Set aside.

2.    In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper and cook about 6-8 minutes, until getting soft.

3.   Add the corn, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, paprika, oregano, and thyme. Stir it around and cook it all together for 4-5 minutes. Add the white wine and reserved poaching liquid and turn the heat up to high. Cook until the liquid reduces by half and you can no longer taste raw wine (the alcohol taste must be gone).

4.    Add the heavy cream to the corn mixture. It will be quite liquidy at this point but you just keep the heat on high and reduce it until it’s thickened. Taste it and adjust seasoning.

5.   Boil the rigatoni in salted water. When they’re about 2 minutes shy of al dente, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta directly into the sauce (it’s ok if the pasta is dripping; you want some cooking liquid). Stir the pasta into the sauce and add a ladleful of pasta cooking water. The sauce should still be on high. Stir the pasta around, letting it finish cooking in the sauce. The pasta water will cook out and you may need to add more until the pasta is perfectly al dente.

6.    Stir in chicken. Serve in shallow bowls with fresh cilantro on top. Enjoy!

Flipping the Script: Getting Creative with Vegetarian Dishes

In advertising, we have a saying: give me the freedom of a tight brief. That means that when you're really clear about what you need me to create, I can actually be more creative than if you gave me a blank canvas. I think that's why I'm so inspired by vegetarian and vegan cooking: it's a tight brief. You have to think outside of the box a bit (at least for we omnivores). But that's where the genius happens, right?

I think that eating some vegetarian and vegan meals is a great way to achieve balance in your life. It gives your body a hiatus from breaking down all that animal protein, it gives the planet a little respite from the resource-heavy requirements of producing edible animals, and it gives your wallet a break–quality meat is expensive, but excellent zucchini is cheap and plentiful!

A lot of my friends do "Meatless Mondays." As a conscientious omnivore, I try to eat meat at only one meal a day (although sometimes, I don't adhere to this rule–which is why I try not to preach about it). As I've discussed before, I am a strong believer in the meat-in-moderation approach to eating, and I hope that this recipe shows you that you can conceptualize dishes in fun and unexpected ways when you take meat out of the equation.

The inspiration for this dish was definitely the iconic visual of spaghetti and meatballs–one of my all time favorite meals, and in my opinion, in the top ten best dishes in the world. But could I take that beloved classic and make vegetarian? I knew I could do it. And for me, the fun is always in the challenge. I was actually surprised just how tasty this ended up being! The zucchini noodles are actually awesome–I will definitely be adding them to my repertoire! And they couldn't be simpler. This was the first time I'd made falafel from scratch, and while I can't say it was perfect, my husband said it was the most delicious falafel he'd ever had. High praise from someone who LIVED on the stuff in college.

When it comes to healthy, vegetarian meals, let your imagination run wild! It just might take you to Yummyville :-)

RECIPE: VEGETARIAN SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS (ZUCCHINI NOODLES & FALAFEL)

INGREDIENTS

3 large zucchini, made into noodles with a spiralizer (or julienned into thin strips)
1/2 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic
glug of olive oil
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes
about 1/2 cup red wine
1 can crushed tomatoes

For falafel (from this recipe: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/My-Favorite-Falafel-231755):

  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 large onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4-6 tablespoons flour
  • Peanut oil for frying 

1. Make the marinara: Heat olive oil in a pot. Add onions and salt and pepper. Saute for 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Deglaze with red wine. Add marinara and simmer for about an hour, adding a little water as needed if the sauce gets too thick. 

2. Place the chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed.

3. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. You want to add enough bulgur or flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.

4. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts. Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little flour. Then fry about 6 balls at once for a few minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

5. Steam the zucchini noodles: bring water in a large pot to a boil; place noodles in a colander or fine mesh strainer over the water, cover, and steam until noodles are tender. Toss the noodles with a little salt.

6. Place the noodles in a bowl. Top with a little marinara. Top with the falafel and garnish with crumbled feta and chopped cilantro and parsley.

Stocking Your Spice Cabinet Strategically & Chicken Korma Recipe!

I was cooking with my friend one day, and I asked her to grab me something out of the spice cabinet. "Can you find the smoked paprika? I think it's near the cumin..." She opened the cabinet door and let out a gasp–maybe even a mild expletive. "You have SOOO many spices!" she said. And it's true: at any give time, I have about 20 jars of dried spices in my cabinet.

Why so many? Well, for one thing, I kind of hate grocery shopping, so I try to keep nonperishable things stocked so I can buy mostly fresh things when I shop. Additionally, I love to cook with spices, and I've been getting into cooking Indian food at home, which is a cuisine that requires a robust spice cabinet and a spirit of adventure.

Your average Indian recipe calls for about 8-10 different types of spices, so if you want to try this recipe, I'd look at it as a great investment in your spice collection. It's a bit annoying to have to buy lots of new spices, but once you have them, you're set for about 6 months–and trust me, you're going to want to make this Chicken Korma recipe over and over again. Spices aside, the ingredients are simple, accessible, and affordable.

Before we jump into the recipe, I've created a list for you of how I approach stocking my spice cabinet. I have my list of must-haves, a second list of additions for people who are interested in cooking Indian food (or other ethnic cuisines requiring a larger spice selection), and a third list of specialty spices for the truly spice-obsessed. Hope this list (and recipe) inspires you to explore the wonderful world of spices. They can truly whisk you away to an exotic land once you become comfortable with using them. Happy cooking!

ESSENTIAL SPICES:

- A variety of salts (coarse kosher, sea salt, maybe a few flavored salts, such as rosemary salt or lemon salt)
- black pepper (I buy whole peppercorns and grind them in a coffee grinder)
- Cumin (perfect for Mexican, Southwestern, and Indian cooking)
- Cayenne pepper
- Paprika (I also love Smoked Paprika)
- Oregano (some people are anti-dried-oregano, but I think there is a time and place for it when used sparingly)
- Red chili flakes (I buy whole dried red chilies and crush them myself)
- Cinnamon
- Curry powder
- Bay leaves
- Granulated garlic (I really only use this for making my own rubs for meat; otherwise I use fresh garlic)

IMPORTANT SPICES FOR LOVERS OF INDIAN CUISINE:

- Cardamom
- Coriander
- Turmeric
- Cloves

ADDITIONAL SPICES FOR A FULLY STOCKED CABINET

- Allspice (if you like to cook Jamaican or island cuisine, you gotta have this on hand)
- Curry leaves
- Asafoetida (hard to find but you can order it online)
- Berbere (an Ethiopian spice blend)
- Harissa powder (another North African spice I love)

CHICKEN KORMA
(Recipe adapted from http://appetiteforchina.com/recipes/easy-chicken-korma)

  • 3/4 cup whole raw almonds
  • 3 and 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin (I used more than this)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced or grated ginger
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • about 1/3 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • fresh chopped cilantro for serving
  • chopped almonds for garnish

CURRANT RICE PILAF

  • 1 and 1/2 cups basmati rice, rinsed very well
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/4 cup dried currants
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter

DIRECTIONS:

1. Start the rice pilaf: bring the water, spices, butter, and currants to a boil. Add the rice, cover, reduce heat to simmer, and cook for 20 minutes, until rice is done. Turn off heat and let sit in the pot, then fluff with a fork.

2. For the korma: Add the onion, garlic, and ginger to a food processor. Process until the vegetables are finely minced, but not a paste. Heat butter and oil in a large pot. Add onion/garlic/ginger mixture and cook until deepened in color. Add salt and pepper.

3. Wipe out the food processor, then add the almonds and all the spices (except the bay leaf). Process until the almonds are pretty finely ground. Add the almond/spice mixture to the pot, and cook the spices in the butter/oil/veggies until everything is coated and very fragrant.

4. Add the chicken cubes to the pot. Cook, stirring, to coat the chicken in the spices. Add more salt at this point to season the chicken. When chicken is coated, add a little water to the pot to loosen everything from the bottom of the pan. Stir in the yogurt, bay leaf, sugar, and corn starch slurry. Cook until the chicken is cooked through and sauce has thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning. It will likely need more salt at this point, so season to taste.

5. Serve the korma with the rice and top with fresh cilantro and chopped almonds. Enjoy!

 

Inspiration is Everywhere: How to Reimagine Your Favorite Restaurant Flavors at Home

A lot of people ask me where I get ideas for recipes. I give the simplest (and most frustratingly vague) answer: EVERYWHERE! But seriously, I am always storing away little tidbits in my mind's Food File to pull out when dinner time rolls around.

I'm inspired by the seasons, but what's fresh at the market, by something I saw on Twitter, and frequently, by things I eat at restaurants. And by restaurant food, I'm not only talking about the occasionally fancy sit-down meals. I'm talking about the little things: a great falafel sandwich from a street vendor; an unusual ice cream flavor; even the flavors in a sauce can inspire a whole meal for me. One example is my favorite vegetable side dish at a local lunch spot I love, Dig Inn, near Manhattan's Union Square. It's packed EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. And for good reason: their food is delicious, fresh, and good for you.

They have one particular dish I can't get enough of: a cauliflower and chickpea sauté with currants, capers, and parsley. It's always seasoned perfectly and is just incredibly delicious. So delicious, in fact, that it inspired an entire meal. I set out to recreate the flavors of the dish while also taking it to a new level of completeness by adding a protein and a sauce, and by transforming one of its main components (cauliflower) into the base of the dish.

The dish inspired by Dig Inn's creation:
PAN-ROASTED PORK CHOP WITH CAULIFLOWER PUREE & CHICKPEA-CURRANT SAUTE & YOGURT SAUCE

To break it down:
CAULIFLOWER --> became a cauliflower pureé
CHICKPEA/CURRANT/CAPER SAUTE --> sauteed chickpeas, currants, capers, and I added fennel for crunch and an additional veg element
THE MEDITERRANEAN ESSENCE OF THE DISH --> gave rise to the sauce, a yogurt/lemon sauce
TO COMPLETE THE PLATE --> I added a lean pork chop, pan-roasted, as the protein. You could use chicken, fish, or steak–anything you like!

See? You can take inspiration from anywhere, and turn recipes into your own with just a little creative flair. Enjoy the recipe and happy cooking!

RECIPE

INGREDIENTS:

1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
3-4 cups milk
1-2 cups water
glug of olive oil
2 T. butter
1 can chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
1 fennel bulb, core removed and cut into even chunks
about 1/4 cup capers (or more if you want)
about 1/4 cup currants
a few dashes sherry vinegar - or more to taste
chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
2 pork chops, trimmed and patted dry
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 personal serving size container 2% Greek yogurt
juice of 1 lemon
fresh fennel fronds for garnish

DIRECTIONS

1. Add cauliflower to large pot with enough milk and water to cover (use all milk, or use half water and half milk if you want). Bring to a boil with some salt. Boil until cauliflower is very tender. With a slotted spoon, transfer to food processor and add a little of the cooking liquid. Process until smooth, adding more liquid as needed to reach desired consistency (not too loose and liquidy but enough to be smooth). Taste and adjust seasoning.

2. Heat olive oil and butter in large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add fennel and saute until it has a little color. Season with salt and pepper. Add the chickpeas and saute until they have a little color in places. Add the capers and currants and saute a little more. Deglaze with the sherry vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in parsley and saute for another minute or two. Set aside and keep warm.

3. Mix yogurt, lemon juice, salt, and chopped parsley in a bowl. Thin out with a little water to reach the desired consistency–pourable but not liquidy.

4. Heat olive oil and butter over medium high heat in a saute pan. Sear pork on both sides until caramelized. Stand pork up on its side and render the edge of fat until it's crisp. Add garlic to the rendered fat in the pan. Lay the pork down, tilt the pan toward you to pool the fat together and baste it with the fat (using a spoon) to finish cooking the pork.

5. Rest the pork. Slice the pork into half-inch thick slices. Spread some cauliflower puree on a plate. Top with a little chickpea saute. Top that with the sliced pork. Drizzle a little yogurt sauce around the plate and on the pork. Enjoy!

 

 

How to Cook a Delicious Meal without Destroying Your Kitchen: A Pre-Move Recipe

At almost 32 years of age, I'm starting to feel like a real adult. Why? It's definitely not because I finally stopped throwing my clothes all over the bedroom floor (I haven't). It's because my husband and I are moving into a two bedroom apartment. Most people in their early-to-mid-thirties own homes and are starting to have children, but for New Yorkers, getting an apartment with a second bedroom is our version of "movin' on up."

New York real estate is a nightmare but also a joke, and because things sometimes have a cosmic way of working out better than you could plan for, we found our dream apartment NEXT DOOR. And I mean literally next door–as in, one door over from ours. We've shared a wall with a fantastic apartment for three and a half years and had no idea! While we're only moving 15 feet east, we still have to pack up all our worldly possessions, which means my kitchen is in shambles. I left a few highly necessary things around (knife, olive oil, salt), but 95% of my kitchen is now in cardboard boxes. Which means cooking has to be simple.

I challenged myself to create a dish that used no more than 2 pots or pans (I usually use twice that), no special tools or equipment, no seasoning other than salt, pepper, and chili flakes, and required only a few ingredients. This is the kind of meal you'll want to cook on a weeknight–not too heavy, not too light, and easy. Enjoy!

KALE & MUSHROOM RISOTTO WITH CHICKEN SAUSAGE AND SAUTEED ARTICHOKES

Ingredients:

2 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
2-3 small shallots, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup arborio rice
about 1 cup dry white wine
8-9 cremini mushrooms, sliced
a couple big handfuls baby kale (substitute baby spinach if you can't find baby kale)
6-7 cups chicken stock (or use half stock and half water–this is what I do)
about 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more to finish
about 2 cups artichoke hearts, drained and halved
2-3 chicken sausages, in 1/2-inch slices
a little more olive oil

Directions:

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Saute the shallots until beginning to soften, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add some red pepper flakes to olive oil, if using. Add dry rice and garlic and cook, stirring so the oil coats the rice grains. Cook until the rice grains smell a little toasty, about 5 minutes. Add the white wine, turn the heat up, and cook, stirring constantly, until the white wine is almost fully absorbed.

2. Add the chicken stock (or stock/water mix) one ladle-ful at a time, stirring constantly, until the liquid is almost fully absorbed. I use half stock/half water because I really, really hate buying two of those boxes of stock (yes, folks, I do sometimes use store-bought stocks–I'm human) and using all of one and about a 1/3 of the other one. So when I run out of stock, I just finish the dish with water. I actually think it makes a lighter, tastier risotto.

3. Just keep adding stock/water and stirring. Meanwhile, heat a pan that's good for searing. Nonstick is fine, but a nice stainless steel pan will be ideal, because we really want color on the artichokes and sausage. Get the pan nice and hot. On my crappy electric range, I crank it up to high. Add a some olive oil or neutral sauté oil, and cook the mushrooms (season with salt) until they're really nice and brown. You don't want wilty, watery mushrooms. You want caramelized, deeply flavorful mushrooms. When they're done, set them aside. Keep the pan on.

4. In the same pan, heat a little more oil and cook the sausage. Chicken sausage is very lean, so you'll need that little bit of oil to get it started. Brown it on both cut sides, then set aside. Keep the pan on.

5. Add a teensy bit more oil to the pan. Cook the artichokes, cut side down. Don't move them for a few minutes. Again, you want deep color. This is where the flavor comes in. When they're good and caramelized, toss them around the pan a bit, then set aside with the sausage.

6. When the risotto is almost done (basically when it's short of al dente, more firm than would be pleasant to eat but not so hard you really have to work to bite into it), stir in the cooked mushrooms and the baby kale. Continue adding the liquid and stirring until the risotto is perfectly al dente and bathed in a creamy sauce. You want it to be on the looser side–gloppy, gluey, congealed risotto is no fun. The second you turn the heat off, it will continue to absorb the liquid, so you want it on the more liquidy side as you're finishing it. Stir in the cheese off the heat.

7. Spoon the risotto into bowls. Top with the artichokes and some sausage slices. Top with more parmesan. Enjoy!

WINE PAIRING SUGGESTION: I'd serve this with a crisp white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner. A rosé would also be lovely with this dish–but then, when wouldn't it?!

 

How Learning to Cook Fish Transformed My Eating Habits

Learning to cook fish changed my life. That's a big statement, I know. But it's true.

Fish, when sustainably sourced and bought fresh, is one of the most delicious things in the world–but for most of my life, I didn't like eating it. Sure, I grew up eating frozen fish sticks dipped in ketchup, just like the rest of America, but as for REAL seafood? I just wasn't, er...on board.

Seared Tuna Steak with Sweet Potato Pureé & Spicy Collard Greens

Seared Tuna Steak with Sweet Potato Pureé & Spicy Collard Greens

As I got older, I was lucky to be able to experience seafood in ways I wasn't exposed to growing up. I ate fresh fish caught off the coast of central America; as a city-dweller, I grew to love sushi; and a lavish date with my husband (then-fiancé) eating in-season crab, drenched in garlic butter, forever turned me into a crab lover. Fish is heart-healthy and waistline-friendly. And late last year, when I was putting myself through the culinary wringer prepping for my MasterChef journey, I began to really experiment with cooking fish in a serious way. And I'm so glad I did. Because adding fish to my dinner routine has inspired me to cook more heathfully ALL the time.

Cooking Light recently tweeted, "In 16 of the 20 countries with the lowest rates of heart disease, people consumed higher quantities of fish." If that's not reason enough to learn to love the gifts of the sea, I don't know what is! Anecdotally, eating fish a couple times a week has made me feel healthier and lighter. This is not to say that I started eating fish and magically morphed into a Kate Moss lookalike–but I can really tell a difference in how I feel the morning after I eat fresh fish as compared to, say, the morning after I eat a burger. I wake up with more energy, feeling less bloated and weighed down that I do when eat heavier things. Feeling good makes it easy to continue to cook and eat things that are better for me, and the fact that I can prepare fish in a way that actually TASTES good makes cooking and eating it a joy, not a chore.

Learning to prepare fish well has also challenged me to develop recipes in a new way and to think a little harder about what goes on my dinner plate. Cooking fish definitely requires more effort (I'll only buy fish at Whole Foods, which is not only time-consuming but quite expensive), and it certainly takes some practice to get the hang of cooking, but I think it's worth it, especially if it's only once or twice a week.

I hope these recipes inspire you to try cooking fish at home!

TIPS FOR COOKING FISH

1. Buy the freshest, best fish you can find. This seems like a no-brainer, but there's a lot of bad fish out there. For example, most imported tilapia is fed a diet of garbage and human waster...not what you want to be putting in your body. It's worth the time to do your research, and it's worth it to spend a little more money and get the best product.

2. Try buying a whole fish and asking your fishmonger to cut it into fillets for you. There's nothing that compares to the freshness of a fish that's just been filleted.

3. If you cook fish with the skin on (I like to do this with snapper and branzino), liberally salt the skin side of the fish (this helps to dry it out and get it really crispy), and cook the skin side first, making sure to really render it to make it super crispy. Crisp fish skin is delicious; soggy fish skin is not.

4. Up your sauce game! Fish is delicious, but adding a sauce to your plate will really elevate it and make it that much tastier. I like to make a lemon cream sauce by sauteeing some shallots in a little butter, deglazing with lemon juice and white wine, and reducing about 1/4 cup cream by about half in the pan. A simple brown butter sauce with some fresh herbs is another easy choice!

5. Don't be afraid of heat. Cooking fish for a short amount of time at a high temperature prevents it from sticking to the pan as well as gives you that nice sear on the outside and a flaky, perfectly cooked interior. Of course, if you're more comfortable baking fish, that works too–just don't overbake it!

And now, the recipes!

Seared Tuna Steak with Sweet Potato Pureé & Spicy Collard Greens [photo above]

INGREDIENTS:

2 medium sized fresh tuna steaks
neutral saute oil, such as grapeseed or vegetable oil
salt
pepper
paprika
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks
about 2 cups whole milk
olive oil
2 T. butter
1/2 white onion, diced
red pepper flakes
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and diced
1 large bunch fresh collard greens, ribs removed and cut into thin ribbons
about 1.5 cups water
about 3 T. white wine vinegar
about 1 T. sugar (optional)
1 bunch fresh parsley
about 1/4 cup olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice

DIRECTIONS:

1. Put the milk in a pot and add the sweet potato chunks. Bring to a boil, adding a little salt to the milk, and boil until the potatoes are very tender. Transfer the potatoes to a food processor with a slotted spoon and process till smooth, adding some cooking liquid to thin out as needed. Season to taste.

2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot. Saute the onion with a pinch of red pepper flakes. After a few minutes, add the tomato. Cook for a few minutes, breaking down the tomato with a wooden spoon. Add the collard ribbons, seasons liberally with salt and pepper, sprinkle the vinegar over it, add some water, cover, and cook on medium-high for about 30 minutes, until the collards are quite wilted. Taste and adjust seasoning. At this point stir in the sugar if desired (this is how we do it in the South; you don't taste the sugar, it just balances the flavors).

3. Season the tuna steaks with salt, pepper, and paprika. Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a little neutral oil and let it get hot. Sear the tuna on each side, until a nice, light brown crust forms on each side. Cook until medium-rare in the center (or more if that's how you like it). Slice it against the grain into 1/2" thick slices.

4. In a food processor, put the parsley and squeeze a little lemon in. Season with salt and pepper. Start to process it, and drizzle in the olive oil as it runs. This is your simple herb sauce!

5. To plate: Spoon some puree on the plate. Put some collards on top. Place the tuna on top of that. Drizzle some sauce on top of the tuna. Bon appetit!

Crispy-Skin Red Snapper with Wild Rice & Sauteéd Portobellos and Spinach

INGREDIENTS:

2 red snapper fillets, skin on
8 oz. wild rice
2.5 cups chicken stock or broth
salt and pepper
neutral cooking oil
2 large portobello mushroom caps, halved and sliced
1 container baby spinach
olive oil
1 shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T. grainy dijon mustard (or other mustard)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup white wine (if you have it)
about 1/3 cup heavy cream

DIRECTIONS:

1. Bring the broth to a boil and add the wild rice. If your stock is unsalted, add a little salt. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook about 45 minutes, until rice is tender.

2. Heat a saute pan on medium-high. Add a little oil and saute the mushrooms until they're nicely caramelized. Add spinach at the very last minute and saute until it's wilted. Season to taste.

3. Season the fish on the skin side. Heat the neutral oil in a nonstick pan. Cook the fish, skin side down, until the skin is very crispy. The fish may be almost cooked through at this point, so simply lightly season the flesh side and flip it to finish cooking (this will only take a minute).

4. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Cook the shallots for a few minutes, then add the garlic and cook another minute. Squeeze a little lemon in, then deglaze with the white wine. Cook the wine till almost totally evaporated, then add the cream. Reduce the cream by half. Season to taste. This is your sauce!

5. To plate: Spoon some wild rice on a plate. Top with mushrooms/spinach, then top with the fish. Spoon sauce over top. Enjoy!

Calamari Braised with Tomatoes & Classic Meatballs with Tagliatelle

I know that in the hot summer months, I'm supposed to crave light, refreshing things, like leafy salads and cool slices of melon. But the truth is, I crave hearty, filling food year round. It may be 90 degrees outside, but inside, you can find me sitting directly in front of my air conditioner, scarfing meatballs and pasta.

So, if you're like me, and you're down for a delicious, filling meal 24/7/365, read on, soul brother. Because this is the spaghetti and meatballs recipe you've been waiting for. But first, we gotta have an appetizer: Braised calamari, studded with olives and capers–it's like a big bowl of the sea. Without further ado...

BRAISED CALAMARI WITH TOMATOES, CAPERS, AND OLIVES

If, like me, you're a little freaked out by cooking squid, don't be. This recipe is simple. Just find the freshest squid you can and have your seafood guy clean them for you. After that, it's a no-brainer.

INGREDIENTS:

2 fresh and cleaned squid, bodies separated from tentacles
olive oil
one clove garlic, sliced
about 1/3 cup white wine
2 cups cherry tomato sauce recipe (my best guess listed here)
about 1/4 cup capers (or "as you like" as my Chef teacher in Italy might say, meaning: more or less depending on your taste)
about 1/4 cup small pitted black olives
salt
fresh parsley and fennel fronds to garnish

DIRECTIONS:

1. Slice the squid bodies into rings. Cut the tentacles into pieces. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a pan and add the garlic. 

2. Spoon in the tomato sauce. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the white wine. Cook off some of the alcohol in the wine (sauce should be at a very fast aggressive simmer at this point–not a full boil per se, but pretty close).

3. Add the calamari, capers, and olives. Add a little salt. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the calamari is tender (just taste one–if it's pleasantly tender with a bit of chew, you're good; if it's like chewing a rubber band, simmer it a little longer).

4. Serve in a bowl garnished with the parsley and fennel.

NOTE: I've tried to be as true as possible to the way I was taught these dishes in Italy. However, if I were cooking this at home, I would add some hand-crushed dried red pepper (because I like spice), and also some thinly sliced fennel (toward the end of the simmering process), because I think it would add a nice fresh crunch and subtle sweetness to balance the brininess.


PORK & BEEF MEATBALLS WITH EGG TAGLIATELLE AND CHERRY TOMATO SAUCE

Chef Francesco used a 50/50 beef and pork mixture. Because we were working in a restaurant setting, the meat was pre-mixed, so I don't know the beef fat content, but I'd opt for an 85/15 beef blend (you want some fat). When I make meatballs at home, I usually do 1/3 beef, 1/3 veal, and 1/3 Italian pork sausage. Experiment with what meat blend suits you best. Remember, make it "as you like."

INGREDIENTS:

about 1.5 pounds of a beef/pork mixture
5-6 slices white bread (or use good Italian bread–you can usually buy single ciabatta rolls for sandwiches at most supermarkets; that's a good option in my opinion)
enough milk to moisten the bread (start with 1/4 cup and add more if needed)
1 egg
fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper
grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
about 1/2 cup white wine
about 3 cups cherry tomato sauce (or any other tomato sauce you like)
fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces, plus more for garnish
about 1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water
egg tagliatelle (enough for the number of servings you want to make; Chef Francesco used a delicious dried tagliatelle; if you want to really impress people, this is the time to make fresh pasta; you'd just cook it entirely in the tomato sauce, adding water and seasoning as needed)

DIRECTIONS:

NOTE: You will want to have your sauce ready before you make your meatballs, as you will be adding the sauce to the pan of meatballs, and not the other way around (this helps deglaze the pan and keep all the meatball flavor in the sauce).

1. In a large bowl, tear the bread into little pieces. Add the egg and a little milk, enough to moisten the bread. If the bread soaks it all up and looks dry, add more milk. Add the chopped parsley and some grated Parmigiano.

2. Add the meat mixture to the bread mixture. Season the meat with salt. Don't underseason. Mix together with your hands until everything is evenly incorporated.

3. Roll the mixture into ping-pong-ball-sized meatballs. Meanwhile, heat a wide pan that's large enough to hold the sauce and the pasta you'll be cooking. Add some olive oil and the sliced garlic. After the garlic is golden, remove it with a slotted spoon and discard (you're just trying to perfume the oil).

4. Cook the meatballs in the oil until browned on one side. Roll over and cook on the other side. Leave them in the pan, and add the white wine. Cook for a few minutes to deglaze the pan. Add the cherry tomato sauce (enough to almost cover the meatballs) and the basil, cover the pan, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through. When they're done, remove the meatballs from the sauce and set them on a separate plate.

5. While the meatballs are cooking, boil your pasta in generously salted water. Remove the pasta when it's 2 minutes short of al dente. Add it directly to the tomato sauce pan with some pasta cooking water. Stir and toss vigorously to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.

6. Plate the pasta in little nests. Spoon some sauce over and place some meatballs around the pasta. Top with grated Parmagiano and garnish with basil.

What I Learned in Italy: Simplicity is Delicious (with Recipes!)

Anthony Bourdain has a quote I love. I'll paraphrase it (and clean it up a bit): "It's almost impossible to find Italian food in America that is un(fool)ed around with." That just about sums it up. And that's why I went to Italy!

Want to cook like an Italian? Start with the best seasonal ingredients you can find, and do as little as possible to them. Sounds crazy, I know–I took two 9-hour flights and paid a small fortune to learn that Italian food is about adding less, not more. It's about restraint. Editing. The techniques and flavors are concise: your finished dish should taste only of what you put into it–nothing more.

To truly cook like an Italian, you'll have to start with buying an olive farm (sorry). To do some fantastic Italian cooking at home, you'll just have to buy the best ingredients you can find (not sorry). But it won't be expensive, because you'll be buying very few of them. Buy seasonal vegetables when you can; they taste best this way. Don't overseason. Don't add unnecessary ingredients. And clove after clove of minced garlic? Fuggeddaboutit. One or two cloves of garlic is all you'll need (but if you add more, your secret is safe with me).

Let's get started!

APPETIZER: Involtini de Melanzane & Fior di Latte / Eggplant & Mozzarella Involtini

Recipe courtesy of L'Abate Restaurant in Sorrento, Italy.

INGREDIENTS:

2 medium Japanese eggplants (the skinnier ones that aren't as bulbous at the end), peeled and sliced into 1/4" thick slices
A flat dish (about 1 cup) of AP flour
1 qt. peanut or other neutral frying oil
Fresh mozzarella (or fior di latte, the cow's milk variety)
Grated Parmiagiano Reggiano (about 1/2 cup)
Fresh basil leaves
1 large can San Marzano or other good-quality canned tomatoes
1 large onion, diced
olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
salt

DIRECTIONS:

1. Make the tomato sauce: heat a glug of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pan). Cook onions over med-low heat until translucent and getting soft and sweet. Add your canned tomatoes, crushing them in your hand as you go (or out them through a food mill first, if you're so inclined). Simmer on low for 5-6 hours (yes, this is how long they simmer their sauce at the restaurant). Season to taste.

2. Heat oil to 375 degrees (use a deep fryer or just heat a pot on the stove and use a thermometer).

3. Dredge the eggplant slices in the flour and fry each one until golden brown. Drain excess oil off and place on some paper towels to drain further.

3. Lay eggplant slices out flat. Place a whole basil leaf (or half if your leaves are large) onto an eggplant slice. Sprinkle the whole slice with Parmigiano. Place a chunk of mozzarella at the end of the slice nearest you and roll the eggplant around the mozzarella. You want the mozzarella chunk to be about the same width as the eggplant slice, but not very long. Think taking a third or a half of a string cheese stick (although I most definitely do NOT recommend using string cheese in this recipe) and rolling it inside the eggplant.

4. Preheat your oven's broiler. Get a dish ready. If you want these in individual servings, use oven-safe, shallow dishes, one per serving. If you want to make a full a dish, I'd recommend a low-sided ceramic dish. Place some tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish (just enough to cover the bottom).

5. As you roll each involtino, place it in the dish with the exposed mozzarella ends of the roll touching the bottom of the dish and facing upward (see pic). This prevents the cheese from oozing out the sides of the roll. Once you've placed enough in your dish (place them close together), spoon some more tomato sauce on top and broil until the whole dish is piping hot and the cheese is melty inside the rolls. Top with more Parmigiana and a basil leaf.

MAIN COURSE: SPAGHETTI WITH MUSSELS

Prior to learning how to make this in Italy, I'd actually never cooked mussels. I love eating them, and they're incredibly easy to work with. Don't be afraid to try this recipe!

INGREDIENTS:

2 lb. fresh mussels, scrubbed and beards removed (discard any that are already open)
olive oil
1 clove garlic
about 2 cups cherry tomato sauce (my best guess at the recipe below–this was prepared for us in advance when we took the class)
about 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 lb. dry spaghetti noodles
fresh chopped parsley
salt

Cherry tomato sauce:
Heat some olive oil in a pan and sweat some diced onions or shallots. Add a sliced clove of garlic. Toss in 2 pints of cherry tomatoes and a little white wine. Cook off the wine a bit and simmer till the cherry tomatoes have burst and released a lot of liquid. Season to taste.

DIRECTIONS:

1. Heat olive oil in a pan. Add a sliced clove of garlic and cook for about a minute.

2. Add your mussels, the white wine, and the cherry tomato sauce. Cook the mussels until they've all steamed open. Discard any that don't open.

3. Remove from the heat. Gently remove one half of all the mussel shells, and place the remaining mussels on their half shells on a separate place.

4. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in generously salted boiling water until about 2 minutes shy of al dente.

5. Reheat the sauce from the mussel cooking pan to a fast simmer. Use tongs to transfer the spaghetti to the sauce pan. Add about 1/2 cup pasta cooking water to the sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in that pan, stirring vigorously, until al dente. Taste the sauce and season as needed.

6. Serve the spaghetti in nests on the plate. Spoon sauce over and arrange mussels around the noodles. Top with parsley.

 

 

What Learning to Cook In Italy Taught Me About Living La Dolce Vita

Before I begin, a disclaimer: if you're looking for a fair and balanced critique of European travel, Italian cuisine, or the institutions I visited on my trip to Italy, look elsewhere. I'm about to wax poetic about one of the greatest trips, and most cherished learning experiences, of my life.

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WHY ITALY?

As someone who is passionate about not only Italian food, but about all cooking that is rooted in tradition, locality, and ultimately, love, I knew I had to go to the place that embodies all those things. I try to source the best, most authentic Italian ingredients I can find here in New York, but I can only get truly fresh, local, Italian ingredients in one place–Italy! And one can only learn truly authentic techniques from the people who create and cherish them.

MY "THIS IS ITALY" MOMENT

As part of our trip, we (my Mom and I) traveled southwest down the Sorrento peninsula, into the mountainous countryside to a beautiful, family-run farm in Schiazzano called La Masseria. There, the Gargiulo family has been making extra virgin olive oil from their gorgeous olive groves for generations. They also grow lemons, oranges, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, and other crops native to the region. They even have two pigs (and yes, the pigs will one day become meat...sorry, vegetarians).

The farm is an idyllic place; it's nestled amongst quiet, breathtaking hills redolent of citrus, overlooking red-tiled roofs and, distantly, the sea. Kittens run free, and a pet goat bleats from his pen. In the evening light, it's stunning. And exactly the type of place I'd dreamed of visiting on my first trip to Italy.

We were there for a cheese tasting (CHEESE!!!), but it ended up being so much more. We were treated to fresh lemons sprinkled with sugar as a sort of rustic amuse bouche (surprisingly delicious and refreshing), then had an olive oil tasting. The olive oils we sampled were perfect; they tasted of the land surrounding us and of the love and care and craftsmanship of the people who made them.

And now, the cheese! We first tasted a PDO provolone. A PDO certification is not easy to come by. The cheesemaker has to abide by a staggering number of rules, from making his own food for his cows, to having a certain percentage of the milk come from cows that are local only to his specific region. The provolone is then aged for 5 months to mellow, mouthwatering perfection. We also tasted smoked provolone (absolutely delicious), which is smoked for an hour a day (using only natural smoke from local plants and wood) for 5 months straight.

Our cheese tasting host, a third generation cheesemaker who chose to subscribe to the labor-intensive PDO certification system (and by necessity, downsize his farm) rather than expand his father's large-scale cheese operation, made fresh fior di latte (a traditional cow's milk mozzarella) right in front of us. The process was fascinating, and the just-made cheese tasted rich, pure, and wholesome. Drizzled with a little La Masseria olive oil, it was transcendant. We also got to sample a local treat (the name of which I couldn't manage to commit to memory) that was essentially a warm, raw milk custard made from just-curdled milk that had been briefly dipped in salt water. It was like whole milk to the N-th degree: slightly salty, sweet and creamy inside, and utterly satisfying–almost like a savory dessert. We also sampled the best ricotta I'd ever tasted, made that day from cows milked that morning.

And it all culminated in my Ultimate Italy Moment: Signora Gargiulo made fresh ricotta gnocchi with the ricotta that had been made a few hours before with a tomato sauce made from her farm's very own tomatoes, picked fresh and bottled last summer. It was a recipe that could only exist at that time and in that place. Every ingredient was grown within a five mile radius (except, perhaps, the 00 pasta flour), treated with the utmost respect, and ultimately used to craft something amazing using time-honored traditions. Watching her make dinner so casually–she's made ricotta gnocchi about a thousand times–was like watching a well-rehearsed dance: beautiful and effortless. In that moment, I was (and am) profoundly grateful.

This was why I'd come to Italy. Because I could ever have this experience elsewhere. People speak of terroir, the flavor of a place, and this was terroir at its finest. We sampled the gifts of nature, made expertly by people who care deeply for the land they inhabit, the plants they grow, and the animals who provide them with the raw materials to make something amazing. The experience reminded me what eating food must have been like a hundred years ago, before factory farming became the dominant model and selling unpasteurized milk was a crime punishable by law.

And even more transformational than the impeccable flavors of the food was the generosity and graciousness of our hosts. They welcomed us into their homes and showed us, with deep humility, their most treasured skills. It was an honor to be treated like royalty in a place that was so awe-inspiring.

LA DOLCE VITA

Turns out, the sweet life is really the simple life. The essence of Italian living is based around family, food, and, when possible, living from the land. At its heart, every act of creation–planting, harvesting, cooking–is an act of love. Overlooking the sunset from my olive-tree-lined perch, the simple life seemed pretty sweet indeed.

TRIP BACKGROUND

I had been looking into doing a cooking-focused vacation since before I left for MasterChef. Returning to the real world after a culinary experience like that wasn't easy, so I was extra motivated to make it happen. My mom and I had long been discussing taking a trip together, so this seemed like the perfect moment. We worked with a company called The International Kitchen; they specialize in cooking school vacations across Europe. We chose "Comfort Cooking in Sorrento" from a list of possible Italian excursions because we'd both heard amazing things about the Amalfi coast. As it is so often in the modern world, a few clicks later, we were set.

THE DETAILS

We stayed at an upscale B&B called Maison Tofani, which is still owned and operated by the Tofani family. Maria, the owner, is the consummate gracious Italian hostess. She and her staff attended to our every need as if we were guests in her own home (which, I suppose, we were). Every morning we awoke to a breakfast spread like none I've ever experienced before: meats, cheeses, vegetables, eggs, ripe fruit, yogurt...it wasn't so much breakfast as it was all the best things in life spread out to choose from.

We flew into Naples and spent one night there (just enough time to sample a perfect pizza), then made the 55-km drive to the Sorrento peninsula, where we stayed for a week. The package included day trips to the island of Capri as well as a bus trip to nearby towns Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello.

We had three classes in a private upstairs space at local restaurant L'Abate. We met cook Alberto and Chef Francesco, who were both incredibly skilled and simply wonderful people to learn from. Each day, we cooked a three- or four-course meal, which we sat down to enjoy for lunch (with the requisite bottle of red wine). For dinner, we simply ate our leftovers al fresco on one of Maison Tofani's many tiled patios.

I could not recommend this trip–and all the vendors and people included in it–more highly. Everything was taken care of, from our car services to meals to activities to regional travel. Everyone we met was warm, welcoming, and gracious.

Put simply: I can't wait to go back.

What, Exactly, Does One Do With A Glut of Nut Butters?

This is a tale of peanut butter discovery and culinary experimentation. Peanut butter, that delightful legume spread loathed almost universally in Europe, fuels us here in 'MURICA almost daily. Ross and I are kind of obsessed with peanut butter. He eats it on toast almost every morning, and I incorporate it into smoothies, eat it on bananas, mix it into yogurt, and cook with it.

So imagine our delight when we discovered a local peanut butter producer with a slew of creative twists on jelly's old standby: they're called The Peanut Principle (http://www.peanutprinciple.com), and they're taking peanut butter to new heights. They might even be a little–I'm going there–nuts. We found them posted up at our tiny parkside farmer's market (on the north side of Cooper Park, for you East Williamsburgers). We wandered up to do a little tasting, and walked away with three–THREE!–varieties of their slightly wacky creations.

Ross stocked up on Smooth, and I was inspired by the Open Sesame (an Asian peanut-sesame-garlic-chili sauce blend) and the Going Coco-Nuts, which is pure coconut meat ground to a paste. I could hardly wait to make a curry using our new nut butter finds. And I'm happy to share this recipe with you!

A note for those of you who are new to my recipe style: all ingredient measurements are approximate because I don't measure; I add ingredients as I go along, taste constantly, and adjust from there. In Thai curries, you're looking for a balance of umami/savory, slightly sweet, acidic, and spicy flavors. You can dial up the flavors that most appeal to you, but don't be afraid to play with the proportions of the ingredients to make the curry your own.

Coconut-Peanut Thai Chicken Curry

Ingredients:
2 T. olive oil (in retrospect I should've used coconut oil–you can use any neutral oil)
1 medium white onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
2 T. red curry paste (store-bought)
3 T. Open Sesame nut butter (or substitute natural plain peanut butter; you might want to add some more garlic and hot sauce to the final curry in that case)
3 T. Going Coco-Nuts coconut meat (or substitute a splash of coconut milk)
about half a container of boxed chicken broth (unsalted)
about 1 cup water (add more as needed)
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar (or lime juice, or a mix of the two)
1/4 cup soy sauce
several dashes Thai fish sauce (taste as you go and add more as you like)
a big squeeze of honey
a big squeeze of Sriracha
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias
7-8 shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 head of broccoli, cut into florets, and chop up the stems if you like them
lots of spinach, chopped (or use bok choy if you prefer)
2 chicken breasts, cut into chunks
steamed white rice for serving
cilantro for serving

Directions:
1. Heat oil in a pot or Dutch oven. Sauté the onions until a little soft, seasoning with kosher salt; add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir the curry paste, peanut butter, and coconut meat into the hot oil. Whisk them all together and cook for 1-2 minutes.

2. Add the chicken broth and water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Add the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, honey, and Sriracha. Let the curry sauce cook together for a few minutes and thicken; taste it and decide what else you might need to add. If it tastes a little flat and not savory enough, add a few dashes of fish sauce or soy sauce. If it's too savory, balance it with a little vinegar and honey. Just play with it until it's how you like it.

3. Add the ingredients in order of longest cooking time to shortest: so carrots and broccoli stems (if you're using those), then mushrooms, then chicken, then broccoli florets, then spinach for just a minute at the end. Taste again, because at this point the veggies and chicken will have diluted the sauce and start soaking up the flavor, so adjust the seasonings as necessary.

4. Serve with steamed Jasmine rice and fresh cliantro.


The Big Secret About Cooking That Corporations Don't Want You To Know

Corporations have been lying to you. My guess is that you're unsurprised. But I wonder if you realize just how much lying they've been doing. I'll tell you: more than you can imagine.

In order to sell you a boxed cake mix, Betty Crocker has to convince you that making a cake is almost impossible. In order to sell you a frozen lasagna, Stouffer's has to make you believe that you could never make a lasagna on your own. In order to sell you Toaster Strudels to feed to your children, Pillsbury has to convince you that you're too busy in the mornings to make toast or oatmeal or slice a banana.

But here's the secret they don't want you to know: cooking isn't hard. Some cooking is time-consuming, but lots of things can be made from scratch in a short amount of time. 

Packaged foods companies spend billions of dollars a year creating ad campaigns that are witty, touching, and, most of all, repetitive. The more times you see their commercial for granola bars, the more likely you are to put those granola bars in your shopping cart. I'm particularly struck by the tone of many recent campaigns that wax poetic about spending time with family around the dinner table–the solution, of course, being that you spend no time at all cooking so as to maximize the "quality time" you have together eating the food you've outsourced. The implication is that time spent cooking is time wasted; time spent eating is "quality time." What could be more aptly described as "quality time" than time spent in the kitchen with your family, having your kids help make a fresh salad, or stir a pot of soup? 

To be certain, most American households in which both parents work lack the time required to make a lasagna from scratch. But they do have the time to open a can of tomatoes and turn it into marinara sauce. The very existence of pre-made jarred pasta sauce is enough to convince people that making pasta sauce must be very difficult–otherwise, why would it be sold pre-made in jars?

I want to be sensitive to mothers, here. Even as someone without children, I sometimes find it hard to juggle my responsibilities of work and home; I can only imagine that caring for children while juggling a spouse, job, and household duties is incredibly taxing. My own mother did it for myself and my two brothers for years–she, and all the juggling mothers out there–deserves a medal. I know that preparing marinara sauce from scratch (especially for vegetable-averse little ones) is sometimes simply out of the question. I'm not suggesting we all turn back the clocks and burden ourselves with needlessly complicated tasks.

What I'm suggesting is that we stop letting corporations' enormous advertising budgets lull us into a collective sheep-like state. Let's not let them make us robots who buy pre-made food products because we've been told we're too stupid, or too busy, or too lazy to make them ourselves. Anyone who can succeed at a full time job, pay bills on time, and manage a household has the wherewithal to follow a recipe.

I would love to live in a world where "Basics of Cooking" was required high school curriculum. To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, being able to cook an omelet in the morning for someone who's just spent the night is a critical life skill. I've never once applied the Pythagorean Theorem to a real life problem, but I use my knowledge of food preparation almost daily.

Never forget that you're smarter than corporations want you to believe! You CAN cook. Just don't expect THEM to ever tell you that.

 

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Recipe + Tip

Preamble: I love Cinco de Mayo. Por que? Because I love holidays that are essentially excuses to eat a specific food. I can assure you, having spent Cinco de Mayo last year actually in Mexico, that Mexicans do not celebrate it. Americans do. But a holiday that celebrates one of the greatest culinary traditions to ever grace our nation's shores? I'm in!

My husband Ross and I discuss nachos almost daily. Specifically, how awesome they are. On a trip to Costa Rica when our relationship was still nascent, we ate a dish called "Nachos as Big Your Ass," which we've been reminiscing about for 8 years now. Consider this my tribute to both that life-altering moment as well as to Cinco de Mayo 2014.

RECIPE: Nachos As Big As Your Ass: A Tribute Feast

RELEVANT TIP: When cooking with dried ground spices, use waaaaay more than you probably currently do. And bloom the spices in oil first (I'll explain in the recipe)!

So many people ask me for general cooking tips. It's always hard to narrow it down to a top 5, but using a generous amount of seasoning would probably make that list. I've watched some of my friends cook; they take the tiniest pinch of paprika, or cumin, or cayenne pepper and sprinkle it into a giant pot of food, then seem confused when their dish lacks flavor. That's because they didn't use any spices! American cookery is, on the whole, a very unspiced cuisine. Most of us didn't grow up with mothers who tossed dried (or fresh) spices into dishes with abandon. But to most other cultures, our food is hopelessly bland (and I must say, I tend to agree).

For the nacho recipe you'll see below, I used a pound of ground beef, 2 cans of beans, 1/2 a can of beef broth, and a can of tomatoes with their juices. That comes out to about 4-5 cups of nacho beef/bean mixture. Adding a "pinch" (maybe a 1/4 teaspoon) of a dried spice to that volume of ingredients is like emptying a gallon of milk into a lake. It just won't make much of a difference. While I don't measure (I taste–always measure with your mouth), I can use my eyes to help me know that I'm adding enough spice. When the color of my dish is deepened by the spices I've added, I know I'll be able to taste them.

And remember–pre-ground spices are already less flavorful than whole spices. They arrived at your grocery store having already lost flavor through the grinding and packaging process. They sat on the shelf till you bought them and lost a little more flavor. And they've been in your cupboard, losing flavor, for who knows how long. Pre-ground spices will NOT be overpoweringly flavorful due to the way we buy them. Keep that in mind.

When you're cooking something like chili (which this bean/beef/tomato mixture could aptly be described as), go ahead and cook your aromatics (onion and garlic) in oil, and then add your dried ground spices to that. Cook them for a few minutes in the oil (this is called "blooming" them), until they start to get fragrant. They'll get all mixed up in the oil and coat the aromatics, then be dispersed throughout the dish when you add the rest of the ingredients. For this amount, I added probably 2 tablespoons of Mexican-style chili powder, a tablespoon of paprika, a 1/2 tablespoon of cumin, and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Once you account for salt, that's about 3 tablespoons of spice. It will look like a lot to you. But once you taste your dish, you'll be a spice convert. Of course, if you're looking for a milder or more subtle flavor profile, or are simply nervous you'll over-spice your dish, add a little at a time and taste as you go. But I promise you, the reason restaurant food tastes so good is that chefs use a heavy hand with salt and spices. It's called FLAVOR!

Nachos are a real treat–obviously I don't eat like this every day, or my ass would be so big that Nachos As Big As My Ass wouldn't fit in my oven! But in the name of American-invented cultural holidays, enjoy these nachos once a year or so, amigos!

RECIPE: NACHOS AS BIG AS YOUR ASS

Ingredients:

2 bags of corn chips, whatever brand you prefer (better if they're on the thicker side)
1 lb. ground beef (I used a very lean pastured beef; you can use whatever you prefer)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 can organic peeled tomatoes w/ juices
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves or garlic, minced
2 T. Mexican-style chili powder (or regular chili powder)
1 T. paprika
1/2 T. cumin (or more if you're a cumin junkie)
1 tsp. (or more) cayenne pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes (if you like heat–I do)
pinch of oregano
1 T. butter
1 T. flour
3/4 c. milk
Monterrey Jack cheese, grated
minced fresh jalapeno to taste
Cheddar cheese, grated
2 ripe avocados
1/4 c. minced red onion
minced fresh jalapeno to taste
cilantro, chopped
juice of 1/2 a lime
fresh radishes, sliced paper thin
1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup creme fraiche diluted w/ a squeeze of lime juice (or just use plain sour cream)
fresh cilantro leaves

Steps:

1. MAKE THE BEEF/BEAN MIXTURE:

- Heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and sweat. Add salt and spices and cook till fragrant. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Cook beef (seasoned w/ salt and pepper) in pan nearby. Add beef and all pan juices to onions and stir until coated with spices/oil.
- Add tomatoes and beans. Add beef broth a little at a time based on how liquidy your mixture is (it will cook down, so reserve some beef broth to thin out later if needed)
- Reduce heat to simmer. Cover and simmer for an hour or so (you could do less, but the flavor deepens as it cooks, just like chili)

2. MAKE THE CHEESE SAUCE

- Melt butter over medium heat and whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook a few minutes to cook off raw flour taste. Whisk in milk and let thicken to make a bechamel. Add salt and taste it. If it tastes like nothing, add more salt. If it tastes awesome, awesome.
- Stir in grated Jack cheese. Keep warm till ready to assemble nachos. Thin out with a little water or milk if it gets too thick before you use it.
- Now would be a good time to preheat your oven to 375.

3. ASSEMBLE THE NACHOS

- In an ovenproof casserole dish (even better if it's attractive enough to serve in, if not, who cares, these are freakin' nachos, people), make a layer of chips. Top with some beef/bean mixture and cheese sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheddar on as well (JUST DO IT).
- Repeat these layers until your dish can't hold anymore and you fear that your Nacho Mountain will erupt into a volcano of deliciousness. That's how you know the nachos are as big as your ass.

4. PUT THE NACHOS IN THE OVEN.

- Watch them closely. You're just trying to melt the cheese here and get a little browning on the chip edges. DO NOT BURN THE NACHOS, COMPADRES.

5. MAKE THE GUACAMOLE.

- Mix some chunked avocado, the red onion, some diced jalapeno, cliantro, lime juice and salt. Mix till chunky.

6. MAKE YOUR SOUR CREAM SAUCE (OR SKIP THIS AND JUST USE DOLLOPS OF SOUR CREAM)

- Mix sour cream, creme fraiche, and lime juice in a narrow-tipped squeeze bottle. Shake till mixed.

7. TOP YOUR NACHOS–THIS IS THE MOMENT WE'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR.

- Remove your nachos from the oven and top with a generous drizzle of sour cream mixture, some dollops of guacamole, some sliced radishes, some fresh cilantro leaves, and any other toppings that make your heart burst with happiness–olives, diced raw onions, diced raw tomatoes, more sliced jalapenos, etc.

8. EAT YOUR NACHOS

- You're on your own here. I advise just diving in (better to be with good friends, or better yet, drunk friends). Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Sure, I'll Throw My Hat Into the Artisanal Toast Ring

Artisanal Toast. Its very name is a punchline. Yet it's a Thing. In the span of about 2 weeks, Artisanal Toast went from being something sold in an obscure coffee shop in–where else?–San Francisco, to being the subject of inquiry by no less noble institutions of journalism than NPR and The Atlantic.

The moment I heard someone utter those words–artisanal toast–I was intrigued. Had someone finally elevated the simple act of applying low heat to a slice of bread to an art form? It seemed silly–but also inevitable. I read up on the whole trend (it might be more accurate to call it a microtrend, since as yet it's only known to A) those in big cities on the coast who are hyper-aware of these sorts of Things, and B) the media creators and disseminators who make the hyper-aware folks aware in the first place).

Artisanal Toast is exactly what it sounds like: (probably excellent) locally made Pullman bread, sliced thick, toasted, spread with butter (my money's on the organic, grass-fed butter variety), and served for $3 a slice in elite enclaves of this great nation where there are enough people for whom this sounds delightful and not absurd or insulting to make it a profitable endeavor.

The fact that I even know about its existence implies privilege. I have the time and resources to read up on ephemeral culinary and cultural microtrends, and I'm surrounded by people who also spend their time absorbing the types of media that propagate that knowledge. And while the Artisanal Toast backstory is actually nuanced and heartwarming, built not of privilege but of deep need, the people who benefit (?) from its existence are generally doing quite well.

Despite my mixed feelings about Artisanal Toast as a Thing, as a lover of food, and of all things pure, I knew I had to try it. It hasn't yet started appearing in my neck of the woods (although it's only a matter of time before it does, as my particular Brooklyn neighborhood is, like San Fran, known for starting its own laughable microtrends), but I knew I could make it myself. Which, I knew going into it, is even more twee and doused in privilege than eating someone else's Artisanal Toast...but at least it's not watching TV (amirite?).

Artisanal Toast, Step 1: Make the bread. I've only made bread a few times, but I've enjoyed it in the past. A great excuse to make fresh bread, I thought. I gathered the ingredients and made my loaf. After a few hours of kneading and rising and punching and baking and other dough-related activities, I had a lovely whole wheat loaf of bread. Step 2: Slice it. A sharp bread knife makes it simple work. Step 3: arguably the most important step is to actually toast it. I stuck it in the toaster and prayed.

Two minutes later, it emerged, glorious: Artisanal Toast.

But how to do justice to such hallowed sustenance? I had, after all, spent upwards of 4 hours making a slice of toast. I decided that a grilled cheese sandwich was Toast's ultimate calling, so I made another slice, filled the two with fig jam, avocado, and Jack cheese, and reveled in the most labor-intensive sandwich I'd ever had in my life.

It was goddamn delicious.

Eyebrows-deep into its buttery crumb, the epiphany came: the laboriousness is the point. We live in a world (especially in New York and other big cities) where we can get anything we want, at any time, quickly, and generally for a reasonable amount of money. Nothing is hard. Nothing takes effort. The last grilled cheese sandwich I ate came out of a truck and cost me the equivalent of a gallon of gas. It was good, but it was easy.

I think that the ease of modern life is–ironically–beginning to wear on us as a society. I think the whole Maker movement is the inevitable backlash against the fast-fooditization and H&Mification of our culture. It feels good to do a lot of work for a little output. The output means more because it was hard-earned. It's becomes a badge of honor. It becomes ownable.

While I'm grateful that not all my meals require as much work and planning as my Artisanal Grilled Cheese did, I found joy in the doing. And I definitely found more joy in my morning toast than I ever did before.