Monday, February 21, 2011

Mussels with White Wine and Fennel

This post is for my fellow Top Chef fans out there. It is my absolute favorite show on television and the current Top Chef All Stars season on Bravo is getting incredibly exciting as we near the finale. One of the highlights for me this year was the Mafioso-style Italian cook off challenge at Rao's restaurant in New York. Not only were the characters great fun to watch, all of the dishes looked mouth wateringly delicious. Spoiler alert for any ti-vo'ers reading.... I was thrilled to find Antonia's winning mussel recipe online. You can actually watch Chef Rick Moonen prepare them live at These mussels are super simple and absolutely fantastic. Don't forget some fresh crusty bread to serve on the side. Serves 2 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 pound of fresh black mussels 1 cup of thinly sliced fennel 1 large shallot, sliced (I added this) 1 clove of garlic, minced or grated (I upped to 3 cloves) 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 to 1 1/2 cups of dry white wine 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed from stems 4 fresh basil leaves, sliced (I used 1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley) 1 tablespoon of butter (I upped it to 3 tablespoons) I found some beautiful mussels at Fresh Market. However, they handed them to me tied up in a plastic bag which I imagined was suffocating them so I promptly ripped an air hole for the little guys. When I got them home, I rinsed the mussels under cold water and carefully picked through them- discarding any broken ones or shells that were open (which means they are dead), tapping them first to see if they'd close up. You also need to "remove the beards" which I've always thought sounds creepy. Essentially you are looking for a little piece of fuzz sticking out of each shell...if you find it, pull it off. If you're not going to prepare them immediately, you can store them in a bowl of cold water in the fridge for a couple of hours. I started with the olive oil over medium high heat in a heavy dutch oven (a large skillet would work too, something with a lid.) I sauteed the fennel and shallot in the oil for 3-5 minutes until soft and tender but not brown- adding the garlic, red pepper flakes and thyme and cooking one minute longer. Next, I added the drained mussels to the pot, tossing them together with the veggies before adding the white wine. I covered the mussels with a lid (you're still medium high heat) and steamed everything together for 3-4 minutes until all of the mussel shells had opened and the meat had cooked through.

Note: I actually doubled this recipe to serve four- so don't let the above picture mislead you.

I removed the pot from the heat and added the fresh parsley and butter before serving hot. The butter melts into the wine creating a luxurious sauce for the mussels and dipping bath for some warm crusty bread.

Yummmm... mussels are one of my all time favorite dishes. I've had them all over the world and I can see why Antonia took the prize with this particular recipe! (Even though I was kinda rooting for Fabio.) The dish pairs well with a crisp and dry Pinot Grigio, Albarino or Savingnon Blanc.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bolognese Sauce

I know I've blogged about Bolognese before but I want to share this latest iteration because John and I believe that I have finally perfected it! John is an afficianado of Bolognese so this is quite a feat for me. This sauce is heavenly served with your favorite fresh or dried pasta and some good crusty bread.

Fresh Bolognese Sauce:
1/2 or 2/3 pound of sweet Italian Sausage
1/2 pound ground beef (we used Chuck)
1/2 of a large onion, diced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups of fresh wild mushrooms, sliced (we used shitake, baby bellas would work too)
1/2 teaspoon of dried crushed rosemary
1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of kosher salt and some black pepper
1/3 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 1/2 cups of jarred marinara or tomato sauce
1/4 cup of fresh parsley, chopped

Saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the sausage (remove from casing) and ground beef and brown over medium high heat, breaking apart with a spoon while it cooks. (I skimmed off some of the residual oil with a spoon as the meet cooked down to avoid a super oily sauce.) When the meat has almost browned all over, add the mushrooms- cooking for 3-4 minutes. Then add the garlic, dried herbs, peppers and salt- cooking for another 2-3 minutes.

Add the white wine to deglaze the brown bits from the pan- cooking until the liquid it is almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock, cooking 2 minutes before adding the tomato sauce or marinara. Turn the heat down to med-low/low and simmer for at least 15 minutes until everything comes together to a rich looking sauce.

I like an even consistency to my bolognese, so I use an immersion blender to break it down at the very end. I pulse the blender to avoid pureeing it, the goal being to blend the mushroom and meat bits together into a cohesive sauce. Stir the fresh parsley in at the very end to give it a freshness of flavor.

I've tried a dozen bolognese recipes and I'm pretty sure this one is the keeper! The beef is rich (I've actually swapped this out for ground turkey which I thought was great for a lower fat option), the sweet pork sausage adds depth of flavor with the flavors of fennel seed, and the mushrooms add an earthiness and lightness to the sauce.
This sauce was the PERFECT match for our homemade potato gnocchi!

Potato Gnocchi

John and I celebrated Valentine's Day together in the kitchen cooking dinner, with some music and a great bottle of wine... much more fun than fighting the crowds at the overpriced fix prix restaurants for sure. For a special occasion, we tend to start with the wine and work backwards to the menu. In this case it was Miner 's Gibson Ranch Sangiovese from California- one of my very favorites of all time. Its hard to find but I assure you worth the hunt (or the expense of having the good people of Miner Family Vineyards mail it to your doorstep.)

From the Sangiovese we arrived at pasta, specifically a rich bolognese, and we decided homemade potato gnocchi would make for a fun and interactive Valentine's Day project.

Potato Gnocchi (recipe courtesy of Michael Chiarello)

Serves 3-4 people

2 large russet potatoes
4 eggs yolks
1/2 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1 cup of all purpose flour (a bit more for dusting)

Scrub and dry the potatoes. Pierce the potatoes to the center 6-8 times with a pairing knife and then bake at 350 degrees for one hour. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop the flesh out into a bowl. Press the potato through a ricer into another bowl. (If you don't have a ricer you can pick one up at Walmart or Target for $16-$18).

Measure two heaping cups of the riced potatoes (careful not to pack the potatoes down, you want them light and fluffy) onto a large board or clean countertop dusted lightly with flour. Mound the potatoes, forming a well in the center and then add the egg yolks, cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the center.

Mix the yolks into the potatoes using your fingers until everything is incorporated. Then sprinkle half a cup of the flour and press it into the potato mixture using your knuckles. Fold the dough over itself and press down again. Sprinkle more of the flour over the dough, folding and pressing until the dough looks cohesive. Resist the temptation to knead the dough like bread.

We didn't use the full cup of flour but if the dough gets too dry, you can add a splash of water. John halved the dough and rolled it into two long snake like ropes, about an inch thick.

He then cut the ropes into half inch pieces using a knife.

You could cook them just like this but rolling them down the tines of a fork gives them ridges that help the sauce hang onto the dumplings.

Once they were rolled, we placed the gnocchi in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with a clean kitchen towel. We dusted them lightly with flour to ensure that they didn't stick together. We let them rest and dry for 30 minutes before we boiled them. The gnocchi could also be frozen after a few hours of drying as well.

Fresh gnocchi cook up in no time so once we have everything else for the meal ready, we boiled them (in two batches) in a large pot of salted water for 3 minutes or until they floated to the top of the water. Give the water a strong stir before dumping the gnocchi in- the moving water keeps them from sinking into a pile at the bottom of the pot. You don't want them to stick together. As soon as they start floating to the top, I scooped them out with a strainer into a colander in the sink.

As soon as both batches had cooked, we poured all but 1/4 cup or so of the cooking water out. We then added the gnocchi back to the pot (with the remainign cooking liquid) and spooned in a few generous scoops of fresh sauce - tossing it gently together before serving. (Topped with fresh parmesan of course.)
Fresh gnocchi would be great with a simple marinara sauce, a pesto cream sauce, or maybe gorgonzola cream sauce. I think the ticket is to keep it simple so that you can really appreicate the pasta.

I tell you these gnocchi (prepared primarily by John while I was making the sauce) were delectable- light, fluffy and flavorful. Avoiding over handling the dough ensures they are tender and fishing them out of the cooking water the very second that they float to the surface prevents them from getting mushy. AND this bowl of pasta paired perfectly with our special bottle of wine. (As did the homemade chocolate pudding! Check back soon for that recipe!)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Molten Chocolate Cake

One of my all time favorite romantic desserts is molten chocolate cake. This recipe is super simple yet very impressive AND unlike a souffle, you can assemble it entirely in advance and then bake them off just before serving. These few ingredients are probably in your pantry/fridge at this very moment: 5 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped 10 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 large eggs 3 large egg yolks 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar 1/2 cup all purpose flour *This makes six individual molten chocolate cakes . Melt chocolate with the butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Set aside to cook while you whisk all of the eggs together in a large glass bowl. Measure the flour and sugar into two separate bowls.

Next, whisk the sugar into the eggs until well blended. Then add the chocolate/butter mixture, whisking until encorporated. Lastly, add the flour and stir well. The batter resembles brownie batter.

Portion the batter into six, buttered ramekins that hold at least 3/4 cup each. You can then cover and refrigerate for hours or even overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bake the cakes on a cookie sheet for 12-13 minutes until the outer edges look puffed and cakelike but the centers are still sunken and darker in color.

Let the cakes cool for 5 minutes. Then run a knife around the edges, cover with a dessert plate and holding the plate to the ramekin (using a towel if still warm) invert to drop the cake out onto the plate.

Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar, a dollup of freshly whipped cream, or as we did, a scoop of good quality vanilla ice cream with a few sliced berries.

I promise you happy bellies and clean plates! Check out the chocolaty oozy center below...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Everybody loves cupcakes. And you certainly don't need a special occaison to indulge however these red velvet beauties with a rich cream cheese icing are the perfect Valentine's day/week treat. The recipe is from my Martha Stewart Cupcake book and I have to say it is the very best I've ever had. The cake is incredibly moist and tender and perfect. The recipe as its published makes two dozen cupcakes however I've halved it below to make just one dozen. Actually I ended up with just 11 cupcakes which was plenty for me and my Valentine to share this week. Ingredients: 1 1/4 cup all purpose flour 1 packed tablespoon of cocoa powder 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt 3/4 cup of sugar 3/4 cup of vegetable oil 1 large egg at room temperature 1 tablespoon of red food coloring 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract 1/2 cup buttermilk 3/4 teaspoon of baking soda 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin pan with paper liners. I found festive white liners with red dots at Michael's. (Martha Stewart's line.) Whisk together flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl. Beat the oil and sugar in a standing mixer (or with a hand mixer) on medium high speed until well combined, about three minutes. Add the egg and beat well. Mix in the food coloring and the extracts. Add the dry ingredients in three batches, alternating with the buttermilk- scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Mix until just combined. Mix the baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl (it will bubble up) and then mix it into the batter. Mix for 10 seconds until everything is incorporated. I used a 1/4 cup measuring cup coated in vegetable oil to portion the batter into the muffin tins. Bake for 20 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting. Cream Cheese Icing: I've posted this before and I'll toot my horn again in saying this is the best cream cheese icing you'll ever eat. 8 ounces of cream cheese, at room temperature 3/4 stick of butter, at room temperature 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste if you can find it 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract 3/4 lb (3/4 box) of confectioners sugar Beat the cream cheese and butter with a mixer (paddle attachment) until smooth and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl a couple of times. I'll say it a third time: its critical that these be at room temperature first. Add the extracts and sugar (sift the sugar in a bowl first to ensure no lumps) and beat well, scraping down the sides periodically. I tend to favor the "rustic" frosting method whereby I spoon a big dollup of frosting onto the cupcake and then use a butter knife to spread it evenly, leaving "homey" swirls in the icing. Frankly they are beautiful just like this... I'm not the most artistic cook in the kitchen however a little inspiration from the one and only Martha Stewart had even me creating a few fun and festive design ideas for you. For a more polished look, you can pipe the icing onto the cupcakes. starting at the outside, swirling inward will stack the icing per below. I then held the cupcake on an angle and poured some pink sparkle sugar on one sidee and white on the other for a temptingly sweet yet professional looking presentation.
Hug and kiss cupcakes are adorable as well. For these I used cinnamon candies to create x's and o's.
My favorite however was probably the simple "hand frosted" cupcakes with a little decorative sparkle sugar. Nothing says "be mine" like something that looks and tastes perfectly home made.

Store the cupcakes in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. Let come to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Honey Marinated Pork with Gremolata

I'm always looking for ways to jazz up chicken breasts and pork tenderloin. My arsenal has at least a dozen stand-by marinades, spice rubs, and pan sauces yet from time to time I get bored with them. This marinate/gremolata combo that I found in the February Bon Appetit magazine is simple and unlike anything I've had before. The balance of fresh earthy herbs and bright citrus over the perfectly caramelized pork is wonderfully refreshing any time of year.
Ingredients: Two 12-14 ounce pork tenderloins, trimmed 1/3 cup honey 4 large garlic cloves, minced 1 tablespoon of orange juice, freshly squeezed 1 teaspoon (or more) of kosher salt 1 tablespoon of olive oil 1/4 cup of dry white wine 1 tablespoon finely grated orange peel 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary 1 teaspoons chopped fresh sage

Whisk the honey, garlic, and orange juice together in a measuring cup or a small bowl. Place the pork in a baking dish and pour the marinade over, turning to coat them evenly. Then sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to overnight.

Meanwhile- to prepare the gremolata mixture for sprinkling over the cooked pork, mix the orange zest and chopped herbs together in a small bowl. You can cover this and place in the fridge for later.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Move the pork over to a plate and SAVE THE MARINADE. Heat oil in a large non stick skillet over medium heat for one minute. Then sear the pork, rotating to brown each side for about one minute. I didn't have a skillet large enough to do both, so I did them one at a time.

Transfer them back to a baking dish and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until a thermometer reads 150 degrees. Let the pork rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

(I'll definitely try this on the grill when the weather improves a bit.)

Meanwhile, I prepared a sauce in the same skillet that I used to cook the pork... pour the reserved marinade and the white wine into the pan and cook over medium high heat until reduced to half a cup. This takes anywhere from 3-5 minutes.

Serve the sliced pork with a drizzle of the pan sauce and a sprinkling of the gremolata. You could serve the pork with roasted potatoes, couscous or your favorite veggie. I made a fennel risotto that worked well with the citrus flavor and some garlicky green beans. Check back soon for a detailed risotto "how to."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Strawberries and Cream Crepes

I have some great Valentine's Day desserts to share this week in preparation for your romantic dinners at home. First up- my Mom's strawberry crepes. This is a great make-ahead recipe for an impressive dinner party, a brunch gathering, or a quiet night at home with a special someone. The strawberry cream filling is absolutely amazing but you can mix it up with variations such as my Nutella banana crepe below. (I like to eat left overs the next morning with some melted butter and maple syrup!) The recipes here for the crepes and the filling below serves up to 8 people. The crepe batter itself is assembled in the blender and requires an hour to rest before you cook them. I used an Alton Brown recipe featured on adding some sugar per the sweet variation. When it comes time to cook them, I use a small to medium sized non stick skillet over medium/medium high heat. It might take one or two to get the hang of it but you'll hit stride from there. I find that brushing the pan with a small amount of melted butter every second or third crepe is all that you need to keep it from sticking. I pour directly from the blender into the pan, maybe a scant 1/8 of a cup per crepe. Pour and then immediately swirl the batter so that it coats the whole pan. It should be just enough batter to barely cover. As Alton suggests, cook the first side for about 30 seconds, and then flip to cook the underside for about 10 second. You can then slide them out of the pan onto a board to cool before stacking on a plate. Once completely cooled, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. (They keep well for a day or two.)
The Strawberries and Cream Filling 8 ounces of cream cheese- softened (the third less fat variety works great)
8 ounces of sour cream- (light is also fine here)
1 cup of powdered sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice
At the last minute:
1 cup of whipping cream
3 tablespoons of powdered sugar
2 pints of fresh strawberries, sliced Mix together with a hand or standing mixer until well blended and lump free. You can refrigerate the mixture at this point until ready to serve or even over night. When ready to assemble, set the filling out to soften while you whip the cream with a three tablespoons of powdered sugar until light and fluffy. You could add a splash of Cointreau or Framboise for a little extra something special. I fold about half of the whipped cream into the cream cheese filling along with all but one cup of the sliced strawberries. (Save those for garnish.) Working directly on the dessert plate, put a heaping spoonful of the filling down the center of the crepe and roll it up, tucking the seam side down. I typically serve two per person (though plan on a few extra!)- topping them with some of the extra whipped cream, a few sliced strawberries - and perhaps a dusting of powdered sugar.
They are like sweet fluffy pillows of yumminess. Delicous served with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine. Another one of my all time favorite crepe variation entails simply a generous schmear of Nutella and some sliced bananas- maybe some toasted chopped hazelnuts if you want to get fancy. Another dessert stunner but also great for breakfast if you're a sweets-a-holic like me.