Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Try a seasonal menu this holiday season

Last night I hosted 12 people for a Christmas party and dinner. I love planning, cooking and hosting when I have time to enjoy it, which I did. Plus, it’s easy to put it in the time and energy for a group of people you love.

Last night’s gathering was for a writer’s group that I’ve been part of for 11 years. We first met in a local writing class that I taught. Since then, members of the group have published multiple times in all forms of media. It’s amazing to see what everyone has done through the years.

I wanted to take some of the load off them during this season so I offered to prepare our entire celebration for this Christmas season. Most of what we ate came from our garden or from other local sources. Here’s the menu, which turned out so well that I would replicate it again:

Cheeseball and crackers—Mom’s women’s group sells the cheeseballs every year, so this is always a given for my holiday get-togethers.
Spiced nuts—I found this recipe in O Magazine. It’s the first time I made spiced nuts. Next time I’ll cook them for a slightly shorter period of time since they almost burned. 
Lettuce and Spinach salad—I wish I could say it was from my garden!
Fagottini di pollo—Also known as Chicken Bundles. This is a recipe from Lidia Bastianich and you can’t go wrong with it. I used our canned tomatoes for the sauce.
Green beans and purple potatoes—Both from our garden. Potatoes will keep for months in a cool, dark place.
Sweet potatoes and apples—Yes, I used our sweet potatoes. The apples came from Reed Valley, an area orchard that I like.
Winter squash risotto—This is the easiest risotto recipe because you bake it instead of constantly stirring on top of the stove. I used our home pureed pumpkin and one of our remaining butternut squashes. Winter squashes will also keep for a good amount of time inside at a cool temperature in a dark place if they are cured first.
Pawpaw Sour Cream Pie—This was from the pawpaws we collected in September and pureed. It’s a little piece of heaven.
Chocolate Bark—I also found this recipe in O Magazine. I made it with dark chocolate and didn’t entirely cover the cracker with chocolate because I liked the contrasting color.
Various other cookies and candies

Yes, it was a feast. Yes, I slept well after the fun and the relaxation following a good meal. Yes, I’ll do it again.

Before I go, I must apologize for forgetting to take pictures of the food. I was having so much fun that I forgot to pick up the camera. However, this afternoon I did get a photo of my Charlie Brown Christmas Village that I wrote about last week. You'll have to look hard to see the little trees. I had hoped we would get snow to liven it up, but until then, this is what greets our visitors.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The garden contributes to my Charlie Brown Christmas Village

I’ve just come in from a sunny afternoon outside where I snipped bits and pieces from a dying Hemlock tree to use in my Charlie Brown Christmas Village. Yes, sometimes using the bounty from the garden doesn’t mean cooking and eating; it means decorating. 

When we moved into this house, there was a Blue Spruce next to the Hemlock that was clearly the older sibling. For a year or two, I cut full branches from the Blue Spruce to use in holiday Christmas decorations. Then an ice storm killed the pretty tree and when Jim cut it down, we used the fertile soil it left us as a new spot to grow vegetables.

Our dear Hemlock kept hanging around but caught a disease a couple of years ago. I must admit that I was so busy elsewhere in the garden that I didn’t research what to do to save the tree. I should have at least done my part. Instead, the death crept upward so that now the fullest, pretties branches are at the top one-third of the tree that climbs above the house gutter. Jim said he was going to cut it down and I imagined another fertile space for gardening, but the tree still stands.

The straw bales that I gardened in this year also remain. I decided to leave them in the raised bed next to the street because I’ll plant in them again next year. So, to help them join the magic of the season, I bought tall, plastic candy canes to put in some of them. No, plastic usually isn’t my style, but when I thought of the color they could add to the brown of the bales, I decided to do it anyway. They looked good, but they need company.

And there the Hemlock stood, tall and proud of the branches that still offered seasonal greens. So when the sun, after a 10-day hibernation, came out this afternoon, I got a ladder out of the garage, found a good place to set it up next to the dead branches, and climbed until I could reach the green branches. I snipped, I cut. Greenery dropped onto my head and onto the ground below me. I took the first load over to the straw bales and stared planting them into the soil at the foot of the bales and into some of the bales themselves. Thus, the Charlie Brown Christmas Village grew.

At this point, you’re probably expecting a picture. You’ll have to wait a week for that because I’m still trying to decide what needs to go into the village next.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Stuff your vegetables

In this final installment of posts about my cooking class at the Villa Bordoni, I want to take a look at stuffed vegetables. We stuffed artichokes, which have their own challenges, but Chef Collin assured us we could also use this same delicious stuffing in other vegetables. Think zucchini for example, but let your imagination go wild. Look at the vegetables that are in season in your area and take it from there. 

Lots of people in the U.S. are only familiar with canned artichokes, often mixed with cheese and made into a dip. Fresh artichokes require a totally different technique. Before stuffing them, you must first remove the tough outer leaves and the center, then keep them from oxidizing (turning brown) while cooking and while waiting to be stuffed. Here are Chef Collin’s steps for preparing the artichokes. Keep in mind he grams in his measurements. If you’re using your kitchen scale and can set it to grams, you won’t have to translate the amounts.

1)      Prepare stock for cooking artichokes with water, white wine, bay leaf, a pinch of peppercorns and a clove of garlic. (I remember him adding lemon juice either to this step or to #5 below, but it’s not in his written instructions. Also, he cut a piece of parchment paper to cover the pot when boiling to reduce oxidation.)
2)      Remove tough outer leaves from 8 large artichokes.
3)      Trim off the stalk and scoop out the center, making sure to remove all of the choke.
4)      Boil artichokes in prepared stock for 7 – 8 minutes. Test the center with a toothpick to see if they are tender.
5)      Remove from stock and plunge them into iced water to preserve color.
6)      Remove artichokes from water, pat dry and place on baking tray.

Next comes the filling.
Vegetable filling
500 G Tuscan Bread (think artisan bread)
200 G sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
300 G Pecorino cheese (medium aging) chopped
1 clove garlic
1 handful of parsley
extra virgin olive oil

Cut off bread crust and place bread in bowl. Cover with water for a few minutes then squeeze out well and crumble. Chop garlic and parsley finely and add to bread. Add other ingredients. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Fill artichokes with stuffing, push it inside to be sure it’s firmly filled. If any tomatoes are on top, remove them as they will burn. Bake at 190 C for 15 – 20 minutes until top is golden brown.

To make serving your artichokes even more elegant, try making Chef Collin’s white sauce to go on the plate beneath the artichokes.

White Sauce
20 G butter
20 G flour
300 G Pecorino
100 G Parmesan
500 G milk
salt and pepper

Make a rue by melting the butter in a heavy sauce pan and adding the flour, stirring vigorously. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly. When the sauce is smooth and almost boiling, remove from stove and stir in cheese. Season to taste.

This was my favorite dish of the evening. Artichokes are not abundant here, but I can find plenty of other vegetables that I’ll be stuffing, maybe even during this upcoming holiday season.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Never peel tomatoes again!

I know you’re thinking of turkeys and stuffing, sweet potatoes and pie, but just in case you want to try something different, here’s the next installment of my Italy series. 

Work with a professional chef and you’ll pick up more than a helpful tip. In my cooking class at the Villa Bordoni, one of the Italian staples we made was tomato sauce. Chef Collin’s recipe was simple and as we prepared the sauce, he shared a number of valuable tips.
1)  Use fresh, San Marzano tomatoes. They have less water so the sauce cooks down much faster.

2)      Don’t bother with peeling and seeding the tomatoes. Cut them up and cook them with the onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Pour the sauce in a food mill, crank away and you’ll push through the good flavors, leaving the bitter peelings and seeds behind.

3)      Return the sauce to the pan, keep the lid off and cook to the consistency you prefer.

4)      As for seasonings, use salt, olive oil and fresh basil. Chef Collin never skimped on the salt and olive oil. You might also want to throw in some wine and a pinch of hot pepper,

I’ve been growing San Marzanos since I first discovered they are meatier and larger than Romas. So if you’re planning next year’s garden, you might think about planting them. In Kentucky, I’ve found even San Marzano seedlings to be hard to locate so I grow mine from seed.

Want to add meat to your sauce? I spoke with someone yesterday who spent part of her youth in Italy and still uses a neighbor’s lasagna recipe. She says the key is chicken livers cut up and cooked with the beef. It adds a richness and depth but people who don’t like liver won’t notice. I’m in the “don’t even like the smell of liver cooking” camp, but I might have to try it anyway.

I've posted a couple of tomato sauce recipes in the past. Here's one of my favorites that adds zucchini to the mix.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Making the pasta

Say Italian food and many people think of pasta. Although pasta certainly isn’t the totality of the Italian culinary experience, it is one aspect that I like.

I’ve been making my own pasta for a few years but not frequently or confidently. When I learned we would be making pasta in my cooking class at the Villa Bordoni, I was thrilled.
Chef Collin took us through the process step-by-step. He measures his ingredients using a scale rather than cups. Many chefs will tell you this is the more accurate way to measure. He does the kneading and shaping for the pasta on a smooth, wooden board and uses semolina flour to keep the dough from sticking.

The chef’s recipe, a basic combination of flour and eggs, came into a dough similar to what I had produced at home. Because the resulting dough is hard and extremely difficult to knead, I always thought I was doing it wrong. Maybe I need more liquid. Maybe I used too much flour. Not according to Chef Collin. We each took a turn kneading, using the palms of our hands more than our fingers, then he wrapped it in plastic and put it aside to rest.

After resting, pasta goes through a hand-turned pasta maker that makes it increasingly thinner. Chef Collin cut the pasta into portions. I prefer to work with dough the size of a large egg. With his expertise, however, Chef Collin used a significantly larger piece. After partially rolling it out, he began putting it through the pasta maker on its widest setting. As he cranked with one hand, he held out the other to catch the pasta as it came out, keeping it straight so it doesn’t fold on itself. One of our class members also helped with the process. Fold the pasta in three and put through again on the next setting. As the machine kneads the pasta, it comes out thinner and longer each time.

Next, it’s time to cut it into portions to fit onto a chitarra. Chitarra is the Italian word for guitar. The tool is a wooden frame with wires strung across it. When you put a sheet of pasta on top and use a French rolling pin to add more pressure, the wires begin to show through the pasta then cut them into spaghetti. And there you have one nest of spaghetti for one serving of pasta. Perfetto!
Our generous instructor also showed us how to sprinkle a sheet with semolina, fold and cut into the wider papparadelle pasta. He then made various shapes, for which I was most thankful because one of my favorite pastas is ravioli.

Using Chef Collin’s techniques, I made pumpkin stuffed ravioli on Sunday. The first time I tried it a few years ago, my raviolis busted open in the cooking water. Not this time. Thanks to Chef Collin’s tips, I confidently made the dough and put the pasta through the maker, I cut the raivolis then put in less filling and used water around the edges of the ravioli to seal them. I think I’ve passed pasta-making 101!
Chef Collin's pasta
600 grams '00' flour
5 eggs

Place flour on work surface. Make well in the enter. Break eggs into well and gradually incorporate the flour with the eggs with your hands. When the mixture starts to firm up, knead with the heel of your hand for about 5 minutes. Wrap in plastic and let it rest for at least an hour before proceeding.