Cooking Italy: Thin Lamb Chops in Parmesan Batter~

23 06 2010

Cooking Italy is kind of in “catch up” mode.  Many of us have been caught up with real life events that have made cooking on schedule a little difficult.  Personally, it makes me laugh.  Every group goes on vacation about the time I can finally get away from work and put my energy toward them! Oh well.  It’s how it goes!  So I am catching up…as much as I can.

This time around, I was finally able to locate a lamb rib rack to make the thin lamb chops with the parmesan batter.  It’s more of a parmesan crust than a batter, but that’s ok.  It’s darn tasty!  Marcella has us dust pounded lamb chops as thin as the rib bones themselves, just like you would if you were making scallopini, then press grated parmesan onto the meat, dip it in egg wash and crust it with plain bread crumbs…here’s a little East meets West…I used Panko.  It made a perfect crisp crust over the parmesan which was fabulous seasoning.  Just to make sure the coating didn’t fly off the meat when I cooked it, I let the breading set for about 15 minutes after all the pieces were coated.

Then, into a hot skillet with about 1/4 inch of hot vegetable oil to cook the lamb and brown the crust.  Meanwhile, in a grill pan, we had half a pound of asparagus grilling with olive oil and spritzes of lemon juice.  Everything was sprinkled with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper as it completed cooking.

Tasting Notes~
I wasn’t sure what to expect…  I thought it would be plenty salty enough, between the salt in the Parmesan cheese and the kosher salt.  I was wondering if it would need a sauce of some sort…would it need a starch side to pick it up…maybe garlic mashed with a demi-glace…and that wouldn’t have been a bad thing…  However, this dish carries itself quite nicely.  The cheese does a really good job of covering the typical lamb flavor some folks find objectionable.  I had mint jelly ready, but mint jelly wasn’t something that seemed to pair with this.  In retrospect, I’d try a chutney another time.   The asparagus was a great “go with” especially with the lemony seasoning.  We liked this so well, we’d like to try the method on other meats, particularly pork.  Both of us had the same thought.  Pork cutlets done this way could be downright tasty…I’ll post those results when I give that a try.  I’ve got boneless pork loin chops, and they’d be just perfect.

Angela~ This was a wonderful selection!  I think pairing this with parmesan mashed potatoes and a colorful vegetable would be simply fabulous!!   Thanks for this one!!

Cooking Italy: Chicken alla Diavolo~

5 06 2010

One of the curriculum dishes at Cooking Italy for the month of May was Grilled Chicken alla Diavolo Roman Style.  Let’s just say Mother Nature refused to cooperate.  For days.  Here’s what it’s supposed to look like, as exhibited by Angela of  Spinach Tiger.

I followed Angela’s lead, and dry-brined my bird, a la Zuni Kitchen (someday I’ll get back there for dinner!).  I salted and wrapped my chicken (which once again required a trip out of town to purchase) Sunday night with the expectation of grilling on Wednesday.  Wednesday brought thunder and lightning and rain at grilling time, plus I neglected to note that 3 hours in olive oil and lemon juice AFTER rinsing the dry brine off.  We enjoyed hot pastrami and creamy potato leek soup instead.  Thursday, we tried again.  I even picked up a small charcoal grill…but this time we got rain AND wind, but not until the dinner hour.  I finally threw in the towel and roasted our chicken in the oven.

I pulled my already marinating chicken from the wrapper and let it come to room temp while the oven heated.  I found a nice flat roasting rack and ended up cutting my bird in half to make it more manageable.  After a 450° start, I dropped the temp to 350°, and 20 minutes later turned the chicken skin side up to finish.  I don’t know about you, but finding anything less than a 5# chicken is getting harder to find than hen’s teeth.  I simply need to remember to add 10 to 15 minutes to all my cooking times, making sure to add some of it to the first stage cooking as well.

This is a really flavorful recipe!  The peppercorns add a lot of zip to the dish without being diabolically hot.

Tasting Notes~
I’d fix this again, without a doubt, but I’d change a few things more to suit me.  I’m a wet brine fan.  I’d brine with salt, sugar and lemon with toasted peppercorns for 45 minutes to 4 hours.  Drain, pat dry and proceed with the recipe as stated, with the only other exception being toasting the peppercorns to bring their flavors out even more and add a bit of smokiness to the mix.  It’s a wonderful choice for a summer dinner!

Cooking Italy: On my own with Sautéed Peas~

31 05 2010

One of the things our hostess and creator, Angela of Spinach Tiger, always reminds us, is to cook what’s available.  With that in mind, and vines weighed down with swollen pods, I ventured into unknown territory with Sautéed Early Peas with Olive Oil and Prosciutto, Florentine Style, by Marcella Hazan, as presented in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is the book we’ve been working from for just about a year now.

The weather has been unseasonably mild for northern California, and I was away last weekend, so my edible pod peas had a whole week on me.  Once I was back home, it rained for 4 days straight, mostly when I was home, so getting out to pick was either going to be a wet experience, or one put off for another day.  The putting off worked out just fine.

I needed a little something to go with steamed King Crab legs tonight…a salad would do, but one of the 80° days we did have caused most of the lettuce to bolt.  That which is left is somewhat bitter, and not quite what I want to put beside crab legs.  Then I saw the poor neglected pea pods.  I picked all that I could see and then checked again and picked another big handful.  Off to the cookbooks to see what there is to choose from.

My first thought was minted peas, but for the heck of it, I grabbed up Marcella Hazan’s book.  Olive oil…check.  Garlic…ooh…check.  Prosciutto or pancetta…check, I had pancetta.  Parsley.  Just bought some yesterday.  We’re on!  Sauté the garlic in the olive oil until nut-brown.  Remove…hmmm.  Okay…if you insist, but…  Add pancetta, then peas with a bit of water, add a few twists of pepper, then cover, simmer, oh my.   This is too easy.   And what great results!  It was a really great accent, both in taste and in color, to the the crab.  We decided this is a keeper recipe.  It’s a great way to treat peas instead of merely boiling them.  The recipe can be used with frozen peas as easily as with fresh.  What are you waiting for??

By the way…that garlic that was removed from the pan?  It makes a lovely, crunchy little garnish!

Cooking Italy~Spaghetti alla Carbonara

27 03 2010

Just as there are a number of interpretations of recipes for Spagetti alla Carbonara, there are just as many interpretations of the recipe’s origins. Marcella leans toward the origin of the dish being in Rome during the Second World War, when food resources were scarce.
American soldiers coming into the area requested cooked food (over canned rations) and brought with them bacon and powdered eggs.  From those humble beginnings, the Roman Italians creatively turned those ingredients into Spaghetti alla Carbonara!  And even if it didn’t really originate there, it’s certainly a wonderfully romantic history to hold onto!

Once I had pancetta in the house, the rest was a piece of cake…although next time, any good bacon will work, just not an overly smokey one, or not one with a really sweet cure either.   Every time I read the recipe, it sounded too easy to be true, and if it had been up to me,
we’d have had this dish several times in the past week.  I’m not so sure Bruce sees pasta as comfort food yet…  Maybe not. I waited though.  I knew I’d know when the time was just right, and I did.

Our ingredients aren’t many…pancetta or bacon (I was only able to get pre-sliced pancetta, no other option this time), 2 eggs (courtesy of my lovely hens), parmesan and romano cheese, a bit of garlic, a 1/4 cup of white wine, some olive oil and black pepper.  Oh, and spaghetti. While the water is heating and the spaghetti cooking, all the rest comes together really well.

I used a fairly deep ceramic bowl to mix the pasta, and I heated it with warm water before I started. When the spaghetti was just about finished cooking, I mixed my eggs, added the cheeses, mixed again then added the pepper and parsley (note to self…must plant twice as much Italian parsley as we have now).  I added the hot, drained pasta all at once and tossed with a fork a few turns, then switched to my favorite tongs. I always rather expected this to have a scrambled egg kind of effect, having never seen it in a restaurant.  Italian isn’t prevalent here.  I was rather surprised that I didn’t see that at all. After all was well mixed, I added the re-warmed pancetta-wine mixture to the spaghetti and tossed that together as well.

Oh. Oh my.  This was seriously good.  And very easy on a working gal.  Protein, carbs, protein, dairy.  Yeah.  A swimmer’s dream meal, no doubt!  Anyone who burns serious calories, this is a winner for them.  This would also be a dandy post-party nosh! A little carb, a little protein, a little good sleep food, soak up the happy juice and lead you off to sleppy-by land! LOL! Not that I would know about such things…I’m taking the Fifth…wait, oh…never mind…*giggle*  All I can say is this… I was tuckered…worn out…weary from the week, and after feasting on this, I slept like a 6 month old baby…perfectly content and soundly, all through the night.  I love this concept!

Tasting Notes~
We both had a problem with the pancetta being too salty for our tastes.  That could be because we eat a less salty diet than most folks do, or it could be the brand of pancetta, or it could be that it was somewhat dried out being sliced that way.  For what it’s worth, a lot of food is salty to us. Our solution is to reduce the pancetta by half next time if we can’t get a bulk slice, or to try bacon.  Even then, we’ll reduce the quantity of meat.  Bruce would also like me to try adding sauteed mushrooms to the dish.  While not “authentic” I don’t see any problem…then is just becomes Spaghetti alla carbonara con funghi or something like that!  LOL!  I think I’d start by sauteeing them before the garlic, then stir them back in with the wine.  I’ll let you know how that works out!!  This is a keeper..especially with the aforementioned modifications!

Cooking Italy~Chicken Roasted with Lemons

13 03 2010

Gosh, I can hardly believe it’s been a month since I posted last… I’ve cooked since then, really I have! LOL!  I just haven’t cooked along with any group since then.  It’s kind of a rugged time at work for me.  Cooking is my refuge, so even there I’m not putting too many restrictions on myself right now!

I’m sorry…there are no pictures to go with this…I was totally exhausted the night I chose to make this dish.  It was perfect for that evening, as it takes so little attention or preparation.  A little salt, a little pepper, rub, rub, rub it in to the cavity and the skin…roll a couple small lemons to make their juices free inside the skin, then pierce the lemon in several places to release the juices when the time is right…while the lemons are inside the chicken and it’s roasting happily; tuck the lemons in the cavity of the chicken, close the cavity with a couple of toothpicks and truss the bird to keep its shape.  What could be easier?  It was so easy, I slept through the entire cooking process, waking only long enough to turn the bird, and adjust the temp when required.  Thank goodness for LOUD timers!  It came out looking absolutely gorgeous…sayeth hubby… He took it from the oven and carved it for us.

Tasting Notes:
I have to admit, I didn’t find anything exciting about the taste of the chicken.  It was on the bland side.  I think I feel that way because I’m a die-hard brining fan.  I like to brine even my roasting hens for an hour or so before they go into the oven.  A quick outer salting did nothing for the skin except drive all the moisture out of it making it as tough as shoe leather…and that’s unfortunately where there was flavor…in the leather.

Sadly, as we are perceived as “consumers” and our sustenance perceived as “product” we are being exposed to more and more industrialized creatures once known as ANIMALS.   The chicken you purchase at your average market with the familiar nationwide label on the package, was raised for 8-12 weeks from chick to slaughter.  That’s an incredible amount of time to reach that size, don’t you think?  If you aren’t aware, chickens don’t reach that size naturally.   It will take a naturally raised bird 7 to 9 months to reach that size.  And have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to find a 3-4 pound chicken any more??   Have you noticed how they all weigh in about 5  to 5-1/2 pounds?  That’s so they all fit through the machinery evenly when they’re processed…

Sorry.  This stuff really gets to me.  I just want to see nice, safe food out there at the market, and sadly…that’s not so much the case.  I don’t want the animals tortured, nor filled with hormones and antibiotics so that we’re affected such things secondarily without our knowledge.   You, gentle reader, have the option of not reading the Soapbox section…and I will continue to mark it as such…because I’m NOT going to stop!  LOL!

Cooking Italy~Pot Roast braised in Red Wine

14 02 2010

This item on the Cooking Italy curriculum reminds me very much of a dish we prepared at Whisk Wednesdays, with some very minor exceptions.  Mostly more herbs and seasoning ingredients and marination time.  A chuck roast, red wine, the vegetable trinity – onions, celery and carrots – and olive oil to brown the meat.  Oh…let’s not forget the beef broth for simmering the roast either.

Although this isn’t a quick fix recipe, it doesn’t require much attention once you get it in the oven, or the back of the stove.  I put mine in the oven.   Browning the meat creates a nice fond, and a nice carmelization on the meat.  The small cut on the veggies lets them release their essences more quickly into the broth and wine mixture, which makes those flavors available to flavor the meat.  The wine and the tomato offer a bit of acid to break down the tougher tissues in the meat, and it all works in about 3 hours.

Our roast was hiding all kinds of goodies beneath it.  When it was removed, we loosened the pan drippings with the remaining beef stock (I had opened my last 16 oz. jar of beef stock for this recipe), and water, tasted for seasonings and made a pan gravy.  Seriously yummy.  We had the roast with mashed potatoes and a green salad on the side to round out our dinner.

Tasting Notes:
You’re going to love the way this makes your house smell!!  This really was good!   We didn’t get to eat the roast the night we cooked it.  We actually had to chill it down for another night.  I was pleased at how well it reheated.  I was afraid it would be dry having to wait an additional night, but there was no problem.  I couldn’t resist snagging a bite or two the first night…it was actually better the next day!!

Cooking Italy~ Sausages in Cream

14 02 2010

Although this dish is somewhat pale in color, let me assure you, Sausages in Cream is big on flavor!

Our Cooking Italy assigned dish for the second week of February is Sausages in Cream.  Marcella Hazan’s recipe calls for a mild sausage, one without bold flavors.  No fennel, no chiles, no sage.  Marcella’s son, Guiliano, recommends ground pork mixed with a small amount of finely chopped garlic, salt, pepper and white wine.  After hearing Angela’s (our intrepid leader and coach) perspective on the concept of sausage, purism, and innovation, I reached for the sausage I’m made a few months before.  Heigh-Ho!!!!

Some months back, I got a great deal on pork, and I made some sausage with seasonings I’d purchased from Penzeys.  With new found courage in my heart, I went hunting for the Bratwurst, because I knew that would have milder seasonings than Italian Sausage…however…if I found the Italian sausage first, c’est la vie!   Not to worry, I found the bratwurst, frozen wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, stored in a plastic freezer bag.  It was in perfect condition.  A quick thaw in cold water, and we were on our way!

The pastas recommended for this dish were fusilli or any pasta with nooks and crannies to grab onto the sauce and little bits of sausage.  I selected radiatore…I love the little radiators!  They have ripple upon ripple to catch the sauce and the meat, and worked out wonderfully.  I knew they would take longer to cook than the sauce would, so I put the water on, and when it came to a boil, I added the pasta and started the sauce.

The only difficulty I had was that it would have been far easier to use freshly ground meat. It was difficult to break up the pieces of sausage so that they made wee tiny pieces.  I used 2 wooden spoons and a little pasta water while the sausage was cooking to break it up more.  Just a lesson…try not to overwork the ground pork.  Everything else was remarkably simple.

Tasting Notes:
I don’t quite know what I was anticipating, but nothing quite this good, I can assure you!  This is one of those really nice little comfort pasta dishes that sneaks up on you.  You kind of expect not to like it so much, but the next thing you know, your bowl is empty…  The Penzey’s Bratwust seasoning according to their recipe made a great sausage for this dish!!  Oh my gosh!!  Although it sure isn’t low fat, put a substantial green, antioxidant veggie along side…or even toss with…, and you’re in great shape.  I think this would even work really well with whole grain pastas because of the sausage.  You wouldn’t necessarily recognize additional chewiness.  We really enjoyed this, and wouldn’t hesitate to have it again.  Sausages in Cream is another candidate for a quick and easy after work dish!

Cooking Italy~Lasagne Bolognese…sort of…

14 02 2010

As usual, I’ve gotten way out of sync over at Cooking Italy. It’s not that I haven’t been cooking…I cook a lot.  I just don’t always get the photos downloaded and the post done in a timely manner…nor do I always do the recipes in the order they’re presented!  *giggle*   If I just happen to have everything, then we’ll probably go that way instead, and catch this when I can.  And that brings us to how we’re talking about Lasagna Bolognese in February rather than December or January.

After all was said and done with the Bolognese sauce, I got sick. A raging, don’t-lift-your-head-up sinus infection. I did good to get the bolognese into the freezer. After buying spinach at least twice, I finally gave in and just made a casserole using “Lasagna Casserole” noodles. They look like miniature lasagna noodles. Worked for us! I layered the meat and bolognese with bechamel as though we were doing the real deal…and now I know why this is a beloved dish. I know I had too much sauce, but I had too much of everything so it all balanced out in the end.

Now…here’s the twist…This batch of sauce was from the older Marcella Hazan book, The Classic Italian Cookbook.  I loved everything about it…the texture, the creaminess, the rich flavor… It was heavenly. While this isn’t the lasagna I grew up with, it’s one I’d be happy to have again, and one I’d be happy to serve or share! Too bad there wasn’t any to share with Dr. Tony! LOL!

Tasting Notes:
There’s something about the addition of the bechamel sauce that mellows the entire dish into a soothing culinary caress. Maybe it’s because there’s considerable milk in the meat sauce…  Maybe the bechamel mellows the tomato to a lighter gravy?  Perhaps the bechamel is a magic elixer that carries the sauce to the pasta…  I don’t know, but what occurs is magical.   There’s an incredibly lightness to this dish, which seems as though it should be substantially heavy.  No wonder the uninitiated ask for second helpings!

Cooking Italy~Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce

30 01 2010

One of the things I love about Cooking Italy and the philosophy of our fearless leader, Angela aka Spinach Tiger, is that she’s out there hunting for HEALTHY, NATURAL, FAST FOODS!!  She’s a modern woman, who works like many of us.  Yet, she doesn’t want to sacrifice health and nutrition because of chaotic work schedules.  Here’s another example of being able to have a really quick dinner, without a lot of work, and still have healthy components.  I prepped, marinated and served dinner in an hour and 15 minutes, and spent a lot of that sitting down.  Gotta love that part!

Our sauce consists of anchovy fillets chopped fine, and smooshed into oblivion in olive oil.  I know it seems kind of gross if you aren’t on a nodding acquaintance with anchovies, but…try to give it a try.  If you use Worcestershire sauce, or fish sauce when cooking, this is pretty close to the same thing.  The anchovies are a substitute for salt, and they are a natural flavor enhancer.  Go figure.  If the quantity of anchovies really seems to much for you…use less and add salt to taste, but try to at least use some anchovy in the dish to get that “umami” factor going.  I swear we tasted NO fishiness.  Honest!  I can’t do fishiness.  *Ü*  I can’t even eat unagi on sushi dates.

I know my beloved, and my beloved needs protein at dinner time.  I decided that the best way to work this and keep my dish the way the recipe was written was to reach back to a starter we’d used earlier…shrimp marinated in olive oil and lemon.  That solved my problem.  If I served them at the same time, Bruce could eat shrimp with his pasta and feel complete.  I used broccolini rather than broccoli in my dish.  I chopped the stems into short lengths and cooked them in a small amount of salted water and saved the tops to cook only in the oil with the pasta.

In order to have everything ready at the same time, I put two pans on the stove…one for pasta, and one for shrimp.  They just needed a quick poach before they set for at least an hour in their bath of lemon and olive oil.  I’d have cheated and used the same water, except the shrimp needed some goodies in the poaching liquid, along with some vinegar.  While the shrimp was poaching, I did the rest of the prep work…got my veggies ready and chopped my anchovies, then measured my olive oil, and grated the cheeses.  That was it, besides scrubbing up.  I turned the pasta water to low to keep it ready for the Orecchiette.  Orecchiette are little ears of pasta.  For the next 45 minutes, it was all R & R time while the shrimp luxuriated in their bath.

When it was time to put dinner on the table, I kicked up the heat and set the pasta to boil, and started cooking the broccolini; set it aside; prepped the olive oil and anchovy sauce, and set it aside until the orecchiette were finished, then put it all together.  The whole process took maybe 15 minutes, start to table.

Tasting Notes~
The Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce wasn’t a dish I’d really think to use for broccoli, but it’s a dish I’d go to immediately for broccolini.  It was a little on the mild side for us…not quite enough flavor, even with the pepper flakes I haven’t mentioned anywhere yet.  The dish had a nice little bite, but not enough underlying flavor.  I wouldn’t want to add more anchovy…I don’t like fishiness, and more anchovy would lead to that.  Garlic…now that would be a thought, but then we’re changing the dish, and that’s never going to happen when I test a recipe for Cooking Italy…at least not the first time out!  It was good, but not fabulous, but it was fast!!   Actually, I’d like to try this again, only using the sauce from the shrimp with the broccolini and orecchiette.  With a little garlic…  I think that would go over a lot better.  Who knows?!

Cooking Italy~Lasagna…Step by Step 1

19 01 2010

First off, this isn’t the pasta box recipe for lasagna.  This takes time.  Plan to make the sauce on Day 1 and the lasagna on Day 2. Why?  Because it THIS IS Italian.  We made bolognese sauce awhile back, according to the recipe in Essentials of Italian Cooking.   Since then, there was quite a lot of discussion between the ladies in Cooking Italy about the differences between the Bolognese sauce recipe in Essentials and her original recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook.  A couple of the ladies said they didn’t particularly care for the Essentials Bolognese sauce, because it was too sweet for their tastes.  I remembered that it was a bit on the sweet side, and when I compared the recipes, it was easy to see why.  There are a lot more vegetables in the Essentials recipe, particularly carrots which will add a lot of sugar.

We’ll be preparing the sauce from The Classic Italian Cookbook this time around, and I’m making a triple batch of sauce.

Bolognese Ingredients:
2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped carrot
3/4 pound lean ground beef (chuck)
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juice

As you can see, there aren’t any, what we consider “typical Italian” seasonings.  Restrain yourself.  This is the real deal. You don’t need to add to it.  It’s how they prepare meat ragu sauce in the Bologna region of Italy.  They use milk to season their meat.  I realize it’s a foreign concept, but roll with it for this one dish.  Think of it as an experiment…

The unique thing about bolognese, as well as the time consuming part, is that it’s cooked in layers of flavor.  The vegetables are cooked briefly in the oil and butter; the meat is added and cooked just until the redness is gone; wine is added and cooked until the wine has evaporated.  The picture above shows the last of the wine cooking out of my meat mixture.  The next addition is milk and nutmeg.  The milk is also cooked until the meat has absorbed the milk and the excess liquid has evaporated.

The final stage is adding tomatoes and simmering a minimum of 3-1/2 hours, preferably 5 hours at a bare simmer.  To achieve this “bare simmer” I put my Mexican comal on the burner, then my cast iron chicken fryer on top of that, and then put my heavy soup pot inside of that.  There’s an air space between the soup pot and the chicken fryer, but that’s ok…that means there’s no way there can be burning from contact.

Once you’ve added the tomatoes, you don’t need to pay close attention to the sauce any more.  An occasional stir, every 20-30 minutes will do fine.  Just enough to keep an eye on it.  A single batch will cook more quickly than a double or triple batch.  However, once you get a taste for it, if you’re going to invest the time in a single batch of sauce, you may as well spend the day with a triple batch!  I started my sauce at 11 a.m. and took it off the stove at 10 p.m.  Remember, I knew I was in for the long haul, and I didn’t care. I chose a rainy day when this was my game plan.  I roasted a chicken for dinner and made lemon bars while this was going on in the background.  It’s a great background dish that way!

Here we are a few hours later.  You can see by the line on the pan where we started off, and where we are now.  The excess liquid is evaporating, concentrating the flavors of our sauce.  The oil you see on top is primarily the olive oil and butter we added at the beginning when we cooked the vegetables.  And below is our finished product after correcting for seasoning ONLY WITH SALT!!

The sauce will actually be better if it has a chance to rest and mature, at least overnight.  You’ll need about 2-1/2 cups for the lasagna, so package the rest for the freezer or for use on tagliatelle…oh, so good!   Sauces that are dense like this need to be spread as thinly as possible to cool quickly so food borne pathogens don’t start growing…tomato is one of their favorite mediums to grow in!  40°-140° is the danger zone, so chill your work down quickly!  I’ll see you back here soon to work on the Spinach Lasagna Noodles!