Sunday, 31 July 2011

Is That a Bread Crumb or Al Pacino in There?

It's peak salad season, no question about it.  At my house, we've been munching on raw veggies like bunnies in the fields at night.   Unlike bunnies, though, we've had baskets full of crusty (and non-crusty) bread, crostini, taralli, tarallini...Name your favorite gluten, it's been here. Salads, crunchy grains and, of course, Mr. BBQ's fare. My great griller of meats uses a mix of marinades, sauces and flavored butters.
Which got me thinking about our butter dish this week, how it's a magnet for gluten offspring, and what to do about it. Look into your butter dish. Can't you just hear those helpless little breadcrumbs calling out to you all-Al-Pacino-Godfather-Three-like as you dip your butter knife in?  "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!!!"  Listen to them bursting in there. They're stuck and try as we might to help them out, Well this was the week I decided enough is enough.  Fuggeddaboudem.  I'm onto something new. 

I'm mixing up some flavored butters. Why?  Because, much as I love olive oil, we still use lots of butter around here. These savory little butter cakes are easy to whip up and creative fun in a butter-as-play-dough kind of way. Not to mention, it feels so good to look into our butter dish and see stuff I wanna see! Here's what you need to make the flavored butter shown here:

  • 4 oz butter, room temperature
  • Herbs and other flavors
  • Wax paper 

Place softened butter in a small bowl.  Add flavors, roll in wax paper and set in fridge.  How much flavor are you looking for? Experiment to see what works for you. I used one heaping teaspoon of black peppercorns, two teaspoons of chopped fresh chives and a teaspoon of lemon for my first go here as I didn't want too much punch. I found it wasn't enough so next time, I'm going heavier on the flavor. Here are a few combinations I think might work and what I'll be trying next in my cucina:

  • 2 tablespoons each tarragon and chives and half a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons each sun dried tomato, roasted garlic and finely grated parmigiano
  • 2 tablespoons each roasted garlic, fresh rosemary, thyme and basil 
  • 2 tablespoons each hot pepper seeds, parmigiano and roasted garlic
(To roast garlic, wrap several bulbs in foil and bake in a 375F oven for 20 minutes.  Freeze unused portions for other dishes.)

Keep refrigerated and slice roll just before serving.  On hottest summer days when eating al fresco, cut, rewrap and place in freezer half an hour before dinner. Try these combinations or create your own.  Let your taste buds guide you...and say arrivederci, ciao, ciao to unwanted crumbs in your butter dish.

I'm taking a break to work in my garden for the next couple of weeks. I hope you're enjoying your summer. I look forward to "seeing" you again soon.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

And now for something completely different

Chickpea salad with ricotta salata and sun-dried tomatoes

I woke up to a rainy day today and it felt great.    The heat we had this past week was distracting.   It had been too hot to cook inside and too hot to cook outside.  Too hot to breathe just about.  I'm not complaining.  I'm just saying, it was soooo nice to have a cool, rainy morning.  Extreme heat meant green salads have ruled at our house.  They're refreshing, nutritious, and easily digestible-- an absolute must--  especially when the air conditioning can't even take the edge off hot-as-pepper temperatures.  But it's time for a change-- at least until the next deep heat sets in.

What to make that's nutritious but doesn't require turning on the stove?  My kids know how much of a health freak I am.  They've endured enough of my what-to-eat, what-not-to-eat speeches over the years as have my friends.  I've been on them like bread crumbs on butter.  Sorry, carissimi, but I nag because I care.  In any case, I'm sure my arteries have narrowed nonetheless with all the worrying I've done over junk food and it's too-big-a-presence in our world.  

When I shop for groceries, I'm on a health mission.  So when I saw the chickpea, quinoa and lemon dressing salad at my local grocery store this week, I thought I'd create a chickpea number with an Italian twist at home.  I'm sharing my first-go recipe with you. I used fresh chives from my garden but wasn't too happy with the results. It was a little too wimpy.  This is a lesson I keep repeating.  Do you have any ingredients you wrestle with? 

I like chives but they just don't have the kick I'm looking for most of the time.  Great with bread, good with egg, but it's mostly a miss when I try them elsewhere.  I suggest using white or red onion for more punch. If you enjoy a very mild onion flavor, chives are the way to go.  

Simple Chickpea Salad
  • One 28 oz can (796 mL) chickpeas
  • Dice up and include one cup each of the following:  softened sun dried tomatoes (soak in warm water a little to soften), ricotta salata, celery, cucumber, tomato (seeds removed), and red or white onion
  • For the dressing:  mix approx. 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 2 large cloves minced garlic, salt, pepper and peperoncino to taste.  Add a handful of sesame seeds if you wish

Toss all ingredients and dressing in a non-reactive bowl.  Mix well and refrigerate. Sample after the first hour or so and adjust dressing if you need to. Allow the flavors to blend for a few more hours before serving.  Nice on a bed of lettuce. Yummy with a serving of multigrain bread.

If you're a green salad lover, look up the Strawberry Panzella Salad on   Really nice.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A Day in the Life of a Bambino

How many times did I see my mom and my aunts holding a small spoon up in the air, twirling it like an airplane coming in for a landing?  There in the highchair sat a chubby cheeked child who just didn't want to eat.  "Ecco il treno!  Choo, choo!"  The train, the airplane...look here comes the truck (brmmm! brmmm!) to park in the garage.  Those little mouths would open wide just to hear their exhausted mammas teach those games and tell other stories.  Spoonful by spoonful those little ones would get fed.  To me, it seemed to take hours.   I used to sit on the sidelines; watch and listen, often enjoying my crusty bread and chewy hunk of parmesan cheese. 

As those bambinettes got older, mammas who had used up every ounce of their patience offered up this story instead:  "O ti mangi sta minestra o ti butto dalla finestra!"  Which, roughly translated the Clara Cannucciari way means: "Eat this mush, or I'll throw you out on your tush!" 

By the time I became a mom, those stories were long gone.  But the message of getting kids to eat what's good for them was as clear in my mind as a bottle of San Pellegrino.  High tradition had arrived in my kitchen and I felt the pull to keep it alive.  Thinking back, I'm not sure if I spent more time looking at my kids growing faces in those early years or at the insides of my sink and fridge.  Like most moms, it is a lot of a blur. 

Which reminds me, before I offer my recipes, check out blogging mama Lady Goo Goo Gaga's story called Beach Mode, but please don't judge her She is wickedly funny and her honesty takes my breath away.  Her stories remind that most young moms are exhausted because raising kids is a job that requires many helping hands. Sometimes those helping hands aren't there but we need to take a break anyway.  How many of us look back in wonder and ask:  "How did I do it??"   We all know it takes a village to raise a child, but knowing it and finding it in your everyday life are two  different things.  

Bambino breakfast: slices of apple taste buonissimi when topped with a thin layer of fig jam followed by a thicker layer of ricotta.    There's something about the apple-ricotta combo that hits the spot. I like fig jam best for this because it's mellow enough to not overpower the apple but try other jams and see what you think. Top with walnuts. 

Rapini Pancakes

Kids who won't eat their greens at lunch may eat them in the form a pancake.  Hey, it's worth a try.
  • Chop up rapini and boil with a little fresh garlic. I set aside about 1/2 a cup for the pancakes you see here.  Squeeze excess water out; let drain and cool in a colander, but if you have leftovers, awesome.
  • Scant onion (whatever kind you have on hand is a good kind)
  • A little chopped red pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • A little milk (roughly 1/3 cup)
  • 4 tablespoons flour (I used buckwheat but any flour will do)
  • A splash of olive oil
  • A pinch of baking powder and a pinch of salt
  • Grated cheese. I used about 2 tablespoons of parmesan but whatever you have on hand is good.  (I gave up running to the grocery store to make exactly what the recipe said years ago.  I've made lots of mistakes and no doubt there are whoppers to come but most days it manages to come together.)
Brush a little olive oil onto your skillet.  Cook on medium to low heat and, like regular pancakes, turn when the edges start to look cooked. Makes about 6 kid-sized pancakes.

Pizza di Nonna

My mom's mom was a great cook and my favorite nonna.  I call her Nonna Greenlight because she told us to "Go for it!"  whether "it" was wearing pants (no woman would dare in her day) or climbing trees and swimming far out into the lake.  My Sicilian grandmother was much older, always dressed in black, and couldn't accept the new-country's ways.  She was my Nonna Redlight. 

Though Nonna Greenlight had lost many of her material possessions by the time she came to Canada, I saw her make the best of what she did have. She taught us to do the same. Waste nothing.  Be frugal.  Start with bread and tomato, then ask yourself: what next... based on what I have today?  We'll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. She's has been gone for 15 years now and I still miss her.  If we get one wish at the Pearly Gates (as jokes say we will) I'll be asking St. Peter for a day with her. We'll have an espresso or two and sit and talk like old times.  I'll tell her about Bruno Mars' song and we'll laugh til the tears roll down our faces.  

Today's Pizza di Nonna:
Broil a whole-wheat bun til it's toasty brown.  In a bowl, mix some chopped up tomato, fresh parsley, 1/2 clove of garlic and olive oil.  Add a little salt and parmesan cheese.  Place on top of toasted bun.  Add three or four small diced shrimp (from a bag I have in the freezer this week) and top with a little more finely grated parmesan.  Tomorrow it may be something completely different.  What will it be in your kitchen today?

For a wonderfully creative kids' pizza idea, check out  Nice for parties if you're looking for something new. If you like baking, these kids' cookie ideas are so sweet, it makes me wish mine were little again so I could pinch their chubby little cheeks one more time. Visit to see what I mean.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Good To See You! Come On In!

Summertime often means unexpected guests and impromptu get togethers.  And at our place it rarely happens on the days the fridge is full of food!  No worries.  Every good cook is part Iron Chef after all.  And isn't half the fun testing our creative abilities under pressure?  Here are a few quick and easy ideas that help me cope with unexpected company. 

1.  Skewers. They're great for all things sweet or savoury and can help build a village if you have them on hand. Skewers have stopped me from nagging kids to eat all your fruit, helped me calm them down when they've gone wild with nothing to do, (let's make a few snacks) and whispered new ideas in my ear when my brain was numb.  Every summer kitchen needs them and kids who are old enough to handle a skewer safely can help prepare a platter or two.

Use whatever fruit you have on hand to make fruit kabobs.  Some fruits will need a little lemon juice to keep them from browning. Strawberries and grapes work well together as does watermelon with mango.

If you're short on fruit or prefer to go savoury, try loading skewers with coloured tortellini and whatever veggies you have on hand.   Just mix the freshly cooked pasta in a bowl with salt, minced garlic and basil.  Marinate for a few hours if you have time.  If you don't, they'll still taste great. I've used cherry tomatoes and cheese here but they work well with olives and marinated artichoke hearts, too.  

 2.  Salads. They're simple and always welcome. Fresh greens topped with sliced tomato, boiled eggs or leftover chicken just needs a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of your favorite vinegar.  Garnish with olives, capers, shredded carrot...whatever you've got going on in your pantry or fridge.  To quote singing chef Pasquale Carpino: "In music there is an infinity-- an endless number of combinations of notes and harmonies which will produce original and lovely melodies.  So it is with cooking.  The chef is like a composer, creating new recipes and adapting old ones to express the individuality that is found in each of us."

3.  Grilled vegetables. Keep a stash of them ready to go.  I grill a few zucchini and two or three eggplants almost every week this time of year.  Brush slices with a little olive oil, minced garlic and freshly ground pepper.  Refrigerate when cool.  Mix with peperoncino if you like, and use for sandwiches, dinners or quick snacks between meals. 

Zucchini shrink as they cook and when they do, I squeeze them closer together adding more slices to the grill until it's fully loaded.  Sprinkle with salt only after they're cooked to keep them from drying out.

The only thing better than a grilled zucchini sandwich is a grilled eggplant sandwich.  They're both great with hot pickled peppers, roasted red peppers, fresh tomato, goat cheese or ricotta salata.  Add fresh arugula or a couple of forkfuls of cooked rapini and your taste buds will journey back to nonno's garden of 40 years ago.

Top your grilled eggplant with diced tomato, red onion and parsley.  Drizzle more olive oil on top.

4.  Dress up your potatoes. Gnocchi season has shut down in my kitchen, but potatoes are my lifesavers any time of year.  They are soooo versatile. Best served hot from the grill, they can't really be prepared in advance, but this delicious spice mixture (see recipe below) can easily be prepared ahead of time.  Created by my grilling-obsessed husband, this mix will yield potatoes so delicious, they'll be dancing the Tarantella in your mouth.  

Mr. BBQ's Homemade Spice Mix                                    
In a medium-sized bowl, add 2 tablespoons each of: basil, thyme, chili, cumin, Cajun paprika, and regular paprika.  Add 1 teaspoon of black pepper.  Mix thoroughly.  Transfer to a glass jar and close tightly.  Store in pantry away from heat.

We used New Ontario potatoes--  a very dry variety and probably perfect for making gnocchi.  In a medium sized bowl, mix sliced potatoes, 2 cloves of garlic, olive oil and a dusting of spice.  Transfer to a foil pie plate and cover with foil as well. Transfer to the grill and cook for 25 to 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Ten minutes before the potatoes are done, remove foil cover, spray a little more olive oil on top and add another light dusting of your spice mix.  If you prefer to use whole potatoes, just wash, dry, (leave skins on) and rub the mixture onto each one before wrapping individually in foil.  Cook on a 400-degree grill for 40 to 45 minutes.  Delizioso.

5. The only beverages I stack up on in the cantina are water and wine.  You can't go wrong with either one.  If you have limes and lemons to dress up the water, it's always nice.  If you know about company ahead of time, fill a decanter with peaches, add red wine and refrigerate.  A three-day soak gives the wine a fruity flavor and brings me back to the summer days when I would stare at the beautiful colors in my parents' glasses...and couldn't wait for dinner to be done so I could go back outside to play with my friends.  I wish you molti felici backyard gatherings this summer!  Thanks so much for reading my stories--  mille grazie-- and for all the comments you've shared with me.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Have Sausage, Will Prosper

Try this version of sausage and peppers this BBQ season.

If you ever Google the word frugal and click on Images you might get a picture of my nonna talking with your nonna.  What would they be saying?  I imagine it would be something like this:

(My nonna:) "Take these pepper seeds.  I share them with you.  We grew the best red peppers last year!"

(Your nonna:) "Here are some of our tomato seeds.  I can't believe how big our tomatoes were last year.  And so sweet-- incredible!"

And isn't that the way it was?  They did everything from scratch.  Saved every piece of string and paper bag.  Traded seeds, biscotti,  ciambella, fagiolini and more.  Every day was an occasion, every season marked by a special dish.  They made do with what they had and helped others if they could spare a little.  And they could always spare a little. 

It was the spirit of nonna that helped me create this recipe last summer.  I had planned to make shish kabob for a pot-luck gathering of my usual friends.  I knew I had several packages of veal in the freezer, some of it in the form of stewing cubes.  Nessun problema, right?  Except when I went to the freezer round mid-day, I found myself staring at one package of stewing veal, two roasts, and two packages of sausage. 

Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic. Add salt and pepper. 
Yes... this is me. More often than I care to admit,  I still come home with two or three items missing from my grocery list.  Overestimating whatever I thought I had in the freezer is just a part of it.  After more than two decades of grocery shopping and rough-ideas meal planning... regardless of whether or not company's coming... I'm pretty sure this habit is just about impossible to break.  It used to upset me.  Now I just sigh and mutter to myself: here we go again.  I wonder if this will be the time I finally make a mess of things.

I stared at the insides of my freezer.  My thoughts went something like this:  Hmmm...this freezer could use a little defrosting...O Dio mio, I'm in trouble now.  I'm thinking about defrosting when I've got serious issues going on here.  This is a disaster.  And then: what would nonna do?  Start some yeast for pizza, I don't have time...and my from-scratch pizza is the worst pizza in the family.  That won't do.  And finally, there it was. The answer to my question.  Nonna would have no choice. She would have to figure out a way to make the best of what she had.  She had no car, many mouths to feed and a budget.  I had promised BBQ tonight and I had to deliver.

And so, sausage kabobs it would be. Here's how to make them:

Soak your skewers a minimum of  two hours before grill time to avoid blackening.  An overnight soak produces skewers that are so water-logged, they'll be happy to be on the grill.  And they'll look good, too.

Besides skewers and sausage, you'll need:  
Assorted peppers
Red onion
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar

When cutting your meat, sausage or veggies, keep in mind that all pieces need to be sized equally for even cooking.  I estimate between 3 and 5 kabobs per person when served with potatoes, a green salad and a little dolcetto afterward.

Cut sausage into 1 1/2" to 2" pieces and set aside.  Wash and blanche mushrooms.  A one-minute blanche will keep them tender and tastier.  Set them aside to cool in their own bowl.   Cut up peppers and onions.  Toss in a bowl, along with the cooled-down mushrooms, a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper.   

When loading up your skewers, push veggies snug against the sausage to keep pork from falling out of its casing.  Sear for two minutes on each side at 400 degrees.  Cook for another 12 minutes at 300 degrees turning only twice per side.  Serve with grilled potatoes, rice or bread and a green salad or a platter of tomatoes and sottaceti (pickled vegetables). 

Our pot-luck evening was fun.  My friends were surprised at this new twist on a traditional shish kabob.  Mostly I heard:  "I've never seen this before!"  What could I say?  "It was nonna's idea."

Serve with fresh tomatoes, hot peppers, pickled eggplant, olives and capers or whatever you like best.