Basil Fest!

 

 

 

 

Put basil in just about anything and I will try it.  Kinda like bacon.  I think it’s got a place in both sweet and savory dishes from apps to desserts and this time of year I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re lucky, and you’ve been an attentive gardener this summer, right about now your basil is blowing up.  Fortunately for me, my blooming basil timed out with my favorite sous chef (my sister) spending some time in town.  We love spending time in the kitchen together.  And we love preparing big family feasts together.  She had a brilliant idea this go ’round: Basil Fest.  We picked as much as we could from my garden, my parents, and a neighbor and went to town!

basil harvest

I had a bucket full of bright, big, flawless green leaves to work with, so coming up with the menu wasn’t tough.  There were still plenty of fresh, juicy strawberries to be had and tomatoes are just starting to ripen around here.  So those, plus all of our basil harvested, and another neighbor’s fig tree were the inspiration for the menu.

basil fest menu

I started with the lemonade.  I love making home made lemonade!  It’s a few extra steps compared to dumping the powder and mixing it with water of course, but I think the fresh tasting results are worth it.  I used Paula Dean’s recipe for strawberry basil lemonade.   I halved it, since I didn’t have the time or energy to juice a whole bushel full of lemons, and it was easy and fabulous.  Bonus: makes a good mixer for cocktails, too!

strawberry basil lemonad

Next, I moved on to my panzanella.  I like to let mine sit for a while to soak up all the juices and really marinate.  This is where my Cheftovers magic comes into play.  Panzanella is a salad that combines bread (leftover or stale, preferred actually) and fresh veggies.  So I cut a handful of rolls we had left over from the previous weekend’s barbecue into cubes, and toasted them up in a pan.  Voila!  What would have been trash is now an essential component to my colorful salad.

IMG_8176

There are plenty of routes you can take with panzanella depending on your taste and what yo’ve got on hand.  I used fresh tomatoes, yellow and orange peppers, cucumbers, red onion and a ton of BASIL, naturally.  I tossed everything together and dressed it with a simple red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing (seasoned with only salt and pepper).  If they made a panzanella print I would wear it as a dress!  Isn’t it beautiful looking?

panzanella

I took more of those same leftover rolls and used those for the base of my bruschetta.   No surprise, more tomatoes and basil at play here.  But instead of finely chopping the garlic to add to that killer combo, or painstakingly shaving garlic and scraping the freshly cut cloves on to the toasted bread, I decided to finally break in my “brand new” mortar and pestle I scored from cookbook author, Michael Ruhlman’s estate sale.  By using that tool, I created a smooth garlic paste to mix in with the fresh basil (minced) and tomatoes (diced).  Drizzle that with olive oil and pile it on to toasted bread and you’ve got a bright, crunchy bite with a more gentle and evenly distributed garlic flavor that other methods will deliver.

 

Now it was time to move on to the real work-the pasta.  This is where my sister shines.  I have tried, and tried and listened and watched.  But my homemades never seem to turn out the way hers do.  So I let her go to town, making fresh noodles with the help of my 3 year old, a real chef in the making.  The only secret I can share that maybe you won’t find in other recipes: she pours white wine into the shell of the empty egg she uses for the dough and adds it to the mix.  It’s magic.

While those beautiful noodles rested, I made the pesto.  More BASIL! Lots more basil.  Recipe follows.  One trick that will help you keep your pesto that beautiful bright green of the leaves, and not brown from bruising them-add a little ice to the food processor!  And if you don’t keep pine nuts in your pantry (I usually don’t because they’re so expensive but for this dinner we were sticking to tradition) substitute almonds for a cheaper, super food solution.

pasta with pesto

When it was time to cook and toss the pasta in with the pesto, I warmed it up in a large pan, and loosened it up with some olive oil.  I added grilled chicken for some protein, but shrimp is nice with pesto too.  And be sure to sprinkle your pesto generously with some Parmesan or Romano.  While the pasta was cooking we sliced up the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and more juicy tomatoes then hand picked the prettiest and largest basil leaves left to top off our caprese salad. (BONUS: We learned a new hack from the cheese vendor where we bought the log of buffalo mozzarella-slice it with dental floss for a smooth even cut)

better caprese salad

This is an easy finish after you’ve sliced and stacked the components.  Just drizzle it with the best olive oil you’ve got and then top it with balsamic vinegar, or even better, balsamic glaze for a sweeter touch.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and let the flag of Italy inspired salad sing!

When we plated everything up it made for a stunning tablescape of BASIL centric dishes.  I set a nice table and we feasted on our hard work.

AND-we couldn’t forget dessert! Using a recipe from Fabio Viviani’s new cookbook (Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian) as inspiration, I combined ricotta, honey, mascarpone cheese and put a dollop of that on a freshly picked fig (halved), courtesy my parent’s neighbor.  Drizzle that with more of the balsamic glaze and top it with another perfectly petite basil leaf and you have a sweet and savory finish to Basil Fest.

Now you know there is more where that came from!  Still plenty more of my favorite herb growing in my garden.  So, inspire me!  What are you making with your basil? What should I try? 

Basil Pesto

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

 

 

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Working Mom Gourmet: Weeknight Dinner Solutions

Now that the school supplies are purchased and orientations under our belts, it’s time to settle into to this school year’s weekday routine. And for most people that means juggling carpools, sports practices and games, piano lessons and lots of homework. Oh yeah, you gotta squeeze in dinner somewhere too.

Resist the urge to hit the drive thru, order take out or give in to expensive pre-made or frozen dinners. We almost never do any of those things in my house and I am a pretty busy gal. My friends are convinced I’m a vampire because of all I manage to get accomplished.

A couple of followers have asked for my suggestions for easy weeknight meals with little prep or cook time.  Happy to share!

pesto.jpg

Presto, pesto!  Make a batch now, while the basil is abundant and fresh. Freeze it in ice cube trays or small containers for use when you need it.

Pasta is the obvious pairing with pesto. Choose a quick cooking pasta like angel hair to get dinner on the table faster.  Add the pesto to cooked pasta with olive oil, and toss, and you’re in business.

Grill some chicken ahead of time, or add in some quick cooking shrimp for a protein add-in for the pasta. For a creamy option, add a tablespoon or cream cheese or goat cheese to the pesto mixture. So delish!   If you’re over (or off) pasta, pesto is GREAT on zucchini noodles. Or you can also spread it or chicken, fish or shrimp too, for an herbaceous baked protein.

See below for my go-to basil pesto recipe (I use almonds instead of pine nuts because those are too expensive, plus I always have this super food around). I also like to mix it up and use walnuts for a variety, and I often make parsley, mint or cilantro pesto which is incredible on fish.

For a dinner that’s super kid friendly and fun for both them and adults, try my walking turkey Frito pie. (see previous post, A Portable Picnic, for this recipe)  You can always chop your veggies and cook the rice for build-your-own stir fry bowls the night before. 

Or mix up fresh pizza dough in the morning or the night before (so cheap to make and uses so few ingredients). The dough will be perfect by dinner time.  I use Leanne Brown’s recipe from her book, Good and Cheap.  Getting the kids involved in topping their own pizza always ensures they’re more likely to eat it!  It’s not rocket science, but it is science.  It’s proven!!  Crank up your oven to 500 and that ‘za will be ready in 10 minutes.

pizza

Cut down on cook time for family-friendly favorites like meatloaf, tuna noodle and broccoli, cheese and rice casseroles, pot pie or baked mac n cheese, by portioning them out into ramekins, or cupcake tins. Adults can control their portions better and cook time is cut in half! My kids always get a kick out of eating things “just their size” too.

For tonight’s dinner, I sneaked in some finely chopped zucchini and kale into mini meatloaves for a helping of greens that my children (and husband) won’t even know they are eating. Pillsbury has a really easy crescent roll mini pot pie recipe that I like, too.

Another favorite among my kids is carrot soup. It’s colorful, sweet and savory. Plus it keeps well so you can make all, or portions of it, ahead of time. I usually make it on the stove top with lots of fresh shaved ginger. But I had a bunch of HUGE carrots and some red/yellow peppers from the farmers market so I decided to roast them!  (recipe follows)

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, make baked taquitos.  I like to mix up shredded leftover chicken, cheese, rice and/or beans, and any veggies I have hanging around.  Put a spoonful of the mixture in a tortilla and roll them up tightly.  Place them in a baking pan seam side down and bake at 350 until they’re just barely browned. It’ll take no time at all!  You can dip them in salsa, guac or sour cream. Great way to use leftovers and not repeat taco night!

I always feel better when we have dinner together, especially one that I made myself.  And when it doesn’t take me all night, I’m happy.  We all know, when mama’s happy….

Roasted Carrot and Pepper Soup:

3 large carrots, peeled
1/4 of a red onion
1/2 a red or yellow pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
3-4 sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Salt/pepper
1 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)

Cut the veggies into similar sized pieces, about one inch chunks so they will roar evenly.
Line a baking sheet with foil and preheat oven to 400*.
Drizzle veggies, and garlic in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Spread evenly on the baking sheet and roast for 30 min.

This can be done ahead of time. And if you double the portion, use the half roasted veggies for a side dish today, use the rest for soup tomorrow!

Place the roasted veggies in a blender with 1 1/2 c. broth (chicle or vegetable). Blend until smooth.

Put the soup in a sauce pot and cook a little longer to thicken. Add salt and pepper if needed. Add a tablespoon of heavy cream or half and half of you want a more creamy consistency.

Basil Pesto:

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

Drying Garden Herbs

The time has come, I hate to admit, to ready my garden for the winter.  I took one of the last glorious fall days, warm and sunny, to dig out what was left of my herbs.  But, in true Cheftovers form, I had to do something with the stragglers.  And since I don’t have a greenhouse to preserve the plants, I decided to try drying them in the microwave.  It was remarkably easy and not as tedious as I thought.  And when jars of dried herbs can run $5-10 each…why not give it a go?

garden herbs

After I transplanted all that I could into smaller pots close to the house, I trimmed up a bunch of basil, rosemary, and parsley.  I took a long hard looks at the volume of parsley I had (looked like a bushel), and the thousands of little needles on the rosemary bush, and decided basil would be the only one I’d be experimenting with for now.

garden herbs leaves

I plucked the individual basil leaves from the stems and placed them in a single layer on a paper towel.  I also placed another layer of paper towel on top.  Then it was time to fire up the microwave.  Since mine doesn’t have temp control (low/medium/high), I only heated it for a short amount of time initially.  And I didn’t want to burn them or start a fire with “dry” leaves on a paper towel.  But I was banking on the fact that these freshly snipped leaves still had enough moisture in them.

drying garden herbs

After thirty seconds, I examined the leaves and was pleased that it was working!  Not enough time yet…

So I put it back in for another 20 seconds, then another 15.  Each batch varied in terms of size and number of leaves, but in the end each round I dried needed about 1:00-1:15 in the microwave.

dried garden herbs

I transferred the dried leave to a Ziploc bag and crushed them by hand.  In the end I generated about 1 cup of dried basil leaves.  As you probably know, that will get me pretty far (two full batches of Picciano family pasta sauce, in fact!)  And all for free.  Not bad!

jarred herbs

As for the rosemary and the parsley I have…I opted for the tried and true “hang and dry” method.  Besides, I think they look kinda cool in my kitchen.

hanging rosemary

I will probably need to give those a week or more to dry out completely.  Then I’ll do the same with those (remove them from the stems and crush the dried leaves).

What are you doing to ready your garden for winter?  I’m always looking for tips from those with a green thumb!

Sisters Pasta Night: Homemade Mushroom Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage

In colleges, my sister studied abroad in Siena, Italy.  She could barely put two sentences of Italian together at the end of her experience…she mostly studied wine and Italian men.  But she came home with a killer hand-made pasta recipe.  And while she might call me on a weekly basis for meal suggestions, and help with recipe substitutions, she is still the authority in the family on home-made pasta dough.  It’s something we do together whenever she is in town. 

For this round I was ready to make a ton of pasta, and freeze it.  And I wanted to use the bountiful herb garden I was “passively cultivating.”  It’s a real jungle back there because I can’t seem to find the time to maintain it.

herb-garden

I sifted through the hip-high cilantro and lettuce plants, to snip bunches of fresh parsley, chives, sage, and basil.

garden-herbs

I knew we’d need marinara sauce for all this fresh pasta too, so I put a pot of that on as well.  Working loosely off a recipe I learned at a class at The Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, I used garlic and onion, grated celery and carrot, whole peeled tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper, salt and pepper, and lots of the fresh parsley and basil.

marinara-sauce

While that simmered, we got to work on the first dough.  The ingredients are few…it’s the technique that’s still tough for me.

3 c. flour, unbleached

3 large eggs

1/4 c. dry white wine

1 tsp. salt

Water or extra flour, if needed

Lexi-making-pasta

You start by creating a “mound” with your flour, and make a deep well.  Meanwhile crack the eggs in a bowl and break the yolks up with a fork, then add the wine and salt to the eggs.  Carefully pour the egg mixture into the well.  Then, using a fork, slowly bring the flour in to the egg mixture.  When the flour is totally absorbed, begin kneading by hand for 20 min…no shortcuts!  Add water if it seems dry, or sprinkle more flour if it’s too wet.  Gather it in a ball and place it in a mixing bowl, covered with plastic wrap, to rest for 30 min…no shortcuts there either.

The first batch was dinner that night: a classic fettuccine with marinara.  We made a second batch of dough for me to make ravioli with.  I whipped up the filling while Lexi, and my eager daughters, kneaded.

Julia-making-pasta     Natalie-making-pasta

I wanted to use all that beautiful sage.  So I sautéed some mushrooms in olive oil, with garlic and shallots.  Then I added chopped sage, and a drizzle of truffle oil.  I mixed that with some ricotta, salt and pepper, and more truffle oil and let it cool while we rolled the dough.

Natalie-rolling-dough

First we cut the fettuccine, as we’ve done every time before.  You start on the widest setting, cranking that pasta machine to gradually reduce the width until the dough is the desired thickness, then cut it. (angel hair, linguine, fettuccine, etc.)  We sprinkled a tablecloth with flour and let it dry while we moved on to the delicate ravioli.

homemade-pasta

For those, we rolled the dough out, same as before.  Then we laid the sheets of pasta over my grandmother’s old ravioli plates.  I put a generous teaspoon of the filling in each pouch.

ravioli filling

Then we placed a second sheet on top, and used a rolling-pin (and the back of a spoon) to “stamp” or cut them.  We tore off the excess around the edges then carefully popped out each delicate little ravioli.

Ravioli-trays

To be honest, these usually don’t turn out so well for me…but these looked beautiful!!

Last round of dough was experimental.  I chopped up a ton of fresh chives and we incorporated that into the dough during the kneading process.  Toss this pasta with a little butter and you’ve got something pretty spectacular.

pasta-with-chives

There was salted water boiling on the stove…time to taste the fruits of our labor!  First course was the fettuccine and marinara.  It didn’t disappoint.  While we poured a second (or fourth?) glass of wine, I browned some butter and added more chopped sage, plus seasoning.  When the ravioli were cooked through in the water, I drained them and added them to the saute pan to brown them up.  Sprinkle some grated cheese on top. Perfection.

Julia-in-an-apron

I had a full heart and a full belly at the end of the evening.  It was so much fun for my girls to share in a special sisters pasta night!  I hope they carry on the tradition.

Chef’s Garden

Every chef I’ve ever met speaks about the importance of fresh ingredients and working with what’s in season.  What better way to control the quality of what you serve, than to grow it yourself?  

Unless you’re a regular, you probably would never know the volumes of produce grown behind one of my favorite restaurants in Cleveland, L’Albatros Brasserie + Bar.  A tour of their garden left me hungry for a fresh summer salad and ashamed that I haven’t been taking better care of my own garden!

Chef de Cuisine, Temple Turner was gracious enough to show me around and walk me through what they’re growing, and what they make from their more than modest garden.

L'Albatros-greens

The staff works with a gardener, Lois, to plot out their plots and designate the best picking times for things like thyme and basil.  Turner says they are trying to get as many greens in the ground as they can fit.  They use things like Swiss chard and kale for salad specials.

L'Albatros-watercress-table2

Their two cascading watercress tables are just amazing.  They harvest from there every day for use in Watercress Cesar Salads and for garnish on nearly every other entree.

Chef-Temple-Turner

Fragrant concord grapes cover the back fencing.  Turner says they’ll use it in a sorbet, a compote for desserts or a sauce on a protein.  Same goes for the bright and bold currants.

L'Albatros-currants

About 20% of their produce during high season comes from their own garden, but they’d like it to be more.

FRISÉE AND BACON LARDONS WITH POACHED EGG

FRISÉE AND BACON LARDONS WITH POACHED EGG

“It provides some options when a picky table or diner asks to switch things up.  We pick out something from the garden as an alternative, harvest it and cook it on the spot…fresh from the garden,” the chef says.

Peppered throughout the plots are baby strawberry plants.  The fruit easily wilts almost immediately after you pick it.  So rather than incorporating them into dishes, they’ll offer them up to diners during garden tours.  Two or three times a night, guests are brought out into this little oasis after their meal, as a way to showcase what the restaurant does with the space.

L'Albatros-wildflowers

Even the flowers you’ll see decorating the bar, dining room and bathrooms come from this same garden

“It was tough to get it off the ground, and coordinate what they could harvest but once that was determined it got easier,” says Turner.

L'Albatros-watercress-salad

With limited space in the kitchen, trying to coordinate when to harvest and clean large volumes of their own produce in the kitchen is tricky.  But when you taste things like this watercress salad, made up on the fly in the L’Albatros kitchen, you’ll see it’s worth it.

Zack-Bruell-Oil-and-Vinegar

Duck, part deux: how I made lasagna out of cassoulet leftovers

I had a pretty awesome birthday this year, topped off by a dinner out at a fantastic French restaurant.  When I have the pleasure of dining there, I order the cassoulet. (a rich, slow cooked casserole of sorts, with duck confit, pork belly and white beans) It’s decadent and delectable.  This time I also indulged in a recommended appetizer, so I couldn’t man up and finish the entire cassoulet myself.  So, I doggy-bagged that dish and brought it home to enjoy again.  But how?

leftover cassoulet

There were a lot of white beans there, which were creamy and beautifully cooked.  But I can’t just eat spoonfuls of them.  I pureed them along with some olive oil and the other stragglers -a couple of carrots and some parsley-and decided I was going to turn this doggy bag of delight into lasagna!

white bean filling

I had some lasagna noodles in the cupboard, so that covered one layer.  I decided the white bean puree would serve the same purpose at the ricotta usually does. (it had the same texture and consistency)  And I had an Italian cheese blend in the deli drawer of my fridge.  All that was left to tackle was the sauce.

leftover duck confit

I decided the duck leg from the cassoulet would substitute for the ground meat I usually work into a lasagna sauce.  So I chopped the meat off the bone, but reserved the bone (figuring it could come in handy later)

Now, a traditional lasagna sauce starts with garlic, onion and olive oil to flavor the browning meat.  Then you add tomato and spices.  So I too began with garlic, onion and olive oil and sauteed that until the veggies softened.  Then I added about 15 oz of canned tomato sauce I had in the cupboard.  I stirred in some salt and pepper, basil and oregano then tossed in the duck leg bone to incorporate that rich meaty flavor.  When the sauce got to a nice simmer, I covered it and let it mature for about 30 min on low.  duck lasagna sauce

Next, I tossed in the chopped duck meat to make for the chunky, meaty sauce that I’m used to.  I let that sit on the stove for another 15 min, also on low.

layering the lasagna

Now it was time to layer.  I started with a thin layer of my sauce.  Then I placed a no-bake lasagna noodle on top, followed by a layer of my white bean puree and a heavy handed sprinkling of Italian cheese blend.  I repeated this process twice more, ending with a layer of sauce and white bean puree mixed together.  Then a last helping of shredded cheese.

duck lasagna

I covered this French-Italian fusion experiment with foil and popped it in the oven at 350* for 35-40 minutes (until it was bubbly).  Voila!  That’s French, right?!

If I’m being honest, I could actually eat cassoulet (leftover or not) a couple times a week.  So it wasn’t my first instinct to mess with “perfection.”  But the idea of zapping this beautiful collection of ingredients into a microwave on day two made my heart hurt.  So, getting creative (or crazy) with these classic French elements was the next best thing the next day!

Risotto Redux

When my husband bites into something he really likes, he often uses a playful term to describe it: “tastycakes.”  I believe I’ve just created actual “tastycakes.”  You be the judge.   I’ve asked those close to me, and those of you  following me to send me a challenge.  What are some of the leftovers you often have lingering around your house, that you’d like to give a “Cheftovers” makeover to?  My sister is this week’s challenger.  The subject: leftover risotto.

leftover risott

We like to make a lot of risotto in my family.  It’s a great side in its simplest form, and it’s a great canvas for other ingredients (often bits and pieces of excess ingredients from other dishes like asparagus, artichokes or spinach) that can help boost it up to an entree.  It takes time and attention, and arborio rice is much more expensive than white or brown rice.  For those reasons, it’s a shame to toss anything not eaten.

Whenever I see arancini on a menu, I can’t resist.  They’re rice balls (often with a cheesy center)  lightly breaded and fried, and served with a marinara…kinda like rice croquettes.  I knew I wanted to go this direction.  Problem is, I don’t have a fryer, which is necessary to get that even golden brown finish around the entire thing.  So I decided to adjust the shape for easier execution.  Just smoosh ’em down and call them risotto cakes!  I also remembered a half a bag of teeny tiny shrimp I had waiting in the freezer (the kind you’d use to make shrimp salad)  Now…I was cookin’!

start of marinara

I started on a quick marinara.  I chopped up some garlic, and onion and let those sweat it out in some olive oil while I finely diced up a stalk of celery and a carrot.  (for best results, you should really grate those both…but to be honest, I was feeling a bit lazy, so I decided to get past the slightly chunkier texture at the end to avoid that tedious step)  I allowed the veggies to cook down and soften, making sure to season them with salt and pepper.  Then I reached for the other half of a large can of crushed tomatoes I had in the fridge (from a recipe earlier in the week) as well as some tomato paste (from the same dish).  I added those, and a generous dash of crushed red pepper to give it some kick.  If I had fresh basil around, I would’ve used it here too.  But since I didn’t, I settled for dry herbs instead.  Since I was winging it, I stirred it and tasted it frequently, adding salt and water until it had the consistency and flavor I was looking for.  In the end, I actually ran it through a food processor to get a smoother texture.

marinar

Then I got to work on the risotto cakes.  To the leftover risotto, I added about a cup of chopped tiny shrimp, a heaping tablespoon of parsley, an egg and a little bit of breadcrumbs (until the mixture wasn’t “wet” anymore).  I didn’t season them too much, as the risotto already had been upon first preparation (with s/p, shallots and garlic).  I took about two tablespoons of the mixture and rolled it into a ball, then coated it in more breadcrumbs.  I placed them on a cookie sheet with parchment paper, then smashed them down until they looked more like crab cakes than meatballs.  I then froze them to prevent them from falling apart in the frying pan.

risotto cakes

When I was ready to cook them, I just defrosted them in the refrigerator to defrost, than pan fried them, just like I would a crab cake.  I warmed the marinara and served it on the side.  Tastycakes, indeed.

What’s next?  Give me something good to work with!  I’m ready.  Send pics or ideas and I’ll get cooking.