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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The Feast!

I spent most of Sunday with a glass of homemade wine in my hand, and sat at an old kitchen table stuffing “Aunt Sue’s” hand made cannoli.  That can only mean one thing-time for The Feast of the Assumption.  It’s a holy day marking Mary’s ascension into heaven.  And for Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, it’s the busiest week of the year.  Marrying food, faith, family and heritage.  For me, it’s a can’t miss event.

This year we returned to the house that belongs to my future sis-in-law’s great Aunt Sue.  The 90 year old cooks enough to feed an army, and opens her home, adjacent to Holy Rosary Church (the center of the celebration), to dozens of people…whether or not their last name ends in a vowel.  The home made spread was hearty and true to neighborhood.

Pizza, Cavatelli and meatballs, Eggplant Parmesan, Caprese salad, Stuffed Peppers, Breaded Chicken, Sausage, Pepperoni Rolls and Beef Braciole.

I sampled everything on the table, of course!  My kids went right for the meatballs.  But quickly moved on to all things sweet, most colorful of which was the layer cake made like the Italian flag.

When I was done with round one…after all, this is a marathon, not a sprint, I eagerly volunteered to help my Alisa fill her grandmother’s hand made cannoli shells.  She was so grateful for the help, she even shared the secret ingredient to her cannoli filling (Dream Whip)  and invited me back to do the same job on Christmas Eve.

It was time to walk off some of our feast and check out the rest of the action.  We walked through the carnival portion (with short detours for a Ferris Wheel ride, and obligatory gambling at the church…we’re Catholics, after all) then past the gauntlet of food stands and vendors all serving up the neighborhood’s best.  Sausage and peppers wrapped in pizza, steamed clams, Stromboli.  You could linger for the entire length of the four day festival and still not eat everything you can smell as you walk down Mayfield Road.

We stopped by the historic Alta House, a community center that once served as a place for Italian immigrants to get help with housing, employment and language skills.  Now it’s mostly a recreation center, including several bocce courts that played host to a coed tournament.  But before we could take off our belts, to help determine who was closest to the “pallin” (really spelled pallino)-common practice-it was time to head back to Aunt Sue’s for the private concert in Sue’s driveway, courtesy the Italian Band of Cleveland.

It was such a treat, not only to listen to this charming group, but also to watch generations of people enjoying it together.

 

I’m so pleased to have spend another weekend among good people, great food and strong traditions.  Buona Festa, everyone!

Chef’s Table: Date Night at Flour

Old friends are the best.  Old friends, and good food…now that’s a great night!  My husband recently reconnected with a childhood friend (through a chance encounter I had with him during one of my cooking segment shoots).   They quickly caught up over the phone and decided to plan a night at the restaurant where he is a chef, Flour.  We scored the Chef’s Table on Saturday night so that we could chat up Brett and enjoy the incredible menu the place offers.  

Flour Salumi 

Seems only fitting in a restaurant labeled an “Italian Kitchen” that immediately after being seated, Brett greeted us with a stunning Salumi plate (complete with delectable selections like mortadella, coppa picante and salametto framani)

Flour cheese plate

And before we could even look at the menu, I was won over by the cheese plate that had fresh sliced turkey figs, Calabrian pecorino. langherino, humboldt fog and aged gouda.

Flour Allison and Andy

We had the pleasure of dining with another couple of old friends of the chef, Allison and Andy.  They too were ready to indulge in all that the menu offered, toast, taste and celebrate the success of their childhood buddy.

When I mentioned that we were coming to Flour, a friend who dines there often recommended one of the appetizers.

flour big a$$ meatball

“I have dreams about the Big A$$ Meatball at Flour,” she said

Didn’t take much to convince us.  We ordered a pair of these softball sized portions, which were placed on a rich whipped ricotta and topped with fried sage.  Heaven indeed.  We also tried the chorizo stuffed dates and a plate of mussels.

Flour Mussels

Since Brett is the self-proclaimed pizza master of the kitchen, we had to try one of the wood-fired pies that people rave about here.  Didn’t need to hem and haw about this choice…it was the potato carbonara for us and we were not disappointed.

Flour carbonara pizza

This killer pizza incorporates potatoes as part of the base beneath the aged provolone, egg and pancetta.  You’d think that was enough food…but once again our eyes were bigger than our stomachs and we decided to order three entrees to share as well.  We went for the Mediterranean Branzini, a tagliatelle with a bolognese, and the show stopper, a lobster strozzapreti with pancetta, bone marrow and cream.

Flour Lobster Pasta

This was a noodle new to me, and worth every single calorie.  Just when we thought we were done, Brett brought out dessert, a cereal panna cotta, sweetened from Frosted Flakes!

We shared a couple bottles of wine, plenty of memories, more food than we should’ve eaten, and some good laughs.  That’s a good date night no matter what your taste in food, or friends!

The Feast! Food, Faith, Family. Little Italy’s Feast of the Assumption

I’m stuffed.  And so very happy.  The Feast of the Assumption is my favorite food festival of the year.  It’s the marquee event of Cleveland’s Little Italy.  

the feast-madonna

It is a sacred event, commemorating Mary being taken up to heaven.  But you kind of feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven when you stroll down the street, taking in the delicious atmosphere and mouth watering food.

The Feast-Murray Hill

I count down the days until The Feast every year.  If I was smart, I’d fast in the time leading up to it.  Instead, I psych myself up like a competitive eater at Coney Island on the 4th of July.  In the end, since I can’t really pack away as much food as I’d like…I prefer to graze and share…graze and share.  That way I can sample, and experience, as much as possible.

The Feast-pizza and sausage

I always start at the “church lady” stands adjacent to Holy Rosary Church, the focal point of the four day event.  Italian sausage wrapped in a slice of pizza (as a bun) and topped with peppers and onions.  That I won’t share!

The Feast-natalies pizza

My girls opted for simple and classic slices of cheese pizza…which they ate in between turns on the carnival rides behind the church.

The Feast-ride with natalie

For a second course, I like to share a couple dozen steamed clams dunked in drawn butter.

The Feast-clams

Usually we sit outside on a patio, listening to Italian music sung by the same trio of crooners and button box player who appear on the corner of Murray Hill and Mayfield Road every year.

The Feast-italian singers

But this year…we were also treated to something special.  My brother’s fiance and her family invited us to her Great Aunt Sue’s home, just a stone’s throw from the church at the center of all the action.  She cooks for two weeks leading up to this event.  Friends and family chatted outside, sipping generous pours of the family’s famous home made wine.

The Feast-home made wine

The fun surprise of the evening was when the The Italian Band of Cleveland came to play a private set for the guests congregating in Aunt Sue’s driveway. (a testament to her own commitment to the neighborhood, and stature among those who call it home)

The Feast-Italian bandThe Feast-TubaThe Feast-Italian tuba

Full yet? Nope! Next it’s on to cavatelli and meatballs.  By this time, my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach.  But I can’t leave without diving into a bowl of this classic.  My girls didn’t argue.

The Feast-julias cavatelli

If the timing is right, in between courses (or during) you can catch a couple of tunes from folk singers on the street, dance to music from DJs, or tap your feet to live bands in tents behind some of the restaurants on the block.

For several of the restaurants in Little Italy, The Feast represents their year of profits.  And estimated 100,000 people attend.  They go all in for the event.  Beer tents are up, bands are blasting crowd-pleasing anthems, meatballs are served by the thousands, and pasta sauce is simmering in pots big enough to swim in.

The Feast-bocce

At the end of the street, you can hear the distinctive sound of bocce balls colliding and slamming in to the wood-framed courts at the Alta House.

Teams of four encased in clouds of cigar smoke and Old-World Italian accents.  Drink it in.

Couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of a statue of “The Madonna”  sitting solemnly in front of a rock band setting up on a ledge there.

The Feast-madonna at Alta House

Time for dessert.  Did you think we were done?  This I never falter on.  The sweet finish to this incredible feast must always be the tiramisu at Presti’s Bakery.  Of course there is cannoli, cassata cake and lemon ice at various booths.  But for me, dessert begins and ends with the best tiramisu in the city.

The Feast-tiramisu

I always leave The Feast of the Assumption full, in both stomach and spirit.  It makes me proud to be an Italian American and a Clevelander.  Mangia!

Too Much Take-Out

We’ve started a new routine in our household that we’re trying to stick to.  I’ve asked my husband to take care of dinner on Friday nights.  It’s a pretty rare occasional when he actually cooks.  Doesn’t matter.   Most of the time, it’s take-out.  And that’s just fine with me, as long as the task is taken off my plate.  And with take-out…whether it’s Chinese, pizza, or your favorite neighborhood wing joint….there’s usually leftovers. 

When my husband orders take-out, his eyes are generally bigger than both of our stomachs.  He recently came home with a box…not a bag, a box…full of food from a locally owned and family-run Italian restaurant we’ve become quite fond of.  He placed and picked up our dinner order rather late, and I noticed they threw in an entire to-go box full of bread sticks (probably end of dinner service and they didn’t figure they’d be good after that night, and/or hostess who took the phone order thought they were feeding a family of 8, given the size of said order).   I couldn’t find room for even one….between the wedding soup, salad, chicken piccata and homemade spaghetti and meatballs.  But these were bakery-quality bread sticks and I hated to toss them.

breadsticks

I try to make something for breakfast on the weekends that’s different than the usual scrambled eggs or soggy cereal.   The breadsticks were just what I needed to whip up some quick French toast sticks.   A few easy steps and my children were gathered around the table gobbling them up.  Crack a couple of eggs, add a generous splash of milk, about teaspoon of cinnamon (or more if you prefer) and a teaspoon or more of vanilla.  Then whisk everything together.  Dunk each piece of bread in the egg mixture so that it’s totally coated.  Warm some butter on a flat top, frying pan or griddle pan.  Cook the French toast sticks until each side has a nice golden crust.  Most would butter then and serve with maple syrup.  But I’m not too fond of maple flavored anything, so I like to sprinkle a little sugar on top instead.  The best part?  These could also freeze and be on stand-by for a quick go-to weekday breakfast.

What do you often find yourself left with after take-out night?  What have you done with it?