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)

 

 

Advertisements

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)

Mangia at Miceli’s! An inside look at how some of the best cheese you’ll ever eat is made.

I usually don’t think about where my cheese comes from.  Unless it’s “stop you in your tracks” good.  And I take for granted just how often I get that feeling, because there is a lot of good cheese produced locally, by a company that’s been around for more than half a century.  I was invited to tour Miceli’s Dairy Products on Cleveland’s east side, to get a look at what $17 million in improvements completed in the last 2 years have done for the place. 

Micelis-bar

I was so happy to see a family-owned and operated business, continuing to invest in the community in which they are deeply rooted.  The new “Visitors Center” boasts a beautiful dining room and full bar, both fully operational.  Executive Chef and Food Services Manager, Mark Arndt, tells me they use the facility to host clients, and showcase new and classic applications of their products.

Micelis-welcome-center-and-bar

Now for proprietary reasons, I couldn’t take pictures of inside the manufacturing facility.  I felt like a guest at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

However, trust me when I say that it’s impressive!  They’re the largest privately owned manufacturer of ricotta cheese in the U.S.  They take hormone-free milk from Mid-West co-ops and produce dozens of varieties of ricotta, mozzarella, marscapone, and provolone cheese.

The operation sits on 20 acres in Cleveland’s east side, not exactly a hub of industry right now.  Yet the Micelli family, which already employs about 180 people, is planning to expand even further there, with facilities dedicated solely to mozzarella and provolone.

They even have a “Cheese Wizard” on staff to help them match the flavor and blend they’re trying to achieve.  How do you get that job title?!

The recent expansion includes a massive machine brought in from Italy that helps them process the curds, replacing the old manual way of doing things and helping them triple their ricotta production.  We’re talking millions more pounds of cheese because of this bad boy.  They now make 30 different varieties for clients like Nestle and Kroger.

micelis-fresh-mozzarella

After our tour, Chef Mark set out a nice plate of fresh mozzarella, drizzled with equally fresh pesto, and some candied pancetta.  I don’t have to tell you that I totally ignored the grapes on the plate.  I suppose those were to serve as a palate cleanser, but I didn’t want to use up any room in my stomach for that…as I also knew there was pizza coming!

chef mark arndt

Mark had fired up their massive custom wood-fired pizza oven earlier in the afternoon and crafted a fresh pie for me while he explained the newest product in their line, block fresh mozzarella.  It is more sturdy and less “weepy” than their six other traditional varieties.  Per their website: Miceli’s fresh mozzarella is made through a process called “pasta filata” which involves stretching and kneading the cheese to produce its soft, delicate texture.  It’s placed in water for freshness.  This new “block” form is better on pizzas and will have more commercial application, Mark tells me.

block fresh mozzarella

After just a couple of minutes in the 670* oven, I had an incredibly fresh and fragrant pizza to devour before I parted ways with the fine folks at Miceli’s.  Can’t wait to see what dairy dreams they turn into reality next!  

micelis-pizza

Herbal Harvest

It’s about that time when those of us in cooler climates have to come to terms with the fact that winter is coming.  Most of the leaves are off the trees and the first snow of the year will fall any day.  Ugh.  Before frost destroys it, it’s time to harvest what’s left of my humble garden.

I have a pair of four by four garden boxes in our back yard.  Not because I love to garden, or cultivate plants, but because I love to cook with fresh ingredients.  Each year I mix it up based on what did well the year before.  This year I dabbled in tomatoes for the first time, which were a disappointment due to our cool summer.  Same goes for the basil, an herb I could cook with every night.  My parsley, oregano and rosemary, however, blossomed this year.  Even into late fall, they’re still thriving.  But not for long.

After cutting all the herbs I could carry and spreading them out on my counter, I rolled up my sleeves and brainstormed about the best ways to maximize this aromatic harvest.

herbal harvest2

My go-to with excess herbs is some variety of pesto.  So I began by making a version of the Italian staple sauce.  As mentioned in a previous post, I usually make pesto with almonds rather than pine nuts.  They’re far cheaper, and I like the idea of putting a “super food” into a dish.  Pull out the food processor and combine roughly ¾ c. almonds with a couple handfuls of fresh parsley, a clove of garlic, ½ c. grated Parmesan, and some fresh squeezed lemon juice.  Season it with salt and pepper and fire it up.  The end game is a bright and fresh sauce that’s great on seafood like shrimp, salmon or any white fish.  Also try adding a little (like a quarter cup) cream cheese or goat cheese and toss it with linguine and a touch of pasta water.   Supplement with a protein like chicken or shrimp.   To. Die. For.

The food processor got me thinking about another idea that could set me up for an easy work day dinner: Herbed butter.  I softened some unsalted butter and blended it with a couple small cloves of garlic and parsley.  My husband loves spaghetti al olio.  So this will make it incredibly quick.  Simply cook some long pasta, and toss it with this garlic butter w/parsley, season, and add olive oil.  Top generously with grated cheese.

Then I took another stick of sliced, unsalted butter and added parsley, rosemary and oregano and garlic to make another version of herbed butter. I seasoned this with a touch of salt and pepper, then rolled it up in plastic wrap and foil and threw it in the freezer.  I plan to slice it off to use as needed on things like chicken and steak.  This will be versatile and very clutch when I’ve come home late from work and want to put together something great.

Fresh are too expensive to waste.  How have you made good use of excess?