Fun Fall Recipes

The switch has officially flipped in my home.  It feels, looks and smells like fall around here.  Fall flavors are about as distinct as any.  Warm, earthy, and of course…pumpkin spicy.  I’ve been invited by my friends at She in the CLE to create some fun fall recipes.  To me, a collection like that wouldn’t be complete without incorporating apples, pumpkin and a clam bake!

For those of you who have a countdown programmed in your phone for when the Starbucks PSL is finally available…this breakfast is for you.  Pumpkin.  Spice.  Pancakes.  Now, I could have developed my own pancake mix recipe, but I’m a realist.  And I think most of you are too.  So the base of this recipe is Krusteaz buttermilk pancake mix.  Then I put my own #Cheftovers twist on it.  Creative pancakes, like characters, or animals, have become a weekend tradition in my household (check out my Instagram account, @jenpicciano. My pancakes are usually my most popular posts). Just like jack-o-laterns, make these your own.  Use what you’ve got in the house to decorate these fun fall flap jacks. Or don’t.  And just enjoy fall’s favorite spice blend in a new way.

pumpkin-spice-pancake

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

1 c. Krusteaz buttermilk pancake mix

2/3 c. water

2 T. pumpkin puree

1/2 t. cinnamon

one pinch each of ground ginger, nutmeg and ground cloves

Combine all ingredients and mix well.  Add a pad of butter on to a hot frying pan or griddle and spoon in a ladle full of the batter. Cook until you see bubbles.  Flip and cook the other side until golden brown.  Decorate like a jack-o-latern with candies, or just top with powdered sugar or syrup.

I’ve also taken some filling from leftover pumpkin pie (I know, who has that?? ) and added it to pancake batter, with similarly tasty results. 

Apples are abundant, cheap and versatile.  But why do something complicated…or expected with them? That’s not what you’re here for, right?!  Every time I walk past the caramel apple stands at late-summer county fairs, or fall festivals, I’m tempted by the combinations of sweet, tart flavors.  But I’m turned off by the task of tackling the whole apple and thick layers of caramel, chocolate etc. when I bite into them.  So why not break it down and still get all you’re after?

apple-nachos

Caramel Apple “Nachos”

1 Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced

1 T. chopped peanuts

1/4 c. Smucker’s salted caramel, warmed

1/4 c. chocolate chips, melted

1 T. Nestle Toll House Pumpkin Spice or Halloween morsels

Arrange the apple slices in a pile on a plate. Drizzle with melted chocolate and caramel.  Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and pumpkin spice morsels.

Clam bakes are one of my favorite fall traditions.  I love the steamy, savory smells, and appreciate the process of cooking clams, potatoes, corn and chicken in one giant pot of heavenly fall goodness.  But it can be intimidating and time-consuming.  So I took the elements of the fall party favorite and made it into a pizza!

fall-clam-bake-pizza

Clam Bake Pizza

1/2 russet potato

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 doz. middle neck clams

4 T. butter

1 T. shallots

1 bay leaf

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup cooked chicken (can be grilled, roasted, or leftover)

1 ear corn, kernels removed

2 slices bacon, cooked and finely chopped

1 T. chives (optional)

Pizza dough/crust

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel and chop the potato, add to a pot of salted boiling water and cook until fork tender, then drain.  Mince the garlic.  Steam the clams with half the butter, stock, shallots, 1/2 of the garlic, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and stock. Once they all open, remove them from the shells and reserve the liquid.

In a food processor, blend the cooked potatoes, the other half of the butter, the other half of the garlic, and several tablespoons of the liquid from the clams, until you get a consistency like Alfredo sauce.

Spread the potato mix on the pizza dough/crust like you would pizza sauce.

Top with chopped chicken, bacon, corn kernels, clams and cheese.  Bake until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown, (about 10-12 minutes).

No season can compete with fall when it comes to flavors.  I hope you enjoy my favorites as much as I do!

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)

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!

Dinner Lab: Beer! Please! Drunk Food Redefined

Who doesn’t have a favorite food to chow on when you’ve been drinking a couple of beers?  Now imagine a five course menu of elevated versions of all those favorite foods.  Good, right?!  That’s what Chef Brooks Hart offered to Dinner Lab diners at their second Cleveland event.

Dinner-Lab2-welcome card

When I read the menu sent to members in the weeks leading up to the dinner, it wasn’t a hard sell for me.  Billed as drunk food redefined, it also boasted beer pairings from two increasingly popular local breweries.  Sold.

Dinner-Lab2-view

As is always the case, the venue isn’t revealed until about 24 hours before the event.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the second venue would be at the penthouse space of Skylight Financial Group, offering a unique and unforgettable view of the city.  We drank in the scenery and the cocktail hour special, named for the chef in honor of his 30th birthday.

Dinner-Lab2-ceviche

After the 30 minute cocktail hour, I was ready to dig in to course #1, a deconstructed fish taco with halibut ceviche, marinated in coconut milk and thai chili and crispy tortilla strips.  The fish was the perfect temperature and texture.  I could’ve done without so much lime juice.  But still a great start!  This was paired with Platform Black Eagle from Platform Beer Co.

Dinner-Lab2-poutine

The second course was a nod to all the Canadians and gravy fans in the dining room…poutine with crispy fingerling potatoes, a tempura cheese curd (my favorite element of this dish) and some lemon rind confit, (which was a surprise when I took the first bite, but I loved it too)

Dinner-Lab2-beer

The beer offering for this one was a smooth and refreshing compliment to the food, Platform Symon Says Saison from Platform Beer Co. It’s brewed exclusively for Iron Chef Michael Symon’s “B Spot”, (their website describes it as a citrus driven peppery saison utilizing a specialty yeast blend specific for this beer)

Dinner-Lab2-Pizza and braised bacon

Our third course was a tale of two dishes, for me.  It was listed as a pizza, but you could hardly eat it that way  The raclette flatbread with butter roasted mushrooms that served as the base was tasty, but a little tough.  And it was impossible to pick it up, or slice into the braised bacon and eat all of it as one bite as it was likely intended.  When I gave up and ate the elements separately, I was happy again.

Dinner-Lab2-commet card

As we ate and chatted with our guests, some friends who also enjoy food and these kinds of experiences as much as we do, I made sure to jot down a few notes on my comment card.  No, I’m not one of those people who does this at every restaurant I go…this is a huge part of the process for Dinner Lab and its chefs.  They take the feedback back to “the lab” and make changes (or not) according to the comments from their diners.

Dinner-Lab2-pretzel croissant

Course number four was the crowd favorite by far.  It was a pretzel croissant with marinated gouda and blueberry mustard.  I know…sounds a little crazy.  But I wanted a whole box of those pretzels and a vat of the blueberry mustard to take home!!

Dinner-Lab2-Chef Brooks Hart.Dinner-Lab2-preztel prep

One diner even stood up and whistled to get the crowd’s attention so he could shout “That preztel was the bomb!”  The chef told us he was relieved to hear it, as he put a lot of muscle power into rolling out enough of those for two seatings.  The beer pairing for that course was also my favorite, the Albino Stout from Butcher and the Brewer.  I order it every time I go there.  Great choice!

Dinner-Lab2-dessert

For dessert we had another helping of culinary imagination…a chocolate brownie topped with pickled peanuts (in a caramel sauce) creme fraiche and ganache.  I loved the bravery and spirit of adventure that this process fosters among its chefs.  Who pickles peanuts?!

Dinner-Lab2-dinning room view

We had mixed feelings about the dining room.  I loved the view of downtown, especially at sunset.  But once dinner began, the fluorescent lights of the business space took over.  To be honest, it wasn’t a distraction or something that hindered the experience…just an observation.

Dinner-Lab2-prep

We also got a chance to chat with both the chef and event manager by the end of the evening.  I was pleased to hear that a lot of what we ate was sourced from the iconic West Side Market and I am excited about the next venue (got the inside scoop…stay tuned…and hungry!)

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!

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