Easiest Rack of Lamb

Cut Rack of Lamb

Cut Rack of Lamb

I think I found a magic sauce. It transformed my chicken-breast eating experience and now my rack-of-lamb-eating experience. Never would I have guessed that a simple stir of mayonnaise, mustard and some fresh herbs would play such a role in my meat-cooking endeavors these days. Seriously, everything this sauce touches turns to mouth-watering goodness.

Let’s see, how else can I sell this recipe to you? It takes five minutes to prepare. It’s foolproof. And if you enjoy gnawing on bones as if they were lollipops, this recipe is for you. Make it.

Rack of Lamb — Just Out of the Oven

Rosemary & Thyme

Lamb — Prepped for Oven

Cooked Rack of Lamb

Rack of Lamb

Serves 2
This rack of lamb goes beautifully with crispy fingerling potatoes.

1 rack of lamb, about a pound
kosher salt
fresh cracked pepper
2 T. mayonnaise
2 tsp. mustard
chopped fresh herbs*: rosemary, thyme, chives, mint, tarragon — whatever you have

*Rosemary and lamb always go well together but I adore tarragon with this recipe as well.

1. Preheat the oven to 475ºF. Place lamb on a parchment-lined (for easy clean-up) rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper on all sides. Mix together mayo, mustard and herbs. Spread in an even layer across the rack of lamb — you might not need it all.

2. Place pan in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 400º and bake for 10 more minutes. Take pan out of the oven and place lamb on a board to rest. Let rest for at least 10 minutes. Seriously, no less than 10 minutes — I can’t emphasize resting enough. Cut and serve.

Notes: The lamb takes about 20 minutes to cook but depending on the size of the rack, the temperature of the lamb (room temperature or cold), and the reliability of your oven, the time will vary slightly. It might take a teensy bit of practice to nail it. For example, I made a rack today that weighed .92 lbs, and I removed it before the 20-minute mark because after 18 minutes it felt perfectly firm.

Rack of Lamb

Lidia Bastianich’s Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

I haven’t been drawn to a recipe like this in awhile. It’s not that butternut squash with sage brown butter doesn’t sound insanely delicious — seriously, what sounds better this time of year? — it’s just that these days my brain surrenders and my eyes cross when I see too many steps in a recipe. I’m better off sticking to quick and easy (also insanely delicious).

But if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing — for planning, thinking, going all out to capture the essence of the season in a single dish — this is the recipe for you. You won’t be disappointed. Lidia Bastianich nailed it. Just as I was feeling the slightest bit uninspired, the October Bon Appetit arrived in my mailbox. Five minutes later, I ran out the door to buy a ricer, which has been on my wishlist for months. I had been told a ricer would change my life.
So far, it has.

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

sage, potatoes and parmesan

butternut squash

mixing gnocchi dough

gnocchi dough

gnocchi dough

cut gnocchi

shaped gnocchi

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Source: Lidia Bastianich via Bon Appetit
This recipe along with a few others I am dying to try appeared in the October 2010 Bon Appetit. If you’re feeling even the slightest bit uninspired, this is a good little spread to check out.
Serves 4 to 6

1 1-pound butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 12- to 14-ounce russet potato, peeled, quartered
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 3/4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (I used less)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
Additional grated Parmesan cheese

Special Equipment:
Potato ricer (I bet a food mill would work well, too.)

Notes:
1. It helps to really read the recipe thoroughly before beginning.

2. You will have tons of leftover butternut squash.

3. I needed about 2 potatoes to get 2 cups.

4. I find it easier to cook gnocchi in small batches, so I think this meal makes a better dinner-for-two than a dinner-for-a-crowd. After I filled up one sheetpan with shaped gnocchi, I stuck in the freezer. After an hour or so, I scooped all of the gnocchi into a Ziplock bag and stored it in the freezer, where it now awaits for a future dinner.

5. Seeing how a friend and I polished off half the gnocchi in a single sitting, I feel the recipe more accurately serves 4.

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut squash lengthwise in half; discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut side up, on baking sheet and brush with oil. Roast until squash is very tender when pierced with skewer and browned in spots, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool slightly. Scoop flesh from squash into processor; puree until smooth. Transfer to medium saucepan; stir constantly over medium heat until juices evaporate and puree thickens, about 5 minutes. Cool. Measure 1 cup (packed) squash puree (reserve remaining squash for another use). Note: This can be made several days in advance.

2. Meanwhile, cook potato in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until very tender, less than 20 minutes. Drain. While potato is warm, press through potato ricer into medium bowl; cool completely. Measure 2 cups (loosely packed) riced potato (reserve remaining potato for another use).

3. Mix squash, potato, 1/2 cup Parmesan, egg, nutmeg, and salt in large bowl. Gradually add 1 3/4 cups flour, kneading gently into mixture in bowl until dough holds together and is almost smooth. If dough is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls. Turn dough out onto floured surface; knead gently but briefly just until smooth. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces.

4. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Sprinkle parchment lightly with flour. Working with 1 dough piece at a time, roll dough out on floured surface to about 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on 1 side. Transfer gnocchi to baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour. DO AHEAD Can be made 6 hours ahead. Keep chilled. Note: Gnocchi can be frozen at this point – freeze them first on a sheetpan, then transfer them to a Ziplock to prevent them from sticking together.

5. Working in 2 batches, cook gnocchi in large pot of boiling salted water until very tender, 15 to 17 minutes (gnocchi will float to surface but may come to surface before being fully cooked). Using slotted spoon, transfer gnocchi to same parchment-lined baking sheets. Cool. DO AHEAD Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover loosely and chill. Note: It was hard for me to tell when they were done. I cooked them for about 12 minutes — I took one out, tasted it, and went with it.)

6. Cook butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat just until golden, stirring often, 3 to 4 minutes. Add sage; stir 1 minute. Add gnocchi; cook until heated through and coated with butter, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan. Serve with additional Parmesan. Note: Unless you have an enormous pan, it’s easier to cook the gnocchi and butter in smaller batches. Half of this recipe in one pan is doable.

Fresh Corn Polenta — Where Have You Been All My Life?

Fresh Corn Polenta with Egg on Top

Fresh Corn Polenta with Egg on Top

Fresh corn polenta — oh fresh corn polenta! How could I have forgotten about you? I discovered you this time last year. I was out to eat. You were in my bowl. It was love at first bite. You were the very best polenta I had ever tasted, your sweet corn flavor discernible even through the jus of the pair of braised short ribs smothering you. How could this be, I wondered? I chalked it up to lots of butter and cheese and the sort of restaurant trickery that just can’t be duplicated at home. And so I forgot about you. For a whole year. Oh fresh corn polenta! I’m so happy you’re back in my life. In my home no less. And for good this time.

This is the sort of recipe I want to tell everyone about. I want to call all of my friends and family. I want to spark up conversation with people in checkout lines, knock on my neighbors’ doors, stop strangers in the street. It is so good and much to my surprise calls for no sort of restaurant magic — just a box grater, a little butter, and a sauté pan. It’s the kind of thing I could eat every night for dinner, and this week I basically have. I love it with sautéed greens or with a poached egg or just on its own with some cracked pepper and parmesan cheese. Before the season ends, I hope to try it with some sautéed mushrooms, too, which is how they serve it at La Toque, the source of this wonderful recipe.

You’ll discover it takes no time to whip up, just a little elbow grease during preparations — grating the ears of corn can be tiring. With that in mind, this is not a dish to make for company. It is the perfect dinner-for-1 or-2. It is simple and delicious. It is restaurant worthy certainly, but comfort food at its core. And I hope it will leave you wondering, as it has left me, where have you been all my life?

corn

One ear’s worth of grated corn:
grated corn

I found this recipe from The View from the Bay online. There’s a little video included on the website, which is sort of helpful to watch, but not critical. The original recipe hails from La Toque, where they serve it with sautéed chanterelles. Yum Yum Yum.

Fresh Corn Polenta

Serves 1

2 ears corn
2 teaspoons butter
kosher salt
grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1. Clean the corn, removing all husks and threads. Working over a large bowl, grate the kernels off of the cob on the coarse side of a box grater. You will have a very wet coarse pulpy mixture.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the grated corn and season with a good pinch of salt. Simmer over low heat, stirring to prevent browning, for about 3 minutes. The mixture is ready when it just begins to thicken and set.

3. Top with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano and/or a poached egg or some sautéed greens.

Note: It is delicious served with this recipe: Catalan Spinach.

Fresh Corn Polenta with Parmigiano Reggiano

Sautéed Corn + an End of Summer Salad

veggies

veggies

I’m spoiled. Really spoiled. I live in a place where even tomatoes still taste good this time of year. I’m not trying to rub it in, just expressing my gratitude.

I do realize, however, we are approaching mid-October and already the idea of cool, raw, crisp veggies in a salad might not sound so appealing. But even so, sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying for dinner than a big salad and some warm bread. If you find yourself craving this sort of meal in these colder months, here’s what I suggest adding: sautéed corn.

At least twice a week these days, I top a big salad — usually some sort of combination of roasted red peppers, boiled fingerlings, diced orange, shaved zucchini, sliced avocado, a little lettuce and some goat or blue cheese — with an ear’s worth of sautéed corn. The warm corn ever so slightly melts the cheese and wilts the lettuce, making a lovely combination on its own even more delectable. It is so delicious. Top it all off with a poached egg or some broiled sliced chicken and you have a nice meal on your hands.

And I know you all know how to make salad dressing but this is what I’ve been doing recently based on a long-time favorite recipe in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables, which calls for macerating shallots before whisking in the oil:

Finely chop a shallot and place it in a bowl. Squeeze two oranges over the shallot. Sprinkle the mixture with a little salt, a pinch of sugar and a splash of vinegar. Crack some pepper over top and let sit for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes, slowly drizzle in olive oil whisking constantly while doing so. Taste every so often to gauge how much more olive oil to add. I like a ratio of about 2 parts oil to one part juice or vinegar. Pour it all into a jar and you have dressing on your hands for the week. Nice.

sautéed corn

Sautéed Corn

Serves 1

1 ear of corn, kernels removed
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt

Heat a skillet over high heat. Add olive oil. When it begins swirling in the pan, add the corn and season it to taste with kosher salt. Don’t stir the corn until it begins to pop — about 45 seconds to a minute after it has been added to the pan. When it begins popping, give it a good stir and remove from the heat. That’s it. It’s done — 1 to 2 minutes total.

roasted cauliflower

After sautéed corn, roasted cauliflower is my most current obsession. It’s delicious right out of the oven. The crispy salty charred bits are as yummy as french fries. Leftover cauliflower dipped in hummus makes a nice snack.

Roasted Cauliflower

Serves 1 to 2

1 head cauliflower, florets removed from stem
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Spread the florets of cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with olive oil and season with salt (I tend to be liberal with the salt on these guys). Place sheet in the oven for 15 minutes. After the 15 minutes, check on the cauliflower, giving it a stir or flipping the florets over if desired. Cook for 5 minutes longer.

cauliflower

Have you ever tried purslane? It’s just about the healthiest thing on the planet. Here’s a little rundown:

In the 1980s, Artemis Simopoulos, author of The Omega Diet, discovered that purslane, a wild green, contained high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, leading her to suspect that animals feasting on these greens might also be a rich source of this essential fatty acid. To test her theory, Dr. Simopoulos hard-boiled a few eggs laid by free-ranging chickens living on her family farm in Greece and brought them back to the National Institute of Health for analysis. The free-ranging eggs, she discovered, contained 20 times more omega-3 fatty acids than supermarket eggs. Simopoulos’ findings, printed in several high-profile journals, inspired egg producers across the country, most notably George Bass of The Country Hen, to feed their chickens fish oil and flax seed, two foods loaded with omega-3 fatty acids.

purslane

ball jar

Veggie Veggie Salad

Chicken Legs Baked with White Wine, Olive Oil & Parmigiano Reggiano; Making the Most of a Whole Chicken Part Two

Parmesan Chicken

Can you remember one-third cup? That’s really all you need to know in order to make this recipe: one-third cup olive oil, one-third cup white wine, one-third cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Garlic and thyme are nice additions but optional. Just whisk everything together, season the chicken with salt and pepper, throw it in a 450ºF oven and you’re done. Crispy skins. Tender meat. A delicious meal to add to your repertoire.

As the title of this post mentions, this is part two of a making-the-most-of-a-whole-chicken series. I have other recipes for the dark meat, but let’s just start with this one, k? It’s the simplest one I know and perhaps my favorite as well.

So you have a game plan now, right? Buy a chicken. Cut it up. Make stock. Serve broiled tarragon breasts for dinner one night, chicken legs baked with white wine, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano another. Fry up that liver for a snack. And cook up those little tenders to add to a salad or a sandwich? I don’t have many creative ideas for the tenders nor much experience with the liver but I’m confident you will not let these bits go to waste. And, any tips you might have for cooking the liver would be much appreciated … I sort of just throw it in a pan and cross my fingers. Yum yum yum.

Chicken Legs Baked with White Wine, Olive Oil & Parmigiano Reggiano

Serves 2

2 chicken drumsticks + 2 chicken thighs
kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
1/3 cup white wine
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
a few sprigs fresh thyme

1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.

2. In a small shallow baking dish such as a pie plate, whisk together the white wine, olive oil, about half of the cheese, and the garlic. Throw in the thyme sprigs and the chicken and toss all around to coat.

3. Turn chicken so that the skin is facing up and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Place in the oven for 30 minutes. Take a peak. If the skin is getting too brown, reduce the heat to 400ºF. Continue baking for about 20 more minutes, or until the meat is pulling away from the bone on the drumstick. The time it takes to cook this chicken will vary depending on your oven, on the size of the legs, if the chicken was cooked directly from the refrigerator or if it had been brought to room temperature before baking, etc. Trust your nose — if you think it’s done, take a stab. After you’ve made the recipe once or twice, you’ll have a better idea about the timing.

How to Make the Most of One Whole Chicken, Part One: Broiled Tarragon Breasts

Broiled Breasts

I’ll be honest. If I saw a recipe for broiled chicken breasts on a blog, I’d probably stop reading. The words chicken breasts never make my mouth water. Sorry. Blame Liza. I was conditioned at an early age to favor dark meat.

But there’s something about this recipe for breasts that just works. The tarragon-mustard-mayonnaise combo browns and bubbles under the broiler keeping the breasts juicy and tender and flavorful. Even Liza adores this recipe. And I adore how my kitchen smells when these breasts are broiling. It’s up there with onions sautéing in butter and bread baking in the oven and truffle oil drizzled over just about anything.

I go through phases when I make these breasts once a week. I buy a whole chicken, break it down, save the thighs and drumsticks for one meal and the two breasts for another. For the dark meat, I have many recipes that I love (part two of this post to follow shortly), but for the breasts this is it. Just this one. Try it. It couldn’t be simpler. And with the exception of the tarragon, you likely have the ingredients on hand so if you’re disappointed, which would shock me, you won’t have made a huge investment in time or money.

Now, if you enjoy the convenience of buying boneless, skinless chicken parts, read no further. I understand that people are strapped for time. And before I really thought about it, I enjoyed buying packs of boneless skinless chicken thighs myself.

That said, have you ever tried to bone a chicken thigh yourself? It’s hard. Really hard. The process makes you realize just how much these parts have been handled before they reach your kitchen. And while it seems so convenient and cost effective to buy a pack of thighs or drumsticks or boneless breasts, you get so much more out of buying a whole chicken. With one chicken, I can get two meals for two plus 1.5 quarts of chicken stock (at the very least) plus 3 little snacks — 2 chicken tenders and a liver … yum yum yum.

Does the thought of dealing with a whole chicken discourage you? Don’t let it. With a little practice, you’ll soon discover that it’s no big deal. It’s actually quite rewarding. And if you’re organized, in under five minutes, one meal will be minutes from completion, another will be prepped for tomorrow, and your chicken will be in pieces, its carcass simmering on the stovetop promising you a batch of stock tastier and healthier than anything you could buy at the store.

The key is being organized. I’ve included a little video below. All of you pros out there, please don’t laugh — this video is not for you. This is just how I do it. And this is how I set up my station before I start hacking:

• 2 cutting boards
• 1 sharp knife
• trash can nearby with lid removed
• ziplock back nearby, opened, with top part folded over for easy entering
• stock pot
• plate
• mallet
• plastic wrap

You’ll notice in the video that I throw bits of the chicken in the stockpot. When I’m through breaking it down, I fill the pot with water, bring it to a boil, and let it simmer for about 3 hours. That’s it. Making homemade chicken stock is no big deal. If you have onions, carrots, celery to add to the pot, great. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. And this is how you know you’ve made good stock.

Broiled Tarragon Chicken Breasts

Serves 2 generously

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts*, pounded to about 3/4-inch thickness
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 T. mayonnaise**
1 T. mustard
chopped fresh tarragon, lots of it, at least 3 tablespoons

* Preferably cut from a whole chicken. Pound the breasts just so they are even — they might be thicker or thinner than 3/4 of an inch.
** If you want to be really gourmet, make the homemade version, recipe below

1. Preheat the broiler to high.

2. Season both sides of each breast with kosher salt and pepper. Mix mayo, mustard and tarragon together. Grease a broiler pan with olive oil. Place breasts on the pan and spoon half (or a little less than half) of the mayo-mustard mixture over the breasts.

3. Broil 3 minutes. Remove pan. Flip breasts. Spread remaining mayo-mustard mixture over the breasts. Return to the broiler and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes longer, depending on the thickness of the breasts.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Note: This is just for all of you Liza-types out there. Before I discovered that store-bought mayo works just as nicely as homemade in this chicken recipe, I made the mayo from scratch, too. Up to you.
Yield = 1.25 cups

1 egg yolk
1 T. lemon juice
1 T. Dijon mustard
pinch salt and pepper
1 cup regular olive oil (not extra virgin) or grapeseed oil

1. Whisk together the yolk, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper.

2. Start beating vigorously while slowly drizzling in the olive oil. Beat until thick and smooth.

Nectarine Pizza with Fresh Basil and Reduced Balsamic

I ate this whole pizza tonight. All of it. By myself. Not one slice remains for me for my breakfast tomorrow. I tried to refrain. No dice. So, if you’re still in summer-bathing-suit mode, avert your eyes.

This combination is so good. I believe the original, a pie hailing from Paso Robles where the dear friend who introduced me to this creation had just vacationed, called for peaches, but nectarines are a fine substitute. I’ve used an herbed goat cheese here with some Parmigiano Reggiano but I think some fresh ricotta or buffalo mozzarella or mascarpone or all three would be a nice substitute (or addition?) for the goat cheese. The Parmigiano, I think, is a must.

Fresh basil or some sprigs of arugula sprinkled on the just-baked pizza is key. It needs that hit of freshness as well as that bite from the reduced balsamic. Yum yum yum yum yum. Just don’t burn your balsamic. I did. Twice. Oiy. It’s really annoying. Really try not to do that.

Gosh, I don’t know what else to say. This is delicious and summery and fun, and I think you should make it.

Nectarine Pizza with Fresh Basil and Reduced Balsamic

Each pizza serves 1-2 people

pizza dough (recipe below)

Toppings For 1 pizza:
olive oil for greasing
cheese: fresh ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, goat cheese, mascarpone, whatever you like
1 nectarine, sliced thinly, (not paper thin)
shavings of fresh Parmigianno Reggiano
fresh basil

Reduced balsamic:

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1. Place balsamic in a small sauté pan. Turn heat to medium high. Let simmer until reduced and noticeably thick — watch it like a hawk. If it burns, it’s ruined. There’s no salvaging burnt balsamic. Err on the side of under reduced. It reduces more than you expect as it’s cooling. Remove from heat.

Pizza Dough
Adapted from Todd English’s The Figs Table
Makes four 8- to 10-inch pizzas (Serves 1 to 2 people per pizza, dough freezes beautifully)

¼ cup whole wheat flour
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 2/3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. Place the flours and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Or knead by hand. I have not had luck making this in the food processor — the engine starts smoking after about five minutes.) Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and let sit for five minutes until the mixture bubbles slightly. Add the olive oil and stir. With the mixer on low, gradually add the oil-water mixture into the bowl. Knead until the dough is firm and smooth, under 10 minutes. The dough will be very wet and sort of difficult to work with. I liberally coat my hands with flour before attempting to remove it.

2. Divide the dough into four balls, about 7½ ounces each. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. (Be sure to oil the parchment paper.) Place two balls on a sheet. Lightly rub the balls with olive oil, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. The dough is very sticky and wet, so, be sure to coat the balls or the plastic with oil. Let the balls rise in a warm spot until they have doubled in bulk, about two hours.

Note: This dough freezes beautifully. After the initial rise, punch down the dough, wrap it in plastic and place in a Ziplock bag. Freeze for several months. When ready to use, let sit at room temperature for about an hour, then proceed with rolling/topping/baking.

3. To roll out the dough: Dab your fingers in flour and then place one ball on a generously floured work surface. Press down in the center with the tips of your fingers, spreading the dough with your hand. When the dough has doubled in width, use a floured rolling pin (or continue using floured hands if you are skilled at making pizzas) and roll out until it is very thin, like flatbread. The outer portion should be a little thicker than the inner portion. Note: If the dough is being very stubborn, let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes. In this time, the gluten will relax, and the dough will be much easier to work with.

Baking:

1. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper or grease lightly with olive oil. Place rolled out dough onto parchment paper or greased pan. Drizzle dough with a little olive oil and with your hand, rub it over the surface to coat evenly.

2. Cover the dough with a layer of cheese — mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta mascarpone, whatever you wish. Arrange one layer of sliced nectarines or peaches on top of the cheese. Sprinkle the fruit layer with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano. Place pizza in your very hot oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the crust is slightly brown and the cheese is melting.

3. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with fresh basil or arugula. Drizzle with the reduced balsamic. Slice and serve. Yum.

A Super Summery Pasta

orecchiette with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

I am obsessed with roasted red peppers at the moment. I have been preparing them by the half dozen and using them all week chopped up in salads or left whole in sandwiches or laid atop a bagel with cream cheese. They are so delicious.

There are no roasted red peppers in this pasta dish, however. But I did discover a revolutionary way to use all of those lovely juices generated by roasting peppers. More on that later.

As for this pasta dish, it’s another one I learned while working at that Philadelphia restaurant. As soon as the Branch Creek cherry tomatoes — the sweetest, most flavorful cherry tomatoes I had ever tasted — arrived each summer, this dish would appear as a first course on the menu. And it was a huge hit, a perfect start to a summer dinner.

It’s simple to prepare: Sauté cherry tomatoes with orecchiette, ciliegene mozzarella and basil pesto. Add some fresh basil just before plating along with some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh cracked pepper. Yum yum yum. Toasted pine nuts, I think, would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

So, I normally avoid buying jarred sauces, tapenades, pestos, etc. but I have an amazing Italian deli in my town that sells enormous jars of delectable pesto at a very reasonable price. It’s hard to pass up and makes for very easy preparations. So, if you have a good local source for pesto, by all means use it in this dish — everything else will take minutes to prepare.

Now, onto my revolutionary discovery regarding roasted red pepper juices. First of all, I cannot believe I have been discarding those juices all these years. I mean, I have always stored my peppers in their juices in a bowl in the fridge but once the last pepper has been consumed, those juices go down the drain. I had never before thought to drizzle them over pasta for added flavor or to reheat them with last night’s pasta, as I did yesterday with this very dish, which was extremely delicious.

Oh it pains me to think about! What a waste. Am I the last person on the planet to have discovered this? Have all of you been creatively and resourcefully using your roasted red pepper juices all these years? If so, pray tell how.

I am anxious to try the recipe here with roasted red peppers substituted for the tomatoes, goat cheese for the mozzarella, and red pepper juices for the pesto … ooooh, I think another super summery pasta dish is in the works.

Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Mozzarella & Basil Pesto

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 generously as an entrée

1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
kosher salt
2 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved (I used more like 9oz., and you could probably use even more)
2 T. basil pesto
1/2 lb. ciliegene (small balls) mozzarella*
fresh basil**
shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
fresh cracked black pepper

* Goat cheese would be a nice substitute.
** If you have small tender leaves, leave them whole; otherwise, chiffonade the basil
*** Toasted pine nuts or walnuts would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of kosher salt. Add pasta and cook till al dente, about 9 minutes. (Package instructions said 11 minutes but the pasta will continue cooking as its tossed with the other ingredients so it’s best to undercook it a little bit.) Drain pasta. Do not rinse.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Add pasta and pesto. Cook 1 minute, stirring to coat pasta with the pesto. Add the mozzarella. Stir to incorporate. Add the fresh basil and remove from the heat.

3. Divide pasta among bowls and sprinkle each with some fresh shavings of Parmigiano. Crack the pepper overtop and serve.

Homemade Focaccia + Roasted Red Pepper & Arugula Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Next time you are invited to a potluck picnic, volunteer to make sandwiches. And then make these. You will be loved forever. I promise.

Roasted red peppers, arugula and an herbed goat cheese* is a particularly nice combination at the moment but later in the summer, when the tomatoes are peaking, a classic Caprese salad on this homemade focaccia will be a huge hit.

I have been making this focaccia recipe since it was printed in Fine Cooking magazine over six years ago now. It’s credited to Peter Reinhart and, like all of his recipes, is very precise. But unlike many of his recipes, which seem to begin days in advance of baking time, this one is just an overnighter and only takes minutes to prepare. It’s particularly easy if you have a stand mixer but Reinhart provides detailed by-hand mixing instructions as well. Make it. It’s a winner for sure.

I learned something, too, about roasting peppers while preparing for this picnic: Patience pays. I roasted these peppers as I usually do — on a parchment-lined sheetpan under the broiler for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly blackened — and steamed them as I usually do — in an aluminum bowl covered with plastic wrap. But instead of rushing the peeling, charring my little fingers in the process, I waited to peel till the following morning. It was a breeze. From here on out, I will roast, steam and peel 24 hrs. in advance … rrrrrigghhht.

* Note: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delicious spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Homemade Focaccia
Source: Fine Cooking March 2004
Yield = one sheet pan

Notes: If you don’t have a mixer, follow the instructions on the Fine Cooking website for mixing by hand.

1 lb. 9 oz. (5-1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 cups cold water (about 55°F)
2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar (1 oz.)
2 tsp. table salt or 3-1/2 tsp. kosher salt (1/2 oz.)
1 packet (1/4 oz.) instant yeast (also called quick-rise, rapid-rise, or fast-rising yeast)
10 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt for sprinkling

Mix the dough:

Coat a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl and rotate the dough to coat it with the oil.

Hold the bowl steady with one hand. Wet the other hand in water, grasp the dough and stretch it to nearly twice its size.

Lay the stretched section back over the dough. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat this stretch-and-fold technique. Do this two more times so that you have rotated the bowl a full 360 degrees and stretched and folded the dough four times. Drizzle 1 Tbs. of the olive oil over the dough and flip it over. Wrap the bowl well with plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or for at least 8 to 10 hours.

Shape the focaccia:

Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator and start shaping the focaccia 3 hours before you intend to bake it (2 hours on a warm day). The dough will have nearly doubled in size. Cover a 13×18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and coat the surface with 2 Tbs. of the olive oil.

Gently slide a rubber spatula or a dough scraper under the dough and guide it out of the bowl onto the center of the pan. The dough will sink beneath its own weight, expelling some gas but retaining enough to keep an airy gluten network that will grow into nice holes.

Drizzle 2 Tbs. of the olive oil on top of the dough. (Don’t worry if some rolls off onto the pan; it will all be absorbed eventually.)

Dimple the entire dough surface, working from the center to the edges, pressing your fingertips straight down to create hollows in the dough while gently pushing the dough down and out toward the edges of the pan. At first you might only be able to spread the dough to cover about one-half to three-quarters of the pan. Don’t force the dough when it begins to resist you. Set it aside to rest for 20 minutes. The oil will prevent a crust from forming.

After letting the dough rest, drizzle another 2 Tbs. olive oil over the dough’s surface and dimple again. This time, you will be able to push the dough to fill or almost fill the entire pan. It should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. If it doesn’t stay in the corners, don’t worry; the dough will fill the corners as it rises.

Cover the dough loosely with oiled plastic wrap, put the pan on a rack to let air circulate around it, and let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s about 1-1/2 times its original size and swells to the rim of the pan. This will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. Thirty minutes before baking, heat your oven to 475°F.

Bake the focaccia:

Just before baking, gently remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt or kosher salt over the dough. Put the pan in the middle of the hot oven and reduce the heat to 450°F. After 15 minutes, rotate the pan to ensure even baking.

Check the dough after another 7 minutes. If it’s done, it will be golden brown on top and, if you lift a corner of the dough, the underside will be golden as well. If not, return the pan to the oven for another 1 to 2 minutes and check again.

Set a cooling rack over a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment (to catch drippings). Use a metal spatula to release the dough from the sides of the pan. Slide the spatula under one end of the focaccia and jiggle it out of the pan onto the rack. If any oil remains in the pan, pour it evenly over the focaccia’s surface. Carefully remove the parchment or silicone liner from beneath the focaccia. Let cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Roasted Red Peppers
Yield= However many you want
(Estimate about 1 pepper for every 1 to 2 people)

red bell peppers

1. Preheat the broiler. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper for easy cleaning. Alternatively, grease the sheetpan with a little bit of olive oil.

2. Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove stem and seeds. Place peppers cut side down on sheet pan. Broil for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly charred.

3. Place peppers in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Steam until completely cool — overnight is ideal. Use peppers for salads, sandwiches, pasta salads, etc.

Do you love roasted red peppers? Here are some other ideas for using them up.

Herbed Goat Cheese

There are many ways to make a yummy herbed goat cheese. This is what I did: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese (delicious on its own) from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delectable spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Moules Marinière, So Easy A …

Moules à la Marinière

Moules à la Marinière

Dipping crusty bread into the broth of a pot of steaming mussels has to be one of my favorite eating experiences. You? And when a restaurant offers mussels, I’m inclined to order them because, one, I rarely make them at home, and two, they’re so damn good — when they’re good, that is.

Why I never make mussels at home confounds me, especially after trying this Balthazar recipe for Moules Marinière. It’s so easy a … ok, no need to go there. But seriously, I followed this recipe to a tee (with the exception of the freshly ground white pepper … so French), and was so pleased, I’ve now made them twice in one week.

This recipe could not be simpler: sweat shallots, garlic, celery and thyme in a stick — gasp — of butter; season with salt; add crème fraîche and white wine; bring to a boil; steam the mussels for 3 minutes; sprinkle with parsley, stir and serve with crusty bread. Voila: Moules à la Marinière.

I think these mussels would make a fun dish for entertaining.  The broth (steps 1 and 2 in the recipe) could certainly be made in advance, leaving you with no more than 3 minutes of cooking time. To complete this meal, all you need is some nice fresh bread, a simple salad, and some sort of lovely dessert. Yum.

For those of you who live in the area, I highly recommend mussels from Carlsbad Aquafarm. I’ve been purchasing them at Pelly’s Fish Market in Carlsbad but they can also be found at various farmers’ markets. Call Carlsbad Aquafarm for the details: 760 438 2444.

Also, I can’t say enough about Pelly’s Fish Market. The employees are incredibly nice and informative; I didn’t have to ask for ice; I was told to keep the bag the mussels were given to me in open so that the mussels could breathe; and I was instructed on how to store the mussels once I brought them home: in a shallow bowl, covered with a damp paper towel in the coldest part of my fridge. I’m not sure I’ve ever received such service at a fish market.

And, while I was there, I delighted in one of the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten. There was nothing gourmet about this taco — no fancy slaws or sauces — just fresh, grilled fish wrapped in a corn tortilla with some raw shredded cabbage. Delectable! The place was packed, too, always a good sign at a fish market.

Moules à la Marinière

aromatics

aromatics

balthazar

Moules à la Marinière

Serves 2 as an entrée or 6 as an appetizer
Source: The Balthazar Cookbook

8 T. unsalted butter
5 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or diced)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the bias
4 sprigs thyme
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup dry white wine
2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper (I actually never added any pepper, so your call on the pepper)
4 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 lbs. mussels — Carlsbad Aquafarm mussels are delectable, if you live in the area; otherwise, Balthazar recommends Prince Edward Island
a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

bread, any kind you like, grilled or heated just before serving

1. In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over a LOW flame. Add the shallots, garlic, celery and thyme. Gently sauté for about 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not browned. Season with a pinch of kosher salt.

2. Add the wine, pepper (if using), and crème fraîche, and raise the heat to high.

3. Once the liquid comes to a boil, add the mussels, stir gently, and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the mussels open.

4. Add the parsley and stir gently. Serve in large bowls (remembering to discard any unopened mussels), with either crusty bread or French fries … yum.

Moules à la Marinière