Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Feast of Seven Fishes

I have decided to host Christmas Eve at my home this year. I have many Christmas Eve parties under my belt but this year I wanted to venture beyond the usual finger foods and endless sweets. So, after mulling over several menu ideas I have settled on The Feast of Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas Eve. This can only be good. Italians know food. Being Italian myself I know this firsthand. With that said, I can confess that I have never celebrated The feast of Seven Fishes. Christmas Eve was always special but fish was never part of the meal. Bread was on the table. It was homemade by my Grandmother. It was perfectly divine straight out of the oven, but as each hour went by this round wonder became very hard and unholy. We may have had bread to feast on but no fish, until this year.

The Feast of Seven Fishes is what Italians do when they say they are fasting on La Vigilia, Christmas Eve. In many parts of Italy, Christmas Eve, is traditionally part of a fast, during which no meat is served. But this tradition has morphed into an evening of feasting not fasting, with course after course of seafood dishes served way into the night. Add a little wine and everyone is feeling pretty cheerful.

Why seven? Well, the number seven has many origins. One being the number of sacraments in the Catholic Church. Another, is the number seven represents perfection: The biblical number for divinity is three, and the number for earth is four, and the combination of these two equals seven, which represents God on Earth or Jesus Christ.

Regardless of which religious symbolism the main point for most people is the meal itself and the gathering of family and friends at the table. A little wine helps too.

I will be serving a shortened version of this feast by making Bouillabaisse, a fish stew. Don't worry, I will have seven different types of fish or seafood in the stew. Bouillabaisse is made throughout the Mediterranean coast, which Italy is a part. So, I feel I am not veering off course too much. I am just saving some time in the kitchen. The stew's unique flavor comes from several aromatic ingredients like garlic, saffron, fennel and orange. This stew will be great for my fasting Italian family on Christmas eve. I can hardly wait. I guess I should make some homemade, round and hard bread just in case. Buon Appetito!

National Bouillabaisse Day is December 14

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


We all have one or two dishes from our childhood that was always present at the table but we never could mustard up the courage to try it. One of mine is scrapple.

Scrapple is a regional favorite among the Eastern Mid-Atlantic states. The capital being Pennsylvania. It was invented by the Pennsylvania Dutch of Lancaster County in the 1700's. The German farmers who settled in Pennsylvania believed in using everything a butchered pig had to offer.

Warning, once I disclose the ingredients in scrapple you may never try it. So, here it goes. Scrapple is basically offal, the inner organs of butchered meat. You know the usual, livers, snouts and hearts. Now you know why I avoided it many years ago. But, I am a big girl now and I am ready to cook and taste this gray matter.

The package gave instructions. Slice thin and cook 5 minutes or each side. Easy enough. The taste was similar to a very mild sausage. In the store they had a hot and spicy version but I thought I should start out with the original. Next time I will give the hot and spicy a go. Did I actually say next time. I guess it wasn't that bad.

All in all it was ok. You never know until you try. Foie Gras, duck or goose liver, looks horrid but is very tasty, I hear.

November 9 is National Scrapple Day and Cook Something Bold and Pungent Day

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Great Pumpkin

As a personal chef I often receive ingredients with culinary wish lists attached. “Here make a pie with these apples.” So, recently I was handed a pumpkin. “Here I don't know what to do with this. Make something.”

My first thought was pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake or pumpkin mouse. All delicious and sweet. Most people automatically think sweet when they cook with pumpkin. Could there be something savory from this autumn gourd? So, that was my challenge. A savory not sweet pumpkin dish.

I remember making a lamb stew once with sweet potatoes, which once very good. Maybe a savory beef stew with pumpkin would work. I found a recipe that was 2/3 beef and 1/3 pumpkin. I decide to adjust the ratio to equal parts beef, pumpkin and onions. I added cinnamon, cumin, red wine and tomato paste. The stew simmered for nearly 4 hours, which was just enough time for the flavors to mellow and the beef to tenderize. Simply divine and savory. I served it up in a Cinderella pumpkin and enjoyed the pleasures of autumn.
The pumpkin itself was a little tough to work with. They rind was very hard but once I got it started I easily cut up the pumpkin into chucks and boiled them. The remaining pumpkin was pureed and will be used for something sweet. Maybe a mousse. Yes, pumpkin mousse would be a great dessert with my savory beef and pumpkin stew. I wonder what my next ingredient gift will be?

October 26 is Pumpkin Day

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In a Pickle

We all have those tasks that intimidate us. The one thing that we think is going to be more trouble than it is worth. So, we don't bother. Mine was canning. I thought that I would need fancy equipment, hours of free time and crates of produce to unload. In truth, all you really need is space in your kitchen.

So, last week I ventured into the world of canning via bread and butter pickles. Again, this is my very first time canning. I did not grow up on a farm or with a canning grandmother. My mother was Italian, we did sauce, and lots of it. No canning.

If I was going to do this I needed books. The one I liked the best was You Can Can, a Better Homes and Gardens book. It covered all the basics and relieved my fears. I never knew there was two basic methods of canning. Boiling-water canning and pressure canning. The boiling-water method is for newbies, like me, with little equipment required and the pressure method is for the seasoned canner. I decided on the boiling-water method. I already had a large pot and tongs. All needed now was cucumbers, spices and jars.

My first stop was a produce stand. They had all the spices I needed but no cucumbers. So, onto the next produce stand. Cucumbers and onions were available. Target saved the day and had some canning jars. And, my last stop was a grocery store. I picked up vinegar, sugar and salt. Finally, my pickles would soon become reality.
The first thing to do is prepare four pounds of pickling cucumbers and six medium onions. Pickling cucumbers are small, have a firm flesh and fewer seeds. You need to wash the cucumbers, remove the blossom end and slice. Slice the onions. Next, place the cucumbers and onions in a large kettle. Add three cloves of garlic and 1/3 cup of canning salt. Canning salt has a fine texture and dissolve readily. If you can't it find look for fine textured salt. Do not use regular iodized table salt. The last step in preparing the cucumbers is to add two inches of cracked ice to the produce. Cover with a lid and refrigerate for 3 to 12 hours. This process draws out the moisture.
Fast forward 7 hours. Remove the cucumbers from the fridge. Pick out any remaining ice. Drain and rinse well in a large colander. Remove the garlic. In the same kettle combine 3 cups sugar, 3 cups of cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons mustard seeds, 1 ½ teaspoons turmeric and 1 ½ teaspoons celery seeds. Heat to boiling. Add cucumber mixture and return to boiling.
Next, fill hot cucumber mixture and liquid into hot, sterilized pint canning jars. Leave ½ inch head space. Wipe the jar rims clean and secure lids. Place the filled jars into a boiling-water canner (large pot with boiling water) for 10 minutes. If you do not have a jar rack place a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pot. Make sure an inch or two of water is above the jars and that the jars do not touch. Let the jars boil for 10 minutes. You are looking for a low boil here. Remove the jars with tongs and cool on racks. In a few hours check for a seal. They should not pop when you touch the center of the lid. If they do, refrigerate and use within a week.
All of my jars sealed and, once they cooled, tasted wonderful. They had a nice crunch with the right amount of sweet and sour. I will surely do this again. If I can, you can can too.

September 13 is Snack A Pickle Time Day

Monday, August 2, 2010


The summer heat has made the record books this year. The temperature here in the east has hovered in the high 90's. It even broke 100 a few times. And, when it is that hot you really do not feel like eating. You just want to sip a cool drink.

Iced tea is wonderful, water is always a good choice, but lemonade says summertime.

Fresh lemonade can't be beat. The aroma alone is intoxicating. As you cut into each lemon, a burst of citrus fills the air and you know you are in for a treat. Fresh lemonade gives you all the control. You can add a little sugar or a lot. You can alter the flavor with fruit or herbs, like mint and lavender.

Lemonade was created by the Egyptians over 1,500 year ago. The drink was called “qatarmizat”.

Plus, you can feel good about enjoying your next glass of lemonade knowing that it is an excellent source of vitamin C, cleanses the body of toxins and aids in digestion.


August 20 is Lemonade Day

Lavender Lemonade
4 cups water, divided
¼ cup dried lavender leaves
½ cup sugar
1 cup fresh lemon juice (about 6 lemons)

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Stir in lavender. Remove for heat and cover. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain lavender through a fine sieve and discard lavender leaves. Combine 3 cups of water and sugar in saucepan. Bring to boil until sugar has dissolve. Remove for heat. Combine lavender water, sugar water and lemon juice. Stir and chill. Serve over ice.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ice Cream

Avocado, ginger, lavender, beer and olive oil are just a few of my favorite things to use when flavoring homemade ice cream. Don't drone. These flavors alone, not mixed, are great in ice cream. Beer and lavender together are not very tasty. But lavender alone is lovely.

I too was a doubter until I tried avocado ice cream. It was so quick and easy. No cooking. No eggs. Only five ingredients. A little churning and creamy ice cream was mine. I was hooked and the off-beat ice cream flavor door was wide open.

One of the best ice cream books I own is The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovtiz. He takes all the credit for the above flavors. I have tweaked them slightly to cut down on the fat when I can. If you decide to think outside the store bought ice cream box and try something unusual, remember that homemade ice cream will always be harder than store bought. You just can not whip enough air at home to make it soft like the commerical ice cream. But the trade off is intense flavor. Just let your homemade ice cream rest on the counter for 10 minutes or so and enjoy.

So, try something different. The door is wide open. And, if your flavors disappoint, you can always close the door and go to your local ice cream shop for a hot fudge sundae.

July is National Ice Cream Month
July 1 is Creative Ice Cream Flavor Day
July 25 is National Hot Fudge Sundae Day

Lavender Honey Ice Cream
Delicate overtones of floral enhance this custard base ice cream to new levels
½ cup honey
¼ cup dried lavender, divided
1 cup milk
2 cups half and half
¼ cup sugar
4 egg yolks

Heat honey and 2 tablespoons of lavender. Cover and let cool for one hour. Heat milk, half & half, sugar and 2 tablespoons of lavender. Cover and let cool for one hour. Strain both the honey and milk mixture through a mesh strainer to remove the lavender. Add the honey to the milk mixture and reheat over low heat. Slowly add the egg yolks. Stir until thick. Strain again. Cool in fridge for three hours. Place the cooled mixture in an ice cream maker and follow instructions.

Avocado Ice Cream
This ice cream proves avocado can be served sweet and is not limited to salads & guacamole
4 avocados (peeled, pitted and diced)
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 cream light cream
¼ cup lime juice (about 6 limes)

Whip avocados, sugar, sour cream, cream and lime juice in a food processor until smooth. Place mixture into an ice cream maker and follow manufacturers instructions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pastry Challenge

Every once in a while I like to challenge myself by cooking something new. And, if you want a culinary challenge baking is your thing. There is a delicate science to baking. If the dough is too thin or too thick the result will be undesirable. And, that is what I got with my first attempt with my éclair challenge.

My first try ended in a greasy heavy dough. This is not an éclair. Thoughts of tasting it still make me nausea. I have made popovers and Yorkshire pudding before, both egg based dough, which are similar to an éclair or puff pastry, but with slightly different taste. The results were good. My éclair, on the other hand, proved to be more temperamental.

My second go at it made the grade. However, before I hit the oven I scoured several cookbooks to see exactly what I was missing.

The pastry dough for éclairs is a basic choux dough. Choux is a cross between a batter and a dough. First the paste is made by cooking water, butter and flour. Eggs are added one at a time and the paste quickly turns to a batter. The batter is ready when it is at the ribbon stage. To check, raise a spoonful of the batter and an uninterrupted flow will occur, cording a ribbon.

The pastry cream was simple enough. It has the taste of vanilla pudding, but a little thicker. This consistency holds up better in the puff pastry. A little bit of chocolate glaze and you have an éclair any French pastry chef would enjoy.

June 22nd is National Chocolate Éclair Day
Pastry Cream
1 ¼ cup milk
3 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, warm milk over low heat. Do not boil, just hot enough to steam. In another saucepan whisk egg yolks, sugar, flour and cornstarch until smooth. Remove milk from heat. Add half of the milk to egg mixture. Stir until well incorporated. Add the remaining milk and heat for 1 -2 minutes. Continue stirring. Remove from heat and chill for at least 1 hour.
Choux Pastry Dough
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup watermelon
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and water. Add sugar, salt and flour and stir until a sticky batter forms. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until smooth. Remove from heat. Fill a pastry bag with the batter and pipe out 4 each logs onto a coated cooking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes at 425. Bake an additional 10 minutes at 375. Cool on a wire rack. Fill with pastry cream with a pastry bag or slice open and fill. Top with chocolate glaze.
Chocolate Glaze
2 ounces of semisweet chocolate
¼ cup half and half
Place chocolate and half and half in a heat proof bowl and heat in a microwave for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir until smooth.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What makes you smile?

If you could eat anything right now what would it be? Would it be savory, spicy, sweet, cold, hot, crispy or creamy?
We all have our favorites or should I say comfort foods. It may be Grandma Kate's seven layers of lasagna noodles with mounds of cheese and a tomato sauce brimming with basil, garlic and parsley. Then again, it may be the red velvet cupcakes your mom made for you every birthday. The one with cream cheese frosting with just the right amount of colored sugar that went crunch at first bite.

My personal favorite is a very simple plate with cheese, olives and bread. It is so basic, yet so complex. Growing up I waited with anticipation for Italian foods from a small Italian deli my mother would shop every Wednesday. The bread, cheeses and meats were wrapped in white paper and the price marked with a grease pencil. That deli is still open today and brings back many memories. I rarely get the chance to shop there but when I do cheese, olives and bread are always in my tote. My favorite bread has to be the cheese bread. It always fills the house and your head when toasted. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. And other times, the cheese is the centerpiece. Hands down, my favorite is the sharp provolone. It has a strong bite and a smell even stronger. If I told you how strong you would not eat it. In the end, taste is the finial factor, not the smell, in regards to cheeses.
Every now again it is good for the soul to veer off our health diets and indulge in that one special food that feeds more than our stomaches but feeds our senses and makes us smile. So, what will it be? What makes you smile?

May 6 No Diet Day
May 11 Eat What You Want Day

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Day of the Mushroom

Love them or hate them. Raw or cooked. It seems everyone has something to say about mushrooms. Recently I was sautéing some crimini mushrooms in butter and the smell was just too much for some. “Ugh, what is that smell?” I have to admit the smell is something from the murky underground. But, my mushroom yearnings could not wait to taste the lightly brown caramelized fungi, regardless of the funky smell. So, I continued to stir my mushrooms. No steak, no eggs, just mushrooms. Pure and simple. That's the way I like it.

Little did I know that mushrooms are packed with nutrients. Mushrooms are a good source of B vitamin, which helps break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates into energy. They are one of the few natural sources of vitamin D. And they have as much potassium as a banana, which helps control blood pressure.

With all of the above, I do believe mushrooms belong on the super foods list. For sure, they will not make it to the best aroma list, that belongs to chocolate chip cookies.

April 16 is Day of the Mushroom.

Mushroom Quiche

1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cold
1/2 teaspoon salt ½
3 tablespoons cold water
Place flour in a food processor. Cut butter into small pieces. Add butter, salt water to flour and pulse until the comes together. Gather dough and shape into a round. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.

2 tablespoons oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 lb assorted mushrooms, chopped
salt and pepper
1 cup half and half
3 eggs
2 cups grated swiss cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Remove dough from the refrigerator and roll flat. Press dough out into a 12 inch pie plate. Bake for 10 minutes.

In a large skillet sauté oil, shallots and mushrooms until golden. Add salt and pepper. Mix half and half and eggs together. Add cheese and mushrooms to egg mixture. Pour into pie crust. Bake for 30 minutes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Homemade Pasta

On a recent shopping trip with some friends I casually mentioned that I was looking for a pasta machine and pasta drying rack. “Why would you make homemade pasta when it is so cheap and easy to buy,” a friend replied. “Because I have never made homemade pasta and I got a coupon,” was my response.

After a team search through the mega home store I finally found a pasta machine but the pasta rack had to be purchased on line later that day. A few days later I rolled up my shelves and got to work.

The basic recipe for homemade pasta is flour, eggs and salt. These simple ingredients come together effortlessly. Well, almost. My first attempt yielded a very dry dough, too dry for pasta. It landed in the can. My second try was spot on. The trick is to start slow and add a little flour at a time and stop when the dough comes together nicely. Let it rest for 20 minutes and roll it through the pasta machine. If you do not have a pasta machine a rolling pin works fine. It takes a little finesse but that is half the fun. Dry the pasta for about 10 minutes or so. Boil it in salted water for 3 to 5 minutes. Remember this is fresh pasta, cooking time is less.

Yes, boxed pasta is cheap and easy but the process of make and eating my own homemade pasta was very satisfying. It was worth it and I recommend it. Who knew something so simple could be so rewarding and tasty.

March is National Noodle Month

Monday, February 1, 2010

Celebrating Chocolate

Do we really need a reason to celebrate chocolate? I say, no. But, if you do, February is National Celebration of Chocolate Month. To me, everyday is cause to celebrate chocolate.

The taste alone is enough to jump for joy and devour dark chunks of heaven everyday. Now, I am not advising you to eat a candy bar a day, but enjoy small pieces of good quality dark (50% or more cocoa) chocolate on occasion. There is mounting evidence suggesting chocolate in moderation has numerous heath benefits.

I recently read in The Healing Powers of Chocolate by Cal Corey that chocolate is loaded with health benefits. First, the antioxidants – polyphenols and flavonoids, both provide heart healthy benefits. A study at Johns Hopkins found that eating 2 Tablespoons of cocoa or dark chocolate per day showed anticlotting benefits. It is believed that cocoa stimulates the body's production of nitric oxide, which works like aspirin to stave off heart attacks.

Second, mood enhancers like serotonin and phenylethylamine (PEA) both uplift spirits. No wonder chocolate is associated with so many love holidays and gestures – it works! And it taste great.

As with all things in life moderation is key. So, take it easy and enjoy the sweet life with dark chocolate a morsel at a time.

Flourless Chocolate Cake
A super dense dark chocolate cake with a thin outer crust and soft center.

4 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
1 stick unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 375 and butter an 8 inch springform cake pan.
Chop chocolate into small pieces. Place chocolate and butter in double broiler and stir until smooth. Remove from heat. Whisk in sugar. Add eggs and whisk until blended. Add cocoa and stir until well blended. Pour into pan and bake for 25 minutes.
Decorate with powder sugar.

Monday, January 4, 2010


As the new year unfolds I find myself reflecting on a question so many people ask me, “why do like cooking and food so much?” The answer is twofold, an endless discovery of food to explore and the deep connection shared with others over meals.

I enjoy food first for the endless possibilities. The cultures and taste are mind boggling. I love exploring and learning about the vast array of food from around the world. I may not always like what I tasted but I can say that I have tried it and now know what to avoid or what to try again.

At the heart of all food is of course the celebration and connection shared with others. Food is the center of all celebrations. Sure the balloons look great but the cake was awesome.

So, as the wind howls outside my window this January morning I plan to curl up with a few cookbooks and a bowl of soup. I will make plans for my next culinary discovery and celebration with friends and family.