Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pasta with Walnuts, Sage, and Fresh Ricotta--Flavors of Autumn

Even though I do not post pasta recipes every week, in my kitchen I make it at least once a week, often even twice when kids ask for it. We all love it! I cannot imagine my life without pasta. Whenever I give a choice to my kids what to eat for dinner the answer is always pasta.

I always make my own fresh sauce and if possible I try to make it from seasonal ingredients. So during the course of the year my pasta could be topped with mushrooms, herbs, fresh tomatoes, creamy lemon sauce, but most often it would be with our favorite sauce made with roasted red bell peppers. Sometimes I do it with salmon but hardly ever with meat. I often serve it with fresh cheese and always with glass of wine (for grown-ups). And nothing tastes better or more comforting than pasta, and there is no home-made dish that is easier to make in no time.

Last week, I bought a bag of walnuts in shells, mostly to put them on a wooden plate as a seasonal decoration. But they reminded me of a pasta dish that I usually make only in the fall--pasta with walnuts. And I don't even remember where I got this recipe from.

I toast walnuts and sage leaves in butter. When toasted, walnuts become even more aromatic and crunchy. If I have them, I use black walnuts, which are more aromatic than the regular ones and remind me more of those I used to eat in Poland. Then I mix them with hot pasta and fresh creamy ricotta cheese. It is important to use fresh ricotta--pasta does not taste half that good made with the regular supermarket ricotta, which is too dry and chewy. I buy mine at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or at the Italian delicatessen. I love this contrast of the almost sweet, smooth cheese and spicy, very flavored taste of nuts and herbs that all come from a fall harvest and smell like autumn. To spice it all up a bit it is good to add a few hot pepper flakes. But also it takes hardly ten minutes to have a wonderful dinner.

Pasta with Walnuts, Sage, and Fresh Ricotta
(Serves four)

1 box (1 lb) penne pasta,
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts,
1 large bunch of sage leaves, chopped crosswise,
15 oz (425 g) fresh ricotta cheese,
6 tbsp butter,
4 garlic cloves, chopped,
1 tsp red hot pepper flakes,
salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1. In a large pot bring water to boil with one tablespoon of salt. Add pasta, bring it to boiling, turn down the heat and boil until al dente for about 8-11 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan. Melt butter and add garlic. Fry them for about 2 minutes, then stir in the walnuts and sage. Fry them for about 5 minutes, until the nuts are toasted and sage leaves get darker and crispy.

3. Drain pasta and add to the frying pan. Mix well. Turn off the heat and add fresh ricotta. Season with hot pepper flakes, extra salt--if you need to--and generously with freshly ground black pepper.

Serve immediately and enjoy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cesar Salad Dressing--Home-Made

The other day I received an "emergency call" from my friend. Her daughter wanted Cesar salad for lunch, but she liked only the dressing I made and my friend forgot how to make it.

On the day when I started this blog, in my "mission statement" I declared that this blog is dedicated to all who ask about my recipes, so I had to rise to the task and respond to this emergency. Besides, it felt great that someone liked my dressing above any other.

I always make my own dressing. This way I can use the highest quality ingredients, adjust the proportions to find the exact taste I like, and do without all the preservatives that all the ready-to-use dressings are full of. However, I do not make my own mayonnaise because I am not sure if it would be safe to use raw eggs, even if they are organic, but I buy organic mayonnaise and lighten it up with oil and yogurt.

It is always best to make the amount of dressing that can be consumed at once, but even if you do too much of it, this dressing can stay refrigerated in a tightly closed container for at least a week.

When I gave this recipe to my friend I had to improvise a bit, trying to imagine how much of which ingredient I add. I never measure ingredients, especially while making dressings. Instead I just try it when I make it and decide what else to add and in what quantity. She did not call with a follow-up question, so I assume the proportions I gave were right. But on the next day I bought some romaine lettuce hearts and, when I made my own dressing, I measured exactly each ingredient just in case I needed to give it to her again.

By the way, I almost never add chicken to my Cesar salad, but just use romaine hearts, baguette, or croutons. That is how my son likes it best.

Cesar Salad Dressing
(For one head of romaine lettuce)

1/2 cup mayonnaise preferably organic,
2 tsp finely ground mustard,
2 tsp sugar,
3 tbsp yogurt (Greek or European style work best),
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil,
1 tbsp lemon juice,
1 tsp dried basil leaves,
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese,
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce,
2 garlic cloves minced,
salt and freshly ground pepper.

1. In a medium bowl mix mustard, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
2. Add mayonnaise, yogurt and oil. Mix well.

3. Mix in basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

4. Let it all infuse for about 10 minutes and serve on salad.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cranberries and Mascarpone Puff Pastry--French Classic with an American Twist

There is always puff pastry in my freezer. I keep just in case I have unexpected guests or a new idea of what to make from it. I never make my own. I think it takes too much work and I rather spend that time preparing cakes that are not available at stores or taste much better when made at home, as for example all tarts, which are best soon after they cool down and their smell still fills up the kitchen.

When I lived in Switzerland, I tried all kinds of cakes based on puff pastry, which are very popular there. They were made early in the morning waiting to be served with the breakfast coffee. On the way to my French classes I often visited one boulangerie to have a cup of coffee with a croissant or a puff pastry cake. When we met after school it was espresso and something more fancy. I remember something similar to Danish pastry, which is popular in the US, but much less sweet and more subtle in taste. It was filled with soft cheese and sometimes also with delicate fruits. Pears were too mild for my taste but I loved it with wild blueberries or raspberries inside.

The other day, after I made cranberry sauce, I was wondering what to do with the leftover fruits, and all of a sudden I recalled these puff pastry cakes. What came out was a very easy seasonal dessert, and also quite original in taste. A French cake with an American twist.

Puff Pastry with Mascarpone and Cranberries
(For two mid-size cakes)

1 pack puff pastry (two sheets)--I use Pepperidge Farm pastry,
8 oz of mascarpone cheese,
1/2 cup sugar plus extra couple spoons for the finish,
1 cup cranberries,
1 small egg or leftover white.

1. Defrost pastry. Cut the first sheet in half and spread both parts on a lightly buttered baking tin. Put the second sheet aside on a flour-dusted surface.
2. Preheat oven to 400F.
3. Wash and dry cranberries on the colander.

4. Mix mascarpone with sugar. Spread half of the mascarpone on each of the pastry leaving around a half-inch margin. Spread half of the cranberries. Cover it with the second half of puff pastry. Using a fork press edges around the each piece to close the cake. Make on top of the cake a few cuts--this will help vaporise excess moisture.

5. Brush the top of each cake with a beaten egg or egg's white and dust it with two tablespoons of sugar.
6. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, until pastry rises and the top becomes gold.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Spicy Butternut Squash Pudding--A Wonderful Fall Starter

Somehow, it seems I have been working a lot with the vegetables from the pumpkin family. Last year, I often made pumpkin risottos and gnocchi. This year I experimented with different pumpkin soups and savory dishes. If you came to my home for dinner lately, chances are, as a starter I would serve you spicy butternut squash pudding--my newest invention--with freshly baked bread. I fell in love with this dish.

As it is often the case the best ideas come accidentally. And so did mine. The idea for this dish came to me last year when I had friends for dinner and wanted to prepare something vegetarian. I made a squash bisque but still had plenty of squash left and I wanted to prepare a dish that could be made ahead and served later. I roasted squash, added some other vegetables and spices, and baked it in water. The dish came as a big surprise and was a great success. I served it in individual ramekins, decorated with sage or pumpkin seeds. It looked nice and tasted even better. Everybody liked it very much and even two extra portions were gone as well.

At that time I did not have time to write down this recipe and as it is with some improvisations, I did not remember exactly how I made it. After many phone conferences with my sister who was at that dinner as well, I finally reproduced this recipe. She could not remember how I prepared this dish, but had a vivid impression of its taste. I tried it several times and finally got it right. This week, I will make it again for my friends.

It can be served as a dinner starter, or a stand-alone dish alone with fresh baguette, and I am pretty sure everybody will enjoy this simple fall dish.

Spicy Butternut Squash Pudding
(Serves six)

1 medium butternut squash (about 4 pounds of peeled cubes),
3 celery sticks, sliced,
4 shallots, chopped,
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped,
1 tsp mild curry powder,
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese,
1 tsp paprika (smoked or Hungarian),
1/3–1/2 cup heavy whipping cream,
2 small eggs,
1 tbsp lemon juice,
sage leaves or pumpkin seeds to decorate,
olive oil for frying,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Peel off squash and cut into medium cubes. Coat pieces with one tbsp of olive oil and bake for about 20 minutes until they get slightly brown on the sides.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium heavy duty frying pan, heat about 2 tbsp of oil. Add chopped shallots and fry them until transparent. Add thinly sliced celery sticks and fry together for another 3-5 minutes, until they become soft. Add squash pieces and parsley to the pan. Mix well and turn off the heat.
4. Using a blender (I use a hand blender) puree all the ingredients into a smooth paste. Add curry, paprika, salt, pepper, lemon juice and Parmesan cheese. Try and decide if you need more salt and pepper.
5. Add two eggs and heavy whipping cream and mix well. Up to this step a dish can be made hours ahead.
6. Preheat oven to 400F.
7. Divide the squash puree among six slightly buttered ramekins. Place them on a large baking pan with higher walls and pour around hot water, up to the half of ramekins' height.

8. Place the baking pan in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until top is set and slightly gold.

Serve warm decorated with butter-fried sage leaves or pumpkin seeds and freshly baked bread.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

White Beans Sautéed with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pancetta

This recipe is an upscale or at least drier version of what you used to get at any place serving food in Poland and was called Beans à la Bretonne. It was a dish made of cooked large white beans in a tomato sauce. In the more prosperous times it was served with chopped sausage, or bacon, or even meats. But most often it was served as a protein-rich vegetarian dish.

I do not have any particular sentiment for beans made that way, but because I like all kinds of beans I found this, most probably Italian, variation of this dish interesting. It called for tomatoes, but sun-dried, and pancetta, and some extra spices and herbs.

I made it last week on a cold, windy day. I added some chili pepper flakes, which made it fairly spicy. It tasted great, warming up and comforting.

I made part of the dish without pancetta for my son, but I added more garlic and tomatoes to it. He liked it a lot. But I found it tastier when I added some pancetta to it. It did not make the dish heavier but the taste of pancetta complimented it nicely.

I also cooked the beans al dente. They were already soft, but still a bit tender when bitten, while in Poland we served them nearly overcooked. For that reason, dry beans, not canned, should be used. Beans should be soaked over night and cooked slowly for about an hour, but you really need to try how you like them. I also salted it at the end of cooking with coarse sea salt. But not too much, as tomatoes and pancetta add extra saltines already.

White Beans Sautéed with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pancetta
(Serves 4-6)

1 lb (half a kilogram ) of dried, large white beans (e.g., Lima beans),
6-8 garlic cloves,
1 cup of sun-dried tomatoes (the best are those in oil and herbs), cut in strips
1/4 lb of pancetta (10-12 very thin slices),
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped,
1 tsp red chili pepper,
1 tbs fresh rosemary leaves.

1. Cover the beans with water (about an inch above) and let them soak overnight. Simmer in the same water for about an hour or a bit longer, until they have desirable softness.
2. Preheat a large frying pan. Add pancetta and fry it until it releases all the fat. Cut garlic into thin slices garlic and, add it to the pot, and fry it together for about 3-5 minutes until garlic becomes gold.
3. Cut sun dried tomatoes and add them to the pan, mix everything, and let it cook together for about a minute. Throw in chopped rosemary and chili pepper, and stir.
4. Add beans and about a 1/4 cup of water. Mix together and simmer gently until water evaporates and beans are coated in all the ingredients.

Serve hot.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Brussels Sprouts in Breadcrumbs--As Simple as That

How excited can you get about Brussels sprouts? I suppose, it's difficult to like them or hate them. But with the upcoming holidays I decided to write about them anyways. I also hope that this simple idea may gain some fans, in particular, among those who like me, actually like Brussels sprouts.

If you have ever visited Poland you might have noticed something that I have realised only recently, while writing about Polish food. In Poland we serve many vegetables (and not only) in breadcrumbs. I do not know why. It could be our love for breads, or maybe just we always had these dry bread leftovers that we did not like to throw away, or maybe we just like the taste of food coated in breadcrumbs.

I need to say that some vegetables served this way taste exceptionally good. A fresh yellow, green, or purple beans that we pick up straight from the stalks in the summer, and cauliflower, or fall Brussels sprouts taste really good coated in gold breadcrumbs. That is my favorite way of eating these vegetables, especially when I am in Poland where at the farmers markets they are sold fresh, harvested early in the morning the same day.

At this point I need to stress that breadcrumbs you can buy at the supermarket do not do the trick. Those in American stores are often sweet and not crunchy enough. The best way is to make them as we do it in Poland by griding dry white rolls or baguettes (the baguette flour is supposed to be of the best quality). So if you have dry baguette leftover in your kitchen, take them out and using a fine grater or food processor turn them into plain and crispy breadcrumbs. Then get some Brussels sprouts and make this Polish classic dish just like that, without any spices and flavors, a bit crunchy, and slightly bitter-sweet.

Brussels Sprouts in Breadcrumbs
(Serves four)

1 lb Brussels sprouts,
5 tbsp of good quality butter with high fat content (Keller's butter or Kerrygold Irish butter would be best),
3 tbsp bread crumbs,
1 tbsp salt,
1 tbsp sugar.

1. In a medium pot boil water with salt and sugar. Add Brussels sprouts and cook for about 20-30 minutes, depending on how soft you like them to be. Drain the Brussels sprouts on a colander.
2. Preheat a large frying pan. Add breadcrumbs and toast them first on a dry pan, stirring continuously until they turn gold. Add pieces of butter and mix them with breadcrumbs, stirring all the time.

When butter starts to bubble add Brussels sprouts and coat them with breadcrumbs. Fry for about one minutes.You can also put Brussels sprouts on the serving plate and pour over bubbling breadcrumbs  mixture.

Serve as meat accompaniment or alone, if you are a great Brussels sprouts amateur like me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Easy Chocolate Tart--But How Delicious!

I am not good at making cookies, so whenever I am asked to bake something for any kids event I make something different. Recently, I have been baking this chocolate tart often because it is children's favorite--chocolate, and does not contain nuts, which so many kids are allergic to these days.

This tart came out through a combination of two simple ideas: my favorite crust, the easiest anyone can make and which I use as a base for most of my fruit tarts, and a chocolate topping. Many people have been asking me for this recipe and because this is a party season I decided to post it today. The crust can be made days ahead. The whole tart can also stay (if it lasts that long) fresh for a couple of days.

Last time, while making it, I got bored with repeating the same recipe and added a fresh touch. I drizzled the top of the cake with caramel, mostly for decoration. On top of that I sprinkled a bit of French sea salt from Bretagne. The salt brought up the sharp taste of the chocolate and contrasted it with the sweetness of the whole cake.

I also put a layer of apricot or plum preserves under the chocolate, to give this cake just a hint of a different, a bit sour taste. The base of the cake is not very sweet but the whole cake is quite rich. I used half a jar of preserves but, if you like it, you can use a whole jar.

Chocolate Tart

Ingredients for the crust:
2 sticks of butter (room temperature),
2 cups all purpose flour,
1/2 cup powdered sugar.

Put all the ingredients in the large bowl and working with hands make large lumps,like breadcrumbs.Use a bit extra flour to clean your hands.Place the crumbs in a plastic bag and chill for minimum 2 hours.This crust can be made up to three weeks ahead and kept in refrigerator.

You can find exactly the same method to make this crust (and pictures) on my blog here (the same crust is used for many other cakes).

Ingredients for the topping:
2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips,
half 14 oz cup of apricot or plum preserve,
1/4 cup of table cream or heavy whipping cream.

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Spread the crust on a baking tin (13 by 9 inches). Along the sides make walls about 1/2 inch high. Slightly press the crumbs on the baking tin and bake in the oven for about 35-40 minutes, until it becomes gold.
3. Take the crust from the oven and let it cool down.
4. Spread half of the jar of the preserve on the crust.
5. In a medium pot place chocolate chips and cream. Melt it over a medium heat stirring continuously. When all the pieces melt, turn off the heat and pour the hot chocolate on top of the crust. Spread the chocolate topping evenly and let it cool down until the chocolate is set.

You can put the tart in a refrigerator for the topping to set faster. But later, the tart should not be kept in a refrigerator because the crust will get soggy.
6. Cut in squares and serve.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Queso Fresco--Baked with Oregano

I do not know much about South American cuisine and I hardly ever reach for recipes coming from that part of the world. One reason for that could be that I tend to be more comfortable with anything coming from the Old Continent. Another could be that I do not have any Latin friends who could introduce me to their favorite home recipes, which always helps break the ice when it comes to embracing an unknown cuisine. The third could be that in the US, South American restaurants are so popular that there is really no reason to make these dishes at home, unless you have some really well tried recipes for home-made dishes, which are not easy to find elsewhere.

But it does not mean that I do not eat South American food, or that I am not intrigued by it. Whenever I shop in the places that sell more South American products than I can find in my regular neighborhood food store, I always wonder what to do with them.

I often buy Latin cream which is very similar to Polish cream. The other day, I also bought queso fresco, the cheese that occupies a very large space in the Latin food store refrigerators but which I never tried before. There are different cheese types called "fresco", sold in big, usually round, pieces. I found a Mexican recipe calling for queso fresco and, interestingly, not much more. It was baked with oregano and garlic and served as a starter. I served it with fresh bread.

It was very aromatic and delicious, accompanied by a glass of a red wine. Molten queso fresco tasted a bit like Halumi or like molten mozzarella. flavored with a strong aroma or garlic and oregano. Oregano is an important ingredient in this otherwise very simple dish. Mexican oregano, like its Greek cousin, has a lot of flavor, so if you make a trip to a Latin store to buy this cheese you may wish to buy Mexican oregano as well.

When I made this dish for the first time, the cheese held its shape after being baked. When I did for the second time, the cheese melted. Nevertheless, each time s it was equally delicious.

Queso Fresco Baked with Oregano

1 lb (about 500 g) queso fresco, queso panela (if you have neither of them, mozzarella would be a good substitute),
4 garlic cloves,
1/4 cup olive oil,
1 tbsp dried oregano,
freshly ground pepper.

1. Place the cheese in a oven-proof dish.
2. In a small bowl mix crushed garlic, olive oil, and oregano. Pour the oil mixture over the cheese, cover it with plastic foil, and let it marinate for a minimum 2 hours, or overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 350 F (180C). Take the plastic foil off and bake the cheese for about 15 minutes, or until it becomes soft. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve warm.

Serve with a fresh baguette or crackers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Marinated Pumpkin--Sweet and Sour Halloween Leftovers

I am sure that these days many, like me, ended up with at least one huge pumpkin sitting on the porch. And I have no doubt that those living in America probably have some family recipes for it. Well, ever since I moved to the US I have been intensively adapting pumpkins and everything from its family to my culinary repertoire. I think I am getting pretty good at that, considering that in Europe I have never been a pumpkin lover.

Around this time pumpkins are present in all farmers' markets and ordinary grocery stores. They are so beautifully shiny and orange that it is impossible to avoid them. So each year, I warm up to them more and more and try a new pumpkin recipe. Last month I posted a pumpkin dish coming from Afghanistan. Today, I would like to share another one, this time a very Polish recipe.

Pumpkins have always been cultivated in Poland. In my home I heard only about two pumpkin dishes: milk-pumpkin soup, that has never sounded appealing to me, and marinated pumpkin that my grandmother and my mother prepared for winter. That version of pumpkin I have always loved and I have not seen in any other cuisine.

In Poland, almost any fruit or vegetable used to be marinated for winter consumption, when fresh produce was very limited. One of them was a marinated pumpkin. I think that condiment could be very successful in the US, especially to accompany a Thanksgiving turkey. Traditionally, we served it with roasted meats and potatoes, most often roasted hams, pork loins, and poultry. So if you have never tried marinated sweet and sour pumpkin, here is the idea how to make a good of use of at least a part of that Halloween leftover sitting on your porch.

Marinated Pumpkin
(For a 750g or 24oz jar)

1 lb of pumpkin, cut into small cubes,
1 cup, 5 percent acidity white vinegar,
1 cup sugar,
1/2 cup water,
6 cloves,
6 grains all spice,
2 bay leaves,

1. In a medium pot boil water with 2 tbsp of salt. Add pumpkin and boil for 2-5 minutes. The exact time will depend on how ripe or hard your pumpkin is and you need to check it with a fork every few minutes. Pumpkin should be cooked, but still pretty hard. Drain it on a colander.
2. To make a marinade put all the ingredients in a medium-sized pot and bring it to boil. Let it boil for about 3 minutes.
3. Transfer pumpkin pieces to a preserve jar, pour the marinade in, close the jar, and set it aside. Pumpkin is good already on a next day but if the jar is tightly closed, it can be kept for months.

Serve with all roasted meats and cold cuts.