Monday, July 26, 2010

Buitoni, Homework, and Wine: What Could Be Better?

I hope you will indulge me while I take an editorial detour for the day...

As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received a boatload of Buitoni Riserva Pasta and a few bucks to host a party. (Who is going to turn down money to throw a party?) The idea was to come up with a vegetable side dish pairing to go with one of the Riserva Pasta flavors. Always the overachiever, I decided to come up with four side dishes – one for each of the four Riserva flavors (What can I say? I use to do the extra credit assignments in school too).

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, I decided to structure the party as a tasting. I mean, if I’m going to cook all day for people, they are darned well going to have to participate somehow. Everyone received a sheet that listed the pasta, Buitoni sauce, vegetable side dish, and a wine that was paired for that course. They then had to rate each individual dish and the whole course as a pairing (Of course, this probably explains why all the pictures look like the people are taking their SAT's).

Many thanks to Jonathan at the Wine Warehouse in Palmetto for coming up with great wine options that averaged $10 per bottle. And thanks to the Baroness for the use of her home for the evening.

Pan frying the Pub Course
This is Serious Work
Since I cooked all day, I decided to let my friends from the party write this blog. Below you will find each paired course, its overall score, and comments (positive and negative; useful and not) from the judges The names have been changed to protect the innocent (come to think of it, the names have actually been changed to protect the guilty).

The original side dishes will get some spotlight time over the next few weeks, and I’ll be back to my regular format next time. In the meantime, enjoy the party…

Pairing #1the Pub
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Quattro Fromaggi Agnolotti (breaded and pan fried)
Sauce: Buitoni Tomato Herb Parmesan
Side: Baked Zucchini Fries
Wine: 2008 Ruffino Orvieto Classico

  • “Breading on ravioli makes it a great appetizer. I would consider taking this to a party.”
  • [side] “fun appetizer. Healthy too. I think I could do this.”
  • “how clever”
  • [pasta] “very fresh tasting, nice crunch”
  • [sauce] “I like the chunky texture”

Everyone Waiting for Dinner

Pairing #2Raw and Roasted
AVERAGE SCORE 9.6/10 (the winner)
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Chicken and Four Cheese Ravioli
Sauce: Buitoni Pesto with Basil
Side: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad
Wine: 2007 Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di tufi

  • “favorite pairing of all”
  • “the server is getting a bit snippy now…”
  • [pasta] “taste is somewhat lacking – would have liked chunks of chicken”
  • “pesto was a little mild”
  • “pesto was nice addition to the 4 cheeses”
  • [side] way cute. The color is a welcome addition to the plate”
  • [pasta] “moist and delicious”
  • “great combination; loved it!”
  • “they didn’t come together for me, seemed too different rather than complimentary”

Prepping the Next Tasting Round

Pairing #3Hearty and Traditional
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Spicy Beef and Sausage Ravioli
Sauce: Buitoni Marinara
Side: Kale & Cannellini Beans
Wine: 2008 LeSalette Valpolicella

  • “didn’t taste beef & sausage too well”
  • “I’m getting in trouble for looking at Jane’s paper”
  • [wine] “brings out the earthiness of the vegs; interesting spiciness”
  • [side] “eating this, then following it with the wine brings out a very earthy flavor w/the kale mixture; nice pairing”

Two Tables, One Party

Pairing #4Fast Forward to Fall
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Wild Mushroom Angolotti
Sauce: Buitoni Alfredo Sauce
Side: Sweet Potato & Fennel Gratin
Wine: 2007 Donna Marzia Primitivo del Salento

  • [pasta] “the best – delicious combo – pasta is light, filling good flavor & texture”
  • [sauce] “rich yet not cloying” (I don’t even know what this means, but it sounded good)
  • [pasta] “delicious – mushrooms tasted wonderful – not overpowered by pasta”
  • “good PMS dinner”
  • [pasta] “sharp mushroom flavor; not bland”
  • [side] “best part of meal – wonderful flavors”
  • [side] “best dish – want this often”

This Table Was Well-Behaved

This Was the Disruptive Table

And the best comment of the night:
“The people at this table confuse me. Or maybe the wine did.”
Thanks to the Wine Warehouse for the Great Selections

Friday, July 23, 2010

You Are Pudding Me On: Blueberry Barley Pudding

One of the things that I find appealing in dishes is a combination of textures. You know, crispy fried chicken with creamy mashed potatoes; smooth yogurt with crunchy granola; you get the idea. It just hits more of your senses when you eat.

On these incredibly hot evenings (even for Florida standards), I have not wanted to bake anything for dessert (even though I am about to die for a cookie) - I mean, it was still 91 degrees at 9:30 Tuesday night! But my sweet tooth must be satisfied, nonetheless. To substitute, I’ve been turning to cooler options: gelato, sorbet, and pudding.

Even though you have to fire up a burner on the stove to make a pudding, it doesn’t heat things up like turning on the oven. Besides, serving it chilled adds a little relief to this oppressive heat. And anything that beats this heat gets an automatic ‘thumbs up’ in my book right now.

If you’ve read anything earlier, you might know that I have this newfound love affair with barley. It’s just one of those things that I never had occasion to cook with until recently. I’ve been substituting barley for rice here and there, but hadn’t thought about dessert until the other night.

On a whim, I decided to make a barley pudding. I had some blueberries that were about to outstay their welcome, so I thought I’d throw them into the mix as well.

What came out was this incredible textural concoction in lavender. The barley stays so chewy compared to the minor bite left in rice pudding that it surprised me. I was prepared to throw in a handful of toasted nuts to give me that syncopated texture combination that I crave, but didn’t see the need. Even after sitting around for a couple of days, the barley still holds that bite. I just wasn’t expecting that. It’s like a tapioca texture on steroids.

I have a friend who is the exact opposite of me when it comes to food texture – she won’t eat anything on the plate if there’s a combination of creamy and crunchy. I don’t get it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing, so barley pudding probably wouldn’t be for her. But if you dig that mix of sensations on your tongue, then try this one.

Recipe: Blueberry Barley Pudding

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stupidly Simple: Grilled Cabbage Slaw

Don’t you hate it when life gets in the way of the things you want to do - like cook? Me too. We recently attended the monthly Gathering of the gourmet club we belong to (Get Together Gourmets), and time was not on my side. The theme for the month was BBQ – not only did I need to make a BBQ dish, but I also had to come up with a side dish to accompany it as well.

I have this self-inflicted rule about the dishes I take to these things: I have to make an original recipe for the Gathering. I’ve fallen short of that a few times (Chinese New Year being a prime example), but by-and-large I keep to my rule.

It turned out to be a particularly busy week – multiple jobs, a fussy client, and a minor emergency all piled on one another until it became the morning of the Gathering, and I still really didn’t know what I was going to make. I decided to fall back on my Balsamic Rosemary Glazed Chicken that I blogged about a couple of months ago, but I still couldn’t figure out the side dish.

At the eleventh hour (and out of desperation), I decided to throw all of the ingredients for cole slaw on the grill and see what happened. The results turned out to be fantastic. The grill brought out all of the amazing natural sugars of the cabbage, carrots, celery, and scallions. It was absolutely surprising. Mingled with the smoky flavors that the grill infuses, I was well on my way to a pretty decent dish.

Don and I held an impromptu tasting to decide on a dressing. I didn’t want to do a mayonnaise-based dressing after I tasted the sugary-grilled marvel of the vegetables, so I switched gears and we tried to figure out which vinegar would compliment the slaw best. We went through cider (too sharp), rice wine (too delicate), white wine (too blah), and balsamic (too overpowering) before finally settling on simple, everyday red wine vinegar.

I had drizzled so much olive oil over the veggies before I slapped them on the grill that it wasn’t even necessary to add any more for the vinaigrette. Just some salt, pepper, and an extra tablespoon of sugar (I like my slaw on the sweet side) was all it took to give this salad the perfect flavor balance it needed. (Of course, the fact that we were doing this about 30 minutes before we had to walk out the door had absolutely nothing to do with the nakedly simple dressing either).

I think we ended up sampling 9 different types of barbeque and almost as many side dishes that night, and not a clunker in the bunch. Of course, I don’t think anyone else was trying to finish creating their dish as they ran out the door. It just goes to show you – sometimes it pays to keep it stupidly simple.

Recipe: Grilled Cabbage Slaw

Monday, July 19, 2010

Torta Reform: Mushroom and Rosemary Potato Torta

Do you have one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that you only use when you have to? For me, it’s a mandolin. It’s difficult to clean, it’s awkward to use, and every time I touch it, I think I’m going to end up with one less finger by the time I’m finished. Of course, the fact that I have a cheap (in the negative sense of the word) mandolin probably has more than a little to do with it. Regardless, I seldom get it out – unless I absolutely have to.

We went to a party this weekend. One of us (not me) ended up having a little too much fun and was paying for it the next day. I hate days like that. I can certainly empathize with anyone who wakes up because they hear the ants crawling outside the bedroom window (I’ve been there once or twice myself). In an effort to combat the remnants of an exciting evening, Don had requested something starchy but light for dinner (yes, he was still not himself by dinner time – he thought it was a really good party). Starchy but light? READ MORE

Recipe: Mushroom and Rosemary Potato Torta

Friday, July 16, 2010

Just Beet It: Balsamic Roasted Beets with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

I did not grow up eating beets. My parents were not adventurous eaters, and beets just looked too odd, what with that startling crimson color and all. I was probably in my 30’s before I had ever voluntarily tasted beet roots, and I was hooked from the beginning. READ MORE

Recipe: Roasted Balsamic Beets with Gorgonzola and Walnuts
Link: Gourmet’s Pasta with Beet Greens (in case you want it)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Did It All for the Gnocchi: Rosemary Gnocchi Stew

When you want comfort food, you want comfort food. Who cares if the weather isn’t cooperating? It was 90+ degrees last weekend, but that didn’t stop me from satisfying my desire for something hearty and rich.

It all started out with a craving for my grandmother’s chicken & dumplings. She’s been gone for over 20 years, but there are still some dishes she cooked that I can’t get enough of. Various family members picked up the secrets to several of her prized recipes (I’m the only one who can reproduce her biscuits), but no one ever learned the secret to her chicken & dumplings. I’ve tried to mimic the dish multiple times over the years. I get close, but not close enough. Isn’t it strange how that works sometimes?

I wasn’t in the mood to fall short of my craving this time, so I decided to twist everything and come up with my own unique dish. Chicken was out – I wanted to start my own tradition – so I ended up with ground beef meatballs. They become incredibly tender after simmering for so long, and are full of flavor.

The dumplings were a little more difficult. I was tempted to leave them plain and pour all the flavor into the thick, luscious broth, but my second idea turned out to be the better choice: I loaded the dumplings with the sharp taste of rosemary and thyme. It turned out to be the perfect balance to the meatballs.

Let me make this confession – I guess they aren’t technically gnocchi. They consist of flour, eggs, and broth without the potatoes. But the translation for 'gnocchi' is 'dumpling' (thank you internet), so I stretched it a little. Besides, gnocchi stew sounds a little more sophisticated than dumpling stew. So I beg the forgiveness of you Italian purists and ask that you cut me a little slack.

After the whole thing simmers for an hour or two, there’s no way that it can’t be good. And to make a stab at eating healthy, I threw in a handful of peas at the last minute.

When it was finished, I knew I had to share this one - the taste is out of this world! I called up a couple of friends for an impromptu dinner party. The verdict was unanimous; the gnocchi stew is a new favorite all the way around.

So even if you have to turn down the A/C to make this one – do it for the gnocchi.

Recipe: Rosemary Gnocchi Stew

Monday, July 12, 2010

All Choked Up: Chicken with Tomatoes and Artichokes

I was supposed to be taking the night off. Don was at work, and I had the house to myself for the evening (which certainly is not a common occurrence). I had considered diving head first into a bag of chips for dinner, but then I got the dreaded phone call: Don needed me to bring him something to eat because he wasn’t going to get the chance to get away for a break.

So much for a Doritos dinner. READ MORE

Recipe: Chicken with Tomatoes and Artichokes

Friday, July 9, 2010

You’ve Been Quick-Rolled: Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls

Ah, the weekend, the only time of the week when every-single-freaking-minute of my day is not scheduled. It’s nice to have one morning a week when I don’t have to be up and out. It gives me a chance to make something a little nice (and a little naughty) for breakfast. For that, there’s nothing like the taste of homemade cinnamon rolls – warm, yeasty, buttery bites that take a little time, but are totally worth it. Read More

Recipe: Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls
Bonus Recipe: The Best Cinnamon Rolls - EVER

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crepe Crusader: Sweet Corn Crepes with Scallion Dill Sauce

Don and I found ourselves with an unusual set of circumstances – a rare Saturday night with no work and no plans with friends. What better opportunity for a date night? Unfortunately, it was the first of the month – the mortgage was paid, and not much was left over for dinner and a movie.

So date night at home it was. I didn’t want to do just a regular every night meal. I wanted to make something a little special, but I wasn’t sure what. What eventually came to my rescue? Crepes. What was my inspiration? IHOP, of course. I mean, when you think of a special meal with a gourmet twist, my thoughts automatically go to IHOP, don’t yours? (OK, I saw an IHOP commercial with crepes in it – what do you want? Every great idea can’t come with a flattering story to tell, can it?) READ MORE

Recipe: Sweet Corn Crepes with Scallion Dill Sauce

Monday, July 5, 2010

All They’re Cracked Up To Be: Black Sesame Crackers

I’ve discovered there are two things that people are always impressed to find out that you made from scratch: the first is marshmallows, and the other is crackers. “Oh, my God! I can’t believe you made those! I wouldn’t even know how to start.” I’ve heard it several times, and it always surprises me. READ MORE

 Black Sesame Crackers
Springtime Scallion Spread

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Quick ‘Between Jobs’ Dinner: Tomato, Asparagus, and Pesto Salad with Chicken

I hate working two jobs. OK, let me correct that before the gods of irony get involved and have a field day: I hate the fact that I need to work two jobs.

Three nights a week I have to run from the office, back to the house, scarf down dinner, and head out to job number two. I just can’t hit the drive-thru and be on my way, like normal people. Why? 1) If I ate fast food three nights a week, I’d be as big as a house; and 2) spending money to eat fast food defeats the purpose of working two jobs (I mean, if I’m going to pay for dinner, then I want to appreciate the food, not the plastic cup full of soda). The solution is to come up with some quick and easy recipes to keep in my back pocket. That’s where this one comes into play.

All these veggies pair nicely with pesto on their own, so I thought I might as well toss them all together. Same goes for the chicken. I seasoned the chicken breasts with just simple salt and pepper, instead of doing anything that would compete with the pesto.

In an effort to add a little body to the sauce (which is really just pesto), I cook the orzo as I would a grain – a 2:1 ratio of liquid to orzo (when it's finished cooking, it looks like a pot of rice). That way I can use all the starchy goodness that comes from the pasta when it cooks to give the sauce a little more heft. Cooking it in chicken stock just imparts that much more flavor. The only thing the recipe lacks is some crusty bread to go with it (which I happened to have on hand).

I know this is short, but that’s all the time I have – it’s a two-job day.

Recipe: Tomato, Asparagus, and Pesto Salad with Chicken