Pasta Puttenesca

The fragrance of a simmering puttenesca sauce is told to have lured many to the tables.  Stories are varied, but I like the one where ‘Ladies of the Evening’, when looking for a new customer, would simmer this pasta sauce and the wafting aromas would lead men into their arms.

All I know is that this is one of my absolute favorite recipes.  It’s wholesome, spicy and very satisfying.  Like most homespun recipes, if you ask 10 cooks how to make it, each version you received would be a bit different.  Experiment with your own pantry items and your personal tastes to perfect your version!

Please search this blog for the Marinara recipe, or use your favorite sauce.

Pasta Puttenesca

Serves 4

  • 1 1/2 cups marinara sauce
  • olive oil
  • 1/4 cup olive tapenade or chopped black and green olives
  • 1 Tbls anchovy paste
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 or more cloves of fresh garlic, smashed and minced
  • 4 cups cooked whole wheat pasta
  • 1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid from pasta
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh basil for garnish

In a wide saute pan, heat the olive gently, then add the anchovy paste, olives, red pepper flake and garlic.  Stir and watch closely so as not to burn the mixture.  When sizzling, add the marinara sauce, and heat to a simmer.  Allow flavors to marry for about 3-4 minutes.  Toss in the cooked pasta and enough of the reserved liquid to just loosen up the sauce and pasta.  The pasta should be evenly coated, but not swimming in the sauce.  Taste for addition of salt, pepper or more red pepper flakes.  Garnish with lots of fresh basil.



Summer Fresh Salad

The only green left in the refrigerator last night was some baby arugula; not unlucky for me since it’s one of my absolute favs.  Not so good for Tony, a bit too strong for him.  I convinced him that I could tame the flavor of the arugula with something sweet (fresh corn and fennel) and some fat (olive oil and avocado).

While Tony was heating up the grill for a pizza experiment, I sliced the veggies and pulled the salad together. I pulled the first fennel bulb from my garden.  It was still relatively small compared to those found in the grocery stores, but just the right size for feeding salad to four.  Earlier this spring, I found a pot of Florence Fennel at a garden center grown for the herb garden.  There must have been 50 baby plants in that one pot!  I took the pot home, separated the plants and filled two 4 ft. beds with fennel plants.  After cutting the stems and fronds away from the bulb, I plunked them into a flower arrangement with purple stock.  Don’t you love it when all the parts of something grown in your own backyard get to be used?

This time of year, salads can take on a much different look and taste than those of early spring.  I’ve often thought how unfair it was to have tomatoes and lettuces ripen at such different times of year.  I’m still pulling some arugula out of my garden, and dreaming of August 15th to be able to plant lettuces again.

Great tomatoes are just around the corner, but probably not from my back yard.  The squirrels and chipmunks seem to take a bite out of each ‘almost ready’ tomato we have.  I am ever optimistic though and continue to plant them each year.  So, I’ll continue to frequent the farmers’ markets for the perfect tomato.

Summer Fresh Salad

  • 4 cups fresh baby arugula
  • 1/2 cup or more very thinly sliced red bell pepper
  • 1 small fennel bulb (about 2″ wide) very thinly sliced
  •  1/4 cup or less thinly sliced red onion
  • kernels removed from 1 ear of fresh, raw corn
  • 1 avocado, cubed
  • toasted walnuts or pine nuts
  • 3 Tbls olive oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard

Place the arugula and the remaining vegetables in a large bowl, keeping the avocado and walnuts separate for now.

In another smaller bowl, whisk the oil, mustard and honey together. Pour over the veggies and toss.  Add the avocado and nuts and toss again.  Serve immediately.


Mark’s Favorite Onion Rings

Yep, they tell me they are still talking about the onion rings.  Introduced to Mark and ‘the redhead’ about 5 years ago, these onion rings are a staple in our celebratory repertoire.  If there is a special event where Mark is the focus, you can be sure that I’ll be in charge of the onion rings.  And rightly so.

I saw a simple batter recipe about a million years ago in a magazine or newspaper, had the urge to try it, and the rest is history.  Imagine the light and crispy canned French’s onion rings you put on top of a green bean casserole.  Now, imagine them hot, fresh and just sprinkled with salt.  Imagine piles of them.  Put them on your burger, dip them in ketchup, just eat them!  Fast, before everyone else catches on.

Mark's Favorite Onion Rings

There is no doubt that the batch made for Mark’s party the other night turned out really well because of my portable deep fryer.  Turning these rings in a saute pan takes a bit too much attention.  If you don’t have a little fryer, just use a fairly deep, but narrow sauce pan and place about 3″ of canola or vegetable oil in the pan.  The optimal temperature for deep frying is between 350 and 360 degrees.  Less than 350 and the food will absorb too much fat and taste greasy.  Hotter than 360, the exterior will cook too quickly, leaving the interior undercooked.  This may sound too precise for some, but using a candy/deep fry thermometer makes the process simple.  A sample onion ring tossed into the hot oil should also give you the clue as to whether the oil is hot enough to begin.  The food should start bubbling the second it’s dropped into the oil.

Add enough of the food (other vegetables coated in this batter fry up nicely too), to make your batches efficient, but keep in mind the temperature of the oil will drop with each addition, causing the cooking process to slow down.  Give the rings room to swim.

Another tip is to salt them as soon as they come out of the oil, but not before.  Salt is one of a few things that will cause the oil to break down.  You might want to experiment with some salt and pepper combinations to jazz your rings up even more.  Maybe a bit of cayenne or chipotle, smoked paprika, or even a bit of cinnamon and sugar.  Ooh, deep fried sweet potato fries with chipotle, cinnamon and sugar… a story for another day.

One last thing before we start; plan ahead.  The batter is easy, but it takes a while to rest before it’s ready.

Mark’s Favorite Onion Rings

  • 1 cup beer
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 sweet onions, such as vidalia or mayan sweets
  • canola or vegetable oil
  • salt and pepper

Pour the beer over the flour in a small bowl; stir with a whisk until smooth.  Allow the batter to rest for 4 hours.  This gives the gluten in the flour time to develop.  Slice the onion into rings about 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick  and place in large, open bowl.  Pour the rested batter over the onion rings, gently mixing to coat.  The rings can stay in the batter for a while before you cook them.

Heat the oil to 350-360 degrees.  Drop a sample ring in the oil and cook until golden brown.  Remove to a platter that is lined with paper towels or brown grocery bags.  Salt and/or season as soon as the rings are removed from the oil so that the salt will adhere.  Cool slightly before eating.

If you are working in small batches, line a baking sheet with additional paper towels and keep in a 200 degree oven while the remaining rings are frying.

Caution: if you and your guests beginning nibbling before the bulk of the rings are fried, you won’t have enough rings to add to the dinner table.


Jackie’s Bacon Squares

My mom always steals the show when she brings these little noshes to an event.  During our pre-travel Italy events last year, the crowd gobbled them up, so it was only natural that our newly forming 2011 Travel Group should get the benefit of these tasty morsels.

Word travels fast when a basket of Bacon Squares hits the door.  Selfish people might think to keep the news to themselves, but everyone starts raving… and eating these snacks.  Before you know it, they’re gone.  It’s best, I guess that I didn’t even get ONE last time, because one is really never enough.  Sort of like the reason I don’t keep potato chips in the house, once you get started, it’s too hard to stop.

Try these with some bubbly at an appetizer party.  The salty, crunchy combo is perfect with cava, prosecco or champagne.  You will too form a love-hate relationship with this recipe.  A guilty pleasure for sure.

Jackie’s Bacon Squares

  • Keebler Club Crackers
  • 1 pound sliced bacon (not thick sliced)
  • parmesan cheese

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 275 degrees.  Cut the sliced bacon into quarters (each slice will now be 4 small slices).  Line the baking sheet with crackers and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  Place one of the 1/4 slices of bacon on each cracker and again sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  One pound of bacon will make 60-68 crackers.

Bake for approximately 2 hours.  The bacon and the crackers will be crispy.  Mom says “enjoy the compliments”.

Happy New Year!

Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’

Christmas Eve, and I’m in my usual pre-party panic.  Guests arriving in just a few hours and my lengthy list of to-do desserts is dwindling into what I think I can accomplish is the remaining time.  Mama’s Little Baby (aka Lauren) to the rescue, coming home a bit early from her Christmas stops is just in time to put together a batch of Shortbread Cookies for me.

I immediately begin to relax, knowing that my accomplished sous chef is in charge of the cookies. (So relaxed, in fact, I begin singing the Shortbread song…) It’s not that I had a specific recipe in mind for the shortbread cookies, but surely I could lay my hands on one in my  wide array of cookbooks.  I tried three books before I found something that I thought would work.  King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion was my guide as I thumbed through multiple recipes to land on one that we could adapt for this evening.

So, the dessert selection wasn’t too shabby.  Not exactly what I had in mind when I designed the menu of two cakes, three cookies, candies, etc.  But Oatmeal cookie wedges, Chocolate Cake with Orange Butter cream and Chocolate Ganache, Truffles, and these Shortbread Cookies seem to be enough to satisfy everyone.

I rarely get a chance to bake enough cookies during the holidays and January is usually when I try to make up for that.  Since Christmas, we have already managed to bake up a batch of Martha Stewart’s Outrageous Chocolate Cookies, but I still  need some Thumbprints with blackberry jam and Coconut Macaroons.    These shortbreads will be a repeat performer, and I hope you’ll like them too.

What makes a shortbread cookie ‘shortbread’?  Well, it’s the fat content.  High fat content, such as in biscuits, pie crust and shortbread cookies, ‘shortens’ the gluten strands and prevents the item from getting tough or chewy.

What makes a shortbread cookie an easy, last minute choice for a baker in a rush?  Simple, always on hand ingredients – nothing fancy or peculiar.  If you don’t have the coarse ground sugar on hand, just use granulated sugar, colored sanding sugar, or skip this step.  The cookies are improved by the extra crunch of the coarse sugar, but it’s really not a necessity.  These cookies would be great to cut into ‘fingers’ and use as dippers into chocolate fondue – decadent!

Christmas Eve Shortbread Cookies

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 1/3 cups (10 ounces)unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbls (or more) coarse Bourbon Vanilla Sugar (Demerara Sugar or Sugar in the Raw are  good substitutes)

Heat oven to 300 degrees.  In the bowl of a mixer, cream together the butter, granulated sugar and vanilla.  While the butter and sugar are mixing, whisk the flour and salt together in a separate bowl.  Once the sugar and butter are fluffy, mix in the flour and salt until thoroughly combined.

Press the mixture into an 8″ square baking pan or a 9″ round cake pan.  Since the air that has been whipped into the cookie dough will provide space for steam to help ‘rise’ these cookies, handle the dough minimally and gently press into the pan.   Sprinkle generously with the coarse sugar, and press the sugar down lightly, helping it adhere to the dough.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, the center will be puffed and the edges golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 5 minutes.

Using a bench knife or other flat blade, cut the shortbreads into squares or wedges and allow to cool completely in the pan.


Add some zest to your life!

At the Crescent Hill Women’s Club a few weeks ago, the topic was Holiday Foods without stress.  I demonstrated a Dried Fruit Compote, and for a variation, I mentioned adding some orange zest to the warm mixture to infuse the fragrance and taste throughout the recipe.  I warned everyone, that with citrus season nearly upon us, ‘Whatever you do, don’t discard the peels!’

Blogging about orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit peels seemed like a great thing to do, so here I am.  Citrus is available to us all year long, like most fruits and vegetables.  But, citrus is ‘in season’ during winter months. There is a reason that oranges and tangerines show up in Christmas stockings.  Watch the Susan Sarandan , Claire Danes, Winona Ryder version of Little Women – it’s my fav – and look for the oranges.

Remember that zest is the colored part of the citrus fruit peel only – don’t include the white ‘pith’ underneath the zest, it will be bitter.  So, as you are peeling or grating, don’t push too deeply.

OK, I am going to give you a list of one million things to do with citrus zest, most of them really simple.  As a finale, I’ll outline a detailed process of making candied orange peel that you can use in lots of recipes throughout the coming year.

To start, here is a list of my favorite tools for working with the peels and zest of citrus fruits:

  • Fingers – to remove tangerine and mandarin peels
  • Julienne Peeler – to remove little, thin strips for garnishes
  • Potato Peeler – to remove wide strips, which you may then chop in the food processor or by hand
  • Zester – a good one will dig a bit deeper than the J-peeler, and provide lovely, curling strips for garnishes or for candying
  • Chef’s knife – to finely mince the zest, and to cleanly peel an orange or grapefruit for slicing or sectioning
  • Paring knife, to score oranges and grapefruit for removing peel
  • Rasp grater – Microplane or Pampered Chef has the best.  This tool will shave off tiny fragments that you can add directly without further fuss.

Now, here is my list of 1 Million things to do with citrus zest:

  1. Drop a piece of orange of lemon zest into your cup of hot tea while it’s brewing
  2. Grate orange peel into your oatmeal or chocolate chip cookie batter
  3. Use orange and lemon peel in hot apple cider
  4. Lemon zest goes well with blueberries – in pound cake, scones…
  5. Make simple syrups infused with any citrus zest
  6. Flavor salad dressings with finely grated zest
  7. Make citrus sugar (orange, lemon, lime) by drying the zest in a jar of sugar
  8. Add zest to icings for the most intense flavor
  9. Add a mixture of orange and lemon zest to a simple cheesecake recipe
  10. Make my Brown Rice Salad
  11. Add orange zest and ginger to sweet potatoes or carrots
  12. Add lime zest and juice and honey to cantaloupe chunks
  13. Add lime or lemon zest and juice to salsa
  14. Use the zest of red grapefruit along with tarragon for an incredible sorbet

OK, so maybe it wasn’t a million, but hopefully a few ideas that you hadn’t thought of yourself.  Here is my favorite thing to do with lots of oranges – if you are lucky, someone will give you a fruit basket for the holidays.  Or just buy yourself a bag of oranges during their season.  Most times, I don’t get to this until January.

Candied Orange Peel

  • Score 3 thick skinned oranges into quarters and remove the peel, zest, pith and all.  Use the oranges for salads or snacking. Slice the peel into 1/4″ long slices.
  • Place the orange peel slices  in a heavy bottomed sauce pan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.  Drain and rinse.  Repeat this process twice more.
  • Return the peel to the pan and add 1 cup sugar and 1/2  cup water.  Bring to a boil once again and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Reduce to simmering and cook and watch closely until most all the liquid is absorbed.  Gently stir until the liquid is completely absorbed – the peel will still be moist.
  • Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper or lightly oil with vegetable oil.
  • Pour the orange peel out onto the sheet pan, and separate the sliced orange peel with a fork.  Be careful!  The peel is blisteringly hot – don’t touch it with your fingers.
  • While the peel is still hot, sprinkle with granulated sugar (extra fine is best), and allow the peel to absorb the sugar.  Repeat this process until the peel is dusted  with a light, but dry sugar coat.  Allow to rest on the pan until completely cool and dry.
  • You may decide to dip one end of the orange peel slices into melted dark chocolate – YUM.
  • Dicing some into small square will get you ready to try baking some Florentines.  But that’s a blog post for another day.


Dried Fruit Compote Spans the Menu

My brother was married last night in an intimate ceremony at his condo, with family and a few very close friends.  Still clinging to the last vestiges of Italy, I planned the menu of Mediterranean appetizers, a salad, some pasta dishes and two desserts.

The chocolate cake that the bride requested was prepared by the Bakery at Sullivan University, and stacked and garnished with fresh raspberries and mint by yours truly. The filling was an orange buttercream and the cake was enrobed with chocolate ganache.  How bad could it have been?

The groom’s cake, in a departure from the usual chocolate, (and since that base was already covered) was a cheesecake lightly scented with orange and vanilla and topped with a dried fruit compote.  I usually serve this compote atop vanilla ice cream or even Brie or goat cheese, but I decided it would be a great fall-ish topping for the second dessert.

So, again I go for ‘Flexible Food’.  Something that can span the range of menu items from appetizer to entree to dessert.  Imagine a pork roast or even grilled lamb chops with a bit of this syrupy glaze spooned over.  It would certainly fit the bill on the Thanksgiving table snuggled up next to the stuffing and roasted bird.

A wheel or wedge of Brie (the cheese, not the dog) with a generous topping of the compote served with crisp crackers is welcome at either end of a special dinner.  Served with a dessert wine or port, it would replace the customary ‘dessert course’ and give your meal a certain Continental flair.

Another of the many positive attributes of this dish is the fact that you can make it and keep it stored in the fridge for weeks; really handy with the holidays nearing.  I had planned to prepare this a few weeks ago when I was shopping and picked up some Calmyrna figs, dried plums (yep, prunes), dried cherries and dried cranberries.  I had a stash of dried mission figs in the pantry. Apricots and dates work too – use what you have or buy your favorites.

The liquid called for here is flexible too.  I began making this a few years ago with port, and have used both tawny and ruby.  I have used sweet wines like muscadet.  Yesterday I had none of the above, but did have some Sauvignon Blanc and a bottle of a nice Muscat dessert wine.  And so, I began.

Dried Fruit Compote

Dried Fruit Compote

  • 5 cups of mixed dried fruits, large pieces diced
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups white wine or port
  • 1 cup sweet wine or port
  • 1-3″ cinnamon stick
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 2-3 whole cloves or a 1″ piece of fresh ginger
  • 2 Tbls cornstarch
  • 2 Tbls red wine vinegar or lemon juice

In a shallow 3 quart pan, place the fruit, sugar, and all the wine except 1/4 cup.  Stir together, add the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick and cloves and/or ginger,  and heat to a simmer.  In a small measuring cup or bowl, stir the cornstarch, lemon juice and remaining wine together to smooth out the lumps. When the fruit has simmered enough to soften slightly (about 5 minutes), stir in the cornstarch mixture and return to a simmer.  Cook until thickened slightly and the liquid has turned from cloudy to clear.  Remove from heat and cool.

Move the mixture to small glass jars or to one large storage container.  Keep chilled.  The compote will keep for 3-4 weeks.