Monday, November 15, 2010

Chopped Mediterranean Salad

This recipe falls into the category of “whatever was on hand”, and turned out to be a hit! I had initially planned on making a simple green salad with olives, tomatoes and sweet onion to go with last weekend’s Polenta Lasagne, so I picked up a box of organic greens a few days before. A few minutes before the lasagne was due to exit the oven, I grabbed the salad fixins out of the refrigerator and set myself up for assembly. Let me just say, there is no disappointment worse in the kitchen than opening what you suspect to be perfect good produce only to find it is RUINED. Sad panda face. The greens were beyond salvage- slimy, limp and in the throes of decomposition. Being someone who doesn’t like to waste food, I reluctantly pitched the greens in questions and set about finding a suitable side dish on the fly.

With the other ingredients ready to play, I pilfered the fridge and windowsill for a couple of additions to bulk up the salad, and ended up with a very refreshing, crisp chopped salad that gave a great play of cool to the piping hot lasagne. The portions made enough for 3-4 sides and can be easily doubled. The salad would be best with super fresh produce, however the use of a light dressing and the fine chop on all the vegetables can help mask the lack of farm fresh vegetables in the off season. It’s also incredibly easy to throw together for a quick lunch or weeknight meal side or as an appetizer topping for bruschetta.

Chopped Mediterranean Salad

- 3 Plum tomatoes, chopped
- ½ English cucumber, chopped
- ¼ Vidalia onion, chopped
- 4 Kalamata Olives, chopped
- 4 Greek green olives, chopped
- 1/3 Cup crumbled feta
- Handful flat leaf Italian parsley, rough chopped
- 5-6 Basil leaves, chiffonade
- 3-4 Tblspns olive oil
- ½(ish) Tblspn balsamic or red wine vinegar
- Wedge of lemon
- Sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper

Comine all ingredients in a wide, low bowl and toss well to coat with olive oil & vinegar. Season to taste with salt & pepper, squeeze lemon over and toss again to incorporate. Allow to rest for 15 or so minutes before serving to allow vegetables time to marinate. Cover any leftovers tightly with plastic wrap & refrigerate. Salad will lose brightness after a day or two in the fridge, but is still very tasty!

If making ahead, combine all vegetables and herbs, but hold off on adding in oil & vinegar (this mixture can be made a day in advance if needed). Add o&v 15-30 minutes before serving, season with salt, pepper & lemon, and serve.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

 When I decided to make the Rustic Polenta Lasagne posted below, I knew I would also have to make some sort of desert component to satisfy Kyle’s sweet tooth. I finally caved to my pumpkin cravings and settled on the Pumpkin Chocolate Chip cookies my friend Brianne had posted on her blog, Sweet Cheeks in the Kitchen, a few weeks ago. I swear-that girl could sell her delicious baked goods to a man without taste buds, and her photos are just lovely! I have always admired her talent in baking, and have wanted to test-drive a number of her recipes for some time now, and this was the perfect excuse.

The cookies turned out beautifully- they baked up fluffy and full of flavor without being overly sweet or rich. I tend to like my cookies a bit more on the “cake-y” side, and these fit the bill perfectly. I ended up with about 30 cookies in the end, and they were just the right size for a little sweet satisfaction. In order to get a wider range of opinions, I brought in a tin to work and shared them with my neighbor, and they were well received by all participants, including my darling husband! In fact, they were so good (and simple!) I whipped up another batch on Sunday afternoon to help cope with the stinging loss my Patriots endured at the hands of the Browns (no, I do not want to talk about it, thanks), and they were extremely comforting, leaving the delicious aroma of fall hanging in the apartment for the next little while.

PS- Congratulations to Brianne and her husband on the birth of their beautiful son, Abe last week! There is no doubt in my mind that he will be fiercely loved, widely celebrated and well fed! ;-)

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Brianne over on Sweet Cheeks in the Kitchen

- 2 ½ Cups flour
- 1 Tspn baking soda
- 1 Tspn baking powder
- 1 Tspn cinnamon
- 1 Tspn nutmeg
- ½ Tspn salt
- 1 ½ Cups organic sugar
- 1 Stick butter, softened
- 1 Full cup canned pumpkin
- 1 Large egg
- 1 Tspn vanilla
- 1 Cup chocolate chips, semi sweet or dark work well

-3 Tblspns organic sugar combined w/ 1 tspn pumpkin pie spice, for dusting (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease or line two baking sheets.
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Beat together the sugar and butter until well blended. Add in pumpkin, egg and vanilla, beat until smooth. Gradually add in the dry mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips.
 Drop onto prepared baking sheets.  Sprinkle with spiced sugar mixture if using. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until edges are firm and cool on wire racks. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rustic Lamb Lasagne

Whenever Kyle comes home from sea, I try to make something really comforting and homey to welcome him back from his time out to sea, especially now that we are into November and the mercury has taken a significant nose dive. As I’ve said many times before, I really enjoy fall and winter, and all of the hearty cooking that comes along with it. On the whole, Kyle is a very much a “meat & potatoes” kind of fella, although he has a very adventurous palate. This past cruise, his ship was researching off of Georges Bank, and this time of year up North can be quite biting.

I have been traveling almost every weekend for the past couple of weeks, and as a result my cooking & blogging have been somewhat lacking. However, the stars aligned for this past weekend, and with Kyle coming home for more than a night or two, I was excited to make something truly “from scratch” that would be filled with rustic flavors and soul warming substance.

I stumbled across Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Venetian Lasagne, and immediately felt inspired. I loved the idea of replacing noodle layers with polenta, and from her initial recipe, I began building my own take on it in my head over the next two days. With the much appreciated help of my friend and colleague, Matt, I began bouncing ideas off of him on how to expand on the polenta lasagne concept, which he and his wife had made a take on before. Nigella’s original recipe called for ground beef, and after playing around with different textural concepts, I settled on substituting a combination of ground sausage and diced lamb to create a more interesting consistency. From there, I decided upon adding a layer of ricotta with fresh herbs- a component I have to add to any baked Italian pasta dish. I upped my vegetable measurements as well to add to the robust nature of my concept.

I took a lot of pleasure in the entire slow-cook process of this dish- I bought my lamb as a bone-in leg section, and butchered it down myself to ensure absolute freshness and flavor. As the sauce simmered away on low heat (the smell was incredible!), I enjoyed a glass of wine, mixed up the ricotta layer and prepared my assembly line and enjoyed the warmth of my tiny kitchen on a blustery night. I cooked & assembled the lasagne a day in advance, and I would not recommend attempting this from start to finish on for a weeknight meal. It is a perfect “do ahead” recipe, as it will survive perfectly covered in a dish in the refrigerator for up to two days in advance or could be made the day of a weekend dinner party. It is hearty enough to chase away any cold fall or winter day, and elegant enough to serve at a casual dinner party with good friends and a hearty red wine. My recipe ended up being enough to make a grand 9”x13” pan for Kyle and I, and as a thank you to Matt, I sent him home after work on Friday with a 9” round pan of the same to share with his wife over the weekend- it was only fitting after being my soundboard on it over two days!

I have never been so happy with the way a lasagne has turned out from start to finish, and I will be making this again and again in the future. The lamb was robust and full of flavor from its slow simmer in the sauce, and the polenta absorbed the all of the flavor while still maintaining its own integrity. I served it alongside a chopped style Mediterranean salad (recipe up soon!), and the huge flavors of the lasagne complimented it perfectly. At the end of the weekend, Kyle and I were left with two measly end pieces, which we plan on devouring after work today. I have to say, the best compliment came from Matt and his wife, who texted the following message to me on Satuday: “I must say that the lasagne is superb! Nice work. Natascha and I totally owned the whole pan. Can’t feel my face.” It doesn’t get any better than that, as far as I’m concerned!

Rustic Polenta Lasagne with Lamb, Mushroom & Sausage Ragu (inspiration taken from Nigella Lawson’s Venetian Lasagne)

Written out in order of preparation:

For the Polenta:
-2 Cups instant or quick cooking polenta (I used Pastene)
- Chicken stock (enough for whatever the polenta instructions require for cooking liquid)
- ¾ Cup shredded Parmesan
- 1Tblspn. butter
-Sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper

For the Ragu:
- ½ lb. loose Italian sausage
- 1½ lbs. Fresh lamb leg, diced into bite size pieces
- 16oz. Baby Bella mushrooms, roughly diced
- ½ Vidalia onion, diced
-3-4 Medium garlic cloves, minced
- 3 Celery stalks (with green tops), diced
- 3 Carrots, peeled & diced
- 16oz. Can crushed tomatoes (San Marzano or Pastene are perfect)
- 2-3 Tblspn. tomato paste
- ½ Cup hearty red wine, such as Chianti, Merlot or Bordeaux
- 2 Bay leaves
- Olive oil
- Sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper

For the Ricotta Layer:
- 16oz. Part skim Ricotta cheese, at room temperature
- 1 Large egg
- Handful of flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
- Heavy pinch of fresh ground nutmeg
-Sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper

Additional ingredient: 1+ Cup shredded Parmesan, for layering

For Polenta: In an adequately sized stock pot, heat chicken stock (amount determined by brand of polenta used) over medium high heat until boiling. Add in dry polenta and stir continually until stock is absorbed. Remove from heat & quickly stir in Parmesan cheese, butter and season with salt & pepper. Divide polenta between two cookie or baking sheets, using a spatula to spread out evenly (once polenta begins to cool slightly, it can be smoothed further by placing a layer of parchment paper on top and passing a rolling pin over the top). Set aside and allow to cool completely.

For Ragu: In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat 1 Tblspn of olive oil over medium heat, add in sausage meat and cook until browned, stirring to break up. Once browned, remove with a slotted spoon & reserve in a large dish. Add a little more olive oil & add in onions, celery and carrot. Season to taste with salt & pepper and sweat, stirring occasionally for 10-12 minutes, until vegetables are softened. Add in garlic & mushroom, cooking an additional 5 minutes until mushrooms have softened and garlic is fragrant, but not browned. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon to same dish as sausage and reserve. Turn heat to medium-high, add a little more oil if needed, and sear off lamb pieces until well browned, approximately 7-10 minutes, seasoning with salt & pepper. After fully browning, add in sausage and vegetable mixture and stir well to incorporate. Reduce heat to medium-low, add in bay leaves, crushed tomatoes, tomato puree and wine and bring to low simmer. Stir well and cover partially with lid, dropping heat to low. Allow sauce to cook down over the 60-90 minutes, checking & stirring occasionally. If sauce becomes too thick, thin with a bit of stock or water, and if sauce does not reduce enough, add a bit more tomato paste. Once sauce has reached desired consistency, turn off heat, remove bay leaves and allow to cool slightly for assembly.

For Ricotta: Combine Ricotta, parsley, egg, nutmeg, salt & pepper in a bowl until well mixed.

To assemble Lasagne: Using your pan as a guide, cut cooled polenta to fit the bottom of pan (you should be able to get 3 full slices of polenta out of the pans for layering, and use the last ½ for a smaller [freezer?] lasagne), and place first layer into the bottom of pan. Spread a layer of ricotta on top using a spatula, and top with 1/3 of the Parmesan. Top with a layer of the ragu sauce. Repeat process for a second layer, topping with a final layer of polenta (3 layers of polenta total). Spread with remaining parmesan.

If serving immediately: cover lasagne with a layer of aluminum foil and bake off for 60 minutes in a 370 degree oven, or until bubbly and heated through. Remove foil and broil for 3-5 minutes, until cheese browns and becomes crunchy. Remove from oven & serve with simply dressed greens, lightly sautéed broccoli rabe or lemony haricot verts and a glass of your favorite red.

If making ahead of time: All assembly up to cooking can be done up to two days in advance, and lasagne can be stored in your refrigerator. Top tightly with a layer of plastic wrap, and cover with aluminum foil. Before baking, discard plastic wrap, and follow above directions, adding 20 minutes cooking time if going straight from refrigerator to oven.