Monthly Archives: February 2010

Creamy Polenta with Beef Ragù

Polenta with beef ragù is a hearty meal that will satiate anyone’s appetite as well as offer a pleasant alternative to eating pasta.  Polenta is as old as the Roman ruins; It actually originated in Ancient Rome and was cooked from farro (similar to barley).  Today, polenta is commonly made from yellow or white ground cornmeal.  As a result of its humble ingredients, polenta is still classified as a peasant dish in Italy.  However, do not let this fool you — whether you add butter or Caciocavallo Podolico (one of the world’s most expensive cheeses), polenta can be as unassuming or as decadent as you want it to be.  Polenta also has the stigma of being a food that requires your entire Saturday to cook.  This is not necessarily true; this creamy concoction takes all of 15 minutes to whip up.  Polenta can be eaten by itself as an appetizer or as a first course. However, I like to serve my polenta with a pile of heaping beef ragù on top.

Beef ragù is merely meat sauce.  There are numerous variations on how to prepare ragù (The same can be said for marinara sauce as well).  One of my favorite ragu’s, a popular Tuscan variety, is made with wild boar.  Yes, sounds inhumane, but oh so tender.  Wild boars are used primarily to dig up wild truffles in Northern Italy.  However, boars are pigs and thus, many hunters  have found that the boars are not only notorious for unearthing the truffles, but for eating them as well (I would too if I were the boar).  As a result, many Italian truffle hunters have opted to training dogs to harvest the truffles instead.  While wild boars are running rampant in the Tuscan hillside, they are not in the DC metro area.  For this reason, I’ve always made my ragù with beef and probably will continue to do so until butchers around me start importing Italian boar.

Polenta Directions:

6 C water

1 3/4 C yellow cornmeal

1 C parmigiano cheese

3 TBSP Butter

2 tsp. salt

1 TBSP Basil

2 TBSP Truffle Oil (Optional)

Bring the water to a boil.  Add the salt and gradually whisk in the cornmeal.  Reduce the heat to low and cook stirring often about 15 minutes or until the polenta becomes thick.  Remove from the heat.  Stir in the butter, cheese, basil, and truffle oil.  Set aside.

Beef Ragu Directions:

This recipe has been adapted from a W&S Florence cookbook.  I’ve made a few changes including using red wine instead of white as well as using diced tomatoes instead of crushed tomatoes.  You can generally use whichever you prefer.  I tend to like red wine with meat and like a chunkier consistency to my sauce.

1/4 c extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

3 fresh sage leaves or 1 tsp. dried

1.5 lbs. ground beef

1/2 C red wine or dry white wine

1 bay leaf

1 can diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes

3 oz. cremini or porcini mushrooms chopped (optional)

In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil.  Add the onion, carrots, and garlic, and saute until softened about 10 mins.  Add the sage leaves and beef, breaking up the beef with a wooden spoon.  Raise the heat to high and cook until meat is browned.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the wine and cook until liquid has evaporated about 3 minutes.  Stir in 1.5 C cold water and the bay leaf.  Bring to a boil and stir occasionally.  Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Season again with salt and pepper.  Stir in the tomatoes and mushrooms and simmer on low for another 30 minutes.  Season again if needed.

Serve beef ragù over polenta.  Sprinkle with parmigiano cheese.  Buon appetito!

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Israeli Couscous

Israeli couscous, also called maftoul or pearl couscous, is a larger version made from durum wheat.   Maftoul is popular in Israel as well as in much of the Middle East.  Trader Joe’s sells Israeli couscous complete with a recipe on the box (this recipe actually comes from Bon Apetit).  I decided to give this recipe a try, but made a few changes of my own.  First, I used tiny bulb onions (large scallions) instead of shallots.  They both have the same mild onion flavor, but I already had these in my refrigerator.  Second, I substituted mixed nuts for pine nuts.  Pine nuts are more expensive and since my husband is not a huge fan, I used a mix of minced nuts that were smaller in size, thus being more inconspicuous.  The couscous came out light and dainty, but at the same time boasted bold, aromatic flavors that made my kitchen smell like a Middle Eastern bazaar.

You can serve this dish as its own meal or underneath fish, chicken, etc… I served the couscous along with grilled pork chops that had been rubbed with a mix of coriander, cumin, and all spice.  I wanted to create a rub that was indicative of a Middle Eastern dish, so that it would pair nicely with my couscous.  If you do not have a Trader Joe’s near you, you can look for Israeli couscous in the organic or the international sections in your local grocery store.  If they do not have it, you can use regular couscous or even risotto.  Cooking times will vary though.  Hope you try this one out… happy cooking!

Ingredients:

3 TBSP butter                                                          1 3/4 C chicken broth

1/2 C mixed nuts                                                    1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 C shallots or small bulb onion                  1/4 C fresh minced parsley

1.5 C Israeli couscous                                           Zest of 1/2 lemon

1/2 large stick of cinnamon                               Black pepper to taste

1 bay leaf

Directions:

Melt 1 TBSP. of butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat.  Add the nuts and stir until golden brown.  Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in the same pan over medium heat.  Add the onions and saute until golden.  Add the couscous, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf.  Stir often until the couscous becomes a little brown.  Add the broth and salt and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until all the chicken broth is absorbed (about 10 mins).*  Remove from the heat and add the parsley, nuts, and lemon zest.  Season with black pepper.  Serve warm or cold.

*Israeli couscous cooks much faster than I had thought.  I equated the cooking time to that of risotto.  However, it is much faster.  My couscous took about 10 minutes to become tender, so be sure to keep a faithful eye on it!

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Oatmeal Blueberry & White Chocolate Chip Cookies

I woke up the other morning craving oatmeal cookies.  I’m not sure why I woke up craving these cookies in particular, but I told my husband this and he began craving these scrumptious little goodies as well.  The craving would not dissipate, so I reneged on the promise I had made to myself to try to eat healthier.  The go-to recipe I use for oatmeal cookies can be found right on the lid of the Quaker Oats box.  This is a wonderful recipe that I have had no intentions of trying to change… until now.


The changes I made were merely to satisfy my own curiosity and attempt at food experimentation.  Instead of using raisins, I normally use craisins.  The red makes the cookies more vibrant and even gives them a little bit more sweetness than raisins do.  However, this time I opted to use dried blueberries that I had recently bought from the grocery store.  I was not planning on using white chocolate chips until I found them in my cupboard, lonely, bag almost empty.  I decided this would make for an interesting cookie and quite possibly one that would ward off our cravings.  I also decided to use white wheat flour along with the all-purpose flour.  Wheat flour offers more fiber and is more nutritious, so I mixed this in probably to make myself feel better about the fact that I had broken my promise to curb my sweet intake.  The result turned out to be something extraordinary.  Even though the dried blueberries are much smaller than raisins or craisins, they pack a mean flavor punch.  Amidst the butter, brown sugar, and white chocolate, the blueberry flavor is still distinctive and pleasantly unique.  The white chocolate adds a bit of texture and even more sweetness.  Definitely try these cookies out if you are craving an oatmeal cookie!

Ingredients:

1 stick unsalted butter plus 6 TBsps                 1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 C dark brown sugar                                      1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 C sugar                                                             1 tsp. cinnamon

2 eggs                                                                     3 C old fashioned oats

1 tsp. vanilla                                                          3/4 C dried blueberries

3/4 C white whole wheat flour                         1/2 C white chocolate chips

3/4 C all-purpose flour

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Beat the butter and sugars together on medium speed until creamy and smooth.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth.  Combine the dry ingredients together and add to the butter mixture.  Mix the ingredients until well blended.  With a wooden spoon, add the oats, the dried blueberries, and the white chocolate chips until blended.  Using a cookie scoop, place the cookies 2” apart on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Bake 8-10 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom.  Allow to cool on a wire rack.  Store in an airtight container.  Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

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Restaurant Review: Scotch N’ Sirloin

This past weekend, my husband and I went back to my hometown of Syracuse to visit my parents and celebrate my father’s birthday.  We went to the Scotch N’ Sirloin restaurant in Syracuse for this special occasion.  The Scotch N’ Sirloin has been owned and operated by Tom Tiffany since 1967.  One dining experience at this steak house is all it takes to understand why this restaurant is still thriving 43 years after its doors first opened.

The atmosphere at Scotch N’ Sirloin reminds me of a cross between a beer hall I’ve been to in Prague and a ski lodge.  Heavy wooden doors greet the customer at the entrance while basic wooden tables are laden with simple table cloths and wooden chairs.  The walls look like they should be adorned with big deer or elk heads.  Instead, they are very bare with a few antiques or paintings hanging here and there.  The most enticing part of this restaurant is its lounge area.  You are welcomed by the warm touch and the soft glow of an open wood-burning fireplace.  It instantly makes you feel like you’ve just come in off the slopes and are ready for a nice cocktail in front of the open fire.  My father even remarked that him and my mother used to come here when they were in high school after a long day of skiing.  While I could have sat there in front of the fire sipping on my buttery Chardonnay all night, we proceeded to the dining room for the main attraction.

(I don’t know these people… Hope they don’t mind!)

What I love most about this restaurant is the fact that for one price, you can get a juicy piece of steak, a starchy side, and a wonderful trip to a salad bar that is adorned with homemade breads and salad dressings.  At most other mainstream steak houses, you have to pay separately if you want a baked potato, mashed potatoes, side salad, etc…  Everything is individually priced.  Frankly, I find this quite annoying.  I love it when I go to a great restaurant that gives me warm bread or a crisp side salad as part of my meal price.  For this reason, Scotch N’ Sirloin has passed my I’m-hungry-and-want-a-one-priced-meal-with-all-the-trimmings test.  After grinning ear to ear over this, I proceeded to order my meal.

I ordered the petite 6 ounce teriyaki top sirloin steak cooked medium.  (Everyone says that the best way to eat meat is when it’s cooked rare or medium rare.  Eeek!  I do not like the redness of the meat as well as the gummy feel that is indicative of a rare or medium rare cut.  I’ll take my pink meat thank you very much.)  For my side, I ordered the sweet potato fries along with a glass of Argentinian Malbec.

My sirloin was succulent and ever so pretty in pink.  The teriyaki that Scotch N’ Sirloin marinades the top sirloin in is a homemade conglomeration of sweetness that is exquisitely off-set by the saltiness of the seasoned meat.  My cut tasted like it had been marinating in its bath of teriyaki for two weeks.  Nothing lacking in flavor there.  The rest of my family also agreed that their meat was cooked perfectly to their own satisfaction.  My brother-in-law was ever too happy to get fried onions on top of his ribeye.  He facetiously commented, with a full mouth, that the onions were overwhelming his palette (wink wink).  I was beyond content with my sweet potato french fries.  They were the perfect balance: Not too crispy, but not too soggy either.  The natural sugars from the sweet potato meshed well with the subtleness of the added salt… No ketchup needed here!

All in all, the Scotch N’ Sirloin is one of those truly unique restaurants that inspires its diners to want to come back on a regular basis whether it be to quench a hankering for a 10 ounce top sirloin steak or to weather the snow, while warming up next to an open fire sipping a glass of red wine that hints of blackberry and tobacco.

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Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

For President’s Day weekend, my husband and I went home to visit my parents and celebrate my dad’s birthday.  For his birthday cake, my mom and I decided to make one of my dad’s favorites; carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.  The following recipe we obtained from Epicurious, but we made a couple changes based on a dilemma that came up during our preparation of the cake batter.  First, this recipe calls for 1.5 cups of vegetable oil.  We had 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, but then ran out.  The only other oil we had on hand was extra virgin olive oil.  We ended up using 1 full cup of olive oil.  Using 1/2 cup of olive oil may not have altered the taste of the cake batter too much, but 1 full cup ended up drastically changing the taste.  For this reason, we decided to add shredded coconut and crushed pineapple to the batter.  To our relief, the cake came out delicious!  No longer were there lingering after tastes of olive oil, but rather, the addition of the crushed pineapple and the shredded coconut masked the olive taste beautifully.  Baking is generally characterized by accuracy and strict adherence to the recipe (Type A of the culinary world).  Leaving out a teaspoon of this or adding 2 ounces of that can alter your confection completely.  However, my mom and I were able to overcome our little problem by adding a few ingredients that we thought would make the cake taste better, while not jeopardizing its texture.  In the end, the cake turned out moist and my dad was extremely satisfied!

Cake Ingredients:

  • 2 c sugar
  • 1.5 c vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 c flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 3 c finely grated peeled carrots
  • 1/2 c shredded coconut
  • 1 15 oz. can crushed pineapple drained

Frosting Ingredients:

  • 2 c confectioner’s sugar
  • 4 ounces softened cream cheese
  • 1/4 c unsalted butter at room temp
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Lightly grease a bundt pan or three 9” cake pans if you prefer a layered cake.
  2. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and oil until combined.
  3. Add the eggs 1 at a time until each is incorporated.
  4. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  5. Add dry ingredients to the sugar mixture.
  6. Stir in the carrots, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut.
  7. Pour the batter into the pan(s).  Bake about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool completely.
  8. For the frosting, beat all the ingredients in a bowl until creamy and smooth.
  9. Spread the frosting on top of bundt cake or if making the layer cake, frost three of the cake tops and layer.

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Sausage, Onion, & Sage Pizza

My husband makes incredible pizza, and this past weekend while the DC-metro area was being blasted with snow, my hubby and I enjoyed the fruits of his culinary labor.  My husband believes the key to making good pizza is by using homemade dough and a pizza stone.  The pizza stone allows the heat to be distributed evenly across the pizza and extracts the moisture so that the pizza becomes crispy.  With that pizza advice out of the way, I grabbed my camera and watched my husband work his magic.

Pizza Ingredients:

1 package active dry yeast

1 tsp. sugar

2/3 C warm water

1 2/3 C Flour

3/4 tsp salt

2 tsp. oil

Pizza Toppings:

2 Italian sausage links

olive oil

Mozzarella cheese

1/2 tsp. dried sage

1/2 white onion sliced

Stir yeast and sugar in warm water and let stand for 10 minutes or until foamy.  Add the flour and salt and using the kneading hook on your kitchen aid, knead until the dough pulls away from the sides.  Add the oil and knead again until mixed.  If dough continues to stick to the side of the bowl, add more flour.  Form dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl.  Cover the bowl with a dry towel and let the dough rise for 10 minutes.

While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Meanwhile, brown the sausages in a pan until browned lightly on the outside.  Allow the sausages to cool enough to handle them.  Cut the sausages into small bites and set aside.

After the dough has rested for 10 minutes, flour a work surface and roll the dough out with a floured rolling pin.  Place the dough on the pizza stone and continue to push the dough out to the edges of the pizza stone.  Rub the dough with olive oil.  Next, sprinkle the dough with salt, pepper, and dried sage.  Generously scatter the cheese covering the entire pizza.  Place the sliced onions on top, then the sausage pieces.  Last, sprinkle a bit more salt, pepper, and sage.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.  Enjoy!


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World Nutella Day

February 5, 2010 is the official World Nutella Day. Nutella was created in the 1940s by Pietro Ferrero, owner of the infamous Ferrero company. During the 40’s, chocolate and cocoa were in short supply due to WWII rationing, so Ferrero ingeniously used hazelnuts instead. Thus, the scrumptious hazelnut spread was born. Even today, the spread is still so delectable that it gets its very own holiday when lovers of the stuff unite to celebrate its existence. If that isn’t evidence of how truly tantalizing Nutella is, then I don’t know what is!

In honor of this day, I’ve decided to make Shortbread Nutella Sandwiches. The recipe I used I created from several different baking recipes that I had on hand.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 C flour
  • 1/4 C cornstarch
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 C unsalted butter at room temp
  • 1/3 C sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 jar of Nutella

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, add the butter and sugar and beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes or until smooth.
  3. Add the vanilla and mix until incorporated.
  4. In another bowl, mix the flour, cornstarch, and salt.  Add the dry ingredients to the butter mix.
  5. Beat on low speed until a dough forms.
  6. Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface.  Using a biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out cookies.
  7. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake for 12-15 minutes or until cookies are golden brown.
  8. Cool completely on a wire rack.
  9. Spread Nutella on one side of the cookie and place another cookie on top forming a sandwich

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