Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Andy has requested that the subject of my next post be prosciutto wrapped mahi-mahi. Since I don’t think I’ve ever seen him eat a piece of fish quite so lovingly, I’ll oblige.

This time of year, we tend to get very sidetracked by our go-to food: barbecued chicken and steak. We’ve got them down…no thinking required. Defrost, season, grill. The rotation of side dishes includes salad, corn on the cob, stuffed tomatoes, garlic bread, and rice. I can’t even guess how many times we’ve had this meal in some form, but every time we do, we shovel the food into our mouths as if it is the best thing we’ve ever eaten. And at that moment, it is. It makes for the perfect summer dinner. 

Breaking out of ruts can be hard. We do have to push ourselves a little to eat more fish. When we do, we usually ask why we don’t eat it more often. After having this dish, we asked why we don’t eat it every night, ruts be damned. 

Typically, I make mahi-mahi encrusted in macadamia nuts. It’s a classic combination that always reminds me of Hawaii, and there are worse things than reminiscing about Hawaii. But I’m trying to think outside the box, and mahi, being a firm, hearty fish, can stand up to a more substantial crust. Enter prosciutto. 

Prosciutto is very near the top of my favorites list. As I stood in front of the open refrigerator looking for ideas for a new mahi recipe, I saw the prosciutto. It is paper thin, so as not to overwhelm the fish, and when wrapped around each piece would help ensure a very moist filet. Plus, it tastes like bacon. Sold. 

Start by seasoning the fish with pepper (the prosciutto is plenty salty), then rubbing it with a mixture of chopped herbs, garlic and olive oil. I used fresh rosemary, thyme and dried oregano, but any blend of herbs would work. Let the fish sit and marinate for a bit. 

When you're ready to cook, wrap each piece of mahi in a slice (or two, depending on the size) of prosciutto to completely encase it and sprinkle the top with a little more pepper. 

Heat an olive oil in an ovenproof stainless pan over fairly high heat until the oil is almost smoking. You're looking for a sear here, so the pan needs to be HOT. Place the filets in the pan, seam side up and don't touch them for a minute or two. Once the prosciutto is browned, flip the mahi over, let the bottom sear for a minute, then immediately transfer the pan into a preheated 300° oven to finish cooking. The thickness of the fish will determine the cooking time, but it won't be more than 8-10 minutes, max.

When it comes out of the oven, it should be crispy on the outside, but tender and juicy on the inside. The saltiness of the prosciutto and the freshness of the herbs make a perfect combination of flavors. Served alongside rosemary-shallot mashed potatoes, this was quite a satisfying meal. 

(Of course, if you don’t have the love-affaire with pork products that I do, you could leave the prosciutto off. The fish will still get a nice sear by using the method described above.) 

The picture does the dish more justice than I could by trying to describe it. My mouth is watering just looking at it. 

I think I just decided what we’re having for dinner tonight.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Two dishes finally make their long overdue appearance in our house…

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Certain foods just say “summer!” You wait all year for those ripe tomatoes, the sweet cantaloupe, and those juicy berries to hit the produce bins. But what about squash blossoms? Squash what??

I’ve always wanted to try squash blossoms. They just look fun. Did I have any idea what I was going to do with them once I got them home? Nope.

Watching an episode of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef the other day, I saw Anne Burrell use squash blossoms. I admit that I completely stole her idea for the batter here, but I also learned that the stamen (on male blossoms) or pistil (on females) needs to be removed from the middle of the flower. Who knew?

You could stuff these little delights with almost anything. Actually, you don’t even need to stuff them. Sometimes they are just used as garnish, sometimes as the main ingredient in a soup. But stuff them I did.

I used a cheese base for my filling: some mascarpone, some grated parm, a little basil, a few passes of lemon on the zester, salt and pepper, and of course, some chopped cooked bacon. Finally, on the fifth blog post, some bacon!!!

Now I realize that not everybody eats bacon (although I really can’t imagine a life without it). Still, I believe that this dish would be just as good without it. Andy, on the other hand, looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language when I mentioned omitting it. With or without bacon, the filling will be very tasty. If you aren’t using bacon, double check your seasonings…you may need a little extra salt.

(A word about salt: food truly does need to be salted heartily. My mom would have you believe otherwise. Salt is not bad. Salt is good. It brings out flavors that you would otherwise not taste. Salt in desserts? Absolutely. It brings out the sweetness. Season a dish from beginning to end. Taste, taste, taste. Don’t just salt dishes when you’re ready to pull them off the stove. All you will taste is salt. Then Mom will be right, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?)

But we’re talking about squash blossoms here. Once you make your filling and have removed the stamen from the flower, you’re ready to fill. This is a very delicate process. Get a spoonful of filling ready in a log-like shape. Very carefully open the bloom and start stuffing the filling in from the bottom of the log up to the “petals”. The flower will close up and stick around the filling. Once all the blossoms are stuffed, put them back in the refrigerator to chill.

The batter for this dish, as I mentioned, was stolen from Anne Burrell. Mix some flour and white wine. That’s it. She says on her show that it sounds really weird, and it does. But it works. It creates an incredibly light batter for these very dainty blooms. Stir the flour and wine together and coat each squash blossom. You’re ready to fry.

Use vegetable or canola oil so the blossoms don’t take on any unwanted flavors. The oil needs to be hot (at least 350-360) for frying, otherwise the squash blossoms will just absorb the oil. Once the oil is hot, lay each blossom in the pan and fry until crisp and lightly browned. Flip over and crisp the other side. Once done, remove to a paper towel until ready to serve.

I treated this unusual dish as an appetizer, served all by themselves, but as I mentioned earlier, you could also place them on top of a salad on main dish as an unexpected garnish.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bit into these. It turns out that the flower actually tastes just like zucchini or squash, but in a much more delicate way. Overall, the blossom is a great vehicle for any scrumptious filling you could dream up.

Pear-Pluot Crisp

I am ecstatic when I finally see pluots at the farmer’s markets. They are a hybrid of a plum and an apricot, leaning much more towards the plum family, and are oh-so-tasty. There are many varieties to choose from, and I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like.

Me and pears, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of relationship. I’m just not their biggest fan. Since I had some small homegrown pears (I think they’re Bartlett, but I’m no expert) sitting in the fruit basket that had finally softened up, I figured I’d give them a try. They did not disappoint.

A light dessert was in order after our squash blossom appetizer, another yummy tomato salad, and the best barbecued ribs ever. A fruit crisp sounded like the way to go.

For the filling, peel and slice two pears and slice one pluot. (The pluot skin produces amazing color when baked, so leave it on.) Toss the fruit with some sugar, some Amaretto, and a tablespoon of cornstarch to help thicken when it’s baked. I made individual crisps in ramekins, but you could also just make one bigger crisp. 

To make the topping, put some brown sugar, flour, almonds, cubed butter, and a pinch of salt in the food processor and pulse until it’s a crumbly mixture. You don’t want a wet mixture here…too much butter will ensure a not-so-crispy crisp. I learned that the hard way. Make enough to completely cover the fruit in a fairly thick layer.

Put the crisps on a baking sheet (they will bubble over) and bake them at 350 for about 20-30 minutes, until the tops are crisp and browned.

These can be served as is, but I rarely pass up an opportunity for freshly whipped cream, so I topped them with a (big) dollop of Amaretto whipped cream (to continue my almond theme). (You can make any flavor whipped cream you want by adding in a little splash of an extract or liqueur after the cream is starting to stiffen.)

As I said, I definitely put too much butter in the topping, which produced a much softer crisp than I was going for. The flavor, however, did not suffer one bit. Tart and sweet with a hint of almond, this is one easy dessert that I will be making again.

And I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The pears were the star of this show. They were sweet and had just the right texture without being one bit mealy. Perhaps I will have to visit them more often. I’ve got two more sitting in the fruit basket…

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nothing says Sunday…

Nothing says Sunday like Champagne. 

I love sparkling wine no matter its region: from California, Prosecco from Italy, Champagne from France, or Cava from Spain. I do not discriminate when it comes to bubbles. Champagne makes for an instant party in your mouth. And I like parties.

Lucky for me, there is a pint of strawberries in the fridge. Since there are two incredibly sluggish people (and a not-so-miniature dachshund) on the patio, I think this calls for champagne cocktails. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Two pints of strawberries for $3. You can’t pass that up. Even if you don’t think you’ll use both pints, you still buy them. You’re actually saving money, right? Strawberries don’t exactly have staying power. It seems that as soon as you walk out of the grocery store, they’re already starting to turn.

I suppose it is an obvious goal, but my latest ambition is to use everything in the fridge. I cringe at the thought of how much food I’ve thrown away in the past. So now, instead of going to the store and buying whatever I feel like having that night, I’m making a point of using what we have. It makes me invent new uses for ingredients. This recipe is a good way to use up those strawberries that have seen better days. (But at the end of the day, if you just end up eating the strawberries while drinking plain old champagne, more power to you. You still used the strawberries.)

Strawberry-Amaretto Champagne Cocktails

Hull a pint of strawberries and cut them in half. Throw them in a blender with some sugar (superfine is better but not necessary) and blend away until the strawberries are completely pureed. Now you have a choice here: if you like purees with seeds, you’re done. If you don’t like how strawberry seeds get stuck in your teeth and remain there until you finally give up and go brush and floss, then push the puree through a sieve…that’s what I did. It will take a few minutes of pushing as the seeds will clog things up. Keep mashing it around with the back of a spoon and soon you’ll have a (mostly) seedless strawberry puree.

The secret ingredient here: Amaretto. Mix a few tablespoons (to taste) into the puree for a little hint of almond. The strawberries will thank you.

Now comes the tricky part. For some reason, fruit purees excite champagne as much as champagne excites me: to the point of over-bubbling. I tried puree first, then champagne. I tried champagne first, then puree. Either way, the champagne bubbles over like crazy. So, as much as you want to drink this, you have to be patient. Put a couple spoonfuls of puree in each glass and top with champagne. The bubbles will eventually subside (or you can be impatient like me and scoop them out with a spoon). Top with more champagne until the glass is full.

You will need to do a little mixing to get the puree incorporated into the wine…just be gentle. Bubbles are the main attraction.

Garnish, if you want, and you’re ready to party. Or, as we did, sit on the patio and do nothing.

Happy Sunday.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Catching up...

I’ve got quite a bit of backlog to catch up on. This is an appetizer I made while ignoring the fact that I wasn’t blogging.

Watermelon-Goat Cheese Bites

(I know it sounds weird. Trust me on this one…)

Attempt #1:

Doesn’t this look like raw meat? Now I like raw meat as much as the next guy (probably more), but it’s not exactly the look I was going for in my watermelon dish. Not surprisingly, this is not the final version of this recipe.

A slice of goat cheese sandwiched by round slices of watermelon with some pureed mint in olive oil and chopped macadamia nuts. The flavors worked. Honestly. I was skeptical too, but that wasn’t the problem. What didn’t work was the distribution of textures. And having to make that decision, “do I eat this in one bite and look like a pig, or two bites and have watermelon juice running down my face?”

Back to the drawing board.

Attempt #2:

Finely chop the macadamia nuts in the food processor and toast them in a dry frying pan. Don’t freak out when the nuts start to turn into little sticky globules. Keep stirring and separating until they finally start to return to their chopped state. They will brown fairly quickly once their oils are released.

Cut small cubes of watermelon. Make equal sized balls of goat cheese by rolling them in your hands. The heat from your hands will quickly melt the cheese, so act fast. (These will be one-biters, so keep that in mind when making the pieces.)

Pick one small mint leaf for each piece of watermelon.

To assemble, roll each goat cheese ball in the toasted macadamia nuts. Thread cheese, then a mint leaf, and lastly a cube of watermelon onto a small skewer or toothpick. Line them all up on a plate and drizzle with olive oil. Really yummy olive oil is key here. You really taste it because there aren’t a lot of competing flavors. If you don’t like the taste of your everyday olive oil a lot, get a nice bottle to use just for finishing. I love my Costco olive oil for cooking, but I tried it in my first attempt on this recipe and realized I had to break out my “good” bottle for the second attempt. The difference is amazing.

When you bite into these, the creaminess of the cheese melts in your mouth followed by the crispiness of the watermelon and the subtle nut and mint flavors. Try it…they’ll make you a believer.

The finished product:

These little bites have that “wow” factor but are very simple to make. It’s a fun and unique appetizer for a summer day.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Table for One?

Fresh Tomato and Sautéed Fennel Salad

I wasn’t going to cook tonight. Andy is working late and I figured I would just graze my way through the cabinets and wash it all down with a glass of wine. But then I saw the perfectly ripe tomatoes on the counter just begging to be eaten. I was inspired.

I’ve been on a bit of an anise kick lately. Fennel and fresh tarragon have never been on my list of favorites…until recently. In my quest to try ingredients that I don’t usually use, I’ve been playing around with both. Sautéing raw fennel bulb makes it much milder, and when paired with the right flavors, it seems the intense licorice flavor can be tamed. Tomatoes love fennel and tarragon. I learned tonight, however, that they do not necessarily love them both at the same time.

These tomatoes would have been good all by themselves, but I wanted a light, fresh salad to highlight them. My plan of attack: some sautéed fennel, a little fresh tarragon and the fresh tomatoes tossed in a garlic and sherry vinaigrette, all on a bed of peppery arugula. Now in theory, this sounded good. In my mouth, it was a bit of an anise overload. My wonderful tomatoes were lost. Okay…so eighty-six the tarragon. Much, much better. I could taste the tomatoes and still got a nice hint of anise from the sautéed fennel.

This was a super quick and easy dish; less than 10 minutes from start to totally cleaned up. It would be perfect for a first course or paired with a piece of fish or barbecued steak.

And what did I have with this lovely, healthy, summery salad?

Frozen tater tots with chipotle ranch dressing. Hey, I was cooking for one…what more do you want? (Actually, I would have made the tater tots if Andy had been here, too.)

Here we go...

After 10 years at my boring job, a false start into the world of Early Childhood Education, and countless hours of crying, soul-searching, and more crying, I’ve begun to accept what I have probably always known…that what I really want to do is cook. (And eat good food. And drink good wine. Both convenient by-products of my new path.)

So here’s the plan: I’m going to chronicle my attempts in the kitchen, for better or worse. I’m sure most of us have at one point or another told themselves with zeal, “today, I’m going to start a journal/diary/blog and it’s going to be a tome one day!” only to write half a paragraph and then never touch it again. I’ve done it a number of times myself. But this? This is going to be different (she says with hope).

I’m not going to lie to you…it’s been a month and a half since I wrote those first two paragraphs. A lot of cooking has gone on in those 45 days, but clearly, not a lot of writing. This blogging business is harder than I thought. But I’ve got to start somewhere, right? It may as well be with the caramelized onion crostata that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I made it.

Caramelized Onion, Fig, and Gorgonzola Crostata

I want to eat this again. Soon.

My search for a fabulous onion tart recipe has been a disappointing one. I’ve tried many, but none satisfied me. One was too bland, one too oniony, one tasted of nothing but balsamic vinegar. Am I picky? Probably. So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

What flavors do I really want in my onion tart? Turns out caramelized onions, leeks, dried figs (brought back to life with a little sherry), gorgonzola, mascarpone, and a drizzle of honey over the top is EXACTLY what I want. The crust…well, the crust is a different matter.

Yes, I cheated with a pre-made pie crust. The beauty of a crostata though, is that it’s meant to look “rustic,” which is just a nicer way of saying that you don’t have to try very hard with your crust. And the less I have to try with pastry, the better. The bad news is that the crust was the only downfall of the recipe. Not horrible, but a homemade, flakier, cheesier crust is in order.

I admit it: pastry scares me. You have to be much more precise with baking than with cooking. There is a finite amount of liquid that can go into dry ingredients before you cease to have dough anymore. You just have muck. Research will definitely need to be done. I’m sure I won’t get it right on the first try. But the next time I make this, the crust will be a highlight. Fingers crossed.

Back to the good part: To make the filling, you have to be extremely patient with the onions. A scorching hot pan will not do you any favors here. Low and slow, as they say, is the way to go. That and a little sugar to help it along. In about half an hour, you will have a pan full of beautiful, sweet, caramelized onions. I could eat these by themselves. Throw in the leeks when the onions are almost done. Stir in the rest of the filling ingredients, season, taste, season some more. Pile it into your crust (no, this isn’t store bought…where would you get that idea?), and fold the edges up to partially cover the filling. When this comes out of the oven, it is golden brown and so, so yummy.

I would serve this as an appetizer, but I think you could also get away with serving it as dessert. Or both, if you’re having me over.

All in all, this was a total success. I wracked my brain trying to think of something that may have been missing that I could add to the filling, but I decided that it just needs more of the same. Some extra onion, some extra figs, and definitely more gorgonzola next time. The cheese got a little lost in the other strong flavors.

In any case, I could bypass dinner altogether and eat about half of it myself. And then probably regret it.