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15 posts from December 2012

12/31/2012

~ Elegant & Exquisite: Butter-Poached Lobster Tails~

IMG_8848In a few short hours we will say, "good-bye 2012", and, "welcome 2013".  New Year's Eve is indeed a good-spirited holiday, but, because it arrives on the heels of the Christmas frenzy, Joe and I prefer not to go out on the town to celebrate.  Occasionally we invite a few friends to quietly ring in the New Year with us, but, mostly it's just the two of us (and three poodles).  We do, however, always put some forethought and planning into a dinner worthy of a bottle of bubbly. Two days ago, when Joe came home with some lobster tails, I knew immediately what dinner I would serve this year: butter-poached lobster tails (with a lemon and corn orzotto)!

IMG_8720On Saturday, I posted my recipe for ~ Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto ~.  Just click on the Related Article link below to get the recipe.  I think it to be a perfect accompaniment to all sorts of fish and shellfish.  It does, however, contain Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which, can be a "hot topic" if you are amongst the foodies that believe fish and cheese are NEVER to be served together!

IMG_8860For the most part, I am a card-carrying member of the "no cheese with fish commission", but, in the case of this meal, the cheese isn't going on the lobster, it is being served, in an understated way, in the accompanying side-dish.  This is a marriage made in heaven.  I prepare my orzotto, from start to finish, about 1/2 hour prior to butter-poaching my lobster meat!              

A bit about me and butter-poached lobster:

IMG_8730Back in January of 2005, on pages 72 and 73 of Bon Appetit Magazine, Chef Eric Rupert's (Le Bernardin) version of Thomas Keller's (The French Laundry) recipe for "Butter-Poached Lobster with Tarragon and Champagne" was featured.  It was named as the "Hot Dish of the Year" for 2004.  On January 4, 2005, Joe and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with me cooking Chef Rupert's recipe.  The premise of the dish is:  to parboil two whole live lobsters in a flavorful broth, slice the meat and finish it off by poaching it in melted butter ("lobster's natural soul mate").  This recipe is very refined.  This recipe is superb. This recipe is also a lot of work (in a very, very, very good way)!

Because whole lobster is not high on my list of things to eat (even when someone else is cooking it), the very next time I prepared this dish I substituted what I consider to be the most perfectly-portioned-by-nature seafood known to mankind:  lobster tail.  Once I switched from whole, live lobsters to tails, I quickly realized there was no need to parboil the lobster tails in the broth.  I just poached my chopped lobster meat in my favorite, rustic-style, flavored butter...

Tarragon, Sweet Onion, Red Pepper & Champagne Butter!

6a0120a8551282970b0154348c87f1970c-500wi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 1/2  pounds salted butter

1  pound finely-diced yellow or sweet onion

1  teaspoon garlic powder

1  teaspoon red pepper flakes

1  teaspoon white pepper

1  tablespoon fresh lemon juice

6, 6"-8" fresh tarragon sprigs, for flavoring the butter

1/2  cup champagne or white wine

6,  6"-8" fresh tarragon sprigs, for garnishing the finished dish

6a0120a8551282970b015390b92dee970b-320wi~ Step 1.  Prep the onion as directed.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the onions, followed by the garlic powder, red pepper flakes, white pepper, lemon juice and champagne.

~ Step 2.  Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes.

6a0120a8551282970b0154348cc4aa970c-320wi~ Step 3.  Add the tarragon sprigs. Using a spoon, submerge them in the butter.  Cover and gently simmer, until tarragon has lost its bright green color, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

6a0120a8551282970b014e8aacaa0d970d-120wiRemove and discard the tarragon (to prevent its flavor from overpowering the mixture).  Cover the butter and set aside, while you prep the lobster tails according to the following directions:

IMG_8740~ Step 4.  Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut along the left and right hand sides of the bottoms of:

6,  10-12-ounce lobster tails (thawed if frozen).

Using your fingertips, remove and discard the spiny "cut out" bottoms. Using your fingertips, remove the meat from the shells, in one large piece, keeping the shells intact.

IMG_8754~ Step 5.  Cut the lobster meat into large, bite-sized chunks and pieces, about 1 1/2"-2".

IMG_8747Note: The lobster can be prepped to this point one day in advance of cooking and serving. Place shells and meat on two separate plates, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Remove both from refrigerator about 1 hour prior to poaching.

IMG_8758 IMG_8757~ Step 6. Just prior to poaching the lobster meat, place the empty lobster shells in a 4-quart stockpot. Add cold water until the pot is about half full.  Bring to a boil, adjust heat to simmer, and cook for 1 minute.  

Remove from heat.  

IMG_8773 IMG_8768~ Step 7. Using a pair of tongs, remove the shells from the water and place them, open sides down, on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Set aside, while you poach the lobster meat according to the following directions:

IMG_8807~ Step 8.  Return the butter to the stovetop over low heat, until it starts steaming, but not simmering or boiling.  Add the chopped, room temperature lobster meat.  Stir.

~ Step 9.  Continue to poach the lobster, adjusting the heat to keep the butter steaming but not simmering or boiling, until the lobster is opaque in color and just cooked through, about 6-8 minutes.

IMG_8685~ Step 10.  Generously portion the creamy (still warm) orzotto into the bottom of six warmed serving plates or bowls and top/garnish it as directed in the recipe.

Place/arrange an empty lobster shell on top of the orzotto on each plate.  Using a slotted spoon, fill each lobster shell "to the max" with butter-poached lobster meat.  Using a small ladle, drizzle the flavored butter over everything!  Serve:

IMG_8836Elegant & Exquisite:  Butter-Poached Lobster Tails:  Recipe yields 6 servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 3 1/3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; kitchen shears; 4-quart stockpot; tongs; paper towels; large slotted spoon; small ladle

6a0120a8551282970b015390b777ec970b-800wiCook's Note:  In case you're ever looking for a decadent appetizer with a similar flavor: Try my Tarragon, Sweet Onion & Red Pepper Butter on ~ Melanie's Wine-Steamed Clams ~. You can find the recipe in Categories 1, 8 or 14!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary & Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/29/2012

~ Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto ~

IMG_8702We're two days away from New Year's Eve and I'm gearing up to cook an elegant feast.  I don't know exactly why, but, when I have to say good-bye to another year, I want to do it in style, and, this year, that means seafood.  Pulling this off in the dead of Winter (especially when we have about a foot and a half of snow on the ground here in Happy Valley), might seem a bit tricky or complicated, but trust me when I tell you:  it is easier than you think.  Here in Central PA, I'll have to rely on frozen seafood, which our town just happens to have some high-quality sources for, so I do not consider this a compromise.  Joe just happened to come home with frozen lobster tails!

6a0120a8551282970b015390c001e4970b-320wiIt was easy for me to decide what I want to serve with these sweet tails: my sweet corn "orzotto".  A couple of years ago (in August), my cousin Victor, a world-class fisherman from New Jersey, visited us.  He arrived with a freshly-caught, sushi-grade tuna, coolers brimming with clams and crabs, plus a bushel of freshly-picked Jersey sweet corn. While Vic wielded his super-sharp filet knife on the tuna, Joe spiced and steamed the clams and crabs. I set out to invent a quick and easy side-dish that would complement the entire seafood feast:

My Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto was Born!

IMG_8635For the corn:  Note:  I was prepared to make my orzotto substituting some frozen corn kernels today (which you should feel free to do), but lo and behold, Joe found 8 whole, pre-trimmed, ears of fresh sweet corn at our market today too!

8  cobs of corn, or, 4 cups frozen corn kernels that have been cooked & drained

4  tablespoons sugar

IMG_8640Strip away the husks and carefully remove the silks from each cob of corn (as pictured above).  

In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat.  Add the sugar.  Ease the corn cobs, one at a time, into the pot of boiling water.  After the last cob has been added and the water has returned to a rolling boil, cover and cook for 5 minutes.

IMG_8643Remove from heat and drain thoroughly.  Return corn to stockpot, cover, and set aside until corn is cool enough to handle with your hands, about 30-45 minutes.

To shave the corn:

All you really need to do is run a sharp chef's knife down the side of each cob.  That being said, if you have a bundt or tube-type pan, I can 6a0120a8551282970b017615b28309970c-320wisave you a lot of mess!

Place the narrow end of the cob in the tube.  Firmly grip the top of the cob, and, using a sharp chef's knife, slice/shave, from top to bottom, one lengthwise section at a time.  Try to keep the knife as close to the cob as you can when you do this, without cutting into the cob.  The corn will come off in chunky lengths, sections, bits and pieces.  This is exactly what you want!

6a0120a8551282970b015390c05d76970b-500wiFor the orzotto:

1  pound orzo, cooked according to package directions

1  tablespoon sea salt (for seasoning water for pasta)

4  ounces butter, at room temperature, very soft (1 stick)

1/4  cup minced fresh tarragon leaves

2  tablespoons dried tarragon leaves

3/4  teaspoon Greek seasoning blend

3/4  teaspoon lemon-pepper seasoning

1/4  teaspoon nutmeg

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1/4  teaspoon white pepper

1  cup heavy or whipping cream, at room temperature

3/4  cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (grate 1 1/4 cups total)

4  cups cooked and shaved fresh sweet corn, or, cooked and drained frozen corn kernels

1/2  cup additional finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for topping orzotto

zest of 1 lemon, for garnish

red pepper flakes, for garnish

6a0120a8551282970b0163025e81c6970d-320wiA bit about orzo:  Orzo is a tiny, rice-shaped macaroni-type pasta, slightly smaller than a pine nut.  In Italian, orzo means "barley", but I personally associate orzo with many wonderful Greek dishes. When it is prepared and paired with the anise-flavor of fresh tarragon (also the flavor of the famous Greek liqueur Ouzo), the result is sumptuous.  By adding some butter, cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, I created a dish very similar in texture to Italian risotto, hence the name "orzotto".  When I added fresh tarragon and shaved sweet corn, I created a verstile dish that pairs well with all sorts of things, especially seafood!  

6a0120a8551282970b0154349448fa970c-320wi~ Step 1.  In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat.  Add the salt.  Sprinkle in the orzo, adjust heat to simmer and cook until al dente, 8-9 minutes.

~ Step 2.  In a small bowl, combine the minced fresh tarragon with the dried tarragon, Greek seasoning blend, lemon-pepper seasoning, nutmeg, sea salt and white pepper. 

6a0120a8551282970b015390c0deb8970b-320wi~ Step 3.  Thoroughly drain the orzo (do not rinse it) and return it (while it is still piping hot) to the warm stockpot.  Place the pot on the still warm stovetop.  Add the butter and spice mixture.  Using a large spoon, thoroughly combine, until the butter is melted and the orzo is evenly coated.  

~ Step 4.  Stir in the cream and 3/4 cup of grated cheese.

IMG_8670~ Step 5.  Fold in the the sweet corn.  Cover and set aside for about 15 minutes, to allow orzo to absorb all of the cream and allow all of the great flavors to marry.  Transfer to a serving bowl or plate.  Sprinkle with the additional grated cheese and garnish with lemon zest and red pepper flakes.  Serve immediately:

Note:  Reheat any leftovers you might have in the microwave!

IMG_8693Creamy Lemon-Tarragon & Shaved-Corn Orzotto:  Recipe yields 6 very generous side-servings of orzotto.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot; chef's knife; cutting board; bundt or tube-type pan; microplane grater; colander; large spoon

IMG_8845Cook's Note:  I'm going to be serving todays orzotto on New Year's Eve with: ~ Elegant & Exquisite:  Butter-Poached Lobster Tails ~  You can find the recipe in Categories 3, 11, 14 or 21. These two dishes (neither of which are hard to prepare), when served together on the same plate, equal one very special meal that is perfect for any holiday or celebration!  

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012) 

12/27/2012

~ Mel's E-Z Chicken & Rice Dinner "a la Uncle Ben": A snowstorm post for my friends on the East Coast ~

IMG_8604This is not the recipe I was expecting to post today, but, when 2"-4" of snow turns into a forecast of 9"-12" followed by freezing rain, my plans to show you a couple of elegant recipes for New Year's Eve must be put on hold.  Instead, I head into my pantry, which is a fun place to be on a day like today.  Having lived in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania my entire life, snow storms are a Wintertime way of life.  At this time of year, I always keep some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a pork tenderloin, and a bag or two of shrimp in the freezer.  By using one or the other in conjuction with some pasta or rice, I can always "pull a rabbit out of my hat" on a snowy night!  

IMG_8269One item I always keep on hand is Uncle Ben's Long-Grain & Wild Rice Mix.  This isn't an ingredient that I grew up eating, because it wasn't introduced to the American public until 1972.  I got married in 1974, and, as a new bride, I began dabbling with ways to use it almost immediately.  FYI:  This easy-to-prepare, delicious, skillet dinner, has stood the test of time!

IMG_8278When our boys were growing up, they loved whenever I would make this, and they are the ones who named it "Uncle Ben's Chicken", which makes me smile just typing that.  Over the years, this budget-friendly recipe has also been one of my go-to, time-saving meals on busy "soccer mom" weeknights.  It goes from stovetop to table in less than one hour and there's only one skillet to clean up afterward. What's not to love about that!

IMG_8299For the chicken:

6  tablespoons butter

 6a0120a8551282970b015436ead4c6970c-120wi3  large, meaty, boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, about 10-12 ounces each, cut in half widthwise to form six relatively even-sized 5-6 ounce portions. (Note:  If you want to serve larger portions, do not cut the chicken in half.  Proceed with recipe as directed.)

freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend

1/4  cup Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour for Sauce and Gravy, slightly more or slightly less

For the rice:

1  cup white wine

2  6-ounce boxes Uncle Ben's Long Grain & Wild Rice, "original recipe"

2  4 1/2-ounce jars sliced mushrooms, undrained

2  cups water

IMG_8291 IMG_8284~ Step 1. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim the chicken of all visible fat.  Slice in half as directed above and place all six halves in a 2-gallon food storage bag.  Using the flat side of a meat mallet, lightly pound each piece until it is about 1/3 larger than its original size.  Do not smash them to smithereens. Lightly pounding the meat will allow it to cook quickly without drying out.

6a0120a8551282970b015436eadd96970c-320wi~ Step 2.  Remove the chicken from the bag and lightly season the top sides with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of flour.  Set aside for about 15 minutes.  This will allow the flour to absorb moisture from the chicken which will result in a light, golden brown crust when sauteed.

~ Step 3.  In a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat.

IMG_8305 IMG_8301~ Step 4. Add the chicken to pan, floured side down. Sprinkle the "new" tops with flour. Don't add any more salt and pepper.

Note:  The spice packet from the rice mix contains seasonings and salt, meaning:  adding more salt and pepper would be a mistake!

IMG_8338 IMG_8329~ Step 5. Adjust heat to saute, until chicken is lightly browned, about 6 minutes per side, turning only once. Add the wine and cook for 30 more seconds, gently lifting and moving the chicken, to make sure there's an even coating of liquid in bottom of pan.

IMG_8345 IMG_8341~ Step 6. Add the rice and the mushrooms. Add both seasoning packets and the 2 cups of water.

Quickly increase/adjust heat to a gentle but steady simmer.

 

IMG_8348Step 7.  Cover the pan and continue to cook, until all of the liquid is absorbed and rice is fully cooked, about 22-25 minutes.

Note:  Dinner is now ready to serve, but, if you have a bit of extra time, remove the covered pan from the heat and set it aside to rest, about 20-30 additional minutes. This will give you ample time to cook up your favorite vegetable side dish!

IMG_8537Mel's E-Z Chicken & Rice Dinner "a la Uncle Ben":  A snowstorm post for my friends on the East Coast:  Recipes yields 6 servings.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; 1-gallon food storage bag; flat-sided meat-mallet; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid

IMG_8567Cook's Note: If you are wondering what I am serving with this glorious chicken and rice dish, my recipe for ~ Oven-Roasted, Maple-Glazed, Candied Carrots ~ can be found in Categories 4, 19 or 20!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschuttti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/25/2012

~ Oven-Roasted, Maple-Glazed, Candied Carrots ~

IMG_8583My mother never made candied carrots.  My girlfriend Brenda's mother made candied carrots. Brenda's mother, Meryle, was a Southern Belle kinda gal, and, she always served candied carrots with ham, which, oddly, she served a lot.  What do I mean by "oddly a lot"?  Well, when I was in elementary school, I used to go to Brenda's house after school (and vice versa), often, to play with Barbie dolls (Brenda and I both had elaborate setups in our respective bedrooms for our many Barbies, her relatives, her cars and her dream houses).  I ate a lot of Brenda's mom's canned ham, candied carrots and green beans during those formative years!

Brenda's mom made her candied carrots with brown sugar.  I am sure of it.  How can I be sure? Because I asked her and she told me.  That ingredient was the only reason that I liked her candied carrots.  Why?  Minus the brown sugar, during this time period in my life, you couldn't pay me to eat a boiled carrot.  My mother made roasted carrots, which I loved, and, I liked raw carrots too, but boiled carrots:  not so much!

IMG_8567Over the years, I've eaten many versions of candied carrots.  The best ones are roasted, not boiled. All versions contain butter and a sweetener of some sort:  brown sugar, honey or maple syrup.  In my opinion, maple syrup is by far the best.  I first ate them prepared with maple syrup in Killington, Vermont back in 1985 and never looked back.  There is just something about pure New England maple syrup that was made for oven-roasted carrots!

Besides salt and pepper, most versions also contain a spice or a seed (like ground allspice or ginger, or, whole fennel or caraway seeds), which is usually determined by what you are serving the carrots with (I'm using fennel seed today).  If you're inclined to add a minced, bright-green fresh herb, which I do on occasion, toss it in when the candied carrots come out of the oven... not when they're going in.  Why?  Fresh herbs blacken during the roasting process.  Got it?  Good!!!

IMG_85492  pounds peeled and 1/4"-thick, bias-sliced or coined carrots

1/4  cup butter, melted (1/2 stick)

1/4  cup pure maple syrup 

1  teaspoon sea salt

1/2-1  teaspoon white pepper

1  teaspoon caraway or fennel seed (optional)

1/2  teaspoon allspice or ginger (optional)

1  tablespoon minced fresh herb of choice, tossed in after roasting (optional)

no-stick cooking spray

IMG_8555 IMG_8552~ Step 1. Prep the carrots as directed and place in a large bowl as you work.  On stovetop or in microwave, melt the butter.  Add the butter, maple syrup, salt, white pepper and any optional seeds and/or spices.  Using a large rubber spatula, thoroughly combine.

IMG_8561~ Step 2.  Transfer carrots to a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish that has been sprayed with no-stick cooking spray.

~ Step 3.  Roast, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 375 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, stopping to stir/toss with a large spoon about every 15 minutes.

IMG_8578Note:  During the roasting time, the carrots will have lost almost all of their moisture and the syrup and butter will have formed a beautiful, glaze.  Because the carrots have lost their moisture, they are greatly reduced in volume, which is why there's just 4-6 servings. Remove from oven.  Rest carrots about 5 minutes, restir, and serve:

IMG_8604Oven-Roasted, Maple-Glazed, Candied Carrots:  Recipe yields 4-6 servings.

Special Equipment List:  vegetable peeler; cutting board; chef's knife; large rubber spatula; 1 1/2-quart casserole; large spoon

IMG_8537Cook's Note:  I'm not serving my carrots with ham today. You can find my recipe for ~ Mel's E-Z Chicken & Rice Dinner "a la Uncle Ben" ~ in Categories 3, 19 or 20! 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photographs courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/23/2012

~ Confection Perfection: Teresa's Buckeye Candies ~

IMG_8066The clock is ticking down to Christmas Eve, and, if you find yourself in need of a last-minute, easy-to-prepare sweet-treat that everyone will love, this is the recipe for you.  It doesn't require any special equipment, it doesn't have to be baked, and, you probably have the ingredients on-hand in your pantry.  My first encounter with buckeye candy (which are little, round peanut butter balls dipped into chocolate) was in the first grade.  Mrs. Gordon would make them and bring them into our classroom for birthday parties and holiday celebrations.  Us kids loved them. Those were the good old days, before anyone ever heard of an allergy to peanuts!

IMG_4380Over the years, I've tasted buckeye candy here and there, but never a version that inspired me enough to ask for the recipe.  Why?  In some instances, they're just a mediocre imitation of the Reese's peanut butter cup.  Why would I want to make buckeyes when I keep a stash of Reese's in my freezer?  In other instances, they contain so much powdered sugar they give me a headache.  As for those that contain cream cheese in the quest for creaminess? No thank you.

Enter:   Teresa Gottier, a pastry chef from Ohio who became a foodie Facebook friend of mine several months ago.  The more Teresa and I chat, the more I find we have in common.  She is knowledgeable (always willing to share and contribute what she knows), particular and precise (always doing her best to tolerate those who are not), and, funny as hell (but never mean or arrogant).  Back in mid-October (when PSU was playing OSU) we two got into a discussion about buckeye candy.  I gave her my thoughts on buckeyes, and, she gave me her buckeye recipe.  Hers is the recipe that has eluded me for so many years, and, hers is now yours too!

51rB-qAnwbL._SX355_A bit about buckeyes:  The buckeye is a tree, native to the Ohio River Valley whose shiny, inedible but pretty to look at brown nuts, with tan patches in the center resemble the eye of a deer. Folk lore has it that carrying one in your pocket will bring good luck.  When peanut butter became popular in the early 20th century, it's easy to see how some savvy Ohio dessert lover came up with dipping it into chocolate to create "buckeye candy"!

Teresa's Buckeye Candies!

As per Teresa:  "I'm sure you know this, but I want everyone to know, the quality of the chocolate and the peanut butter are everything to this confection.  I use natural, organic peanut butter (for strong, peanutty flavor and creaminess) and add sea salt to taste, as if I were salting for general purposes. Traditionally, buckeyes are made with semi-sweet chocolate, but I think peanut butter and milk chocolate to be the perfect marriage.  I add just a bit of dark chocolate to the milk chocolate, which enhances the flavor and decreases the sweetness.  I find most buckeye recipes too dry and overly sweet.  I decreased the powdered sugar, which also makes them less chalky.  And, lest we forget... nothing is "way more gooder" than a high-quality vanilla extract!"

IMG_791312  ounces all-natural, creamy peanut butter (1 1/2 cups)

2  ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature (1/2 stick)

1/2  teaspoon fine sea salt (omit if peanut butter contains salt)

1/2  teaspoon pure vanilla extract

8  ounces confectioners' sugar

10  ounces milk chocolate

5  ounces bittersweet chocolate

IMG_7923 IMG_7922~ Step 1.  In a large mixing bowl, over medium-high speed of hand-held electric mixer, combine the peanut butter, butter and salt (if you are using salt), until butter is thoroughly incorporated and mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.

IMG_7935 IMG_7930                                               ~ Step 2. Add vanilla, then sugar. Starting on low speed of mixer, gradually increasing to medium, combine until a cookie-type dough forms, about 2-3 minutes.  Use a large rubber spatula while mixing to scrape down the sides of the bowl until ingredients are incorporated and bowl looks "clean".

IMG_7944~ Step 3.  Line a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with parchment paper. Using a 1 1/4" ice-cream scoop as a measure (about 2 teaspoons), portion and place, well-apart, on baking pan.  Pick each scoop up, and, using a light touch, roll into a ball and place it back on the pan.

Note:  If you don't have a small scoop, just roll the mixture into 36 even-sized balls!

IMG_7949~ Step 4.  Place pan, uncovered, into freezer for about 1 hour.

IMG_7964

~ Step 5.  Chop or break your chocolate into pieces, placing them in the top of a double boiler as you work.  In the bottom of the double boiler, place about 1 " of water.

Note:  I have a small, deep, double boiler designed for dipping "stuff" into melted chocolate.  If you do not, melt the chocolate in any type of double boiler.  Transfer it to a small, deep bowl.  The depth of the melted chocolate is important to dipping the balls appropriately (so they look like buckeyes after dipping).

IMG_7984~ Step 6. Bring the water to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat, and, stirring almost constantly melt the chocolate.

IMG_8014 IMG_8011~ Step 7. Using a metal cake tester, poke and dip each ball into the melted chocolate, leaving  a portion of the top exposed.  Allow excess chocolate to drain off, then return buckeye to the very cold pan.

IMG_8040~ Step 8.  After all are dipped, using your fingertip, close the little hole in tops (made by the cake tester). Refrigerate until well-set, for several hours or overnight. Overnight is best.  Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes prior to serving.

Note:  Stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Holy, Wonderful, Creamy, Chocolately, Christmas Candy!!!

IMG_8085Confection Perfection:  Teresa's Buckeye Candies:  Recipe yields 3 dozen bite-sized buckeye candies.

Special Equipment List:  hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; parchment paper; 1 1/4" ice-cream scoop; double boiler; cake tester or a 4"-6" wooden skewer 

IMG_4447Cook's note:  For another peanut butter and chocolate "fix", my recipe for ~ Treat Yourself to a Slice of Peanut Butter Cup Pie ~ can be found in Categories 6, 11, 15, 22.  Happy Holidays!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/21/2012

~ Seriously E-Z & Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken WIngs~

IMG_7889Happy Friday before Christmas everyone -- I've dedicated this week to posting three recipes for a completely different type of Holiday entertaining than I did last year.  Why?  Because if you're a football fan, 'tis the season of college bowl games and professional playoffs.  If you're like me, planning a tailgate party during the hectic holiday season means you get a break from cooking festive food to prepare casual football fare.  This is a most welcome change, but:  if you are like me, your schedule is tight right now.  You don't have any extra time for planning and details. You're looking for easy-to-prepare recipes to take the pressure off.  You want to relax and sit in front of the TV with everyone else.  My foodie football fanatics, you've come to the right place.

IMG_1495No appetizer screams "game day" louder than chicken wings!

6a0120a8551282970b0133f3797b17970b-500wiPurists will tell you there is no substitution for deep-fried chicken wings.  Well, I used to think that too. And, If you want to stay wed to that train of thought, you can find my recipe for ~ JoePa's Chicken Wings (Perfectly Deep-Fried Wings) ~ in Categories 1, 2, or 17. They are marvelous.  You will, however, find yourself deep-frying them in batches of 6-8 wings for 13-14 minutes per batch.  When making a lot for a party, that's going to take 2 hours (plus clean-up). Interested in a hands-free alternative, that is no compromise?

Oven-fried wings really can be as good as deep-fried wings!

IMG_7834As I said, deep-fried wings are marvelous, but they're messy and time consuming to prepare. Also, a lot of people are just plain afraid of deep-frying and I can appreciate that.  The good news?  Chicken wings have enough of internal and external fat on them that pretty much all they need to cook to a crispy state of affairs (besides having the skin as dry as possible) is a very hot oven.  In fact, they have so much fat, anyone who even mentions they are healthier than deep-fried wings is certifiably crazy.  The bad news?  You can't call them Buffalo wings or Buffalo-style wings, because no self-respecting Buffalo-wing maker cooks them in the oven.  I respect that.

6a0120a8551282970b013486a5739d970c-320wiUsing a pair of poultry shears, cut:

6  pounds chicken wings

at their two joints, into 3 sections: the drumette, the flat wing, and the "skinny" wing tip.  Using paper towels, pat the pieces dry.  Some folks like to fry and eat the wing tips too, I do not.  Without frying the wing tips, this recipe will yield about 40 appetizers.

Note:  The flavorful wing tips can must be frozen and used to make chicken stock at a later date.

IMG_7789Separate the drumettes, from wings. In a large mixing bowl, stir together:

1  tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

Add the drumettes and toss to coat, until none of the baking powder/salt mixture remains in the bowl. Arrange drumettes on a rack in a 12 1/2" x 17 1/2" baking baking pan that has been lined with aluminum foil and parchment paper.

IMG_7801 IMG_7795Repeat this process with the flat wings, placing them on a second rack in a baking pan that has been lined with aluminum foil and parchment paper.  Place pans of chicken wings, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours. Remove from refrigerator 30-60 minutes prior to baking as follows:

IMG_7824Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.  Oven-fry wings in preheated 475 degree oven, 25-30 minutes.  Flip the pans, placing the top pan on the bottom rack and the bottom pan on the top rack.  Bake an additional 20-25 minutes.  Remove from oven. Wings will look dryer than deep-fried wings, but if you tap on them with your fingertip, you will immediately feel how crispy they are.

IMG_7854

Using a pair of tongs, transfer the wings to a large bowl and toss with about 1 1/2 cups of your favorite wing sauce.  ~ Melanie's Sweet 'n Spicy Wing 'n Thing Sauce ~ recipe (a simple 2-1 ratio of honey and Frank's RedHot Sauce) takes less than 1 minute to prepare.  You can find the recipe in Categories 1, 2, 8, 17 or 20.  Let them sit for about 5 minutes and toss again, to allow the sauce to soak in prior to serving.

IMG_7856Proper chicken wing etiquette:  Wings are user-friendly, requiring no knives or forks.  All you need are your fingertips and a large stack of napkins to delight in this very casual culinary experience.  Pick one up and proceed to nibble, gnaw and chew until all of the meat and sauce have been savored.  It is also completely acceptable to ignore the napkins and lick your lips and fingertips.  This is one time the terms "lip smackin' " and "finger-lickiin' " applies in every context.

IMG_7871Seriously E-Z & Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken Wings:  Recipe yields about 40 appetizers/snacks.

Special Equipment List:  poultry shears; paper towels; large rubber spatula; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans;  aluminum foil, parchment paper; 2, large cooling racks; tongs

IMG_1493Cook's Note:  Wings can be served sauced or unsauced, but, they're traditionally served with blue cheese dressing accompanied by celery and carrot sticks.  You can find my recipe for ~ Buttermilk, Blue Cheese 'n Chive Salad Dressing ~ in Categories 8 or 10!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/18/2012

~ Cincinnati Chili: My Holiday Bowl Game Tradition ~

IMG_7715If you're a football fan, 'tis the season of college bowl games and professional playoffs.  If you're like me, planning a tailgate party during the holiday season means I get a break from cooking festive food to prepare casual football fare.  This is a most welcome change, but:  if you are like me, your schedule is tight right now and you don't have any extra time for planning and details. Years ago, I came up with a way to take the pressure off myself.  I decided to serve a one-dish menu: a "party in one bowl",  for each guest, at our annual bowl party:  Cincinnati Chili!

Cincy Chili:  My holiday bowl game day tradition since 1981!

180px-Cincinnati-skyline-chili-exteriorI have no allegiances to Cincinnati or Cincinnati football.  In fact, I have never even been to Cincinnati. But, back in 1980, for about three months, Joe was commuting three days a week from State College to Cinncinnati (via Allegheny Airlines) on business.  He kept coming home with tales about the great chili they served in Cincy.  Finally, at my behest, he brought me a bowl home in his briefcase.  It was from a place named Skyline Chili.   It was so decidedly different and delicious from any Texas "bowl of red" that I had ever eaten, I knew I had to come up with a recipe for it (which I did without the aid of any internet back then).  Recipe development happened to coincide with the 1981 Super-Bowl, so, I decided to use my guests as guinea pigs!

IMG_7733A bit about Cincinnati Chili:  In 1922, two Northern Greek immigrant brothers, Tom and John Kiradjieff, opened a small Greek restaurant in Cincinnati called "The Empress". The restaurant struggled until they began serving chili made with spices common to their culture, which was ladled over a mound of spaghetti, and called: "spaghetti chili".  They soon began serving it with a variety of toppings, or, "five ways".  When ordering Cincinnati chili, here is the protocol:

~ chili only ("one-way")

~ a mound of spaghetti topped with chili ("two-way")

~ spaghetti topped with chili and lots of shredded yellow cheese ("three-way")

~ spaghetti, chili, cheese and diced onions ("four-way")

~ spaghetti, chili, cheese, diced onions and separately cooked kidney beans ("five way").

Another popular way to serve it is called the "cheese Coney".  This consists of chili ladled onto a hot dog (in a steamed bun) and topped with cheese (topped with diced onion and/or mustard)!

6a0120a8551282970b0133f60f55a4970b-320wiWhile the combination of spaghetti and chili might sound sacrilegious to you, in the world of chili eaters outside of Texas,  the "Queen City" of Cincinnati is the undisputed chili capital of the world.  They have more chili parlors than any other American city, each with an almost cult-like following.  Cincinnati chili has got a finer texture and thinner consistency (but not soupy) than traditional chili.  Kidney beans are never cooked in the chili!  

Purists like me grind our own meat for its preparation, which gives it a very special "to the tooth" texture that you cannot attain with ground meat. The tomato base is flavored with an elusive blend of aromatic spices:  allspice, chili powder, cinnamon, clove, cocoa, cumin, nutmeg and oregano. Just because it contains chocolate, do not be inclined to confuse it with, or try to make it taste like Mexican mole. It's not even close to mole.  Cincy chili is a sport all of its own!

Making real-deal Cincy chili is a sport all of its own!

Like all chili, Cincinnati chili not only tastes better the next day, it can be made several days in advance of serving it, or frozen months in advance.  This is another great reason why this is a great meal to serve for a football party during the hectic holiday season.  My recipe makes 24 cups or 6 quarts.  I like to portion it into 1-quart containers to freeze it.  Each 1-quart container is enough to top 1 1/2 pounds of pasta or 4 servings (6 ounces of pasta per person topped with 1 cup of chili per person).  If portioning for a topping for Cincy Coneys, 1 cup will top 4 hot dogs!

IMG_7619For the meat and vegetable mixture:

1/2  cup  olive oil

6  pounds London broil, no substitutions (Note:  PLEASE do not substitute ground beef.  This  cut of beef elimates almost all greasy fat and gives the chili its signature texture.  It's the difference between ordinary and extraordinary!)

3  pounds chopped onion 

1 1/2  pounds chopped celery

8  large garlic cloves

2  tablespoons sea salt

6a0120a8551282970b0134892df10a970c-320wi~ Step 1.  Trim the London broil of all visible fat and cut the meat into 1" -1 1/2" chunks/cubes.  In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, grind the chunks of London broil, using a series of 30-45 on-off pulses.  My large-capacity food processor accomplishes this in 2, 3-pound batches in less than 2 minutes.  The number of batches and pulses will be determined by the size of your food processor.

6a0120a8551282970b0134892dfa51970c-320wi~ Step 2.  Coarsely chop the onions into large, 2"+ chunks and pieces. Place them and the garlic cloves in the work bowl of the processor, still fitted with the steel blade.  Using a series of on-off pulses, finely mince the onion.  My processor did all 3 pounds of onion in one batch and 30 on-off pulses.  For this recipe, you want the onion to be as finely minced as possible without pureeing it.

6a0120a8551282970b0133f60f78c2970b-320wi~ Step 3.  Coarsely chop the celery stalks into large, 2"+ pieces and place them in processor fitted with a steel blade.  Using a series of on-off pulses, finely mince the celery.  My processor minced all of the celery in one batch using 20 on-off pulses. For this recipe (just like the processing of the above onion), you want the celery to be minced as finely as possible without pureeing it.  How easy was that!

6a0120a8551282970b0134892e0f50970c-320wi~ Step 4.  Before you process the meat and vegetables, place a 14" chef's pan w/straight, deep sides on the stovetop and add the olive oil. As you process the meat and vegetables, add them to the pan as you work.  Stir to combine.

Note:  If you do not own a pan like this, you can substitute a 12-quart stockpot, but it will take longer, throughout the recipe, for the ingredients to cook as described.

IMG_7633Step 5.  Over medium-high heat, cook the meat mixture, stirring frequently, until the meat has lost all of its red color and is steamed through.  Carefully regulate the heat throughout the cooking process so that at no time, no browning occurs. Continue to cook until almost no moisture/liquid remains in the bottom of the pan, about 1 hour. Note:  Cincinatti chili purists do not brown their meat!

IMG_7645For the tomato base and spices:

1  28-ounce can tomato puree

2  15-ounce cans tomato sauce

1/4  cup cayenne pepper sauce

6  tablespoons Worcestershire 

4  tablespoons chili powder

6  tablespoons cocoa powder

IMG_76441  tablespoon ground cinnamon

1  tablespoon dried oregano

1  tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon each:  allspice, cloves, cumin and nutmeg

2  whole bay leaves

IMG_7663 IMG_7649~ Step 6.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the tomato puree, tomato sauce, cayenne pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce and all of the dry ingredients. Add the sauce mixture to the meat mixture.

IMG_7689 IMG_7688~ Step 7. Using a large spoon, thoroughly combine the sauce with the meat.  

Stir in:

1  cup of your favorite beer

Adjust heat to a very gentle simmer.

IMG_7671~ Step 8.  Partially cover and continue to cook, stirring frequently until the chili has reduced slightly and is nicely thickened, about 30-40 minutes.  Turn the heat off, cover the pan completely and allow the chili to steep for 30-40 more minutes (to allow all of the flavors to marry).  While the chili is steeping, cook your spaghetti and prep any toppings you intend to use.  Here's how we like ours:

IMG_7768Cincinnati Chili:  My Holiday Bowl Game Tradition:  Recipe yields 6 quarts chili.  Each quart is enough to sauce 1 1/2 pounds of spaghetti or 4 servings (6 ounces of pasta per person topped with 1 cup of chili per person).  Each cup is enough to top 4 hot dogs.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; 14" chef's pan w/straight deep sides & lid or 12-quart stockpot w/lid; large spoon

6a0120a8551282970b0134892d3b28970c-800wiCook's Note:  Did you know that Texas-style hot dog sauce was invented by Greek immigrants too? Well it was... in Patterson, NJ!  

You can find my recipe for ~ Mel's Texas-Style Chili Sauce & Texas Chili Dogs ~ in Categories 2, 10, 17 or 22.  Enjoy your bowl game!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/16/2012

~ A Simply Satisfying Breakfast: Soft-Cooked Eggs ~

IMG_7596A far back as I can remember, a soft-cooked, 3-minute egg has been my favorite breakfast.  On school days, if mom was making soft-boiled eggs (she called them soft-"boiled"), my brother and I did not have to be called to the breakfast counter twice.  We'd hop up onto our counter-height bar stools and commence to watching the salt drizzle down through the hourglass-shaped 3-minute egg timer.  The moment the salt stopped its journey through the timer, mom took the eggs out of the pot and transferred them to a couple of white egg cups that had yellow chicken feet painted on the bottom of them.  After a few taps around the top of the egg with a knife blade, my mom would carefully peel back the shell to expose the jello-like, jiggly white.  It was up to us to use our teaspoon to break through to the sunny-yellow drizzly, steaming hot yolk! 

IMG_7585We both salted and peppered our eggs as needed, but after that, my brother I had two different approaches to eating our egg. David liked to make a mess of the whole thing by stirring it around, to combine the yolk with the white. Next, he would submerge small pieces of untoasted, crustless, Wonder-type white bread into it. When he had successfuly concocted glop, he ate the entire dripping, soupy mess!  

IMG_7600I ate my egg in a more refined, organized manner.  I was not a dunker or a dipper.  I savored small spoonfuls of yolk like I was sipping liquid gold, avoiding the white at all cost, licking the spoon after each yummy, yellow slurp.  When the yolk was no more, I used the spoon to scrape the white loose from the shell, adding a bit more salt and pepper, to taste.  When I had nothing left but an empty white shell, I proceeded to eat my slice of toast and drink my orange juice!

A Perfect Soft-Cooked Egg:  Eggciting, Eggcellent, Eggceptional!

Culinarily, the ideal soft-cooked egg is cooked until the white is opaque and tender (not rubbery) and the yolk is completely liquid and velvety-smooth.  There are two methods for soft-cooking eggs:  the cold-water method, and, the boiling-water method.  The cold-water method instructs to place the egg(s) in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover, bring to a boil, turn the heat off, cover and allow to sit for 2-3-4 minutes.  That sounds easy enough, but, I find this method to be very inconsistent.  Why?  Because different stoves heat at different rates of speed, which affects the time it takes the water to reach a boil.  As the water heats, the eggs begin to cook, so, the end result will be different on each stove.  I always use the boiling-water method: 

IMG_7516~ Step 1.  Bring the egg(s) to room temperature, so they don't crack when added to the hot water, about 30 minutes before cooking them. My 3-minute recipe is timed for:

large eggs (bigger eggs can be used but will require a longer cooking time, 30-60 seconds)

I (almost) never soft-cook more than 3 eggs at a time.  Why?  Too many eggs added at the same time lower the water temperature too quickly, which affects the cooking time.

IMG_7524 IMG_7523~ Step 2.  In a 2-quart saucepan, bring 5 cups of water to a boil over high heat.  Place your egg on a slotted spoon.  Just before gently lowering it into the boiling water, turn the heat as low as it will go. Gently lower the egg into the water. If you are cooking more than one egg, add them one-at-a-time.

IMG_7544

IMG_7555~ Step 3. Begin the 3-minute timing immediately. Keep an eye on the pot for the entire 3 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the water barely simmering. Ideally, the water should be what I refer to as "shivering" or "quivering". Using the slotted spoon, lift the egg(s) out of the water.

IMG_7575 IMG_7567~ Step 4. Using the blunt side of an ordinary table knife, tap around the top of the egg, using just enough force to crack the shell.

~ Step 5.  Carefully remove the peel from the cracked surface, to expose the perfectly cooked egg white!

Stick your spoon into the top, add a bit of salt and pepper and enjoy: 

IMG_7600A Simply Satisfying Breakfast:  Soft-Cooked Eggs:  Recipe yields instructions to perfectly soft-cook as many eggs as you want.

Special Equipment List:  2-quart saucepan; slotted spoon; tableknife

6a0120a8551282970b0147e15b8413970b-800wi 6a0120a8551282970b0147e15c479c970b-800wiCook's Note: Want toast with those perfectly cooked soft-cooked eggs?  You can find my recipe for ~ How to: Make Croutons (& Toasts) ~ in Categories 2, 5, 9 or 15!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/14/2012

~ Culinary Q&A & Kitchen Therapy Too (12/14/12) ~

Culinary Q & A #2Is it just my imagination, or, does December speed by faster than the other eleven months?  It seems like yesterday we were discussing Thanksgiving lefovers and very soon it will be time to start making plans for New Years Eve!

As promised, I just spent the past week posting a couple of stress-free, relatively-easy, budget-friendly holiday casserole recipes, and, I thank you for all of your kind comments and feedback!

IMG_7212C.  Marcie Says:  Melanie, thank-you for posting your recipe for seafood gratinee.  I got married in April and my husband's family is coming to our house for Christmas. I plan to make two of these... one for each side of the dinner table!

(My recipe for ~ Festive Seafood Gratinee (Gratin de Fruit de Mer) ~ can be found in Categores 3, 11, 14, 19 or 20!)

IMG_7359C.  Marilyn says:  Mel, I am not only going to make your stuffed shells because I know they will be delish, BUT because I have the very same Lenox  dishes and specifically the 9" x 13" casserole dish.  I also bought the Atlas pasta machine you suggested.  I will send you a picture when I make my first batch of homemade pasta!

(~ Jumbo Shells Stuffed w/Four Cheeses ~, can be found in Categories 3, 9, 11, 12, 14 or 19!)

Earlier in the week I also received a great holiday baking question from a reader via e-mail:

PICT0003Q.  Lenore asks:  Mel, can you tell me what the difference is between flour and self-rising flour?  Can I use them interchangeably?  I did the shopping for my holiday baking and accidentally bought a bag of self-rising flour (instead of regular all-purpose flour).

A.  Kitchen Encounters:  Self-rising flour is all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt added to it.

6a0120a8551282970b0162feba6870970d-800wiIt can be substituted for all-purpose flour in yeast breads by omitting the salt in the recipe, and, in quick breads by omitting both the baking powder and salt.  When it comes to baking cookies, I do not recommend substituting it because: It can affect the texture (soft vs. crisp), height (flat vs. fluffy), and/or the way they brown.  If it were me, I would make a trip back to the store to get the correct flour!

PICT0035I do have some good news for you:  

I just happen to have a wonderful recipe for ~ St. Louis-Style Pizza:  "Square Beyond Compare" ~ posted right here on Kitchen Encounters. It will put your bag of self-rising flour to deliciously good use.  You can find the recipe in Categories 2, 5 or 19!

Enjoy your weekend everyone, and once again:  To leave a comment or ask a question, simply click on the blue title of any post, scroll to the end of it and type away... or e-mail me directly!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipes, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/12/2012

~ Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Four Cheeses, then: Topped & Baked in Balsamella & Marinara Sauces ~

IMG_7359If you are Italian, or, you've ever been in an Italian family's home over the Christmas and New Years holidays, you know it is the ultimate carb-lover's experience.  I know.  I am a carb lover, and I married into an Italian family back in 1980.  Every Italian cook "turns up the heat" for his or her festive feast.  You can smell the sauce simmering on their stovetops from all of the street corners.  Women in each family gather around kitchen tables (weeks ahead of time) to make and freeze ravioli, assemble lasagna, and, oh yea, bake zillions of cookies.  The menu varies a bit from household to household.  The recipes, some of them kept top-secret and handed down from generation to generation, vary a bit from cook to cook.  The common denominator = pasta!

6a0120a8551282970b0162fff9e06b970d-800wiAlmost none of my Italian recipes were learned from Joe's family. When I moved to Happy Valley back in 1974, my first job was as a at a local bank.  On the same day I started, another gal started.  Her name was Eileen.  After our orientation meeting that first morning, we went out to lunch.  We found out we were a pair of married foodies (w/o children) and lived two blocks from each other!  

6a0120a8551282970b0162fffa07a9970d-800wiEileen's maiden name: Guadanola. Her parents were Italian-born Americans (living in Brooklyn) and knew a thing or two about cooking. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.  Eileen is a marvelous cook. For about ten years, she and I cooked together and shared each others cooking heritages.  You can find  ~ Making Manicotti Using Italian Crespelle (Crepes) ~, in Categories 3, 9, 12, 14 or 19!

My stuffed shell recipe is a spin-off of this manicotti recipe.  I use the same filling, but save myself a whole lot of time by stuffing it into cooked pasta shells instead of making crespelle.  As promised, it's festive, easy-to-prepare and budget-friendly too.  It can be assembled a day ahead of baking, and, it's perfect to serve at a holiday buffet, because it portions and serves so easily!

It's time to make the Balsamella and the Marinara!

IMG_7036When making stuffed shells, I make an easy, French white sauce, Bechamel (bay-shah-mehl) to use as second topping, to compliment to the red sauce.  In Italian it is referred to as "balsamella" and it is nothing more than a mix of butter, flour, mik and spices.  It only takes 15 minutes to make and you can make it a day ahead of time if you want to.  My recipe for ~ How to: Make a Classic Bechamel (White Sauce) ~ is in Categories 8 or 15! 

6a0120a8551282970b016760f3cddc970b-320wiYou'll only need 1 cup of the Balsamella, but I highly-recommend you make the full recipe (4 cups) and read my Cook's Note below!

You'll also need 1-quart of your favorite pasta sauce (your own recipe or store-bought) for this stuffed shell recipe.  My recipe for ~ Mel's Fresh & Spicy Tomato-basil Sauce (Marinara) ~ can be found in Categories 8, 12, or 22!

Note:  For best results, have both sauces prepared and at room temperature at assembly time!!!

It's time to cook the pasta shells!

IMG_6838 IMG_6825In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat.  Gently add 1, 12-ounce box of jumbo shells, by hand, 5-6 at a time, and cook until slightly less than al dente, about 9-10 minutes. Do not overcook.  Shells will finish cooking when they bake.

IMG_6845Drain into a colander and immediately rinse with cold water, until shells are cold to the touch.

IMG_6853Line a baking pan with paper towels.  Pick out 32 of the prettiest ones (small cracks are ok but discard those w/large tears).  Place, opened side down, on pan.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to drain, about 15-30 minutes.  While shells drain:

It's time to prepare the ooey-gooey-cheesey filling!

6a0120a8551282970b016760ed8f27970b-320wi2  pounds whole-milk ricotta

4  ounces each:  grated mozzarella and provolone cheese

1  cup coarsely grated Parmgiano-Reggiano cheese

3  jumbo eggs, at room temperature

1/2  teaspoon each:  nutmeg, salt and coarsely-ground black pepper

6a0120a8551282970b0162fff926d1970d-320wi1  10-ounce box frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed completely dry (optional) 

In a large bowl, using a large rubber spatula, combine the ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Add the spinach.  Whisk together the eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the egg mixture to the cheese mixture.  Using the spatula, fold until thoroughly combined.

IMG_7238It's time to stuff the shells!

IMG_7247 IMG_7241Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" casserole with no-stick cooking spray.

Generously spoon the cheese mixture into the cooled and drained shells, about 2 tablespoons in each. Place shells, face up, in prepared casserole, forming four rows of eight stuffed shells in each row.

IMG_7262 IMG_7258Drizzle or ladle the room temperature sauce, over the shells, about 1 cup over the center of each row.

Note:  Do what is easiest for you, but I like to use a small ladle, because it makes for a much prettier presentation after the shells have baked!

IMG_7275 IMG_7268Using an ordinary teaspoon, evenly distribute all of the Balsamella over the top by placing a dollop on the top center of each stuffed shell.

The following toppings are my favorites.  Feel free to substitute Pecorino Romano, and/or  dried basil, oregano or Italian seasoning!

IMG_7286 IMG_7283Over top of casserole, evenly sprinkle:

1  cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1-2  teaspoons red pepper flakes

IMG_7328

Bake, uncovered on center rack of 350 degree oven, 30-40 minutes. The edges of the shells will be lightly browned and the cheese centers will be puffy.  Remove from oven and allow to rest 10-15 minutes prior to serving.  Using a ordinary tablespoon, carefully separate the shells, lift and portion them onto warmed serving dishes.  

Note:  Thanks to my little dollops of basamella across the top, when my shells come out of the oven, they still look like shells!

IMG_7381Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Four Cheeses, then:  Topped & Baked in Balsamella & Marinara Sauces:  Recipe yields 8 servings of 4 stuffed shells each.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot; colander; 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pan; paper towels; plastic wrap; large rubber spatula; 1-cup measuring container; fork or small whisk; 13" x 9" x 2" casserole dish; tablespoon

IMG_7207Cook's Note:  For another outrageously delicious, easy-to-make, budget-friendly holiday meal, try my ~ Festive Seafood Gratinee (Gratin de Fruit de Mer) ~.  It makes use of the remaining 3 cups of Balsamella (Bechamel), and, you can find it in Categories 3, 11, 14, 19 or 20!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/10/2012

~ Festive Seafood Gratinee (Gratin de Fruit de Mer) ~

IMG_7207When the Chrismas and New Year holidays draw near, my mind wraps itself around plans for festive meals that pair well with Champagne:  perfectly roasted beef Wellington or prime rib, creamy pasta dishes like Bolognese lasagna or Tuscan ravioli, and, butter-poached lobster or seafood-Newburg crepes.  If you ordered any of these exquisite meals in a restaurant, they'd set you back quite a few dollars.  If you have the skill to make them at home, what they save in money, they cost you in time.  As it turns out, I just happen to have a couple of festive, easy-to-prepare, budget-friendly recipes for you that are perfect to serve at any holiday gathering, and:

My seafood gratinee (grah-tee-NAY) is "a party in your mouth"!

In French, "gratin de fruit de mer" simply means "A gratin made from fruits from the sea (seafood)".  You can put any seafood or combination of seafood in it that you like, have on hand, or can afford:  crabmeat, lobster, shrimp and/or scallops are all wonderful.  I almost always have a bag of easy-peel shrimp in my freezer, which is what I'm using today, and, the fact that they've been frozen is absolutely no compromise to this creamy, steaming hot, seafood-lovers dinner!

IMG_7201A bit about gratins:  The French word "gratin" is derived from the English word "grate" and means to scratch or scrape.  Back in the 16th century, it referred to the crusty part of any cooked food that stuck to the side of the pot, pan, or dish it was cooked in and had to be scraped ("gratte") loose so as not to waste it. Nowadays, no-stick cooking sprays have made this task easy for us, but we still want that crunchy, golden topping on each and every serving!

6a0120a8551282970b017c321a8a6d970b-320wi"Gratin" refers to both the food being prepared and the dish it gets cooked in.  Gratins can be baked in large or individual quantities, but in either case, they require a wide, shallow dish that increases the surface area, which insures a crispy portion for everyone.  The food being cooked is cooked slowly in a thickened liquid or sauce, which results in the top developing a crisp, golden brown crust!

The "gratin effect" can also be achieved by sprinkling dried breadcrumbs, cheese, or a combination of both over the the food to produce the signature golden top.  When this is done, the dish is referred to as a "gratinee" or an "au gratin"!

Let's start the seafood-lovers gratin party!

IMG_7036 IMG_7045I make an easy, French white sauce, Béchamel (bay-shah-mehl), to make gratinee.  It's nothing more than a mix of butter, flour, milk and spices.  It only takes about 15 minutes to make, and, you can do it a day ahead of time if you want to. My recipe for ~ How to:  Make a Classic Béchamel (White Sauce) ~ is in Categories 8 or 15!

3  cups Béchamel sauce, prepared as directed in above mentioned recipe

6  cups steamed white rice, preferably jasmine or basmati (3 cups uncooked white rice) 

1 1/2  pounds (after removing any shells), fresh or thawed seafood:  jumbo lump crabmeat, lobster, shrimp, scallops, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1  cup finely-diced yellow or sweet onion

4  tablespoons salted butter

freshly ground peppercorn blend

1/2-3/4  cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or, 1/2 cup French-Style breadcrumbs, or, a combination both, for topping, your choice

no-stick cooking spray, for preparing gratin dish

IMG_7056~ Step 1.  Prepare the Béchamel sauce as directed.  Set aside.

~ Step 2.  In an electric rice steamer, or on the stovetop, cook the rice.  Transfer to a 2-quart gratin dish that has been sprayed with no-stick spray.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

IMG_7065~ Step 3.  Prep the seafood and the onion as directed and set aside.

IMG_7064~ Step 4.  In a 12" skillet, melt butter on low heat. Season the butter with freshly ground peppercorn blend.  Add the onion. Increase heat to saute until the onion softens, about 2-3 minutes.  

IMG_7080 IMG_7069~ Step 5. Add the seafood. Continue to saute, until it is partially-cooked through.  This will take about 2-4 minutes, depending on the type of seafood you have chosen and the size of your bite-sized pieces.  Do not fully-cook or overcook.  The seafood is going to finish cooking in the oven.

IMG_7082~ Step 6.  Remove seafood from heat.  Using a large slotted spoon, transfer and distribute all of it evenly over the rice in the gratin dish.  

Note:  Allow any excess moisure the seafood has exuded to remain in the bottom of the pan, and discard it at your convenience.

IMG_7101 IMG_7108~ Step 7. Evenly distribute 3 cups of the Béchamel sauce over the top of the seafood.  Note:  Refrigerate the remaining 3/4-1 cup of béchamel, to use in another recipe -- experience has taught it does not freeze well.  One of my favorite ways to enjoy it is over poached eggs on toast points in the morning.

IMG_7119 IMG_7126~ Step 8. Using a microplane grater, finely grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano and evenly sprinkle it over the top of the Béchamel.

Note:  At this point, the gratin can safely sit on the countertop for 30 minutes prior to baking according to the following directions:

IMG_7184~ Step 9.  Bake, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 375 degree oven, 30-35 minutes, until bubbling around the sides and golden brown on the top.  Rest 30-45 minutes prior to serving:

Serving suggestion:  For a casual weeknight meal, we like this gratin with a Caesar salad (that has a few halved grape tomatoes tossed into it), and, a frosty mug of beer or two.

Serve at festive occasions w/bloody Mary's or champagne:

IMG_7212Festive Seafood Gratinee (Gratin de Fruit de Mer):  Recipe yields 6-8 servings.

Special Equipment List:  2-quart gratin dish; electric rice steamer, or 4-quart saucepan w/lid; plastic wrap; cutting board; chef's knife; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; large slotted spoon; large spoon; microplane grater  

6a0120a8551282970b0147e13c129b970b-800wi 6a0120a8551282970b0168e9aeb54c970c-800wiCook's Note: For another one of my gratin recipes, that comes in handy around the holidays, you can find my recipe for ~ Perfect Potatoes au Gratin (Scalloped Potatoes) ~ in Category 4!  

They go great with my recipe for ~ Perfect "Prime" Rib Roast (Standing Rib Roast) ~, which you can find in Categories 3, 11 or 21!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012) 

12/08/2012

~ How to: Make a Classic Bechamel (White Sauce) ~

IMG_7031Confession:  I am a sauce-a-holic.  The only thing I love more than eating really good food, is eating really good food served with a special sweet or savory sauce or gravy to compliment it and enhance its flavor.  If I had my way, every dish would be served with its own sauce, and, more than a few of you have heard me say (countless times) "a dish is only as good as the sauce that is served with it".  Just like the food being served, a sauce really is only as good the ingredients you put into it.  Whether simple or complex, the key lies in proper preparation!

Liquid + Thickener + Flavoring = Sauce!

IMG_7033The French are credited with refining the art of sauce-making during the 19th century.  French Chef Antonin Careme is credited with the development of hundreds of sauces, all of which are classified under one of five categories known as the five Mother Sauces:

Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Tomate, and Hollandaise (& Mayonnaise)!  

Each one of these five sauces is the base from which all sorts of secondary or "small sauces" are prepared.  I read somewhere that each one of the mother sauces is "like the head of its own sauce family" (a great explanation). Over the course of the 20th century, Vinaigrette has been added as a sixth category, which, makes perfect sense, since it is so popular and widely-used in our own present day kitchens!

Butter + Flour + Milk + Spices = Bechamel Sauce! 

IMG_7034Bechamel (bay-shah-mehl), or, basic white sauce, might sound fancy, but it couldn't be easier to make.  It's sometimes referred to as "cream sauce", because whole milk (not lowfat or skim) is used in its preparation, which, when thickened, takes on a creamy appearance. Bechamel is traditionally made by melting butter or oil (never margarine or shortening), adding equal parts of flour (in proportion to the butter) to form a thick, smooth paste (called a "roux"), then whisking in cold, whole milk, until the mixture thickens to the desired consistency (thin, medium or thick).  Classically, the sauce is seasoned, to taste, with salt, white pepper, bay leaf, clove and/or nutmeg.  Classic Bechamel does not have eggs added to it.  It was named after its inventor, Louis XIV's steward Louis de Bechamel!

IMG_7020Bechamel is the base for many other sauces:  Creme (Bechamel w/cream added), Nantua (Bechamel w/seafood added), Mornay (Bechamel w/cheese added), Mutarde (Bechamel w/mustard added), Soubise (w/onion added) and, Cheddar (w/cheddar cheese added to it)!  

Bechamel is not just for French cuisine.  In Italy, it is called balsamella and is used in dishes like lasagna and stuffed shells.  In Greece, it is called besamel, and is used in recipes like moussaka and pastitsio.  Universally, it's used to add a rich, velvety quality to many dishes and gratins!

Making Bechamel sauce is easy & a great technique to know:

IMG_69625  tablespoons + 1 teaspoon unsalted butter (2/3 cup)

5  tablespoons + 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour (2/3 cup)

4  cups whole milk, cold

2  whole bay leaves

1/4  teaspoon ground cloves

1/4  teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2  teaspoon white pepper

1/2  teaspoon sea salt, more or less, to taste

Note about spices:  These are the classic additions to Bechamel. Substitute or omit based upon personal taste or specific recipe!

IMG_6973 IMG_6970~ Step 1.  To prepare the roux:  in a chef's pan melt the butter over low heat.  Once melted, whisk in the the flour.  Continue to cook, until mixture is smooth and the flour has lost its "raw" taste, 2-3 minutes. Regulate the heat carefully to keep roux from darkening or browning.

IMG_6979Step 2.  When the surface of the roux bubbles up, it time to add the cold milk.  Many recipes will tell you to add steaming hot milk to the roux.

Note:  I'm not going to outright say this is wrong and tell you to not do it, but it is not classic technique. Classic French technique dictates that hot never gets added to hot.  

IMG_6981The cold milk is going to stop the flour from cooking.  Using cold milk will mean that it will take longer for the sauce to thicken, but this added time allows the flavors of the spices to develop, and, makes for a silkier textured Bechamel.

IMG_6990~ Step 3. Add the bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg, white pepper and sea salt. 

IMG_7011~ Step 4.  Continue to cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is warm, about 6-7 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture just reaches the boiling point, about 8-9 minutes, until thickened yet drizzly. Do not overcook Bechamel.  It will continue to thicken as it cools, so, if you over-thicken it to begin with, the end result will be gloppy and pasty.

IMG_7051~ Step 5.  Remove from heat and transfer the Bechamel to a 1-quart measuring container. Cover with plastic wrap, placing the plastic directly on the surface of the sauce. This will prevent a rubbery skin from forming on the surface.  Cool to warm or room temperature, then use as directed in specific recipe, or, refrigerate overnight.  Return to room temperature prior to using as directed in specific recipe.

IMG_7036How to:  Make a Classic Bechamel (White Sauce):  Recipe makes 1 quart (4 cups).

Special Equipment List:  3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides, preferably nonstick; whisk; 1-quart measuring container; plastic wrap

6a0120a8551282970b017743d05de3970d-800wiCook's Note:  You can find my detailed instructions for ~ How to: Make a Roux & Slurry (to Thicken Foods) ~ in Category 15.  Rouxs and slurries are really easy and great techniques to know too!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/06/2012

~ Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Spicy Crab Cocktail~

IMG_6901'Tis the season of cocktail parties and celebrations.  After all, once the halls have been decked, who doesn't want to invite a few friends over to share the festive atmosphere.  Every one of us who has ever entertained over the holiday season knows:  now is the time to pull out a couple of shiny serving trays and fill them up with elegant, one or two bite, finger-foods.  The hors d'oeuvres can be hot or cold, budget-friendly or expensive, but finger-foods are the crown jewel of the cocktail party circuit.  Every one of us who has ever entertained over the busiest time of year also knows:  now is the time to choose a couple of time-saving, make-ahead, appetizers! 

IMG_6870This recipe has become so popular at my gatherings, I must share it to kick off my 2012-13 holiday posts. I will add that it is not limited to Christmas and New Years. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, at any time of day or at any type of gathering, everyone adores these "things"!

The funny part is, my recipe came about by default.  It was New Year's Day, 2001.  I had four couples coming to our house for a champagne brunch, to toast the Millenium with Joe and I.  I had a bowl of my spicy crab cocktail in the refrigerator, but, when I went to reach for the baguette (for me to slice and turn into toasts), it was gone.  This could not be happening to me!  

IMG_6825That baguette must have been left at the checkout of the grocery store because I physically remember putting it in the "kiddie seat" of my grocery cart.  Knowing that no store in Happy Valley would be open on this day, I entered my pantry.  I stared at a box of Saltine and Ritz crackers for a moment but found those to be disagreeable options. My mind switched gears to adding pasta to the cocktail and serving it as a salad on lettuce leaves, until I saw that box of jumbo shells... the perfect foil for seafood cocktail:

IMG_6831

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_69591  12-ounce box jumbo pasta shells  (Note:  The box contains more pasta shells than you will use, by about a dozen, however, each box contains a few shells that are cracked or broken, and, during the cooking process, a few more are going to rip or tear.  Therefore, it is necessary to cook the whole box.)

1  pound jumbo lump crabmeat, the best available

4  ounces finely-diced red onion (a scant 1 cup)

4  ounces finely-diced celery (a scant 1 cup)

6  ounces store-bought, pre-grated sharp white cheddar cheese (a scant 1 3/4 cups)

1/2  teaspoon celery seed

1  teaspoon lemon juice, fresh or bottled concentrate

1  tablespoon cayenne pepper sauce, more or less, to taste

1/2  cup mayonnaise, plus 1-2 additional tablespoons, if necessary

a light sprinkling of freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, for topping

24  very small fresh parsley sprigs, for garnish

IMG_6845 IMG_6838~ Step 1.  In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Gently add the pasta shells, by hand, 5-6 at a time, and cook until al dente, about 10-12 minutes. Drain into a colander and immediately rinse with very cold water.  Rinse again, and again, until shells are cold to the touch.

IMG_6853~ Step 2.  Line a 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pan (or a similar sized plate) with paper towels.  Pick out 24 of the prettiest shells (those without rips or tears) and place them, in a single layer, opened side down, on the pan.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap and set aside to drain of excess moisture, about 15-30 minutes. While the shells drain:

IMG_6859 IMG_6855~ Step 3. Prep and place the onion and celery in a large mixing bowl as you work.  Add the cheese.  

~ Step 4.  Using a large rubber spatula, fold the three together. Add and fold in the celery seed, lemon juice and pepper sauce.  Fold in the mayonnaise.

IMG_6869 IMG_6863~ Step 5. Gently fold in the crabmeat, making sure it remains in large lumps.  If mixture seems too dry, add a bit of additional mayonnaise, but don't overdo it. You want to taste crabmeat, not mayonnaise.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

IMG_6883~ Step 6.  Generously spoon the crab cocktail into the shells, about 2 tablespoons in each.  Garnish each with a small sprig of parsley. Arrange shells on a serving platter. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, or, overnight.  Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes prior to serving chilled (not ice cold). Uncover.  Top with freshly ground sea salt & peppercorn blend:

IMG_6904Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Spice Crab Cocktail:  Recipe yields 24 appetizers, or 8-12 servings allowing 2-3 per person.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot; colander; 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pan; paper towels; plastic wrap; cutting board; chef's knife; large rubber spatula

6a0120a8551282970b015437988abb970c-800wiCook's Note:  For something a little more classic, you can find my recipe for ~ Once upon a time... a Tale about Shrimp Cocktail ~, in Categories 1, 11, 14, 16, or 21!  

6a0120a8551282970b0162fd23f6da970d-800wiMy recipes for  ~ Two "Cocktail" Sauces: Classic & Creamy ~, can be found in Categories 8 or 20~

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/04/2012

~ Mel's Time Out from Cooking to Clean the Pantry ~

IMG_6524For some reason, I believe the perfect time to do an annual cleaning of ones pantry is the first week of December.  Why?  What the annual Spring cleaning is to my house (just before I open all of the doors and windows), the annual Winter cleaning is to my pantry (just before I close my doors and windows)!  Read on: 

The grilling season is over, the tailgate season has ended, and, the Thanksgiving holiday is in my rearview mirror. In my foodie world, these eat-your-way through the Summer and Fall events occur like a run-on sentence, leaving little time for pantry upkeep!

So, just before the holiday baking season begins, I always find a free day or two to open the door to my pantry, sort out, and organize, what's been accumulating in this "culinary command center of my kitchen" for the past six months!

It is actually kind of fun (sort of)...

IMG_6519The part I do like about pantry cleaning is procuring and arranging my ingredients for holiday baking and year-round baking in general. This is funny because I hate to bake. This is funnier yet, because I am an excellent baker.  Baking is very precise and artistic, and, I pride myself at being both.  I've the focus and the talent to spend 14 hours working on a dessert, then spend 10 more, the next day, finishing it. I bake cookies that I've been asked for the rights to sell. Bread dough and I made friends a long, long time ago.  Sadly, baking does not inspire me.  I do, however, enjoy seeing the smile on a family member or a client when they taste one of my sweet treats.  So, as it turns out, I bake... a lot.  My worst best secret:  revealed!

IMG_6517The part I don't like about pantry cleaning is expiration dates. Recipe development and writing a cooking blog keeps me in a constant state of "ingredient overload".  There is a fine line between buying too much and running out.  I tend to error on the side of too much, so, cleaning out my pantry once a year gives me the opportunity to send a lot of things to our local food bank!

My tips for pantry organizing are basic. Organize everything into zones.  Start with "culinary zones": shelves for general baking, soups, sauces, pasta, rice, condiments, spices etc.  Next, "cuisine zones": an Asian shelf, a Tex-Mex shelf, an Italian shelf, etc. Alphabetize whenever possible.  It really is as easy as A, B, C (sort of)...

I'll be back on Thursday with a clean pantry and a new recipe!!!

IMG_6817"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)

12/02/2012

~ "Baba's Chicken": A Braised Casserole w/Gravy ~

IMG_6756My grandmother lived to be 98.  As the oldest granddaughter, who grew up living just nine miles from her, I found myself "glued to her side" quite a bit of the time, usually in her vegetable garden or kitchen.  Baba was a foodie before the word existed.  Her husband, my grandfather, was a coal miner in Coaldale, PA.  Baba stayed at home, raised three children, and, operated a neighborhood grocery store located on the street level of their three-story, single-family-dwelling.  These were two hard-working people, making the best of their lives in a times-are-tough era. Thankfully, they passed their work-ethic along to their children and grandchildren.

IMG_6491Photo:  My grandfather and my uncle (his son) in front of the family-owned grocery store and home, 148 East High Street, Coaldale, PA, circa 1942-ish.

I wish I could still call and ask Baba for her culinary advice, even if just to hear her quip remarks. At Christmas dinner 2006, when I asked her if she liked the way I prepared her recipe for the mushrooms, she was quick to tell me, "In my day, we went into the woods and picked our own mushrooms, we didn't buy shiitakes."  It meant she loved them!

My memories of Baba all revolve around food, which makes her my cooking mentor:

IMG_6500"Would you like to go outside to play or do you want to stay in the kitchen and help me?", Baba would ask.  I always chose the latter. Cooking was Baba's sport and she was a great coach.  At the ripe-old-age of 5, she had me kneading dough and using a small rolling pin. We had fun, but, it was respectful, responsible fun.  She didn't let me play in the dough or make a mess.  I was expected to serve what I cooked and cleanup afterward!

Photo:  My first apron (I was about 8 years old), circa 1963-ish!   

"If you don't clean up after yourself, you will never become a good cook.  No one is impressed by a disorganized, sloppy cook.  No one wants to eat anything cooked in a dirty kitchen.  Always set a nice table and wear a clean apron when serving."  ~ Baba

IMG_6789Up until I was 10 or 12 years old, our family ate a Walton-esque dinner (at lunch time) at Baba's house amost every Sunday after church.  Her Sunday menu didn't vary seasonally, and revolved around three main courses: chicken vegetable soup w/homemade noodles, pot roast w/mashed potatoes, or, "Baba's chicken" w/roasted vegetables!

IMG_6788Eventually Baba moved in with my parents, and, up until she could no longer physically cook (in her late eighties), these three meals remained on their Sunday-after-church menu.  I was in my thirties when, on one of my trips home to visit, I once again glued myself to her side, taking meticulous notes, as I watched her prepare her fabulous, fall-off-the-bone tender chicken and gravy casserole: 

IMG_6534For the chicken:

4  each:  chicken breast halves, legs, and thighs, on bones, trimmed of all visible fat

salt and black pepper, or freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend

all-purpose flour, or Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour for Sauce and Gravy

12  ounces finely-diced yellow or sweet onion

6  ounces finely-diced celery

6  ounces finely-diced carrot

6  tablespoons butter

2  tablespoons olive oil 

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2  cup white wine, or additional chicken stock, for deglazing pan

no-stick cooking spray, for preparing casserole dish

IMG_6778For the gravy:

4  tablespoons butter

1//4 teaspoon each:  salt and black pepper, or freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend

1  teaspoon poultry seasoning

6  tablespoons all-purpose flour, or Wondra flour

2  cups chicken stock

1  teaspoon Gravy Master Seasoning & Browning Sauce, more or less, for color (optional)

IMG_6504

 

~ Step 1.  This photo illustrates chicken before and after trimming. Using kitchen shears, trim and discard skin from all chicken pieces, then trim rib sections from breasts. Note:  This is a bit messy, so I like to place the chicken on a clean, white tall kitchen can-type bag while I work.  It makes cleanup a breeze!

IMG_6538~ Step 2.  Generously sprinkle the tops of the chicken pieces with salt, pepper and flour.  Allow to rest 20-30 minutes.  This waiting time will allow the flour to absorb moisture from the chicken, which will result in a crispier outside texture when the chicken is browning in the skillet.

~ Step 3.  While the chicken is resting, prep the onion, celery and carrot as directed above.

IMG_6561~ Step 4.  In a 14" chef's pan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter into 2 tablespoons olive oil over low heat. Stir in the garlic powder and dried thyme.  Add the chicken pieces, floured side down.  Sprinkle the second side (now the top) of chicken with salt, pepper and flour. Adjust heat to saute, until chicken is golden on both sides, about 15 minutes per side, turning only once. Regulate heat during the process, so as to brown, not to scorch.

IMG_6621Step 5.  Spray a 4-quart casserole dish with no-stick spray.  Briefly turn the heat off.  Remove the chicken pieces from the pan and arrange them in the prepared casserole, in any manner that makes them fit.  

Note:  My chicken thighs ended up on top of the chicken breasts and legs today, and that is just fine.

Return the heat to medium-high.

IMG_6605 IMG_6599~ Step 6. Add the wine to the pan.  Using a spatula, deglaze the pan, by gently scraping and stirring, to loosen all of the browned bits and drippings from the bottom of the pan, 30-60 seconds. Do not be inclined to simmer this mixture any longer than it takes to loosen the browned bits.

IMG_6631 IMG_6607                                  ~ Step 7.  Add the onion, celery and carrots to the pan.  Adjust heat to saute, just until the onion softens and almost all of the liquid has evaporated from the bottom of the pan, about 5-6 minutes.  Do not be inclined to overcook the vegetables or allow the mixture to brown.  The veggies are going to continue to cook in the oven.

IMG_6638~ Step 8.  Remove pan from heat. Using a large spoon, transfer the vegetables from the pan to the chicken in the cassserole.  Take a moment or two to patiently work/distribute the vegetable mixture evenly around and in between the chicken pieces.

Return the pan to the stovetop.

IMG_6661~ Step 9.  Over low heat, melt 4 tablespoons of butter.  Whisk in salt, pepper and poultry seasoning, followed by the flour.  Increase heat to medium-high and whisk constantly, until a smooth, thick, foamy roux forms, about 1 minute.

IMG_6667Step 10. Add the chicken stock, and...

IMG_6675 IMG_6669... adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer, and, whisking almost constantly, cook until nicely thickened, about 3 minutes.  Drizzle in some Gravy Master.  This is not for taste, but for color.  You can skip adding the Gravy Master if you want to, but why would I skip a step in my Baba's recipe!  I would not!!!

IMG_6699 IMG_6682~ Step 11. Slowly drizzle all of the gravy from the pan over the chicken and vegetables in the casserole, giving it plenty of time to work its way down into all of the nooks and crannies.

IMG_6728Step 12.  Cover casserole with aluminum foil.  Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven for 2 hours.  Remove foil and bake for 30 additional minutes.  Casserole will be bubbling and chicken will be golden brown, and, fall-off-the bone-tender.  Remove from oven and rest 30 minutes prior to serving with mashed or roasted potatoes: 

IMG_6749"Baba's Chicken":  A Braised Casserole w/Gravy:  Recipe yields 8 servings (1 chicken breast, or, 1 leg and 1 thigh per person).

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; vegetable peeler; 14" chef's pan w/straight deep sides; 4-quart casserole dish; nonstick spatula; large spoon; aluminum foil

IMG_4266Cook's Note:  I'm serving my chicken (as pictured above) with mashed potatoes for our Sunday dinner today.  But, Baba almost always served this meal with roasted potatoes and carrots.  You can find my recipe for her ~ Two-for-One Effortless Side-Dishes: Roasted Caraway-Seeded Carrots & Red Potatoes ~ in Categories 4, 12, 19 or 20!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)