Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Panzanella - My Way

It’s that time of year, weekends at the lake and lots of company stopping by. For me, that means planning a variety of menus for big buffet style meals.  Nothing fancy but plenty of hearty side dishes to complement whatever we are barbequing on the grill. My criteria is nothing that requires baking or roasting in the oven for a long period of time as the cottage is not air conditioned! One of my favorite dishes for such occasions is a Panzanella salad, also known as a Tuscan tomato and bread salad.  It goes well with most grilled meats, fish or poultry. It is a good way to add veggies to the menu and is a nice alternative to the usual green salad. 

There are several versions of this dish. The 'real' Italian version is the simplest requiring not much more than tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, fresh basil and stale bread dressed in oil and vinegar. What varies most among chefs is the way the bread is used in the recipe. My more 'authentic' Italian cookbooks recommend soaking the bread in water for a few minutes and then squeezing it dry before adding to the tomato mixture. I prefer mine with bread that has a bit more bite. Many chefs suggest frying the bread cubes in either butter or olive oil, or coating the bread with oil before toasting in the oven. If you start with a good bread you don't need to add the butter or oil for extra flavor. I simply toast my bread dry till crisp but not brown.  As the bread soaks up the tomato juices from the salad it softens but doesn’t get soggy or mushy, which to me is just right.  
My version of this salad is much heartier than most making for a more substantial side dish. I like adding olives, orange and/or yellow peppers and cheese. And, I don’t see why you couldn’t add some blanched green beans as well. The contrasting textures of the cheese and tomatoes against the crisp vegetables and the bite of the bread meld beautifully together in the salad’s oil and vinegar dressing. 

The best panzanella starts with sweet, perfectly ripe tomatoes. Homegrown are best, but good Compari varieties, heirloom, grape or sweet cherry will do. Ripe and sweet are a must, as the tomatoes set the flavor base for the overall dish. Next, is using only good artisan-style bread. Any kind will do, such as a French boule, a ciabatta or even a multi-grain baguette; but, probably not any strong flavored bread, and certainly, no commercially packaged sliced bread. Fresh basil is the other must-have ingredient. Add it just before serving to take maximum advantage of its incredible flavor.  

The recipe that follows is based on one pint of tomatoes. Amounts of all the ingredients can certainly be adjusted to accommodate the number of people to be served. 


1 pint juicy, sweet, ripe tomatoes
1/2 cucumber, unpeeled and cut into quarter slices
½ small yellow pepper cut into ¾ inch square dice
½ small orange pepper cut into ¾ inch square dice
About ¼ c. thinly sliced onions, either red or sweet Vidalia
About 1/3-1/2 c. diced fresh mozzarella cheese
Stale bread cut into 1 inch cubes, about 1 cup
6-8 Kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half
2 T. chopped flat leaf parsley
3 T. fresh basil, chopped or chiffonade

For the dressing:
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt to taste


Cut bread into 1 inch cubes. I used a multi-grain ciabatta roll. Toast in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes till crisp but not brown. Remove, let cool and set aside. 

Put tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions into a large bowl. Add the chopped cheese and olives. Add all the dressing ingredients and mix together.  10-20 minutes before serving add the bread and toss together to let the bread soften and the tomatoes to become nice and juicy. Right before serving, add the parsley and basil, toss together and serve. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Greek Spinach & Tomato Gratin with Pork Loin Cutlets

My refrigerator lately is stocked with ingredients typically used in making Greek style dishes. So, with ingredients like feta cheese, spinach, lemons, and mint leaves on hand I decided to put together a Greek-inspired dish to accompany the pork cutlets I had planned for my dinnertime meal. With no phyllo dough in the freezer, I was not in a position to prepare a traditional spinach pie so I decide to do the next best thing by turning a spanakopita-like filling into a gratin.  I am quite fond of gratins as side dishes for simply grilled or sautéed meats.  The richness of the gratin fillings balances well with the more subtle flavors of plain grilled meats or fish. The flavors of this gratin of spinach and tomatoes pairs especially well with the sautéed pork cutlets I have selected, but would work equally well with fish, poultry, beef, and of course, lamb.  

With a cup of heavy cream on hand, some cheese and breadcrumbs; gratins are relatively easy dishes to prepare.  Don’t have spinach; use any type of greens or veggie instead.  Change the herbs or choice of cheese and you can create an altogether different gratin. But, the process is essentially the same – a mixture of vegetables and cheese covered with heavy cream, and then topped with either grated cheese or a breadcrumb topping and voila, you’ve made a gratin!

This gratin is quite rich thanks to the heavy cream and feta cheese in the filling. The breadcrumb topping is especially crunchy due to the addition of olive oil; and the lemon zest and mint add lots and lots of flavor.  I added the chopped tomatoes simply because I had them on hand and needed to get rid of them soon, but the gratin would be equally good without them. 

Spinach & Tomato Gratin:
1 large bunch fresh spinach
3 T. olive oil
½ c. finely diced onion
1 clove garlic, finely minced
¼ c. chopped parsley, divided
¼ c. chopped mint, divided
½ c. crumbled feta cheese
Salt, pepper
4 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 c. heavy cream
1 c. fresh bread crumbs
¼ c. Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tsp. lemon zest

In a bowl combine the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, 2 T. chopped parsley, 2 T. chopped mint and season with some salt and pepper. The topping is best when using fresh breadcrumbs. I used a combination of an artisan-style French bread and multi-grain loaf processed in the food processor. Pour about 2 T. of olive oil into the mixture to lightly moisten and set aside. This adds a rich flavor to the topping and ensures a nice crunch.

Thoroughly wash the spinach. Drain well. Put the spinach in a microwave proof bowl and microwave for 1-2 minutes till wilted. Drain in a colander pressing spinach against the sides of the colander to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. When cool enough to touch with your hands squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Now coarsely chop the spinach.

Heat a medium sized sauté pan. Add a tablespoon of olive oil. When hot add the chopped onion, green onion and garlic. Sauté till veggies begins to soften, but do not let garlic burn.  Take pan off the heat and add the spinach, salt, pepper, 2 T. chopped parsley, 2 T. chopped mint and mix all together. Now add the crumbled feta cheese and combine well. Spread mixture in an even layer into 2 qt. baking pan. 

Pour the heavy cream over the spinach making sure the entire surface area is just covered with the cream.  Spread the chopped tomatoes which have been lightlyseasoned with some salt and pepper over the spinach. Now cover the tomato and spinach mixture with an even and generous layer of the breadcrumb topping. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30-40 minutes till golden brown and bubbly. If the breadcrumbs begin to become too brown, lightly cover with some aluminum foil.

Pork Cutlets:
4 boneless pork loin chops
1 T. lemon juice
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano
¼ c. Wondra flour
1-2 T. olive oil for sautéing

While the gratin is baking prepare the pork cutlets. Pound each cutlet to an even width of about ¼ inch. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Season the meat with the salt, pepper, garlic powder and dried oregano on both sides pressing lightly to make sure spices adhere to meat. Now lightly dust each chop with the Wondra, shaking off any excess. 

In a heated large sauté pan, add a few tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add the pork chops and sauté, 3-4 minutes per side. Keep warm till gratin is ready.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Summertime Desserts using Mascarpone Cheese

I purchased a number of ingredients last week for recipes I had intended to make but never managed to complete.  Of particular concern was the mascarpone cheese which I don't buy on a regular basis. Too good to let go to waste I was anxious to put it to good use. Coincidentally, summer weather finally arrived here in Michigan, and I mean arrived with a vengeance! We went from cold, rainy 50 degree days to hot and humid 90 degrees in an instant. My thoughts, as a result, went to looking for something cold and refreshing.

While perusing a number of cookbooks for ideas I came across a recipe for a simple lemon sorbet enriched by a large dollop of mascarpone cheese. Sounding wonderful, I couldn’t resist giving it a try. The recipe comes from Jamie Oliver’s cookbook, jamie’s italy, which provides a collection of Italian recipes inspired by the country’s local cooks.

The recipe for the sorbet is super simple and requires only a few ingredients – water, sugar, lemons and the mascarpone. The end product is both very sweet and quite lemony tart with the mascarpone lending a rich, creamy mouth feel to the dessert.  The recipe makes about 2 cups, not enough for a crowd, but plenty for 4 servings as one can only handle a few small scoops of this super sweet treat.

I still had six more ounces of mascarpone to use.  Though not enough for a tiramisu I knew I had enough to make a substantial dessert for my husband and I.  Inspired by the filling used in a tiramisu I put together an easy Italian inspired parfait.  I started with the filling which is essentially a tiramisu filling without the richness of eggs or the addition of any liquor.  Continuing the Italian theme I sandwiched the filling between layers of crumbled chocolate cookies from an Italian brand I purchased from my local Italian specialty store. Of course any crisp plain cookie will do. Amaretti immediately comes to mind, but certainly a rich tea cookie or butter cookie would suffice. For the fruit layers, I used strawberries macerated in some raw sugar and Chambord liqueur (okay, not so Italian) to make them super sweet and syrupy.  

The sorbet can be made a few days in advance and kept frozen till needed. The parfaits are best eaten within a few hours so the cookie crumbs don’t turn to mush. The sorbet is incredibly sweet while the parfait much less so. Though my intention was to look for summertime treats both would be great any time of the year.

Sorbetto di Limone con Mascarpone

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup lemon juice (about 3-4 large lemons)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 heaping tablespoon mascarpone (I used a good 2 T.)

Pre-freeze a shallow container (this will allow the sherbet to freeze nice and quickly).  Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.  Once the liquid is clear and syrupy, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool for 15 minutes, and then add the lemon juice and zest, mixing together. Next, add the mascarpone and stir until totally combined. 

Pour into your pre-frozen dish and return it to the freezer leaving it there for at least an hour before you check it.  If it has started to freeze, fork it up a bit.  Do this maybe every hour or so for the next 3 hours, after which it will be ready to eat.  It can now be kept for a couple of days in the freezer, with plastic wrap over the top – any longer and it will start to get ice crystals in it.  Always a real treat served on its own in a bowl or glass, but also delicious served with a fresh berry coulis sauce poured over the top.

Italian Parfait for Two

6 oz. mascarpone, slightly softened
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 T. powdered sugar
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 T. lemon juice
1 c. plain chocolate cookies
¾ cup sliced fresh strawberries
Couple of teaspoons of raw sugar
2 T. Chambord liqueur

Prepare filling and store in refrigerator till ready to assemble parfaits. 
In large bowl whip together the heavy cream and powdered sugar till firm but not too stiff. In another bowl cream together the mascarpone cheese with the lemon zest and lemon juice.  Fold in the whipped cream. combine and refrigerate. 

Slice the strawberries and sprinkle with the raw sugar and Chambord, set aside. Let rest till syrupy.

Crumble cookies by hand and set aside.
To assemble, layer cookie crumbs in the bottom of the serving dishes. Top with some cheese filling and then with some strawberries. Repeat the layers one more time. Garnish with either some mint leaves, or any leftover cookie crumbs. If any strawberry syrup is left be sure to pour it over the top just before serving so as not to over saturate the parfaits.