Monday, September 26, 2011

Nested Greens with Eggs

I am always on the lookout for new ways to cook greens. I make some sort of greens at least once, if not twice a week for their nutritional benefits, but mostly because I like their taste - bitter or sweet, no matter. Typically, I simply saute them in a bit of olive oil and garlic. Sometimes I add cut up potatoes to help balance the bitter taste of some greens. They are also great added to soups - bean, lentil, vegetable, in particular. So, when I found this twist (literally) on basic sauteed greens I had to try it.

The recipe comes from a beautiful coffee table-style book I bought many years ago called Tuscany The Beautiful Cookbook written by Lorenza de' Medici. Yes, you guessed it, a decedent of those de' Medicis. I was intrigued first by the presentation of individual nests of goodness. Then, by the ingredients themselves, eggs baked within the simply prepared greens. What more do you need for a simple, yet nutritious and inexpensive lunch or light dinner entree.

I took the liberty of embellishing the recipe a bit for fear as printed it would be too bland.  To spice up the greens I added some minced garlic and a dash of pepperoncini flakes. Yes, I too was surprised no garlic was part of the original recipe, but Italians don't really use as much garlic as Americans think they do. Since the cooked greens need to be twisted into the nests, select more tender varieties of greens like mustard greens, dandelions or spinach rather than kale or collard greens whose leaves are much tougher. After preparing this dish I also learned it would be best to remove as much of the stems as possible, especially if they are thick as they make twisting the nest a bit more difficult. Leave the leaves whole or split lengthwise also to facilitate twisting. As a final finish I rested the greens bundles on a small bed of nicely toasted Italian bread topped with some tomato sauce I had sitting in the refrigerator.

Nested Greens with Eggs 
about 2 lbs of greens - mustard, turnip, dandelion, spinach, chicory, escarole
2-3 T. olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
dash of pepperoncini flakes
5 eggs
salt and pepper 

 Wash and trim the ends or tough parts of greens. Leave whole, or split lengthwise. Drain well or spin dry. I used a mixture of turnip greens and dandelion greens.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. 

In a large skillet, heat 1 T. olive oil. When hot, add the minced garlic and pepperoncini flakes and cook for just a minute or two for the garlic to release its flavor and fragrance.

Add the greens, some salt and pepper and 3-4 T. of water. Mix everything together and reduce heat to medium or medium high. Cover and cook for 5 about minutes. 

Uncover, and continue to cook till the water has fully evaporated and greens are tender. Take off the heat to cool. 

Lightly coat a baking dish large enough to hold 5 nests.  When the greens are cool enough to handle, divide the mixture into 5 portions. With your hands, roll each portion into a ball and place into the baking dish. With your fingertips, make a hollow in the center of each ball to form a nest. As a helpful note, make sure the nests are high enough and dense enough to hold and fully contain the egg liquid.

Break one egg and drop just the egg white into the hollow of the nest, setting the yolk aside.  Repeat with the remaining eggs, dropping the white into each nest and setting the yolks aside so that they can be added individually later. 

Bake the nests until the egg whites begin to solidify, about 10 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and carefully drop an egg yolk onto the egg white in each nest. Lightly season egg with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Return to the oven and bake another minute or two till yolks are heated through but not fully cooked - you want them runny when you cut into them. 

To serve place a slice of lightly toasted Italian bread on a plate. Top with a spoonful of tomato sauce and place a greens nest on top. Drizzle with a little olive oil or sprinkle with some grated cheese. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vince's Crazy Good Hot Peppers!


I've known my brother-in-law, Vince, for over 20 years. In all that time I can't recall a day a pan of his famous hot peppers were not in his refrigerator, or a time they were not part of a family gathering's buffet table. For more years I am embarrassed to admit, I avoided them for fear they were just too hot and spicy to enjoy. I have come to realize they are incredibly delicious (in spite of their heat) and surprisingly versatile.  As for the heat, sometimes they are really hot and difficult to enjoy (my husband and dad love them this way), but most times just spicy enough to excite the tongue.  And frankly, the degree of heat can be easily controlled by the choice and combination of peppers and/or by removing the seeds and ribs of the hottest varieties.

I struggled with what to call this dish. Vince voiced the same concern. Though a side dish for sure the peppers aren't typically eaten as is but rather enjoyed as an incredible flavor enhancer to any number of roasted or grilled meats. To call it a relish would put it in the condiment category or something to dress hot dogs or burgers. Though they would indeed elevate the taste of either of those, the dish's more commanding taste and overall versatility requires them to have a more elevated title. 'Peperonata', which is typically a sauteed mixture of sweet or mild peppers, tomatoes and other veggies served as a dip or bruschetta topping, most closely resembles Vince's pepper dish. But, here again, it does not properly convey their versatility or define the spicy hot character of the dish.

These are delicious either hot just off the stove, at room temperature or even cold right out of the refrigerator. More importantly, they can be used in a wide variety of ways. They make a great Italian style appetizer served among other hot and cold dishes. Use them to kick up the flavor layered into sandwiches, and simply delicious paired with some strong cheese, a few slices of ripe, homegrown tomatoes sandwiched between good mutli-grain bread. Or, try them sauteed with some beaten eggs and grated Parmesan cheese to make a spicy, savory frittata. For a slightly different version, heat up a portion of the peppers, break a few eggs into the mixture and let the eggs cook among the peppers. They are also quite wonderful as a spicy sauce over hot, cooked pasta. Add some quickly sauteed Italian sausage and you have a hearty entree. Or, to turn bland into spicy, add them to sauteed chicken breasts (or pork chops) with a bit of chicken broth and serve over rice.

Vince makes a large amount quite often and uses them throughout the week. He prefers to make the dish really hot, but acknowledges sometimes the peppers identified as "hot" in the stores are not as hot when cooked up. In making this dish for the first time for this blog I used a mixture of hot Hungarian peppers and hot jalapeno peppers (seeds and ribs removed) along with an almost equal amount of sweet banana, green and sweet Italian red peppers. The end result, to my disappointment, was not hot at all, but still incredibly delicious.

In terms of measurements, use the size of the skillet you plan to use as your guide to ingredient amounts. I used my Calphalon 12 inch everyday pan which, as you will see, holds a large amount of vegetables. I used appoximately 12-14 medium to large peppers and based on that total adjusted the quantities of the other vegetables. I used zucchini in this recipe, but yellow squash is just as good and I would consider adding chunks of eggplant for variety. The hardest part of preparing this dish was cutting up the hot peppers. Remember to cut them in a well ventilated room and to wash your hands and utensils thoroughly, being careful not to touch your eyes.

Vince's Crazy Good Hot Peppers!

The Peppers:
Hungarian peppers or a mixture of hot style peppers that may include jalapeno peppers, plus a variety of sweet peppers selecting ones that will provide a nice mixture of colors to the dish such as red, yellow or orange and dark green peppers. Cut up all hot and sweet peppers into large pieces removing seeds and ribs to lessen the heat. For small to medium sized Hungarian or Banana peppers cut in half. For very large ones cut into quarters. 

Good olive oil - I used Kirkland brand
Ariosto brand Italian seasoning (contains salt) or Italian seasoning plus salt
6-8 cloves of garlic, cut into medium size chunks
4-5 green onions, cut into 1-2 inch pieces using both white and green parts
one zucchini, sliced into circles, half circles if zucchini is large
large handful of Italian parsley, large chop
1/2 lb. mushrooms cut into large pieces or left whole if small
about a cup of tomato puree - Vince uses Pomi brand

Notice size of cut pieces
Cut up all vegetables before you begin to saute.

In a small skillet saute the mushrooms in a small amount of olive oil till their liquid has evaporated. Take off the heat and set aside. 

In another but large (generous 12 inch) skillet coat the bottom with a thin layer of olive oil. Sprinkle the oil with a generous amount (about 1-2 tsp.) of the Ariosto seasoning. Now place all of the hot and sweet peppers in the pan. Turn on the heat to high and begin to cook the peppers turning occasionally and watching carefully to make sure peppers are browning but not burning. 

When peppers just begin to very slightly soften, add the garlic, green onion pieces, the zucchini, cooked mushrooms and parsley. Mix together and cook a few more minutes. Now add the tomato puree and finish cooking till all vegetables are tender but not too soft or mushy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Apple Hand Pies - As Fall Begins in Michigan

The signs of fall are everywhere here in Michigan. The outside temps have turned decidedly more cool.  My flowers are beginning to wither, the leaves have begun to fall and that fall-like smell I love is in the air. For me, autumn is one of my favorite times to cook and bake as many of the foods and dishes associated with the season I particularly enjoy.

To usher in the season I have decided to make Apple Hand Pies. This time with dried cranberries added to the filling for color and texture. The filling is then wrapped in a walnut enhanced pie crust. I debated whether to go the easy route and use packaged phyllo dough but decided to do them right and chose my default pie dough recipe from Martha Stewart. This time, however, I've added some finely chopped walnuts for extra texture and taste. The basic recipe is my dough of choice for most of the fruit and cream pies I make. I like the use of butter as the main fat to give the dough a rich flavor. The small amount of Crisco in the recipe helps produce a nice tender, flaky crust. Put together in a food processor, the dough is easy and quick to prepare.

While these hand pies are really nothing more than an adaptation of an apple pie, the filling is pre-cooked to allow for a shorter baking time. Unlike in a pie where I prefer the look and texture of  layers of sliced apples, the apples here are diced and then sauteed in butter and sugar before placing them on rounds of raw dough.

These are certainly tasty served with a good vanilla ice cream while still warm, but are also quite good simply eaten by hand.
Apple Hand Pies

Walnut Pie Dough:
2 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. cold butter, diced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1/4  c. Crisco
1/4 c. - 1/2 c. ice water
1/2 c. chopped, toasted walnuts

Toast walnuts in a 350 degree oven for about 5-10 minutes to toast and enhance flavor. 
Place nuts into a food processor and pulse till nuts are finely chopped but not turned into a powder. Add the flour, salt and sugar and pulse a few times again to incorporate all the dry ingredients.   

Now add the cold butter and Crisco and pulse again a few times till mixture is meal-like. Add the water starting with 1/4 c. and pulse till dough comes together. If still too loose, add a bit more water till it forms a dough when squished together by hand. 

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Collect dough and form into a round trying not to handle to much. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. While dough is chilling prepare apple filling.

Apple Cranberry filling:  recipe adapted from "Professional Baking" by Wayne Gisslen

2 pounds apples, medium dice
1/4-1/3 c. dried cranberries
2/3 c. sugar, divided 
2 T. cornstarch
2 oz. cold water
2 T. butter, divided
2 T. lemon juice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

In a medium skillet melt 1 T. butter but do not let it get brown. Add the diced apples and cook for a few minutes till they just begin to soften. Add 1/3 c. sugar and cook till tender but not mushy.
Mix the cornstarch with water to make a slurry and add to the apples.  Cook till thickened and the liquid is clear.

Take off the heat. Add the remaining 1/3 c. sugar, the spices, salt, cranberries, lemon juice and butter. Mix together till sugar is dissolved and butter has melted. Set aside to cool.

Cut dough in half. Roll out first half into a rectangle or large circle that is about 1/8-1/4 inch in thickness. Using a 6-inch plate as a guide, cut out as many circles as possible. 

Place cut circles on baking sheet.  Wet the edges of the dough circle. Spoon 2 generous tablespoons of the filling into half of the dough circle. Fold over, cut small slits to vent the dough, seal and crimp.  Repeat with second half of dough and any remaining dough scraps.

Brush milk or egg wash over the tops. Sprinkle with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil if crust begins to burn.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Frittata di Pasta (Pasta Frittata)

Had my fill of BBQ this weekend. After a big family party on Saturday in sweltering hot conditions (no air conditioning) and another cook-fest on Sunday I'm a bit pooped!  Now back home from the lake I don't have much in the frig and don't feel like trekking to the grocery store. On occasions like this I fall back to one of my most favorite and simplest of comfort foods, the pasta frittata. With some cooked spaghetti, a few eggs and cheese (ingredients most households have on hand) I can put together a delicious entree that everyone in my family enjoys. My mother used to make this dish on Fridays when Catholics abstained from meat, but I like to make it whenever I am in a pinch, any day of the week.

This is a delicious meatless dish, but adding sliced or crumbled pieces of cooked Italian sausage gives this dish an incredible boost of flavor. I prefer to make the frittata in its simplest form, with plain, cooked spaghetti and good Italian cheese, but if you have some leftover pasta coated in tomato sauce already sitting in the refrigerator, that's even tastier. This is a design-your-own kind of dish as any meat, vegetable, herb or spice can be added to suit your tastes. Oh, and the pasta can be spaghetti, penne or any other shape you like.

Essential to making this dish is a good, medium size, non-stick skillet or a well seasoned one that you have confidence the eggs or bits of cheese won't stick to. Like most frittatas, this one needs to be flipped in order for the eggs to cook through, but the pasta in this dish adds considerable volume, so flipping it is a bit tricky and somewhat intimidating. Though flipping and cooking both sides in the skillet produces a pasta frittata that has a nice crisp crust to it, once the eggs have fully set the balance of the cooking can be done in an oven, making sure, of course, you are using an oven-proof skillet.

The frittata is cooked in olive oil. With its larger than usual volume the cooking time is long so you must keep the heat even and not too hot. But, you want it hot enough for the surface and edges to develop a nice golden brown. This means the pasta at the surface will crisp up a bit which gives this dish great flavor and added texture. Both my husband and I think that's the best part of this dish. 

As for the cheese, my mother always used Tuma cheese which was a staple in her house.  Tuma is a cow's milk cheese that has a firm, smooth texture similar to a muenster or mozzarella but milder in taste. It was mom's default cheese. She used it in everything, grated in lasagna or stuffed pastas, sliced for sandwiches or to top an eggplant parmigiana.  Tuma is not readily available in grocery stores but can be found in most Italian specialty markets. As such, I use whatever cheese I have on hand, fresh mozzarella, muenster, provolone, or even swiss. 

In this dish the cheese is diced up into small pieces. I don't mix the cheese with the eggs and pasta mixture for fear it will adhere to the skillet and cause the frittata to stick. I add the cheese in parts as I pour the egg-pasta mixture into the skillet carefully distributing it throughout the skillet without allowing it to touch the pan.

I typically make this as a dinner entree served with a big, green tossed salad, but it is also great for lunch. It is good either hot right out of the pan, at room temperature or cold the following day.  Be sure to sprinkle generous amount of fresh grated cheese on top when serving. As usual, I prefer Grana Padano.  

What a satisfying dish, not too rich or too heavy. It has a great mix of textures, smooth and chewing in the center, with a nice crispy crust. And, depending on the cheese you pick, a nice salty, chewy, cheesy taste to balance out the blandness of the plain pasta. Delicious!

Frittata di Pasta

4-6 oz. of cooked spaghetti, well drained
4 eggs
pinch of salt and black pepper
1/2 c. cheese, diced or small slices tuma, mozzarella, muenster is best

good olive oil for frying
Grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta as directed on package. Drain well. 

In a large bowl beat eggs vigorously till well beaten. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cooked and well drained pasta and mix together. 

Heat a medium size, non-stick skillet. Add enough good olive oil to fully coat the bottom of the skillet, about 2 T. When oil is hot but not smoking, add enough of the pasta mixture to coat the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with some of the cheese making sure none of it touches the bottom or sides of the pan. Continue adding more of the pasta-egg mixture and more cheese till both are in the skillet and the cheese is well distributed making sure the pasta-egg mixture covers all of the cheese. 

While cooking, gently lift (without mixing or disturbing) the frittata from time to time to distribute the egg mixture, make sure the bottom is not burning or sticking to the bottom or sides of the pan. 

When the frittata appears generally well set (center is still runny but sides are beginning to firm up), place a dinner plate over the frittata (dish should be slightly larger than the skillet diameter). With your right hand, firmly hold the skillet handle. Place your left hand onto the center of the dinner plate. In unison, gripping the handle firmly and securing the plate onto the skillet, lift the pan off the heat and turn the pan 180 degrees so that the frittata is resting on the dinner plate. Lift the pan off the frittata and place it back on the stove. Now slide the frittata into the skillet runny side down, cooked side up, to finish cooking.

When fully cooked (center will be firm to the touch) slide onto a clean dinner plate. Sprinkle with a generous amount of grated Parmesan cheese. Cut into 6-8 pie wedges and serve.