Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Italian Family Table - Antipasti For a Crowd

Tutti a tavola a mangiare! 
This is the directive that Lidia Bastianich, one of my favorite Italian cooks, gives when her tempting dishes are ready. It means, "everyone to the table to eat!" 
I love these words because they evoke, at least for me, a very specific emotion. 
When I hear them, I know it's time to enjoy family, togetherness, community, and most of all, great food.  
Antipasti, Photo: NK

This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to swing a get-together with my brother and sister and their families. It isn't often that our three busy schedules coincide, so I was especially delighted to be able to catch up with them before the holiday season made things even more complicated. My mom was kind enough to offer her home as the venue. She's also a great cook and graciously volunteered to make her delicious sauce and meatballs to serve as the main course (we were a total of 8 people + a baby). All I would need to do was set out some hors d'oeuvres and whipped up a salad. Our guests brought dessert, so the whole thing came together easily. The larger the crowd, the simpler I like to keep it. 

Fennel (Left), Cheeses in counter clockwise order from the bottom left: Truffle Pecorino, Taleggio, Provolone, & Spreadable Goat Cheese Photo: NK

One of my favorite ways to get everyone to a table is to lay out a varied, vibrant spread of meats, cheeses, and fruits as a way to kick off a meal. When guests fill up a bit before the actual dinner, you need only serve one main course and maybe a salad, and they'll be more than satisfied. Focusing on the pre-dinner foods is a great way to front-load the work that goes into any large gathering, as well as to add variety, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy your family or guests. 

As for the pre-dinner spread, I have a very particular plating aesthetic:

plenty of color. 

It should be noted that when I am creating a multi-course sit-down meal, my strategy is very different; I'll instead, keep pre-dinner bites very light (or make much fewer of them) so as to leave my guests able to enjoy all the subsequent dishes. 

Antipasti is the plural of the Italian word, Antipasto, which means, before the meal
For me, assorted antipasti is the best way to start a large gathering because a lovely cold appetizer spread nearly always requires little to no cooking. It's more about using great products and assembling them beautifully. Because I put a high priority "presentation," or how food looks, antipasti platters also allow me to flex my creative plating muscles - one of my most favorite things to do! 
How'd it turn out? I'm still pretty giddy even a day later. It's always so wonderful to spend time with my siblings, niece and two nephews. I don't get to see them nearly as much as I'd like. My eldest niece and nephew are growing up into remarkable young people - but so fast! The baby of our family is only year and a half old. He's a real ham, and his adorable antics kept us laughing for hours. 

There really is nothing like sharing a meal with family. 

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season right around the corner, what better time to share these simple antipasti ideas with you? The selection offered below is certainly very typical, but you should feel free to add your own ideas. I'm aiming only to provide a recap in order to lend a little inspiration at a time of the year when cooking for a crowd can seem incredibly daunting. I hope you enjoy this Cold Antipasti How-To, and that you have plenty of great holiday memories on their way to you!

First, before we start, 
A general Rule for portioning cheese and meats: 
1 ounce of per person means everyone will get a taste. 
2 ounces per person will be an ample serving. 
1.5 ounces per guest is probably perfect. 

Antipasti for 8

Platter 1 - Salumi - aka The Salted, Cured Meats
Prosciutto, very thinly sliced. Imported is ideal, or one of many great domestic choices.
Sopressata, hot or sweet, depending on your preference. 
Garnish the plate with brightly colored vegetables. We used Campari & Zima Tomatoes.  And we mustn't forget to add some beautiful Italian Flat-Leaf Parsley.

Platter 2 - Formaggi - The Cheeses
Cheeses are pictured above in order, counter clockwise beginning from the bottom left:

Truffle Pecorino - Goodness, this truffley sheep's milk cheese was mouthwatering and worth the price tag. 1/3 Pound means everyone will get a taste, and a 1/2 Pound will allow for a bit extra. 

Taleggio - Relatively easy to find, this Italian "stinky cheese" is brie-like in consistency and wonderful spread on toasty bread or eaten alongside pears or honey. 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound will do. 

Provolone - Loved by all, this kid friendly, salty, and slightly tangy semi-soft cheese is great on any plate. 1/2 of a pound will be just enough for a party of 8, 2 slices a piece most likely.

Goat Cheese Spread- This soft goat cheese can be purchased ready to eat, or you can make it yourself by thinning out regular goat cheese with a teaspoon or two of milk, making it easy to spread on toast. Goat cheese is absolutely delicious with a little drop of

Fig Spread - The sweet and tangy combo of the fig with goat cheese is always a winner.
Grapes - to add color and sweetness. 
Parmesan Straws - again, very kid friendly and great dipped in goat cheese. 
Italian Parsley - for garnish

Forelle Pears - These pears are just gorgeous - petite and green with flecks of peach and red. 

Platter 3 - Cold Salads - Mozzarella Caprese & Marinated Eggplant + Tapenade
Mozzarella Caprese - This is easy! Slice about 3/4 Lb of fresh Mozzarella Cheese and alternate it with slices of the freshest tomato you can find (we used Campari). Drizzle with extra virgin oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar reduction or ready-prepared balsamic glaze. Finally, chiffonade some basil and sprinkle the ribbons over everything. 

Marinated Eggplant - The only item on today's spread that must be made ahead. Choose your favorite method of marinating and prepare a day in advance. Here are two simple recipes (this or this) from our own kitchen. Alternately, good Italian delis will often offer ready-made marinated eggplant. 

Olive Tapenade - Delicious spread onto toast and readily available at most specialty markets. If you can't find tapenade, there are many great recipes available. Save time and buy pitted olives if you end up making it yourself. 

Caprese Salad, Marinated Eggplant, and Olive Tapenade, Photo: NK

Slices of Semolina Bread

Carr's Rosemary Crackers, or any variety that suits your taste

Fennel - With its distinct licorice flavor, fennel serves as crunchy and refreshing palate cleanser in between bites. 

And there you have it, plates and plates of delicious Italian specialties that taste as good as they look. 

Is there anything better? 

Wishing you and your families a wonderful holiday season filled with love, laughter and many great meals.

Buon appetito! 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Festive & Foolproof - White Chocolate Orange Truffles (+ Coconut)

Guittard White Chocolate Chips, Photo: NK
There are two kinds of people in this world - the ones that like white chocolate, and the ones that don't. 

To find out who was who, I took a little informal poll at my office. My colleagues are always willing to not only serve as my very own recipe focus group, but also, to sample my cooking and baking and provide useful feedback. They're really a great bunch. I should feed them more! 

Out of six respondents (my oh-so-official poll consisted of me yelling questions over our office cubicles), four people shouted back that they do indeed enjoy white chocolate. This was all the confirmation I needed to try my take on a recipe for white chocolate orange truffles that I'd been eyeing for a while. The result was something just delightful. Of course, the leftover truffles made their way to my office today. I am happy to say that they were a hit!

White Chocolate Orange Truffles With Coconut, Photo: NK

For those of you who, like me, love dessert but don't like baking all that much, candy-making is a great solution. Whether you choose to make chocolate bark or truffles, as we will do today, candies don't require any oven time at all. One of my favorite treats as a little girl was something my grandmother used to call Chocolate Balls. She'd basically mix melted semi-sweet chocolate with condensed milk, roll the mixture into balls, and then dip them various toppings like nuts or powdered sugar. They'd come out just like delicious little truffles and it was all I could do to stop from eating every last one. If I think about it hard enough, I can still taste them. This is one of many good memories from my Mima's kitchen.

I chose to adapt today's recipe because I've always loved the combination of white chocolate and fruit flavors, particularly orange. Did you know white chocolate isn't really chocolate at all? I also had some leftover Bob's Red Mill Unsweetened Coconut that I suspected might make a great addition to both the texture and the look of the truffles. I was hoping these little guys would turn out looking like snowballs and they did! 

In the end, I was very happy with these rich white chocolate truffles featuring a nice dose of bright orange flavor. They taste very much like an orange creamsicle. If you're looking for an easy homemade holiday gift, these sweet little bites could do the job nicely. Requiring only about 5 minutes active time and about an hour to chill, they take almost no effort. Keep them in the freezer and allow them to come to room temperature before serving. As a matter of fact, I think they taste great straight from the freezer too! 

Anyone with a bit of sweet-tooth will love them. As a bonus, they're very versatile; roll out three truffles in gradually larger sizes and create a truffle snowman! Alternately, grab yourself some mini popsicle sticks and turn these into a little handheld frozen candy pops for a kids party. If you aren't a white chocolate fan, this recipe *should* work with dark or milk chocolate chips as well. You could experiment by incorporating nuts or even dried fruits. The possibilities are endless!

White Chocolate Orange Truffles Rolled In Coconut 
Makes 14-18 Truffles
Adapted from Cooking Classy
Photo: NK

1/4 Cup Salted Butter
Zest of 1 large Navel Orange
3 Tablespoons Half & Half OR Heavy Cream

1 Cup good quality White Chocolate Chips
(we prefer Guittard)
1/2 teaspoon good quality Orange Extract
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Flake
Equipment: a fine mesh sieve

1. Pour the white chocolate chips into a heatproof bowl. Set aside.

2. In a small saucepan over medium low heat, start melting the butter and add the orange zest to it. Once butter has melted, pour in the cream or half and half and whisk gently until incorporated. Turn up the heat to medium and scald the mixture. It should come to a bubble for 30 seconds or so. 

3. Pour the hot butter and cream mixture through a fine mesh sieve over the bowl of white chocolate chips. Using a spoon, press down on the orange zest that collects in the sieve to release more of the natural orange oils. Discard the zest. Let the white chocolate chip and cream mixture rest for a minute before adding the orange extract. Stir vigorously until the chips melt and the mixture is smooth. 

4. Cover the bowl and remove it to the fridge to chill for an hour or more until the mixture is firm and able to be handled. 

5. When ready to assemble truffles, pour coconut flakes into a plate. Scoop out a teaspoonfuls at a time of the chocolate and form it into balls using your hands/palms. Roll the truffles in coconut if you like. 

Store truffles in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer for about a month. Bring to room temperature before serving (I even like them straight out of the freezer!). 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Italian Pasta Classics - Aglio Olio e Peperoncino

Photo: NK 
Welcome to Part II of our Italian Pasta Classics series, where we share the very best in traditional pasta dishes for your viewing and eating pleasure.

Check out Part I HERE.

Today, we want you to know about Aglio Olio e Peperoncino - or pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic and Crushed Red Pepper. This rustic, peasant meal has been claimed by much of Southern Italy. A few sources believe it originated in Abruzzo, but the jury is still out. 

Let's just agree that this ever so simple dish belongs to the nation itself, and that in the pantheon of authentic pasta recipes, it is most certainly one of the greats.

Anchovy haters: be brave.
The anchovy fillets melt into the oil as you warm it and become virtually undetectable. If you use good quality imported anchovy fillets, ideally packed in oil, I can assure you that the finished dish will have absolutely no fishy taste. The anchovies themselves lend a complexity to the flavors that is, I believe, absolutely essential. Still, you are more than welcome to make this recipe without them, but I happen to think you'll be missing out! Some (questionable) recipes also call for grated parmigiana or pecorino, but I don't recommend it.

You could make this dish with regular spaghetti, linguine, or any other long pasta. We opted for Spaghetti alla Chitarra. Cut on an implement called the Chitarra (it is strung with wire much like the eponymous guitar), the resulting pasta takes the form of long, thin ribbons with square, rather than rounded edges. Why make Aglio Olio e Peperoncino? It is easy, fast, delicious and cheap! Feeding a family of four for well under dollars 10 is no problem with this recipe. 
Buon appetito!

 ~This meal was made in loving memory of Grandma Peg who will be dearly missed. 

Photo: NK 
Aglio Olio e Peperoncino
Serves 4 


1 Lb Spaghetti or other long pasta (we used Spaghetti alla Chitarra)
6 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
7 Anchovy fillets packed in oil (imported) 
7 medium or large Garlic Cloves, minced
1/4 -1/2 teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper (less if you prefer mild spice)

2/3 Cup Italian Parsley, most of it finely chopped, a few sprigs reserved for garnish
Approximately 1/3 Cup Pasta Water
Black Pepper

1. Set a pot of salted pasta water to boil and then cook the pasta according to package instructions until it is almost al dente. Drain, reserving about a 1/2 cup of pasta water. 

2. In a very large skillet, warm the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the anchovy fillets and let them cook until they dissolve fully into the oil. You can use a wooden spoon to stir and help them along. 

3. Once anchovies have fully dissolved you can add the garlic. Lower the heat to low so that garlic does not burn. Add the crushed red pepper as well as the black pepper. Cook the garlic for a few minutes (about 3) taking care not to burn it. 

4. Add about a 1/3 cup pasta water to the pan. Add the cooked pasta, and toss on the parsley. Turn up the heat a bit and toss the pasta in the skillet for 1 or 2 minutes until everything is coated. Season with additional black pepper and taste for salt. Add more only if needed. Serve immediately with a sprig of parsley and enjoy!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blue Point Brewery Tour + Uncle George's Local Mussels in Beer

Oatmeal Stout fresh from the brewery, Photo: NK
Don't you just love it when a plan falls into place? Actually ... never mind.

Let's try this again:

Don't you just love it when you can work BEER into your plans?

Yeah, that feels right. 

This very thing happened to us a few weeks ago when a random errand brought us to Patchogue, New York. What joy was ours when my intrepid husband remembered that Patchogue is also the site of Blue Point Brewing Company - a place we'd been talking about visiting forever. That guy continues to surprise me ... and he sure knows how to entice me into chores as well! 

Beer Tasting at Blue Point Brewing Co! Photo: NK

Our little tasting session and brewery tour was a blast. Blue Point tasting room is kinda like visiting your best friend's basement - if said basement was filled with tasty beers, cool t-shirts and other merch, a fridge full of freshly filled growlers, and a super friendly staff of knowledgable beer mavens. 

Now, wait for it ... you can taste three kinds of beer FOR FREE. Seriously, how friendly can you get? 

Sufficiently buzzed from a tasting of Blue Point Oyster Stout, Oatmeal Stout, and the limited release "Wet Hop Experiment," it was the perfect time to take a little tour of the facilities. While most of the production of Blue Point beer takes place in Upstate New York, there's still some action at their original Patchogue hub, and we got to see it all. Michelle, our tour guide, was both funny and adorable. She shared a wealth of information on Blue Point's origins, as well as on brewing in general. Among the many facts we picked up (like that home-brewing was illegal until Jimmy Carter legitimized it - thanks, Prez!), I learned that hops are related to the marijuana plant (no comment:)) and that for much of the past century, the crop of hops that had been readily available in the Northeast were blighted by disease, which is why most of today's brewers ship their hops from the West Coast. 

The good news is that our Northeastern soil is starting to bounce back, and as a result, the future looks brighter for locally sourced hops. Want proof? Look at the autumn crop that my BFF, Natalie (one of the original urban farmers for the better part of the last decade), grew at her parent's gorgeous farm in Pennsylvania: 

Black Krim Tomatoes, a Red Pumpkin, Chilies, and Dank Hops (foreground)
Grown By & Photo By: Natalie Brickajlik

She's talented, what can I say? 

Upon leaving the brewery, my head was spinning. For the usual reason, to be sure, but also, for others; all I could think about was cooking with beer, preferably Blue Point Beer. And then, just like that, an opportunity presented itself:
Toasted Lager, Photo: NK

I returned to our weekend home to find that our neighbor had stopped by to drop off some freshly harvested Mussels that he plucked from the local bay. Using what I had on hand, and of course, some widely available and uber drinkable Blue Point Toasted Lager, I came up with the following recipe that I hope you'll enjoy. 

Very special thanks to my Uncle George and his wife, my Aunt Freddie for being super sweet and thoughtful - the mussels were delicious and the freshest I've ever had. I hope I did them justice. Enjoy the recipe!

Spicy Mussels Cooked in Blue Point Toasted Lager and Thai Chilies + Lime and Cilantro, Photo: NK 

Uncle George's Local Mussels Cooked in Toasted Lager
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a light appetizer

2 Pounds fresh scrubbed and debearded Mussels
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
1/2 a large White Onion, chopped
2 large Garlic Cloves, sliced
1/2 cup Cilantro, roughly chopped, plus sprigs for garnish
8 Ounces (2/3 bottle) Blue Point Toasted Lager (or other dark beer)
3 dried Red Thai Chilies,(or other) finely chopped (discard seeds if you don't like extra spicy)
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice 

1. Heat butter in a very large pot over medium-low flame. Next, add the garlic and sauté until slightly golden and fragrant, about 2 minutes, taking care not to burn.

2. Add the chopped onion and sauté another 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Add the beer and chilies and turn up the flame to medium to bring the liquids to a boil. 

4. Put the mussels in the pot, cover, and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes. 

5. At this point, mussels should begin opening. Remove them from the pot one by one as they open and place in a large, communal serving bowl. Take care to remove them as they open so they do not become tough. Discard any mussels with broken shells or those that have not opened in a reasonable amount of time. 

6. Add the tablespoon of lime juice to the broth remaining in the pot. Taste for seasoning and add a tiny bit of salt and pepper if needed (mussels should have plenty of natural saltiness already so taste before you add!). Pour the broth over the mussels and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve immediately and enjoy! 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Soul of The South - Kickin' Collard Greens

I want to take a moment to tell you about our latest family adventure, a trip to South Carolina by way of Savannah, Georgia. In addition to what is always a good old time with all the folks I love, I was struck by how beautiful this part of the country is.
The Beach at Hilton Head, Photo: NK
From the white sand beaches to the seemingly endless marshlands, the wild sea birds and trees draped dramatically with Spanish moss (which look wonderfully spooky by the light of the moon), Low Country really is great.     
She-Crab Soup, Photo: NK

And it's not just because of the vistas - the food is pretty good too! With a rich culinary history all its own, Low Country is a place to find and taste the foods of the Gullah Culture, as well as other regional delights like She-Crab Soup. This stuff was good, let me tell you.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

As soon as I got finished taking in the astonishingly pretty sunsets

Photo: NK
Photo: NK

and getting my fill of activities like a really fun day of kayaking and mini golf, 

Photo: NK

I knew it was time to get down to the business of cooking. My favorite kind!

I'd had my fill of yummy shrimp and grits during our fun family trip, so I decided to indulge the hankering I had for my favorite Southern side dish - Collard Greens

I actually can't believe that I had never made collards at home before because I really enjoy them. Collards are a sturdy, slow-cooking green. They take a while to become tender, but almost no time to prep. It's during the lengthy cooking period that the magic happens. 

You can infuse collards with many different flavors, but the traditional addition is some sort of smoked meat, whether bacon or a ham hock. Feel free to turn this vegetarian by omitting the bacon and cooking as directed from after that point. Relying heavily on a recipe I found on, my first attempt at collards was a great success. They were smokey, salty, and even a little spicy, from a generous pinch of crushed red pepper.

If you too are a collard novice, this recipe is a great place to start. Serve collards alongside your favorite Southern dishes, or if you like them as much as I do, throw them over rice, beans, or peas, and they are a meal in themselves. Y'all enjoy! 

Kickin' Collard Greens
Lightly Adapted from Adams
Photo: NK 
Serves 6

3 Strips of Bacon
1 teaspoon Olive Oil
1 medium White Onion, chopped
3 cloves of Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Pepper
1 generous pinch Crushed Red Pepper
3 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Large Bunch Fresh Collard Greens, chopped into two-inch pieces


1. Heat the oil in a very large pot over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook it until it is crisp. Remove the bacon, blot off the oil, roughly chop it and return it to the pan. 

2. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until tender. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, another 2 minutes. Now add the collard greens and cook until the leaves begin to wilt. 

3. Pour in the vegetable broth and lower the flame to low. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Cover the pot and cook for 45 minutes until the greens are tender. Scoop the collards from the liquid, serve and enjoy!

Collards! Photo: NK

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ingredient Spotlight: Acorn Squash (+ Brown Sugar & Walnuts)

The Beautiful Acorn Squash, Photo: NK
There are a ton of things that rock about fall - like fuzzy flannel shirts, leaf-peeping, and pumpkin flavored everything.  

Of course, cooking with autumn produce ranks high in our house and I can tell that you too love preparing the foods of the season. Our Foolproof Fall Dinner for Six  post is getting tons of traffic! It is a great menu, if we do say so ourselves. 

For more Autumn produce inspiration check out our super healthy recipe for Apple Rutabaga Mash. But today, we're all about the Acorn. Acorn Squash to be exact. If you are looking for the world's  easiest side dish for your next meal, please, look no further. Today's recipe is merely a guideline, as there are endless possibilities for baking acorn squash. Just let your favorite spices be your guide. 

Our version includes the usual brown sugar and butter, but adds a hint of cinnamon and some smokey paprika (my favorite spice of all time), before finishing it all off with a sprinkling of crunchy toasted walnuts. The textural combo of the tender squash and walnuts is just great. Also - I find it especially cool that this dish is self-contained. Slice off a bit of the squash's bottom and you've made yourself a sturdy little bowl filled with fall goodness. Just get out a spoon and start scooping out the sweet, nutty middles. 

This recipe is so easy - just bake the squash, flavor it like so
(or use your own favorite spices), and bake again! Photo: NK 

Before we jump to our recipe, let's first learn a bit about our main ingredient:

"(Acorn Squash) flesh is sweeter than summer squash, with a nut-like flavor. It is shaped like a ribbed acorn, hence its nickname. The growing period is longer than summer squash, giving it plenty of time to soak up the sweetness of the sun. 

Along with the standard green variety, you may also run across orange and white acorn squash varieties. Although available in many areas year-round, prime season for acorn squash is early fall through winter." 

OK! Now let's cook what we've learned. 

Baked Acorn Squash + Brown Sugar & Walnuts, Photo: NK

Baked Acorn Squash With Brown Sugar & Toasted Walnuts
Loosely Adapted from Martha Stewart
Serves 2

1 medium-sized Acorn Squash (about 1.5 pounds)
1/3 cup Toasted Walnuts, roughly chopped
1 heaping Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar
1 Tablespoon Salted Butter, divided + more for greasing baking sheet
1/4 teaspoon Hot Smoked Spanish Paprika (or regular Paprika)
1/4 teaspoon Cinnamon

1. Preheat your oven to 425 and grease a baking sheet with butter.

2. Lightly toast your walnuts in the toaster oven if you've not done so already. They should turn slightly golden.

3. Cut acorn squash in half and carefully scoop out all the seeds. Slice off a small part of each of the squash bottoms so they will sit level on the baking sheet later.

4. Bake, cut side down, until golden, about 20-25 minutes.

5. Turn the squash over and pierce the insides all over with a fork. Rub a half tablespoon of butter on the flesh of each half and place any remainder in the middle. Sprinkle the dark brown sugar evenly over each half, follow with paprika, cinnamon, and then a pinch of salt and pepper.

6. Return squash to the oven to bake for another 25 or more minutes with the cut side up. When they are done, the flesh of the squash should be easily pierced with the tip of a dull knife. Sprinkle walnut pieces over each squash and serve warm! These are best eaten with a spoon. Enjoy!