La Cucina Italiana

I absolutely relish the food and wine pairings that have become a monthly tradition with a group of some of the classiest chics I know. April’s event was nothing less than perfect. As we continue to expand on the concept, the task of  finding a new and unique pairing becomes more and more challenging.

Leslie’s offering, Asian Chicken (or turkey) Lettuce wraps, were a dead-ringer for P.F. Chang’s version. She shared this recipe with me. I recently made my own attempt at recreating the famous dish.  My version included water chestnuts and mushrooms and a pouring sauce which I enjoyed. A Google search will net you an endless list of this highly coveted recipe if you want to make your own at home. Let me know what works best for you.

Here’s what you’ll need for Leslie’s version:

  • Ground turkey or chicken
  • Olive oil
  • About a cup of chopped peppers and onions
  • Crunchy bean sprouts
  • Chopped cashews
  • Iceberg or romaine lettuce leaves

For the sauce you will need:

  • 3 parts soy sauce
  • 1.5 parts teriyaki sauce
  • 1 dash of sesame oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of red chili sauce
  • 3 cloves of garlic

(Note from Leslie: should make about ¾ of a cup – sorry I’m an eye baller ! : )

Sauté the peppers and onions in olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add the ground meat and break it up as it cooks. Once the meat is cooked, add the sauce and crunchy bean sprouts. Let it all heat up for a few more minutes, top with chopped cashews and serve the chicken mixture wrapped in the lettuce leaves. She paired her dish with a 2010 Carpineto Dogajolo Toscano IGP Red.

Breanna’s contribution was a delightful and delicious Spring Vegetable and Goat Cheese Dip paired with a 2011 Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not always a fan of goat cheese, but the citrus fruits paired just right with the mint, chives and lemon zest in the dip and I couldn’t get enough of the combination.

Our lovely host Chiara regaled us with a titillating Tagliatelle with Asaparagus from La Cucina Italian Magazine which paired perfectly with a 2009 Muscadet by Domaine de la Pepiere.

Personally, I was not all that thrilled with my choice for the last gathering. The Baked Nutella Wontons, paired with an Izidro Madeira Port from Portugal were easy and relatively decadent. After making these twice and leaving them in longer than the recommended five to six minutes on both occasions, I will likely give them another shot being sure to keep a close eye on the timer.

The meal was made complete with homemade herb bread from Chiara’s father. As always, the food, wine and company were out of this world. Why go to old Italy when you have a host like Chiara!


Don’t deny the dip

Whenever I think of or see the recipe for this Cobb Salad dip, I think of Cobb’s Hill, my regular running spot. That’s ironic since eating dip is a reason for me to go running. This recipe from Chow is completely worth every calorie though.

I doubled the recipe for a larger group and added some tomatoes to the recipe. Here’s what you’ll need for a single batch:

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/3 cup of crumbled blue cheese
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (I used half that amount)
  • 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 medium avocado, diced
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
  • 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 4 slices of bacon, well-browned and crumbled
  • ¼ cup of diced tomato
  • Celery sticks or crackers for serving

Mix the sour cream, blue cheese, lemon juice, salt, parsley and Worcestershire in a medium bowl and stir well to combine.

For maximum crispness, I recommend baking the bacon on a foil lined pan at 350 degrees until crisp and placing it on a paper towel-lined plate to drain the grease.

While the Chow recipe calls for folding the avocado and scallions into the dip, I just topped it with the avocado, scallions, bacon and diced tomatoes.

Too cute to eat

Call me a cheater for this one, but these cupcakes were too cute not to share. My friend Tra and Jay’s Sesame Street cupcakes are perfect for your next kids (or grown-up kids) party, and they aren’t too hard to make. I tried to Google a recipe for you to follow, but nothing online could really compare to these.

All you need is some cupcakes and a couple of cans of frosting. Mix food coloring into four separate bowls of frosting. Create red for Elmo, green for Oscar the Grouch, blue for Cookie Monster and yellow for Big Bird. Jay came up with a frosting technique which made the cupcakes looked furry and they added some crystal sugar sprinkles to give them some shine.

Cookie Monster is eating a Chips-a-Hoy cookie, which is cut in half, and frosted to look like it’s in his mouth. Oscar is wearing a vanilla Golden Oreo cookie trash can lid on his head. Elmo’s mouth is made with a traditional chocolate Oreo. And the pièce de résistance, Big Bird, was made with a strategically cut marshmallow. Note how the inside of Big Bird’s mouth is frosted red and his purple and blue eyebrows really make him stand out. White frosting and chocolate M&M’s were enlisted as eyeballs, and an orange M&M serves as Elmo’s nose.

Don’t worry. While they are too cute, you’ll be able to find it in your heart to eat one.

Where do we go from here?

Last month, I regaled you with tales from my first ever wine and food pairing event with an intimate group of classy ladies. The bar was set so high that first evening, I wasn’t sure how we could top it. I should have known this group was up for the challenge. I will try to do the menu justice.

Having received a bottle of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Gewurtraminer for my birthday, I opted to make a Beef Satay with a peanut dipping sauce.

As always, I used this Emeril Legasse recipe as a loose guide.

  • 2 pounds skirt, flank or sirloin tip steak, cut into thin, wide strips against the grain (I used the Wegmans pre-cut beef sirloin strips)
  • 1 cup teriyaki sauce (I used tamari, a lower-sodium soy sauce, because I didn’t have teriyaki)
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger, plus 1 teaspoon
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic, plus 1 teaspoon
  • 1 teaspoon salt (I didn’t use this because soy sauce has enough sauce already)
  • I added some hoisin sauce to the marinade as well
  • About one dozen wooden skewers

Of the ingredients I did use in the sauce recipe, I basically doubled them, added some Hoisin sauce, and adjusted the ratio until the sauce tasted more Asian than peanut butter. Emeril’s recipe  calls for:

  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter, plus 1 tablespoon
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce (again I used tamari)
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used red pepper chili flakes)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro  (I didn’t have this)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted chopped peanuts (I didn’t use these)
  • 1 cup julienned carrots ( I didn’t use these)
  • 1 cup julienned celery (I didn’t use these)
  • 2 cups shiso greens (I’m not sure what these even are, so I didn’t use them)

Marinate the beef strip in the soy sauce (or teriyaki) ginger, garlic and hoisin sauce. Soak the wooden skewers so they won’t burn when you broil the meat.

While the meat marinates, mix the sauce in a small bowl. Skewer the strips of steak. Broil them on low for about four to five minutes or until medium-rare. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Now for the rest of the offerings:

Leslie (@leslieluuu) out-did herself with a pairing of a 2010 Clos Du Bois Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay with an Asaparagus and Cheese Tart recipe from the Food Network.

She also whipped up Sauteed Greens and Cannellini Beans and Garlic from Epicurious, which was paired with Stacy’s 2008 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir.

Chiara (@chiaraaamai) provided some incredible Italian classics. Her antipasti included a caprese salad, Italian salami, Yancy’s Fancy Finger Lakes Champagne Aged Cheddar Cheese, and crusty baguette, slightly toasted and covered in ricotta cheese, prosciutto and peaches, drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Her wine pairings included an exquisite 2008 Cantina Zaccagnini il vino ‘dal tralcetto’ Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo. I was delighted with the piece of the vine which was tied around the bottleneck.

Breanna (@bmbanford) brought up the dessert end of things with her Puff Pastry with Brie Cheese and Blackberry Jam which you can find on her Pinterest page. This paired quite lovely with Segura Viudas Brut Reserva champagne.

And with a gorgeous location provided by Lynn, I am unsure how we can possibly top this again. We’ll  see soon enough though with our next pairing scheduled in just a few weeks!

Keep your eye on the béarnaise

The very first time I laid eyes on this Pepper-Crusted Filet Minion recipe from Chow, I knew I had to try it. What sold me was the béarnaise sauce, something I’ve never had before. Considered to be the “child” of Hollandaise sauce, I knew it was probably not a wise choice for my hips, but I can rationalize cooking anything once for the sake of the blog. In the battle between eating healthy and getting inspired to try something new for the blog, you my fine readers, won out.

I would highly recommend you try this sometime when you want to eat like French royalty. Just don’t take your eye off the sauce or you’ll wind up with scrambled eggs.

In my typical fashion, I deviated from the steak recipe. Basically I just took a flank steak, coated it in some butter and covered it in black peppercorns. We cooked it medium rare on the grill. I’m sure if you follow the recipe, it will be just as good if not better, but who has the time to get technical?

Well, you better be, because the béarnaise sauce is a bit of a bear, but it’s worth it.  You will need:

  • 1/3 cup champagne or white wine vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 5 sprigs of fresh tarragon, leaves removed and finely chopped
  • Reserved tarragon stems
  • 6 whole black peppercorns, crushed (I used a rough chop on a peppermill)
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 8 tablespoons of unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons of finely chopped fresh chervil (optional – I didn’t use)
  • Salt and pepper

In a medium frying pan, combine the vinegar, wine, shallots, tarragon stems and crushed peppers and bring them to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until the liquid is reduced to just over two tablespoons.  Strain the vinegar mixture with a fine mesh strainer. Be sure to press on the solids to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Discard the solids.

Fill a medium saucepan with about one-inch of water and bring it to a bare simmer over low heat. This is important. If the water is too hot, your sauce will tend to get clumpy.

Add the egg yolks to the vinegar mixture and whisk to combine. Set the vinegar-yolk mixture over the simmering water and cook it, whisking constantly until the yolks thicken and the mixture forms ribbons when you lift the whisk from the bowl.

Be sure to check that your water has not boiled away by periodically removing the bowl from the saucepan. Do not let the water boil or your eggs will curdle.

Begin whisking in the butter pieces one at a time, making sure each piece is melted before adding the next piece. Continue until all the butter has been added. Remove the sauce from the heat. Add a few drops of water if it’s too thick.

Whisk in the chopped tarragon leaves and chervil (if using). Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over steak.

Have your cake and eat it too

First, let me apologize for my short blogging hiatus. Moving, Easter and celebrating my 35th birthday have monopolized the past few weeks of my life. Now that I’ve got my kitchen all set up, there should be plenty of fodder for mouth-watering blogs coming your way!

This blog is inspired by my co-worker Justine’s cake pops. She whipped up a bride and groom-themed batch of these bite-sized morsels for a recent bridal shower and they were a huge hit! According to theKitchn

“You bake up a cake, let it cool, tear it into fine crumbs, stir in something to hold it all together, and roll it in balls.”

You can roll your own cake pops, or you can purchase cake pop pans, eliminating the need to crumble the cake and mix it with frosting.

The final step entails sticking a lollipop stick into the cake pops and dipping them into melted white, milk or dark chocolate and decorating them. Justine’s groom cake balls are coated in white chocolate, followed by some strategic dips in chocolate, and topped off with buttons and a bow tie. The bride cake balls are dipped in white chocolate and then drizzled with more white chocolate to create the lace-like look. These irresistible, eye-catching treats are sure to impress!


Memphis soul stew

When it comes to brainstorming blog titles, I often seek out something related to music, whether it’s a play-off a song title or a straight up rip-off. This blog title is borrowed from a King Curtis song that a foodie like me can’t help but love. But it’s not accurate seeing as though I’m blogging about a Jambalaya recipe, which is actually Louisiana Creole dish with Spanish and French influence. Perhaps this Carpenter’s song, which I’d never heard until Googling for song titles about Jambalaya, is more accurate.

Now take a hard left from all that music talk and authentic recipe mumbo jumbo and you’ll find yourself at this Chicken and Smoked Andouille Jambalaya recipe by Chow. I made this a few Sundays ago and it warmed my soul. It also made enough to feed an army, so invite guests or be ready for leftovers. Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients list; half of it is just seasonings.

You can mix the spice mix in advance

  • 2 ¼ teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • ¾ teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mustard
  • Pinch celery salt

Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

For the jambalaya you will need:

  • 2 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
  • 2 large yellow onions, medium dice
  • 12 ounces andouille sausage, medium dice
  • 4 ounces tasso or smoked ham, medium dice (I used smoked ham)
  • 2 large green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and medium dice
  • 3 medium celery stalks, medium dice
  • 1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 (14 ½ -ounce) can tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cups long-grain white rice
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 medium scallions, thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and arrange the rack to the lower third of the oven.

Heat the oil in an ovenproof pot or Dutch oven. I cooked the chicken in Dutch oven and then transferred it to a larger pot once I realized how much food this recipe makes. Cook about 1/3 of the chicken in the pot until browned all over, or for about five to six minutes. Set aside. Cook the remaining chicken in two batches and set aside.

Remove and discard all but about ¼ cup of the fat from the pot. This is where I switched to a larger oven-proof soup pot. Add the butter and melt over medium heat. Cook the onions for about six minute or until they begin to brown.

Add the sausage and ham, half of the spice mix and stir to coat everything. Cook this mixture for about ten minutes or until the meat is browned and the onions are tender.

Add the bell peppers, celery, jalapeno, garlic, salt and the remainder of the spice mix. Cook for another ten minutes or until the bell peppers have softened.

Add the chicken and the juices that have accumulated in the bowl, the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste. Stir and bring to a boil. Add the rice, stock and bay leaves and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, cover with a tightfitting lid and transfer to the oven. Bake until all the liquid has been absorbed or for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool for about five minutes, and be sure to give it a good stir before serving to combine all the flavors.

Oldies and goodies

As a food blogger, it’s rare I get the chance to cook the same meal twice. There are pros and cons to this. On the plus side, I don’t get into a food rut, I don’t tire of meals often, and I’m always inspired to discover new dishes. On the flip side of the coin, there’s something to be said about cooking something you’ve made many times. You know how it’s going to turn out, you don’t have to study the recipe quite as closely, and you don’t have to spend hours researching and cooking.

With a move on the horizon, I’m noticing I just don’t have time to pull out all the stops these days. I need something that’s healthy and delicious, and I need it fast. That’s where the oldies but goodies like Mexican pizza tend to resurface. Think tacos on a pizza shell and get creative. Here’s what I put on my pizza:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain most of the juice from the black beans and mashing them up a bit with a fork or spoon to create a consistency somewhere between baked and twice baked beans. You can also use twice baked black beans, I just grabbed the wrong can in the store. Spread the black beans on the pizza crust. Next add the corn, tomatoes and scallions. Top with taco cheese.

Slice and grill the jalapeno peppers. Distribute evenly over the pizza. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, finishing off the pizza with a broil on low heat for about four to five minutes until brown and slightly crispy. Allow the pizza to cool before slicing. Top with avocado and sour cream.

Here today, tarragon tomorrow

I’ve recently developed a love affair with the herb Tarragon, also known as dragons-wort, a name which makes me love it even more. It began with this Reader’s Digest recipe for Salmon with Tarragon Mayo, served over couscous mixed with a variety of veggies. For being as easy to prepare as it was, the creamy herb sauce gives this otherwise very light and healthy meal a complex and rich flavor. I would highly recommend you put it on your list for the summer.

For the salmon, you will need:

  • Four 4-ounce salmon steaks or fillets (I only had three so I threw some shrimp into the mix)
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 to 2 bay leaves
  • Lemon zest

For the mayo, you will need:

  • Four tablespoons of mayonnaise
  • ½ cup of plain low-fat yougurt
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of fresh tarragon

For the couscous, you will need:

  • 1 cup of couscous, uncooked
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups of watercress, roughly chopped (I used about one cup of watercress and one cup of sprouts)
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Juice of one lemon (or just use about 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice if you’re lazy like me)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Spray a skillet with cooking oil and place the salmon in it on medium heat. Pour wine over the salmon and add the bay leaves and lemon zest. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Cover and poach the salmon until just cooked; about five to six minutes. It should still be translucent in the center.

Make your sauce by stir together the mayonnaise, yogurt, grated lemon zest and tarragon in a small bowl, season with salt and pepper and mix. While the salmon is cooking, get about 1 ½ cups of water boiling in a pot or kettle. Also, prepare your vegetables; chop the tomatoes, watercress and scallions.

When the fish is cooked, drain off most of the cooking liquid into a measuring cup. Remove the salmon from the heat, but cover it to keep it warm. Add the 1 ½ cups of boiling water to the fish broth.

Pour the diluted fish broth over the couscous in a bowl and leave it for three to four minutes, or until the liquid has dissolved. Fluff the couscous with a fork and stir in the chopped tomatoes, scallions and watercress. Drizzle the olive oil and juice of one lemon over the mixture and stir to blend everything together and season with salt and pepper.

Serve the salmon warm, over the couscous, topped with the tarragon mayo.

Yummy things come to those too stubborn to stop looking

The things I do for a good meal sometimes make me wonder. Last week, it was a wild goose chase for plum preserves. After a thorough of search my East Avenue Wegmans store, a few natural food and boutique stores, and Wegmans website, I determined the only type of plum preserve to be found was going to be mixed in with some other type of berry. A Google search netted me a line of plum preserves at Walmart, which I could have shipped to me for merely $30.

On a trip to Pittsford Wegmans for fish for tuna tartare, I decided to take one final look for the elusive plum preserves. A trip through Nature’s Marketplace yielded no results. Not to be deterred, I made my way to the regular peanut butter and jelly section. There, on the top shelf, to my disbelief, was ONE jar of Bonne Maman Plum Preserves, straight from France! Thank goodness, because I was bound and determined to cook these Balsamic-Plum Glazed Pork Chops.

The flavors in the sauce were matched only by the tenderness of the pasture-raised, vegetarian fed pork chops from Heiden Valley Farms in Lima. I served it with roasted shallot and garlic mashed potatoes.

To re-create this, you will need:

  • 1 teaspoon of butter, or pan spray
  • Four 4-ounce boneless center-cut loin pork chops
  • ¾ teaspoon of salt, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
  • Two tablespoons of chopped shallots
  • 1 teaspoon of minced garlic
  • ¼ port wine (I used Marsala wine because it’s all I had)
  • 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 cup of plum preserves

Melt the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium to high heat. Season the pork with ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper. Cook the pork for about 3 ½ minutes on each side, remove them from the pan and set them aside.

Coat the pan with cooking spray. Add the shallots and garlic to the pan and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the port wine (or Marsala wine) and vinegar to the pan and cook for 30 seconds, stirring occasionally. Stir in the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt and the plum preserves. Cook for about 30 seconds or until smooth, stirring constantly.

Return the pork to the pan and cook to your desired degree of doneness. Turn the pork several times to coat it in the glaze.