Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Italian Chicken Soup

After another bout of 80-plus degree weather here in Southern California, soup weather is now upon us again. Soup is one of our favorite dinners -- hearty, warm and comforting.

Being Italian, I have to admit I am partial to those soups that have Italian flavors and ingredients, i.e., fennel, peppers, pasta, sausage, tomatoes, etc. It brings back memories of my childhood when my father did most of the cooking and the house always radiated that special aroma.

Here's a recipe that I have adapted to my own tastes over the years. It is actually very easy and uses ingredients that are readily accessible in any store. While it can be ready within an hour, I think a longer cooking of 4-5 hours is best in order for the flavors to meld together. The recipe calls for fresh cheese ravioli or tortellini, which is easily found in most grocery stores now. And make it easy on yourself and use store rotisserie chicken if you don't have the time to roast the chicken yourself.

This is sure to be great family recipe that can be easily shared during dinner with a good piece of garlic bread and a glass of Pinot Noir.

Try it and report back how you like it!

Serves 4

1T olive oil
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1T dried basil
2t. fennel seeds
1/2t. dried crushed red pepper
8 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
2 medium zucchini, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 9-oz. package fresh cheese ravioli or tortellini
2 c. diced cooked chicken

Grated parmesan cheese

1. Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add bell pepper, onion, garlic, basil, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper and saute' until vegetables are just tender, about 10 minutes.
2. Add broth. Cover pot and simmer 10 minutes (and up to 4 hours).
3. Add zucchini and carrot. Cover and simmer until carrot is tender.
4. Just before ready to serve, increase heat to high and bring soup to boil. Add ravioli or tortellini and boil under tender, about 5-8 minutes.
5. Add chicken and cook just until heated through, about 2 minutes.
6. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper.
7. Ladle soup into bowls. Serve, passing cheese separately.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Celery Salad with Walnuts, Dates and Pecorino Cheese

I know that most the country is in the midst of Fall and even Winter seasons. Here in Southern California, it feels like Summer with 80 and 90 degree weather. Fresh and wholesome salads are still on the menu in our household and I have another one to share with you here.

Last entry, I did a salad with dates and walnuts and since my pantry still had a plentiful supply of them, I decided to see what else I could make with them. I found this salad and tried it last night. I also had some wonderful Sherry vinegar that was a gift from a friend, so everything came together with this recipe. It was a hit -- fresh, flavorful, crunchy, sweet and savory all in one -- and paired perfectly with sandwiches.

It's one of the easiest things to make spur of the moment too. Let me know how you enjoy it as well!

12 servings
Active Time: 20 minutes
1-1/4 c. walnuts
1 small shallot, minced
2T sherry vinegar
2T walnut oil
2T extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 bunches celery, thinly sliced on the bias
3/4 c. pitted Medjool dates, quartered lengthwise
3 oz. dry pecorino cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and toast for about 8 minutes, until lightly golden and fragrant. Let cool completely, then coarsely chop.

2. In a small bowl, combine the shallot with the sherry vinegar. Whisk in both oils and season with salt and pepper.

3. In a large bowl, toss the toasted walnuts, celery, dates and pecorino. Add the dressing and toss. Serve at once.

NOTE: The salad and dressing can be refrigerated separately for up to 1 day. Store the walnuts in an airtight container and add to the salad just before serving.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Arugula Salad with Manchego, Apples & Caramelized Walnuts

I love salads! I love the color, textures, various ingredients and dressings. I haven't made that many lately, apart for the standard wedge or Caesar salad lately. Those are Brad's favorites, so they are what we typically eat with dinners.

However, the other day, the doctor told me my cholesterol was not too good and that means eating a more fibrous diet with more vegetables and fruits. So, it was time to get out my "compendium" of personal recipes and see if we can make some more hearty salads rather than relying on the main course so much.

This "Arugula Salad with Manchego, Apples and Caramelized Walnuts" seemed a great start. Arugula salad was a staple growing up and my father used to grow it fresh in a little garden we had. He would just put a simple olive oil and vinegar on it. For this salad combination, the fresh peppery taste of the lettuce is outstanding, along with the sweetness of the dates, the saltiness of the cheese and nuttiness of the walnuts . It provides a little something for everyone.

It was really an excellent salad and one that I can easily remember and keep in my repertoire. Anyone should enjoy it as a lovely first course for the upcoming holidays and gatherings with family and friends.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 c. balsamic vinegar

1/2 c. walnut oil
3T. Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

8 c. arugula
2 Red Delicious or Fuji apples, unpeeled, cored, thinly sliced
6 oz. Spanish Manchego cheese or sharp white cheddar cheese, shaved
1-1/2 c. pitted dates (sliced -- Medjool dates are preferred)
1 c. Caramelized Walnuts
4 large shallots, minced

1. Boil balsamic vinegar in small saucepan over medium-high heat until syrupy and reduced to 1/4 c., about 4 minutes
2. Whisk oil and champagne vinegar in bowl. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Keep at room temperature. Rewarm balsamic syrup before using. Rewhisk vinaigrette before using.)
3. Toss arugula, apples, half cheese, dates, walnuts and shallots in large bowl with enough vinaigrette to coat. Season salad with salt and pepper.
4. Mound salad in center of each plate. Drizzle balsamic syrup around salads. Sprinkle remaining cheese atop salads.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Italian Soups -- Pasta e Fagioli

Well, earlier in this week in Southern California, it rained for part of the day and the temperatures dipped below 60 at night. To us, that means soup weather has arrived. (To those of you on the East Coast already experiencing snow, it probably means us Californians are still out in "la-la" land!).

Below is my favorite Italian soup cookbook. I have mentioned in previous posts that I collect cookbooks. And while I enjoy reading them all, it is those simpler cookbooks and recipes that remind me of my childhood that I go back to again and again.

For the soup that I cooked earlier this week, I choose a recipe that I had not yet tried before. Brad loves beans, pasta and sausage in his soup and this one has those main ingredients. However, it has a lot of fennel in it and I was afraid that it might have too much of an anise taste. I was surprised. Like most vegetable based soups, it has a wonderfully fresh taste and that hits your palate with a "Oh, this is really homemade, hot and soothing."

I like to use hot Italian sausage in my soups because I think it imparts a certain spiciness. You can easily use sweet sausage or half hot/half sweet. The recipe calls for "farfallette" pasta. If you cannot locate that in your grocery store, just choose something small. I usually cut down on the amount the recipe requires because I like a soup with a bit more broth and vegetables.

This is an excellent recipe -- easy and fulfilling for a cozy dinner. I hope you enjoy it!


1 can (28oz) Italian plum tomatoes with juice
6 large cloves garlic, peeled
1t. olive oil
1 lb. hot or sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
2 medium fresh fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch dice, leaving leaves for garnish
2 medium to large onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 c. chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 t. fennel seeds
6 cups homemade Chicken broth, or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 can (15-1/2 oz.) cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 c. cooked small pasta, such as farfallette, fusili, etc.
3/4 c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Drain the tomato liquid into a bowl, cut the tomatoes into 1 inch pieces, and place in the bowl with the liquid. Set aside. Mince 4 of the garlic cloves and halve the remaining cloves. Set aside separately.
2. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, and cook until browned -- 5-6 minutes. Keep stirring as the sausage cooks. Transfer the sausage to a sieve and drain thoroughly, pressing on the sausage with a rubber spatula to extract all the fat. Return the sausage to the soup pot over medium heat, add the fresh fennel, onions, parsley, minced garlic and fennel seeds. Cook uncovered, until the vegetables are tender but still al dente (tender but still firm to the bite), about 12 minutes.
3. Add the chicken broth and tomatoes with their liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a very slow but stead simmer, and cook, covered for 30 minutes. Add the beans and pasta, and cook only until they are warmed through and the flavors have come together, about 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Rub the remaining garlic on some Italian bread slices and heat.
5. Serve the soup with the bread and top with the cheese.

NOTE: I usually cook the soup the entire day before I put the beans and pasta into the soup. I like the flavors of the broth and vegetables to marry first. About 1-1/2 hours prior to serving, I put the beans in (and usually put in two cans). Just before serving, I bring to a boil and add the pasta and serve the soup when the pasta is cooked.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tyler Florence's Mexican Pot Roast Tacos

I'm a big fan of Tyler Florence and his Food Network TV show. Yes, he's easy on the eyes, certainly, and I could watch the show all day long. However, all the while, he cooks recipes that most of us mortal culinarians would enjoy cooking, can cook successfully and easily savor with our family and friends.

Tyler has a new book out called "Dinner at My Place." The preface talks about being able to go to all sorts of fancy restaurants all of the time, yet he always finds the most joy in being able to cook for his family and friends. Now that I have more time to experiment and read all of the myriad of cookbooks that grace my bookshelves, I find that I have this in common with him. And there's something infinitely comforting about sharing good food and wine with those that you love and whose company you enjoy.

The cookbook has great photos of the food, a prerequisite for me and cookbooks. I like to see the food preparation and presentation as the chefs have envisioned the recipe rather than leaving it to my imagination. Tyler has also personalized the cookbook in such a way that makes it very cook and reader-friendly. I think you will all enjoy it.

The first recipe that I tried from this cookbook was "Mexican Pot Roast Tacos." As Brad said, "It's a do-over!" The pot roast had excellent flavor and was extremely easy to prepare. I did find, however, that it needed to cook longer than the recipe indicated. I couldn't find the dried red chilies in my grocery store, so I added a small can of spicy Mexican tomato sauce.

This chapter in the cookbook also includes a recipe for "The Ultimate Guacamole," which I also made to accompany the tacos. He also has recipes for "Fresh Fried Corn Chips," "San Marzano Quick Salsa," "Roasted Tomatillo Salsa," and "Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Margarita," and I'll try those the next time I make this dinner.

Below are the taco and guacamole recipes. I prepared the tacos as "street tacos," with thin corn tortillas which I quick fried. I then assembled simple condiments -- diced onions, homemade salsa, guacamole and shredded pepper jack cheese. This allowed the meat to be center stage and made for a hearty meal. I set-up everything on a buffet and allowed everyone to help themselves! The only thing missing were the Margaritas and Beers. But hey, there's always next time! Feast and Enjoy!

Serves 6-8
Active Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Pot Roast
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds shoulder of beef
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, cut into wedges
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 28 oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes
3 dried red chilies
1 T ground cumin
1 T ancho chile powder
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (about 8 sprigs)
2 T red wine vinegar

For serving:
8 fresh medium corn tortillas
3 c. freshly shredded romaine lettuce
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro
1/3 lb. Cotija cheese, crumbled
2 limes, cut into wedges for garnish
1. Drizzle beef shoulder with oil, then season with plenty of salt and black pepper. Set a large, heavy based pot over medium-high heat. Sear on all sides until you have a nice brown crust, adding additional oil to the pan as necessary to prevent sticking.

2. Add onion and garlic to the pot and stir until they carmelize a little and have contact with the bottom of the pot.

3. Add tomatoes with juice, chilies, cuming, chile powder,and the 1/2 bunch of cilantro. Add 2 inches water to the pot. Crush tomatoes wtih the back of a wooden spoon.

4. Cover and simmer about 2 hours, until the meat is fork-tender and comes apart with little resistance. Once cooked, use a wood spoon to break apart the meat. Season wth salt and black pepper to taste; add the vinegar.

6 ripe avocados
3 limes, juice only
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 serrano chilies,thinly sliced
1/4 bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Halve and pit the avocados using a knife. With a tablespoon, scoop the flesh into a large bowl. Add lime juice, onion, garlic, chilies, cilantro, and oil to the bowl. Season with salt and black pepper. Use a potato masher to break up the avocados and mix everything together. Continue until juce combined so you still have plenty of texture. Give it a taste and season once more with salt and black pepper, if necessary.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf Cake

To me, one of the items that most suggests Fall is pumpkins. I enjoy seeing them start to appear in the grocery stores and farmers markets and their orange vibrant color is unmistakable. I love to see the pumpkin patches around Orange County. I love seeing them at the garden nurseries. I love seeing them adorning the porches of our neighbors. And I love to see the kids carve them and put candles inside to ward off the evil spirits while they are trick-or-treating.

Last night was Halloween. We went out with some of our neighbor kids and had a great time. The adults indulged on a sip of wine here and there while the kids skipped to and fro on their way to a bounty full of candy. And all the while, there were different variations of pumpkin carvings -- scary, inventive, fun and happy.

I spent part of the afternoon making one of my new Halloween/Fall traditions -- "Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf." It makes the house spell like Fall (along with the banana bread from a previous entry). And it makes me smile when Brad finishes off a mini-loaf straight out of the oven.

Below is the recipe that I discovered in Bon Appetit in November 2000. It is easy to prepare and the recipe can be divided into four (4) mini loaf pans -- perfect for snacks at your house or culinary delights to your neighbors or colleagues at work.

I learned a little tip from the Barefoot Contessa when adding nuts and/or chips to a batter. Before you drop the chips (or nuts) into the batter, mix in a little flour. This will prevent the chips from dropping to the bottom and staying evenly dispersed in the bread.

I hope Halloween brought you good memories new and old, a stomach full of something warm and a smile to your heart. Enjoy!

Makes 12 servings.

1-3/4 c. unbleached all purpose flour
1-1/2 t. pumpkin pie spice
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1-1/4 c. sugar
3 large eggs
1 c. canned pure pumpkin
1 t. vanilla extract
1/3 c. whole milk
3/4 c. miniature semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 c. chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 9x5x2-1/2 inch metal loaf pan.

2. Sift first (5) ingredients into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Gradually beat in sugar, then beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in pumpkin and vanilla. Beat dry ingredients into pumpkin mixture alternately with milk. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

3. Bake loaf cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 15 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack; cool completely. (Can be made two days ahead. Wrap in plastic and store at room temperature.)