Sunday, August 29, 2010

Embracing Polenta

Italian cuisine has often been referred to as peasant food. In the South, Italians filled their bellies with delicious pasta, while the Northern Italians survived on a corn meal mush called polenta. Just as pasta has helped define a culture and heritage of this country, so too has this Italian-style ‘grits’, and it is a dish that is increasingly supplanting pasta on the plates of restaurants and homes here in the United States.

Despite its growing popularity, polenta's reputation for taking a long time to prepare has kept it from being fully embraced in the U.S. As explained in "A Mediterranean Feast" by Clifford A. Wright, “Polenta is traditionally made in an all-copper concave cauldron called a paili, stirring the cornmeal in one direction for almost an hour.”
That is exactly how I remember it being prepared one sunny day several years ago in Piedmont. As I sat and watched Francesca tend to the polenta, slowly stirring the porridge (and occasionally shouting to the men in the other room to make sure that everyone’s glasses were filled with wine), she encouraged me to sit down. “Come sit down next to me,” she said to me in her sweet little voice. “I’ll show you how to make it.”
Her instructions were as follows:
“Start with a thick bottomed pot, and a diffuser if needed to keep things from burning. Use a one to five ratio of cornmeal to water. Place water in the pot and when it boils, put in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil a bit of salt, and a bit of milk or vegetable broth, and you’re done! It isn’t hard at all.”

Years later, whenever I prepare polenta, I pull out those cryptic notes I took while Francesca explained the procedure, and try to conjure up the vision of her preparing it in her own kitchen. I visually recall what she meant by a ‘drizzle’ and a ‘bit’ and pray that my results will turn out at least half as tasty as hers did that day.

Through the years I’ve paired polenta with a variety of different foods. In particular, I’m a fan of polenta and sausage. It is relatively simple to make – cook the polenta, and while stirring and stirring, you cook the sausage. When the sausage is cooked, but it into bite-sized pieces, top the polenta and include the pan drippings – if you’d like, you can add some Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to the polenta first mixing it in until it melts.

Polenta is very versatile, pairing well with a lot of flavors. There is
Baked Polenta with Tomato Sauce, Polenta with Gorgonzola, Baked Polenta Fries, and Polenta with Mediterranean Vegetables.

But beyond these dinnertime suggestions, polenta is a versatile ingredient, one that can be paired with just about anything, for just about any occasion from breakfast to dinner and dessert. Recently, I have found polenta is a hit with the kids in the morning. Instead of oatmeal or boxed cereal in the morning, an Orange and Honey Polenta is now part of our repertoire of breakfast foods.

Honey and Orange Polenta

1 medium orange
1 1⁄2 cups low-fat milk
3⁄4 cups instant polenta or fine cornmeal
3 tbsp honey

1. Zest the orange, reserve 1 1/2 tsp. Peel orange and pith; then remove membrane from orange.
2. Combine water, milk and salt in saucepan; then bring to boil. Whisk in the polenta (gradually), and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low (just enough to maintain an even bubble), whisk until polenta thickens (anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes). Remove from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes.
3. Whisk 3 tbsp. honey and 1 tsp. zest into polenta. Divide among four bowls and top with orange segments.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ode to My Husband’s Darkly Fried Chicken

My heart sinks, and a weary numbness comes
My sense, what a mess he will make,
Of both dinner and of kitchen,
His words are forceful, “I will make fried chicken,”
Oblige must I, for he is man who has captured my heart

O for a drink of vintage wine, as man enters my domain,
“I’ll start at 4,” now 30 minutes late,
He struggles, separating wings from breasts
I hover not knowing, offer help or ignore?
Man against bird, a struggle for pride
A woman hopes for appetizing results
Children wonder, “What’s that smoke?”

Angry exclamation “Oh, feverish fat!”
Bird in hell, golden skin obscured
Consort consoles, then walks away
into fiery mist to disarm impending alarm
Eyes avert growing chaos;
An uneasy mind, quelled with wine

Two revolutions of clock, pile of pink wings remain
sizzle at last; inferno of mess
hectic confluence of elements
Shouts to clean hands
Eager eyes await their fate,
as does a man’s ego

Ravenous offspring ask for seconds
Wife impressed, still ignoring the mess
Man’s mind at ease, and resolution made:
“I will return; next time with golden results.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Learning to Live with Lamb

I’ve been thinking a lot about lamb lately. Having recently competed in the San Francisco Lamb Takedown, I’ve been intrigued as to the many different ways lamb can be prepared. Prior to the Takedown, my experience eating lamb was limited, and my experience making lamb was, well . . . non-existent.
With that said, one might ask, “Why lamb?” or even, “Why a competition cooking lamb?”
My experience in the Takedown was truly an exercise in getting out of my cooking and eating comfort zone. And, since lamb is not considered a staple in most American kitchens, I was intrigued to find out a bit more about lamb.

According to the American Lamb Board, the group which sponsored the Lamb Takedown,
“On average, a 3-ounce serving of lamb has only 175 calories and meets the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) definition for lean.” Further, “because lamb naturally contains many essential nutrients, it is an easy fit for healthy diets. On average, lamb is an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, niacin, zinc, and selenium while still being a good source of iron and riboflavin. All of this within an average of 175 calories per 3-ounce serving makes lamb naturally nutrient-rich.”
As if that wasn’t enough to convince me as to the healthfulness of Lamb, I looked further – to Australian Lamb. Here’s what I found:
“Australian lamb is lean and low in cholesterol compared to other animal proteins. In fact, half of the fat in lamb is mono-unsaturated, the same type of fatty acids found in olive oil. For instance, a 3oz serving of topside lamb steak has only 5 grams of fat compared to 8 grams in beef and pork composite cuts and 10 grams in Atlantic salmon.”
So, after a bit of research I realized that lamb can be a healthy addition to my weekly menu, and might actually be a good alternative to my meal repertoire. And, after participating in the competition, I realized all the delicious ways lamb could be prepared.
( For more information on the nutritional aspects of lamb, visit )

As for the ‘why’ behind me entering the competition, I did so because I am an advocate of trying new things. Once in a while, I dig out my cookbooks and seek out a new recipe to try. More often than not, things don’t turn out the way I planned, but I don’t let that discourage me. With each try at something new, I learn from my last attempt.
As for the lamb empanadas, well, they were good, but I know I can do better. I am inspired to create even more tasty ‘lampanadas’ next time, but in the meantime, I may even venture out and prepare some of the Takedown’s winning lamb combinations such as Lamb Nuggets or Slow-Roasted Lamb with Preserved Lemons.
Until next time . .

To read more about my experience, visit the blog at
Lamb Empanadas (Lambpenadas)

2 tbsp raisins
3 tbsp rum
2 tbsp olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 or 2 jalpeno or Serrano peppers, seed and minced, or 1.8 tsp. cayenne
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped (1 ½ cups)
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 to 1 ½ tbsp finely chopped fresh mint or tsp dried mind, crumbled
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp. coarse salt
¼ tsp. ground white pepper
½ pound lean lamb, coarsely ground
3 tbsp roasted pigonlis
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro glaze

Sealer and Glaze
1 egg white
2 tbsp water, milk, or heavy cream

1. Prepare Curry Dough (recipe below)

2. Place the raisins and rum in a cup and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes

3. To prepare the filling, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the garlic, ginger, onion, cloves, mint, cumin, salt and white pepper; sauté over medium heat until the onion is totally translucent, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add the lamb and cook for 1 minute, stirring until the lamb is thoroughly cooked. Add the raisins with the rum and stir constantly until all the liquid has evaporated. Mix in the pignolis and remove from the heat. Cool thoroughly or store, well covered overnight in the refrigerator. Just before using, add the cilantro and mix: correct the seasoning with salt to taste.

4. To prepare the sealer and glaze, mix the egg white with water.

5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

6. On a lightly floured board, roll out the dough about 1/8 inch thick, shaping it into a 16-inch square. Cut the dough into 4-inch squares. Knead and re-roll the scraps and cut into additional squares. Place 1 full tablespoon of filling the center of each square. Moisten the edges of the dough lightly with egg sealer. Fold the dough over the filling to form a triangle, and press the edges together with your fingertips or the tines of a fork to seal. Prick the surface of the empanada once or twice with the tines of a fork. Repeat this process until all the empanadas are assembled.

7. Spread parchment paper on a baking sheet. Arrange the empanadas on the parchment paper and brush with the remaining egg glaze. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven; place the empanadas on a rack and let them cool slightly. Serve warm.

Curry Dough
Makes enough for 2 9-inch shells, 16 to 18 individual pastries, or 32 bite-sized pastries

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp coarse salt
1 tsp sugar
8 tbsp lard*, chilled
3 tbsp Curry Oil (recipe below)
1 egg yolk
½ cup cold water

Sift the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl. Add the lard and oil and mix quickly with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the egg yolk and ¼ cup of water. Continue mixing, adding the rest of the water, a little at a time, just until you have a firm dough. Knead the dough for a few seconds until smooth. Wrap the dough and let it rest in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes, or until ready to use.

* Vegetable shortening may be substituted for the lard; it will make a lighter pastry. For more flavor, use half vegetable shortening and half butter in place of the lard.

Curry Oil

Makes about 1 cup

1 ½ cups olive or vegetable oil
½ cup curry powder (about 2 ounces)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground turmeric
6 to 8 cloves
1 to 2 dried mirasol or red chili peppers, crumbled

In a small saucepan, combine all of the ingredients. Let sit for 30 minutes, stirring now and then.

Place the saucepan over low heat and bring to a gentle boil, stirring. Immediately remove from the heat and let the contents cool thoroughly.

Pour through an extra-fine sieve or a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth, squeezing the cheesecloth to extract all the oil from spices. Discard the contents of the sieve or cheesecloth. The oil is ready to be used or stored.

Storage Note: Curry oil will keep for up to 1 year, either in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark, dry place. Store in a tightly covered jar.

Source: The Art of South American Cooking by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Bit of Baby (Food) Reminiscing

A recent post from 18 Reasons about a baby food swap got me reminiscing a bit about the days when I did the same.

Preparing food for babies at home was once a commonplace affair. But, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, commercially prepared baby foods found their way onto store shelves in 1927 with Dorothy Gerber’s first offerings. They were promoted as a convenience food that gave moms a bit more freedom from the kitchen, even if it came at a higher price. The slick advertising campaigns that soon followed, highlighted the ultimate in nutrition for the baby and ultimate in convenience for the woman, further cementing jarred baby foods as the preferred method of feeding babies in the U.S.
Today, it is estimated that a baby will consume 600 jars of baby food before moving on to real food. That number far exceeds a baby in Western Europe where babies consume only about 240 jars, and in Eastern European countries, such as Poland, where only 12 jars are consumed. The average cost for those 600 jars of baby food is about $300, but that amount can be considerably higher especially when the cost of organic baby food is factored in.
For a multitude of reasons, including cost, variety and health, preparing baby food at home is once again becoming fashionable. A growing number of parents are making the choice to switch from jarred foods to homemade baby foods realizing that it is an easy and convenient way to ensure their child has a foundation for health and healthy eating habits.
“Making baby food is the ultimate in convenience,” says Lisa Barnes, owner of Petit Appetit, a San Francisco-area company dedicated to empowering parents with the nutritional information and cooking skills necessary to prepare healthy, organic meals for their entire family. “And,” she adds, “homemade baby food is the ideal way to monitor quality, nutrition content and variety of foods your baby consumes. By simply straining, pureeing or mashing adult food, you can make nutritious, whole foods without adding unnecessary salt or sugar.”
Baby food can be prepared in a variety of different ways. Bananas, for example, can be mashed with a fork, while other fruits and vegetables can be steamed until soft then placed in a hand blender or food processor to blend it to a smooth consistency. For harder to process foods, such as meats or tough-skinned vegetables including peas and corn, look to use a high-powered blender or a food processor.
Having four children of my own, I have experimented, using a variety of different tools to prepare foods to the proper consistency. Initially I used a small, hand-cranked food mill that served its purpose in the early stages by milling soft fruits and vegetables along with tofu to a smooth consistency. But after a few short weeks, its capacity proved limiting, and vegetables, such as peas and corn (with their outer skin), didn’t process as smoothly as needed. Once my child graduated to meat, the hand-held mill no longer performed to my expectations, so I graduated to a hand-held stick blender, which enabled my to quickly blend a wider variety of ingredients with ease. Eventually, I struggled with this too. For the most part it performed as I needed it to, but I but still occasionally struggled with its ability to process to a smooth consistency.

True Liberation
It wasn’t until after my twins arrived, that I realized how wonderful my Vita-Mix® Professional Series would prove to be. Not only does the capacity allow me to prepare lots of food that can be frozen for use later - meaning it saves me a lot of time, the Professional Series is useful for preparing healthful foods for my older children, and even for myself and my husband. The Professional Series has proven to be the ultimate kitchen tool time and again. Because of its professional quality, preparing a wide range of foods is more convenient than ever. Meat is no longer an issue, as The Professional Series has the power and design to blend every bit of it to the same consistency, leaving no larger chunks that the babies couldn’t eat.
As the twins progressed through their new culinary experiences, and eat more, I was able to blend large portions, freezing some for later. The blender is also fun to use for everyone in the family, making soups, smoothies, and even dessert sauces.
By making baby food for my four children, I have learned a lot about the importance of educating my little ones about healthful eating habits. As Barnes says, “Children need to know that food doesn’t come from a jar in the pantry. Even visiting the farmer’s market with babies lets them experience the colors of the market, exposing them to new experiences. Then using those foods to prepare meals at home is the perfect way to educate your children about the field to table concept of eating.”
The sooner you can give children a greater variety of foods (what nutritionists call ‘feeding the rainbow’), you’ll set the foundation for a lifetime for healthful eating.
All this leaves me to ponder – in my spare time – whether Brussel sprouts will continue to be one of my son’s favorite vegetables when he heads off to college in 11 years.

For those of you in the San Francisco area, here are the specifics for the 18 Reasons event.

Friday, August 13th, 2010, 11AM-12PM, RSVP required
Homemade Baby Food Swap with Karen Solomon
$5 for everyone
RSVP by August 11th:

Feeding your bambino nutritious and delicious food is important, we all know that. It can also be expensive and time-consuming. But, like with most things, when we combine efforts the results are bigger, better, and more fabulous. At our first ever baby food swap, co-hosted by Karen Solomon, we're tapping our collective blending powers to make the most important of tasks - feeding our children - easier. In return for bringing a batch of organic homemade baby food (in 10 half-pint containers), you'll get to meet other parents, trade baby food secrets, and leave with 10 different half-pints of pureed deliciousness. We'll have coffee and tea on hand to help fuel the swap and your day.

Note: All baby food must be made from 100% organic ingredients. If it is seasonal, even better!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Ooey, Gooey Goodness – S’mores at Home

Who wouldn’t love the combination of chocolate, marshmallow and graham cracker, all warmed up and gooey? Couple that with the fun of being out doors in the summer, and you’ve got yourself an American camping tradition – S’mores.
First found in “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts” of 1927, S’mores have been a mainstay of recreational camping for decades. After all, they’re simple to make while sitting by the fire-- skewer a marshmallow on a stick hold it above the fire until it is brown and soft on the inside, pinch it off the stick onto a graham cracker, and sandwich with a piece of chocolate and top with the other graham cracker.
Since they first appeared around the campfire, the delicious mixture of flavor has catapulted S’mores to new culinary heights. The flavor of S’mores can now by enjoyed in Pop-Tarts, ice cream, energy bars, and beyond. And, if you’re hankering for a S’more, but lack a campfire, backyard bonfire or a stick, you can still enjoy the ooey gooey flavors of S’mores right in your own home with the microwave S’mores maker, or the Hershey’s version which allows you to assemble it all yourself.

Me, I opt for a slightly different version of the S’more – one that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. My favorite indoor S’mores recipes is a jazzed up version of the traditional campfire favorite. Instead of a graham cracker, I use pizzelles, and top with ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce. It is a treat that is great for the family as well as for company.

August 10th is National S’mores Day, so gather round the fire, microwave, or oven and join in on the fun.

Pizzelle S’mores

1 ¾ cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
¾ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsp anise extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
½ cup cold milk

1 1/3 cup whipping cream
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

24 large marshmallows
Ice cream – vanilla or chocolate

To make pizzelle:
Whisk first three ingredients in a small bowl. Using mixer, beat sugar and butter in medium bowl until blended. Beat in extracts, then eggs, one at a time. Beat in dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternately with milk in 2 additions, let batter ret 15 minutes.
Make pizzelles on waffle iron/pizzelle maker.

For sauce:
Bring cream to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and whisk until smooth.

To assemble:
Place 2 marshmallows on 1 warm pizzelle. Cover with another pizzelle and press to compact. Top with ice cream and warm chocolate sauce.
Note: To help marshmallows melt, place pizzelles on cookie sheet, top with marshmallows and place in a warmed oven. When marshmallows become soft, remove from oven and top with remaining pizzelle.