Monday, May 23, 2011

Caprese Summer Pasta with Shrimp

Hey-o! Sorry I've been gone so long. I needed to take a little break to travel, prepare for an upcoming event I'm doing Memorial Day weekend (more on that later!) and do some fundraising.
I made this pasta for dinner last week, and it earned rave reviews. I served it hot, but you could also serve it cold, or even in place of a pasta salad at a picnic. It's fresh and the flavors are bold, and that makes it a perfect dish as the weather gets warmer.

I used gemelli pasta for this recipe, because I think the spirals hold onto the sauce better, and I like the denser texture. If you have all the other ingredients, by all means don't go to the store -- use what you have on hand for pasta!


Caprese Summer Pasta with Shrimp
Serves 4

8 ounces gemelli (or your favorite pasta)
1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined*
1 pint of grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
4 ounces goat cheese (NOT herbed)
1 cup raw spinach
2 tablespoons salted butter
3 cloves of garlic,* minced
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup pasta water, reserved*
salt for pasta water

large pot for pasta
large sautee pan

Boil water for pasta, cook pasta as directed, reserving about half a cup of salted water. WHILE the water boils...

Remove tails from shrimp. Toss in a bowl to coat with olive oil. Salt and pepper to season. Grill until the shrimp turn pink on both sides, turning once. Put aside.

In large sautee pan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add garlic, spinach and tomatoes. Stirring frequently, cooking for 3 or 4 minutes or until spinach is completely wilted.

When pasta is done, drain (do NOT rinse) and toss into pan with tomatoes and spinach. One-quarter cup at a time, add pasta water and toss with pasta and vegetables to evenly distribute. Crumble goat cheese over the hot mixture, and stir to combine. Some will melt. That's OK.

Add shrimp, serve.

*Garlic: If you read this, you know I often use jarred garlic. This recipe is no exception. If you use the ginormous jar of Spice World Garlic I do, use about 1 tablespoon for minced garlic for this recipe.

*Shrimp: In the last 5 years, I've cooked many, many, many shrimp dishes. I'm a seafood person. I've used every type of shrimp you can buy -- frozen, fresh, raw, cooked, salad, jumbo, extra jumbo and everything in between. I try to use 16-20 count shrimp for my recipes, but they aren't always available. When they aren't, I go with 31-40 count. For this recipe, any size should work, as long as you have about half a pound. For the raw/cooked debate... I VASTLY prefer raw shrimp. Once you cook them, they take on the flavor of what you're cooking. If you use the cooked kind, they tend to taste brininer and like, well, seafood water. Who wants to eat that? Go for raw. If you get them frozen (that's OK!), put them in a bowl of cold water (yes, cold). Let them sit for 5 minutes. Drain, and refill with room temperature water. Let the shrimp sit for a good 10 minutes and they should thaw. Take them out of the water, peel, devein and de-tail them. Ready to cook!

*Pasta water: What a simple and magical ingredient! The pasta water's job here is to bind all the ingredients together. Rather than using tons of butter or olive oil, add pasta water and it instantly makes a sauce. It keeps everything most and not too oily, and adds tremendous flavor.

*Grill: I used our outdoor gas grill for this, because I love to grill. I love the flavor imparted to the ingredients from it, and it really tastes like summer to me. If you don't have a gas grill available, feel free to use a George Foreman grill or even a grill pan. If you still don't have that available, use the olive oil and just roast the shrimp in the oven. We aim for versatility! :-)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

2011 Worcester Food and Wine Festival

It isn’t often I get to try 15 different dishes for dinner. It isn’t often they’re accompanied by sips of a few different fantastic wines. Luckily for me, the Worcester Food and Wine Fest allows me to indulge once a year –- a chance to sample tasty foods from more than 25 local eateries and wines from all over the country is well worth the drive up 290 for me.

This year’s event was held March 7th, at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester. The food and wine fest, now in its ninth year, is sponsored by Austin Liquors of Worcester and serves as a fundraiser for the Worcester Jewish Community Center. Proceeds go to fund the scholarship program at the JCC.

The evening’s special and long-traveled guests were members of the Benziger family -– the owners and operators of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California. The family brought several of their wines, including Tribute, a newly-released wine well worth its $80/bottle price tag. Their booth was packed with eager tasters all evening.

Walking into the ballroom, I did a lap around to scout out which booths were in which corners, which had the most visitors, and then I went in for the kill. First stop –- Baba Sushi.

If you know me personally or follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you probably know that I eat sushi. I eat sushi a lot. I eat a LOT of sushi. I’m not discriminating, and while I have my favorites (I really could live on salmon), I’m willing to try anything once.

So it should come as no surprise that I have actually eaten at Baba Sushi before. I was eager to see though, since they ran out of food very early at last year’s festival, what kind of presentation they’d have and how they would handle so many guests who may not be keen on eating something with raw fish. The answer: perfectly.

Chef and owner Wilson Wang was gracious and charming, and delighted to hear that I’d try anything offered to me. He handed me a plate full of goodies with a piece each of seven different rolls -– among them eel. I’m not normally a fan of eel, but this eel wasn’t the least bit fishy or gamey. All Wang’s creations were as fresh as can be and delicious.

I moved on to the Rodney Strong booth and sampled their Chardonnay, which was the perfect wine to start off the evening. It was light and fragrant and didn’t leave an aftertaste. They’re a Sonoma-based label with many, many accolades to their name. Now I know why.

Next up were the tuna wontons from Not Your Average Joe’s. I knew these would be good –- putting tuna in a wonton, how can you go wrong? -– but I had no idea they’d be THIS good. I stopped by the booth and chatted with Chef Seth Caplan about the restaurant.

Located right on Route 9 in Westborough (just across from Herb Chambers), Chef Caplan told me the restaurant makes all dishes –- start to finish -– from scratch. The menu shows a diverse and affordable offering to suit any palate. Try the ahi tuna wontons, definitely “not your average” appetizer, for a very reasonable $11.

I made a stop at the 90+ Cellars booth and tried a glass of their full-bodied Argentinean Malbec (Lot 23, if you’re shopping their website). Delicious!

I also made a festival buddy: Rachel Healy, one of the pourers from 90+ took a walk around and sampled a few dishes with me.

We both went back for seconds (maybe thirds) for guacamole from Mezcal Cantina. I can only imagine what it’s like to have it prepared at your table as it is at the restaurant. Even feeding a ballroom full of people, the guacamole didn’t show even a hint of sacrificing quality for quantity.

We stopped quickly at the Publick House table and grabbed Thanksgiving paninis, which I’d write more about, but they were gone far too quickly! At last year’s festival, the restaurant did sweet potato ravioli with a Kahlua cream sauce (so good I haven’t forgotten!). I have never dined at the restaurant, but it’s been made abundantly clear that they do comfort food, and they do it well.

Next I ventured over to the Struck Catering table, and tried something I never eat – lamb. This wasn’t just any lamb, it was really something special. They offered honey corn cakes topped with a smoked lamb hash, hard-boiled quail egg and a hollandaise drizzle.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, because, well, I don’t generally eat anything like this, but I wasn’t let down. While the quail egg wasn’t really my style (speaks nothing of the way it was cooked, only my palette), the lamb was deliciously flavorful. I could taste the smoke in a very good way, and the corn cake was the perfect accompaniment. Well done.

I decided on one more sampling of wine before hitting the vast dessert selection, and I chose to end the evening with a lovely glass of Flip Flop 2009 Washington Riesling.

This wine –- which is only about $6 or $7/bottle -- is surprisingly fruity (I tasted pineapple, but not overwhelmingly) and delicious. It made for a great lead-in to the sweets I was about to devour.

If I talked at length about each of the desserts I ate, this blog would go on for pages. I can say I wasn’t let down with a single offering.

On the Rise Baking’s spongecake with berries, chocolate cookies with a hint of cinnamon and triple chocolate cupcakes were absolutely fabulous. Chef Elizabeth Casey couldn’t have been nicer, and even let me snag a second cookie. Anyone offering me EXTRA dessert deserves top billing in my book!

Next up was one of my favorites from last year’s event -– Webster House. Greeted with the same smiles I saw last year, I will admit I grabbed two of their bite-size lemon ricotta cheesecakes. Come on, it’s cheesecake! I don’t regret it for a second, they were tiny bites of heaven.

My last dessert stop was the Sweet table, where I spoke with Chef Alina Eisenhauer. She mentioned Sweet was being featured on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars the next evening, and I tuned in. She didn’t take home the title, but made it to the second round and for good reason – her margarita cupcakes were deservedly the stars of the show.

I was absolutely amazed… these cupcakes genuinely taste like a margarita! While they were the only selection I tried, I suspect Rachel went back for more! Here she is with Chef Alina.

I’ll definitely be stopping by Sweet in the next few weeks. Aside from private catering and even “College Care Packages,” the Shrewsbury Street location has a pastry shop open until 1am on Fridays and 2am on Saturdays (!), and a private dessert bar that would be a perfectly romantic end to any date night.

I left full and happy, as any foodie would. I look forward to this event each year, but especially now with the flavors of this year’s still fresh in my mind. Looking forward to trying some of the restaurants from the festival in the next few weeks, and seeing what else they have to offer. Thanks to the Worcester JCC for letting me attend, and to all the restaurateurs and chefs for the delicious eats.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Veggie Tacos

I'm a sucker for Mexican food. Like, big time. And while I really wouldn't call this "Mexican," it is INSPIRED by my favorite foods.

The night before I'd made this recipe, I had made some guacamole and shredded some cabbage for shrimp tacos. I think I've come to rely on different varieties of tacos as a quick, easy and tasty meal that you can really make any night of the week.

I used the guacamole I'd made, shredded cabbage, a few slices of lime I had left, and some salsa I'd bought. The only real "cooking" required were some onions I caramelized to put on top. SO GOOD. It killed two birds with one stone -- I got a yummy lunch, and I used up a lot of the stuff that was taking up space in my fridge. Enjoy!

Veggie Tacos
Makes 4 tacos

4 small flour tortillas
1/4 cup guacamole
shredded cabbage
shredded carrot
chopped tomatoes
fresh corn
black beans
1/2 cup sliced red onions
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup sour cream
4 lime wedges

Heat the tortillas on a gas stove top or grill. Spread guacamole evenly on center of tortillas. Distribute the cabbage, corn, carrot, black beans, tomato and sour cream to your tastes.

In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When melted and the pan is good and hot, toss in the onions and move them around. Let them cook, stirring every couple minutes, until they are translucent and beginning to brown. Sprinkle the sugar over the onions (to help along the caramelization) and let them cook, stirring every minute or so, for another five minutes.

Top the tacos with the onions, and then with your favorite salsa. Garnish with a lime wedge. Enjoy!

*Salsa: You can use any kind you prefer, or even make your own. May I suggest... this recipe if you're looking to make your own. If you want to save time and buy salsa... generally, I'm not a HUGE fan, or wasn't until recently. I don't like the texture and taste of most store-bought salsas, and then I discovered Frontera. The brand is actually that of Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless (yes, that one!), and they really are super high quality. The tastes are unique and as soon as I tried them, I was hooked. The flavors I bought were Roasted Tomato and Tomatillo. They're available at most grocery stores, and totally worth the money.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Super Bowl Smorgasbord

I'd like to start this post off with a game recap... except that truthfully, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I only watched the last 20 seconds or so. Not counting the Puppy Bowl, of course.

It's been a tradition for the last five years that on game day, I cook a BUNCH of junk food. Not "junk" by taste standard, but by health standards.

A lot of it is fried, greasy and features bacon as an ingredient (not that there's anything wrong with it). Delicious, but exactly what you'd call "health food."

This year was no exception. I made a TON of stuff. Some are my recipes, some are others' that I've gathered from around the web... they're all delicious and we've never been so grateful for leftovers (delicious food, and I don't have to cook!)

I've given credit below where credit is due. I highly recommend you check out the recipes -- I may not have eaten much but I tasted everything and I have NO complaints. Everyone for a Super Bowl party at my house next year?

The pork recipe is my own, the nachos recipe isn't. But you can't have pork nachos without the pork. I'll have to dish my pulled pork recipe in a later post, but if you don't know how to make it (or don't have the time), you could always substitute the pre-made pulled pork that you can find in the prepared meats section of the grocery store. It works just fine, and it's pre-seasoned and sauced.

Here's the pork...

Here's the pulled pork nachos.

The recipe for the nachos is courtesy of The Neelys (from the Food Networks). You can find it here. The only thing I did to change them was add some fried onion rings (see below) on top of the nachos. I will make these again and again and again -- so yummy!

Classic Buffalo Chicken Wings

These are so easy and so worth it and so delicious... and so not my recipe! I used this recipe from Chef Dennis' More Than a Mount Full blog. What I loved most was that the sauce he lists the recipe for has so much flavor. It's spicy, but not OH MY GOD hot. The reason is that it isn't just your standard hot sauce poured onto wings -- you first make a buffalo sauce using Frank's (or hot sauce of your choice -- I used Frank's Thick sauce for dipping, and it was perfect), butter and honey. The butter gives it a richness and the honey gives just a little bit of sweet that make these divine.

Call me crazy, but I also never realized that wings were supposed to be fried before you put sauce on them. Which explains why I don't make wings very often.

So delicious!

Buffalo Chicken Potato Skins

I have to say, after posting a picture of these on Twitter and Facebook, I must have gotten 10 messages from people asking me for the recipe!

The idea from this recipe came from this post from Sprinkle of Parsley, but I did change it up quite a bit to customize it (remember how I said I didn't want to eat much of these foods because they're not so healthy? I made a HUGE exception for this, and it was completely worth it).

I prepared the chicken and potatoes exactly as the recipe calls for, and the sauce I used was extra from the wings above (even if you're not making the wings, I highly suggest using the sauce recipe from it... it's got an awesome bite!).

I did skip the blue cheese, though, because I'm not a big fan, and used goat cheese in its place. After they came out of the oven, I added a little bit of crisped bacon (which I had crumbled) and topped each with a little bit of parsley.

Voila! Amazing.

Italian Bread and oil

I guess it's an Italian 'thing' to dip good crusty bread in oil. I often throw some roasted garlic cloves into the oil to give it even more flavor.

The bread is a recipe I found from All Recipes -- here it is. It's not difficult, but does take a little patience. Be prepared for it not to rise too too much, and generally (as you can see if you read the reviews) it took much less time in the oven.

You don't have to serve this with oil though, you could make a compound butter instead or rub the bread directly with garlic and have it that way. It's also a great crusty bread for soaking up leftover sauce. I've heard. Not that I've actually done that myself. Ever. Or once a week.

Either way, I had no idea it was so easy to make bread, and I'll definitely be doing it more!

Onion Rings
This is a little bone of contention. Well, more disappointment, really.

I had planned to serve these in two ways -- with some on top of the nachos, and some as a separate appetizer dish. That would have been great... had I not knocked the Pyrex dish of the second half of them off our counter mid-evening. Of course it smashed all over the tile floor, sending glass shards, flour and garlic powder everywhere.

We did have them on the nachos though, and they were very flavorful and tasty.

3 large onions, sliced into thin rings
4 cups of buttermilk*
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon onion powder
3 cups flour
peanut oil

Place the onions in a 9x13 baking dish and cover with buttermilk. Let sit for 2 hours in the refrigerator.

Heat oil, enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Combine dry ingredients and dredge onion rings generously. Carefully place them into the oil, turning mid-way through to cook both sides. You will probably have to do this in 3 or 4 batches to avoid dropping the temp of the oil too much. Remove from oil and drain before serving.

*Note: I realized that I didn't have any buttermilk, but knew that was OK, because I had plenty of regular milk. If you need a buttermilk substitution, here's a simple fix: Measure just short of 1 cup of milk in a measuring glass. Add enough white vinegar or lemon juice (both work well) to get up to the 1 cup line. Let it sit for 5 minutes. You'll start to see the milk getting thicker and even a little clumpy. That's perfect. There's your buttermilk substitute!

Fried Mozzarella
Originally, I was inspired by this recipe from The Curvy Carrot. I had to substitute, though, because none of our grocery stores had bocconcini. Instead, I used slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, and it came out just beautifully. I just served this with some homemade arrabiata sauce, and he was a happy guy.

Decadent Chocolate Chip Mousse

Every good game needs a good finish. I knew that after the insanely rich (heavy) snacks I was making, I had to have an equally memorable dessert.

Who isn't a sucker for chocolate? So here's a very easy recipe I whipped up for him. I served it in martini glasses because I like to pretend I'm fancy (I'm not).

For the record, the reason it's called "chocolate chip" mousse but you don't see any chips listed... growing up, my sister and I were Dairy Queen-aholics and one treat in particular -- the chocolate chip blizzard. It wasn't even on their menu. All it consisted of was vanilla soft serve blended with chocolate sauce in a high speed mixer. What would happen is so simple, but so delicious... the chocolate would kind of coagulate -- basically chill -- into chunks inside the ice cream. The thing I always loved was the texture. It was chocolatey without being TOO chocolatey (truth be told, I'm more of a vanilla girl). So that's the texture I went for with this dessert. And I succeeded!

Decadent Chocolate Chip Mousse
12 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, melted but cooled
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Whip the cream into stiff peaks, using a standing mixer or hand mixer. Slowly pour the melted chocolate in, blending each time. (Note -- it has to be cooled, or it will do weird things to the cream. Trust me.) Stop the mixer and use a plastic spatula to make sure the chocolate is evenly distributed. Add the cocoa powder and mix until it's completely incorporated.

Top with raspberries, Andes mints or any other adorable garnish. Serve cold.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some days, you just need a cocktail

In case you've been under a rock for the past two days, we're getting a *hell* of a snowstorm here in New England.

First, they said 7-12 inches. Then 12-15. Then 15-18. 22 inches of snow later, I am paying children to do manual labor so I don't have to, and it's time for a cocktail.

This isn't anything special or fancy (especially because we haven't been able to leave the house in 24 hours), and I just used ingredients we had on hand. It's great tonight, but really would be great anytime.

It may be 20 degrees, it may still be snowing, we may have 20-something inches of snow on the ground, and baby, it's cold outside... but this cocktail will warm you right up.

(1 shot/1 ounce vodka per person/serving)

1 ounce (or 1 shot) vodka
1 ounce pear juice
2 tablespoons cranberry juice
2 pieces of canned mandarin orange
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Cocktail shaker
Martini glass

In an ice tray, evenly divide water, cranberry juice and canned mandarin orange between 2 cube spots. Freeze for 3 hours or until solid.

Wet the edge of the martini glass and dip in sugar to frost the edges of the glass. You can also use juice in place of water.

Combine pear juice and vodka in cocktail shaker, and add ice cubes. Shake for 20 seconds, pour into glass.

Enjoy! :-)