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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thank you Lidia, and Farmer's Market Recipes

     On September 12,  I was very happy to meet Lidia Bastianich, the Italian-American chef at a book signing event at the Putnam Wine Shop on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.  As I own many of her cookbooks, and am a great admirer, I packed up four of my books to have her sign. She was so nice: I welcomed her to Saratoga, and told her that she was an inspiration to me, and that I have started a cooking blog. She looked up at me and smiled  and said, "Come on, take a picture, and put it in your blog!"  So I did, and here it is!

    Thank you Lidia, you really have been an inspiration to me.  Years ago, when I first saw you on PBS, I felt such an affinity with you and your style of your cooking, so close to my family's.  I continue to watch you and experiment with recipes. Tutti a tavola a mangiare!
     Earlier that same day, our good friends Kathy and Alan gifted us with some wonderful vegetables from their local farmers' market: two pattypan or scallop squash; two perfectly sized and bright green zucchini; a huge heirloom tomato, and two lovely fennel bulbs with their bright green fronds.  That week, I turned each into a meal I could be proud of:

4 tablespoons olive oil
1  pattypan squash, cubed
1 medium zucchini, cubed to match
1 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
4 ounce jar roasted red pepper strips, drained
salt and pepper to taste
3 or 4 fresh basil leaves, sliced thin
Grated Romano cheese
Fresh parsley, chopped

Pattypan squash is an unusual looking vegetable, a squat looking thing with a scallop, almost like a fringe, all around. It is a very light green with a pure, tender white flesh.  I heated the olive oil in a very large heated pan to which I added first the onions and then the garlic: this prevents the garlic from burning.  When the onions were slightly caramelized I added the squash and quickly stir fried them until tender. I added the red pepper strips, basil and salt and pepper to taste.  Take care not to overcook as it will become soupy. You might want to stir fry the squash in stages.  I transferred the vegetables to a serving dish and sprinkled them with grated cheese, salt, ground  pepper and fresh parsley. It looked and tasted wonderful.

2. CHICKEN CACCIATORE (Hunter's chicken)
For this dish, I used the very large heirloom tomato to complement the other ingredients of this very versatile dish. It added a sweet freshness to the dish I had never encountered.  In a future blog, I am going to give you this delicious version of chicken cacciatore: it is best in chilly weather, as it is a stew, although it doesn't take forever like most stews.  I must say that it comes out different every time, because I use whatever hearty vegetables I have on hand.

3. BRAISED FENNEL(also called Anise)
2 bulbs fennel, sliced thinly with fronds removed (and reserved for future use.)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup good quality low salt chicken broth water
1/4 cup water
salt and pepper to taste.

This is an unusual dish that I have been making for years. Fennel is a surprising cooked vegetable.  It is much different than when it is raw: it has a crisp, licorice type flavor, and is used as a digestive after meals.  In a large frying pan, on a medium high flame, melt the butter and olive oil until frothy. Add the fennel slices to the butter and oil, add salt and pepper, and cook until caramelized. The sugars in the fennel will allow it to brown nicely.  Do not stir fry: attempt to keep the slices intact, flipping them when done on one side, and then browning them on the other side, about 4 minutes total, taking care not to burn. Add the broth and water, cover and cook until tender. You will not believe the tender sweetness of this dish, and the butter adds a nice touch.

The fronds were so lovely, I packed them away in a ziplock bag because I didn't  have the heart to throw them away. I really did not know what to do with them! Wait until you find out the use I found for them next time, in a very delicious way!



Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sicilian cuisine! Caponata with homemade crostini

For those of you who have never heard of it, caponata is a Sicilian dish, a versatile sweet and sour eggplant appetizer. Just to admit something right off the bat, my family hates the way I pronounce caponata. I am the subject of much hilarity in my attempts to make it sound very Italian, so I tried saying "eggplant appetizer" or pronouncing it with an American accent instead. Nothing seems to work, so I have to ignore the jokes and move on!

As you know from prior blogs, I have been attending some of the cooking demonstrations at the New York Botanical Gardens. I have realized, happily, that if you have cooking skills, a demonstration is all you need! That sure saves money on classes, which I have considered, and may still do to upgrade my baking skills. However, for plain old cooking, there is nothing like a chef going through his favorite recipe for you. In fact, at most of them, I felt like I was reading a great story and couldn't wait to get to the ending.

Caponata I was particularly interested in because in Sicilian restaurants, caponata is as ubiquitous as salsa is in a Mexican restaurant. When I was in Sicily last year, it was served before or during most meals. It is used as appetizer or a topping over fish or chicken or can be used simply as a side dish. It can be served cold, room temperature, or even hot.

Right at the outset I appeal to you not to be intimidated by the seeming complexity of this recipe. It is not really that difficult! Dicing and sauteing the vegetables is the most time consuming part, but after that, it is just a matter of mixing the ingredients in a large bowl and correcting for taste.

This recipe is great for a party appetizer. It is great over crostini, or toasted Italian bread rounds, which can be bought or made fresh. This particular recipe called for making fresh tomato ketchup, intriguing in itself, and is a mix of many sweet and savory ingredients, including raisins, which gives a surprising burst of sweetness. Make sure you do not use store-bought ketchup! I have tweaked the original recipe a bit, as I always do. Here is is:


1 large unpeeled black-skinned eggplant, cut into cubes
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or more (for sauteing)
2 cups diced red and green bell peppers
1 cup celery, sliced thin
2 cups onions, diced (optional)
6 tablespoons (or more) extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup small capers, rinsed (about 4 tablespoons)
1 cup raisins
1 cup brined black and green olives, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup homemade ketchup, recipe below
1 loaf of long Italian bread or thin baguette
Spray olive oil (I use a Misto, but you can buy it premade)
salt and pepper
Thinly sliced prociutto or basil for garnish if especially ambitious

Saute each vegetable separately in a large frying pan with one or two tablespoonfuls of oil. This is to retain optimum flavor. Do not crowd the pan as the vegetables will steam, not sauté. Make sure you do not overcook the vegetables. As soon as they are cooked through and tender, but not mushy, remove from the pan. They should retain their shape and have an almost "al dente" quality. GREAT TIP: Don't forget to saute the garlic in this manner: start with a cold pan, and cook until tender only. Browning or burning will give it a bitter taste. Also, make sure the celery is tender but do not burn or overcook. Taste as you go!

Place cooked ingredients in a large bowl. Add the capers, raisins and olives. Add just enough homemade ketchup (recipe below) to bind the ingredients. You can serve this right away, but the next day, it is even better!

As an appetizer, serve room temperature or cold, on crostini (recipe below).

Use hot as a side dish or topping for fish or chicken. You can mix it with rice or pasta. A really versatile dish!


1) Cooked version:
1 can 28 ounce can tomato puree
1 cup wine vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt.
Cook down until it is the consistency of ketchup.

2) Uncooked version:
1 cup tomato paste
3/4 cup wine vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt


Slice the long bread or baguette thinly. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Spray with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, place in a 400 degree oven on top rack until lightly brown. In a hot oven this should only take a few minutes, watch carefully! You can store these when cool in a plastic bag.

Next time, a really traditional dish of pasta, bread crumbs, and marinara.

See you then!