Parmigiano Butter Crackers

Parmigiano Butter Crackers

Parmigiano Butter Crackers

I’m not a cracker eater. I could go through a loaf of bread, but crackers usually leave me cold.

Not these.

Parmigiano Butter Crackers

Parmigiano Butter Crackers

Parmigiano cheesy. Buttery. Dappled with sun-dried tomato and rosemary.

The flavor makes you pop them one after the other. I often wonder if they might like a friend…like a dip or a spread or a salsa. But why mess up a good thing? The cracker all by itself, needs nothing else. Maybe a glass of wine. Or a cup of tea. Or a lemonade. Yes. It goes in all those directions. (Brandy, anyone?)

Softened butter, parmigiano, salt, pepper, aleppo with a hand mixer…

Butter, cheese, salt, pepper, aleppo

Butter, cheese, salt, pepper, aleppo

Add flour, sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary…

flour, sun-dried tomato, rosemary

flour, sun-dried tomato, rosemary

then 1 egg…

add egg

…mix, then knead into dough ball and refrigerate in plastic for an hour…

dough

roll out…

IMG_5006

cut into strips…

IMG_5011

or circles…

IMG_5012

Bake for about 15 minutes at 350. Really. Try it. Let me know what you think!

IMG_5015

IMG_5009

Parmigiano Butter Crackers

1/4 cup butter (4 tablespoons), softened (room temperature)

1 1/4 cups grated parmigiano

healthy pinch of salt

pinch black pepper

pinch hot pepper

3/4 cup flour

1 tablespoon minced sun-dried tomato

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary

1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the butter, parmigiano, salt, pepper and hot pepper in a large mixing bowl. Using a hand-held electric beater, mix together the ingredients until combined. Add the flour, sun-dried tomato and rosemary. Mix till combined. Add the egg, mix until a dough forms. Knead dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour.

Roll dough out on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a fluted wheel cut strips of about 3-inches and/or using a small round cutter (about 1-inch-1 1/2-inch) cut out small circles. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 15-20 minutes until golden. Let cool for about 1/2 hour before serving.

 

 

My Paintings of Italy

Venice View

Venice View

My new obsession. When I’m not in the kitchen, I’m at the dining room table with paint tubes sprawled, aluminum pans for palettes, a small blue plastic colander to hold up one end of my canvas on the table (maybe one of these days, an easel), and I paint.

Positano

Positano

I haven’t taken lessons. I just dive in. I choose a paint brush, play with blending colors, and start to work. A painting slowly emerges. Not perfect. But I like it anyway. It makes me smile. And I see the spirit of the place reflected back at me from the canvas.

Rome's Spanish Steps

Rome’s Spanish Steps

I’ve been around a lot of art in my life. My parents took me to museums when I was little. And I remember distinctly a series of large books at home, each with color plates of a master artist: Degas, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Renoir, Monet…I used to turn those pages for hours. Each painting imprinting in my mind.

My mom painted. I remember the small red hearts and designs on my white child-size furniture. And her canvas paintings of flowers I still have hanging on the wall. She painted a large freehand mural on our living room wall of arching willow trees. When we sold that house we were sure that’s what sold it.

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello

When I lived in NYC I used to haunt the Metropolitan (it was down the street from where I lived), paying 50 cents to get in (they always had a “suggested” admission, but you can pay what you like, so I could go often). And just wander, looking at paintings, old and modern, sculpture, mostly ancient. I loved the Whitney Museum of American Art. And MoMA. And the Guggenheim.

Guggenheim Museum - my very first painting

Guggenheim Museum – my very first painting

When I lived in Rome I took art and architectural history classes. Professors had us meet them right at the site of, say, a Palladio building, or up into the rafters of a church to see the ceiling frescoes.

Then I started writing for museums. Audio tour scripts. And worked with curators from art museums all over the country. We discussed the content to be translated into short audio messages for each painting of an exhibition. How to look at it, what to see, composition, color palette, details of the artist’s life and historical context.

Umbrian Hill Town

Umbrian Hill Town

My once-husband, Peter Selgin, is a painter. I watched him paint. And I saw how he turned reality into art and didn’t worry about creating exact representations (although he could do that if he wanted). But poetic ones.

Grand Canal

Grand Canal

There has been a quiet tug inside me for a long while to paint. I have often wanted to give it a go. But told myself to wait…that it would be a good thing to do when I’m 90… when I might have some free time! But last year I let the tug inside sneak out and I gave it try. I had never held a brush in my hand but I’m so glad I picked one up. The hours I spend on painting are completely free, completely poetic hours. The kind of hours we must all find ways to live.

 

Favorite Venice Restaurants

Venice

Venice

Wow. Why am I always surprised by wonderful Venice? Each returning visit becomes a new revelation. The city without cars and trucks, with, instead, blue-lagoony canals and narrow walking lanes with quaint bridges, and architecture that charms with every glance. There’s a reason why travelers flock here. It’s enchanting. And the Venetians know the paradise they own. I just led a wonderful group of cooks to Venice where we cooked together and dined out to our heart’s content (very contented!). With every Venice stay I become completely re-enchanted.

The cuisine of Venice is filled with specific specialties. Lots of fish, seafood, shellfish: seppie, scallops, crab, shrimp, scampi, vongole, mussels, octopus, rombo, branzino, orata… And other classics like fegato alla Veneziana (liver), carpaccio, polenta, artichokes, sardines in soar (sweet/sour), and the bellini.

Many many (many) restaurants are wonderful.  But I have a few favorites, particularly in the neighborhood of Dorsoduro where I usually stay.

Taverna San Trovaso is always reliable with a varied menu of delicious. The ambience hugs you with warmth and character and the staff, sometimes aloof, can always be coaxed to smile and join in with your enthusiasm.

San Trovaso staff

San Trovaso staff

Favs here: spaghetti alle vongole….

spaghetti alle vongole

spaghetti alle vongole at San Trovaso

fegato alla Veneziana…

fegato alla veneziana

fegato alla veneziana at San Trovaso

pizza….

Fran with pizza

Fran with pizza at Taverna San Trovaso

our lunch break from shopping

our lunch break from shopping

Not far from here, still in Dorsoduro is a small trattoria called Ai Cugnai ( “at the in-laws”). We had dinner in their back room which doubles as a terrace when the retractable ceiling is open. It was a breezy, almost rainy night so the ceiling was closed, which added to the coziness. Favorite dishes are their baby octopus salad “moscardini” …

"moscardini"

“moscardini” at Ai Cugnai

the beef carpaccio…

carpaccio

carpaccio at Ai Cugnai

and the mixed seafood pasta…

mixed seafood pasta

mixed seafood pasta at Ai Cugnai

Ai Cugnai house wine

Ai Cugnai house wine

Still in Dorsoduro is a small restaurant that really feels like someone’s home cooking. Quattro Feri is on a small street off of Campo San Barnaba. We had their stellar spaghetti with scampi…

spaghetti with scampi

spaghetti with scampi at Quattro Feri

Also some great spaghetti alle vongole here. And do not leave without having dessert. Here’s their apricot jam crostata…

crostata marmelatta

crostata marmellatta at Quattro Feri

We strayed from Dorsoduro for our other favorite La Zucca in the Santa Croce sestiere. Every Venice stay must include a visit to La Zucca. Their specialty is inventive vegetarian dishes but they do not shy away from meat. I went for the pork Marsala…

pork marsala at La Zucca

pork Marsala at La Zucca

We all skipped around the menu…each dish perfect…

braised fennel at La Zucca

braised fennel at La Zucca

asparagus at La Zucca

asparagus at La Zucca

vegetable lasagna at La Zucca

vegetable lasagna at La Zucca

tagliatelle w duck ragu at La Zucca

tagliatelle w duck ragu at La Zucca

La Zucca

La Zucca

Exciting food in Venice. The more I know it, the more I love it. And the more I learn to cook it at home. An infinite excitement!

cooking in Venice

cooking fava beans in Venice

Twist Your Puff Pastry with Chocolate & Jam

sweet puff pastry twists

sweet puff pastry twists

And almonds.

I love playing with puff pastry dough. I’ve used store-bought (in the freezer section) often. Making your own puff pastry dough is a major project–one that I usually have no time to do. (But try it at least once…it’s fun and a great learning experience as to what goes into the stuff–think BUTTER!).

I’ve used Pepperidge Farm brand, Dufour, and Trader Joe (which they only sell during holiday season — why is that? I don’t know). And they all work beautifully.

Here is a twisted recipe. You can try this twist with a lot of fillings. I used to make twists like these using biscuit dough and filling it with butter, cinnamon and sugar. Then glazing the finished twists with vanilla icing. A kind of cinnamon bun in a twist.

But here’s how this recipe goes (we did it in class, too).

Roll out one puff pastry sheet of dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it till it’s about 30 percent bigger than it started out. Keep the rectangular shape. Spread your favorite jam in a thin layer on top.

Meg & Tim making pastry twists

Meg & Tim making pastry twists

Meg spreading the jam

Meg spreading the jam

Now cut the dough in half lengthwise (I use a fluted cutting wheel). Separate the pieces a bit. On one half sprinkle mini-chocolate chips. Just in a single layer and you don’t have to fill ever spot. Place about a 1/2 cup of sliced almonds in a plastic bag. Roll a rolling pin over them crushing them into small pieces. Sprinkle the small pieces of almond on top of the mini chocolate chips. Place the half with just the jam over the other half face down (so the 2 jams sides are touching) lined up evenly. Now cut across the shorter end into 3/4-inch strips (again, I use the fluted wheel).

Give each strip a double twist and place them on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet.

ready to bake

ready to bake

Continue with the rest of the dough. Egg wash the strips. Sprinkle sparkling sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for about 12 minutes until golden. Voila!

pastry twists in Kodachrome

pastry twists in Kodachrome

Next time I’ll show you my fav savory pastry twist…with olive paste, sun-dried tomatoes and sesame seeds. But first: dessert!

 

Good Old-Fashioned Lasagna

Good Old Fashioned Lasagna

Good Old Fashioned Lasagna

Sometimes I’m surprised that people need a recipe to make lasagna. Just shows how sheltered I am. How Italian food is part of my genes. How silly I can be.

Lasagna? You just make it! You need a recipe?

To be honest, I have made all kinds of lasagna from recipes. True Bolognese style. All white lasagna. Polenta lasagna. Spinach and vegetable lasagna. Butternut Squash lasagna. But in my cooking class the other day we made a good old-fashioned lasagna (with a few modern perks). It was so delicious! I wondered why did I ever stray from the classic?

Okay. What’s classic?

Classic is what I grew up with. A classic lasagna has: the pasta, ricotta, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. That’s the classic. But here’s my “modern” perks.

Turn the tomato sauce into a sausage sauce (like a meat sauce but use broken up sausage instead of ground beef. why not? it’s great). Let’s add some sliced hard-boiled egg to give it that Napolitana spin (or so my Sicilian-leaning background labels it). And instead of just plopping the ricotta as is, let’s add a little milk to it. Season it with salt and pepper. Make it smooth, looser, so it spreads more easily. The mozzarella? Not slices, not strips. Let’s grate it so it melts lightly and evenly. AND instead of buying lasagna pasta that you boil, use the no-boil which in the end tastes like fresh-made pasta (yes, it does!).

There. My classic lasagna. With some additions and tweaks. And it’s got the “oh man, this is REALLY GREAT” vibe.

Here are the details. Make it! Let me know how you like it. Grazie!

Lasagna w Sausage Sauce & Hard-Boiled Eggs

For the Sauce:

1 1/2 or 2 lbs. Italian sausage, meat removed from casings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, small dice

½ cup dry white wine

3- 28 oz canned crushed tomatoes

salt & pepper to taste

For Lasagna:

1 lb. no-boil Lasagna pasta

1 lb. mozzarella, grated on shredder side of a box grater

1 lb. ricotta., mixed with a ¼ cup of milk, seasoned with salt & pepper

6 hard-boiled large eggs, cut into thin slices

½ lb grated cheese, parmigiano, pecorino or mixture

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Make the Sauce: Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large sauce pan. Break up the sausage meat into small pieces. Cook until browned. You may have to do it in batches. Add the onion and cook until it softens. Add the wine and let evaporate. Add the tomatoes and season with salt & pepper. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Make the Lasagna: Spoon a thin layer of sauce at the bottom of a pan that’s about 9″ X 13” and at least 3-inches deep. Place 3-4 pasta strips  in one layer on top of sauce. Coat each pasta strip well with a layer of sauce. Sprinkle some mozzarella. Spoon dollops of ricotta. Place a few rings of egg. Sprinkle some grated cheese and some black pepper. And a light drizzle of sauce. Repeat 3-4 more times until all the pasta sheets and ingredients have been used. Sprinkle some mozzarella and grated cheese on top. Drizzle some sauce.

Bake for about 45 minutes until the top is golden and the lasagna is bubbling. Let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before cutting into squares and serving. It’s even better the next day.

Lasagna all prepared and ready to bake

Lasagna all prepared and ready to bake

 

10 Kitchen Handy-Dandy Deeds

kitchen

kitchen

I’m sure we all do it. Everyday. A million little shortcuts, tricks, helpful handy deeds in the kitchen. I stopped for a minute to see if I can catch a few of them speeding by. You know…they just happen. You forget you even do them. Try to take note of your handy-dandy kitchen deeds. Let me know yours. We can trade.

(In no particular order):

1. Preserve your green delicates longer.

undo the scallions

undo the scallions

Did you ever have a bunch of scallions or a bunch of parsley start to get all mushy and wet? When you first get them home, before putting them away, take off the rubber bands and twist ties. When they live loose in their bag (while stored) they don’t mush up so fast. (And I collect the rubber bands, which come in handy for all kinds of things.)

2. Magically use less olive oil.

2 olive oil bottles

2 olive oil bottles

A lot of the time we want to drizzle olive oil. Not POUR it. The large pour spouts in most store-bought bottles are pretty wide. So you get a river when you really want a steady creek. Those pretty olive oil decanter bottles you see all the time solve this asap (Trader Joe has millions of them).

olive oil bottles at TJ Maxx

olive oil bottles at TJ Maxx

Pour spouts might vary from one to the next. Some thinner than a drizzle; others just drizzle. So I keep two bottles. One pours faster than the other. I grab the faster one to coat a sauté pan. And the slower-pour for drizzling on top of food.

3. Slice shrimp in half for MORE SHRIMP.

cut shrimp

cut shrimp

Oh so tricky. I love this. Slice them in half lengthwise. Then add them to your dish (sauce? sauté? shrimp cocktail?). Half of a shrimp is just as satisfying to pop in your mouth as a whole shrimp. So you get to multiply them, distributing more shrimp pieces throughout your dish. Ain’t it the truth.

4. Scissors. The hidden hero in the kitchen.

scissor parsley

scissor parsley

Quick and easy. Snip snip snip. Fast-minced parsley. Or almost anything. There’s an ease and child-like play to using scissors. Like you’re getting away with something. Like it’s not supposed to be so easy. I cut sausage, butter, cooked spaghetti, pizza. Any other ideas?

5. Soft butter takes time.

soft butter

soft butter

I leave it out overnight. It’s ready in the morning when I want to bake. And it doesn’t mind leaving its refrigerated home for a dark evening on the kitchen counter. In fact, that stick of butter is on an adventure. It knows what’s coming and can dream about it all night. Transformation into the butterfly of a cake (or some other luscious starring role).

6. Stop your cutting board from running away.

cutting board with damp paper towel

cutting board with damp paper towel

Chasing your board around the table while your hand is busily chopping with a knife is probably not a great way to come up with more ingredients for your new inventive dish. Place a damp paper towel under the board. Keeps it from moving. The photo shows a transparent (yet opaque) plastic cutting board with a square of wet paper towel under it. But same tip works for wood, heavy plastic, etc.

7. Another way to avoid burns.

pot holder alert

pot holder alert

I’m a frittata cooker. Almost all leftovers can be made into a frittata. The last step of the dish is putting the frittata under the broiler. In its frying pan. Of course, when it’s golden and lovely, you take it out from under the broiler. And, of course, you use pot holders to take it out. And then you place the pan on the stove while you go and get a serving platter. LEAVE THE POT HOLDERS ON THE HANDLE. So when you come back and attempt to move a frying pan that you always hold by the handle when sautéing (since you FORGET that this time it’s SUPER hot) the pot holders remind you. (This is very nice of them and I’ve often thanked them for this service.)

8.  Put some salt in the cellar.

salt cellar

salt cellar

We’re always shaking salt from a salt shaker. It’s a nice way to get a gentle sprinkle on food. (And I am certainly a salter while cooking.) But what about when you need a teaspoon of salt? Or a tablespoon? Or when you need a “healthy pinch?” Hence, the salt cellar. It’s at the ready with a small vat of salt for you to poke into. Years ago when I first became fascinated with salt cellars I searched for the perfect one (accumulating non-perfect ones, too). I’ve since lost many from that collection but, in addition to my everyday Le Creuset salt cellar bought at TJ Maxx for a bargain, I still have one that I bought at a Paris flea market.

"sel" cellar

“sel” cellar

It’s got a hinged wooden door on top so your salt is safe from falling sugar, or fruit flies, or dust, or excited spattering stovetop oil. Now I use that one to store tea bags.

9. In the pasta pot: oil and water don’t mix.

IMG_5274

pasta boiling

Don’t do it. You don’t need to. It just gets you some oil-coated American-style pasta. Nah. Spaghetti will not stick while boiling. You don’t need to add oil to the water. Here’s how:

pasta dropped in pot

pasta dropped in pot

I hold the whole bunch in my hand over the center of the boiling water and place the spaghetti upright into the center. The strands will splay more evenly to the sides that way. Then right away get a long wooden fork (or longest fork you have) and poke into the strands, spinning them like you would if you were eating them. Poke in different places and spin to loosen them from each other. This gets easier to do once the noodles soften into the water. Keep poking and spinning now and then until the water comes back to a boil. Now the spaghetti will stay separated as it boils (and you can poke and spin a few more times before done).

10. Not useful. Just pretty

doily dust

doily dust

I just love this trick. When your cake is done and cooled and you’re not going to ice it…just want to dust it with powdered sugar, first place a paper doily on top. I use a small sieve with powdered sugar in it and tap it to dust the whole thing with a good layer of sugar. Then hold the doily with your fingertips on each side and lift straight up. Voila!

I’ve done this in class and students LOVE it. One student came back the next time with a gift: a packet of plastic doilies with many shapes and designs — a Martha Stewart doily-pack. So you can re-use them.

chocolate w doily dust

chocolate w doily dust

Stay tuned for more Hand-Dandy Deeds!

 

The Art (& Heart) of Artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

I wish I could remember the first time I understood an artichoke. It must have been early on because you would think that first encounter would be memorable. I should ask my mom: when did I first eat an artichoke?

And what a name. Artie Choke.  (Remind me to use that for a character in a story or play I will write.) And in Italian it’s even more fun: carciofo. Either way it’s the thistle I love.

How many times have you wondered: who ever figured out how to eat it? What other food do you throw most of it away? While you’re busy getting at its “core” which is its delectable gold? (Well, okay, a clam comes to mind.)

In my Italian-American family we had 2 ways of making them. Braised-boiled plain with garlic and parsley.

plain cooked artichokes

plain cooked artichokes

Or stuffed with flavored breadcrumb packed between the leaves. And braise-boiled.  We thought of the plain style as Sicilian (my Dad would only eat them that way). And the other style…Napolitana? Maybe.

stuffed artichokes

stuffed artichokes

I used to like just plain. Now I like stuffed. But frankly, I’ll eat them any way you can imagine. Have you had the Roman Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style)? The artichokes are smashed flat and deep-fried. If you ever have the chance… ORDER THAT.

How to begin:

Cut off the top third…and the stem at the bottom. I often use a large bread knife to get through the tough leaves.

cut off the top of the artichoke

cut off the top of the artichoke

Snip the outer leaves that have thorns so you don’t get “stuck.”

snip off the thorns

snip off the thorns

I rinse them under cool water while trying to open them a little with some gentle pulls. Then shake them out to get rid of the drip-drops. Here’s my current favorite stuffing: panko, minced garlic, minced parsley, raisins and pine nuts.

stuffing ingredients

stuffing ingredients

Mix that up and drizzle a little olive oil to moisten. Season with salt and pepper.

filling

filling

Pile a handful of stuffing on top then pull open leaves here and there getting the mixture to drop in. Or just push it in. But go easy, you don’t want to break the leaves. It’s a balancing act. Open the leaves…don’t break the leaves. The enigma of artichoke-stuffing.

stuffing artichokes

stuffing artichokes

Set them upright in a pot with a little heft to it (they will be simmering for a while). Add water till about halfway up the artichokes. Then drizzle olive oil on top of them and some for the water, too. Season the whole thing with salt.

artichokes in the pot

artichokes in the pot

Heat till the liquid starts boiling, then lower to a simmer. I set a cover on askew. Cook for 40 minutes to an hour. If you can pull a leaf off easily they are done. I like the hearts to get real tender.

Alternate tip. My mom is not a big garlic-in-your-food fan. She’ll smash a clove to start a tomato sauce, but then take it out before serving (it’s a common Italian move). So for less garlic impact, instead of adding minced garlic to the stuffing, just add some crushed cloves to the cooking water.

Don’t know how to eat an artichoke? Here’s a primer (I wish I could draw diagrams). Pick off the leaves (one by one), scrape off the bit of heart-meat at the bottom tip with your teeth. Yum. You can’t eat the whole leaf because it’s tough. As you get deeper into the artichoke the leaves get more tender and you can eat the whole leaf. Continue until you reach the spiky small leaves at the center. Scrape them away along with the fuzzy “choke” covering the heart at the bottom. Then you have the heart. You gotta have heart. And you especially gotta eat this whole entire heart.

Also. Those stems you cut off? If you want to get meticulous, there’s a little bit of heart in those, too. It’s the white center.

there's even heart in the stem

there’s even heart in the stem

You can trim the stringy green all around the white center and drop the trimmed stem into the cooking liquid surrounded by its big brothers.

heart in the stem

heart in the stem

It’s just an added hit of yummy heart.

When I shared an apartment with my pal, Ginger, back in my theatre days, we ate artichokes all the time. She’s from California so she was as artichoke-crazy as me (you know, Castroville CA is the artichoke capital of the US). Her version was to boil them, then dip the leaves in melted butter as you nibbled. That’s another happy choice.

Once we drove into NYC to see a Broadway play (we lived in Huntington and worked at PAF Playhouse). Since we were budget-conscious we brought our dinner with us to eat in the car before the show. I have a dim memory-short-movie of us in the front seat of her VW van, in the dark, parked on a city street, hungrily scraping the leaves of our artichokes. But I have no idea what play we went to see.

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

Backstage at PAF Playhouse with 2 other PAF-ites: Christine & Bill. (Me, on the right.) Quite likely I had an artichoke for dinner.