Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pesto alla Genovese

Pesto alla Genovese

Basil, pine nuts, grated cheese, EVOO, garlic & salt

Garlic pulsed twice

Processing after 5 seconds

Pesto was born in Genoa, in the Liguria region of Italy.  Genoa has a unique climate which basil and pine trees favor.  Although there are many variations of pesto, this simple recipe captures the essence of the original.

Pesto alla Genovese

2 cloves garlic
6 cups fresh basil, packed loosely
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
Large pinch of salt

1.       Wash basil and dry thoroughly.  Remove leaves from stems.  Discard stems and                   flowers.
2.      Place garlic cloves in food processor and pulse twice.
3.      Add basil, pine nuts, grated cheese and salt to food processor.  Process for about 5            seconds. 
4.     Continue processing while pouring olive oil into food processor bowl, about 10 seconds        longer.
5.      Adjust seasoning if necessary.
6.     Pesto is ready for use.  Or, transfer to a clean dry airtight container or jar.  Pour extra            virgin olive oil over pesto to cover by ¼”.

I first tasted pesto in a small trattoria over twenty years ago.  I was transfixed!  I had never heard of a green sauce for pasta!  It was beautiful to look at for sure, but the taste was so unlike any other sauce I’ve had.  Somehow I managed to find a packet of “pesto mix” at my local grocery store.  The resulting sauce was just a shadow of what I had eaten at the restaurant.  Sure, I could taste the cheese and the pine nuts.  But nowhere was the bright taste or color of fresh basil.  Then sun-dried tomatoes came into the scene and pervaded most of the dishes so pesto sort of fell off my radar.  It wasn’t until the nineties when I acquired an Italian cookbook did I finally make my own pesto.

These days being into DIY projects, I usually only make pesto in the summer when I can get fresh basil from my backyard.  Although traditionally made with a mortar and pestle (Italian: pestare, meaning to pound or crush), I employ a food processor which is quicker.  I also think that since it is quicker, the basil doesn’t have time to bruise and thus retains its color better.  Regardless of the method you use, it is still better to make your own.  Store-bought stuff no matter how well known the brand just doesn’t measure up.

Some recipes call for grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or grated Pecorino Romano, or a mixture of both.  Actually, you may use any grated hard cheese you want such as Fiore Sardo or Grana Padano

So the recipe calls for pine nuts.  I have to tell you that pine nuts are expensive.  They will run several dollars per ounce!  So if you’re watching your budget, you may substitute them with almonds or walnuts.  Try toasting them a little before grinding to intensify their flavor.
And finally, the olive oil.  Using extra virgin olive oil is non-negotiable.  Buy the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford because it is what will carry and blend all of the other flavors for you.  Inferior olive oil “blends” or “pure” olive oil, or even some EVOO won’t have that greenish tinge or fruity flavor.  Extra virgin olive oil should never be used for cooking.  Its flavor is so delicate that cooking would destroy it.  Use it as a condiment.

Salt? Kosher or sea salt.  Period.

In Step #6 above, I said to put the pesto in an airtight jar if it won’t be used immediately.  I also said to pour about ¼” of extra virgin olive over the top.  This is to keep the basil from being exposed to air.  Basil, like cut avocados, apples and pears will oxidize if exposed to air.

What to serve with it you ask?  Any kind of pasta will work.  As will gnocchi. Traditionally, pesto is served with potatoes, green beans and sun dried tomatoes added to the dish.  But pesto isn’t just for pasta or gnocchi.  You can spread it on sliced tomatoes or potatoes, pizza, sandwiches, bruschetta and crostini.  You can use it as a dip for veggies or bread.  You can also mix it into salads.  You can use anywhere you want that rich herbaceous flavor. 

So when are you going to make pesto?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

Ingredients for Polenta

Pouring polenta in a thin stream

Adding grated cheese

Constant stirring

Polenta pulling from the side of the pot
 Polenta cooling in a glass dish

 Slicing cooled polenta

 Sauteeing sliced polenta

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

6 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups coarse polenta
½ cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
Oil for sautéing
Chopped Italian parsley for garnish (optional)

1.      Bring water to a rapid boil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven.  Add salt and butter.
2.      Pour polenta into the boiling water in a thin stream.  Whisk or stir continuously to prevent     lumps from forming.  Turn heat down to low. 
3.    Switch to a long handled wooden spoon.  Continue stirring the polenta.  After about 15      minutes add the grated cheese.  Continue to stir the polenta for another 15 minutes or until it pulls from the side of the pot.  This process will take 25 – 50 minutes depending on the quantity being cooked and the coarseness of the polenta.
4.   When the polenta is done, pour it into a loaf pan, baking pan, roasting pan or other similar container.  Cover loosely and let cool, about 2 hours.
5.   When ready to cook, unmold polenta onto a chopping board.  Cut into ½” thick slices.
6.   Prepare serving dish by spooning 4 tablespoons of marinara sauce on the bottom of the  platter.  Place in a 200°F oven.
7.  Heat oil in a shallow skillet.  Carefully place sliced polenta into hot oil and cook until  golden.  Turn and cook other side.  Transfer slices to prepared platter.  Return to oven to  keep warm.
8.   When all of the slices have been cooked and plated, spoon more marinara sauce over the polenta.  Sprinkle chopped parsley on top of the dish.

Marinara Sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup diced onions
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
2 bay leaves
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup basil chiffonade

1.   Heat olive oil.  Sauteé onions for 2 minutes or until softened.  Add garlic and cook for 2  more minutes.  Add bay leaves and cook for 1 minute.
2.    Add crushed tomatoes with its juice.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add basil if using.
3.    Simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.  Adjust seasoning if  necessary. 
4.   Ladle over polenta or pasta.  Or, let cool and transfer to clean container or jar.  It will keep  in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 3 months.


Polenta is a grainy flour made from ground maize.  Maize, or corn, was introduced to Italy from the New World in the 17th century and soon replaced most of the other local grains in use because polenta adapted very well to the regions’ dairy products.  Generally, there are two kinds of polenta: fine and coarse.  Fine polenta cooks faster but I prefer the coarse kind because it has a more interesting texture.

Polenta can be served plain which is just boiled in water, or it can be dressed up.  I like to cook it with butter (prevents it from sticking to the pot) and cheese which makes it good enough to eat on its own.  It can be served soft like porridge which is often accompanied with meat and gravy.  It can also be poured into a mold, sliced, and fried or grilled. 

I have served polenta in different ways.  There was polenta with chipotle en adobo which was highly flavored and didn’t need a sauce.  There was Polenta al Forno which is sliced and baked with chopped tomatoes and cheese.  And then there is Polenta Elisa in honor of my daughter’s birthday, which is a 2-layer dish with sage and cheese.  My father-in-law’s family hails from Casali in the Abruzzo region of Italy.   He told me that Nana (his mother) always served polenta with pork sausages.   And so this is how we eat polenta. 

This marinara sauce recipe is something I came up with when I volunteered to bring a hot pasta dish for 40 people for lunch to my daughter’s Academic Decathlon competition.  I must have been crazy to make this sauce from scratch when we had to leave the house at 6:00 in the morning to get to the competition which was 50 miles away!  Or maybe, this is just how much I love to cook :-).  You can multiply this recipe and store the leftovers.  I froze mine which will be good for other pasta or polenta dishes. 

I like using the canned crushed tomatoes because it is thick and is packed in its own juices.  No, I wasn’t crazy enough to start with fresh San Marzano or Roma tomatoes!  Onions and garlic added depth to the flavor.  And of course, the basil added an herbaceous flavor which made this sauce transcendent.  Overall, this marinara sauce was thick without being chunky.  It clung to the pasta and bathed it with a majestic flavor.  Best of all, it is easy to make and versatile to use.

So what are some of your family’s favorite dishes?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coq au Vin


Ingredients for Coq Au Vin

Chicken with bacon
Sauteed mushrooms and pearl onions

Flambeeing the chicken

Simmering the chicken in wine

Combining butter and flour

Coq Au Vin

Coq Au Vin
4 oz bacon
6 tablespoons butter, divided
2 ½ - 3 lbs frying chicken, cut into 8 pieces
¼ cup cognac
3 cups full bodied red wine
1-2 cups brown chicken stock, or canned beef bouillon
½ tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
¼ teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
12-24 pearl onions, peeled
½ lb mushrooms
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
Parsley, optional
  1.  Remove the bacon rind and cut into lardons (1/4” across x 1” long).   Simmer in a pot of water for about 10 minutes.  Rinse in cold water, drain, and set aside.
  2. In a large casserole or Dutch oven sauté the bacon slowly in 2 tablespoons butter until very lightly browned.  Set bacon aside.
  3. Brown the chicken pieces in the casserole.  Season with salt and pepper.  Return lardons to the casserole.  Cover and cook slowly for about 10 minutes. 
  4. Uncover the casserole but have the lid ready.  Pour the cognac into the casserole.  Using a long match or utility lighter, ignite the cognac.  Shake the casserole back and forth several times until the flames subside.
  5. Pour the wine into the casserole and add enough stock to cover the chicken.  Stir in the tomato paste, garlic and herbs.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer slowly for 25-30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.  Remove chicken pieces and set aside.
  6. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the mushrooms and onions.  See instructions below.
  7. Simmer the chicken cooking liquid in the casserole for a couple of minutes and skim fat.  Raise the heat and bring to a rapid boil.  Reduce the liquid to about 2 ¼ cups.  Turn heat to low, and remove the bay leaf.
  8. Soften 2 tablespoons butter and blend with 3 tablespoons flour until it becomes a smooth paste (beurre manié).  Whisk the paste into the hot liquid.  Simmer for another couple of minutes.  The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon lightly.
  9. To serve, arrange the chicken pieces on a platter and surround with the mushrooms and onions.  Pour the sauce over the chicken.  Sprinkle with minced parsley.
Sauteéd Mushrooms:
Combine 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet.  Place over high heat.  When the butter foam starts to subside, add the mushrooms.  Shake the pan for about 4 minutes.  Remove mushrooms from the pan when they have browned lightly.
Sauteéd Onions:
Combine 1 ½ tablespoons butter and 1 ½ tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat.  When the mixture starts to bubble, add onions to the pan.  Cook for about 10 minutes, gently rolling the onions so they will brown evenly. 
This recipe is adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Knopf 1976.
I made this dish because it is one of the most popular French dishes.  I’ve made other French dishes so this was sort of a rite of passage for me.  I felt that I couldn’t say I’ve cooked French food without having cooked Coq Au Vin!
I was excited to make this dish as I imagined how the chicken would taste after having been simmered in stock, cognac and wine.  Yes, there’s that cognac waiting to be lit again!  You’ll notice that the recipe calls for a whole frying chicken but my pictures show several chicken breasts.  Like most recipes, it’s just a matter of preference: my family likes white meat, although I like dark.  You’ll also notice that my bacon/lardons look quite lean.   It’s because this is my homemade bacon which I cut on the thick side.  I’ll teach you how to make bacon in a future post.  
I learned something new with this recipe which is how to make beurre manié.  This is what transforms the simmering stock and wine into a velvety sauce.  It is similar to a roux in that they both contain wheat flour and fat, and are used as thickeners.  However, a roux is made at the very start of a dish and oil or lard may be used for the fat, while a beurre manié is made with butter and is incorporated into the dish while it is cooking. 
As I was making this dish I imagined Julia Child and her cohorts cooking at L’Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes.  It must have been exhilarating to talk about, develop and test all sorts of classic French dishes.  It must have also been neat to learn different cooking techniques from them.  I was feeling a bit like a gourmande as I cooked the different parts of the dish and then set them aside, and then cook something else and set them aside, and so on.  In the end when everything came together it was sublime!
For anyone who wants to learn how to cook French food, I highly recommend getting the book this recipe was based on.  It’s not merely a collection of recipes but a cooking school in print.  Sure there are cooking videos, but reading a recipe step-by-step recipe ensures you won’t miss anything there is to learn. 
Merci Julia, Louisette et Simone!