Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Pasta Shells with Spicy Sausage Red Sauce


Pasta is certainly one of the most versatile dishes around, and I'm always happy to add new recipes to my repertoire. One of the true delights of making pasta is its ease to prepare. This particular recipe for shells with spicy sausage sauce is no exception.

It may sound a little odd at first to mix your sausage meat with cold water, but it really yields a smooth meat sauce rather than having large chunks of sausage throughout the sauce. The tomato juice melds with the sausage, and reduces beautifully to nicely cloak the pasta shells in a vibrant red-orange sauce.

I halved the recipe when I made it, and would happily make it again in the future. It was spicy, but not too spicy, cheesy, but not too cheesy, and satisfied my pasta craving completely.

Pasta Shells with Spicy Sausage Red Sauce
Serves 6 to 8 as a first course or 4 to 6 as a main course
(From On Top of Spaghetti)

8 ounces sausage meat or 2 hot Italian sausages (8 ounces), casings removed
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 plump garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds (I omitted this)
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cups tomato juice, preferably organic
1 pound dried pasta shells, rigatoni, or spaghetti
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table

Combine the sausage meat, onions, garlic, and fennel seeds in a bowl with the cold water. Break up the meat with your fingers or two forks, combining it with the other ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours.

Transfer the sausage mixture to a large, heavy saucepan with a lid--an enamel-coated cast-iron pot is ideal. Stir in the cayenne (if you would like it more spicy) and salt, and pour over the oil oil. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring often, over moderate heat until all the water has cooked away and only the oil remains to moisten the ingredients.

Add the tomato juice, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer for 30 minutes with the lid slightly ajar. Adjust seasoning as necessary, but be careful not to over-salt, as you will be adding cheese later.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and drop in the pasta. Cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain the pasta and return to the pot, off the heat. Ladle on enough sauce to generously coat the pasta with a little puddle on the bottom. Sprinkle over the Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss. The cheese will thicken the sauce. If it seems dry, add more sauce (I like mine extra saucy so I used all the sauce). Serve right away with extra sauce and cheese passed at the table.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Warm Stuffed Piquillo Pepper Bruschetta


Last October I visited Barcelona, where I had the pleasure of eating countless meals bursting with extraordinary flavors. The Spaniards definitely have the culinary know-how to keep all who visit their beautiful country happily sated.

I particularly fell in love with the baked stuffed red peppers with goat cheese and rose jam at La Alcoba Azul. Holy hot goat cheese, Batman. These peppers were sublime, between the perfectly roasted exterior, the warm goat cheese filling, and the sweet rose jam to offset the savory and tang.

When I discovered this recipe for warm stuffed piquillo pepper bruschetta I immediately knew I had to try it. Finding canned or jarred piquillo peppers was a potential challenge, but I actually found them at my local Shaw's, which had them stocked in an aisle featuring an abundance of Pastene jarred goods.

The jar I purchased contained 14 piquillo peppers. I made this recipe for a recent game night, following the recipe below, and then a couple days later I prepared the remaining 6 peppers with a slightly scaled down version of the filling.

This is one of my new favorite appetizer recipes! I'm not even remotely exaggerating. Picture a warm roasted piquillo pepper filled with soft goat cheese blended with roasted garlic, thyme, and basil. This plump stuffed pepper sits atop a crispy/chewy toasted slice of baguette, and is finished with a drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze and a sprinkle of basil chiffonade.

It's glorious, epic, outstanding. The colors themselves lend this dish perfectly to your next Christmas gathering (it's not too early to start bookmarking and pinning recipes!). It's not time-consuming or overly fussy. It's beautiful, delicious, decadent, and definitely worth making over and over again.

Instead of making your own balsamic glaze, you can also use store-bought balsamic glaze or balsamic reduction if you prefer. I've done it both ways, making my own glaze the first time (these photos showcase the homemade glaze), and trying a store-bought fig and balsamic glaze the second time, and both were excellent. The store-bought glaze seemed to cling to the peppers a bit better than the homemade version, but the flavor was great regardless.

Warm Stuffed Piquillo Pepper Bruschetta
Makes 8 servings
(Adapted from Share)

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon packed light brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Olive oil
6 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 small canned or jarred piquillo peppers, drained and patted dry with paper towels
8 (1/2-inch thick) slices baguette bread (slice on the bias to yield greater surface area)

To make the balsamic glaze, in a very small saucepan heat the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar over medium heat until it reduces by about one-third (this can happen quickly for such a small amount of vinegar--keep an eye on it). Let cool. It should be syrupy. If it's too thick, dilute with a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar. If it's too thin, boil it down a bit more. Set aside. Alternatively, you can use store-bought balsamic glaze.

Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees F. Place the garlic cloves on a small piece of aluminum foil and drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil. Wrap the garlic cloves with the foil and roast for 30 to 40 minutes until tender (open the foil and poke with a fork--it should be completely fork-tender). Remove from the oven and remove the skins from the garlic cloves--they should slip right off.

Add the roasted garlic cloves to a medium mixing bowl and mash with a fork until smooth. Add the goat cheese, 1 tablespoon of the basil, and the thyme, and mix with a rubber spatula until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Snip the corner from a 1-quart plastic bag (or snip the tip of a small pastry bag) to make a 1/2-inch wide opening. Transfer the goat cheese mixture to the bag. Pipe equal amounts of the cheese mixture into the peppers. The peppers can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature before heating.

Position the broiler rack about 8 inches from the source of heat and preheat the broiler on high.

Put the bread slices on a broiler pan and toast them in the broiler, turning occasionally, until golden, about 3 minutes. Arrange the toast on a serving platter. Turn off the broiler.

Put the stuffed peppers in a flameproof baking pan and transfer to the turned-off broiler. Heat the peppers just until they are warm and plump, about 3 minutes (you can also heat them very quickly in a 350 degree F oven if the leftover heat from the broiler isn't warming them through, just be careful not to overheat them or the cheese will melt).

Using kitchen tongs (let's be real, I used clean fingers), carefully top each toast with a pepper, taking care not to squeeze the filling out of the pepper. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon basil and finish with a drizzle of the balsamic glaze. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Prickly Pear Margarita


When my sister recently traveled to Tucson, Arizona for business I begged her to bring me back some prickly pear goodies. Prickly pears, or cactus pears, are vibrant pink fruits that grow on cacti. Prickly pear products are commonly sold in Arizona, where prickly pears thrive. Although I have occasionally seen fresh prickly pears sold at my local Whole Foods, products made from the fruits, such as syrups and honeys, are not as readily available in many other states, although they can be ordered online.

My sister headed directly to Cheri's Desert Harvest manufacturing center in Tucson, which houses a small gift shop where she was able to purchase a selection of their products to bring back to New England so we can pretend it isn't so cold here this time of year...

In addition to a large bottle of prickly pear syrup (perfect for prickly pear margaritas and topping pancakes), I also requested a few jars of prickly pear honey, prickly pear jelly, and margarita marmalade, made with lemons, limes, tequila, and triple sec.

Prickly pears are actually extremely beneficial to one's health! Studies have found them to aid in the management and treatment of type 2 diabetes, have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, among other incredible qualities. They are also high in dietary fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. So really, these prickly pear margaritas are good for you. Totally healthy.

These hot pink cocktails are not only delicious and refreshing, but they are absolutely gorgeous to look at. The color is completely natural and oh so beautiful. For my first attempt I used 1 ounce of prickly pear syrup, and although it was delicious it was almost cloyingly sweet. Half an ounce is a much better amount, and yields a more balanced margarita. If you have a sweet tooth, feel free to increase the amount of syrup to a full ounce. I certainly won't judge you. You can also double the recipe to make a giant margarita like they serve at Mexican restaurants!

Prickly Pear Margarita
Makes 1 serving

Kosher salt
1 1/2 ounces tequila
1 ounce triple sec (or Cointreau)
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 ounce prickly pear syrup
1 slice lime

Wet the rim of a margarita glass or tumbler by running a lightly squeezed lime wedge around it. Rotate the rim of the glass in kosher salt spread on a flat plate.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice combine tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice, and prickly pear syrup. Shake vigorously, then strain into the prepared glass. Add a few ice cubes to the glass, and garnish the rim with a slice of lime. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast


Brunch is my favorite meal that I rarely get to enjoy. I used to go out for brunch more often when I lived in Los Angeles and New York City, and although there are some great weekend brunch spots in Rhode Island, I don't brunch as often as I would like. Breakfast foods are some of my favorites though, and when a recent opportunity arose to participate in a brunch my sister was hosting, I immediately took the lead to plan the menu and execute some of the dishes.

When making breakfast for a crowd, and planning a complex menu, you can't really stand around flipping pancakes all day. With careful planning, you need to make smart menu choices to cover savory and sweet options with minimal effort.

While the savory half of the menu included a frittata, cheese and meat boreks, spanakopita, and a selection of charcuterie and cheeses, the sweet half consisted of fruit salad, chocolate chip scones, and this decadent baked cinnamon-apple French toast. And of course there were mimosas and coffee to wash it all down.

This baked French toast is really a cross between French toast and bread pudding. It's a cinch to make, especially if you can find Texas toast at your local grocery store. I found that it was more trouble than it was worth to visit more than a couple grocery stores with this goal in mind, and instead decided to bake a loaf of white sandwich bread, and slice it thickly to replicate the Texas toast. This worked beautifully!

Before baking

After baking (and before deflating--still puffy right out of the oven!)

The bread slices are soaked overnight in vanilla-laced custard, topped with a blanket of tender, cinnamon-spiced apple slices. The next morning it's baked for about an hour until puffy, golden, and fully set. Err on the slightly longer side if you notice a bit of loose custard sneaking up through your French toast. You want to make sure all the custard is set before you serve this to guests. Maple syrup is an excellent accompaniment, although I found the French toast to be perfect, delicately sweet, and well-balanced even without this addition.

The guests at brunch raved over this baked French toast, and like I said it really couldn't have been easier to make! Even though I baked my bread from scratch, I used a simple recipe that didn't require a lot of effort, and the entire dish just fell into place.

Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast
Serves 8
(From Gale Gand's Brunch)

6 medium apples (use a variety) (I used 5 large apples; it was plenty)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up into small cubes, plus more for the baking dish
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 slices Texas toast (thick presliced white bread) (I struggled to find commercially available Texas toast, so I baked my own white sandwich bread, and cut it into 8 one-inch-thick slices)
8 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Heat the butter in a saute pan over medium heat until it starts to foam. Add the apples and cook them until tender, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

Lightly toast the bread. Cut the toast slices in half to make triangles. Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish, and arrange the bread in two rows, overlapping in the dish.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl; then whisk in the sugar, milk, and vanilla to make a custard. Pour the custard over the bread triangles, and spoon the apples over the top. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Uncover the baking dish and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the custard is set and doesn't shimmy when you shake the pan (err on the longer side to ensure its baked through--mine baked a little over 60 minutes total because I noticed a bit of runny custard bubbling out one of the sides around the 50 minute mark). It will puff up and brown slightly. Remove from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serve it in squares or large spoonfuls with maple syrup, if desired.


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