Gluten-Free Pink Lentil Encrusted Halibut

14 04 2012

A couple of nights ago I decided to treat myself to a home cooked meal. I went to Whole Foods and picked out a pristine piece of halibut, some fresh peas and leeks (seasonal spring veggies), and fingerling potatoes. It might sound surprising, but when you cook professionally for others all of the time it seems like you are never have the time to enjoy the fruits of your own labor. How counterintuitive? If you ask most cooks what they eat for dinner on a weekday, if they are alone, the answers are often pathetic: pizza, Chinese, Ramen noodles, cereal, a stiff vodka martini, or simply nothing. As professionals, we are trained to cook and care for our customers first. Consequently, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves.

With that being said, the dinner I made Thursday night was a treat! Not only because I was eating something healthy and delicious, but also because I discovered a new way to think about cooking fish. My initial plan was to bread the halibut, using the standard breading procedure of flour, eggs and bread crumbs, sear it in a pan to crisp up both sides and finish the cooking in the oven. This is my “go-to” way to prepare simple crispy fish.

Instead, I started thinking about different ways I could get the same crispy result by substituting breadcrumbs with a gluten-free option. I thought it would be nice to add some vibrant color to the fish so I went through my pantry and found the perfect substitute “breading” solution: pink lentils! I knew dried lentils would be way to hard to use in their whole form so I took out my spice grinder and ground up the pink lentils, spiced them up with some salt and fresh orange zest, and suddenly I had great breading substitution. Instead of using regular flour I substituted garbanzo bean flour and I was ready to go!

Ground lentils are only one example of a gluten-free “breading” option. Other ingredients you could use include red quinoa, millet, toasted and ground nuts (pistachio’s would be great), cornmeal/polenta, ground wild rice and much more. I challenge you to let your imagination run wild and try a healthier gluten-free “breading” option for your next meal.





The Perfect Cheese Pairing: Rose Petal Jam

10 04 2012

I think one of the best gifts you can serve at a dinner party is cheese.  It is easy to purchase, lends itself to a variety of delicious alcoholic beverages, and it is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.  When I am in a pinch and really don’t have time to cook up something delicious, I go to my local cheese purveyor and pick out a selection of cow, sheep and goats milk cheeses for a nice display.  I always try to pick cheeses with a variety of textures and flavor profiles.  (I usually choose a firm aged cheese, a soft young cheese and a semi-firm wash rind cheese)

Most people think that cheese and wine make the perfect pairing.  I have to agree, cheese and wine were made for each other.  But, as a chef, I am always trying to find other fantastic ingredients to add to a cheese plate for a new food pairing experience.  I love toasting and grinding pistachio’s to sprinkle over cheese like confetti.  I love adding fresh figs, persimmons, crispy apples or cherries to a cheese display for fresh seasonal flavor.  I love truffle honey drizzled over a firm aged cheese for a sweet and savory combination.

Despite all of these classic pairings, I have to say the most unexpected and delicious specialty ingredient I have ever tasted with cheese is Rose Petal Jam from France.  At first, you might think that a jam made of rose pedals sounds unappetizing. Rose petals smell like perfume, which is definitely not something you typically want to eat.  I was skeptical of this product at first, but I always give exotic speciality ingredients a change.  Let me tell you, it was love at first bite.  I remember smearing one of my favorite Italian cow and sheep’s milk cheeses, Robiola Bosina, (featured in the photo about) from the Langhe region in Northern Italy, on a thin crostini topped with Rose Petal Jam.  I casually took a quick bite and literally stopped in my tracks.  My were eyes closed as I enjoyed the incredible creaminess of the cheese that blended perfectly with the delicate floral, sweet and exotic flavor of the jam.  I think I started jumping up and down because I was so excited.  This had to be my favorite cheese and jam combination in the world!

I’d love for you to order this jam, even if you are skeptical and try it with your favorite cheese. It is wonderful with soft and creamy cheeses like Brie, and equally as delicious with firm cheeses like Pecorino, Manchego or Parmesan.  The Rose Petal Jam is also a great accompaniment to Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream.  Give it a try and if you like it as much as I do, you might be the hit of your next dinner party.  Also, feel free to share your  favorite cheese pairings with me!





Sesame Pistachio Baked Asparagus Fries

2 04 2012

I am truly inspired by the seasons.  As a Chicago native, I used to take the seasons for granted.  I thought everyone grew up sledding and making snow angels in the winter.  I thought everyone knew the feeling of walking on crispy, crackling leaves in the Fall.  I thought everyone anticipated watching the tulips come out in the Spring.  I thought everyone grew up with hot and humid pool days and cool summer nights.  I realize now, that these memories are very specific to Chicago, my home.

When I moved to California, I learned to experience the seasons in a new way.  The weather did not change dramatically but the food did.  From my first job , I was exposed to seasonal farm-to-table cooking.  What does this mean?  It means you only cook with what the farmers are growing at that specific time of year.  This is the way Europeans have always cooked and also why their food tastes so damn good.  It’s pretty simple, eating the freshest ingredients maximizes the flavor in any dish.  Learning what ingredients were grown during each season was a humbling experience for a mid-western girl like me.  I was enlightened to learn that brussel sprouts grew in the fall, squash and root vegetables in the winter, artichokes in the Spring, and peaches and tomatoes in the summer. I tasted an abundance of new fresh flavors and started to associate those flavors with a specific time of year.

Now that I am back in Chicago, I associate the Spring with way more than nice weather and tulips.  To me Spring means cooking with some of my favorite ingredients in the world: green garlic, Spring onions, sweet peas, fava beans, apricots, Morel mushrooms, rhubarb and asparagus.  I love Spring produce because the flavors are delicate, light and complement a variety of dishes.

Last week I bought my first bunch of spring asparagus and was super excited to roast it off with a little olive oil and salt and eat the whole bunch like candy.  Instead of going with this simple approach (that I highly recommend), I started to play around with some other ingredients I had in my pantry to step it up a notch.  I decided to bread and bake the asparagus to add some Asian flavor and emphasize the crunch of the asparagus.  Typically, the standard breading procedure involves flour, egg and breadcrumbs.  Instead of following the rules, this time I substituted coconut milk with lime zest and rice wine vinegar for eggs and added toasted pistachio nuts and an AMAZING sesame spice blend to the breadcrumbs.  I think the secret weapon in this recipe is the Spicy Sesame Salad Sprinkle from The Spice House.  It’s a combination of two types of sesame seeds, dried herbs and salt that complements the delicate sweetness of the asparagus and gives it an Asian twist.  If you can’t get your hands on this spice blend, feel free to use a combination of toasted sesame seeds and dried oregano instead.  I hope you enjoy this recipe and start experimenting with the seductive flavors of Spring!

Sesame-Pistachio Baked Asparagus Fries with a Wasabi-Lemon Aioli

Asparagus Fries Ingredients:

4 oz. lite coconut milk
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 Tbs. rice wine vinegar
1 lime, zested
1 cup homemade breadcrumbs
½ cup pistachio nuts, toasted and blended down fine
2 Tbs. “Spicy Sesame Salad Sprinkle” from The Spice House (a mix of toasted sesame seeds and dried oregano can be substituted)
1 large bunch asparagus, trimmed ends
¼ cup all purpose flour 
Kosher salt, to taste 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with wax paper.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, sesame oil and lime zest.  In another medium sized bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, pistachio nuts and sesame spice blend.  Season lightly with kosher salt. (Don’t add too much because the sesame spice blend contains salt)

Rinse off the asparagus and pat semi-dry.  In a large bowl combine the asparagus and flour.  Mix together until the asparagus is coated. Dip each floured asparagus in the coconut milk mixture and then dredge through the breadcrumbs.  Place the breaded asparagus on baking sheet.  They should be spaced out so they do not touch or overlap.

Bake for 12 minutes in the oven.  Broil for the last 3 minutes.  Serve hot with the wasabi-lemon aioli.

Wasabi-Lemon Aioli:

Ingredients:

1 clove garlic
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
¾ large lemon, juiced
½-1 tsp. wasabi paste (depending on the spice level desired)
1 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

In a food processor, add the whole egg, egg yolk and garlic.  Turn on the motor and slowly add the vegetable oil.  The mixture should start out loose and bind together  (emulsify) as the oil is slowly added.  At this point the mixture should change from a loose liquid to a thicker consistency, like the texture of mayonnaise.  Mix in the lemon juice, wasabi and season with salt and pepper.





Quinoa Pasta with Mushrooms, Asparagus and Truffle Oil

14 03 2012

For those of you that know me, you know that I am obsessed with pasta.  I make pasta by hand on a weekly basis.  I use only the best dried pasta from Italy or fantastic domestic sources.  If someone called me a pasta snob, I would have to agree.  The idea of pasta made without wheat has never sounded good to me.  Obviously, there are many people who are gluten-intolerant and I think rice pasta is a great option for them.  But since I have the choice, I would always pick the real deal.  Until now….

Monday night I was over at my chef-friend Erica’s house to watch The Bachelorette finale.  Yes, it was tremendously girlie, but a fun night nonetheless.  I expected the highlight of my night to be the tragic proposal Ben made to Courtney, the queen bitch/villain on the show.   But it was not.  Erica whipped up a simple pasta dish with shaved brussel sprouts, brown butter, lemon and Parmesan cheese.  With my eyes glued to the juicy reality tv show, I took a huge bite of pasta and was shocked. I urgently asked Erica, “why does this pasta taste so good?  What brand is it?”  She answered ,”it’s quinoa pasta.  My favorite?”

The pasta was absolutely delicious and tasted so far from a replacement healthy pasta choice.  Quinoa is not only high in protein and essential amino acids, it is one of the most healthy grains you can eat in the world. (it’s health benefits are similar to spinach and beets)  How could something so damn healthy taste so good?  My favorite part of the pasta was the texture.  It was perfectly al dente (with a little bite) and held onto the succulent flavors of garlic, lemon, and brown butter in the dish like true Italian pasta.  Three portions later, I was hooked!

Yesterday morning I woke up inspired to try my own version of this incredible pasta.  I already had a bunch of asparagus (which is finally in season and tastes great), dried mushrooms, truffle oil, Parmesan cheese and lemon in my refrigerator.  All I needed was the quinoa pasta, which I found easily at Whole Foods.

I invited my good friend over for dinner, opened up a bottle of Italian Proscecco and made up a new pasta dish.  I learned a few things in the process:

1.  Quinoa pasta takes a shorter amount of time to cook than regular wheat pasta (approximately 7-9 minutes)

2. When you put it in boiling water it clumps together, so make sure you stir it as it boils.

3. Dried mushrooms can add fantastic flavor to a pasta dish.  When you use dried mushrooms you reconstitute them by soaking them in boiling.  After 15-20 minutes ,  the mushrooms come to life are ready to be cooked.  The benefit of this technique is that the boiling water used to soak the mushrooms becomes a rich mushroom broth.  This broth can be added to the pasta as part of the sauce for more savory flavor.

Here’s the recipe I created for dinner.  I hope you enjoy all of the flavors.  Most important, I would love to know what you think of quinoa pasta!

Quinoa Pasta with Shitake Mushrooms, Roasted Asparagus and Truffle Oil:

Ingredients:

3.5 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 bunch asparagus, stems trimmed off

1.75 oz. dried shitake mushrooms (or any other exotic dried mushroom)

3/4 cup mushroom water (from the rehydrating of the dried mushrooms)

8 oz. quinoa spaghetti or linguine

1/2 lemon, juiced

1.5 Tbs. truffle oil

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.   Toss the asparagus in 1 Tbs. of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 8 minutes, or until tender.  Let the asparagus cool down and cut into 1/2 inch pieces.  Set aside.

Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl.  Cover with boiling water and soak for 15-20 minutes.  Remove the mushrooms from the water (reserving the mushroom water) and place them on a cloth.  Squeeze the mushrooms in the cloth together like a sponge to get rid of all of the liquid.  Pat dry and slice them thin.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the quinoa pasta and let it cook for 7-9 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up  clumps.  Drain under cold water, toss with a little olive oil and set aside.

Heat a large saute pan.  Add the remaining olive oil and let it get hot for 30 seconds.  Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds.  Add the sliced mushrooms and 1/2 cup of mushroom water, season with a pinch of salt, and saute for 4-5 minutes.  Add the asparagus, quinoa pasta, lemon juice, truffle oil and 1/4 cup of mushroom water.  Season with Kosher salt and lots of black pepper.  Cook over moderate heat for 3 minutes, stirring with tongs to let all of the flavors come together.  Garnish with fresh Parmesan cheese and serve hot.





Salad in the City

9 03 2012

Daily life as a culinary entrepreneur can be pretty strange sometimes.  You don’t have set hours.  You don’t have an official office.  You don’t have to get up at 8am, run to Starbucks by 8:30am and be at your desk at 9am like everyone else in the world.  Someday’s I love the freedom of making my own schedule.   Other days, I wish I could succumb to corporate america and feel more normal.

So what do I do?  I make my own schedule to structure my life.  I go to yoga four days a week and take it as seriously as having a business meeting.  I assign specific days each week to get out of my pj’s, put on a cute outfit, and work at a coffee shop with other self-employed people in Chicago.  What continues to amaze me is how many people are working for themselves these days.  Coffee shops make “the outsiders” feel comfortable.  I look around as I sip on my chai latte and feel understood.

As a result of my coffee shop work days, I have tasted all kinds of cafe food in Chicago.  My expectations for the “soup de jour”or cafe “signature salad” are never high, but once and I while I am impressed.  Today I was at my favorite cafe in the city, Swim Cafe  at 1357 Chicago Ave (Ukranian Village). It’s not my favorite place to do work because it’s posh or decorated nice.  But they have THE BEST cafe food in the city.  You could easily pass by this place without any idea that it’s a hidden gem.  But believe me, GO INSIDE!!!!!  Everything I have eaten at this dive is delicious. (including their Seitan Gyro with feta cheese….I have never liked seitan before trying this sandwich)

My favorite thing on their menu is definitely the Summer Salad.  It’s full of basically every ingredient I am in love with: avocado, tomatoes, hearts of palm, toasted sunflower seeds, thinly sliced shallot and mixed greens.  The best part is their signature Green Goddess Dressing.  The flavors are herbaceous, acidic, yet well-rounded and earthy.  Every time I order the salad I spend at least 10 minutes tasting the dressing and thinking about why it is so damn good.  It never occurred to me to simply ask the chef what is in it.  Today….I got the goods. (and obviously I am sharing them with you!)

Swim Cafe’s Green Goddess Dressing:

1 bunch parsley, stemmed

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup tahini

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Blend all of the ingredients together and store it in a air-tight container.

*It’s fabulous on any salad but would taste great over fish, chicken, scrambled eggs or bread.  I’m obsessed.

Let me know what you think!





Less is More

15 02 2012

Sometimes less is more when it comes to food.  The Italians definitely understand this concept.  Italian food is all about using the best ingredients in their truest form.  While I tend to complicate my recipes with a list of 15 ingredients, my new goal is to restrain this impulse and use less to develop big flavors.

What does that mean to me?  It means, sourcing food that is in season.  If food is in season then you don’t have to add all sorts of fats, sugars or spices to make it taste better.  It’s simply delicious and full or flavor to start.  I also try to use one unique speciality ingredient in each recipe for a “wow” factor. Last, I try to focus on delicately balancing flavors in a dish.  When I am using only four ingredients, they are all strategically picked to form a ying and yang balance.

A few weeks ago,  I was in Ann Arbor Michigan again with my close Italian friend, Cristiana visiting Monique, the owner of “Al Dente” pasta.  Monique proposed a challenge to me, “come up with a pasta recipe using only three main ingredients.  I want this pasta to be easy to make, economic, and delicious.”  I am not the most competitive person in the world, but I love challenges when it comes to food.  My mind started wrapping around flavor combinations that would not only showcase the pasta but make a unique statement.

That afternoon while we were walking around a fish market in Kerrytown, I passed by some high-quality Italian tuna in olive oil.  Immediately my mind flashed back to last year in Italy when was I was shopping for one of my first meals in Pisa.   I went into the best specialty shop in town and carefully examined the case of cured meats, cheeses, fish and antipasti.   What stood out to me was this huge chunk of gorgeous tuna sitting in a large bowl of golden olive oil.  Everyone in the store was buying a bit of the tuna, so I knew I had to try it.  I purchased about 1/2 lb. for 15 dollars.  The high cost assured me this tuna was going to taste a hell of a lot better than our fishy canned tuna “Starkist” in the states.  That night I made a meal, flaking the tuna into a pasta dish with some local ingredients.  The flavors of the tuna were savory and delicate (with no fishy taste at all) combined with the bitterness of arugula and creamy Parmesan cheese.  I was thrilled to discover how sexy and seductive tuna could taste with a simple pasta dish.

So my decision was made, right then and there in the Kerrytown fish market.  I was going to create an Italian flaked tuna pasta recipe with seasonal ingredients for Monique’s challenge.  I picked out some gorgeous pink turnips, fresh blossoming spinach, and imported  Tonnino Italian Tuna in oil and set out to re-create that magical dish inspired by the Tuscan market.

Monique, her friends and Cristiana all loved the pasta!  I hope this recipe makes you appreciate good quality canned tuna and inspires you to play around with new combinations of flavors.  Please let me know what you think!

Flakey Tuna and Roasted Turnip Fettucini:

Ingredients:

6 large turnips, cut in small pieces

4 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, minced

6 oz. fresh spinach (or arugula)

6-7 oz. high-quality Italian Tuna in olive oil

1.5 Tbs. capers, minced

1/3 cup Parmesan, freshly grated

½ lemon, juiced

1 bag (10 oz.) whole wheat “Al Dente” Fettucini

Kosher Salt and Black Pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut each turnip in half horizontally.  Cut each half of turnip in eight pieces and put the small pieces on a sheet tray.  Repeat with the rest of the turnips.  Toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until tender and caramelized.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil from the jar of tuna.  When the oil is hot, add the minced garlic and sauté for 20 seconds.  Toss in the fresh arugula, seasoning with a pinch of salt and black pepper, and sauté for 3-4 minutes until the spinach is wilted.  Flake in the tuna over the spinach and add the capers and roasted turnips. Turn off the heat.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook for 3 minutes.  Before draining, add 1/3 cup of pasta water to the pan with the arugula, tuna and turnips.  Drain the pasta and add it directly into the pan with the other ingredients.  Stir over low heat for 2-3, adding the lemon juice, 2 Tbs. of olive oil, fresh Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste.  Enjoy!





The True Olive Oil Experience!

16 01 2012

Yesterday was an incredibly special “Culinary Gathering” co-hosted by my wonderful Italian friend Cristiana.  We met last year in San Casciano, her home town in Chianti, Italy.  She opened the doors of her life to me as we ate wonderful meals at her family’s home, toured her famous Tuscan farm and nursery, wine-tasted all over the region, met local pasta makers and olive oil producers and traveled to different regions of Italy together.

Yesterday Cristiana was in my home. It was quite an honor to share my life, my home and and especially my passion for food with her. We hosted an “Italian Culinary Gathering” to share the unique recipes from her Grandmother’s kitchen, “La Bruna”, with some of my most loyal clients.  The food was unlike any Italian food I have tasted in the US.  It was full of bursting flavors and unusual techniques that I have never considered in my approach to cooking.  Most importantly, this “Culinary Gathering” was full of love, warmth and appreciation for a fantastic culture.

I’d like to share with you a small clip of Cristiana teaching the class how to taste the olive oil from her farm.  It’s a tradition in Italy called “Fettunta”: The only way to celebrate the new olive oil of the year.

To purchase Maldon Salt check out The Spice House in Chicago or Evanston








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