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!

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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.





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 Sexiest Cheese on the Planet

7 12 2011

Last winter I was strolling the isles of Whole Foods and I stopped at the cheese section to take a look.  I casually took a piece of bread and smeared the gooey wash rind cheese sample all over my bread and kept walking with my shopping cart.  By the time I reached the bread section I put the cheese in my mouth and literally was hit with an explosion of flavor: salty, funky, creamy, tangy, freaking DELICIOUS!  I closed my eyes and literally felt like I was dancing in a dark room with my future husband. (I am single, by the way)  I decided right then and there Epoisse de Bourgogne was the sexiest and most exotic cheese I have ever tasted in my life. My new favorite!  I hurried back to the cheese counter and without hesitation I picked up my first round of Epoisse for 20 bucks.  I couldn’t picture a better way to spend my money.

Let me break it down for you.  If you don’t like a cheese with funk and character, you probably won’t fall in love with Epoisse like I have.  But if you’re a fan of Italian Taleggio or “stinky” cheese, Epoisse is the French equivalent of heaven.  Epoisse is made in small town in France in the Burgundy region.  It’s an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese that is “smear-ripeded” (brushed in Burgundy wine, giving it that amazing orange-red color), which produces a firm flavorful rind around the cheese that intensifies as the cheese matures.  As the cheese sits out in room temperature the rind stays firm while the center melts into a pudding-like texture.

So what do you drink with a cheese so complex?  The perfect pairing is a Burgundy wine from the exact region the cheese is made.  Usually food and wine that are made in the same place taste great together.  (funny how that works) The cheese tastes fantastic with French baguette or toasted crostini.  I prefer thin slices of Artisanal raisin-nut bread with Epoisse to blend the funk and salt with a little sweet and savory. A year later I still feel giddy when I buy a round of Epoisse at the store.  I hope that you give it a try and hopefully you fall in love like I did.





Cedar Paper Grilled Salmon

5 12 2011

What I love about cooking is finding ways to make a single ingredient shine.  I’ve never been big on smothering a dish with butter or cream, like many restaurants do, in order for it to taste good.  If you start with fantastic product you should be able to end with fantastic results, using good cooking techniques of course.

Last weekend one of my clients asked me to make grilled salmon for a very high-end dinner.  At first I was a bit stumped thinking, “how can I seriously impress these people with a simple piece of grilled salmon?”  I went to Whole Foods to find the most pristine salmon I could get my hands on.  When chatting away with the fish specialist I asked him if he had any cedar wood planks for grilling fish. Grilling on cedar wood planks infuses fish (of whatever you are grilling) with a subtle hint of smokiness while retaining its natural moisture.  It is a fabulous way to showcase a great ingredient without completely overpowering its natural. (and that is what I am ALWAYS looking for!)

The fish specialist looked around for planks, said he was sold out, but showed me a new product that just came in: Cedar Wood Paper!  I immediately got psyched!    What a genius invention!  Pliable cedar wood that can be wrapped around fish. This would give the fish more moisture and flavor and it would look gorgeous for presentation.  I bought a bunch of scallions, some honey and whole grain mustard and left the grocery store ready to fire up the grill.

So how did I prepare the salmon and cedar paper?

1. Soak the cedar paper under water for at least one hour (this will prevent instant burning on the grill)
2. Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Trim the white ends of the scallions and blanch the scallions in the water for 1 minute.  (they should be wilted but not super soft)
3. Sprinkle the salmon generously with Kosher salt and a pinch of freshly cracked pepper on both sides
4. Place individual pieces of salmon in the center of the cedar wood paper, skin side down. (i recommend having the skin taken off for you when you are purchasing it)
5. Combine equal parts of honey and whole grain mustard in a bowl and mix.  Brush this “glaze” on the top of the fish.
6.  Fold both sides of the cedar paper over each individual fish. Tie the paper together with a scallion.
7. Place a piece of foil over the grates of a hot grill. (this is super important because the cedar paper and fish will burn if you do not put the foil down)  Place the individual pieces of wrapped salmon on the grill and cook for 10-12 minutes, depending on how you prefer your salmon and how thick it is.  Serve immediately!

Why am I so obsessed with Cedar Paper?  Because it add’s a “wow” factor to such a simple preparation of fish.  Also, it is so incredibly versatile!  You could use the same technique listed above with meat, tofu or vegetables.  You can add any spice blend or aromatics to this dish and make it your own.  Go to your local Whole Foods or World Market and buy this fabulous cedar paper and let me know what you decide to make!

 




Pasta Factory Video

25 10 2011

Did any of you know that October is national pasta month?  How amazing is that!  I’ve been on the pasta train all year, but I thought this month I should really celebrate pasta by eating a ton of it and taking a trip to Ann Arbor to visit my new favorite pasta’s factory.  I know that sounds hard-core, but….well it is.  The trip wasn’t totally about pasta… it was a total celebration of good food, gorgeous Fall weather and nostalgia. (I spent four solid years in undergrad studying in Ann Arbor)

After drinking bacon Manhattans and enjoying dinner at new gourmet restaurant, going to the Kerrytown farmers markets, eating from food trucks, going on a private tour of Zingerman’s bread and candy compound, attending an 8 course underground Tuscan dinner and touring an amazing pasta factory is that Ann Arbor is one of the best foodie towns in the country.  As a graduate that studied and drank way too much, I honestly did not appreciate all of the amazing food aspects of Ann Arbor.  If you haven’t been and live in Chicago, it is only a four drive.  It’s the perfect weekend getaway.  When you go, take a trip to the Al Dente pasta factory, about 10 minutes outside the city and meet Monique, the owner.  She is dynamic, warm and one of the most passionate “foodie’s” I have met in a long time.

Check out my video to meet Monique and get a taste of my tour around her factory.

To find out more about Al Dente’s product and order some pasta go to: http://www.aldentepasta.com