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:


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

Celery Root and Potato Gratin

8 11 2011

I am assuming most people pass this crazy looking vegetable in the produce aisle of your grocery store.  I admit,  she looks more like a sprouting brain than a vegetable.  She looks complicated and I know most people don’t want to buy a complicated vegetable that they have no idea how to use.  Let me introduce to an incredibly delicious and very under-used vegetable: Celery Root.  Her flavor resembles celery but it is much more elegant and soft-spoken.  She is the kind of fall ingredient that you might not be able to identify in a dish, but she tastes unusual in a good way.

Yesterday the sun was not shining and the birds were not singing in Chicago.  It was actually very gloomy and did not give me happy vibes.   I decided to rebel against my “Chicago Seasonal Affective Disorder” and make one of my favorite fall side dishes.  I was inspired to cook a whole gratin casserole for myself simply to feel better and to fill my apartment with the amazing smells of melted Gruyère cheese and crispy potatoes. (I mean, there is nothing like it)  You might be asking, what is a gratin?  It is a layered casserole of thinly sliced vegetables, typically potatoes in France, made with cream, herbs, garlic, cheese and topped with bread crumbs.  What’s not to love?  I love this dish because you can make it seasonal with all kinds of different vegetables.  In the summer I often use eggplant and tomatoes instead of potatoes with fresh basil and mozzarella, using the same technique as the recipe below.  The best part of the dish is that is very affordable and a huge crowd pleaser!

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Celery Root and Potato Gratin Recipe:

9-10 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, (skin on) and cut into 1/8 inch slices (use a mandoline if possible)
3 celery roots, peeled and trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch slices (use a mandoline if possible)
8 oz Gruyère cheese, shredded
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
1.5 pints of heavy cream
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. of fresh thyme, chopped fine
2 Tbs. of fresh marjoram, chopped fine
4 Tbs. dry white wine
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a small pot over a low flame, heat the heavy cream with one clove of chopped garlic.  Let it reduce for 15 minutes and then remove it from the heat to cool. 
To prepare the celery root, cut off the top and bottom.  Using a knife, cut down the sides of the vegetable removing all of the skins and gritty texture from the celery root.  The end product, should be smooth and free of skin. Thinly slice the celery root with a mandoline or by hand in 1/8th inch pieces. (just like the potatoes)
Pour a small layer of cream on the bottom of a casserole dish.  Place a layer of potato in an overlapping pattern and sprinkle with salt and pepper,  fresh herbs, slivered garlic, and Gruyère and Parmesan Cheese.  Pour a little cream and white wine over the potatoes.  Make the second layer using the same technique with celery root (instead of potatoes).  Continue with two more layers. (one of potato and one of celery root)  The final layer with have potatoes and celery root overlapping in layered rows. (see photo above)   Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Sprinkle some more Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs and broil until the  cheese browns, about 5 minutes.  Let the gratin rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Check out this link for a great mandoline slicer, if you do not have one already:

Experiencing the Seasons Through Food

6 07 2011

The way I cook is driven by ingredients.  I never used to be that kind of cook, but living in San Francisco and working at farm to table restaurants changed me.  It opened up a world of ingredients that I never knew existed in the U.S.  It caused me to think in a creative ways about every type of produce.  A simple carrot wasn’t a non-sense vegetable to me anymore.  It was a jewel of flavor for roasting and mixing with a spice blend to serve on a salad, it was vegetable that came in 6 colors (not simply orange), it was something that you didn’t just eat with spinach dip.

Living in California was not about battling cold winters and dramatic changes in weather.  But as a Chicagoan, I always enjoyed the seasons and I need something to represent change. I got what I needed by experiencing the seasons through food. I finally understood that asparagus meant we were in Spring and Beets meant Fall.  I would count down the days till the green (Ischia) and purple (Mission) figs would be appear at the market in the summer so I could eat them whole right out of the basket.  Life had a different flow in California and  I am so thankful I learned about seasonal cooking.

In Chicago we have tons farmers markets.  They might not be as bountiful as the ones in California, but they exist and they go on all summer long (and in the winter).  Most of the big ones are on the weekends in the summer,  but there are plenty of small markets during the week sprinkled all over the city and suburbs.  The Green City Market is biggest market in Chicago in Lincoln Park on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. I hope this link helps you find a market close to your home.


If you’ve never been to a farmers market,  I can promise you its a great experience.  It gets you in touch with where your food comes from and how good something picked that morning can taste.  The market culture is also a treat. From my experience the people who shop at farmers markets in Chicago are typically down to earth.  Cell phones are put away, people are smiling and truly living in the moment.

If you had to ask me what ingredient I am most excited about at this moment, it is Green Garlic.  What is Green Garlic?  It’s this crazy vegetable featured above.  It looks like a mix between regular garlic and large scallions, but it has a totally unique flavor.  Green Garlic are youthful stalks that farmers pick early before the bulbs of garlic fully develop.  It’s growing season in short (from late spring to mid-summer in Chicago), so get it while you can.

Why do I love Green Garlic?  Because it is incredibly versatile and has delicate flavor.  I use it in the same dishes I would use regular garlic but the main difference is that Green Garlic has a softer flavor.  It almost never overpowers, it simply adds are wonderful backdrop of onion-garlic like flavor to a dish.

What do I use it in?  I have been on a pasta kick lately!  When I get home from a long day and I don’t want to make a huge fuss over dinner, I make Green Garlic Pasta.  I saute a whole bulb of green garlic, minced small, with another vegetable I have in my pantry like thinly sliced asparagus, zucchini, or green peas. I bring water up to a boil in another pot and cook some of my Italian pasta al dente.  I drain the pasta, cool it down a bit and pour it into the pan with the green garlic and vegetable.  I drizzle it with a good amount of high quality olive oil, fresh Parmesan cheese and sprinkle sea salt and fresh ground pepper over the top.  I pour a large portion of this pasta in a bowl and garnish the dish with fresh torn basil.  That is my “g0-to” meal of the week.  Try it, there is nothing not to enjoy!