Almost Tuna Puttanesca

This may sound odd, but an advertisement in the ladies’ locker room of my gym inspired me to make this recipe.  I was changing into workout gear, looked up and saw a most tempting picture of Tuna Puttanesca.  Perfect timing too, it was about 5:30 pm, I had an hour workout ahead of me and was already thinking about how quickly I could make dinner once I got home, without having to stop at the grocery store.

Enter the classic Italian dish named after whores, Spaghetti Puttanesca.  I guess there is more than one way they can save the day. It’s a mix of salty, spicy, and LOTS of crisp garlic.  Instead of the traditional anchovies, which due to a high school job at a pizza parlor I will never be able to eat, the locker room advertisement used canned tuna, cheaper and less traumatic.  I call this recipe “almost” puttanesca because we were lacking 1 ingredient which would have added a surprise saltiness to the canned tuna, kalamata olives; I didn’t want to go to the grocery for only 1 ingredient (though this happens quite often).

Printable PDF: Tuna Puttanesca

Process:

Start with 1/2 package of Kamut Noodles (7 ounces).  Kamut has a much nuttier flavor than regular wheat noodles.  If you can’t find them, go with whole wheat noodles for health reasons; this is a recipe from the wall of the gym.Drizzle 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan.  Add in 1/2 teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes.  Turn the heat to low and slowly infuse the oil with a spicy kick.Add in the minced, fresh garlic.  That would be 6-8 cloves.  I promise it’s not so much that your pores will reek garlic odor for several days, but once it starts to cook (over low heat, remember garlic burns easily) your entire house will aromatize.  It’s delicious!Take a handful of fresh asparagus.  Run your knife to slice them into small circles and add them to the pan. Pour in 1/4 cup of chicken broth (Oh I wish I had some dry white wine, but remember how I didn’t want to go to the grocery store?).  Also add the spices dried marjoram and dried parsley (It’s OK to substitute other spices, but limit it to 2-3, and try to stick to green, earthy tasting ones like oregano, thyme, basil, etc.)Drain 2 cans of water-packed tuna (not on a diet?  go for oil packed then).  Break up the tuna with a wooden spoon.  Make sure to coat the tuna with all the great flavors in the pan.Add 1 heaping tablespoon of capers.  They are very salty and not for the faint of heart.Open up a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes and pour it, juice and all, on top.  If you have kalamatas this is your chance to put them in for added salty flavor.Finally, add the zest and juice of 2 lemons.  Make sure to zest first, then cut them in half, then add the juice; makes things easier.  Optional: season with salt and pepper- it should have enough salt (from capers and olives) and spice (from the red pepper flakes), but to each his/her own.

Creamy Twice Baked Potatoes with Spring Veggies

Nothing says Spring quite like leeks, artichokes, and fennel.  Fennel flaunts its sharp licorice flavor that tones down only through cooking.  Artichokes join with their delicate tangy heart-chunks.  Leeks give a sweeter, more subtle flavor than onions.  All of them together, combined with a low-fat, high-flavor cream sauce, stuffed in a crispy potato shell…now there’s a tribute to Spring.

This recipe is another inspiration from Crescent Dragonwagon’s The Passionate Vegetarian.  It’s originally a leftover variation of “Gratin of Fennel and Artichoke,” but I decided to make it our main event of dinner.  All right, it was my main course, I sizzled up a chicken sausage for my carnivore husband.

I switched up a couple of ingredients, using leeks instead of onions, and since I had it laying around, added dry sage.  As always, I also upped the amount of garlic cloves and put in both the zest and juice of a lemon instead of just the zest.

Printable recipe PDF: Twice Baked Potatoes with Spring Veggies

Step-by-step, for all you visual people (like me) out there.

Start with baking 6 potatoes.  Prick each 7-10 times with a fork to let air in and steam out.  I’ve heard horror stories of potatoes bursting in the oven while baking. To speed up this process, I recommend par-baking them in the microwave first.  This means zapping 3 at a time for 3 minutes.  It’ll help speed up the baking process and make sure the middle cooks.

While these bake, make the creamy sauce.  Think of it in two parts, sauteing the vegetables and making a low-fat cream sauce.

Here’s what you need for the vegetables:That would be 2 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, 1 leek, only the white and light green bottom, 1 giant fennel bulb, and 1 14-ounce can of artichoke hearts.  Oophs…forgot to photograph the 5 cloves of garlic and the lemon.

(Side note: Fresh artichokes are A LOT of work and annoyance to get to the heart.  I’ve personally gone “all pure” in the past, and had some difficulty finding the heart amist everything that I had to throw away.  Frustration drove me to give up and walk a block to our market to get a can of hearts.  If you have the time and the know-how, by all means, use fresh artichokes)

Start by thinly slicing your leeks.Over medium heat, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter until brown and sizzling.  Add leeks and saute 3-5 minutes.  Add 5 cloves minced garlic, zest and juice of 1 lemon.  Saute a couple minutes more.

Halve the artichoke hearts.Add sliced fennel on top of the leeks.  Cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring to combine.  Then add the artichoke hearts to heat through.While this heats, make your low-fat cream sauce to add to it.
Here’s what you will need (plus 1/4 cup water to dissolve the cornstarch)In a small saucepan, over low heat, bring the milk and 3-5 dried sage leaves to a low simmer.In a liquid measuring cup, dissolve 1 Tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon of cornstarch in 1/4 cup water.  Add to the milk.Melt in 2 ounces of cream cheese (1/4 of the whole package) to the milk.  Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid burning.

Add low-fat “cream” sauce to the vegetables.  Stir to combine.  Cook for 8-10 more minutes, until it thickens.  In the meantime, prepare the potato skins.Halve potatoes.  Make sure they are one uniform color.  If you notice the middle looks slightly yellow in color, they need to cook longer.  Fast way: microwave.  Slow way: oven.Use a spoon to scoop out the insides.  Place in a bowl.  If your potatoes aren’t cook fully, some of your skins may end up not so useful.

You want them to look like this:Not like this:Mash up the potato insides.  Add the creamy vegetables.  Mix well.Stuff each potato as much as you can.  I always have leftover filling; just use it as a side mashed potato mix.  Top with feta cheese.  Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 more minutes, until browned on top.  Serve with a light cabbage salad.  Carnivores may need a sausage.

Crostini with Pea Puree

Crostini is really just a fancy Italian way of saying little toasts.  If you want an infinite food canvas, crostini is a fabulous appetizer finger food.  What you top the little toast with is entirely up to you: tomato bruschetta, mushrooms, pesto, roasted eggplant, the possibilities are endless.  This recipe comes courtesy of the cookbook The Best of Food & Wine The Italian Collection.

To make crostini, simply preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Then slice up a baguette (the long, skinny bread) into 1/2 inch thick slices.  Bake for about 5-6 minutes, until they are your desired crispiness.

For our Celebrate Spring Dinner, (other recipes from this dinner include To-Die-For Hot Fudge Sundae Sauce, Spring Salad with shaved asparagus, Chicken in a Fennel Mushroom sauce, and Spinach with Raisins and Pine nuts) I decided to try my hand at a pea puree, and, for the first time ever, try to actually shell my own peas.  Sure, you could just use a 10 ounce bag of frozen peas, but it’s more fun to get your hands dirty and play with your food.Plus, peas are actually quite beautiful when you reveal them like treasure from their protective shell.  The alive green color, the dew-like water droplets that you find on some of the round globes; peas are just playful vegetables.You’ll need about 2 cups of fresh peas, or 1 10-ounce bag of frozen peas, 5 cloves of garlic DON’T PEEL THEM (if you feel daring, like me, use 1 entire small head), and about 1/3 pound thinly sliced pancetta (about 5 ounces; just get it from the deli counter), plus some extra virgin olive oli, salt, and pepper.1.  Chop up 2-3 slices of the pancetta, enough to get 1/2 cup.  Cook this 1/2 cup of pancetta over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes.
2.  Remove cooked pancetta and place in a side bowl. “Roast” the garlic cloves by putting them, skin and all, in the pancetta juices (alright, fat).  Cook until well browned.  Remove skins and place in a food processor.
3.  Add remaining pancetta to the garlic in the food processor.  Puree.
4.  Place puree back in your saute pan with about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil.  Add fresh peas and about 1/4 cup of water, enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.  Cover and allow peas to steam for about 20 minutes.  (Frozen peas will not need any water and will only take 10 minutes max)  If you have it, you can add a couple of springs of fresh parsley at this point, completely optional.
5.  Place everything back in the food processor and puree until smooth and creamy.  Add salt and pepper to your taste.  You could also add some lemon juice at this point to give the puree a tang.
6.  Spread on top of crostini and sprinkle the cooked pancetta on top.

According to this cookbook, peas are a classic Easter ingredient for Italian cooking.  Usually served whole, they are part of the first spring vegetables representing new life.  This recipe twists tradition in a tasty way.

Celebrate Spring Salad with Shaved asparagus

Inspired by a night out at the restaurant Corso in Berkeley, we replicated their quintessential spring salad of shaved asparagus, fresh arugula, pickled red onions, toasted almonds, and Parmesan shavings.

Start with arugula. So fresh from the farmer’s market in Berkeley.  So raw, I even had to trim it off of its stems and remove the flowers.Arugula is a firecracker on your tongue: spicy and unashamed.

Next, shave raw asparagus using a potato peeler.Because the pieces are so thin, the tender asparagus balances the spicy arugula.

Next, add some pickled red onions.  They take 10 minutes.  We made them the night before the dinner so the flavors would melt.  Recipe comes courtesy of David Lebovitz.

In a small saucepan, combine 3/4 cup white vinegar, 3 Tablespoons sugar, 1 bay leaf, 5 all spice berries, 5 whole cloves, crushed red pepper.  Bring to a boil. Add slices of red onion and simmer for a few minutes.  Voila, you’re done.Toast some slivered almonds in a pan until they turn a beautiful tan shade and give off a wholesome nutty smell.  Shave some fresh Parmesan cheese on top.  Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar; sprinkle salt and pepper.  You’re done.
So easy.  So good.  So fresh.  My favorite salad to celebrate spring.

Chicken in a Fennel Mushroom Sauce

This dinner entree is hearty, more of a winter feel to it due to the predominance of the mushroom flavor.  It is a bit of preparation, and you will need kitchen twine to tie the rolled, stuffed chicken tightly for cooking.  Kitchen twine has more of a cloth-like feel to it, so I don’t think you can substitute regular twine.  I had forgotten about the twine, and Kris had to wildly rush out to find it, going to 3 different stores.  Finally he was successful at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Ingredients:
(not pictured: 1 cup dry white wine, lemon zest, salt and pepper)
-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
-3 small fennel bulbs
-1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (or any other dried mushroom mix)
-2 Tablespoons fresh sage
-2 sweet Italian sausages
-1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
-5 Tablespoons unsalted butter

Basic Prep:
1.  Make sure you have kitchen twine.  🙂
2.  In 1 cup of hot water, add the dried mushrooms to rehydrate.  Mine are in the glass bowl in the back of the ingredients.  They’ll need about 30 minutes.
3.  Place one chicken breast into large gallon size zip-lock plastic bag so that none of the juices or bits and pieces will fly out.  Pound the chicken breast until flattened, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.  If you have one of the food mallets use that.  We used a hammer and an iron skillet.3.  Repeat step 2 with remaining 5 breasts.  This is a good time to get out any anxiety or frustration.
4.  Prep any remaining ingredients for the assembly line: chop up the sage, zest the lemon, take out the mushrooms and squeeze any excess water from them (SAVE YOUR WATER FOR THE SAUCE), remove the casings from the sausage and divide into 6 chunks.  Make everything an arm’s distance away from your work space.  You will be arranging and rolling each flattened chicken breast  in an assembly line.

Here’s what you need: flattened breasts, salt and pepper for flavor, sausage, lemon zest, chopped sage, Parmesan cheese, rehydrated mushrooms (REMEMBER TO SAVE YOUR WATER FOR THE SAUCE), and a glass dish to set the completed roll-ups in.

I’m sorry I do not have photos, Kris was out getting me cooking twine.

5.  Take a flattened chicken breast and set on a plastic cutting board.  Sprinkle pepper if you so choose.  (If you like salt you can add salt too.  I found the sausage has enough salt)
6.  Take 1/6 of your sausage mixture and spread all over the flat breast.  Try to cover the entire area.
7.  Sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of Parmesan cheese.
8.  Sprinkle with lemon zest and chopped fresh sage.
9.  Finally, add some rehydrated mushrooms.
10.  Roll the chicken breast as compactly as you can, from one side to the other.  The end you start with is the most flimsy end because you want it rolled into itself to keep the ingredients inside.  End on the side that is better flattened.
11.  This moment in time, you should take 3 small pieces of kitchen twine and secure the chicken roll tightly, however, Kris hadn’t come back yet, so I kept going.
12.  Repeat with the remaining 5 breasts.  Be mindful of how much of an ingredient you take since you have to spread it out over 6 chicken breasts.  (I had to chop more sage and zest more lemon.  Maybe I’ll try to have more than I think before I start.)
Here’s the twine process.

Start with 3 small pieces of twine that run the length of the chicken roll.

Rolling and Securing Chicken

Tie up each piece and make a double knot to secure.

Rolling and securing chicken

After you’ve finished securing each breast, clip off the excess twine.

You will have to brown the chicken breasts in 2 batches, then cook them all together.
13.  In a large dutch oven, melt 2 1/2 Tablespoons of butter.  Wait for it to get lightly browned and start to smoke a little.  This is butter’s signal that it’s hot.  Hot butter=beautifully browned chicken.
14.  Using tongs, add 3 of the chicken breasts to the pot.  Let brown on each side, 5-6 minutes per side.  Remove the breasts.
15.  Add remaining butter, and repeat the same browning process for the other 3 breasts.  Set these aside when well-browned.
16.  Add 1 cup of dry white wine and scrape up the flavor-bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon.  Then add all the chicken rolls to the pot.  It’s OK if you need 2 layers.  Cover.  Cook over simmering heat for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, make your mushroom fennel sauce.
1.  Slice fennel.  Remove the fronds so all you have is the bulb.
2.  Cut it in half.3.  Carefully cut out the core.4.  Now go wash out the sandy soil.  I got mine at the farmer’s market, so you have to wash extra well.
5.  Slice fennel into strips.6.  Place fennel and leftover mushroom water (it will be brown at this point) into a medium sauce pan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally for 20-25 minutes.
7.  Remove from heat and place fennel and water in a food processor.  Process until smooth.  Then return to the saucepan.
8.  Cook over high heat to reduce the sauce to the consistency you desire.  This took me about 10 minutes.
9.  Serve sauce on the side, so each person can add how much they want.
Servings: 6 or 12, depending on how many side dishes you have.  If you have lots more side dishes, you could cut the breasts in half and serve each person 1/2.  I just gave everyone their own.  Remember to cut the strings before you serve.  I didn’t, so we passed a knife at the table; remember how I said our friends are forgiving.