Friday, October 5, 2012

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Penne al la Vodka: Better than the Restaurant

Sometimes you want it, need it, have to have it. Even though it is decadent, you won’t rest easy until the deed is done. It will consume your thoughts, until you consume it. And you can go out of the house to get it, or you can get it at home. No, silly, I am talking about Penne al a Vodka, the ultimate cream-based pasta dish.

The secret to delicious restaurant cooking is that they add way more butter-cream-salt-sugar-oil than you would ever dare to do at home.  You are pretty much paying someone else to NOT tell you how much fat-salt-sugar is on your plate. These ingredients go directly to the pleasure center of your brain, and helps bring you to the conclusion that you’ve just had a great meal out.  It’s cheating, actually.

This restaurant “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is universal. Unless you go with my mom, then she interrogates the waiter until he goes back to the kitchen and asks the chef EXACTLY what is in the dish and in what amounts. But not me--if I am eating in a restaurant, and not eating sushi or a salad, then I want this pure primal fat-salt-sugar hit, and I don’t want to discuss it.

When cooking at home, I wouldn’t dare add as much fat-salt-sugar as they do in a restaurant.  I am conscious of keeping things healthy for my friends and family with the “special occasion” clause, otherwise known as a “treat.”  Once in a while I will make this Penne al a Vodka for that at-home restaurant fat-salt-sugar hit, and I tell myself it is still slightly better for you than anything at the local Italian-American Pasta Restaurant.

In fact, this recipe is so good, that we would never ever think to order it in a restaurant anymore because it is BETTER.

Now, I know you think I am always telling you, my loyal readers and fellow foodies, that my recipe is BEST. But I kid you not, once again, this is not just good, not just better, but the best.

As my grandmother used to tell me, “Good better best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better best. “ And this recipe my friends is, the best.

The Best Penne al la Vodka
·         1 pound of penne pasta
·         2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
·         1 medium onion, diced
·         2 cloves garlic, minced
·         ¼ cup vodka, any quality
·         1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper (1/4 if you like it spicy)
·         28 ounces tomato sauce (see blog Getting Sauced, or you can use jarred such as Trader Joes’s or Barilla, (marinara, tomato basil, garlic, etc.)
·         ¾ cup cream
·         ½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
·         ¼ cup chopped fresh basil

1.       Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook penne according to package directions.

2.      Meanwhile, in large sauté pan heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until tender. Add the minced garlic and cook for about a minute, keeping the garlic moving in the pan.

3.      Add the vodka and crushed red pepper and cook until the vodka is reduced and seems to disappear.

4.      Add the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Stir in the cream and the parmesan cheese and stir well until incorporated into the sauce.

5.      When the pasta is finished cooking, drain and add it to the sauce and mix well. Add the fresh chopped basil and serve hot. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thursday Night Chicken Bolognese

Talk of eating Spaghetti Bolognese has been going on in my house for days.

My boys are reading a book called The Uglies in which a character named Tally goes on a treacherous journey and packs 41 packets of instant Spaghetti Bolognese.

Even though by the end of her trip Tally is sick of it, the Spaghetti Bolognese comes up again and again, causing my boys to clamor every night to eat some, clutching their empty grumbling bellies and crying out for Spaghetti Bolognese.

They have only two questions: “Mom, what is spaghetti Bolognese? And can we eat some RIGHT NOW?”

I didn’t remind them I made it twice last fall—a delicious recipe from Epicurious that everyone liked—but there was nothing to help them remember it. It was eaten, swooned over, and, no sooner than the dish hit the sink, immediately forgotten.

But thanks to this book, The Uglies, it has been an obsession all week.

“Mom, can you make spaghetti Bolognese? Now? PLEASE?”

“Um, ok. Let me look around the kitchen and I’ll let you know.”

Now admittedly, my pantry and fridge are what we can call “well stocked.”

I can whip up a meal with nothing but the scraps in the veggie crisper and some jars in the cabinet, and for company at that.  I had the ingredients for a faux Bolognese and my boys didn’t know any better, thanks to short term food memory.

But when it was done, I realized that what I’d made tasted just as good as, and maybe better than, the original, complicated recipe—and I didn’t have to spend 2 hours in the kitchen stirring.

The first thing you should do is open a bottle of wine.  Maybe this is how you start cooking every meal anyway.  An inexpensive red would do (head to Trader Joe’s), something appropriate for a Thursday no-company sort of night.

You are going to use only a little bit of wine for the recipe, so pour yourself a glass—might as well get this weeknight non-party rolling. Besides, it will make helping with homework a little easier.

Take a sip and you may notice immediately that the kids’ voices seem softer and further away. And by voices I mean whining, crying, screaming, fighting. If this isn’t your household skip ahead to the next paragraph. If it is your house, pour a little more wine—you only need 3 tablespoons for this recipe.  By the way, I’m not saying if it is my house or not.

Begin cooking now. Put up a pot of water for the pasta. You can use any kind of long noodle you have. Trader Joe’s has taglietelle, which I love, but feel free to use linguini or spaghetti, and when the water boils, salt the water well.

Once the stress of your day starts to melt away, you will begin to hone in on the smell of the olive oil: green, deep; the onions: sweet, savory; the garlic: buttery, warm; the thyme: earthy, strong. Brown your ground chicken (or any ground meat you’d like), add the luscious tomato sauce (see previous my blog, Getting Sauced), and simmer away.  

When this comes together, the sauce simmering simultaneously with the pasta boiling, it will transform your Thursday night supper into something special. So, pour some more wine for you, put out extra grated parm for the kids, and enjoy.

And you never know what treasures your kids’ book hold.

Thursday Night Chicken Bolognese

      ·         2 tablespoons olive oil

·         1 large onion, chopped

·         4 cloves garlic, sliced

·         3 tablespoons red wine, whatever you like to drink

·         1 teaspoon kosher salt

·         3 cups tomato sauce, homemade or jarred

·         Freshly ground black pepper

·         ½ teaspoon dried thyme

·         1 pound ground chicken (not lean or ground chicken breast)

·         16 ounces tagliatelle, linguini, or spaghetti

·         Grated Romano-Parmesan blend, for sprinkling

      1.       In a large pan, heat the oil and cook the onion over medium-high heat until tender.

2.      Add the garlic and cook while stirring for one minute. Add the wine and cook stirring for 2 minutes. Add the ground chicken and cook until browned while breaking up the chunks of meat with a wooden spoon Add the tomato sauce, salt, pepper, and thyme, simmer for 15 minutes.

3.      Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions taking care not to overcook. Drain (it is okay to leave a little pasta cooking water clinging to the noodles), and toss the noodles with the sauce. Serve with grated parmesan-Romano blend or whatever you have handy.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sublime Lime Salad

I am a salad lover, it’s true. But admittedly, no matter how delicious I think the veggies are, I am really in it for the dressing. The greens are merely a vehicle to get the dressing from plate to mouth, the best way, second only to a spoon.

I have a friend, whom I will call “C,” who is very wise, and also pretty healthy. She loves to hike, bike, and camp, and goes out of her way to make sure her meals are healthful and beautiful, flavorful and simple. C also goes out of her way to make sure that lots of children in our community eat well by connecting them to local, organic, fresh ingredients, and instilling in them a deep appreciation for what comes from the earth. And she also has a talent for this salad, amongst other things.

Over the years I have tried to duplicate C’s salad, and although she has shared the list of ingredients, if without exact amounts (a little of this, a little of that), it just wasn’t the same. The juice of a lime (what size?), grapeseed oil (I tried canola and olive—I doubted her and am humbled), a little salt, and some nice spoonfuls of sugar. Those things combined with tender lettuce, thinly sliced cukes, bits of cilantro, some creamy avocado, and there you have it—light, crunchy, soft, fresh, and very, very green.

Start with the softest most buttery greens you can find: Bibb or Boston lettuces are ideal. Second best would be red or green leaf lettuce, if you must, but try to steer clear of any crunchy or spicy greens such as romaine, or arugula. Not that it would be bad, but it would counter the delicateness of the dressing.

After much tinkering, here is as close as I can come to C’s Sublime Lime Salad:

      ·         Juice of one large fresh lime, ¼ cup (pulp in, seeds out)
·         ¼ cup grapeseed oil (such a light delicate flavor, worth buying just for this salad)
·         ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
·         2 to 3 tablespoons sugar (I add 3 but do what you will)
·         Butter and/or Bibb lettuce, a few of the tiny heads, chopped into bite-sized pieces
·         1 long English cucumber or a few small Persian cucumbers, skin on, sliced very thinly
·         Fresh cilantro; I throw in a nice handful of leaves and sometimes I leave them on the stems
·         A large ripe avocado, cut into small chunks

      1.       Assemble the lettuce, cukes, cilantro, and avocado in a salad bowl.

2.      In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, salt, sugar, and then slowly whisk in the grapeseed oil.

3.      Toss lime dressing with greens. Experience the sublime, or enjoy a great salad at the very least.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Aura’s Passover Test Kitchen: Heavenly Chocolate Ganache Cake Balls and Chocolate Meringue Almond Bark

Here it is folks, up to the minute breaking news from right here in Aura’s Test Kitchen and I’ve been in the kitchen trying to reinvent Passover. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it can be done. No more matzo flavored chocolate cake. No more weird tasting egg-puffed chiffon cakes. No more getting dessert out of a can.

We are free, so let’s eat like it! No need to be enslaved to your grandmother’s fruit compote recipe forever.

Every year I consider it my personal mission to come up with one or two never seen before Passover recipes. I have fond memories of my mom’s Passover desserts from childhood. But let’s face it, Passover desserts taste odd. Maybe some of you look forward to that matzo cake meal flavor, but I say let’s leave matzo where it belongs—on the seder table. On your dessert table, put these, because, well, why not?

I bring to you my latest creations…

Heavenly Chocolate Ganache Cake Balls

·         1 -8 ounce package pre-made Passover cake, such as Osem marble cake or chocolate chip cake
·         ¼ cup cream (dairy-free creamer is ok too)
·         ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
·         ½ teaspoon almond extract
·         5 squares of chocolate almond bark or 10 ounces of other chocolate for melting
·         1 ½  tablespoon finely chopped almonds

1.      Crumble the cake into a large bowl. You will get about 4 cups of cake crumbs.

2.      Put the cream and chocolate chips into a microwave safe bowl and cook for 1 minute. Stir until smooth. Add almond extract and stir again.

3.      Pour the chocolate mixture into the cake crumbs and stir until well combined.

4.      Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Using a small cookie scoop (will make 36 truffle sized balls) or a medium cookie scoop (will make 18-2 ½ inch cake balls) scoop out the batter and roll into balls. Place on tray and place tray into freezer. Note: it is quicker to make the balls larger, but it is cuter to make them smaller. It’s your choice, and may it be the toughest decision you’ll make all day.

5.      Melt the chocolate almond bark according to package directions. If using other chocolate you may need to make a ganache for dipping the cake balls, in which case, just go ahead and melt chocolate and a little more cream, but I’m taking the shortcut!

6.      Dip each ball in the melted chocolate using 2 forks, and give them a gentle shake before removing from the bowl to remove excess chocolate.

7.      Place on wax paper and sprinkle each with a pinch of chopped almonds as you go along, so the almonds stick to the still-wet chocolate. If you wait too long the chocolate will harden and the almonds won’t stick.

8.      Let the chocolate harden or stick them in the freezer and remove 30 minutes before serving. Feel free to double the recipe—I would if I were you. These are over-the-top delicious and you won’t taste any matzo in this dessert.

Chocolate Meringue Almond Bark

·         ½ cup blanched almonds
·         ¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
·         4 fresh egg whites (none of that stuff in a carton—it won’t work)
·         Pinch of salt
·         1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
·         1/3 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

1.      Preheat oven to 250°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2.      Place ¼ cup of the almonds and 1 teaspoon sugar into a food processor and pulse until it resembles crumbs. Finely chop the remaining almonds.

3.      Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites and salt until very soft peaks have formed and it looks like whipped cream (but it won’t taste like it, so get your finger out of the bowl!). With the mixer running, slowly add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar and the cocoa powder a little at a time.  Whip until stiff peaks form, taking care not to over beat. With a rubber spatula gently fold in the reserved sugar-almond mixture.

4.      Spread the mixture onto the parchment paper in an even layer, about ½ inch thick. Sprinkle with the chopped almonds and the mini-chocolate chips. Bake for one hour, turn off oven, and leave it oven the oven another hour to dry out further. Remove from oven and cool for an additional hour (yes, that is 3 hours total so plan ahead).

5.      To serve, break into pieces, and be prepared to be completely blissed out.

6.      Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days if you are cooking ahead, which I hope you are.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hamantaschen, The Ultimate Purim Schpiel, De-Mystified

Hamantaschen are classic Purim cookies.  Tradition says, large ones represent Haman’s hat; small ones represent his ear or his pocket, literally translating to “Haman’s pocket.”  Another story tells us that the three corners represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding fathers of Judiasm.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

If you ask me, I will tell you that hamantaschen represent the thing that really saved the Jews from destruction, and that my friends is this--Queen Esther’s, um, er, how to put this delicately, please tell me you know what I am going to say. My very smart husband has cautioned me against using any overly-specific words in this blog, although I want to. If I write the word, my name will be forever linked to it, thanks to Google algorithms. My heart is pounding as I type this—I have waited years in which to come out with this and go public with such a shocking statement. oprfuHH Hopefully by now you have figured out that I am referring to Queen Esther’s special pocket and not Haman’s.

The day I realized this, was the day my life as a Jewish girl ended and my time as a Jewish woman began. Stories are told to us as children are glossed-over versions of the real thing, packaged prettily to keep us innocent, and this is a good thing. Sometimes, a person has to come to their own conclusions when the time is right. And then they never look at things the same way again.

I am not alone in my belief--there are feminist Jewish writings on what the hamantaschen really means at websites such as The more you think about it, the more you know I am right. As shock wears off, acceptance sets in.

Sure, in medieval times it was the custom to make a pastry in the shape of your enemy and then to eat it to make the enemy disappear. And yes, this is what I will swear to publicly at any of my Purim-themed cooking classes, and anyone within earshot will be amazed at this fact because it is very interesting. But this is not the only reason we eat them.

It is un-Jewish to focus on war, violence, killing when it comes to holidays. Instead, we focus on food, playful traditions, and fun-filled folklore for children. No, the story of Hanukkah is not really about the miracle of the oil. It is a story about war and oppression, and one has to wait until adulthood to realize that the atrocities that go with any war also happened there. Same with the story of Purim—there are secrets within secrets as the plot unravels, some not to be revealed until we are ready to hear them.

The joke goes, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Does this sound like a reason to make pastry in the shape of a triangle hat—he wasn’t a Colonial American, or a pirate, and not a wizard either. Pointed ears? Come on, Spock, Vampires, Elves of the Woodland Realm, yes, but a person working for the King of Persia, nope, don’t think so.

Try this recipe, my favorite, and as you are making your 10th hamantashen and filling it with poppy seeds or raspberry jam, you will start to have a moment of enlightenment. And by the time your 40th is done, you too will know my words ring true.

Here is to Queen Esther, who did what any good queen would do to save her people. The greatest power she had saved us all, and to celebrate, we eat it.

I completely understand if you can’t bear to look me in the eye after reading this one. Don’t worry, you’ll come around. So have that celebratory Purim drink, and be happy for goodness sakes, it’s Purim!

Queen Esther’s Hamantaschen

       · 1 cup granulated sugar
·         1 cup margarine or unsalted butter, very soft
·         4 large eggs
·         Juice and zest of one medium orange
·         1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         4 cups unbleached flour
·         2 teaspoons baking powder
·         Pinch of salt
·         Filling suggestions: seedless blackberry or raspberry jam, lemon curd, strawberry, apricot or blueberry preserves, chocolate chips, Israeli chocolate spread or Nutella, pie filling, pastry filling, any flavor you’d like, even poppy seed or prune if you are a traditionalist, which I am not.

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

2. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl and cream together with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each one is added. Add vanilla extract, orange juice and zest, mixing well. Add flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until a soft dough forms and all ingredients are incorporated, making the softest, most beautiful dough you have even seen.

3.  On a floured board, using a rolling pin, roll out a portion of the dough to approximately ¼ inch thick. If dough is too soft or too sticky sprinkle a little extra flour on the board and on the rolling pin. With a three-inch cookie cutter, cut out circles. Place a teaspoon of filling in center of each circle. 

5. To shape, fold up the left and right sides and pinch it together into a corner.  Fold up the third side and pinch the last two corners to make a complete triangle.

6. Place on cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes.  Let cool before eating if you can.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gettin' Sauced: Homemade Winter Tomato Sauce

I get a little restless this time of year.  Winter has me longing for things I can’t have or do, such as: spending warm, late nights outdoors sipping iced tea while the kids play ball; leaving the house with my hair wet without freezing half to death; having a backyard full of herbs and tomatoes at my disposal. *Sigh.* That last one is the one that always gets me. 
Maybe it is because I grew up in a NYC apartment that I am so in awe of things that grow. It is a wondrous thing for me to be able to open my backdoor and pluck good things to eat. It is nothing short of a miracle that the simple combo of soil-seed-water-sun can produce, well, produce.

Don’t get me wrong—I love winter. It is one of my four favorite seasons. But there are things that I long for that make me stare wistfully out the back window, knowing it will be a while before anything green appears.

The grocery store tomato is in a sad state these last few months—mealy, green, and tasteless, despite its rosy red hue, probably genetically engineered to trick the buyer. But I am not fooled.

This last week I did three television segments on local news shows involving tomato products. Oh, how I wished it was summer so I could proudly use fresh tomatoes but instead I shamelessly used canned in my demo. Why? Because there is no dishonor in using canned tomatoes, especially in the winter. They are picked, processed and canned in their height of ripeness; preserved with all of their summery goodness, their flavored locked in. If I had any desire to can I would have done it myself months ago, but I am not so much of a country girl.

Instead, the freezer is my idea of a cold pantry, already filled with pesto, strawberry jam, and curry sauce, made with things so glorious in their season that I wished to hold on to the moment for as long as possible. The mason jars line my freezer shelf like a small army.  Filled with my favorite pesto—made with basil I’ve grown and picked, spoonfuls of lovely green-tinged extra- virgin olive oil, toasted pistachio nuts, sheep’s milk Italian cheese, fresh garlic, and mounds and mounds of sweet young basil leaves, all taken for a whirl in my Cuisinart, and  encapsulated in jars in the freezer. Strawberries--picked by my little ones in the summer heat, mashed, sweetened, and thickened with pectin, held in jars, ruby red and gleaming, also nestled in the depths of the freezer. And a large batch of bright yellow curry sauce with vegetables, sunny-hued, and sprinkled with Penzey’s Sweet Curry, given a few hours notice to defrost, waiting to be poured into a pan with sliced chicken and served over fluffy basmati rice.

But recently, I longed for tomato sauce, rich, and deep, and flavorful. There is no jarred sauce on the shelf at the store that could live up to my craving. At first I made a smaller batch using organic canned tomatoes and it was heavenly. But then it was gone.

So I greedily purchased restaurant sized tins of tomatoes, both whole and crushed, and went to town. I lugged my giant All-Clad pot up from the basement.  The pot, which I save for special occasions such as soup or chili or pasta for a crowd, is always a happy sight waiting on the stove. And then I went to work.

I poured in the luscious olive oil, sautéed the onion, the garlic, the dried herbs, the crushed red pepper, just a touch, and added a generous sprinkle of kosher salt. I poured in the juicy crushed tomatoes, the bright red whole tomatoes and their juices, the tomato paste, and brought it all to a lively bubble. The transformational moment however, was when I poured in some leftover Cabernet Sauvignon, and within minutes my house smelled like my favorite Italian restaurant in Queens and I realized I discovered their sauce’s secret--wine!

I happily let the concoction simmer away for an hour and a half while my windows became steamy and fog-coated, shutting out the grey day outside, and for a while, it was just me and the sauce. Stirring occasionally I began to see a change—the whole tomatoes melted into the voluptuous rosiness , the molten liquid thickened, even the sound of the bubbling changed. I started to see the world differently as a place where time travel is possible, to go back to summer, or to launch ahead, but unnecessarily so, as the present was a mighty fine place to be in too.

Letting the sauce cool and ladling it into seven quart-sized mason jars felt like I’d won the grand prize. Admiring my efforts, bright and cheery, awarding me with simple joy, jars sitting on the counter waiting for their marching orders.

Well, six, into the freezer they went, and the seventh stayed behind to be devoured that very night for dinner by the five of us spaghetti-slurpers. The rest will have to patiently wait their turn for their moment of glory at my table.

The recipe below will make a nice sized batch of sauce, but to prolong your happiness, triple the recipe and store in the freezer for long winter days to come.

Homemade Winter Tomato Sauce
       ·         ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
·         1 medium onion, chopped
·         6 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
·         1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, basil, and marjoram
·         1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
·         1-28 ounce can whole plum tomatoes packed in juice
·         1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
·         2 tablespoons tomato paste
·         ½ cup red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
·         3/4 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste

1.      In a large saucepan heat the olive oil on medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until tender and translucent but don’t let it brown (lower the heat if it begins to brown). Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes stirring often. Add the oregano, basil, majoram, and crushed red pepper, stirring to combine.

2.      Add all of the tomato products: the whole tomatoes, the crushed tomatoes, and the tomato paste. Stir combine. Add the wine and stir again.

3.      Bring the sauce to a lively simmer and keep it there on medium-low heat, stirring often to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. (If you have a mesh splatter guard put it on top of the pot. If you don’t have one, just wipe up any tomato splatter later.)

4.      Cook for about an hour and a half or until all of the whole tomatoes have broken down and the sauce starts to look thick and smooth. Puree with an immersion blender.

5.      Pack into two quart-sized jars and let cool. Eat some, freeze some, awesome, sauce-some!