Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tortellini with Tuscan Kale & Chicken (serves 4-6) If You Want Something Fast That’s Not Fast Food; This Is It!

This is the ultimate delicious solution when it comes to getting a dinner on the table in a hurry or if you are too exhausted (or lazy) to actually cook. I am as proud of myself when I magically making a fabulous dinner in about 12 minutes as I am when I spend time laboriously making something like ossabuco or stuffing and rolling a turkey breast and serving it with gravy and roasted vegetables. In fact after making this dish the other night I wonder why I bother at all for this pleased me just as well!

luh

A Very Fast and Delicious Dinner: tortellini with kale and chicken

That said, it took years me years to learn how to plan for nights like the one just past, a night when the window of opportunity to cook, eat and get ready to go onto the next thing was about 50 minutes. I absolutely hate the feeling of being so on the go that I have to literally shove crap into my mouth and into the mouths of my children before rushing out the door. That is not living and I don’t even want to start on about how that’s what our world has come to, where the last thing you think about is your body and putting some good decent food into it!

Tuscan Kale

Tuscan Kale, also called Lacinato Kale (pretentious and not a word used in Italy for Kale at all!) and Dinosaur Kale (this hardy green keeps for a week in the fridge!)

I have never considered myself a heath nut, paranoid about every last calorie or if the thing is organic or hormone-free. In the grand scheme of things I figure if you eat food that looks like what it is; meats, veggies, grains etc then you are generally going to be on the right track and doing a fair job at feeding you and your family. When you get into buying things that come in boxes with instructions I am only a fan in dire emergencies or if I’m in a situation where the only thing available to me is hot water and a microwave or one fuel burner. It amazes me to see the whole meals you can buy in a carton these days and this new wave of products are being sold in Health Food Stores. Basically they are selling you the promise of a home cooked meal when I say you can probably get something together just as quickly if you are super smart like me (yes, I am of course joking – no really)

The Ultimate Cheese!
The Ultimate Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano (it is expensive but a little packs a ton of flavor)
My idea of fast food is something like this dinner. Here is what I ALWAYS have in my kitchen: olive oil, garlic, frozen or dry pasta, greens that last in the fridge and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. There is a bigger list of course but the other night when I was short on time and didn’t want to order expensive junkie takeout these things came in handy, along with some leftover cooked chicken. The pasta could be cooked from frozen while the kale cooked in a little broth and seasoning and then the chicken tossed in last-minute to reheat. It was divine and was put together so quickly that we all actually had time to sit down and enjoy it!
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You will need:

2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

4 to 5 cups cooked chicken – chopped into big bite-sized pieces (you can take the meat off the bone of a small rotisserie or other kind of cooked chicken, or if you have some 3 or so chicken breasts cooked or any leftover chicken you have)

5 or so cups of chopped Tuscan or other type of kale

2 garlic cloves – finely chopped

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes (optional)

1 (or more) cups chicken broth (or good quality bouillon cube and water)

2lbs frozen tortellini (any kind you like – plain, with different cheeses, veggie like spinach – I found a great goat cheese stuffed tortellini that worked great with the robusty kale – yes, Robusty!)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups or so of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (you really need to get the good stuff for this)

Method:

*prep everything before you start (chop garlic, chicken and kale) and put big pot of water on for the tortellini. The tortellini can be cooked directly from frozen. follow packet instructions OR, when water comes to a boil add the tortellini and cook at a gently boil for about 4 minute. Drain and set aside. Do not rinse.

1 – Put big pan on low/medium heat and add the oil. When it warms add the garlic and chili flakes (if using) and swirl into the oil. Cook for about 30 seconds before adding the kale.

Saute garlic

Saute garlic

2 – Cook for about 2 minutes in the oil and then add the broth (about 1 cup). Turn heat up and let everything come to a boil. Turn heat down, cover and simmer for about 8 minutes. You may need or want to add another 1/3 to 1/2 cup of broth as it cooks.

Add kale and a little broth

Add kale and a little broth

3 – Season with some salt and pepper and taste. Add the cooked chicken and tortellini and stir. Let everything warm up. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary (more pepper flakes, black pepper and salt)

Add cooked tortillini and cooked chicken

Add cooked tortellini and cooked chicken

Serve in warmed bowls or plates and top with  good grating of Parmigiano cheese!

Tuscan-Style Sausages with Rich Onion Gravy, Mash & Spinach (serves 6-8)

The herds that are still thriving in my garden in late october

The herbs that are still thriving in my garden in late October (thyme, sage, rosemary)

I must be feeling the shiver of winter because my last few dinners have contained a hearty quality I am not drawn to when the weather is warmer. The changes in the season are visible to me every time I walk from the backdoor to my car via the garden. Right now my poor basil plants are all but dead and I am kicking myself for not getting that last good harvest picked for some extra jars of pesto to cheer me up when the bleakness of January hits. The earthier herbs are still determined to brave it out and it is their flavors that have influenced the kinds of things I have been feeling like cooking lately.

Sa

Sausages with rosemary infused onion gravy – nothing like it!

Yesterday I found a new style of sausage at my most favorite supermarket (I must write about it someday soon), an organic “Tuscan Style” sausage no less, and if there is any word that conjures up gastronomy in all it’s glory for me it is Tuscany! (there are some other words of course but this one is in the top five!). What made this sausage “Tuscan”? The words “spezza forte” on the package was a start but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t some marketing ploy intended for lovers of all things Italian like me!

Tuscan style sausages

Tuscan style sausages

So from my limited experience of living there last year and my determination to make a stab at learning or at least understanding the language I knew it loosely meant “strong spice” So what does that really translate into in North American? To this particular set of test/marketing chefs  it meant cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg but being that this sausage is made to please a huge cross-section of people the Tuscan flavor as I know it was rather mild (even thought they did get the spices right on). I am probably going to have to make the sausage myself if I want the real deal. What I am trying to say is that if you are going to make this any good quality sausage will do but if you happen to be lucky enough to go to a real Italian market where the meat is from the source then you will have the best dinner ever!

Romanesque church of in Lucca

Romanesque church in Lucca , Tuscany, a town where I had very good sausages

We had this with a big side of quickly sautéed spinach and it was the perfect thing! This dish was really all about the sausages and gravy so once you have that I’d say feel free to serve it with anything you like, or whatever you can scrounge from your fridge or pantry.

Spinach grwon from seeds from Naples

Spinach grown from seeds from Naples by my friend Catherine on her farm a few miles from me!

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You will Need:

for the sausage & onion gravy

2 to 2 1/2 lbs robust flavored sausages (I used a Tuscan-style pork sausage & a mild Italian style chicken sausage)

3 medium sweet onions – halved and sliced thin (not too thin however!)

3 tbs olive oil

1 sprig fresh rosemary, left whole

2 tbs unsalted butter

3 tbs all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups chicken broth (or 1 good quality bouillon cube & 3 cups water – it’s what I did!). *You may need more so have some on hand*

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

for the mashed potatoes:

3 lbs yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks (sometimes called Yukon golds or golden potatoes)

2 tbs unsalted butter

1/2 cup or more of milk or cream

1 tsp salt

lots of freshly ground black pepper

for the spinach:

10 or more cups roughly chopped spinach

2 tbs extra virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper flakes (optional)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method:

1 – Put big saute pan on medium heat and add 2 tbs of the oil. Place the sausages in an even layer in the pan (there will be about 12 or so). If the sausages are large you can cut them in half if you like. Brown on all sides and then turn the heat down slightly and continue to cook until cooked through. This will take about 20 minutes (internal temp should be 165* if you want to check with a thermometer). Turn the sausages occasionally as the cook. When done, remove to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm (no need to put in a warm oven as they will be going back in the gravy)

Fry sausages

Fry sausages

2 – Add some more oil to the pan (about 1 tbs) and add the sliced onions and sprig of rosemary. Turn the heat up to medium and cook stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Reduce heat, cover with lid and continue to cook until onions are nice and soft (about 10 more minutes).

cook onions with rosemary

cook onions with rosemary

3 – At this point the onions will have turned a lovely caramel color and picked up the scrapings from the sausages. Add the butter (*and the stock cube if you are using stock cube plus water instead of broth) and when it melts add the flour and stir very well with a wooden spoon. Add a cup of broth (or water)  and continue stirring into a smooth sauce. Add the next 1 1/2 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Turn heat down until it has stopped boiling and continue to cook and stirring on and off for about 5 minutes.

add butter to make gravy

add butter to make gravy

4 – If you want a thinner sauce add another 1/2 cup or so of water or broth and let it get hot. Add liquid until you are happy with the consistency. Next add the sausages back to the pan and turn down  heat to lowest setting. Keep warm until ready to serve.

add sausages to cooked gravy

add sausages to cooked gravy

for the mash: put the prepared potatoes into a pot and cover with cold water. When the pot comes to a boil, cover with lid and boil gently until potatoes are cooked all the way through (a knife should be able to go through a potato very easily). Drain water and add the butter, milk or cream, 1/2 tsp salt and several grinds of black pepper. Mash until there are no lumps and you have a nice smooth mash. cover gently with a tea towel and set aside until ready to serve.

mash and season potatoes

mash and season potatoes

for the spinach: Put a big pan on low to medium heat right before you are ready to serve. Add the spinach and sprinkle with the seasonings (salt, pepper, chili flakes). It will wilt quickly. Before it seems cooked turn the heat off. it will continue to cook while you get everything served.

saute spinach with oil and pepper flakes for 1 minute..

Saute spinach with oil and pepper flakes for 1 minute..

Sausages with onion gravy - nothing like it!

Serve with lots of gravy and spinach (or any green you like!)

Poached Fish With Tellicherry White Sauce served with Roasted Potatoes, Partsnips, Baby Carrots and Peas – What A Dinner! (serves 6)

I have found that by mid-week the whole house is in need of a lift. The first few days of work or school are behind us but there are still a few more days before the weekend. I am not one to wish my life away and don’t just live for the weekend but the idea of a little something special on Wednesday (you know, hump Day!) really appealed to me. This is what myself and a friend, who also feels a little “draggy” by Wednesday came up with.

The lovely mid-week dinner

The lovely mid-week dinner

At the beginning of the school year we decided that we would each take a turn to cook dinner on Wednesday and would alternate houses. The perfect division of labor was created where the person not cooking would supply the wine!

tellicherry peppers

Tellicherry peppers

It has worked out great from both perspectives (for me anyway): on the days I cook I get excited about making something special and on the days we are the guests I love the feeling of being off the hook for the night, and I get the fun job of choosing the wine.

This is what I cooked last Wednesday and it was a roaring success. I was inspired to cook this when refilling my pepper grinder with my most favorite pepper, Tellicherry pepper. It is from India and as the aroma of nutty warm heat hit the air I remembered my mother’s white sauce.

I barely got a picture of this fab bowl of roasted veggies they were being devourded so fast!

I barely got a picture of this fab bowl of roasted veggies they were being devoured so fast!

She actually used white pepper in her sauce but I was reminded of the peppery taste all of a sudden and that memory was followed by another flashback of how she would smother a piece of baked fish in the sauce most Fridays. I planned on serving this with mashed potatoes, and carrots with peas but when I got home and thought about all the labor involved I ditched the idea and simple roasted all the veggies together. They turned out fantastic and it is one of my best Hump Day Dinners to date!

I’m off Wednesday!

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*Blood Type A Diet Followers can cook this dinner no problem with one variation: 10 minutes before the veggies are done add the fish (no tilapia) which you should season with a little salt*

You will need:

2 lbs firm white fish, (cod, tilapia, or whatever is your favorite)

1 small onion, peeled and halved

3 tbs unsalted butter

3 tbs all-purpose flour

3 cups whole milk

6 to 8 black peppercorns

freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp sea salt

4 to 5 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into large dice

6 potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice

21/2 cups baby carrots, peeled

2 cups baby peas (I used frozen peas)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp course sea-salt (I used Maldon sea salt flakes)

1 tsp cayenne pepper flakes

A few Fresh thyme sprigs

a few fresh short rosemary sprigs

Method:

Preheat oven 475*

1 – Take the biggest baking sheet you can find (mine is called a 1/2 sheet and takes up the entire oven space) and add 4 tbs of olive oil over the surface. place in the preheating the oven. While this is going on put the parsnips, carrots and potatoes into a big bowl with a couple of short sprigs of rosemary and a few springs of thyme. Add 4 tbs olive oil and mix them all together to coat. Add 1 tsp salt and the pepper flakes and mix again.

Slice and dice veggies and mix with oil and herbs

Slice and dice veggies and mix with oil and herbs

2 – Carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the oven and spread the veggies in an even layer and place back into the oven. Let them cook for 15 minutes, take out and toss and flip them. 3 – Place back into the oven for another 15 minutes after which time they should be just cooked.

spread veggies on baking sheet

spread veggies on baking sheet

3 – Place back into the oven for another 15 minutes after which time they should be just cooked. 5 minutes before veggies are done scatter the peas onto the baking sheet (read prep below)

*10 minutes before veggies are done place the frozen peas in a heat-proof bowl and add boiling water. Let them sit for 5 minutes. Strain off water and add a little olive oil and toss to coat.

Lovely roasted veggies

Lovely roasted veggies

While the veggies are cooking, get busy with the fish and sauce!

1 – Place the halved onion in a pot with the milk, a few thyme sprigs and little short rosemary sprig. Add 1/2 tsp salt and black pepper corns. Add the fish pieces and place over medium heat. When milk begins to boil, turn the heat down and simmer until fish is cooked through – no more than 4 or so minutes.

Poach fish in seasoned milk

Poach fish in seasoned milk

2 – Remove fish carefully from the milk to a plate or shallow pan with a large slotted spoon or flat spatula and cover with foil or saucepan lid. Keep warm on the stove top or in low temp oven (lowest setting it will go).

Remove fish and keep warm

Remove fish and keep warm

3 – Strain the milk to remove the herbs, onion and peppercorns and set aside in a jug or bowl. Put a saucepan on low/med heat and add the butter. When it has melted add the flour and stir quickly and immediately with a whisk until it is smooth. Add the fishy milk 1 cup at a time, whisking in-between each addition. Add a 1/2 tsp of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper and cook on low heat, stirring frequently for 15 minutes or until sauce thickens. Taste for addition of more salt and pepper according to your taste (we wanted it very peppery!). Also add more milk if you like a thinner consistency.

cook for about 15 minutes..

cook for about 15 minutes..

To serve simple put some fish on each warmed plate (a warm plate is the nicest thing in the world!), and spoon a nice amount of sauce over the fish. I served the veggies in a big warm bowl on the table and let everyone help themselves!

Serve!

Serve!

Chicken Fajitas Revisited

The last time I posted a recipe for chicken Fajitas was over 2 1/2 years ago so when I launched into making them this past Sunday I decided it was time to pay this supremely delicious dish another visit.

One of our favorite dinners

One of our favorite dinners

Everyone in our house has a handful of favorite dishes and I try to make sure to rotate these special dinners to please every palate. Lots of times my decision to please one person over another is determined by what kind of day that person has had or if it is a special occasion just for them. If my daughter has had a tough day or a day when she deserves a reward for being the best daughter even for one thing or another, then I make her favorite dinner. The same goes for my son or husband or a friend who comes to dinner and I feel like pleasing them especially just for being around.

The key component is the homemade flour tortilla - there is no substitude!

The key component is the homemade flour tortilla – there is no substitute!

I know what everyone likes and there is nothing more gratifying to me than seeing a happy face when dinner shows up and it is just for them. This particular labor of love, the Chicken Fajita Dinner, is for Dave. I know for absolute certain it is his choice every time if I am taking dinner requests, or it’s his birthday dinner or even the last meal he would like to eat before he dies! He said he could eat chicken fajitas every night if it were up to him. Besides the fact that he would learn to hate them if it is all he had to eat, they are also a laborious dish to make. It is not that they are difficult, just that they take more time than I am willing to spend on dinner on a daily basis.

Lots of prep!

Lots of prep!

The best way to tackle a meal like this is to prep some of the ingredients ahead of time if you get the chance. If you do this all at once, it is an undertaking. Of course the reason this dish is complicated is because I insist on making the tortilla from scratch, but it is also the reason they are so delicious and worth making in the first place: a total catch 22!

The secret to a great quesadilla is a home made tortillas and Tapatio hot sauce!

The secret to a great quesadilla is the homemade tortilla!

I cannot emphasize how amazing a fresh homemade tortilla tastes. Unlike the ones you find in the supermarket which invariably have a “gluey” consistency, the homemade one is light, airy and soft. It is one of the most heavenly things in the world and I use them not just in this dish but they are amazing to wrap scrambled eggs in or to fry on the pan with a filling like HERE

fresh cilantro

fresh cilantro is also a must have flavor in this dish

It is work but if you want to hang out in your kitchen with a few friends (or blissfully alone) making this dish is deeply satisfying. This is one of those dishes were the pleasure of cooking it is equal to the pleasure everyone gets from eating it – Provecho!

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Tortilla Recipe (makes 8 -10 Flour tortilla)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

4 tbs shortening (I use Crisco Brand)

1 cup warm water

Chicken Fajita Recipe:

3 chicken breast fillets – very thinly sliced (I like to semi-freeze them which makes them easier to cut into thin pieces)

2 or 3 chipotle pepper with about 1 tbs of adobo sauce (click HERE to find out more)

2 big cloves garlic, very finely chopped

juice of 1 lime

3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 red pepper – thinly sliced

1 green pepper – thinly sliced

2 or 3 cups baby or chopped spinach leaves

1 1/2 cups cheese (anything will do: cheddar, fontina…)

1 cup chopped fresh coriander, including stems

2 cups refried beans ( I cheat and but a can, but feel free to boil pinto beans according to instructions!) warmed.

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

tapatio sauce (read HERE if you want to know more)

Method:

1 – Put flour and salt into a bowl and stir together with a whisk. Add the shortening and rub it into the flour with your fingertips until it is incorporated. Make a well in the center and add the warm water. Mix with a wooden spoon until it come together.

mix the dough

mix the dough

2 – Turn out onto a floured surface and it a little bit. Roll into a log.

roll into a log

3 – Cut into 8 to 10 pieces (as even as you can make them). roll into balls and allow to rest on a floured board for about 20 minutes covered with a damp cloth (you can be getting on with the rest of the recipe)

make dough ball, form into fajita

make dough ball, form into fajita

4 – Take a dough ball and place on floured surface and pound with the heel of your hand until it is round. use a floured rolling-pin to roll into about an 8″ in diameter (as round as you can get it, but it doesn’t have to be perfect by any means!)

5 – Put a skillet onto just slightly under medium heat and when it is up to temperature add a tortilla. cook until it begins to puff up in spots and then flip.

6 – Cook until browned in spots (under a minute) and remove to a paper towel or cloth and cook all tortilla (stacking between cloth or paper towels) until you have cooked them all. They will keep warm like this while you cook the filling.

Cook tortilla

Cook tortilla

Make Chicken Fajita Filling:

1 – Place sliced chicken along with the garlic, lime juice, 3 tbs oil and chopped chipotle peppers with adobo sauce into a bowl and mix together until well-combined. Let sit in fridge for at least 20 minutes (or can be done hours ahead)

Combine chicekn with seasonings

Combine chicken with seasonings

2 – Put saute pan on high heat and add 2 tbs vegetable or olive oil. when it is hot add the sliced peppers and cook quickly – about 3 or 4 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Fry peppers

Fry peppers

3 – Add some more oil to the pan (about 1 tbs) and cook the chicken in batches until done. The chicken will not cook correctly if added all at the same time (it will become too moist and cook slower and become tough). Each batch should only take 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir-fry chicken quickly

Stir-fry chicken quickly

4 – Turn pan off or down to the lowest setting if not serving immediately along the peppers, (I keep them separate as some people don’t want either the peppers or the chicken)

Fry chiken and keep warm with peppers

Fry chicken and keep warm with peppers

Assemble your fajita:

I like to let everyone do their own. It’s more fun for them and less work for you!

I usually start with the bean, then add some chicken and peppers, followed by spinach and/or cilantro, cheese, sour cream and topped with a drizzle of tapatio sauce. Wrap it up and enjoy!

Assemble fajita

Assemble fajita

Quick Weekend Pasta Dinner (Rigatoni with Savory sausage & Sweet Onions) – Serves 6

I don’t know what your weekend is like but for me I always move a little slower on Saturdays. The weekdays I am up early, busy all day and fall into bed exhausted each night, and so Saturday I think my body and brain go on strike in order to recoup. This means that making an easy dinner fits right into the relaxed pace I am in dire need of.

The easiest dinner in the world!

The easiest dinner in the world!

This is a family day for me, a day when I try to avoid having anyone over for dinner (unless of course it is a “weekend guest” weekend!) preferring to close the door on all things that are a hassle on Friday night. I love having friends over Friday as I am in work mode anyway and it is a great way to celebrate the beginning of a couple of days that are different from the rest.

Herbs from my garden save my life most nights

Herbs from my garden save my life most nights

If I go grocery shopping on Saturday I make sure to buy some very convenient items with an eye on making my dinner prep a breeze. This Saturday I found some great seasoned sausage and knew it would be all I would need to flavor the whole dish (save for throwing a few fresh herbs snagged from my garden).

Remove sausage casing by cutting the entire lenght of the sausge adn sliding it off. then it is easy to cut or break the sasge into your pan

Remove sausage casing by cutting the entire length of the sausage and sliding it off. After that it is easy to cut or break the sausage into your pan

 A good pasta dish can be one of the most delicious things in the world to eat if it is mixed with the right combo of flavors. It was so good that if I had happened to get in over my head and invite people to dinner it would have worked out very well indeed.

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You will need:

3 to 4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbs unsalted cold butter

1lb savory sausage (I used an apple and onion sausage, but any flavor combination that appeals to you and is available will do!) – removed form casing

3 small/medium sweet onions – diced

2 cloves garlic – finely chopped

1 small sprig fresh rosemary

3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes (optional – I always like a bit of heat!)

1/2 tsp salt (but taste dish before adding)

4 cups chopped greens (spinach, kale or chard work great)

1lb rigatoni (I use Barilla brand with ridges)

1/2 to 3/4 cup pasta cooking water (this is water reserved after cooking the pasta)

Method:

*Place the water on for the pasta. Rigatoni takes between 12 to 14 minutes to cook so plan on timing it to be ready when the rest of the dish is cooked. BEFORE YOU DRAIN THE PASTA WATER SCOOP OUT ABOUT 1 CUP AND SET SIDE.

1 – Place large pan (large enough to hold the entire finished dish) on low/medium heat and add 3 tbs of the oil. When it has wormed, Add the onions and garlic and cook stirring occasionally for 10 minutes, until nice and soft. Add the herbs and pepper flakes (if using).

Saute onions in oil, add herbs after a bit

Saute onions in oil, add herbs after a bit

2 – Add the sausage either by cutting it was a scissors or breaking it off with your hands into the pan. Break it up further with a wooden spoon as it is cooking. Turn the heat up a little and cook until the sausage begins to brown a little and is cooked through (depends but anywhere up to 15 minutes).

Add sausage

Add sausage

3 – Add the spinach and stir quickly. Turn heat off, taste for addition of salt and add if you think it needs it.  Cover with lid. until the pasta is ready.

Add greens

Add greens

4 – Add the pasta directly from draining into the pan (DO NOT RINSE PASTA UNDER COLD WATER), al with 3/4 cup of the reserved pasta water and cold butter. Replace lid and after a minute stir everything gently.

add cooked pasta and pasta water

add cooked pasta, cold butter and pasta water

Serve in warmed bowls and pass the cheese if you have it on hand. A few extra pepper flakes wouldn’t go astray either!

Did I menton how great this tastes topped with the cheese of the gods: Parmiagiano reggiano!

Did I mention how great this tastes topped with the cheese of the gods: Parmigiano Reggiano!

Banoffi Pie – The Portmanteau of Desserts! (serves 8 – 10)

If you haven’t had Banoffi Pie you are missing out!

Banoffi Pie

Banoffi Pie

This pie was all the rage in Ireland and England a few years ago (around the same time as the Crème Brûlée craze and preceding the Tiramisu and Cupcake trend). It was on every dessert menu in the country,  similar to how french pastries have fallen back into vogue these days, especially the delicately scented macaron which comes in an array of colors that make rainbows look sad and dun! (I wrote about them HERE  if you are curious, and HERE!).

You need to leave room for this!

You need to leave room for this!

I will agree wholeheartedly that the name of this cake is a bit corny, like the words “spork” (for fork and spoon), and skort (a word I find utterly ridiculous – combines shorts and skirt, oh, and have you heard of  “jeggings”? – too idiotic to explain ) and even Brangelina! As a general rule the latest of these stuck-together words (called portmanteau if you are interested, although you probably already knew that!) are pretty silly. I need to go on a bit here: the word Traduken in the culinary world for example – nothing could be sillier. It is officially a chicken inserted into a duck which is then inserted into a turkey and cooked! It might be delicious and one day I might try making one, but only after I can get over the word itself. Some of these words are quite inventive and it is a fun word game to play, but the one that is near and dear to me is when my mother asked if I could make her a “pignet” ring? Really? “Yes”, she said, “it is a signet ring for your pinky finger” We laughed so much about this and it became a real word to us! It is such a trendy thing to do nowadays. I think the word for portmanteau in the food world is “fusion” Okay, I’m done!

key ingredient: Bananas, the cheapest fruit on the planet!

key ingredient: Bananas, the cheapest fruit on the planet!

So at this point you can guess the ingredients of this pie…BANana and tOFFI (EE)! It is a marvellous combination of sweet stuff and I would love you to give it a try. The toffee can of course be purchased in a pinch but the most fun you can have and an excellent magic trick to show your children is to make it by boiling a can or two of sweetened condensed milk until it turns into toffee right before your eyes. (instructions are in the recipe below).

There are all sorts of ways you can make this your own. I would use whatever sweet pastry crust that works for you (mine is below and is as easy…well you know). I have had it with slivered almonds on top but I made it here with whole almonds, or you can omit the nuts altogether for that matter. Also there is an option to drizzle the bananas with a concentrated instant coffee (it’s simply a mixture of instant coffee, water and sugar. It is called camp coffee, a throw-back from world war II when things were in short supply and us humans became ingenious at figuring out how our food could still feel “the same”). Well you could do that or sometimes I just add some vanilla extract to my whipping cream and that is delicious too (also small kids seem to like this subtle taste better). The last thing to say is that this whole dessert could be bought and assembled, from the pastry crust to whipped cream from a can, although the idea of cream from a can still repulses me so I would probably end up having to pull out my hand whisk! But if that is all it took to get something as decadent as this onto the table in a hurry I would be willing to do it.

Add almonds and serve!

 This is a very impressive dessert to carry to the table

A little of this goes a long way so just one pie can feed a crowd. It is a long weekend in these here United States so why not plan to make this one night to give the weekend a more festive air.

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You will need:

for the pastry:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup ground almonds or walnuts

1/2 cup sugar

4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick, 8 tbs)

1 large egg

pinch of salt

Equipment: I used an 11″ fluted pie pan with a removable bottom. this is very handy when dealing with fussy toppings as you can remove the pie without any bother.

For the filling:

1 cup blanched whole almonds

2 cans sweetened condensed milk (14oz each) or a jar of ready-made toffee

5 to 6 ripe bananas (faintly spotty ones)

1 tbs Camp Coffee (mix 1 tbs instant coffee with 1 tsp fine sugar and 2 tbs water) – optional.

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

1 pastry pie crust (recipe below or ready-made)

How to make toffee magically:

This recipe can be used here or the cooked cans can be popped into the pantry (will keep for two months unopened) or the freezer (will keep for 6 months) to be whipped out anytime. There are all sorts of uses for this so boil up as many cans as you like!

et Voila

et Voila!

Put at least two can of Sweetened Condensed Milk into a big pot and add water until it comes up to the top of the cans. Place on stove top on high and allow to boil. Turn the heat down until the water comes to a constant “tremble” and boil for 4 hours, making sure to keep the water topped up as it boils off. Remove from water, let cans cool before opening and using.

Method for crust:

1 – Mix the flour, ground nuts and sugar in a bowl with a whisk.

Mix dry ingrediets for pastry crust

Mix dry ingredients for pastry crust

2 – Add the butter and mix it into the flour mixture using your fingertips. Add the egg and a pinch of salt and mix it together gently with a wooden spoon or your hands until it forms a ball.

add butter, then egg

Add butter, then egg

3 – Flatten into a thick disk and wrap it in cling film or some sort of plastic and place it in the fridge for about 20 or 30 minutes (you will be getting on with the rest of the recipe)

flatten into a disc adn refridgerate in plastic

Flatten into a disc and refrigerate in plastic

Preheat the oven to 350*

4 – Run the whole almonds until water until they are wet. place them on a tea towel and pat dry. Place them in a bowl with the confectioners (icing) sugar and stir until the nuts are coated in sugar. Spread out on a baking sheet and place in the oven until they are crispy looking. This will take anywhere from 12 to 18 or so minutes. Turn the almonds every five minutes so they cook with an even crispy-ness. Remove from the oven and let them cool.

Coat nuts with sugar and bake in the oven

Coat nuts with sugar and bake in the oven

Turn the oven up to 450*

5 – Take the pastry crust from the fridge and using a rolling-pin on wax paper roll the pastry out into a large disk (an 11 or 12 inch circle) and line your tart pan, trimming off the excess edges. Prick holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork and then place some wax paper or tin foil over the sides and bottom. Weigh the pastry down with dry beans (or pastry weights if you have them) and bake in the oven for about 12 minutes. Remove the beans and the foil and place back into the oven for another 4 or 5 minutes. Remove and set aside until ready to fill.

Line pastry crust into tart pan

Line pastry crust into tart pan

6 – While the pastry crust is cooling slice the bananas, whip the cream,(whip with or without vanilla extract), make camp coffee (if using), open cans of toffee.

Assemble pie

Spread toffee into pastry shell with spatula

Spread toffee into pastry shell with spatula

Top with sliced bananas

Top with sliced bananas and drizzle with camp coffee (if using)

Add whipped cream

Add whipped cream

Add almonds and serve!

Add almonds and serve!

Big News: The Crappy Kitchen IS NO MORE! (well very soon anyhow) But The Cooking Goes on!

Let me clarify the title and tell you that I am talking about my actual Crappy Kitchen being “No More” and Not The Crappy Kitchen blog itself. So food will still be cooked and written about but the kitchen will not be as crappy!

As I write this there is a deafening sound coming from the kitchen in the form of a power-driven chisel painstakingly chipping 1970’s fake brick and 105-year-old plaster (which consists of mortar mixed with horse hair if you’re interested) from the walls. I don’t even want to think about the minute particles of dust going into my body right now. However, I’m willing to suffer as I have waited exactly 11 years for this to happen: yes, the Crappy Kitchen is undergoing serious plastic surgery and if all goes well it should come out looking 30 or so years younger, or at least stop looking like it’s from the “70’s!

My Kitchen (yes that is a dust cloud)

My Kitchen (yes that is a dust cloud)

The last month or so have been hell (of course I’m exaggerating as hell is rumored to be quite unbearable) but I have never been happier. The place looks worse than ever but as you know, if you have ever deep-cleaned your bedroom or bathroom, you have to make a big mess to come out all shiny and new on the other side.

A few revelations have come from this bit of upheaval which I would like to write about: first, one can cook dinner on a square foot of clear space, and secondly I have answered my question of why I write this blog!

Ripping things out was quite satisfying

Ripping things out was quite satisfying

I stopped writing when the first bits of wall began tumbling to the kitchen floor, but that did not mean that the cooking stopped. I had no intention of ordering in for dinner each evening so the rule was, no matter how debris-ridden the place was after a day of work, it would be cleaned up enough for me to used my big saute pan on the stove top and there would be a place to put a chopping board.

more kitchen shots

more kitchen shots

The writing stopped at the beginning of this whole project because I was a bit protective of my new camera. My old camera (a Nikon D50 if you are curious) had been literally attached to my hand for the past 3 years and looked like that baby toy that every girl and boy seems to leave childhood with: sadly tattered and worn but too precious to be replaced. It was a highly abused piece of hardware and when I was told time and time again that I should treat it like a camera (you know, put the lens cap on after each use, set it down carefully, don’t leave near frying or steaming food…) I defending myself, and my camera for that matter, by arguing that this was more than just a camera, that it needed to be on hand at a moments notice (hence always having it swinging from my shoulder with the lens cap off!) to take pictures of food wherever it happened to be: my kitchen pretty much every night during my normal life, in restaurants (most memorably, Ireland and Italy in the past two years) and when my cooking took me to precarious places like a stone wall or beach with a two-plate camper burner on my back.

still cooking!

still cooking!

In these cases a camera has to be willing to take a bit of rough handling, although I did not mean to throw it over that high gate one evening  in Cortona before I climbed over it myself resulting in a smashed glass lens ( I was full sure it was on my shoulder when I made the climb, and that’s a whole other story in itself! Oh and I continued to take pictures for another year or so after that without the protection of a glass lens cover – worked fine!).

note our colorful fake brick wall

note our colorful fake brick wall

Suffice is to say when I shelled out for a new camera I started out by treating it like my friend with her new car. When my friend got a brand new car in pearly white she would park it in some deserted part of the parking lot or garage away from any other car for fear it would get scratched! I would tease her about her long trek to get to it when leaving her after a bookstore or cafe excursion. I knew her overly protective beginnings would give way to slowly treating it with a little less caution, as surly as I knew I would eventually end up setting my camera down on the spur of the moment beside the kitchen sink while I deftly pulled something out of the oven before it overcooked (incidentally I met my friend yesterday and when I left the bookshop her car was in the very first space!).

it is no more!

it is no more!

The point is, my initial caution stopped me from taking pictures (I happen to buy my camera just before the renovation), which in turn stopped me from writing about my dinners. At the beginning I missed the whole ritual of taking pictures and then recording the event or experience, or whatever you want to call it. I wondered if anyone wondered where I had disappeared to, which in turn got me thinking about why I write in the first place, or more importantly WHO did I write these sometimes long and time-consuming food-related meanderings to?

a little dancing before the wall goes up!

a little dancing before the wall goes up!

The only way to figure it out was to make the decision not to write it for a bit and see if my answer would come to me. It was a good time to take a break as the kitchen was a sometimes intolerant distraction, but I was also newly busy with a new business venture which is still keeping me up at night these days!

Anyway, I will leave that question for now to say that despite the rolls of plastic barricading the kitchen from the rest of the house, and the fact that my entire kitchen had been emptied of pots, pans, all food and serving paraphernalia to its new temporary space on bookshelves, sideboards and any empty surface in my dining and living rooms, the cooking still went on, or should I say goes on.

The newly walled-in falling down porch

The newly walled-in falling down porch

The trick at the beginning, when the kitchen was just about off-limits, was to conjure up dishes that required just one pot from start to finish. That meant, no little sauce pan or pan to saute something last-minute, or God forbid a meal like roast tenderloin, mashed potatoes, gravy and garden peas! Luckily I am more of a one-pot sort of cook where fussing with pots is just something I do on special occasions, or when I feel like being holed-up in the kitchen for hours in order to scrounge some peace and quiet!

I cooked this during the height of the demolition - and it was good!

I cooked this during the height of the demolition – and it was good!

The hassle of this new routine is that now ingredients and kitchen tools are not at my fingertips. For a person who generally cooks on the fly it has the tendency of squelching my creativity, giving way to more planned out sorts of dishes. I have to think about what I want to make and then go around the house gathering the things I need from hither and yon and then staying put.

Of course that never completely works out as I always forget something  and have to go flying out of the room for a spoon or pot lid. The worst part is that half the time I leave to get something I end up standing in the middle of the room surrounded by my organised piles wondering what I left to get in the first place.

quite the industria look

quite the industrial look (the trick was to put everything on little squares of paper towels to keep the dust off the glasses and whatever else).

That said I have to admit to loving the madness of it all. I liked having to stick to a tiny space in which to chop ( making sure that the raw chicken or fish was the last thing on the chopping board or else I,d have to use two!) and prepare and it curtailed my tendency to leave spoons here and there on the counter top, and in general be a more compact cook. I feel that I now have the training necessary to cook in the kitchen of a tiny sailing vessel!

This is what was under our fake brick wall: real brick!

This is what was under our fake brick wall: real brick!

I also love the visual of food cooking and glasses of wine against the backdrop of a construction site: the exposed walls, the torn-out cupboards and counter top, with ladders propped up here and there and the smell of newly sawn wood and fresh paint hanging in the air. I’m sure to get sick of it at some point, but for now I am quite content to step over a tool box or lay down a piece of paper where I need to lay out the ingredients for the nightly dinner or breakfast as the case may be. Let’s see how I feel about this if I’m still living like this near Christmas when I most certainly plan on having more than one pot on the stove at a time!

I was obsessed with saving my herb gardern and sprayed the dust off of them each evening when the work had ended fpr the day

I was obsessed with saving my herb garden and sprayed the dust off of them each evening when the work came to a halt.

This whole upheaval has further convinced me that you don’t need a fancy place in which to cook good and delicious meals. I’m newly convinced it is all about 1 good knife and a sturdy saute pan that can do the work of 10! The only thing that has unnerved me is the fright I get when the occasional bit of loose plaster or gravelly brick falls from the ceiling or walls. I’ve been hit on a the head a couple of times but luckily nothing has found its way into anyone’s dinner!

I cooked these great sandwiches on the pan one night!

I cooked these great sandwiches on the pan one night!

I have cooked all sorts of pasta and stir fry dishes, soups galore, meatloaf, battered fish, made fresh tortillas and even a few fabulous desserts in the settling dust of my kitchen construction zone. It all takes a little more time, and cleaning up and then trailing out of the kitchen to put stuff away is a tedious pain, but it is all worth it. We get to eat good food each evening and the smell of home cooking gives everyone a sense of normalcy, something I find my children are in desperate need of after a day of school and homework.

And this spicy pasta dish!

And this spicy pasta dish!

The other point I wanted to make was the whole “why write this blog” business? This was the perfect time to give it up for good. I started this project nearly three years ago to document my food, but it also came from an urge to write – to write anything! I was told the only way to get used to writing was to write everyday, and not just when “you were in the mood”. The whole writing when I was in the mood had left me with a pile of half-written recipes, stories and travel-type antidotes. I decided to write about what I cooked because it felt like something solid and real and something that I could manage. There was nothing to make up: all I had to do was write about what I had done the night or day before.

What's this guy doing on my countertop!

What’s this guy doing on my counter top!

It was so gruelling at the beginning. I would sit with my pictures from the previous night’s dinner and stare at the big white rectangle on the WordPress Site where my words were supposed to go. I struggled with what I actually wanted to say and how the whole blog should “feel”. I decided to come up with rules to make the writing easier: stick to what I cooked, talk about food, be positive and don’t get personal (I mean personal as in not fall into the whole new trend where you reveal absolutely everything about yourself – there was absolutely no way I wanted to do that and I knew right then that I would most definitely be limiting my readership – after all, there would be no “dirt”)

Is there an end in sight he seems to be pleading through the dust

“Is there an end in sight” he seems to be pleading through the dust!

As I began to write I sort of fell into a pattern, and I liked it. I became brave and began to write about other “food-related’ adventures, like where I ate or where I travelled and ate! After all, for me food is just part of living and that word living is something I hold on tightly to. I became acutely aware of my life as I was now writing it all down, and as it unfolded I realized that this was it, this was my life. No matter what I thought about, no matter what my opinions were on any subject and no matter what I wanted my life to be in the future, I could see clearly what it was in the here and now. I could read about it. And when I read and re-read what I was writing, because I tirelessly edit everything and try to stick to the truth and not some version of it, I started to appreciate it for what it was. It might have been hum-drum some days but for the most part I felt that I had better sit up and start being grateful for every little morsel of what was good.

I think I cooked chicken this particu;ar night

I think I cooked chicken this particular night

I found that I especially liked writing about something special, like the time my brother Sean ran in his 100-miler, or when I ate a sandwich on a wall in county Tipperary with my kids or when I cooked a dinner that reminded me of my mother…and on and on…dinners with friends, my sisters June and Mimi, and my lovely husband and children – all so special and so worth writing about. It was to please them, and to please me and to somehow in writing it down perhaps reach out to other people and draw them in. And they could be drawn in for all sorts of reasons: out of curiosity, because they wanted a recipe, because they wanted to look at cool pictures from someone else’s perspective or to feel some connection or familiarity to their own lives. I became aware of all of those things and somehow being a successful blogger took a distant back seat.

More good food

More good food

For the first while friends or other people who read my blog would give me advice on how to become “popular”…and I just couldn’t relate. It would mean writing shorter entries and perhaps “styling” my food pictures more – it would have meant strategizing my dishes and planning the shots and the evening accordingly. It felt a little overwhelming and more like work! I then read the WordPress site and it turned that I agreed with their philosophy more than with anyone else’s. They said to be successful you should write consistently well and generally be nice – yes, they used the word nice. This is a word that is in my opinion underappreciated. If I meet someone and think they are “nice” this means that they will inadvertently go to heaven (being figurative here) because they look at all of the good and none of the bad. I could never be called nice! It seemed that WordPress wanted me to write about what I was passionate about and to hell with the rest (generally speaking). I decided to stick to my guns and keep on doing what I loved and what I had become good at: writing about the supposedly mundane events of my life and not thinking about too much else.

The back yard turned into one giant pile of nail-ridden, lead-paint covered wood scrapes

The back yard turned into one giant pile of nail-ridden, lead-paint covered wood scrapes

The blog became the place I had to account to and when you feel accountable you feel an obligation in some way or another to satisfy that thing you started (especially when you family and friends ask you where you have been for the past several weeks!).

But still I cooke (catfish curry)

But still I cooked (catfish curry)

I wrote pretty religiously for 32 months until my camera gave up the ghost and my kitchen came tumbling down, and that is when I asked myself the question: do I keep going or do I stop?  Afterall, I had accumulated hundreds of recipes (one of my main objectives starting out) and it was not lucrative in any way so why bother. Well it seems that collecting recipes is something I can do forever (I mean there are still more ways to cook a chicken that need telling!) and things happen to me everyday that I feel compelled to write about. As for the money, well it turns out that I am happier scrounging than scheming up ways to make my blog more appealing to a wider audience. In fact I am more than positive that at this point I am not writing this for someone to read as it is way too long (although I hope someone is) and am left with the answer that I write this for myself and eventually for my children – it will probably be the only thing I leave behind (as well as some choice jewelry for my daughter and poetry books that I hope will not be donated to Goodwill or the library!).

All in all I know all of his torment will be worth it!

All in all I know all of his torment will be worth it!

The funny part about all of this is that people have been reading my blog as much as ever and my not writing has not affected my mediocre but steady following. That makes me happy and I can’t wait to post the recipe for a great dinner I made the other night that made my daughters toes curl with satisfaction.

And lastly, this post is dedicated to my sister Mimi (she’ll know why!)

Birthday Cake!

Birthday Cake!