Monday, October 4, 2010

Penne Treviso-style plus a Belgian Variation

we took some radicchio home from the rialto ma...

This is a typical (and very easy) recipe from Treviso sent to me by a Facebook friend who lives in that town, in the north of Italy. Treviso is the cradle of "radicchio", a slightly bitter vegetable  that, in spite of its red colour, is very close in taste to the Belgian endive. Which is why I'm going to give you both versions: the original Treviso one and my (Belgian) variation on it. But there are lots of other ways to use radicchio, and here is a useful link to give you some ideas:

- Pasta, any "hard" kind (meaning done without eggs), like spaghetti or  penne, about 80g/person  (if the commercial dried variety) or 100g if you use home-made fresh pasta; the rest of the ingredients are given for 4 persons:
- 50 g bacon (not the smoked variety - really lard) cut in very thin slices;
- 100 g of radicchio di Treviso, also cut in thin slices;
- garlic (optional)
- olive oil, a small table spoon
- ground pepper as desired

In a pan, fry the garlic (a small piece if you use it) in a little olive oil and once it has browned, throw it away. Continue with the same pan using this oil  to fry the bacon for about 2 minutes.  Then add the radicchio and cover with a lid, lowering the flame and cooking for about 10 minutes or so, until the vegetable has become tender.
It's done! Now you cook the pasta as usual, remembering to set aside a cup of the cooking water once you've strained the pasta - because you'll use some of that water, as needed, when you turn the pasta in your pan-fried vegetables and warm them up quickly before serving. At the last minute, add a little fresh olive oil in it and a sprinkle of grated Parmisan cheese. Serve with more grated cheese on the side.

Now for my Belgian variation:
- replace the radicchio with a couple of Belgian endives sliced thin

- the bacon can be replaced with smoked ham also cut in thin slices and dried in the pan without oil, so the slices become slightly crisp. Then proceed with cooking the endives, as before, on a slow fire with a lid. If it looks dry to you, add a little water so it won't burn.
- at the end, when you turn the pasta in the pan, add the cooking water as needed and a pat of fresh butter.

Serve with cheese as before.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pork with Peaches, Honey and Red Wine

Previous entries from Pigs in the City now on ...Image via Wikipedia
Once again, this recipe has resulted from a peculiar form of serendipity: I open my fridge an hour before dinner and discover I'm missing a whole lot of things and have to make do with what happens to be in there (ok, I'll confess to a small sin: I'm often too lazy to go shopping!). On that particular day: pork, peaches and potatoes...

The peaches threatened to mature to the point of being quite inedible! So I had no choice but cook them and I used what I had - a few slices of pork cut in the fillet part, but pork scallops would be equally good for this recipe.

It's really very easy to do and the fruit goes superbly well with the pork! 

Ingredients for 4 persons
-  one pound/500 g of pork in slices (or more if you're very carnivorous), trimmed of fat and floured
-  3 or 4 peaches, peeled and in pieces
-  2 tablespoons honey
-  small glass of red wine
-  one teaspoon of Knorr or Maggi's powdered meat broth or one cube of same, or better still "fond de veau" (but as fas as I know that can only be found in France)
-  salt and pepper to taste

Start with the peach sauce. Peel the fruit and cut it in rough pieces. Put everything - the fruit, the meat cube or powder, honey and wine - in a lidded pot (better if teflon-lined) and cook on a slow fire  until soft. It takes about ten minutes. Be sure to cover your pot so it doesn't dry and add freshly ground pepper at the last minute.

Put a little salt over the pork slices then flour them, shaking off the excess. Pan-fry them (I use a teflon pan with a little olive oil) until golden. Set on a serving dish with boiled potatoes (you can also pan-fry them in oil to make them tastier and prettier) and pour the peach sauce over the meat.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Gnocchi alla Greca, Greek-style with Feta Cheese and Tomatoes...mmmm!

A scanned red tomato, along with leaves and fl...Image via Wikipedia
Yesterday for dinner, it was too late to buy anything and I was stuck with potato gnocchi, a big slice of Feta cheese and a bunch of garden tomatoes ripe and red, the best variety, the one that comes straight from one's own garden...

Perhaps "stuck" is not the right word, because putting these ingredients together I stumbled on a marvellous way of accomodating gnocchi! Really, a super simple recipe that is guaranteed to surprise your friends! Ok, in this case I'll admit I'm not modest and I'm quite pleased with the result. Believe me, you should try it too: the tart taste of the feta cheese is nicely smoothed out by the fresh tomatoes and herbs and they both do wonders for the gnocchi that are, after all, a rather bland, non-descript affair...

Ingredients for 4 persons

750 g  (close to 2 pounds) potato gnocchi (if you want to make them yourself, I've attached below a useful recipe but I confess that I simply buy them at the supermarket)
750 g tomatoes, very red, peeled
300 g of Feta cheese or more if you so desire: use it grated very roughly or crumbled
Herbs to taste: oregano (a tablespoon), sage, marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste


Note there's no olive oil, indeed no fat at all in the ingredients. You get all the fat you need from the cheese. Of course, if you insist, you can add a little oil at the moment of mixing the gnochi in the tomato sauce but I don't do it because I feel it detracts from the fresh taste of the tomatoes: after all, oil puts a film between your taste buds and the tomatoes!

Note there's no onion or garlic either. Of course you can put them in (finely chopped) but I don't because, in my opinion, they detract from the tomato taste and are wholly unnecessary. Gnocchi are a delicate food and don't go well with an overwhelming sauce.

Start with a large pot of boiling water in which to drop the tomatoes, fish them out with a spoon and peel them. Don't throw the water away: you can use it to boil the gnocchi (once you've added the necessary salt). Mash the tomatoes up and put in a teflon-lined pot (I use earthenware but then I live in Umbria and such pots are traditional here). Place on a medium flame and reduce the tomatoes, mashing them occasionally with a wooden fork (no metal! It spoils the taste). It should take you about 10 minutes or less. In any case, don't cook your tomatoes too long (15 minutes is a maximum) or they'll become difficult to digest and loose their fresh taste. Your sauce will look lumpy and that's all right (more tasty!) but if you hate lumpiness, you can always put it through the blender (I don't).

Add herbs, salt and pepper to your tomato sauce. Taste it: it may be too acid if your tomatoes are not properly sun-ripe. In that case add a teaspoon of sugar or more, to taste.

Now boil your gnocchi and when they float up, spoon them out into your pot with the tomato sauce. Warm up the whole lot on a low flame and mix. Pour into a warm serving dish and sprinkle generously with crumbled or grated Feta cheese all over the gnochi. DON'T mix it at this point. People as they serve themselves will find the tomato sauce and gnocchi underneath the cheese and it will get naturally mixed in their plate. This is important because mixing in advance destroys the cheese's flavour. Incidentally, that is also the way Sicilians prepare their famous Pasta alla Norma: with dried salted ricotta cheese sprinkled all over the pasta and NOT inside (in spite of what some Internet chefs say).
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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pasta with Smoked Salmon: a totally different recipe and success guaranteed !

Fettucine with Smoke Salmon in Cream SauceImage by nadi0 via Flickr
Most pasta recipes with smoke salmon use a cream sauce to which you add the chopped salmon. Results are often hugely disappointing. All too often, the cream sauce clogs up when the pasta cools, and as you finish your plate, you find it all sticky and gummy.

Not too surprising.

Any pasta sauce that is cream-based is guaranteed to cool off very, very fast! Another problem is with the smoked salmon itself: it is very delicate and difficult to manipulate. It doesn't suffer any heating without losing all its colour and flavour - so if you try to keep your cream sauce warm so that it remains nice and liquid, this will have the unwanted effect of turning your salmon from pink to an unappetizing white shade. It will have a flaky texture and a flat taste. In short, a disaster!

Here's a way to accomodate pasta with smoked salmon WITHOUT running into all these problems. It has a nice salmony taste and never becomes sticky when it cools down. It is in fact just as good at room temperature, so that you can easily use this recipe when you are making a buffet for friends and have to cook in advance and leave the dish standing on the table for half-an-hour or more.

Ingredients: quantities given here are for 4 persons.

- Any kind of pasta will do: fettuccine, pappardelle, penne, farfalle...Follow directions on your package and assume you'll need to cook 80 g of pasta per male guest and 50 g per female guest (I mean the dry pasta - for the fresh variety, raise the amount to 120g and 80 g respectively) 
-   One cup1/2 of ripe, red, fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped fine
-   2 tablespoons of butter
-   1 tablespoon olive oil
-   1 tablespoon grated bottarga or if you can't find it, use powdered fish broth (for example Knorr's fish broth is excellent)
-   1/2 cup (or more, to taste) of fresh, roughly chopped rucola
-   a small glass of Vodka
-   smoked salmon: 200g chopped
-   abundant pepper 


The thing to remember - it's crucial - is to set aside your chopped salmon and add it to the pasta only AFTER you've mixed the pasta in the sauce and the dish has had a chance to cool down.

The first thing to do, apart from setting your water boiling as soon as you walk in the kitchen, is to start preparing the pasta sauce. It is super-easy and requires no cooking (except for peeling the tomatoes by dropping them for a minute in boiling water - in fact, I always use the water in which I cook the pasta for peeling my tomatoes, saves on pots to clean!)

You melt the butter and put all the ingredients in a serving dish and let it sit there while the pasta cooks. Neither the rucola nor the tomatoes need any cooking. Indeed, the tomatoes should be chopped as fine as you can make them, and dropped into the sauce together with their juice. In case you're wondering why I suggest adding olive oil since I've started with butter, it is simply because it ensures a creamier texture, as the oil prevents the butter of going hard on you when it cools.

Then, when the pasta is cooked (and you've set aside in a cup some of the cooking water in case you need it), you simply turn it into your sauce. If it looks dry, just add some of the water in which the pasta has cooked, nothing else and certainly not olive oil or butter. There's no need for additional grease, it would only cover up the taste! When it looks well coated and slighlty liquid at the bottom, turn in the chopped salmon and serve. Btw, with this kind of dish there's no need for Parmigiano cheese.

But do have white wine with it and let me know how you like it!

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Another Blog on Cooking...

Various fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains; ...Image via Wikipedia
Or should I say "cuisine"? Sounds better.

Those of you who follow me know that I started a blog some 9 months ago to vent out ... no, not just my frustrations but my opinions about what's going on in the world. Lots of things are going wrong and certainly deserve a comment. So I'll keep doing that in my original blog where you'll find everything about economics and politics: http://claudenougat.blogspot.com  
 Now retitled: Claude Nougat - It's Political, it's Artsy!

And here? You'll find everything about cooking

Well, not quite everything but actually what I've learned over 40 years of cooking for family and friends both here in Europe where I now live (mainly Italy) and over there in America where I began my adult life. 

Those of you who have followed me on my other blog will find some of the recipes I've published there. I thought it would be more convenient to have them all in one place, plus of course new ones - little by little as they occur to me, and depending on the changes in season and, of course, on bouts of serendipity! 

I'm a great believer in serendipity in the kitchen. My recipes, more often than not, tend to depend on what I happen to have in the icebox or come across at the market...And I do welcome suggestions! Food can always be improved with a little imagination. Cuisine, both high (the French and Chinese variety) and low (everyday "square" meals), is definitely one of the main things that distinguish us humans from our animal friends. I do have fantasy when I cook but I don't claim to have a fantasy that exhausts all the possibilities...

I'm also a great believer in METHODS: what makes food really good is more the result of HOW it is done than of WHAT ingredients go into the recipe - what I call "tricks in cooking", something that is often skipped over in cookbooks. 

This said, the QUALITY of the ingredients is fundamental and not something you can skimp on. I also happen to be a great believer in bio-food not so much because I'm against modern agriculture or an avid fan of green agriculture, but because all those chemicals that are put in to grow food fast and make it look pretty is generally achieved at the expense of TASTE. 

And, I suspect, HEALTH. No one has yet proved there is a link between hormones, fertilizer use and obesity in humans, but I wouldn't be surprised if one day such a link is found. How come the hormones in our fattened-up beef don't get transmitted to us when we eat the meat, causing similar (fattening) results? So better safe than sorry, and to the extent possible, I like to stick to traditional, chemical free ingredients. Like olive oil for frying...

That's the kind of philosophy I bring into the kitchen and I hope that many of you will follow me and enjoy the recipes I'm proposing here.

Please join and make comments, add to my recipes, enrich this blog. After all, food is fundamental, it's about LIFE!
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Melanzane alla Parmigiana: Cooking Tricks to Make it Perfect!

Tomato sauce for eggplant stewImage via Wikipedia
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm convinced that cooking METHODS are far more important than actual recipes if you want to be known among your friends as a "good cook".

Unfortunately, most cookbooks don't give you the tricks of the trade.

No, that's not quite right: some cookbooks do, but they rarely tell you everything. There are cooking secrets so well kept that they never, ever surface anywhere!

That's the case with melanzane alla parmigiana, a cheese and eggplant dish that is a classic of Italian cuisine. In most restaurants, it's a disaster. Lukewarm, oily, swimming in old tomato sauce with gooey cheese that gets stuck in your teeth. Actually the cheese - usually slices of mozarella - tastes of nothing at all. And that yellow and black stuff in the middle, that feels like a greasy sponge, is (presumably) eggplant. Poor eggplant...

Once, a long time ago, in a small trattoria in the countryside near Naples, I had a superb melanzane alla parmigiana. Nothing was oily or tasteless about it, the eggplant had an amazingly light texture, almost like a soufflé, the cheese was flavourful, the tomato fresh. It was made in heaven!

It took me all of twenty years to figure out how that was done. I've asked Italian friends, I've tried every possible variant. And I kept running into the same problems: too much oil was absorbed by the eggplant when I fried it, too much water oozed out of the mozzarella while it cooked in the oven, the tomato sauce was either flat-tasting or overwhelming. I tried grilling the eggplant instead of frying it, on the theory that it wouldn't - by definition - absorb any oil and that it would be good for you. A light diet and all that. Well, let me tell you, using grilled eggplant slices is a sorry substitute. The slices go dry on you as they grill away,and there's not a chance you'll ever get that fluffy wonder that makes all the difference.

So here is how to do it and get super results (in my humble opinion):

Ingredients for 4 persons:

- One very large eggplant or 2 medium
- A cupful of tomatoes very red and ripe
- 150 g mozzarella cheese
- 150 g grated parmigiano cheese or more - to taste
- basil leaves
- salt and pepper as needed
- Olive oil to fry the eggplants - enough for deep-frying, exactly as for French fries


Turn the oven high - on 6 or whatever heat you use to roast a chicken.

Get your ingredients ready:

1. To prepare the eggplant: peal away most of the skin leaving only a few strips then cut it in thick slices and lay on a reclining dish; sprinkle with salt and let it ooze out for about 30 minutes (this serves to get rid of the bitter taste some eggplants may have);

2. To prepare the tomatoes: the tastiest are the cherry tomatoes which you can cut up in very small pieces (at least 4 pieces out of each cherry tomato); alternatively, drop very red, ripened tomatoes in boiling water for one minute, pull out once the skin has broken, cool under cold water and peel them, breaking them up in pieces; in both cases, set the tomatoes aside in a bowl with salt, pepper and basil leaves to flavour them;

3.To prepare the mozzarella cheese, slice it and squeeze it to get most of the water out; don't worry if it breaks up, it doesn't matter; set it to drip dry in a colander;

4. Now for the most difficult part of the recipe. Heat olive oil in a big pot; make sure there's enough oil to cover the eggplant slices abundantly. I always use olive oil for frying, it's better for your health, it doesn't burn so easily and you can use it again at least once (if you haven't allowed it to burn!), AND it leaves a nice taste in your mouth - indispensable for Italian food.

Dry the eggplant with a paper towel and quickly roll the slices in flour: the flouring will create a thin protective crust once the eggplant hits the boiling oil and thus prevent it from absorbing too much oil (if you ever try to fry eggplant without flouring first, you'll see what happens, they become soggy with oil). So, once the oil is really hot (but not smoking!), shake off any extra flour and drop the eggplant slices one by one. Now you have to stay over your boiling oil with a spatula or some such to turn the slices and make sure they cook evenly to a golden colour; lift them out to dry on a paper towel.

5. Last step in the recipe but the most important one: putting it all together in a pyrex dish to go in the oven. This is where it is easy to make mistakes: it has to be done in a certain way and that's what makes the difference. Let me be very, very clear:
a. Start with a layer of eggplant slices and set some tomatoes around them, making sure you're lifting the tomatoes out of the juice they've spewed out, and if needed, squeezing them as dry as you can (you don't want extra liquid here!).
b. Over the slices sprinkle generously grated parmigiano cheese - because, remember, it's in the name: even though you have mozzarella in the recipe, it's the parmigiano that does it!
c. Then slices (or pieces) of mozzarella wrung dry and make sure to top them with parmigiano cheese; add pepper to taste (no salt is needed because the parmigiano is salty);
d. Start again with a, b, c - you  need at least two layers like this and better still if you can make three. Top it off with the remaining tomatoes and basil leaves. If they fall on the side, it doesn't matter.

Put 20 minutes in the oven (middle rack), until the cheese is soft and the parmigiano on top has turned slightly golden. Wait for it to cool down before serving. It tastes better when it's not too hot.

Do let me know how it worked for you!
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Chicken Soup Medieval Style

ParsleyImage via Wikipedia
This is a plain, simple recipe, far away from Nouvelle Cuisine and inspired from an older time than Escoffier and classical cuisine - much older, the Middle Ages actually.

Two years ago, as we spent a couple of weeks in Touraine going around all the various Renaissance castles and gardens, I came across some neat restaurants serving medieval cuisine (or so they pretended!). I was so intrigued that I picked up a couple of cookbooks about medieval cuisine to study it.

Fascinating! Not everything our forefathers ate six hundred years ago is good or in line with contemporary tastes but it's worth digging into.

It would seem that much of medieval cuisine was characterized by a lavish use of meat broths variously done and lots and lots of herbs. And for making sauces, medieval cooks tended to use bread as a thickener rather than wheat flour as we do now. Chinese cuisine of course uses corn flour to thicken gravies - possibly rice flour in older-style recipes - and it would seem natural that Europeans should have used bread, the classic food of Western civilization. Some of them still do, for example the Spaniards when they make Gazpacho which, as everyone knows, is thickened with bread.

By the way, if you try to use bread as a thickener, I've noticed through trial and error that the traditional method for thickening Gazpacho - slices of stale bread soaked in water and then squeezed dry before adding to the vegetable mix - is by far the best. Any short cut you might be tempted to use, such as throwing slices of bread directly in the mix and then reduce everything to a pulp,doesn't give a satisfactory result: your soup or sauce might present itself as thick as you might want it to be, but you'll find it hard to digest. I don't know why, but the step of soaking bread in water and squeezing it dry is somehow essential. Maybe with the water running off, it gets rid of some indigestible elements in the bread (perhaps yeast?), but whatever it is, it makes quite a difference for your internal hydraulics!

Now to my recipe. I use no oil of any kind to cook it - only add a little olive oil at the end when it's done. As to the ingredients, they're very simple: a chicken in pieces (I use only the breast, whole, but you can put in legs or whatever you like) and every fresh vegetable you can find...

It's a little like the Irish Stew in Three Men in a Boat where the dog adds a rat he found floating in the Thames (and that's when you realize half-way through the book that the protagonists are not four but really three men in a boat as in the title - the fourth voice belonging to the dog!). Well, I'm not suggesting you add a rat to it, but it's important to use vegetables that are in season. It's a medieval recipe after all, and they didn't transport exotic produce from abroad. Speaking of exotic produce, that's why potatoes or tomatoes are optionals: medieval cooks probably didn't use them but I do simply because I love them and I am no purist: I'll tweak any recipe to make it better tasting!

Here is the way I did it yesterday (for 3 to 4 persons). I served it lukewarm and it was just the right thing for a summer evening. But it would work equally well in winter if you served it piping hot.

- 250 g or half-a-pound of chicken meat or more if desired in big pieces (I used breast and cut it in 4 chunks)
- 1 big onion chopped plus 3 or 4 spring onions whole
- 1 leek in chunks
- 1 big carrot scraped and cut in thick slices
- 1 or 2 large potatoes peeled and cubed
- 2 celery stems in chunks
- 4 or 5 big pieces of cauliflower (that's an important medieval type veggie - can be replaced by any sort of cabbage)
- 1 large tomato peeled and cut in 4 pieces or use a handful of cherry tomatoes whole (they're very tasty when cooked and to make it easy to peel, throw them in together with the other veggies without peeling them; let them boil a couple of minutes then fish them out with a slotted spoon; run cold water over them to cool them down and peel off the skin: it comes off very easily; at that point slice them in half and return to the soup)
- 1 zucchini in big chunks
- Some green beans cut in pieces, fresh peas, watercress or spinach leaves or whatever greens you may have at hand (you need a green touch for your eyes...and taste!)
- salt and pepper (instead of salt I use a Knorr cube or you can add consommé or ready-made chicken broth - whatever broth works best for you but not too much of it: remember you've got chicken meat in your soup, and you don't want to smother your chicken!)

To thicken and finish the soup:

- Parsley, lots of it (a handful!)
- 2 Bread slices soaked in water and squeezed dry
- 1 spoonful of wine vinegar (to taste)
- 1 spoonful olive oil (to taste)


This is the big difference with the way one makes Italian Minestrone (where you start off by frying onion in olive oil and then add the vegetables): here, you put all the vegetables together in your pot and you barely cover with cold water. Flavour it with either salt and pepper or broth, but always remember to grind pepper from your pepper mill (the industrial ground variety has little flavour).

Bring to a boil and at that point add the chicken meat making sure it is immediately covered in the boiling liquid and turns white (this prevents the meat juice from escaping and turning the meat dry). Let everything simmer with a lid half on. It will cook very quickly - in about 20 minutes (I like my veggies slightly crisp and in any case chicken meat cooks fast - you don't want to overcook or everything will get stringy and sad-looking).

When it's done, you'll notice you have a soup with little liquid - that's the way it should be and DON'T ADD water! This isn't really a soup - more like a stew and now you need to thicken that liquid. Ladle some of it into your osterizer where you've placed the bread and parsley and switch the machine on, pouring from the top a little vinegar and oil. Taste and see if you like it. It has to have a fresh taste, the way Gazpacho does (it's the vinegar that does it) but not too much.

Then put it back in your pot and swirl it. And don't cook it anymore or you'll lose the fresh flavour of the parsley. Serve it in a deep earthenware dish if you've got one (that makes it look more medieval), taking care to place the pieces of chicken in the middle so people can see them and easily help themselves.

As I said before, if it's summer, don't heat it up: it's very nice at room temperature. And it certainly makes the life of a hostess easier when she's got guests to look after!

P.S. You can experiment with additional herbs other than parsley (for example tarragon). Let me know how it comes out!

P.P.S. Since it's a cross between a soup and a stew, I think a new word should be made up for it: a chicken "stoup" or "stoop"...How does that strike you?
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Melted Scamorza Cheese with Ham and Mushrooms

Smoked Scarmorza (scamorza affumicata)Image via Wikipedia
Heard about serendipity in cooking? No? Well, this is an example.

Today I hit upon a new way to do an old Italian favorite: melted scamorza, and I want to tell you about it.

And write about it here so I remember!

I tend to invent dishes as a function of what I happen to find (and don't find) in my icebox, and sometimes, by chance, I hit on a winner! But then, if I don't write it down somewhere quick, I forget all about it.

I suspect scamorza is not an easy cheese to find outside of Italy: it's similar to mozzarella, but aged some more and therefore it doesn't shed all that water when it melts. It comes in two varieties: plain and smoked (affumicata).

I prefer the plain, my husband the smoked variety but it doesn't really matter. Both are good and easy to cook. Just throw them in a frying pan, let them melt on medium-high heat and flip them over so that they are nicely golden on both sides. It takes a couple of minutes.

Easy? You bet. And if you haven't got scamorza you can do it with almost any semi-creamy cheese at hand, even Camembert or Brie (cut in thick slices - leave the skin on, it has a nice taste).

What did I do today that was different? Simple, I added mushrooms and ham, and when I was finished it looked very unusual and pretty, and the tastes of ham and mushrooms really complemented the cheese.

I happened to have some already cooked sliced mushrooms at hand (they were plain, pan-fried) and a couple of cooked ham slices - but you could use equally well any other kind of ham, including smoked ham.

First step. I grabbed my scissors and cut the ham up in short strips, which I threw into a grease-free frying pan (the Teflon type)over a medium fire, letting them fry (without fat - that's important) until they started to dry (don't toast too much or else the ham strips curl up, shrink and become too salty). By the way, fried ham this way is something I always use in lieu of bacon: much less fat and better for you health. Also it gives a more delicate taste to almost any dish that you'd normally do with bacon.

Second step. Add the mushrooms and chunks of cheese artfully, so that the cheese is in direct contact with the pan, and prettily surrounded by the mushrooms and ham. And proceed as usual: keep frying until the cheese is golden underneath. Don't bother to flip the cheese over but make sure it's soft all the way through.

Et voilà! Slide into a (previously heated) serving dish and serve.

Presto fatto. Tell me how you like it!
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A Grand Finale Low Calorie Desert

Dry fruitImage via Wikipedia

I had a dietary problem on New Year's Eve: I needed to come up with a sophisticated desert to finish dinner off with a flourish - something special to go with Champagne - and yet be low-calorie and light and easy-to-digest, and with NO egg yolks.

All of this to stay in keeping with the unbelievably strict dietary requirements of my 96 year-old mother!

The desert had to be based on...cooked fruit, bah! Well, I did devise something rather special that I want to share with you and that I'm consigning to my blog so I won't forget it the next time a need something super duper AND light!

I did it with pears and apples and a few big, juicy California prunes thrown in for good measure, but I guess you could use any other fruit you like: apricots and, why not, strawberries, blueberries, any berries you happen to have handy. And in one respect I broke down: I used cane sugar (I love its nutty flavour) and a little wine, but I suppose that if you wanted to be really strict about it you could use an artificial sweetener and skip the wine (and use water instead - shudder!).

So here's the recipe:
1. Peel and cut in half (taking out the hard core) a mix of APPLES and PEARS (at least one fruit per person, plus one or two, as desired, to make a nice batch); use also some DRIED FRUIT that you've allowed to soak in hot water with a little sugar added in to plump them up.

2. Put all the fruit in a teflon pan and add the water in which you've soaked the dried fruit, a cup of WHITE WINE or, better still, half-a-cup of PORTO or SHERRY wine, the juice of 1/2 LEMON and 2 spoonfuls of CANE SUGAR, and CINNAMON to taste. And yes, do taste it: it should be sweet but not overwhelming.

3. Place the pan on low heat and COVER it; use a transparent lid to keep an eye on what's happening so that you don't let your fruit mixture dry out. It doesn't take long to cook this way: maybe 15 minutes or less. Check the fruit with a toothpick: when it sinks in real easy, it's done.

4. Take the fruit out (delicately! It breaks easily) and set it out in a nice looking baking dish, something you can take out to the table. Return the pan with its juices to the fire, add some more sugar and wine and boil it down until it starts to thicken then pour it over the fruit.

5. Now, this is really good as is but if you want to serve the fruit for a special occasion, this is how you dress it up:
  • Beat up 3 EGG WHITES real hard with a spoonful of floury sugar, as you would do to prepare a meringue
  • Spread over the fruit mixture
  • Top it off with crumbled up CORNFLAKES or any flakes you like
  • Put in a slow oven (set the temperature as low as your oven can go: the idea is to dry up the egg whites)
6. Before serving, put your fruit under a hot grill so that it will turn a nice amber colour and the flakes will be crunchy.

Success is guaranteed! And if you have any suggestions to improve it, please send your comments...

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About Fish Soups: the Tricks to Make a Super Soup!

Fish, fish soupImage via Wikipedia Here are some thoughts on how fish soup is made in European cuisine.

Sounds boring?

No, believe me, it's a fascinating subject. Fish soup is immensely varied across the continent, using as it necessarily does, local ingredients.

Btw, I am excluding here any mention of fish soups made elsewhere around the globe: that would deserve another post.

But consider Europe for a moment. The Russians will make fish soup with cabbage and beetroot, the Belgians with leeks and celery, the Italians with tomato and any number of Mediterranean herbs. Everybody of course makes fish soup with onions and...fish. Plus any seafood available, if they happen to be near the sea.

Don't be discouraged by this tremendous variety. First it's fun! And then, there is some definite aggregation of the data around a few basic models. You have essentially a Northern fish soup and a Southern one - plus possibly an Eastern one. When you need to decide on a recipe to follow, it's useful to keep in mind the differences, so that you don't make a mess of whatever fish soup you're doing.

Because these models don't mix. No tomatoes or olive oil should ever go into a "Northern Soup", and no leeks and cream into a "Southern Soup". The Eastern model is less rigorously defined, but certain mixtures are not allowed even here: for example, never mix butter and olive oil in the same recipe, you either go for the one or the other - that is, if you want to be true to the spirit of that cuisine. If not, feel free to sprinkle chocolate everywhere!

The ingredients going into any of these soups have to do with what is available locally all year round, and especially in the "off-season" (i.e. winter). I suspect that is what historically makes any given recipe different from all others: for centuries, people have been making food with the ingredients they found easily around them, and therefore those particular recipes, so often repeated through the years, became, as it were, the "standard".

Take the Northern Soup: the Belgian fish Waterzoie is an excellent example, based as it is on local produce - leeks, onions, celery and potatoes. Likewise the Southern Soup, whether it is the French Provençal Bouillabaisse or the Italian zuppa di pesce. Both have onion, garlic, tomatoes and no potatoes - which is of course not surprising. Potatoes are a quintessentially northern staple.

So what makes a fish soup really good, whether it is Northern, Southern or Eastern ? Any recipe book worth its name will give you the ingredients and a method to follow. You don't need me for that. Go look for whatever you want on Internet or buy a cookbook in a store. But in order to decide whether to follow a recipe and to be sure the results are going to be good, you need some evaluation criteria. This is where I come in and I wanted to share my experience with you. I follow some general rules in preparing fish soup that I have found over time to give the best results both in terms of flavour and health.

Yes, that's right: health. What's good for your health is important too! A recipe that calls for wallops of cream and glasses of olive oil is to be avoided like the plague: it's guaranteed to make you bloat up! It is a matter of common sense. You can follow the recipe but CUT DOWN on the amount of fat suggested: if it says two tablespoons, use one. And to avoid burning ingredients you don't need all that fat. An easy solution is to use teflon-coated pans, but you know that already, I'm sure.

Something else is useful to cut the amount of fats in fish soup: whenever a recipe suggests you start off by frying chopped onions or grated garlic in oil or butter and then throw the fish pieces in to cook them, DON'T DO IT! This business about starting with fried onions (or whatever mixture of vegetables, such as a mirepoix) is for the birds (and most certainly not for fish!) - and that's also true of vegetable minestrone, by the way. I have found that it is absolutely unnecessary from the standpoint of taste. On the contrary, unless you go very, very light on the amount of onions you use and ensure it only turns translucent and never burns, you risk inflicting a strong, unwelcome taste to your soup: it won't taste fresh! And I would take a step further: too much butter or oil in any recipe, especially if it is fried, coats the ingredients with its own taste, preventing the basic flavour of whatever you're cooking to come through, whether fish, vegetable or meat.

For me, that's a GOLDEN RULE: use as little fat as you can to cook and if possible, add it only at the end, after the cooking is done. A spoonful of fresh, uncooked olive oil goes much further to give taste to you soup if you put it in at the end of the cooking process than if you use a whole glassful at the beginning! Ditto for butter.

So how do I prepare my fish soup? Simple, no frying, just cover with water. Not plain water. You need to add salt and pepper, or better , use fish broth instead of water. Fish broth is easy: nowadays you don't need to make it anymore, it comes in cubes (for example Knorr's) ready to be dissolved in water. And I mean COVER your ingredients - just so. Do not exceed with liquid but make sure your soup doesn't dry out! To do this, there are two ways: either a slow fire and a lid on your pot, or a strong flame and no lid. In the latter case, you have to stick around to make sure nothing burns. That's what I do because it cooks faster, and I don't like to waste time in the kitchen. Plus I can control the degree of doneness of the ingredients.

The degree of doneness? That's crucial to make a good fish soup. Much depends on how fresh your ingredients are and obviously your soup will only be as good as whatever you put in it. The fresher, the better but I'm not telling you anything you don't know. What is important, and not so obvious, is the SEQUENCE in which ingredients are dropped into the boiling pot. Start with the vegetables and make sure they are only HALF-COOKED BEFORE throwing in the fish. That's the key, because fish - even crustaceans, clams, shrimps, calamars and the like - cook very, very fast. If you cook these marine little things too long they curl up and dry on you, they become hard to chew and lose their flavour. Overcooking is the death of any good fish soup (or for that matter of any fish preparation). In my experience, the fish in a fish soup cooks UNDER FIVE MINUTES.

Basically making a fish soup is very easy. You first cook the vegetables that give flavour to your soup in a minimum of salted water, or better still fish broth. When the vegetables are half-way there, you throw in the fish. You bring it all back to boiling and then, after one minute or less, turn it off. Put a lid on it for another five minutes max.

Serve hot with croutons or toasted bread rubbed with garlic if it's a Southern Soup. Or swirl in it half-a-glass of cream with the juice of a half-lemon and one egg yolk beaten into it if it's a Northern Soup. I have no special advice for Estearn Soup except to add at the last minute either Paprika or fennel seed - to taste.

The results of following this procedure? Superlative! Ok, I know I sound like I'm bragging but I'm not. Just ask my family and friends. I've had people who hate fish soup (my own mother is one) literally dig into mine. And a very satisfying result this is for the cook!
If you have cooking tips regarding fish,as I'm sure you do, I would love to hear them, and do let me know if my tips have helped you!

Because, bottom line, I believe the secret of good food is less in the inventiveness of a recipe's ingredients than in following a correct procedure that preserves the original taste of every ingredient. It's more a matter of HOW you do it than of WHAT's in it!
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No Hastle Turkey for Christmas and... for a Hot Summer Day!

Basting...Image via Wikipedia
This is a variation on the classic turkey stuffed with apples...with a twist!
First of all, why stuff a turkey with apples? There are three basic reasons:

- one,the fruit stuffed inside ensures the turkey meat will be moist and tender WITHOUT the hastle of basting (no more complex surgical operations like the one in the picture!);

- two, provided the turkey is big enough, there will be enough juicy, flavourful fruit to go with the meat so that you don't need to cook vegetables or add anything else beyond simple french fries (you can use the frozen variety to make it even easier);

- three, the fruit juices make for an extra light gravy with a minimum of fats because you don't need to smother your turkey in butter, oil or margarine: the fruit ensures it cooks without burning (and that means it's a low cholesterol recipe by definition)

But chunks of peeled apples are so run-of-the-mill, they're...boring: almost a cop out!

So how can you make it INTERESTING?

Simple, just leave your chunks of apple in a (tasty) mixture of chicken broth and brandy to soak up flavours for a couple of hours before stuffing the bird with it. Here's the way to do it.

 For for an average 5 or 6 pound turkey
- one small glass of brandy
- one cup chicken broth- juice of a HALF LEMON (so the apples keep their color)
- one big spoonful of SUGAR
- a dash of PEPPER (optional)


 Start with preparing the CHICKEN BROTH to which you add the GLASS of BRANDY (and if you feel like it, why not add also a couple of spoonfuls of whatever fruit liquor you happen to have handy: it makes for additional flavour...), the lemon juice, sugar and pepper.

Sir the apple chuncks in this mixture and let it sit for at least a couple of hours at room temperature.

Then fill your bird, packing it in tight and cook it as usual in a regular oven at 180° or whatever temperature you normally use to roast a chicken.

COOKING TIME : For every pound you must count 20 minutes of cooking, plus 10 percent of total time to ensure your turkey is fully cooked (example: a 6 pound Turkey requires 20mn x 6 : 120 mn + 10% = 132 mn: a little over 2 hours)

Enjoy and have a nice relaxed Christmas dinner that won't cause you indigestion!

If you like apples with your turkey in SUMMER when it's real hot out there and all you want to do is turn off your oven and eat cold food, here's a neat recipe I found on the Internet which reflects the spirit of mine in an easy summer-style version (although I'd cook the turkey breasts in chicken broth rather than salt water...):

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