Tuscan Kale, White Bean and Sausage Soup and Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

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A year or so ago, I read an article by Amanda Hesser on the future of food writing. As someone (clearly) interested in putting my kitchen work into words, I soaked up every morsel of advice. Amongst the facts and figures, one idea stood out: Amanda suggested to, “never eat the same meal twice. If you want to be knowledgeable about food, you need to experience it yourself.” I could not agree more. Whether or not you are a professional or home cook, it’s easy to retreat to your old standby meals. Everyone has one or two up their sleeve, whether it’s an omelet or osso buco. We turn to them for comfort and familiarity. I challenge you this: once you get the hang of a particular dish or recipe, tweak it. Swap out chicken breast for thighs, trade the baby spinach for those long stalks of Swiss chard. It could be as minute as a drizzle of good olive oil, a splash of vinegar. You may be pleased what you discover when you go off course a bit.

Kale, White Bean and Sausage Soup

This soup is one of my go-to meals, particularly as the weather grows colder. Each time it comes out a bit different  – I’ll try a new type of sausage, leafy green or herb combination. Each new version gives me a little more knowledge of flavor.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 bulk hot Italian sausage links, casing removed*
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 carrots, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon each chopped fresh rosemary and thyme
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1 bunch Lacinato kale, stemmed and chopped
  • 2 cups cooked white beans (from a 15-ounce can or cooked from dry*)
  • Chili flakes
  • Olive oil, fresh grated Parmesan cheese and black pepper, for serving

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up any large chunks, until deep golden brown and crispy. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Add onion and carrot to pot with sausage drippings. Saute for about 5-10 minutes, until soft and translucent. You may need to add a bit more oil. Add stock, herbs and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Add kale and reduce to heat. Simmer on medium-low for about 10 minutes. Add beans and sausage and cook for a few minutes longer to heat through. Remove bay leaf. Taste and season with salt, pepper and chili flakes.

Garnish each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, Parmesan cheese and fresh black pepper.

Notes:

You may purchase bulk sausage in casing at the grocery meat counter or in a butcher shop. When I am in the neighborhood, I stock up at The Meat Hook in Brooklyn. I mean, come on, you have your choice of ‘Classy’ or ‘Trashy’.

Lemon Risotto with Green Garlic and Fava Beans

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Confession: the rice used to make this risotto has been sitting in my cabinet for oh, about a year. Allow me to backtrack. In culinary school, we learned to make risotto. Lots of risotto. Pans and pans of it, in fact, until we achieved what Chef deemed worthy of his fork. We chopped. We sweated (both the onions and ourselves). We stirred. And stirred. Until, wait, yes, our rice reached creamy perfection.

I don’t make risotto much these days.

And I really don’t know why. Despite it’s reputation, it’s really quite easy – if you are patient. See, you can’t rush the rice. You must slow down and cast the notion of a ‘fast easy dinner’. Truth be told, it is quite fast, about 30 minutes from start to finish. But you must stir.

This springy, lemony risotto was inspired by the long stalks of green garlic found this time of year. I love its mellow flavor, the perfect accompaniment to earthy fava beans, herbs and fresh peas.

I’d say it’s worthy of my fork.

Lemon Risotto with Green Garlic and Fava Beans
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup shelled fresh fava beans
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 small yellow onion or 1 large shallot, finely minced
  • 1 large green garlic stalk, trimmed, white and light green parts finely chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup peas, frozen, defrosted or blanched fresh
  • 2 tablespoons grated Pecorino
  • Juice and zest from 1 lemon
  • For garnish: chopped fresh dill and mint

Directions

  1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add fava beans and blanch for 1 minute. Drain and transfer to a bowl of ice water.  Drain and peel. Set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Keep warm.
  3. In a medium skillet or pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and green garlic, stirring until softened and translucent You do not want the vegetables to brown.
  4. Add the rice and stir until translucent, about a minute.
  5. Add the wine and cook until evaporated. Ladle about 1 cup of broth into the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Add another cup of broth, and continue to stir until absorbed, adding more stock for the next 20 minutes or so. Don’t worry if you don’t use all of the broth.
  6. When the risotto is al dente and creamy, remove from heat and fold in butter, fava beans, peas and pecorino. Stir in lemon juice and zest to taste.
  7. Garnish with chopped fresh dill, mint and bit more lemon zest.

Purple Potato and Kale Fritatta

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In early 2008, I spent a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. I had never left North America, and there I was, living with 6 other girls in a real Italian apartment on Via della Scala. We had a tiny, European kitchen with a tiny, European refrigerator. We shopped at the corner grocery or the Mercato Centrale, an indoor farmer’s market of sorts, buying only as much as we could carry. We lit our stove with a a match. I bought a lot of leather accessories. I stayed in hostels. I also took my very first cooking class. Each Wednesday, we prepared a 3-course meal (plus wine, certo).  For a cash-strapped student, this was one of the best meals I would eat all week. I still credit the class for my decision to attend culinary school 4 years later.

In Florence, I learned about Tuscan cucina povera cuisine – literally translated as ‘poor kitchen’. Tuscan cooks are like alchemists, transforming kitchen odds and ends into something delicious. Classics like pappa al pomodoro, ribolitta and crostini toscani are all based on what would otherwise be trash (stale bread, random bits of vegetables, livers).

A fritatta is a humble dish, an amped-up omelet with no right or wrong way about it. This is a version I dreamed up in a mad dash to clean out my fridge before the storm.

Purple Potato and Kale Fritatta

1 small shallot, thinly sliced

2 cups Tuscan/Lacinato kale (cavolo nero), thick stems removed, thinly sliced

2 small purple potatoes, diced into 1/2″ pieces

1 tsp. fresh oregano, minced

Pinch Spanish smoked paprika (‘pimenton’)

4 eggs, preferably organic

Freshly grated Parmesan, manchego or pecorino cheese

Salt, pepper and olive oil

Preheat oven to 375F.

Place potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in an 8″ oven-proof skillet or cast-iron pan, heat a couple teaspoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and a pinch of salt and sweat for a few minutes. Add the kale and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the smoked paprika and oregano. Transfer kale mixture to a bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs. Add cooled kale mixture and potatoes. Season with a bit more salt and pepper. Heat a bit more olive oil in the same 8″ skillet you used for the kale. Add the egg mixture. Using a heat-proof spatula, nudge the egg mixture toward the center, tipping the pan slightly (like you would an omelet). When fritatta is set around the edges, transfer to heated oven. Bake until egg mixture is cooked in the center, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle on grated cheese. Turn your oven to broil (or place in your broiler…that’s the drawer underneath your oven where you may keep pots and pans, for those with old-school stoves). Broil until just browned. Slide fritatta onto cutting board before slicing into wedges.

Eggplant Parmesan

I’ve made this twice in 2 weeks, it’s that good! A little more time consuming than I usually spend on a vegetable dish, but well worth it. Make it before eggplant season is over!

Adapted from Prevention Magazine

Ingredients

2 1/4 lb sm eggplant (2-3), cut into 1/4″ slices
1/4 c olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 cups marinara (homemade or store bought)
3/4 c freshly grated Parmesan

Directions

Heat oven to 400°F. Generously oil 2 non-stick baking sheets.

Put eggplant on pans and brush tops with 1/4 cup of the oil. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Bake 30 minutes or until softened.

Coat bottom of 8″ x 8″ baking pan with 1/2 cup of the sauce. Add one-third of the eggplant, and top with another 1/2 cup of the sauce and 3 tablespoons of the cheese. Repeat twice (eggplant, sauce, cheese), ending with remaining 6 T. cheese.

Bake until browned, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Pizza alla Melanzane

 

Forget Domino’s,  whipping up your own pizza is a cinch. OK, so it’s not as easy as dialing a number but it’s worth it – I promise. Eggplant (melanzane) is one of my favorite toppings for a pizza, but feel free to use whatever additions you like I love the Italian quattro stagioni (4 seasons), but I opt out of the ham and instead, pile on the olives, artichokes and mushrooms.

In college I used to make pizza about once a month, to the delight of my (very hungry) friends Steve and Mike. I made my own sauce  and grated fresh mozzarella, but it was far too much work for any old night.  This is a pie you can make in the time it takes to wait for the delivery guy…or DiGiorno.

Roasted Eggplant Pizza

Serves 5

1 package whole wheat pizza dough

1/2 cup pizza sauce

1 1/2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

1 medium eggplant

3 T. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 450. Let dough sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before rolling out. In the meantime, slice eggplant and lay on large baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Roast eggplant for 20 minutes, turning a few times.

Roll out the pizza dough on a lightly floured surface with a rolling-pin. Place on an oiled baking sheet or pizza pan. Spread sauce on dough and sprinkle with mozzarella. Lay roasted eggplant over pizza and top with 2 T. Parmesan (eyeball it!) Bake at 450 for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Top with basil leaves and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

    

Ciao, Bella!

                                                                                                            

                                                                                                            

It’s been nearly 2 years since I returned from a semester in Italy and I still get a bit nostalgic for the “old country.” Never have I tasted a tomato as good as the pomodoro at il Mercato Centrale in Florence. I was lucky enough to take a cooking class while abroad – a crash course in Italian cuisine, with wines to match. From Tuscan crostini to Sicilian stuffed squid and authentic osso bucco,  the dishes were rich and steeped in tradition (cooks note: this was before I adopted a vegetarian lifestyle!) The everyday Italian diet is actually quite simple, with an emphasis on seasonal produce, grains and legumes. I will never forget my professor’s opinion on Italian-American fare, “It’s not the pasta that is the problem, it’s what you put on it.” 

The winter months are prime time for many authentic Italian ingredients. Fennel has been particularly good lately, the highlight of this rustic Mediterranean salad. Feel free to edit this salad to your tastes – parsley instead of basil, a sprinkle of feta, perhaps some drained, chopped artichoke hearts. Buon appetito!

Meditteranean Salad

Serves 8

Vinaigrette:

3 T. red wine vinegar

2 T. water

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp. salt

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil

Salad:

2 cups sliced fennel bulb (about 1 medium)

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 cup pitted olives, halved

1 cup chopped tomatoes

1 cup basil leaves, chopped

Directions

To prepare vinaigrette, combine first seven ingredients in a small bowl. Gradually add oil, stirring with a whisk until blended.

To prepare salad, combine fennel and the next 6 ingredients (through tomatoes) in a large bowl. Drizzle vinaigrette over salad, tossing until well combined. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.

-Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine

Orecchiette with Greens and Cannellini

 

I first discovered this dish while spending a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Every Wednesday, I attended a cooking class aptly titled ‘The Foods of Italy.’ Each week we focused on a new regional dish. We covered it all: Sicilian stuffed squid, Northern Italian osso bucco and a memorable Tuscan pâté of chopped cuore (I dare you to Google it). Each class was topped off with plenty of vino, poured by our beloved professor. La dolce vita, no?

 

One of the standout dishes from class was orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe (cime di rape). This dish is common in the Apulia region, where hearty winter vegetables are plentiful. Orecchiette means “little ears”, a testament to their small rounded shape. The pasta is a prefect complement to vegetables, especially greens, peas and beans.

 

This particular dish requires only a few ingredients and is ready in the time it takes to boil pasta. While I love the slight bitterness of broccoli rabe, I have been known to substitute spinach, escarole, traditional broccoli, and in my most recent rendition, kale. You may know kale as the lowly vegetable gracing the edge of your plate at a diner. Beyond a garnish, kale is chock full of good-for-you vitamins and minerals like calcium, lutein, iron, and Vitamins A, C, and K, to name a few. Late fall is the peak season for kale;  be sure to buy a crisp bunch and trim off the stalks before cooking.

 

Ingredients

 

1 lb. orecchiette pasta

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 15-oz. can cannellini beans

1 large bunch kale, washed, trimmed and chopped

3-4 T. extra virgin olive oil

Red pepper flakes, to taste

Salt and Pepper

Grated Parmesan or Pecorino, optional

 

Directions

 

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, in a large saute pan, heat oil over medium-low heat. Saute garlic a few minutes, until golden; be sure not to burn garlic.

Drain and rinse cannellini beans; set aside. When water is boiling, add pasta and cook until almost al dente, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water.

Add chopped kale directly into pot with pasta and cook, stirring to wilt greens, until pasta is done and kale has reduced in size. Warm beans in skillet with garlic.

Drain pasta and greens and add to skillet; toss to combine. Add reserved pasta water and a bit more olive oil  Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper; toss to combine.

Serve with or without grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.

Tip: To reheat pasta, add a few tablespoons of water or vegetable broth before heating in microwave.

Italian Lentil Soup

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The season has changed and with it, the menu. After a raucous weekend at my alma mater, all I wanted was to recover with a steaming bowl of soup. Lentil soup is great to make in a pinch, because most of the ingredients ar.e pantry staples.  Thanks to their high protein content, lentils make a substantial soup that is a meal in itself. There is a lot of flexibility with this recipe. You can use any kind of vegetables you have on hand – red or green bell peppers, zucchini and celery would all be good additions. While it’s not necessary, I added whole wheat orzo to the broth, but ditalini, macaroni or even alphabets (!) would work. I used spinach in place of the Swiss Chard, but any type of green would be suitable (right now Kale is particularly good.) I skipped the bouquet garni (it was a rough weekend) and used a pinch of thyme and parsley instead. Added bonus – this recipe is CHEAP. A 1 lb. bag of lentils are less than $2, running the entire recipe about $5!

This recipe makes a large pot of soup and reheats well. To glam it up, serve with toasted pita wedges and a simple green salad.

Lentil Minestrone With Green

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

Salt to taste

1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, with liquid

1 pound lentils (brown or beluga), washed and picked over

2 1/2 quarts water

A bouquet garni made with a bay leaf, 2 sprigs each thyme and parsley, and a Parmesan rind OR 1 tsp. each thyme and parsley

1/2 pound Swiss chard, mustard greens or kale, stemmed, washed in two changes of water, and roughly chopped (about 6 cups)

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup elbow macaroni or other soup pasta (optional)

Freshly grated Parmesan for serving (optional)

1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat, and add the onion and carrot. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add half the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir together for a minute, just until the garlic is fragrant, and add the tomatoes and their liquid. Turn up the heat slightly and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, about 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the lentils, water and bouquet garni, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the remaining garlic, salt to taste and add the greens. Continue to simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the pasta, and continue to simmer until the pasta is tender, five to 10 minutes. Remove the bouquet garni and serve, passing grated Parmesan at the table.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Advance preparation: The soup can be made up to a day or two ahead of time, but do not add the pasta until you are ready to serve. Reheat and add as directed.

-Recipe courtesy of  NY Times

Gaetana’s Italian Cucina

The Place: Gaetana’s Cucina Italiana, 143 Christopher St. NYC (West Village)

The Plate(s): Eggplant rollatini, “straw and hay” pasta, chicken parmesan, chicken marsala, brick oven pizza, vino, vino, vino

The damage: average entree $13

Last night, I made my way down from the depths of midtown to the restaurant-heavy West Village. A short walk from West 4th St., Gaetana’s was practically empty when we sat down for an early dinner. A few of my friends had arrived early, greeted by complimentary glasses of Chianti and a plate of olives and cheese.

We were seated and dove into the menu and warm baskets of bread complemented by bowls of seasoned olive oil. With three vegetarians at the table and two cheese-haters, we were all able to find something that fit our appetities and budgets. I instantly gravitated towards the “straw and hay” pasta, a melange of zucchini, tomatoes, sauteed onions and fresh whole wheat and spinach linguine. The sauce was unexpectedly rich, probably thanks to a generous helping of ‘crema’ and ‘burro’. My friend, still stuffed from an afternoon of office pastries, opted for an appetizer portion of eggplant rollatini. Two delicate pieces of eggplant were stuffed with ricotta and covered with homemade marinara – perfect for an appetizer or small dinner. Brick oven pizzas slathered with Gaetana’s famous vodka sauce and fresh mozzarella were shared, along with chicken parm and chicken marsala (‘the best I’ve ever had’, said one of my friends.) With wine, the bill was still less than anywhere in Little Italy.

While I still have LOTS of restaurants to try in the city, I would consider returning to Gaetana’s. The food was good and the company, even better.