Things to make with leftover chicken – Chicken Bacon Apple Salad

I know you read my blog and immediately went out and bought a beautiful free range bird for way more than you really wanted to pay.  Now what do you do with the left overs? It would be a shame to let that tasty tender meat go to waste.  Well today for dinner I transformed that bird into a fabulous meal.

Chicken Bacon Apple Salad

Serves 2

Prep time & cook time: 15 minutes

INGREDIENTS

1 egg

6 skinny rashers of bacon

1 package salad leaves (washed and dried)

1.5 cups diced cooked chicken (from that chicken you roasted)

1 large apple sliced thin

1/2 red onion sliced

handful crumbled blue cheese

handful chopped walnuts

Dressing:

4 tbls olive oil

2 tbls balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp Italian herb mix

salt & pepper to taste

METHOD

Place the eggs in a pot and cover with cold water.  Bring the pan to a boil and allow the eggs to boil for 1 to 2 minutes cover

In another pan, cook bacon on medium high heat until crisp.

While the bacon is cooking combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl.

Crumble the cooked bacon over the salad.

In a separate bowl, combine  salad dressing ingredients, mix well and pour over the salad.

Toss the salad  well and serve.

THE VERDICT

This salad was delicious. But really isn’t impossible for anything to taste bad when it includes bacon? The blue cheese makes it absolutely perfect.  Try to use salad leaves like spinach or arugala (rocket).  Iceberg doesn’t add any flavor and it doesn’t really have a lot of health benefit.  Remember to closer to a leaf it looks the better it is for you.  This salad is great for lunch or to take on a picnic (just leave the dressing on the side until you’re ready to eat).

Lemon & Rosemary Chicken in my new terracotta roaster

Serves 4-6

Prep time: 10 minutes + 8 – 24 hours marinating time (if you are marinating but not required)

Cooking time: 1.5 hours

INGREDIENTS:

1 whole chicken (medium size, giblets removed)

1 lemon (juice and peel)

5 sprigs (sticks) fresh rosemary

3 cloves garlic whole

1 onion quartered

6 tbls olive oil

Salt (to taste)

Black Pepper (to taste)

TOOLS:

Paper/kitchen towel or clean dish cloth/tea towel

Roasting pan (I use a terracotta roasting pan for this recipe but any roasting tin can be used)

Kitchen twine (if chicken is not already trussed)

1 large resealable freezer bag for marinating

METHOD:

Preheat the oven to 200C/395F.  If using a terracotta roasting pan DO NOT preheat the oven.

Rinse the chicken inside and out and dry with paper towel.  If your chicken is not tied (trussed) you will need to do this using kitchen twine.

Once you’ve trussed the chicken,  salt and pepper the cavity and rub in about 1 tbls of olive oil.  Stuff the chicken cavity with the onion, lemon peel, garlic cloves, and rosemary.

If marinating the chicken, salt and pepper the outside of the chicken.  Add the remaining olive oil to the freezer bag along with the juice of the lemon, place the chicken in the bag and seal. Squish the chicken around in the bag.  Marinate for several hours or overnight.

If not marinating place the chicken in the roasting pan and pour over lemon juice.  Then pat on olive oil and then salt and pepper the outside of the chicken.

To cook the chicken place into the oven uncovered for 1.5 hours.

Terracotta roaster:  Soak roaster (top and bottom) in cold water for 10 minutes before cooking.  Place chicken in roaster, cover and place in cold oven.  Roast at the temperature noted for 1.25 hours remove the lid for the last 15 minutes to brown.

Test the doneness of the chicken by piercing the chicken in the thigh joint with a sharp knife.  The juices should run clear when the chicken is done.

Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.  Serve with your favorite vegetable.

THE VERDICT:

I bought a terracotta roasting pan years ago because it was pretty. This was well before you could type a few words into Google and get 1000 answers to any question imaginable.   I had no clue what to do with it but because the box had a chicken in the roaster, I figured I could at least use it for that.  When I got it home I stuck a chicken in it, popped it in the oven and hoped for the best. I was so surprised when my normally bland, dry roasted chicken was moist, juicy and tasty. The only change was the pan. Well, I used that thing a few times but you can only make whole chickens so much when you’re single. It got packed away and through many moves, and many storage units, it was carted away by the storage fairies.

Then the other day on a freak trip to the neighborhood ghetto mall, I decided to go to T.K. Maxx (that’s T.J. Maxx in America). I’ve never been to T.K. Maxx here in London but everyone always raves about it so, I thought I’d give it a go. I walked through rows handbags tossed among bottles of perfume and lotion, stepped over mismatched shoes, climbed the escalator and entered kitchen heaven. I could feel tears of joy welling up in the corners of my eyes as I gawked at an entire floor dedicated to home supplies and kitchen stuff. Rows of Le Creuset, 20 types of salt and pepper grinders, every type of pot or pan I could ever want, muffin tins and tea pots.

At this point I must tell you that I’ve inherited a kitchen gadget gene from my mother. Before I moved to England, I believe that my mom and I were in a race to see who could buy and use every useless kitchen gadget known to man. .   Magic bullet – I’ve got it (in fact I had three). Home rotisserie – had that before George Foreman slapped his name on one. Ice cream maker – that one’s ticked too. My mother has even inherited an electric pressure cooker which I only left because the current here in the UK would have caused me to blow up my house if I plugged it in.  It’s a bit like crack; once you start buying kitchen gadgets you just can’t stop.  To be honest, I might sell my husband for a professional Kitchen-Aid stand mixer (my Mom has one that has about an inch of dust on it and I am so jealous).  But I digress.

So strolling up the isles, I discovered a lovely burnt orange terracotta roasting pan with lid that brought back wonderful memories of lovely tender roasted chicken. In total about $12 for the whole contraption. These usually cost at least $30-$40. Great chicken plus a good deal – I’m sold!

This Sunday I thought it only proper that I take our little roasting pan on its maiden voyage. I went on the internet to see how to properly use the thing (because you know at T.J. Maxx you don’t always get the box) and discovered that the pot need a ten minute soak in cold water before putting it into a cold oven. Oops never did that with the other one.  The point is that water soaks into the porous clay and, as the roaster heats up in the oven, steam is released. The steam does the cooking and you get a juicy, fall off the bone chicken (even the breast meat).

The only drawback of the terracotta roaster is that the chicken doesn’t get that crispy dark brown that I love so much. If you take the lid off for the last 30 minutes of cooking the chicken will get a lovely tan but it won’t look like you just came back from Boston Market with a rotisserie bird. If you follow this recipe and don’t use a terracotta roaster, your chicken will have a beautiful dark brown, crispy skin that will make you fight your mama but,  may not be as juicy as the terracotta roasting pan.

This chicken recipe is an original but having Googled “terracotta roasting pan recipes” I’ve discovered that you can make slow cooked stews in them as well as other meat and fish.  So maybe with so many possibilities this roasting dish won’t go missing. By the way, I don’t think my mom has one of these yet but I bet by the time she gets to the end of this post one will be on its way from Amazon.

Even YOU can make a great steak

Steak is one of the most difficult foods to make well.  It seems that something that seems so simple has perplexed so many people.  Here are a few tips that will guarantee that you make the best steak dinner ever.

Pick the right piece of meat

It’s important not to skimp on the quality of the meat.  Remember more expensive is not always better.  Steaks aged for 20 days or more will be more tender.  Cuts like fillet are more difficult to cook at home so choose sirloin, ribeye, or other cuts that have a little fat running through it.  Interestingly, the butcher recommended an onglet (or eye steak) which is a cheaper cut which gives you the feel of a fillet but half the price and easier to cook.  To make cooking easy, make sure that meat is one to 1.5 inches thick.  Remember once you buy them try to use them within one or two days.  Don’t freeze the steaks because the freezing/thawing process changes the consistency and the flavor of the meat.

Warm it up

Never cook a steak directly from the fridge.  When the cold meat hits the hot pan the muscle fibers will spasm resulting in a tough steak.  Make sure the meat warms to room temperature by leaving the steak on the counter for 20 – 30 minutes.  The closer to room temperature the meat is when you cook it; the more tender it will be.

Have the right tools

A heavy gauge non-stick pan or griddle pan are the best tools for cooking a good steak.  If you don’t have an iron skillet or griddle pan, just make sure you have a good non-stick pan that can take very very high heat without warping.  Make sure you have tongs or a spatula to turn the steak.  You don’t want to pierce the steak with a fork while it’s cooking.

Make it hot

The pan must be SUPER hot to cook a good steak.  Normally I leave the skillet on the stove on the highest heat for at least 10 minutes to make sure every surface of the pan is at its hottest. It’s hot if you sprinkle a drop or two of water in the pan and it cracks and sizzles and evaporates completely in a second or two. Here’s where I advise you unplug your smoke detector and turn on your exhaust fan and open the windows.  We’re going to make it really smoky.  Again, it’s really important that you are sure that the pan you are using is able to handle the high heat and distribute the heat evenly across the entire surface of the pan or you may have a fire on your hands.

Less is more

When it comes to seasoning a steak, less is best.  Simple kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper allows the flavor of a good steak to come through. Add a little butter and parsley as garnish after cooking makes it perfection.  I also recommend Montreal Steak Seasoning for a really good complement to steak.

Don’t overcook it

I know a lot of people will disagree but steaks are not meant to be eaten well done.  A little pink won’t hurt you and it adds flavor and juiciness to the meat.  It’s very difficult to cook a steak well done without ruining the flavor. This is because when you cook a steak to well done in the pan, when you remove it from the heat it will continue to cook.  By the time you eat it, it will be dry and tough.  A one to 1.5 inch steak should be cooked for four to six minutes on each side depending on how hot you can get your pan and how well done you want it.  Just try it once for me –  cook your steak to medium (well done on the edges pink in the center but no bleeding) and you’ll definitely understand the difference in taste and I bet you won’t get sick.

Let it rest

When you’ve cooked the steak, you’ve got to let it rest.  Resting allows the steak to settle down and distributes the juicy goodness throughout the meat. Rest the steaks for at least 5 minutes before you serve it. Place the steaks on a plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil or waxed paper (grease proof paper).  Also resist the urge to poke or pierce the meat to test if it’s done enough.

Steak with Garlic and parsley with Rosemary Roasted Potatoes

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Serves 2

 

TOOLS

Heavy gauge frying pan or griddle pan

Mixing bowl

Non-stick baking Sheet

Tongs (or something to turn the steak without piercing it)

Garlic press

INGREDIENTS

Steak cut of choice 1 – 1.5 inches thick

2 tbls peanut, sunflower or vegetable oil (DO NOT use olive oil)

Kosher salt or sea salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 clove garlic pressed

2tbls salted butter

2tbls chopped fresh parsley

Roasted Potatoes

4 large potatoes

10 shallots whole & whole (or 2 small onions quartered)

2 tbls Olive oil

1tsp sea salt or kosher salt

1 tbls fresh cracked black pepper

1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (or 1tbls fresh rosemary chopped)

Green salad to serve

METHOD

Preheat oven to 400F/200C

Start by removing the steak from the fridge.  Drizzle peanut oil on steaks and massage into the meat.  Season to taste with salt…be generous because some of the salt will burn off in the pan. Add pepper and set aside to allow to warm to room temperature.

While meat is warming wash and chop potatoes into equally sized chunks.  Place the chopped potatoes on a dish towel or paper towel and blot dry.  Place the dried potatoes in a mixing bowl along with shallots and add all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well to coat all potatoes. Place on baking sheet and place in oven.  Cook for 25 minutes.

Begin heating the pan for the steak. Place pan on stove on the highest setting. Heat the pan for 10 minutes (keep a close eye on it).  When the pan is hot, place one steak in the pan.  Allow the pan to heat back up to temperature for about a minute before adding the second steak.  Allow the steaks to cook (don’t touch them) for at least 4-5 minutes.  Turn the steaks and cook on the other side for 1 minute less than you cooked the first side.  Remove from pan and place on plate.  Cover with foil or wax paper.

At this point the potatoes should be done.  If so, remove from oven and set aside.

Make the butter by placing butter and pressed garlic in a microwave safe bowl.  When steaks have rested and you are ready to serve, heat butter in microwave for 30seconds to 1 minute until completely melted.  Add parsley and mix well.  Pour over steaks just before serving.

Cookies are supposed to make you happy!

I cannot profess that I am a great baker.  Some people believe that cooking and baking are one and the same but they are completely different.  Cooking is like painting or music.  It involves engaging all the senses to know when you’ve done it right.  You just throw in a bit of this and bit of that and when it smells just so, you know it’s going to taste good. Baking however is a science that requires the level of meticulous patience that I, quite frankly, do not possess in great quantities. Exact measurements calibrated to create this reaction or that gas which is the catalyst for light airy bread or tasty cakes.  Unless you have a degree in chemistry it’s nearly impossible to know if you can substitute this for that.  God forbid you use bread flour instead of cake flour because the differing levels of gluten may cause the consistency to …you get what I’m saying.

This being said, I have historically been unable to create tasty treats.   I have succeeded in making the worst cookies ever made in the history of baking.  I don’t know what went wrong.  I was attempting molasses cookies which everyone says should be simple but they’re not.  I made the dough in a haze of flour and popped the tray in the oven.  They came out in the guise of a tasty cookie.  Chest puffed up at my accomplishment, I took a bite.  You know that face that people get when they smell something bad?  You’ve seen it or done it.  It’s when all the features scrunch up to the center of their face and lips poke out.  It may involve a confused shaking of the head.  I discovered that this is the same face you get when you eat a bad cookie.

As I was about to pour the batter into the disposal, Mike walked in.  He asked what I was doing.  Looking like a kid caught, I explained that the cookies were not fit for human consumption – I had to throw them away. My husband, the wonderful man that he is, explained to me “Babe, you don’t make anything that doesn’t taste good.  Let me taste them.”  I warned him that they were really actually bad but he insisted.  He took his bite and I could see the chewing slow to near stop and his features  pinched into bad cookie face.   He swallowed hard, coughed and then said words that I will never forget “Babe, cookies are supposed to make you happy and these make me very very sad.”  It’s been about seven years since then and I didn’t bake again until about 6 months ago.  If my husband who will eat any concoction that I put in front of him can say this, we definitely have a problem.  Plus I just don’t want to bring cookie sadness into the world.

I think with age you gain patience and with patience you can learn how to bake. So recently, I began tackling my baking-phobia.  I’m actually pretty good now and I’ve mastered cookies.  Now my cookies make everyone very very happy.  This recipe for oatmeal cookies is my favorite.  It’s spicy, sweet, super easy and quick. Plus oatmeal and raisins make you feel a little less guilty when you eat half-dozen in one sitting.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Makes 18 two-inch cookies

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 12 minutes (but may vary depending on your oven)

Tools

Two large mixing bowls

Measuring cups & spoons

Cookie sheet

Mixing spoon

Two cutlery tablespoons

Spatula

Wax paper (greaseproof paper) or aluminum foil for cooling

 Ingredients

¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups rolled oats (regular oats not instant)

¼ cup butter, softened (set the butter on the counter until it is room temp and you are able to press the back of a spoon through it)

¼cup butter flavored shortening (such as margarine or Crisco)

½ cup packed light brown soft sugar (pressed firmly in the cup until forms a mold of cup)

¼cup white sugar

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½- ¾ cup black currants (or raisins)

Method

Preheat oven to 350F (175C)

In a bowl combine dry ingredients (all ingredients in list from flour through and including rolled oats). Remember when measuring ingredients in measuring cups the contents should over-fill the cup and the excess should be scraped off with the flat side of a butter knife.

In a different bowl, mix butter, shortening and both types of sugar.  The easiest way to mix these is to spoon sugar over butter press the back of the spoon into the mix until the sugar is pressed in, stir and repeat until all sugar is incorporated into the butter.

Add the egg and vanilla into the batter and mix until it is smooth and creamy.

Now add ¼ of the flour mixture.  Mix this into the batter until no flour is in the bowl.  Repeat this process until all the flour mix is added to the batter.

The last time you do this it’s going to be a bit tough getting it all incorporated but I swear it really will all get in there just keep at it.  The press and stir method that was used to mix the sugar into the butter will also work here.

Add in currants or raisins.

Using one of the cutlery spoons, scoop out a ball of dough.  Using the other spoon, push the ball onto the cookie sheet.  The balls should be about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

 Place in the oven and bake for 12 minutes.  Keep an eye on the first batch because the cooking time may be longer or shorter.  The cookies are done when the tops no longer look wet and the edges are crispy.

Place a sheet of wax paper or aluminum foil on the kitchen counter.  Remove the cookies from the oven and leave them on the  cookie sheet for 1 minute to cool.  Then with a spatula, remove the cookies and place them on the wax paper to cool the rest of the way.  This will make the cookies extra soft and chewy.  If you have more dough, repeat the baking process but note if the cooking time was different and reset the time to the correct time for your oven.

Fued at the Chinese Buffet

OK, I have a secret. I’ve been asked to leave a Chinese buffet. No, I didn’t go flying Nikes over head like when Jazz annoyed Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  It was more like Martin pushing  Pam out the front door “Get to steppin’” I’m not proud of my gluttony but I really like Chinese food.

You see, at the buffet I have a process, first round, scope out the offering.  Then I have to devise the plan of action because you can’t just mix everything on your plate.  I’ve got to get the flavour ratios just right and, note to Dad, sweet and sour sauce can’t go on everything. A proper balance of sweet and salty and sour, bitter and savoury has to be attained and I’ve got to try everything.

So, on my fifth or sixth plate (I mean full plate not just a little spoonful of this and that) the waitresses began to hover, circling like wolves ready to pounce on a defenceless baby deer. One by one every few minutes they’d come to the table, eyes rolling, to ask in thickly accented English “You finished yet?” (Annoyed translates well in any language.) To this question I happily  answer, “No” and continue savouring ever morsel of Chinese goodness while receiving the evil eye from a pack of angry silk clad waitresses. Then the next comes huffing, hands on hips to try to budge me.

The serious buffet waster (aka my two plates only Mom),  who had finished eating  30 minutes before the army began to descend, finally whispered to me “I think they want you to leave.” But I hadn’t even had dessert yet!

So, to avoid more embarrassing moments at the buffet, I’m learning to make my own Chinese at home. My teacher and best friend (in my imagination) is Ching-He Huang, host of Chinese Food in Minutes in the UK and Easy Chinese – San Francisco in the US.  Here is one of my favourites from Ching plus a one of my own to show just how easy and quick Chinese food can be.

Spicy Chicken and Cashews

Adapted from Ching-He Huang‘s Chilli Chicken & Cashews

Serves 2
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook in: 5 – 7 minutes

TOOLS

Wok or heavy guage frying pan that will hold heat

Wooden spoon or spatula

Small bowl for mixing cornstarch and marinating chicken

INGREDIENTS
1 tsp corn starch/cornflour
1 tbls cold water
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into 1″ chunks

½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder
2 tbls peanut or sunflower oil
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp chilli bean paste
1 red chilli chopped and seeded (keep seeds if you want it really hot)
1 tbls  Shaohsing rice wine
1 small pack of  roasted salted cashew nuts (you can substitute peanuts)
1 tbls light soy sauce
1/2 lime

METHOD

I suggest preparing all ingredients and lining them up near the wok.  This dish goes really quickly so it’s important to have everything right at your fingertips.
Mix the water into the cornstarch (the water has to be cold and it has to be added to the cornstarch not the other way around to avoid lumps).  Season with the 5 spice powder and set aside.

Heat a wok on high heat until it starts to smoke.  Add the oil and when it begins to smoke add the peppercorns, chilli bean paste and chilli.  Lift the wok off the heat and toss the mix around for 10 – 15  seconds.  Place the wok back on the heat for another 10  – 15 seconds so the wok can heat back up and then add the chicken.  Let the chicken cook for a minute before stirring then add the rice wine.  Mix it all together and then let the chicken cook until it turns white (about 4 – 5 minutes).

Add the cashews and cook for another minute.

Once chicken is cooked through, turn off heat add soy sauce and lime juice.

Serve with steamed rice and Pak Choi in Oyster Sauce.

Pak Choi in Oyster Sauce

Created by S. Cottom

Serves 2

Prep in 5 minutes

Cook in 3 minutes

INGREDIENTS

1 tbls oil (peanut, vegetable or sunflower)

4 bulbs pak choi (stalks separated from leaves and cleaned)

1 garlic clove chopped

1 tbls soy bean paste

2 tbls oyster sauce

METHOD

Separate the stalks of the pak choi from the leaves. Heat oil in a wok or heavy gauge frying pan until smoking.  Add garlic and fry for 2 -3 seconds, add stalks of pak choi and stir fry.  Splash with water to create steam to cook stalks (repeat if necessary). Stir fry for 1-2 minutes then add leaves, soy bean paste and oyster sauce.  Stir fry for 20-30 seconds until slightly wilted.

Smoked Chicken 1 – Black Girl 0

There are times in my life when I become a bit obsessive compulsive.  Like my never-ending quest for an afro (I refuse to believe that I can’t have a big round afro like every other girl I know and that one day that patch of completely straight hair will turn curly).  Or when I decided to learn how to knit and proceeded to knit everyone that I know with a head a hat.  I get that way sometimes. When I decide I’m interested, I become an expert and  won’t stop until I’ve conquered this week’s epic challenge.

Well my most recent OCD adventure was tea smoked chicken.  Yes, for some odd and unexplainable reason I decided to turn my kitchen into a smoker because if they can do it at Cha Cha Moon (my favorite Chinese restaurant), by golly, so can I. I was going to smoke anything that might remotely taste interesting.  Like with my other OCD attacks I turned to the best resource for learning any vague and obscure craft – the internet.  I spent days scouring the net for method, ingredients, marinades and all things tea smoked chicken because I would be the next tea smoked chicken master chef.

All the blogs touted how simple tea smoking at home could be.  A simple concoction of tea, rice and sugar was all I needed to turn plain old chicken wings into a smoky sensation.  I am a pretty good cook so how hard could it be?  I started off by lining my wok with aluminum foil.  If I hooked that thing to my TV I could probably watch the evening news in Beijing.   I added in the amazing smoking agents:  uncooked jasmine rice, jasmine tea, and some sugar. Note:  No one in the blogosphere knows what the sugar does, everyone thinks it’s pointless but every recipe called for it so I too drank that Kool-Aid too.

We were super excited when the contraption started to smoke.  We added the wire grate and quickly covered the contraption with foil.  Smoke began seeping out of everywhere. We frantically covered all the gaps with sheet upon sheet of foil and  the exhaust fan was struggling to keep up.  All that could be heard was the metallic crunch of foil as we tried to pinch the seams of our smoke leaving ship. Luckily  we had a rare 60 degree day in London so we opened the window to keep from suffocating.  After the frantic ripping of and scrunching of foil, we finally plugged all the holes.  Who knew cooking could be so harrowing.

After 20 minutes of smoking and 30 minutes of resting, the milky white, slimy skin of the chicken, that we nearly asphyxiated ourselves to make, underwhelmed us. I was, however,  prepared for this becuase many of the bloggers warned that a tan in the broiler might be necessary.  I put the sickly looking things in the “grill” (at this point I must add a side note on the “grill” which is supposed to be the broiler but since we don’t have gas ovens in the UK, it’s just the electric heating element of the oven getting extra hot and red and pretending to really do something) for 30 minutes.  This did nothing but put a little beige on them.  They went from pale white to “light skinneded” which wasn’t much better.  But every cook knows that it’s not what it looks like, it’s how it tastes that’s important.

Survey says…ehhh.  A big fat X.  They were horrible! I ate two (the second one only to confirm that they were actually as bad as I thought).  I tried to rationalize it but in the end, I decided I’d be better off with leftovers.  No flavor (despite marinating in soy sauce, ginger, garlic and rice wine for two hours) and the skin was still slimy despite being broiled (I told you that “grill” thing doesn’t work). Yes, I know I made them look tasty but the verdict – EPIC FAIL!  I took the photo before I actually ate them and this proves that you can’t even believe what you see sometimes.  The other lesson is that even the best of us have a bad dish every now and then…even little miss OCD.  Tea smoked chicken has won this round but I’m going back to my corner to regroup and next time, I’ll come back swinging.  This story isn’t over yet.

I used to love Olive Garden…then I learned the truth

If I have learned anything since moving to Europe it’s that Olive Garden is not Italian food.  I know we like to think that we’re really getting a taste of Tuscany but, take it from me, it’s closer to a  taste of Tucson than anything authentically Italian.

Mike and I fell in love with Italy the first time we went.  It was amazing how the flavors that we loved in America, like spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna and pizza were so drastically different from what we were used to.  At home, Ragu and Prego make our spaghetti sauce not Mamma back in the kitchen.  We pretend that we can taste a sweet hint of vine ripened tomatoes when in fact it’s just a bit of corn syrup and flavoring mixed in with the tomato paste.  But in Italy, in the café on the corner and in most homes, chefs and grandmas alike make fresh pasta and sauce early in the morning and allowed to simmer slowly until lunch time.  You can taste the pride that the chef put into making each bite a perfect Italian experience.   No matter where we went in Rome, the first  bite I  took of every dish my eyes would close, my shoulders would relax , and a chorus of mmm’s would escape my lips as the pure bliss of pasta goodness washed over me.

Two Italian dishes stand out as my favorite.  Spaghetti carbonara is the first.  We went to a tiny restaurant in Pisa (as in Leaning Tower of…) where there was a man whose sole job was to make pizza and bread sticks. If he’s off sick, no pizza or bread sticks for anyone that day.  He would walk around the restaurant dropping hot bread sticks into your basket while pizzas were baking in the clay wood burning stove.  The carbonara was so good that I now refuse to eat it anywhere else and I don’t make it anymore because, quite frankly, my version is sh*t compared to it.  It was creamy and eggy, and sweet and salty with pancetta all at once…just amazing.

Another one of my favorites is very different in Italy than what we’re accustomed to in America. At home layer upon layer of gooey cheese and drippy sauce are what we think of as lasagna.  A dish that, after dinner, has   been known to make more than a few pop open that button on the jeans. But in Italy, it’s a surprisingly light dish with only a couple of layers of ricotta, tomato sauce separated by egg pasta and covered in a wonderfully lovely cheese sauce. Unlike carbonara, I have figured out how to make this lasagna and it’s pretty darn close to what we had in Italy.  (Mike has told me that I can’t take the old school lasagna out of the repertoire though.)    This is a perfect dish for entertaining because, although there are lots of steps, it can be assembled ahead of time and popped in the oven before the guests arrived.  Served with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad and garlic bread you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped into a cobbled side street in Rome.

Spicy Turkey Lasagna

Prep time – 45 minutes

Cook time – 45 minutes

Serves 8-10

Meat Filling

1 lb         Ground turkey

1 tsp      Chili flakes (more or less to taste)

½ tsp      Sage

1 tsp      Italian herb mix

¼ tsp      Garlic powder

1 tsp      Salt

¼ tsp      Paprika

¼ tsp      Black pepper

Tomato Sauce

3 tbls     Olive oil

10 -20    Fresh basil leaves (about a handful)

1            Clove garlic, chopped

2            12 – 14 oz cans chopped tomatoes

½ glass  white wine

1 tsp      sugar

¼ cup     water

Salt & pepper to taste

 Cheese Sauce

¼ cup     Butter

1             Shallot, chopped

¼ cup     Flour

1 cup     Chicken broth

1 cup     Milk

1 cup     Mozzarella cheese, shredded

½ cup     Parmesan Cheese, grated

½ tsp      Salt

½ tsp      White pepper

 Ricotta Filling

3 cups    Ricotta cheese

¼ cup     Parmesan cheese, grated

2             Eggs

Method

Preheat oven to 375(180C)

Meat filling

Heat a large high sided frying pan on medium high heat and add ground turkey and all other ingredients for meat filling.  Cook until meat has turned white with no pink showing.  Place meat in a bowl and set aside to use later.

Tomato Sauce

In the same pan used for meat filling (do not clean the pan), add olive oil and heat on medium heat.  Once hot add basil leaves and garlic and cook gently (do not burn garlic) for a minute.  Add canned tomatoes then white wine and heat until bubbling.  Once bubbling, boil for at least one minute to burn off alcohol.  Add sugar and water and then stir.  Add salt and pepper to taste, place lid on the pan and turn heat down to low to allow the sauce simmer while carrying on the rest of the recipe.

White Sauce

In a separate sauce pan, melt butter on medium high heat.  Add shallots and cook slowly until they become clear (about 3 minutes) being careful not to burn them.  Once soft, add ¼ of the flours, mix with shallot and butter.  Repeat this step by adding ¼ of the flour at a time until all flour is added.  Mix until flour turns a yellowy beige.  Begin adding chicken broth very slowly while continuously stirring the pan.

 Once all broth is added, slowly add milk stirring continuously.  Once milk is added, add ½ of mozzarella.  Stir until cheese is melted.  Melt the remaining half of mozzarella in the sauce.  Add parmesan and stir until melted.

 Once all cheese is incorporated taste and add salt and pepper. Turn heat down to very low.

Ricotta Filling

In a bowl, add ricotta, egg, and parmesan and mix well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Putting it all together

Turn off all pans.  Bruch 2 or 3 tablespoons of the tomato sauce across the bottom of the baking pan.  Place a layer of lasagna sheets at the bottom of the pan.  Add ½ of meat filling, ½ of ricotta filling.  Cover with ½ of the remaining tomato sauce and then place another layer of lasagna sheets on top.

Repeat these steps with the second half of ingredients.  Cover the entire dish with the entire pot of white sauce.

 Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

When done, remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve with rocket (arugula) and parmesan salad by mixing 1 bag of rocket, ¼ cup shaved parmesan, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.