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.

Dinner and a Movie – 2012 Style

Mike (AKA my husband) got the first paycheck from his new job, found out he passed (just barely) his anatomy exam and rode a mechanical bull without killing himself at work (yes, they had this in the office during work hours).  Each is  sufficient reason on its own to celebrate but all of them occurred on the same day so we could not pass up an opportunity to stay up past our 10:30pm bedtime.  The method of celebration…dinner and a movie.

Remember in the 90’s when movie theaters attempted to go upscale by providing a dining experience while watching the latest release.   In my small city, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, we achieved this with paper plates, plastic forks, poor service and cold food much worse than what you’d get at Burger King.  Odeon Lounge has brought this concept into the 21st century. OK so the tickets are a bit pricey (£18 per person) but so worth it.  When we arrive, the concierge ushers us like VIP’s past the peons queuing for the regular theater.  After ascending the stairs we arrive in what is about as close as it gets to our version of heaven.  A giant bar with a sparkling high brow liquor pyramid  accented by dark wood and stainless steel.  Leather seating skirt the walls paired with knee high tables and flickering tea lights. The atmosphere is like the most exclusive lounge in London.  The maître d’ gives us the lay of the land and offers us a seat while we wait for our screen to open.

The drinks menu was extensive with meticulously chosen concoctions that my husband says are indicative of a real mixologist in charge of the bar.  My drink, the Fruity Fizz, a non-alcoholic cocktail of ginger beer, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries was so good that I was a little concerned that it might just have a touch of something (but it doesn’t).  Mike’s drink, Perfect Bourbon Manhattan, was one of the best he’s had (and that’s saying something for a guy who has imbibed more than a few cocktails in his day).

About 20 minutes before the start of the show, the staff walked us into the screening room to our pre selected assigned seat.  All leather loungers make me feel like I’m on a Delta business class flight across the pond.  With a push of a button I prop my legs up and get ready to combine my two most favorite things in the world, food and film.

The British have absolutely no clue how to make movie theater popcorn.  In most theaters, movie-goers receive popcorn shipped in a big bag that’s kept in a store-room.  Teenage cashiers heap it into heated compartments at the concession stand to simulate freshness.  I’ve never seen a real popcorn popper at the cinema.  Oddly enough, the British think that butter on popcorn is an impossibly grotesque concept (despite putting butter on every type of sandwich imaginable).   The waitress brought our warm freshly popped popcorn in a lovely ceramic bowl and it was, quite possibly, the best popcorn I have ever had. Someone American must be running this joint.   We looked down about five minutes into the show to realize that only a few measly kernels remained.  You could almost hear the chirping whistle indicative of a shoot out at the OK Corral as we each eyed the last plump buttery white puffs.

A few minutes into the start of the movie our meals arrived.  The menu isn’t extensive but what’s there is meant to fancify movie food. The fish and chips  that I ordered were almost perfect.  The five crisp nuggets of white fish battered lightly and hot from the kitchen had only one problem…they lacked a dash of salt (and some hot sauce but that’s pushing it).  Unfortunately, despite pressing the waitress button a couple of times, no one ever showed up to bring me any.  Mike’s fried calamari was well seasoned and the portion was enough to fill him.  Mr. Fried Calamari Expert loved it.  One side question that I know you’re probably interested in…didn’t the waiters get in the way?  No, you barely notice them and one of the theater’s selling points is that the wait staff has uniforms made of special material to eliminate the swish-swish sound of their pants (trousers for you British) as they’re walking the floor.

Now this wasn’t a cheap evening – £37.50 for the tickets and £47 for our two meals, two drinks, popcorn, a small water and service (gratuity). Was it worth it?  Absolutely yes.  This isn’t something that most can do every weekend but, for a movie lover,  it’s a really nice way to celebrate those special times that come up in life.

Odeon Lounge

 Queensway

 London W2 4YN

 0871 224 4007

 

Hooray for Pancake Day!

Carmelized Apple & Pear Crepe

This year, 21 February is Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Fastnact  Day!    Historically, this is the day that Christians would eat all the rich food in their cupboards like eggs, butter and milk in preparation for the fasting of Lent.  In the UK we use it as an excuse to celebrate the pancake as well.

In the US, pancakes are thick and fluffy and melty and served with fruit compote (as in Rooty Tooty Fresh & Fruity), whip cream and most likely maple syrup (or all of the above if you’re being really fat at IHOP)but in the UK, pancakes are thin and flimsy, resembling French crepes, served sweet or savory.  Interestingly, in the UK flapjacks are oatmeal granola bars and not pancakes (so confusing).

Having been to Paris, where you can buy crepes on just about every corner, I’ve learned that they are great for breakfast, lunch or dinner and they never get boring.  Throw in some scrambled eggs and bacon and you’ve got a handy breakfast you can eat on your commute.   Try sliced bananas and Nutella for a tastier alternative to toast.  Stuff the pancake with ham, cheese and sautéed mushrooms and onions for a quick lunch or dinner.  Add strawberries in sugar syrup rolled up with a dollop of whipped cream and you’ve got an easy dessert for your dinner party.  The only limit is your imagination.

Crepes (AKA English Pancakes)

 

Prep Time 5 minutes + 1 hour to chill

Cooking time 10 minutes

Makes four 10-inch crepes

TOOLS

A large non-stick pan (at least 12 inches in diameter)

A spatula

A ladle or ¼ cup measuring cup

Wax paper to separate cooked crepes

A large non-metallic bowl and spoon for mixing

INGREDIENTS

1 cup flour

1 cup milk

½ cup water

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp butter melted

2 eggs

Mix all ingredients in bowl in the order listed.  To avoid lumps, add milk to flour slowly while continuously stirring.  Add the butter to the mixture in the same way to avoid cooking the batter.  Once mixed, cover and place in fridge for an hour (or make the night before).

When the batter is ready, heat the pan to medium high heat.  When pan is hot, ladle or spoon about ¼ cup of batter.   Pick up the pan and swirl batter around so that there is a thin layer of batter across the whole pan.

When the edges look dry and there are bubbles across the entire surface, it’s time to flip.  If you’re really skillful you can flip it in the pan, I don’t have that many skills.  Using the spatula ease the pancake out of the pan and flip.  If you don’t quite make it, just straighten it out with your hands.   Cook for a minute more and then place on a plate. Separate pancakes with wax paper to keep them from sticking.

Fill the pancakes with your favorite flavors.

Carmelised Apple & Pears (serves 2 )

In a non-stick pan, combine 2 skin on apples (cored and sliced into wedges), 1 tbls butter, and 2 heaping tbls sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon.  Cover and cook on medium high heat for 5 minutes until fruit has begun to soften.  Add 2 pears (seeds and stem removed sliced into wedges) cover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the fruit has soften and sugar has turned into a syrup.  This is about another 10 minutes.  Increase the recipe as needed.

Chocolate Banana(serves 2)

Cover 1/2 of crepe with  1 tbls Nutella spread. Thinly slice two small bananas and place on top of Nutella and roll crepe.

Strawberries and Cream (serves 2)

Remove the leaves and slice 1 pint strawberries.   Place strawberries in a non-metallic bowl and cover with 1/2 cup sugar.  Cover bowl and refrigerate overnight.  When ready to serve, use Cool Whip or beat 1/4 cup whipping cream or double cream until stiff.  Fill crepe with strawberries, roll crepe and place a dollop of cream on top.  Drizzle strawberry syrup on crepe.

Ham & Cheese

Using deli counter ham, cover half of crepe immediately after flipping the crepe.  Add 1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese.  When crepe has cooked, fold uncovered side of crepe over meat and cheese and then fold crepe in half.  Let crepe stand in hot pan until cheese melts.

My Friend Fried Chicken

My husband loves fried chicken.  No, I mean he’s really in love with fried chicken!   I don’t think you understand how serious this is.  If it were possible to marry fried chicken, I would be kicked to the curb.  And I really can’t blame him.  Fried chicken is one of those pleasures in life that the vegan, healthy eating, everything-that-you-put-in-your-mouth-that-even-remotely-tastes-good people have waged war against.

I’m not talking about the fried chicken that comes from the Chinese carry-out with a bit of mambo sauce on the side (what is mambo sauce anyway?) or the faux home cooked, mechanically shaped stuff that you get from KFC.  I mean the juicy, salty, sweet, crispy deep fried hugs that your Grandma would stand over the stove for hours cooking in that old black iron skillet. Chicken that’s so good you would seriously contemplate selling one of your kidneys for just one juicy leg.  Because you always have another kidney, but fried chicken like Grandma made is hard to come by.

I don’t remember my first experience with fried chicken because, like a loyal friend, it’s always been in my life. And it always makes me smile. Most of my best memories revolve around food, and more specifically around fried chicken.  I suspect, if you are Black and from America, yours do too. Remember your loyal friend lovingly nestled in the shoe box when you took those long car trips (or was that just my husband’s family)? Remember those family picnics where the fried chicken took center stage? Everyone’s Grandma had a Crisco can on the stove full of bacon grease. For many of us, our first experience with cooking was shaking the chicken and flour in the brown paper bag.  And that first bite of chicken hot from the grease, the crunch giving way to the juicy molten goodness dripping between your fingers.  Fried chicken has just always been part of the family.

I don’t fry chicken often now.  Even on the best of days, it’s not that great for you. This is really interesting since our grandparents ate it at least once every week and they lived well into their gray old chicken eatin’ days.  Nonetheless, the health gods tell us that we shouldn’t eat it at all or “oven fry” it without the skin because it tastes just the same. Yeah right… who ever said this has never had a Grandma that fried chicken. So now, in my effort to keep my husband around for at least the next 80 years, I save it for special occasions – birthdays, family get-togethers, the first Eagles football game of the season, or when I just feel down. And of course, anytime a little extra happy won’t hurt. I will continue to fry chicken and making wonderful memories.  One day, I’ll be the old grandma in the kitchen with the iron skillet frying up a batch with plenty of oil, plenty of seasoning and plenty of love.

Tools

You’ll need several basic tools which you should have already.

A high sided heavy gauge pan (high enough to hold 1 inch of oil and the chicken without spilling over) with a well fitted lid

Tongs for turning the chicken (you don’t want to pierce the chicken with a fork as you’ll lose all the juicy goodness).

Paper towels and a heat proof bowl for drying grease from the chicken

Paper towels or a clean dishtowel to dry the chicken after cleaning

A plastic bag for coating the chicken with flour

A kitchen thermometer to test the temperature of the oil

Ingredients

2 lbs (1 kg) chicken parts

1 cup plain flour

3 tbls seasoning (plain salt and pepper, Lawry’s, Season-All, All Purpose seasoning, or my chicken seasoning described below)

1 ltr oil (any oil with a high smoking point and no flavor like sunflower, peanut, canola, or vegetable)

Wash chicken and pluck any stray feathers (yes in the UK you must do this) and use clean paper towel or dishtowel to completely dry it.  If you’ve chosen to make chicken breasts, cut the breasts in half to ensure the meat gets thoroughly cooked. Season chicken with your preferred seasoning and refrigerate for at least an hour.

When ready to cook, remove chicken from fridge and set aside.  Place the dry pan on the stove on medium heat (5 on electric stoves) for 2 to 3 minutes.  NOTE: If you have a pan lined with Teflon or you are unsure whether the pan is lined with Teflon do not follow this step (Teflon can be toxic when burnt).   While waiting for pan to heat, add about 1 cup of flour to a plastic bag and add two generous pinches of seasoning to the flour and shake.  When done, fill the pan to a depth of about 1 inch and increase heat to medium high (7 on electric stove).  While the oil is heating, place chicken in flour a few pieces at a time and shake to coat.  Once all the chicken is coated, check the heat of the oil by using the kitchen thermometer. The temperature should be between 350 and 375F.  Another method is to add a piece of bread to the oil, if it turns golden brown within a minute the oil is hot enough.  If the oil is too hot, move the pan away from heat for a minute or two and test the temperature again.  Once the oil is hot, it’s time to cook!

Carefully place the chicken in the pan one piece at a time.  Make sure that the pieces are not touching.  Once the pan is full, cover it tightly.  The oil will be rapidly bubbling at this point.  Remember this sound.  When the bubbling slows down, it’s time to check the chicken.  This should be about 15 minutes.  If the chicken is the proper crispness, careful turn each piece, and continue to cook uncovered. Again, you should hear rapid bubbling.  When it slows down (about 5 to 10 minutes), check again by removing the largest piece and piercing the meatiest part with a sharp knife.  If the juice comes out tinged red or pink, put the piece back in and cook some more.  Once done, remove the pieces and place them in paper towel lined bowl.

Seneca’s Fried Chicken Seasoning

Mix together:

2 tbls sea salt

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp garlic powder

½ tsp sugar

¼ tsp chilli powder

¼ tsp white pepper

1/8 tsp mustard powder

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