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Habemus Fungus

Habemus Fungus

We grew these!
At home.
In a cardboard box.

Yes, that’s right, these delightful portobellos popped up as little brown buttons a few days ago and quickly er…… mushroomed to these large beauties in a couple of days.

I ordered the mushroom kit as a Christmas gift to my husband and another one for my father. There were quite a few companies selling the kits via the internet, but I ordered mine from a company in California. Email me if you want specifics.

I got the mushroom gift idea when we were traveling through the Italian Abruzzo countryside last fall. There we were on a country road, tootling along (is that a word?) when I see a sign with an arrow that says “Fungaia” (mushroom growing place).

“Stop the car,” I shout. “Let’s go find the mushrooms.” Always up for a new eating or gardening discovery, my husband quickly turns the car around. We end up a few minutes later at the fungaia – a quanset hut with a sign out front instructing visitors to ring the bell for assistance. Which we did. A few minutes later, a very handsome young Italian man appears to show us inside – a vast space filled with what look like bales of hay and two different types of mushrooms sprouting all over them. After a tour of the fungaia and a brief stop at the shop next door, we leave with a basketful of fresh oyster mushrooms (pleurotis), and a jar of mushrooms preserved in olive oil to take back to the U.S. Worth the detour, wouldn’t you say?

So back to the kit… A few days after Christmas my husband followed the easy directions that came with the box. Only a few simple instructions and we were off and waiting. We would have had our first crop earlier, if only we hadn’t initially stored the box in a place that was a little too cool.

Fast forward a few days to the dining room – a warmer climate than the guest room – when the little buttons appeared. A few days later and we were ready to harvest our first crop. Which is just what I did earlier this week. The mushrooms are supposed to keep producing with two very large crops and then a tapering off to smaller harvests. When all the nutrients are exhausted, the fungi stop doing their thing and go to mushroom heaven, or a compost pit in our case.

In the meantime, I’m going to have fun turning these into some delightful eats. Look for a recipe to follow. That is, if you can peel your eyes off this good-looking Italian dude who works at the fungaia.

I “Heart” NYC Restaurant Week

I “Heart” NYC Restaurant Week

I can’t get that pumpkin mousse with butterscotch sauce out of my brain — oh please, somebody give me the recipe.

It’s the dessert I ate last night at what was the sweet ending to a fantastic meal in New York City – and it was on sale to boot.

Well, not exactly on sale, but during restaurant week, which takes place twice a year in New York City, scores of restaurants offer a three-course lunch for $24 and a three-course dinner for $35. That can be a real bargain at places where just the entree can cost that much.

Restaurant week is also my excuse for arranging to meet a friend for dinner, as I did last night, at F.Illi Ponte, an Italian restaurant in Tribeca, bordering on Soho.

Neither the company, nor the food disappointed. The Italian restaurant, whose abbreviated name “F.Illi” stands for “fratelli,” or “brother” has been around for a long time, and I’ve passed it many times, but I never managed to eat there. It’s a little bit out of the way in a kind of desolate neighborhood by the waterfront, but the schlep was well worth it.

Right away, good vibes came our way along with the freebie munchies at our table, which by the way, overlooked the Hudson River. This wasn’t just a plate of olive oil and a bread basket. Noooo – it was a small plate with chunks of parmigiano cheese and another plate heaped with the best caponata I’ve ever eaten – sweet and savory at the same time and oh so delicious.

My friend Lynn, and I ordered the same first course – funghi ripiene – (actually make that a fungo not funghi – the singular for mushroom – since there was only one. But hey, you’re allowed a grammar error on the menu when the food is so good.) The roasted portobello mushroom was stuffed with crabmeat and breadcrumbs and served over whipped polenta and a shellfish sauce. A well-executed combination of flavors, textures and colors.

Lynn ordered strozzapreti in a duck ragout as her main course, topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta. I chose veal scalloppine in a traditional lemon, capers and parsley sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes and stewed escarole. We were on a roll, with both dishes cooked to perfection.

The piece de resistance however, was the dessert – a “Sapori D’Autunno,” or “flavors of Fall.” If this is Fall, I want to stay there forever. Imagine a velvety pumpkin mousse resting on a slice of spiced pumpkin cake, surrounded by dribbles of butterscotch sauce, poached figs and other dried fruits. Oh, I forgot the chocolate sauce over the mousse. OK, wipe that drool off your chin.

Somebody in that kitchen really knows how to cook. And in the off-chance the chef is reading this, would you mind emailing me the recipe? Please? And maybe the caponata too? Pretty please?

Stay tuned next week for part two of Restaurant Week, when “Le Cirque” is on tap.

Cauliflower Sformato

Cauliflower Sformato

Looking for an unusual first course for your next dinner party? Look no further. This is elegant, delicious and can be made a day ahead. It looks like it took a long time to make, but in fact, it whips together in about 15 minutes. And it goes down … like buttah!

It’s the culinary version of the little black dress – you can change it around with a different sauce, or use a different vegetable. There are endless variations … mushroom sformato with cheese sauce; zucchini sformato with red pepper sauce; asparagus sformato with mushroom sauce, etc. etc. etc.

One of the most memorable versions I ever enjoyed was a ricotto sformato, or flan, that I ate at Cibreo’s, my favorite restaurant in Florence, Italy. I should amend that to say trattoria, since I never ate at the bonafide Cibreo’s restaurant, but rather at the eponymous annex next door. It carries the same menu but at half the price. You don’t get the linen table service as in the restaurant, in fact the trattoria is downright casual, and you might have to share a table with a complete stranger. But to me, that’s half the fun. And eating Cibreo’s much-heralded food is the real reward.

So try this sformato with whatever vegetable you have on hand. I had a lot of cauliflower calling out to me. I didn’t wait for a dinner party either. I made it just for the two of us, and was happy to have the leftovers for several more meals. Even if I wasn’t at Cibreo’s.

Cauliflower Sformato

(eight 3/4 cup servings)

1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
(about 4 cups)
1 3/4 cup milk or a combination of milk and cream
1/2 stick unsalted butter, plus more for greasing molds
1/4 cup flour plus 1 T.
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
salt, white pepper, to taste
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

tomato sauce, about 2 cups

Cook the cauliflower in water for about 10 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain, then put back into a dry pan and cook for a few minutes to help evaporate any remaining water. Be careful not to let it brown or burn.

Butter eight 3/4 cup oven-proof custard cups or flan molds and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the cauliflower in a food processor and puree it until perfectly smooth. Place it into a colander lined with paper towels to absorb any remaining moisture.

Heat the milk in a saucepan until warm and little bubble start to form. In another saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then add the flour and stir and cook for a couple of minutes until smooth. It will start to get “pasty,” but that’s fine. Add the milk and continue to stir constantly, using either a whisk or wooden spoon, for about five minutes. Add seasonings and cauliflower puree.

Beat the eggs and add the parmesan cheese. Add the puree mixture to the egg and cheese mixture, starting with a small amount, then increasing the amount a little at a time. You want to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs and cheese. If you add the pureed cauliflower mixture all at once, you risk curdling the eggs.

When everything is mixed, pour into the buttered molds and put the molds in a bain-marie or hot water bath. Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove the molds from the water and let them rest at least 10 minutes before trying to unmold. If you unmold too soon, they won’t hold their shape. They actually hold their shape better the next day when you reheat them. I microwaved them in their molds, then flipped them out onto individual plates. Serve as is, or with a simple homemade tomato sauce, if desired.

A New Beginning

A New Beginning

It’s inauguration day in the United States!

This is primarily a food blog, so I’m going to resist the temptation to use this as a political soapbox.

But whatever your party affiliation, we have only one president and only one country. Let’s all come together today and in the future to wish our new president and his family well. A little prayer wouldn’t hurt either.

May he have years of good health and the wisdom to guide this country to a better place and to help make the world more peaceful, more prosperous, and safe for everyone who inhabits Mother Earth.

While I’m at it, let’s also hope he helps to make Mother Earth a healthier place to live.

Now, time to celebrate.

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.


Sloppy “Giuseppe” Sandwiches

Sloppy “Giuseppe” Sandwiches

This didn’t start out to be Sloppy Joe, er… Giuseppe, sandwiches. It was supposed to be chili con carne, a hearty meal for a day when the temperature was so cold that only polar bears and penguins could face the outdoors.

But when I discovered I had no beans in the house, well, I had two choices. One, brave the frigid weather and go to the store, or two, turn the ingredients I did have into something else.

Needless to say, I did not venture out into the cold, cold night to fetch some beans. Instead, I transformed what would have been chili into a “Sloppy Giuseppe” sandwich – sort of like a Sloppy Joe, but without the vinegar or brown sugar found in most recipes for Sloppy Joes. I kept the chili powder and cumin I normally use in chili, but added the Italian twist with wine, tomatoes and basil, turning this “Joe” into a “Giuseppe” with definite Italian overtones.

Sloppy “Giuseppe” sandwich

1 pound ground beef (I asked the butcher to coarsely grind some lean meat from an “eye” roast)
1/2 cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup minced green pepper
3 T. olive oil
1/4 cup red wine
1 16 ounce can chopped tomatoes
4 T. chili powder
1 T. dried basil
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
dash freshly ground pepper

In a saucepan, saute the onion, pepper and garlic in the olive oil until wilted. Add the ground meat and saute until cooked through. Drain any fat that remains, then add the wine, tomatoes and herbs and spices. Simmer for about 1/2 hour and serve over crusty rolls.

Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

I was inspired by Marie of “Proud Italian Cook” to make this dessert, after she posted her recipe for a decadent Nutella Hot Chocolate earlier this week.

I got to thinking … hmm, I have a jar of artisanal chocolate and hazelnut spread that was given to us last October by a young couple we met at a chestnut festival in Soriano, Italy. It’s made with dark chocolate – my favorite – but after microwaving it in the jar several times to pour over poached pears and ice cream, it had hardened beyond hope. Maybe I could salvage it by melting it in some heated cream to flavor a rice pudding — one of my husband’s favorite desserts.
I had just enough for about three servings.
That was last night.
Now who gets to eat the one serving that’s left in the fridge?
This is not going to be pretty.

Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

If you don’t have Nutella, or an artisanal chocolate-hazelnut spread as I did, you can substitute about 3 tablespoons of cocoa.

1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 1/2 cups cream
or
3 cups half and half

1/4 cup Nutella, or a similar spread
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup arborio riceCheck Spelling
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. Cointreau, rum or any liqueur

In a medium saucepan, gently heat the milk and cream or half and half. Add the remaining ingredients, except vanilla and liqueur. Stir constantly over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes, until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and add vanilla and liqueur. Pour into serving bowls and cover with a piece of plastic wrap in order to avoid “skin” from forming. Serve as is or with whipped cream.

Trofie Pasta With Swordfish

Trofie pasta with swordfish

I just love this twisted, squiggly pasta shape called trofie. They’re fairly easy to find in the U.S. now, but years ago that wasn’t the case. They are commonly served with pesto in the region of Liguria, which is practically synonymous with the basil-based sauce. But trofie are used with many other types of sauces too.

I first encountered them years ago on the isle of Elba at a little trattoria called “Osteria del Noce” where a cat named Osvaldo had taken up residence and was seated upright on a chair at one of the large dining tables, waiting for his meal. I noticed everyone else at the nearby table had ordered the trofie dish. I figured it must be good, even though I didn’t know what it was. So I ordered it and it was exquisite — laden with teensy weensy clams and local shellfish that are impossible to get here in the states. So I’m offering up a different version that still tastes great and is economical too. For two people, I used only six ounces of swordfish and 1/2 pound of trofie – and there was still enough leftover for a cat too – not Osvaldo, but my resident feline Rocky.

Trofie Pasta with swordfish:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 green pepper, minced, optional
1/4 carrot, grated
1 28 ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 T. tomato paste
2 T. capers
1/4 cup green olives, pitted and smashed (I forgot to add them this time, but it was still good)
1/4 tsp. dried basil flakes
salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
6 ounces swordfish, cut into chunks or small pieces

Saute onion, garlic, pepper, and carrot until softened. Add tomatoes, crushing with fingers. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 1/2 hour. This will make more than enough sauce for two servings. You may not want to use it all, but take some out to store or use
later. Add the swordfish and simmer for five minutes more before serving.

For Maria – Lemon “Angel Wing” Cupcakes

For Maria – Lemon “Angel Wing” Cupcakes

My mother Maria used to bake these cupcakes for me and my sister to take to school on our birthdays when we were young girls. She called them “angel wing cupcakes.”

My mother was lauded for her wonderful Italian cooking, but not so much for her baking. Indeed, she used a box mix for both the cupcakes and the lemon filling, but to us they were the best cupcakes in the world. Like everything Maria did, she baked these with love.

My mother died 22 years ago, way too young at 64 years of age.

I haven’t eaten these cupcakes since I was little, but I baked them yesterday – on my mother’s birthday – in tribute to a loving woman who is still dearly missed.

Lemon Cupcakes

2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup milk

Sift together dry ingredients. In mixer, beat the butter until creamy, then add sugar and beat until mixture is well blended and light, about three or four minutes. Add whole eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, then add vanilla extract and lemon zest and beat a little more. Mix in lemon juice. The batter will look curdled but don’t worry about it – when you blend in the flour mixture it will become smooth again. Add the dry ingredients alternating with the milk until completely blended. Fill cupcakes 2/3 full and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. I filled mine too full and had to trim off the part that spilled over after they had cooled.

When cupcakes are cooled, take a small paring knife and excavate a small pyramid shape from the top of each one. Set aside the small cut-out. Fill the hole with lemon filling. Cut the reserved pyramid shape in half and arrange on top of the filling. Dust with confectioner’s sugar and place a maraschino cherry in center.

Lemon Filling:

1 cup sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
3 T. cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups water
juice and zest of 2 lemons
2 T. butter
4 egg yolks

In a pan, stir together sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt. Add water, lemon juice and lemon zest and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil. Stir in the butter. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with a whisk, then stir in a small amount of the hot lemon mixture. Continue to add a small amount of the hot mixture to the egg yolks, whisking all the while. If you add the hot mixture too quickly, you risk curdling the eggs. The idea is to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs with a small amount of the hot lemon mixture. Use it for the cupcake filling “as is,” but if you’re worried about raw egg yolks, put everything back on the range and cook another minute or two. The mixture should be thick, but will thicken even more when cool.

A Very Late Buche De Noel

A Very Late Buche De Noel

This is what I normally prepare for Christmas Day dessert, but this year I chose to make a Raspberry Bombe instead. As tasty as the bombe was, I have to say I missed the buche. The yule-log was missing from our yule.

So I took the opportunity to make it for a post-Hanukkah party this weekend. It doesn’t have to be a holiday treat. It is sensational for any large, winter gathering, with shredded coconut strewn for snow and little meringue mushrooms sprouting up around the log.

It’s not a project for the faint of heart, but if you’re patient and follow the directions carefully, you can do it. If you can read, you can cook, I always tell friends who lament that they can’t cook. Muster up your courage and go for it. Make sure you read the directions thoroughly before starting. If you really mess it up, you can throw it all in a glass bowl and call it a trifle. If you don’t tell anyone it was supposed to be a yule log, they’ll never know.
I’ll never forget my first attempt at making a chocolate souffle, decades ago. It never rose to puffy heights, but my husband proclaimed the dessert “the best brownies I’ve ever eaten.”

With a few small changes, this is adapted from a recipe for “bittersweet chocolate roulade” from an episode of “America’s Test Kitchen.”

This cake tastes best served at room temperature.

for the cake:

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons cold water
1/4 cup sifted cocoa, plus 1 T. for unmolding
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for baking sheet
1/8 t. salt
6 large eggs, separated
1/3 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1/8 t. cream of tartar


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 12 x 17 inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, cover pan bottom with parchment paper and spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray. Dust surface with flour and tap out excess.

2. Bring some water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Combine chocolate, butter and water in small heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set bowl over pan, reduce heat to medium low and heat until butter is almost completely melted and chocolate pieces are glossy and fully melted. Do not stir or let water boil under chocolate. Remove bowl from pan, unwrap and stir until smooth and glossy.

3. While chocolate is melting, sift 1/4 cup cocoa, flour and salt together into small bowl and set aside.

4. In bowl of standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With mixer running, add about 1 t. sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 40 seconds. Gradually add half of sugar and beat until whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer. Do not over beat. If whites look dry and granular, they are over beaten. Remove whites into a large bowl.

5. Beat yolks at medium speed until just combined, and add half of remaining sugar. Continue to beat, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary until yolks are pale yellow and mixture falls in thick ribbons when whisk is lifted, about 8 minutes. Add vanilla and beat to combine, scraping down bowl once.

6. Stir chocolate mixture into yolks, a small amount at a time so you don’t scramble the eggs. With a rubber spatula, stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold remaining whites until almost no streaks remain. Sprinkle dry ingredients over top and fold in quickly but gently.

7. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing batter into pan corners. Bake until center of cake springs back when touched with finger, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes.

8. While cake is cooling, lay clean kitchen towel over work surface and sift remaining tablespoon cocoa over towel. With hands, rub cocoa into towel. Run paring knife around perimeter of baking sheet to loosen cake. Invert cake onto paper towels and peel off parchment. This is tricky and it’s entirely possible that the cake will crack when you’re inverting it, or rolling it, as it did for me. Don’t worry if this happens. It can be covered with frosting.

9. Roll cake, paper towels and all, into jelly roll shape. Cool for 15 minutes, then unroll cake and paper towels. Spread filling over surface of cake, almost to edges. Roll up cake gently but snugly around filling. Put cake seam-side down on top and place in refrigerator for an hour to harden the filling a bit. This will make it easier to frost.

10. Remove cake from refrigerator and trim ends at a diagonal. Spread ganache frosting on cake, including exposed edges. Take the edges that you trimmed off and attach to the top of the log as little stumps, using a long wooden skewer to help prevent them from sliding off. Spread more ganache on the little stumps reserving a teaspoonful for later. Use a fork to make wood-grain striations on the surface of the ganache before the icing has set. Refrigerate uncovered. Before serving, remove wooden skewers and patch the hole with a little dab of some frosting. Bring to room temperature before serving, for best flavor.

Filling:

Espresso-Mascarpone Cream

1/2 cup heavy cream
3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
16 ounces mascarpone cheese

1. Simmer cream in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat and stir in espresso powder and powdered sugar. Cool.
2. With spatula, beat mascarpone in medium bowl until softened. Gently whisk in cooled cream mixture until combined.

Chocolate Ganache

3/4 cup heavy cream
2 T. unsalted butter
6 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1 T. cognac

Microwave cream and butter in measuring cup on high until bubbling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Place chocolate in bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. With machine running, gradually add hot cream and cognac through feed tube and process until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer ganache to medium bowl and let stand at room temperature for one hour, until spreadable.

Meringue Mushrooms

2 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
dash cream of tartar

Beat egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and sugar, gradually, until mixture forms stiff peaks. Place into a plastic bag and trim off a bit at the corner. Or use a pastry bag. Pipe onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, some in small cap shapes and some in long “stem” shapes. Dab the tops with water to smooth out any pointy tips. Bake at 200 degrees for 1 1/2 hours, then turn off the oven and leave in the oven another 1/2 hour. Let cool. Before serving cake, cut little holes in the bottom of a cap shaped piece and push a stem shaped piece into it. You can frost the bottom of the cap first if you like, but be aware that these will soften quickly once you frost them. Don’t assemble the mushrooms until you are ready to serve the cake. When all the mushrooms are placed around the cake, dust the caps and the cake with more cocoa, for a “dirt” effect.

Avocado And Pomegranate Salad

Avocado and Pomegranate Salad

There’s a line in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in which one of the characters says: “Go to, sir; you were beaten in Italy for picking a kernel out of a pomegranate.”

For this recipe, which requires dozens of pomegranate seeds, there’s no worry about being beaten in Italy. There’s only the time-consuming task of removing those seeds from those pesky, pulpy membranes. The rest of the recipe is a snap.

What you’ll end up with is a healthy and unusual salad that’s colorful as a Christmas wreath and delicious too. It requires only two ingredients – avocados and pomegranates, plus some olive oil and lemon juice as a dressing. It comes to you via my friend Anna Rosa, who spends a lot of time in Italy, but has never once been beaten for plucking a seed from a pomegranate.

Here’s the recipe:

Peel two avocados and cube. Mix in a bowl with seeds from one pomegranate. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice to taste.