flexing my mussels

Around this time every summer my children spend a week with my parents in Connecticut, and while I miss them (stop snickering I do miss them) I also enjoy having a week free to do, see and cook all the things I don’t ordinarily get to. You would expect the overwhelming quiet, greatly reduced laundry and lack of sibling bickering to be what makes they’re absence feel so profound, but in fact it’s the little things. The way I can walk from the front door to the kitchen without stepping on or tripping over anyone’s shoes, the way a gallon of milk can actually last for more than two days and the way I can go a week without uttering any of the following phrases: “stop yelling” “would you like me to treat you like that” “leave the dog alone” “turn down the tv” “no you can’t play video games” and last but not least “go to bed…go to bed…go to bed…GO TO BED!…” Yeah, I miss them. Terribly.

I consider my kids to be fairly adventurous eaters (for an 8 and 4 yr old) and easy to please when it come to meals. Yes my daughter would eat pasta for every meal if she could and my son could live on turkey and cheese sandwiches; but they also happily eat things like sushi, smoked ribs, grilled asparagus, shrimp stir-fry, sautéed grouper and garlicky hummus without complaint. What they won’t eat is anything too spicy, which is of course exactly how I like things. So while they’re away enjoying New England I get the opportunity to throw caution to the wind and cook the spicy dishes that make me most happy.

Given the freedom to make whatever floats my boat is actually a bit more daunting than you would think. To quote the charming Miss Veruca Salt “I want the works, I want the whole works…” There are so many recipes I tuck into my “just for me” file that when the time comes to actually pull one out, its tough to narrow it down. I really want to try to replicate the spicy ceviche I had at dinner the other night, there’s a chicken vindaloo recipe that looks easy whose ingredients I happen to already have on hand and a spicy West African peanut soup that sounds incredibly good. But in the end the dish I ultimately decided to kick my week of freedom off with was a is a dish of spicy steamed mussels.

I have a weakness for mussels, they happen to be one of my all-time favorite foods. I eat them whenever the opportunity arrises and can’t eat them without thinking fondly of the night my husband and I spent in Honfleur, France so many years ago. We sat for hours at a little table alongside the Vieux Bassin in the center of town, sipping rosé and enjoying the sights, the sounds and a steaming pot of mussels in a curry cream sauce. It was sheer perfection. Honestly, if you know my husband or myself then you have no doubt heard our story of Honfleur. Perfection! However, as big as that build up was and as much as I love that classic French preparation of mussels, I love the combination of coconut, chilies and lemon grass even more. So the decision was made and Spicy Coconut Mussels with Lemon Grass was the winner.

It was delicious and something the kids totally wouldn’t have appreciated, which made it all the tastier. They’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll have to start cooking to please their palates again, but I’ll always have the memories of these spicy mussels…

Spicy Coconut & Lemon Grass Mussels
These are perfect as an appetizer or as a main dish along with a tossed salad.

mussels2

4 tbsp. coconut oil
1 medium onion, halved and sliced thin
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 stalks fresh lemon grass, outer layers removed, cut into 3 pieces and smashed with the side of a knife
1 tsp. garam masala
2-3 small hot chiles (I used a fresh cayenne), finely chopped
3 cups unsweetened light coconut milk
4 lbs. fresh PEI mussels*, scrubbed
zest of a lemon
juice of a lemon
2 tsp. Asian fish sauce
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
sliced and toasted crusty bread

  1. Heat the coconut oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add the onion, garlic, lemon grass, garam masala and chiles and cook over medium heat until soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and mussels. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook until the mussels have opened, 5 to 7 minutes (discard any mussels that remain closed).
  2. Remove from heat and using a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to a large bowl, leaving the liquid in the pot. Fish out the lemon grass and stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, fish sauce and cilantro. Taste the broth and add more fish sauce and/or lemon juice if desired.
  3. Slice and toast several pieces of crusty bread. Place the mussels in four wide bowls, ladle the broth over them and serve with the sliced bread.

*adapted from NY Times

*You should always try to use any fresh shellfish the same day you buy it. However if you have to keep it for a day or two before cooking here’s what to do to keep it fresh: “Remove the mussels from the mesh bag and put them in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel to keep them moist. (Never store them in an airtight container, they’re still alive and will suffocate.) To check for freshness, tap a slightly opened mussel on the counter. If it doesn’t close shut, toss it. Store them in the coldest part of your refrigerator. The mussels will release a small amount of liquid every day, make sure to drain this often.” —@NoshOnIt

the penicillium roqueforti blues…

I am not a subtle girl. I’m invariably drawn to strong flavors, strong opinions and strong personalities. So it probably comes as no surprise that I’ll take a sharp, pungent and complex blue cheese over a mild cheddar any day. Blue cheeses are those that have been exposed or “needled” with a kind of mold, usually Penicillium roqueforti, and allowed to age and develop gorgeous blue-green veins. Blue cheese may seem too tangy for some, but in reality it’s the perfect accent to nearly any dish it’s added to. Blue cheese with a simple drizzle of honey… Perfect. Blue cheese on a spinach salad… Yum. Blue cheese in a turkey and fig panini… Amazing. Blue cheese with any type of beef…. Fantastic. Blue cheese with caramelized onions, sweet red peppers and toasted walnuts… sensational and as it happens this weeks recipe!

Making pizza from scratch is a pretty common occurrence at our house, but it generally only takes place in the winter months. I would prefer not to crank up the oven during the summer heat and while I’ve thought about trying to make grilled pizza, until recently I never actually attempted it. I don’t know why, maybe I thought that if things went awry I would have a giant hard to clean mess on my hands. Or maybe I was suspect that it would actually turn out as good as traditional oven baked. Whatever my reasons were, they couldn’t have been more off base. Grilled pizza is easier than oven baked and actually believe it or not, takes less time. As long as the grill is crazy hot the dough will immediately form a crust and puff up beautifully. Then you layer on some lovely toppings, pop it back on the grill and presto— pizza is served!

We’ve tried a lot of topping combos since first discovering this new style of pizza making. I’m still experimenting but I’d have to say the front-runners appear to be a simple sausage and tomato for the kids and a caramelized onion, red pepper, blue cheese and walnut for the adults. I’m thinking next week we’ll try shrimp and pesto with crumbled bacon. I’ll let you know how it turns out…

Caramelized Onion, Red Pepper & Blue Cheese Grilled Pizza
Not only is this pizza delicious but making it on the grill is much easier than making it in the oven. Give it a shot, become a convert!

blue cheese pizza slice++**

3 tbsp. olive oil
2 huge sweet onions, thinly sliced into half-moons
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 large red bell pepper, cut into long thin strips
1 lb. pizza dough (homemade or store bought), at room temperature
4 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
4 oz. buttermilk blue cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup walnut pieces

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sugar and cook until golden, about 45 minutes, stirring frequently. (Caramelizing onions is a slow process that can’t be rushed. This recipe calls for more oil than ordinarily used, but you need it to keep the pizza crust moist.)
  2. Transfer the onions to a bowl and set aside. Place the bell pepper in the same pan, sprinkle with salt and cook until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the walnuts to the pan and quickly toast, set aside.
  3. On a lightly floured surface, gently stretch the dough into an 18-inch circle. Carefully transfer the dough to a rimless cookie sheet or a pizza peel dusted with flour and let sit for 10 minutes. Preheat your grill to 400°F.
  4. Dip paper towels in olive oil and carefully wipe them on the grates of the grill to grease them. Slide the circle of dough onto the hot grill; close the lid and let cook until it puffs up and brown grill marks form on the bottom, about 2 to 4 minutes. (As you transfer your circle of dough to the grill it may become more of an amoeba shape than a circle. Don’t worry, it will still taste delicious.)
  5. Transfer the crust back to your pan and with the grilled side facing up, begin layering on your toppings. Start by spreading on the onions as evenly as possible, then add the mozzarella, red peppers, blue cheese and finally top with the walnuts.
  6. Return the pizza to the grill and cook (with the lid closed) another 2 to 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the bottom of the crust is crisp. Transfer to a cutting board, slice into wedges and serve.

*adapted from weber

life altering hummus

When my son was little he was a real picky eater. The first solid food he ever ate was avocado and he loved it; but then along came toddler free will and out the window went adventurous eating. Most of his likes and dislikes were based solely on the appearance rather than taste, it used to drive me crazy! Night’s when he actually ate what the rest of the family did felt like a huge victory to me. Uggh, mealtimes those first few years were not fun!

Refusing to be undone by this kids’ unfounded rejection of perfectly delicious food, I started experimenting with a little mom sleight of hand. I looked for any way to make the “kid food” he was willing to eat healthier. Carrots and celery puréed into the red sauce I used on pizza, homemade fish sticks and chicken tenders, black beans added to brownies (not a big hit) and hummus as a dipper for crackers and pretzels. Yup you read right, good ol’ garlicky hummus. My picky guy wouldn’t touch a perfectly non-threatening string bean, an innocuous burger or a simple bowl of soup; but he would eat hummus like it was going out of style. Hummus sandwiches, hummus on pretzels, hummus with his chicken tenders… and I can’t even tell you how often he sat down with a big bowl of hummus and a spoon. People thought I was crazy, but he loved it! And I loved that he was eating something full of protein, loaded with heart-healthy garlic (during his hummus years he never had a mosquito bite!) and more exotic than mac n’ cheese or pb&j. Needless to say I quickly developed a hummus recipe of my own and could whip up a batch in flash.

Thankfully he’s no longer a picky eater, but it didn’t happen overnight. He’ll now eat almost anything I put in front of him as long as it’s not spicy and is loaded with garlic. Yet hummus still plays a big role in our house. My daughter, who thankfully is far less suspicious of unfamiliar foods then he ever was, happens to be a hummus junkie as well. In fact just yesterday her lunch request was a bowl of hummus and some baby carrots. Ya gotta love it!

Who knew that a simple bowl of garlicky hummus in your formative years could turn into an enduring love of strong flavors and a willingness to try unfamiliar food. Seriously, who knew?!?

Homemade Hummus
You can adjust the amount of garlic in the recipe to your taste or slow roast it before hand to mellow out the flavor.

hummus4

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3-4 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. tahini
3 tbsp. olive oil
4 tbsp. plain yogurt
1 tbsp. water
3 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

  1. Put everything in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth.
  2. Spoon into a serving dish, drizzle the top with olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of smoked paprika. Serve with toasted pita chips and fresh vegetables, or a spoon.

No, I Haven’t Cracked Up!

With Christmas right around the corner I’ve been giving some serious thought to my holiday menu. We usually have some type of beef roast for our Christmas Eve dinner, (yes I know, how very un-Italian of me) and this year it will be a tenderloin with horseradish-blue cheese sauce on the side. I’m thinking of serving it along with creamed spinach, roasted carrots and parsnips, baked artichokes and simple mashed sweet potatoes. (Stop snickering those of you who know I have a history with holiday potatoes— this year they will be fully cooked!)

Whenever we entertain I like to start with an array of yummy appetizers; some made from scratch and some lovingly doctored up store bought. I always serve shrimp cocktail, some veggies with dip (hummus, baked spinach & artichoke, pesto-yogurt) perhaps a soup and some delicious cheese and crackers. But I’m not talking about any old crackers, oh no no! I’m talking about homemade cheddar crackers.

I know what you’re thinking, “What kind of crazy person makes crackers rather than just buying a box?” Even my husband gave me a look of exasperation the first time I announced I was making crackers. Now he says to me in the most nonchalant way, “So when do you think you’re going to make those crackers again?” These lovely and effortless little crackers could seriously be the most tasty thing to have ever come out of my oven. The dough comes together in a matter of minutes and it’s crazy easy to work with. So easy in fact that than even my kids are able to roll out and cut their own crackers. (But only after squabbling over who’s turn it is with the rolling pin and who had the star cookie cutter first. Sigh… kids.)

Easy, delicious and engaging for all— that’s a Jan Greco recipe trifecta!

Cheddar Snaps
Sometimes I make these crackers large enough to support a slice of cheese or dollop of dip, sometimes I make them snack size and sometimes I even make them goldfish size. No matter the shape or size they’re delicious! 

crackers

2 cups finely grated sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Put all the ingredients except the milk into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the processor until the dough resembles coarse crumbs.
  3. Add the milk and process until the dough gathers together into a ball.
  4. Lightly flour a cutting board and pat the ball of dough into a circle. Use a rolling pin to flatten it out the rest of the way, roughly an 1/8 of an inch thick.
  5. Cut the dough into shapes using a cookie cutter of your choice. Place the crackers on a baking sheet and use a fork to poke a series of holes in the top of each cracker.
  6. Bake for 12–15 minutes, until the edges are just starting to brown.
  7. Cool the crackers on a rack and devour along some tasty cheese, soup or just by the handful.

* adapted from rural housewife

Holy-peño Peppers!

One Saturday this past Spring my husband and son went to Home Depot for lumber and came home with herbs and jalapeño peppers. My son apparently took a little side trip into the gardening department and knowing how much his mother enjoys spicy food, decided to buy me a jalapeño pepper plant. He’s right I do love spicy, but I don’t have much experience cooking with jalapeño peppers and I didn’t really know what I would do if the plants grew and produced fruit. But since my sweet boy bought it for me, you know it got the utmost love and attention. Well my one small plant not only grew, it sprouted into a jalapeño tree laden with enormous peppers!

I really wanted to use the peppers whole, to make the most of their tremendous size, rather than dicing them up and adding them to a dish. Naturally the first thing that came to mind was stuffing them; jalapeño popper style. But instead of your traditional deep-fried disaster with gloppy cream cheese oozing out when you attempted to eat it, my poppers would be civilized. Mine would be knife and fork poppers, not beers and football poppers. I stuffed each one with aged cheddar cheese, wrapped it in real turkey bacon and grilled it for a few minutes on each side. The results were crazy good, with such a subtle amount of heat that even my “we don’t like spicy food children” enjoyed them. And they actually turned out attractive enough that you could serve them to guests, even if it’s not Super Bowl Sunday.

Grilled Jalapeño Poppers
These would also be tasty stuffed with Monterey Jack (or a Jack/Cheddar blend) and wrapped in real bacon.

4 large jalapeño peppers
4 slices turkey bacon
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

  1. Make a slit from stem to tip on the top side of each jalapeno pepper and scrape out the seeds. Fill each pepper with the shredded cheese, pressing it in well with your thumb. Wrap a piece of bacon around each pepper and secure it with several toothpicks.
  2. Place the peppers onto the preheated grill and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until the peppers begin to soften and the bacon is cooked through, about 3-5 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

*adapted from the food network

oh so easy hors d’oeuvres

If you were to ask me what I think the most challenging part of planning a dinner party was I’d have to say the hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. I truly feel like they can set the pace for the rest of the meal. If your hors d’oeuvres are uninspired and lame, you can be pretty sure your guests will be anticipating the same out of your dinner. And if they’re overly fussy and complicated your guests may pass on them all together. But… when done right they’re capable of making even the most last minute of gatherings feel like a special occasion. I bet you never realized what a slippery slope hors d’oeuvres could be!

I’ve been known to serve fancy little wonton wrappers with pesto and goat cheese, homemade sweet bean piroshki and yummy curried butternut squash soup as an hors d’oeuvre or first course, but sometimes complicated and fussy is precisely my goal. However a casual get together calls for much simplier fare, something along the lines of freshly steamed shrimp with cocktail sauce, spinach dip with crudites, or a lovely antipasto plate with some tasty cheese, fruit, herb roasted olives and slow roasted tomatoes. I know, that last part sounds eye-rollingly complicated, right? Well I’m here to tell you it’s not, not at all. And the best part is that the olives and tomatoes can be made ahead of time so all you have to do is arrange yourself a little platter of tasty morsels on the day of the party and hors d’oeuvres are served!

Orange + Herb Roasted Olives
I used a mixture of small brined Nicoise, Picholine and Kalamata olives and large green Italian Cerignola olives for this recipe.

olives

2 cups assorted olives (3/4 pound)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. orange juice
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 tsp. dried oregano, crumbled
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp. grated orange zest

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°. In a small bowl toss together all of the ingredients except for the orange zest. Roast until sizzling, stirring half way through, about 15-20 minutes.
  2. Remove thyme and rosemary springs and transfer the olives to a bowl, toss with the orange zest. Serve at room temperature.

*adapted from food & wine

Slow Roasted Plum Tomatoes
These are delicious paired with a little cheese, on a sandwich or just as is. Typically I use fresh herbs over dried whenever possible, but in this case since the goal is to dehydrate and reduce the tomatoes I prefer to use dried herbs.

tomatoes3

2 lbs. plum tomatoes
2 tbsp. olive oil
dried thyme
garlic powder
balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 225°F. Slice each tomato in half and place them cut side up on a baking sheet.
  2. Drizzle each half with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with thyme, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for 3 hours.
  3. After 3 hours has elapsed drizzle each half with balsamic vinegar and continue to roast for another 2-3 hrs or until they become very flat and wrinkled (this will all depend on the size of your tomatoes). Let cool and serve or refrigerate for a later use.

alakazam… pesto!

Ahhhh Spring… The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming and my thoughts have turned to planning my vegetable garden. For me there is nothing more satisfying than tending, harvesting and enjoying veggies produced in my own little backyard.

Part of what appeals to me most about vegetable gardening is the sheer possibility. The possibility that you’ll have a bumper crop of string beans and become this summer’s “String Bean Queen”, the possibility that you’ll plant the eggplant too close to the yellow squash and create some crazy hybrid vegetable and even the possibility that the pumpkin you and the kids were so excited to grow, ends up a total bust.

How I love the daily nurturing and fervent watching for the slightest growth, flower and finally fruit. It gives me such joy! Long before I ever had actual raised beds to plant in I was an avid container gardener. Then it was mainly the growing of herbs, tomatoes and a little lettuce that made me happy. I used those early garden successes in every fashion I could think of, but more than just about anything else I made pesto. Tons of pesto in fact; traditional basil and pignoli, kale and toasted walnut, mint and almond and even arugula and pistachio. I was “The Pesto Queen”!

Pesto is one of the most versatile sauces I can think of. It’s great as a spread on crackers or sandwiches, yummy mixed with some Greek yogurt and served with raw veggies, makes a tasty salad dressing when thinned out with additional lemon juice and oil and can even enliven a simple bowl of minestrone soup.

But the thing that I truly love the most about pesto is that it tastes just like Spring. Fresh, green, unhurried and full of promise.

I wish for you a Spring brimming with promise and possibility…

Arugula and Pistachio Pesto
This pesto is fantastic just about anywhere, but particularly good as a sassy little appetizer with goat cheese and won ton wrapper cups (see recipe below). 

6 1/2 cups of arugula, packed
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup salted and roasted pistachios, shelled
4 garlic cloves
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper

  1. Boil six cups of water in a medium-sized pot. *Working in small batches, quickly blanch arugula and then shock it in a bowl of ice water. Wring the blanched arugula dry and place in a food processor.
  2. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, pistachios, garlic, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Pulse until smooth. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. If the pesto is too thick add a bit more oil and lemon juice. Use immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container.

*I always blanch whatever type of green I’m using to make pesto. You don’t have to, but it helps keep your beautiful pesto bright and green, rather than turning brown in a day or two.

Goat Brie & Pesto Cups
These are a snap to make but look like you’ve toiled for hours.

24 wonton wrappers
pesto (homemade or store bought)
4 oz. goat Brie cheese
shelled pistachios, for garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a mini muffin pan with cooking spray and gently mold the wonton wrappers into each cup. Then lightly spray each raw wonton cup with the cooking spray.
  2. Bake the wonton cups for about 6-7 minutes, until they turn a light golden brown. Remove the baked cups from the muffin pan and allow to cool for a few minutes before filling.
  3. Fill each cup with a square of goat cheese, a 1/4 tsp. of pesto and garnish with a pistachio.