Today’s strategy….Cook Big (and stay home)!

So this weekend I used one of my favorite strategies to make weeknight’s easier. Cook BIG~ or prepare way more than you need for a meal and freeze it!

If you don’t have a second freezer, I highly recommend it. You can find great deals on meats when they are on sale and freeze them for later use, buy bulk (for example a half a pig, or lamb which I did this year!) and also to freeze meals for future use!

Today was Sunday Sauce day. Sunday Sauce simmers for several hours on the stove and makes the house smell like heaven!

This is my 12 quart stockpot full of tomato sauce. As you can see, it’s almost full and this one big pot will make several meals. Today I breaded and fried up some chicken breast cutlets and made two pans of chicken Parmesan.
Chicken Parm!
Again, if I am making the mess of breading and pan frying, why make just one meal? We ate one pan tonight for dinner with a side of Barilla-Plus spaghetti and some greens and beans. The other pan will go in the freezer for a dinner in December. (It was on the master list so I can check that off!)

The rest of the sauce is packaged in freezer containers, some large for spaghetti dinners, and a couple of smaller ones for homemade pizza night.

Another tip, when we are in the thick of sports season and rarely eat at the same time, I will package individual servings in small gratin dishes. Everyone can then pick what they want from what’s in the freezer, heat and eat when they are available and clean up is a breeze since it is in one dish. I often do this for my clients!

I am planning a couple of “Cook Big” nights this week with some quick cooking soups and by using my crockpot. By next weekend I will have a nice selection of things in my freezer and there is nothing I love more than knowing I have something ready to go to feed the family!

Crispy Chicken Parmesan (Serves 8-10)
8-10 chicken breast cutlets
3 eggs
2 c. flour
2 c. Panko bread crumbs
1 c. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tb. Italian herb seasoning
salt and pepper
Canola or Peanut oil for pan frying
8 c. Marinara sauce (homemade or an all natural variety)
2 c. shredded Italian cheese
1/2 lb. Spaghetti, cooked

Set up a standard breading station. First tray: flour seasoned with 2 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper. Second tray: beat the eggs until smooth. Third tray: Panko, cheese, herb seasoning and 1 tsp. salt.
Heat oil in a 12 inch skillet over medium high heat until it ripples. There should be about 1/4″ of oil in the pan. Dip each of the cutlets into the flour, shake off excess. Dip in egg and completely coat it and then dip in the Panko. Place cutlets into the pan, 2-3 at a time, don’t crowd them, and cook 3 minutes or until nicely browned, and then flip for another 2 minutes. Remove cutlets to a paper towel lined plate to drain. Once all the cutlets are done assemble in the pan.
Spray the bottom of two 9×13 Pyrex dishes with cooking spray. Add about 2 cups of sauce to each, place 4-5 cutlets in each pan, overlapping slightly if needed. Top with cheese.
Preheat oven to 350º and bake chicken for 10 minutes until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.
(If freezing, don’t bake. Freeze once assembled and then thaw in the fridge overnight and bake as directed.)


Chipotle Braised Butternut Squash with Black Beans and Brown Rice, or My trip to Cleveland, Part 2

Of course the reason I went to Cleveland in September was because my recipe was chosen as a contender in the Aetna Healthy Food Fight. I was pretty excited to have my recipe chosen as it was my first time entering a recipe contest with an original dish. The guidelines for the contest were pretty stringent, for example the cost of whole dish couldn’t exceed $13.00 and the recipes received points for nutrition after each one was analyzed at the Culinary Institute of America. The final step for the competition was the cook-off. There are 10 cook-offs taking place around the country and the winners of each are invited to Los Angeles to cook a healthy Thanksgiving dinner for Bobby Flay!

To stay within the budget, I decided that using a local, seasonal vegetable would be an economic start and with fall upon us, the butternut squash was the best choice. Often people eat butternut squash on the sweet side, for example roasting it with brown sugar or maple syrup, but for my stew, I wanted to have a nice balance. I thought, “If this is being served as an entree, it should be savory and flavorful!” and having recently braised some short ribs with Chipotle peppers, I knew that this was going to be a really tasty way to prepare my squash. I wanted to add protein, and again due to budgetary reasons, I went with black beans. They are a great source of protein and fiber, not to mention delicious! I love to cook dried beans low and slow to develop their flavor, but for ease of preparation I went with canned beans. I tinkered with different additions and in the end, was very happy with the result. Because the use of whole grains was an important part of the nutritional analysis, I included the brown rice (which was almost the death of me during the competition!!)
When we got to the Ripe Festival where the Food Fight was happening we found out that they were already 2 hours behind schedule. Tami was supposed to cook at 2pm and I was to cook at 4 pm so it was a long day of waiting for our turns!

We watched a fellow personal chef at the noon time slot (which happened at 2 pm) so it was good to see the layout and some of the competition. The funny thing was the judges for that round! They were volunteers and employees of Aetna and the Botanical Gardens where the competition took place. There was one judge who tasted everything and made faces like she’d just eaten a bug. She was definitely NOT a foodie and Tami and I were glad that there was a change of the guard before we cooked. The new set of judges were very fun and excited to be judging the competition!

Tami finally got on stage at around 4. She made a great lettuce wrap with ground turkey, sweet potatoes, black beans and Chinese 5-spice. (Somehow I don’t have a picture of it though!) She was hands down the winner of her round!

At 6pm I finally got my turn! The staff in charge were a fun group of people, and there was an awesome R&B band playing across the lawn that got me dancing while I was cooking. I had a blast!
(Poor Tami had to cook with a very sad band trying to cover some awesome songs from the 70’s and 80’s but doing a really lame job of it!)

We were supplied with a convection oven and induction burners and pots and pans. They also provided the ingredients, and of course, mine were not what I asked for and I had to MacGuyver my way out of that fiasco, but it all worked out fine.

Cooking brown rice takes almost an hour on the stovetop and often it can get gummy if you aren’t careful, but cooking it in the oven is a brilliant way to make perfect brown rice every time. I use Alton Brown’s baked brown rice recipe from Foodnetwork which makes it easy, except…. working with a powerful, restaurant grade convection oven messed me up and at 30 minutes, the rice didn’t seem to be cooking (because I had reduced the temperature0 so I switched to the stovetop for some added excitement!
The stew came together really quickly but the darn rice kept me waiting and waiting.. I hate when that happens! But it all worked out and the final dish came together perfectly!
When preparing for the cook off, we were told to bring plating props for our dishes. Luckily, my friend Tami, the Dine in Diva has a signature color, green, and has many serving pieces in different shades of green which I knew would be a great way to show off my stew! I love the square bowl she had and as you can see the presentation was beautiful!

It took two weeks before we heard anything, and in the end my recipe wasn’t the winner of the Cleveland Food Fight, but my friend Tami’s was! That was almost as good as winning, and she’s invited me to travel with her to L.A. in November for the final round of the competition so I am really excited about that!

Even though it wasn’t the winner, I will share the recipe with you all anyway. It has been served to my family and friends with great success and I hope you’ll enjoy making it for yourselves! I also think adding a pound of ground turkey would be delicious! Enjoy!

Chipotle Braised Butternut Squash Stew with Black Beans and Brown Rice
Yield: 8 cups

1 Tablespoon canola oil
1 large sweet onion (such as Vidalia), diced (app. 2 cups)
1 large Poblano pepper, chopped (app. 1 c)
3 cloves garlic
3 Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a 7 oz. can), finely diced
1 15 oz. can no salt added black beans, rinsed and drained
1 15 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup corn kernels from a fresh ear of corn, or frozen
1 15 oz. can low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 lb. fresh butternut squash, diced
¼ c. fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
juice of one small lime

2 c. brown rice, cooked according to package directions, divided

1 c. nonfat Greek yogurt, optional
½ c. toasted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)

Heat a deep sauté pan over medium, then add oil. Saute onions for 2-3 minutes, then add Poblano pepper and sauté for another 5 minutes until onions become translucent. Add the Chipotle peppers, garlic and black beans and sauté for another 5 minutes stirring frequently. Add tomatoes, corn and broth and bring to a simmer, add the butternut squash and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the squash is tender.
Add cilantro and lime juice just before serving.

In a large bowl, put ½ cup of the brown rice and ladle over 1 cup of stew.

Garnish each bowl with a tablespoon of yogurt if desired.

My trip to Cleveland, Part 1, The Westside Market!

A few weeks ago I entered a recipe in the Aetna Healthy Food Fight. I received notification that my recipe had been selected for the cook-off round in Cleveland to take place on September 25 and 26. My friend and fellow personal chef, Tami Mitchell, Akron’s own Dine In Diva, also had a recipe selected so I went for a visit and we had a great girl’s weekend!

I arrived on Friday afternoon and Tami took me to one of her most favorite places, The Westside Market. We walked through the doors and there were some nice stalls of produce vendors that reminded me a bit of our own Rochester Public Market, but it was neater and indoors which is a plus! But then….we entered the beautiful old market building that houses a mecca of gorgeous, wonderous ingredients! Isn’t it incredible?

We walked the aisles and I was amazed by the gorgeous meats, many which are butchered on site
and look at this fish… it is really unbelievable!

Tami’s clients are very lucky because she often shops there for their meals.

We also visited some vendors of herbs, nuts and seeds, grains and the Mediterranean market where I bought some pomegranate molasses and some dried kiwi. They had a great selection of grains and pastas, as well as European spices, juices and drinks. It was a fun shop to nose around in.

I fell in love with the Westside market and the next time I go to visit Tami in November, I am bringing my BIG cooler and bringing home some treats for my kitchen!

Next up…a trip to Lilly’s Chocolates for some awesome chocolate and wine and beer pairings!

Gourmet Pop Tarts!

OK, maybe not gourmet, but homemade and oh so much better than the ones from the box! These are a little labor intensive, but fun to share and really tasty so I think worth the effort for a special occasion!

Last weekend I enjoyed my yearly “chef retreat” with some of my dearest friends. Each year a new person or two joins the mix to add to the fun and this year I was so excited to meet chef Coco Jacobs from San Francisco. She always cooks the most amazing ethnic foods for her clients so I love her recipes, and she loves to bake!
While at the lake, she made these home made pop tarts to share for breakfast. They were adorable, and DELISH so I made my own for my family this week.
Coco uses an all butter pate sucre recipe, but I used the famous Foolproof Pie Dough, made with vodka that I discovered from America’s Test Kitchens. Love that dough! Make sure all the ingredients are really cold and that the pastry rests in the fridge for at least 30 minutes since it is a soft dough. It will be much easier to roll and pick up!

Coco suggested using a nice fruit conserve or cool jam vs. using fresh fruit like you do for a pie or tart because the fresh fruit is too juicy and needs to cook awhile to thicken which would be messy!

With the bounty of local blueberries, I made my own conserve and cooked 6 cups of blueberries with 1 heaping tablespoon of cornstarch, about 3/4 cup of sugar, a dusting of cinnamon and a good squeeze of lemon juice over medium heat for about 20 minutes until the berries had melted down and the sauce thickened. (This was enough for a double batch of pop tarts or a single batch and a family who cannot keep spoons out of the bowl, and some sundaes made with said filling over vanilla ice cream…) I let it cool while I made and chilled my pastry dough.

To assemble, divide the pastry into two rounds as you would for a pie, roll one half into a rectangle about 8″ x 16″ on a well floured board. You want the pastry thin because you will have two layers of it and you want to taste the filling!
Cut the rectangle into 4, 4″ strips (4″ x 8″) and transfer to a Silpat or parchment lined baking sheet. (This was the tricky part as my pastry was soft, and I considered rolling it directly on the parchment or Silpat next time.)
Place 2 Tb. of filling on the lower half, flip the top of the strip over to cover and then using a fork, crimp and seal them all the way around.

Bake at 400º for about 20 minutes or until the pastry is nicely golden brown. Remove to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

To glaze, mix about 1 c. of confectioners sugar with 1/2 tsp. of almond extract (this flavor MAKES them!) and then a little dribble of milk to make a thick glaze. Coat each tart with glaze when they are cool and I used some colored sprinkles on mine, well, because Coco did! They are really cute!
Pop Tarts!
This is really a “concept” recipe with plenty of room for creativity with fillings. I am hoping Coco may chime in here with suggestions to improve my technique, but I have to say thanks to one very cool lady for sharing such a fun and delicious treat with me! My family thanks you!
Please visit Coco’s website to learn more about her business!

Dinner from Federal Hill with love!

When I take off for a few days to a new place, I am always looking for something fun to bring home. My 11-year old son always asks if I’ve brought something for him, and he’s usually non-plussed with my foodie finds, wishing instead for a toy or a trinket, but I think this time, even he liked my souvenir!

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going on a great foodie tour of Providence, RI with a few of my chef friends. We met early on Saturday morning on a gorgeous sunny day to tour the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill with Chef Cindy Salvato.

Chef Cindy Salvato

Chef Salavato was an instructor at Johnson and Wales for many years and she was a wonderful guide for our tour. She had recently had knee surgery so she soldiered along on crutches, God bless her, and she shared with us the rich Italian culture of this small neighborhood on the hill that is full of gems! We got great information, enjoyed great humor and fabulous food tasting, and had a perfect tour guide! I highly recommend checking out Cindy’s tours if you are ever in Rhode Island.

We began at Antonelli’s which I posted about last week ( the little store on the square where you choose your own live chicken) which is where I got my fresh quail eggs. Then we moved on to Tony’s Colonial which was a fabulous little Italian market. It’s not a huge place, but the shelves are just full of wonderful little Italian gems. Artisanal pasta in all different shapes, rich tuna packed in oil, herbs, spices, incredible olive oils and balsamic vinegar, olives, jams, tomatoes… you name it! There was a deli counter with beautiful homemade “take out” and sausages and cheese. Oh it was wonderful!

Chef Salvato taught us about choosing REAL Italian ingredients that hold a special certification, Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or D.O.P. It’s not authentic unless it says D.O.P. on the label! We had an interesting discussion about San Marzano tomatoes and how even if the can says “San Marzano” they aren’t the real deal unless the D.O.P. symbol is on it.

Look for the D.O.P.!

Some of the SM tomatoes used by the Foodnetwork chefs are NOT the real deal, but are SM TYPE tomatoes that are grown in Florida not Italy. Be careful out there! (By the way, Wegmans has a store brand of San Marzano tomatoes, and they are indeed D.O.P.! That’s why we love Wegmans!)

Cindy also talked about the pasta making machines that make the pasta we consume here in the US and that the mass-produced pasta is fed through Teflon coated die so that the surfaces are smooth, but “artisanal” pasta is made with old fashioned bronze dies which are rough and give the pasta some rough surface area for the sauce to cling to. Sure enough, looking at the pastas at Tony’s they were rough and a bit craggy.

So on to my dinner connection to Federal Hill. After the tour, I went back to Tony’s Colonial to do a little shopping and came home with some great artisinal pastas including a bag of artichoke pasta! They are beautiful little green leaves of pasta flavored with artichoke. MMMMM!

A shrimp scampi-ish dish with an addition of sauteed shallots and a good handful of fresh basil was the perfect foil for my little artichoke leaves. The pasta cooked to perfectly al dente and had the mild earthy flavor of artichokes that really complimented the sweetness of the shrimp and the tart, bright lemon. The underside of each leave was mottled and bumpy which did hold the delicious lemony shrimp infused sauce…OH YUM! It was a 20-minute dinner from start to finish and so very satisfying! Luckily there is some left over for my lunch today!

In the end, it wasn’t a t-shirt or a plastic New England lobster that my son had hoped for, but the whole family enjoyed my little gift from Tony’s which of course is the whole point of bringing home a souvenir, right?

If you can go to a great Italian market, buy some artisanal pasta and check out the difference that the rough surface makes, but if you only have the brand name pasta, either way, you’ll enjoy this recipe!

Shrimp with Garlic, Shallot and Lemon over Artichoke Leaf Pasta
Serves: 6 servings
3/4 pound artichoke leaf pasta, orichietti or other flat shaped pasta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/3 cup fresh Italian basil, chiffenade
zest of one medium lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
¼ c of dry sherry or dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Prepare pasta per package instructions. Meanwhile prepare shrimp. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened, about 2 minutes, then add garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and saute until the shrimp have just turned pink, about 3-5 minutes, stirring often. (Don’t cook the shrimp until they are done as you will finish cooking them with the pasta!) Remove from the heat, add wine or sherry, return to the heat and cook for one minute to cook off the alcohol. Then remove the pan from the heat and add the parsley, basil lemon zest, lemon juice, lemon slices, and red pepper flakes. Toss to combine. Keep the pan in the wings…it’s not done yet!
When the pasta is just cooked, drain it, reserving some of the pasta water, and add it to the skillet with the shrimp. Toss and continue cooking for one minute until the pasta is coated with the sauce and cooked to al dente. Add a bit of the pasta cooking water if needed to “loosen” the sauce if the pasta seems to absorb it quickly.

Always serve your pasta on a platter or a very shallow bowl so that the sauce doesn’t puddle to the bottom! Enjoy!


Quail eggs, from bird to plate. A story of my dinner!

Dinner tonight was a real French bistro meal. Fried quail eggs with runny yolks atop a salad of mixed greens dressed in a fig vinaigrette with some blackberries and raspberries. A couple of slices of toasted buttered baguette and dinner was ready!

This dinner was very special tonight because of the story of my quail eggs which had their start over 300 miles from here in Providence, Rhode Island.

There was another fun gathering of personal chefs, this time in Providence. On Saturday morning, we did a walking foodie tour of Federal Hill, a great Italian neighborhood with much history and fabulous foodie finds! Our first stop was Antonelli’s market, where you can choose a live chicken to have butchered for dinner!

First stop, Antonelli's!

Yes, you really can choose your chicken ALIVE!

Here in New York state, I cannot fathom the health department allowing such a wonderful thing, but here in Providence, this store has sold live chickens for years. We entered a small store front that had a glass case with fresh chicken, eggs, another small case with some vegetables and a few shelves of snack foods. Not too much for a grocery store, but then again, it’s not what people come here for. While we were talking with the woman behind the counter, a family came in: mom, grandma and twin girls who looked to be about four years old. They politely walked behind our group and went through the curtains at the back of the shop which really piqued our interest. We followed the little group into the back room and it was truly amazing! The room was full of cages with groups of chickens and quail, ducks and I think even some rabbits, a group of men killing and butchering the birds to order and a group of about 15 people who were waiting for their dinner!

While I really couldn’t watch the actual killing of the chickens, it was fascinating to watch entire families, even small children, choosing a couple of live chickens, having them weighed, killed, plucked and butchered for them to take home in a matter of minutes. These folks KNOW where their dinner is coming from! These kids KNOW that chicken does not come sani-wrapped in styrofoam packages. It was really incredible, and to be honest, I didn’t stay long in the back room, because while I love the freshest of the fresh ingredients, watching it all was a bit overwhelming for me. I wasn’t raised a farm girl, that’s for sure!

When we went back to the storefront we learned that nothing goes to waste with those birds. Yolks (undeveloped eggs) are taken from the insides and sold in deli containers to boil into soups, feet are sold, and of course, the fresh meat is butchered and sold to customers.

I returned after the rest of our tour to get a container of quail eggs because I knew I had to bring them home for my family to try! They are so small and pretty and when you crack them to fry them up, they are just downright adorable!

A tiny bowl of tiny quail eggs!

7 eggs fit in my 10\

And so ended the eggs’ odyssey from Providence, RI to my plate here in Rochester, NY! They were delicious!

Easter Bread

When I was a little girl, we visited my grandparents (both sets) and all of our cousins who all lived near Pittsburgh, PA four or five times each year. I have many special memories of these trips and the people we visited, but this weekend, as every Easter weekend, I am really remembering my mom’s mother, my grandma Mary (Balog) Honnef.

That’s her on the right, circa 1965 at my baptism!

My grandparent’s house was an old place with an alley between theirs and their neighbor’s, creaky stairs, a sink with separate handles for hot and cold water and a tub with no shower! I remember that Grandma always had KDKA radio playing to hear the news or a ball game and she always had a cup of coffee (which was lots of milk with a splash of coffee, sort of the way I like it!) But the most vivid memory I have of my grandma was the smells at her house!
My grandma was fanatical about cleaning her place so her house always smelled like Clorox bleach (which she used to clean everything) and yeast! My grandma, until the day she died, baked bread twice a week. My grandma’s bread was rich and sturdy with a glossy crust and a perfect crumb. She used it at meals and for sandwiches, and while she never thought it was anything too special, she had neighbors pay her for a loaf each week because it was a real treat! Grandma made other delicious treats like nut rolls and iced poppy seed rolls, home made egg noodles that she rolled and cut by hand, but it was her bread and the smell of the yeast that are part of my permanent memory.
My grandma’s bread recipe was in her head…and her hands. She measured using a coffee cup and teaspoons, and she kneaded the dough until it was ready, she just knew from all her years of making it when exactly that was. One time my mom stood with her while she made bread, and measured the ingredients with accurate measures, transferring the coffee cup of flour to measuring cups, to try and capture the exact recipe. But try as she might, the bread was good, but it wasn’t grandma’s!
At Easter, grandma made a special bread. We call it Easter bread, but it’s nothing like the Italian version, but more like a Brioche. It’s rich and buttery with eggs, milk and sugar to make it just a bit sweet. This recipe we did get written and with tweaking and practice, I can now make a loaf of grandma’s Easter bread almost as good as I remember hers being!
The perfect loaf!

I usually share my recipe at this point in my entries, but this is a recipe that I really can’t part with. It’s part of family lore and legend, and it’s one that my kids will have as their own secret recipe! (I think everyone should have at least one!)