June 30, 2014

Spaghetti with Parsley Pesto

With summer finally here, the markets abound with fresh herbs, making this season the perfect time to transform those tender greens from mere garnishes into the stars of your meals.  Therefore, I’d like to introduce you to this vibrant and vegetarian recipe of Spaghetti with Parsley Pesto!    


  

What I really love about this summer dish, besides its sublime simplicity, is its daring versatility.  Although, basil is the main player in the classic pesto, replacing it with the sturdy, more affordable and available year-round parsley makes for a bright and balanced sauce.  Swapping in walnuts (which I always have lingering in my pantry) for almonds also works wonders.  Tossing in some garlic instead of chives will nicely boost the entire mixture.  Lastly, adding white cheddar in lieu of “the king of cheeses” never worked better.  Needless to say, this recipe is wide open to adaptations; personally, I prefer the parsley, flat-leaf or curly, whichever I can get my hands on, but feel free to try it with basil or cilantro for a new dimension and elegant transformation.     





There’s nothing labor-intensive about this meal; in fact, you don’t even have to cook anything but the pasta, yet the flavors and nuances are complex and sophisticated.  The freshness and vivid color of the parsley shine through.  The nuttiness of the almonds adds depth, while the subtle garlicky aroma fades quietly in the background.  The floral olive oil and the mild sharpness of the cheese enhance the herbal notes and make this dish mighty successful.  Enjoy and Happy Fourth of July!  

  


         
Spaghetti with Parsley Pesto
Adapted from Bon Appétit (June 2013)

Makes: 6 servings

Ingredients:

·         1 lb. spaghetti or bucatini
·         Kosher salt
·         ½ cup unsalted, roasted almonds or walnuts
·         4 cups (packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (curly parsley also works well)
·         1 clove of garlic (the recipe calls for  ¾ cup chopped fresh chives, but I don’t always have them on hand and I found that garlic works very well, too)
·         ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
·         ½ cup finely grated white cheddar cheese or Parmesan
·         Freshly ground black pepper




Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente.  Drain, reserving about 2 cups of pasta cooking liquid.    





Meanwhile, pulse the almonds in a food processor until smooth.  Add the parsley, garlic, oil and cheddar cheese, and process until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper.  




Toss the pasta and pesto in a large bowl, adding pasta cooking liquid, ¼ cup at a time, until saucy.  Season with salt and pepper. 




Do ahead: Pesto can be made 5 days ahead.  Cover the surface directly and chill.





Note:  You can also try this recipe with basil or cilantro. 



Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

May 24, 2014

Fish Soup with Fennel and Baby Potatoes

Bon Appétit calls this dish a Fish Stew with Fennel and Baby Potatoes, a perfectly acceptable name except that this fish concoction seemed at odds with the description “stew” especially after I had toyed with it and custom-made it to fit my wishes.  In the end, it turned out to be a gloriously light and meaty fish and broth mélange, something that nestled comfortably between a soup and a chowder.  Rachael Ray might name this fish soup a choup, meaning that it’s thicker than a soup but not quite a chowder, but I’ll simply call it a Fish Soup with Fennel and Baby Potatoes





Whatever you decide to call it, make sure you try this recipe!  It’s super easy and fast to whip up and the result is deliciously refined.  I first made this soup a couple of days after I laid my eyes on it in the April issue of Bon Appétit and more than half a dozen times since.  But the best part about this simple yet flavor-complex fish soup is that it instantly brings me back to Westport, MA and The Bayside Restaurant where I used to religiously devour their legendary Rhode Island style chowders (and the ridiculously stuffed lobster roll) on our regular trips to the beach every summer when we lived in Boston.  





Overall, this dish is so refreshing and summery, piled up with subtle flavors and silky fish.  The crème fraȋche gives the soup a pleasant richness while still keeping a thin and light broth.  The corn and potatoes add a tad of sweetness and that extra level of texture, the dill brings freshness and color, whereas the highly encouraged squeeze of lemon before serving brightens up the symphony of aromas.  It is so good, you’ll make this soup all summer long!    





Fish Soup with Fennel and Baby Potatoes
Adapted from Bon Appétit (April 2014)

Makes: 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

·         ¼ cup olive oil
·         ½ lb. small waxy potatoes (such as baby Yukon Gold), scrubbed, sliced ¼” thick
·         ½ medium fennel bulb, finely chopped
·         2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
·         Salt
·         Freshly ground black pepper
·         ¼ cup dry white wine
·         1 cup frozen corn
·         Heaped ¼ cup crème fraȋche
·         1 ½ lb. skinless flounder or fluke fillet, cut into 2” pieces
·         2 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
·         Lemon wedges (for serving)





Instructions:

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the potatoes and cook them, tossing occasionally, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add the fennel and garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is soft, about 2-3 minutes.  Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until almost completely evaporated, about 4 minutes.  





Add the corn and 6 cups of water to the pot, season with salt, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10-12 minutes.  Stir in the crème fraȋche.  Add the flounder and 2 more cups of water, cover the pot, and reduce the heat.  Simmer until the fish is cooked through, about 5-7 minutes.  





Stir the dill into the soup; season with more salt and pepper if necessary.  Serve with lemon wedges.    
  




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

April 30, 2014

Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle

In my previous post, I mentioned my grandma’s epic Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle that trumped the wide array of sweet treats on my birthday.  I also promised you the recipe for this intricately sensational chocolate concoction and told you that you will not want to miss it.  I was not kidding!  




I know, you may ask yourselves “why would you need another fancy chocolate cake recipe when you already have this great one?”  The truth is that regardless how dazzling and indulgent that cake is, sometimes only your grandma’s-mastered-and-made-with-lots-of-love-and-patience cake will do; and we realize that the traditional is special and extraordinarily good.  And besides, you can never have too many chocolate cake recipes in your repertoire.





This Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle is the classic, staple chocolate dessert, the ace up her sleeve that grandma Vicki pulls out on celebratory occasions.  From birthdays to dinner parties, and from Christmas to Easter, this torte is front and center.  On top of that, this is a recipe that my grandma made, fiddled with, and perfected over time, which makes it that much more exceptional.  And to watch her making it twice for me while at home was a real treat!   





This chocolate cake is so rich, sweetly moist and drenched in rum, slathered with a smooth and velvety egg-enriched chocolate frosting, and dressed up with the crunchy, toasty and caramelly walnut brittle on top, which transforms the special into spectacular.  Although, my grandma’s cake is ideal for significant occasions, you don’t have to wait for that specific moment to give your taste buds some noteworthy chocolate therapy; the weekend would be a good excuse.




Now, I’ll admit that this cake requires a few steps and almost a dozen eggs to reach a sinful awesomeness and seductive deliciousness hard to achieve otherwise.  But don’t panic; the steps are super-easy and the result will not disappoint.  I would recommend, if you have the time, to make the rum syrup and the walnut brittle, and to bake the cake layers the day before.  It will simplify the entire process.  And sometimes, it’s worth to slow down and smell the roses; or, in this case, the chocolate!         
       




Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 12+ servings

Ingredients for the cake:

Butter for the pans
110 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
35 grams (4 slightly heaping Tablespoons) cocoa powder
8 large eggs, at room temperature
240 grams (1cup) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract





Ingredients for the Rum Syrup:

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
¼ cup rum

Ingredients for the Walnut Brittle:

50 grams (1/2 cup) toasted walnuts
60 grams (1/4 cup) sugar





Ingredients for the Frosting:

3 large eggs, at room temperature
250 grams (1 cup and 1 ½ Tablespoon) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ Tablespoon cocoa powder
100 grams (3.5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
125 ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream
230 grams (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature






Instructions for the cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter two 8 or 9-inch x 2-inch round cake pans.  Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa.  Mix until combined.  Set aside.

Separate the egg yolks and egg whites into two large bowls.  Using an electric hand mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla.  In batches, add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients.  Set aside.




In the other large bowl, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold medium-firm peaks.  In batches, gently fold the egg whites into the batter.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.  Cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.  Once the cakes have cooled completely, pierce the top all over with a fork.            




Instructions for the Rum Syrup:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water and whisk until the sugar dissolves.  Off heat, add the rum, whisk well and set aside to cool completely.  Using a spoon, drizzle the syrup all over the top of the cakes.  You will use about 1 ¼ cup (250-300 ml) of the syrup.  Just discard the remaining of the syrup.  Allow the cakes to sit and absorb the syrup.  




Instructions for the Walnut Brittle:

Butter a small plate and set aside. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the sugar until it dissolves and turns into caramel.  Off heat, add the walnuts and mix well until all the walnut pieces get coated with caramel.  Pour the walnut and caramel mixture onto the buttered plate.  When the brittle has cooled completely, crush the brittle into small pieces.  The best way to do this is with a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.  




Instructions for the Chocolate Frosting:

Place the chocolate in a small bowl.  Heat up the heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Cook until small bubbles appear on the outside edge of the cream.  Pour the hot cream over the chocolate.  Using a spoon, gently stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture (the ganache) is smooth.  Set aside.

In a medium heat-proof bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar and vanilla for 2-3 minutes.  Put the bowl on top of a pan of simmering water, making sure that the base of the bowl doesn’t come in contact with the water.  Gently beat the eggs and sugar mixture until it thickens and looks like a thick cream, about 25-30 minutes.  Add the cocoa and the chocolate and cream mixture (the ganache) and mix well.  Set aside to cool completely, stirring occasionally.  




In a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Slowly and in batches, add the chocolate and egg mixture and beat on medium-low speed, scrapping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy.  Don’t whip!

Place 1 layer of the cake, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal.  With a knife or offset spatula, evenly spread the top with one-third of the frosting.  Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake. 

Sprinkle the walnut brittle over the top and sides of the cake.  




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

March 31, 2014

Romania at a glance!

A month ago, I left a cold Pittsburgh, went to a spring-like Romania and came back to an even colder Steel City.  But the time in Romania was worthwhile as it was filled with birthday parties, barbecues, frequent trips to the open market, and home-cooked meals with my grandmother.  Nothing short of perfection!   




It was a whole year ago that I went to see my family in Transylvania and the trip coincided again with my birthday, which is always celebratory and exciting!  If last year, I specifically insisted that my Grandma Vicki included these spectacular Nutella filled Cookies on my birthday dessert menu, this year, her epic Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle took center stage.  And Adrian’s cousin Alex called it “the Bomb”!  Stay tuned for this recipe, you will not want to miss it!  




Of course, in my grandma’s kitchen one dessert is never enough, so the Chocolate Cake was nicely accompanied by a Coffee Cream Cake and a Chestnut Cake.  All gorgeous and mouthwatering! 





After an outrageously mild winter, spring came early in Romania.  The moment the sun was out and the temperatures started to climb, Romanians had two things on their mind: picnics and grilling.  As always, the mititei, those small sausage shaped patties, were extremely popular; and so were the pork steaks, chicken drumsticks, fish and these amazing Chicken Burgers, which got me a standing ovation!





As you can see, people love to crowd around the grill, literally, and get lost in a cloud of smoke!  



When spring fever hits, Romanians start vegging out in parks, soaking up the sun and relishing some crunchy pretzels.




I prefer a trip to the open markets that are overflowing with fresh produce the moment spring rolls around.    





And I can never turn down a visit to a traditional restaurant!




Apple crusted pork chops with mashed potatoes and caramelized plums.




Spicy pork shoulder with rice, runny egg and homemade pickles.




Gulyas – Traditional Hungarian Beef Stew.




But more often than not, home-cooked meals are the best and even more gratifying when you introduce your hero, in this case my grandma Vicki, to new recipes such as the juicy Chicken Burgers, this elegant Maple Sweet Potato Cake or this one of a kind Pudding Cake of Honey, Cinnamon and Plums!   



Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)