November 23, 2011

My Thanksgiving List

I've finally decided on what to bring for Thanksgiving, this year!  I knew that this last week would give me some good ideas.  After some debate, I’ve made up my mind.  So, I’m bringing the following side dishes:

·         Mashed Potatoes with Cheddar Cheese and Mixed Herbs

·         Baked Cauliflower with Pork and Bechamél Sauce

·         Cranberry-Orange Sauce

What are you preparing for Thanksgiving?  Well, whatever it is, I’m sure that it’ll be delicious and your guests will rave about it.  But most importantly, I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it together with your loved ones!  Happy Thanksgiving!  

November 22, 2011


When life gives you cranberries, you make… Cranberry Spice Cake and, of course, cranberry sauce!  After all, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without cranberries and cranberry sauce, in particular.  Anyway… cranberries are not as popular in Romania as they are in the States, so I didn’t grow up eating a whole lot of them.  In fact, I was more familiar with the Irish rock band The Cranberries (which was very popular in the 1990s when I was starting to learn English), than with the fact that these red tart fruits were called cranberries in English.  However, these days, I’m more educated in the cranberry (the fruit) department.

By the way, did you know that, according to Better Homes and Gardens Fall Baking (Fall 2011), before mechanization, rolling the berries down a flight of stairs tested cranberries for ripeness?  Those that bounced to the bottom were deemed ripe and ready for market, while those that stopped on their way down were discarded.  Interesting… 

The other day, I was looking to make a nice cake to warm up our apartment and our tummies during these cold days of fall.  And I came across this wonderful cranberry spice cake.  It was perfect! 

Cranberry Spice Cake
Adapted slightly from Bon Appétit (November 2011)

Serves: 8 servings
Special Equipment:  An 8”- square cake pan

Ingredients for the cake:

·         Nonstick vegetable spray
·         1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
·         ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¾ teaspoon salt
·         ½ teaspoon ground ginger
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         ½ teaspoon baking soda
·         2 cups (8 oz.) fresh (or frozen, thawed) cranberries
·         2/3 cup sugar
·         2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
·         ½ cup vegetable oil
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ½ cup sour cream
·         1 Tablespoon freshly grated orange zest (from one large orange)
·         2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest (from one lemon)
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         1/3 cup apple cider

Ingredients for the lemon glaze:

·         1 cup confectioners’ sugar
·         2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest (from one lemon)
·         3 Tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice (from about 1 ½ juicy lemons)
·         1/8 teaspoon salt


Cake:  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Coat bottom and sides of cake pan with nonstick spray.  Line bottom with parchment paper; coat paper with spray. 

Whisk flour, cinnamon, salt, ginger, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.  Pulse cranberries in a food processor until finely chopped but not puréed; set aside.  Stir sugar, brown sugar, and oil in a large bowl to blend.  Add eggs one at the time, stirring to blend between additions.  Whisk in sour cream, orange zest, lemon zest, and vanilla. 

Whisk in dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with cider in 2 additions and whisking to blend.  Fold in chopped cranberries.  Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top.  Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out almost clean, 1 hour – 1 hour 10 minutes.  Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cake cool in pan for 15 minutes.  Run a thin knife around inside of pan to release cake; turn out cake onto rack.  Peel off parchment paper, then flip cake and let cool for 20-30 minutes. 

Lemon Glaze:  Whisk confectioners’ sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl.  Spread glaze over warm cake, allowing it to drip down sides.  Let stand until glaze becomes crackly, about 1 hour.  Serve at room temperature.  Do ahead:  Can be made 2 days ahead.  Store airtight at room temperature.  

This cake is sweet and super moist.  There is a nice tartness from the cranberries, and lovely notes of orange and lemon.  The cake is stunning, colorful inside, and glossy on top.  Moreover, this Cranberry Spice Cake is best complemented by an extra-tart garnish of Citrus-Cranberry Compote.

Citrus-Cranberry Compote
Adapted slightly from Bon Appétit (November 2011)

Makes: 1 ½ cups


·         1 orange
·         2 cups (8 oz.) fresh (or frozen, thawed) cranberries
·         1 cup pure maple syrup
·         ¼ cup fresh orange juice
·         ½ teaspoon vanilla extract


Grate zest from orange and set aside.  Using a sharp paring knife, cut off peel and white pith from orange.  Working over a small bowl, cut between membranes to release segments into bowl. 

Combine cranberries, orange zest, maple syrup, orange juice, and vanilla in a medium saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cranberries have burst and sauce has thickened, 8-10 minutes.  Let cool. 

Gently stir orange segments into compote.  Do ahead:  Can be made 3 days ahead.  Cover and chill.  Return to room temperature before serving.  

I couldn’t talk about cranberries without talking about cranberry sauce especially since Thanksgiving is fast approaching.  I love cranberry sauce!  Sweet and tart, it forms a perfect union with turkey.  Apparently, cranberry sauce is a touchy subject.  According to a poll conducted by Food Network Magazine (November 2011), out of 15,000 voters, 54% preferred canned jellied cranberry sauce, and 46% preferred whole-berry cranberry sauce. 

I have to be brutally honest – when I saw the results, I was appalled!  I didn’t think that people preferred to eat the artificial stuff when the real fruit is so in season (cranberries are in season from October to December).  So, I instantly ran to my recipe collection and looked for a healthier and way more delicious alternative to the canned stuff.  And I decided on two yummy and easy to make cranberry sauce recipes:  Tyler Florence’s Cranberry-Orange Sauce and Guy Fieri’s Red Devil Cranberries.

Cranberry-Orange Sauce
Adapted slightly from Cranberry-Orange Sauce by Tyler Florence

Serves: 8-10 servings


·         2 (8-ounce) packages cranberries, fresh or frozen
·         Zest from one orange
·         Juice from one orange
·         ½ cup sugar
·         1-2 cinnamon sticks


Put the cranberries in a saucepan over medium heat.  Zest and juice the orange.  Add the sugar and cinnamon sticks.  Simmer over medium-low heat until the cranberries burst and the sauce thickens, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Serve at room temperature or cool and refrigerate.  Remove the cinnamon sticks before serving. 

This is such an easy and delicious cranberry sauce recipe that you’ll never go back to the canned jelly.  In this sauce you have the sweet, the tartness from the cranberries, the light bitterness from the orange, and the warmth from the cinnamon.  A perfect marriage!  If you want a more grown-up version with a kick, try this:

Guy Fieri’s Red Devil Cranberries
Adapted slightly from Food Network Magazine (November 2010)

Serves: 8 servings


·         2 teaspoons vegetable oil
·         ¼ cup minced shallot
·         1 cup fresh orange juice
·         ½ cup agave syrup
·         1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries
·         1 orange
·         1 Tablespoon minced chipotle chile pepper in adobo sauce, plus 1 teaspoon of the sauce
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         Kosher salt


Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add the shallot and cook until softened, 3-4 minutes.  Add the orange juice and agave syrup, bring to a simmer and add the cranberries.  Cook at a low boil until the cranberries have all popped and are just starting to reduce, 7-8 minutes. 

Meanwhile, cut off the top and bottom of the orange.  Working over a bowl, peel the orange with a sharp knife, then slice between the membranes, letting the segments fall into the bowl.  Stir the orange segments and any juice, the chipotle and adobo sauce, cinnamon and ½ teaspoon salt into the cranberries. 

Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick, about 20 minutes.  Let cool.  Serve at room temperature.  

Like Guy says – “this is money!”  Guy’s version of cranberry sauce is an acquired taste.  It is sweet, tart, with a perfect amount of spiciness from the chipotle chile.  In addition, the dish has a nice kick of flavor from the adobo sauce.  This cranberry sauce will hit you with some unexpected flavor combinations.    

So, whether you like cranberries in a sauce, or a cake, or a juice, or any other combination, take advantage of the real cranberries this season!  Please feel free to try one of these cranberry sauce recipes (or both, why not?) and don’t just eat cranberry sauce from a can this Thanksgiving.  Have some real cranberries

November 21, 2011

The vegetable, the meat and the pasta

Ever since my first Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S., I thought that side dishes are as important as the turkey.  After all, the turkey on its own is just plain, old, dry, boring meat.  It needs something to bounce it out of the ball park and make it shine.  And there is where side dishes rush in.  Growing up, my grandma Vicki always served a side next to a meat dish in order to balance out the richness of the meat, the colors and, why not, the healthy aspect of the dish.  You had the starch, a role usually played by the always fabulous potatoes; you had the meat, whether it was pork, chicken, turkey, duck or beef, it had to be present; and then, you had the vegetable.  My favorite side dish was always peas.  I love peas!  Those small, sweet pearls are not only good looking, but also healthy and delicious.  Dress them up in a nice, sweeter sauce and you can make them spectacular!   

I’m a big fan of the show The Next Iron Chef on Food Channel.  I guess that by now you have realized that I watch the Food Channel religiously.  On this show, the judges continuously remind the contestants (who in this season are all famous chefs) that less is usually more in this competition and in Kitchen Stadium.  If a chef cooks two or three different dishes on the same plate, he allows the judges to critique his dishes individually, which is usually a recipe for disaster.  Basically, the chef is evaluated against himself. 

Anyway… you sometimes have to take risks in order to succeed.  This is exactly what chef Beau MacMillan did on a recent episode.  Chef MacMillan and Chef Hughes were in the bottom two and had to face each other to remain in the competition.  The two chefs had to cook a dish in 30 minutes using a secret ingredient, which this time was tofu.  Tofu…really?  I usually get out of my way to stay away from tofu.  Personally, I think that tofu is a very difficult ingredient to work with, and especially to make it the star of your dish.  However, Chef MacMillan did it flawlessly.  And on top of that, he cooked the tofu three different ways.  He actually had three different dishes on the same plate.  Nonetheless, those three different, creative dishes, cooked beautifully helped him remain in the competition and gave him another chance to be the Next Iron Chef. 

So, having Chef Beau MacMillan as my inspiration, I’ve decided not to stop with just one recipe, just one suggestion for your ultimate Thanksgiving side dish, but to offer you three different and absolutely delicious options.  Please feel free to pick your favorite.  In the end, they are all sensational Thanksgiving sides!  First up are the sweet green peas.  They are my favorite side dish! 

Sweet Green Peas
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 4 servings


·         3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
·         1 pound (500 grams) frozen peas
·         1 teaspoon kosher salt
·         2 teaspoons sugar
·         1 heaped Tablespoon all-purpose flour
·         ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped


In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the peas and cook until the ice melts and the water starts boiling.  Cover the peas halfway with up to 1 cup of water.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook the peas for about 5 minutes.  Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar and stir well.  Add the chopped parsley and stir.  Add the flour and stir until you get a nice sauce consistency.  Cook for 2-3 minutes more.  Carefully season with more salt and sugar, if necessary, to get the perfect balance between salty and sweet.

These peas are salty-sweet and creamy, but light at the same time.  The parsley is a fresh finishing touch, which brightens up the entire dish.  Moreover, I know that green beans are very popular on the Thanksgiving table.  But if you want to switch it up a bit and try something new this year, these green peas are the perfect substitute!

If you want a meaty side dish, I have the perfect ball…that is the perfect meatball.  These Romanian meatballs are a great appetizer or a great side dish for Thanksgiving.  They are dense, rich, flavorful and, oh, so delicious.  Once you’ve tried one, you’ll be eating them by the dozen.  

Chiftele – Romanian Meatballs
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serve: 20+ regular size patties or 30 small meatballs  


·         Up to 1 cup vegetable oil
·         2 pounds (1 kilogram) ground pork
·         4-5 slices of bread
·         1 medium yellow onion, grated
·         2 russet potatoes, peeled and grated
·         5 garlic cloves, minced
·         2 eggs
·         1 Tablespoon kosher salt
·         ½ teaspoon black pepper
·         1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
·         1 Tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
·         ¼ teaspoon dry oregano
·         ¼ teaspoon dry thyme


Put the ground pork in a large bowl.  Soak the slices of bread in water and then squeeze out the extra water.  Add them to the meat.  Add the grated onion, grated potatoes, minced garlic, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley, dill, oregano and thyme.  Mix them all together.  Don’t be afraid to use clean hands.  It will make the job a lot easier!  Using your wet hands, make 2x1 inch patties or roll small portions of the meat mixture between your palms and form 1 inch balls.    

In a skillet, heat up the oil over medium heat.  Turn the heat down to medium-low.  Add the patties or the meatballs and cook them for 8-10 minutes (the patties) on each side, 6-7 minutes (the meatballs), or until they are browned well on all sides.  Enjoy and have a ball!   

OMG!  I made my first pasta from scratch, the other day!  How awesome is that?  And I didn’t even need a pasta machine!  I made Giada’s Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter recipe.  Sweet potatoes are a traditional side dish for Thanksgiving and it’s a crime, literally, to leave them out!  This wonderful recipe is the perfect alternative to serving just plain sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter
Adapted slightly from Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter by Giada De Laurentiis

Serves: 6-8 servings (about 100 gnocchi)

Ingredients for the Gnocchi:

·         2 pounds sweet potatoes or yams (about 3 medium potatoes)
·         2/3 cup ricotta cheese
·         1 ½ teaspoons salt
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
·         1 ¼ to 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

Ingredients for the Maple Cinnamon Sage Brown Butter:

·         ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
·         20 fresh sage leaves 
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         2 Tablespoons maple syrup
·         1 teaspoon salt
·         ½ teaspoon black pepper


For the Gnocchi:  Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork.  Bake the sweet potatoes (I used yams and the gnocchi still turned out great) until tender and fully cooked, between 40 to 55 minutes depending on size.  Cool slightly.  Cut in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes and transfer to a large measuring cup to make sure the sweet potatoes measure about 2 cups.  Transfer the mashed sweet potatoes back to the large bowl.  Add the ricotta cheese, salt, cinnamon, and pepper and blend until well mixed.  Add the flour, ½ cup at a time until a soft dough forms and the mixture is not sticky.  Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough in a ball on the work surface.  Divide the dough into 6 equal balls.  Roll out each ball into a 1-inch wide rope.  Cut each rope into 1-inch pieces.  Roll the gnocchi over the tines of a fork.  Transfer the formed gnocchi to a large baking sheet.  Continue with the remaining gnocchi. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the gnocchi in 3 batches and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 5 to 6 minutes.  When they are about done, the gnocchi will float to the surface.  Drain the gnocchi using a slotted spoon onto a baking sheet.  Tent with foil to keep warm and continue with the remaining gnocchi. 

For the Brown Butter sauce:  While the last batch of gnocchi is cooking, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  When the butter has melted, tear up and add the sage leaves.  Continue to cook, swirling the butter occasionally, until the foam subsides and the milk solids begin to brown.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Stir in the cinnamon, maple syrup, salt, and pepper.  Careful, the mixture will bubble up!  Gently stir the mixture.  When the bubbles subside, toss the cooked gnocchi in the brown butter.  Transfer the gnocchi to a serving dish and serve immediately.  

With this recipe you get the sweet potatoes and the pasta all in one dish, as well as an abundance of traditional Thanksgiving flavors.  You get the earthiness from the sage, the spiciness from the cinnamon, and the smokiness from the maple syrup.  The gnocchi just melt in your mouth and the whimsical aromas of the brown butter infuse the entire house. 

So, here you have it: three different, yet all decadent and superb side dishes.  Whichever one you pick for your Thanksgiving feast, will be a hit!  Guaranteed!  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)  

November 20, 2011

The Romanian Romanesco

Since my blog is called Simply Romanesco, I had to post a cauliflower recipe, sooner or later.  After all, Romanesco is a type of cauliflower.  My grandma Vicki’s cauliflower recipe is one of my all-time favorite baked goods!  This delicious spin on a classic vegetable also makes for a great side dish at Thanksgiving!  So, this year, it’s one of my strong contenders!

I love cauliflower!  In fact, my entire family loves this vegetable.  Maybe that’s why any dish that has cauliflower, broccoli, Romanesco, etc… as its star ingredient gets my full attention.  The following is a Baked Cauliflower with Pork and Béchamel Sauce recipe.  It’s true, but not to freak you out, there are a couple of extra steps you have to complete before you throw it in the oven.  But they are all very basic, and when you see the bubbly goodness at the end, you’ll be happy you took on the challenge.  In addition, this cauliflower dish can be served as a main course for a satisfying dinner, and not just as a side dish.  To top it off, even those of you, who are not huge fans of cauliflower, will love this recipe. 

I love this dish for its rusticity, its simplicity, its creaminess and the layers and layers of flavors.  The cauliflower, the meat, the rice and the rich white sauce, all come together in one big happy bite.  There is a burst of flavor in your mouth, which immediately makes you go for seconds.  I didn’t like cauliflower as a kid, but I learned to love and appreciate it through this recipe.  I think that feeding me this baked cauliflower dish was my grandmother’s way of making me eat it and starting to love this vegetable.  And, guess what, it worked!  Today, I love any variety of cauliflower. 

Baked Cauliflower with Pork and Béchamel Sauce
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 6-8 servings


·         1 (3-4 pounds; 1.5 kg) cauliflower, broken into florets
·         Kosher salt and black pepper
·         Vegetable oil
·         1 pound (500 grams) ground pork
·         1 medium yellow onion, chopped
·         ½ cup long grain rice
·         1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
·         ½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
·         4 cups (1 liter) whole milk, plus 3 more Tablespoons, divided
·         ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         ½ cup of Parmesan cheese, grated
·         Sour cream (optional)


Keep the cauliflower florets in cold water for 10 minutes.  In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  When the water starts boiling, add the 3 Tablespoons of milk and the cauliflower.  Turn the heat to medium and cook the cauliflower for 15-20 minutes.  Drain the cauliflower and set aside.  When cool enough to handle, cut the cauliflower florets in half to make them flat.  

Wash the rice in cold water.  In a small saucepan, add 2 Tablespoons of oil.  Add the rice and 2 cups of water.  Bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to low and simmer until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked. 

In a medium saucepan, add 3 Tablespoons of oil.  Add the chopped onion, a pinch of salt, and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the ground pork.  Season with salt and pepper and cook the meat with the onion for 10-12 minutes over medium heat.  When the meat is cooked (it will release some of its juices), add the cooked rice and mix well to incorporate.  Season with more salt and pepper to taste.  Set aside. 

For the Béchamel sauce, bring the 4 cups of milk to a simmer in a saucepan.  Melt the butter in a large saucepan, over medium-low heat.  Add the flour and cook for 1 minute stirring with a wooden spoon.  Add the milk to the butter-flour mixture all at once.  Add ½ Tablespoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and ½ teaspoon of nutmeg.  Whisk until the sauce thickens, about 7-10 minutes.  

To assemble the Baked Cauliflower with Pork and Béchamel Sauce

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).

Drizzle 3 Tablespoons of oil on the bottom of a 13x9x2 inch baking dish.  Arrange half of the cauliflower florets on the bottom of the dish.  Spread half of the Béchamel sauce over the cauliflower.  Spread the entire pork and rice mixture over the sauce.  Add the remaining cauliflower florets.  Spread the remaining of the sauce on top of the second layer of cauliflower.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.  

Bake for 40-45 minutes until bubbly and golden brown on top.  Allow it to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.  Add a dollop of sour cream on top and serve.  Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)