In the mood for Quick Pasta!

I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Stewart, as we have spent many long walks dreaming of taking a week or two and attending a cooking school in Italy.  I am hoping that 2011 just might be the year that we make it happen.
These three pasta dishes are relatively quick to throw together, especially if you have the components prepped in advance.  And they all taste best if you serve them right away.  Two tips for all pasta dishes: Always reserve a cup or so of the cooking water before you drain the pasta.  It is the perfect liquid for loosening the sauce and rewarming pasta.  And, when a pasta dish calls for zest, as two of the recipes below do, try to use one of the Micoplane brand zesters.  They create a fine, snowy zest that just melts into the pasta.

Linguine alla Carbonara di Salsiccia

(Sausage Carbonara)
     I was nervous to try Carbonara because it involves tossing eggs with hot pasta to create a luxurious, creamy sauce (or, I feared, a mess of hot pasta and scrambled eggs!) But it came together like a dream and while this is certainly a rich, special occasion dish, I am thrilled to add it to my collection.
     There are a couple of differences between my photos of this dish and the Jamie Oliver recipe that I am going to post below.  First of all, I was out of linguine so I had to use spaghetti and secondly, I didn’t have any pancetta so I made it without.  Next time I plan to use the pancetta and leave out the sausage because this decadent, creamy, lemony pasta really doesn’t need much more in my opinion (and the dish would come together even quicker).  But the little meatballs are fun for sausage lovers.
4 good quality sweet Italian sausages
olive oil
4 slices of thick cut pancetta, chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dried linguine
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 1/2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
zest of one lemon
a sprig of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
With a sharp knife, slit the sausage skins lengthwise an pop all the meat out.  Using wet hands, roll little balls of sausage meat about the size of large marbles and place them to one side.
Heat a large frying pan and add a good splash of olive oil.  Gently fry the sausage meatballs until golden brown all over, then add the pancetta and continue cooking fro a couple of minutes until it’s golden.  While this is cooking, bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the linguine, and cook according to the package instructions.
In a large bowl, whip up the egg yolks, cream, half the Parmesan, the lemon zest, and the parsley.  When the pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water, and immediately toss it quickly with the egg mixture back in the pasta pot.  Add the hot sausage meatballs and toss everything together,  The egg will cook delicately from the heat of the linguine, just enough for it to thicken and not scramble.  The sauce should be smooth and silky.  If the pasta becomes a little sticky, add a few spoonfuls of the reserved cooking water to loosen it slightly,  Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan, season if necessary, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and serve.  Eat immediately!

Penne with Ricotta and Spinach

This quick, one pot pasta dish is from Cook What You Love, by Bob and Melinda Blanchard.  I love it for a vegetarian entree but it would also make a great side dish for chicken or salmon.
1 pound penne pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
1 cup ricotta cheese (I use whole milk ricotta)
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into strips
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the penne and cook until tender but still firm.  Drain and return to the pot.  (don’t forget to save a cup of the cooking water, just in case)
With the heat on very low, add the olive oil, salt, pepper, spinach, ricotta, basil, parsley, and 1 cup of the Parmesan to the penne and mix well.  Heat gently, stirring occasionally.  As soon as the spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes, remove the pot from the heat.  Serve immediately, topped with the remaining Parmesan.

Spaghetti con Gamberetti e Rucola

(Spaghetti with Shrimp and Arugula)
This recipe is from Jamie’s Italy, by Jamie Oliver.  I’ve made it many, many times and it is one of our favorites.  The only advice I have is to only use a wine that you would be happy to drink.  It does makes a difference.  (I found that out the hard way)
1 pound dried spaghetti
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 pound large fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined (I like to butterfly them)
1 small wineglass of white wine
2 heaping tablespoons sun-dried tomato paste (I like the one sold in a tube, for convenience)
1/2 tablespoon butter (my addition)
zest and juice of one lemon
2 handfuls of fresh arugula, roughly chopped
Cook your spaghetti in a large pot of salted boiling water according to the package instructions.  Meanwhile, heat 3 good glugs of extra virgin olive oil in a large frying pan and toss in the garlic and chili flakes.  As the garlic begins to color, add the shrimp and saute them for a minute.  Add the white wine and the tomato puree and the butter and simmer for a couple of minutes.   When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water,  Toss the spaghetti with the sauce, squeeze in the lemon juice, and add half the chopped arugula, using a little of the reserved cooking water if you want to loosen the sauce a bit, and correct the seasoning.  Divide between four plates and sprinkle with the grated lemon zest and the rest of the arugula leaves.

In the mood for Chicken Paillard!

In my mind, I want to be the kind of person who makes lists.  The kind of person who sits down, thinks things through, writes notes to herself, checks off each item as it is attended to, and goes to bed each night  with that peaceful feeling of accomplishment.  But try as I might, I usually end up flying by the seat of my pants and making most things up as I go along.
 Take grocery shopping, for example.  I wander the aisles and wonder…Do we need this, or that?  And then I arrive home to find that the chicken broth that I just purchased will now join the other 6 cans in the pantry and that we are completely out of milk.
      So when I am undecided about what I will feel like cooking for the family on any given week night, I always throw a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts into my cart.  Since my pantry is fairly well stocked,  (overstocked, some might say) I know that I will be able to pull off a nice meal by dressing up a chicken paillard*.  The three recipes that follow are just a few of my favorites.  They are great meals for families because you can just keep the components separate for picky kids.  For example, with the crispy panko crusted chicken (last photo below), I serve the chicken sliced with the vinaigrette as a dipping sauce for my younger ones.  I haven’t met a kid yet who didn’t love it!
*paillard (n) a slice of chicken, turkey or beef that has been pounded thinly and cooked quickly

Chicken Paillard with Fresh Fig Salad and Blue Cheese

A Tyler Florence recipe from his book, Tyler’s Ultimate, brilliant simple food to make anytime.  I will give you Tyler’s original recipe with a couple of notes I made to cut back just a bit on the over-the-top decadence of this one.
Serves 4
3 tablespoons honey  (I use 2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound pancetta (I find that 4 ounces, thinly sliced, is plenty)
extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound blue cheese, broken into hunks (I use only an ounce or two)
1 bunch of arugula
1 small basket seasonal figs, quartered (could use pears, peaches or apricots)
Tarragon leaves for garnish
First ,whisk together all of the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a small bowl and set it aside.
Sandwich the chicken breasts between 2 layers of plastic wrap and pound them very thin with a mallet or rolling pin.  Remove the chicken from the plastic and season them well on both sides with salt and pepper.
Heat a large saute pan over medium heat.  Unroll the pancetta slices, add them to the pan and fry like a big tangle of bacon until the fat is rendered.  Drain on paper towels
Drizzle a bit of olive oil into the pan with the pancetta drippings and pan fry the chicken for 3-4 minutes per side to brown the breasts and cook them through.  Remove the chicken to the paper towels with the pancetta.  Add the vinaigrette to the saute pan and heat for a few minutes, stirring, to deglaze the bits of pancetta and chicken fro the bottom of the pan. (I like to pour out any oil remaining in the saute pan before adding the vinaigrette, to cut down on the amount of fat in the finished dish) Remove the pan from the heat.
To serve, arrange the chicken on a serving dish and scatter the blue cheese, arugula, figs, and pancetta over. Drizzle the dressing over everything and garnish with the tarragon leaves.

Chicken Paillard 

topped with fresh greens and pan-seared cherry tomatoes

This couldn’t-be-easier recipe comes from Simply Salads, by Jennifer Chandler.
Serves 4
1/4 cup Balsamic Grainy Mustard Dressing (see recipe below)
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
5 ounces mixed field greens
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Prepare the dressing:
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon whole grain Dijon mustard
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Place the vinegar and mustard in a small bowl and whisk together.  Slowly add the oil in a stream, whisking to emulsify.  Season with salt and pepper.
Place a chicken breast in a large resealable heavy plastic bag.  Using a mallet or rolling pin, flatten to about 1/4 inch thick.  Remove the chicken and season with salt and pepper.  Repeat with additional chicken breasts.
Warm the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  Add the chicken and cook until golden brown and no longer pink in the middle, about 4 minutes per side.  Remove the chicken from the skillet and keep warm.
Place the tomato halves in the same skillet used to cook the chicken.  Cook over medium high heat sirring often until slightly charred.
In a large salad bowl, toss together the field greens, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.  Add the vinaigrette to taste and gently toss.
Place a chicken breast on each plate and top with the salad,  Serve immediately.

Sesame Chicken Salad with Spinach, Cucumber and Cilantro

Another Tyler Florence recipe from Tyler’s Ultimate.  This has become a family favorite and one that almost all of my kids have actually learned to make on their own.
Serves 4
1/4 cup soy sauce
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon crushed red chile pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
salt and pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
fresh baby spinach leaves
1 cucumber, un-peeled, cut crosswise into slices
handful of fresh cilantro leaves
1 scallion, chopped
cracked black pepper
In a bowl, whisk together the soy sauce,lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, ginger, sugar and red pepper flakes for the vinaigrette.
Rince the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Put a chicken breast on the cutting board and, holding a large knife parallel to the board, cup through the breast horizontally so that you get 2 thin fillets.  Repeat with the 3 remaining breasts,  Put the chicken on a platter, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, and toss to coat.  Set the rest of the vinaigrette aside,  Let the chicken marinate for about  10 minutes.
Combine the panko and the sesame seeds in a shallow bowl and season with a little salt and pepper.  Mix with your fingers so that the seasoning is incorporated and then taste it. The panko should be well seasoned.  Dredge the chicken in the seasoned crumbs, patting the crumbs gently so that they adhere.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium hight heat.  Line a platter with paper towels and set that to the side of the stove.  Add about half of the chicken to the pan and cook about 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown and crispy.  Remove the chicken to the towel lined platter to drain while you cook the rest of the chicken.
Put the spinach in a bowl with the cucumber, cilantro and scallion and toss.  To serve, arrange a mound of greens on a plate, set a piece of chicken on top, stack a few more greens on top, and finish with another piece of chicken.  Drizzle with vinaigrette and sprinkle with cracked black pepper.

In the mood for Cupcakes!

Cupcakes are everywhere these days and I don’t have to wonder why.  They are fun to make, fun to serve and eat, and so much less intimidating than a whole cake.  When I have time to make cupcakes here at home, I want them to be something a little special.  And it doesn’t have to be hard…just a couple of extra steps and as you will see it is definitely worth the effort.  What do these three have in common?  They are all about the cake, instead of the frosting, which is how we like it around here.  But they also each have a sweet surprise on the inside!


Boston Cream Pie Cupcakes

Tender yellow cake, sweet pastry cream and a quick chocolate ganache and you have the cupcake version of Boston Cream Pie…which is actually a cake, by the way.  After several test runs (all happily devoured) I have settled on the cupcake and the glaze recipes from Gail Gand in her book, Chocolate and Vanilla.  For the pastry cream, I use the recipe from Cooks Country, published in the June 2006 issue.
Makes 12 cupcakes.
Make the pastry cream:
1 1/3 cups heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of table salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch plus 1 additional teaspoon
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Heat cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat until simmering,  stirring occasionally.  Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl.  Add cornstarch and whisk until mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 15 seconds.
When cream reaches full simmer, slowly whisk it into yolk mixture. (Pour cream slowly and whisk quickly or you might end up with scrambled eggs!) Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thick and glossy, about 1 1/2 minutes.  Off heat, whisk in butter and vanilla.  Transfer pastry cream to a small bowl, press plastic wrap directly on surface, and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
Make the cupcakes:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cupcake liners.
In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes.  Add the sugar and continue to whip.  Add the vanilla and gradually mix in the eggs, one by one until well combined.  Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the milk and ending with the dry ingredients.
Pour batter into the prepared pan, filling each slot three quarters full.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cupcakes are puffed, firm in the center and light golden brown on top.  Let cool in the pan on a cooling rack.
To fill the cupcakes, use a small paring knife to remove a plug of cake from the top center of each cake and set the plugs aside.  Spoon a heaping tablespoon of pastry cream into the cavities.  Trim each plug so that it is now a flat coin.  Replace the cake coin on top of the custard  and chill for 30 minutes.
Make the glaze:
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces semi sweet chocolate, chopped
Heat the cream in a saucepan or in the microwave until almost oiling.  Meanwhile place the chocolate in a medium bowl.  Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and whisk until melted.
Dip the chilled cupcakes in the warm chocolate glaze to coat the top.  Refrigerate until serving.
A peek inside…

Strawberry Shortcake Cupcakes

Inspired by a recipe in the book Cupcakes, by Joanna Farrow, but I had to look further for a really great white cake batter.  I found it in The Best Bake Sale Cookbook, Ever, by Barbara Grunes.   I’ll be using it as my “go to” white cake mix from now on.  No icing here…just freshly whipped cream and beautiful strawberries.
This will make 24 cupcakes.
For the cupcake batter
3 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 egg whites
2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup buttercup
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line 2 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.
Sift together flour, caking soda and salt.  Set aside
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy.  Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the sugar and the cream of tartar, and beat  until stiff, glossy peaks form.  Set aside.
In another large bowl,  using the electric mixer, cream the butter and the remaining 1 1/2 cup sugar until light, about 2-3 minutes.  Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk.  Beat in the vanilla.   With a spatula or large wooden spoon, fold in the egg whites.
Fill each cupcake tin about three-fourths of the way to the top.  Bake until tops are just firm and edges are starting to turn golden, 18 to 20 minutes.   Let cool completely on a wire rack.
For the filling:
2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioners sugar
6 tablespoons red current jelly
16 ounces small strawberries
Whip the cream with the sugar until it holds soft peaks.  Set aside 6 of the smallest strawberries and slice them in half for the center of the cupcakes.  Thinly slice the remaining strawberries.  Prepare the cooled cupcakes by removing a plug from the center of each cake.  (You won’t need these again so nibble away!)  Fill the cavity with a couple of spoonfuls of whipped cream and let it spill out onto the top of the cupcake.  Flatten a bit with the back of a spoon.  Arrange the sliced strawberries around the center of the cupcake, overlapping slightly.  Then place a strawberry half in the center of each cake.  Heat the red current jelly in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons water until melted then brush over the strawberries gently to form a light glaze.  (a silicone pastry brush works really well for delicate glazing)  Store the cakes in a cool place until ready to serve.

“So Much Better Than Hostess” Chocolate Cupcakes

What can I say?? Of course it is easier to run in the gas station and pick up a two pack of those chocolate marshmallow cupcakes we ate when we were kids.  But trust me…they don’t compare.  I would like to invite my nephews, who ate these exact cupcakes this summer at the farm to comment below.  Thanks guys!
Makes 12 cupcakes
1 cup all-purpose flour 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1/4 teaspoon Salt 
1/2 cup boiling water 
1/3 cup cocoa powder 
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips 
1 tablespoon instant espresso 
3/4 cup sugar 
1/2 cup sour cream 
1/2 cup vegetable oil 
2 large eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
3 tablespoons water 
3/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin 
4 tablespoon (1/2 stick) unsalted butter , softened
Pinch salt 
1 1/4 cups marshmallow créme (Fluff, or Kraft Jet Puffed Creme)
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips 
3 tablespoons unsalted butter 

1. MAKE BATTER Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour 12-cup muffin tin. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in bowl. Whisk water, cocoa, chocolate chips, and espresso in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, sour cream, oil, eggs, and vanilla and mix until combined. Whisk in flour mixture until incorporated. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake until toothpick inserted into cupcake comes out with few dry crumbs attached, 18 to 22 minutes. Cool -cupcakes in tin 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack and cool completely.

2. PREPARE FILLING Combine water and gelatin in large bowl and let sit until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes. Microwave until mixture is bubbling around edges and gelatin dissolves, about 30 seconds. Stir in butter, vanilla, and salt until combined. Let mixture cool until just warm to touch, about 5 minutes, then whisk in marshmallow creme until smooth; refrigerate until set, about 30 minutes. Transfer 1/3 cup marshmallow mixture to pastry bag fitted with small plain tip; reserve remaining mixture for filling cupcakes.

3. ASSEMBLE CUPCAKES Microwave chocolate and butter in small bowl, stirring occasionally, until smooth, about 30 seconds. Cool glaze to room temperature, about 10 minutes. Cut a deep cone from top of each cupcake (see note below) and fill cupcakes with 1 tablespoon filling each. Replace tops, frost with 2 teaspoons cooled glaze, and let sit 10 minutes. Using pastry bag, pipe curlicues across glazed cupcakes. Serve. (Cupcakes can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for 2 days.) 

note:  To fill the cupcake:  Insert a small paring knife into the top of the cupcake, about 1/4 inch from the edge at a 45 degree angle and work your way around to carve out a cone of cake.  Remove the cone, cut off the bottom of the cone, leaving you with a flat disk.  Fill the cupcake and replace the disk.