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Mediterranean Orzo with Roasted Vegetables & Lemon Zest

11 May

Dinner parties. It’s a time for pretty table linens, elegant dinnerware and culinary flights of fancy. A time in which my little apartment kitchen seems all too tiny and I start dreaming of a spacious farm kitchen, complete with brick walls and weathered wooden family table. When I was a child, our house was usually filled with dinner guests on Saturday evenings. My brother & I knew the kitchen was off-limits for pretty much the entire afternoon, as mom was in there whirling like a tornado and mostly cooking a 6-course meal for guests that would arrive later in the evening. Setting foot on the tile kitchen floor, meant the risk of being sucked into mom’s dishwashing vortex so we generally steered clear.

Fast forward 35 years, and – despite my good intentions – I realize I have turned into my mother. Rats. While I’m not yet wearing high-waisted hot pink capri pants that reach to my bra straps, or pee behind a spruce in Yosemite NP because the call of my bladder is far stronger than the language on any of the Park Ranger warning signs, I share my love of cooking with Cecilia. I enjoy entertaining guests with food I prepare, and I take joy out of billowing crisp, brightly colored linens over my table in preparation of the festivities. I enjoy buzzing around in my kitchen, hovering over pots & pans and making sure my guests will ooh & ah, whilst at the same time banning my house elves family members from entering the kitchen with a certain air of authority and mild annoyance. (*)
(*) Note to self: Must fight this genetic pattern before hot pink capris become all the rage.

Yesterday, J. was coming over for dinner. She had to drop off some papers, so – naturally – I suggested I cook dinner for all of us. I had planned on cooking a big pan of my lemon-braised chicken and serve that family-style, since I had to work all day and didn’t have much time whip out my whole arsenal of culinary wizardry. Lemon braised chicken has such a unique flavor, that it’s always a bit hard to find a side dish that will accompany it flawlessly without being blah, but the orzo below did just the trick. The roasted vegetables burst with flavor and are slightly caramelized which brings a note of sweetness, while the lemon dressing breaks that sweetness with the right amount of tang. The freshness of the scallions and basil not only adds to the wonderful flavors, but also makes this really pretty t look at.

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MEDITERRANEAN ORZO WITH ROASTED VEGETABLES & LEMON ZEST
(inspired by a ‘Barefoot Contessa’ recipe)
– about 2 cups of uncooked orzo pasta
– 1 red bell pepper, sliced into 1 inch pieces
– 1 yellow of orange bell pepper, sliced into 1 inch pieces
– 1 small eggplant, diced into 1 inch pieces
– 2-3 small red onions (tennis ball size), diced into 1/2  inch pieces
– 3-4 ripe lemons, zested & juiced
– 1 bunch of scallions, sliced thin
– 1/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted
– 2 good handfuls of fresh basil, julienned or sliced into thin ribbons
– 2-3 cloves of ROASTED garlic (optional)
– olive oil (+/- 1 cup)
– salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425F.

Place the peppers, onions & eggplant on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt & pepper and coat liberally with olive oil on all sides. Roast in the oven until tender and caramelized, approx. 30-40 min. Set aside and allow to cool to temperature. Turn off oven.

In a small sauce pan, toast pine nuts until golden brown. Set aside and cool.

Zest 3-4 lemons, and set zest aside. Slice scallions and basil, and set aside.

For the lemon dressing, juice zested lemons into a measuring cup or bowl. Preferably one with a pour spout. You should have approx. 1/2 cup of lemon juice. Add about 3/4 cup-1 cup of olive oil to the lemon juice and blend well. Add salt & pepper to taste. Add pureed roasted garlic to the dressing, if you desire.

Bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a boil, and cook orzo according to package instructions. Drain well and pour into large serving bowl.  Immediately, while hot, pour about half of the lemon dressing over the pasta, and coat well so it won’t stick as it cools to room temperature.

When pasta is cool enough to handle, add roasted vegetables & lemon zest to the orzo, and gently fold until well combined. If the pasta salad seems a bit dry, add some more lemon dressing. Fold in toasted pine nuts, scallions and basil. keep a few basil leaves for decoration.

You can eat this pasta salad warm or cold. This recipe will make a large bowl that will comfortably feed 8 people or more. It can be served as a side, or with crusty French bread for a light lunch.

Bon Appetit!

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Spanish Chickpeas with Chorizo & Piquillo Peppers

18 Feb

Shortly before the holidays, my friend & pastor Erika G. tagged me in a Facebook ad she saw from a local kitchen supply store, with the mentioning that I simply ‘had to’ respond. “This is so you!”, she said, “You should apply!”. I don’t know how or where she saw the ad, but I never did and Lord knows I spend enough time on Facebook food pages that I should have seen this. Anyway, considering the fabulous Erika G. is my pastor, I think she was summoned by divine intervention and then asked to channel one of the three wise men and deliver this gift to me… by means of modern communication, rather than camel.

The ad in question came from Surfas-Culinary District, and it was an open invitation to all local food bloggers to apply to become a ‘product reviewer’. Sounds fancy, huh? I nearly wet myself from excitement. Not only have I been a customer of theirs for several years, but more importantly, I love that store. As in ‘luuuuvvvvv’. I totally understand that this sounds fishy now that I’m an official Surfas endorser, so to speak, but if you’ve followed this blog, then you’ve seen me write about Surfas long before I even applied to their ad. And my friends know that if they dare ask me where to find something, I send them to Surfas. Plain & simple. The walk-in store in Culver City, CA is the perfect combination of industrial urban-ness and artisanal food shopping, and while the building and/or atmosphere inside may not be as visually elegant as ‘Sur La Table’ or ‘Williams-Sonoma’, there is nothing you can want that Surfas doesn’t deliver… It’s foodie heaven, I tell you. My mother knows this too, and a trip to Surfas is on the agenda every time she visits from Belgium. It’s also my ‘go-to’ place when she tells me that she *must* find natural squid ink to make black risotto or a ‘thingy that looks like a pincette but is much larger’, which some random celebrity chef uses in Cecilia’s favorite cooking show on Belgian TV… You can bet on it that Surfas has that too.

But we digress… Last Saturday, my package with the first few items arrived. I’ve long wanted to try Piquillo peppers, and yesterday was my lucky day. Piquillo peppers are in the chili family, and are traditionally grown in the Northern part of Spain, where they are harvested at peak ripeness and then roasted whole and preserved in brine. The peppers are small, with firm sweet flesh and no heat. They are named after a bird’s ‘piquillo’ (get your mind out of the gutter) or beak, since the peppers have a pointy shape. The fruit very much resembles regular roasted red peppers, but they are sweeter and with a distinct flavor I can’t quite place my finger on. I guess you could say they have a more intense pepper flavor and their texture is firmer yet silkier than that of a regular roasted pepper.

Most recipes for Piquillo peppers call for the peppers to be stuffed with anything from cheese to ground beef & fish. However, I wanted to make a meal out of it yet stay true to the flavors of Spain at the same time. The result was pretty darn tasty, and I served it alongside a grainy artisanal bread to emulate that Mediterranean flair.

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SPANISH CHICKPEAS WITH CHORIZO & PIQUILLO PEPPERS
(adapted from a recipe for ‘Garbanzos con Chorizo’ that I found on the Internet)
– 4 13.5oz cans of chickpeas
– 1 13.5oz can of crushed tomatoes, unseasoned
– 1 13.5oz can of Piquillo peppers, sliced into ribbons
– 3 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
– 2 shallots, finely chopped
– 7oz of dry chorizo, sliced in thin slices or cubed finely
– a few good slashes of cooking sherry
– 2 Tbsp of fresh oregano, finely chopped (or 1 Tbsp dried oregano)
– 1-2 Tbsp of Piment d’Espelette or another hot pepper like cayenne or a dash of sriracha
– salt to taste
– parsley, for decoration

Preheat oven to 350F.

Drain chickpeas and rinse until no longer foamy. Drain Piquillo peppers in a separate sieve and slice each pepper into thin ribbons.

In a cast iron skillet or heavy pan, brown the chorizo until it starts to sweat and turn color a little bit. You don’t want it to be crispy at this point. Add chopped shallots and sauté until shallots turn translucent. Add tomato paste and minced garlic, and cook for additional 1-2 minutes. If your pan is getting a bit crusty, add a splash of cooking sherry and scrape up any bits.

Add chickpeas, pepper ribbons, crushed tomatoes, Piment d’Espelette and oregano, and fold everything to combine well. Pour a few splashes of cooking sherry over the heap of yummy goodness and bake for approx. 15 min at 350F until the top is slightly crispy and the chickpeas are heated through.

Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top for prettiness, and serve alongside grainy bread or rice.

Creamy Orecchiette with Roasted Parsnips, Kale & Cracked Peppercorn

24 Dec

Yesterday was one of those days on which I simply did not feel festive. I suffered from a serious case of the ‘holiday blues’, and on top of that, my uterus decided that it was time to go Beowulf.

So when I drove home with a plan to stop by the grocery store and grab whatever I felt could ‘pass’ as an acceptable dinner in my book, I didn’t expect to be roasting parsnips and cracking peppercorns. As a matter of fact, I was thinking more frozen pizza middle aisle than outer periphery… By divine intervention, I opened Pinterest and saw a recipe for what looked like a simple cracked pepper pasta dish. Tasty & cheap? Why, yes please!

$16.25 later, me & my bah humbug attitude drove home and strapped on the apron. Let me tell you, whacking the living daylights out of whole peppercorns with a rolling pin is seriously therapeutic during that time of the month!

As stated above, I saw the recipe below on Pinterest and was intrigued by the earthiness of the dish. It just looked really appealing and it seemed to be a play on a traditional pasta ‘cacio e pepe’, or a simple cracked pepper pasta. Yesterday was the perfect day to make this. I changed the recipe only slightly by adding cream and garlic, but I think that originally it was a Mario Batali creation.

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Creamy Orecchiette with Roasted Parsnips, Kale & Cracked Peppercorns.
(Adapted from a Mario Batali recipe I found on ‘Pinterest’)
– 1 lbs of orecchiette
– 1 Tbsp of pink peppercorns
– 1 Tbsp of green peppercorns
– 1 Tbsp of black peppercorns
– 1 Tbsp of white peppercorns
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced
– 3 cups of roughly chopped kale, approx. 6-8 stems
– 3/4 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of white wine
– 4 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
– 1 cup of grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan)
– olive oil
– salt

Preheat oven to 450F. Place peppercorns in a ziplock baggy, and whack them until you achieve a rough texture. Some of the peppercorns will still be semi-whole, and that’s what we want.

Peel & cube parsnips, toss with olive oil and spread out over a baking sheet. Sprinkle with a bit of salt. Roast in the hot oven for approx. 20 min, until tender and slightly browned. Remove from oven and set aside.

In the meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water. When you have a rolling boil, add orecchiette and boil according to box directions. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

In a heavy skillet, heat 2-3 Tbsp of olive oil with chopped garlic & cracked peppercorn. When oil is hot, add chopped kale, toss and sauté for a few minutes until the kale starts to wilt a bit. Add wine and cream, and simmer over low heat to allow the liquid to reduce by approx. half.

When sauce with kale has reduced and thickened a bit, add 1/2 cup of grated Pecorino Romano. Add reserved pasta liquid until sauce is the right texture and coats evenly. Test with the back of a wooden spoon: if you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of your spoon, and the ‘edges’ stay put and don’t run, it means your sauce is the perfect thickness.

Add drained pasta and roasted parsnips to the pan with the sauce. Toss and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Serve hot.

** You can also add some cooked Italian sausage, if you like.

Greek Baked Beans

4 Nov

Last weekend, I found a package of giant dry white beans or ‘gigantes’ in my cupboard. These tasty plump beans are a staple in Greek cuisine, and the mere mentioning of the word ‘Greek’ always sends my mind to the time my best friend & I had pizza & cheap wine in her shoebox-size apartment in the ‘Lange Vlierstraat’ in Antwerp. I know it’s a bit of stretch and a far cry from the usual images of breezy seaside tavernas with vine-wrapped trellises and ouzo. Bear with me, please.

While most young adults live with their parents when they’re still in college, my friend lived solo’ and her digs were usually the place we’d hang out at to channel our inner-dork. Not that ‘two-buck-chuck’ & pizza nights were so unusual during our college years, but that night in particular, she was preparing to move in with her now American ex-husband and the purpose of our gathering was to get silly on cheap wine to facilitate her move into her fiance’s beautiful house on the left banks of the ‘Schelde’ river in Antwerp, and mostly to get rid of the stuff that really shouldn’t see the light of day when you’re twenty-something and about to engage in a serious relationship of co-habitation with the other sex.

On a side note, per my mother, W. & I have had a life-long reputation of unbridled ‘silliness’. ‘Onozel doen’, like mom would say. As a matter of fact, with W. living in Florida, we speak over the phone weekly. Or at least attempt to hold a conversation, which usually starts off with W. bursting out in a suffocating fit of snorting laughter the minute I answer my phone, muttering “I’ll call you right back” in between giggles, which spirals me into a similar guffaw before I even know what it is she wants to share with me. It’s like our ‘tween-gene’ is activated the minute we connect, and we are instantly transported back to the late 80’s.

Anyway, we digress… Thirty odd years ago or so (Gah! I’m old), we found ourselves slumped back on her couch, plastic Dixie cup of wine in hand, and thumbing through an old photo album with letters & pictures of her long forgotten high school pen pal: Kostas. He was Greek. He was twenty-something compared to her sweet sixteen. He had curly black hair, no bodily shame and he was censored by my friend’s prudence by means of black tape. The naughty picture in question was carefully glued in her album, with a strategically placed hand-crafted ‘trap door’ of black tape, which could be lifted to behold all of Kostas’ glory. Like a mini-peep show from the comfort of home, so to speak. I also remember he later came to visit from Greece with his friend while we were much older and already in college, and he turned out to be quite full of himself and a royal penis, pardon the pun.

If you think you can picture the ridiculousness of two grown women giggling like pimpled high school girls over a nude picture of a not-so-good looking young man, think harder and then multiply the dorkiness level by tenfold. That’s us! So any time I hear the word ‘Greek’ now, I have to think about Kostas. And that naughty trap-door picture that had us doubled up in silly laughter.

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GREEK BAKED BEANS
(‘Fasolia Plaki’… adapted per my own flavor preferences)
– 1 package of dry ‘gigantes’ or large white beans (500 gr or 0.5 lbs)
– 3 large juicy tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes)
– 1 small can of ROTEL ‘mild’ tomatoes & chillies
– 2-3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled & diced (the jarred kind are fine too)
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
– 1 large onion, diced
– 2 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of dried oregano (or a few sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped fine)
– 4 Tbsp of dried parsley (or a handful of fresh parsley, chopped fine)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped fine
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes (*)
– salt to taste
– 2 cups of the boiling water from the beans
(*) when using Rotel tomatoes & chillies, 1 Tbsp will do you just fine and will turn the dish medium spicy. For mild heat, leave out the red pepper flakes al together. For NO heat, leave out the red pepper flakes and use 2 more tomatoes instead of a can of Rotel chillies, and season with some pepper. For more heat, add more red pepper flakes. You get my drift…

Soak beans overnight in a large container of plain unsalted water, with at least 2-3 inches of water topping the beans once submerged. Let them soak on the counter.

The next day, drain beans from the soaking water, and place in a large pot. Bring beans to a boil and let simmer until tender, but still with a bit of bite. The ‘older’ the beans, the longer this stage will take, but for my 6-8 month old package of dry beans, this was approx. 75 min.
Drain beans, reserving approx. 2 cups of the bean water, and set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, carve an ‘X’ in the bottom your tomato and flash-boil for about 1 minute in the boiling bean water (or a pot of boiling water). The edges of the ‘X’ will start to curl and this process will make peeling your tomatoes significantly easier. Peel each tomato, cut in quarters, remove seed-cores and dice the flesh in small cubes. Try to reserve some of the juice, but don’t worry too much about that.

While the beans boil, preheat oven to 350F. In a heavy oven-proof skillet (I used a cast iron skillet, but you can also use a regular pan and then transfer everything into a casserole), sauté the diced onions until tender and translucent, approx. 5 min. Add tomato paste, garlic, roasted & peeled bell peppers and red pepper flakes, and sauté for another few minutes to ‘cook out’ the tomato paste a bit. Then add diced tomatoes (with juice), can of Rotel chillies and all of the herbs. Stir the sauce and cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken a little bit.

Fold cooked beans in the tomato sauce, and pour the reserved bean water over the beans until they are ‘just’ submerged. Stick bay leaves in the pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven for another 75-90 min until the juices have evaporated. The top will be slightly crispy.

Serve hot with crusty bread. Or with an omelet, like I did.

Lemony Pasta with Peas & Mint

3 Oct

Back in 2010/11, Belgium went without a government for 589 days. Five hundred and eighty nine days! Parks remained open. Government agencies functioned. And our senators tightened their suspenders and showed up for congressional meetings with or without a chip on their shoulder. There was juvenile bickering and fighting amongst members of the congress. There was finger pointing, name calling, red-faced huffing and puffing. There was a 589 day governmental stalemate.

… so what do you do?

You cork a few vats of beer and PARTY! After all, breaking a ‘Guinness World Record’ for being the country with the longest ever recorded absence of Government in the history of civilized mankind, calls for fanciful fireworks and drunken city-wide celebrations. You invite the international press to the festivities, you show off your patriotic colors… on body parts we can’t show on national TV… and you make your mark on global history by displaying loud ridiculous behavior and madly proudly waving your country’s flag whilst yelling nonsensical talk at cameras, in a language nobody but Holland understands. This, is how Belgium handles political strife.

The Belgians aren’t entirely hitting a foul ball with their seemingly ludicrous celebrations… In times like these, what else is there to do but to laugh at your own misery and indulge in good food and a few libations among friends and family? And what better dish to bring people together than delicious and effortless pasta? Pasta is both heartwarming for the soul as well as your wallet’s bottom line. It’s a culinary super hero and a beacon of happiness during hard economic times. So instead of making lemonade with all the sour lemons Congress is throwing at us, why not make a creamy lemony pasta instead?

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LEMONY PASTA WITH PEAS AND MINT
– 1 package of fettucinni, or a pasta of your choice
– 2 cups of fresh English peas, par-boiled (or 2 cups of frozen peas, uncooked)
– 1/2 cup of crème fraiche
– zest of 2 lemons
– 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh mint
– a handful of chunks of Gran Padano cheese or another salty hard cheese of your choice
– salt & pepper to taste
– smoked salmon (optional)

Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water until almost cooked through. Rather than drain the pasta, take the pasta out of the pasta water with tongs and transfer it to a shallow pan, and don’t worry if some of the pasta water comes with it. We need this extra bit of wetness to create our sauce.

While the pasta cooks, boil some water in a small sauce pan and par-boil fresh English peas in boiling water for approx. 2 min, until almost tender. Shock in a bath of ice water to stop the cooking process. If using frozen peas, there is no need to par-boil those.

Stir the peas in the hot pasta, along with the crème fraiche, lemon zest & mint. Season with salt & pepper. Add a splash of olive oil to finish.

Serve with chunks or slivers of cheese sprinkled over the top… and/or for extra protein, add sliced smoked salmon.

Spaghetti Bolognese

18 Aug

Yesterday was one of those rare days on which I didn’t really feel like cooking. We’d been mostly in our ‘weekend lazy‘ mode, and I didn’t get out of my purple penguin pajamas until well into the afternoon. Up until that moment in which I actually traded my cozy pj’s for cozy jeans & a tee, my most strenuous activity was whipping up grilled cheese sandwiches & a tomato salad for the beau & I… It took 20 minutes of thumbing through the newest edition of ‘Food & Wine’ whilst slouched in the couch, to recover from this sudden burst of activity. I know I will pay dearly for this laziness in the upcoming week, but it was nice for once to actually not be running up & down the stairs with laundry baskets and hauling 20 bags of groceries inside, as though I’m in some wacky episode of ‘Survivor-Special Homestead Edition‘.

The result of this pointless Saturday lull, was that after hours of watching my stepson play ‘Portal 2’ on his Xbox and browsing Pinterest and the likes on my phone, I actually started enjoying the nothingness of my Saturday and I morphed into the mother of all laziness. The longer it went on, the more ‘nothing’ I felt like doing… and then dinner time hit me. Like the hand of God himself striking me down for my indolence.

A quick peek in the fridge brought ground beef, onions & basil to the forefront, so spaghetti it was! I realize that I’m not adding an earth-shattering culinary oeuvre with posting a recipe for ‘spaghetti bolognese‘, but I thought I’d share my version of this classic nonetheless…

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SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE
(Adapted from a recipe by Anne Burrell)
– 3 shallots, finely diced
– 2 large carrots, finely diced
– 3 ribs celery, finely diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced or grated
– 3 lbs of lean ground beef
– 2 6oz cans of tomato paste
– 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
– 3 cups full-bodied red wine
– salt & pepper
– olive oil
– a pinch of cayenne pepper
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 bunch of thyme, tied in a bundle
– 1.5 lbs of dry spaghetti
– 1/2 cup grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano

In food processor, puree onion, carrots, celery, & garlic into a coarse paste (or blend with a hand mixer).

In large pan heat olive oil and sauté veggie paste with a generous helping of salt, until most water has evaporated and they start to brown, approx 15 min.

Add ground beef & season generously with salt as well. Allow the beef to brown slowly, 15-20 mins.

Add tomato paste & cook til brown, 4 to 5 mins. Add red wine. Cook til wine reduces by half, another 4-5 mins.

Add crushed tomatoes and toss in bay leaves & bundle of thyme. Stir to combine all. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer and -ideally- simmer 3 1/2-4 hours to develop all the flavors. If the sauce gets to thick, add water. Finish sauce with salt & pepper to taste, and add a pinch of cayenne pepper for a bit of heat.

During last 30 mins, bring a large pot of water to boil. Pasta water should always be well salted, so don’t skimp on this. When water comes to a rolling boil, add pasta & cook for 1 minute less than package says. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water.

Meanwhile remove 1/2 of the sauce from pot & reserve in a separate bowl.

Drain the pasta & add to the pot with 1/2 the sauce. Toss pasta to coat. Add some reserved sauce to achieve an even ratio between pasta & sauce.

Add reserved pasta water and cook pasta & sauce together over med heat until the water reduces. Turn off heat.

Give a big sprinkle of freshly grated or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a generous drizzle of good quality olive oil.

Buon Appetito!

Five Cheese Mac

27 Jul

One of the many fabulous dishes America welcomed with me when I first arrived here nearly 13 years ago, is a bubbly & cheesy mac straight out of a hot oven.

Sure, there are oven-baked cheesy noodle dishes in Belgium too, but they’re falling dramatically short from the cheesy, creamy deliciousness I’ve enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic. For starters, Belgian macaroni and cheese dishes lack flair and creativity, in my opinion. Almost as if nobody cared to explore the culinary possibilities of this American staple. Overall, I think American cuisine gets a bad wrap in Europe due to all the sub-par hamburger chains and cheap fast food joints that are being lobbied as a slice of ‘real’ American life. It’s entirely false, and I’ll come right out saying that I’ve enjoyed some amazing cooking & food here. So to whomever put mac ‘n cheese on the culinary map, I thank thee! (Oh, and a special thank you shout-out to Vermont extra-sharp white cheddar, Maine lobster, Alaskan king salmon, Georgia peach cobbler, Boston cream pie, Mississippi mud pie, California avocados, Texas BBQ, Missouri’s St. Louis style ribs, Hawaii’s macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi & pupus, New York cheesecake… Yeah, I rest my case).

Over the years, I’ve played around with many mac ‘n cheese recipes I found online, but I finally settled on my own creation below, which is more of a grown-up mac and has bit more depth of flavor. I hope you enjoy it as much as my family & I do.

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FIVE CHEESE MAC
(Adapted from a variety of recipes I found online)
For the cheese sauce:
– 1 quart of milk
– 1/2 cup of flour
– 8 Tbsp of good quality butter
– 1/4 cup of buffalo hot wing sauce (*)
– 6 oz of Brie, sliced with rind on
– 12 oz of Gruyere (or Swiss cheese), grated
– 6 oz of extra-sharp white cheddar, grated
– 6 oz of mild cheddar, grated
– 4oz of blue cheese, crumbled
(*) I shamelessly stole this idea from the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood! It gives the sauce a bit of a kick in the pants.

Make a simple bechamel sauce, by melting the butter in a pan and adding the flour. Cook for a minute until flour & butter are one, then add milk and stir until all lumps are gone. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sauce thickens. When thick, remove from heat and incorporate all cheeses into hot sauce. Add buffalo wing sauce and season with salt & pepper to your liking. Add a pinch of nutmeg.

For the mac ‘n cheese:
– 12 slices of thick cut bacon
– 1 cup of breadcrumbs or crushed corn flakes (I use corn fakes because they add a nice touch of sweetness)
– 2 Tbsp of melted butter
– 2 boxes of elbow macaroni or cavatapi, or another kind of small pasta noodle.
– 3 Tbsp of finely chopped fresh rosemary (optional)

Heat oven to 400F. Lay bacon slices out on a foil-lined baking sheet, bake in the hot oven for 15-20 minutes until browned and crisp. Set aside and let cool slightly until your are able to crumble the bacon by hand. Turn oven down to 350F.

In the meantime, bring large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to box instructions until “al dente”.

Drain cooked pasta and place in a large oven dish. Pour cheese sauce over it and crumble bacon all over the top. Fold sauce and bacon into the pasta, then sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs or corn flakes and drizzle melted butter evenly over the top. Sprinkle top with chopped rosemary. Bake for 45min or so until it’s bubbly and the top layer has crisped.

So good!

Melanie’s Promised Lasagna

26 Jul

Belgians are gregarious people by nature. We enjoy mingling with friends & family in our local cafés, and we love food & drink as much as we enjoy engaging in theatrical debates about the linguistic & political divide in the country. Most of this bickering takes place over a few pints of ‘Maes Pils’ or ‘Leffe’, and the more freely beer flows, the better we seem to understand each other. Heated arguments nearly always end in boisterous laughter and an amicable pat on the back, and a family size paper pack of mayo-laden French fries is never far away. While it’s widely known for Italians to visually paint their verbal language with dramatic hand gestures & body language, you’ll find similar story-telling antics in Belgium. For instance, mom has always been exceptionally talented in adding depth to her words with dramatic facial expressions and colorful hand gestures. I’ve secretly pondered if perhaps she isn’t part Italian, a belief that was reinforced by her uncanny ability to cook a mean spaghetti.

Which brings me to Italian food… Italian cuisine is celebrated everywhere in the world and Belgium is no exception to this. Our people embrace pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano like no other, and our towns are dotted with colorful red/white/green pizzerias and rustic trattorias. We didn’t get to eat out very often, but during town festivities or family gettogethers, when the ever-watchful eye of mom wasn’t so watchful, we’d gorge on Italian wedding cake and forbidden fruit cream soda like there was no tomorrow. Italian food has always been a sultry lover of mine. Despite my best New Year’s resolutions, I can’t seem to resist its salty cheeses, wine-cured meats or dreamy pastas… It’s no wonder then that I sometimes ‘go to the mattresses…’ in my small apartment kitchen, and bake lasagna from scratch, leaving the kitchen looking like a bloody scene out of ‘The Godfather’. The tomato-mess is well worth the army-size supply of lasagna we end up, as I haven’t quite mastered the art of portion control just yet.

Half a year ago A little while ago, I brought lasagna leftovers to the office and shared them with my colleague Melanie F. It was amore at the first bite. She’s asked me for the recipe ever since, but has been patiently waiting for my procrastination to die down naturally. In talking about my blog the other day, she jokingly reminded me I still owed her that recipe, so I crossed over to the pimp-side and promised her I’d post it if she’d become a follower on my blog… Yeah. I’m that cheap, y’all. So without further ado, here’s Melanie’s promised lasagna recipe…

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MELANIE’S PROMISED LASAGNA
For the meat sauce:
– 1 large carrot, grated
– 2 shallots, grated
– 2 ribs of celery, grated
– 2 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes
– 1 8oz can of tomato paste
– 12 oz of chianti (or any dry red wine)
– 1 lbs of ground beef (extra lean)
– 1 lbs of Italian sausage, casings removed (hot or sweet, but I prefer sweet)
– 1 large onion, finely chopped
– 6 small cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
– 1.5 cups of fresh basil, chopped
– salt & pepper, to taste

In a large heavy pan, sauté the grated carrot, celery & shallot (aka ‘mire poix’) until fragrant and beginning to brown. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or so longer so the garlic has time to release its flavor a bit. Add chopped onions and brown until translucent and soft. Add the meats and brown until crumbled and mostly done. Add tomato paste and brown 2-3 minutes longer until tomato paste gets a deep brownish red color. Douse with half of the chianti and let reduce until most of the wine has evaporated. Add crushed tomatoes, rest of the chianti and salt & pepper, and simmer without the lid until all of the watery liquid has evaporated and you achieve a thick sauce. Fold chopped basil in the sauce and season with salt & pepper to your liking.

For the creamy béchamel-like sauce
– 2 15oz tins of ricotta cheese
– 2 cups of milk
– 2 Tbsp of butter
– 2 Tbsp of all-purpose flour
– pinch of nutmeg
– pinch of cayenne
– salt & pepper

Melt butter in a sauce pan. When butter is melted, add flour and cook for 1 minute until an even ‘paste-like’ consistency forms. Slowly incorporate milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Sauce should start thickening fairly soon when milk simmers. When béchamel sauce is ready, stir in a pinch of nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste. Take pan off of the stove, and add 2 tins of ricotta cheese. Fold until you get a thick, creamy, pudding-like consistency. Salt & pepper to taste.

Building the lasagna:
– 2-3 boxes of lasagna noodles, par-boiled & drained (or use the ‘no-cook’ kind)
– 3 cups of Parmesan cheese + Pecorino Romano, freshly grated by hand

Heat oven to 375F. Butter a large deep oven-pan. Spread a few Tbsp of the meaty tomato sauce to coat the bottom & prevent noodles from sticking to the pan, and place a layer of noodles on top of the sauce. Overlap the noodles’ egdes slightly. Then, evenly spread a thick layer of the ricotta/béchamel sauce over the noodles (careful not to shift the noodles too much) and sprinkle liberally with grated cheese so the cheese covers most of the béchamel sauce. Top with an equal layer of the meaty tomato sauce, then add another layer of cooked noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Repeat this process 2 more times until your dish is full (+/- 3 layers) and you finish with a top layer of tomato sauce. Simply sprinkle grated cheese directly on top of the tomato sauce, and bake in the oven for approx. 45-60 minutes until heated through and cheese on top is bubbly and brown.

Serve with crusty bread and a nice glass of Chianti.

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