Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Learning from Experience

There is something to be gained from every experience. Therefore, anytime I learn about a cookbook author, chef, or restaurant owner giving a lecture or doing a book-signing, I book a babysitter and clear my calendar. I'm also a sucker for "Chefography" on the Food Network, but that is neither here nor there.

While listening to Mark Bittman speak at my local Border's bookstore, I learned that not only was he not a culinary school graduate, but that when he first started food writing he did it for free. I also learned that he thinks the best way to learn your way around a professional kitchen is to work in a restaurant (again, without pay, if necessary). From local, underpaid writer/restaurant kitchen apprentice, to New York Times columnist and bestselling cookbook author. Impressive, and duly noted.

Next I attended a lecture given by Carole Peck, chef/owner of the critically acclaimed Good News Cafe in Woodbury, Connecticut. She regaled us with stories about being a member of the first class to admit women at the Culinary Institute of America, and of working her way through restaurant kitchens all over the country, having to prove herself as a "real" chef, despite not possessing a Y chromosome. I learned that cooking in a restaurant can be incredibly competitive, and sounds incredibly exhausting. I also learned that as long as you absolutely love what you are doing, and believe in it fully, with some patience, a little luck, and a lot of hard work, you can be successful. Ms. Peck was also the first person to suggest to me that I start a food blog. At that point, I wasn't really sure what a blog was, but I promised myself I'd look into it.

Most recently, I returned to Border's to hear Sheila Lukins discuss her new edition of The Silver Palate Cookbook. I learned that she began her career in food much in the same way I did. As an educator-turned-stay-at-home mom of two, she greatly enjoyed cooking and often entertained for friends. There was no formal culinary training, simply a love of food and cooking. While our paths diverge at this point---Ms. Lukins began a catering business where as I began a cooking school---I certainly hope my road leads me to the places she's been over her 25+ year career. I learned that writing a cookbook takes years of hard work. I learned that her signature dish, Chicken Marbella is pronounced "Chicken Mar-BAY-a" as in Marbella, Spain, not "Mar-BELLA" like it is spelled. I also learned that she is the second successful person in the food world who believes I should start a food blog. Again, duly noted.

So, as I wrap up this most recent blog entry, I give thanks to those who suggested I try "blogging", I reaffirm that I've chosen the best career path for me, and I accept that there is plenty of hard work ahead. Now, back to watching my TiVoed episodes of Chefography.

For more information on cooking classes, go to http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/

Monday, July 23, 2007

Grilling An Italian Classic

Indian eggplant

Grilling seems to bring out the “inner-chef” in everyone. Even people who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near an oven seem to love the art of the grill. In summertime, I grill as much as possible. It keeps the mess and the heat out of the kitchen, and produces fantastic results.

Most grillers tend to prepare lots of burgers, steaks, and chicken. Why not try some lighter fare? Fish and vegetables are great, healthy alternatives, and taste even better when grilled. When grilling fish, look for firm fish that won’t fall apart during cooking. Salmon, swordfish, and tuna are great options. With vegetables, choose those which will hold their shape during cooking and not fall through your grates. Bell peppers, corn on the cob, zucchini, and eggplant are among my favorites. It is always a good idea to brush your fish and veggies with olive oil to prevent sticking. There are also many non-stick grill sprays on the market, which are designed to spray directly on your cooking grates. I prefer to put the oil directly on my food rather than spray my grill. According to the grill specialist I spoke to at Weber (one of the leading makers of grills), your grill grates and elements will last longer if you avoid spraying them with such products.

Perhaps my favorite dish created on the grill is my own version of Eggplant Parmesan. Traditional eggplant dishes require breading and frying the eggplant, assembling it in a baking dish with sauce and cheeses, and finally baking it in the oven. What follows is a simpler, healthier alternative, which takes only about 20 minutes to prepare. By leaving the skin on the eggplant and cutting thick rounds, the pieces hold their shape beautifully on the grill. Top each one with sauce and cheese, and you have individual eggplant Parmesan rounds that don’t skimp on flavor. Serve a few pieces on a plate with a side salad and you have a healthy, delicious meal everyone will enjoy.

Grilling is a versatile, enjoyable method of cooking that everyone can appreciate, even those trying to lighten up their menus for swimsuit season!

Grilled Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 4

2 medium eggplants, cut crosswise into ½” rounds
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ cups tomato sauce (use your favorite prepared brand)
6 oz part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded or cut into slices
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat your grill to medium-high.
Brush each eggplant round with olive oil, then sprinkle salt on both sides of each piece.
Place the rounds on your preheated grill and cook (with grill cover closed) for approximately 3-5 minutes, or until grill marks appear and eggplant is beginning to get soft.
Flip the rounds so the cooked side is now up, and top each piece with 1 T of tomato sauce, 1 slice of mozzarella, and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Cook, with grill cover closed, approximately 3 more minutes, or until eggplant is completely softened (but maintaining its shape) and sauce and cheeses are hot and bubbly.
Carefully remove from grill with grill spatula and place on a platter.
Serve immediately.

For more information about cooking classes, go to http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/

Monday, July 16, 2007

Pack A Beach Picnic!

July is made for the beach. Here in New England, the water has finally warmed up a bit, the sunny days outnumber the rainy ones, and it is the perfect time to eat “al fresco”. This time of year, nothing beats a beach picnic, if you know how to do it right!

The first step is having the right gear. A few oversized beach blankets, beach chairs, an umbrella, and a hard-sided cooler with wheels will usually do the trick. Next, it is important to choose beach-friendly picnic fare. Stay away from messy food items, or ones which require cutting. Chances are good that you’ll be eating on your lap, so keeping your meal simple is best.

One of my all-time favorite picnic meals consists of an overstuffed “muffuletta”, a sliced tomato salad, and fruit and brownies for dessert. A “muffuletta” is basically a big sandwich made from a round, crusty loaf of bread, which is filled and later cut into triangular wedges. The sky is the limit when it comes to fillings. You might like layering Italian cold cuts such as salami, prosciutto, and provolone on your muffuletta, or try chicken salad and romaine lettuce! My personal favorite is a Grilled Vegetable Muffuletta with Pesto (recipe follows). It is light, healthy, and delicious. I also like it because it travels well and there is nothing which can spoil in the heat, such as mayonnaise or cheese. It’s perfect for your picnic basket.

For dessert, slice up some watermelon and serve it together with your favorite bakery-purchased brownies (avoid desserts with frosting or chocolate chips, as they will surely melt in the heat!). To drink, I like to partially freeze bottles of spring water, which double as my ice-packs in my cooler. Once you take them out into the heat, they will stay cool longer than regular water. Pack everything into your cooler along with disposable plastic plates, forks, and napkins, and head for the beach! Once you find a perfect spot, set up your beach gear, take out your food, and use your cooler as a “table” for your beach buffet. You’ll be the envy of everyone around you!

Grilled Vegetable Muffuletta with Pesto
Serves 6
1 large, round loaf of crusty bread, cut in half crosswise
2 medium red bell peppers
3-4 medium Portobello mushrooms, cleaned and stems removed
1 medium eggplant, cut into ½ inch thick rounds
2 medium zucchini, cut into ¼ inch long slices
2 medium summer squash, cut into ¼ inch long slices
Olive oil/Salt/Pepper
1 recipe Pesto Genovese (on previous blog entry), or store-bought pesto

Preheat the grill to medium-high.
Place the whole red peppers on the hottest part of the grill and turn only when side on grates is completely blackened. When pepper is blackened on each side, place in a bowl and cover with foil. Set aside. Once cooled, gently peel away the loosened, black skin, remove the seeds, and cut into wide 1 inch strips.
Meanwhile, brush all the vegetables except the red pepper with olive oil and season them with salt and pepper.
Grill all the vegetables according the following approximate times (flipping only once during cooking):
Portobello Mushrooms: 4-6 minutes per side, or until grill marks appear and vegetable begins to soften Eggplant: 3-4 minutes per side, or until grill marks appear and vegetable begins to soften
Zucchini/Summer Squash: 2-3 minutes per side, or until grill marks appear and vegetable begins to soften
Once cooked, allow vegetables to cool. Meanwhile, prepare the bread by tearing out about ½ of the inside doughy portion of the bread (to make room for the filling). Spread about ¼ cup of pesto on each side of the bread.
Layer each vegetable on the bread, one type at a time, starting with the Portobello mushrooms and ending with the red peppers. Replace the top of the bread, and cut into 6 wedges. Wrap the entire big sandwich in tin foil and pack into your cooler.
For more information about cooking classes, go to http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Granita: A Frozen Summer Treat!

Granita is one of the most underrated summer desserts. If you are not familiar with granita, it is, more or less, a grown-up, Italian version of a Sno-Cone. Even as a child, I never quite understood the appeal of a Sno-Cone; the neon colored, sugary flavoring always dripped through to the bottom of the paper cone, leaving boring, unflavored ice on top. You might as well just suck on an ice cube. But granita!! It is flavorful and vibrant like sorbet, but slightly more granular and icy. I can't get enough of the stuff!
The best part about granita is that it is very simple to make at home. In summer, I let the season's bounty guide me. I use fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, or strawberries to flavor my granita, while other times of the year I enjoy lemon or coffee flavors.

The ingredients are simple: fruit, sugar, and ice. The method is even easier: puree, pour, and freeze. In about 45 minutes, you'll have a refreshing dessert that is satisfying and sweet, without a lot of calories. It is a perfect way to end a meal, whether on a weeknight with your kids, or at a weekend dinner party. Serve in small glass bowls, or even martini glasses for a little pizazz.

This summer, add granita to your dessert repertoire. You'll never look at a Sno-Cone again!
Watermelon Granita with Mint
Serves 4

2 cups coarsely chopped seedless watermelon
¼ cup sugar, or to taste
½ tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice, or to taste
2 cups ice cubes
Fresh mint sprigs (for garnish)

Puree all ingredients (except mint) in a blender or food processor until smooth, then pour into a 13- by 9-inch metal pan and freeze until mixture becomes a firm slush, at least 40 minutes.
Scrape with a fork and serve in chilled glasses, topped with sprigs of fresh mint.

Strawberry or Cantaloupe Granita: Substitute 2 cups hulled strawberries or coarsely chopped cantaloupe in place of the watermelon. Follow directions above.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fresh Basil's Bounty

Fresh Basil

Summer is the season for fresh basil. Whether it grows in your garden, in a pot on your deck, or you prefer to buy big, leafy bunches at a farmer's market or grocery store, basil is abundant this time of year.

"Sweet basil", with its bright green color and fragrant leaves, is the most common type of basil. It pairs well with a wide variety of foods, but is perhaps best known for being a key ingredient in many Italian delicacies, most notably, Pesto Genovese. Sweet basil is my all-time favorite herb, and lately, when my plant seems to double in size every few days, I use it with abandon. What I can't use, I freeze.

The task of preparing the basil for the freezer is most easily accomplished with the help of a food processor. If you do not have one, and you cook frequently, I would highly recommend putting one on this year's birthday or Christmas list! I am not much of a "gadget gal", but this is the one appliance I use over and over again. It makes quick work of chopping, pureeing, or shredding, and also is a dream for mixing up cookie, bread, and pizza dough. I digress---but with some patience and a sharp knife, you can certainly prepare basil for your freezer without a pricey processor.

To freeze my basil, I make a very basic version of the classic aforementioned pesto genovese (recipe follows), and freeze it in small batches or ice cube trays. Once frozen, you can defrost the larger amounts to use on pasta, or brush on chicken, fish or vegetables for a no-fuss meal. The pesto frozen in the ice cube trays can be used whenever you need a fresh burst of flavor in a soup, stew, or sauce. There's no need to thaw the cubes---just toss them into whatever you're cooking and the heat will melt the pesto right into your dish. If you do not have a food processor, just roughly chop the basil, place about one tablespoon of herbs into each section of an ice cube tray, and cover with water. Freeze, and use cubes as needed.

While basil is bursting at the seams this summer, use it as much as you can. I love to make Caprese Salad, a classic combination of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and of course, basil. Creating this dish takes only a matter of minutes. What you can't use from your summer bounty, freeze for later using one of my super-simple methods. Whether you keep it until the colder months, or defrost it sooner for a quick weeknight meal, you'll be happy you took the time to lock in the freshness of basil.
Pesto Genovese
Makes about 3/4 cup

1 large bunch fresh basil, thick stems removed
1-2 cloves garlic
1 T pine nuts, toasted (optional for freezing)
3 T grated Parmesan cheese (optional for freezing)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Wash and thoroughly dry the basil.
In the bowl of a food processor, fitted with the metal blade, pulse the garlic and pine nuts until finely chopped.
Add the basil and process until finely chopped (you may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula a few times during chopping).
With the blades still running, add the olive oil in a stream through the feed tube until the "pesto" begins to form and easily flows around the bowl.
Remove to a bowl, and mix in Parmesan cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Use immediately, or place in an airtight plastic container and store in refrigerator for up to 2 days or in freezer for up to 3 months.

Note: Press a piece of plastic wrap over pesto so the air does not turn it black.

Caprese Salad
Serves 2
2-3 medium ripe tomatoes, sliced
8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
Fresh basil leaves (about 10-12), washed and thoroughly dried
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
On a plate or platter, place the sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, and basil leaves in an alternating order, slightly overlapping each other (for instance, tomato, cheese, basil, tomato, cheese, basil, etc).
Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper, and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Serve immediately.
Check out my website at http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/ for upcoming cooking class schedule, publications, and info.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Welcome to The Secret Ingredient Blog!

Welcome to my new food blog! In this blog I will write about a new topic each week, in keeping with the season's bounty. In addition, I'll write about recipes I'm developing for my classes, magazine and newspaper articles, and my cookbook-in-progress. I'll also include occasional restaurant reviews for Fairfield County (CT) and New York City.

As a cooking instructor, I answer hundreds of questions about cooking, recipes, and ingredients. My blog is a perfect forum in which to address these questions for a wider audience. If you have a question, or have a topic you'd like to see addressed, contact me at tracy@thesecretingredientonline.com or publish a post to this blog.

I hope you will enjoy reading my blog as much as I enjoy writing it! Be sure to check out next week's topic----FRESH BASIL.

Happy Cooking! --Tracy
For more information about my cooking classes, go to http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/