Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Year's Lentil Stew...with a Twist

In many cultures, eating lentils on New Year’s Day is considered to be good luck. Italians believe that the lentils represent coins, and eating them will bring prosperity in the new year. Every January 1st, Hungarians and Brazilians eat lentil soup hoping it will bring riches, and even in the American South, families are served "Hoppin' John", a lentil, black-eyed pea, and greens stew, which is said to bring luck to those who eat it.

I don't know what is in the cards for me this year, but I plan to eat lots of lentils in 2008. I just love them! They are healthy, low in calories, loaded with protein, and most importantly, delicious. This recipe combines lucky lentils with chicken and cinnamon tea, which gives the stew something of a Moroccan flair. Serve it with a crisp, green salad for a perfectly healthy, perfectly lucky meal. Happy New Year!

Moroccan Lentil Stew with Cinnamon
Serves 6
4 cups hot water
4 tea bags, cinnamon flavor
½ lb dried brown lentils, rinsed and checked for stones
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 lbs chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 – 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry roasted almonds, roughly chopped
3 T Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped

Combine four cups hot water and four cinnamon tea bags and allow to steep for approximately 5-7 minutes.
Add tea and lentils to a large stew pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for approximately 20 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Remove to a large bowl and set aside.
In the same pot, add olive oil and sauté onions and garlic until softened. Add cut-up chicken and cook until cooked through and no longer pink inside (about 10 minutes).
Add diced tomatoes and cooked lentils to the pan and heat through . Season with salt and pepper.
Add chopped almonds and parsley and serve.

Nutritional Information
Serving : 1/6 of recipe (387 g)
Calories 381
Total fat 15g
Saturated Fat 2g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 98mg
Sodium 561mg
Carbohydrates 18 g
Dietary Fiber 8 g
Sugars 1 g
Protein 45 g

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas with Nana

One of my most cherished Christmas memories dates back to Brooklyn, New York, circa 1978. One evening, while visiting my grandparents for the holidays, my mother decided to visit an old high school friend. For a reason I still can not fathom, I pitched a childish fit and refused to go. In an uncharacteristic move, my parents actually gave in to me, and allowed me to stay behind with my grandparents. Lucky for me, it was the evening my grandmother had chosen to make the Christmas Struffoli.

I vividly remember sitting next to her at the Formica kitchen table, watching her mix the dough for the Italian delights my entire family adored. First she used the dough to make "oilyettes", her special pretzel-shaped cookies, which would later be deep fried and then covered with clover honey and colored nonpareil sprinkles. I tried over and over again to replicate the pretzel shape that she fashioned so effortlessly. While hers were perfect little bows, mine were basically a mess. My grandmother had the patience of a saint, and never once complained that what should have taken a half an hour was taking double the amount of time. My oilyette-challenged fingers were chalked up to my young age, but now I'm in my 30s and still cannot approximate her deftness.

Once the oilyettes were formed, and laid in perfect rows atop waxed paper, we would use the remaining dough to make the struffoli. Since these simply required sections of dough to be rolled into small balls, my confidence was reinstated. My grandmother and I were able to work side-by-side, quickly rolling the dough and covering the table with marble-sized balls. When it was time to fry the dough, I carefully watched as the white, raw dough was transformed into golden cookies, right before my eyes. Once cooled, we honeyed and sprinkled the oilyettes and struffoli, and put them on the dining room sideboard until the next day...Christmas Eve.
Although my grandmother has been gone over eighteen years, my mother and I diligently make her struffoli each and every Christmas. We always try our hand at the oilyettes, but always end up defaulting to the struffoli. They are still a family favorite, and I look forward to continuing the tradition with my girls as they grow. Buon Natale!

Nana's Struffoli

Makes about 4 dozen

2 ½ cups flour
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
½ cup milk
2 Tablespoon butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon or orange extract (or lemon or orange oil)
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup honey
1 Tablespoon multicolored nonpareil sprinkles

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg, milk, butter, vanilla and citrus extract.

Stir egg mixture into flour mixture and combine to make a soft, pliable dough.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 2 inches of oil.

Meanwhile, on a floured surface, roll dough into ropes and cut into small pieces (¼-½” pieces). Roll each piece into a marble-sized ball.

Fry in oil about a minute, until they rise to top and are golden.

Fry in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Allow oil to return to temperature between batches.

Drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

In a medium saucepan, heat honey to a boil.

Remove from heat and stir in the strufoli balls until completely coated.

Transfer to a platter.

When completely cooled, top with colored sprinkles.

STORAGE: Cover struffoli loosely with tin-foil and serve at room temperature for 2-3 days.
Above photo by BravaBravaMariarosa.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Restaurants: Osianna, Fairfield CT

Osianna opened its doors during the summer of 2007, in a space that seemed to have a somewhat unlucky track record. In the past several years it was a French restaurant (Voila), then an unmemorable seafood restaurant, and later a New England-themed eatery(Sherman's Reef). Finally, the owners of the wildly popular Quattro Pazzi and Cafe 4 Quattro restaurants claimed the space and turned it into Osianna, a "Mediterranean taverna". Named for one of the owner's daughters, Osianna has an airy, Greek-nautical themed interior, and serves a variety of "small dishes", salads, sandwiches, and entrees prepared in the Greek and Italian traditions. Their specialty is fresh seafood, but for landlubbers, there are plenty of other dishes to tempt your palate.
While most Americans have come to appreciate Italian cookery for more than baked ziti and pizza, most still consider Greek food to be what is typically found in a diner; Spanikopita, Gyros, and Souvlaki. If you travel to Greece, as I did on my honeymoon, you'd be surprised to discover that the cuisine extends far beyond what is commonly found in America.

At Osianna, you won't find Americanized versions of anything. The food is reminiscent of the deliciously simple dishes one finds in the Greek Islands and Southern Italy---- loaded with fresh flavors and excellent quality ingredients. On my several visits to Osianna, I've tried practically all of the "small dishes" which are like appetizers. Most times I like to select a few small dishes in place of an entree, in order to try a wider variety of flavors. However, don't let that steer you away from the entrees; they are definitely worth ordering.
According to a recent New York Times article, "small plates" (think tapas) are the new direction in food, while entrees are "near extinction." However, at Osianna, they manage to get them both right. There is a wide selection of small plates for the smaller appetite or people like me who like to eat a lot of different things, and a well balanced list of entrees for those wanting a more traditional meal. I have never once been disappointed with either option.

While the quiet dining room and white tablecloths may steer families away, I found the staff most accommodating when I dined with my two young children. Although they did not have high chairs or a children's menu, the kitchen was more than happy to make small dishes of pasta for my kids. If you are dining with little ones, it is best to go at lunchtime, or for an early dinner, (before 6pm) when it tends to be a bit less crowded. In addition, during the warmer months, the outside patio overlooking Reef Road is a perfect place to bring the family and watch the cars (and the occasional fire engine) pass by.

Osianna is a fantastic addition to the Fairfield dining scene, which is quickly becoming a dinnertime destination for people from all over the county. It has the know-how of a seasoned restaurant, an exciting menu, and an attentive waitstaff.. Three cheers to Osianna bringing fantastic, Mediterranean-inspired food to Fairfield in an attractive, upscale setting.

My favorite dishes:
Small Plates: Shrimp Saginaki with Tomato and Feta, Grilled Marinated Octopus with Rocket and Red Onion, and Baby Eggplant Stuffed with Caramelized Onions and Kasseri Cheese

Salads: Rocket and Romaine Salad with Grapes, Walnuts, Gorgonzola Cheese and Cranberries, and the Vine Ripened Tomato Salad with Olives and Feta

Entrees: Fresh Fettucini with Veal Ossobucco Sauce, and Branzino Fillet with Caramelized Onions and Roasted Tomatoes

70 Reef Road (at the corner of Sherman Court)
Fairfield, CT 06824
(203) 254-2070

Lunch: Small Plates & Salads, $7-15, Sandwiches, $8-15, Entrees, $15-19
Dinner: Small Plates & Salads, $7-17, Entrees, $22-37

Open every day for lunch (11-3pm) and dinner (5-10/10:30pm)
No reservations.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Books: Deceptively Delicious

Deceptively Delicious, a cookbook recently released by Jessica Seinfeld (yes, that Seinfeld), has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. I first learned about the book when Oprah featured it on her show in early October. As we all know, what Oprah touches turns to gold. Just think Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, and every Oprah Book Club selection since its inception. The cookbook's concept is that by pureeing various vegetables (and some fruits), parents can "hide" them in a variety of foods (like brownies) in order to get their kids to eat nutritiously. It was no big surprise when Deceptively Delicious became the best selling book in the country before it even physically hit the bookstore shelves (thanks to "pre-ordering" and online retailers).

Enter controversy number one: another book, The Sneaky Chef, by Missy Chase Lapine, with the exact premise, had already been released six months prior. If Oprah thought it was such a fantastic idea, why didn't we ever see this book featured on the show? My guess is that it was not on too many radar screens until Deceptively Delicious was released. Did Jessica rip-off the entire concept and use her famous last name and connections to outsell and outshine Miss Missy?

And now, enter controversy number two: should we even be "hiding" vegetables from our children? Shouldn't we be teaching them to WANT veggies, instead of tricking them into eating them?

We're not talking global warming, the war in Iraq, or the 2008 presidential election here, but I'm quite certain most parents have thought about how to get veggies into kids at one point or another.

The book itself is well organized, attractive, and full of cute drawings and full-color photographs. The spiral binding is reminiscent of my mom's Betty Crocker cookbook from the 60's, and gives the book a bit of a "retro" feel. It is actually a useful feature, and allows the open book to lie flat on the counter, without the pages flipping while you're trying to follow the recipe.

But what about the concept of the book? Well, first of all, I admit that my very first thought was "Damn! Why didn't I think of that?!?" My next thought was that I wanted to try it out on my kids to see if they really wouldn't detect the veggies (they are expert veggie-detectors). So, after I got over my outrage that Jessica Seinfeld got a cookbook published simply because she's famous, and I successfully folded a cupful of butternut squash into my kids' mac and cheese (which actually made it taste MUCH better), I thought more about this whole concept, and whether I wanted to make it part of my routine.

I wholeheartedly agree with those who believe this "deception" is wrong, and we are not teaching our kids good nutritional habits. Kids need to eat veggies, knowing they are veggies, and learn to like them, even if it takes many, many attempts to do so. Child cannot survive on breaded mystery meat alone. HOWEVER, I also think Jessica (and Miss Missy) are really on to something. As long as my kids are eating fresh vegetables every day, in their original form (as opposed to pureed and hidden), I'm perfectly fine with adding a few extra nutrients here and there through the use of purees. I don't call it "sneaky"----I prefer to think of it as "nutritional enhancement".

However, I do take issue with the amounts of pureed veggies in each dish featured in Deceptively Delicious. Most include only a half cup or less in the list of ingredients. When you divide that by the number of servings in each recipe, it hardly seems worth the effort of steaming, processing, and storing all those purees. I'd rather just give my kid a carrot.

In conclusion, I'm not disappointed I spent $15.00 on this book. It has some good ideas, and I will definitely use some of the recipes (the brownies with spinach have me particularly curious). I'm not going to speculate on whether or not this concept was entirely Jessica's, or whether or not she personally developed the recipes. I will say, that for what it's worth, I doubt The Sneaky Chef would be #8 on the New York Times best seller list without all this controversy!

Below is my quicker version of one of Jessica's ideas (or was it Missy's?). All kids love boxed macaroni and cheese, but by using an organic version with whole wheat pasta and a mashed sweet potato, you can feel better about serving this convenience food. Dark yellow and orange veggies are loaded with beta carotene, and sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin B6 (Wikipedia). You may even find yourself dipping in for a few spoonfuls as well!

Mac & Cheese with Sweet Potato Puree
Serves 4 kids

1 box organic mac & cheese (preferably one with whole wheat pasta)

1 t. salt

1/4 cup lowfat or skim milk

1 medium sweet potato, scrubbed and pierced all over with a fork

Place the sweet potato on a plate in the microwave for approximately 5-7 minutes, or until softened. Remove from microwave and allow to cool enough so it can be handled.

Slice potato in half lengthwise and scoop out flesh. Mash with a fork and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 6 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil in a medium saucepan.

Add pasta, and cook until al dente (approximately 7-10 minutes).

Drain, return to pot and add cheese packet, 1/4 cup of milk, and sweet potato. Stir to combine.

Serve immediately.