Sunday, December 28, 2008

Lighten Up with Italian Egg Drop Soup

I love all the wonderful food and confections that go along with the Christmas season, but round about now, the waistband of my jeans is begging for mercy. According to my somewhat schitzy scale, I gained 70 pounds in the last week. Clearly, my scale is malfunctioning, but I definitely overindulged this holiday season. Time to get back on the wagon, my friends!

In the warmer weather, I love eating salads for lunch....cucumber and tomato salads are my favorite. However, in the winter, I find it difficult to get excited about salad. I crave warmth in the colder months, and soup always hits the spot. It makes a perfect light lunch or starter to dinner. I make all sorts of soups, but one of my favorites is a simple egg drop. Egg drop soup is most commonly associated with Chinese cuisine, but the Italians also have a version of egg drop soup called "stracciatella" which means "torn apart". This describes the way the egg forms ribbons, resmbling torn cloth, in the broth. What I like about this soup is that it is delicious, nutritious, and extremely simple to prepare. The best part? At 89 calories per 1.5 cup serving, you can start to amend for all that fudge you ate over the holidays!

Italian Egg Drop Soup

Serves 4

6 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 small cloves of garlic, smashed

1 egg

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf (Italian)parsley

Place the broth and garlic cloves in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove the garlic and discard.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and the olive oil.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, and while whisking, slowly pour the egg mixture over the top of the soup. The egg will cook in ribbons within the hot broth.

Finally, add chopped parsley and serve hot.

Nutritional info: Calories-89, Total fat-5g, Saturated fat-1g, Carbohydrates-5g, Cholesterol-53mg, Sodium-127 mg, Dietary fiber-0g, Sugars-1g, Protein-9g

Note: This soup will have a thinner consistency than what is usually found in Chinese restaurants. If you happen to like your egg drop thicker, simply whisk together a tablespoon of corn starch together with a tablespoon of water to form a "slurry", and then whisk that mixture into the soup.

Photo above by VForguson.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Restaurants: Cafe Lola, Fairfield, CT

Cafe Lola, a "Bohemian French restaurant", opened its doors on Veteran's Day, 2008, in the former location of the Cuban-fusion restaurant, Islas. The Islas owners had outfitted the space with an entire tiki-hut theme, but Cafe Lola's owners were able to see through the jungle. They transformed the space into something quite nice--- a palate of creams, burgundies, and browns, with a few other rich colors thrown in as accents. Collections of wrought iron crosses, gilded mirrors, and sconces decorate the walls. A large, farmhouse-style buffet stands in the center of the dining room and holds the wines served by the glass, and hidden in one of the drawers (as discovered by my four year old), is the delicious bread. Down a few steps is a lower dining area, which features a pillow-lined banquet and the small bar (which is not for sitting, rather serving). This newly renovated restaurant is not quite casual bistro, but not quite fancy, froo-froo French either. It is an atheistically pleasant space which is cozy and inviting.

My first visit was early one midweek evening, when I walked in with my children. The staff was very nice and accommodating, letting the kids choose their own chairs (none of the chairs match--which I love--they are a wonderful hodgepodge of wooden cafe chairs, cane-backed seats, and comfy, upholstered "princess thrones" ). They did not offer a children's menu, but I never like to order from them anyway, so it suited me just fine. However, if your child can't drink out of a regular glass, be sure to bring your sippy because they do not have cups with lids (and their beautiful glassware is very heavy!). Keep in mind that I wouldn't necessarily categorize this as a restaurant for kids, even though I had a great experience with my children. Unless you go before 6pm during the week, or perhaps for lunch or brunch, you're probably better off going with people who won't fight over the princess chairs.

The the menu is pretty straightforward French bistro fare. It is divided into two sections: Petite Plates and Grand Plates. The "petite" section of the menu includes soup, salads, and other classic French starters like mussels, pate, and even ratatouille (which got a big reaction from the kids). The entrees include larger portions of some of the same things found on the appetizer menu (like the mussels and ratatouille), plus other French favorites like steak au poivre, duck breast (with cranberry-orange sauce), and beef burgundy.
On each of my visits, every single dish was delicious. The steak and lamb dishes were tender and flavorful. The chicken and fish dishes were light and delicious. The salads and soups were excellent. Two of my favorites were the "grown-up" mac and cheese (made with thick cut bacon and Gruyere cheese) and the Moules au Curry (curried mussels), which I ordered on a recommendation from my friend Anne over at Yum!

The dessert menu also features all the French classics, but my favorites were Crepes Suzette (crepes with orange zest, Grand Mariner and ice cream, which I thought would be on fire since it said "flambe"---but it wasn't) and the Pot de creme au chocolate (thick chocolate pudding "pots"). Both were terrific. Our friends had the Brioche bread pudding, and judging from their very clean plate, I think it is safe to say they enjoyed it as well.
Cafe Lola is small, so be sure to make a reservation on weekends....because it is sure to become a hot-spot as soon as word gets out!
Cafe Lola
57 Unquowa Road
Fairfield, CT 06824

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Festive Side Dish for the Holidays

If you need a simple, speedy, scrumptious side dish for your holiday table, I have the recipe for you! My Zucchini & Red Peppers with Pine Nuts goes perfectly with a wide variety of entrees, from beef, to chicken, to fish. My family does a traditional Italian-American all-fish-feast on Christmas Eve, and a few years ago I created this side dish to go along with the main course, which is, of course, fish. What I love about this dish is that the green zucchini and red peppers look very festive, and the pine nuts and some Parmesan cheese give it amazing flavor. Even better, the whole thing cooks in under 10 minutes!
This weekend, I will be featured on Connecticut's News Channel 12 during their show called "What's Cooking". Because it airs so close to the holidays, I figured this was a great dish to demonstrate. Be sure to check it out over the weekend for hints on chopping and cooking techniques for this dish. It airs several times (Saturday, December 20th and Sunday, December 21st--both days at 7:00am, 10:30am, 2:00pm, and 1:30am). Once I have the link to the segment, I'll post it on both this blog and my cooking school website at Please note that due to a recent schedule change, the "What's Cooking" show may be listed as "Educational Notebook" on your television listings.

Happy Cooking and Happy Holidays!!

Zucchini & Red Peppers with Pine Nuts
Serves 4-6
2 medium zucchini, cut into 2" long matchsticks
1 large red bell pepper, cut into thin, 2" long strips
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1-2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
olive oil
salt & pepper

Heat about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.

Saute for about 2 minutes, then add the zucchini to the pan. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook for another 3-4 minutes and then add pine nuts.

Continue to cook for another 1-3 minutes, or until all the veggies are tender, but not mushy.

Remove to a plate and top with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve hot.
Note: The vegetables should gently saute and not get too much brown color. If they begin to brown too quickly, reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Toast of the Town

This week, a guest blogger shares some recipes for yummy cocktails, perfect for the holidays! This is one list Santa definitely will want to check twice!!

Fun Holiday Drinks by Jamie Sward

"The holiday season is just about here and you know what that means! Lots of yummy holiday foods. Scrumptious holiday cookies, delectable and tender cuts of meat all served up on your best Christmas dinnerware - but what do you wash it all down with? Why, some fancifully festive holiday drinks, of course! Every year I search the net for new and creative holiday drink ideas and I've come up with a list of some of my favorites.

Christmas Cosmopolitan

Everyone loves a good Cosmo! Class up your next holiday party with this seasonal favorite.
1/2 oz. Cointreau (Triple Sec)
1/2 oz. cranberry juice
1 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 oz. vodka (your choice)
Mixing Instructions:
Place all of your ingredients in a shaker with ice
Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass
If you want to be extra festive, float a few frozen cranberries on top as a garnish!
Recipe courtesy of That’s The Spirit.

Homemade Coffee Liqueur

Perfect as an after-dinner drink, relax and unwind with a nice coffee liqueur and some good conversation.
4 cups sugar
4 cups hot water
2 oz. instant coffee
1 vanilla bean
1 fifth vodka
Mixing Instructions:
Mix sugar and three cups of hot water
Heat, but not to a boil
Mix instant coffee with one cup of hot water
Combine the two liquid mixtures
Add vodka
Pour into dark bottles, adding equal amounts of vanilla bean to each
Cap and let age for at least three weeks
Recipe courtesy of HGTV

Hot Apple Cider Punch

Spread lots of holiday cheer with this fragrant twist on an old holiday classic.
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. whole allspice
1 1/2 tsp. whole cloves
2 cups orange juice
2 Orange/lemon slices/cinnamon sticks
Heat slowly in a saucepan until sugar is dissolved
Simmer for at least 1 hour
Add 2 cups of orange juice 1/2 hour before simmering is completed
Serve cider with a ladle into cups or mugs
Serve with an orange or lemon slice or with a stick of cinnamon
Recipe courtesy of

As you can see, when it comes to fun holiday drinks, there are plenty of options for moms, dads and kids! So break out your festive Christmas dinnerware, gather together your friends and family and enjoy the smells and tastes of this joyous season!"

Thanks, Jamie for the great recipes! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!
Above photo by Ever After Postage.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Classic Creme Filled Cupcakes---The Easy Version

I'm on a dessert jag! Last week was short-cut chocolate mint brownies, this week, homemade creme filled chocolate cupcakes...also made easy. As a kid I adored Hostess chocolate cupcakes. You could keep the Twinkies, the Snowballs, and especially that awful vanilla version of the cupcakes. I was a chocolate nut even then...and those cupcakes were my favorite.

One day I was watching John Barricelli's PBS show, Everyday Baking. John is the host of the show, plus is the owner of the fantastic SoNo Baking Company in South Norwalk, Connecticut. I met him a couple years ago while writing a magazine article on bakeries, and was hooked on both his amazing breads, desserts, and also the show. This particular day, John featured a homemade version of my beloved Hostess cupcakes. Naturally, I had to give them a try. Also naturally, I cheated by using a good quality boxed chocolate cake mix for the base (Cook's Illustrated rated the butter-based Betty Crocker mixes the best). I'm sure his may be a bit more decadent, but I have to admit that even this short-cut version was delicious. It is all in his filling, which was straightforward to make. A little practice with a pastry bag (or a ziplock bag with a corner snipped off) and you're in business.

Indulge in a childhood favorite!

Creme Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

Makes 24 cupcakes

1 box dark chocolate cake mix

1⅓ cups water

½ cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 - 7.5 oz jar marshmallow Fluff

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the cake batter by combining the dry mix with the water, oil and eggs.

Use a electric mixer to combine until smooth (about one minute).

Grease 24 muffin tins with butter and flour (remove excess flour by gently tapping the tin). Evenly distribute the batter among the tins.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out from the cake clean.

Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then gently remove from tins, and continue to cool on a wire rack.

Using a melon baller, scoop a piece out of the bottom of each cupcake, reserving the piece (which will later plug the hole).

Hollow out a bit more of the cupcake and set aside.

Repeat with remaining cupcakes.

To make the filling, place butter and Fluff in a medium bowl.

Whisk with an electric mixer until combined. Chill for 15 minutes.

Place cream into a large ziplock bag, and cut a ¼ inch opening in one corner (to make a mock-pastry bag).

Pipe cream into the hole in each cupcake, being careful not to overfill.

Replace cake “plug” and turn right side up.

Using the same cream, pipe a zig-zag design on top of the cupcake, to resemble the Hostess cupcakes.

Repeat with remaining cupcakes.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chocolate Mint Brownies--The Easy Version

I do like to bake, even though it really isn't my "thing". It is too precise, too unforgiving. Those of you who know me personally probably think I'd love the exacting, scientific nature of baking rather than the comparably free style of cooking. But those of you who truly know me also know I hate to fail---so the margin for error in baking is sometimes just too great for my fragile ego.

For this reason, plus the fact that long lists of tedious instructions bore me to death, I do a lot of "short-cut" baking. Sort of like Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade" on the Food Network, without all that perfect blond hair. The following recipe is a perfect example of one of my short-cuts. The long version of this recipe was on the cover of Cooking Light several months back. Considering I'm a complete chocolate/mint fanatic, skipping this recipe was not an option. Because I wanted them fast--I decided to use a boxed brownie mix for the base and use their idea for the chocolate and mint icings.

I may like things quick and easy, but I don't like to skimp on taste, so I have only a very few boxed brownie mixes that I use. I remember Cooks' Illustrated did a taste test of several brands awhile ago and one of the top rated mixes was Ghiradelli. Taste tests of my own revealed similar results, so that became one of my pantry staples. I also love the Trader Joe's Truffle Brownie mix---which is also excellent and has that "homemade" taste to it, unlike some other brands, which will remain nameless.

So, as we head into the Christmas season, where chocolate and mint flavors reign, try these delicious brownies. They'll definitely be a hit at your holiday dessert table.

Want more mint? Check out my Merry Mint Meringue recipe over at my other blog, Season to Taste!

Chocolate Mint Brownies

1 box brownie mix, prepared according to package directions

Mint Icing:

2 cups confectioner’s sugar

2 tablespoons milk

½ teaspoon mint extract

2 drops green food coloring

¼ cup butter, melted

Chocolate Glaze:

¾ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

3 tablespoons butter

First make brownies and allow to thoroughly cool in pan.

Next, prepare the mint icing by combining all the ingredients in a bowl and beating with a mixer until smooth.

Spread mint icing on top of the cooled brownie (still in pan).

Lastly, prepare the glaze by combining chocolate chips and butter in a microwave-proof bowl. Heat on high power at 30 second intervals, for a total of 90 seconds. Stir after each interval. Allow to cool 2 minutes and spread over mint layer.

Cover pan and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Invert entire brownie onto a cutting board and cut into squares.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Get Thanksgiving right, and the rest is gravy

Ten years ago this week, I hosted my first Thanksgiving. I was newly married and was determined to cook a turkey and all the trimmings, despite my tiny New York City apartment kitchen. I went a little over-board on the menu.... with butternut squash risotto as a first course, all kinds of fancy additions to my mashed potatoes and other side dishes, and I made an almond- plum tart for dessert. As much as everyone ooo-ed and ahh-ed (okay, maybe just my mother and new husband, who are required to be supportive), it was really a bit much. Leave it to my younger brother to set me straight. "What happened to all the 'regular' stuff?" Well, he was right. Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and from that point forward, there would be no fussy first courses, I'd make simple side dishes, and some good ol' "regular" apple pie for dessert (I'm all about apples these days).

The one thing I did do right was the turkey. I got the idea from one of my many cooking magazines--- I believe it was Bon Appetit. There was nothing extraordinary about the preparation, except for the glaze brushed on near the end of the cooking time. The glaze? Red currant jelly--right from the supermarket. It is also added to the pan gravy to create a rich color and fantastic flavor. Some fresh sage gives it some texture and even more flavor. It was such a hit, I've made it every year I've hosted since that first time ten years ago. The butternut squash risotto is for another meal, but the glazed bird and red currant gravy has become turkey-day tradition around here.

While I was teaching my "Sauce Basics" workshop last week, I mentioned this gravy and one of my students requested I put it on the blog---so here it is...with the back-story to boot!

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Pan-tastic Red Currant Gravy

Once the turkey is done, place your pan on top of your stove burners and create this yummy gravy.

4 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons cornstarch or flour
3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup red currant jelly
1/4 cup fresh sage, chopped

In a small bowl, make a slurry by whisking together the water and cornstarch. Set aside.

Turn the burners on high and add 4 cups of stock to deglaze the roasting pan. Use a wooden or silicone spoon to scrape up all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

Add the slurry to the pan and WHISK vigorously to prevent lumps from forming.

Add the jelly and fresh sage and continue to whisk until thickened. Check seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot with roasted turkey.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pumpkin without the Pumpkin

Pumpkins This time of year, I always have pumpkin on my mind. As much as I love dishes made with fresh pumpkin (or their seeds--check out my recipe for "Parmesan Pepitas" which I posted on my other blog, Season to Taste), sometimes all that peeling, seeding, de-gooping, and chopping can be a bit of a drag. There are lots of fantastic recipes made with packed pumpkin (the kind in the can)...but through my freelance recipe development for the Bigelow Tea Company, I've discovered a whole new way to get great pumpkin flavor in foods....pumpkin tea!

Two of my more recent recipes developed for Bigelow are Pumpkin Spice Waffles with Walnuts and Pumpkin Spice Meringue Cookies with Pecans. Both have the wonderful flavor of pumpkin without having to use a peeler OR a can opener. The key is to brew the tea extra-strong for maximum impact. Even when added in small amounts (like in the meringues--which would fall flat with any larger amount), it adds fantastic flavor and color to these recipes. I also pair each recipe with a different type of nut---- I love how the flavor and texture of the nuts compliment the pumpkin.
Check out the recipes and let me know how you like them! I think you'll be surprised by the wonderful pumpkin flavor---without the pumpkin!

Check the Bigelow website soon for my Pumpkin Spice Quick Bread with Raisins!
Photo above by Jiffy Cat.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Restaurants: Valencia Luncheria, Norwalk, CT

I have no idea why it took me so long to eat at Valencia Luncheria. A number of years ago, a co-worker who lived in Norwalk raved to me about this little "hole in the wall" Venezuelan restaurant that I just had to try. She ate there frequently and was certain I'd love it. I wrote the name and address on a piece of paper and stuck it on my bulletin board.

"It's not in South Norwalk," my colleague explained. "It is in regular Norwalk." I wasn't really familiar with "regular" Norwalk, but figured I'd check it out on one of my frequent trips to South Norwalk. Well, several years later, that piece of paper is still on my bulletin board and I never ventured much beyond the trendy restaurants in SoNo.

Then, one weekend, our plans fell through, but our sitter was still booked. This would be the night of Valencia Luncheria! I called and spoke to the owner, who explained that they do not accept reservations, it is BYOB, and it is very tiny (only 20 seats) and therefore fills up fast. That evening, the sitter had barely taken off her coat and I was pushing my husband out the door so we could beat the 7:30pm rush.

The restaurant is located on Main Street in downtown Norwalk, in a very "regular" neighborhood. There is nothing fancy or trendy about it, but even on the rainy night we went out, there were still plenty of people out and about (on the very next block is Lime Restaurant, a vegetarian enclave also on my bulletin board "to try" list). True to the word of the owner, the space is definitely small, but very lively with its orange walls and modern stainless steel tables.

We arrived at 7:15 and there were still about three tables open. We opted for one against the side wall, lined with a banquet. The regular menu is extensive, and includes starters and small plates (soups, salads, appetizers), "Platos Tipicos de Venezuela" (typical Venezuelan dishes), and an additional list of entrees and side dishes. In addition, there is a full page of specials each day, including a number of soups, salads, appetizers, and entrees, each one looking even better than the one before it.

Everything we ate was delicious. The house salad was very simple---it was even made with iceberg lettuce (gasp!), but the combination of the tomato, bacon, avocado and queso blanco was surprisingly good. My husband ordered the Crispy Calamari Salad---which combined greens and fried calamari and was large enough to be an entree. For an entree, my husband opted for "The Works" which was like a sampler platter. This started with a choice from six different soups (he chose the standard black bean), and then included an arepa (a type of corn bread), one empanada (a stuffed pastry, for which he got to choose the filling from a VERY long list of combinations), rice, beans, plantains, tostones (like a fried plantain chip) and ceviche. It was a feast, so luckily, he shared tastes of everything with me. I decided to make my dinner from two appetizers on special that evening. The Soft Shrimp Tacos were wonderful, and I also thoroughly enjoyed another dish prepared from Venezuelan roasted pork.

Although we were both stuffed, the gentleman at the next table (we seemed to be chatting with everyone since the place is so small) insisted we get the chocolate bread pudding for dessert. We managed to find some room and we were happy we did. As a person who does not, as a general rule, love any sort of pudding (rice, bread, custard--you can keep them all!), I was very impressed. It was really fantastic.

The truly fantastic part about this delicious meal was that it was incredibly reasonably priced. The BYOB helped considerably....but we felt the food was a great value on its own. I'm happy to announced that "Regular Norwalk" is now one of my eating destinations! I'll report back once I try out Valencia Luncheria's neighbor, Lime Restaurant.

Valencia Luncheria

172 Main Street

Norwalk, CT


Open for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner:

Mon & Tues 6:00am-3:00pm

Wed-Fri 6:00am-9:00pm

Sat 7:00am-9:00pm

Sun 8:00am-8:00pm

Monday, November 3, 2008

Restaurants: Bobby Q's Barbeque & Grill, Westport, CT

In 2004, Bobby Q's Barbeque opened in downtown Westport, in the space that was formerly occupied by Onion Alley. Since that time, owner Bob LaRose and his "pitmasters" have been serving up really excellent barbeque in a fun, casual atmosphere. The story behind the restaurant is something out of the movies. Bobby, who often visited family in Kansas City, became passionate about good barbeque, and decided to quit his job and open a restaurant in Connecticut that would rival any southern barbeque joint. After eating there several times, plus taking a class from him on smoking, I think he has achieved his goal.

The menu at Bobby Q's is large, and incorporates all the traditional barbequed fare. The most popular dishes are Pulled Pork, Smoked Sausage, Baby Back Ribs, and Beef Brisket. Some are served with Bobby's signature House Original BBQ Sauce (also called "Nice Rack"), but diners can add any of the other house sauces tableside. All the sauces, which are playfully named, also include "Sweet Rack" (honey bbq sauce) and "Big Rack" (bold bbq sauce), which are available in bottles both at the restaurant and online.

Over the course of each of my visits, I've enjoyed everything I've eaten, but I must say my hands-down favorite was the baby-back ribs. They were juicy and succulent, and had lots of meat. I also enjoyed the St. Louis Ribs, which are prepared with a dry rub rather than a sauce, but I think the baby back ribs have more universal appeal, particularly in this part of the country. My husband loved the "burnt ends" (which are not always available), but being that I don't care for my meat so well-done, I skipped trying that one. The pulled pork was also excellent, the brisket was delicious, and my kids and I both loved the sliced turkey breast. There is a kids menu available, which features all the usual suspects (chicken nuggets, hamburgers, etc) plus ribs and steak, but I opted for them to split an adult meal instead. They are almost always healthier and seem more substantial than what is offered on most children's menus. Besides, I have made it my mission to not pidgeon hole my kids into only eating the holy trinity of "kid food"--- mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, and hamburgers. Now I'll get off my soapbox and get back to Bobby's!

The entrees are served with your choice of two side dishes, and the list from which you choose is large and diverse. I think I've tried just about every one, and they are really all great. My favorites were the Cheesy Corn and Edamame Succotash, the Mac & Cheese, and the Pit Beans, but I also loved the Sweet Potato Fries and Housemade Applesauce. The sandwiches, wraps, and burgers are served with fries or coleslaw, but any of the sides are available a la carte as well.

For those of you who aren't into barbeque (although why would you go here if you weren't?), there are also salads, various grilled chicken and fish dishes, and even lasagna. They also serve one of my favorite can chicken! So, there is really something for everyone.

Bobby Q's is a great place to go with family or friends of all ages. On weekends, they apparently have a lively bar scene on the rooftop deck, although I haven't been out late enough to say how it is one way or another. I can say what I think about the food----and it definitely gets a big thumbs up from my family!

Bobby Q's Barbeque & Grill

42 Main Street (next to Banana Republic)

Westport, Ct


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Charity Cookbook Sale Set for November 1, 2008

It is time for The 2nd Annual Secret Ingredient Charity Cookbook Sale!

Back in the spring of 2007, I decided The Secret Ingredient Cooking School should hold a charity event. Being that I do not have a staff or army of volunteers, the charity balls, concerts, and auctions were out of the question. But then, while attending a lecture, I had a brainstorm. I'd collect used cookbooks from around town, hold a sale, and give the money to charity. Simple enough, right? Well, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of people in my area, and collected nearly 500 cookbooks. It was a lot of hard work, collecting, organizing, categorizing, and pricing the books, but it was all worth every minute. The sale was a big success, and I was able to give almost $1000 to a local charity supporting programs for kids with autism in the public schools.

This year, the donations were a little on the low side, so I cancelled the sale, which was originally scheduled for September. Then the phone calls came pouring in. People wanted to know when it was rescheduled. They wanted to know if I was still collecting books, and then started dropping off boxes and bags of books. One woman called to tell me how much she'd been looking forward to the sale. She went on to say that at the event last year she was able to replace several cookbooks in her collection of nearly 500 which had been lost. At that point I decided it was worth soldiering on and set a new date.

For this year's sale, I'm doing things a little differently. Instead of having a set price for each book, attendees pick out the cookbooks they would like, and then simply make a donation. Considering the state of our economy in these last months, people can contribute whatever they are able and still take home some great cookbooks. Give whatever seems like a fair amount based on the books you choose! My goal is to find each and every cookbook a new home, all while raising money for The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, which supports breast cancer research.

So, come one, come all, in the name of cooking, in the name of fighting breast cancer, and in the name of finally giving my husband his garage back!

For more information about the sale, or to donate books, go to

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Interview at Cooking With Trader Joe's

I was recently interviewed by the folks over at Cooking with Trader Joe's, one of my favorite food blogs. I discussed what I love about TJ's and shared my recipe for Purple Coleslaw with Orange Supremes. Check out the interview here!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Restaurants: 55 Degrees Wine Bar, Fairfield, CT

55 Degrees, which refers to the ideal temperature at which to store wine, is Fairfield's newest hot spot. The restaurant and wine bar, which was formerly Mulino's Restaurant, is barely recognizable after an extensive renovation. The proprietors, who also own the acclaimed Cava Wine Bar in New Canaan, completely gutted and reorganized the space, creating a comfortable first floor bar, a bi-level dining room and a large, seasonal outdoor seating area.

On each of my visits to 55 Degrees, the bar was lively and crowded, but not overwhelmingly so. Bar service was prompt and courteous. There is an extensive list of wines by the glass, but it is also a full-service bar with several beers on tap. Bowls of marinated olives are placed around the bar, which lend authenticity to the Italian-vibe.
The restaurant is large with soaring ceilings, which give a great, urban feel to the space, but also tends to be very loud. We had our best experience while sitting in the lower dining area (a half flight up from the bar). That night the service was excellent, and our server was extremely knowledgeable and helpful in suggesting items on the menu. On a separate visit, after some confusion about our reservation (apparently the less desirable, and extremely noisy bar tables are included in the reservation list--a policy that should be reconsidered), we were seated in the upper dining area. That particular night the service was extremely slow, and we never figured out if it was our server, the fact that we were up an extra flight of stairs, or if the kitchen was overwhelmed that evening.

The food, however, was consistently excellent on every visit. Everything we ate was very good, but I particularly enjoyed the grilled calamari appetizer and the Caprese salad. I loved the house-made pasta selections, which were just a little out of the ordinary. The Rabbit Angnolotti (a stuffed pasta), which I thought was fantastic, was served in a lemony sauce with prosciutto and sage (my friend agreed it was delicious after she got over the fact she was eating rabbit). My other favorite pasta was Veal Mezzaluna (also a stuffed pasta), which like the rabbit, may be politically incorrect to enjoy, but it was excellent! The next time I go I'm dying to try the Lobster Papperdelle, which is paired with the unusual combination of cauliflower, golden raisins, pine nuts, and sausage.

Among the selections on the "secondo" section of the menu, the Diver Sea Scallops were the biggest hit with my friends. Also popular was the Leek-Wrapped Salmon and the Angus Sirloin. While I tasted everything at the table, I was so drawn to the interesting pasta dishes that between all my visits, I never personally ordered a meat or fish entree.

Overall, I very much enjoyed 55 Degrees and will certainly go back soon. It has a great vibe and a fun atmosphere, and is perfect for groups (there was a group of birthday revelers and a number of tables dedicated to 'girls night out' on our most recent Saturday evening visit). The service in the bar is good, however the hostess and dining service was inconsistent. However, what stands out the most is the food, and for that I'm willing to give them a chance to work out the kinks.

55 Degrees is a welcome addition to Fairfield Center, and is not only a great place to meet for a drink (or a few), but also destined to become an eating destination.

55 Degrees Wine Bar and Restaurant
55 Miller Street
Fairfield, CT 06824

Reservations recommended.

Hours: Lunch served M-F, 11:30-2:30. Dinner served Sun-Thurs, 5-10, Fri & Sat, 5-11.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pick Your Own Apples in Shelton, CT

Fall is apple-picking season, and it is one of my favorite yearly traditions. This year, we tried a new orchard, Beardsley's Cider Mill and Orchards, in Shelton, Connecticut. For years we picked apples at another orchard, closer to our home in Fairfield. At that particular farm, you are required to purchase a certain number of bags depending on the number of people in your party, and that was often far more apples than I wanted to pick (and ended up costing a small fortune). At Beardsley's, it is done much more fairly, where you are given a bag when you enter the orchard, you pick as many or as few apples as you wish, and when you leave, the bags are weighed and you pay per pound of apples picked. We picked four good sized bags of apples for around $25. Compared to what I unwillingly spent last year, that was quite a deal. Upon leaving, I also realized that you are able to bring your own recyclable bags to use while picking. Those of you who read my Season to Taste blog know how I feel about that, so next year I will surely remember to do so.

On the day we visited, the apples that were ripe for picking were Winesap and Mutsu (the varieties and rows you are able to pick are clearly marked with big signs). The Winesaps are a beautiful, deep red and the Mutsus are greenish, with a yellowish-peach hue. They are both decent eating apples, but because they are a bit on the tart side, I think they are better suited for cooking. We picked both types in equal amounts, although my young girls decided the Winesaps were "prettier".

Beardsley's has a country store that sells a larger selection of apple varieties, pies, fabulous cider donuts, and specialty items like apple butter, jams, local honey, maple syrup, and apple chutneys. They also press their own fresh apple cider right on the premises, which you can watch (pressing is done on weekends between about 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, and other random times as well).

While you're in the area, Jones' Farm is right down the road, where they have a corn maze, pumpkins, hay rides, and even wine tasting on weekends (at the main farm location)! For a fun fall excursion, make a day of it and head to Shelton!
Be sure to check out my recipe for Apple Crisp, which will be posted on October 14 over at my Season to Taste blog!

Beardsley's Cider Mill and Orchards, LLC
278 Leavenworth Road
Shelton, CT

Jones' Farm (Pumpkinseed Hill Farm)
130 Beardsley Road
Shelton, CT

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Hitting the Sauce

For those of you who follow my other blog, Season To Taste, I recently wrote about one of my favorite, simple, meals: pulled pork. Well, tonight when I looked into my refrigerator and saw two giant chicken breasts and half of a package of whole wheat hamburger rolls staring back at me, I decided that some "pulled chicken" was in order! I also had a few bottles of barbeque sauce that I needed to test out for Country Bob's who is doing some test marketing, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to pull some double-duty. Although this particular sauce seems to be better suited to beef, the slightly tangy but sweet taste would make a nice addition to my chicken as well.

Pulled pork couldn't be easier, it does take some time to cook (albeit unattended cooking, but some pre-planning is definitely necessary). Therein lies the beauty of "pulled chicken"... the entire dish is ready in under 30 minutes! By using boneless, skinless breasts, the cooking time is reduced significantly, and then all you need to do is shred it and add sauce. Tonight, I opted to bake the chicken in a 350 degree oven, because I already had it on for a pie I was baking. It took only about 30 minutes for the chicken to bake through, and it retained its juiciness. On other occasions I've opted to broil the chicken, which cuts the time down even more. However, with broiling (and especially grilling), the close proximity to very high heat will form a "crust" on the chicken, making part of it harder to shred. When it is baked more slowly, it stays "softer" which is a better consistency for the dish.

Once cooked, I used two forks to shred the meat apart, then added the sauce. For barbeque sandwiches, I prefer slightly thicker, sweet sauces, since you tend to use a decent amount in the dish. Sauces which are overly tangy or have too much of a "kick" will overpower the sandwich. This type of barbeque sauce is better for brushing on a whole piece of chicken, pork, or beef, since you will not need as much of it.

Pulled Chicken Sandwiches
Serves 4
2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut in half (about 1.5 lbs)
1 cup barbeque sauce
4 soft hamburger rolls

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake chicken breasts for approximately 30 minutes, or until cooked through and no longer pink.
Remove from oven, and using two forks, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Place in a bowl, add the barbeque sauce, and stir to combine.
Serve on hamburger rolls.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cooking with Trader Joe's

When I stumbled upon "Cooking with Trader Joe's", a website devoted to "all things Trader Joe's", naturally, I was hooked. Readers of this blog know of my affinity for TJ's, so I was thrilled to discover there are other foodies out there who are as crazy (or crazier) about it than I am.

A number of weeks ago, they ran a contest for Best Brown Bag Lunch Recipe. The recipes were to be "healthy, satisfying, creative, easy, and keep well on the go." Oh, and the ingredients all need to be available at Trader Joe's. Considering my pantry is a Trader Joe's in miniature, I figured it was my obligation to enter.

My kids have recently become big fans of soup, so rather than opening a can, I've been experimenting with different ingredients to create a few simple, homemade versions. By starting with a basic, organic chicken stock, I add various vegetables (either fresh or frozen, depending on what I have on hand), meats (chicken, turkey, or mini-meatballs), and pastas (orzo, egg noodles, alphabet shapes, etc). So far they've liked them all. It also just feels better to make my own soup. I can control exactly what goes into my pot, making the finished dish lower in sodium and preservatives than the canned varieties. Naturally, opening a can is very easy, but using a few shortcut ingredients, homemade soup literally takes about 15 minutes or less to cook.

I decided to submit one of my kids' favorite soup recipes, which they love to bring to school for lunch in wide-mouthed themoses. It uses all Trader Joe's ingredients, is almost entirely organic, and most importantly, the kids gobble it up. Try experimenting with some of your favorite ingredients to create a signature soup your family will love.

I didn't end up winning the grand prize, but I was one of two runners up! Click here to see my submission for "Souper Fast Alphabet Soup with Mini-Meatballs". Your kids will love it!
Thanks to Cooking with Trader Joe's for taking the top photo of my soup!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'm Just Buzzing about Foodbuzz

Back in April, I was contacted about becoming a Featured Publisher. I honestly didn't really understand what Foodbuzz was all about (and I'm still learning), but I figured it was a good way to share my blog with more people. And that it has.

The other day I came home to find a fluffy package jammed into my mailbox (gee, thanks, Mr. Mailman....I'm glad it wasn't fragile!). I opened it to reveal the nicest gift from the folks over at Foodbuzz.... a very nice, high quality chef's apron featuring the Foodbuzz logo, and a bright green silicone spatula (you can never have too many of those---and I JUST redecorated my kitchen with green! What luck!). Over the past several months I've received a number of fun and clever goodies. The mini-business cards with my blog address were a fantastic idea, and the cotton "Foodbuzz" tote is perfect for my (many) trips to the farmers market and grocery stores (because if you read my other blog, Season To Taste, you already know what I think about plastic single-use grocery bags!). I must say that the apron/spatula was the best to date. I'm especially looking forward to an upcoming dinner with the New York City Metro-Area Foodbuzz Featured Publishers....a chance to talk shop with my cyber-colleagues and foodie friends!

As a relatively new food blogger, it is nice to know that not only is there an online community out there devoted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of foodie-ness, but that they appreciate those of us who work so hard (many without any monetary reneumeration!) to share something very close to our hearts....our cooking. I am excited to wear my new apron while teaching my cooking classes, and hope to introduce Foodbuzz to my fellow Fairfield foodies!

Monday, September 22, 2008

September Corn

I usually think of "corn season" as coming to a conclusion at the end of August. By September I remember my parents always commenting that it was "past prime"in upstate New York. Well, this year, here in Connecticut, I'm still getting lots of fantastic fresh corn from the farmers markets! Because my family loves corn so much, I make sure to get it every week. This week I've been using corn to make lots of variations on this corn salad (which I featured on my other blog, Season to Taste), but also eating it right on the cob.

Recently, I was at Dish Supper Club in Bridgeport, CT, which served corn-on-the-cob on the side of a wonderful clam bake. Usually, restaurant corn-on-the-cob is overcooked from being kept warm in big pots of hot water for way too long. Then it is lathered with way too much butter, making it a mess to eat. Not this restaurant's corn---it was expertly cooked and served right away. The butter was lightly brushed on, and then it was sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and a touch of Ancho chili powder - not chipotle chili powder as I erroneously reported in a previous post. Yup--- I realized that error after a lip-burning corn experience fit for someone with a mouth far more tolerant than my own. Note to self: Ancho chilies=3,000 units of heat. Chipotle chilies=15,000 units of heat. Sometimes my brain interchanges those two peppers---but my mouth certainly did not.

Ancho chili peppers are a mild chili that lend great color and a somewhat sweet flavor to Mexican-inspired dishes. You can buy them whole and dried (and can reconstitute them in hot water then chop), or you can purchase the ground variety. I always keep a jar of ground Ancho chili powder on hand which I add to stews and chilis. It is readily available in the dried spice aisle of most grocery stores.
Chipotle peppers are much hotter, and can be found whole and dried, ground, or canned in "adobo" sauce (a tomato based sauce). They are very smoky in flavor, and add a nice kick to whatever you're cooking. They are most commonly found in Mexican and southwestern cuisine. You can certainly sprinkle ground chipotle pepper on lots of dishes (like the corn), but shake sparingly or else you'll end up running for the water pitcher.
Give your corn a little kick---- Ancho for the mild-mouthed cooks, and Chipotle for the spicier set!

Corn on the Cob with a Kick
Serves 4
4 ears of corn, husked
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Sprinkle of ground Ancho chili pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add sugar to water, and then add corn cobs.
Cook for 7-9 minutes (depending on desired consistency--- less time for crunchier corn, more for chewier)
Remove from pot, drain off excess water, and lightly brush with melted butter.
Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese and a touch of chili powder.
Serve immediately.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fairfield Area Ice Cream Favorites

Summer is almost officially over.... but there is still plenty of time to indulge in some ice cream! I recently completed an exhaustive search for some of the best ice cream for Fairfield Magazine. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it! Here are some excerpts from that article, which appears in full in the current issue of the magazine (Summer 2008, p. 10).

When it comes to homemade ice cream, Timothy's Ice Cream at 2974 Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport, is a winner. Named "Best Ice Cream" in the Fairfield County Advocate an astounding twenty-two times during its twenty-four years of business, and also chosen as one of the "Top 10" best ice cream parlors in the country (yes, the country!) by (run by Bon Appetit and Gourmet Magazines), it's no wonder I love it so much. Timothy's has twelve flavors of hard ice cream, six of which are standard favorites like chocolate and coffee, and the other six specialty flavors rotate on a daily basis. Black Rock (French Vanilla ice cream studded with chocolate covered almonds), Caramel Crunch, and Peppermint were among the tempting specialty selections on one of my recent visits. Because all the ice cream is made in small batches, customers are always assured of the freshest product imaginable.

For a heaven-sent dessert experience, head to Caffe 4 Quattro (1603 Post Road, Fairfield) for some fantastic gelato! Gelato is, hands-down, my all-time favorite dessert, and Caffe 4 Quattro gets my vote for the best around. Caffe 4 Quattro hits the nail on the head with their perfectly creamy, velvety smooth, completely authentic gelato. It is made fresh on the premises almost every day, using imported Italian ingredients. The most popular flavors include Panna Cotta, which translated literally is "cooked cream", but is similar to vanilla, Ciocolatto, made with fine Belgian chocolate, and my mother’s favorite, Stracciatella, which is an Italian version of chocolate chip. Gelato is served at the cafe year round, but in colder months, try having your gelato "affogato" style, which is a shot of espresso poured over the top of a scoop of your favorite flavor, and then topped with freshly whipped cream. It may be one of the most simple but delicious "grown-up" desserts on earth!

For fantastic, hand-packed pints of homemade ice cream and sorbet, The Pantry (1580 Post Road, 259-0400) has you covered. Yes, there is ice cream at The Pantry--- and it is wonderful. The owner states, "we use a base that has the same percentage butterfat as Haagen Daaz, so it is really good.” All the traditional favorites are available, like mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream, and chocolate, but if you’re looking for something different, try the pina colada or mango-lime sorbets, or the coffee with peanut butter cup ice cream. There’s something for everyone.

Check out Fairfield Magazine for more Fairfield-area favorites, including Sunny Daes and Helado Vasquez!

Photo above by QuintanaRoo.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Salmon: Up in Smoke?

There is quite a bit of controversy about salmon. Some experts say eating salmon up to twice a week is a great idea. It is rich in protein and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Others say to eat salmon, but make sure it is wild-caught, because the high levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins in farm-raised fish is extremely unhealthy.

The vast amount of research on this topic is a lot to wade through, but it seems as if the general consensus is that the benefits of eating salmon outweigh the risks. However, I have to admit that after reading this article, I was pretty disgusted by the idea of farm-raised fish, so today I buy only wild-caught. Yes, wild-caught is a little "fishier" tasting than the more mild farm-raised variety, but it is lower in fat and calories, so it's definitely worth trying.
Salmon is a very versatile fish because it is great steamed, poached, pan-fried, baked, broiled or grilled. Pick your method--- it holds up to all these techniques. During the summertime, I favor using my outdoor grill to cook salmon. It gives great flavor, in addition to keeping the heat (and the smell!) out of the house.

I recently purchased a smoker box for my grill, which adds additional flavor to the fish. By adding wet wood chips to the metal box and placing it on the grill next to the salmon, a fair amount of smoke is produced, gently flavoring and perfuming the fish (the result will not taste like traditional smoked salmon---it's just subtly flavored fresh fish). If you do not have a smoker box, simply add wet wood chips to a small metal pot, which gets placed on the grill. Wood chips for this purpose are available at specialty food stores and most hardware stores in several varieties, like hickory, apple wood, etc.

So make some healthy salmon tonight---- and try adding some smoke to your fire!

Grilled Apple Wood Salmon
Serves 4
3 handfuls apple wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 ½ lb wild-caught salmon fillet (preferably skin on, lessening the chance it will stick to the grill)
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Lemon wedges

Preheat outdoor grill to high heat.
Place the soaked wood chips into a smoker box or small metal pot, and place on grill grates. Once it begins smoking, move to a cooler (but still hot) part of the grill.
Brush the salmon fillet on both sides with olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place the fillet skin-side down on grill and reduce heat to medium-high.
Allow to cook approximately 12-15 minutes, until firm to the touch. It is not necessary to flip the salmon. Note: if you press flesh with your finger and it leaves an indent, the fish is not cooked. When it is, the flesh will spring back up after being touched).
Remove from grill and serve hot with lemon wedges

Monday, September 1, 2008

From the Farm: Blueberries

The rain was coming down in sheets on Saturday, the day I normally head to the farmers market to pick up my CSA farm share. The market is scheduled to run rain or shine, but since lightening and tents with metal poles are probably not a good combination, everything was on hold until the skies cleared. A few hours later, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, so I headed over to see what Lexi at Gazy Brothers Farm had for me this week. (Photo above by MeetaK)

The rain had kept most people away that day, so Lexi had a surplus of produce. Rather than have to bring so much back to the farm, she was nice enough to offer up some extras to me for braving the elements. As a result, I ended up with three huge containers of freshly picked blueberries, plus lots of veggies including corn, red onions, fresh basil, tomatoes, and a gorgeous, perfect looking purple eggplant.

The first container instantly disappeared when I set them out for my little ones and some of their buddies. The second container made its way into a triple batch of blueberry muffin bread (adapted from a recipe in How To Bake by Nick Malgieri), and I saved the third container for an unusual but delicious salad.

Years ago, I’d written down the idea for this salad on a piece of scrap paper which ended up stuffed in the front of my overflowing recipe box. I’d all but forgotten about it until one day I decided to organize all the stray recipes I’d written down, ripped out, and recycled. Unfortunately, I have no recollection as to where this particular recipe originated. I may have eaten it at a restaurant, seen it in a photo, or read about it in a magazine or newspaper article. Whatever its source, it made an impression on me, prompting me to scratch out an ingredient list on that stray piece of paper.

It’s a good thing I reorganized my recipe box when I did, considering blueberries are just about done for the season. The salad features blueberries as the main ingredient, and is paired with tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette. It may seem strange to put vinegar on fruit, but it’s actually a classic! Italians love strawberries with balsamic vinegar, which is another surprisingly delicious combination.

So, revel in the blueberry bounty! It’s great alongside fish, chicken, or steak, or perfect as a picnic salad.

Blueberry & Tomato Salad
Serves 4

1 pint blueberries
½ pint grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt

Combine berries and tomatoes in a bowl and toss to combine.
Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and salt and add to salad. Toss again and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Monday, August 25, 2008

From the Farm: Tomatoes

During the summertime, tomatoes are everywhere and at the peak of freshness, so take advantage of the bounty! This week at the farmers market there were a few different varieties of tomatoes, including Beefsteak, Ugli (an heirloom variety), and cherry tomatoes-both red and yellow. Naturally, I had to get some of each.

Not only do I love summer tomatoes, fresh off the vine, I especially love the fragrance that lingers on your fingers after picking a tomato off the vine. I think if colors had a scent, this is what green would smell like. Spring green-- not Kelly green or hunter green. A light green with lots of yellow. Like the line in that poem "nature's first green is gold". That is the smell you're left with after picking a fresh tomato.

I love a classic Caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil,) --- red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. I decided to use these same flavors to make a summery pasta salad, which I served alongside grilled flank steak. By using both red and yellow tomatoes, cubed fresh mozzarella, and a basil pesto vinaigrette, I pay homage to the original, but give it a new twist. Any pasta shape will do, but I like the mini penne, or "pennette" for this dish. You could also use mini rigatoni, shells, or orechette. I like to match the shape and size of the pasta to the other ingredients in the salad. Since for this dish I'm using cherry-tomatoes and cubed mozzarella, I favor a short, shaped pasta as opposed to a long strand pasta. It just seems to work better---and aesthetically, looks more appealing.

The pesto can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the fridge, or even frozen for a longer period of time. The tomatoes should be fresh-and never refrigerated. It kills the fresh taste. As for the sure to use fresh, not the rubbery kind found in the dairy section of the grocery store. Buffalo mozzarella has the fullest flavor, but other varieties are perfectly okay if you can't find buffalo. Just look for the kind that comes in the plastic container surrounded by water. The texture is softer and has more moisture, and the taste is incredible. The rubbery stuff is great for grating, but when cubing, look for the fresh variety.

Caprese Pasta Salad
Serves 6
1 lb. pasta (mini penne or rigatoni, shells, orechetti)
1 bunch basil
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 clove garlic
Olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 pint cherry tomatoes (red, yellow, or a combination), halved
6-8 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed

Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and stir. Set aside and allow to cool.
Meanwhile, place garlic and pine nuts in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse a few times until finely chopped.
Add basil and pulse again until finely chopped.
With blades running, add olive oil in a steady stream, until a sauce-like consistency is created.
Stir in salt, pepper, and vinegar. Add a 1-2 extra tablespoons of olive oil, stir, and set aside.
Place pasta in a large bowl and add pesto vinaigrette. Mix to combine. Add tomatoes and mozzarella cubes, and gently stir again until everything is incorporated. Serve at room temperature

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Restaurants: Fairfield Favorites

When I discover a new restaurant (or one new to me, at least), I usually end up profiling it here on my blog. It was once pointed out to me that I never write a bad review--- and that would be a correct observation. I made a conscious decision that if I were going to spend time writing about an eatery, it would be because I liked it! Therein lies the beauty of this blog---no one is paying me, so I can write whatever I want, and skip the rest! I'm too busy to spend time slamming restaurants I don't like.

I do, however, have a few favorites which I've never profiled, mostly because I've been going to them for years and figured everyone else already knows about them. But since they are my absolute stand-bys, I decided it was high time to write about my good ol' Fairfield favorites.

Centro (pronounced "CHEN-tro"), located at 1435 Post Road in Fairfield is my absolute favorite place to go with the kids. It is bright and cheerful, and was recently redecorated and rearranged, so there are now booths and banquettes in addition to regular tables. I have probably eaten at Centro something close to 100 times over the past several years, and I've tried almost everything on the menu. I can honestly say I've never had a bad meal at Centro. The kids can color right on the tables, which are covered with butcher paper, so mom and dad can actually have a conversation (well, sort of). In the warmer weather, we love eating on the patio overlooking the Sherman Gazebo. We are regulars, and love that the waitstaff knows our kids by name and that we like a few packets of grissini on the table in addition to the yummy bread. Centro is definitely one of my very favorite Fairfield spots. You cannot go wrong here.

If we're going out without the kids, I love Quattro Pazzi, located right down the street at 1599 Post Road. Unless you go by about 6:00 pm on weekends, you'll almost certainly have to wait awhile, since it is a very popular spot and they do not accept reservations (hence the reason for going sans kids). Quattro Pazzi also recently underwent a facelift, with new tile floors, wall decorations, and seat coverings. Like at Centro, I've eaten just about everything on the menu at Quatto Pazzi, and have never once been disappointed. I'm always drawn to the fresh pasta dishes, but everything is truly delicious. The bar is lively and usually has my favorite Sangiovese wine by the glass, so I almost don't even mind waiting for a table. Quattro Pazzi's sister restaurant, Osianna, has quickly become one of my other favorite eating destinations, but I've already told you about that when I profiled it back in December.

When we're in the mood for take-out food, I always head to Senor Salsa (previously called La Salsa--but has the same menu). I usually stick to the salads (the Chili-Lime is my favorite), but when I feel like having a calorie splurge, I go for one of the fresh burritos (I love the Classic with steak or the Cancun Shrimp). I always make sure to load up at the fresh salsa bar----Fire Roasted Tomato for my husband, Avocado for me, and a few little containers of the crunchy carrots to share (and to counteract all the homemade tortilla chips we're injesting). Yes, this is a franchised chain, but I like it anyway.

Other favorites of mine include Fin for sushi, Caffe Quattro for lunch with grown-ups (and after-dinner coffee/dessert), WineKnot for pre- or post-dinner drinks, and Fire House Deli for lunch with the kids.
So go! Go out to dinner! You don't need to go far from home to enjoy fantastic food.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In Season: Eggplant

As a kid, I hated eggplant. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement; I thought I hated eggplant. To start, I didn’t like the name. I wasn’t wild about the egg, and figured that anything bearing its name, much less a plant, couldn’t be much better. Besides, it was brown and mushy and there was no way I was eating it.

I’m happy to report that things have changed.

Eggplant is available year round, but is in season in late summer to early fall. The deep purple, elongated pear-shaped variety is the most common, but other types are becoming more popular too. Baby eggplant, sometimes referred to as Italian eggplant, is a smaller version of the ones we’re most used to seeing at the grocery store, and is typically a bit more tender. Japanese eggplants are long and thin, and work well sliced into stir-fries and other mixed vegetable dishes.

But how do you choose a good one? Pick an eggplant that feels heavy and is free of soft spots. Many years ago I remember hearing that you should also look at the eggplant’s blossom end (the one opposite the green stem/cap). If it were round and flat and smooth, then it had fewer seeds and would be sweeter. If the end was indented like a belly button, it would be loaded with bitter seeds. One was supposed to be the “male” eggplant, and the other was “female”. I could never keep straight which was which—- I just knew to avoid those innie-belly buttons like the plague. Now I know that the innies are females and the smooth ones are male… stick with the boys on this one.

I love to grill eggplant— it gives it a great smoky flavor and a nice, crisp skin. I slice it in thick rounds (so they don’t fall through the grates), brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and fire up the grill. I like to leave the skin on for two reasons; it helps the rounds stay intact while cooking, and I love its flavor. Once grilled, I either use the rounds for sandwiches, as part of a grilled vegetable platter, or better yet, I spoon on tomato sauce and cheese for little individually-sized eggplant parmesans. They are light and delicious! You get all the flavor of this classic dish, without any of the breading, frying, assembling, and baking, all of which can be very time consuming.

When I prepared these grilled eggplants the other evening, I used a smaller, light purple and white striated variety I got at the farmers market (photo above). They were fresh and tasty, but the beautiful color was completely lost on the grill. Next time, I’ll stick to the larger, dark purple ones I normally use, which get richer looking as they cook.

I wasted a lot of years not eating eggplant…so now I’m making up for lost time. Fire up your grill and let me know if I’ve converted you too!

Italain Style Grilled Eggplant
Serves 2

2 medium eggplant, sliced into ½” rounds
Olive oil for brushing
Salt & Pepper
1 cup tomato sauce (your favorite variety)
½ cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese

Preheat grill to medium high heat.
Brush eggplant rounds on both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place on grill and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until grill marks appear and the flesh begins to soften.
Flip rounds, and on the cooked side, place about a tablespoon of tomato sauce, a teaspoon of ricotta cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
Continue grilling an additional 3-5 minutes, until softened and sauce/cheese is hot and bubbly.
Serve with a green salad and crusty bread for a complete meal.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

From the Farm: Raspberries

In this week's CSA farm share I received some gorgeous, plump raspberries. I decided I'd better use them quickly, since they are delicate and don’t last very long. Raspberries usually will start to get moldy after only a day or so, but I've found you can extend their life a bit if you refrain from washing them right away and keep them refrigerated. However, be sure to thoroughly wash them just before eating, as berries tend to be heavily sprayed. Therefore, look for organic berries whenever possible.
My two little ones gobbled up most of the fresh berries, but I managed to save a handful for a simple hors d’oeurve. This recipe takes only a matter of minutes to prepare, but never fails to impress (I have to give a shout-out to my friend KD, who gave me this idea).
By slicing off the very top of a mini wheel of brie (try goat’s milk brie if you can find it—it is delicious!), you create a little canvas for some food-art: spread a tablespoon or so of your favorite preserves on the cut surface (I like to use apricot), and use the fresh raspberries to make a little design on top. Pop in the oven to get the cheese all oozy and delicious, and serve with crackers or thinly sliced baguette. It’s a great excuse to have a girls night in!

Baked Brie with Raspberries

Serves 4-6

1 - 4 to 6 oz wheel of brie

1 tablespoon preserves or marmalade (apricot, raspberry, or your favorite)

10-12 whole fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Carefully slice off the thin papery layer on top of the brie, exposing the cheese interior.

Spread preserves over cut side of the brie.

Arrange the raspberries (bottom-side facing up) on the brie, using the preserves as a sort of “glue”.

Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until cheese is softened and warm.

Serve with crackers or thinly sliced baguette.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fresh From the Farm

I love farmers markets. I love how the fresh produce is haphazardly placed in bushels, on tables, and in crates….none of those perfect pyramids of peppers or gravity-defying walls of grapes so common at certain unnamed grocery stores. I love the colors, the smells, and the energy of the farmers market. In most cases, the produce was picked earlier that morning, the dirt still clinging to the veggies, green tops still attached to carrots and radishes and beets (”oh my!”).
Years ago, while living in New York City, I joined a food co-op, and picked up my share at a neighborhood church twice a month. The pre-packed bags were filled with whatever was in season at the time, and was a great opportunity to try all sorts of new things. It was my first experience with fiddlehead ferns, various leafy greens, and root vegetables I didn’t recognize. I enjoyed trying to figure out what to do with my harvest, and loved tasting everything at the peak of freshness.

We now live in the suburbs, and I joined a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, which works similarly to the co-op. Each week, the farm brings that week’s harvest to one of our local farmers markets, where I go and choose 6 different types of veggies and one fruit to take home. Then, let the games begin!

My most recent share included long, thin, Japanese style eggplant, summer squash, corn on the cob, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro, carrots, and some gorgeous, plump raspberries. I decided to work on the raspberries first, since they are delicate and don’t last very long. My two little ones gobbled most of them up, but I managed to save a handful for a simple hors d’oeurve. This recipe takes only a matter of minutes to prepare, but never fails to impress (I have to give a shout-out to my friend KD, who gave me this idea).

By slicing off the very top of a mini wheel of brie (try goat’s milk brie if you can find it—it is delicious!), you create a little canvas for some food-art: spread a tablespoon or so of your favorite preserves on the cut surface (I like to use apricot), and use the fresh raspberries to make a little design on top. Pop in the oven to get the cheese all oozy and delicious, and serve with crackers or thinly sliced baguette. It’s a great excuse to have a girls night in!

Baked Brie with Raspberries

Serves 4-6

1 - 4 to 6 oz wheel of brie

1 tablespoon preserves or marmalade (apricot, raspberry, or your favorite)

10-12 whole fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Carefully slice off the thin papery layer on top of the brie, exposing the cheese interior.

Spread preserves over cut side of the brie.

Arrange the raspberries (bottom-side facing up) on the brie, using the preserves as a sort of “glue”.

Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until cheese is softened and warm.

Serve with crackers or thinly sliced baguette.

To find farmers markets and/or CSAs near you, go to

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Restaurants: The Best of Bridgeport

Living in Fairfield, we are right next door to Connecticut's largest city, Bridgeport. Luckily for us, it has some fantastic eating destinations. If you're looking to liven up your weekend, head for the border and check out one of these great Bridgeport eateries!

In the past few years, several sections of Bridgeport have seen lots of positive development. The Black Rock Historic District has seen an influx of eateries in recent years, and has become downright (dare I say?) quaint. The section of downtown near the courthouse (Fairfield Avenue/Main Street) also has a slew of great restaurants, some new, some old, but all worth a visit.

In Black Rock, I recently ate at Dish Supper Club at 2889 Fairfield Avenue. It is by reservation only, and currently only open for dinner on Friday nights (although it serves breakfast on weekdays). It works more like a supper club than a restaurant, and you almost feel like you're part of a fabulous dinner party at someones home. The fixed price, set multi-course meal is served in a casual setting, at shared tables. During the summer months, the menu featured a New England Clambake---complete with wonderful clam chowder, mussels, clams, a whole lobster for each person, corn, potatoes, purple cabbage cole slaw and dessert (homemade ice cream sandwiches from Timothy's Ice Cream--YUM). It was really excellent...and I can't wait to go back in the fall to see what Janet, the chef/owner cooks up in her open kitchen. BTW, it is BYOB and will also open for private groups on other days of the week. This is a place NOT to be missed.

Other notable restaurants in the area are Cafe Tavolini (nice decor, nice Italian menu), Viale (classic, upscale Italian restaurant feel, very good food), and Home on the Range for breakfast (you'd pass it if you weren't looking---very small but a great breakfast!). Don't forget dessert---either at Timothy's Ice Cream (a mainstay---mentioned above) or the new Helado Vasquez for great, homemade gelato and sorbetto (all on Fairfield Avenue in the Black Rock section).

In downtown Bridgeport, Cafe Roma at 269 Fairfield Avenue is a relative newcomer to the scene (opened in 2006), and is owned by two Italian-born Fairfielders. The space is excellent---- two story ceilings, exposed brick, perfect lighting, and a friendly staff. The service is a little on the slow side, but it didn't seem incompetent---maybe just more of a laid-back European style. The food was really good, and the portion size perfect. Just the right amount so everyone leaves happy (not in a food coma). They even have an "economic stimulus plan" where if you pay in cash, you get a 10% discount!

Also in the same area of downtown Bridgeport is Ralph 'n Rich's (815 Main Street). It is a large, airy space with great energy and serves up excellent Italian food (in huge portions!). It's great for large groups too. Joseph's Steakhouse (360 Fairfield Avenue) has a traditional, old-school steakhouse feel to it, with excellent service and top-notch food (just keep the wine flowing so when the check comes, you don't have a heart attack). After eating at any of these great spots, head over to Two Boots for some live music (or go earlier for some great pizza).

What are you waiting for? Start eating out in Bridgeport! You'll be happy you did!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

From the Farm: More Zucchini...for the Freezer

Not only have I been getting great zucchini from the farm stand, but now my neighbor is giving them to me. People with gardens are always growing more than they can eat, and usually end up begging you to take their surplus. No one needs to ask me twice---because I'll take all of it and use it to stock my freezer with all sorts of goodies. This way, long after zucchini are out of season, I'll still have plenty of reminders of the summer bounty.

Let round two of the zucchini bonanza begin! My first order of business was to use my food processor to shred the zucchini. This is, by far, the easiest way to shred or grate large quantities of food (veggies, cheese, etc). Just use the disc attachment that came with your processor...yes, those flat, round metal things with holes that you stashed in the back of the cabinet. They do in fact have a purpose!

Armed with a giant bowlful of gorgeous green and white goodness, I was ready to start cooking. As I gazed into my pantry, I wondered what I could create without having to go to the grocery store. I found a box of multi-grain baking mix (think Bisquick gone healthier), and figured that was an easy place to begin. The first experiment was the most simple... zucchini pancakes. I simply folded in 3/4 cup of the shredded zucchini into one batch of pancake batter, hauled out my over-sized electric griddle, and set to work. They were really yummy and moist, thanks to the zucchini. I liked them served with just a touch of butter, but my kids wanted to stick to what they knew and opted to eat them with maple syrup. I made enough for dinner (why not--they incorporate veggies!), and froze a dozen for another time.

While I had the baking mix out, I remembered the great drop biscuits my mom always made when I was a kid. By adding the shredded zucchini along with some cheddar cheese to a basic drop-biscuit recipe, I was on to something good. The result was a wonderfully savory biscuit, with a hit of sweetness. They were such a hit with my family, they were gobbled up pretty quickly. Needless to say, tonight I'm going to make a double batch for the freezer.
After the pancakes and the drop biscuits, I still had quite a bit of zucchini left over. I decided to revert to my standard zucchini bread recipe to finish it off, but decided to add 1/4 cup of Dutch process cocoa powder to the dry ingredients. The kids especially liked the chocolate version, since it seemed more like cake than bread.

Zucchini are available at the farm stand for a good part of the summer---so get it while it's good and bake a bunch for your freezer!

Zucchini-Cheddar Drop Biscuits
Makes 1 dozen biscuits
By using a store-bought baking mix, you save time on these delicious homemade biscuits. The zucchini give great texture, color and added moisture, and the sugar sprinkled on top right before baking make them a treat everyone will love! (photo top)
2 cups multi-grain baking mix (okay to substitute regular)
2/3 cups milk
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
3/4 cup shredded zucchini
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons sugar (I prefer Sugar in the Raw)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Mix together the baking mix, milk and oil. Stir until just combined.
Gently fold in the zucchini, then the cheese.
Using a spoon or small ice-cream scoop, drop onto the prepared baking sheet, about 2 tablespoons of dough per biscuit. Be sure to leave approximately 2 inches between each biscuit.
Sprinkle tops of unbaked biscuits with sugar.
Bake for 12-14 minutes, until set and lightly golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Store completely cooled biscuits in an airtight container (or ziplock freezer bag) and freeze for up to 3 months.