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.