Sunday, March 30, 2008

Food Fun: Entrees Made Easy, Fairfield, CT

***Please note that Entrees Made Easy is now closed.
A couple years back, someone said to me, "you should open one of those places where you assemble meals to keep in your freezer!" The suggestion wasn't particularly far fetched, given my love of cooking. I thought that this concept was an excellent idea for someone else to pursue---someone who didn't love teaching cooking as much as I do.

"Someone", in the form of seven local entrepreneurial women*, also saw the potential for this type of business, and in March 2008, opened Entrees Made Easy on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield. Nestled behind Billy's Bakery, EME is a place where you can go to "assemble" meals which will be later cooked at home. The idea is that you can have a home-cooked meal, which you do actually cook, but didn't have to think of, shop for, or prepare (up to the cooking stage). No cleaning the veggies, no cutting up raw meat, and no mile-high stack of cutting boards and prep bowls to wash afterward. The busy work is all done for you at EME. Simply walk around to each entree station, place all the pre-washed, pre-chopped ingredients in the provided container, and bring it home to cook later (don't worry, each station is equipped with easy-to-follow instructional recipes). In about 30 minutes, you could put together enough meals for an entire week.

For people who actually love to cook, it is easy to think "I could do this exact same thing at home for less money." At first I thought the same thing. But once there, I have to admit that there really was something fun about putting together an entire dish in literally a few minutes. Besides, as they say in the business world, "time is money", and the time you save on planning, shopping, and prepping is substantial. Fast as it may be, do not mistake this for traditional fast food. Everything is extremely fresh (brought in and prepped every single day---no leftovers here), and in its original form (no processed junk).

At the ribbon cutting celebration, I had the opportunity to taste four of the menu items. While I think the concept for this store is fabulous, I wasn't sure what to expect of the food. I figured it would be on the bland-side, in order to appeal to the largest common denominator. Not true---- each dish I tasted was really very good. The Apricot Glazed Pork tasted vaguely of a sweet and sour pork dish, and included tender medallions of pork tenderloin. The Cassoulet was my favorite. The French-style stew used veggies, white beans, pork and sausage in a herb-infused tomato sauce. The Pasta Pomodoro was a light and flavorful combination of broccoli, oven roasted tomatoes and Parmesan tossed with pasta. I also assembled a meal to take home; I selected the Brandywine Chicken--boneless chicken breasts marinated in an apricot-brandy/Dijon mustard/ fresh herb mixture. Instead of putting it in the freezer, I actually made it the next night on my grill pan (the directions suggested an outdoor grill, but it was raining!). It was a hit with my entire family----and it even came with a fresh bag of green beans and carrots, which I cooked in my microwave for a super-speedy, no-fuss meal.

Entrees Made Easy is a much needed service in this area, which is loaded with busy families who want a home-cooked meal on the table each night. Whether you work, stay home with little ones, or simply want to liven up your dinner options, you'll definitely love this concept!

Still not sure what to make of it all? Head over this Saturday, April 5th, from 11 am to 2 pm, for a free tasting event, where you can sample selections from April's menu.

SPECIAL FOR SECRET INGREDIENT BLOG READERS: Now through April 15th, Entrees Made Easy is offering a special to my blog readers---"buy 3 full or half sized entrees, get a 4th from our freezer, FREE" . When registering, just choose "Secret Ingredient" as your referral and give the promotion code "SECRET" when prompted on the "create an order" page to receive your free entree. Read on for how to get started---it's very simple:

  1. Go to the Entrees Made Easy website and register (under "Referred by" choose "Secret Ingredient" to be eligible for the special). Be sure to check out the monthly menu.
  2. Create an order online, and schedule a session to assemble your meals. (go alone, with a pal, or with a group of friends--it's a great idea for a "girls night" outing). Walk-ins are welcome too!
  3. Once you arrive, proceed to a meal prep station to begin assembling your meals (meals are available in two sizes---2-3 portions or 4-6 portions). There are staff members there to help newcomers navigate through the process.
  4. Label everything with the pre-printed stickers (which include cooking instructions).
  5. Check out at the desk, and they'll give you all the appropriate side dishes (included in the meal price, such as veggies, potatoes, bread, etc).
GREAT TIP: Don't have time to assemble? Pre-assembled entrees are also available from the EME freezer for pick-up too!
* Owners are Nina Boynton, Michelle Larkins, Ginny Longley, Melissa Trumbore, Elizabeth Barnes, Janice Feher, and Roxanne Harrrison.

Entrees Made Easy
1879 Black Rock Turnpike (Behind Billy's Bakery---enter parking lot on Katona Drive)
Fairfield, CT 06825

For more information on Entrees Made Easy, private parties, and more, go to

Monday, March 24, 2008

Saint Joseph's Macaroni

March 19th is Saint Joseph's Day, and my Italian-American family always celebrated with a special dish. It is a holiday most often celebrated in southern Italy, and in many villages, altars made of bread were constructed to honor St. Joseph, who was a carpenter by trade. Also typical of the day are Sfingi (sweet ricotta filled pastries) and special meatless dishes (since the day typically falls during the Lenten season). Some families eat Pasta con Sarde (pasta with sardines), but my family always made a pasta dish with beans. We called it simply "Saint Joseph's Macaroni."

In the cooking classes I teach, I always tout the practicality of using canned beans, but in this case, I start from scratch with dried beans, just as my grandmother did. The upside of dried beans is that they are extremely inexpensive, last for ages in your pantry, and believed by many to be tastier than their canned cousins. The downside is that you need to plan far in advance, as most dried beans require at least 8 hours of soaking time and an additional 2-3 hours of cooking time. My mother once made a version with canned beans which was very good, but since I had all the dried beans on hand, I decided to stick with my grandmother's recipe again this year.

Saint Joseph's Macaroni uses three types of beans (red kidney, lentils, and split green peas) and three types of pasta (broken spaghetti, ditalini, and elbows). It also includes onions, fennel and spinach and results in a hearty, earthy dish that satisfies even the heartiest of appetites. Salt and olive oil ("2 ladles full", according to my grandmother's recipe) are added at the end, and are essential to the flavor of the dish. I've adjusted a few things here and there, but otherwise, the recipe is pretty close to the one I remember eating each year March 19th in honor of Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph's Macaroni
Serves 8

1/4 lb dried red kidney beans
1/4 lb split green peas
1/4 lb dried lentils
2 onions, chopped
1/2 bulb fresh fennel, plus the green fronds, chopped
1/2 lb pasta (combination of elbows, ditallini and broken spaghetti)
6 oz fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Sort through the beans, checking for stones, and then rinse thoroughly under cold water.
Place the kidney beans and split peas in a large bowl and cover with water by about 3 inches. Soak for 8 hours or overnight.
Drain beans in a collander and add to a large soup pot together with the lentils, chopped onions and chopped fennel.
Add 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Simmer for 2-3 hours, or until beans are softened.
Add the pasta and return to a boil. Continue cooking until pasta is al dente.
Add the spinach and stir to combine until it is wilted
Season liberally with salt and drizzle about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil into the dish.
Stir again, and serve hot.

Chocolate Chip Cookies---Revisited

I recently took a career education course at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City entitled "Recipe Testing and Development". Taught by Food Network recipe developer and blogger, Sarah Copeland, the course delved into the way recipes are conceived, created, written, and tested.
To drive home the importance of testing, retesting, and testing a recipe again, we did an exercise using all-American Nestle Toll House Cookies. Sarah chose a baking experiment to illustrate her point, as baking is more scientific and precise than savory cooking. When baking, one small change to a recipe often yields a sigificantly different result.

She asked us each to change one ingredient in the Toll House recipe, keeping everything else constant (other ingredients, baking time, etc). I chose to substitute whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour. Others opted to use other dry ingredients, like oat flour, whole oats, cornmeal, and buckwheat. Some changed the type of fat used (butter is the standard), and others examined alternative wet ingredients (such as all egg whites or all egg yolks). In all, there were seventeen different types Toll House cookies made, and what we discovered were seventeen very different cookies.

My whole wheat flour cookie (pictured above, on left) turned out very nicely, and while a little darker than the traditional Toll House variety, it was equally attractive. The whole wheat flour rendered it "toothsome", and gave it a bit of a nuttier taste. Overall, it was a good substitution and a successful result.

Much to my surprise, one of my favorite modifcations was the substitution of canola oil for butter (pictured above, on left). I wondered if that particular cookie would taste of the oil, but instead, the absence of the buttery flavor helped the chocolate and nuts stand out even more. Another cookie I particularly liked was the one using only egg whites instead of whole eggs. The cookies were light and delicious, but could be dangerous. Unlike my heavier whole wheat flour version, you could easily eat a half dozen of the egg white version without even realizing it.

Perhaps the most interesting modification was that replacing the all-purpose flour with oat flour. Since oat flour does not have any gluten, the cookies were completely flat, and resembled a Florentine cookie. While not something a kid would particularly like, for adults, they were a delicious and more sophisticated version of an American classic.
Try substituting different ingredients in your favorite recipe, sweet or savory, and see how the results vary. As they say on American Idol, "make it your own!"
Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies (a variation on the classic Nestle Toll House cookie)

Yield: 30 cookies (note--this is a half recipe)
3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup plus 2 T all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 2T granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2T cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup (12-oz. pkg.) NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
1/2 cup chopped nuts

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.
COMBINE flours, baking soda and salt in small bowl.
Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add egg and beat well.
Gradually beat in flour mixture.
Stir in morsels and nuts.
Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Butter-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies (a variation on the classic Nestle Toll House cookie)
Yield: 30 cookies (note--this is a half recipe)
1 cup plus 2 T all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt 1
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup plus 2T granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2T cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup chopped nuts

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.
COMBINE flours, baking soda and salt in small bowl.
Combine oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large bowl. Add egg and stir well.
Gradually stir in flour mixture.
Stir in morsels and nuts.
Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Easter Pizza Rustica

There are lots of reasons to look forward to Easter. For Christians, it is the most sacred of religious holidays. For children, it marks the coming of the Easter bunny. For the non-religious, it signals the unofficial start of spring. I celebrate it for all of these reasons, and more---like for the food! Most people do not consider Easter a big "food holiday" like say, Thanksgiving or Christmas, but for me, it includes some of my favorite food traditions.

In my family we always began the Easter holiday by coloring eggs. Later, my Italian grandmother would knead together a batch of sweet, bread-like dough and form little handled baskets around each egg. She'd brush them with an egg wash, and after they were baked, each colorful egg would be nestled in a shiny, golden, edible basket. We did not eat these treats until Easter morning, when they would be the centerpiece of the breakfast table. I do not fancy myself as much of a baker, and admit that I have not attempted these on my own. However, this year I plan to hunt down a recipe and give it my best shot (unfortunately, hers has been lost....or perhaps was never written down). If your family makes these little treats, email me your recipe and I'll post it on this blog!
Although it has been many years since I've had one of my grandmother's egg baskets (sadly, she passed away in 1989), I have made a special point to keep up another one of her Eastertime food traditions--pizzachina. I later learned that what my family called "pizzachina", or "filled pizza" is more commonly known as "pizza rustica". I've been told that pizzachina and pizza rustica are actually two different dishes, but for reasons I do not know, my family called this specific type of Easter pie "pizzachina", and therefore, so do I. Our pizzachina is a savory pie of ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, eggs, and prosciutto, baked into a flaky crust. My grandmother baked her pizzachina in a large, rectangular baking pan, as we were always quite a crowd during the holidays. I make a smaller version in a 9-inch round cake pan.

Like the recipe for the egg baskets, I never got my grandmother's recipe for pizzachina. But taste-memory is powerful, and after trying several different versions while in my 20s, I finally found one that tasted most like the pizzachina of my childhood. Nick Malgeri, renowned baker, teacher, and author, includes a recipe for pizza rustica in book How To Bake which, after some modifications, is the closest I've come to replicating my grandmother's recipe. Now that I think of it, Nick was actually the person who told me pizzachina and pizza rustica are two entirely different dishes (I had the good fortune to take a recipe writing class from him a number of years back). I guess he would know, but at the same time, really, what's the difference? Family tradition is more important than accuracy!

Pizzachina is meant to be sliced into pieces and eaten at room temperature. We always serve it alongside our colored eggs, hot-cross buns, and fruit salad on Easter morning, It is definitely not diet food, and is rich and dense, so just a small slice will be quite filling. I guess this is part of the reason I only make it once a year!


(Based on and adapted from an original recipe for Pizza Rustica by Nick Malgieri)

Serves 8-10

The dough in Nick Malgieri's recipe is slightly sweet, which balances nicely against the rich cheeses and salty prosciutto. My grandmother's dough did not include any sugar, but (shhh!) I actually like this version a bit better. The filling is as close a match as I can muster to Grandma's.

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 t salt

1/2 t baking powder

6 T cold, unsalted butter (cut into 1 T pieces)

1 egg plus one egg white

For the filling:

1 lb ricotta cheese (whole milk is best)

3 eggs

1/4 c grated Pecorino Romano cheese

8 oz mozzarella cheese, grated

1/4- 1/2 lb prosciutto, shredded

1/4 c flat leaf parsley

Egg wash: 1 egg, beaten with 1 t wate

1- 9 inch round cake pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and put the rack in the middle position.

First make the dough by combining the dry ingredients in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse to mix. Toss the butter pieces around the bowl and pulse until a powdery consistency is reached. Add egg/egg white and continue to pulse until dough forms a ball on the blade. Remove dough and divide into two pieces (1/3 and 2/3 of dough). Press into separate discs, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

To make the filling, place the ricotta into the work bowl of the food processor and pulse until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, add eggs, and stir in remaining ingredients, one at a time. Set adide.

Roll the larger of the chilled dough discs into a large, 12 inch circle (like a pie crust), to about 1/4 inch thick. Lay in the bottom of the baking pan and gently press to form to the sides (you will have some overhang). Pour the filling inside the crust.

Roll out the remaining 1/3 crust and cut into long strips. Form a lattice pattern over the pie, pressing the ends into the edge of the bottom crust. Fold over the edges, forming a thicker edge, and press to seal.

Bake about 45 minutes until the filling is set and the crust is golden and baked through. Cool on a rack.

Gently unmold by inverting onto a platter. Serve at room temperature. Keep refrigerated after the first day of baking.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Farmers Markets--Not Just for Summer!

Growing up, I remember waiting each summer for the fresh corn to arrive at the local farm stand. My father was insistent that corn from the grocery store was sub-par, and he only bought from one particular farm stand which he felt had the best corn. "Butter and Sugar" was the variety we favored----and the farms in Schoharie County did it best. The season was limited, so we literally ate corn with dinner at least 4 times per was that good.

Everything at the farm stand seemed to just taste better. I have a vivid memory of the best strawberry I ever ate, purchased at a farm stand. Small and bright red, it was pure sweetness. I also remember the first time I ate a tomato fresh off the vine---- not even in the same hemisphere of taste as the tasteless mush sold in the grocery stores. Needless to say, I developed a affinity for farm stands, farmers markets, and the local farmers who devote their lives to producing food.

Living in coastal Connecticut, the farm stands aren't part of the scenery like they were in the rural upstate New York of my childhood. However, particularly in recent years, farmers markets have become more prevalent in this area. In 2006, the folks at Wholesome Wave (spearheaded by Michel Nischan,chef at The Dressing Room Restaurant) began the very popular Westport Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays during the summer and fall growing season. This year, the market expanded to include a Winter Market, which is held Saturdays at the Fairfield Theatre Company. "A farmers market in winter?" you ask. You may not find berries and tomatoes, but you will still leave with a armful of goodness.

On a recent Saturday, I was able to buy potatoes from Riverbank Farm of Oxford, organic salad greens from Starlight Gardens of Durham, organic fresh herbs from Two Guys From Woodbridge (even though their farm is in Hamden), and honey from Andrew's Local Honey of Norwalk. An added incentive was that John Barricelli of SoNo Bakery was there selling his fantastic breads and pastries, saving me the trip to South Norwalk. They also have a person selling teas, artisinal cheeses, and fresh seafood. You may not find the same bounty available during the main growing season, you definitely can buy everything you need for a very nice dinner party.

As spring approaches, all the farmers will begin sowing their seeds for the summer and fall harvest, and we can look forward to plentiful farmers markets beginning in early June.

Winter Market Rosemary Potatoes
Serves 6

This recipe comes from my friend Elena, who lives in Italy. I lived with Elena while studying in Siena and she made these delicious pototoes one of the first nights I was there. You can get everything you need to make these potatoes at the Winter Market.

3 lbs potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes
3-4 Tablespoons olive oil
3 sprigs (or 2 Tablespoons) fresh rosemary, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

9x13 baking dish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place all ingredients in baking dish and toss to combine (be sure the potatoes are completely coated with oil).
Bake for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are fork-tender.
Serve hot.

Area Farmers Market Info
Winter Market, Fairfield Theatre Company, 70 Sanford Street. Saturdays January- April, 10am-1pm. Go to for vendor list.

Westport Farmers Market, Westport Country Playhouse, 20 Powers Court, Westport, Thursdays, June-November (Sunday market to be determined). Go to for updated info.

Greenfield Hill Farmers Market, 1950 Bronson Road, Fairfield, Saturdays, June-October, 12:30pm-4pm. Call Trish at 259-8786 (Greenfield Hill Liquors) for more info.

Great Websites About "Eating Local" and Local Farmers Markets (New Haven based organization -- local farmers markets) (Find farmers markets in any area) (Lots of fantastic info)
Farmers Market photo by Bernard Mattus, my father-in-law.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Banana Quick Bread--Afterthought No More!

Necessity is the mother of invention. I'm guessing that is how the concept for banana bread came about. Let's face it, no one goes to the store to buy bananas with the intention of using them for a quick-bread or muffin. Most people who bake at all, bake banana bread only when they don't know what to do with a few overripe bananas which have been sitting on their counter for several days.

In my case, this seems to happen more often than it should. My kids love the idea of buying fresh bananas in the store, but then never want to eat them once at home. Today, I found myself with two very brown bananas and an hour of time, so naturally, I decided to make some banana bread. Usually, I'll make a few mini-loaves to stash in my freezer, for those occasions where you need to bring a little something to someone, or when a friend pops over for an unexpected visit. However, today, I was more in the mood for muffins, and I decided to put a little twist on my very favorite banana bread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. My idea was to add some additional fiber with whole wheat flour, cut down on the calories by using Spenda instead of sugar, increase moisture with some milk, and give them a little more bulk by adding old-fashioned oats. The result was a big, fluffy, beautiful muffin, which tasted every bit as good as it looked.

The next time you go to the store, buy a few extra bananas and try this recipe. Banana bread doesn't have to be an afterthought!
Banana-Oatmeal Muffins
Makes 6 big or 12 small muffins

2/3 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup white, all-purpose flour (unbleached)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup unsalted butter (5 1/3 T), at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar or Splenda for Baking
2 eggs
1 cup mashed, overripe bananas
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup skim milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line muffin tins with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine flours, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, combine butter and sugar (or Splenda) until light and fluffy.

Beat in flour mixture until just incorporated.

Add eggs and milk and beat to combine.

Gently fold in mashed bananas and oats.

Divide batter evenly into muffin tins and bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Store on the countertop on the day muffins are baked, or place in an airtight container for longer storage. Muffins may be frozen for up to 2 months.