Opa! Best Moussaka Ever!

April 14, 2013

I love the flavor profiles in Greek food.  Lemon, garlic, oregano, dill and mint.  I love the sharp tang of the various sheep’s milk cheese used in Greek cooking.  I frequently make a side dish of chopped spinach, fresh dill and mint with a smattering of good quality feta cheese and a squeeze of fresh lemon.  My guests always seem to love it.  It’s a big step up from ordinary cooked spinach.  The flavors are bright and fresh and it is a snap to put together.

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Lamb Based Moussaka and Spinach with Dill, Mint and Feta Cheese

What could I make to go with that spinach?  After flipping through a few magazines and then a couple of cookbooks, I came up with Moussaka – OPA!!  Okay, I know you’re only supposed to shout, Opa! when the flaming saganaki cheese arrives at your table in a Greek restaurant, but I can’t help myself.  I like to shout Opa! when any Greek food comes to my table.  Actually, I like to shout, Opa! whenever the mood strikes me.

After reading five or six different recipes, I came up with my own variation.  I don’t eat any wheat or gluten, and the typical creamy cheese topping on Moussaka begins with a flour and butter roux.  So, I needed a variation on the standard topping.  I ended up using a blend of ricotta cheese, Greek yogurt, an egg, soft goat cheese and a handful of grated pecorino romano.  The combination of the goat cheese and the pecorino romano, which is a sheep’s milk cheese, gave me that tangy zing I was looking for.  The combination of the ricotta and the yogurt mimicked the roux beautifully.

The meat sauce in Moussaka is what will make or break this classic Greek dish.  It is a blend of lamb, onion, garlic, tomatoes, red wine and a very aromatic blend of spices; cinnamon, allspice, clove and bay leaf. Wow, I had forgotten how delicious this dish can be until the meat sauce came together.  Just a few pinches of this unusual spice combo makes this dish other-worldly!

Traditional Moussaka, also known as Greek lasagna, is a multi-layered affair.  It’s fussy and time consuming to make.  I took the easy route and I don’t think the final dish suffered at all.  As a matter of fact, I think the final dish was a nice improvement over the original.  The traditional Moussaka calls for thinly sliced fried eggplant, layered with a lamb based meat sauce and thinly sliced potatoes, all topped off with the rich creamy cheese sauce.

I peeled and diced the eggplant and roasted it on a cookie sheet in the oven with a little spritz of olive oil.  I parboiled the potatoes, then gave them a large dice.  I mixed the diced eggplant, potatoes and meat sauce together and put the whole thing into a casserole dish.  I topped it off with my version of the cheese sauce and baked it.  It looked beautiful, made a great presentation at the table and the taste and textures were heavenly!

Give this super simple, amazing menu a try!  Finish it off with my baklava cups for dessert!  For the recipes, click on the links below:

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Holiday Sides Lightened Up

November 17, 2011

Does the thought of facing Thanksgiving dinner have you dusting off your elastic waist pants?  I’m here to tell you, no worries if you use some of my tricks for taking out the calories but leaving in the flavor.

I have been transforming my holiday and party recipes into delicious, low fat, low calorie dishes.  I had to take a big leap to try recipes that don’t start with bacon fat, but I promise, you won’t miss it!  Honest!   Here are a few I’ve already tested:

Fresh Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots

Instead of green bean casserole, try green beans with caramelized shallots.  I am very pleased with how easy this recipe is, but, wowee-delicious!  I caramelized the shallots in a teeny tiny bit of olive oil in a non-stick pan.  I cooked them over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes.  They became lusciously browned with a bit of crunch.

GreenLine Trimmed and Washed Green Beans

I used the pre-cleaned bagged green beans that come in a microwavable plastic bag.  If you haven’t tried these yet, I must insist – try them – immediately!!  They have become my go-to vegetable, holiday or no holiday.  You poke a few holes in the bag with a fork and microwave them for four minutes.  Instant farm stand green beans with no fuss, no muss.

After I caramelized the shallots, I nuked the green beans.  I added them to the shallots and tossed to coat the beans with all that yummy shallot flavor.  Add a sprinkle of coarse ground sea salt and a bit of black pepper and serve.  I can’t believe how good these are!  And the best part, you can do the shallots ahead of time.  Let them hang out on the back of the stove until you are ready to serve.  Nuke the beans, toss together and this dish is ready in a flash.  Click here for the recipe.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Cranberries

How about fresh Brussels sprouts roasted with fresh cranberries?  Look how gorgeous they are.  And this is another, super easy side dish.  I tossed the Brussels sprouts with a tad bit of olive oil and spread them out on a foil lined cookie sheet.  I tossed the cranberries with a dressing I made from honey and orange juice (a tablespoon of each).  I sprinkled the coated cranberries over the Brussels sprouts and sprinkled everything with smoked sea salt.  Smoked sea salt??  Yeah baby, it’s all the rage and it has become my new favorite “tastes like bacon” ingredient.   You can find a wide variety of smoked salts in gourmet shops and online.

Hot from the oven and perfectly browned and beautiful!

Cut the Brussels sprouts in half and put them cut side down on a foil lined pan.  This way, they get evenly browned and beautiful.  Roast the sprouts and berries for 20 minutes at 435 degrees with no turning or stirring.   When you turn them into the serving bowl, give them a light spray of Pam and a fresh sprinkle of salt.  This dish will be a crowd pleaser!  Click here for the recipe.

Butternut Squash with Sage and Onion Brown Butter

Wait til you try this twist on the classic butternut squash side dish!  How about kicking up the flavor with sage and a hint of onion?  Who needs all that butter when you have those yummy holiday herbs and flavors added?  And my super-secret short cut for this dish – use frozen cooked butternut squash puree.  If you’re afraid you might be smited by the ghost of your great grandmother, then by all means, buy the fresh squash.  You can peel it, seed it, roast it and mash it if you like.  I tested the recipe both ways and couldn’t taste the difference when I used the frozen squash.  Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!  I think I was just poked by an ancestor!

Another trick to boost the flavor using less fat is to use “brown butter”  In a medium sauce pan, heat 2 teaspoons of butter until it becomes toasty and browned.  Be careful not to burn it, just lightly toast it until you can smell the nuttiness and see the slight browning of the butter.

Meanwhile, grate half of a large sweet onion.  Grate the onion on your box grater.  I guess you could use a food processor, but it is really easy to use the box grater.  You’ll end up with lot of onion juice and some onion pulp.  I like to use grated onion when I don’t want the onion chunks, but I want the fresh onion taste.  Add the grated onion and onion juice to the browned butter.  Saute over medium heat until most of the onion juice has evaporated.

Add a tablespoon of dried rubbed sage and saute for another minute or two.  I don’t recommend fresh sage for this dish.  I find fresh sage is good if it is cooked for a long time, but in a quick dish like this, fresh sage can taste bitter and has a medicinal flavor.

Add the pureed squash (fresh or frozen, I’ll never tell) to the onion sage mixture and heat through.  Season with salt and pepper and serve with a garnish of fresh sage leaves.  Delish delish delish!!  Two measly teaspoons of butter for the whole dish is plenty, thanks to the flavor boost from browning the butter and the onion and sage.  Added bonus – this dish can be made ahead of time and reheated.  Yay!!  I love make ahead holiday dishes!!  For the complete recipe, click here.

Pumpkin Pie Custard Cup

If you don’t have the calorie budget for pumpkin pie, or you can’t find your elastic waist pants, try this amazing knock off.  No-crust pumpkin pie custard cups with a dollop of fat free cool whip or fat free frozen vanilla yogurt.  You won’t miss the crust.  I tested this recipe by making a batch of the standard pumpkin pie filling, except I made a few substitutions.  I substituted fat free evaporated milk for the full fat kind.  Also, I used a little bit of real brown sugar and the rest Splenda artificial sweetener.  I used whole eggs because you need the yolks to make a good custard.  I added the standard spices and poured the mixture into custard cups that had been sprayed with Pam.  I baked them for about 50 minutes at 350.  Really really good.  Try the recipe by clicking here!


Up With People Kids In Town

April 20, 2011

My husband and I had the pleasure of hosting four young men from the international traveling troupe, “Up With People”, while they were performing in Fort Lauderdale.  The boys stayed with us for eight days.  Some folks might think the task of feeding four hungry young men every day for eight days overwhelming, but me?  I was in heaven!

We had two boys from Japan; Hiroaki and Yasuhiro and two boys from Mexico; Packo and Sergio.  All spoke beautiful English, so communicating was no trouble at all.  Each morning David took them into Fort Lauderdale where they did community service work or rehearsed.  Each evening, David picked them up and they arrived at our house tired and hungry.  What a boon for me!  I planned my menu trying to choose things that were universally likable, taking special consideration for the “clean” food style of Japan.

Here is what I served each day:

Saturday

  • Poached Salmon with Fresh Dill and Lemon
  • Steamed Green Beans with Butter
  • Roasted Multi-Colored New Potatoes
  • Key-Lime Pie

Poached Salmon with Fresh Dill and Lemon

Mixed Roasted New Potatoes

Sunday

Puerto Rican Pork Roast

Coconut Rice

Monday

  • Grilled Chicken Thighs with Crispy Skin
  • Bow Tie Pasta with Chunky Fresh Tomato Sauce
  • Insalata Caprese Salad
  • Roasted Summer Squashes
  • Ice Cream Sundaes

Insalata Caprese

Grilled Chicken with Crispy Skin

Tuesday

  • Salmon Burgers
  • Big-Boy Mac and Cheese
  • Tossed Green Salad
  • Warm Brownies with Chocolate Sauce

Big-Boy Mac N Cheese

Wednesday

  • Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Mango Salsa
  • Sweet Potato Fries
  • Ice Cream Sandwiches

Pulled Pork Sandwich

Thursday

  • The boys had a concert at the Bank Atlantic Center during a Florida Panthers Hockey game, so they ate dinner on the road.

Friday

  • Sister Patti’s Grilled Ribeye Steaks
  • Baked Potatoes with the Works
  • Fennel and Feta Salad with Lemon and Dill
  • Apple Pie

Crisp Fennel With Feta, Lemon and Dill

Saturday

  • The boys had their big concert and ate during all day rehearsals.  The show was fantastic!

Sunday

  • The boys cooked for us!
  • Mole Chicken Breast
  • Mixed Vegetables and Rice
  • Japanese Cabbage & Bacon Pancake (Okonomiyaki)

It was an honor and a pleasure to host these fine young men in our home.  We wish them well in their travels and performances.  I heard they were in the Czeck Republic when this article was posted.

Yasuhiro, Packo, Hiroaki and Sergio Cooking

Japanse Pancake with Crispy Seaweed Flakes

Hiroakis Skillfull Flipping

Mixed Vegetables and Rice With Mexican Seasoning

Packo and Sergios Mole Chicken

Fun With Wigs and David's old "Up With People" Albums Yasuhiro, Hiroaki, Sergio and Packo


Company’s Coming For Dinner!

December 26, 2010

Rack of Lamb Chops Perfectly Medium Rare

My friends Lois and Richard are coming for dinner.  They eat out regularly and tend to have high end, upscale pallets.  Yikes!  I hope I can impress them.

The dinner date was one week before Christmas, a very busy time of the year.  I wanted a menu that wouldn’t overwhelm me, but would still impress.  I came up with a menu that I think will do the trick.

Menu:

Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary

Polenta with Fontina and Browned Mushroom Ragu

Bacon Seared Brussels Sprouts

Coffee and Assorted Italian Cookies

Rack of Lamb Chops

This lamb recipe is foolproof.  I have made it many times and it never fails to please.  I really love how all the items on the menu complement each other.  I think this is one of my best company menus ever!  Lois and Richard oohed and aahed through the whole meal, so I guess I accomplished my goal.

Polenta with Fontina Cheese and Muschroom Ragu

Wait until you try this polenta.  I think, even if you’re not much of a polenta fan, this dish will still please.   It’s creamy and cheesy with a wonderful earthiness provided by the mushrooms.  The recipe came from the December, 2010 Cooking Light magazine.  I prepared it in individual gratin dishes for extra wow.   It is gorgeous to look at and smells even better.

Brussel's Sprouts

Bacon Seared Brussel's Sprouts

As for the Brussels sprouts, this is my favorite way to prepare them.  I have found that those vegetable averse folks  love this recipe.  I can even get kids to eat Brussels sprouts this way.

Fresh sprouts are sauteed in a bit of bacon fat, then braised in chicken stock until tender.  The last and most important step, is to let the stock cook off completely.  When the stock is gone, the  vegetables take on a lovely brown and crispy edge from the remaining bacon fat.  Really delicious!  It’s simple to make, so give it a try.

Richard

Lois

It seems the meal was a hit.  There wasn’t scrap of food left.  Gee, I hope they didn’t leave hungry!


Fabulous Thanksgiving Menu

December 1, 2010

Oh my God, I love Thanksgiving!  For the menu, I think what most people really want is the traditional fare; Turkey, Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy and Pumpkin Pie.  I imagine the favorite sides are whatever sides your family traditionally serves, i.e., green been casserole,  creamed onions, cranberry sauce, etc.  So, I decided to stick with the traditional dishes this year.

WHAT??  Are you kidding me??  Well, sort of.  I decided to kick everything up with superb ingredients, painstaking techniques and artful presentation.  My menu:

  • Roast Turkey, brined and stuffed with aromatics
  • Sage Stuffing with Homemade Pumpernickel and Sour-Dough Croutons
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Gravy made from 48 hour turkey neck stock
  • Mixed Roast Squashes on a bed of greens
  • Sweet Potato Gnocchi sauteed in Brown Butter and Sage
  • Crisp Browned Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
  • Cranberry Relish with a splash of Chambord
  • Pumpkin Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream and Cinnamon Sugared Pecan Crumble
  • Mince Apple Pie with the same topping as above

Brined Turkey Stuffed with Aromatics

I wasn’t having a big crowd, so I had to take care not to prepare too much food.  I tend to err on the side of cooking for at least a full regiment, so this was no easy task for me.  For the turkey, I bought a small (ten pound) fresh, free range turkey from a great Italian specialty grocer, Doris’.  They always have the best meats, seafood and produce.

I used the classic brining recipe from the new cookbook, “The Essential New York Times Cook Book”, by Amanda Hesser.  (This is a must-have book.)  It was brined in water, sugar, salt, carrot, onion, celery, bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, chili flakes, fennel seeds, star anise and fresh thyme.  It was brined for 48 hours and then, to make sure the skin was nice and crispy, I tried a new technique I heard about.  I pulled the bird from the brine and rinsed it thoroughly.  I patted it dry as much as I could.  It sat UNCOVERED on a platter in the fridge for another 24 hours.  This helps the skin to completely dry out and cook up nice and crispy.  It worked great!  I will use this little trick from now on.

I stuffed the bird with apples, onion, celery, fresh sage and fresh thyme.  This stuffing is for an aromatic and flavor boost, you don’t actually eat any of the stuffing.  I rubbed the whole thing with olive oil and dried sage and baked it at 325 for about 2 1/2 hours.  All the meat, even the white meat, was tender and juicy.  The brining sees to that.  The skin was golden brown and crispy.

Stuffing Baked with Turkey Wings on top keeps it Moist

The stuffing was the best I’ve ever had.  I made my own croutons from a loaf of pumpernickel and another loaf of sour-dough white bread.  I made the croutons big, about one inch squares.  I wanted to cook the stuffing outside the bird and sometimes stuffing can get a little dry when you cook it this way.  I heard another amazing little trick to ensure moist and tasty stuffing.  The trick is to place two turkey wings on top of the stuffing and then bake it.  While it baked, the juices from the wings dripped down into the stuffing.  It came out moist, aromatic and delicious.  Even better than the kind you make inside the bird.  An extra bonus – the wings were also delicious!

Roasted Mix of Squashes on Bed of Greens with Dried Cranberry Scatter

My best side dish was the platter of mixed squash, roasted and decorated with dried cranberries.  Look at them!!  You have to make them just to look at them.  I bought one acorn squash and one small sugar pumpkin.  I cut them in half and seeded them.  I put them in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes, just long enough to soften them slightly.  Then I took them out, sliced them thin, drizzled butter and salt on them and returned them to a high heat oven, 425 degrees for another 30 minutes or until just turning brown on the edges.   I arranged the slices on a bed of greens that I had lightly dressed with a shallot vinaigrette and I scattered a few dried cranberries around just for good looks!  This recipe is from the 2010 issue of Food And Wine magazine.  My version looks way better than theirs.  Ha!

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Sage and Brown Butter

My second favorite side dish was the Sweet Potato Gnocchi sauteed in brown butter and sage.  Can you stand it?  I’m not really a big fan of sweet potatoes and I’m certainly not a fan of sweet, sweet potatoes.  I wanted to make a savory sweet potato dish.  I saw Giada, the Italian chef on the Food Network make a sweetened sweet potato gnocchi, so I stole her idea and cut out everything sweet.  I added some savory spices like; cumin, Chinese Five Spice powder, onion powder and black pepper.  They were pretty straightforward to make, gorgeous to look at and really tasty.  A definite keeper.

For my green veggie, I decided on Brussels sprouts.  I used the fresh ones.  I washed trimmed and cut each one in half.  I put them in a saute pan with a tablespoon of bacon fat and a cup of my turkey neck stock.  I simmered them, covered for about ten minutes.  Then I uncovered them and let the liquid cook off completely (about 15 minutes more).  After the liquid cooks off, they get browned on the edges from the bacon fat.  I promise you, even Brussels sprout haters will love this recipe.

Cranberry Relish with a Splash of Chambord - Raspberry Liqueur

I also made cranberry relish with orange, granny smith apple, walnuts and chambord, a raspberry liqueur.  The chambord dressed up the standard relish and everyone loved it.  With all the rich foods on a Thanksgiving Day menu, a sweet tart cranberry relish cuts through the richness and balances everything perfectly.


Tennis Party Quiche

November 14, 2010

My Tennis club had a season kick-off party yesterday.  There was a tennis round robin, exhibition matches put on by the pros, and a pot luck lunch.   I wanted to make something that could be served at room temperature and I didn’t want to worry about the dish going bad in the heat.  So, I came up with quiche.  I was able to make it the night before and re-heat in the morning just before the party.

Spinach Feta and Dill Quiche for a Crowd

You know I’m a big showoff, so I can’t make quiche Lorraine or some other passe, boring old quiche.  My quiche has to wow the guests.  So, for the first one, I made a spinach with feta cheese and fresh dill pie.  I used puff pastry sheets for the crust and baked it in a disposable, tin 9 by 13 inch pan.  It was really beautiful, smelled fantastic and was absolutely delicious.  There wasn’t a scrap left at the party.  Try this recipe for what I call, Spanakopita Quiche.

Tomato Mozzarella and Fresh Basil Quiche for a Crowd

For the second dish, I made a tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil quiche.  The recipe is a take off on insalata caprese.  I was thinking about how to incorporate fresh tomatoes into a quiche with all the moisture there would be in the tomatoes.  I had a brainstorm and decided to roast the tomatoes before assembling the pie.

I used Italian plum tomatoes cut in half lengthwise.  I cored them and laid them out on a cookie sheet.  I drizzled them with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little sugar (to help bring out the tomato flavor).  I roasted them at 450 degrees for about 40 minutes.

I used some of the roasted tomatoes, chopped up in the pie, and I saved some, whole to decorate the top of the quiche.  I used shredded mozzarella in the quiche, but thin sliced fresh mozzarella for the top of the quiche.  After scattering the top with fresh basil chiffonade, it looked a lot like a classic Margherita Pizza Pie.

I wanted this quiche to mimic the insalata caprese, which classically has good olive oil drizzled over top.  I din’t think olive oil in a quiche would work out, but maybe a few chopped green olives would give me the flavor I wanted.  I still have five pounds of green olives left over from the catering job.  If you recall, these are top of the line (expensive) large green olives.  I rough chopped a cup of them and scattered them throughout the quiche.  I was nervous about how that was going to work out.  Well, I was delighted when I finally got a taste at the party.  It was amazing!  A real WOW quiche recipe.  A nice twist on several classics.  I hope you give this recipe for “Tomato Basil Quiche” a try.


It’s My Birthday Dinner

August 9, 2010

What is my favorite thing to do on my birthday?  Make myself dinner, of course!

Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary

Birthday Menu:

Rack of  Lamb with Garlic and Rosemary

Potato Gratin with Parsley and Sage

Moroccan Glazed Carrots

♦Cucumber Raita with Mint

♦Triple Chocolate Cake

I decided to go all out for this meal.  It didn’t take me long to come up with rack of lamb.  I’ve never made rack of lamb before.  I don’t know why, because this recipe is so simple, so fool proof that I should have been making it for years.  Give it a try for some big WOW at your dinner table.

Potato Gratin with Parsley and Sage

I was thinking my famous rosemary scalloped potatoes would go nicely, but then I thought, “too much rosemary”.  A little rosemary goes a long way.  So, I decided to mix it up a bit.  I made the same scalloped potatoes, but this time with parsley and sage.  I changed up the cheese as well.  Instead of using cheddar, I used Gruyere (fancy french cheese that melts fantasticly and tastes a little like swiss cheese) and Fontina (another great melting cheese).  They smelled fantastic and the taste was simply divine.  Give these a try, or try your own cheese and herb combination.

Moroccan Glazed Carrots

Now, I needed something red on the plate but I was tired of tomatoes.  I came up with Julia’s (Child) Glazed Carrots.  But I was brave and changed up her recipe a bit.  I know, can you believe I would do such a thing?  I used brown sugar instead of white and I added a pinch of Garam Masala to give it that Moroccan taste.  They were amazing!

Cucumber Raita with Fresh Mint

With all these rich dishes, I decided I needed something light and acidic.  The eastern Indians use raitas to cleanse the palate of heavy or spicy foods.  So I made a cucumber and mint raita.  I added a bit of diced red onion as well.  The dish should be made with a yogurt dressing.  I didn’t have any, so I punted with sour cream that I mellowed with a bit of half and half.  I added lemon juice and a splash of rice vinegar along with a teaspoon of sugar.  It did the job and was very pretty as well.

I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of the birthday cake, but so sad, too bad, can’t bring it back.  I bought it at Doris’ Italian Market, swoon…..  It was a triple chocolate cake, meaning; chocolate cake with chocolate pudding and chocolate ganache.  I thought I was going to faint from sugar shock, but it was out of this world delicious.  I didn’t pass out so I had another piece for breakfast the next day.


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