Sunday, November 23, 2014

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

The past and the now. Old and new. A new recipe with familiar roots. With all of the preceding, there was first a history that led to the present and so it is with today's recipe.

Back in the early days of Phillips Restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland...back when Phillips offered some of the best seafood in town...there was a particular crab dish my sister, Jeanie, and I couldn't get enough of - Crab au Gratin.

Crab au Gratin was a  decadent dish of huge crab lumps and nothing else but a blanket of rich,  cheddary sauce cuddling the crab. No fillers, no extraneous ingredients hidden anywhere, just simple cheesy crabmeat. Perfection. And then Phillips changed. Their crab was brought in from all over the world instead of remaining locally sourced. The bigger Phillips got, the less we enjoyed the food. We sought better and went elsewhere.

In the intervening years since our crab and cheese indulgences, lobster mac n' cheese became a thing. Aha, another variety of crustacean and cheese sauce! Would it be as wonderful as long lamented Crab au Gratin? It wasn' least the version I had wasn't. Instead of a beautifully browned and crusty top layer of cheese sauce, what came on my plate was more like stovetop mac and cheese with bits of lobster hiding amongst the pasta elbows. Finding lobster was a search and rescue mission.

Besides, as succulent as lobster is, it's no match for sweet Maryland crab. Why not do my own version? Why not crab mac and cheese? How about a base of pasta and cheese with a light blanket of sauteed spinach, crowned by a thick layer of giant Maryland crab lumps and caressed by a rich, cheese sauce? My new crab dish became a sort of fusion of macaroni and cheese meets Greek pastitsio meets lasagna. Once again old inspired new.

Speaking of new, Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna was the covered dish I took to Friendsgiving last night. A casual gathering of friends - both old and new - celebrated an early Thanksgiving with good food (Duxelles Roast Turkey, Bourbon Vanilla Bean Cranberry Sauce, Bourekas, Cheesecake-Stuffed Baked Apples w/Homemade Caramel Sauce...just the highlights) and drinks (fine wines - both homemade and store-bought - and a delicious Peanut Butter Cup cocktail), great stories, lots of laughs and even a few misty-eyed moments. It was an evening of made-over tradition...old to new...that I'm looking forward to again next year! 

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

  • 12 oz. elbow macaroni, cooked al dente - I use Barilla gluten-free pasta to make this GF - use your own favorite macaroni, of course.
  • 1 lb Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through carefully for any shell or cartiledge - don't break up the lumps, please.
  • 4 T butter
  • 4 T cornstarch
  • 2 C milk
  • 1 C half & half
  • 1 1/2 t Old Bay seafood seasoning - accept no substitute!
  • 1/2 C sharp cheddar, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Swiss, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Italian Parmesan blend shredded cheese, plus extra for top
  • 2 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 t olive oil
  • 3 C sliced fresh spinach, stems removed
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced finely

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a shallow baking dish (2-3 quart size). Set the baking dish aside.

Melt butter in a medium sized pot over medium heat. Whisk in the cornstarch until the mixture is smooth. Gradually whisk in the milk, stirring until smooth, then add the half & half and whisk until smooth and the mixture thickens. Add 1/2 C each of cheddar, Swiss and Italian blend cheeses. Reduce the heat and stir until the cheeses are completely melted. Add cream cheese and Old Bay - stir until the cream cheese is completely melted. Set aside and keep warm. 

In a non-stick skillet, add the olive oil and warm over medium heat. Add spinach and garlic and cook until the spinach wilts. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the cooked macaroni and pour 2/3 of the cheese sauce over top. Stir gently to thoroughly combine. Pour the mac n' cheese into the bottom of the buttered shallow casserole dish.

Pat any liquid in the pan of spinach off with a paper towel. Distribute the spinach evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese layer. Gently scatter the gorgeous Maryland crab lumps over the spinach layer, spoon the remaining cheese sauce evenly over the crab and sprinkle the extra shredded cheeses over all.

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is beautifully browned. 

NOTE: I use cornstarch to make this gluten-free. If gluten isn't an issue, feel free to use all purpose flour.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

Even though the taste of umami was identified relatively recently, great chefs have been instinctively working with it almost forever. More potent than your common, ordinary food tastes, 'umami' definitely pushes the boundaries of everyday taste sensations. 

When I started working on my pork chop rub/paste, I didn't set out to produce an 'umami bomb." Just so happens, that's exactly what resulted! What's an umami bomb? A dish that's built of almost (or completely) umami ingredients. 

Let's back up here. I guess your first question is, "What IS umami anyway?" In addition to the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour, it's a savory flavor. Think of the taste sensation you get from meats, especially pork and beef. To take it a step further, especially the flavor of cured or smoked meats. Not just meats, and seafood are rich in umami, the earthy taste of mushrooms, cheeses - particularly Parmesan, feta and blue veined varieties and even vegetables such as asparagus and garlic come into play, too. 

Fermentation produces vinegars, soy sauce and fish sauce that have double the wham with more than one umami trigger - fish sauce has both fish AND is fermented, Worcestershire sauce is also fermented and contains anchovies. Enough background. Just how did umami favors result in a totally delightful dish?

As I said above, I started with pork chops - umami already. There were dried porcini mushrooms in the cabinet so I put those in my spice grinder with black peppercorns and a few Szechuan peppercorns - whirrrr whirrrrr - porcini peppercorn dust. Next I added tamari, balsamic vinegar and garlic, mixed them into a paste, rubbed the chops and let them marinate overnight. 

Once grilled the next day, the flavors were deep, dark, rich, mysterious and intense. Total umami success! 

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

  • 1/4 C dried porcini mushrooms
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 5 Szechuan peppercorns

  • 1 T granulated garlic
  • 2 large garlic cloves, pressed or minced finely
  • 1 T wheat-free Tamari or soy sauce (I use wheat-free Tamari to make this gluten free)
  • 1 T balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T roasted peanut oil
  • 1 T agave
  • a sprinkling of Porcini & Salt  - a finishing salt that's mixture of sea salt, porcini mushrooms and herbs (I get mine at Gourmet Delights) to finish!

  • 4 nice, thick bone-in pork chops - I like center cut loin chops

Start martinating these the night before for maximum umami-ness or 4 hours in a pinch.

In a spice grinder, buzz the dried mushrooms and the black and Szechuan peppercorns together to a dust. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the pork chops) to the porcini peppercorn dust and mix to a well-combined paste, then evenly coat both sides of the pork chops with ALL of the paste.  Put the chops into a zip top plastic bag, squeeze out all the air, seal and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, grill the chops and serve with a sprinkle of Porcini & Salt for extra porcini - AND umami - emphasis!

NOTE: This was one of the last dishes I got to make for Mark, who gave it a highly enthusiastic thumbs up and a request for me to make them again SOON. We both thought they'd be pretty amazing smoked!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

It has been QUITE a while since there's been a quickie on Dinner Plan-it. It's time!

What's even better than Apple Crisp? A crisp with oatmeal raisin cookie dough baked onto the top. Here's how to make what amounts to an oatmeal cookie apple pie ala mode dessert that's sure to be a family favorite.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

  • 6 C apples, peeled, cored, sliced approx. 1/4" thick
  • 1/2 lemon 

  • 1/2 C flour (I use a good gluten-free all purpose flour to make this GF)
  • 1 t cinnamon 
  • 1/8 t nutmeg
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/4 C brown sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1/3 C butter, softened
  • 1/2 C oats (I use certified gluten-free oats to make this GF)
  • 1/3 C raisins
  • 1/4 C pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a shallow casserole dish (I used the 2 1/2 quart size French White Corningware oval casserole dish (approx. 8 1/2" X 11") - it's the perfect size!) and scatter the apple slices evenly in the dish. Sprinkle the juice of the lemon over the apples to keep them from turning brown while you make the topping.

In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugars with a fork. Add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly with the fork - I've been known to just use my fingers (clean, of course!) and work the mixture until it's crumbly and combined.

Crumble the oatmeal cookie dough over the apples. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking another 20 minutes or so until the apples are bubbly throughout and the cookie topping is beautifully browned. 

Cool about half an hour and serve warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream. 

NOTE: I like to use a nice tart apple that doesn't cook down to mush. You want an apple pie type apple, not an applesauce type apple. Try Granny Smiths, McIntosh or (my favorite) Stayman Winesaps. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Angry Orchard Beef, Pumpkin & Apple Stew

Giant orange orbs are appearing everywhere these crisp, chilly and windy days, whether they're scattered across the hills and fields of our beloved local farms or piled high in grocery store bins. Pumpkins are everywhere! Even in my CSA box.

That big ol' sugar pumpkin presented a few possibilities. Should I just plunk it out on the porch with my other warty pumpkins, gourds and rusty mums? That would be the easy way out. I did briefly consider roasting pumpkin chunks and making a roasted pumpkin and cinnamon syrup for fall cocktails, but decided on a hearty and warming stew instead.

I just happened to have a nice chuck roast in the freezer, so I pulled that out and after it was thawed, cut it into nice sized cubes, browned them and started building the base for the stew. The hardest part of the stew? Cutting and peeling the pumpkin! Ugh. Maybe the porch sitting pumpkin idea was better after all. But no, I soldiered on and peeled that sucker! 

After browning the beef in batches and then putting just a little caramelization on the pumpkin pieces, I simply added peeled potatoes (also from my Dillner Farms CSA box), lots of onion, a nice big peeled and cubed apple (yep, CSA, too!), poured a bottle of Angry Orchard hard cider over all, put on the lid and simmered the mixture away for a few hours. Oh, it smelled wonderful all throughout the house!

Best of all, the pumpkin-y, apple-y, onion-y and richly beefy conglomeration of flavor was worth every bit of the pumpkin peeling process. Here's a little hint...don't feel like peeling a pumpkin? Try subbing in peeled butternut squash in those plastic containers from the grocery store instead. It works!

Angry Orchard Beef, Pumpkin & Apple Stew 

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 pounds chuck roast, cut into stew-sized cubes
  • Salt and pepper to taste - use to season the meat liberally before browning
  • 4 C fresh pumpkin, cut open, seeds removed, cut into strips and the rind peeled, cut into cubes (or buy pre-peeled butternut squash at the grocery store - perfectly acceptable substitution!)
  • 2 large onions, approx 2 C,cubed 
  • 1 1/2 t fresh garlic, minced finely or pressed
  • 4 C peeled and cubed red or Yukon Gold potatoes - don't use Russet potatoes as they have a tendency to fall apart
  • 1 bottle (12 oz.) Angry Orchard Cinful Apple hard cider - or another variety, but I like the subtle cinnamon hint it infuses the stew with
  • 1 1/2 C apple - peeled, cored, cut into cubes
  • 2 t Beef soup base - I like Better Than Bullion, it's gluten free!

In a heavy bottomed enameled cast iron Dutch oven, melt the butter and oil together and bring it to high temp. Add the salt and peppered beef chunks - in 3 batches - and brown well on all sides. Remove each batch to a bowl as each is done.

When all the beef is browned, add the pumpkin pieces to the oil and brown, giving a nice caramelization to the edges. Then add the onions and garlic and stir well until the onions and garlic are softened. 

Add the beef back into the pot along with the potatoes, pour the bottle of Angry Orchard over all, stir everything up from the bottom, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let it go for about an hour, then add the apple and the soup base. Stir well again, cover and let it simmer for another 2 hours or so until the beef is tender.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Paw Paw Ice Cream or Concord Grape Sorbet...One Difficult Decision

This week's Millie's Homemade ice cream CSA presented we fortunate subscribers with a choice: a pint of native Western PA paw paw ice cream or harvest fresh concord grape sorbet? Tough decision, right? I love choices where there are no wrong answers. I chose paw paw. 

Why? Because I've been dying to try paw paws for many years. From the time we moved into our house in the North Hills 28 years ago, all those fruit tree catalogs tempted me with descriptions of the exotic sounding fruit tree. The fruits look like a large mango with a flavor description of a banana crossed with citrus. Described as having a custardy texture, I SO wanted to try them. 

The trees themselves were unlike any local tree I'd ever cool and tropical looking! Somehow I never got around to ordering a pair. Yet another gardening regret in hindsight as paw paws have become the darling of the fall fresh and local scene. Blew that one!

I was tickled to see the last Cure'ated dinner (at Cure in Lawrenceville with Chef Brian Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick, MD (and of Top Chef fame)) used paw paws in every course. (I was first on the waiting list for this dinner if someone cancelled. They didn't. Damn.) And now, I was being offered paw paw ice cream delivered directly to my door? Yes, please.

Now that I had a pint of my dream paw paw ice cream in my hot little hands, would I be disappointed after years of imagining the exotic, yet local, fruit's flavor? Not on your life. It was everything I'd imagined and more! Just a hint of banana with a subtle melon nuance and a smidge of pineapple in the forefront delighted my tastebuds. THIS is ice cream to savor!

And you know what? When Lauren delivered my pint to the door, I was lucky enough to be gifted a bonus pint of Concord Grape sorbet, too. I hit the ice cream lottery! 

One taste of this intensely grape-y sorbet had me imagining a tall glass of gin and tonic with a big scoop - or TWO - of this gorgeous deep purple grape sorbet bobbing in a bubbly tall glass. So that's exactly what we enjoyed last evening. Ahhhhhhhh...a perfect purple-y adult float. Cheers to Millie! And her homemade chilly delights.

Millie's Concord Grape Gin & Tonic Float

Serves 1

  • 1 1/2 oz.  Bluecoat gin
  • 2 nice big scoops of Millie's Homemade Concord Grape Sorbet (or another brand if you can't get your hands on Millie's - I bet blackberry would be pretty amazing, too!)
  • Fever Tree Naturally Light Indian Tonic Water (or regular, not light) - enough to fill the glass

In a nice tall glass, add the gin and a little tonic. Mix. Add hefty scoops of sorbet and pour enough tonic to fill the glass. Gently stir and serve with a straw. (I love my metal spoon straws...dual purpose!)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Spinach & Parm Meatballs And Sausage With Hot Banana Pepper Sauce

Staring at the takeout menu, the decision is always the same when a hot hoagie is the night's craving. Meatball or hot sausage?  Okay, maybe a steak n' cheese might figure into the equation, too, on occasion. But generally, it's meatball or hot sausage for me.

And then there's the gluten issue getting in the way of simply ordering from a takeout menu. Except for Mandy's Pizza in West View (thank you Steve for doing amazing GF pizzas, hoagies, calzones and pastas ALL in a GF version!), usually if I want a hoagie, it's going to be homemade. As long as I'm doing my own meatballs or hot sausage, why not make it the way I really want it? Why NOT do both meatballs AND sausage in the same sandwich so there are no potential life altering decisions to be made? Why not indeed. So I did.

Every good meatball or sausage hoagie (did you know I still say "sub" sometimes from my years in Maryland?) starts with a doggone good tomato sauce. Since I still have hot banana peppers from the CSA, that's where I started. And really, Italian hot banana peppers are just made for a good sauce on an Italian hoagie! After starting with the peppers, I added lots of garlic, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and good red wine. Good start.

My meatballs are a nice light version with chopped fresh spinach and a hefty amount of Parmesan, as well as fresh bread and heavy cream to be sure the meatballs stay light and tender. Because the sauce itself packs a nice wallop of heat, instead of my usual hot sausage, I used sweet Italian sausage and let the sauce carry the heat for the dish. 

Once the sauce, meatballs and sausage had simmered on the stovetop for a while, all that was needed were good, crusty hoagie rolls (or Udi's GF baguettes for me) and a nice smoky provolone to tuck into the sandwich to get all gooey and melty. Just like takeout!

And the leftovers? Turn the sauce, meatballs and sausage into an easy casserole for a dinner the whole family will love! Who doesn't like double duty dinners?! 

Spinach & Parm Meatballs And Sausage 
With Hot Banana Pepper Sauce

  • 3 T olive oil
  • 2 large sliced banana peppers - HOT ones!, tops removed, seeds removed, sliced across into thin wheels
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 C fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 T Kosher salt
  • lots of freshly ground black peppercorns
  • 2 - 1 lb 12 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes in puree w/ basil leaf
  • 1/3  (or more?) C good red wine

  • 1 1/3 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T Italian flatleaf parsley, chopped
  • a generous 1/2 C fresh spinach, chopped - measured after chopping
  • Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 t granulated garlic
  • 2 T heavy cream
  • 1 slice firm bread, crumbled finely - I use gluten-free bread to make this GF, but if gluten isn't an issue use something like Pepperidge Farm

  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage links, cut in half and browned in a skillet

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Start with the sauce. In a large pot, add the olive oil and add the banana peppers and garlic. Saute gently until the veggies are softened, but not browned. Add the basil and stir in well, then add the salt & pepper, tomatoes (crushing each tomato with your hand and fingers as you put it in) and wine. Stir well, bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Let simmer gently while making the meatballs & sausage.

In a large bowl, mix all the meatball ingredients well, but lightly. Make meatballs about the size of golf balls and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 40 minutes until beautifully browned. 

Add meatballs and browned sausage into the sauce and simmer an hour or so. Don't let the sauce reduce too much, but just to a nice spoonable consistency. Stir occasionally, making sure the bottom isn't burning. 

Serve on good crisp hoagie buns with slices of provolone, if you wish. To make these GF, I use Udi's baguettes. Fabulous!

NOTE: What to do with leftovers besides more hoagies? Cut each meatball in half, and the sausages, too. Cook rigatoni or medium shells, drain and add meatballs and sausage with enough sauce to coat the pasta well. Add cubes of mozzarella and some parm, mix well, pour into a large shallow casserole dish, cover with more shredded mozz and bake at 400 degrees just until the casserole bubbles nicely. Serve with a good salad and garlic bread. Easy dinner! 

Oh what the hell, here's a bonus recipe for the casserole:

Meatballs, Sausage & Shells 
Quick and Easy Casserole

  • 8 oz. large shell pasta - I use gluten-free to make this GF - cooked just under al dente to allow for time in the oven
  • 4 C leftover meatballs and sausage, each cut in half
  • 1 C leftover banana pepper sauce
  • 4 oz. sharp provolone, cut in 1/2" dice
  • 4 oz. firm mozzarella, cut in 1/2" dice
  • 4 oz. fontina, cut in 1/4" dice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Drain the shells and return to the pot. Add the sauce and stir gently to coat, trying to separate the shells. Add the halved meatballs and sausage and the cheeses, again trying to separate the shells so they're evenly distributed with the meats. 

Spray a shallow casserole dish with Pam and pour the mixture into the dish. Bake for about 50 minutes until the cheeses are melted and the casserole is bubbly.

Easy, family pleasing dinner! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Millie's Homemade Ice Cream - Maybe The Best CSA Ever!

Oh, how the excitement around home has been growing! CSA time was a l m o s t here! Not our farm CSA, that one is nearly at an end, I'm talkin' our ICE CREAM CSA!  And our first delivery came on Saturday. Let the celebration begin!

First, a little background. Our ice cream CSA is by Millie's Homemade Ice Cream right here in Pittsburgh. They use only the finest of local farm fresh eggs and cream to "create artisanal ice cream and sorbet that will fill your belly and warm your heart." That's according to Chad and Lauren, the talent behind the product that not only does what it promises, but soothes your soul at the same time. With ice cream!

Just like a perfect present in it's presentation, isn't it? Appropos.

Who is the talent behind the ice cream? None other than Chad Townsend, formerly the talented chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, and his lovely wife and business partner, Lauren. He brings his years of expertise in discovering combinations that are sometimes subtle nuances of gentle flavors or other times little (big) parties in your mouth. I'll be sharing the excitement of each flavor as the CSA weeks unroll.

Our inaugural Saturday CSA delivery was a gentle, beguiling little number of Lemon Verbena ice cream. You know we popped the lid and dug into the pint of soft green goodness the instant it was placed into our hands! Smooth, sweet, silky and lemony herbal notes danced and swayed gently in our mouths. 

It may look a little soft, but that's perfect tasting consistency to me!

We dreamed of running into the kitchen to whip up a batch of perfect shortbread cookies to accompany the deliciousness in front of us, but you KNOW we simply spooned and enjoyed it straight from the carton! And, when reason returned to our (ice cream cooled) fevered brains, plopped the pint into the freezer to finish off the next day. Still sans shortbread. Of course.

Where can you get your own Millie's Homemade Ice Cream? Especially since the CSA is long since filled up? Every Friday you can get your fill at the Livermore in East Liberty (124 S. Highland Avenue) by the cup or by the cone. In the meantime, I'll be by my front door on Saturdays (not so) patiently awaiting my precious pint of ice cream or sorbet to appear at my door. There may or may not already be a spoon in my hand when it gets here.