Saturday, December 27, 2014

The emotional side of food

I have always been amazed at how our senses can overwhelm our emotions. I  have been blessed with the senses of smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing and have found that there are multiple triggers that bring me back to childhood and often resulting in time spent reliving specific memories. A perfect example is the smell of diesel exhaust from a big rig brings me back to days spent on the road with my father but this is a blog about food so who wants to think about truck exhaust. With that said let me give you a better example about a more appealing form of sensory recall which I experienced tonight.

Earlier in the day Rebecca and I spent time at the grocery store picking up a few items. Every time I go into a grocery store I always take a moment to check out the mark down produce rack and it seems like I always find something worth getting and often times makes its way into our dinner plans. 

Today as I was browsing through the multiple racks I found two bags of artichokes. Most people don't get excited about artichokes but for me they were a childhood staple and I often dream of the day that Rebecca and I finally make the trip to Chiusure, Italy for the Artichoke Festival! When we were dating artichokes were one of the foods that I introduced Rebecca to and have since passed the love of onto our children who refer to them as "natural beauties." I was amazed when I looked at the price and realized I was getting five beautiful buds for less than $1.50! I knew immediately what I was going to do with them but I had no idea how many emotions would come along with the meal.

Growing up my Grandmother Angelina Aquilino would make me the most amazing lunches each week when I would go over to mow the lawn and one of my favorite treats was her stuffed artichokes. I can remember watching her prepare them and while I always loved them fresh out of the oven there were occasions when she made them the day before and I always thought the flavors were even better after chilling in the refrigerator overnight.

When we got home I took the half loaf of bread I was saving and used it to make homemade bread crumbs which I seasoned with olive oil, diced garlic and shallots (which I lightly sauteed) as well as some dried oregano and thyme which was from our summer herb garden. As I began prepping the artichokes I couldn't help but think of my grandmother and the many summer afternoons we spent together sitting at the little table eating lunch together. I carefully stuffed each bud pulling back the trimmed leaves making sure there would be a little stuffing in each and every bite. I placed them in my favorite pan and added some boiling water and a sliced lemon which was one of the ingredients my grandmother always seemed to have in her kitchen whether it was for cooking or taking the rind and squeezing it onto her wrist as a natural fresh citrus perfume.

I covered the pan and moved it to the oven and it didn't take long for the amazing aromas to start filling our house which awoke the families senses resulting in each of them making their way into the kitchen to inquire about what smelled so good and how long would it be till we could eat it! 

While patience is required when making stuffed artichokes it seemed like only a brief moment before my nose told me it was time to uncover the pan to allow the stuffing to get a nice toasty coating as the finishing touch of the cooking process.

I made each of us a plate and as soon as I took that first bite I was transported back to my childhood. It was in this moment that remarked to Rebecca how much I missed my Grandmother. It didn't take long before my sense of taste resulted in an emotional response. I found my eyes welling up with tears and I had to excuse myself from the table to compose myself.

Who would have ever imagined something as simple as an artichoke could invoke so many emotions. I was blessed to have an Italian Grandmother and Mother who took the time to teach me how to cook, they didn't just teach me how to cook for myself they instilled a love of cooking in my heart which I am grateful for each and every time I find myself preparing a meal. I was blessed to have had the chance to bond with my Grandmother as a child and while their time with her was short in comparison to mine I am thankful that my wife and both my kids had a chance to get to know her. Although they never had the chance to have her cook for them like she did for me; I take great comfort in the ability to give them a glimpse of my childhood by doing my best recreating some of the meals she prepared for me. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Day Dreaming Inspires Dinner

Growing up I was blessed to eat homemade food every day and it wasn't just at home. It seemed like everyone I grew up with had parents that no matter how busy life was they took time to make homemade meals each and every day. While I enjoyed going to friends houses for dinner most of the time there was one home that was extra special - especially when it came time to eat!

I can still remember Carl's first day of school after moving to CT from Texas. That day I not only made a new friend I inherited a new family and love of homemade Mexican and Tex Mex food. Carl's parents embraced me as one of their own and while this blog is about food I was nourished both mentally and physically during my teenage years at their house. To this day I still keep in contact with my surrogate family despite all of us being in different states. Tonight while wandering around in the produce section of the store I found myself recalling the times spent in Mom Howard's kitchen talking about life while she prepared homemade pico de gallo with a roast slow cooking on the stove in preparation of being shredded by hand for taco meat. The food was always the perfect accompaniment to the conversation that seemed to flow around the family dinner table. These thoughts were disrupted by some stranger bumping me back into reality with their shopping cart but I knew that I wanted to make something that would bring my taste buds back to my youth.

I started by making my homemade pico - fresh diced tomatoes, jalapenos, poblanos, cilantro, garlic, sweet onion, fresh lime juice with a pinch of salt and fresh ground black pepper.

Next I mashed up some avocados, added a little of the pico and a squeeze of fresh lemon to make this beautiful bowl of guacamole.

It was too late to try and slow cook a deserving piece of meat so I used ground turkey and seasoned it up the best I could.

I decided with the additional ingredients we had that I would make some nachos that could qualify as a meal!

I started with a layer of tortilla strips and from there I carefully heaped on the remaining ingredients to end up with this!
After a short visit to the oven I was ready for my taste buds to travel back in time to my youth!
While this couldn't even compare to the food Mom Howard prepared for me on so many occasions I think she would have been proud of my attempt and after texting her a picture of my creations she concurred making my night that much better!
Thank you Mom Howard for introducing me to your homemade cooking, for the great conversations and guidance over the years and for always accepting me as your other son!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Involtini , Braciola or Roulade - no matter what you call them they are delicious!

Around the holidays I was roaming the meat department at one of our local grocery stores when I caught site of the butcher putting out the most beautiful looking thin slices of beef. I immediately began loading up the carriage with an assortment of ingredients while my lovely wife looked on with a look of wonderment as to what I was planning. 

I grabbed 2 packages of the beef, some bacon, a bag of baby greens (spinach, bok choy, red and green chard) tomatoes, green onions and poblano chili peppers. At home I knew I had an assortment of shredded cheese, artichoke hearts, fresh mozzarella and homemade pesto sauce, ya dinner was going to be remarkable tonight! 

Once I was home I began prepping all the delicious ingredents that would become my fillings and before long everyone was sitting at the breakfast bar watching me transform simple ingredients into a mouth watering dinner.

This one was what I like to consider an Italian style BLT. I had the baby greens which had been sauteed in olive oil with garlic and a pinch of salt, diced tomatoes, crispy bacon pieces and green onions.

This next one was Alex's take on Tex-Mex. It had diced tomatoes, green onions, poblano pepper strips and shredded Montery Jack, Cheddar, Queso Quesadilla and Asadero cheese blend.

The favorite which was inspired by Rebecca and Ariel. I spread a nice layer of my homemade pesto sauce and topped it with sliced artichoke hearts, diced fresh mozzarella cheese and a few green onions.

Once I had the stuffing in place I carefully rolled and bundled each yummy package and with the help of some butchers twine they were ready for the pan!

  Are you hungry yet?

I drizzled the pan with olive oil and sprinkled in some freshly chopped garlic. Once it was nice and hot I added in the meat to lightly sear on each side. 

Once they were seared I put the pan in a 425*F oven for 5 minutes to complete the cooking process. Normally when making these I would have a batch of sauce on the stove and would toss the meat into the sauce to finish cooking. The important thing to remember is to keep it simple, fun and most importantly delicious! 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ricky Bobby would say he loves my Crepe's

Unlike Ricky Bobby I am willing to shout from the rooftops that I love crepes. There is nothing like a thin eggy pancake which can be used for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any meal in between. They can be made as a sweet treat or a savory meal without much effort.

Last night I had a hard time sleeping and found myself thinking about what I could make for breakfast and I kept finding myself craving crepes. As I lay there I realized that not only would we have all the ingredients necessary for the crepes themselves but I also had a bag of frozen organic berries (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry mix) and a pound of cream cheese. Breakfast was going to be delicious!

I started by cooking the frozen berry mixture over high heat with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tablespoon of lime juice until it began bubbling then I turned it down to low heat while I cooked the crepes.

2 Eggs
3/4 Cup Milk (plus extra if needed to thin batter)
1/2 Cup Water
1 Cup Flour
3 Tablespoons Melted Butter
2 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract

Butter for coating the pan (I like to use a frozen stick for ease and perfect distribution)
If you don't want sweet crepes and prefer savory eliminate the sugar and vanilla, add a pinch or two of salt and up to a 1/4 cup of chopped herbs
The yield will vary with the size of your pan - I get about 20 with my small 6" saute pan

Place all the ingredients (except the butter for coating the pan of course) into a blender and combine on low until smooth. I like to let the batter sit for 10-15 minutes to eliminate most of the bubbles. It should be the consistency of cream (you want it to be loose enough to swirl around the pan quickly and evenly)

If you have a crepe pan of course you would use that but I just use small non-stick saute' pans and they work just as good and can be used for cooking lots of other foods as well! 
Pour the batter into the center of a hot buttered pan and swirl around to create a thin coating across the entire bottom of the pan. Cook for 20-30 seconds then flip over for about 10 seconds. Lay them out flat so they can cool while you continue cooking until all the batter is used. Once cooled the crepes can be stacked and refrigerated, frozen or used immediately. 

I like to whip cream cheese and spread a tablespoon worth in the middle of the crepe before folding the crepe over and drizzling with warm fruit sauce. 

Crepe batter during the first 20 seconds of cooking
The Crepe has been flipped and cooks for about 10 more seconds

I keep making the crepes until all the batter has been used then assemble them into the delicious meal they were destined to become. If you are entertaining you can make them and have people finish them with the fillings / toppings that they desire as they come out of the pan steaming hot but beware eating them one at a time never seems to fill the belly!

These truly are as good as they look -A light, creamy, sweet breakfast plate that the adults will enjoy as much as the kids provided you don't wait till they go to bed to make them!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Oh how I have missed the joy's of cooking...

     I honestly think one of the hardest parts of recovering from the surgery on my spine is the fact that I have been unable to spend time cooking for my family. While I am blessed with a wife who is an excellent cook the fact is I enjoy cooking food and feeding it to others more than I actually enjoy eating the food myself. Don't get me wrong, I love eating food but my love affair with food tends to be more with the act of preparing it.

     So here I am not quite 3 weeks post surgery and I am starting to endure more time on my feet and decided this weekend would be a good time to start cooking again. Last night I made a new potato recipe which ended up being a big hit with everyone so much so that I never took a picture of the finished product! I will give everyone the details next time I make it and have pictures to post which more than likely will be within the next week because everyone really enjoyed them.

     Earlier this week Rebecca picked me up a fresh pineapple so I decided to make my homemade teriyaki sauce, slice and grill the pineapple along with chicken breasts and slices of vidalia onions for dinner.

Not quite finished but visible is all the fresh garlic and ginger

     I love making teriyaki sauce rather than buying the bottled product in the store. It is not only quick and easy to prepare you can tailor the flavor to whatever you are cooking. In this batch I used fresh ginger, garlic, brown sugar, soy sauce, organic cider vinegar and a splash of white wine as well as ginger wine. I cooked it over high heat until the sugar melted then I whisked in some corn starch. I placed it back over high heat whisking constantly until it began to boil resulting in a thick shiny sauce. Total time including preparation of the fresh garlic and ginger - less than 10 minutes. Not only did I have plenty of sauce for the 6 plates tonight there was a pint left over for Rebecca to incorporate into meals later this week.

The finished sauce is thick, shiny and deep dark brown in color

     I started by grilling the chicken breasts, I like to pull them off the grill just before they are cooked through and let them finish cooking via their carry over heat by placing them all on a heavy plate covered with foil which results in a moist, perfectly cooked piece of chicken.

Moist, perfectly grilled chicken breast with a nice coating of teriyaki sauce

     While the chicken is resting I begin cooking the onion slices. I drizzle a little vegetable oil over the slices and rub it over both sides with helps prevent the rings from sticking to the grates. I flip the slices over once during the cooking process and like to take them off while they are still a little firm. I put the slices in a metal or heavy bowl and separate the rings before covering with a lid or foil to finish cooking through.

Delicious Sweet Onion rings, cooked through but with a pleasant firm texture for eating enjoyment!

     Once the chicken and onions are off the grill the last item to cook is the pineapple. Some times I will cut the fruit into spears which can be cooked with or without skewers. Tonight I decided to slice into rings and cut out the core. The trick to cooking pineapple is to have the grill really hot and clean. I place them onto the hot grates over direct / high heat. After about a minute I turn the slice to get the beautiful grill marks on one side. After another minute I flip the slices and let them cook until the fruit is heated all the way through before removing from the grill. I like to cook it just long enough to make it dry on the outside but still juicy sweet in the middle!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Food for Thought...

During the past two months I have been dealing with injuries from my automobile accident which has prevented me from doing much cooking. As you can imagine not feeling up to doing one of the things that brings me a great amount of joy has really bummed me out. I decided that the days I feel up to it I am going to spend them in the kitchen doing what I love - cooking. And so that you can all share in my favorite past time I always make sure to take pictures despite my kids complaining that I take too long and they are on the verge of dying from hunger. I'm not going to try to recall all the details of each meal but here are some of the dishes I have created over the past couple months