Beet Ricotta Bruschetta

Beet Crostini

Open-faced sandwich are unfailingly pleasing. When a sandwich is open, its filling becomes the topping, which is a lovely reflection of the sum of its parts and a visual tease, beckoning a bite. While the sandwiches vary, often these tasty bites creatively incorporate simple ingredients, or leftovers layered over a smear of olive oil or soft cheese on sturdy or day-old bread refreshed on the grill or in the oven. The presentation is fresh, minimal, and artful, with a few fresh leaves or sprigs for garnish.

These bruschette include fresh ricotta topped with roasted beets and a spoonful of garden pesto. I call it a garden pesto because I use handfuls of the fresh new herbs that have popped up in my garden at this time of year. When the garden isn’t ready, I simply combine the supermarket herbs I’ve collected in my refrigerator. This can include any combination of parsley, mint, chives, dill, chervil, and oregano. The idea is that there is a mix of at least 3 to 4 herbs, so that one flavor doesn’t overwhelm the others. The result is a brightly green and herbaceous coulis that is delicious served with vegetables, fish, chicken, or mixed with rice and pasta. In this case, it’s a vibrant garnish to these bruschette.

Ricotta Beet Bruschetta with Garden Pesto

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves 6

Garden Pesto:
3 cups (packed) fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, chives, chervil, plus extra for garnish
1 small garlic clove
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 slices ciabatta or levain bread, each about 1/2-inch thick
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
6 to 8 roasted and peeled baby beets, cut into wedges
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Make the pesto: Place the herbs and garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Process until finely chopped. With the motor running add the oil in a steady stream until blended. If too thick, add extra oil to your desired consistency. Add the lemon zest, salt, and pepper and pulse once or twice to blend. Taste for seasoning.
2. Heat the oven broiler or a grill. Lightly brush the bread slices with oil. Broil or grill, until toasted golden on both sides but still tender in the center, about 2 minutes. Remove and cool the bread for 5 minutes.
3. Smear the ricotta on the bread, then drizzle some of the pesto over the ricotta (You will not use all of the pesto. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for another use for up to one day.)
4. Top the bruschette with the beets. Brush the beets with a little oil and lightly season the bruschette with salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh herb sprigs and serve whole or cut in half for smaller bites.

Lamb Merguez Patties and Couscous Salad

Lamb Kefta Patties
Feeling spicy? When I crave a good dose of spice and heat I head to Asia, the Middle East or North Africa (well, in my dreams). In reality, I head to my kitchen, where I fling open the spice cabinet and get cooking. I made these merguez patties recently when I was craving the heat and fragrance of North Africa: harissa, garlic, coriander, and mint. These feisty patties hit the spot – well, an airline ticket would have really hit the spot, but, hey, this was a pretty good stand in for a week night.

What really tipped these patties for me was the use of whole spices that I toasted and ground in my mortar. If you haven’t tried doing this, then you are missing a big component in the flavor department. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and the results are well worth it. Whole spices are readily found in the spice section of your supermarket, gourmet and spice shops – even online. When you are ready to use the spices, toast the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Then transfer to a spice grinder or a mortar, and blitz or pound the spices until fine. The flavor is light years better than pre-ground spice.

Lamb Merguez Patties and Couscous Salad

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Makes 18 to 20 (2-inch) patties

Couscous Salad:
1 1/2 cups couscous
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small poblano or green pepper, finely diced
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Lamb Merguez Patties:
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 pounds ground lamb
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons harissa paste
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Prepare the couscous: Place the couscous, water, lemon juice and olive oil in a large bowl. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and remove from the heat. Let stand until liquid is absorbed and couscous is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork, add the remaining ingredients, and stir to combine.
2. Prepare the patties: Toast the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar with pestle or a spice grinder.
3. Transfer the remaining patty ingredients to a large bowl. Add the toasted spices and mix until combined without overworking the meat. Form into 2-inch patties. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
4. Remove the patties from the refrigerator and let stand 10 minutes. Grill over direct high heat or pan-in fry in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat until brown and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes, turning once.  Serve with couscous salad, pita bread, Greek yogurt, and a squirt of harissa if you’re feeling extra spicy.

30 Minute Dinners: Asparagus Carbonara

Easy Carbonara Pasta with Asparagus
Just do it – in a skillet: Pasta Carbonara with Asparagus.

My favorite cooking vessel is my cast iron skillet: it’s one stop shopping in the kitchen equipment department. Not only is a cast iron skillet handy on the stovetop, you can use it in the oven and even on the grill. Last night I used my skillet to make this simple carbonara pasta dish.

Carbonara is the Italian version of chicken soup – a comforting dish for all ages – which consists of pasta and cured pork (guanciale) or bacon, whisked in a slick sauce of eggs and gads of grated Pecorino cheese. The method is quick. It relies on the heat from the freshly cooked pasta to sufficiently cook the eggs and melt the cheese, while the sauce is vigorously stirred to prevent the eggs from scrambling. From start to finish, this dish can be whipped up in less than 30 minutes.

I often mix in vegetables to my carbonara, which add extra oomph to the dish and allows me to call it a one-dish family meal, replete with the nutrients from the veggies. Peas are a year-round contender, since frozen peas can easily be added to the mix. In the springtime, though, I like to add fresh asparagus.

Asparagus Carbonara

Active Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Serves 4

8 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1 pound orecchiette
3/4 pound thin asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook the bacon in batches in a large skillet over medium heat until the fat renders and the bacon is crispy. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel. When cool enough to handle, break into small pieces. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the skillet.
2. Whisk the eggs and cheese in a bowl until blended and set aside.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the orecchiette and cook according to the package instructions until al dente; drain.
4. While the pasta is cooking, add the asparagus, garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes to the skillet. Sauté over medium heat until the asparagus are bright and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Add the drained pasta to the skillet and stir to combine. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the eggs and cheese, stirring constantly to coat the pasta and to prevent the eggs from cooking. Add the bacon to the skillet and stir once more. Serve immediately and garnish with additional grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

Spring Rolls Deconstructed – Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad

Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut DressingShrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing

If you like spring rolls, then you will love this salad. All of the goodness stuffed into a rice paper wrapped Thai or Vietnamese roll – rice noodles, shrimp, crisp veggies, fresh herbs, and chiles – is jumbled together in a big bowl of salad. The result? You might be tempted to call it a deconstructed spring roll, with all of the great flavor minus the labor of actually making a roll. Once all of the ingredients are prepped, it’s quick to assemble for a light and healthy dinner. The dressing is the magic touch that pulls this colorful dish together. It has all of the ingredients you’ll find in an Asian dipping sauce and then some: ginger, garlic, Sriracha, lime, and peanut butter. The trick is to blitz all of the dressing ingredients in a food processor (including the lime sections!) to form a thick and potent sauce. In fact, you might want to make extra dressing to keep on hand – it makes a great dipping sauce for cruditées or tossed with cooked Asian noodles.

Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Serves 4

Dressing:
1/2 cup canola oil
1 lime, peel and pith removed, quartered
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons coarsely grated peeled ginger with juices
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha
2 teaspoons runny honey

Salad:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound large (18/20) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt
4 ounces rice noodles, cooked per manufacturer’s instructions, room temperature
3 scallions, ends trimmed, white and green parts sliced on the diagonal
1 large carrot, cut in matchsticks
1/2 English cucumber, seeded, cut in matchsticks
2 cups coarsely chopped Napa cabbage
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup sugar snap peas, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 red jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup fresh coriander sprigs, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts for garnish

1. Place all of the dressing ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp in one layer, sprinkle with the red pepper flakes, and lightly season with salt. Cook until the shrimp are pink on both sides and just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes, turning as needed. Transfer to a plate.
3. Place the rice noodles, scallions, carrot, cucumber, cabbage, bean sprouts, snap peas, jalapeño, mint, and cilantro in a large bowl. Add the shrimp and half of the dressing and toss to combine.
4. Divide the salad among plates. Scatter the peanuts over the salads and garnish with additional mint and cilantro. Serve with the remaining sauce on the side.

Meatball Therapy

Meatballs Marinara TasteFood

If there is any food group that evokes universal comfort, it’s meatballs. Not only do meatballs simply taste great, they are present in nearly every cuisine and enjoyed by children and adults alike. Your mother likely made meatballs and so did her mother, and chances are that you are also making your own. As with many homey and rustic meals, meatballs are an economical means to stretch inexpensive cuts of meat by jumbling the ingredients together with extra fillers, such as breadcrumbs and egg, and plenty of herbs and spices for great flavor. Then, depending on the mood or craving, the meatballs can be braised in robust sauces and stews, ladled over noodles, swiped in dipping sauces, and piled into double-fisted sandwiches. There is a meatball for everyone and every preference, and bets are that you’ve been nibbling on meatballs since you were old enough to wrap your fingers around them.

This is one of my favorite meatball recipes. The key ingredient is a generous amount of grated Pecorino Romano cheese, which melts into the meat and adds rich, umami flavor. A kick of crushed red pepper flakes doesn’t hurt either. (You can reduce the red pepper if you prefer a milder version.) These meatballs can easily be frozen, so if you make too much (never a problem) or double the batch, then wrap the extras well in plastic and freeze for up to 1 month. Allow them to defrost overnight in the refrigerator before cooking.

Smothered Italian Meatballs in Marinara Sauce

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Makes about 24 (1 1/2-inch) meatballs

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup breadcrumbs or Panko
1 cup (packed) finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
Olive oil for pan frying

Marinara Sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the meatballs:
Combine the meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands, gently mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Shape the meat into 1 1/2-inch balls, without over working the meat. (Wet your hands with cold water from time to time to prevent sticking.) Place the meatballs on a platter and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Prepare the sauce:
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

Cook the meatballs:
1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs in batches, without over crowding, and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes, turning as needed. (The meatballs will not be cooked through at this point. They will continue to cook in the sauce.) Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.

2. Add the sauce to the skillet and cook briefly over medium heat, stirring up any brown bits in the pan. Add the meatballs to the sauce and turn to coat. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the meatballs are thoroughly cooked through, about 30 minutes. Serve garnished with chopped parsley and grated cheese.

Chocolate Stout Pound Cake with Whiskey Cream

Luscious and rich chocolate stout cake

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, chances are you have a few bottles of Guinness Stout laying about. As the saying goes, when life hands you lemons you make lemonade. So when life hands you Guinness Stout, you should absolutely drink the stout – but be sure to set  a bottle aside to make this cake. This recipe yields one hefty cake, or 12 individual mini-cakes. It’s moist, tender, and lusciously dark. The stout disappears into the background of this rich cake, while grounding it in an adult sort of way, cutting the sweetness and mingling with the slightly bitter chocolate. If you’re feeling especially indulgent (and lucky), serve it with a dollop of whiskey-laced whipped cream.

Chocolate Stout Pound Cake with Whiskey Cream

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes
Makes 1 large pound cake or bundt cake  (or 12 mini-bundt cakes)

Cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup stout beer, such as Guinness
12 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sour cream

Whiskey Cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons Irish Whiskey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and line a large loaf pan with parchment. Butter the parchment paper. If using a bundt pan or mini-bundt pans, butter the pans.
2. Heat the butter and stout in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts. Remove the pan from the heat, then add the dark chocolate and stir until smooth.
3. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
4. Whisk the eggs and sugar until light. Whisk in the sour cream and add to the chocolate. Add the dry ingredients and stir to combine without over-mixing.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan or mini-bundt pans. Place on a baking sheet and transfer to the oven. Bake until the cake is set and a wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes clean, 55 to 60 minutes for a large cake or 25 minutes for mini-cakes. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Turn the cake out onto the rack and cool completely.
6. Before serving, make the whipped cream. Beat the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer until traces of the whisk are visible. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to whip until soft peaks form. Cut the cake into serving pieces and serve with the whipped cream.

Simple Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes, Arugula, and Breadcrumbs

You won’t regret buying out of season tomatoes with this fresh and easy pasta recipe. Hint: a little roasting will do the trick.

Easy Gemelli Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

If you’re like me and can’t resist buying hothouse grape tomatoes in the middle of the winter – even when we know better – this recipe will address any buyer’s remorse. It’s not the fault of the tomatoes, of course. They do look irresistible, but looks can be deceiving with these plump and oh-so-red tomatoes, which often disappoint in the flavor department when they are out of season. Not to worry – this recipe allows for a little off-season tomato indulgence with no regrets. Thanks to slow roasting, they will deflate from their impossible pertness to a more relaxed version of themselves, and any hibernating juices and natural sugars will be released. Along with a little simple seasoning to give them some oomph, and you will have a sunny and versatile condiment to beat the winter blues.

Add roasted tomatoes to sauces and salads, use as a topping on pizza and crostini, or toss with pasta. In this recipe, I take advantage of the sludgy sheen of olive oil and tomato juice left behind in the pan after roasting. To sop up the flavorful oil, I sprinkle a layer of breadcrumbs over the pan to absorb the juices and toast the crumbs in the oven until golden. They are a delicious extra touch and garnish to this light and fresh pasta dish.

Gemelli with Roasted Tomatoes, Arugula, and Olive Oil Breadcrumbs

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 4

1 pound grape tomatoes
3 garlic whole cloves, unpeeled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thyme sprigs
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound gemelli or fusilli
2 large handfuls of arugula, about 3 cups

1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Scatter the tomatoes and garlic cloves on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and stir to coat. Scatter the thyme sprigs over the tomatoes and transfer to the oven. Roast until the tomatoes are softened and begin to release their juices, about 25 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove from the oven and discard the thyme sprigs. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin away from the garlic and finely chop the cloves. Transfer the tomatoes and garlic to a large serving bowl.

2. Reduce the oven heat to 350°F. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the same baking sheet and stir to coat in the residual olive oil. Return the baking pan to the oven and cook until the breadcrumbs are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes (they will brown quickly so watch them carefully). Remove and immediately transfer the breadcrumbs to a small bowl to stop them from cooking. Cool for 5 minutes and then stir in the 2 tablespoons cheese.

3. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Scoop out 1/2 cup cooking water and then drain the pasta.

4. Add the pasta, arugula, half of the breadcrumbs, and the 1/3 cup cheese to the tomatoes and toss to combine. If the pasta is a little dry, add some of the reserved water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until moistened to your preference. Divide the pasta between serving plates. Garnish with the remaining breadcrumbs and freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately