Branzino Papillote

branzino papillote

So… Not the best photos I’ve taken, but the fish… wow! Making branzino papillote was one of the best brainstorms I’ve had in a while.  From here on in, it’s going to be my go-to way to make any smallish whole fish. I can’t wait to give this a shot with some fresh wild-caught rainbow trout.

A little background may be in order. The first time I had fish cooked in paper was many years ago in Mexico. Cancun, I think. I remember walking to the end of a pier to find the restaurant and I remember spotting a an entrée that was Red Snapper en Papillote. I also remember how cool it was to get a whole fish delivered to the table in a paper envelope and the steam that enveloped the table as the envelope was opened. The technique goes way back in French culinary tradition, so why I encountered it in Mexico remains a mystery, but it was one of those things I’d filed away in the “someday” category, as in “someday I’ll make that myself.” It took awhile, but here it is.

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Italian Chicken and Artichokes

Chicken and Artichokes

If your idea of Italian food involves pizza or lots of tomato sauce and pasta, this chicken recipe will come as a bit of a surprise. Chicken and artichokes is definitely Italian in origin and most likely northern Italian. It combines inexpensive cuts of chicken with a rich sauce that sparkles with the acidity of white wine, lemon juice and artichokes, sweetened by flavors of rosemary and parsley. There are no tomatoes, no basil, no oregano.

I first came across this dish in an Italian café many years ago in northern Virginia that was a favorite after-work spot for the crew at the publishing company I worked for. The food there was very good, but very traditional in most respects. It was the kind of place that thrives in the suburbs, where people get what they expect from waiters who seem at least vaguely Italian. Apart from the chance to hang out with colleagues, I went there mainly because they had the best Caesar salad I’d ever tasted (and I recommend preceding this dish with a good Caesar, if you can).

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Catalan Shrimp

catalan shrimp

Catalonia is a region of Northeastern Spain and Southern France that has a rich history, a unique language and a distinct cuisine that takes advantage of its proximity to the Mediterranean and the surrounding productive farmland. The influences there are diverse. At some point in history, Catalonia was settled or occupied by indigenous Iberians, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, North Africans, Franks and Arabs from the middle east, among others. I’m not quite sure where this Catalan shrimp fits in that sequence, but it certainly reflects the region and it’s style of cooking and eating.

Catalan shrimp is a simple saute. Once the shrimp are peeled and deveined and the peppers are roasted and peeled, the prep takes just a few minutes. Actual cooking takes even less time. I’ve presented this with some steamed Valencia rice, the kind you might use in a paella. I have no idea whether that’s normal in Catalonia, but I wanted something to soak up the sauce, which is terrific. The roasted sweet red peppers and a bit of bite from cayenne are perfect with the tender juicy shrimp.

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Wiener Schnitzel (Viennese Veal Cutlet)

Wiener Schnitzel

I vividly remember my first wiener schnitzel. I was working for a publishing company as an editor and writer in the mid 1980s at a time when small magazine publishers were just beginning to embrace computers as writing tools. Somehow, because of my interest in the technology, I found myself as the in-house computer/software expert. My company landed a contract to do some promotional materials for a German software company that was breaking into the U.S. market. Suddenly I found myself in Darmstadt, Germany on a two-week writing assignment. Well, actually, because of a hotel reservation glitch, I found myself in the tiny village of Heppenheim (it’s now much larger) for the first few days, with my evenings to myself.

Speaking no German, with no translator, I set out that first evening to find something to eat. I found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and realized, as I opened the menu, that I was in for an adventure. Not a word of English on the menu. Why would there be? I was able to figure out the layout of the menu, so I zeroed in on the one thing I recognized as a main course: wiener schnitzel. What I got a little later, along with an excellent local beer, was one of the best meals I’ve had anywhere. The veal was perfect, uniformly thin and lightly breaded with just a hint of lemon, served over a bed of fluffy egg noodles with a salad dressed in sweet vinaigrette.

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Simple Homemade Shortcake

simple shortcake

It’s probably rushing the season a little, but it won’t be long before fresh fruit is coming at us from every direction. When it does, this shortcake recipe is the perfect way to take advantage of whatever fresh fruit comes your way. Best of all, it’s quick, easy and way better than anything you can find in a grocery store — including those little cups made from the same sponge cake used in good ol’ Twinkies.

You can think of true shortcake as something halfway between a crisp shortbread cookie and a soft southern breakfast biscuit. It’s got a crispy crust and a soft moist crumb that allows it to soak up the juice of the fruit and/or cream without getting too soggy. There’s not a lot of skill involved with the recipe, but it helps if you’ve got a handle on cutting shortening/butter into the dry ingredients. The easy way is with a pastry cutter, which you can easily find online or in the kitchen gadget aisle at the grocery store. Otherwise, you can use a couple of forks to mash the shortening into the flour and sugar mix. It’s not mixing. What you’re trying to achieve is to break up the fat into tiny pieces coated with flour. When the liquid is mixed in and the dough is baked, the shortening melts and gives the finished pastry a flaky texture. I like to use a mixture of vegetable shortening and butter, but it’s possible to use all butter or all shortening.

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Kielbasa, Cabbage and Pierogies – The Full Pittsburgh

Pierogies, Kielbasa and Fried Cabbage and Onions

Growing up in the Ohio River Valley when they were making steel there, and being a short drive from Pittsburgh, I was exposed to a virtual buffet of ethnic food. My own family was largely Scots-Irish, and childhood friends were Italian, German, Polish, Slovakian and who knows what else. A good part of my family lived in and around Pittsburgh, where I developed a deep and lasting relationship with pierogies, generally accompanied by fried cabbage and onions and the unique smoked Polish sausage called Kielbasa. This may explain my fondness for Chinese dumplings and ravioli, which could easily be mistaken for Asian or Italian pierogies.

I’d venture to guess that if you went to a wedding or a family gathering in Pittsburgh today, as much as things have changed there, you would almost certainly run into homemade pierogies. Every Pittsburgher I’ve ever known craves these things and there are as many ways to make pierogies as there are Pittsburghers, I think. 

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Salmon with Sweet Peppers and Pineapple

Salmon with Sweet Peppers and Pineapple

There are days when even the thought of making an elaborate meal (or cleaning up after one) is just too much. It was on such a day that I pulled together this salmon with sweet peppers and pineapple. It’s a quick, tasty lunch or light dinner that involves very little prep, a small number of ingredients and a single frying pan (and the oven, if you’re making the asparagus).

The idea for this “recipe” came, as these things often do, in the middle of a grocery store produce section, when I spotted some fresh whole pineapples. I’m a big fan of fresh pineapple and the rest of the household really likes grilled pineapple. In fact, when grilling season is in full swing, we generally have it a couple of time per week, just because. So as I stared at the pineapples, I started wondering if I could generate the same kind of enthusiasm if I sautéed the pineapple in a pan. Pretty soon, I was checking out the seafood department and spotted a beautiful wild-caught sockeye salmon filet. Sold. Back to produce for a green bell pepper (and some white asparagus) and I was in business.

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