January 4, 2017

Parmesan Polenta Cakes with Sausage and Peppers

I've never been a big polenta fan, simply because my Pop-Pop Gino would always say how terrible it was while we were growing up.  He would tell us, "listen to how it's said - poollleeenta - it just sounds bad!"  As I continued on cooking throughout the years, obviously I learned to make my own assessments on lots of stuff - polenta being one of them.  Granted, I'm still not a fan of polenta when it's prepared like grits, but loaded with butter and cheese and then fried up until crispy golden brown?  I'll take it!  (And I bet he would have loved it if I got to make it for him like this.) My favorite way to eat it this way is with a really delicious mushroom duxelle on top (another recipe for another day), but this sausage and peppers version is perfect for a weeknight family meal, because it serves quite a few people.  The directions below look complicated, but if you just read through a couple times and set yourself up well with preparation, you'll find it's not that hard at all.

For the Polenta:
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 2 cups polenta (corn meal)
  • 1 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt, pepper, fresh parsley
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, for dusting

For the Sausage and Peppers:
  • 2 pounds sweet Italian sausage
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 celery stalks, chopped
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup yellow onions, sliced
  • 2 green bell peppers, sliced
  • 2 red bell peppers, sliced
  • 2/3 cup dry red wine
  • 1 cup prepared marinara sauce
  • 5 large basil leaves, chiffonade

Make the polenta:

In a medium-sized pot, bring vegetable stock to a boil.  Pour in polenta and whisk until incorporated with the stock.  Add heavy cream and let simmer for about 20 minutes, continuously stirring to keep from burning or sticking.  Remove the polenta from the heat and using a wooden spoon, fold in Parmesan cheese and butter until mixed through.

Temper your eggs:  Whisk eggs together in a small bowl, and slowly spoon in hot polenta about a tablespoon at a time, about 2-3 tablespoons.  You are doing this so when you pour your eggs into the polenta, they don't scramble by hitting the hot pot.

Whisk tempered eggs into polenta pot and add salt, pepper, and parsley to taste.  Grease (generously) a half-sheet pan or baking sheet.  Pour polenta mixture on baking sheet, spread into a thick layer, and chill for at least 2 hours, until polenta is very firm.

Make the sausage and peppers:

Brown sausage links in a 400-degree oven until the inside is no longer pink and the juices run clear, about 30 minutes.  Turn the oven on broil (high), and finish cooking about 5-8 more minutes, turning often to brown all sides of the links.  You could also grill the sausage on a grill or cook it in a pan - but the broil method gets the best crisp skin on the sausage.  Slice cooked sausage links into "coins", on an angle.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add celery, garlic, onions, and peppers and saute until soft, about 20 minutes.  Deglaze your pan with red wine, and reduce by half.  Add marinara sauce and cooked sausage coins and stir all ingredients well to incorporate.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Finish with beautiful basil leaves.

Finish the cakes, assemble the dish:

Using a round or triangular cookie cutter, or simply using a small paring knife, cut the polenta cakes to your desired size and shape.  I used a knife to cut mine into large triangles.  Coat polenta cakes in flour and fry in a 350-degree deep fryer until golden brown.  Arrange on a large platter.  Spoon the saucy sausage and peppers on top the polenta cakes - you can either spoon it onto them individually and make it a pretty single serving each, or you can go rustic and just pour it all around, covering the cakes with the sausage.  Finish with more chiffonade basil, a little extra Parmesan cheese, and serve!

January 3, 2017

Iron Rooster

50 Shawan Road, Cockeysville, Maryland 21030

When you pull up to the newest Iron Rooster in Hunt Valley, which I initially thought before arriving, was a small mom-and-pop place to grab some brunch, you may think the owners hit the jackpot.  Aesthetically, this restaurant is huge, bright, and modern.  It reminds me of the Miss Shirley's downtown, except much larger and easier to maneuver.  When you walk in, there's a large open area with seating for waiting -- because chances are, you'll need to wait for a table.  To your left, a self-seated bar with additional host-seated high-tops.  The restaurant itself has room for over 200 guests, booths and tables alike, and plenty of large windows to let in natural light. 

I'm mad at myself for NOT letting my server know I "checked in" on Facebook and Instagram, because I definitely missed out on my free jar of bacon!  And I am still waiting to see if any of my pictures were a "favorite shot" of the week!  Let a sister know, Iron Rooster!

On the morning of New Year's Eve, I was seated after about 15 minutes at a high-top in the bar.  It was a Saturday morning, and the place was packed, but the wait wasn't nearly what I thought it would be.  I was dining alone, and felt bad I was taking up a four-top just for myself, but there weren't many smaller tables anyway.  Not to mention my server, Charlie, made me feel welcomed from jump.  I should have assured him I'm no regular one-top, and I'd probably be spending as much as a four-top would anyway.

After looking through the menu, I needed to have savory and sweet.  It was a clear necessity, despite the "sweet" aspect being severely overpriced.  (Just like the $5 chocolate milk I ordered that was served in a cup smaller than a kid's cup.)  I opted for one of their famous Benedict dishes, the "Fried Chicken Benny", as well as the "Big Belgian Waffle".  The "benny", complete with buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, housemade biscuit, poached eggs, and a black pepper pan gravy, is a generous dish that is accompanied with hash browns.  They've put all their work and concentration on the main aspect of the dish, because the hash browns left so much to be desired.  They were pretty soggy with no seasoning, however, what they lack in hash browns, they make up for in a homemade biscuit.  The best part of the dish - the fluffy and moist biscuit, paired with the spicy and crunchy chicken tenders and the gravy on top, came together with a perfectly-poached egg to create a well-balanced, well-seasoned dish that I devoured!  Subsequently, my $10 waffle was a waffle.  It was slightly overcooked, making it tough and crunchy, while I prefer soft and fluffy.  It did, however, come with a maple-bourbon butter that I would happily slather on my shoe and eat it.  So, I wouldn't pay $10 for a waffle again, but for the extra $6, I'd gladly pay $16 for a huge homemade biscuit, two eggs, two pieces of chicken, scratch gravy, and hash browns.  And maybe some toast with that delectable maple butter.  Yes, please.

This is the type of special place you take your out-of-town family members, or a group of your girlfriends for an awesome meal and cocktails, but it's not somewhere you can frequent on a regular basis.  Unless you have a separate savings account dedicated to brunch.  Which, if that's the case, call me.  Let's be friends.  Ultimately, Iron Rooster is all things I believe it strives to be.  According to their website, they aim to provide "a new twist on traditional comfort food, legendary hospitality, and a real sense of community."  I don't think they have much to worry about in the way of comfort food, their service was quick and friendly, despite the packed-house, and their sense of community will continue to shine through, so long as they keep choosing really great locations -- and I doubt Hunt Valley is the last place you'll see these guys pop up.  I'll keep you posted on going back for lunch or "supper".

January 1, 2017

Chicken Alfredo Roll-Ups

With the upcoming arrival of a new baby, as a first-time mom, I am trying to do all those things you read about on Pinterest to make first-time "moming" easier.  Though, at this point, I'm sure there's nothing that eases the blow of welcoming a new baby into a home of someone who values sleep and alone time like I do.  However, I do LOVE cooking, so my children will eat well, if nothing else. ;-)

One thing I read that makes things a little easier during this big transition, is having meals prepared for you to simply take out of the freezer and pop in the oven for dinner.  Most people do this because they want to be able to have a home-cooked meal when they don't have the time or energy to cook.  I think I am doing it because I'm concerned with the revolving door of guests coming by, if I can't provide food for my visitors, I'll feel terrible.

Enough chatter, here's a quick recipe that fills the need of delicious lasagna, chicken Alfredo, and a quasi-mac-and-cheese all "rolled" into one!  If you like a lot of sauce, be sure to double the first 8 ingredients so you have lots of sauce leftover to douse your roll-ups.  Otherwise, this recipe makes 12 rolls, perfect for a family of 4-6!

What You'll Need:
  • 4 tablespoons butter, unsalted
  • 1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup white cooking wine
  • 1 cup broccoli, finely chopped
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 4 cups cooked chicken, shredded or chopped
  • 8 ounces shredded Italian-blend cheese
  • 12 ounces lasagna noodles, cooked

1.  In a skillet, melt butter and saute onion and garlic with salt and pepper until soft.  Add white wine and reduce by half.  Add chopped broccoli to the pan, stir to incorporate, and simmer for about two minutes, to let flavors come together and broccoli to soften a bit.  Stir in cream and grated cheese and whisk until cheese is melted and sauce begins to thicken.

2.  Reserve two cups of sauce.  There should be 1-2 cups of sauce left in the pan for you to stir in chicken and half the shredded Italian-blend cheese until the consistency becomes somewhat like chicken salad.  The chicken and cheese should absorb most of the sauce.  Set aside until cool enough to handle.

3.  In the bottom of a greased pan, pour one cup of the reserved sauce down.  Spoon about 2-3 tablespoons of chicken mixture onto cooked lasagna noodles.  Starting at one end, roll noodles until secure and place "seam-down" (noodles really don't have seams, but you get it) onto the sauce.  Repeat 11 more times, making 12 chicken roll-ups.

4.  Pour the remaining one cup of reserved sauce over top the roll-ups and cover with remaining half of the shredded cheese.  Bake in a 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, until warm through and cheese is bubbling.  Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley and enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do apologize for the less-than-stellar photos of this dish.  I am acclimating myself to my new house, which means new lighting, and figuring out where the best shots come from.  The kitchen, at night, is not a place where the best shots come from!

December 2, 2016

Triple-Double Lasagna

I've never really been a big lasagna eater, let alone a lasagna-maker!  My sister and I, growing up in such an Italian family, oddly never really cared for ricotta cheese very much, so I guess that's why.  I know, I know, shock.  However, with those every-seven-year-changing taste buds, luckily, I've come into the light, and embraced ricotta and lasagna with open arms!  This recipe is called the "Triple-Double" Lasagna because it's got a trio of two different things, meat and cheese. (And because I'm super clever, obviously).

P.S. ---> yes, the bacon is necessary.

What You'll Need:
  • 8 slices bacon
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 pound ground sausage
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • (2) 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
  • (2) 15-ounce containers ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup sharp, aged provolone, hand-shredded
  • 4 eggs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons Italian dressing, your favorite kind!
  • 1 1/2 pounds lasagna noodles
  • 12 provolone cheese slices (about 1 pound)

1.  In a large skillet, cook the bacon until crisp (the crispiness adds another layer of texture and the smokiness adds another layer of flavor.  Thanks for being so great, bacon!).  Remove bacon from the pan and let it sit on paper towels to drain some fat.  In the same skillet, using half the bacon grease, begin to brown your meats, both the sausage and beef.   Add garlic and stir in to incorporate.  Using the red wine, deglaze the pan.  Chop it up, and return the bacon to the mix.  Add crushed tomatoes and your favorite spices, such as onion powder, parsley, Italian seasoning, dried basil, etc. to produce a delicious red meat sauce.  Set aside.

2.  In a mixing bowl, whisk ricotta, provolone, eggs, salt and pepper to taste, and the Italian dressing (nice touch!) until smooth.  Set aside.

3.  So - when it comes to lasagna, some people simply use the uncooked pasta noodles and build their tower of deliciousness.  I like to cook my lasagna noodles a little bit before using them, just to ensure they're not crunchy after cooking.  You don't have to do this, but I really hate those crunchy bits of pasta that don't get coated and end up all hard and crusty.  Just be sure to cook them until just pliable, about 5 minutes LESS than the directions on the box.  3-4 minutes total should be good.

4.  Now, it's time to build.  Using a 9"x13" greased baking dish, start with a thin layer of meat sauce.  Then pasta noodles.  Then ladle on some ricotta mixture, spreading it nicely to cover the noodles.  Throw some more meat sauce on there.  Maybe another layer of noodles.  Then some more ricotta, and then cover with half the provolone cheese slices.  Keep building and building - make sure you use all the ricotta mixture, because that's got the eggs in it, and that's what keeps it nice and tall when you cut it.  When you run out of noodles, or room in your dish, finish with meat sauce covering all the noodles, and then the provolone slices.  Cover with a sheet of parchment paper and then aluminum foil.  The parchment should ensure the cheese doesn't stick.

5.  Cook for a total of one hour; 45 minutes covered, then 15 minutes uncovered, in a 375-degree oven until the sauce bubbles, the cheese browns, and the noodles are soft all the way through.  Now, for the important part -- you must let this beauty rest.  Tent it with your foil and let it sit on the counter (and pick at the bits of cheese, if you must) for at least 15-20 minutes.  Lasagna retains TONS of heat, so it won't get cold, but it will allow for the ricotta mixture to set-up properly, making sure everything doesn't run out everywhere after you cut it.  That would be seriously sad after all the work you put in!  ENJOY!

November 13, 2016

Shrimp and Gouda Grits

I have to apologize for the laundry list of ingredients my recipes sometimes have.  I try to keep it simple, but building flavor on top of flavor is so important to me!  I tried to think of things that I could remove from this recipe to calm down a bit on the ingredient list length, but I truly think you need it all.  The celery, carrot, and onion trio is necessary for a ton of recipes, adding sweetness and texture.  The heavy cream adds a richness, and the white wine strikes a balance for the two.  As far as the bacon and scallions... well, that's a no-brainer. ;-)

What You'll Need:
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 Vidalia onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 pound 16/20 shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails-on
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 1/2 cup Gouda cheese, shredded
  • 4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
  • 4 scallions, sliced thin

1.  In a large skillet, melt butter and saute celery, carrot, peppers, onions, and garlic until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

2.  Deglaze the pan with white wine, and whisk in tomato paste until dissolved, reducing liquid by half, until consistency thickens.  Add Cajun seasoning and heavy cream and whisk until combined.  Add shrimp to sauce and cook until pink - careful not to overcook - about 3-5 minutes.

3.  Cook grits according to package directions.  Whisk in Gouda cheese, salt, and pepper until combined.  Separate into 4 bowls.  Spoon shrimp sauce over grits, about 4-5 shrimp per bowl.  Top with crumbled bacon and thinly sliced scallions as garnish.  ENJOY!