Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rack of Lamb


Springtime is finally here and to me, that means more than just daffodils and fresh produce in the farmer's markets. It's also a time for lamb, a meat that I love not just for its taste, but for its profound religious and artistic significance. 
The lamb features importantly in the story of Passover in the Jewish religion, and at Easter in Catholicism. Walk into many churches in Italy, and you'll see exquisite mosaics of Christ as a shepherd, with his flock. This one is in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome.
Lamb is traditionally eaten at Easter time among Italian families, and I love to make a whole grilled leg of lamb when serving a crowd. Unfortunately, most Americans infrequently cook lamb, if at all.
When prepared properly, it's a flavorful meat to serve to family and always is a hit when company comes to call, especially when prepared in this style, which is fork tender and so delicious.
A rack of lamb is an elegant, albeit expensive dish to serve to company, since one serves just two to three people. Two of us had no trouble polishing off this rack of lamb in the photo below. So if you're planning on company, you'll want at least two racks. Make sure they're people you really like, and who really like lamb. 
This roast comes from a half a lamb I bought locally from a friend of a friend who raises a few lambs organically not far from where I live. It wasn't trimmed as well as I wanted, so I "Frenched" it (trimming out the fat to expose the tops of the bones) and cut away almost all traces of fat and the "silver skin" under the fat. )If your butcher can't (or won't) do this, it's not hard to do and is essential. Otherwise, the fat won't melt during the short cooking time and you'll end up biting into a layer of fat, and fighting the toughness of "silver skin" to get through to the meat, which is truly tender.
This rack weighed only 1.7 pounds before trimming, and you can see how much fat I trimmed from the roast. You're bound to trim off some specks of the meat too, but that can't be avoided. Be sure to use a very sharp, thin knife. 
This knife is one of the several treasured ones made by my grandfather for me decades ago, when he would take an industrial file of carbon steel and whittle it down on a spinning stone wheel in the basement, before inserting it into a wooden handle. 
Smear a good amount of Dijon mustard over the front and back of the roast.
Then cover it with the mixture of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and herbs.
Roast it at high heat for ten minutes, then lower the heat and roast for fifteen minutes longer.
After letting the roast rest for 15 minutes, slice between the bones and serve. 
Buona Pasqua.
************
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Rack of Lamb
serves two to three people

1 rack of lamb, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds before trimming (double the recipe for two racks) 
3 cloves minced garlic
3 sprigs rosemary, minced
grated lemon peel from 12 lemon
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 T. grated parmesan cheese
2 T. olive oil
salt, pepper
Dijon mustard to spread on lamb

If the rack of lamb is not already trimmed by your butcher, you will need to do so, by cutting out the fat and bits of meat between the ribs (a process called Frenching) and by trimming away all the visible fat. Most butchers leave some fat on the meat, but this cut of meat is very tender, and the fat doesn't need to be there to tenderize or flavor the meat. Besides, when the roast is covered with mustard and bread crumbs, and spends so little time in the oven, the fat won't melt into the meat, leaving you a layer of unappealing layer of fat when you bite through the bread crumbs into the meat. Beneath the fat you'll find a layer of "silver skin" and it's best to trim this away too.
Make sure you leave the roast at room temperature for an hour (I left it for two) before roasting in the oven. Otherwise, you can't be assured of even cooking. 
After trimming off the fat, sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper, then spread a layer of Dijon mustard all over, top and bottom.
Mix together the garlic, rosemary, lemon peel, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and olive oil. Dab the mixture over all sides of the roast.
Place the roast on a rack in an oven that's been preheated to 450 degrees. Roast for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 300 degrees and roast for 15 minutes more if you like it cooked medium rare (as in the photos). Use a meat thermometer for accuracy - 120-130 degrees for rare (barely cooked inside) 130-140 degrees for medium rare (bright pink to red inside), 140-150 for medium (pale pink inside.) Let the roast rest for 15 minutes. It will continue to cook a bit further and the temperature will rise slightly. 
Slice between the ribs and serve. 

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Grilled Baby Artichokes


According to the calendar, it's the first day of Spring, but it sure still feels like winter outside here in central New Jersey. Patches of snow are scattered across my lawn from the last storm and even more snow is forecast for our region today.
But if Mother Nature isn't cooperating, signs of Spring are abundant at the grocery store - from the first fava beans to these baby artichokes that I couldn't resist.
I've made stuffed artichokes and posted the recipe for them before, as my mother-in-law taught me years ago. But I'd never grilled artichokes the way my blogger buddy Marie does. Until now, that is.
They're a snap to make, but they do need to be boiled first before putting on the grill (or grill pan, in this case.)
Just square off the tops and plunk them into boiling water for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes. Test with a knife and if they offer no resistance, they're done. Drain and cool, then cut in half and scoop out the small choke in the middle.
Drizzle them with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, some minced garlic, parmesan cheese (or Romano) and minced parsley. Toss in a bowl to coat.
 Then place on a grill pan that's heated on high heat and brushed with olive oil.
 After a few minutes, they should have nice grill marks, so flip on the other side and let them heat another few minutes until thoroughly heated through.
 Serve as a side dish, or as a first course, or even as appetizers with drinks. Have a side dish ready for the inedible part of the leaves.  
Join us for a writing retreat in one of the most beautiful places on Earth - along the shores of Italy's Lake Como. Click here for more information.

Grilled Baby Artichokes

Trim the top of the artichokes and boil for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes, until tender. Remove and cool, then cut out the hairy choke in the middle. Place the artichoke halves in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. To the bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, minced garlic, minced parsley and some parmesan cheese (or Romano cheese). Toss everything together and grill on high heat for a few minutes on one side, then flip and grill the second side for a few minutes.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Flounder with Roasted Grapes




Roasted grapes, what took me so long to discover your delights? Fellow bloggers like Stacey, Marie and Domenica have been praising your virtues for a while, and I even posted a recipe years ago from Lidia featuring sausages in the skillet with grapes. Well, maybe I was lagging when it came to roasting grapes myself, but since trying them this past weekend, I've finally come on board.
The natural sweetness of grapes becomes even more intense after a roasting at high temperature in the oven, and adds a jammy, fruity taste to anything you pair it with.
In this case, it was flounder - apropos for a Lenten Friday night's dinner. It's also good for calorie counters too, and there are plenty of us out there. And it's delicious enough to serve to company.
 I had a small piece of fennel in the fridge needing to be used, so I roasted some matchsticks of fennel too, drizzling them with a little olive oil, but leaving the grapes naked. I experimented with them, roasting some in clusters (yes), as individual grapes (yes), and cut in half (no, they burned).

The dish comes together in less than 15 minutes, assuming you've roasted the grapes ahead of time.  
If you're like me, you'll be wondering what took you so long to try this easy and delicious way of using grapes. But now that I've tried them, I''ll be roasting grapes and eating them in dishes at meals any time of day. 
To wit: My new favorite breakfast: lemon-flavored Greek yogurt with roasted grapes and hazelnuts.

Flounder with Roasted Grapes
printable recipe here

two pieces of flounder, about 1 lb. total
2 Tablespoons olive oil
flour, for dusting
salt, pepper
1/2 cup Prosecco, or dry white wine
1 Tablespoon butter
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 Tablespoon thyme leaves
a few clusters of seedless grapes

Roast the grapes in a parchment-lined (or Silpat-lined) cookie sheet in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. I don't add any oil or salt to the pan. Just grapes. Remove from oven and set aside.


Dry the pieces of flounder with a paper towel and dredge with flour on each side. Pat the pieces to remove excess flour. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the olive oil into a skillet and place over high heat. Gently place the pieces of flounder into the hot oil a few minutes until golden on one side. Flip over gently and let it cook on the second side for a couple of minutes on high heat, just enough to brown slightly. Then pour off any excess oil, and pour in the Prosecco or white wine. It should bubble all around the fish and reduce somewhat. Lower the heat, then add the butter and thyme leaves. Pour the lemon juice over the fish, then add the grapes and swish the pan a little to warm the grapes, taking care not to break up the fish pieces. (I also had roasted some fennel pieces with the grapes and added those at this point too). Serve immediately.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Ciao Biscotti Giveaway



Update March 15, 2015: The winner of the giveaway book "Ciao Biscotti" is Carolyn Immordino MacCleod.
Anytime my friend Domenica Marchetti writes a new cookbook, you can be assured it's going to be good. Long a champion of Italian cooking, especially that of the Abruzzo region, her cookbooks are well researched and well written, apropos for a woman who worked as a newspaper journalist before moving to culinary writing. She has now published a new book - "Ciao Biscotti" - that will keep biscotti lovers happy for a very long time. 
Some of the old classics are here, like almond or anise biscotti, but she's also included some recipes for some not-so-traditional ones like browned butter and Toblerone, and cardamom-pecan. One chapter deals with the savory side of biscotti, such as crispy pancetta, or smoky gouda, giving you even more reason to uncork a nice bottle of wine and chill out with a biscotto or two.
The final chapter highlights a few cookies that aren't biscotti, such as hazelnut meringues or Nutella sandwich cookies. The temptation to try out each of the recipes in the book is strong, but I had to limit myself to three for now --
olive oil and citrus, that I drizzled with a lemon glaze:
chocolate chunk with cherries:
 and chocolate-dipped toasted coconut: 
It's hard choosing a favorite, because they're all so delicious, but if you were to peek inside my cookie tins, you'd find that someone's been dipping into the chocolate-dipped coconut ones with a little more gusto than she should have. I can't wait to try some of the other recipes in the weeks ahead.
 I'm including the recipe for the chocolate-covered coconut biscotti, but for others, you'll just have to get the book. 
You won't be disappointed, although I have a different experience in freezing biscotti than Domenica, maybe because when I bake them a second time, I do so at a higher temperature than she does.
Let me add my nerd notes here: biscotti means twice baked, in case you didn't already know. The prefix "bis" is used in several instances to indicate repetition of some sort or other. When you're at the end of a performance in Italy and want the singer to perform one more song, you don't yell "encore," you yell "bis." Also, while nonno is grandfather in Italian, bisnonno is a great grandfather, the same way that bisnipote is a great grandchild, or great nephew or niece.
 Which brings me back to the second baking and freezing. For the second baking, I do leave them in the oven longer and at a higher temperature than Domenica suggests in the book, because I like them to be uncompromisingly hard and crunchy. I crank up the temperature of the oven to 400 degrees and leave them in for another ten to fifteen minutes or so, flipping them over halfway, until they're golden on each side, and checking continually to make sure they don't burn. That dries out any remaining moisture and makes them as crunchy and addictive as eating potato chips.
I find that the extra baking time and temperature means that they freeze well and never lose their crunch, even the frosted ones. But first try baking according to Domenica's directions and see if that works best for you.
For those of you who live in the Philadelphia, Pa. area, Domenica will be at Fante's fabulous kitchen store on 9th St., this Sat. March 7, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., so you can get a copy personally autographed by her. Free samples of biscotti too! 
But I'd also like to give one of my readers a chance to own a copy, so I'm offering a giveaway here. All you have to do to win a copy of "Ciao Biscotti" is to leave a comment below (on the blog NOT in email, for those of you who receive updates via email). Domenica herself recently held a giveaway on her blog for a copy of the book and asked readers to leave a comment describing something sweet about Italy. I loved reading some of the comments, whether it was about a sweet Italian food, or a sweet memory of Italy -- so I'm asking my readers to do the same. If you've never been to Italy, then describe what you love about Italian food, art or music. I'll let the computer choose a winner with a randomly generated number. You don't need to have a blog to enter, but if you don't, please leave an email address so I can contact the winner. Grazie.


Chocolate-Dipped Toasted Coconut Biscotti
from "Ciao Biscotti" by Domenica Marchetti
printable recipe here

1 T. vegetable oil
2 1/4 cups/285 g. unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup/50 g. unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
3/4 cup/150 g. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 cup/50 g. sliced honey-roasted almonds or sliced almonds, toasted (I used toasted pecans)
5 Tbsp/70 g. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch/12 mm. pieces, at room temperature
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 oz./115 g. bittersweet chocolate, melted

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F/180 degrees C. Lightly coat an 11 by 17 inch/28 by 43 cm. rimmed baking sheet with the oil. (I used a Silpat silicone mat and you don't need any greasing at all.)
Combine the flour, coconut, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix briefly on low speed. Add the almonds and mix briefly on low to combine.  Add the butter in pieces and mix on medium low speed until the mixture looks like damp sand. Pour in the eggs and mix on medium speed until a soft, slightly sticky dough has formed.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat it into a disk. Divide it in half. Lightly moisten your hands with water and gently roll one portion of dough into a rough oval. Place it lengthwise on one half of the baking sheet and use your hands and fingers to stretch and pat the dough into a log about 2 1/2 in/6 cm wide and 12 in/30 cm long. Shape the second piece of dough in the same way, moistening your hands as necessary. Press down on the logs to flatten them out a bit and make the tops oven.
Bake the logs for 25 minutes, or until the bottom edges are lightly browned and the tops are set -- they should be springy to the touch and there should be cracks on the surface. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack. Gently slide an offset spatula under each log to loosen it from the baking sheet. Let the logs cool for 5 minutes, and them transfer them to the rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees F/150 degrees C. (I raised it to 400 degrees F./200 degrees C.)
Transfer the cooled logs to a cutting board and, using a Santoku knife or a serrated bread knife, cut them on the diagonal into 1/2 in/12 mm-thick slices. Arrange the slices, cut-side up, on the baking sheet (in batches if necessary) and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the slices over and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until they are crisp and golden. Transfer the slices to the rack to cool completely.
Arrange the slices cut-side up on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Dip one end of each biscotto into the melted chocolate and set them on the wax paper. Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, or until the chocolate is set. Let the biscotti return to room temperature before serving.

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