COOKING FOR ALAN – DINNER #2

Mid-Missouri, where I live, has been stuck in a deep freeze for weeks.  I spent the last week working in Michigan where we experienced sleet, rain and snow.  So as I was flying home gazing down on the frozen tundra I knew it would be time to prepare a meal for Alan that was all about comfort and warmth.  The menu I put together was full of Italian flavors.  I used a lot of great imported Pecorino and Parmesan Reggiano cheese.  Yes they’re expensive, but so full of flavor  that you don’t have to use a ton of it…although my meatballs and polenta were loaded with cheesy goodness.  I find that the best way to store this type of hard cheese is to take them out of their plastic wrap and then roll them up in waxed paper before popping them back in the fridge.  One of the things I respect about Ina Garten’s cooking is that recipes don’t have to be super complex as long as you select the best quality ingredients you can find and let their amazing flavors do the rest.

When putting together a full menu it’s important that you read a recipe from start to finish.  Many times you’ll realize that you’ve got to start something the night before or give something, like creme brulee plenty of time after cooking to firm up in the fridge.  While this menu was ambitious to prepare everything in the same afternoon, you’ll find lots of tips in Ina’s book about which parts can be made ahead…sometimes days in advance.  This sure reduces the time spent in the kitchen on the day you plan to serve the meal.  Please note, unlike the last menu I posted, this time I was not able to find a link to all of the recipes from her book.  So, go out and buy it or find a variation online.

So, how was it?  Alan and my son Collin (who just so happened to join us for the meal) liked all of the recipes.  However, Collin did bring up a good point that, aside from the kale salad, the rest of the meal lacked a lot of different textures.  He even joked that the polenta with meatballs would be perfect for someone with a tooth ache!   I told my son to prepare for an upcoming dinner with a lot of crunch!

MENU

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Bruschetta
Kale Salad with Pancetta and Pecorino
Roasted Italian Meatballs
Creamy Parmesan Polenta
Chocolate Creme Brulee

 

 

Who doesn’t like to top crusty Italian bread with cheese and other goodness?  The Brushetta was a great mix of sweet and savory.  The topping gets it sweetness from the maple syrup and squash and the savory from the ricotta cheese, onions, red pepper flakes, salt and a drizzle of olive oil.  I would eat a couple slices of this paired with a salad for a delicious, casual lunch.

 

Takes a bit of time to peel and cube the squash, but worth it.
After roasting the cubes of squash in a hot oven, you add it to carmelized onion with a dash of red pepper flakes, syrup and apple cider vinegar. Sweet, salty, savory and a hit of spice.
The crunchy slice of bread, topped with a layer of ricotta cheese and the squash/onion saute is divine. You can make the squash/onion spread up to 3 days prior. Pull it out of the fridge, heat it in the microwave and then all you need is bread and cheese.

 

The Kale salad had an Italian twist with the use of Pancetta (Italian bacon), Pecorino Cheese and a homemade Caesar dressing.  I don’t keep anchovies in my pantry, but what I do keep is a tube of anchovy paste that is just as good.  It keeps forever and you only need a little squirt to get a lot of salty flavor.  Please consider making your own salad dressing.  Once you get the hang of it and figure out it usually takes only a few ingredients (oil, some type of acid – vinegar, lemon juice, herbs) you’ll never go back to that slimy, preservative- filled bottled stuff.

A few ingredients and a blender is all you need to whip up a great salad dressing. Keeps in the fridge for a week.
Throw small chunks of fresh, hard cheese into the processor and chop until you get fine crumbles. So easy and fast.
Baby kale is easy to find and because it’s tender, it makes a delicious salad.

 

Ina’s Meatball recipe surprised me in that it called for red wine, water and eggs.  I thought the mixture would end up too loose or wet, but she knows what she’s doing.  The breadcrumbs, cheese and meat soaked up all of the liquid.  The key to amazing meatballs is to be gentle when combining the ingredients.  Don’t overwork the ground beef and pork or your little balls of goodness will be tough.  Use an ice cream scoop to make them uniform and barely roll them in your hands.  I like to cook my meatballs on a cooling rack set on top of a jelly roll pan.  This allows the hot air (I set my oven on convection roast) to wrap around them and lets any excess fat drip on to the tray.  Works every time.

Basic ingredients for the meatballs.
I use my ice cream scoop more often for measuring out meatballs, cookie dough and cupcake batter than I do scooping ice cream. Ha ha.
Nicely browned and crispy. I only add them to my marinara sauce in the last 10 minutes before serving…just enough to heat them through and helps them to stay tender. They also freeze incredibly well.

Talk about a bowl of creamy, warm comfort food…Creamy Parmesan Polenta is so satisfying it could be eaten alone, let alone topped with any kind of sauce or protein.  Very easy to make…just stir and stir and stir…within 10 minutes it was completely done.  You can make it ahead, reheat gently and stir it up right before serving.

The recipe calls for creme fraiche (which my store didn’t have) so I subbed in sour cream. Worked perfectly well and I like the tang that it gives.

 

Put the polenta, meatballs and marinara sauce side by side and you have a beautiful and hearty main course.  Molto Buona…VERY GOOD!

 

Last but not least it was time to cap off the meal with a cool chocolate classic.  Alan and Collin were more than happy to play with fire as they torched the sugar on top to create that wonderful crunch when you tap your spoon on the crust to reveal the creamy, smooth pudding below.

It’s important to slowly add the hot chocolate cream mixture to the egg yolks so you don’t end up with scramble chocolate eggs…ewwww.
You have to scald the cream. Did you know that means either using a thermometer until it registers 180 degrees or simply watch for tiny bubbles to form around the edges of the sauce pan. Bottom line…don’t boil the cream – just get it hot.
Ina calls for one tablespoon of sugar for each. We discovered we had to use much less to get the right crust. Ended up best with just a dusting of sugar on ours.

 

Crispy topping and cool, creamy chocolate below. Yes please!
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