Summertime is Pesto Time

Summer is here in all of its radiant (and humid) glory. I love this time of year. Flowers are peaking, showing their most vibrant color and gardens are beginning to give forth their bounty. Basil plants are thriving and beg to be snipped back almost daily. Basil always brings pesto to mind. I’ve shared my version of the traditional Pesto recipe and it is still number one on my Hit Parade, but this summer I have stepped out of my comfort zone (a little) and experimented with some different flavors and ingredients.

First off is a Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Pesto. Grape tomatoes and garlic are roasted to perfection before they are added to ricotta and pine nuts. Basil actually plays a supporting role here, but is present enough to lend some color and lots of flavor.

This is wonderful on pasta. or as a base for bruschetta.

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Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Pesto
Servings: 2 Cups
Ingredients
  • 1 Pint Grape Tomatoes
  • 4-5 Large Garlic Cloves Skin on
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil Plus more for roasting
  • 3/4 Cup Ricotta I used Part Skim
  • 1/2 Cup Grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1/4 Cup Pine Nuts I toasted mine
  • 1/2 Cup Basil Leaves Firmly packed
  • Salt and Pepper To taste
Instructions
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Toss the tomatoes with a generous dose of olive oil, add a bit of salt and pepper. and spread them out on the baking sheet. 

  2. Place the garlic cloves on a piece of foil. Drizzle with a little olive oil and pull the foil up around the cloves to make a nice bundle. Seal well, but leave a little room for steam.

  3. Roast the garlic for about 30 minutes until it is very fragrant. Roast the tomatoes 15 - 20 minutes until the begin to blister and give off a little juice. Remove things from the oven as the are done and set aside. 

  4. In a processor combine the tomatoes, garlic, pine nuts, oil, and the cheeses. Process until fairly smooth. Add the basil and pulse just long enough to coarsely chop. You want those pretty green flecks.

  5. Use with your favorite pasta or as a base for bruschetta or pizza.

This pesto takes its inspiration from what is flourishing in my (balcony) herb garden. These are my standbys that are always planted. Nothing exotic or fancy just some rosemary, basil, and lemon thyme. Just out of camera range is a chive plant that is happily snipped at everyday.

This Garden Herb Pesto is based what’s in my garden. You can make it your own by snipping in you own garden. Lemon juice and zest along with some toasted almonds join the traditional pecorino, olive oil, and roasted garlic to create a bright blend. Once again, basil doesn’t take center stage, it co-stars with thyme. Rosemary is there but in a quantity that imparts flavor without hitting everything else over the head. Parsley would be a welcome addition here. Sadly, my success with parsley has never been great so I use it at times that I have enough. This was not one of those times. Herb Pesto is the perfect sauce for some angel hair pasta. It also shines as a topping for grilled or roasted vegetables. I’ve even added bread crumbs and a little stock and used it to stuff chicken breasts and pork chops.

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Garden Herb Pesto
Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • 1 Lemon Zest & juice
  • 4-5 Cloves Garlic Roasted
  • 1/2 Cup Thyme Leaves
  • 1/3 Cup Basil Leaves
  • 2 Tblsp. Rosemary Leaves
  • 1/4 Cup Chives
  • 2 Tblsp. Slivered almonds Toasted
  • 1/4 Cup Pecorino Romano Grated
  • 3 Tblsp. Olive Oil
  • Salt & Pepper To taste
Instructions
  1. Roast the garlic by wrapping the skin-on cloves in foil. Add a bit of olive oil before sealing the packet. Roast 30- 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

  2. Combine all of the ingredients, except the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times until everything is chopped but not to the point of being a paste.

  3. Drizzle in the olive oil blending until it is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper as needed and it's ready for its culinary adventure.

There you have two quick pesto recipes that are ready for their day in the sun. I know that these are only a small corner of what can be done with garden bounty. Let your green (and red if you are using tomatoes) flag fly and make pesto your own. Its time is now.

Hail Caesar!! The Salad Dressing of Summer

This is shaping up to be the “Summer of Salads” in Mama D’s Kitchen. Posts here and those published directly on Facebook have definitely had a vegetable forward approach. It just feels right because here in the MIdwest we are experiencing a very warm June, in fact it has felt more like August for the better part of a week.

Salads can be easy to prepare and are the perfect light supper for those warm Summer evenings. This post is paying tribute to Caesar Salad Dressing as I make it. This is not the traditional coddled egg and anchovy version though these ingredient are present in slightly different forms. Even with these “shortcuts” the result is creamy, tangy, and worthy of reining over anything.

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Caesar Salad Dressing

This is a basic dressing that can be adjusted to your tastes. The recipe can be doubled and because it can be used in many different ways this is a good idea.

Ingredients
  • 1 Clove Garlic Smashed
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1- 1/2 Tsp. Anchovy Paste More or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. Mayonnaise Olive oil based is nice
  • 1 Tbsp. Lemon Juice
  • 1 Tsp. White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 Tsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1/2 Tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1 Tsp. Cracked Black Pepper
  • 1/4 Tsp. Cayenne Optional, to taste
  • 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
Instructions
  1. Combine all of the ingredient in a small food processor. Pulse until everything is nice and smooth.

  2. Give it a good taste and adjust the flavors to make you happy. Store, in the refrigerator  in a jar with a tight fitting lid. 

Once you have your dressing made, use it in whatever way you like. The two dishes I’m sharing are pretty basic, but they are a great place to start. First there is the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad. Classic, easy, and delicious. Marinate Chicken Breast in a bit of the dressing. Use boneless/skinless whole breasts or use tenderloins like I did. Threaded on a skewer they cook in no time and have more grilled surface which means more flavor.Torn Romaine Lettuce, the cubed chicken and a couple of tablespoons of dressing are tossed together. Once plated add some shaved Pecorino (or Parmesan) and a few croutons. Heaven on a plate. Swap the chicken for shrimp or salmon or even leave out the added protein and enjoy it as a delectable side.Caesar dressing is wonderful on any vegetable salad. It can turn grilled vegetables into the perfect accessory for grilled meat, poultry, or fish.

Toss your vegetables of choice with a little of the dressing and let them get well acquainted in the refrigerator for several hours. Cook them in a grill basket over medium heat. For this dish I used zucchini and yellow squash, asparagus. red onion, and Yukon Gold potatoes. You want everything to be barely tender so depending on how hot your grill is, this will take 15 – 20 minutes.

A note here: The potatoes take longer to cook. To even the cooking time out, steam them for about 10 minutes or cook them in the microwave for 3 – 5 minutes.

Toss the vegetables with a little more of the dressing and allow to mellow in the refrigerator for several hours. This type of salad tastes best slightly cool or at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge accordingly. You can add a few grape tomatoes, some chopped fresh herbs and a grating of cheese if you are so inclined. Take as many liberties with the vegetables as you would like. green beans, eggplant, or peppers would enjoy this royal treatment.

There is no need to stop at salad and marinade. Use it as an ingredient in burgers, drizzle a bit on a sandwich, or use it as a dip for artichokes. The possibilities are almost endless and summer is only just beginning.

Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market, a Love Story

This is a story about my relationship with Caputo’s Fresh Market. I realize that those of you outside the Chicago area will have no idea what I’m talking about, but I will try to paint a picture that gives you a feel for what this store is all about.

It was started in 1958 by Angelo Caputo, an Italian emigrant. He opened a store in Elmwood Park. Illinois that featured fresh produce, meats, and baked goods all with more that a casual nod to his Italian roots. It has now grown to 8 stores.

I first experienced Caputo’s in South Elgin. The array of produce was mind-blowing and there was something about choosing the best Melrose peppers while Frank Sinatra crooned overhead that enhanced my shopping experience. The produce  selection was rivaled only by the vast variety of pastas that spanned almost the entire depth of the store. Then there was the meat counter.. beautiful cuts of meat and a dazzling selection of homemade sausages. It was an Italian girl’s dream come true.

Sadly, a relocation put me farther away from that wonderful store, but as the chain grew so did other opportunities. Though it is not that close to where I live, there is another Caputo’s that is worth the 25 minute drive. We have dubbed the store in Carolstream the “Flagship Store” because it is the newest and the corporate headquarters appears to be right next door.

Carol Stream Store

They pulled out all the stops when they created this not so little gem. The layout is angular with specialty departments nestled along the perimeter. My first visit found me wandering aimlessly and finding things almost by accident. As time has gone on, I have learned to love the angles and alcoves while still discovering something new on each visit.

The produce is still without compare and if you can’t find an Italian specialty item, it may not exist on this side of the Atlantic. All this would make it a destination store, but then there is a little thing called  Bar Angelo, a sleek and simple bar and restaurant just off the produce department. You can get a glass of wine or even a cocktail, if you are so inclined. The simple food menu offers everything from appetizers to pizza and pasta. The prices are great and most everything is scratch made in the kitchen.

On our most recent visit, we had a quick lunch. Arancini stuffed with spinach and ricotta was beautifully presented in a pool of light yet flavorful marinara. We paired it with an order of Calamari Fritti that was tender and flavorful while being en-robed in a crunchy parsley flecked crust. A couple of glasses of truly decent house wine and we were ready to shop for well under $20.00.

I also need to comment on the employees. Either I am there on good days or everyone seems to enjoy their jobs. They are helpful, happy, and easily found (if you’ve shopped brick and mortar lately you know what I mean).  This recent visit put us face to face with a gentleman who makes mozzarella for a living (at least I think so). He was blissfully pulling and knotting fresh “mozz” into bocconcini as he made the perfect recommendation on a Fontina cheese.

Samples? Damn Skippy. There is nothing in the world that can compare to a freshly cut bocconcini that is still slightly warm, silky with brine, that almost melts in your mouth. It is a near religious experience. Did I buy some? Again, damn Skippy, how can one resist.

These little knots of deliciousness became the star of a simple Caprese Salad. There is no need for a recipe. Simply slice the most beautiful tomatoes you can find and layer them with fresh mozzarella. The only adornment is a drizzle of olive oil, some fresh basil, and maybe a bit of balsamic glaze.

This was a magnificent first course that wet or appetite for the main event. Rib Pork Chops (also found at Caputo’s) that had the extra cap of meat and fat similar to beef prime rib. This extra fat made them perfect for grilling and some Spinach and Tomato Pesto  courtesy of Cooking Light Magazine, was the perfect embellishment. A Grilled Green Bean and Potato  Salad was a delightful foil with its rosemary laced mustard vinaigrette.

This is a destination store that we will be visiting more often. If you are in the area check it out, if you’re not, it is worth the trip.

A Tale of Three Dressings (and Their Salads)

Spring is here and thoughts of food often lead to thoughts of lighter meals and to the variety of fresh vegetables that seem to be expanding in availability every day. Peas and asparagus boldly take their place on plates everywhere, and while these are wonderful, it is also a time for all vegetables to take center stage. An easy way to do that is to  have salad as the main dish, and that is what has been happening in Mama D’s Kitchen.

Time for a definition and a short history lesson: Salads are defined as small pieces of food that are mixed with a sauce or dressing. They have been around since early times. Greeks and Romans enjoyed “salata” as part of their meals. That Latin word basically means “salted things” and the vehicle of choice to bring that salt to the food was a dressing, usually consisting of oil, vinegar, and of course, salt. So, I guess that it is safe to say that any food that can be cut into small pieces can be a salad and Dressings are what makes the salad.

The dressings I’m sharing today all meet that basic “salata” formula. There is oil and some kind of acid, always vinegar but often some tangy citrus, too. I like my salad acid forward (and a bit lower in fat) so I tend to use a little less than the 3 to 1 ratio of oil to acid. Use the ratio that makes you happy, there are no rules. The same goes for the ingredients you choose…if you like it, use it, if you don’t try something else.

First up is a Beet and Goat Cheese Salad. The leafy base is a Spring Mix so it is seasonally correct in spite of the beets (no rules, remember). Roasted red and golden beets were treated  to a warm vinaigrette. Pancetta fried up in olive oil along with a chopped shallot were the basis of this honey sweetened dressing. My vinegar of choice was Champagne, but white balsamic or apple cider would be just as delicious.

 

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Warm Pancetta and Shallot Vinaigrette

This is great with bacon, too. Add any fresh herbs that tickle you fancy and use the vinegar that you love the most. This is great on any vegetable salad. It is very close to a classic German Potato Salad Dressing.

Ingredients
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
  • 4 Ounces Pancetta Chopped
  • 1 Small Shallot chopped
  • 1 Tsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. Honey More or less to taste
  • Pepper and Kosher Salt to Taste
  • 2 Tbsp. Chopped Parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Herbs Of your choice, optional
  • 3 Tbsp. Champagne Vinegar Or other vinegar of your choice
Instructions
  1. Heat Olive Oil in a medium skillet. Add the pancetta and cook until it is almost crisp. Add the shallot to the pan and cook for another 2 - 3 minutes 

  2. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for several minutes to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Toss with the salad of your choice.

As a kind of tribute to “salata’s” Mediterranean roots, the next salad encompasses the flavors of Italy and Greece. Garbanzo beans, feta cheese and olives sit atop Romaine and are dressed with a blend of lemon, garlic, and fresh herbs.

 

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Mediterranean Vinaigrette

A twist on the classic vinaigrette with plenty of lemon and more than a hint of garlic. Add any fresh herbs of your choice. This is wonderful on a Greek salad, but it would be equally delightful as a dressing for grilled vegetable or a pasta salad. It makes a great marinade as well.

Ingredients
  • 1 Medium Lemon Juice and zest
  • 2 Cloves Garlic Grated
  • 1/4 Cup White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp. Red Pepper Flakes Optional, to taste
  • 3 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Herbs Parsley, thyme, basil, or you choice
  • Kosher Salt and Pepper To taste
  • 1 Tsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1/4 Cup Olive oil
Instructions
  1. Combine all of the ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until completely blended. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Finally in a nod to the flavors of the Southwest, a Salad featuring grilled skirt steak, peppers and onions. Fire roasted corn and pepitas joined in as well. This dressing started out as fresh salsa, then lime juice, olive oil and red wine vinegar came on the scene, accompanied by cumin and ancho chili powder.

 

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Salsa Dressing

This starts with salsa, you choose the type. Tangy lime and robust red wine vinegar join forces. Cumin and whatever type of chili powder you love come into play. Add some fresh cilantro or oregano to increase the fresh taste. This makes a wonderful marinade as well as a salad dressing.

Ingredients
  • 3/4 Cup Salsa Any kind that you love
  • 1 Lime Juice and zest
  • 2 Tbsp. Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tsp. Ground Cumin Or to taste
  • 1/2 Tsp. Ancho Chili Powder Or to taste
  • 1/4 Cup Finely Chopped Cilantro
  • 1/2 Tsp. Agave Nectar Optional, to taste
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
  • Kosher salt and Pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Combine all of the ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until well blended. allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

A few final notes: As I said before, there are no rules for the dressings here. If you like a more homogenized dressing, give the ingredients a whirl in the processor (probably not a good idea for the warm dressing). If you like a touch of sweetness or feel the need to temper the acidity a bit, try Agave Syrup. a little goes a long way,but it can bring just the right touch of sweet to make everything come together.

The weather is getting warmer each day, lighter meals are more appealing and your salad bowl is a wonderful catalyst to meals that salute the season.

Raiding the Refrigerator: Italian Pork Loin with Fennel

Refrigerators, much like pantries can go from neat and current to “what is that?” very quickly. While I have been able to identify most everything currently dwelling within, there are a few items that have over stayed their welcome. A recent exploration resulted in a jar of Sun-dried Tomato Pesto and a bottle of Balsamic Vinaigrette. What can these two items have in common other than shelf life? My solution was to use each of them as a marinade, and here is how the story goes…

The pesto became the primary component of a wet rub for a small Pork Loin. I added fresh basil and some olive oil and gave it a quick whirl in the processor. Then I slathered the  mixture over the roast, gave it a plastic wrap blanket, and let it chill in the refrigerator for 4 hours. I’m guessing that this would work with Basil, Artichoke, or any other kind of pesto you may come across and it certainly wouldn’t be wrong to use you own homemade creation.

I admit that there are several bottles of salad dressing in my refrigerator, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They come in handy to top a quick-lunch salad and in this story they make an easy marinade. The veggies that I chose for this dish included a bulb of fennel, a bag of cipollini onions, and some colored baby bell peppers. Of course there was garlic…remember whose kitchen this is.These gathered together and marinated in a healthy dose of Balsamic vinaigrette. They then went into a baking dish where, after a short head start, they were topped with the pesto rubbed roast.Roughly 40 minutes later, the roast was roasted to  perfection and the vegetables were a lovely golden shade.Keeping with the Italian spirit, Polenta, laced with Romano Cheese and Rosemary joined the plate. (Click here to see an earlier polenta adventure.)

 

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Italian Pork Roast with Fennel
Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • 1 2-1/2 Lb. Pork Loin
  • 1/3 Cup Sun-dried Tomato Pesto Or pesto of your choice
  • 1/2 Cup Fresh Basil Leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
  • 1 Bulb Fennel Cored and sliced
  • 4 Ounces Cipollini Onions Peeled and halved
  • 6 Ounces Baby Bell Peppers Cut in half
  • 1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinaigrette
Instructions
  1. Combine the pesto, basil, and olive oil in a small processor until well blended. Spread this mixture on the pork loin and cover and refrigerate for 4 hours, even overnight if you have the time.

  2. Combine the fennel, onions, and peppers in a large bowl. Toss with the Vinaigrette, cover and marinate in the refrigerator along with the pork. 

  3. When you are ready to roast. preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a baking dish with cooking spray. Add the vegetables and about half of the salad dressing. Roast for 10 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften.

  4. Place the roast on top of the vegetables and return the dish to the oven. Roast for about 40 minutes to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Allow to rest before slicing.

  5. Serve the roast and vegetables on their own or add a starch of your choice. Polenta is very nice.

This was easy to prepare and very easy (and delicious) to eat. It turns out that pesto makes a very good marinade for meat and this story has a happy ending.