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.)


Italian Pork Roast with Fennel
Servings: 4
  • 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
  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.

Pantry Raid! Tortellini and Chick Pea Salad

They say that knowledge is power. This applies to many things that help one live a full life. The phrase can also apply to the more mundane matters of life like making dinner. Having recently learned a great deal about what is in the pantry, Mama D has used this knowledge to create some pretty interesting things (and a few mundane things as well). Since “Meatless Monday” is on the horizon, I thought I’d share a recent solution to the question: “What can I make for dinner without having to run to the store?”

Tortellini salad sounded good. Having discovered that I had one of those little bags of dry cheese tortellini in the pantry, and knowing that they really only work in soup or a salad, the choice was easy. It honestly could have gone either way, but another “Midwestern Warm Spell” made the salad idea more appealing.

Further investigation of the larder revealed several cans of chick peas, the refrigerator yielded some zucchini and grape tomatoes, and the freezer revealed several bags of pesto (remnants of a distant summer). Not bad for starters, I thought. The zucchini was roasted, the tortellini cooked al dente, and the pesto was blended with some buttermilk to create a light and creamy dressing. Now what?Nothing like some sliced red onion and sweet pepper rings to add some crunch and color. The pepper rings were discovered in the back of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I do not remember why I got them in the first place, but it had to be for something because the jar was half empty; or was it half full?  It seems that no part of Mama D’s Kitchen is immune from hoarding or philosophical musings.

The Buttermilk Pesto Dressing was perfect. The tangy low-fat dairy gave the rich pesto a healthy balance. Two more refrigerator discoveries; some Romano Cheese (a staple actually) and Kalamata Olives (original purpose unknown) rounded out the bowl. As this salad was kind of thrown together from what was on hand, it can be adapted to anyone’s pantry and I would recommend adapting it to your own needs.


Tortellini and Chick Pea Salad
Course: Main Course, Salad
  • 8 Ounces Dry Tortellini
  • 1 Can Chick Peas Drained and rinsed
  • 2 Small Zucchini
  • 1/2 Medium Red Onion
  • 1-1/2 Cups Grape tomatoes Halved
  • 1/4 Cup Pickled Pepper Rings Any kind
  • 1/4 Cup Kalamata Olives Quartered
  • 1 Bag Italian Lettuce Blend
  • 2 Tblsp. Grated Romano
  • Cracked Black Pepper To taste. Optional
Creamy Pesto Dressing
  • 1/3 Cup Basil Pesto
  • 1/3 Cup Buttermilk
  • 1 Tblsp. White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 Tblsp. Olive oil
  1. Cook the Tortellini according to the package directions. Drain well, rinse and drain well again. Place in a large bowl.

  2. Quarter the zucchini lengthwise and chop into 1 inch pieces. Spread out on a baking sheet and spray with non-stick cooking spray. sprinkle with Italian herb blend. Roast at 375 degrees for 15 minutes turning once to brown both sides. Add to the bowl .

  3. Slice the red onion into thin vertical slices. Toss with a little vinegar and set aside for 15 minutes. Blooming makes raw onion less strong tasting. Drain the onion and add to the bowl.

  4. Add the chick peas, olives, tomatoes, and pepper rings to the bowl and toss to combine everything.

  5. Shake the Pesto Dressing ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Pour about half of the dressing over the salad and toss to coat well. Cover the bowl and chill for several hours.

  6. About 30 minutes before serving remove the bowl from the refrigerator and add the remaining dressing. Toss again.

  7. To serve: Place a couple of handfuls of the lettuce blend on each of the plates. Top with the tortellini salad and sprinkle with the Romano. A generous sprinkle of black pepper is a nice finishing touch.

Like a perfect storm, this salad will never happen in quite the same way again. The next version will most likely be different no matter whose kitchen it comes from. 

Confessions of an Impulse Buyer – Stuffed Poblano Peppers

I’m an impulse buyer. Sometimes something calls to me like a Siren. I’m drawn to it, my reason somehow clouded by its alluring song. The temptress isn’t a designer bag or a beautiful pair of earrings; far from it. Quite often it is a jar of imported olives or an intriguing blend of ancient grains. Grocery stores and markets are my weakness, and I’m forever a sucker for the new and unusual.

Many a routine shopping trip meant to replenish our staples finds me coming home with some culinary treasure or another. My need to have whatever it is doesn’t care if there is little room to store it. So much so, that I’ve converted an entire closet in our minuscule apartment into a pantry. (Thank you Papa D for humoring me).

From time to time I pull myself out of my gastronomic reverie and take stock of my larder. I repentantly vow to use what is on hand before I buy anything else that could be considered non-essential. The time has come to take stock, take a vow, and start getting creative.Here is my counter of shame…yes all of these came out of my pantry. Sadly, this isn’t everything, I left the more plebian things out; actually I ran out of room. Some were actually purchased for a specific recipe, but many were acquired just to have. What’s Mama D to do?She made Stuffed Peppers for starters. Poblano peppers were stuffed with a quinoa rice blend that was good the first time around, but has been languishing in the dark ever since.  Since we were in a  “South of the Border” kind of vibe, I started with a Sofrito of sorts. In this case it was poblano, onion, garlic, and cilantro chopped finely and sautéed in a bit of olive oil. The liquid was predominantly Guajillo Chili Sauce (click here for the recipe). This gave the grain a hearty depth of flavor. I created lovely Poblano boats by cutting a large oval out of their sides. This also gave them great stability in the oven.The chopped up pepper scraps, some red bell pepper, onion, and Chipotle Chicken Sausage.Sauteed in a bit more olive oil, they gave the filling substantial substance. 

I added the rice to the above mixture and tossed everything together. I also added some Pepper Jack Cheese because I was feeling the need for an even bigger comfort food sensation ( nothing says comfort to me like adding some cheese). I over – filled the pepper boats because that’s how I roll. I even put some of the filling in the pan to act as a tasty platform for the peppers. They spent some time in the oven under a foil tent, when they were almost ready, I topped them with more cheese and let the broiler work its magic.

These were very tasty. The flavor was rich but surprisingly not too spicy. If you wanted to turn up the heat, you could add some chopped jalapenos or use a spicier chili sauce. By the way, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make scratch chili sauce, canned enchilada sauce would work as well. 

Stuffed Poblano Peppers
Servings: 2
  • 2 Tblsp Sofrito
  • 2 Tblsp Olive Oil Divided
  • 1 Cup Chili Sauce
  • 1/2 Cup Water
  • 2 Tsp Cumin
  • 2/3 Cup Brown Rice Or other grain blend
  • 2 Large Poblano Peppers
  • 1/2 Cup Chopped Red Bell Pepper
  • 3/4 Cup Chopped Onion
  • 1/2 Cup Chicken Broth More or less as needed
  • 2 Links Chipotle Chicken Sausage Quartered lengthwise and chopped
  • 3/4 Cup Shredded Pepper Jack Cheese divided
  1. Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the Sofrito and cook for 3 - 4 minutes until it is fragrant.

  2. Add the rice or grain blend and stir to mix in the sofrito. Cook another 3-4 minutes, stirring often.

  3. Add the chili sauce, water, and cumin and stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook 15 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Set aside.

  4. Cut a large oval out of the side of each pepper. Carefully remove the seeds and membranes. Each pepper should look like a little boat when you are finished. Chop the pieces that were cut out and add them to the onions and red peppers. Set the pepper boats aside.

  5. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onions, red peppers, and chopped poblano pieces. Cook, stirring occasionally until everything softens and browns slightly. Add the chopped sausage to the pan and cook for several minutes more

  6. Add the reserved grain mixture to the pan.  Add enough broth to loosen the mixture slightly. It should be moist but not soggy. Cook for a few minutes then remove from the heat. Stir in 1/2 cup of the grated cheese.

  7. Spray a casserole pan with cooking spray. spoon a little of the ric mixture into the pan. Fill the pepper boats generously with the rice mixture. Place the pepper in the casserole.

  8. Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the peppers. Set the oven to broil return the pan to the oven and broil for 3 -5 minutes until the cheese is melted and golden.

  9. Remove the peppers from the oven and serve.

So, there is one less bag of grain in the pantry and finding the bag of gajillo chilies was a surprise that lightened the load a little more. I can say with pride that my last two forays at the grocery store were essentially only essentials…except for the Fish Sauce (I was almost out) and the Anchovy Paste (it was on sale). Baby steps….

Soup Season Has Arrived: Chipotle Cheddar Cheese Soup

It’s soup season. The calendar tells me so, but here in the Midwest we have had a very mild January…in fact it is almost one for the record books. There has been virtually no snow and the temperature has flirted with the 60’s. Still, it is soup season so soup is making many appearances in Mama D’s Kitchen.

Armed with plenty of homemade stock in the freezer I am embarking on serious soup adventures. My first stop was revisiting a pure comfort soup, Broccoli Cheddar Cheese, to be exact. What could elevate this creamy classic? Enter a block of Chipotle Cheddar Cheese. This is a white cheddar studded with bits of chipotle pepper. It is available in a few markets and while bringing a bit of heat is still a sharp cheddar that will please most tastes.

I started with onions, carrots and garlic softened in a little olive oil. My stock of choice was vegetable as “Meatless Monday” was looming. I simmered these together for half an hour or so before transforming it into creamy cheesy goodness. There was going to be a lot of cheddar cheese going into this so I dialed down the dairy fat by using a combination of evaporated skim milk and low-fat buttermilk. A flour and stock slurry insured pleasant thickness and some Worcestershire Sauce and Chipotle Tabasco Sauce added some zip. I added a little Chipotle Chile Powder. Depending on how hot you want to go, this could go as high as your palate can bear.

I blanched the broccoli to help keep its vivid green color and added a cup of frozen corn to keep things interesting.

This is actually a very quick soup to make. It would also lend itself to many variations. The addition of buttermilk was an experiment that succeeded. It added creaminess as well as a little zing to the flavor. If you can’t find chipotle cheddar use any sharp cheddar cheese.

Chipotle Cheddar Soup with Broccoli and Corn
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Chipotle Cheddar Soup with Broccoli and Corn
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  1. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onions, carrots, and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes or until the veggies are beginning to brown.
  2. Add 1/4 cup broth to the pot and stir scraping up any brown bits. Cook for a minute or so to reduce slightly.
  3. Add 3-1/2 cups of stock, the allspice, and chipotle powder to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 - 15 minutes.
  4. While the stock simmers, blanch the broccoli. Dump the broccoli into a pot of salted boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. Immediately remove the broccoli and submerge in a bowl of ice water. Drain well and set aside.
  5. Once the stock mixture starts smelling wonderful, add the evaporated milk and the buttermilk. Shake together the remaining 1/4 cup of stock and the flour. Slowly pour it into the soup stirring constantly. Continue to stir until it thickens.
  6. Add the broccoli, corn, Worcestershire Sauce and Chipotle Tabasco. Cook for several minutes.
  7. Over low heat, stir in the cheese, continuing to stir until it is melted. Give it a taste and adjust any seasoning. Serve.
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The soup pot sits at the ready for its next great adventure…I wonder where we will wind up?

Nonna’s Cookbook : Entry #2 – Anise and Almond Biscotti

The holidays are becoming a distant memory. The decorations have been put away, the gifts have been used and are no longer the newest thing in the house, and we Midwesterners are dreaming about Spring.

Every year at Christmas I make at least one batch of Biscotti. When I say  “Biscotti” it is the Anise and Almond variety that I am referring to. I’ve made lots of other varieties over the years, but this is my favorite. I can make them in my sleep at this point, but I enjoy the process so much, I stay wide awake.

I shared “Nonna’s Cookbook” that I got for Christmas in my last post. To stay true to my resolution to preserve my favorite recipes, I felt the need to share another entry.

I love this recipe! The cookies are tender yet crisp. The flavor is a subtle blend of anise and almond with delightful notes of vanilla in the background. To me they are everything biscotti should be. It makes lots of cookies so there is always plenty to go around. It’s a recipe that can be made in an afternoon or done in steps throughout a week. Most of all, it is the recipe I love the most. Give it a try and don’t wait until next Christmas.

Anise Almond Biscotti
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My favorite biscotti recipe! Hope you'll love it, too.
8 dozen
8 dozen
Anise Almond Biscotti
Print Recipe
My favorite biscotti recipe! Hope you'll love it, too.
8 dozen
8 dozen
Servings: dozen
  1. Beat butter and sugar until well incorporated using an electric mixer. Add the eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flavorings and the anise seeds and mix until well combined. Add the almonds and mix until combined. This is easier than adding the almonds after the flour.
  2. Whisk flour baking powder and salt together to aerate and blend. Slowly mix flour mixture into the wet mixture. You will have to add the last flour and mix by hand. Gather dough together and turn onto a lightly floured board, pat into a flat round.
  3. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Pat and roll each piece into a log 12 - 14 inches long. Flatten the log to 1/2 inch thick and 2 inches wide. At this point they are ready to bake. If you want you to bake them later, wrap each log in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Let logs come to room temperature before you bake them.
  4. When you are ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place no more than 2 logs on each greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 15 - 20 minutes.Remove from oven let cool several minutes until easily handled. Carefully move each log to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut logs crosswise into 3/4 inch slices.
  5. Lay cut side down back on the baking sheet. Return to oven and bake 15 - 20 minutes more, turning the cookies after after 8 - 10 minutes to toast other side.
  6. Place the cookies on a rack to cool. Store airtight. These will keep for about a week. They can be frozen for a month or so.
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