Category Archives: Main Dish

Melrose Peppers, Another Love Story

This is a story about Melrose Peppers. It is also a story about growing up in Melrose Park surrounded by family. Not everyone can claim that their hometown has a pepper named after it, but I can.

The Melrose pepper, an Italian sweet variety, came to Melrose Park along with many Italian Immigrants. My grandfather was one of those settlers and like so many others he had a garden. When I was little, I was fascinated with the garden across the street from our house. I remember my grandfather spending hours tending the tomato and pepper plants. There were lots of other vegetables, but those are the ones I remember most. I grew up taking for granted that everyone had a giant field of food within walking distance.

Sadly, my grandfather passed away and before long, so did his garden. The field became home to a trio of brick three flats. The tradition of garden fresh produce continued in Melrose Park, however. There was a converted school bus that came down our street several times a week in the summer. Inside was a veritable wonderland of fruits and vegetables. There always seemed to be plum tomatoes and Melrose peppers. That was a convenience that is no longer a reality.

If for some reason we missed the bus, there was always Tom Naples stand. To call it a stand is an understatement. It was huge (at least to an 8-year-old) and had every vegetable imaginable. There were fields of Melrose peppers growing behind his stand. I think he supplied the entire Chicago area Italian population with these sweet little beauties.

They were a staple in Italian kitchens in the summer. Fried in olive oil and seasoned with salt they crowned sausage and Italian beef sandwiches. They could simmer in tomato sauce and in a time when there was plenty of time they could be stuffed with sausage. My favorite treatment was when they were added to scrambled eggs for that Friday Supper Favorite, Pepper and Egg Sandwiches. Tucked into crusty Italian bread there was nothing better. It was delicious enough that I never missed the meat.

Years passed and access to the peppers did too. With all the bounty of produce we experienced living in California, there was never a Melrose Pepper. Once we moved back to Illinois it took some time before I re-discovered them. I have sung the praises of Caputo’s Fresh Market before, but I may love them the most because they reunited me with my cherished peppers.

This year my love affair reached a new level. I actually found Melrose Pepper plants and two have lived happily in my tiny garden plot. They have withstood heat, rain (and lack thereof), and rabbits and have given me if not a bounty at least some tasty meals.

Since I am always interested in the next “Can you grill it?” adventure I thought it was time to put my small bounty of Melrose beauties to the test. What better way then to pair them with one of their most popular partners, Italian sausage. I chose Scratch Family Chicken Italian Sausage because I got to talk to the creator at my favorite Caputo’s and his passion was as remarkable as his sausage. The sausage which is made with natural ingredients tastes remarkably like its pork cousin. The company is local, based in Montgomery, serving a limited market in the Chicago area. I think it’s due to get more widely known.

This sausage is also fully cooked which made it an even better choice for Mama D’s Grill Basket of Love.

While not traditional, I added a few red bell pepper strips for some color and some sliced sweet onions for a bolder flavor. Everything cooked together so the flavors really had a chance to blend. The result was a one dish meal that would have made my grandfather proud.

There isn’t much of a recipe to write. All you need is enough sausage, peppers, and onions to feed your family. Olive oil, maybe a bit of Italian herbs, and a sprinkle of some Pecorino Romano and you are good to go.

As my lead picture indicates, the last batch of peppers are turning their fully ripe crimson, an event that makes them even sweeter. The last peppers are waiting to be picked and I will miss them. A year is a long time to be without them. The season for these little guys is short and they may be hard to find but, keep an eye out for them, they are worth the hunt.

In Praise of Gas Grills…and Roasted Red Peppers

Summer is at its peak and fresh vegetables are overflowing their bins. Grills everywhere are fired up and working up a major sweat. Vegetables and grills have a special affinity that is at its best at this time of the year.

Purists will swear by charcoal and I do love me some char-grilled meat, but there are times when the convenience of gas has many of its own attributes. Disclaimer: I have no choice other than using a gas grill. Apartment living requires it for safety reasons (at least in my complex). That being said, I used gas long before I had to. It is at times a love hate relationship but, lately I love it and here is why.

The biggest plus (in my book) is how quickly it is ready to cook. Turn on the gas and press the button and you have a flame.  In a few minutes it is hot and ready to cook. What I love the most about this almost instant grill gratification is that it allows me to grill only the ingredients that I want. These ingredients can then come inside and become part of a pasta dish, frittata or salad. and yes all of those have happened this past week.

Woodman’s, a local mega grocery store, discounts their slightly sad produce. The discount is deep (think large bags of produce for 99 cents) and it is done daily with Mondays seeming to be the biggest day. While there are often some things that are sadder than others, there is usually enough usable produce to be well worth the under a dollar price. Quick processing then becomes the top priority. My bag of peppers, all of which were usable went in several directions. I chopped up a few and froze them for later, some where good enough for a salad and the rest went on the grill.

Grilling peppers accomplishes two things. The peppers cook into a silky textured scarlet bite of deliciousness and the charring allows the skin to easily be peeled.  This peeling step is a must do. For as silky as the pepper flesh gets the skin becomes tough, chewy and isn’t fun to eat.

As with peeling chili peppers, covering with plastic wrap and allowing the peppers to sit for a few minutes makes the skin easy to remove. The jewel like flesh that is revealed is a thing of beauty.

I opted to roughly chop the peppers for the recipes that I made, but slicing them into strips and adding some herbs, vinegar and olive oil create the perfect star for your next relish tray. As I said they made several appearances in the kitchen. My favorite was their co-starring role in a Panzanella Salad.

Cucumbers, cannellini beans, red onions, tomatoes, and whole wheat baguette joined the peppers and some kalamata olives to create a Mediterranean main dish salad that was wonderful. 

A Mediterranean Vinaigrette laced with lots of Rosemary gave a light yet zesty flavor to the salad. A sprinkling of Feta and it was ready to enjoy.

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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.

As far as Panzanella Salad Recipes go…anything goes. Tomatoes and cucumbers seem to be a must and of course crusty bread has to be present as this is a “Bread Salad.”

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Cannellini and Roasted Red Pepper Panzanella Salad

Another variation on the classic Panzanella Salad.  This is totally open to your own interpretation. add or subtract what you want, just make sure the tomatoes and bread stick around.

Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • Can Cannellini Beans Drained and rinsed
  • 2 - 3 Roasted Red Peppers Chopped
  • 1 Cup Sliced Cucumber
  • 1/2 Cup Sliced Red Onion Scliced vertically
  • 1/4 Cup Kalamata Olives Sliced
  • 1 Cup Grape or Cherry Tomatoes Halved
  • 2 Cups Crusty Bread Cubes Day Old is best
  • 3/4 Cup Mediterranean Vinaigrette Recipe above
  • 1/3 Cup Crumbled Feta Cheese
Instructions
  1. If the bread cubes are soft toast them lightly in a 325 degree oven. they should be dry and lightly golden. Combine the peppers, tomatoes, onion, olives, bread, and beans in a large bowl.

  2. Add the dressing and toss to coat everything nicely. cover and chill for several hours.

  3. When you are ready to serve, re-toss the salad adding a little more dressing if necessary. Sprinkle with the Feta cheese and serve.

So now that I have “said my piece” about grills and peppers, I will leave you with this bit of philosophy: Grills and peppers come in all shapes and sizes. Kind of like everything else in the world. Find what works, find what you love, and make it your own.

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.

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.

 

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Tortellini and Chick Pea Salad
Course: Main Course, Salad
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  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. 

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Stuffed Poblano Peppers
Servings: 2
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  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….