Creamy Polenta (Slow Cooker Method)

I have made polenta various ways over the years and have found that my favorite method for achieving creamy polenta is to start it on the stove and then transfer it to a slow cooker to simmer. Prepared this way, it is consistently soft and creamy, perfect for a cold winter day. Serve it alongside braised meats or stew. I also like it for a gluten-free breakfast. Be sure to use stone-ground cornmeal for the best flavor and texture. The recipe is adapted from Melissa d’Arabian.

Creamy Polenta (Slow Cooker Method)
4 cups milk
3 cups half and half
2 cups water
1-1/2 cups medium grind stone-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-1/2-2 teaspoons kosher salt

Grease or spray the ceramic insert of a 4-quart slow cooker (to keep polenta from sticking) or line with a plastic slow cooker bag. In a 4-quart stockpot whisk together milk, half and half, water, cornmeal, butter, and salt. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a boil, whisking often. Lower heat slightly and and whisking constantly, simmer for 2-3 minutes. Spoon mixture into the prepared slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 2 hours until soft and creamy. Stir 3 or 4 times during the cooking process. You can add in some Parmesan cheese at the end of cooking or leave it plain. Serves 6-8.

Posted in Breakfast, Christmas, Easter, Grains, Vegetarian | Leave a comment

Yellow Split Pea Dhal

It’s been a cold and snowy month and I’ve been craving food that is warming but not too rich. Soups and curries are particularly comforting at this time of year and one of my favorites is this recipe for yellow split pea Dhal. I learned to make it from my friend and Indian cooking teacher Farida. Her Dhal is the best I’ve tasted, enriched with black mustard seeds, curry leaves and cilantro. I like a very thin Dhal but if you prefer it thick just cook it a little longer.  It tastes best if made the day before you plan to serve it as the flavor improves with age. The Dhal also freezes beautifully.

Yellow Split Pea Dhal
2 cups yellow split peas, rinsed
8 cups water
1 tablespoon fine salt
2-1/4 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped garlic or garlic paste
1 tablespoon ground coriander or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded & chopped or 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 large Anaheim pepper, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-1/2 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
12 fresh curry leaves, rinsed and dried
1 bunch cilantro, rinsed, stemmed and chopped

In a 5-quart stockpot combine rinsed split peas, water and salt. Stir then cover and bring to a boil on medium high heat. Once the water has boiled, lower heat to medium low, keep partially cover and cook about 1 hour and 20 minutes until peas are tender and falling apart and the cooking water is cloudy. It should look like weak, watery soup. Purée with an immersion or hand blender. In a bowl combine crushed tomatoes with garlic, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. Pour tomato mixture into the puréed peas and purée again. Taste and adjust salt. Bring to a boil and add peppers. Cook 5-10 minutes. It should still be thin. If it seems too thick add 1/2 cup very hot water or more to desired consistency. In a small frying pan with a lid, heat vegetable oil on medium heat. When oil is hot but not smoking, add mustard seeds. They will start to sizzle and pop then add curry leaves. Cover and shake. Add oil and spices immediately to the split pea mixture. Stir in the cilantro. Let cook for just a minute. The Dhal should be the consistency of a very light gravy. Serve over basmati rice. Serves 6.

Posted in Dairy-free, Grains, Soups, Vegetarian | Leave a comment

Pasta with Red Crab Sauce

This is an easy and delicious pasta dish for an Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner. You can make the sauce in advance then just reheat it and add the crab. Merry Christmas!

Pasta with Red Crab Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup water
salt and pepper to taste
sugar to taste
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
2 snow crab clusters, scrubbed
1 lb. thin spaghetti

In a 5-quart pot heat olive oil on medium heat. Add onions and cook 7-10 minutes until soft. Add garlic to the onions and cook 2 minutes. Purée canned tomatoes in a blender then them to the onions and garlic. Stir to mix. Add water, salt, pepper, sugar and herbs to taste. Cover and turn heat to medium low and cook 30 minutes. Break crab clusters into individual legs and add to the sauce. Simmer for 20 minutes. While crab is cooking in the sauce, boil the pasta. Drain pasta then pour into a serving bowl and toss with the red crab sauce. Serves 6.

Posted in Christmas, Fish and Seafood, Pasta, Sauces | 2 Comments

Roasted Mushroom and Shallot Lasagna

This is my new favorite lasagna recipe. I love the roasted mushrooms in place of meat. If you can’t find mushroom bouillon cubes, then use a spoonful of vegetable ‘Better than Bouillon’ soup base. I usually make the sauce a couple of days in advance and then I roast the mushrooms and shallots the day before assembling the lasagna.

Roasted Mushroom and Shallot Lasagna
Tomato Sauce
1/3 cup olive oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped
4 (24 oz.) bottles Mutti brand tomato passata (or tomato purée)
1-1/2 cubes Star brand porcini mushroom bouillon
salt and pepper to taste
sprinkling of onion powder
sprinkling of garlic powder
sugar to taste
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
1-2 teaspoons dried oregano or to taste
1-2 teaspoons dried marjoram or to taste

In a 6-quart pot heat olive oil on medium heat. Add onions and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until onions are soft and golden. Add garlic and cook 1-2 minutes. Add tomato purée. Pour 1/4 cup water into each empty bottle of passata and shake it to loosen any leftover purée and pour that tomato water into the pot. Bring to a boil, then add bouillon cubes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, sugar, and herbs. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. If it seems too thick, add a bit more water and cook 5 more minutes.

2 (24 oz.) pkgs. Cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 6ths
4 large shallots
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
sprinkling of onion powder
sprinkling of garlic powder
3 (1 lb.) boxes Barilla brand no-boil lasagna noodles
4 lbs. whole milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (do not buy pre-shredded cheese)
1/4-1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
dried Greek oregano to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl combine mushrooms and  shallots. Drizzle with olive oil. Mix well. (You may need a little more oil to moisten.) Sprinkle with salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Toss to mix. Distribute mushrooms evenly between two baking sheets. Roast, stirring occasionally for 25 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are tender.

Assembly: preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour several ladlesful of hot sauce into the bottom of a 11×14 lasagna pan. Spread sauce evenly to the edges. Place a layer of no-bake noodles on top of sauce. Spoon a bit of sauce over the noodles. Sprinkle 2-3 cups shredded mozzarella over the noodles. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of Parmesan over mozzarella. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of oregano. Place half of the roasted mushrooms over the cheese. Repeat with another layer of noodles, a bit of sauce, cheeses, seasonings, and remaining mushrooms. Top with another layer of noodles, sauce, cheeses, and seasonings. Place some sauce over the cheese. Cover tightly with foil and bake 1 hour until noodles are cooked and the cheese is melted and hot in the middle. Remove from oven and let sit 10 minutes before serving. Serves 15-18.

Posted in Christmas, Easter, Pasta, Sauces, Thanksgiving | 2 Comments

Beef Tenderloin

This beef tenderloin recipe is a lovely special occasion dish. When I purchase the meat I look for a good quality beef cut labeled PSMO (Peeled, Silver Skin, Side Muscle On), when I can find it because, although it involves some trimming (plenty of YouTube videos show how), it is more economical. As in several other meat recipes on my blog I like to roll the beef in an olive oil herb bath as soon as it comes out of the oven and let those herbal flavors infuse into the meat. I roast the meat the day before I intend to serve it, wrapping it in plastic wrap and foil to chill. The next day, slice it while cold, then let it come to room temperature.

Beef Tenderloin
Olive Oil Herb Bath
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
zest of half a medium lemon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano

6-7 lb. beef Tenderloin
olive oil
salt and pepper
sprinkling of garlic powder
sprinkling of onion powder

Begin by mixing together the olive oil and herb bath. Set it aside. Take tenderloin out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature for one hour. Remove the silver lining strip on the meat. Tuck the small ends under the meat. Tie it with bakers string to keep it together. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place the roast on a half sheet baking pan. Drizzle meat with olive oil and rub it all over the roast. Season with salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Roast for 30-38 minutes until the thickest part of the roast is 125 degrees. Remove from oven and immediately roll the meat in the olive oil herb bath. Let sit in the oil for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove the meat from the herb bath liquid. Save the herb bath and refrigerate it to drizzle over the meat before serving.  Wrap the beef in plastic wrap, then in foil. Chill meat overnight. The next day, slice beef tenderloin while cold into 1/2-inch slices. Place on a serving platter and let come to room temperature. Drizzle the reserved olive oil herb bath over the meat and serve. Serves 10-15.

Posted in Beef, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving | 2 Comments

Hungarian Poppy Seed Cake

This is another delicious holiday recipe which came to me from my cousin Connie. It is called a cake, but it really is a sweet bread. The recipe makes 6 loaves that freeze beautifully, wrapped in plastic wrap then foil. The loaves make a nice neighbor or hostess gift. We will be having them for Christmas breakfast.

My mom has an old community cookbook from Kendall Park, New Jersey. When I was growing up quite a few Hungarian immigrants were living there and I found almost an identical recipe to this one in that book, but it was called a strudel. The dough is soft and easy to work with. In addition to poppy seed filling, it can be made with a walnut or almond filling or a thick canned fruit spread or homemade filling, my favorite being sour cherry (in which case add a touch of vanilla and drain a good portion of the liquid). This cake is eaten all over Eastern Europe in various forms at Christmas and Easter. It takes time to make so break it down into steps. I would make the filling one day (don’t add the beaten egg whites until ready to spread on the bread dough) and prepare the dough the next day.

I live at high altitude where it is drier. If you live in humidity at sea level you may need more flour for the dough. You want a soft consistency, but just slightly sticky.

The poppy seed filling requires very fresh poppy seeds to be ground into granules. This is done with a poppy seed grinder. My husband brought one back for me from Austria earlier this year and it works well, but you need a strong arm to grind them completely. Well worth the effort, however.

Hungarian Poppy Seed Cake
Poppy Seed Filling
1 lb. fresh poppy seeds, ground in a grinder
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup white raisins
3 heaping tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large eggs, separated

In a 4-quart pot combine ground poppy seeds, milk, sugar, applesauce, raisins, honey, and butter. Stir to mix well. Turn heat to medium low and, stirring often, cook for 15 minutes until thickened. At this point refrigerate until ready to use. Then beat egg whites until stiff and fold into filling just before spreading on dough to bake. Set aside the egg yolks mixed with 1 teaspoon of water and a pinch of salt for an egg wash to brush on the bread just before baking.

Bread Dough
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 whole eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
5-1/4 to 5-1/2 cups flour

In a mixing bowl combine yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar, and warm water. Let sit 5 minutes to foam. While the yeast is proofing combine butter and milk in a small saucepan and heat until butter is melted, but do not boil the mixture. It should be warm but not hot or it will kill the yeast. Add melted butter and milk mixture to the yeast, along with 1/2 cup sugar. Mix well. Add eggs, sour cream, and salt. Mix well. Add flour 1 cup at a time, scraping down the bowl with each addition. You should have a soft, smooth dough. Place in a large buttered bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise 1-1/2 hours until doubled. Divide dough into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a circle on a lightly floured surface. Spread 2/3 to 3/4 cup poppy seed filling on the circle. Roll up like a jelly roll cake. Gently pinch the ends and tuck up onto the seam. Place the roll seam side down onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Place three loaves per sheet. Repeat with remaining dough. Cover each sheet with a tea towel and let rise 30 minutes. Brush each loaf with egg yolk wash. Bake at 360 degrees for 20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. The loaves should be golden and puffed. Remove from oven and let loaves rest on the baking sheet on a rack for two minutes, then remove loaves from baking sheet to cool directly on the rack. Makes 6 loaves.

Posted in Breads, Breakfast, Christmas, Desserts, Easter, Thanksgiving | Leave a comment

Italian Butter Cookies

My husband loves these butter cookies.  The recipe is adapted from Laura Vitale, who uses a bit of shortening in the dough that gives it nice texture. Butter cookies are rich, so you don’t need a giant cookie; I like to pipe the dough into one-inch buttons and top them with sprinkles. Piping the cookies gives them a more delicate texture. I use both vanilla extract and Italian vanillina (powdered vanilla flavoring) to flavor the cookies. You can order vanillina from or just increase the amount of vanilla extract.

Italian Butter Cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1-2 packets vanillina
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
2-1/2 cups cake flour
non-pariels for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment. In a mixing bowl beat butters for a minute until soft and creamy. Add shortening and mix until smooth. Add confectioners sugar, vanillina, vanilla extract and salt. Beat 2 minutes until creamy and soft. Add cake flour 1 cup at a time and mix until smooth; it should be thick. Spoon batter into a pastry bag fitted with a star tube. Pipe dough into 1-inch round buttons. Top lightly with sprinkles. Bake for 10 minutes, rotating the pan half way through baking until golden around the edges. Place baking sheet on rack and let sit 5 minutes. Remove cookies from the baking sheet to a rack. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container. Makes 80-100 cookies depending on the size you prefer.

Posted in Christmas, Cookies, Desserts, Easter, Thanksgiving | Leave a comment

Lemon-Lime Curd

I’ve experimented with lemon curd over the years but never found a recipe with the flavor balance I was looking for.  I prefer it on the lighter side by making the curd with whole eggs rather than yolks. I also like the sweetness of Meyer lemons. This combination of lemon and lime, finished with a few drops of vanilla seems to hit all the right notes for me. It is such a useful ingredient to have around at this holiday season. You can fill cookies such as kifli or thumbprints with the curd as well as cakes, tarts and pastries. It is delicious slathered on toast, biscuits, crepes or waffles for Christmas morning. It makes a nice gift for neighbors and friends too. I like to make two batches at a time and freeze some of it for later use. The recipe is adapted from Ina Garten.

Lemon-Lime Curd
3 cups granulated sugar
zest of 3 large lemons
zest of 3 large limes
juice of 4 large room temperature limes, strained
juice of 4-5 large room temperature lemons, strained
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
10 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 drops vanilla extract or more to taste

Place sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Grate lemon and lime zest over the sugar. Pulse to mix the zest and sugar together. Transfer the citrus sugar to the bowl of a mixer. Place the strained lime juice into a liquid measuring cup. Add enough strained lemon juice to make 1 cup of mixed citrus juice. If you are a little shy, add the juice of an extra half a lemon. Set aside. Add the softened butter to the mixing bowl with the citrus sugar and beat for two minutes until well mixed. Add eggs one at a time then add salt. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Slowly pour the strained citrus juice into the sugar mixture. It will look a bit sludgy. Pour mixture into a 4-quart pot and turn the heat to medium low. Stir frequently for 15-20 minutes until the mixture has turned smooth, has thickened and is beginning to bubble. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Strain the curd then pour into jars. Makes 5 cups.

Posted in Breakfast, Christmas, Cookies, Custards, Desserts, Easter, Fruit, Jams and Jellies, preserving | 4 Comments

Italian Wedding Cookies or Butter Nut Cookies

My children love these cookies. They are easy and fast to make because you don’t have to chill the dough.  I have found that adding European vanilla sugars give the cookies a more refined flavor; use them if you can find them. The recipe is adapted from one by Paula Deen.

Italian Wedding Cookies or Butter Nut Cookies
2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup vanilla granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups pecan halves, chopped (you can use walnuts if you prefer)
European vanilla confectioners sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place butter in a mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Add sugars and salt. Beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl several times. Add extracts and mix. Mix the flour in by hand until you have a soft dough. Hand mix in the nuts. Roll dough into balls, just a bit smaller than a walnut. Place cookie dough balls onto prepared baking sheet, roughly 30 per sheet. Bake for 11-13 minutes, rotating the pan half way through baking. The cookies should be lightly golden around the edges and slightly firm to the touch. Remove from the oven. Let cookies sit on the baking sheet for two minutes, then sprinkle sifted confectioners sugar over the hot cookies. Let cookies sit 3-5 more minutes before gently removing to a rack to cool completely. Makes 5 dozen cookies.

Posted in Christmas, Cookies, Desserts, Easter, Thanksgiving | 1 Comment

Chutney Spread 

This is a nice sweet and savory appetizer option for the holidays. I used homemade plum apple chutney for this recipe but you can use another fruit flavor. The sweet tart of the chutney mixed with cream cheese, creme fraiche, and brown sugar is very balanced and its pretty pink tinge looks lovely on a table. It can be served with sliced baguettes, or with crostini or crackers.

Chutney Spread
3 (8 oz.) pkgs. full fat cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar or more to taste
2 cups plum apple chutney or chutney of choice

In a food processor bowl pulse cream cheese until smooth. Add creme fraiche and brown sugar and pulse until smooth. Add chutney and pulse until well mixed. Chill until ready to serve. Makes 4 cups.

Posted in Appetizers, Breads, Breakfast, Christmas, Thanksgiving | 2 Comments