Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Vegetarian Feast

Tomorrow my wife Michelle comes home after being on the road for three weeks. Working out of town, she hasn't had very many sit-down meals. When she gets home I figured she would appreciate a home cooked meal.

Since she prefers vegetarian dishes, I wanted her to have something simple like soup, a salad (maybe a carrot, spinach, or arugula salad), and a dish of poached fruit. A flavorful, healthy meal would get her back on track after so many days eating on the go.

Vegetarian Tomato Soup

Yield: 4-6 servings
Time: 1 hour


6 celery stalks, including the leaves, washed, finely chopped
2 carrots, washed, ends removed, peeled (save the peels), finely chopped
1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 bunch beet greens and stems, washed, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, washed, peeled, stem and top removed, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 large farmers' market fresh tomato, washed, stem removed, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
10 cups water


The best vegetables are available at farmers' markets. The beet greens and stalks add a rich sweetness but if you aren't going to buy beets, ask any of the farmers if they'll give you the stalks that people don't want. More often than not, they'll give you a big bunch for free.

Put the chopped tomato on a cutting board or in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Let the tomato marinate while you make the vegetable stock.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot. Add all the celery leaves and half the stalks. Saute until lightly browned, then add the carrot peelings and half the carrots, all the parsley stems, half the beet greens and stems, half the onion, and half the chopped garlic. Stir frequently until lightly browned. Add 8 cups of water. Simmer 30 minutes. Strain and discard the vegetables. Reserve the liquid.

In the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. Add the remaining vegetables and lightly brown, about 10 minutes. Add the marinated tomato, the remaining 2 cups of water, and the vegetable stock.

Simmer 30 minutes, taste, adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper, and serve.


Add 1 teaspoon cumin when you're making the stock.

Use cilantro instead of parsley.

Use kale instead of the beet greens.

Top with toasted croutons and grated Parmesan cheese.

Just before serving, add 1/4 cup cooked brown rice for each bowl.

Honey Poached Apples and Pears with Vanilla, Raisins, Cinnamon, and Black Peppercorns

Yield: serves 4-6
Time: 20 minutes

The peppercorns add a bit of heat. Personally, I enjoy eating the candied peppercorns, but they're too spicy for most people.


3 ripe pears, Bartlet or Anjou, washed, peeled, cut lengthwise into 8 pieces
3 ripe apples, Fuji or Granny Smith, washed, peeled, cut lengthwise into 8 pieces
20 black peppercorns
2 sticks cinnamon
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup organic raisins
2 cups water


Put the water, lemon juice, honey, cinnamon sticks, vanilla, raisins, and peppercorns into a medium-sized saucepan and simmer.

Cook the apples and pears separately. Add the pears to the poaching liquid and simmer 5 minutes. Carefully remove the pears and place into a jar or bowl. Add the apples and poach for 5 minutes. Remove and place into a separate jar or bowl.

Reduce the poaching liquid until only 1 cup remains. Divide the thickened sauce between the apples and pears.

The apples and pears will keep in the refrigerator for several days. Serve either at room temperature or reheated. The fruit is delicious by itself but also good as a topping for pound cake, yogurt, cottage cheese, or ice cream.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Traditionally quesadillas are a simple combination of a warm tortilla and hot melted cheese. When our kids were young, they made an easy to make after-school snack. AddingBy adding toppings the quesadilla turns into a fiesta of flavors. Since the quesadilla cooks quickly in a trying pan, the toppings should be pre-cooked, much the same way they are on pizzas.

Besides being easy and quick to make, quesadillas are also a great way to use left-overs. Roast chicken, steak, fish fillets, and grilled vegetables work well under a thin layer of melted cheese.


The basic quesadilla is a toasted tortilla topped with melted cheese, with hot sauce or salsa added for flavor. Kids love them, so do adults.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 5 minutes


4 tortillas, corn or flour
1/4 pound cheese, cheddar, muenster, jack
2 scallions, washed, ends removed, finely chopped (optional)


Heat a frying pan or griddle on a medium-high flame. Cut each tortilla into quarters. Put each piece on the griddle, topped with thin slices of cheese. Cover with a piece of aluminum foil or a lid for 5 minutes.

Remove, sprinkle with chopped scallions (optional), and serve with hot sauce or salsa.

Quesadillas with Toppings

We've tried Italian sausage rounds, grilled vegetables (carrots, broccoli, and corn), shredded roast chicken, grilled sliced shrimp, thin slices of tomato, thin slices of steak... Just about any cooked meat or vegetable could be put on a quesadilla.

Quesadillas with Blackened Salmon

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

We had planned to spend New Year's Eve with friends and family but the flu and changes in schedules left us on our own. The New Year deserves to be celebrated, so we organized a dinner the first week of January at Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: 310.451.7800
) in Santa Monica.

We enjoy coming to Il Fornaio for many reasons: their good food, affordable prices, and their Passporto program that rewards diners who come frequently during the Festa Regionale. During the first two weeks of every month, Il Fornaio presents a menu featuring the dishes and wines of a particular region in Italy. January's region is Trentino-Alto Adige, which borders Switzerland and Austria.

We met at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio, our favorite, because of the cozy setting and the friendly, attentive staff. Because the Regionale pairs food with wine, we came hungry and thirsty. Since we had a large group, we could order a good sampling of dishes.

The Potato and Leek Soup (Zuppa di Patate e Erbe di Campo) had layer upon layer of flavor. The creamy texture was complimented by the Swiss chard's edge. The soup was topped with a grilled slice of Il Fornaio's focaccia bread that slowly dissolved, adding even more flavor. The soup was paired with a Pinot Bianco Dolomiti, Alois Lageder (2007) . Light, crisp, and delicately flavored, the Pinot Bianco was an excellent way to begin the evening's tasting.

We enjoyed the focaccia so much, we ordered a plate of the Grilled Focaccia Topped with Goat Cheese and Radicchio (Crostini con Radicchio). Focaccia can come in so many ways. They are at their best when the grilled bread is complimented with contrasting textures and flavors. The Crostini had those in abundance.

Because some of our group were vegetarians, the soup served them well. For the second course, they had the Butternut Squash Gnocchi without the pancetta (Gnocchi di Zucca e Cicoria). For those of us who enjoy meat, the crispy pancetta was an added treat. The consensus at the table was that these were some of the best gnocchi we had ever eaten. Creamy and sweet. The menu paired the gnocchi with the Pinot Bianco, so we asked for more just to show that we were paying attention.

The second pasta was only for the meat eaters: Pasta with Pork Tenderloin (Rigatoni alla Castellana). The tenderloin was accented by crisp bacon and shiitake mushrooms, the pasta coated with a parmesan-fresh thyme sauce. A heavier dish required a more substantial wine, so we had the Pinot Noir, Kris (2007).

For our meat course we could choose from chicken breasts, grilled Scottish salmon and oven roasted veal. We wanted to try all three, they sounded so delicious, but we had eaten so much of the appetizers and pasta course, we chose just one, the Chicken Breast Sauteed with Speck (Medaglioni di Pollo). As befits a regional menu, the chicken illustrated the cuisine of Italy's far-northern area. Borrowing from its Austrian neighbor, the dish was served with mashed potatoes and slow-cooked, braised red cabbage. Chicken breasts require a deft hand. These were tender, moist, and flavorful, perfectly complimented by a generous helping of porcini mushrooms and Marsala sauce. The red cabbage was so delicious, we asked for more. For the paired wine, we had a Tramin Pinot Grigio (2007) another of the region's full-flavored wines.

Dessert was a Sacher Torte, again illustrating the region's proximity to Austria. One plate was enough for our group. We were too full to think about any of the other sweets on the dessert tray.

Although we missed seeing everyone on New Year's Eve, our tasting at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio more than made up for it.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio