Polenta Square with Sage Pesto

The perfect hors d'oeuvre for a cocktail party - squares of polenta mixed with chives and mascarpone, topped with a pungent sage pesto and a colorful, fresh cherry tomato half. These little beauties will go fast, so make a double batch if you need more than 30. They're perfect with my favorite cocktail - a Negroni (equal parts Aria gin, Campari and Red Vermouth over ice).

Recipe

1 c. polenta
1 T. butter
2 T. mascarpone or sour cream
1/4 c. chives, chopped
cherry tomatoes, cut in half (half a tomato per polenta square)
3/4 c. fresh sage leaves, firmly packed
1/2 c. Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 c. pine nuts, toasted
1/3 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
juice of half a lemon

FOR THE POLENTA: Bring 3 c. water, 1 T. butter and 1 tsp. salt to a rolling boil. Slowly sprinkle in the polenta while whisking. Lower heat and simmer, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, for 30 minutes. If it gets much too thick, add up to about another 1/4 c. water. Take off the heat, add the chives and 2 T. mascarpone or sour cream and stir well. Work quickly as it's quite thick. Pour into a 7"x11" sheet pan that has been sprayed with cooking oil to make it easier to remove the polenta later; smooth the top so it's level (an offset spatula works great). Let it cool for about 15 minutes, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

FOR THE SAGE PESTO: Combine the pine nuts, sage, parsley, olive oil, 1/2 tsp. salt, and lemon juice in a food processor and process until smooth.

TO ASSEMBLE: Cut the polenta into small squares, top with a dollop of pesto, and put half a cherry tomato on top. Serve.

*For your vegan guests, leave out the butter and use vegan sour cream.

Chocolate + Earl Gray Pudding

I love chocolate pudding. Add an Earl Gray tea component, some melted chocolate and maple syrup for sweetener and you've got yourself a dessert! Look for silken tofu (the really silky, extra soft kind) at an Asian market for the best quality (I got mine at Uwajimaya). It doesn't need much time in the fridge to set up, a few hours tops. And it's vegan! 

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Recipe

1/2 c. boiling water
1 T. loose Earl Gray tea (or use a tea bag)
12-oz. silken tofu, drained
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3.5 oz. Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate bar, broken into pieces (+ extra for garnish if desired)
1/4 c. maple syrup
Red Ridge Farms Vermont Maple Sea Salt (or other flaky sea salt)

Add the boiling water to a cup and steep the tea for 30 minutes to get a nice strong taste. Use a tea ball to make straining easier, or use a tea bag.

Wrap the tofu in a clean towel and press it to get rid of as much moisture as possible. Transfer to a food processor. Add the steeped tea and vanilla and process until smooth.

Put the chocolate pieces and maple syrup in a heatproof bowl over simmering water and let it melt, whisking until smooth. Add to the food processor with the tofu/tea mixture. Process on high until silky smooth.

Transfer the pudding to 4 ramekins, bowls, or festive dessert glasses and refrigerate for a few hours to set up to a thicker pudding consistency. To serve, sprinkle with the salt. Add some grated chocolate if you like – use a vegetable peeler to shave off some nice curly pieces.

– based on a recipe by Anna Jones

Crusty Baked Shells & Cauliflower

This recipe is a great way to celebrate cauliflower! It's first sautéed in a hot pan, then combined with cooked pasta shells, fresh sage, a hint of lemon, and lots of cheese with a crunchy topping. Easy and delicious! Can be assembled up to 24 hours prior to baking, keep covered in the refrigerator.

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Recipe

3/4 lb. small shell pasta (such as Barilla)
Olive oil (about 1/2 cup total)
large head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
3 T. fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 T. capers
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 c. grated Fontina cheese (I used Trader Joe's Quattro Formaggio Shredded Cheese Blend)
8 oz. ricotta
1/4 c. creme fraiche
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
6 T. freshly grated Parmesan
3 T. parsley, minced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400-degrees.

Fill a large saucepan with water, add 2 T. kosher salt and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes (or according to package instructions). Drain and put in a large bowl. Add 3 T. olive oil and stir. Set aside.

For the cauliflower, heat 3 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cauliflower in one layer and saute for 6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until lightly browned. Pour into the bowl with the pasta. Add the sage, capers, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper and mix well. Stir in the 2 cups of grated Fontina cheese. Transfer half of the mixture to a 10x13x2-inch rectangular baking dish. Mix the ricotta and creme fraiche in a small bowl, then spoon it over the pasta mixture, spreading somewhat evenly. Then add the rest of the pasta/cauliflower mixture on top.

Combine the panko, Parmesan, parsley and 1-2 T. olive oil in a small bowl, and sprinkle it evenly on top of the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes.

– Based on a recipe by Ina Garten

Grape, Avocado & Arugula Salad with My Favorite Vinaigrette

This is my favorite salad, as well as my favorite vinaigrette. Change up the ingredients however you want, but the basics need to stay: grapes, avocado, toasted walnuts, crumbled goat cheese and red onion. I had a friend over for lunch and a movie and expanded the ingredients a bit by adding some baked chicken and croutons. Tangy arugula is the preferred green for this salad, but a spring mix works well too as I did here (because I forgot to pick up arugula!).

Recipe

6 cups fresh arugula or mixed spring greens, loosely packed
1 c. halved seedless grapes, red or green
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced
1/2 c. crumbled goat cheese
1/2 c. chopped toasted walnuts (or pecans)
half a small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

White Balsamic Vinaigrette

1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. white balsamic vinegar
2 T. agave nectar (or honey)
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Add the vinaigrette ingredients to a jar and shake to combine; or put in a bowl and whisk.

Add salad ingredients to a large bowl, drizzle with vinaigrette and mix well.

Green Tea Soba Noodles with Lime & Cardamom Salsa

Another delicious, simple and unique recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi. He never disappoints. Green tea soba noodles can be found at any Asian grocery (I bought mine at Uwajimaya). I couldn't locate nigella seeds noted in the original recipe, so I substituted black sesame seeds. The ground cardamom adds a wonderful and unexpected, subtle flavor. I served this dish with Jamie Oliver's spice crusted tuna steaks with cilantro and basil accompanied by a Penner Ash 2014 Pas de Nom pinot noir. Dessert was Anna Jones' recipe for chocolate and earl gray pots. Spectacular!

Recipe

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7 oz. (200g) green tea soba noodles
2 T. basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 T. coriander leaves, roughly chopped
5 T. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2-3 limes (enough for 3 T. juice | use one cut in quarters for garnish | zest one to get 1 tsp. zest)
3 T. peanut oil
1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed and minced
1 small green chili, deseeded and finely chopped (optional)
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
4 eggs, soft boiled
1/4 tsp. black sesame seed

Cook the noddles in rapidly boiling water for six minutes (or according to your package directions). Rinse under cold water and drain.

For the eggs bring a pot of water to a boil, then add the room temperature eggs and simmer for six minutes for a slightly runny yolk (as you may notice in the photo, I accidentally cooked mine a little too long and got a hard yolk). Run under cold water for a few minutes and just before serving, peel and cut in half. 

In a large bowl add the basil, coriander, pistachios, cardamom, lime zest, lime juice, peanut oil, garlic, chili (if using), and 1/2 tsp. salt. Mix well, then add the noodles and mix with your hands. Serve and top with the avocado slices, two egg halves, a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, and a wedge of lime on the side.

Lamb Meatballs in Avgolemono

Yotam Ottolenghi does it again! His flavor profiles are unbeatable, and this lamb dish is proof. Meatballs are seared and then simmered in a wonderfully tart, lemony sauce and paired with blanched strips of zucchini, topped with pomegranate seeds and sauteed pine nuts. Recipe is for two.

Check out Ottolengthi's recipes featured in The Guardian (app available). The original recipe for this dish can be found here.

Recipe

2-1/2 T. olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
3/4 lb. ground lamb
1-1/2 T. parsley, finely chopped
3/4 tsp. ground allspice
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1 T. capers, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper (or use white pepper if you have it)
2 medium zucchini
2 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon, plus 1 tsp. finely grated zest
8 oz. warm chicken stock
3/4 T. cornflour, whisked with 1 T. water until smooth
2 T. pine nuts
2 T. pomegranate seeds
dill or tarragon leaves, chopped, for garnish (optional)

You will need two small saucepans (one for warming the chicken stock, and one for heating the pine nuts), a medium saucepan (for blanching the zucchini), and a large skillet (for the meatballs and lemon sauce).

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat and fry the onions for about six minutes until golden brown. Remove from the heat and cool. Combine the onions in a large bowl with the lamb, parsley, allspice, thyme, garlic, bread crumbs, capers, 1/2 tsp. salt and a pinch of pepper. Mix well and form into eight meatballs. Return the pan to medium heat with another tablespoon of oil and once hot fry the meatballs for about 12 minutes, turning so they are golden brown all over and cooked through. Transfer to a plate and wipe out the pan.

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Shave the zucchini lengthwise into long, thin strips with a potato peeler or mandoline slicer. When the water is boiling, add the zucchini strips and blanch for 30 seconds, then drain.

In a bowl whisk the eggs until smooth. Then whisk in the lemon juice, zest, 1/4 tsp. salt and a pinch of pepper, then slowly whisk in the warm stock in three or four stages. Whisk in the cornflour paste and transfer mixture to the large skillet and heat on medium-low, stirring constantly, for 7-8 minutes until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Add the meatballs and leave them to warm through for about five minutes, stirring carefully once or twice.

While the meatballs are warming, put a few teaspoons of oil and the pine nuts in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir for 2-3 minutes until the nuts turn golden brown. Remove from heat.

To serve, put the zucchini strips on one side of a shallow bowl, and the meatballs and sauce on the other side. Top with the pine nuts and their oil, sprinkle with pomegranate seeds (and dill or tarragon if using).