February 25th, 2010 § § permalink
When I’m hungry and in a rush, I reach for my curvy, tropical friend, the banana. This potassium- and Vitamin C-rich fruit has filled the bellies of the ravenous since ancient times. No wonder. Whether you pluck it off a tree or buy it from a fruit stand, grocery store or coffee shop, the ubiquitous banana persists in being easy to find, transport and eat. Just pop it into your bag or slip it into a “banana guard” and shove it into your jacket pocket and you’re set to snack healthfully any time, any place.
Because I enjoy the gentle sweetness and soft texture of bananas so much, I frequently incorporate them into my cooking. Banana bread, muffins and pancakes have all kicked off my days while banana cream pies, puddings, ice cream sandwiches and splits have brought luscious endings to my nights.
On those evenings when I crave a bit of a spectacle with dessert, I whisk together the flamboyant New Orleans classic Bananas Foster. In this dish bananas are sauteed in a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, unsalted butter and banana liqueur before being set aflame in dark rum. Once the fire dies out, the bananas and rich, amber sauce are spooned over ice cream. While vanilla ice cream has become the standard choice for Bananas Foster, alternate flavors such as chocolate, toffee, caramel or hazelnut can add an extra dash of excitement to this sweet.
When I don’t feel up to fiddling around with more than a few ingredients, I pull out some brown sugar and unsalted butter and make caramelized bananas. This simple treat can top French toast and pancakes, fill crepes, or be layered between scoops of ice cream or yogurt. Caramelized bananas can also stand on their own, served in small bowls with whipped cream or crisp sugar cookies.
So many cooking options. Such delicious food. It’s no surprise that bananas have become North America’s – and my – favorite fruit.
Serves 2 to 4
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 large, ripe bananas, peeled and sliced into coins
Melt the butter and sugar together in a medium frying or saute pan. Stir frequently so that the ingredients are well-combined. Lay the bananas on top of the sauce and cook for approximately 45 seconds. Flip over the banana coins and cook on the other side for roughly the same time. The bananas should be soft but not mushy. Spoon the caramelized bananas over French toast, pancakes, crepes, plain Greek yogurt or ice cream and serve immediately.
February 11th, 2010 § § permalink
“Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the cornmeal thickens, about 30 to 45 minutes.” Those instructions have daunted countless would-be polenta makers, including me. Who wants to stand over a steaming pot for 45 minutes, stirring cornmeal non-stop? No doubt anyone who has discovered the tastiness and versatility of this savory comfort food would, that’s who.
A staple of Northern Italian cuisine, modern polenta dates back to the mid 17th century. It was during this time that the Venetians introduced American corn to the region. Prior to the 1600s a variation of polenta was reputedly made using chestnut flour while another version may have existed that employed barley.
Cooked in an unlined copper kettle, the combination of yellow cornmeal, or ground corn, and water was ceaselessly stirred until a thick mush formed. To test for doneness, the cook would insert her wooden spoon in the center of the mixture. If the spoon stood up on its own, without falling over or shifting its position, the polenta was done.
Once finished, the polenta was either served immediately in its porridge-like state or spooned out of the pot, spread out on a flat surface to cool and solidify and then cut into squares. The pieces would then be grilled or fried and paired up with seafood, vegetables or a sauce. An extremely adaptable food, it was offered as a first course, side and even an entrée. When teamed with spicy sausages or sweet syrup or preserves, it became a hearty breakfast.
Although polenta can be delicious on its own, it also compliments a variety of foods. Stewed, braised or roasted meats, grilled fish and shellfish and roasted fowl all couple well with it. When working with meats and fish, be sure to reserve some of their cooking juices so that the liquid can be used as a light sauce for the polenta.
Likewise, polenta can serve as a stand-in for such basic ingredients as the potatoes in mashed potatoes or pasta in lasagna. Just spread out, cool and cut the cooked polenta into strips. Place the strips in a baking dish and cover with cheese, meat or vegetables and tomato sauce and bake. Outstanding!
MEDITERRANEAN POLENTA TRIANGLES
Serves 4 to 6
For the polenta:
3 ¾ cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for frying
1 cup instant polenta
For the topping:
1 (14 ½) ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained and with juice reserved in separate bowl
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¾ teaspoon dried oregano
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
1 ½ teaspoons fresh, chopped parsley or ¾ teaspoon dried parsley
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
In a large saucepan bring the water to a boil. Add the salt and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring with a wooden spoon as you add it. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and spoon the polenta into a rectangular, lightly oiled, 2-quart baking dish. Allow the polenta to cool and solidify.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl mix together the tomatoes, garlic, oil, lemon juice, oregano, thyme, parsley and pepper. Depending on how thick you want the topping to be, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the reserved tomato juice to the mixture and stir together.
Once the polenta is firm, cut it into triangles about 2 inches in diameter at the base. (You can do this by first cutting the polenta into a rectangle and then slicing it diagonally to make 2 triangles.)
In a non-stick frying pan heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Place several polenta triangles in the pan and fry on both sides until golden brown. Remove and arrange the cooked polenta on a large plate or platter. Repeat these steps with the remaining triangles.
Spoon the topping over the fried polenta and serve immediately.
February 4th, 2010 § § permalink
This past fall a series of house guests prompted me to re-think what I consume at the start of each and every day. While I may love to greet the morn with a slice of double fiber wheat toast with organic peanut butter and Le Pain Quotidien four-berry preserves slathered over top, I suspected that my friends would expect a little more than a hunk of toast dressed up with PB and J. No doubt about it, I’d have to come up with something more interesting and filling to offer my traveling guests.
One of the fastest yet prettiest ways to kick off the day was with a yogurt-fruit-granola parfait. For this I just dug out some margarita glasses and filled the bottoms with homemade granola. I then covered the granola with a few spoonfuls of organic, Greek yogurt followed by fresh berries and more granola. I topped the parfait off with a handful of berries and then — Voila! — breakfast was ready.
When pressed for time, I spread delicate, coral slices of smoked salmon on a white platter, sprinkled feathery, fresh dill and piquant capers around the edges and presented the dish alongside a slab of cream cheese and wedges of savory pumpernickel bread. The entree looked elegant and tasted delicious. Yet, it took only a few minutes to prepare.
On mornings when I had time to spare, I whipped up a Mediterranean frittata. An Italian version of an omelet, the frittata has its extra ingredients – cheese, tomatoes, etc. – mixed and cooked with the eggs rather than folded inside them as its French cousin does. Finished under a broiler, the frittata, unlike an omelet, keeps its round shape.
Although whisking together eggs, herbs, and cheese at the crack of dawn might seem too onerous to bear, the frittata proved to be yet another easy offering. Since I didn’t have to fiddle with a crust, as I would with a quiche, I could pour the egg mixture into a heated pan and let the stovetop do its work. Likewise, I didn’t have to worry about hovering over the stove, evenly folding over eggs or contending with too much filling slopping out over the sides. This self-contained dish cooked away while I devoted my attention to brewing a much-needed pot of coffee.
While frittatas, smoked salmon platters and yogurt-granola parfaits all had their charms, some mornings the best and simplest way to ease into the day was with breakfast at a local diner. All the comforts of home cooking but without any of the dishes to clean at the end of the meal. And this, ultimately, was my visiting friends’ favorite way to begin their stays.
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
5 egg beaters
1/3 cup tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon dried basil flakes
dash of freshly ground black pepper
Place the oil in an oven-proof, 3-quart saute or other smallish pan and heat it on medium-high. Turn the oven broiler on medium.
As the oil and broiler are heating, whisk together the eggs, egg beaters, tomatoes, cheese, basil flakes and ground pepper. Pour the mixture into the heated pan, reduce the stovetop’s heat to medium and allow the frittata to cook until the bottom is golden and the top begins to firm up.
Remove the frittata from the stovetop and place it beneath the preheated broiler. Watching it closely, allow the frittata to finish cooking and turn a golden brown on top. Depending on the size of your pan and how long it cooked on the stovetop, this will take anywhere from 1 to 4 minutes. Cut the frittata into 4 wedges and serve immediately with a side of fresh fruit or mixed greens salad.