Greens on greens on greens



green pasta salad



My garden is filling in nicely, and all this green has me inspired. This pasta salad is a little taste of spring—exploding with nutritional superstars. There are enough greens to make it healthy, but enough pasta and cheese to make it a treat.

Dave devoured it, so you can trust that it’s delicious in spite of itself.

Don’t skimp on the lemon—it brings the taste to the next level.

Go green pasta salad

You’ll need:

1 lb pasta

1 cup peas

3 cups baby arugula

12 stalks asparagus

12 large brussels sprouts

4 green onion stalks, chopped

Juice from one whole lemon

A block of pecorino or other hard italian cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

For pea pesto:

1/2 cup peas

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1-2 large cloves garlic

1/2 cup baby arugula



greens



Blend all ingredients for pea pesto until smooth.

Cook pasta to al dente. Strain and then toss with pea pesto (add gradually—you might not need all of it). Set aside and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. Chop asparagus and brussels sprouts into small, bite-sized pieces and cook in boiling water until slightly tender. You’ll want to remove the veggies from the heat before they lose their green color (and all their nutrients) so have an ice bath ready. When they begin to get tender, strain the veggies and add them straight to the ice bath.

When the pasta has cooled, add brussels sprouts, asparagus, chopped green onion, peas and arugula. Finish with a generous shaving of cheese, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.



green pasta salad



Getting in the mood



strawberry balsamic salad_small



One of my biggest blog goals for 2013 was to step up my photography. It’s one of my absolute favorite parts of food blogging—sometimes even more than the actual cooking—so it’s been a fun, exciting and inspiring journey.

I’ve also been insatiable when it comes to finding new resources that can help me take my blog to the next level, and I love that there are so many great bloggers out there who share their secrets on photography, blog monetization, post layout inspiration, etc. I’ve been saving these tips on Pinterest, and plotting my own series of posts to pay it forward (stay tuned!).

One of the many tutorial posts that has inspired me lately is this one on “moody” food shots. I didn’t follow the tutorial step-by-step, but rather was inspired by the images in the post, since I’m working with an already decent understanding of photography, lighting, editing, etc. Here’s what I came away with …



Dark moody lighting photography tutorial by Better with Butter



Important things to remember:

  • Dark background. This is crucial, and it’s easier than you think. I bought two pieces of cheap, thin wood from Home Depot, and stained them dark. Cost me less than 10 bucks. For the shoot, I grabbed a chair and slid it up against my sliding glass door. The “countertop” board laid flat on the seat of the chair, and the “wall” board was propped up against the back of the chair. In many of my photo setups, I’ll use a big white foam board to bounce the light and eliminate shadows, but in a “moody” shoot you probably won’t need it since, 1) shadows would actually be desirable and 2) the background will likely be so dark that the shadows won’t be an issue anyway. This brings me to the next tip …
  • Diffused light. Moody shots require diffused light. Assuming you’re setup near a window, clouds can act as a natural diffuser, but if it’s fairly bright out, you’ll need something to prevent harsh lighting. I use either a white sheet or a slightly transparent shower curtain liner (tacked up against my sliding glass door/window). Works like a charm.
  • Exposure 1 to 2 stops below standard exposure. You can play around with this, but I found that anything higher was just too bright for the “moody” vibe. Keep in mind, if you don’t have anything light-colored or reflective in the photo, such as a white dish, brighter ingredients, etc. (and in my case, a silver platter) your photo will be underexposed, so you may have to compensate for this with your exposure settings or in post-processing.
  • Shallow depth of field. I shot at 1.4 aperture to get a nice dreamy, blurry background.
  • Good photo editing software. I use Lightroom 3, and with this shoot, my VSCO presets helped me get the film-like coloring/grain/etc. You don’t need a preset, of course, but it can help make editing quicker and more effective, especially if you’re like me and don’t have a formal education in digital editing software.

I’d love to see your “moody” shots—link away in the comments.

And, for those who could care less about food photography and just wanted the damn salad recipe …

Balsamic-roasted strawberry salad with crispy pancetta



strawberry balsamic salad



You’ll need:

3-4 handfuls spinach

6 oz. thinly sliced pancetta

1/3 cup almonds

1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese

For dressing:

8-10 large strawberries, sliced

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons high-quality balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Mix sugar and balsamic vinegar and pour over strawberries. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the pancetta and cook in a skillet over medium-high heat until crispy. Drain on a paper towel and let cool.

While the strawberries finish, toast the almonds on a baking sheet until golden and fragrant (about 10-15 minutes). Remove both from oven and let cool.

Reserve a few balsamic-roasted strawberries for garnish, and mix the rest, with the balsamic vinegar sauce and olive oil, in a blender until the strawberries are pureed. Refrigerate.

Once chilled, toss all ingredients and dressing until fully incorporated (you may not need all the dressing). Top with strawberry garnishes and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.



strawberry balsamic salad by Better with Butter



Take me back to Tuscany



cannellini and artichoke spread



The weather in Chicago is seriously wearing on me. These days, I’m checking the 10-day forecast obsessively, waiting for the day that breaks 50 degrees. Come on 50. Fifty and sunny.

And I’m dreaming about travelling, far, far away …

… back to Tuscany and its rolling hills, dotted with grape vines, olive trees and medieval castles.

Alas, a European vacation is nowhere in the foreseeable future, so I’ll have to settle on giving my mouth a vacation.

Hmmm … that didn’t sound quite right. But you get my point.

This cannellini spread is quintessentially Tuscan—simple, rustic, peasant food from the old country. And since we’re talking a little stay-cation of sorts, let’s do it up right with some apt kitchen props.



A taste of Tuscany



 

Doesn’t this collection make you feel like you’ve wandered into a rustic Italian farmhouse?

  1. Chef’s planet 30-oz. oil pourer
  2. Sagaform wine carafe with oak stopper
  3. Provence Ploughman’s platter
  4. Flax tea towel
  5. Cantaria round casserole
  6. Viertri rustic planter

And to complete the experience …



white bean goat cheese crostini_small



Rustic cannellini spread

You’ll need:

1 cup cannellini beans

5-6 artichoke heart quarters (canned/jarred)

2 tbsp fresh oregano

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 oz. goat cheese

salt and pepper to taste

french baguette, sliced thin

melted butter for brushing baguette slices

Blend all ingredients minus the bread in a food processor or blender until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Slice baguette as thin as possible and brush slices generously with butter. Toast under the broiler on a cookie sheet until golden and crispy.

Serve dip with baguette slices.



white bean goat cheese dip | from Better with Butter



Devil is in the details







As a cook, there’s nothing better than converting the non-believers. I’m talking about the moment when someone says “I don’t like (insert food item),” tries your variation anyway, and becomes wide-eyed with surprise and delight. “I DO like (previously detested food item)!”

My Italian take on deviled eggs elicited this response. The potentially disastrous ingredient combination wasn’t lost on me—but I pushed ahead, mixed the yolks anyway, and came out with finger-food gold. You won’t be embarrassed to show up at your next party with these babies—even if they are in one of those ridiculous pastel-colored deviled-egg carriers.

 Uovas Diavolos (Italian-style deviled eggs)

You’ll need:

A dozen hard boiled eggs

1/2 cup mayo

1/4 cup pesto

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

cooked pancetta for garnish







Peel and halve your hard-boiled eggs. Carefully remove the yolks and place in a bowl. Mix in all other ingredients. Careful when salting to taste—consider the fact that pancetta is very salty, and you’ll be topping your eggs with it. Pipe yolk mix into egg white halves and top with pancetta (cooked to crispy beforehand in a skillet—be sure it is cooled before topping eggs).







Risotto with peas and pancetta







People are always impressed when I cook risotto. Dave knows better: Delicious it is; a culinary achievement it is not. Not to say that I don’t appreciate artfully crafted restaurant risotto. Or that the inventor of the dish isn’t a genius. That person deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. But I digress.

Risotto is perhaps one of the easiest, no-brainer, no-measurement-needed, no-recipe-needed meals you can make. So much so that I hesitate to even give an actual recipe.

Here’s the thing: In my opinion, many of the things that go wrong with risotto come from using a recipe in the first place. Make risotto the way I do, and this dish it utterly foolproof:

Two pots. One with rice and cooked chopped onion. One with stock, kept hot over low heat. Add a few ladles of liquid at a time to the rice pot. Stir constantly. When the stock is absorbed into the rice, add more stock. Repeat until the rice is cooked to desired tenderness. Add butter, cheese, salt, pepper and any other ‘fixins to taste. That’s it.







If you’re a first-timer, use my recipe as a gauge. You’ll be cooking by muscle memory like an old Italian nonna in no time.

Pea and pancetta risotto

What you’ll need:

2 cups arborio rice

8-10 cups chicken stock

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 of a medium yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup shredded parmesan or asiago cheese (experiment with different types of cheeses—I added a small bit of soft italian sheep’s milk cheese in my last batch)

6 oz. diced pancetta

1/2 cup peas

salt and pepper to taste

Put stock in a pot on the stove. Heat on medium. Once the stock is hot, turn burner to low. Stock shouldn’t simmer or boil, it’s just on the stovetop to stay warm.

Meanwhile, cook pancetta in a skillet over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until cooked and slightly browned. Set aside.

Cook chopped onion with olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. When onion is translucent and tender, add rice. Cook for a minute or so, constantly stirring, until rice is coated and beginning to turn translucent.

Add a few ladles full of broth to the rice pot and stir constantly. The constant stirring not only helps to keep the rice from sticking to the pan, but also releases the starches in the rice to create that divine, thick, creaminess that is the hallmark of the dish.

When the rice has absorbed the stock, add more. Repeat. After 15 minutes or so, taste the rice every so often to test for doneness. Continue to add stock and let it absorb until the rice is cooked to the desired tenderness. If you run out of stock, use warm water.

Risotto can be anywhere from slightly soupy to what I would describe as a mac ‘n’ cheese consistency. I prefer it somewhere in the middle. If the rice is cooked but you want a thinner consistency, add a little more stock right before you add the last few ingredients.

Stir in butter, cheese, cooked pancetta and peas. Add salt and pepper to taste.













Pasta procrastination





Does your kitchen equipment taunt you? Maybe it’s a stand mixer, gathering dust on your countertop. A cast iron skillet peering out from behind those lower-maintenance pots and pans. An immersion blender that hasn’t seen any action since 2003.

For me, it was three gleaming KitchenAid pasta attachments and a still-packaged pasta drying rack—staring me in the face every time I reached to grab their more popular cousin, the pizza stone. Then finally, a year after I got them as wedding gifts, it was their turn.

Fresh pasta

(Adapted from Mario Batali’s fresh pasta recipe)





You’ll need:

3 1/2 cups of flour 

5 medium eggs

Water to moisten as needed

Shape flour into a mound on a large flat surface (wood is ideal, but I used a large Corian cutting board, and any flat, clean surface will work) and form a large well in the middle of the flour. Crack the eggs in the well.







Using a fork, scramble the eggs inside the well and slowly begin to incorporate the flour working your way from the inside out.

You’ll have a shaggy mess on your hands at this point. If it’s too dry to incorporate into one ball of dough, add water. It should be sticky, but workable.

Add some more flour to your work surface and begin to knead the dough. If it’s too tough and hard to work with, add a little more water. Knead for 6-8 minutes. You’ll know the dough is ready when it’s smooth, elastic and doesn’t stick to surfaces.

Cover your dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes. This is a very important step.

If you’re attempting to hand-roll your pasta, more power to ya. For your sanity, I recommend the mechanical route.

Cut the dough into four or eight pieces (eight is easier to work with, but if you want long, wide sheets of lasagna, for example, you might want to do four). Flatten the first piece to about 1/2-inch thick with your palm or a rolling pin, and feed it through the pasta maker, starting with the largest thickness setting (usually the “1” setting).

Incrementally increase the setting each time you feed the dough through the pasta maker.

My pasta was a tiny bit too thick, I think, so next time I’ll follow the tips I found: pasta should absolutely be no thicker than 1/16 of an inch and a good rule of thumb is to roll it out to the second-to-thinnest thickness setting on your pasta maker. Repeat this with the other portions of dough and cut pasta to the desired shape. I ran my sheets through another attachment to make linguini.

Dust your cut pasta with flour and dry on a drying rack or flat surface for 20 minutes or so. If you aren’t ready to cook it right away, freeze in plastic bags for later use. Cook fresh pasta for 2-3 minutes and prepare as desired.







I’m already itching to make more pasta, and the next time I do, I think I’ll draw a little inspiration from The Geometry of Pasta, a fantastic graphic depiction of pasta’s many forms. This book is beautiful, elegant and simple in a way you probably never thought a cookbook could/should be.













And there’s enough material in there to keep my kitchen covered in a fine layer of flour—and to help ensure my pasta-making equipment will never again suffer from neglect.







Chow, Bella part 2: What to eat in Tuscany







Don’t book your tickets to Portofino just yet. There’s still two more virtual Italian food tours to go. Next stop: Tuscany.

First off, let’s talk accommodations. There’s only way to stay in Tuscany, and that’s to take the agriturismo route, shacking up on a vineyard or a fattoria (a farm). We stayed at Fattoria Casa Sola outside the tiny village of San Donato in the Chianti region. Our room was an old converted farmhouse smack-dab in the middle of rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see.







Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful and impossibly romantic, but you also have instant access to the best Tuscany has to offer: LOTS of vino. Before we get our buzz on, let’s talk about our fantastic cooking lesson experience–right in the kitchen of our little converted farmhouse.

The wonderful Giovanna was our personal tour guide to everything edible in Tuscany.







I’ll share her recipes in later posts—chicken liver crostini, fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovy, homemade spinach ravioli and strawberry-mint tiramisu—but for now, enjoy a little Tuscan food porn:

What to eat in Tuscany:

Chianti

Yes, technically this isn’t a food, but many would say it’s just about the most important part of a Tuscan meal. I would have to agree. Wine tasting events in the Chianti region are plentiful and the number of wineries that participate is buzz-inducing—literally. We paid €15 for unlimited tasting and a souvenir wine glass. Chianti isn’t for everyone, but Dave and I happen to love it. Needless to say, we got our money’s worth—especially since several of the bottles sell for more than €100 in stores. Many of the vineyards also had a Vin Santo for tasting, an amber-colored, extremely sweet, high-alcohol dessert wine, typically served with biscotti.







Casa Sola has several fantastic Chiantis, which added a few lbs. to my suitcase on the way home.







Crostini di Fegatini (Chicken-liver pâté)

Don’t knock this Tuscan staple until you try it. The rich flavor of the fatty liver—combined with the mushrooms, onions and white wine—is undeniably delicious. If you’re squeamish about offal, fear not—it’s rendered unrecognizable by the immersion blender.







Tuscan bread

Tuscan bread has no salt, but that didn’t stop me from inhaling entire loaves of it. Slathered in fresh butter, sprinkled with a little salt, or sandwiching scrambled eggs, salami, spinach and ricotta, it’s what dreams are made of.







Yes, I grocery shopped and cooked on my honeymoon. I’ll accept my Wife of the Year award now.

Cured meats

One glance at the salami selection in a local San Donato butcher shop was enough to make Dave salivate. I’m a little less into cured meats—although I do love me some prosciutto—so I abstained; but for all of those salami lovers out there, Dave assures me it was some of the best he’s ever tasted.







Olive oil

Many of the same vineyards that produce the aforementioned Chianti also make extra virgin olive oil. It’s another can’t-go-wrong food souvenir.







Other Tuscan specialties that I either didn’t have the opportunity to sample, or that didn’t live to be photographed, are Bistecca all Fiorentina (a thick, T-bone steak, usually served rare), gamey meats, including hare, and meat stuffed pastas. Stay tuned for the best bets in the Amalfi Coast.

Cream of the crop: An easy, delicious cream sauce







Despite potentially giving you away as a boring, picky eater, it’s hard to deny the appeal of fettucini alfredo—or any other pasta slathered in rich, thick cream sauce, for that matter. The best thing about a making your own cream sauce is that the variations are innumerable. Use this basic recipe as a base, then add pesto, like I did, or any other ingredients that tickle your fancy. For the unimaginative among us, here are some combinations that would be fantastic mixed with the cream sauce base and tossed with pasta:

  • Butternut squash puree + sage + a dash of nutmeg and allspice
  • Crispy pancetta + fontina + peas
  • Garlic + red pepper flakes + shrimp
  • Tomato puree + red pepper flakes
  • Porcini mushrooms + garlic + parsley
  • Gorgonzola + spinach + chopped walnut garnish
  • Asiago + Parmesan + Fontina + garlic
  • Sausage + parsley + onion

Basic cream sauce recipe

You’ll need:

4 tablespoons of butter

2-3 tablespoons of flour

1-2 cups of half and half or heavy whipping cream

1-2 cups shredded/grated parmesan, asiago, or other italian cheese

salt and pepper to taste.

Melt butter in a sauce pan over medium heat and slowly add flour, stirring constantly. If the butter begins to burn (a little browning is desirable), turn down the heat. When the flour dissolves you should have a thick paste. Slowly add the cream or half-and-half, continuing to stir with a whisk. Add as much as needed for the desired thickness. Add cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Add additional ingredients, as desired. Toss with cooked pasta.







Chow, Bella part 1: What to eat in Portofino







What better way to get back to blogging than to reminisce about the food on our Italian honeymoon. Part 1: Portofino.

I could describe every meal in glorious, pesto-drenched detail. Ok, let’s be real, no I can’t. That ship sailed after one too many glasses of vino.

Regardless, that would do you no good—you’d just be terribly hungry and painfully jealous.

Instead, being the fantastic food-obsessed tourist that I am, I sleuthed out and sampled nearly every local delicacy and regional specialty for your culinary education. So, should you ever find yourself in the Ligurian region—or Tuscany, Rome or Amalfi Coast  for that matter—you’ll know exactly how to order for maximum impact.

What to eat in Portofino (Liguria)

Pesto

When Dave heard we were going to the birthplace of pesto, his eyes lit up like a kid on christmas. In Liguria, the stuff is everywhere. Red sauce? What red sauce? It’s all about basil, olive oil, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano and pine nuts muddled to perfection. Nearly every shop in the area sells jars of pesto, so if you’re looking for a gift or souvenir for your favorite foodie, there’s not much better in terms of price, portability and authenticity.







Trofie pasta

After describing his recommendation of trofie pasta (short, doughy, hand-formed twists), the waiter didn’t have to twist our arms to get us to order it. While best fresh, you can find it dried alongside the aforementioned pesto jars throughout the region. I even found it in our local grocery store here in Chicago.







Focaccia

I think I ate my weight in focaccia while in Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure and Cinque Terre. Onion, rosemary, potato, sun-dried tomato, parmesan—I sampled them ALL. It’s doughy, dense, greasy and delicious, and I gladly ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.







Seafood

You can’t visit the Italian Riviera or Amalfi coast without eating seafood. And if you don’t eat seafood, you’ll be eating a lot of pizza and focaccia (there are worse fates, I suppose). In Italian fishing regions, they let their fruits of the sea shine with very simple preparations. Think olive oil, salt, and roasted vegetables. Another common preparation is to bake a whole fish under a mound of sea salt, which makes for a juicy, melt in your mouth meal. The variety is nearly endless, so don’t expect me to recall the types of fish. Suffice to say every fish dish I had was tender, flavorful and impossibly fresh.







Stay tuned for more of my Italian food diary. Next up, Tuscany.

Backblogged

I won’t be one of those bloggers that pretends to have thousands of clamoring fans that didn’t know what to do with themselves when their favorite blogger went on hiatus. That being said, for the three of you out there who actually care, sorry for depriving you of dry humor and french toast recipes.

It’s been an insanely busy summer, but I’ll spare you the excuses and get straight to the good stuff …

Portobello, red pepper and goat cheese flatbread/pizza

You’ll need:

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1-2 portobello mushrooms, chopped

8 oz. goat cheese

3-5 cloves garlic, minced

Crushed red pepper  and salt to taste

1 bag of Trader Joe’s pizza dough (you can substitute other dough, but I love this one)

A pizza stone

Olive oil

Have I ever preached the merits of a good pizza stone? It is absolutely crucial if you want to achieve the perfect crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside crust. And take it from me—skip the parchment paper and slap that dough right on the stone. There is an art to this people, so allow me to explain the process:

Ideally, you’ll want to pull your dough out of the fridge an hour or so before you start to let it proof.

Then, you’ll set your oven to 500 degrees and put the pizza stone in to heat it up. Next, ready your ingredients.

In this case, I sauteed the chopped red peppers in a little olive oil for a while to soften them up (ever had a pizza with vegetables that were raw and crunchy? Nothing worse.) and then added the mushrooms in toward the end. Set your ingredients aside and let’s get doughing (forgive me for that one, I’ve been out of the food-humor game for a while). I cut the dough in half so each pizza will fit on the stone—that’s a ball of dough about the size of a baseball. You’ll need a flat, floured surface to work on.

Press your fingers into the dough about an inch inside the outer edge to form a crust. Then press down in the middle with your palms to flatten the dough, and start pulling the dough apart with fingers. Once it is thin enough, you can slap the dough back and forth between your palms or hold one end and let the weight of the dough do the work to stretch it more. If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a good video tutorial—unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to visually document this process.

At this point, your pizza stone should be heated. Professional pie-makers may turn their noses up at my method, but trust me, for the home cook this works like a charm: Take the pizza stone out—very carefully—and set it on your counter or stove top. Again, VERY CAREFULLY, place your shaped dough (no toppings yet) on the stone. The crust will start to cook immediately from the heat of the stone, so quickly brush the dough with olive oil, crumble the goat cheese and sprinkle the toppings over the surface. I added a few grates of parmesan for good measure. Stick the pizza stone back in the oven and keep a close eye on it. It cooks very quickly—in about 5-7 minutes. Remove the stone once the crust is golden brown and let cool for a while. The pizza should slide off the stone fairly easily.

Garnish with crushed red pepper and a bit of sea salt to taste.

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