Are you caught up on Top Chef: All Stars? Not only is the show madly addictive, but also this season is the best season of Top Chef yet! We both love some good reality television–sometimes the trashy kind too– as much as the next person. Incorporate food into it somehow, and you got a hit in our book. A few episodes ago, the contestants were challenged to create a traditional Italian dish for New York’s exclusive eatery, Rao’s. The judges and celebrity guests wined and dined family-style at the infamous restaurant, enjoying creation after creation from the skilled chefs. Watching all of this clearly had mouths salivating with a ravenous appetite. I swear I could smell Fabio’s Chicken Cacciatore through the television. Plus, the fun everyone dining appeared to be having was highly penetrating. You could feel the joy and passion emanating from each person as these large platters overflowing with Italian delight were passed around the table.
As soon as the episode ended, plans were already formulating to have an Italian feast. Unfortunately, Chrystal was teaching all day, so she could only be there in spirit. The Super Bowl was just a few days away. What better excuse is there to have some your favorite people over and experience that same Italian food love, but this time it would be from a different set of hands and cutting boards.
Creating the menu was tasked next. Of course, Fabio’s cacciatore must be featured. He served it on top of a cheesy, creamy polenta. Why mess up a good thing? Antonia whipped up mussels with fennel as part of the antipasti. Again, if it ain’t broke…The tomato sauce recipe coincidentally came from television as well, Bravo at that. Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli shares his grandmother’s recipe on an episode of Chef Academy. It was recommended to us to make because of the use of star anise and vanilla in the sauce. It was something different and unexpected so we had to try it! Chrystal had also brought back dried pasta from the motherland of the chosen cuisine, Italy of course. The combination couldn’t have been more perfect.
As for the finish to the meal? Tiramisu was the obvious answer for us, but only under specific conditions. Tiramisu is best when it does not to have an overwhelming coffee flavor. There instead should be just the essence of coffee. Arguably, the mascarpone spread is the star of the whole thing. It should be light, not too sweet, and ridiculously smooth. Many recipes incorporated marsala wine into the cream or coffee when soaking the cookies. Fresh out of marsala, the choice was red vermouth. That would do the trick. A quick trip to World Market, and there was a basket full of lady fingers and Biscoff cookies–European cookies similar to biscotti. The decision to use both types of cookies in the cake was pure impulse. Gluttony took over.
Who knows if we’ll ever get a table at Rao’s—apparently it’s easier getting into a taping of the Oprah show. In the meantime, we’ll be feasting away in our own style. Pass the polenta please!
Mussels with Fennel Garlic Wine – Serves 6-8
1 bulb fennel, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
3 pounds mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into large chunks
Fresh parsley, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Slices of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place a deep, wide pot over medium high heat with the olive oil. Add fennel and sauté until it begins to soften and become fragrant, about 4-6 minutes.
2. Stir in garlic, salt and pepper. Pour in wine and let everything come to a simmer.
3. Add mussels, then cover pot with lid. Gently shake pot side to side a couple times, and cook for 3-5 minutes or until the mussels open. Stir occasionally to bring mussels from the bottom to the top and also to distribute the broth.
4. Discard any unopened mussels. Ladle mussels and broth into a serving bowl, and top each serving with parsley and a bit of lemon juice. Serve with slices of toasted baguette and lemon wedges.
Tomato Pasta Sauce with Star Anise and Vanilla – Serves 8 (adapted by Bravo)
6 pounds Beef or Heirloom tomatoes, halved
4 whole star anise
1 whole vanilla pod
1 tablespoon sugar
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup fresh basil, rough chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Heat up a large Dutch oven/cast iron pan over medium heat. Add tomatoes and season with salt, pepper, and sugar.
2. As tomatoes begin to breakdown, add star anise, vanilla, thyme, and bay leaves. (You can use a potato masher to help release their juices.) Reduce heat and let simmer, uncovered, about 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until they cook down to a thick, deeply colored paste. Remove from heat.
3. Using the flat side of a butcher’s knife, smash garlic cloves to pop them open. Stir in cloves, basil and olive oil to the warm tomato paste. Let flavors infuse for 1 hour or up to overnight. Serve with your favorite pasta. (If desired, stir in your favorite cooked meat during the last few minutes of the sauce’s cooking.)
Chicken Cacciatore with Creamy Polenta -Serves 8 (inspired by Braise Boil Bake)
8 boneless chicken thighs, rinsed and dried with a paper towel
4 shallots, diced
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
8 ounces baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped, plus additional for garnish,
30 ounces stewed tomatoes, with Italian seasonings, undrained
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup vegetable stock
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
1. Heat olive oil and butter over medium-high heat in a large, flat pan. Brown chicken thighs so both sides are golden and cripsy, about 2 minutes cooking time on each side. Place on a plate and set aside.
2. In the same pan, saute onions and peppers for about 4 minutes, just until onions begin to swell and turn translucent. Stir in garlic and mushrooms. Continue cooking until mushrooms cook down and any liquid is reduced.
3. Add wine and let reduce by half. Mix in parsley, tomatoes, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Place in browned thighs and cook for an additional 5 minutes.
4. Transfer to an heat-safe casserole dish and pour stock over chicken. Bake in a preheated oven at 325 degrees for 90 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked and falling off the bone. Serve over creamy polenta. Sprinkle plate with chopped oregano, additional parsley, and cheese if desired.
3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cup dry, yellow polenta
1/2 cup fontina cheese, shredded
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper, or to taste
1. In a large pot, whisk together stock, milk, and cream over medium heat. Continue to whisk mixture just until it reaches a simmer.
2. Whisk in polenta, evenly sprinkling it over the pot in a “raining” fashion. Be carefully not to dump the polenta in too fast, as it will clump together. Whisk frequently until mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
3. Using a wooden spoon, stir in cheese and seasonings. Continue to stir until polenta is thick and firm, similar to the consistency of a porridge, about an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for 2 minutes before serving.
Tiramisu Cake – Serves 10-12
24-30 lady finger cookies
1 dozen Biscoff cookies
3/4 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons red vermouth
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces dark chocolate, shaved
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Dash of cinnamon
1. Beat egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar to a “ribbon” stage–pale yellow color, smooth and very thick. Mix in mascarpone and blend until well incorporated. Beat in cream and whip until mixture doubles in volume, adding 2 teaspoons vermouth and slowing sprinkling additional sugar halfway throughout. Set aside mixture.
2. Mix together coffee, water, remaining vermouth, and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
3. Separate about 14 Lady Fingers, cutting 1/3 top off of each one. Line inside of a spring form pan with shorter cookies (flat side facing out for best results), creating a border-crust.
4. Using remaining, full-sized cookies, line the entire bottom of the pan, dipping each one entirely in the coffee mixture for a few seconds. Spread 1/3 of sweetened mascarpone cheese mixture over cookies.
5. As in Step 3 make a second layer, this time using the Biscoff cookies, stacking them on top of each other to create a thicker cookie layer. Spread with 1/2 of remaining cheese spread. Then repeat Step 3 with remaining Lady Fingers and spread.
6. Cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate for at least 4 hours to overnight before serving. Best if prepared night before. When ready to serve, mix cocoa powder and cinnamon in a small bowl and dust over top of cake. Then top even with chocolate shavings.
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