Sunday, March 28, 2010

Margherita Pasta Salad

Whenever I am fortunate to be eating in a restaurant that has a wood-fired oven, I like to order a Margherita pizza. In my opinion, this simple and classic combination of tomato, fresh mozarella, and basil is the perfect way to enjoy a good quality pie. I haven't had one in a while, but, for some reason, as I was dreaming up a pasta salad for tonight's supper, the image of a Margherita pizza popped into my head. Once it did, it wasn't going anywhere! So, I decided to just roll with it.

I kept the salad very simple, just like the original concept. I tossed some cold fusilli, halved grape tomatoes, and quartered bocconcini in a homemade garlic-infused olive oil and let the mixture marinate for a few hours. In order to keep the basil as fresh as possible, I waited until I was ready to serve the salad before tearing the leaves and adding them in. I sprinkled a little bit of asiago on top as a garnish, and I was good to go!

Sometimes, simple is best. Tomato, fresh mozarella, and basil are a classic for a reason; the combination of the three just tastes right! (A little garlic in the background never hurt anyone, either.) The Margherita pasta salad was very refreshing, and I think it will be perfect for warm weather cooking, alongside just about anything. Why not borrow flavours from one dish to create another? I'm glad I did!

Margherita Pasta Salad: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: When cooking pasta, make sure your water is very salty--like the ocean! This is your one chance to add flavour to the pasta itself. If you do it right, you won't even have to add salt to the final dish before serving.

1 pkg fusilli pasta
1 container bocconcini (200 g), quartered (or whole baby bocconcini)
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup garlic-infused olive oil*
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 bouquet fresh basil leaves
grated asiago, to garnish

Cook pasta to al dente in plenty of boiling, salted water; drain, rinse under cold water until cool. Toss with bocconcini and tomatoes, add olive oil and toss to coat. Add plenty of freshly cracked black pepper, stir, and set in fridge for at least a couple of hours. Stir occasionally.
When ready to serve, tear basil leaves and fold into pasta. Taste and season if necessary. Garnish salad with grated asiago, serve immediately. Enjoy!

*To make your own garlic-infused olive oil, pour 3/4 cup of olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add 2 or 3 peeled and smashed cloves of garlic. Once oil heats and bubbles for 5 minutes, strain and cool.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Grilled Pear and Blue Cheese Breakfast Panini

As much as I love cheese, I'm still learning to like the blue stuff. I do enjoy chunky blue cheese dressing, for example, but straight up melted blue cheese on bread is too much for me; therefore, the key for me at this point is dilution. Recently, I watched Chuck from Chuck's Day Off mix blue cheese with cream cheese as a topping for hamburgers. While I think his intention was to adhere the cheese to the bun, I saw it as a great way to introduce more blue cheese into my cooking.  

I was curious to try the classic pairing of blue cheese with pear, and I adore making panini for weekend breakfasts; so, I combined the two into one exciting event (to me, anyway.) A panino is best when it is very simple, so I like to stick to a maximum of three elements: in this case, the cheese mixture, the grilled pears, and a bit of baby arugula for a peppery taste.

I was very pleased with the results! There was enough of a distinct blue cheese taste and smell present in my panino for me to appreciate the contrast between its sharp pungency and the sweetness of the grilled pears, but not so much that I found it difficult to eat. What really meant a lot to me was Jeff admitting that he would never in a million years have been interested in this panino on a restaurant menu, but he absolutely loved it and was glad he tried it. 

I think the next step in my blue cheese mission will be not only to increase the ratio of blue cheese to cream cheese in the spread, but also to try it in different dishes. For one, I will definitely be trying Chuck's hamburgers. I'm excited, because I feel that there is a whole new world for me to explore in cooking with cheese. Here's to adventures in acquiring tastes!   

Grilled Pear and Blue Cheese Breakfast Panini: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: You absolutely do not need a panini press to make panini. Put your assembled panino in a skillet, and cover it with another heavy skillet or pot to flatten it while it grills; then, flip and repeat. You can grill your pears in a skillet as well.

Makes 2 panini

1/4 cup cream cheese
1 heaping tbsp crumbled blue cheese, any kind (I used Danish)

1 pear, halved, seeded, and sliced thinly (I used a bosc pear)
1 tsp olive oil

4 slices dense bread
olive oil for brushing

baby arugula, to garnish

Toss the pear slices in a bowl with olive oil, and grill 2-3 min per side. Meanwhile, fold blue cheese crumbles into cream cheese and spread on two slices of bread. Top each with grilled pear and arugula, and finish with second slice. Brush the top of the sandwich with olive oil, place oiled side down on the grill, then oil the second slice. Press for 2-3 minutes per side, to your liking. Enjoy!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spicy Roasted Sweet Potato Salad

Ah, it’s finally beginning to feel like Spring. Even though it’s fairly likely that we’ll see snow again before (or even after) the season changes, it’s been sunny for the past week or so; therefore, desperate to welcome any shred of nice weather, I’ve found myself craving warm flavours. Enter this spicy sweet potato dish.

When I roast sweet potatoes, I don’t want to sweeten them one bit. No brown sugar or maple syrup (gasp!) here, no sir; I want to balance them with some fiery spice. I usually accomplish this by serving my simple roasted sweet potatoes with some chipotle mayonnaise for dipping, but this week I created a warm salad that went just as well with our first barbecued burgers of the season. (Oh, charcoal! I missed you dearly.)

I coated chunks of sweet potato with my own mixture of spices (chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, chipotle, and a bit of cayenne pepper) then roasted them with some red onion and a few smashed cloves of garlic. Once everything was soft and caramelized, I tossed it with a homemade lemon dressing.

I loved this dish! The end result had a good amount of spice that acted as a perfect contrast to the sweet potatoes and the red onions; meanwhile, the mellow, roasted garlic was a nutty taste in the background, and the acidic lemon dressing really brightened up the flavour of the salad. I couldn’t be happier; along with the warm(ish) weather we’ve been having lately, this new spicy roasted sweet potato salad is leading me, skipping, to Spring.

Spicy Roasted Sweet Potato Salad: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: There's nothing lacking, but if you'd like to add some cheese to this salad, I think feta or goat cheese would be a great match. Also, if I had had a can of corn on hand, I might have tossed it with the roasted veggies before dressing the salad.

2 large sweet potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp spice mixture*

1 red onion, chopped into small wedges
4-6 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled

olive oil
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

lemon dressing* at room temperature, to taste
1 green onion, sliced, to garnish

Preheat oven to 400F.
Toss the sweet potato with the olive oil in a large bowl. Sprinkle with spice mixture, toss to coat. Spread in a roasting pan; add red onion and garlic cloves. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and stir gently to coat. Roast for 40 minutes or until sweet potatoes are tender, stirring halfway through.

Once the potatoes are tender, transfer the contents of the pan to a bowl. Drizzle with lemon dressing a few tablespoons at a time, tossing to coat, until the vegetables are coated to your liking. Taste and season if necessary. Garnish with green onion. Serve immediately.


*Spice mixture
Mix the following together:
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp chipotle chili powder
pinch cayenne

*Lemon Dressing
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (1 lemon)
¾ cup olive oil
1 tsp whole grain dijon mustard
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Whisk first three ingredients together. Season to taste. Store leftovers in an air-tight container, and use as you would any dressing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Green Beans with Balsamic Vinegar, Toasted Walnuts, and Goat Cheese

I absolutely love green beans and eat them as a side dish all the time. Normally, I boil them for just a few minutes before tossing them with some butter and salt and pepper. Simple and delicious! This weekend, though, I had an idea and was ready to try something a little different.

I sauteed my fresh green beans in olive oil until they were lightly browned, then glazed them with a bit of balsamic vinegar. I tossed in some walnuts that I had toasted earlier to concentrate their flavour, and, once the nuts were warmed through, I sprinkled in some goat cheese crumbles. The aromas coming out of the pan were incredible.

Well, it turns out that I have a new favourite way to enjoy green beans! I loved the combination of the acidic balsamic glaze, the meaty walnuts, and the tangy, slightly melting goat cheese with the crisp-tender green beans. There were so many flavours present, but they all came together in a way that made perfect sense to my taste buds.

This dish brought a little bit of fancy to a comforting meal of (Jeff's epic) meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I'm not saying that I'm going to give up on my usual boil-and-butter method; rather, I'm just excited to have yet another great way to enjoy delicious green beans.

Green Beans with Balsamic Vinegar, Toasted Walnuts, and Goat Cheese: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: I made this on the fly, so keep in mind that the amounts listed in this recipe are very approximate! Just trust your instincts with this dish, because you can't go wrong.

1 lb fresh green beans, ends trimmed
olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1-2 cups toasted walnuts*, roughly chopped
1/4 cup goat cheese crumbles
kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Saute green beans in olive oil over medium to medium-high heat, 6-8 minutes. A couple of minutes before the green beans are cooked to your liking, drizzle them with balsamic vinegar, tossing to coat. Add toasted walnuts, stirring until they are heated through. Sprinkle with goat cheese; reduce heat to low, cover pan for a few minutes until the cheese is slightly melted. Season to taste; serve immediately. Enjoy!

*To toast walnuts: Spread nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Toast in a 400F oven until lightly golden, about 5-7 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through.
Alternatively, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add nuts, shake continuously until lightly golden, about 5-7 minutes.
Allow nuts to cool before chopping.