Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Spinach and Ricotta Calzones

Every once in a while I need to have a calzone. Don’t get me wrong I love pizza, but a calzone is a totally different composition and proportion of sauce to toppings. Come to think of it, one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is called “The Calzone.” In the episode, Steinbrenner becomes intrigued when he smells George's lunch during a meeting. George explains that it is a pepperoni, cheese and eggplant calzone and allows him to taste it. Steinbrenner then has George bring him a calzone for lunch every day. In typical George fashion, he gets banned from the restaurant and the remainder of the episode revolves around ways for George to ensure that Steinbrenner gets his daily calzone.

The word calzone means "pant leg" in Italian. How hand-held pizza relates to a pant leg is not clear to me. The exact origins of calzones are unclear, some believe that calzones may have originated during the medieval Arab period, and are related to sanbusaks, fried meat-filled pastries. Today, calzones are most commonly associated with Naples, Italy where the sandwich-sized turnovers are often sold at Italian lunch counters or by street vendors because they are easy to eat while standing or walking.

As a general rule, calzones are usually stuffed with regional cheeses such as ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, or Provolone. The dough is folded into a half-moon shape with the edges sealed. After cooking, calzones are commonly served with marinara sauce. For me, a true calzone is pizza dough filled with a mixture of spinach and ricotta with mozzarella. The guys tend to want meat in theirs which is certainly an option.

Spinach & Ricotta Calzones
One batch Pizza Dough 
1 cup cooked spinach, chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 cup ricotta cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated
Extra flour for dusting

For the spinach, we are usually lucky to have leftovers that has already been sautéed with garlic and a little crushed red pepper. If you are using frozen spinach, you may choose to punch it up with some garlic and spice. Which ever you are using, be sure to squeeze as much liquid from the greens as possible. Transfer the spinach to a bowl, add the Parmesan, and ricotta cheeses and mix well. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Position racks in the center and lower third of an oven and preheat to 500°F. If you are using a pizza stone be sure to place it in the oven so it gets hot too. Divide the pizza dough into 3 equal portions, and shape each portion into a ball. Place the balls on a work surface and cover with a kitchen towel. Place 1 ball on a floured work surface, and roll out into a round 7 inches in diameter.

Sprinkle some mozzarella on one half of each round leaving a half-inch border and top with a scoop of the spinach ricotta mixture. Sprinkle some more mozzarella over the top before folding the top half of the dough over and crimping the edges to seal. It helps to moisten the edges with a little warm water to encourage the dough to seal properly.

Slide the calzones onto your pizza stone or place on a baking sheet and place in the preheated oven. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown and puffed. About half way through baking you can poke a hole in the top to allow some of the steam escape if it looks like it might burst open. If the dough looks really dry and floury, you can brush the top with olive oil. This will help the top to brown nicely as well. Transfer to wire racks and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Serve warm with tomato sauce.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Parmigiano Reggiano Academy Teaches the Art of Cheese Tasting

The Parmigiano Reggiano Academy was originally created as an on-line tasting course, but is now being held in specialty stores across the U.S. We were invited to attend the Atlanta Academy at the Cook’s Warehouse hosted by the U.S. Information Office of Parmigiano Reggiano. As academy students, we tasted three ages of Italy's most famous cheese (14-, 24- and 36-month) and discussed different uses and wine pairings.

The tasting lesson was an intimate sit-down sensory analysis led by a Parmigiano Reggiano expert who challenged us to experience the structure, look, aroma and taste in a series of exercises designed to highlight the changes in the raw milk cheese as it ages. We first looked closely at the cheese, looking for variations in color and textural changes. The 14-month cheese was lighter in color and more opaque, while the 36-month cheese was darker, denser and showed visible signs of protein crystallization. Next we broke pieces of the cheese to feel the textural nuances such as oiliness, elasticity and friability.

The 14-month cheese broke easily, was powdery and less oily, while the 36-month old cheese was harder to break, and was far more crumbly and oily. We then inhaled the aroma and categorized the aromas as lactic, vegetal, floral, fruit, toasted, animal, or spicy. The younger cheese smelled milky and floral, while the older cheese smelled pungent, lactic and slightly animal. Lastly, we enjoyed the sensations of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami flavor on the tongue for each of the three ages of Parmigiano Reggiano. The 14-month cheese tasted mild, sweet and creamy, while the 36-month cheese was more harsh, tangy, salty and sharp.

We were treated to a variety of appetizers prepared by Chef Costanzo Astarita, executive chef of Baraonda, Publik Draft House, and Fig Jam. The appetizers highlighted Parmigiano Reggiano at various stages n the aging process. For example, ricotta and butternut squash agnolotti was topped with a froth made with the 14-month aged cheese, while Roman gnocchi with lamb ragu was prepared using the 36-month cheese.

A gelato made with the 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar was a true testament to the cheese’s versatility. Platters of gorgeous charcuterie (prosciutto, speck, salami) along with an array of sauces (fig preserves, sorghum syrup, truffle honey) were set out to allow students to sample with the 3 different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano. Don Hackett of Sherlock's Wine Merchant was on hand to pair several amazing Italian varietals (Barbera, Brunello, Sangiovese) with the cheeses as well.

Nancy Radke, Director of the U.S. Information Office of Parmigiano Reggiano addressed the group shaing that Parmigiano Reggiano Academy is the result of 20 years of research conducted by Dr. Mario Zanoni and many other EU scientists working in the area of sensory analysis of cheese. Using models developed in the wine industry, they have come to understand vital sensory cues people use when they encounter a piece of cheese.

The goal is that by the end of 2014, the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, the quality control and marketing board for, will have introduced thousands of consumers to the art of cheese tasting not just for Parmigiano Reggiano, but for other types of cheeses as well. She also asked students to join in the fastest growing global virtual dinner party #DinnerTogether which will be held this year on Saturday, October 25th. For more information, please visit Parmesan.com.

As we were departing, we were all given goodie bags with Academy supplies and plenty of cheese to share our newly acquired knowledge with others! So, we are giving away TWO (2) Parmigiano Reggiano Tasting Kits with a cheese tasting wheel (inside a plate which doubles as a Frisbee), samples of 14-month, 24-month and 36-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano, a special almond-shaped cheese knife, a copy of “The Seasons of Parmigiano Reggiano” cookbook and other informational materials. Enter below to become a Parmesan Cheese-tasting Expert too!

Photos by Erik Meadows Photography
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Monday, October 6, 2014

Go Garlic: Press On!

Garlic’s history goes back some five thousand years, making it one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. The ancient Egyptians worshiped it as a God, its name invoked at oath taking. And the pyramid builders, although savage taskmasters surrounded them, actually went on strike when deprived of their ration. Others who complained bitterly of garlicless days were the wretched Israelites, wandering in the Sinai desert with nothing but boring old manna to keep them from starvation. Instead of rejoicing at their escape from Egyptian bondage, they thought longingly of the spicy foods they had left behind. Among the Egyptians, garlic’s value was such that fifteen pounds of it could buy a healthy male slave. The Romans called it “the poor man’s treacle”; and in Provence it was nicknamed “the poor man’s truffle.”

A native of Asia, probably introduced to Europe by the returning Crusaders, garlic went from strength to strength. Medieval medicine men believed that the fiercer the aroma of a plant, the more effective it must be; hence garlic was recommended for every ailment from the common cold to unrequited love. Leafing through the yellowed pages of our medical volumes we find it alleged to cure high blood pressure, rheumatism, loss of appetite, lung trouble, toothache, freckles, snakebite, whooping cough, and baldness. The versatile remedy wasn’t just for eating: sometimes a poultice had to be put into an ear or on a tooth, laid on a baby’s navel, or applied to the soles of the patient’s feet. This last, which recurs in many treatments, seems ludicrous, but we are assured that the volatile oils in garlic are so readily absorbed that if a small piece is rubbed on the soles of the feet a garlic-laden breath is instantly exhaled by the lungs.

Cooking directions for garlic vary from the ladylike instructions to rub the salad bowl and then throw away the clove, to the crudely ingenious method recommended by the eccentric Italian Francatelli, who used to chew a clove of garlic and then breathe gently over the salad. (He was chef to Queen Victoria: do you suppose she knew?)

The vexing question of garlic on the breath has never been resolved. Etiquette books have suggested using mouthwashes, chewing parsley, and the like, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference, for the fumes of garlic don’t cling to the mouth and teeth, but are exhaled by the lungs. (It was claimed that King Henri IV of France, a passionate garlic fancier, used to crush several cloves between his teeth, and could then fell an ox with one breath—a stupendous achievement, not especially useful in modern life.) There is a theory that if you eat enough garlic, your system will learn to assimilate it and you will cease to exude the odor. Believe it or not, even though we cook with enough garlic to keep vampires away for all eternity, we still have not eaten so much to have proven this theory!

The only answer for affectionate garlic lovers who want to embrace is for both of them to eat the gorgeous stuff. The alliophobe who is revolted by it, and the alliophile who adores it, are clearly mismatched. Their religions and their politics can differ without mishap, but every intending couple ought to make sure their feelings about garlic coincide remembering together the words of the great chef Marcel Boulestin, “Peace and happiness begin where garlic is used in cooking.”

Preparing garlic for cooking is very easy. For the best tasting results, peel each individual clove of garlic and nip the hard end off. Cut the garlic in half and remove any green sprouts that might appear in the center. You are now ready to use your garlic. A majority of recipes call for the garlic to be “minced” or “smashed.” Personally I like French chef Edouard de Pomiane’s robust command: “With one blow of your fist, crush cloves of garlic beneath the blade of a knife.” Using the flat part of the knife blade, mash and crush the garlic with a teaspoon of salt until a paste is formed. The salt absorbs the oil and softens the raw flavor of the garlic, which can sometimes have a very strong taste when it is not to be cooked before it is eaten.

Most cooks however, prefer not to be so “personal” with their garlic, which is where a garlic press comes into play. A garlic press quickly extrudes the garlic cloves into a mince or paste that can be directly added to a pan to cook without involving knives or dirtying cutting boards. There are a variety of garlic presses on the market some that work better than others.

In choosing a garlic press you should consider the material it is made of, its capacity, and how easy it is to clean. Stainless steel is possibly the best and the most durable material available on the market. Stainless steel does not rust and does not 'peel' or get dull even after repeated use. (Stainless steel is also purported to remove the smell of garlic from your hands if held while washing up, so cleaning the press helps santitize your hands.) A garlic press that can hold several cloves at once is preferable than smaller garlic presses, and a press with an ergonomic soft grip makes pressing garlic easier and more comfortable. Selecting a press with a built in (or even separate) cleaning device to remove the garlic bits that are stuck in the holes is highly recommended.

We recently received a Priority Chef Premium Garlic Press to review. The press is made of 18/10 stainless steel, is dishwasher safe and comes with a lifetime warranty. It is heavy duty with rounded 4” comfortable handles. The bowl is generously sized to hold two small or one large clove of garlic. The plunger fits snugly but does allow a bit of garlic to escape up the sides. The press extrudes the garlic nicely and the bowl swings freely to allow for better cleaning. My only real complaint is that while the press is fairly easy to clean, it does not come with a cleaning attachment with prongs that can be inserted in the holes to remove any leftover garlic. The price of $16 is certainly reasonable given the high quality of this press.

Now what to do with that smashed garlic:

Fisherman’s Wharf Garlic Bread 
Smash 2-3 cloves of garlic and mix with 1/2 cup softened butter. Split a loaf of French or Italian bread horizontally and spread both sides liberally with garlic butter. Sprinkle the bread with finely chopped parsley (optional). Put the bread on a baking sheet and heat it in a 425° F oven until the butter is sizzling and the garlic is lightly toasted, or brown it lightly under the broiler. Be prepared to arm wrestle anyone who tries to take the last slice.

I received the Priority Chef Garlic Press mentioned above for free using Tomoson.com. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chicken Cacciatore Low and Slow

Chicken Cacciatore is the model comfort food and is perfectly suited to the chilly nights that Autumn brings. The word cacciatore is Italian for “hunter,” and in cooking it usually refers to the sauce covering browned chicken or rabbit. Cacciatore is a rustic Italian dish made with vegetables, mushrooms and of course tomato sauce. It is simmered for a long time to bring out the flavors and to allow the meat to become meltingly tender. Because the dish is best when cook low and slow, recipes can be easily adapted to crock pot cooking. This chicken, braised in a zesty tomato sauce, goes well with rice, pasta or even soft polenta.

3 lb. package of chicken thighs (about 12)
1/3 cup flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons oregano
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 (14.5-ounce) can Red Gold® Diced Tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) cans Red Gold® Crushed Tomatoes
1 cup button or cremini mushrooms, sliced

Rinse the chicken pieces and trim off any excess skin and fat, and then pat dry. On a large plate, stir together the flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Coat the chicken pieces evenly with the flour mixture, shaking off the excess. The paprika gives the chicken a beautiful color and helps to season the sauce as it cooks.

In a large fry pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary, skin side down, and cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 7 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook on the second side for another 3 to 4 minutes until lightly browned. Transfer the chicken pieces to the slow cooker.

Drain off any extra oil, and return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the bell peppers, onion and garlic and sauté until they start to soften, about 3 minutes. Add oregano and pepper flakes and stir to combine.  Pour in the wine and broth, and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Stir in both cans of Red Gold® tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Pour the mixture over the chicken. Cover and cook on the high-heat setting for 4 hours or the low-heat setting for 8 hours.

Add the sliced mushrooms to the crock about 10 minutes before you are ready to serve. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings by adding additional salt and pepper as needed. Serve hot by itself or over pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, or polenta to absorb all the amazing sauce!

Wouldn't it be nice after picking up the kids, the dry cleaning, and the groceries to go home to the aroma of a great tasting, warm meal waiting for you? The folks at Red Gold want to help make that happen by giving away a Red Gold branded Crock-Pot to two of our loyal consumers everyday until Wednesday, October 8th.

But wait!! It gets even better! Red Gold is giving us an opportunity to celebrate Fall with our readers as well! We are hosting a give-away of a Red Gold Gift Pack with a variety six-pack of Red Gold Tomatoes, a Red Gold apron, Red Gold wooden spoon and six Fall-inspired slow cooker recipes. They are providing the gift pack and shipping it directly to the winner. Enter below for your chance to win!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Operation #TasteATL: Code Name "Downtown"

We arrived at Alma Cocina at the prescribed time where we met our handlers from Brave PR and were lead to our table where we were given our directives. The mission: five teams embark on a clandestine operation from their assigned checkpoints to four surreptitious locations to sample the goods and report back to our respective followers on the upcoming Taste of Atlanta 2014. I (along with two other operatives) had been assigned to team “Downtown.” We ordered drinks from a list of carefully crafted libations and exchanged bona fides.  

I ordered an “Italian Tourist” while my comrade tried “A House in the Hamptons” both of which suited our palates nicely. As we were consulting our ciphers for the ELINT on Twitter, our inside man, Chef Chad Clevenger, brought out a tray of Chicken Tinga Tostadas and a platter of Fried Avocado tacos with poblano pesto. Those were soon followed by Chef’s signature Pork Pibil tamales, which he was keeping under wraps (of corn husk that is.)

As we were finishing our surveillance activities, our Controller contacted our transport agent from Uber to take us to our next target. We soon arrived at Smoke Ring where we were presented with Wine & Shine Sangria made especially for the arrival of our team. A salver of delectable deviled eggs and fried green tomatoes with goat cheese were set on the table. A bang and burn was carried out just in time for pork belly burgers with caramelized onions, melted Fontina, and secret recipe Steak Sauce along with another original concoction, “The Modern” to be brought for our consideration. The darling owners of the establishment, Erin and Jordan Wakefield made an appearance at the table to provide intelligence on the site and the items we were sampling making us feel that we had entered their home rather than their eatery. They seemed unconcerned by our cloak and dagger operation.

Again, our Controller arranged transport and within moments we were whisked away. We exited the Uber vehicle and entered the W Atlanta Downtown and were escorted into a private dining room at BLT Steak. We all were made to feel as members of the Royal family and were concerned our covers had been blown, until we were assured that everyone is treated in this manner at this venue.

We were served a chicken liver mousse with grilled country French bread, “obnoxious” popovers (the term used by our confidential informant), perfectly cooked steak with a luxurious corn compote (which will be the sample to be shared at TOA) and my favorite libation of the evening, which I will call the “Gin Jammer” for purposes of this report. An impressive parade of assets introduced themselves to our party describing various aspects of the location including Chef Joseph and Pastry Chef Sarah whose mini carrot cakes and chocolate chip petit fours were truly icing on the cake.

We were facing palate fatigue as we boarded yet another vehicle in the Uber fleet to descend upon our final covert objective. As we pulled up to Max Lager’s, we entered with new strength and resolve. There was food and beverage here that must be consumed in order to complete our assignment. Our unit would prevail! As we passed giant copper tanks and industrial milieus, we found ourselves seated at a comfortable table with rowdy conviviality in the background. We found ourselves facing an almost insurmountable task: to drink six beers of varying flavors for the sake of recording our findings for our cohorts. Bowls of creamy, perfectly textured grits with shrimp in a spice-filled gravy made a good backdrop to assess the malted beverages.

Just as we thought our mission was complete, a tray of fried cheesecake morsels was presented for our trial. Although we thought we might burst, we sacrificed ourselves for the sake of research and dove into the decadent nuggets, obliterating all evidence of their presence.

Our handlers, gathered the team and ushered us back to our original launch point. Once there, we vowed to maintain contact before parting ways and returning to our respective agencies.

The Take: Atlanta’s biggest foodie festival, Taste of Atlanta literally hits the streets at Spring Street and 5th from Friday, October 24th through Sunday, October 26th. This year, restaurant booths will be grouped by neighborhoods including Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Virginia-Highlands and Decatur.

Team "Downtown" - Secret Identities Revealed
The agents assigned to team 'Downtown" are confident that you will find the offerings of Atlanta’s downtown restaurant district to be outstanding examples of the amazing menu items offered throughout our fine city! And, since we know that given this inside information, you will purchase tickets to this event post haste, we are offering you our top secret code; enter promo code “TWEET” when ordering your tickets at TasteOfAtlanta.com and receive a $5 discount on General Admission or VIP tickets until October 20th.

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