Zuppa Toscana Soup

The weather is starting to change and that means I am pulling out all of my soup recipes.  I am starting with one of my favorite soup recipes, Zuppa Toscana.  Zuppa Toscana is an Italian soup recipe, loosely meaning soup in the style of Tuscany.  Traditional Zuppa Toscana is made with Italian sausage, crushed red peppers, onion, bacon, garlic, chicken stock, heavy cream, and potatoes.

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Even though Zuppa Toscana is a broth based soup, it is very hearty and filling.   It is the perfect soup for a cool fall day.  The traditional Zuppa Toscana recipe is somewhat mild in spice.  If you prefer a stronger spice level you can always add a dash of cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper (which I do often).  Some Zuppa Toscana recipes include the addition of chopped bacon, which you could add as well, if you would like.

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Zuppa Toscana

1 lb Italian sausage, sliced

2 large russet baking potatoes, sliced using a mandolin slicer

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups kale, chopped

2 (8 ounce) cans chicken broth or chicken stock (for stronger flavor profile)

4 cups water

1 cup heavy whipping cream

Salt (to taste)

Ground black pepper (to taste)

In a large soup pot, lightly brown the Italian sausage over medium heat.  Add onions and garlic, allowing them to heat with the sausage for a couple of minutes to soften and darken in color.  Add chicken broth (or stock), water and potatoes to the pot and stir to combine.  Continue to cook over medium heat until potatoes are done (fork should be able to go through the potato easily). Add salt, pepper, kale and cream.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly and serve.

Vanilla Custard

I seem to be on a vanilla, creamy texture, recipe kick lately!  My last couple blog posts included recipes for vanilla pudding and vanilla frozen yogurt.  I cannot deny that vanilla might be one of my most favorite flavors.  There is just something about the warmth and sweetness of vanilla that always draws me in.

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This recipe is for a basic vanilla custard.  In regards to their ingredients, custards are very similar to puddings.  However, custards and puddings differ when it comes to the cooking method.  Puddings are cooked over the stove top, while custards are baked in the oven.  There are recipes out there that cook custards over the stove top, but traditional custard is baked in the oven using a water bath.

I have tested out a lot of custard recipes and this recipe is by far the easiest, most forgiving recipe.  Forgiving, because, milk and eggs can be extremely temperament.  If not handled properly, they can turn a simple dish into a failing mess.  This recipe seems to hold up every time, even if the ingredients are not handled with kid gloves.

baked-custard

For this recipe there are two baking items that are necessary.  The first item the is needed are 6 ounce custard cups or ramekins.  These cups can generally be found at most grocery or home good stores.  You can also easily find them online.  The second item the is needed is a 9 by 13 baking pan.  The pan is needed so that the custard cups can sit in a water bath while they cook.  Water baths add moisture to the oven so that the pudding does not crack from the heat of the oven.  Without a water bath the proteins in the custard mixture can get overheated causing the custard to become very rubbery.

Vanilla Custard

3 large eggs (beaten)

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Dash of salt

2 1/2 cups very warm milk

Dash of ground nutmeg (optional)

Very hot water for water bath

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  In medium sized bowl add beaten eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and salt.  Whisk the ingredients until well combined.  Slowly stir in the warm milk. Pour custard mixture into six (6 ounce) custard cups/ramekins. Sprinkle with nutmeg if you desire.  Place the cups in 13 by 9 inch pan on oven rack.  Pour very hot water into the pan so that it comes within 1/2 inch of tops of cups.   Place cups in the water in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes.  The custard will be finished cooking when a knife inserted halfway between the center and the edge comes out clean.  Carefully remove cups from water. Cool on a wire rack for about 30 minutes.  The custard can be served warm or cooled in the refrigerator.  Store any leftover warm pudding or cooled custard covered in refrigerator.

Grilled Polenta with Bolognese Sauce

My friends will often ask me for a quick and healthy meal idea.  They want something that they can easily make, that is liked by the whole family and that they can feel good about eating.  When I am asked this question, the recipe I generally share first is my grilled polenta with bolognese sauce.  It is simple to make, tastes great and is very healthy.

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Bolognese sauce is similar to a traditional red Mariana sauce but has the addition of ground meat.  For this recipe you can use ground beef or ground turkey.  For my family, we tend to opt for ground turkey.  For a vegetarian dish you could leave out the ground meat all together or substitute in a meatless ground product.

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Most of the time bolognese sauce is served over pasta.  However, for this recipe I decided to put a spin on that tradition and serve the sauce over grilled polenta instead.  Polenta is boiled cornmeal that can be eaten as soft porridge or formed into a solidified loaf.  For this recipe, the solidified loaf form of polenta works best and is available at most grocery stores.  The loaf polenta can be cut into circle discs which make them perfect for grilling.

Grilled Polenta with Bolognese Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup finely chopped carrot

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

1 pound ground beef or turkey

3 garlic cloves (minced)

1/3 cup red wine (or 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar for alcohol free version)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes (do not drain)

Add olive oil to a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil has warmed, add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic.  Sweat the ingredients until they are soft and translucent (about 5 minutes).  Add the ground beef or turkey.  Cook for an additional 6 minutes or until beef is browned (stirring to crumble).  Next, add the red wine, salt, nutmeg, pepper, and diced tomatoes. Bring the mixture to a boil and cover.  Reduce heat and allow the sauce to simmer for about 30 minutes.  While sauce is simmering the polenta can be grilled.  Simply slice the polenta into about 1/2″ thick slices.  Lightly coat with olive oil and grill on an indoor or outdoor grill.  Each side should take about 5 to 6 minutes to develop nice grill marks.  Once the sauce has finished simmer, it can be poured over the grilled polenta.

Panna Cotta

Panna cotta is an Italian dessert which means cooked cream.  Because panna cotta is sweet cream that has been thickened it can be classified as a pudding.  Panna Cotta is made very similar to classic pudding, except it is made without eggs, and does not require a long cook time over the stop top.

Panna cotta is served chilled and often presented with fresh berries or a sauce of honey, caramel or chocolate.  Some choose to top panna cotta with flavored liqueurs.  Panna cotta is similar to a bavarian cream, however, unlike panna cotta, bavarian cream does include eggs.

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This recipe is for a vanilla flavored panna cotta.  I have found that the best panna cotta is made using the insides of vanilla beans, also known as vanilla bean caviar.  Vanilla bean caviar gives the best vanilla flavor and compliments the delicate nature of the panna cotta.  Apart from vanilla, any flavor panna cotta can be made by swapping out the vanilla extract for a different extract flavor.  Some of the more popular panna cotta flavors are almond, rum, coffee and caramel.

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As mentioned above, panna cotta differs from other puddings.  Panna cotta does not include eggs.  Panna cotta also uses gelatin instead of cornstarch to thicken the creamy mixture.  In regards to gelatin, there are a lot of gelatin brands on the market.  Selecting a good gelatin is actually pretty important.  Over the years I have used several brands of gelatin and they are all not created equally.  When it comes to gelatin, quality and purity matter.  I have found the best gelatin to be Great Lake Beef Gelatin.  If you read how they prepare and extract their gelatin then you will see why the quality of their gelatin is held in such high regards by many.

Panna Cotta

1/3 cup skim milk

1 (.25 ounce) envelope or 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin (I prefer Great Lake Beef Gelatin)

2 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup sugar (I prefer cane sugar)

Pure vanilla bean scrapes (about 1″) or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a small bowl, add milk and stir in the gelatin powder. Mix together to ensure the gelatin is well combined. In a saucepan, stir together the heavy cream and sugar.  Heat the mixture over medium heat. Bring to a full boil then pour the cream into the gelatin mixture, stirring until completely dissolved.  Stir in the vanilla and then pour into 6 ramekin dishes or into 4 glass mason jars.  Cool the panna cotta uncovered at room temperature. When the panna cotta has cool, cover with plastic wrap or top with mason jar lid and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

 

Frozen Yogurt – Machine and No Machine Versions

Frozen yogurt is a healthy alternative to ice cream.  However, if you read the labels on the frozen yogurt available in the grocery store you will quickly find out store bought frozen yogurt can be full of unwanted, unhealthy items.  Some of the ingredient offenders are obvious like artificial flavors, artificial colors, added oils and artificial sugars.  However, sometimes the offending ingredients can hoover under the radar, even with some of the all natural or organic frozen yogurt products.  These two ingredients are large amounts of added sugar and stabilizers.

Almost of all of the frozen yogurt brands I have found in the grocery store contain a hefty amount of added sugar.  The added sugar is understandable since yogurt typically has a sour taste so the sugar is needed to counterbalance that sourness.  Plus most people purchasing frozen yogurt zero in on the grams of fat in the yogurt instead of looking at the grams of sugar.  Majority of the frozen yogurts available have had their fat decreased or removed completely.  Fat equals flavor, so in order to add back flavor without increasing fat, manufacturers add more sugar to the frozen yogurt.

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In addition to the added sugar, most, if not all, contain an assortment of gum and hydrocolloids products to help stabilize the yogurt.  The stabilizers help keep the frozen yogurt creamy and increases the shelf life.  The list of these additives include locust bean gum, carob gum, guar gum, gum arabic, tara gum, gellan gum, polysorbate 80, carboxy, ethyl cellulose, carrageenan, xanthan, sodium and propyleneglycol alginates.  While these additives are usually derived from plants and are considered safe to ingest, they can wreak havoc on your GI system.  Majority of us do not have gut systems to process these ingredients, so they can cause a lot of GI distress.

Making frozen yogurt is super easy at home and the best part about it, is that you can control so many aspects of the final product . You can control the flavor, the ingredients and the sweetness level.  If you prefer a tart, traditional frozen yogurt, then add less sugar.  If you prefer chocolate frozen yogurt, then cocoa powder can be added.  The flavor and ingredient possibilities are limitless!

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While having an ice cream maker is recommended for making frozen yogurt, it is not necessary.  If you have a food processor or blender you can achieve the same frozen yogurt results.  I have included both ways to make the frozen yogurt in this recipe blog piece.  Both recipes are for vanilla frozen yogurt but any flavor adjustments can be made.

For the ice cream maker recipe, I have included two versions, a full fat and a lower fat option.  If fat is not an issue, then I would opt for that version as it provides the creamiest, most yummy frozen yogurt.  However, if you are watching your fat intake, then the lower fat option is a perfect alternative.

Frozen Yogurt – Full fat option

3.75 cups full fat plain yogurt (I prefer Stonyfield Whole Milk Yogurt)

1 cup sugar (use less for a more tart frozen yogurt)

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, whisk yogurt, sugar, vanilla and salt together in a mixing bowl until sugar has completely dissolved.  Cover the mixture and refrigerate for about an hour. Remove the chilled yogurt from the refrigerator and churn in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Transfer frozen yogurt to airtight, freezable container and chill in freezer for at least 4 hours before serving.  Frozen yogurt can be stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Frozen Yogurt – Lower fat option

3.75 cups plain low fat yogurt (I prefer Stonyfield Low Fat Milk Yogurt)

1/2 cup sugar (use less for a more tart frozen yogurt)

2 tablespoons honey

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large mixing bowl, whisk yogurt, sugar, honey, vanilla and salt together in a mixing bowl until sugar has completely dissolved.  Cover the mixture and refrigerate for about an hour. Remove the chilled yogurt from the refrigerator and churn in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Transfer frozen yogurt to airtight, freezable container and chill in freezer for at least 4 hours before serving. Frozen yogurt can be stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Frozen Yogurt – No Ice Cream Maker

1 cup plain yogurt (greek, no fat or full fat)

8 oz cream cheese (softened)

3 tablespoons honey

3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Add yogurt, cream cheese, honey and vanilla into a food processor or blender.   Process or blend the ingredients until creamy (approx. 3 minutes).   Transfer the yogurt mixture into an airtight freezable container.  Freeze for a minimum 7 hours or until desired consistency. Frozen yogurt can be stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Picadillo

Picadillo is an amazing tasty dish with an unusual name.   The name roughly translates from the Spanish word picar which means to mince or to chop.  Picadillo is a traditional dish in Spain as well as in several Latin American countries and in the Philippines.  It is similar to a stew or slightly resembles an American sloppy joe.

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This recipe is super simple to make and it can be considered a one pot dish.  The prepared dish is often served with or over white rice which makes it an excellent gluten free option.  Most of the time, Picadillo it is made with ground beef, diced tomatoes, olive oil, red wine vinegar, onion, green olives, raisins and spices (that differ depending on the recipe region).

While it might seem a bit odd to have green olives and raisins in a meat dish, I can promise you that the flavor combination is unmistakably amazing.  The green olives provide a briny, saltiness similar to how capers enhance a chicken piccata dish.  The raisins serve as a sweet component and help to balance out all of the other salty, savor flavors.

The following passage is a big side note but I feel if I were to ever talk about a certain topic it would be here with this particular recipe.  If you or anyone you might be making this dish for, what I like to call “visual issue eaters”, there are ways to acquire the same taste but to not have the said items visible.  A visual issue eater is someone that likes the flavor of an ingredient but does not want to visually see that ingredient in the prepared dish.  For example, someone who likes the flavor of onion but does not want to see diced onions in their food.

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Both my husband and my son are visual issue eaters.  Over the years I have gotten pretty good at visually hiding ingredients.  I will also note that sometimes visual issue eaters will say they do not like a particular ingredient but they just do not know they actually do like that ingredient.  For instance, my son will say he does not like onions but if I do not add pureed onions to my meatloaf he will not eat it saying there is something off with the meatloaf and it does not taste good.  So technically my son likes onions, he just does not know it.

For this recipe the two ingredients that might offend visual issue eaters are the olives and the raisins.  While these two ingredients could simply be removed from the recipe, the final dish would certainly not have same flavor.  So the best way to keep the flavor and not remove the ingredients is to visually hide them from the dish.

For the olive component, the same taste can be obtained by using the liquid from the olive container.  For an equal flavor representation, I would recommend using about 1 tablespoon of the liquid.  For the raisin component, the raisins can be mashed prior to adding to the meat mixture so that the taste is still there but the actual raisin cannot be seen.  For easy mashing, it is best to heat the raisins in the microwave for about 15 seconds.  This will soften the raisins and make them easier to mash.

Picadillo

4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)

1/2 onion (chopped)

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 bay leaves

1 pound ground beef or turkey

1 cup canned diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1/3 cup pimento stuffed green olives

1/4 cup raisins

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon oregano

Dash of cayenne pepper

Dash of salt

In a large skillet, add olive oil and heat over medium/high heat.  Once the oil has warmed, add onion and garlic, stirring occasionally.  Once softened and translucent (5 to 7 minutes), add ground meat (beef or turkey).  Continue to cook until the meat has browned and cooked thoroughly.  Reduce the heat to medium/low and add the rest of the ingredients.  Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, stir occasionally.  Remove from heat and discard bay leaves. Serve with or over white rice.

 

No Fuss Vanilla Pudding – Cooked and Instant Versions

I guess it would be safe to say I am a fan of “velvety” food items.  By velvety I mean any food with a creamy texture.  These foods would include things like soups, ice creams, mashed potatoes, purees, custards, yogurts, sauces, and of course my number one velvety food, pudding.

Pudding has long been a favorite food of mine and I will jump at any chance to indulge in it.  I am not particular or steadfast on the flavor of pudding.  It can be vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, banana, butterscotch, tapioca, coconut or even rice pudding.

And my love of pudding does not have any national boundaries as I love figgy pudding, bread pudding, flan, keşkül, kheer, panna cotta, and sütlaç.  I have even found that my favorite desserts include some sort of pudding, like layered crepe cake, profiterole, Boston creme pie, eclair, prinsesstårta, crème brûlée, and my top favorite, since I was a kid, pudding laced dessert, mille-feuille pastry  (aka the Napoleon).

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Yes I think it is safe to say that I have not yet met a pudding I did not like.  Though, to date, I have not tried blood pudding (I still consider it a sausage and not a pudding but that is a whole other blog post topic).  But who knows, if I tried it, I could be a fan of blood sausage as well!

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Pudding is a relativity easy dessert to make.  It only requires a couple of ingredients.  I can understand why some shy away from making homemade pudding though.  I understand why the baking aisle in the grocery store is well stocked with an array of instant and ready cook pudding packets.  Yes upon reading the instructions of a homemade pudding recipe it is easy to see why one would resort to packaged pudding.

I can assure you that after making pudding for so many years I have learned a couple of things.  The first is that homemade pudding can be easier and involve less steps then the traditional pudding recipes out there.  Traditional pudding recipes require the milk to first be scorched, the egg yolks to be tempered and the final mixture to be strained.  While these techniques do work, they are not necessary. I have found that literally dumping all the of ingredients together and then heating them to a boil turns out a comparable pudding.

For this post I have included two pudding versions, cooked and instant.  When making pudding I tend to make the cooked version as I find it easy and tasty.  The instant version is quicker and just as tasty.  Though since it does not have eggs in the recipe, it seems to be lacking that traditional pudding taste.  It is still amazingly good, just a different taste profile.

No Fuss Vanilla Pudding – Cooked version

2 1/2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup sugar* (I prefer pure cane sugar)

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 egg yolks (beaten)

Pinch of salt

Mix 2 cups of the whole milk, sugar, vanilla extract, egg yolks and salt in a medium saucepan.  Stir to combine.  In a small bowl mix the remaining milk (1/2 cup) with the cornstarch.  Whisk together until the cornstarch is dissolved.  Add the milk/starch mixture into the milk/egg mixture.  Heat the mixture over medium/high heat.  Bring the mixture to a boil, while stirring constantly.  Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium/low and mix until it has reached a pudding like consistency (about 5 minutes).  Remove the pan from the heat and pour into a bowl.  The pudding can be eaten once it has cooled slightly or it is can be chilled in the refrigerator.  To prevent a film from forming on top of the pudding, place plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding.

No Fuss Vanilla Pudding – Instant Version

1/3 cup instant dry milk

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup sugar* (I prefer pure cane sugar)

1/3 cup Instant Clear Jel (I prefer King Arthur’s Clear Jel)

Dash of vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Combine instant milk, sugar, instant clear jel and salt.  Add whole milk and vanilla to the dry ingredients and mix well.  Pudding can be served immediately or stored in the refrigerator for later.

*For a sugar free version, stevia can be substituted for the sugar.  For this recipe only a dash of stevia is needed.  Note, the final consistency of the pudding might be slightly less velvety then if sugar were used.