Zuppa Tuscana (Rustic Italian Soup)


15EEEF22-B8D7-4479-A255-78F16653D8C9Apparently this is a soup at Olive Garden that people rave about – however, I’ve never had it there. I saw a similar recipe online and then tweaked it to make it my own. And. I. Love. It.

Now, this is not the most waist-friendly soup, what with the cream, potatoes and spicy sausage. But I figure the kale makes up for all of that and I’m willing to risk it! One step, you must not, I repeat, NOT skip is using the homemade garlic broth. It doesn’t taste the same if you just add garlic (clove or paste). So don’t skip it. Seriously. I’m not kidding here.

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Italian Pork Tenderloin


It’s not often that my first attempt at a new dish is successful. It usually takes some tweaking and experimenting until the flavor profile is just right. But after doing some online research and looking at all the ways people make pork tenderloin… I decided to go with Italian… and got right to work. The one consistent piece of advice I read regardless of the recipe… was that I should brine the tenderloin first. I’ve also never attempted to brine something before so it was quite a day of firsts!

So here we go!

Start with brining which enhances juiciness and is simpler than you think. Just mix a quart of cold water, ½ cup sugar and ¼ cup table salt in a large resealable plastic bag (include other spices, aromatics and lemon or lime zest for more flavor). Even 30 minutes will make a difference, but you can brine it up to 8 hours in the fridge. Be sure not to add any vinegar products or it will dry out the meat.

Ingredients
1-1.5lbs pork tenderloin
¼ cup mascarpone cheese
¼ cup pesto
2 tablespoons each of the Italian Big Five (thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, basil)
1 pinch of salt (remember the brine already adds a lot of salt)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Preparation
Remove any excess fat from the outside of the tenderloin. Then take a sharp knife (do you have a sharpening steel? A sharpened knife makes all the difference! Never sharpened a knife before? Check this out)… and slice through the tenderloin lengthwise but not all the way through… this is called a butterfly cut.

Stir together pesto (either store bought or homemade) and room temperature mascarpone until creamy and thoroughly mixed. Then take the pesto mixture and spread it across the meat interior. Fold meat back together and either tie together with kitchen string or seal edges with toothpicks.

On a flat plate… mix together all the dry herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, salt & pepper) and roll sealed tenderloin until covered with seasoning. The rub will stick best if meat is dry.

Ready to Cook?
In a stove-to-oven pan heat the olive oil. Use just enough to coat the bottom or you won’t get a good sear on your meat. Sear meat for a good 3-4 minutes on each side. And don’t forget the ends of your meat! Once you see a good darkened layer transfer the pan to a 425 degree oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until internal temperature is 145 degrees. I prefer my pork to be slightly pick in the center – if you prefer yours more well-done… let it get to 155 degrees. Remove from the oven and place the tenderloins on a plate. Tent the pork with foil and let it rest about 5 minutes before serving.

Cut your tenderloin into 1/4-1/2 inch slices and fan out on your serving platter. Make a quick pan sauce by de-glazing the skillet with chicken broth or white wine. Add a spoonful of mascarpone to thicken the sauce. Drizzle over your pork medallions and garnish with rosemary sprigs.

The Perfect Bite
Be sure to swirl your bite of pork in the herb and mascarpone sauce that you just made and drizzled over our dish. If serving with pasta or a couscous… be sure to scoop some of that as well.

The Perfect Pairing
A great wine to go with just about any pork dish… but especially this one’s Italian flavor profile… is the A to Z Pinot Noir. This wonderful little 2008 Oregon wine is heartier than most pinot noirs and its peppery tannins bring a great balance to the sweetness of the mascarpone filled pork. You can find in in most wine stores for about $20.00 a bottle.

The Perfect Health

It’s true: Pork really is the other white meat. Ounce for ounce, pork tenderloin has less fat than a chicken breast. And food scientists are finding ways to make it leaner and leaner every year. Best Tip: Avoid cured meats.  Read more here.

Garden Vegetable Pasta Bake


This is one of my favorite go-to meals, especially if unexpected company stops by… which happens frequently at my house. If your pantry is regularly stocked with an assortment of dried pastas and a few fresh garden vegetables (or even better – you have a vegetable garden in your yard!) you can whip this up on the spot… an hour’s time max!

Yields: 4-6 main course servings / 8-10 side dish servings

Ingredients
1 lb Fusilli or Rotini noodles (uncooked – I use Barilla Plus)
1/2 cup Vegan Parmesan
1 medium zucchini squash
1 medium yellow squash
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 cup asparagus tips
1 small sweet onion
1 medium red tomato (seeded – rind only)
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
1 pinch each of what I call The Italian Big 5 (dried): thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary
1.5 tablespoon kosher salt (divided)
1 teaspoon pepper as needed
2-3 tablespoons cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine (you can you veggie stock if you prefer)
2 tablespoons vegan butter

Preparation
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

This is where your veggie chopping skills come in. I’m going to list how I chop my vegetables for this dish, but change it up to your own preference!
Zucchini – trim ends and then chop whole zucchini into three 1.5″-2″ rounds. Then take each round and quarter length-wise.
Yellow Squash – slice into 1/8″ dials. If the squash is fairly fat at the end (more than 1.5″) cut dials in half. The goal is bite-size.
Red & Green Bell Peppers – I cut them julienne. Which is a fancy word for skinny strips. Simply trim top and bottom off pepper and discard. Core and remove seeds and spines. Then slices in 1/4″ slivers about 1.5″ long.
Asparagus – I use just the tips because often the center can be a little woody if not cooked long enough. I cut the tips off about 2″ in. Then I reserve the remainder of the stalk for making soups or purees.
Sweet Onion – peel and dice finely… this should be for flavor and not something you want bite-size.
Garlic – same as the onion above.
Tomato – Slice in half and core out seeds and spines. We just want the fleshy part. Cut into 1″ chunks.

Ready To Cook?
Put a large pot of water on medium heat. Drizzle olive oil and add a tablespoon of salt to the water. I use a good amount of salt when cooking pasta… I’ve heard your water should taste like the ocean when you’re done. Infusing your pasta water with salt is better than adding salt to your meal later.

Once your water comes to a boil add your pasta and continue cooking until it’s just shy of al dente.  Remember, it’s going to cook a little more in the oven so we don’t want to overdo it. I prefer to use the fasilli or rotini noodles because the corkscrew shape holds the seasonings best… but feel free to use whatever your favorite pasta is – I’ve used to bowtie with this as well, which makes for a festive looking dish.

Using as cast iron skillet (or any nonstick), pour in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. While bringing it to a medium heat toss in The Italian Big 5 (dried thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary). Once your oil is ready (it sizzles with a drop of water), gently add in your onion and garlic first. Stir well so that the dried herbs are worked through the oil, onions and garlic. Saute for 3 minutes then slowly add the veggies in this order (based on cooking time): Peppers, asparagus, zucchini, squash. Reserve the tomato, which won’t be added until ready to bake. Pour the 1/4 cup of white wine over veggies and continue sauteing for 5-6 minutes or until the zucchini has become tender and can easily be stabbed with a fork.

Drain pasta and transfer to a large baking dish (a lasagna dish works best). Add diced tomatoes. Then pour all the contents from your skillet over the pasta including olive oil/wine reduction that’s happened in the pan while sauteing. This is going to be the sauce. TIP: If your pan has become too dry while sauteing, you may have overcooked your veggies. Just add more olive oil and a splash of white wine (or veggie stock) and de-glaze the bottom of your pan. Add that to your pasta-veggie mix.

Immediately add 2 tablespoons of Vegan margarine so it can melt. Add half of your Vegan Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly until everything is coated and you can see that the herbs are distributed evenly.

Taste your dish to see if additional salt and pepper is needed. TIP: Don’t assume it needs salt – salted pasta may have added plenty. Always taste your food before seasoning!

Sprinkle top with remaining Parmesan and bake uncovered on middle rack for 20 minutes (or until cheese starts to brown at edges).

TIP: If making extra to freeze for later, do not bake the portion you want freeze. Freeze after it’s cooled. Should last in freezer up to a month.

The Perfect Bite
This is one of my favorite kind of dishes to get a perfect bite from. I love stacking my fork with a twirly little noodle, a juicy piece of sausage, a buttery bite of zucchini and sweet sliver of red pepper. Oh, my mouth is watering just thinking about it! I love the nutty Parmesan and lightness of this invisible sauce.

The Perfect Pairing
This is a great summer dish so I prefer to pair it with a chilled glass of wine. Now, I’ve long since been a rosé snob. Pink wine? Really? My mind immediately goes to that giant box of Almaden Pink Blush Chablis that sits warm on the edge of my mom’s kitchen counter. Sorry Mom, but really?

However, rosé has come a long way… and I’m starting to warm up to them… well, at least when they’re chilled (again Mom, really?). Try pairing this dish with this French Rosé Note Bleue Cotôs De Provence Rosé 2009 – it’s sweet and earthy. A perfect compliment to the buttery pasta and veggies and peppery sausage. Served chilled, about 47 degrees.

The Perfect Health
Using Barilla Plus, reduces carbs and adds protein to any meal.  It’s made from legumes such as Chickpeas and Lentils as well as Egg Whites, Spelt, Barley, Flaxseed, Oat Fiber, and Oats.  Be sure check the box for cooking instructions – Barilla Plus can take longer to boil. Unlike many wheat or whole grain pastas that taste a little, well, cardboardy. This one is delicious! And I’ve found it holds up better in soups (as in, doesn’t swell and get mushy).  Read more here about its nutritional value.

Butternut Squash Lasagna


It’s a misnomer that butternut squash are just a Winter vegetable. Here in Middle Tennessee we have big beautiful squash year long… especially if you get them from your local Farmer’s Market. Granted, there’s a larger abundance of them in the Winter – but you can still easily find them now.

This recipe is made with a butternut squash puree and a nutmeg & basil rue. Sound a little complicated? Only slightly… but the results are ridiculously tasty and you can make a large batch and freeze the remaining. I’ve also included sweet Italian sausage in in this but you can make it vegetarian-friendly if you prefer.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash
1 lb sweet Italian sausage (usually found in links)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup water
3 amaretti cookies, crumbled (optional of you can’t find)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
Pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

The Rue

Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender*. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the remaining sauce in the pan and stir to blend. This is your basil-nutmeg rue. Season the rue with salt and pepper, to taste.

The Squash Puree

Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds, then quarter if squash is large. Coat in olive oil and place flesh side down on cookie sheet. Roast on top rack of oven at 425ountil tender… roughly 45-50 minutes. Be sure to use a cookie tray with at least a 1/2 inch lip as squash will give off a lot of water.

When squash is done, scoop flesh from peel and put in food processor. Add crumbled amaretti cookies and a pinch of salt. Puree until smooth. TIP: When blending hot liquids – remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Ready To Cook?
Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.

*Saute and brown sausage in a skillet. Break up into 1/2″ pieces.  Drain and set aside.

Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of rue over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times. *Scatter sausage on second layer and cover with the mozzarella.

Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes then remove and uncover. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. To firm up, let the lasagna stand for at least 20 minutes before serving.

The Perfect Pairing

It’s a sultry summer – try your hand at making a sangria. Sangria’s come in all types and flavors – check out this great site filled with Sangria recipes.

The Perfect Health

Butternut squash is not just low in fat and calories, but these squash are high in Vitamins A & C and high in Potassium and dietary fiber. It’s also a great source for anti-oxidants and works toward heart and lung health. Read here for more details

Roasted Beefsteak Tomato & Sweet Basil Pasta Sauce


I recently was given 12 large beefsteak tomatoes. Never wanting to refuse such a beautiful gift, I gladly accepted. Until I realized that I had no idea what to do with them and would never be able to consume them before they went bad. So I started scrambling through recipes and kept coming across a myriad of tomato and pasta sauces.  It seems that everyone has “the perfect” homemade recipe!

As much as I hate to admit this… I’ve never tried making my own sauce. And I have to admit that I feel like I’m cheating when I unscrew the pressurized lid of the Ragu jar and hear that familiar pop… and hoping my dinner guests in the other room don’t notice.

So, it’s high time I learned a thing or two about tomato sauce. I am learning that the “takes all day to make” sauce is truly the best kind… but for a quick and easy, and first attempt… I took the short route.

Of course, every recipe I found said that beefsteak tomatoes are not good for sauce… they’re “too acidic” and “too pulpy”. That I should use rich red Roma tomatoes. But never say die… I can make this work! After all, I don’t have Roma tomatoes. I have 12 very large, very ripe, very meaty “maters” that need to become something fast!

I wanted to make a sauce that was completely natural with *no “cans” or “jars” of anything. And I love roasted vegetables… so I decided that roasting the tomatoes would bring a smoky sweetness out of them, and help cut their acidity.

Ingredients (makes 2 quarts)
1 dozen med-large beefsteak tomatoes (or on the vine red tomatoes)
1 large sweet Vidalia onion
6 large garlic cloves
2 Anaheim chilies (seeded)
3/4 cup fresh basil – torn small
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup sherry
2 tablespoons anchovy paste (omit if vegan or vegetarian)
*2 tablespoons tomato paste (if you are making this in the tomato off-season you may need to add tomato paste to enrich the tomato flavor. But if making July-Sept you should be fine without – just taste and decide!)
1 tsp of sugar (to taste)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Cut veggies into large chucks and toss onto a baking sheet that has at least a 1″ rim. Sprinkle in the dried thyme and oregano. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil across it and toss to coat. Put on top rack of preheated oven at 400 degrees. Roast veggies and spices for about 20 minutes until tender and just start to brown at edges and the skins on the tomatoes burst.

IMG_5213.JPG
Remove tray from oven and scoop vegetables into a large food processor or blender. Or place them straight into the stock pot if you have an immersion blender. Then you can mix it right in the pot. Add 1/2 cup of fresh sweet basil leaves and blend. Once you’ve brought it to a smooth consistency pour it back into the pot. Add the wine, sherry and anchovy paste and let it simmer on low heat for 30-40 minutes until it reaches desired thickening and taste. Add remaining chopped fresh basil right before serving.

TIPS:

1) Be sure to pour all the juices from the roasting tray into the blender as well – so much flavor there! If your sauce seems a little thin initially – keep simmering, it should reduce nicely.

2) If you’re having trouble getting your sauce blended well, try straining it to get the little pieces of tomato skin and seeds out. Just keep in mind that these textures are a sign of a homemade sauce and not one that’s been processed to death.

Keep In Mind: Due to the orange-red color of the beefsteak tomato, your sauce is not going to be a deep, rich red as you see in many of the store-bought brands (of course, they also use “enhancements”). If you prefer a more red hue, use peeled Roma tomatoes (or add a few for color). You can also add roasted red bell pepper… which will also add a spicy-sweet note to your sauce.

The Perfect Bite
Seriously, it’s a sauce. You’re gonna have to give me some grace on this one. But do dip a piece of crunchy toast to taste while cooking!


The Perfect Pairing
As you can see in the top photo, I paired this sauce with my homemade ricotta and topped it all on a bed of Fusili pasta (not homemade – yet). I also included some basil from my garden.

I asked my friends at Rumours East for a wine recommendation from their wine list… and here’s what they suggested (be sure to catch their 2 for 1 nights, wine tastings & art shows!):

2006 Villa di Azzano Refosco dal Penduncolo Rosso

“It’s typically a given that Italian foods are paired better with Italian wines, and there is no exception in this case. It’s a full-bodied red, rich and fruitful with hints of plum and almond notes. It delivers a strong, yet not overwhelming acidity level that would compliment the flavor of a homemade red tomato sauce. A good rule of thumb when pairing food and wine is not to overwhelm your taste buds by pairing contrasting acidity levels.

If you can’t get your hands on an exact bottle you are looking for, I would recommend a Zinfandel or a Chianti/Sangiovese. Zinfandels are known to be quite versatile and work well with traditional Italian dishes centered around the tomato.”

The Perfect Health
Typical jars of pasta sauce contain very high amounts of corn syrup (some as high as 25 grams of sugars, per cup!) and preservatives (avg 1100 mg of sodium, per cup!). Most pasta sauce recipes call for using a 6oz can of tomato paste (for thickening)… which still has 21 grams of sugar in it!

Making your own sauce, completely from scratch… makes a significant difference in your sodium & sugar intake. Just using fresh, natural products makes the taste unbelievable too! Per cup, a homemade pasta sauce similar to my above recipe will roughly garner a mere 10 grams of sugars and only 26 mg of sodium! Knowing that’s gonna make it hard to buy ever again.