Shrimp & Grits by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm pretty sure I'm a southerner at heart.  There's something about soul food that gets me all tingly inside - fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits...  YUM!!!

Southern food is not just delicious, but simplistic, non-pretentious, and most importantly, unapologetic.  There is no lack of butter, shortening, cheese and frying oil in the southern kitchen, but thankfully not all dishes will consume your daily calories in one sitting, including this one.

Shrimp & Grits // Serves 6

For the grits:

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 cups corn grits

6 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature

1 tsp. ground black pepper

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

 

For the shrimp:

1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined, tail on

2 tsp. blackening seasoning

6 slices bacon

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice 1 lemon

½ cup scallions, thinly sliced on a bias

Parsley, chopped, for serving

Sea salt

  1. Bring the stock to a boil in a stock pot. 
  2. While whisking constantly, sprinkle in the grits.
  3. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until the grits thicken, 20-25 minutes.
  4. Stir in the butter, pepper and cheeses and mix until melted.
  5. Season with salt, to taste.
  6. Meanwhile, make the shrimp.
  7. In a bowl, combine the shrimp and blackening seasoning and toss to coat.
  8. Warm a large seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
  9. Add the bacon and cook until crispy.
  10. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease in the skillet; drain the bacon on paper towels and crumble when cool enough to handle.
  11. Add the shrimp to the skillet and cook the shrimp until bright pink on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.
  12. Add the lemon juice, garlic and scallions and sauté 1-2 minutes, tossing often.
  13. Serve the shrimp over the grits.  Add a sprinkling of crumbled bacon and garnish with chopped parsley.

 

 

Watermelon Smash by Anthony Michael Contrino

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One of the few things I love about summer is watermelon.  I can't think of a more refreshing fruit.  As the days get hotter, watermelons seem to get sweeter and juicier.  That said, why not treat yourself to a poolside cocktail. Enjoy!

Watermelon Splash // Makes 1 cocktail

1 large lime wedge (1/4 of a lime)

3 mint leaves, plus more for garnish

Pinch fine sea salt

1 ounce simple syrup, recipe follows

1/2 cup watermelon juice, see note below

2 ounces light rum

1/2 cup club soda

Watermelon slices, for garnish

Lime slices, for garnish

  1. Muddle the lime, mint and salt in a cocktail shaker to release the juices and oils.
  2. Add the simple syrup, watermelon juice and rum. 
  3. Fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 5 -10 seconds.
  4. Strain the cocktail into a glass filled with ice.
  5. Top with the club soda and garnish with mint, lime or watermelon.
  6. Serve immediately.

Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Pinch sea salt

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan.  
  2. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved; do not bring to a simmer.
  3. Remove from the heat and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cool.
  5. Store in the refrigerator up to 7 days.

NOTE:  To make the watermelon juice, cut the flesh of 1/2 watermelon into chunks.  Pulse the chucks in a food processor until smooth.  Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer.  Refrigerate for up to 2 days. 

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Panzanella Caprese Salad by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm not the hugest fan of summer.  I'm not sure why everyone loves the extreme heat, humidity and bugs, but if there's one thing I can get down with, it's a perfectly ripe tomato.  Tomatoes just taste better when they're in season.  Panzanella and caprese are two of my favorite tomato dishes so I like to put them together for the ultimate summer side.  Make the salad about 15 minutes before serving to allow the dressing to slightly soften the toasted bread.

Panzanella Caprese Salad // Serves 6

12 ounces cherry tomatoes

1 large English cucumber, peeled, cut into chunks

12 ounces mozzarella balls (ciliengine), or 12 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

Toasted Bread, recipe follows

Balsamic Dressing, recipe follows

  1. In a large serving bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, roasted peppers and toasted bread.
  2. Drizzle some of the dressing, to your liking, over the salad and toss to combine.  
  3. Let sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Toasted Bread:

½ loaf crusty Italian bread, cubed

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. fine sea salt

½ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Add the bread to a large bowl.
  3. Drizzle the oil evenly over the bread.
  4. Add the salt, garlic powder and pepper and toss to coat the bread.
  5. Place the cubes on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 18 minutes.  
  6. Cool completely before using.

Balsamic Dressing:

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. balsamic glaze

1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp. fine sea salt

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, balsamic glaze and Dijon mustard.
  2. While constantly whisking, drizzle in the olive oil to emulsify.
  3. Add the salt and pepper and whisk to combine.
  4. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

TIP:  This makes a generous amount of dressing.  Dress the salad to your liking.  Also, I use balsamic glaze in this recipe for some depth and sweetness.  If you do not have any, use an additional tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a touch of honey. 

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Simple Sides: Grilled Ramps by Anthony Michael Contrino

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It looks like spring is finally here to stay in the Northeast.  The weather may have arrived, but we're still waiting for local produce to catch up. While we wait for some of the more mainstream vegetables, like broccoli and summer squash to hit it's peak, why not try something you might not be too familiar with - ramps.  

Ramps are becoming more popular, but there are still many people who have never heard of them, let alone tasted them.  Looking like scallions with a leafy top, and tasting like a garlic infused onion, ramps are best when simply prepared.

Ramps are often sautéed or oven roasted, and cook quickly, but this version makes it even easier, and better yet - THERE'S NO CLEANUP!  All you need is some aluminum foil and a barbecue grill. Serve these alongside lemon marinated chicken for a quick, delicious and healthy meal. 

Grilled Ramps // Serves 4

2 bunches ramps, washed, dried, roots cut off

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Light your grill and allow the heat to reach 400 degrees.
  2. Lay a long sheet of heavy aluminum foil on a work surface.  
  3. Place half the ramps onto the center of the sheet of foil, with all the root ends facing the same direction.
  4. Place the remaining ramps onto the center of the foil, with the root ends facing the opposite direction.
  5. Pull the sides of the foil up and bunch the ends to make a boat with the ramps in the center.  
  6. Drizzle the oil evenly over the ramps.
  7. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  8. Seal the foil to conceal the ramps.
  9. Place the ramps onto the grill and cook, lid closed for 2-3 minutes.  (You should hear the oil begin to "fry" the ramps.)
  10. Carefully flip the packet over and cook an additional 2 minutes.
  11. Carefully remove the packet and transfer onto a plate.
  12. Serve as is or with a splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

 

Cuban Dinner Party by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Even with a hectic schedule, I love to host the occasional dinner party.  I recently had some good friends over for dinner.  While I wanted the meal to be on point, I also didn't want to spend my time stuck in the kitchen.  Sometimes I get carried away and lose sight of the point of the dinner party - to spend time with friends and family.  Not this time.  With spring finally upon us (sort of!) I wanted to create a fun menu.  So I put on some Cubano salsa music and started to create my menu.

Below are all the recipes you need to throw a Cuban fiesta for 6 or so guests.  I've also included a timeline to help keep you on track.  If you stick to the plan, aside from making some a la minute cocktails and clearing plates, you'll be in on all the action!

Disclaimer:  Usually I pre-plan a post.  This time the food came first, so you'll see a mixture of Instagram photos, stock photos and a few I had a chance to take after the fact.  


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Snack Board // Serves 6

 Spanish olives

Pickled baby peppers

Marcona almonds

Grilled artichoke hearts

Cornichons

Sliced Ibérico ham

Sliced chorizo

Wedge Manchego cheese

Goat cheese log

Wedge Gruyere cheese

Savory plantain chips

Crostini

Bread sticks

Honey

  1. Arrange all ingredients on a large cheese board.

 TIP:  There are really no rules here.  Use what is readily available in your area.  Do try to include a variety of textures and flavors. 


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Ropa Vieja // Serves 6

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow bell pepper, cut into strips

1 green bell pepper, cut into strips

1 Spanish onion, sliced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

Two 1 ½ pound flank steaks

1 ½ cup beef broth

1 ¼ cups pureed tomato sauce

2 tbsp. tomato paste

½ tsp. cumin

1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Warm the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven.  
  3. Add the bell peppers, onion and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and cook until lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.
  4. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl.
  5. Pat the flank steaks with paper towels to remove any excess moister.
  6. Season the steaks liberally with salt and pepper.
  7. Sear the steaks on both sides, one at a time.  Remove the meat.
  8. Deglaze the pan with the broth.  
  9. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.  
  10. Remove from the heat.  
  11. Return the steaks and vegetables to the Dutch oven, cover with a lid and cook for 4 hours.
  12. Use a fork to shred the flank steaks.  
  13. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

TIP: The stringiness of the pulled flank steak is why ropa vieja translates to “old rags.”  Braised flank steak has a little more bite and chew than you may be used to.  If you’re looking for a more tender cut, swap out the flank for chuck.


Stewed Black Beans // Serves 6

2 14.5-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, diced

1 large Spanish onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

8 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup manzanilla olives, chopped

1 tbsp. tomato paste

1 ½ tsp. dried oregano

½ tsp. cumin

1 ¼ cups chicken broth

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Mash 1/3 of the black beans; set aside.
  2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, high-sided skillet.
  3. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp.
  4. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook until softened, about 4 minutes.
  5. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
  6. Add the olives, tomato paste, oregano and cumin and cook an additional minute.
  7. Add the broth and beans (whole and mashed) and lower the heat to low.
  8. Simmer for 30 minutes, covered, until the flavors have melded and most of the liquid has evaporated.
  9. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. 

TIP:  Taste before seasoning.  You may be surprised that you do not need to add additional seasoning.


Arroz Blanco // Serves 8

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 head garlic, cloves separated, smashed

4 tbsp. unsalted butter

2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed

2 tsp. sea salt

½ tsp. garlic powder

  1. Add the olive oil and garlic to a large sauce pot.
  2. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is golden brown.
  3. Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic, discard.
  4. Add the butter and stir to melt.
  5. Add the rice and cook for 4 minutes, stirring often, until lightly toasted.
  6. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.
  8. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit for an additional 15 minutes; do not remove the lid.
  9. Fluff the rice with a fork.

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Blood Orange Mojito // Makes 1 cocktail

2 large wedges blood orange 

1 large wedge lime 

1 sprig mint, plus more for garnish

½ tsp. demerara sugar

1 ½ ounces simple syrup, recipe follows

2 ounce light Caribbean rum

Club soda

  1. Muddle the blood orange, lime, mint and demerara sugar in a highball glass to release the juices and oils.
  2. Add the simple syrup and rum; stir.
  3. Fill the glass with ice.
  4. Pour the club soda into the glass leaving a ½” of space from the rim; stir gently.
  5. Garnish with a strip of blood orange peel and a sprig of mint.
  6. Serve immediately.

Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Pinch sea salt

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan.  
  2. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved; do not bring to a simmer.
  3. Remove from the heat and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a pitcher and refrigerate until cool.
  5. Store in the refrigerator up to 7 days.

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Coconut Passion Mousse  // Serves 8

2 tsp. gelatin

1 cup passion fruit puree, divided

2/3 cup sugar

¾ cup cream of coconut

1 tsp. Mexican vanilla extract

2 cups heavy whipping cream

Toasted coconut, for serving

Micro cilantro, for serving

Edible flowers, for serving

  1. In a small bowl combine the gelatin with 2 tablespoons of cool water; allow to set.
  2. In a small sauce pan combine ¾ cup of the passion fruit puree, the sugar and the gelatin mixture.
  3. Cook over a medium flame until the sugar and gelatin are dissolved.
  4. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture into a large bowl.
  5. Add the remaining passion fruit puree, cream of coconut and vanilla.
  6. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, whip the cream to medium peaks.  Fold the cream into the passion fruit mixture with a whisk until fully incorporated.
  8. Pour the mixture into 8 ramekins.  Refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.
  9. Garnish with toasted coconut, micro cilantro and edible flowers.

TIP: Make sure you mix the cream of coconut well to re-emulsify and remove lumps.  Also, passion fruit can be pricy and hard to find.  You can substitute with any other tropical fruit juice, preferably with no added sugar.


TIMELINE

2 DAYS BEFORE

  • Make the simple syrup for the Blood Orange Mojitos.
  • Make the Coconut Passion Mousse to completion.  

1 DAY BEFORE

  • Prep the vegetables for the Ropa Vieja.  Store in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator.
  • Make the Stewed Black Beans to completion.  Store the sauce pot in the refrigerator.

4 HOURS BEFORE

  • Make the Ropa Vieja.
  • Start making the Arroz Blanco up until the addition of the water.

1 HOUR BEFORE

  • Make the Arroz Blanco.  Do not remove the lid until ready to serve.
  • Cut the citrus for the Blood Orange Mojitos.
  • Set up Snack Board.

30 MINUTES BEFORE

  • Finish making the rice.  Leave covered until ready to serve.

SHOWTIME

  • Make the cocktails as your guests arrive.
  • Warm the Stewed Beans.
  • Remove the Ropa Vieja from the oven and allow to rest, covered.

TIME TO SERVE THE MAIN

  • Shred the Ropa Vieja.
  • Fluff the Arroz Blanco.
  • This isn’t fancy food.  Place a scoop of rice, beans and ropa vieja on a plate and garnish with some micro cilantro.  Serve with a brioche roll to sop up any residual sauces.

15 MINUTES BEFORE DESSERT

  • Remove Mousse from dessert to temper and garnish.
  • Brew coffee and tea, if serving.

Chicken Marsala by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

This Italian restaurant menu staple is one of my favorites - and it's one of the easiest dishes to replicate at home.  Marsala is a fortified wine from the area surrounding the Sicilian city of Marsala.  Marsala can be dry or sweet.  This recipe calls for the more common sweet variety.  The sweetness of the Marsala with the earthiness of the mushrooms and thyme are balanced out with the smoothness of the butter.  If you do not have Marsala, you can substitute with sherry or even white wine with a splash of Brandy.

 

Chicken Marsala

Serves 4

 

8 chicken cutlets

1 cup flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned, sliced

1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves

¾ cup marsala wine

¾ cup chicken broth

2 tbsp. butter, softened

3 tbsp. flour

Parsley, chopped, for serving

 

1.    In a flat-bottomed bowl, mix the flour, salt and pepper.  

2.    Coat the chicken in the flour mixture.

3.    Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.

4.    Add ¼ cup of the olive oil and sear the chicken, in batches, on both sides until lightly golden. The chicken should be cooked through.

5.    Remove the chicken from the pan, onto a plate.

6.    Add the remaining oil to the skillet.

7.    Add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté until softened, about 6 minutes.

8.    Add the thyme, marsala and chicken broth; bring to a simmer.

9.    Meanwhile, combine the butter and flour to form a paste.

10.  Add the butter paste to the simmering liquid and stir until it melts and thickens the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

11.  Return the chicken to the skillet along with any juices that were released.

12.  Simmer for an additional 2 minutes.

13.  Garnish with parsley.

General Tso's Chicken by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann 

Photo by Matt Wagemann 

Even though Chinese New Year festivities are winding down, the celebration continues - at least in my kitchen.  With Chinese food being so affordable in the US, it's no wonder most would rather order it than make it.  So, I challenge you to make this General Tso's Chicken recipe.  It is bursting with flavor and will make you think twice the next time you go to pick up the phone to order some.

 

General Tso’s Chicken

Serves 6

 

For the chicken:

2 egg whites

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. brown sugar

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

¾ cup cornstarch

1 tsp. baking powder

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

Vegetable oil, for frying

White rice, for serving

Scallions, sliced, for serving 

 

For the sauce:

¼ cup peanut oil

2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane

1 tsp. red pepper flakes

¼ cup scallions, chopped

½ cup sugar

1 tsp. ginger, grated on a microplane

¼ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp. sake

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tbsp. sesame oil

2 tbsp. cornstarch

 

In a bowl, whisk the whites until frothy.  Add the salt, brown sugar and black pepper and whisk to combine.  Add the chicken and toss to coat in the whites.  Add the cornstarch and baking powder and toss to combine.  The mixture will become tacky.

Bring 4 cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a frying pan or wok.  Carefully drop the chicken pieces, one at a time, into the hot oil and cook in batches until the chicken is golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, make the sauce.  In a small saucepant, combine the peanut oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and scallions.  Cook over medium-high heat until the garlic begins to fry. Add the sugar and stir until it dissolves.  Add the ginger, chicken broth, sake, soy sauce and sesame oil and stir to combine.  In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water; mix to create a slurry.  Add the slurry to the sauce and bring to a boil.  Cook for 2 minutes.

Toss the chicken in the sauce and serve over white rice.  Garnish with chopped scallions.

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Caramelized Onion by Anthony Michael Contrino

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If there's one question I am asked all the time, it's "Do you cook dinner when you get home from work?".  Instead of giving them a "hells, no," I usually just explain how I get home too late to even think about dinner.  Truth is, even when I'm off, I try to avoid the kitchen unless it's for testing or recipe development.  Don't get me wrong, I love cooking.  The problem is, I'm spoiled.  I usually have an assistant or dishwasher who helps clean up so that I can move onto the next thing.  There's none of that at home.  Just me.  And, no dishwasher.  So, no, I don't really cook at home unless I can throw something together quickly and with minimum clean up.

That brings me to this post.  This recipe is EASY and the clean up is a breeze.  Sometimes I'm feeling festive and finish the dish with some pomegranate seeds.  They add a pop of color and flavor, and a much needed crunch.  Toasted pine nuts are cool, too.  This dish also makes a great starter, which can easily serve 4.

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Caramelized Onion //  Serves 2

8-10 ounces Butternut Squash Ravioli (I like Trader Joe's.  It comes in an 8.8 ounce package)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 Spanish onion, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons unsalted European butter

8-10 small sage leaves

1/4 cup grated pecorino, plus more for serving

2 tbsp. pomegranate seeds or toasted pine nuts, optional

Salt & freshly ground black pepper

 

Bring a 6 quart stock pot filled with water to a boil.  Add a generous pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, warm the oil in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and season with salt and pepper.  Sauté until they caramelize, about 10 minutes.  Add the butter and sage and swirl the pan until the butter is completely melted.  Reduce the heat to the lowest setting.

Add the ravioli to the boiling water and cook according to package directions.  When al dente, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the sauce.  Sprinkle the pecorino over the pasta.  Cook 2 minutes, tossing often.  

To plate, scoop some of the ravioli into a shallow bowl, make sure to get some onion and sage.  If using, add the pomegranate or pine nuts..  Sprinkle with some more pecorino and some freshly ground black pepper.  Serve immediately.

 

Special thanks to my editor, Bridgid Egan.  ;)

Gingerbread Muffins by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

Gingerbread Muffins // Makes 1 Dozen

Every year I create a recipe to share with friends and family in lieu of a traditional Christmas card. This year, I wanted to incorporate some of my favorite winter flavors.  These muffins, laced with cinnamon, ginger and a touch of molasses, are not overly sweet and are perfect for breakfast on a cool Christmas morning.

1¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup candied ginger, small dice, optional
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves      
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt  
2 large eggs   
½ cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses1 large egg white
1½ cups confectioners sugar
Sprinkles or dragées, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 12-cavity cupcake mold with aluminum liners. Spread the exposed pan and liners with baking spray.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, candied ginger, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Add the sugar, brown sugar and molasses, and whisk to combine.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until all ingredients are combined.  

Scoop or pipe the batter into the prepared liners, filling each ¾ full.  Bake the muffins for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center of the muffins.  Carefully transfer to a rack and cool completely. 

To make the royal icing, combine the egg white and sugar, and stir, until a smooth, stiff frosting forms.  It should should hold a peak.  If it is too loose, add some more sugar to reach the desired consistency.  If it is too thick, add a splash of water to reach the desired consistency.  Working fast, spread the icing over the muffins and decorate with sprinkles.

Italian Wedding Soup by Anthony Michael Contrino

Nothing makes me happier than stepping outside in the morning and being jarred awake by brisk air.  If I could live in a hoodie, I'd be a happy camper.  

After a long day in the studio, I love coming home to my apartment, lighting the fireplace and warming up some leftover soup.  This is one of my favorite soups, and I make it by the vat.  If you are going to freeze the leftovers, cook the pasta separately and do not add it to the pot of soup, otherwise it will get mushy.

PS.  Sorry for the lack of a picture.  I was too hungry to set up a shot!! ;)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 1/2 cups carrot medallions, about 8 carrots

2 1/2 cups sliced celery, about 6  celery stalks

2 1/2 cups chopped white onion, about 2 large onions

10 cloves garlic, sliced

1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 quarts vegetable stock

4 sprigs fresh thyme

Mini Meatballs, recipe follows

1/2 pound small pasta

1 bunch kale, stems removed, ripped to chunks

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pecorino cheese, for serving

In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the carrots, celery and onion and sauté until they begin to caramelize, stirring often, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté and additional 2 minutes.  Add the red pepper flakes and tomato paste; stir until the paste is fully incorporated.  Add the stock and thyme.  Bring to a boil.  Add the meatballs and reduce to a simmer.  Simmer for 1 hour.  Add the pasta and kale and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Serve with grated pecorino cheese.

Mini Meatballs // Makes approximately 3 dozen

1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 egg

1/4 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons grated pecorino cheese

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until fully combined.  Roll the meat into balls the size of a gum ball. 

FOOD FINDS: Some of the Country's Best Restaurants by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I've been lucky enough to work in some of my favorite cities this summer.  Whenever I travel, I make it a rule to try as many new restaurants as I can.  Luckily, I haven't been disappointed!  Here are some of my faves, ranging from no-frills breakfast joints to fine dining - there's something for everyone!

LOS ANGELES // CAFE JANE

While in LA, I stayed in an AirB&B and the host left, as most do, an informative packet with local attractions, info and food recommendations,  Cafe Jane was on the list.  Featuring breakfast, lunch, and coffee options, this spot is as casual as it gets, but the food is on point.  Everything is made to order and fresh, fresh, fresh.  DO NOT skip the bacon - it's crack!! If you're not hungry, the coffee here, alone, is worth the visit.

FAVE DISH: 2x2x2 (2 eggs, your way, 2 strips of bacon and 2 pancakes)

LAS VEGAS // AMERICANA

In my opinion, the Vegas food scene is as good as it gets.  You can find whatever you want, pretty much when ever you want it.  I ventured off the strip to Desert Shores near Summerlin to try Americana.  Full disclosure:  My cousin Joe grew up with the executive chef/owner, Stephen Blandino, so we wanted to see what the Staten Island native had up his sleeve.  Having worked at some of the best restaurants in town, Chef Blandino knows his way around the kitchen.  Each dish is meticulously conceptualized, prepared and plated.  While this restaurant is by definition a fine dining establishment, eating at Americana will not set you back as much as its competitors on The Strip.   Also, contact the restaurants for specials - they'll even pick you up (on their dime) via Uber, so that you can enjoy a peaceful meal away from the strip.

FAVE DISH: Compressed Watermelon Salad with Watercress, Burrata, Heritage Tomatoes

NEW YORK CITY // GIUSEPPINA'S BRICK OVEN PIZZA

I almost hate to share this joint with the world - it's that good!  Chris, the owner, and all-round good guy, knows how to make a pie.  After all, he did learn from his brother who owns the celebrity-filled post, Lucali.  While Lucali is AMAZING, it's not worth the crazy wait (and not always friendly waitstaff,) unless you are desperate to see Beyonce.  Anyway, the pizza is banging, but the calzone will make you hear angelic voices.  You really can't go wrong with anything on the menu, just bring cash because credit cards are a no-no here.

FAVE DISH: THE CALZONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NASHVILLE // KITCHEN NOTES

I came across this restaurant by accident.  Located in the Omni Hotel, Kitchen Notes is a southern-inspired restaurant serving favorites like Fried Green Tomatoes, Fried Chicken (by the bucket) and Shrimp and Grits.  Not only do they source local ingredients, this is the only joint in Nashville with a biscuit bar.  Oh, those tasty biscuits!

FAVE DISH: Rustic Meatloaf with Braised Green Beans, Whipped Potatoes and Mushroom Gravy

CHICAGO // MINDY'S HOT CHOCOLATE

This is possibly my favorite restaurant in Chicago.  I need to go whenever I'm in The Windy City.  Chef Mindy Segal is a James Beard Award Winning Pastry Chef.  While her desserts (and hot chocolate, of course!) are drool-worthy, she knows her way around the savory kitchen.  The menu is seasonal and Mindy sources as many local products as possible.  The only things that seem to never vanish from the menu - because they're AMAZING - are the Mac N Cheese and Burger.

FAVE DISH: The Mac N Cheese.  Not only is it gooey goodness, it's probably the only restaurant that cooks their pasta al dente for a Mac N Cheese.  Pair with a seasonal salad and have whatever your server recommends for dessert!

Yellow Cake by Anthony Michael Contrino

So, I wasn't going to share this one on my site.  I figure, I should probably save some recipes exclusively for my cookbook, but this one is too good to shut away.  When I tell you that I have spent years trying to perfect a yellow cake recipe, I, unfortunately, am not exaggerating.  

The problem is, if it doesn't sort of taste like it came out of a box, people just don't like from-scratch yellow cake.  This yellow cake is super buttery, like pound cake, but less dense.  And, while it may be reminiscent of the boxed stuff, it surely doesn't have the chemicals, preservatives and weird aftertaste.  

YELLOW CAKE // SERVES 12

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for greasing

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 oz. European or European-style butter, softened (DO NOT skimp!), plus more for greasing

1-3/4 cups sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup whole milk

½ cup buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt some butter and brush it generously into a bundt pan.  Coat the butter with flour and shake off any excess.

In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; whisk to combine.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing each to incorporate before adding the next.  When all three eggs have been added, add the vanilla extract and mix to incorporate.  

Combine the milk and buttermilk.

Add half the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and mix on low speed.  Drizzle in the milk mixture and mix until it is almost completely combined.  Add the remaining flour mixture and mix on low until all ingredients come together.  

Spoon the batter into the prepared bundt pan.  Smooth the top with a small spatula and bang on the counter to remove air bubbles.

Bake until golden brown, and a cake tester comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.

Cool for 20 minutes before flipping onto a cooling rack.  Cool completely.  Wrap well with plastic wrap until ready to serve.

BUTTERY GLAZE

1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons whole milk

Combine all ingredients and mix well to create a smooth glaze.  The finished product should be relatively thick, but still run slightly.  If it is too loose, add a tad more sugar.  Use glaze immediately.  Allow the glaze to set before serving.

Roasted Corn Carbonara by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Andrea Patton Photography

Photo by Andrea Patton Photography

Sit the 'eff down for this one - it's THAT yum!  When we were testing and shooting this recipe, we couldn't get enough of this creamy, but light sauce.  The roasted corn adds a subtle sweetness and smokiness that dances in your mouth with the sharp cheese, salty pancetta and earthy sage.  Dramatic, huh?  

To roast your own corn, you'll need about 4 ears.  Don't be afraid to char it up.  If you'd like to omit this step, you can find frozen roasted corn at Trader Joe's.  Be sure to fully defrost it in the fridge the night before.  It may seem like there's a lot of process going on in this recipe, but everything is quick and easy.  Be sure to toss the linguini as soon as it hits the sauce to avoid scrambled eggs.

Roasted Corn Carbonara // Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

8 ounces pancetta, diced

1/4 cup fresh sage leaves

2 cups roasted corn kernels

1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese, plus more for serving

4 large egg yolks

1 pound linguini

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crispy.  Transfer the pancetta to a plate, leaving the hot oil in the skillet.  Add the sage and cook until crispy.  Remove the sage leaves and transfer to the plate with the pancetta.  Reserve the cooking oil and rendered fat.

Meanwhile, bring a stockpot, filled with water, to a rolling boil.  Add 2 heaping tablespoons salt and allow the water to return to a rolling boil.  Add the linguine and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree the roasted corn and pecorino.  When the pasta is halfway cooked,  add 2 tablespoons of the pasta water and process until creamy.  Add up to an additional 2 tablespoons of the pasta water, if needed.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Place the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and whisk.  While whisking, drizzle in the reserved oil from the pancetta.  Add the pancetta, sage and roasted corn puree and mix to combine.  

When the pasta is done, use a pair of tongs to remove the pasta and add it to the bowl with the roasted corn mixture.  Toss immediately to coat the pasta and cook the egg.  Serve with some freshly ground pepper and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese.  

 

Place the 

 

 

S'mores Semifreddo by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann. 

Photo by Matt Wagemann. 

Someone once asked me why I was addicted to s'mores.  Honestly, I rarely eat a traditional s'more.  In fact, I am not a huge chocolate fan.  I'd rather have some graham crackers slathered in marshmallow creme.  That's why most of my s'mores recipes are light on chocolate.  In this case, feel free to double up on the chocolate chips, and go crazy with the chocolate sauce if it makes you feel better about life. 

If I was a basic bitch, I would've called this a no-churn ice cream cake, but the pastry chef in me won't allow that.  When it comes to the toasting of the 'mallows, go to town.

S'more's Semifreddo // Serves 8

1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 pinch salt

1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream

8 graham crackers, crumbled, divided

1 ½ cups mini marshmallows, torched, room temperature

1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Chocolate sauce, for serving

Line a 9x5 loaf pan with heavy duty (or doubled up) aluminum foil on all sides.  Be sure to leave a sufficient amount of overhang.  (This is how you'll get the cake out later!)

In a large bowl, whisk together the condensed milk, vanilla and salt; set aside.

In another large bowl whip the cream to stiff peaks.  Add half the whipped cream to the condensed mixture and fold to incorporate.  Add the remaining cream, half of the graham crumbles, the marshmallows and chocolate chips and fold until all ingredients are fully combined.

To assemble, scatter half of the remaining graham crumbs in the bottom of the prepared loaf pan.  Pour the semifreddo mixture into the loaf pan.  Smooth out the top with an offset spatula and top with the remaining graham crumbs.  Freeze overnight.

When ready to serve, carefully pull the semifreddo from the loaf pan, using the excess aluminum foil.  Gently pull the foil away from the semifreddo.  Slice as you would a loaf cake.  Drizzle the top of the semifreddo with chocolate sauce.  Serve immediately.

 

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

 

 

Oven-Roasted Summer Vegetables by Anthony Michael Contrino

Many people don't like to turn their oven on during the summer.  I do.  It ensures that the air conditioning will kick on, and, while my kitchen may be slightly warm, I'll be able to see my breath in the living room.

Anyways, roasting vegetables intensifies their flavor and the light caramelization brings out their sweet side.  When in the height of their prime, these vegetables do not need much, just some good extra virgin olive oil and some herbs.  

You can eat this dish hot out of the oven, warm, at room temperature, or even refrigerated.  If you can't find the mini versions of these vegetables, you can use the larger, more common size.  Try to find the smallest vegetables possible, as they'll be less seedy and bitter.  Just cut the vegetables into large batons or sticks.  Finally, if you're feeling bougie, garnish with some zucchini flowers.

Oven-Roasted Summer Vegetables // Serves 4

8 ounces baby eggplant, tops removed and halved lengthwise 

8 ounces baby zucchini, tops removed and halved lengthwise 

8 ounces mini cherry tomatoes, on the vine

1/2 cup high-quality extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 large sprigs thyme

Salt and pepper

Parsley, for serving

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place the eggplant in a casserole dish.  Add 1/4 cup of the oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Roast for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil.  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Carefully coat the tomatoes with the remaining oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

When the eggplant has cooked for 15 minutes, add the zucchini and thyme and toss well.  Place the tomatoes on top and roast an additional 15 minutes.  

Before serving, sprinkle with some fresh black pepper and chopped parsley.

 

Watermelon & Burrata Salad by Anthony Michael Contrino

I am not the biggest fan of summer.   I'm not sure why people enjoy the extreme heat, humidity, bugs and allergies.  But, since I'm stuck having to deal with it, I might as well try to make the best of it.  Cue: watermelon.  It is one of my favorite fruits, and I could easily eat a half of one.  

This salad is as refreshing as it's going to get.  Sometimes I do crazy shit, like making a chevron pattern out of fruit.  You do not need to do this.  Using a melon baller to create spheres is cool.  Even easier, cut the melon into chunks and call it a day.

Watermelon & Burrata Salad // Serves 2

4 thick slices ripe watermelon (I used a combo of golden and red, but you do you.)

1 burrata (4- or 8-ounce will work great)

1/2 teaspoon flaked sea salt

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup arugula micro greens, for serving (Baby arugula works great, too!)

Balsamic Glaze, for serving

Cut the watermelon into slices and line on a platter or large plate.  Alternatively, cut the watermelon into 3/4" cubes and place in a serving bowl.  Top the watermelon with the burrata.  Break the salt with your fingers and sprinkle it over the entire salad.  Sprinkle the pine nuts and micro greens over the salad and drizzle with some balsamic glaze.

 

 

 

Sangria Shooters by Anthony Michael Contrino

Red, white and blue day is almost upon us.  (I have to stop watching Sausage Party...)  If you'd like to be the poolside hero this Fourth, this recipe is for you.  

Not only are these little guys cute and fun - they are tasty AF.  And, it literally takes 5 minutes to make them.  What better way to celebrate 'Merica?!

Sangria Shooters // Makes approximately 2 dozen

1 pound mixed berries (I used blueberries, blackberries and raspberries)

1 package cherry jello

1 cup sangria or red wine

Mint, for garnish

Divide the berries into shot glass-sized plastic cups.  

In a small saucepan, bring one cup of water to a boil.  Add the cherry jello powder and whisk to combine.  Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sangria; whisk to combine.

Pour the liquid over the fruit.  Refrigerate the shooters until set, at least two hours.  Serve with fresh mint.

 

Garden Mule by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

Summer is around the corner.  Have you even thought about this years go-to poolside drink?  No worries; here it is.  This bad boy is as delicious as it is refreshing - just try not to drink too many!

GARDEN MULE // Makes 1 cocktail

2 heaping tablespoons blueberries

Small bunch of basil leaves

Juice of 1 lime

1 shot vodka (1 ½ fluid ounces)

½ cup ginger beer, approximately

Lime, for garnish

Basil for garnish

Blueberries, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the blueberries, basil and lime juice. Add 1 heaping cup of ice and the vodka; shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Fill a Copper Mug with ice. Strain the vodka mixture into the Copper Mug. Top with the ginger beer.  Garnish with lime, basil and blueberries.

 Photo by Matt Wageman

Photo by Matt Wageman

Calamari by Anthony Michael Contrino

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

I'm pretty sure every single one of my family parties starts with a heaping plate of calamari - or as Sicilian-Americans call it, gah-la-mahd.  (C's are often pronounced as G's in Sicilian dialects.)  However, it is rare that we make them at home.  Aside from having to fry, they are quite possibly one of the easiest dishes to make.  Most supermarkets and seafood stores already take care of the cleaning, so all you have to do is some slicing and frying.

Fried Calamari // Serves 4 

1 pound squid with tentacles, cleaned, bodies cut into 1/2” rounds, patted dry

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Flakey sea salt, for serving

Lemons, for serving

Marinara sauce, for serving

Fresh parsley, for garnish

Canola oil, for frying

Fill a heavy bottomed stock pot with a few inches of the canola oil.  Bring the oil to 350 degrees.  (If you have a thermometer, now is the time to use it.)  

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the flour, salt and pepper; mix. Toss the squid in the flour mixture. Shake off any excess.  Fry the squid in small batches until light golden brown, about 2-4 minutes. Use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer the squid onto a plate lined with paper towels.  Season the calamari with sea salt.  Plate the calamari and serve with lemons and marinara sauce. Garnish with fresh parsley.

 Photo by Matt Wagemann

Photo by Matt Wagemann

Brunch: French Toast Sundae by Anthony Michael Contrino

French Toast is one of the things my mom would make for us growing up.  She had a heavy hand when adding the cinnamon to the custard base - and so do I.  I figured, why not kick it up a notch and transform this breakfast favorite into a sundae.  It's a perfect ending to any meal!

 Photo Courtesy of Matt Wagemann

Photo Courtesy of Matt Wagemann

French Toast Sundae // Serves 6

2 cups half and half
6 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon cinnamon
1 loaf challah bread, sliced into 1” pieces
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
Maple syrup, for serving
Chopped walnuts, for serving
Whipped cream, for serving

Preheat a griddle over medium heat.

In a large bowl, combine the half and half, eggs, vanilla, salt and cinnamon. Whisk to combine. Quickly dunk the challah slices into the egg mixture, being sure to fully submerge. Brush the griddle with some butter. Place the bread onto the griddle and cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side.


To serve, cut two pieces of french toast in half and line in a sundae boat or bowl. Top with vanilla ice cream and some chopped walnuts. Drizzle with maple syrup and garnish with whipped cream and more maple syrup. 

 Photo Courtesy of Matt Wagemann

Photo Courtesy of Matt Wagemann