Dawn's Amaretto Pear Sunset by Anthony Michael Contrino

My good friend, Dawn, has been on a cocktail kick lately. She came by to shoot some content, and came with all the goodies to whip up this bad boy. She makes her own grenadine, but (as Ina would say) store-bought is just fine. Be sure to use pear nectar from a box and not a can. Even lined cans give the nectar a metallic taste.

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Amaretto Pear Sunset // Makes 1 Cocktail

 

1 oz. Amaretto

2 oz. vodka

½ cup pear nectar

Squeeze 1 wedge lemon

½ tsp. Grenadine

Seckel pear, for garnish, optional

  1. Add the amaretto, vodka, pear nectar and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker.

  2. Fill with ice and shake vigorously.

  3. Pour the cocktail into an ice-filled highball glass.

  4. Slowly add the grenadine; it will naturally sink to the bottom.

  5. Garnish with pear, if desired.

Cinnamon Spiced Blueberry Maple Chia Pudding by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Since I spend a better part of the week writing demo steps (culinary scripts) for various projects, I’m always appreciative when a recipe has a short title. In fact, long recipe titles are a pet peeve, BUT sometimes I break my own rules.

Ever since I discovered Chia Pods years ago, I’ve been hooked. When I realized I could make my own for much cheaper, I started playing with different flavor combinations. This one is my favorite. It mixing winter flavors with summer fruit and I think it’s just delicious!

Cinnamon Spiced Blueberry Maple Chia Pudding

Makes 4 Servings

2 cups unsweetened almond milk

1/2 cup chia seeds

3 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup blueberries

Berries, for serving, optional

Mango, diced, for serving, optional

  1. In a bowl, combine almond milk, chia seeds, maple syrup, vanilla and salt. Stir to combine.

  2. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

  3. Stir the mixture after a couple of hours, then again a couple of hours later.

  4. Fold in the blueberries.

  5. Spoon the pudding into 4 glasses or mason jars, cover and refrigerate overnight.

  6. Top with berries and/or diced mango, for serving, of desired.

Dawn's Rum Balls // Makes Approximately 1 Dozen by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Dawn’s Rum Balls

4 ounces pecans (about 1 cup)

4 ounces Medjool dates, pitted (about 7 large)

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon rum

1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

  1. In a food processor, pulse the pecans until they are coarsely chopped.

  2. Add the dates and pulse until they are coarsely chopped.

  3. Add the salt and rum and pulse until the mixture comes together and forms a chunky paste.

  4. Shape the mixture into small balls.

  5. Roll the balls in coconut.

  6. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Serve at room temperature.

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Mom's French Toast with Butter Mash by Anthony Michael Contrino

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French toast is one of my favorite Sunday morning breakfasts. It’s one of the things my mom would make for us growing up, and this “lightened” version is reminiscent of the one she’d serve. She always used sliced white bread, which comes in handy when your trying to cut calories. Instead of the more traditional challah or brioche, I use 647 bread which has 6g net carbs, only 40 calories and is packed with 7g of fiber. I do splurge on the butter mash topping. As a kid, I thought it was gross when my mom used to put it on hers, but I’m not sure what that was about. You can skip the topping to save even more calories, but I think it’s worth it!

Mom’s French Toast with Butter Mash // Serves 4

6 large eggs

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons whole milk

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

8 slices 647 Italian bread

4 tablespoons salted butter, softened, plus more for greasing

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar

1 cup mixed berries

  1. In a shallow bowl, whisk the eggs vigorously.

  2. Add the syrup, milk, cinnamon, vanilla and salt and whisk well to combine.

  3. Meanwhile, warm a non-stick skillet or griddle over medium heat.

  4. Coat the skillet with butter, then use a paper towel to remove any excess, leaving just a thin coating.

  5. Dip the bread into the batter, as quickly as possible. Flip and repeat. You do not want to allow the bread to soak up the egg mixture or it will become mushy.

  6. Place the bread onto the pan and cook until light golden brown, about 3 minutes, flip and cook 2-3 minutes more.

  7. Repeat with the remaining bread. Whisk the egg mixture occasionally to keep the cinnamon from settling.

  8. Place 1/2 tablespoon of butter over each slice of cooked French toast and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over the butter.

  9. Use a fork to gently mash it into a slush and spread it over the bread.

  10. Serve warm with fresh mixed berries.


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Cranberry Rosemary Mule by Anthony Michael Contrino

Meet your new favorite holiday cocktail: The Cranberry Rosemary Mule. Now, i almost never drink, but sometimes I create a cocktail that is so effing good that I even drink it! I created this for a dinner party and I couldn’t make them fast enough. Typically you’d serve this in a copper mule cup, but I am ADDICTED to my Wintersmith Ice Making System and wanted to show off my crystal-clear collins cubes!

CRANBERRY ROSEMARY MULE / MAKES 1 COCKTAIL

3 ounces cranberry juice

1/2 ounce rosemary simple syrup, recipe follows

1 ounce vodka

6 ounces ginger beer

Rosemary sprig, for garnish

Cranberries, for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine the cranberry juice, rosemary simple syrup and vodka. Add ice and shake vigorously to chill. Pour into an ice-filled collins glass. Top with ginger beer, to taste. Garnish with rosemary and cranberries.

ROSEMARY SIMPLE SYRUP / MAKES APPROXIMATELY 1 CUP

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup sugar

2 sprigs rosemary

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. When the mixture barely comes to a simmer, add the rosemary and remove from the heat. Cool to room temperature. Remove the rosemary and refrigerate until ready to use, for up to 2 weeks.

Decadent Hot Chocolate by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I love me some hot chocolate, especially on a cold winter’s night, while lounging on the couch catching up on my shows. I used to be guilty of buying the packaged stuff, which honestly doesn’t even taste that good. I was just too damn lazy to make it from scratch, until I came up with a solution: Make a large batch of ganache, scoop it, freeze it and store it in ziptop baggies. Now when I want a cup of the good stuff, all I have to do is warm it in some milk (and cream!) If you really want to do it up, make it with half and half, but that’s probably not the healthiest thing to do often. When I’m feeling bougie, which is pretty much always, I like to jazz it up with fun toppings. My favorite version is a S’mores Hot Chocolate. I add a dollop of fluff, whipped cream and some toasted marshmallows - and, don’t forget the graham crackers, for dipping!

Happy Holidays!

Decadent Hot Chocolate

¾ cup whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

2 Chocolate Ganache Balls, recipe follows

Whipped Cream

Toppings, optional

In a small saucepan, combine the milk and cream. Warm over a medium flame until it begins to steam. Add the Chocolate Ganache Balls and stir to melt. Continue to heat until desired temperature. Pour into your favorite mug and top with whipped cream and your favorite toppings.

Chocolate Ganache Balls

10 ounces 66%-72% chocolate, chopped

1 ⅔ cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Place the chocolate in a medium-sized, heat-resistant bowl.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, cocoa powder and salt; whisk well. Warm over medium heat. Allow the cream to come to a gentle simmer, then pour it over the chocolate. Shake the bowl so that all the chocolate is submerged, then let it sit for 2 minutes before whisking until a homogeneous, silky ganache forms.

Leave the ganache to set at room temperature. Use a medium-sized cookie scoop, about 1 ¼" diameter, to create mounds. Place the scooped mounds onto a plastic lined baking sheet and freeze until solid. Place the frozen mounds into a zip-top bag and store in the freezer until ready to use for up to 3 months.

My Favorite Things: 2018 Edition by Anthony Michael Contrino

Need a gift for the “foodie” in your life? I’m here to help with my favorite things of 2018

FOR THE BAKER: Dutch Whisk

I discovered this utensil by accident and I am ADDICTED. This whisk is designed to mix heavy batters and doughs, and it does a marvelous job.

Amazon.com $10.99

FOR THE EVERYDAY COOK: Kunz Spoon

I’ve had a Kunz spoon for a while, but really began to appreciate how useful it really is. It is used by many chefs and considered to be the perfect saucing and plating spoon. I use it almost every time I am plating, and often when food styling. If you really like the person you’re giving this to, JB Prince usually offers a Special or Limited Edition.

JBPrince.com Regular $11.90 // Special Edition $34.90

FOR THE WANNABE PROFESSIONAL: Anova Sous Vide

Sous vide machines have been gaining popularity over the past couple of years - and for good reason: they cook meat (and a lot of other things, too) to perfection. Use it to cook steaks to a perfect medium rare or the juiciest turkey breast you’ve ever had.

Target.com $89.99

FOR THE MIXOLOGIST: Winter Smith’s Phantom Ice Maker

Do you know someone who enjoys crafting the perfect cocktails? If yes, they will drool over this ice making system. The design creates crystal clear ice cubes free of any impurities. Molds to choose from include: spheres, large squares, and my favorite, collins cubes. While it may come with a hefty price tag, and take up some real estate in the freezer, it’s completely worth it!


Wintersmiths.com Statting at $119.00

FOR THE INQUISITIVE COOK: Salt, Fat Acid Heat Cookbook

From the host of the Netflix series with the same name, comes this wonderfully written cookbook. Samin Nosrat is being hailed as the next Julia Child and is both charming and inspiring. This book is really for anyone who loves food, cooks food and eats food.

Amazon.com $14.99

Caponata by Anthony Michael Contrino

In anticipating the need to defend myself, I'm going to start off by addressing the absurd amount of oil in this recipe.  Eggplant is one of those ingredients that acts like a sponge - you need to add enough so that it sautés properly.  When you drain the eggplant, you'll be surprised as to how much of the oil get sopped up by the paper towels.  To ensure optimal drainage, place the eggplant, in a single layer, on a plate lined with 3 layers of paper towel. 

Anyways, caponata is a Sicilian dish usually served as an appetizer or as a component of an antipasto platter.  Caponata recipes vary greatly based region and family preferences.  Some are simple, with just eggplant and celery cooked in stewed tomatoes, while others may have potatoes, octopus or even lobster in them.  This is a tweaked version of my grandma's family recipe which hails from Gratteri, a mountain town 35 miles southeast of Palermo.  It relies on the addition of capers and Sicilian olives to season the sauce.  If you like things on the salty side, you may want to add a pinch of salt.

Caponata// Makes approximately 1 quart

  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
  • 2 pounds eggplant, peeled, cut into 1” cubes (about 1 ½ pounds yield)
  • ¾ cup red onions, rough chopped, about ½ medium red onion
  • ½ cup celery, chopped, about 2 large stalks
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ cups crushed tomatoes
  • ½ cup cracked Sicilian olives, pitted, rough chopped
  • 1 tbsp. capers in brine, drained, rough chopped
  • 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  1. Heat ½ cup of the oil in a large stainless steel skillet, over medium high heat.
  2. Add half of the eggplant and cook, flipping often, until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. If the eggplant absorbs all the oil, add a generous drizzle more.
  3. Transfer the eggplant to a paper towel lined plate; drain well.
  4. Add another ½ cup of oil and repeat with the remaining eggplant.  
  5. When you remove the second batch of eggplant, if there is not residual oil, add a couple more tablespoons to the skillet.
  6. Add the onion and celery and sauté until they begin to caramelize, about 4 minutes.
  7. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.
  8. Add the tomatoes, reduce the flame to low, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often.
  9. Add the olives, capers and ½ cup water.
  10. Simmer an additional 15 minutes, stirring often.
  11. Add the eggplant and 1 cup of water.
  12. Simmer 15 minutes more, stirring often.
  13. Add the red wine vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes.
  14. Remove the caponata from the heat and cool for 30 minutes before transferring to a storage container.
  15. Refrigerate overnight; serve cold or at room temperature.

Crumb Cake by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I'm probably the only person who goes on a getaway and decides to recipe test and do a photo shoot.  In my defense, my cousins just moved into a brand new house with a gorgeous gourmet kitchen and I couldn't resist.  They've been living in Georgia for a while now, so I wanted to bake something that would remind them of New York/New Jersey.  A classic crumb cake was the obvious choice.

This crumb cake is ridiculously buttery and moist and a bit less dense than you may be accustomed to.  The crumb, in contrast, is crunchy and sweet.  This recipe comes together pretty quickly and can feed a crowd.  

Special thanks to my cousin, Joey for making me this reclaimed wood board.  You can't enjoy it too much in this picture, but I'll be sure to feature it soon!

 

FOR THE CRUMB TOPPING:

1-1/3 cup dark brown sugar

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces European or European-style butter, melted 

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

FOR THE CAKE:

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. unsalted European or European-style butter, softened, 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 

Confectioner's sugar, for serving

  1. Make the topping.  Combine the sugars and cinnamon in a large bowl.  
  2. Add the melted butter and pour into the sugar mixture; stir to combine.
  3. Add the flour and stir, until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture begins to clump; set aside.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  
  5. Grease a 9x13 cake pan or casserole dish with the extra butter and flour.
  6. In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; whisk to combine.
  7. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  8. 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.  
  9. Combine the milk and buttermilk.
  10. 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.  
  11. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix on low until all ingredients come together.  
  12. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan.  Smooth the top with a small spatula and bang on the counter to remove air bubbles.
  13. Spread the crumb topping evenly over the top of the cake batter.  
  14. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.
  15. Cool before serving.
  16. Serve with a generous sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

TIP: To get a mixture of larger and smaller crumbs, squeeze a handful of the topping and then break it up over the batter.

Master A Classic: The Old Fashioned by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Everyone loves a well-crafted cocktail, but sometimes when it comes to mixing a classic (think martini, Manhattan, or, in this case, an Old Fashioned, you may not always get what you're accustomed to.  Bartenders do their best to craft a drink that is traditional, but (as with everything in the culinary world) it's not so black and white. There are choices to be made.  Sometimes it's the spirit (for an Old Fashioned: bourbon or rye whiskey), sometimes the technique (shaken or stirred).  Even the choice of serving vessel can be debated (rocks or coupe?)!  Trying to figure out the most authentic recipe can be daunting.  To add another layer of stress, it's often the simple drinks (and foods) that are the hardest to execute as the ingredients need to be combined perfectly.  

When it comes to an Old Fashioned, it's all about the balance of the sugar, bitters and spirit.  In my opinion, in order to achieve the perfect balance you have to break a rule right off the bat.  I'm ditching the sugar cube.  First of all, who has them lying around?  (Full disclosure...  I do, but because they're nice to have for food styling, but normal people?  Probably not.)  Secondly, and more importantly, it's difficult to dissolve in this cocktail.  The solution is a potent simple syrup.  

So, bourbon or rye whiskey.  Choose what you like.  Most traditionalists would use rye whiskey, which has spicy tones, to add to the balancing act of the cocktail.   Of course I have to go against the grain and prefer to use bourbon since I always have it on hand for cooking and baking. 

Lastly, when you use so few ingredients, quality matters.  Use the best bitters and bourbon (or rye whiskey) you can get your hands on.  

Old Fashioned // Makes 1 Cocktail

2 teaspoons potent simple syrup, recipe below

2 dashes bitters

2 ounces bourbon 

1 orange, for serving

  1. In rocks glass, combine the simple syrup, bitters and bourbon.  
  2. While holding the orange above the cocktail, use a vegetable peeler to remove a 2 inch length of the peel, aiming so that the oils are sprayed into the glass.
  3. Add a few large cubes of ice and stir vigorously to chill; serve immediately.

Potent Simple Syrup  // Makes about 1 3/4 cups

1/2 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.

NOTES:  If you'd like to kick things up a notch, make the simple syrup with organic cane sugar to create a syrup with a more complex flavor profile.  Also, switch out the orange peel with blood orange peel.

Traditional Italian: Bolognese by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Nothing screams Sunday more than macaroni and gravy.  Yes, we say gravy in my family, not sauce - well, usually, but I don't need to get into that.  Anyway, while there's nothing wrong with a classic, simple gravy loaded with meatballs, sausage and braciola, I'll take a slamming bolognese over that any day.

In my opinion, making a bolognese is so much easier than making gravy and meatballs.  Aside from boiling the water for the pasta, everything is done in the same pot.  There's no need for mixing bowls and frying pans.  The only time consuming part is chopping the vegetables for the soffritto (an Italian version of mirepoix.)  If chopping vegetables isn't your thing, most supermarkets carry them already diced, but you'll pay up to four times more for the convenience.  

Some notes about the recipe:

  • I like a very hearty bolognese, so this version is loaded with the soffritto.  
  • Serve this sauce with a wide noodle such as tagliatelle or pappardelle.  
  • You shouldn't have any issues finding pancetta these days.  Freezing the pancetta will make it much easier to dice.  If you want a shortcut, Citterio sells a 4-ounce package that is already diced.
  • I like to use Cento brand tomatoes.  I like the way the flavor develops as it cooks, and I swear it needs less seasoning than other brands.

Bolognese // Serves 8 - 10

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, finely diced 

6 ounces celery, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

6 ounces carrots, peeled, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

6 ounces red onion, peeled, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)

4 very large cloves garlic, sliced (or 6 medium-large cloves)

2 pounds of meatloaf mix (1 pound ground beef, 1/2 pound ground veal, 1/2 pound ground pork)

2/3 cup dry red wine

2 28-ounce cans certified whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed with juice

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 sprig fresh oregano

1 fresh bay leaf

2/3 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the pancetta and cook until crispy.
  3. Add the celery, carrots and red onion (soffritto) and cook, stirring often until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes.
  5. Add the meatloaf mix.  Use the back of a wooden spoon to break up the meat and cook, stirring often, until all meat is browned, about 6-8 minutes.
  6. Add the red wine and cook until it reduces by half, a few minutes.
  7. Add the pureed tomatoes; bring to a gentle simmer.
  8. Add the herbs and simmer, stirring every 15 minutes or so, for 2 hours.
  9. Fish out the herbs, as best as you can, and add the milk and nutmeg.
  10. Return to a simmer and cook an additional 30 minutes, stirring often.  
  11. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

 

 

Small Batch: Half Sour Pickles by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Living in NYC has it's pros and cons.  One of the biggest advantages to living here is the New York deli.  Until you go to a "delicatessen" outside of the city, you really can't appreciate just how amazing a pastrami sandwich really is.  One of my favorite places to hit up is actually in New Jersey.  Harold's Deli does everything over the top and larger than life.  Sandwiches and cake slices tower over the table.  The matzo balls are softball-sized and protrude from the broth.  The turkey platter can make your Thanksgiving offering look weak.  You get the picture.  

But, my favorite part is the self-serve pickle bar.  It's straightforward and nothing fancy.  Just some bread (so you can make normal-sized sandwiches from the mountain of meat being served) and some pickled things for topping.  My go-to is the half sour pickle.  Their vibrant green color makes them stand out from the rest of the spread.  Plus, you know, they're tasty AF.

If you're not familiar with this variation, it's because you won't find them in the pickle aisle at the supermarket, but rather the refrigerated section, probably near the cole slaw.  Because they are in a salt brine and not fully "soured" with vinegar, the shelf life is shorter, but they'll last a good couple of weeks in the fridge.  Sometimes I add the slightest bit of sugar for a hint of sweetness, but if you're looking to avoid excess sugar, omit it.

Half Sour Pickles //  Makes 1 Quart Jar

2 cups distilled water, divided, cold

2 tbsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. sugar, optional

4 cloves garlic, with peel, smashed

2 large sprigs fresh dill

3 allspice pods

1/2 tsp. coriander seed

1/4 tsp. black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1 fresh bay leaf

4 thick kirby cucumbers, tips removed, cut into quarters to make spears

  1. Place 1/2 cup of the water in a small saucepan with the salt, and sugar, if using.
  2. Cook over medium heat until the salt and sugar are fully dissolved.
  3. Pour the warm salt water into a pitcher and add the remaining cold water.
  4. Place the garlic, dill, spices and bay leaf in a sanitized quart-sized mason jar.
  5. Add the cucumber spears.
  6. Pour the brine into the mason jar, filling almost to the top, being sure to cover the cucumber completely.  There may be some leftover brine.
  7. Secure the lid onto the mason jar and refrigerate.
  8. The pickles will be ready to eat in as soon as 5 days.   They should be consumed within 2 weeks afterwards.  (The longer they stay in the brine, the more their flavor will intensify.)

 

My Secret Pesto Sauce by Anthony Michael Contrino

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Years ago when I was interning in Southern France, I was lucky enough to have a few days off.  I decided to trek to Italy.  While I could have flown there, I would have lost a whole day traveling just to get there, so I opted to take the train.  The rail system in Europe is pretty extensive and it's easy to get around, even from smaller cities.  I decided to visit the city of San Remo, which is right over the border, on the Italian Riviera.  

The train ride to San Remo was bearable, thanks to an overnight stay in Nice and a quick layover in Monte Carlo.  Upon arrival to San Remo, I dropped off my bags and headed straight to the market.  I was greeted by the most flavorful sun-dried tomatoes, fragrant olive oils and life-changing focaccia.  I sat in my room, looking out my window over-looking the Mediterranean Sea, and ate as much as I could without getting sick.

The next day I explored the city by foot, venturing into any butcher shop, gelateria, bakery or cheese shop that caught my eye.  I checked the menu of every restaurant that I passed, looking for the perfect dinner spot.  Nothing was catching my eye.  I'm not sure what sort of epiphany I was expecting, but it sure wasn't happening.  

I was about to give up and just grab some cheese and mortadella to bring back to my room when I spotted groups of people appearing from behind a bunch of trees.  I walked over and discovered a hidden stone entrance which lead to a small piazza.  There were a handful of restaurants, and nothing else.  I walked over to one and I felt drawn to eat there. 

I ordered a quattro stagioni pizza, a bowl of pasta with pesto and, for dessert, tiramisù.  The pizza was really good, but not much better than anything in NYC.  I was mildly disappointed.  Once again, I'm such a snob that my expectations can easily ruin a good thing.  

After a few minutes, the waiter returned and placed the plate of pasta in front of me.  It was the most vibrant, creamy pesto I'd ever seen.  I'm used to pesto looking more rustic - often oily with big flecks of basil.  

It was so good.  I went into an eating trance.  All I remember is running my finger around the bowl, grabbing any remaining remnants of sauce and licking my finger clean.  It was by far the best pesto I'd ever had.  But I couldn't figure out how they achieved that texture.  I asked the waiter, but he was no help.  There was definitely no cream or creamy cheese whipped in - the color was too green and the sauce was so fresh and light.

As I ate my tiramisù (which was also delicious) I vowed to recreate the sauce when I returned home.  It took a few tries and some crazy experimentation, but I was able to recreate it.  I'm not sure if I figured out their trick or if I was lucky enough to replicate the sauce with my own variation.

That being said, after years of making my secret pesto sauce, I've decided to share the recipe.  In no way is this recipe traditional, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.  

So what is this secret ingredient?  Artichoke hearts.  Nothing fancy, just the canned version in water.  I use this to create a creamy paste, which is the base for the sauce.  Also, I do not believe pine nuts belong in a pesto.  They are far too expensive to be pulverized, and, in my opinion, not flavorful enough to add any excitement to the sauce.  I prefer to toast some up and sprinkle them over the sauced pasta.  Finally, I use pecorino instead of parmesan.  I like how the flavor of the salty pecorino melds with the garlic and basil.  It also seasons the sauce enough that additional salt is not necessary.

My Secret Pesto Sauce // Makes approximately 1 cup

3 artichoke hearts, canned, in water, see note 

2 medium cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup, plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon grated pecorino cheese

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces fresh basil leaves, cleaned and allowed to dry completely, about 2 cups, packed

  1. Place the artichoke hearts, garlic, 1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, cheese and pepper into the work bowl of a mini food processor.  
  2. Purée until all ingredients are smooth.  Use a small rubber spatula to scrape down the sides, as necessary.
  3. Add the basil, pressing it into the paste and purée, scraping down the sides, until creamy.  There should be mostly small specks of basil remaining.  The sauce will be creamy and vibrant.
  4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and pulse to incorporate.
  5. Transfer the sauce to a container and place a sheet of plastic wrap onto the top of the pesto sauce.
  6. Cover with a lid and refrigerate until ready to use.

NOTES:  Remove any small leaves that are left on the artichokes.  They should peel off easily, leaving the heart intact.  Use them in a salad, or discard.  

The sauce will hold for 2 days in the refrigerator.  The sauce can be frozen for 3 months.  Defrost in the refrigerator a day before using.

 

 

 

Madeleines by Anthony Michael Contrino

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I recently posted a poll on social media asking for recipe suggestions and I received a couple of requests for Madeleines.  It's been a while since I've made them, so I had to spend some time working out this recipe - like two months.  But, I am finally happy with the end result.  

Batch after batch, there was always something wrong with the finished product.  My focus was always achieving the signature hump.  In the pastry world, the bigger the hump, the better the pastry chef.  Traditionally, the cookie should be served decorative-side down, allowing the hump to shine.  So, in true Anthony fashion, I was starting to drive myself crazy, worrying more about the hump than I was the flavor and texture.  

When I first made this version of the recipe, I was going to toss them before even tasting them because the (lack of a) hump was depressing.  But, they baked perfectly - an even golden rim on the border of the cookies.  When I went to un-mold them they were almost weightless, the perfect sponge.  At this point I knew I should at least taste them.  They were DELICIOUS.  Now the dilemma - do I keep tweaking to achieve a hump when everything else is perfect or call it a day?   Eff the hump.  

Some ingredient notes:  I've added vanilla bean in this recipe, which I think pairs nicely with the citrus.  I used a tangelo (a cross between a tangerine and grapefruit,) but a plain old naval orange will work, too.  The golden syrup adds to the necessary sweetness and offers a hint of earthiness which highlights the vanilla, but if you can't find it, honey will work.  

Vanilla Citrus Madeleines // Makes approximately 2 dozen

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. aluminum-free baking powder

1/4 tsp. Kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

Zest 1/2 tangelo (about 1/2 tsp.)

Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean 

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 tbsp. golden syrup

4 ounces European butter, melted

Confectioners sugar, for serving

  1. In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt; whisk well.
  2. In another bowl, combine the sugar, zest and vanilla.  Massage the sugar with your hands to release the oils of the tangelo.
  3. Place the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer and, with the whisk attachment, scramble.
  4. Add the sugar mixture and golden syrup and whisk, on high, until the eggs thicken and lighten in color, about 3 minutes.
  5. Gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture.
  6. Add the melted butter and whisk, just to combine.
  7. Transfer the batter to a piping bag, seal and refrigerate at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
  8. When ready to bake the Madeleines, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  9. Generously spray a Madeleine mold with non-stick cooking spray.  Place the mold in the freezer for 10 minutes, or until the spray is frozen.
  10. Pipe the batter into the cavities, filling each no more than 3/4 of the way full, about a heaping tablespoon.
  11. Bake for 8 until the tops are set, and the edges of the cookie are golden.
  12. Cool for a few minutes before using an offset to carefully remove the madeleines from the molds.
  13. Serve warm or room temperature with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

NOTES:  Madeleines taste best the day that they're made.  Finally, you're better off under-filling the molds; a little batter goes a long way.

 

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 of 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, mozzarella, basil 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 cups 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 ounces 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 the refrigerator 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.