Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Give Your Kids Vodka... Sauce. A quick and easy Italian recipe that will make everyone happy, especially the kids!


     So, my eleven-year-old daughter is becoming quite the mini-foodie. She expects a good, fresh mozzarella for the Margarita pizza she makes from scratch. She’s choosy about her prosciutto and prefers imported Parma, of course. And, when we are at a restaurant, she often asks the waitress if the chef can make Vodka sauce, even if it’s not on the menu. When she does get to order it, her reaction is often– “it’s amahhhhzing,” spoken with the dramatic flair of a tween. Other times, she scrunches up her nose and says, “not as good as yours, Mom.”

     My kids have been eating Vodka sauce since they were babies, because I cooked so much of it when I ran my catering business. Those days, we ate whatever I sold on any given day, and I sold a ton of Vodka sauce. It’s probably their favorite, and although I don’t make it as much these days, it’s always a treat when the creamy, pink pasta makes its way to the table.  The kids cheer, as they wait expectantly at the table. Come to think of it, when I make Vodka pasta, their bums actually stay on their chairs throughout the entire dinner. Miraculous, I know.

    One night last summer, the two older ones questioned me about the vodka in the sauce.

     “Can we get drunk on that pasta?”

     I explained to them that the alcohol cooks out of the sauce but leaves the flavor. I assured them it was totally okay and that they wouldn’t get drunk from eating the pasta. Then, as we were sitting out on the deck that evening, chowing down on pappardelle, my taste buds detected a little too much vodka in this particular batch. I thought to myself – Crap. Maybe I didn’t cook it quite long enough
     Of course, super taster eleven-year-old also picked up on the subtle difference in flavor and began to fret over it. Family conversation ensued, as the five year old drank the extra sauce from her plate and licked her fingers clean without a care in the world.

     In the end, nobody got drunk off of the pasta. At least, I don’t think so. We were all tremendously happy and full, and there was no pappardelle left in the bowl.

     Moral of the story – give your kids vodka. They’ll sit through dinner.

     Now for today’s recipes

     Pasta with vodka sauce - with grilled chicken if you’d like to add a protein


     Balsamic Roasted asparagus    

Vodka Pasta      
3T olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic
Handful fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz can tomato sauce
1 C vodka
1 pint heavy cream

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or sauce pot. Add onions, garlic, salt, pepper and basil, and saute on low heat for a few minutes, until onions are translucent. Don’t let the garlic burn. Add sauce and tomatoes and let cook for about 15 minutes so that the flavors meld. At this point, you have a nice marinara sauce. Next, add the vodka, and let it cook for 30 minutes, so that the alcohol burns off and your kids don’t end up drunk. Last, add the cream and stir just until it’s incorporated. The sauce will have a pinky orange color – kind of like a sunrise J

Serve over your favorite pasta with some good Parmesan cheese on top.

You can also add protein to this. Grilled chicken or shrimp – either are a great addition. My trick to grilled chicken is marinating. I use Ken’s Steakhouse Caesar dressing to marinate my chicken. Toss the meat in a plastic baggie or bowl filled with the dressing before you leave for work in the morning or for a few hours before you grill it, and I promise you, it will be the moistest, tastiest chicken you’ve ever had. I don’t know what it is about this dressing, but it’s like magic.

A nice vegetable to pair with this meal is roasted asparagus. FYI - in summer, I do the exact same thing with the asparagus, but grill them instead of roasting them. Either way it's easy, quick, and super yummy!

Balsamic Roasted Asparagus
1 bunch asparagus
¾ tsp salt
¾ tsp pepper
¾ tsp garlic powder
3T olive oil
3T balsamic vinegar
Slice the ends off of a bunch of asparagus and lay them out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them with seasonings and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until the ends of the asparagus are brown and crispy.

Serve this meal with crusty bread and tossed salad, and it is the perfect family meal.

Hope your family enjoys it!


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening on Broadway. Touches the senses. Just. Like.That.

     Musicals move me. Once in a while, a special show can pluck at my heartstrings and even bring tears to my eyes. Last weekend, I saw Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening on Broadway – a completely unique performance where some actors are singing and speaking and others are signing, and it all comes together in a beautiful, soul-tapping masterpiece of sight and sound.

     Standing in line with my tickets at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, I sort of knew what I was in for. I’d seen the tour of Spring Awakening when it came to Pittsburgh a few years ago. I knew that the music, written by Duncan Sheik, was going to be melancholy and perfectly dissonant. I knew the story boasted a heavy message, and that it would be sad and, at times, offensive to some (not me.) I wasn’t prepared, however, for how deeply the addition of American Sign Language would impact the emotional punch of the show.

     As the first act opens, Katie Boeck and Sandra Mae Frank break into the song, “Mama Who Bore Me,” originally sung by Glee’s Lea Michele. Katie is playing guitar and singing, and Sandra Mae is signing in the role of the naïve Wendla, who doesn’t yet understand the changes her adolescent body is experiencing.  The music is haunting. The movement and facial expression that Sandra Mae brings to the stage are equally stunning. The use of American Sign Language enhances the scene and brings something that was already perfect to a whole new level of exquisiteness. In fact, every scene is made more powerful by the sign in the choreography. Spring Awakening’s deeply sensual theme is so appropriately conveyed through movement, it seems to have been destined that Deaf West would perform this show.

     Having worked as a teacher and interpreter with Deaf students for several years, seeing this show meant something more to me than it maybe would have to someone who has no links to the Deaf community.

     Deaf actors on Broadway.
     In a Tony-winning musical.
     It totally blew my mind.

     Deaf actors, starring in a musical.
     Something totally unexpected.
     Something that, to the doubter, seems like it may not work at all...
     Is actually a phenomenon that’s far too beautiful to imagine without seeing it with your own eyes.
     What a testament to the fact that talent and drive and open-mindedness can really overcome just about anything.

     Run to see it. Don’t walk. Spring Awakening is on Broadway for a limited engagement. And, you don’t want to miss it.

    And, pssst – my fellow Pittsburghers, there’s a hometown boy in the show. Andy Mientus, who also starred as Marius in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables and Kyle in NBC’s hit show, Smash, plays Hanschen in the show. He’s incredibly talented, and, let’s face it, we Yinzers love to cheer for a hometown hero.

     Bravo to the cast of Spring Awakening 2015! I hope I am lucky enough to be able to see more of Deaf West productions in the future!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Food Giggle… It’s a Thing. A few quick, easy, and stealthily healthy recipes in honor of a great Mexican restaurant and an even greater Mexican sister-in-law. PLUS – a bonus restaurant review!

Dos Caminos, Times Square, NYC
5/5 STARS!

   “I just want to sit here and play in the salsa.”
     My sister-in-law, Felicia, dreamily uttered these words on Sunday afternoon, as we sat, marveling over a couple of crazy fresh margaritas in a brand new Mexican eatery in Times Square.  We’d been on our way to The Blue Fin to grab some quick pre-show sushi, when we just happened to stumble upon Dos Caminos. The manager informed us that it was only their 4th day of being open before warmly welcoming us with a round of free drinks. At the first sip, a big, bright grapefruit flavor flirted with sea salt and tequila on my tongue.
     “Yum,” I said and smacked my lips together, as Felicia took a sip of her mango-cucumber margarita.
      She raised her eyebrows and nodded with unabashed gratitude at her drink.
     This place was good.
     In my experience, so many restaurants take a week or two to get it right. Not Dos Caminos. This underground cantina, with its melted candle sculptures and funky décor, was on the right track to score a five star review from me and my palate. And, that was before I even tried the food.
     Our server was lovely. She engaged in just enough conversation and made sure that we had ample time to make it to our show, since we were on a bit of a tight schedule. We let her know we had a matinee to get to, and she made it happen for us. Also, she was an aspiring Broadway actress. She told us all about how she played Ursula in The Little Mermaid and how she adores character roles. I love theater people. They fit right into my tribe.
     The manager noticed us, complimented us, and even showed us the incredibly swanky private VIP room where he’d hosted a few fashion week parties a day or so before.  He answered our questions and seemed genuinely apologetic that they were out of one of their signature dishes.
     The grasshopper guacamole.
     Yeah – it’s made with actual grasshoppers.

     Listen - we would have stepped up to the plate had the challenge presented itself, but I can’t say we were too heartbroken over missing out on the grasshopper guac. Especially after our waitress told us that it was chunky. I was totally golden with plain old avocado.
     So, the food.
     Dear God in heaven, THE FOOD.
     We decided to go for small plates, since we had limited time and a post-theatre dinner reservation at an Italian restaurant. We wanted to have room for pasta later on. So, we ordered:
     -Traditional guac and chips.
     -Grilled shrimp salad with cotija cheese, cilantro, and crispy fava beans.
     -An app trio of plaintain empanadas, pulled chicken taquitos, and lobster tacos.
     The trio was served with three varieties of salsas – tomatillo, traditional, and habanero,
     In the end it was the habanero salsa that did it.

     The first airy giggle escaped Felicia’s lips while she was savoring a sweet plantain empanada slathered with salsa. I thought I must have missed the joke and went on noshing, joyfully. When the second burst of ethereal laughter chimed out, I gave her a funny look.
     “What are you laughing at?” I asked, only to be answered with another round of giddy twittering.
     “I just really like this food,” she said, simply, nearly out of breath from the foodgasm that had apparently rocked her world pretty hard and sent her into a fit of the giggles.
     The food giggles.
     We had a good laugh at this newly discovered phenomenon before finishing every last bite of yum in front of us.
     When it was time to skedaddle out of Dos Caminos so we could make it to our matinee, Felicia expressed her desire to stay and play in the habanero salsa. She was drunk on deliciousness and the memories that our meal had evoked.
     Spices just like Uncle Benny and Aunt Esther used to cook with.
     Flavors that took her back to her late grandmother’s table, where she used to eat enchiladas and tamales with her Dad’s Mexican family.
     This is what good food does. It stirs your soul.
     I was drunk on the joy of having shared the best Mexican food I’d ever eaten and a trip I would never forget with my sister-in-law, Felicia, who also happens to be my best friend.
     Moral of the story~ Next time you’re in Times Square, eat at Dos Caminos.

     It’s food-giggle worthy.
     Even though I don’t cook a ton of Hispanic food, this week my recipes will have a Southwestern flair.  In honor of my sister-in law who came all the way to New York City to celebrate my birthday with me and also in honor of the brand new restaurant in Times Square- Dos Caminos, I give you this, my go-to meal on a day when I have no time to fuss.

Sneaky Chili and Quesadillas with Salsa Frrrrresh.

S   Sneaky Chili – So named, because when you sneak veggies like zucchini and spinach into chili, your kids don’t notice. To them, it's all just more yummy, chili-flavored chunkiness.  Also, I use ground turkey, just like my mom always did. It gives the chili a mild, sweet flavor that kids love, and it’s healthier than the fattier ground beef. My children love this, and the neighbor kids often show up at my door on chili night! I always have enough to share.

2T olive oil
2 lbs ground turkey
1 bag frozen onions or 1 large chopped white onion
1C zucchini – diced (optional)
1C fresh spinach – leaves chopped into small pieces (optional)
2t chili powder
1t salt
1 can chili beans in sauce
2 cans tomato sauce

How to– Brown the ground turkey and onions in olive oil with salt and chili powder.  Add the veggies here if you’re going to sneak them in. Once the meat is cooked, add the can of beans without draining it and the tomato sauce. This can simmer for 15 minutes and be ready to eat.

Serve with tortilla chips and sour cream, and your kids will love you!

1.       Quesadillas with Salsa Frrrrresh – my brother, Tony,  named this salsa, bc it bursts with fresh flavor. It’s a great time to harvest those garden goodies and use them in this salsa!

Flour tortillas
Shredded Mexican cheese
Shredded rotisserie chicken
¼ C cream cheese
1 tsp Chili powder
Pam cooking spray

Salsa Fresh
3-4 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 can of corn or fresh corn if you have the cobs
1 can of black olives, sliced
½ C chopped cilantro
Pinch of salt
Splash of red wine vinegar

How to – Mix softened cream cheese, Mexican cheese, shredded chicken and chili powder in a bowl. Spray a large frying pan with Pam and heat on low. Lay one flour tortilla in the sprayed Pam and place cheese and shredded chicken mixture on top. Top with 2nd flour tortilla and let cook until cheese is melted. Flip and cook for about a minute on the other side or until the tortilla takes on a golden glow.
Repeat this to make as many quesadillas as you like.
Mix all salsa ingredients in a bowl. Top quesadillas with this.
This salsa can be made ahead and can be even better when the flavors have had some time to meld together.  Also, this can be transformed into an Atkins-friendly meal by nixing the quesadillas and making it into a salad instead.  Top some crunchy romaine with the shredded chicken, Mexican cheese and Salsa Fresh, and you have a fantastic salad. You can add some black beans as well if you dig the all natural carbs.

Try this meal on your busiest night - when you have to do a gazillion pages of fourth-grade math and then drive one kid to dance class and the other to softball. Truly, this chili is so fast, and it will get your kids to eat vegetables without even realizing it. BONUS! Salsa fresh is also great for parties. People inhale it!

Please post a comment if you've tried any of my other recipes!

And Cheers til next time!

Have a yummy week!


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Food Glorious Food! 3 easy recipes that will get your family to the table without a fight.

     I love food.
     Who doesn’t, right?
      For me, though, food is about more than three square meals. Dinner time means family. There’s an unspoken open-door policy at our table. Welcome friends. Welcome hungry stragglers. Welcome neighbor kid who smells garlic and wants a meatball or two.  Eating together means opening up a bottle of vino, and taking a moment out of the craziness of our lives to be grateful.
     Growing up, my mother made dinner time a priority. She planned meals around everyone’s schedules, making sure that we broke bread together. There were baseball games and high school musical practices to compete with, but family meals came first. My mother always made the table an attractive place to be too, with homemade food that suited the seasons and quenched our cravings. Chili and soups in the fall. Roasts in the winter. Pasta on Sundays, no matter what time of year it was. And always a salad – with the absolute best homemade dressing. My friends used to pop in at dinner just for my mom’s salad. Weird, but true.
     My grandparents lived with us, so oftentimes, Nana cooked with Mom. Some of our favorite days were the ones when Nana broke into the mood to make homemade gnocchi or even just sauce. My brother and I would come through the front door from school, begging for a piece of sauce bread before we even said hello. And Nana never disappointed. She’d remove the lid from her signature silver sauce-pot and ladle warm, thick goodness over a slice of soft bread.
     Best. After school snack. Ever.   
     I’ll admit it, cooking comes easy to me now. Growing up as a first-generation Italian probably has something to do with that. For Italians, food is life, and I’m no exception to that rule. For four years, I ran a successful in-home catering business.  I cooked for big wedding celebrations as well as small get-togethers, like neighborhood jewelry parties.  I made simple and delicious food for people who just didn’t have the time, and they were so thankful. For me, planning meals is fun. I have to admit – I don’t always enjoy preparing them at my kitchen island, amidst a crew of whiners who don’t want to do their math homework, but that’s part of my job description. So, I deal. We all do.
     When my husband complains about the menu or his daily dish-duty, I threaten to stop cooking. He always laughs and calls my bluff. He knows that, for me, cooking for my family and even for myself is an outlet, something that inspires me. Even in this fast-paced society, where a protein shake and a half-caff soy latte can suffice for lunch for most of my friends, you’ll find me in my kitchen around noon, tossing a salad with crunchy romaine, chick peas, tomatoes, onions and some chicken from last night’s dinner. I dress it with my mom’s oil and vinegar magic, and I have a healthy lunch to enjoy while I answer e-mails or brainstorm the next chapter of whatever I’m working on.  
     Maybe it’s just that I’m the mom now, but these days it seems more and more difficult to keep families together at the dinner table. Activities seem more demanding. Homework seems endless. Kids are distracted by technology, their heads buried in Instagram and Twitter accounts, their communication more active in their Minecraft pseudo-worlds than in the real one.  Still, this is where we are. This is what we have to compete with. So, we up the ante.
     No more hamburger helper, people.  There’s a better way to lure your kids to the dinner table. And, it’s not as hard as you think it is. I’m here to help.
     I’m going to share some of my easy and sought-after “recipes” here on the blog. I use quotes, because these are just easy things that my mom and Nanas used to make for my family. No one ever wrote recipes for them until I started my catering business and had to compile them for my employees. These dinners are so simple to throw together on a school night when you have to get the kids to soccer and piano practice and then study for a science test.  I’ll post these once a week for you, and I’ll include a vegetable, a starch, and a protein – just like my mom always did!
     For my first food post, I am going to share the ever-famous Jackie’s salad dressing. For all of you who have eaten this a zillion times and gone gaga over my salad, you will laugh at how easy it is! I told you so. I’m also going to share a family and friend favorite, my go-to helping hands meal. I love to make my mom’s Chicken Verona, a.k.a. lemon chicken, and take it to a friend who is under the weather and needs a meal delivery. This was my number one seller when I ran Chez Vous, my in-home catering business, and several customers asked me for the recipe. I always gave it to them. Last, I’ll post a recipe for my award-winning tomato casserole. When I say award-winning, I mean this recipe took the Catalpa Place block party first prize for the main dish category. Serious business, y’all. Honestly, though, everyone loves our tomato casserole. And, if you hate the word casserole, just call it provincial tomato bake. That’s what I called it on the Chez Vous menu. Sounds prettier.
     These are three things that are easy to make. Your kids will eat them, and they don’t require crazy ingredients that you have to buy at the ethnic food or gourmet store. Have fun with these, and let me know how they go over at your table. Now, mangia!

Chicken Verona
8-10 boneless chicken breasts
1C Italian breadcrumbs
1C Parmesan cheese
1 stick of butter
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T garlic powder
Toss breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Coat chicken breasts in parmesan and breadcrumb mixture and lay in a baking pan.
In a microwavable bowl or Pyrex glass measuring cup, place the butter, the lemon juice and the garlic powder. Melt together in the microwave for 2 minutes then pour over the chicken.
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes.

Tomato Casserole
2 C Croutons – any flavor works
3 large tomatoes or 4 medium sized ones, sliced thickly into rounds
1 bag shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese
1 1/4 C oily Italian dressing (my favorite is Ken’s Steakhouse Caesar or a balsamic vinaigrette)

Cover bottom of 8x11 casserole dish with croutons
Top croutons with a layer of sliced tomatoes
Top with a layer of cheese
Add another  layer of tomatoes
Add another layer of cheese
Drizzle dressing all over the top
Bake at 350 for 40 min. or until cheese is golden brown.

Jackie’s salad
1 head of Romaine or leaf lettuce
Some Tomatoes – grape or sliced
1 sliced Onion
¼ can chick peas
½ C Olive oil
¼ C Red wine or balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Salt
3/4 tsp Pepper
3/4  tsp Garlic powder

Directions – Place the veggies in a bowl. Atop the salad, sprinkle the spices. Add the oil first then the vinegar. Toss. Don’t mix the dressing first in a jar. For whatever reason, it makes it taste different. Still good, but different!
NOTE – please add anything you like to this salad! Cheeses, proteins, nuts, berries. I love grilling veggies in summer when I have more time and tossing them into the salad with gorgonzola cheese or adding some store-bought rotisserie chicken and croutons. Even a fried egg is awesome on a salad. Try it. You’ll be surprised!