Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Happy National Cheese Day! Cheesy Recipes below.

     Apparently, today is national cheese day. I didn’t realize this was a thing, but since it is, I’m glad to celebrate one of the most versatile foods in the world. Different types of cheeses are staple foods in so many different cultures. Today, I want to share some of my favorite cheese recipes and my favorite cheeses for antipasti platters.

     In my hometown of Pittsburgh, most people know that the best place to go for a great cheese selection is Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. Not only does Penn Mac have over a hundred varieties of cheese to choose from, but their cheese counter employees are knowledgeable and helpful. They’ll ask you what some of your favorite cheese are, if you are looking for something soft or firm. Then they will usually suggest something and even give you a taste of it to ensure you like it. I always come home with my top three favorites when I shop at Penn Mac, but I also choose one cheese I’ve never had before. Fair warning, if you happen to shop at Penn Mac during Christmas week, the wait at the cheese counter can be over an hour long. Everybody shops for their holiday cheese platters there, so be prepared.

     My three favorite cheeses for nibbling are Piave, Vlaskas, and Midnight Moon. I slice them and serve them on platters with dried Italian sausage or Soppresata and my daughter’s favorite – Castelvretrano olives. Piave has a nutty, Parmesan-ish flavor to it. It’s a crowd pleaser every time. Vlaskas is a bright yellowy orange cheese that’s a little sweeter and creamier but not soft. Midnight Moon is a firm goat cheese with a bold but not overly strong flavor.

      I, unlike most Italians, do not like strong cheeses. I am not a fan of sharp Provolone. My family in Italy makes this pungent cheese. The first time we visited them, my parents purchased an extra suitcase just to haul cheese back to Pittsburgh. My aunts and uncles here in the States go crazy for it.

     Not me.

     The smell of it reminds me of the weeks after I returned from my first trip to Italy, when I drove from one uncle’s house to the next, delivering wheels of homemade cheese to each of them. My car smelled like stinky feet for a month. I lovingly refer to my family’s homemade provolone as “stinky feet cheese.” 

     Locatelli Romano is my favorite for topping pasta, especially pasta with red sauce. It is also a must-have for meatballs. They just don’t come the same if you use any other cheese. My mother, the meatball expert, can attest to this. Some prefer Parmesan for grating over pasta. I like to use Parm for something else.

Parmesan Crisps with various Tapenades

5 cups or more of finely grated Reggiano Parm

Heat oven to 400 degrees and spray baking sheet with Pam
Measure 1/4 cup Parmesan and place it onto a baking sheet like a drop cookie.
Pat down the cheese so it’s flat on top.
Repeat this, leaving space for the cheese to grow as you would when baking cookies
Bake in the 400 degree oven for about 5 minutes or until they are golden and lacy looking
After the crisps cool, you can use them in salads or as appetizers topped with various tapenades.

Olive Tapenade
In a blender or food processor, pour 1 can drained black olives, 3 cloves garlic, juice from one lemon, a dash of salt, and a tablespoon olive oil. Puree until smooth and spoon onto crisps

Roasted Red Pepper Tapenade
In a blender or food processor, place 1 jar drained roasted red peppers, 3 cloves garlic, 5 or so fresh basil leaves, a dash of salt and a tablespoon olive oil. Puree until smooth and spoon onto crisps.

You really can top the crisps with anything you like! There are even store bought tapenades you could use. They are a fun finger food.

The second cheese recipe I’d like to share is a cheese spread I’ve been making for about 15 years. When my husband and I were first married, we ate at a little Italian BYOB restaurant in Beechview. Some restaurants serve flavored oils and bread on the table before salads or appetizers. This one served bread with a cheese spread that was so delicious I tried to recreate it at home.

Gorg Cheese Spread

1C Gorgonzola cheese
1 8 oz. stick of cream cheese
1 small jar of green olives with pimentos, chopped
1 can pitted black olives, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
Olive oil for serving

Soften the cream cheese and Gorgonzola together in the microwave.
Blend the two cheeses.
Add in the olives and onions and mix until they are throughout the cheese.
Place the cheese spread in a bowl or on a pretty dish and drizzle with olive oil.
Serve with warm bread or pita crisps.

The last cheese I have to mention because it is so wonderful is Halloumi. Halloumi is a cheese you can put on the grill! It softens a little and gets chewy, but it picks up the grilled flavor perfectly. This cheese should be on every summer meal salad you serve! I grill romaine and red onions, chop them for salad then top with chunks of grilled Halloumi cheese. YUM! You can add any grill vegetable you like.

Try the Halloumi. You will love it!

Most grocery stores carry Halloumi cheese in their specialty cheese section.

Happy eating this week! Be cheesy!


Friday, January 15, 2016

Eat soup. Stay Warm. Be happy.

It’s finally cold.

I can’t say I love the bite of the wind on my face or the shock of snow that sneaks into my jean cuffs and freezes my dry winter ankles. What I do love is the feeling of comfort I experience when coming in from the cold.

And soup.

I love making soup in winter.

It fills the entire house with fragrant warmth and tells everyone who knocks on my door, “come in from the cold.”

My mother is a chicken soup expert, as my grandmothers were before her. Each woman had her own techniques with a chicken and a pot. My mother would place the chicken and all of the fixings in the pot. She never chopped the carrots, celery or onions but left them whole so that the soup was floating with long carrots and celery, big chunks of chicken and whole onions. It was colorful and fun - the veggies were like prizes. At dinner time, I always claimed the whole onion. After cooking all day, the onions had a sweet flavor, and I loved breaking them up into my bowl of steaming broth and noodles and dumping parmesan cheese and black pepper all over them. So yummy.

Nana Battaglia never called it chicken soup. For her, it was pastina. Fresh chicken broth with bits of meat, celery, onion, and most importantly – acini de pepe -  tiny pasta balls that must release some kind of healing magic the second they burst on your tongue. Nana fed us pastina when my brother and I were infants and gave it to us when we were sick as kids. When our hearts were broken, she’d say “Come in the kitchen. I make a pastina.”

Food is therapy for Italians.

It’s medicine too.

My kids love pastina, and I make it for them often, although my favorite soups are thicker and heartier than the traditional chicken soup.

My personal favorite soup is one I have been making since college. My roommate introduced me to the vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook, and I found an awesome vegetarian minestrone in it that I have tweaked over the years. It is the perfect soup for cold days, full of flavor and healthy veggies and legumes.

Vegetarian Minestrone – originally from the Moosewood Cookbook


3T olive oil
2 onions chopped
6 or so cloves of garlic, minced
A couple handful of fresh or frozen basil
2 chopped carrots
2 chopped celery stalks
1 eggplant, peeled and chopped into bite size chunks
1 zucchini
1 green pepper
2 28 oz cans tomato sauce
4C water or vegetable broth
1 can chick peas
2 cups cooked elbow macaroni or ditalini
Grated cheese for serving

Saute onions and garlic in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add carrots,celery, eggplant and basil. (If you are using fresh basil, save some for serving to sprinkle on top.) Let the veggies cook until they are soft. Add the zuke, the green pepper, the tomato sauce and water. Bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer. Cover and allow the soup to cook for at least 45 mintues so that all of the flavors meld and the veggies get soft. Add the chick peas and let them warm up in the soup. Serve with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

If you are in Pittsburgh like I am, then it’s time to make this soup. The snow is coming this weekend, and there’s nothing better than sitting down to a bowl of this with some crusty bread while you watch the white stuff fall. I’ll be making the vegetarian Minsterone this afternoon so that we can have it to eat all weekend.

Stay warm, friends!

And, eat soup!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Winter is for Writers!

     Earlier today, I wished my Pandamoon readers a Happy New Year, and I wanted to do the same for my own followers here on Whatever Inspires. Below is a post from The Pandamoon Publishing blog.

     I always love the months of January through March, because, although they can be rather gloomy in my home city of Pittsburgh, they are quiet and slow. After the rush and push of the holiday season, I welcome the calm of these months. They allow me time to reflect and write, and I’ve found that I am most prolific in the bleak mid-winter. In fact, I wrote three out of four of my books during these months.
     Summer is a wash for me, because of sunshine and swimming pools, and shrieking children. Spring is musical theatre performance time and Easter. Fall is back to school and holidays. I still write every single day during these seasons, but I find that the pace of life in winter allows my mind to wander further into a story than I can at other times during the year.  I’m up early, curled into the words of a new world, and late at night, when the rest of my house is sawing logs, I’m sitting at my kitchen table, wide-eyed at the wonder of whatever tale my fingers are click-clacking onto the page.
     I am looking forward to jumping into my next adventure, and I invite you to tell me about what you’re writing. Post a comment and fill me in on whatever is inspiring you to create. Tell me your setting or your protag’s biggest challenge in your current project. Are you experiencing writer’s block? I have been there too, and I know it’s so frustrating! I would love to hear where you are on your writing journey.
     For all of you writers out there – I wish you a fruitful and successful  2016. Write stories that move you, and you will move others!