Saturday, November 24, 2012

Broccoli ~ Parmesan Roasted with Pine Nuts

"I'll never skip broccoli again" proclaimed a reader that had requested a new way to prepare fresh broccoli.  She had been reading my blog post on sugar snap peas and decided to drop me a note, telling me that she and her family were not all that fond of broccoli.  They had recently 'upgraded' from frozen to fresh (big improvement) and she had been steaming it and then drizzling with butter, salt and pepper (delicious, I find). They hadn't warmed to it as much as she had hoped and wondered if I could give her any tips (besides a cheese sauce that she had already tried).  She was looking for something flavorful yet not burying the broccoli in a heavy sauce.

A couple years ago I came across this recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook and I've been making it ever since.  I no longer use the written recipe so this may be slightly modified from her original.  If you don't have her book on the shelf, you may want to consider it.  She is a fabulous cook with wonderful recipes!  In any case, you can easily adjust the quantities of any of the items below to suit your taste.


Garlic Cloves (fresh preferred)
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Lemon (substitute McCormick Lemon and Herb Seasoning)
Pine Nuts
Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese
Fresh Basil, thinly sliced (optional)


Preheat the oven to 425F degrees and cut the broccoli florets from the stalks, leaving an inch or two of stalk attached to the florets. Discard the rest. Cut the larger pieces pulling the florets apart into bite-sized pieces.

Place the broccoli on a sheet pan lined with foil and prepared with cooking spray (food release) large enough to hold it in a single layer. Slice or chop the garlic and sprinkle on the broccoli, and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender and the tips of some of the broccoli are browned. While the broccoli roasts, heat a small skillet with a few drops of oil.  Add the pine nuts and stir constantly until they are browned and toasted.  If using the fresh lemon (preferred) zest the peel and squeeze out the juice.  Shred the cheese and slice the basil.

Remove the broccoli from the oven, and immediately toss with olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, (or substitute lemon herb seasoning) pine nuts, Parmesan and optional basil.  Serve immediately.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holiday Dinners in a Great English Manor House ~ Petworth

This year we were fortunate to visit several English manor homes and castles.  Each was a different and spectacular experience and today I wanted to share some highlights of our travels and most particularly, take you into the kitchens of one of these great residences as they prepared and served large glorious meals.

Julian at Petworth
A manor house is a country house, which historically formed the administrative center of a "manor", the lowest unit of territorial organization in the feudal system in Europe.  As such you can find manor homes and castles throughout much of Europe.  If you find yourself in Germany, France, England, etc. do rent a car and spend some time in the countryside visiting these properties.

The primary feature of the manor-house was its great hall, to which apartments were added as warfare across Europe permitted more peaceful domestic life.  These halls originally served as court rooms and were used for other public functions, as well as banquet halls when the Lord entertained.  Thankfully many of these properties have been preserved, some with their Lords of the Manor still in place.  Others have been preserved through government historic trusts while others survive as hotels, private properties and movie sets.  If you are a fan of the PBS show Downton Abbey, historic Highclere Castle is one such property.  However, like Highclere, many of the residences historic kitchens and servants areas have been replaced with modern facilities.  (The 'below stairs' portion of Downton Abbey is filmed on a set, for this reason.)

Julian in the Petworth Entry Hall
Thankfully a few of these kitchens survived and here you can get a better understanding of what it took to serve the people of these magnificent homes.  Servants always accessed the front (or family portion) of the manor from the back stairs or other servants passages that kept them out of site as much as possible from family and their guests.  Maids were expected to work invisibly and clean when the family was asleep, or work in a room when the family was not scheduled to use it.  Only butlers and footman were common in areas were family and guests were present.  In fact, many of the lower servants (kitchen cooks, assistants, etc.) never encountered the family during their years of service.  In this regard, these homes were much like today's major hotels.

Part of the batterie de cuisine at Petworth
Petworth is one of the rare English Manor houses with kitchens and servants areas still intact, kept much as they were when the servants block was given over to the government to house the Chelsea Day Nursery which had been evacuated from London in 1939 with the advent of World War II. The servants block is located well behind the main house in a 1100-foot-long stone building, which also included servants quarters and the complex of offices necessary for the administration of the 100,000 acre estate belonging to the Earl of Egremont.  Unlike many Manor homes, Petworth's main serving quarters were not in the basement of the main house, hence the name 'servants block'.  This was thought to be a particularly good idea to avoid odors in the main house as well as for fire protection of the manor house itself.  The servants block was built in the mid-18th century and is shown as it would have looked between 1920 and 1940, little having changed from Victorian times.

Famed for its food, Petworth supported a large staff whose numbers contributed to the reputed 30,000 yearly meals cooked here during the early 19th century.  Records show that in 1834, a grand picnic for 6,000 was prepared in the kitchen at Petworth.  At the time the house employed 35 live-in indoor servants, plus daily indoor help as required, along with 24 grooms and coachmen, 25 full-time gardeners, plus daily outdoor labor as required.  The house also had its own fire brigade, engine and pump, along with a room for an upholsterer and for a professional cricketer to coach the estate's team.    With all of this staff, the house was able to be virtually self-sufficient, providing its own venison, game, eels, fish, eggs, dairy, meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables.  The gardens were famous for growing 400 varieties of vegetables and 100 kinds of pear.  Talk about putting on a Thanksgiving feast!

Fish ponds at Petworth
The main kitchen boasted a high ceiling and huge windows.  Food preparation took place at the central table. Sauces and hot liquids were held in pots set into a large black cast-iron hot water bath for transport to one of three dining rooms in the main house.

Julian says 'let's get cookin' in the Petworth kitchens
The status of the houses main resident meant the kitchens usually had the latest in technology, such as the latest innovation in 1872, cooking with steam.  A large boiler was added to the Scullery and powered warming ovens, a hotplate, steamers and bain-marie.  Large square copper boxes with a steam inlet pipe at the back and a tap in the front were also used for cooking steamed and Christmas puddings.

Vegetable and Meat Steamers

Julian with the Aga, a somewhat later addition.
In earlier times, the spits of the roasting range where the big pieces of meat were cooked had been turned by a kitchen boy.  During this time however, a large fan was added in the chimney, which was driven by the heat and smoke of the fire.  A roasting chef would control the proximity of the food to the fire and also adjust the size. A huge dripping pan underneath caught the fat, which could be used for basting with the long-handled ladles (shown at the bottom of the image below).

Now that's how your roast a lot of meat!

Holiday Dinners and Formal Dinner Parties

Upper class dinner parties around the 1910’s were considered the ultimate social test, and a hostess’s reputation could be ruined if the meal or the service wasn't stellar. The menus were sizable and provided ample opportunity for failures on the part of the cooks, serving staff and guests.

They started with a soup course, usually accompanied by sherry. Next came the fish course, served with a good white wine. A fish knife and fork were always used here, the knife being more for pushing the fish onto the fork than for actually cutting it.  Next, the entree  – perhaps a vol au vent (filled puff pastry) served with Champagne or claret.

Vol au Vent
After the clearing of used dishware and glasses and resetting the table, a luscious joint of meat or poultry from the estate was served.  This was typically accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables, and served with a Burgundy wine.  The meal still was far from over!

A game course was then served with crispy potatoes and washed down by a good claret. And to give new meaning to the word feast, then came three mini courses called ‘entremĂȘts’, a dressed vegetable dish, something sweet (perhaps a cherry tart) and a savory dish, like cheese, or even deviled sardines  (the latter of which I can't imagine trying to get down at this point in the dinner.)

Elaborate confections such as jellies and ice creams
were prepared in the cold section of the kitchen.
Their own ice houses supported these activities.
The table was then reset once again and dessert was served which frequently included ices, jellies or elaborate pastries. This was followed by fruit and nuts which would be eaten by hand and accompanied with port or Madeira wines.

Once the food had been cleared, the ladies, at a discreet nod from the hostess would exit for coffee and conversation while the men would stay behind,to drink yet more port and claret, and smoke cigars.  You might wonder why they weren't all enormous after dining like this.  In fact, these were holiday meals or meals where special guests were in the house.  During other times they took much more simple meals in less elaborate dining rooms.  One, no matter how rich, surely couldn't eat this way daily and live long to tell about it.

On our next trip, I'd like to drive north.  Some homes on my list are Holkham Hall and Estate and Harewood House as they too have their old kitchens in tact and open for viewing. Also Hardwick Hall, Blenheim Palace and perhaps ending at Highclere Castle (of Downton Abby; Jeeves and Wooster fame) on the way back to Heathrow airport.  Other great estate homes that you may want to consider if you are touring England are those known as the Treasure Houses of England. Check out the link and begin planning your next visit!

Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Taco Pasta ~ A melding of Mexican and Italian Flavors

I'm always looking for new recipes and when I came across this one on Pinterest the flavors intrigued me.  But the several similar recipes I found seemed to lack some important ingredients... namely the vegetables.  So I've modified this recipe to make it a bit more family friendly.  With the simple addition of a fresh onion, pepper and tomato, the recipe is more flavorful and more healthy at the same time.

This recipe makes a 7 x 9" baking dish of pasta that easily feeds six adults.

1 pound of dry pasta, Rigatoni or Ziti, or any large noodle
1 medium onion
1 pepper of your choosing
2 medium chopped fresh, seeded tomatoes -or- a 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 to 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 pkg (1.25 ounce) McCormick® Taco Seasoning Mix**
1 cup water
4 ounces cream cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I used the Mexican taco blend)
1/3 cup bread crumbs, Panko style preferred

Preheat oven to 350F degrees.  In a large pot, add water, a splash of olive oil and a tablespoon of salt.  Heat to boiling and add the pasta, stirring occasionally.  Cook about 10 minutes, or until al dente (chewy and still firm).  While the pasta is cooking prepare the meat sauce.

Chop the onion and peppers.  Brown the ground beef in a large skillet.  Drain the fat from the beef and let it sit in the colander while you saute the chopped onion and pepper for 4-5 minutes, until tender in the same unwashed skillet.  Add some olive oil if the skillet is too dry.  Return the browned beef to the skillet with the cooked onion/pepper and add the tomatoes.  Stir in and then add the water and taco seasoning.  Heat to boiling and then reduce heat to medium cook for five minutes, stirring 3-4 times.

Add the cream cheese to the beef mixture and stir until melted and combined.  Remove from heat.

Drain the pasta when ready and place in a mixing bowl or the empty pot.  Mix in 1 cup of the shredded cheese.  Add the beef mixture and stir gently to combine.  Prepare a 7 x 9" baking dish by spraying with food release or oil.  Pour pasta into baking dish.  Top with remaining 1/2 cup of shredded cheese sprinkle with the bread crumbs.

Bake covered for 25 minutes.  Uncover and brown the top lightly for another 5-10 minutes, or more quickly with your broiler.   Bring the casserole dish to the table and serve family style.

**NOTE:  You can make your own taco seasoning using the following recipe.  Store it away and use it as you need it.  Use about 1 heaping tablespoon for each pound of ground beef.

Taco Seasoning Ingredients

2 teaspoons dry onion, minced or powdered
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon instant garlic, minced or powdered
1/2 teaspoon cumin, ground

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Creamy Chicken and Biscuits Casserole

I don't often make one-dish meals.  But as the cool weather is upon us and my travel schedule schedule is heating up, I'm making this simple but satisfying dish which will be just as good left-over as it was originally.

Creamy Chicken and Biscuits Casserole
In 1866, a French Canadian immigrant is said to have invented the precursor of the modern casserole.  Early casserole recipes consisted of rice that was pounded, pressed, and filled with a savory mixture of meats. With the advent of lightweight metal and glass cookware in the 1950's, the rice bowl was replaced and the idea of casserole cooking as a one-dish meal became popular in America.  The word casserole, from the French word for "saucepan", is a large, deep dish used both in the oven and as a serving dish. The word casserole is also used for the food cooked and served in such a dish. If you are more accustomed to the British English, this type of dish is frequently called a "bake" or if you are like my friends from Minnesota, you call this type of dish a "hotdish."  Casseroles are a staple at potlucks and family gatherings, so if you need dinner for six to eight people, this is dish is ideal.  Of course it can be easily doubled when made in a larger casserole dish.

This casserole is similar in ingredients and flavor to chicken pot pie.  But instead of pie dough on top and bottom, you simply put biscuits on the top during the final minutes of baking.  I also provide you with an alternative below which excludes the biscuits but includes noodles.

As most of the ingredients are pretty well cooked on the stove top before assembly, baking time is short and can be done later when you need a quick after-dinner meal that warms the family on a cold November evening.

Servings:  Most people will need only one biscuit for their dinner, although a hungry man or teen boy will likely want a double serving.

2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon of butter
1 raw boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3/4 cup white wine
2 cups baby carrots, cut into bite size pieces
1/2 cup or more of frozen peas
salt and pepper
8 biscuits (Pillsbury Grands or make your own)

Note:  You can make the cream sauce as shown below, or your can use one can of Campbell's creamy chicken condensed soup mixed with 1 1/2 cans of milk or buttermilk.

2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk or buttermilk
salt and pepper to taste

Served with Biscuits on Bottom
Chicken and Vegetables Spooned over the Top
Prepare your baking dish by spraying with food release or coating with butter.  Chop all of the vegetables as noted.  Place the oil and butter into a skillet and heat moderately high.  When the butter is sizzling, add the chicken breast and cook until brown, then turn and brown on the other side.  Note the chicken will not be cooked through.

Remove the chicken from the skillet and saute the onion for 2-3 minutes then add the celery and cook another 2-3 minutes.  While this is cooking, place the carrots into a microwave safe dish, sprinkle with a little olive oil and cook on high for 6-8 minutes, until tender.  Add the white wine to the skillet and cook for 3 minutes until it is reduced by half while scraping up any brown bits in the pan.

Reduce the skillet temperature to low and cut the chicken breasts into bit sized pieces and saute in the wine and vegetable mixture for 5 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.  While this is cooking, prepare the sauce.

Sauce:  Add the chicken stock to a pot and bring to a low boil.  Mix together flour and milk until all lumps are gone.  Slowly add the milk mixture to the hot stock stirring constantly until thickened.  Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the carrots and peas to the chicken mixture and toss gently to combine.   Place in your prepared casserole dish and cover with the sauce, gently stirring it until well mixed.  At this point you may refrigerate for up to 3 days.

When you are ready to proceed, place the dish in a 350F degree oven and bake for 30 minutes if it has not been refrigerated or 45 minutes if it had been refrigerated prior to baking.  Remove from oven and add the biscuits to the top.  Return to the oven and bake for 17 minutes or until the biscuits are browned.  Remove and let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Chicken and Vegetables Spooned into the Dish
with Biscuits served on Top
No-Biscuit Alternative
If you don't like a doughy biscuit on top of your meal, consider this option instead.  While you are preparing the chicken mixture, boil water and cook 8 ounces of curly egg noodles until they are just barely al dente (i.e., a bit under cooked.)  Add these to the casserole when you mix all of the other ingredients together before the first baking.  Bake for 15 minutes and while this is in the oven, make a topping.  The topping should consist of any good quality crushed cracker (saltines, Ritz or other favorite), mixed with a little melted butter to help with browning.  To that add some salt, pepper and a tablespoon of grated parmesean cheese.  When the first 15 minutes of baking have completed, increase the oven temperature to 400F and then top the casserole with the cracker crumb topping and return to the oven for 15 minutes more to brown the topping.  Let cool for five minutes and serve.