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FRESH and Festive: Risotto

Risotto is the ultimate comfort food and in my opinion, it is more of a technique than a dish. While many home cooks are intimidated by the thought of preparing a risotto at home, it truly is the tastiest when it is served right off the stove. Once you get a feel for the basic steps of making it, it is sure to be one of your “go to” meals all year-round.

There are a few ground rules to consider when making risotto.  Once you get these squared away in your mind, the best thing to do is practice, practice, practice.

Here are the basics:
Get all of your ingredients handy and have the broth warming on the stove so that it is ready when you need it.  The first step is creating the flavor base for the risotto.  This is typically done by sautéing onions and/or garlic and herbs in butter or olive oil until translucent.

Add your rice to the flavor base and stir to toast the grains.  By the way, you MUST use short-grain rice.  The most common is Arborio.  Toasting the rice first creates a coating that allows the grains to absorb water but prevents them from turning to mush.  The edges of the grains should be translucent.

Add wine first and cook until absorbed.  Then start adding warm broth.  For best results, use a flavorful homemade or good quality, low sodium store bought stock.  Add a ladle of broth and stir until absorbed.  Then repeat. Stir constantly to help the rice release the starch.  Taste the risotto frequently and season as necessary.  You want the rice to cook until it is al dente.  At that point, you can add in a bit more butter and a sprinkling of cheese for even more richness.

I know many recipes say “let stand before serving,” but take this seriously when making risotto.  Allowing it to rest for about 5 minutes makes a huge difference in flavor and texture.  You can add caramelized onions, ribbons of Swiss chard, bits of sausage, wild mushrooms, or any other combination of flavors and textures that suit your fancy. You can even play around with using grains other than rice for making the risotto itself. Farro, an ancient Italian wheat grain, adds a pleasant chewiness. The farro will remain perfectly springy and al dente, creating a nice contrast to other softer textures likely present in the dish.  Check out the recipe below to get you started.

Easy Farro Risotto

2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup farro
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbs butter or olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, plus more for serving

In saucepan heat stock to boiling. Add farro and stir to combine. Lower heat to medium.

Meanwhile, sauté onions and garlic in butter or olive oil till translucent and just turning brown. Remove from heat.

Continue to cook farro until stock has mostly evaporated and farro is softened, about 20 minutes. (The proper texture is slightly chewy.) Add onions, garlic and cheese; stir to combine. To serve, top with additional grated cheese.

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A FRESH Point of View: Braising

Braising, from the French “braiser,” means cooking ingredients in a covered pot in a small amount of liquid.  Braising is a cooking technique in which the main ingredient is seared, or browned in fat, and then simmered in liquid on low heat in a covered pot.  It is often used as a way to cook less expensive, tough cuts of meat; however, you can braise just about any fish, chicken or vegetable as well.  The end result is always tender and flavorful.

Aside from great taste, braising doesn’t require much attention.  Once you reduce the heat to simmer the dish, you can go about cooking other things, do some chores or take a break. This is also a plus when entertaining-you have more time for your guests.

Some popular dishes you may have heard of that use a braising technique are osso buco, pot roast, braised veal and lamb shanks and braised cabbage. Check out my recipe below for braised cauliflower purée.

Braised Cauliflower Purée

2 sweet yellow onions, chopped
3/4 lb any type of smoked bacon, chopped
2 heads of cauliflower, roughly chopped
1 cup white wine
1 1/2 quarts (about 6 cups) chicken stock
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Butter, to taste

In a hot pan, sauté onions to develop good color.

Add bacon. Once fat has rendered from bacon and the kitchen is smelling good add your chopped cauliflower and cook until it seems that all the goodies have come together and cauliflower is fork tender (you don’t want to cook it to mush because you want to hold as much as the nutrients as possible). Deglaze with white wine and chicken stock. Let simmer for 30 minutes.

In a vita prep (blender) fill half way (if you fill it to high: you are taking the chance of making a big mess, but more importantly the smaller the batch; the smoother you will be able to get it) and purée.  While puréeing add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (about 1/2 cup for whole batch).

Once all is puréed and you have it all married together in one pot, season with salt and pepper (kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper is the best for this). Finish by whipping a touch of butter and serve.

Side note: It is best to make ahead of time so you can let it cool in the fridge and then reheat.  I think this is very important on any soups, stews, etc. It lets all the flavors “meld” together as the Cajuns say.

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FRESH and Festive: Chilaquiles

Ever tried the Mexican dish chilaquiles (pronounced chee-luh-less)?  Chilaquilesare similar to nachos except lighter, spicier, and, in my humble opinion, altogether superior. It is a quick, satisfying dish made from leftover tortillas. Usually, chilaquiles are eaten at breakfast or brunch. This makes them a popular recipe to use up your leftover tortillas and salsas.

There are many ways to make chilaquiles.  Sometimes it’s lightly fried strips of day-old tortillas, mixed with a spicy tomato salsa and served as an accompaniment to fried eggs. Other versions are long simmered and very saucy.  If meat is added, it is typically chicken. The dish is topped with queso fresco and crema and is served with refried beans.

My recipe includes a homemade red chile sauce using some delicious dried chiles that we are featuring during our Some Like It Hot Event.  You can watch my how-to video on “FRESH to the Table”.  Click on the name of the recipe below to watch.

Chilaquiles w/ Red Chile Sauce

1/3 cup vegetable oil
12 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch strips
2 1/2 cups Red Chile Sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
4 eggs, scrambled or fried
2 Tbs fresh chopped cilantro
1/4 red onion, julienned
2/3 cup sour cream

In a medium to large skillet heat oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add tortilla strips and cook, stirring regularly until crispy, taking care not to splash hot oil. Reduce heat to medium, add chile sauce to pan, cook for about 3 minutes. Add chicken and mix. Remove to a serving platter or individual plates, top with eggs. Garnish with cilantro, onions and sour cream.

Red Chile Sauce

2 ancho Chiles, stemmed
1 guajillo Chile, stemmed
3 chiles de arbol, stemmed
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 (8 oz) can tomato sauce
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp kosher salt
3 cups water
2/3 cup buttermilk

Combine all ingredients, except buttermilk, in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium, let simmer 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, let mixture cool slightly. Purée in blender in batches if necessary taking care that hot liquid expands in a blender, until completely smooth. Add buttermilk and mix.

Great used as a sauce for grilled chicken, steak or pork. Also makes a good salsa for tortilla chips.

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Family Central: Grilled Cheese Night

Grilled cheese sandwiches are great kid food – but with just a couple changes and additions, your kid’s grilled cheese sandwich can be a fantastic grown-up meal as well.

Our FRESH Croque uses such simple ingredients that even your kids might be asking for one instead of their American-cheese-and-Wonder-bread usual. (Imagine that; everybody eating the same thing at dinner, so you don’t have to be the short-order cook.) The real trick is good bread and a great cheese – rich, buttery Gruyere, so mild and melty that almost everybody likes it.

The FRESH Croque

2 oz prosciutto (sliced as thin as possible)
2 oz thin sliced Gruyère cheese
1 egg, fried sunny side up
1/2 Tbs butter
2 slices of rustic Italian bread
4 oz Dijon Crème Fraiche, recipe follows
Fresh cracked pepper, to taste
Fresh chives, finely chopped, to taste

Sandwich the prosciutto and Gruyère between Italian slices (Gruyère on top of proscuitto). Toast on a panini press, flat top or Teflon pan with a touch of butter or EVOO. Once warm all the way through, cut in half on the bias. Place fried egg on top. Place chilled Dijon crème in a ramekin on the side. Garnish with cracked pepper on egg and chopped chives.

Dijon Crème Fraiche

4 oz Dijon mustard
2 oz sour cream
2 oz mayo
8 shakes of Tabasco Jalapeño
1 small bundle of chives (fine chop)
Salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to use. Will keep for 5 to 7 days.

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FRESH and Festive: Cheese, Glorious Grilled Cheese

A few years, a funny thing happened to the humble grilled cheese sandwich: It started getting some respect.

It might have started with California chef Nancy Silverton, the founder of the famous La Brea bakery. She began serving gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, on her crusty bread with great artisan cheeses, at her L.A. restaurant Campanile a few years back. People began making pilgrimages for her Thursday night sandwich specials. She ended up writing a whole sandwich cookbook, starring grilled cheese.

Eventually, other chefs began elevating the grilled cheese onto their menus too. There are now entire restaurants devoted to grilled cheese sammies in Cleveland, Portland, Austin and beyond, serving up sandwiches stuffed not just with gourmet cheeses but with add-ons like chorizo, portabello mushrooms, chipotles and sun-dried tomato pesto. A grilled-cheese concept is even one of the favorites to win America’s Next Great Restaurant, a new reality show hosted by Bobby Flay.

So what better time to celebrate the grilled cheese sandwich than during April, National Grilled Cheese Month?

The ultimate comfort food, and a mealtime staple for the 10-and-under set, the modern grilled cheese actually evolved from the French croque monsieur, a griddled ham and cheese sandwich. Though we personally grew up eating the American standard – Kraft singles on Wonder bread, grilled with butter in a hot pan – we’re much more interested these days in more adult versions.

For instance, have you tried the Grown-up Grilled Cheese at our 2Go sandwich bar? It’s a panini with sharp white cheddar, sliced brie and charred tomato cream, stuffed inside our crusty Tuscan bread. If you prefer to make your own, just about any of our artisanal breads, with their crusty exterior and tender interior, would grill up beautifully.

Get some ideas Tuesday – the official National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day ­ ­ – when our Freshologists will be celebrating at the FRESH Taste Kitchen by whipping up some of their own personal favorites.

A FRESH Point of View: A Chef Stocks Your Pantry

What do great chefs have that you may not? A well-stocked pantry. All good cooks know that if you have a few key spices and ingredients on hand, you can make a meal out of practically anything.

My list of pantry must-haves is pretty simple: a few herbs, some spices, ingredients for my favorite soups and sauces. My list, below, can be a good starting point for you to customize to your own tastes. To do that, think of your own five favorite recipes, the dishes the family always requests or that you like to pull out for company. Look over the key ingredients, and then check your pantry to see what’s there. Anything that’s missing should go on the grocery list, stat.

Stock up, and you won’t have to resort to take-out the next time soccer practice runs late or you have to stay an extra hour at the office.

  • Kosher salt
  • Black and white peppercorns
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Dijon mustard
  • Fresh thyme
  • Fresh tarragon
  • Dry mustard
  • Celery seed
  • “Swamp Dust” or Ole Bay seasoning
  • Coriander seed
  • Chicken stock
  • Yellow onions
  • Shallots
  • BUTTER (The real thing; accept no substitute!)
  • Crème Fraiche (us Americans know it as “sour cream”)
  • Tomatoes (fresh if in season, canned if not)
  • Capers

Family Central

As a dad myself, I know what parents are up against when it comes to getting meals on the table. Some nights, it just seems easier to go through the drive-through, even if that means the adults also end up eating fast food instead of something a little more interesting.

That’s why we developed our menu of get-and-go meals to be especially family-friendly. Ready-made meals that you can swoop in and pick up, then heat and eat at your convenience. There’s a whole line-up of meals just for kids – with main courses like Spaghetti, Mac’n’ Cheese, PBJs. And we picked sides that kids like but that parents will approve of, like mini-carrots with ranch dip, juice boxes and apples.

Meanwhile, parents can choose from our wider selection of meals for one or two diners. These are just what you might cook if you only had the time, or order at a fine restaurant if you didn’t. Among more than a dozen rotating choices: Pretzel-Crusted Tilapia over Vegetarian Fried Rice; Spicy Chicken Diablo with Roasted Rosemary Potatoes; Meatloaf with Green Beans Amandine.

And if your kids are a little older, or a little more adventurous, look into our family meals, like Shrimp-and-Grits, or Chicken Florentine casserole, with succulent spinach. These come in sizes big enough to feed the family, and maybe a stray neighbor or two.

We’ve strategically placed these to-go meals near our checkout stands so you can dash in on your way home from work or soccer practice. After that? Everybody’s well-fed, everybody’s happy, and nobody has a big mess in the kitchen to clean up. That’s a good night in my book.