Spring Green Asparagus & Arugula Salad

I’ve been craving this salad for weeks now. I’m not sure what triggered the idea, but it slowly expanded in mind, every few days mentally adding a new ingredient. Today, finally, I put pen to paper, err knife to vegetable (???) and made it happen!

The salad is the epitome of fresh, spring flavors, with a little Italian influence thrown in for good measure. The base is a bed of peppery baby arugula, topped with blanched asparagus, salty Prosciutto and Parmesan cheese, and finished with a smattering of toasted pine nuts and tart fresh lemon juice. The whole thing is a delight to the palate and to the mind, which in my case so badly wanted the weather to feel as springy as the salad tasted.

This is a must-try. It’s simple and doesn’t even require making a salad dressing. Simply drizzle a bit of olive oil and lemon juice over the top and it’s ready to serve.

Here’s the recipe for Spring Green Asparagus & Arugula Salad:

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Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Hopefully you can handle this.

Here goes: I keep a journal.

Sort of.

Okay, it’s not a real journal. I don’t gush about my hopes and dreams, but rather a little notebook I carry with me to record dishes and flavor combinations I want to prepare.

Essentially, I like to write down ideas when the inspiration strikes so I don’t forget them later. These can range from a dish I’m enjoying at a restaurant that I want to try to recreate (i.e. zucchini rolls with macadamia nut filling), to a recipe I read in a magazine, to a funky smell wafting through the air as I walk down the street.

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The third item on the never-ending list is pasta e fagioli, a Tuscan white bean soup traditionally made with pancetta although I usually use bacon instead. I think I added it after visiting family in Florida last Thanksgiving. For some reason pasta e fagioli is really popular in south Florida and I eat so much of it when I’m there that I pretty much get my fill for the year. Just like I only eat salmon burgers on vacation, but I’ll save that story for another time.

Back to the “journal.” Every so often when I read the list – and hopefully cross a few things off – I think how nice a thick, rich, steaming bowl of pasta e fagioli would be on a chilly day. I mentally slated it for late October when the weather would be turning cold.

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Well, the weather dude seemed to have a different idea and it got pretty cold this month, so I figured now was as good a time as any to make pasta e fagioli.

But I did discover a silver lining to making pasta e fagioli in August: it’s the perfect time of year to use really incredible fresh tomatoes. Just look at the size of these tomatoes I picked up at the famer’s market, they’re more than 1 pound each!

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Here’s the recipe:

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Creamy Mushroom Polenta

Creamy Mushroom Polenta

Creamy Mushroom Polenta

It’s odd how certain foods can elude me for years. Not that I’d been avoiding them, simply that they just didn’t come up. Like old colleagues you always meant to keep in touch with but sort of forgot about as you got on with your life. (If any of those colleagues are reading this, know that I don’t mean you!)

Polenta: pour cornmeal into boiling water Polenta: whisk

Polenta: simmer Polenta: stir in butter

I’ve always enjoyed polenta but have never gotten to know it all that well. I rarely order it in restaurants – it’s not often on the menu in these parts – and don’t often prepare it for myself. But suddenly this week I found myself craving polenta, and not the kind that has been fried, although that’s good, too, but the rich and creamy version.

Mushrooms: render bacon Mushrooms: drain bacon

Mushrooms: saute garlic and mushrooms Mushrooms: deglaze with vermouth

And I wanted it with mushrooms! And bacon! And parsley and wine! Oh, was it good. Polenta, my friend, welcome back!

Here’s the recipe:

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Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Zucchini Pesto Pasta

I was extremely fortunate to volunteer at the top food event in Chicago a few weeks ago: the Green City Market BBQ. One of the best run events in the city – and far superior to last year’s Chicago Gourmet – the BBQ features 65 chef’s from the city’s finest restaurants and sells out quickly, so while crowded it wasn’t overcrowded, and they didn’t run out of food!

Spiaggia's Crostini

Spiaggia's Grilled Zucchini & Pestyo Crostini

There were so many amazing dishes featuring exotic meats like elk and goat to¬† the predictable but always delicious pork belly. But it was a vegetarian offering that really stood out for me: “grilled zucchini and pestyo crostini” from Spiaggia. There was something so pleasing about the simple, fresh, bright flavors that I was inspired to try it at home. Mind you, I don’t claim to cook Spiaggia-type food (it’s one of the top restaurants in Chicago), but I did want to try my hand at reinterpreting the flavors.

My version uses spaghetti (today it was dried whole wheat but fresh would be ideal) instead of crostini (toasted bread) to make it an entree, but I think this zucchini-pesto combination would also be fabulous as a sandwich with chicken.

Pesto: lots of fresh basil Pesto: toasted pine nuts Pesto: grind pine nuts

Pesto: grind basil Pesto: drizzle in olive oil Pesto: blend in parmesan cheese

The first thing I had to do was make the pesto, an Italian sauce made from blended basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This recipe makes much more than you’ll need for the zucchini pasta, but it’s versatile and freezes very well so definitely make the whole thing.

Next I went to work on zucchini. I used stripped zucchini that have the same flavor as regular, which I sauteed with sliced onion until both were lightly caramelized then tossed them with homemade pesto and cooked spaghetti noodles. Voila, a fantastic summer weeknight dinner.

Zucchini Pesto Pasta: striped zucchini Zucchini Pesto Pasta: saute zucchini and onions Zucchini Pesto Pasta: stir in pesto

Here’s the recipe for zucchini pesto pasta:

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Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna

I often get asked the question “why did you change careers to focus on food?” My answer is I love how food brings people together, that the need to eat is something we all have in common.

Cooking, however, is another thing entirely: I love to cook but for many people it’s a chore or something to be avoided like laundry (I apologize if you truly enjoy doing laundry). And cooking with other people? Well, let’s just say that’s icing, especially when it means I get to spend time with loved ones.

Tomato-Basil Sauce: season with basil, vinegar, sugar Roasted Vegetable Lasagna: serving

So when my sister called last week to ask if we (yes, she included herself) could cook dinner for our family on Sunday I was thrilled. The location would be at our parents’ house, a kitchen I know well. As for the food, her only request was for vegetable lasagna.

No problem! While I think we had different expectations for the meal (her: canned tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash; me: homemade noodles and tomato-basil sauce, farmer’s market vegetables) the highlight for both of us was working together, although I think it helped that I got to be in charge. Basically, it’s what my friend Lori would call a “potchke” meal, meaning a bit fussy with a lot of steps, but in this case it was also a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna: cooked noodles Roasted Vegetable Lasagna: arrange eggplant Roasted Vegetable Lasagna: arrange summer squashes

And the roasted vegetable lasagna? It was amazing! Light and fresh with layers of sweet and savory flavors and aromas, it practically melted in my mouth.

At my father’s request I used less sauce than usual and have to admit it worked really well to make the lasagna light and summery. The recipe for tomato-basil sauce was adapted from “Takashi’s Noodles,” by Takashi Yagihashi (I worked on the book) and makes just the right amount of sauce needed for this lasagna.

Here are the recipes for Tomato-Basil Sauce and Roasted Vegetable Lasagna:

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