Basil Butter

Basil Butter

Basil Butter

Sometimes it’s the simplest recipes that add the most pizazz to a meal. Take basil butter: made from just five ingredients with nothing more than a food processor or by hand with a bowl and wooden spoon, this flavored butter is a great way to add depth and color to vegetables, pasta, fish or chicken.

Basil Butter 1 Basil Butter 2 Basil Butter 3

I made basil butter for a family get-together where we served it alongside fresh corn. The leftover butter came home with me, which I rolled into a log surrounded by parchment paper and froze, making it ideal for cutting off small pieces when needed. A few days later I pulled the log out of the freezer, cut off a tablespoon-sized round and added it to my penne pasta with corn and zucchini for a finishing touch and burst of flavor.

Basil Butter Penne with Corn & Zucchini

Basil Butter Penne with Corn & Zucchini

The basil butter can be stored three days in the refrigerator or a few months in the freezer and can be used as both a flavored spread and as a sauce.

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 Pineapple Salsa

Roasted Pineapple Salsa

Roasted Pineapple Salsa

Summer is about simple dishes with refreshing flavors, and it doesn’t get any more refreshing than a fruit salsa. Essentially diced fruit mixed with savory ingredients, it’s a sweet compliment to any simply cooked chicken, fish, shrimp or even flank steak.

This recipe for roasted pineapple salsa takes the basic version to the next level. The pineapple is broiled or grilled to caramelize the natural sugars and enhance the flavor, and the sweetness is balanced by tart lemon juice and pungent red onion that is briefly sautéed with ginger. It is best served warm or at room temperature with salmon or chicken.

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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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Bison Ragù

Bison Ragù & Homemade Tagliatelle

Bison Ragù & Homemade Tagliatelle

Spaghetti with meat sauce is something I never order in restaurants. The few times I’ve tried it I’ve always found the flavor shallow and bland. But that’s not to say I don’t like meat sauce. I do, I just prefer when it’s homemade.

I’ve made meat sauce, or ragù as it’s known in Italy, many times before but usually with ground beef or a combination of beef and veal. But this time I wanted to try it with bison, which is one of my favorite proteins both for it’s beef-like taste and healthy properties (see Bison-Barley Stuffed Peppers). In a nutshell, bison is nutrient-dense, especially in iron and essential fatty acids, and is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than chicken.

Bison Ragù: sweat carrots and onion Bison Ragù: brown ground bison Bison Ragù: pour in red wine

With all the positive traits and delicious taste of bison it shocks me that people still see it as an “ew, gross,” food, which is the exact response elicited from my sister when I invited her to dinner. I keep forgetting she’s a recovered vegetarian so I’ll go easy on her, I just hope her views don’t reflect the majority because that would be very sad.

Back to the sauce. I was a little unsure of how it would work to use bison because it’s such a lean meat, meaning very low in fat. I didn’t want the sauce to be dry and was concerned I’d have to add more oil to make up for the lack of natural fat, which would defeat the purpose of using bison in the first place. Luckily, it wasn’t an issue at all. I used a generous two tablespoons olive oil to sweat the vegetables and brown the bison, and then added a good amount of liquid from the wine, tomatoes and juice. The end result was a rich, tasty, long-simmered bison tomato sauce that was fantastic served over homemade tagliatelle.

Bison Ragù: stir in tomatoes Bison Ragù: add herbs Bison Ragù

The tagliatelle was made from frozen pasta dough (see fresh pasta video) by rolling it thin using a pasta roller, gently folding into thirds, then hand-cutting the dough with a knife in 1/3-inch wide strips. Separate the noodles immediately and sprinkle with flour to prevent them from sticking together.

Tagliatelle: fold rolled pasta dough into thirds Tagliatelle: cut pasta 1/3-inch thick

The tomatoes used in the sauce were fresh but of course it’s fine to use canned tomatoes with their juices (omit the tomato juice from the original recipe). But if you do decide to use fresh tomatoes, you will want to remove the core and the seeds.

Core the tomatoes Remove the seeds Dice the tomatoes

Here’s the recipe for Bison Ragù:

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