VDP: Baked Ziti (Ziti alla Sorrentina)

Thursday, January 24, 2008


“What? No f****** Ziti!!!” So says the ever compassionate A.J. Soprano when his dear grandmother Livia falls ill, misses the family gathering and they of course miss her famous baked ziti. That’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever I make this dish. It is one of those simple Italian baked pasta dishes that if made right can be sublime. I’m guessing Livia’s version was probably not very vegetarian friendly. It probably included sausage, ham and maybe meatballs. This one is much more straight forward, closer to it’s Neapolitan roots and definitely vegetarian friendly. The recipe is based on the one from Arthur Schwartz’s “Naples at Table”.

Boiled ziti, those long tubular pasta shapes, is tossed with homemade ricotta cheese and a bit of tomato sauce. Then we start layering the tomato sauce, pasta, mozzarella and Parmigiano. Repeat. The last layer is the Parm cheese. Usually fresh basil goes in these too. Since we are in the dead of winter and it is actually cold even here in Houston, my basil plants are no more and I did not buy any. Instead I used some dried oregano and marjoram.


VDP: Butternut Squash Soup with Parmesan Croutons

Saturday, January 19, 2008

When I saw Jamie oliver make this on TV the other day using whole butternut squash, skin and all, I knew I had to give it a shot. I wanted to see how it compares with my regular butternut squash recipe that onvolves the long roasting of the squash first and a cup of cream at the end. I also wanted to see if leaving the skin on makes any difference.

I wanted to make it vegetarian, so I substituted my flavorful vegetable stock for chicken stock. Other than that I made the recipe as is. It is so easy and takes less than an hour from start to finish. The base is a mirepoix and garlic, sautéed till soft along with rosemary. Then I added the chunks of butternut squash and stock.

After it simmers for about 40 minutes and everything is soft, I used my handheld blender to puree it to a smooth velvety consistency. The parmesan croutons are made of crusty bread, rubbed with olive oil and parmesan. Then the slices are cooked in a dry nonstick pan till the cheese melts and turns crispy.

The soup is outstanding, and for the little work involved it certainly ranks up there with my traditional recipe. As for leaving the skin on, I cannot really tell the difference. However, for those who know what a pain it is to peel the darn things, I certainly appreciate the fact that I can make this soup and not bother with peeling.

In addition to the croutons, the fried sage leaves and the drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, I also served this tasty soup with a few small dollops of crème fraiche. I had also roasted the seeds with some spices to sprinkle on top, but totally forgot to use them. Oh well, they tasted great as a snack afterwards.

VDP: Roasted Pepper Salad with Fresh Mozzarella

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Earlier this week I picked up a few bell peppers of different colors. At about 50 cents each, these were quiet a deal even though out of season.

I broiled them till charred on all sides earlier in the week in preparation for ‘something’. I was thinking maybe I can stuff them. However, life intervened again and I had absolutely no time to do anything elaborate. Instead I made this quick, beautiful and delicious salad.

I peeled the peppers and tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, dried oregano, salt and pepper. I plated them with little balls of fresh mozzarella and on top I grated lemon zest. That lemon zest really takes this to another level. To eat, I served them with toasted slices of homemade crusty bread rubbed with garlic.

VDP: Vegetable Stock

Cooking more vegetarian items means making sure I have a good supply of vegetable stock for stuff like soups. Making this brew could not be easier. The recipe I followed is from Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything Vegetarian“. A mixture of onions, potatoes, celery, carrots, parsley, garlic, mushrooms and a few drizzles of olive oil is simmered with enough water to cover with a couple inches. That it. Strain it and you have a very flavorful stock. The mushrooms or mushroom stem here makes all the difference. It gives the stock a nice earthy, almost meaty flavor. To make the stock more robust, the veggies can be sautéed or roasted as well.

VDP: Mushroom Ragout with Burghul and Yogurt Sauce

Saturday, January 12, 2008

If you do not know what burghul is, click here where I explained it once before. It really is a delicious and quick-cooking grain that can be cooked in many interesting methods or not at all. It can even be soaked for an hour, drained, flavored and eaten as is. This time I did cook it to go with the simple mushroom ragout.

Ragout is really just my fancy name for it. This is a typical dish you’d find at most Lebanese mezze (tapas, appetizers) spreads. It ranges from tongue-numbingly spicy, to mild. I make it mild since my wife does not like spicy foods. I add more chili flakes later on my portion. To make this, I cooked a whole bunch of bell peppers with onions, one chili pepper and garlic in olive oil. Then I added some cut up mushrooms and sautéed for a few minutes. Lastly I added some canned peeled and crushed tomatoes and let it stew gently for 30 minutes. It needs to be a little acidic, so at the end I adjusted the seasoning and added some lemon juice. This can be served hot, cold, or room temperature.

For the burghul, I use a 1X1 ratio of liquid to grain. For a simple burghul dish like this one, as opposed to using it as stuffing or in Kibbe, I use the medium or coarse grind. I just sautéed some green chopped onions in olive oil and toasted a cup of burghul in there for a minute or so. Then added a cup of water and reduced the heat to low. Covered and let it cook for 20 minutes or so. The grains should be cooked tender but still have a bit of bite to them. They should be fluffy and not mushy.

The yogurt sauce is just whole milk yogurt, olive oil, chopped fresh mint, chopped green onions (the green tops), salt and pepper.