Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nothing Has Changed

While perusing my document file for my recipes, I came across this short essay that I had submitted to WCR in hopes of a Tuscan Culinary Scholarship. Although I wasn't the lucky recipient, I had to smile as I re-read the words I penned about 7 years ago. Nothing has changed-just a deeper appreciation of  the value of time-honored traditions of food and family.

                          Tutti a Tavola Culinary Program in Tuscany

                                    Essay submitted by Sandina Polgar

                                                “The Clean Plate Club”

                                             Active Member since 1958


When you are brought up in an Italian family, you cleaned your dinner plate.  Period.  No complaining or no spumoni….that was the way it was, no questions asked.  We learned that food was a treasured commodity and should never be wasted…..and I for one can appreciate the lessons I learned as a child! We witnessed the “cucina povera” style of cooking at a young age.  My grandmother taught my mother to cook with what she had on hand and to never make a trip to the grocery for “just one more ingredient”.  If there wasn’t enough beef for stew, then it’s soup.  Beans, fresh tomatoes and bread were magically transformed into more than the sum of their parts.  It was real food…humble, but delicious.

My father and his family came from the Campagnia Region of Italy, in the city of Avella where I still have cousins today. It is the homeland I have yet to visit. I have always been fascinated by the many types of regional cuisine in Italy; white sauce, red sauce, meats and cheeses. I am always being asked to prepare “real” Italian dishes for my clients….so far, so good.  But to work alongside the women of Italy in Tuscany and experience first-hand the resourceful “peasant cooking” of my heritage would give me the authentic training that escapes me here. I want to witness the age-old “spirit” of the cucina povera style of cooking, where it is both a challenge and responsibility to use food well. In turn, my personal chef clients would benefit from the lessons learned, as I would share with them my experience through the time-honored traditions of the Tutti a Tavola program. This travel/culinary journey would enhance my appreciation for not only my heritage, but my life-long philosophy about food as well-“waste not, want not”.

 As a personal chef, my business takes me to many different kitchens. I want to experience the kitchens of the Tuscan Mammas, were the meals and social life are intertwined, the wine and olive oil are savored….. and where they still clean their plates.    

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Date with a Fig.....

It's sweet, it's's delicious! This little starter was something I put together for a recent cooking class and was besieged with requests for the recipe. Here it is, just in time for the busy Holiday season! Flatbread is such a great base for so many toppings....this one has the perfect combination of sweet fig and dates-combine that with a great Gorgonzola and cipollini onions and you can't lose. Don't cheat yourself by substituting another onion, as the cipollini is the PERFECT little gem for this hors d' oeuvre. I used dried Mission figs and date paste (Ziyad brand baking dates. Look for them in the International aisle of your market). Naan bread is usually found near the deli in local grocery stores-I used the rectangular breads, but you can substitute round and slice it like a pizza. Use a quality Gorgonzola, serve it hot out of the oven, pair with a Pinot Grigio.....and you'll be "the one that brought the KILLER appetizer"  

 Boun appetito!

3 6x12" stone-baked Naan bread
13 ounces pitted dates
3 1/2 ounces dried Mission figs
8 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
8-10 cipollini onions
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place the breads on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush with a generous amount of olive oil. Sprinkle a liberal amount of salt and pepper on each bread and bake until breads are only slightly browned, 5-6 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Add the cipollini onions-lower heat to a simmer and blanch the onions just until slightly soft, about 3-4 minutes.  Drain: while still warm, peel the skins from the onions and set aside to cool.

Combine the figs and dates in a food processor; pulse to combine.  Add 3 ounces of the Gorgonzola and pulse a few times to a paste consistency. Divide the mixture evenly over the breads, spreading to cover each bread evenly.  Slice the cooled onions and top each bread.  Crumble the remaining Gorgonzola and sprinkle atop each bread.  Drizzle about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over each bread, followed by a few turns of the pepper grinder and a sprinkle more of kosher salt.

Return the baking sheet to the hot oven and bake until cheese is bubbly.. Remove from the oven, slide breads to a cutting board and slice. Makes approximately 15 slices (5 per bread).

Rustic goodness!!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Kitchen.....

They say that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I for one can attest to the fact that this is true. I love my kitchen and all that goes along with it..the good, the bad and the ugly. Not a single wall is straight, the old wood floors need refinishing and the landing is a catch-all for anything and everything coming through. But, like anything worth it's salt, it's a painstaking work in progress, a compilation of years of building, changing and evolving with the family dynamic. It began as a small 1920's colonial kitchen-cabinets built right onto the walls, meager counter space, no dishwasher.... and just enough room for a table for two.  And it stayed that way- through 3 children and countless Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with the extended family. Great meals came from that small space, and they haven't stopped since. Although the kitchen space is now larger, we kept the unique touches that make it ours. The worn spot on the wood floor where our big golden used to lay at my feet while I peeled potatoes is still there...and our new golden seems to find himself landing there as well. The drafty leaded-glass window above the sink is still's a pain to clean and is forever slamming shut on it's own in the summer, but it's charming. Through the years we've painted, plastered, poured cement and gotten crafty with cork. The cabinets are bursting  with my treasures...spices, baking staples, family china and cookware in all shapes and sizes. My mother and grandmothers dutch ovens have found a home here, along with lots of "collections" of new pieces.  Much to the dismay of my husband, nothing can be found in the same place twice....but that's ok. I consider it organized chaos. The once "large enough" wall bookcase he built for my cookbook collection isn't any longer, and the ever-growing lending library of books is now stretched across the back wall of my home office upstairs. And that's ok, too. We are happy in my kitchen because I want it to be a happy and fingerprints are allowed.  Memories of holidays, sleepovers, gingerbread and pancakes on the griddle are made here. The grandchildren can be kept occupied for hours on end with the two special baking drawers filled to the brim with fascinating pastry tips, silpats and sprinkles.....and I let them go at it! Tupperware in a lower cabinet can keep a child busy while I bake a cake.....
But the best part of my kitchen is the aroma from the range-whether it's a special occasion cake that's cooling on the counter top, or a pork loin that's roasting under a blanket of herbs and pancetta, the reaction is always the same. Someone smiles and inhales slowly. And my heart smiles back.  

It's a new year 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gotta Love the Lemon

What I wouldn't give to have my own lemon tree! As I was weeding my newly-planted vegetable garden, I kept thinking about how great it would be to have a citrus tree planted smack in the middle of it all...not feasible, but just thinking about lemon with fresh herbs and vegetables during the warm summer months makes my mouth water! I've been on a lemon kick since making fresh lemon curd for a demonstration I did for a group last month. If you haven't ventured into the world of making fresh citrus curd, now's the time. Although I love coming up with my own recipes, I wouldn't be able to do better than the recipe created by  pastry chef Sherry Yard.  The combination of lemon and lime juices make this curd irresistible...the citrus dimension is heightened to create the perfect tart, sweet result. Lemon curd is great for pie and tart filling, a lovely accompaniment to scones, or whip it with fresh cream for a topping.  Give this recipe a try the next time you see Meyer lemons at the local market, or use the best lemons you can find (no green patches-these aren't fully ripe!).  The zest of the lemon is a vital ingredient in making lemon curd, so look for smooth, yellow fruit that feels heavy with juice. As with any recipe, give this a read-through first.
You'll need a Microplane, a food processor and a candy thermometer clear your counter space,  gather your utensils and prepare to dazzle your friends and family with the BEST lemon curd they've ever had.....even your mother -in-law will be impressed!

Master Lemon Curd
Yields about 2 cups

2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 tablespoon (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1.  Prepare an ice bath, using a large bowl to hold the ice. Fill a medium saucepan three-quarters full of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2.  Combine the sugar and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse until the sugar is yellow and very fragrant, about 1 minute. The friction of the machine heats up the zest, releasing its oils into the sugar. (Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle or a small bowl and a fork to blend the two together.)

3. Combine the lemon sugar, eggs, and egg yolks  in a medium heatproof bowl and whisk together for 30 seconds, to distribute the sugar evenly, which prevents premature coagulation.  Place the bowl oer the simmering water and immediately begin whisking.  Whisk continuously for 15 seconds, or until the sugar is dissolved.  To see if the sugar is dissolved, place a finger in the mixture.  If you feel grains, continue to whisk.

4.  Add the lemon and lime juices and cook, whisking continuously, for about 5 minutes.  Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl from time to time.  Insert a thermometer and check the curd's temperature. The curd is done when it has the consistency of sour cream and a temperature of 160F.  Rinse and dry the food processor, if using.

5.  Transfer the curd to the food processor to a large bowl.  Pulse while you add the butter, piece by piece, or whisk it in by hand.  Once all of the butter has been added, pulse or whisk for 10 seconds, or until the mixture is homogeneous. Rinse and dry the heatproof bowl.

6.  Strain the curd through a fine-mesh strainer back into the bowl and and set in the ice bath to cool. Cover with plastic film, pressing it directly onto the surface of a curd to prevent a skin from forming.  Stir the curd occasionally until it has cooled completely.  At this point, the curd can be used or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Waste Not, Want Not"

Tonight's dinner was planned by simply opening up the refrigerator and pretending I was a contestant on the cooking show, "Chopped". Heading to the market was NOT on my agenda, so I wanted to make due with what I had on hand. As I shuffled through the contents of the vegetable bin,  I thought of my father. Nothing would send him into a fury quicker than seeing wilted veggies past their prime- I could hear him bellow "WHAT A WASTE!!" from an acre away. My mother would quickly transform the  lowly cucumber or  head of romaine into something edible for the night's dinner, we would always clear our plates, and everything went back to normal. It wasn't until I had a family of my own to feed did I realize how important that lesson was. My grocery cart always makes a beeline to the "toss off" rack at the market.  It  reminds me of  the shelves of sad-looking toys that never made it to the checkout line at Christmas. But the rows of slightly browned heads of cauliflower, overripe bananas and barely-bruised apples are a real cooks a fraction of the price!
I gathered up the contents from the refrigerator and set them on my counter...a fistful of sweet, shriveled red grapes, a half empty bottle of Riesling wine, the remains of some homemade chicken stock, a a sprig of barely dried rosemary, the last of the whole grain mustard, and a swirl or two left in the bottle of pure maple syrup.  I had three pork loin chops left over from a dinner party which would be the protein on the plate.  After searing, roasting and creating a pan sauce....I smiled and knew my dad would be proud.  Share this with your family and give me your thoughts. I hope they smile, too.

Pork Loin Chops with Blistered Grape and Rosemary Pan Sauce

3-4  large, thick-cut pork loin chops
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


1 cup red seedless grapes, cut into halves
1/2 cup sweet white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoon pure maple syrup
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Heat oven to 425 degrees F.  Prepare the pork chops by liberally coating them with salt and pepper, coating both sides well. (Don't be afraid of over-seasoning them.  This is an important step to create a browned, seared crust). In a heavy, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat on the stovetop.  Place the chops in the pan, allowing plenty of room between each. Sear for 2-3 minutes. Don't move them about...the sear will allow the chops to be turned without sticking at this point. Using tongs, turn each chop and sear for an additional 2 minutes.
Transfer the skillet to the hot oven and roast until internal temperature reaches 155-160degrees. (about 5-6 minutes)  Remove the skillet from the oven and remove the chops to a platter. Tent the platter loosely with foil and allow to rest while preparing the pan sauce. (while resting, the internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise to just over 165 degrees)
Place the pan over med-high heat and scrape the dripping with a wooden spoon to loosen.  Add the wine to deglaze the pan, stirring.  Add the chicken stock, grape halves and rosemary and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce reduces and begins to thicken.  Add the mustard, salt and pepper to taste and cook for an additional minute. Taste to adjust seasonings, if necessary.  Swirl in the maple syrup and add the butter a tablespoon at a time..  Transfer the chops back to the skillet just to warm through.  Plate and top with the sauce.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Spam...Out of the Box!

For whatever reason, I decided to check my spam box on my email account.  I rarely do this, but I'm so glad I did.  Low and behold, there was a message from a woman who had attended one of my cooking classes.  She was requesting the recipe for a soup that I had served as a starter and it was dated several weeks back!  Ugh.....I felt so bad for not getting right back to her, since she really enjoyed the soup and I hadn't provided the class with the recipe. (I usually throw in a starter in my classes...a little "amuse bouche" to sample while we discuss the evening's menu). That particular evening was chilly, so I prepared this soup incorporating the red peppers that were exploding from the crates at my local farm market! Plus, it was an opportunity to use the last can of San Marzano tomatoes that I had in my cupboard. Summer soups prepared with fresh  flavorful garden tomatoes are fantastic, but when the season ends, we are left with anemic, flavorless tomatoes on the shelves.  Since I'm yet to begin my canning career, I turn to the luscious, Italian San Marzano. This particular tomato is harvested in the San Marzano area of Italy and  reaps the benefits of the rich, volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius.  Plump, blood-red and almost seedless, these tomatoes are readily available at most major grocery stores and Italian markets.  Look for the D.O.P seal-Cento is a great brand.  Enjoy this soup tonight.....and it's even better the next day!

Roasted Pepper Tomato Soup
Serves 8-10 generously

3 red peppers
1 can (28 ounces) San Marzano tomatoes, including juice
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
3 cups rich chicken stock
pinch of red pepper flakes
kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
Day-old crusty Italian bread (I used about 3-4 chunks of a ciabatta loaf)
Handful of fresh basil leaves, reserving a few leaves for garnish

Prepare the peppers: Over a direct stovetop flame or under a broiler, roast the peppers until blackened on all sides.  Immediately place the peppers in a paper bag, seal and allow to rest for 15 minutes.  Remove the peppers and remove the blackened skins, which will slip off easily while still a bit warm.  Chop the peppers and set aside.

In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and add the garlic, sauteing for a few minutes-do not allow the garlic to brown.  Add the undrained tomatoes, roasted peppers and stock and simmer for 3-4 minutes.  Add the pepper flakes and a bit of salt and pepper, to taste.  Transfer the soup to the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse until blended (this can be done in several batches).  Add the chunks of bread, one at a time, just to thicken the soup.  Add the basil and pulse just until combined.

Transfer the soup back to the saucepan and simmer over low-medium heat to incorporate flavors.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  Ladle into warmed bowls and garnish with the reserved basil.

Friday, December 9, 2011

For me, the holidays are always centered around food and family....where there's food, there's family! Tonight my grandson and I will be preparing a couple of Buche de Noel logs for the freezer-IF they make it that far!  A chocolate log with Walnut Espresso Buttercream filling comes first, followed by a White Chocolate birch log, filled with Chambord Whipped Cream and Fresh Raspberries. I love to bake at night.....something about the oven being on when the sun goes down is very comforting to me. Plus, having Dhrruv here for the night makes it extra special.  He just got back from an extended stay in India with his folks, so a little "lovin' from the oven" is just what this 3-1/2 year old needs! He's already prepared....apron, wooden spoon, spatula and a big grin!  We'll post some pics of our finished products-off to do what we love....