Rigatoni with Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Mozzarella


The recipes in my repertoire have all come about in a couple of different ways. Some are the surprisingly good results of throwing together whatever I have in my fridge, while others are born in an attempt to imitate something I've tried in a restaurant, and still others are created, I've realized, out of pure laziness. That's right -- despite the fact that I pride myself on making elaborate layer cakes from scratch, homemade bread, and homemade gelato, there are times when I don't mind taking a shortcut or two. This recipe was born out of a craving for melanzane alla parmigiana, i.e layers of fried eggplant with tomato sauce, Parmesan cheese, and basil. Don't get me wrong, I had every intention of making this dish -- all the ingredients were ready in my fridge -- but after a particularly long day at work I wasn't quite in the mood for slicing and salting 2 pounds of eggplant, waiting the necessary 30 minutes to prevent bitterness, plus frying said eggplant, not to mention making tomato sauce, grating cheese, assembling it all...you get the idea -- it's a time consuming dish. 

In the end I made a sort of melanzane alla parmigiana pasta, which requires half the effort but still has the flavors that I was craving. Just chop and saute' a few ingredients to make your sauce, let the sauce simmer while you cook the rigatoni, toss everything together, and voila', a dish with the ingredients of melanzane alla parmigiana, plus the addition of pasta, which makes everything better. Not a bad compromise, is it?

I came up with this recipe two years or so ago now, and it has become one of my staple dishes -- besides being super easy to make, it takes advantage of great summer ingredients like tomatoes and basil, packs a flavor punch, and is my go to recipe for the many vegetarian friends I have here. Enjoy everyone!

RIGATONI WITH EGGPLANT, TOMATOES, AND MOZZARELLA

Ingredients:

Olive oil
1 lb rigatoni pasta
1 small eggplant, diced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 (28 oz can) crushed tomatoes
1 (4 oz) ball buffalo mozzarella, cut into small pieces
Basil


Directions:

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat a good amount of olive oil (good amount because the eggplant tends to absorb a lot of oil) and saute' the eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and onion until all of the vegetables are softened and cooked throughout, stirring often. Add more olive oil as you go if necessary. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. Next, add the white wine and let it evaporate and cook down, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and bring everything to a bubble -- let the sauce cook for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Lower the heat to a simmer and let the sauce continue to cook. Meanwhile, put the water on to boil for the pasta, following the package directions. While the pasta and sauce cook, chop up some basil (however much you want). Drain the pasta. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Add the pasta to the sauce, and throw in the basil and mozzarella cheese. Toss everything together and serve immediately, garnished with an extra basil leaf or two if you want. Serves 4-6. 










Chocolate Oatmeal Coconut Bars



Though Rome is always beautiful at any time of the year, it is at its very best in the Spring, just before temperatures climb into the 90s (and higher -- and a.c is scarce here) and the city is inundated with tourists. In the Spring, the azaleas at the Spanish steps are in full bloom, the weather is warm enough for a night time stroll around St. Peter's, and best of all, it is ideal picnic weather.

With the arrival of Spring there's nothing I look forward to more than heading over to one of Rome's many parks (in particular Villa Borghese and the Giardino degli Aranci, which has a beautiful view of the city) with friends to relax, enjoy the sun, and have a picnic lunch. We usually make sandwiches or pick up pizza al taglio (by the slice) and I supply the dessert. These chocolate coconut oatmeal bars are perfect for a picnic as they are portable and easy to eat, not to mention super delicious (the most important factor of course). They are nice and chewy thanks to the oatmeal  and full of different flavors thanks to the sweetness of the coconut, the bitterness of the chocolate, and the tartness of the cranberries. If you're not a fan of cranberries you can leave them out or substitute walnuts or pecans, or even white chocolate if you'd like, or mix and match the mix in ingredients as you'd like. Use your imagination, and enjoy!

CHOCOLATE OATMEAL COCONUT BARS

Ingredients:

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup old fashioned rolled oats (not quick cooking)
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1/2 cup dried cranberries (optional -- if you choose not to include these, you can just up the amounts of chocolate and coconut)

Directions:

Grease a 9 inch rectangular pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, beat the butter with the brown sugar using electric beaters (or a standing mixer if you have one). Add the egg and mix until it is fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix well. Next, stir the dry ingredients in to the butter and sugar mixture until well combined. Stir in the oatmeal, coconut, chocolate, and dried cranberries if using. Spread the batter in the prepared and sprinkle more chocolate chips on top if you want. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bars comes out clean. Makes 12 bars. 








Guest post: Rocky's Tex Mex Chicken Salad



Remember that post from a couple of weeks ago with the recipe for plum cobbler where I talked about the lovely dinner I had my awesome friends Rocky and Charity and their daughter Constance? Here is the follow up to that, with the recipe for the salad that Rocky prepared for us. 
  
As I mentioned, Rocky lived in Rome this past year as Charity completed her masters at Loyola (you can all about his adventures here: http://elrocko.weebly.com/). He is a trained chef, having worked at the upscale iNG restaurant in Chicago along with the great Chef Homaro Cantu. Rocky's specialty is American cuisine, and he brought a touch of the States to Italy this year preparing macaroni and cheese, burgers, Philly cheese steaks, chocolate chip cookies, and miniature apple pies (among others) for Charity, Constance, and anyone else lucky enough to be invited to dinner at their house. Beyond being a great cook, Rocky is also an amazing father (stay at home dad to Constance this year) and all around one of the nicest, funniest, and most genuine people you will ever meet. When paired with Charity, he is also one half of one of the world's most awesome couples. I miss this little family tons but am so happy to have had the opportunity to get to know them this year! And now let's get to today's recipe! 

In true Rocky style, this is an American recipe with a touch of tex mex flavor, full of ingredients that are not found on Italian menus (avocado, barbecue dressing, and grilled chicken). This salad was light and refreshing yet still filling, not to mention chock full of healthy ingredients. It would be a great recipe to prepare leading up to the warmer weather (translation: bathing suit season) or this summer when anything above room temperature seems impossible to eat. The barbecue dressing really makes this dish -- it pairs perfectly of course with the chicken and adds a touch of smoky sweetness to all of the other ingredients. Note that I did not put quantities here as Rocky never measures anything. Feel free to eyeball the quantities of ingredients and choose what exactly you would like to add to the salad -- completely up to you! Enjoy!

 Rocky and Constance enjoying the last of the plum cobbler

ROCKY'S CHICKEN TEX MEX SALAD

Ingredients:
Chicken breasts
Taco seasoning
Cucumber, sliced
Red onion, sliced
Celery, diced
Jicama, peeled and sliced
Black beans, drained and rinsed
Corn, fresh or canned (drained and rinsed)
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Avocado, peeled and diced
Lettuce 
Bbq sauce 
Olive oil 
White vinegar 

Bread for serving

Directions:
Marinate the chicken in olive oil and taco seasoning for a minimum of 30 minutes, the longer the better. Sauté the chicken in a large skillet in olive oil until cooked through, and then set aside to cool. Slice the chicken into strips when cool enough to handle and set aside.

To make the dressing, whisk together equal parts barbecue sauce, olive oil and white vinegar until it is emulsified. Toss all salad ingredients together (or the chicken, lettuce, and whatever of the above ingredients you have selected) in a large bowl and coat lightly with the dressing (serve the remaining dressing on the side). Serve with bread if you'd like. 






Guest post: Lisa's Carrot Cake


Cooking in my family (as it is in many) is a bit of a legacy. My maternal grandparents both were excellent cooks, and instilled this love for good food in my mom, who has passed it down to me. I don't think I would have ever even thought to start baking or cooking if I hadn't been raised in a house with so much good food. When I was little, my mom would wake up extra early to make us cinnamon french toast and pancakes if we needed a morning pick me up; the gourmet contents of my elementary school lunchbox made me the envy of all my classmates; and dinner was always an adventure, an exercise in trying whatever she had thought up that day or come across in one of her many cookbooks. She has developed a varied and impressive repertoire of recipes over the years that her friends and family all rave about (anything she makes is guaranteed to be good). Though it's hard to say which recipe is the most popular, I'd be willing to bet that it is for this carrot cake. 

My mom (otherwise known as Lisa) developed this recipe back in the early 90s, taking what must have been a standard carrot cake recipe and upping the amount of spices, doubling the vanilla, and choosing to add both pineapple and coconut, among other things. It has served as my birthday cake on more than a couple of occasions, and is ever present on Father's Day and Easter. I can't even count how many times I found one cooling on the counter waiting to be frosted when I was growing up, a home baked congratulations/thank you/get well soon gift for my mom's friends and acquaintances. This cake has the perfect balance of cinnamon and nutmeg, is fluffy and moist thanks to the carrots and pineapple, and has an extra hint of sweetness thanks to the coconut -- it is one of the best cakes you will ever eat.

Given that I have only a tiny electric oven to work with and tend to bring my baked goods to work, I find it easier to make this cake in a rectangle pan or as cupcakes, but it looks prettiest when baked as a layer cake, as my mom has always done. Go make this right now!

LISA'S CARROT CAKE 


Ingredients:
2 cups of sugar
1 1/2 cups of vegetable oil

3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups of flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups shredded carrots (I used pre peeled baby carrots and chop them fine in the food processor) 

2 cups of flaked sweetened coconut
1 can crushed pineapple, drained


Cream cheese frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar


Directions: 
Combine sugar, oil eggs and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk together until smooth.  In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir well. Next, add the carrots, coconut, and pineapple to the batter and mix everything together to combine. Pour the batter into 2 well greased (9) inch rectangle pans or two 8 inch cake pans. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes.  Use a knife to test for doneness. Prepare the frosting (recipe can be found here) while the cake cools. Frost the cake once it has completely cooled. Note that you will have some frosting left over. Decorate with extra coconut, if desired.