Fresh Tomato and Basil Spaghetti with Ricotta Salata

If I told you I make this at least once a week through the summer months, would you think I was kidding?  I kid you not.  This to me is summer on a plate.  My memories of garden fresh tomato salads simply dressed with basil, salt, pepper and olive oil and served with fresh baked Italian bread for mopping up the juices brought me to this simple pasta dish.  I cannot imagine this any fresher tasting, unless I made the pasta myself.

I’ve seen many versions of this dish; Maris (In Good Taste) recently did a similar no cook pasta sauce, and I’ve seen cheeses ranging from feta to parmesan to mozzarella.  I prefer to use ricotta salata as the taste is very gentle and mild and does not distract from the aromatic fresh tomatoes.   Recently I have switched to corn spaghetti instead of semolina or wheat.  The corn spaghetti works amazingly well as it layers another dimension of flavor to this dish.  Think of a fresh tasting corn, tomato, scallion and basil salad!

When I find a variety of heirloom yellow, orange and red tomatoes, the dish really pops with flavor and color!  I prefer to not remove the tomato seeds as I don’t mind the appearance of the seeds and I like to have as much juice as possible in this “sauce”.  A truly light, great tasting olive oil also works best since the olive oil’s flavor is not heated or altered in any way.   The tomatoes are only marinated for about an hour; just enough time for me to change out of my work clothes, play with my pups, pour a glass of wine and get the pot of water boiling for the pasta.  In that one hour, the flavors marry, the salt brings out more juice, the basil remains bright and a perfect fresh sauce is ready.

The “recipe” should be prepared based on the quantity to serve as this is not a dish that stands up well for leftovers.  Therefore, based on appetite and guests, roughly chop up the tomatoes (about 2 small, 1 cup per person), seeds and all, season with chopped fresh basil, thinly sliced scallion (white part and just a bit of green), minced garlic (optional for raw garlic lovers), Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Drizzle on great tasting light olive oil and allow to marry and marinate for at least one hour, but no longer than 2, at room temperature.  Pour the marinated tomatoes over just cooked al dente corn spaghetti, sprinkle on crumbled ricotta salata, adjust to taste with a finishing of freshly ground pepper, sea salt and a light drizzle of olive oil!

I’m Stuffed! Ciabatta Salad Sandwich

If asked for my preference as to how I like my pizza, it would be topped with a salad!  Crisp, mixed greens mounted on a hot slice of pizza.  I don’t often if ever eat it out this way, but my daughter certainly has seen me do this many times at home and I believe I have caught her piling salad on her pizza too!  I finally spotted it on a menu in an Italian restaurant which made me feel quite happy I wasn’t the only one enjoying pizza this way!

The same goes for sandwiches; I’m not a deli meat kind of gal.  Grilled veggie Panini’s are fabulous but when I’m not in the mood or have the time to grill, a salad in a sandwich is quick and easy.  The ingredients vary depending on what I have on hand, but the method does have importance.  Trying to eat a sandwich with loosely mixed ingredients can become quite a messy undertaking.  Therefore, after much trial, error and messy hands, I have perfected my salad sandwich making!

To begin with, I love ciabatta bread.  It crisps up nicely when lightly grilled and the airy pockets make it lighter, less doughy bread.  Still, I cut it not exactly in half lengthwise, about ¾ of the way up and will remove some of the bottom half bread inside to create a “shell or bowl” to fill up with the salad.   I spread pesto on the inside of both and grill or broil until lightly golden.

Slicing tomatoes and cucumbers is better for layering in the sandwich than using chopped veggies which will tend to fall out easier.  Mixed greens of all sorts, arugula, spinach, romaine, crumbled cheeses, artichokes, garbanzo beans, avocado, roasted peppers, etc, etc, are mixed with a light vinaigrette and piled inside.  Sometimes I will lightly broil the filled bottom half to softly melt the cheese and rewarm the top half.  The top should be gently pressed over the salad and cut into individual wedges just before serving.

Since there is no mayo in it, it’s great to wrap up and take on a picnic or bike ride!

Pasta alla Simmered Norma, i.e., Spicy Tomato Eggplant Sauce

I always follow the chef rule, first in, first out when planning my meals.  The FIFO rule is to use the foods in the order they were purchased and with fruits and veggies, I look at those peaking at their ripeness.  Sharing more of my quirkiness, I keep a list of all the fruits and veggies I purchase just to ensure they all get used and not sit forgotten in my frig!  Not only do I have one refrigerator, but I use and fill two !  And it’s just my son and I living together!!

So I have an eggplant.  And it’s going to be my dinner.  Somehow, someway.   Gluten-free, no animal products, sugar or alcohol.  I can think of several dishes, then I consider my cravings…pasta!  I am liking this cleanse as I seem to be eating more carbs!  Gluten-free, of course.

Spaghetti alla Norma is a tomato based pasta dish topped with fried eggplant slices.   The use of olive oil is permitted on my cleanse, but I opted to not fry and keep my dinner very healthy.  I prepared a basic marina sauce and added chunks of eggplant to slowly simmer and melt into the sauce.  Adding crushed red pepper is optional as it made the sauce nice and spicy, as I like it.  I used a gluten-free brown rice pasta, which to my surprise tasted very good with the eggplant sauce.  And I didn’t miss not topping my pasta with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano!

Pasta alla Simmered Norma

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion finely chopped

1 28 oz can crushed tomato sauce, I used Organic Muir Glen

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed, about 4 cups

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 teaspoon dried basil

2 cloves garlic minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

1 cup gluten-free brown rice pasta (or your choice or pasta)

In a medium –large saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the onions stirring often to soften, but not color the onions.  Add the sauce and remaining ingredients, except the pasta.  Simmer on medium low for about 45 minutes or until the sauce thickens and the eggplant cooks and softens into the sauce.

Meanwhile, prepare the pasta in plenty of boiling water until al dente.  Drain pasta and add to the eggplant sauce.  Serve immediately.

Mediterranean Pork Chops

Hot and fast, tender pork chops simmered in a creamy light tomato sauce.   This is a very easy weeknight dinner that can I can pull together quickly with staple pantry ingredients.  While I  normally purchase boneless pork chops for preparing quick dishes, these center cut pork chops can be made as easily requiring just slightly longer cooking time.  Pork chops on the bone seem more rustic, comfort dining to me, but I would serve this to guests as well as the pork is so extremely flavorful and tender.

Mediterranean Pork Chops

4 center cut pork chops about 1/2 inch thick, trimmed of excess fat
Italian seasoning mix (see below)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion thinly sliced
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup water, chicken stock or white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup heavy cream

Italian Seasoning Mix:
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon black pepper

Combine seasoning mix in a small container; not all will be used, save the remaining for other dishes in an airtight container for up to 3 months.  Season each pork chop well with the mixture, rubbing it into the meat on both sides. 

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add pork chops to the pan and allow to cook for about 3 minutes or until the chops can be turned easily, without sticking, and are nicely browned.  Turn pork chops over and cook for an additional 3 minutes.  Remove from the pan to a plate.

Add in thinly sliced onions and diced tomatoes, stirring well to combine and scraping bottom of the pan.  Stir in the cream and return the pork chops to the pan, turning once to coat both sides with the sauce.  Partially cover the pan and allow to simmer for about 25 minutes, occasionally turning the pork chops.  Plate pork chops spooning sauce over each chop.

Tomato, Basil Mozzarella Tart with Pesto Crust

The classic tomato, basil and mozzarella baked in a pesto tart!  I served this as an appetizer to a grilled steak dinner.  Instead of cutting into wedges, I cut into squares as finger food serving it at room temperature.  The pesto crust complimented the mozzarella and fresh vine ripened tomatoes.  I wasn’t sure how adding pesto to my basic crust recipe would work, but it turned about amazing!  I like to use Martha Stewart’s Pate Brisee (basic pie crust) recipe as my go to recipe.  I find it always turns out perfect!  This crust recipe will make two crusts, therefore, I froze the other one for future use.

This could be served warm as well with a tossed salad as a lunch or brunch entre.  I love gorgonzola and thought of adding it to the tart; however, I was not familiar with my guests preferences and decided to keep it safe and classic.

Tomato, Basil Mozzarella Tart with Pesto Crust

For the Crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I substituted in 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces
1/4 cup pesto
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

For the Filling:
8 oz sliced fresh mozzarella
3 vine ripe tomatoes, cut into thin slices
Fresh basil, small bunch finely sliced
Salt, pepper and garlic powder

For the crust:  Make sure all ingredients are cold.  Put the flour and salt into a food processor and pulse to combine.  Add the pieces of butter and pesto pulsing for about 10 seconds or until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Slowly add the ice water through the feed tube while the machine is running until the dough begins to clump together.  I generally only use 1/4 of a cup of water.  Do not over process.

Divide the dough in half and place on two sheets of plastic wrap.  Gently form dough into a ball and flatten a bit.  Wrap each in the plastic wrap and refrigerate one to use for this tart for one hour and freeze the other.  The dough can be made ahead and refrigerated up to one day.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Take the chilled dough and turn it out onto a floured rolling mat or large piece of plastic wrap.  Lightly flour the rolling pin and press down on the dough.  Roll out the dough from the center out, continuing to turn and flip the dough.   When the dough is rolled out to fit the tart pan, gently transfer dough on rolling pin to the tart pan (sprayed with Pam) and press into the sides and bottom gently.

Prebake the pastry shell by lining the crust with aluminum foil and weighing down with beans, rise or ceramic weights.  Bake for 15-18 minutes until pastry begins to brown around the edges, remove the foil and continue to bake a few minutes more to dry out and brown slightly.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.  Maintain oven temperature.

Place the mozzarella slices evenly on the bottom of the crust.  Sprinkle on chopped fresh basil and season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  Top with tomato slices and sprinkle on a bit more pepper and basil.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes or keep at room temperature for up to 4 hours.

Chicken & Eggplant Cutlets with Caprese Topping

This dish is a medley of tastes and textures; a wonderful mix of warm and cold, healthy and light.  With a minimum of prep work and my favorite method for making cutlets, I can enjoy this easily on a weeknight.  Candles lit, slightly chilled white wine; perfect for end of summer alfresco dining.  It almost sounds romantic; however, this dinner was only for me..but why not treat myself special!!!

Chicken & Eggplant Cutlets with Caprese Topping

4 boneless chicken breats, pounded to even thickness
1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced longwise into 1/2 inch slabs, 4 slices
1 1/2 cups fine breadcrumbs
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
salt & pepper
2 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon dried oregano or fresh parsley
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
8 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with foil or use a slipat.  Lightly brush with olive oil.  Creating a breading station, place the beaten eggs and milk in one pie plate and the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, salt & pepper in another.  Begin with the eggplant and dip into the egg and then the breadcrumbs.  Place the eggplant slices on one baking sheet.  Continue with the chicken and place on another baking sheet.  Drizzle lightly olive oil over all the cutlets.  Put both into the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes.  The bottom of the chicken and eggplant should be nicely browned.  Turn the cutlets over and return to oven to finish baking about another 15 minutes.

While the chicken and eggplant cutlets are baking, mix together the tomatoes and mozzarella, a pinch of salt and pepper to taste.  Allow to marry the flavor and set aside until ready to plate. 

To plate the dish, place arugula on each dinner plate.  Drizzle on a little vinaigrette.  Top with one eggplant cutlet and place a chicken cutlet on top of the eggplant.  Spoon on the tomato and mozzarella dividing among the dishes.  Drizzle on additional vinaigrette.  Serve at once.  Serves 4.