Monday, October 27, 2014

My ode to 'Under the Tuscan Sun': Handcrafted Limoncello {a DIY Christmas}


I fell in love with Tuscany in 2003.

That’s the year that “Under the Tuscan Sun” hit the theaters. Being a Diane Lane fan since I first saw her play Lauren in “A little Romance,” I’ve seen most, if not all, of her films. This one, well, this one has become one of those films that I go back to and watch again every couple of months.

Do you have films like that? I have several. All romance. Why is that?



Anyway, “Tuscan” reminds me that even when you think your life is unraveling, it’s actually just revealing who you really are and where you’re supposed to be; it’s in the unexpected that we have the potential to find ourselves and the happiness that we might be too afraid to wish for.

There are, of course, several cooking scenes that I love. Watching as she nourishes herself by preparing huge family-style meals for her newly made family of strangers is the way I feel cooking for friends. It’s a trait I inherited from my parents.

One day, Diane’s character, Frances, heads into town to look for something she needs for her new Tuscan villa's renovation when she becomes the center of unwanted cat-calls from a group of unsavory looking men. In a panic, she grabs the first normal (handsome) Italian man who walks by, plants a kiss on his check and pretends she was waiting for him all along. The cat-calling men walk away disappointed. This young man, Marcello, then proceeds to pick her up. They wind up at his family’s bar on the beach in Positano, enjoying a family meal when he asks someone to pass a bottle of limoncello:

“Did you ever taste this?” Marcello asks. (Now, you need to read his lines with an Italian accent!)

“What is it?” asks Frances.

“It’s limoncello. We made this.”

“You made it?”

“Yeah,” says Marcello. “We take the lemon, and, um, we take off the skin of the lemon, and uh, then we put in the bottle with ¾ of alcohol and ¼ of sugar. And, uh, you put the skin of the lemon in the bottle and, uh, you leave it until it’s the right color. And, uh,” Marcello let’s out a nervous laugh, “I forget the rest. Just try it.”

Frances takes a sip.

“Do you like it?” asks Marcello.

Smiling, Frances answers, “I like it.”

Limoncello. I was intrigued. I had not heard of it before but I knew I had to try it. I went out to the market that following weekend and bought a small bottle of it, brought it home, poured a glass and immediately gasped. That was not what I was expecting! It was strong! I later learned you’re supposed to serve it ice cold, keeping it, like vodka, in the freezer. You’re also supposed to sip it, not drink it like you’re quenching your thirst. My second try was a much better experience and by the third taste, I was hooked! It also became a favorite addition to recipes while cooking.

More on that another time.

For now, well …

Just try it.

A DIY Christmas

I’ve been wanting to make limoncello for Christmas gifts for years. With the success of last year’s DIY Christmas of Homemade Never-ending Vanilla Extract behind me, I decided this was the year for limoncello. Now, limoncello takes a little time and patience to make but once you get the first, more labor-intensive steps out of the way, it’s basically a do it and forget about it project. Well, at least for a few weeks until it’s time for part two and then again when it’s time for part three. You see, Marcello’s abbreviated description of his family’s recipe for this smooth (albeit, a little strong!) sweet and lemony elixir is not far off the mark. You basically steep lemon peels in a grain alcohol for 2 to 4 weeks, remove the peels, add simple syrup and let that rest for 3 to 6 weeks before bottling. So if you’d like to make this for Christmas gifts, you’ll need to get started in the next week or two.


I used organic lemons to ensure that there was no pesticide on the lemon skins and gave them a good wash before peeling. Some recipes call for vodka, others opt for Everclear to get the purest flavor. I used three 750ml bottles of 151 proof Everclear that happened to be on sale at BevMo. I found a good lemon to bottle ratio is 10 lemons to every 750ml of alcohol. Be prepared for the most awesome, lingering, lemony scent to fill your kitchen as you peel lemons!


Last year for the vanilla extract, I bought my bottles from Specialty Bottle. They worked out great so I went back there to look for bottles for my limoncello. Typically, it’s served as an apéritif, ice cold straight from the freezer in a chilled shot glass and sipped. Since I am planning on giving this as gifts, I wanted it to feel like a substantial gift and decided that I needed to give at least 16 ounces away. Specialty Bottle has a 17 ounce swing-top bottle for $2.56 but it’s square and aesthetically – because I’m all about packaging – a square bottle wasn’t what I wanted. A quick Google search later, I wound up at Northern Brewer and found exactly what I wanted: 16 ounce round bottles with a swing-top cap sold in cases of 12 which brings the price per bottle down to $2.25. Compare that to a 17 ounce swing-top bottle at Container store that sells for $4.99 each and it’s a total steal!


For tags, I opted to design my own on plain card stock, hand cutting them to size and tying them to the bottles using baker’s twine. This way, the bottles can be re-used by the recipient for whatever they like without having to bother with scrapping off adhesive.


After adding up my expenses, I think I’ve made out pretty well. I have 12 bottles to gift and my price per gift is just at the $10 mark. I am pretty excited to gift these and hoping that the friends that receive these bottles of lemony yum enjoy them as much as I enjoyed the process of making it for them.


So, are you ready to make some limoncello? Let’s do this!


HANDCRAFTED LIMONCELLO

I am giving directions for one batch which will yield approximately 2 liters of finished limoncello. I tripled this recipe. Just a side note, I found it fascinating when I took the container out of the closet, how incredibly deep orangey-yellow it was. Then, upon removing the lemon peel, I was surprised to see how much the alcohol had robbed the peels of their yellow coloring. The Everclear did an excellent job of extracting all that lemony goodness from the peels.

Yield: approximately 1.5 liters

INGREDIENTS
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10 organic lemons, washed
750ml bottle Everclear, 151 proof (or substitute 100 proof vodka)
4 cups water
3 cups sugar

DIRECTIONS
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Part 1 …

1. Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel the yellow skin from the lemons. Instead of peeling them like potatoes, pushing the peeler away from you in an uncontrolled manner, gently pull the peeler toward you, rotating the lemon away from as you do so. This will help you control the peel, allowing for a longer, more paper thin peel, avoiding the white pith. If the peel has white pith on it, use a parring knife to gently scrape the white away. Drop peels into a one gallon container with a tight fitting lid. Repeat with remaining lemons.

2. Add the alcohol to the container with the lemon peels making sure to cover all the peels. Attach lid and store in a cool, dark cabinet to steep for a minimum of 2 weeks and up to 30 days.

Part 2 …

3. At the end of the steeping period, place a colander or large sieve in an extra large bowl and pour the lemon steeped alcohol in to strain out the lemon peels. Use a wooden spoon to squeeze any alcohol from the peels; discard peels and set bowl aside.

4. Pour the water into a large saucepan, add the sugar and simmer on medium until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally to keep from burning. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

5. Rinse out the container you used to steep the lemons. Place a coffee filter lined sieve over the container and working in batches, carefully pour in the strained alcohol. Replace coffee filter with a clean one and repeat process for the simple syrup, adding it to the alcohol.

6. Gently stir the limoncello with a wooden spoon, seal the lid and return to a dark cabinet to rest for at least 3 weeks and up to 40 days.

Part 3 …

7. Place a coffee filter lined funnel into a clean bottle. Slowly pour in the limoncello. Seal bottle and decorate with a tag instructing recipient to store the limoncello in the freezer and to serve in chilled shot glasses. Repeat until your limoncello is all bottled up and ready to give away. Store bottles in a cool, dark cabinet until it’s time to gift.

Until next time … Bottoms up!
xo, Ani

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Kale Orange Almond Salad with Orange Marmalade Dressing


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"Use what you have, use what the world gives you. Use the first day of fall: bright flame before winter's deadness; harvest; orange, gold, amber; cool nights and the smell of fire. Our tree-lined streets are set ablaze, our kitchens filled with the smells of nostalgia: apples bubbling into sauce, roasting squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider, warmth itself. The leaves as they spark into wild color just before they die are the world's oldest performance art, and everything we see is celebrating one last violently hued hurrah before the black and white silence of winter."
-Shauna Niequist
Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace,
and Learning the Hard Way

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KALE ORANGE ALMOND SALAD WITH ORANGE MARMALADE DRESSING

I give you permission to play with your food with this recipe: We’re massaging kale today. Massaging breaks down the cellulose structure of kale, turning it from a tough, fibrous, bitter green to a sweeter, silkier, darker green that is infinitely tastier than it’s pre-massaged state. Raw kale haters might even become raw kale lovers after tasting this salad. You can use your favorite brand of marmalade here; I opted for sugar-free. 
Author: Anita L. Arambula
Yield: 4 serving

INGREDIENTS
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1 bunch curly kale (about 5 cups)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 green onion, white and green, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sugar-free orange marmalade
pinch each sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large orange, peeled, segmented and cubed
¼ cup roasted almonds, chopped

DIRECTIONS
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1. Remove and discard large center stem from kale leaves. Chop or tear leaves into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Fill bowl with water, covering kale and swooshing leaves to remove any dirt. Set aside to allow dirt to settle to bottom of bowl.

2. Fill a mason jar with the vinegar, oil, garlic, ginger, green onion, marmalade, salt and pepper. Screw lid on tightly and shake jar well until ingredients are mixed thoroughly and dressing has emulsified, about two minutes. 

3. Carefully lift out the kale leaves from the water bath and place into a salad spinner or use a towel to dry kale. Transfer kale to a serving bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the kale and using both hands, massage the dressing into the kale by picking up handfuls of the leaves and rubbing them together. As you rub, you’ll notice the leaves getting softer, shrinking in size and becoming darker in color. Massage leaves for a full 3 minutes, then taste. If the kale is still bitter, continue massaging for another minute or two, adjusting seasoning if needed. 

4. Toss in the orange cubes and the almonds until coated well with dressing. Divide salad between four bowls and serve.

Note: Add diced chicken to up the protein and make this an entrée. 


Calories 221; Total Fat 16.6g; Saturated Fat 3.2g; Cholesterol 0mg; Sodium 148mg; Potassium 488mg; Total Carbohydrates 17.2g; Dietary Fiber 3.1g; Sugars 4.7g; Protein 3.9g; Vitamin A 209%; Vitamin C 176%; Calcium 13%; Iron 9%

Happy fall, everyone. 
XO, Ani


Monday, October 13, 2014

Meatless Monday: Parmesan and Panko-Crusted Eggplant with Arugula Salad

Though available year-round, heart-heatlhy eggplant is at its best when in season which is now through October. Standing in for meat, these satisfying eggplant 'steaks' are packed with flavor and antioxidants making them a healthy and delicious Meatless Monday meal in under 45 minutes. 


As I stood at the kitchen sink washing the eggplant, listening to the dueling TV shows playing in the background — one my Auntie had on in the living room and the other my grandmother had on in her bedroom just off of the kitchen — I distinctly remember thinking, “There’s absolutely no way my father would ever consider this meal that I’m about to make ‘dinner.’ ”

With that passing thought, I was lost in memories of my childhood. Examining it now through the filter of adulthood, it’s easier to understand the force that is my father. Growing up, I was both in awe and in fear of him. But with like most people, once you start to peel back the protective layers, you are able to see so much more.

Dad worked very hard doing physically taxing jobs in order to support his ever-growing family. For most of my childhood, he was a carpet layer, then later a machinist. A work ethic like I’ve never seen since, I hardly ever remember him calling in sick no matter how ill he might have been. Mental health days? Unheard of. Most of the jobs he had didn't have sick leave. So whether it was waking up at 4am to go to work or coming home at 4am from work, he bore his responsibilities better than I could have at his age. By the time he was 25 years old, he had a wife, a mortgage and three daughters 5 and under to take care of (with two more daughters to come while in his 30s).


My childhood is a study in contrasts. Dad had a child-like zest for pranks: there were summer days he would come home from work, walk through the door, hands in pockets waiting for us girls to run up and greet him and before the first of us reached him, out would come his hands holding two fully filled water guns and we’d get squirted all the while laughing and squealing in delight while running away from him as he chased us around the living and dinning rooms, through the kitchen, down the hall and back again. My mother, as we ran past her, would in turn, hand us plastic tumblers half-filled with water for us to get Daddy back, never mind that the water left puddles everywhere, which she would be left to mop up.


Other days, he would come home so tired and incredibly cranky, wanting nothing but to be left alone to watch the news while waiting for dinner. We knew on those days that we had to remain as quiet as possible, tip-toeing around, using only our “inside” voices.

As for dinner, 75 percent of the time, meat was the centerpiece, just as Dad liked it. A meal wasn't really a meal if it didn't have meat. Red meat, usually. Considering how expensive meat is now and how expensive it had to have been back then, especially buying enough to feed a family of five, and later, seven, I’m in awe of how my parent’s managed. Most manual labor jobs don’t pay nearly as well as desk jobs tend to pay. But they managed. Better than I could have. Pepper steak. Hamburgers with huge steak fries. Corned beef hash with tons of potatoes and eggs. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Carne asada with freshly made tortillas. Hamburger Helper with Rice-a-roni, These were the midweek meals of my childhood. And during the leaner times, it was sometimes breakfast for dinner or freshly made frijoles de olla (a big pot of pinto beans), rice and homemade flour tortillas.


No matter how lean work was for my father, we never missed a meal. We never knew that there was a financial reason behind breakfast for dinner. We only knew that dad was home from work and dinner was at 5. There would be time enough to learn how hard providing for a family really was. Back then, it was simply more important for my parents to let us have a childhood of full bellies and great memories of surprise water gun attacks.

Until next time, friends. Happy Meatless Monday.
xo, Ani


EGGPLANT STEAKS WITH FRESH ARUGULA SALAD

Inspired by a video I saw on Martha Stewart’s website, this eggplant is cooked to just golden brown and just barely fork tender so that they retain their firmness, giving them a more “meaty” quality. For this reason, don’t skip the sweating step. The salt will draw out any bitterness, leaving you with a better tasting steak. Sweating also helps to keep the eggplant from absorbing some of the oil. As for the skin, leave it on; it's filled with nutrients including fiber. I’ve tweaked the ingredients ever so slightly, first leaving out the flouring stage to keep the carb count down (be sure to pat the steaks dry VERY well before dipping in egg), then including Trader Joe's Parmesan/Romano blend in my breading (to help slow down the absorption of carbohydrates from the breading while also adding a big punch of flavor) and switching from regular panko bread crumbs to a whole wheat panko which has a slower glycemic load. Feel free to skip the pan frying and instead, spray the steaks with a little olive oil and roast them in a 400 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until desired doneness, flipping them halfway through cooking. Since my low carb eating plan allows for heart healthy fats in moderation, I have no problem with the occasional shallow pan frying. Added bonus: This is an inexpensive dinner for a party of eight paired with the addition of grilled asparagus and finished with a low carb dessert, like my Skinny Brownies. This recipe can easily be halved.

Makes 8 servings

INGREDIENTS
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2 large eggplants
sea salt, as needed
1 cup whole wheat Panko
½ cup grated Parmesan/Romano blend
1 whole egg
1 tablespoon Greek yogurt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for dressing
1 packed cup of arugula, or more, per person
¼ lemon per person
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS
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1. Wash and dry eggplant. Cut the top, stem part, off. Cut a an ⅛ to a ¼ off the bottom. Stand the eggplant up, newly sliced bottom down. Thinly slice off some skin on one side of the eggplant, exposing some flesh; repeat on the opposite side (this will allow the egg and breading to have something to adhere to). Starting at the top, diagonal to the exposed flesh, slice the eggplant into for equal "steaks" (about an inch thick). Lay eggplant on cutting board and generously salt both sides of every steak. Stand the steaks upright in a colander an allow to drain for 30 minutes. Repeat with second eggplant.

2. Measure out the cheese blend and Panko into a shallow dish large enough to accommodate an eggplant steak; set aside.

3. Crack an egg into a shallow dish large enough to accommodate an eggplant steak. Whisk in the yogurt until well incorporated; set aside.

4. Rinse the eggplant steaks well, then dry completely, applying a little pressure to soak up any excess water in each slice. Dip a steak into the egg mixture, then hold it vertically over the bowl to allow excess egg to drip off; place the steak on the bread crumb mixture. Using a tablespoon, cover the eggplant with bread crumbs then use the palm of your hand to press the eggplant into the bread crumbs. Flip steak and press the second side. Place dredged eggplant onto a large plate or sheet pan. Repeat with remaining steaks. 

5. Line a sheet pan or large platter with paper towels; set aside.

6. Pour ¼ cup of olive oil into a 10 inch wide frying pan and place on medium heat. Test the oil by submerging the handle of a wooden spoon or the thick part of a wooden chopstick into the oil. If it bubbles rapidly around the edges, oil is ready. Carefully slip in one steak, then a second steak. Fry until golder brown, approximately 5 minutes then use a spatula to carefully flip the steaks over and fry for additional 5 minutes or until golden. Remove to the towel lined pan to drain. Repeat with remaining eggplant, frying no more than two steaks at a time to keep the oil temperature from dropping. Add additional oil as needed. 

6. Place a steak on a plate, add a cup of arugula partially covering the eggplant. Squeeze a lemon quarter over the arugula and eggplant. Drizzle the greens with about ½ teaspoon of extra virgin olive and finish with a pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste. Serve.

• High in fiber
• High in vitamin C

Note: Nutritional analysis is an approximation calculated using a free online tool. This was calculated for a single serving of one steak and 1 cup of salad.