Cooking

Banana Walnut Bread

By Barbara Beltrami

Rich in fiber and potassium, bananas are considered a healthful addition to most diets and a quick and satisfying snack. However I don’t usually get excited about them. If I do condescend to eat one, it must be just this side of ripe, firm with just a touch of green near the ends. On the other hand, my husband loves bananas that are just this side of rotten, soft and brown and begging for a visit from fruit flies. Those are the ones I use in recipes.

All that being said, I must confess that there are a couple of versions of bananas that I sometimes actually get a craving for. One is a banana on a popsicle stick, dipped in chocolate sauce and put in the freezer. Try that for a summer treat. Another is banana walnut bread, a comfort food if there ever was one. A third is Bananas Foster, a caramel-y dessert made with split bananas cooked with butter and brown sugar in a skillet, a heavely topping for whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. And how about banana-butterscotch cookies, a (somewhat) healthful goody that can be especially appreciated and popular with even the younger set of avowed junk foodies. Come to think of it, maybe I do like bananas!

Banana Walnut Bread

This recipe comes from one of those spiral bound cookbooks put out by some organization that my mother belonged to many many years ago. Although it is torn and tattered, I still cherish it for this recipe and a few others.

Banana Walnut Bread

YIELD: Makes 10 to 12 servings

INGREDIENTS:

½ cup shortening

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, well beaten

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

3 ripe bananas, mashed

¼ cup chopped walnuts

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan. In large mixing bowl, combine shortening, sugar and eggs. Sift together the flour and baking soda and add to wet mixture. Stir in bananas and walnuts. Pour into greased loaf pan and bake one hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm with butter, cream cheese or jam and hot tea or coffee.

Bananas Foster

This dish originated in New Orleans in the 1950s and is traditionally made with a rum flambé. Playing with fire makes me nervous so I leave out the flambé part and just add a splash of rum to the bananas in the skillet right before serving.

Bananas Foster

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

Half a stick of unsalted butter

4 bananas, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise

1½ cups brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of salt

2 ounces rum (optional)

One pint vanilla ice cream or 1 pint heavy cream, whipped

DIRECTIONS: In large skillet melt butter over medium heat. Gently add bananas; cook over medium heat until golden, about two minutes; gently turn and cook other side until golden, about two minutes. (Don’t worry if they break; they’ll still taste wonderful!). Remove from skillet and set aside to keep warm. Add brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt to skillet and cook, stirring constantly, over low heat about two minutes. Turn off heat, add rum to skillet, if using, stir, and stand back in case it flames. Return bananas to skillet and gently spoon sauce over them. Place a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream in four dessert dishes. Top with bananas and sauce and serve immediately with vanilla wafers or ginger snaps.

Banana Butterscotch Cookies

I’ve had this recipe a long time, and as with so many old recipes, I can’t remember who gave it to me. There’s something about the combination of bananas and butterscotch that is absolutely intoxicating, especially as the cookies are baking.

Banana Butterscotch Cookies

YIELD: Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

INGREDIENTS:

2½ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¾ cup white granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

²⁄₃ cup unsalted butter

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Two very ripe bananas, mashed

2 cups butterscotch chips

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease cookie sheet. Sift together the flour, salt, baking power and baking soda. Cream together both sugars and the butter until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs and vanilla and combine with dry ingredients. Add mashed banana and butterscotch chips and stir in thoroughly. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes. Place on rack to cool before serving.

MELTology owners Nick Mauceri and Kevin Muller. Photo by Kevin Redding

With the newly opened MELTology in Mount Sinai, two young business partners and former Friendly’s employees bring their fresh, experimental take on a classic comfort food to the North Shore.

The cafe-style sandwich spot, serving variations of grilled cheese, among other standard items like burgers and chicken sandwiches, marks co-owner Kevin Muller’s fourth — and most ambitious — venture in the restaurant business.

Menu options at MELTology include various grilled cheese mash-ups. Photo from MELTology

After his first restaurant in Selden, Simple Smoothie Cafe, buckled under the pressures of surrounding competition in 2012 — with nearby Tropical Smoothies and Red Mangos making his “no-name brand” obsolete — the 30-year-old Patchogue resident drove up and down North Country Road to get a grasp of what foods were most popular among locals, while brainstorming what new flavors he could bring to the area.

“I was losing big time, and I had to figure something else out,” Muller recalled, saying he had to go back to his old job at Friendly’s just to pay rent month after month while his first business went under. “I was just thinking ‘what can I do differently?’”

Just a few months later, after crafting his own spin on his grandmother’s Italian crepes recipe, Muller found great success with Crazy Crepe Cafe, bringing all variations of the traditional treat to four different locations: Selden, Mount Sinai, Smithtown and Lake Ronkonkoma. In the midst of that, he also opened up an East End food truck business in 2016.

Alongside Crazy Crepe manager and former Friendly’s co-worker Nick Mauceri, 25, Muller recently decided to convert his Crazy Crepe in Mount Sinai into MELTology, to try and reach a different market and more of the general public.

“We paired up the grilled cheeses with the dessert crepes and it works really well together, and [in a few weeks] we’re going to bring our burgers from our food truck and combine that to make grilled cheese burgers … we love seeing the place packed and everyone enjoying the food,” Muller said.

MELTology is located at 5507 Suite 16 Nesconset Highway in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kevin Redding

Mauceri, who said the MELTology idea started back when they worked at Friendly’s and were experimenting with the food chain’s super melt sandwiches, can’t believe how quickly the community has taken to the new restaurant — even despite its Friday the 13th opening in January.

“Luckily, everything went off without a hitch [opening day],” he said. “It’s something that’s catching on really quickly, but we couldn’t have known that it was going to be this fast. We get a great sense of pride from it, especially when you get to talk to people who say they’re really enjoying what they just ate.”

According to the owners, such menu picks like the “Chicken Parm Melt” sandwich, made up of melted mozzarella, chicken strips and marinara sauce on parmesan-crusted sourdough bread, and the “Sweetness Melt,” which features applewood smoked bacon and maple syrup, sets MELTology apart from similar sandwich spots in the area.

Kevin put himself through college at SUNY Polytechnic Institute while working, climbing the ladder from employee to general manager, and saving money to start his own business, he said, and has utilized his business degree well. With Crazy Crepes, Muller did all his own training, made his own menus and even did all the marketing.

John Muller, Kevin’s father, called his son a “workaholic.”

MELTology will still have Crazy Crepe desert options on the menu. Photo from MELTology

“I’m very proud of him, obviously, and for someone who started with only a couple thousand dollars and is now running and owning four restaurants, he’s doing really well,” John Muller said. “He’s entrepreneurial — owning a business is something he’s always wanted to do.”

MELTology, located at 5507 Nesconset Highway Suite 16, is open 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Menu items range frlom a classic grilled-cheese sandwich ($4.95); chicken parm melt ($6.95); and “Kitchen Cinque” sandwich, a multilayered melt of Parmesan-crusted sourdough, melted Cheddar, Gruyère, American, pepper jack and apple-wood smoked bacon with a slice of tomato ($6.95). Sides like mac & cheese ($2.50) and soup ($3.99/cup, $5.99/bread bowl) are coming soon. Crazy Crepe sweet crepes that have made the menu include the Dirty Banana, Oreo Crepe, S’mores Crepe, Peanute Butter Cup Crepe and Apple Pie Crepe. Prices Range from $6.95 to $7.95. Milkshakes in vanilla, chocolate, nutella, oreo and peanut butter cup are also available ($4.50).

Takeout can also be ordered online.

For more information, call (631) 509 0331 or visit www.meltology.

Do your kids love to cook? The Chai Center, 501 Vanderbilt Parkway, Dix Hills will hold a cooking class, Kids in the Kitchen, for children ages 8 to 12 on Tuesdays, March 7, 14 and 21 from 5 to 6 p.m. Learn how to make some great kid-approved dishes such as personal pizzas, waffles and cookies in a large state-of-the-art kitchen. Fee is $20 per class, $55 for all three classes. Advance registration is required. Register online at www.thechaicenter.com or call 631-351-8672.

Banana Oatmeal Muffins with Chocolate Chips

By Barbara Beltrami

I like to think of muffins as healthful cupcakes. Basically individual-sized quick breads, they seem to be synonymous with comfort and warmth and coziness and goodness. According to Wikipedia, the word “muffin” first appeared in 1703 as “moofen,” possibly a derivative of the low German “muffen,” the plural of small cake. That sounds viable. Whatever their derivation, they’ve become a staple of the roster of edibles that Americans have come to think of as the companions for their coffee or tea, the takeout breakfast goodies that make getting up in the morning a worthwhile exercise.

Like many good-for-you foods that I write about, muffins can be adaptable to what you have on hand and what your tastes dictate. Below is a basic recipe for sweet muffins to get you started. I’ve also included a couple of my favorite muffin recipes that are a little different from the basic one. I can pretty much guarantee that when you slip these into the oven on a cold winter morning, the aroma will elicit smiles and maybe even a little conversation from the usual grumps and grouches.

Basic Sweet Muffin Recipe

YIELD: Makes 12 muffins

INGREDIENTS:

¾ cup whole wheat flour

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup milk

½ cup honey

One egg, well beaten

1/3 cup oil

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 400 F. Stir together both flours, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, thoroughly mix milk, honey, egg and oil. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and add liquid mixture. Stir until just moistened. Let rest for one minute. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin pans two-thirds full. Bake 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve with butter, jam, honey or cream cheese.

Banana Oatmeal Muffins

Banana Oatmeal Muffins with Chocolate Chips

I don’t remember where this recipe came from — I just know I’ve been making it for years and it’s always a hit. Sometimes I add a cup of chopped nuts or chocolate chips; sometimes I don’t.

YIELD: Makes about 14 muffins

INGREDIENTS:

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup quick-cooking oatmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

One egg, well beaten

½ cup milk

1/3 cup oil

2/3 cup mashed ripe banana

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 400 F. Stir together the flour, oatmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, mix the egg, milk, oil and banana and add to dry mixture. Stir until just moistened. Let sit for one minute. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin pans two-thirds full. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve with butter, honey, jam, peanut butter or cream cheese.

Pineapple Ginger Almond Muffins

Pineapple Ginger Almond Muffins

With the tang of the pineapple, the zing of the ginger and the crunch of the almonds, these muffins are especially good with tea, but great with coffee too.

YIELD: Makes 16 to 18 muffins

INGREDIENTS:

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¾ teaspoon powdered ginger

One egg, well beaten

1 cup buttermilk

¼ cup oil

½ cup dark molasses

1 cup finely chopped canned pineapple, well drained and patted dry

1 cup toasted crushed sliced almonds

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 400 F. Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, cinnamon and ginger. Mix egg, buttermilk, oil and molasses and add to dry ingredients. Stir until just moistened. Gently fold in pineapple and almonds. Let sit one minute. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin pans two-thirds full. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve with butter, cream cheese, jam, honey or yogurt.

Suggestions and tips: Add half a cup to one cup of any of the following. (If adding more than one ingredient, adjust amount of each accordingly.)

Chopped walnuts, almonds or pecans

Raisins or other dried fruit(chopped)

Pared, cored and grated apple or pear

Berries

Chocolate chips

For a nice surprise, fill muffin cups with half a cup of batter, add a heaping teaspoon of jam or brown sugar, then top with remaining batter.

A woman enjoys a bite at Our Table. Photo from Stacey Wohl.

Farm to table dining has become a popular trend, and one Fort Salonga spot intends to bring an even more localized experience to residents with Our Table.

Owner Stacey Wohl is recreating the space that has been known for the last year as Cause Café, a restaurant that offered jobs to young adults with cognitive and developmental disorders, such as autism. Our Table is not doing the same. Wohl said it was time for a change, and that change came in the form of Northport-native chef Michael Heinlein.

Heinlein came in as a guest chef while Wohl was still running the business as Cause Café, and brought up the idea of working together and creating an organic, healthy menu.

Stacey Wohl is trying a new venture, leaving Cause Café behind. Photo from Stacey Wohl.

Wohl loved the idea. “I eat organic, I eat healthy food and it’s very difficult if you’re trying to eat gluten free or organic to take your kids anywhere to go out to eat — there’s very few places to go,” she said. “What we’re trying to do here is offer a nightlife place where you can meet a friend or go on a date while also having a healthy meal — instead of going to health food stores to eat clean.”

Heinlein, a Northport High School graduate, said the menu is more than just farm to table because of where the company will get its ingredients.

“Everybody uses the term farm to table and I think it’s kind of overused — I think it’s more local to table than anything,” Heinlein said in an interview.

And Our Table intends to bring local products, currently getting produce from farms on Eastern Long Island, but planning to buy from the Northport Farmers Market once the season begins. All the seafood is wild caught instead of farm raised, and the beef is grass fed. Wohl said the pair also intends to offer biodynamic local wine, meaning wine with grapes that are grown organically without the use of pesticides.

Wohl said Our Table’s menu is diverse and offers something for everyone.

“Michael is very eclectic and creative, he draws from a lot of different global influences,” she said. “There’s so many flavors going off in your mouth at once — he’s just using a lot of creative foods and ingredients. It’s food that’s going to make you feel good.” Items include jumbo lump crab cakes and deconstructed chicken tamales.

Heinlein agreed he thinks people will enjoy his menu.

“It’s a good mix of the healthy grains and other ingredients, while still getting that fun fine-dining experience,” he said.

Wohl said Our Table also has an in-house pastry chef to make fresh desserts.

“You’re not coming in here and getting a frozen piece of cheesecake,” she said.

Our Table is set to launch this weekend, with hours from 5 to 10 p.m. daily and Sunday brunch. The restaurant is located at 1014 Fort Salonga Road.

Portuguese Kale Soup

By Barbara Beltrami

Oh, come on! You must have known it was only a matter of time before I, your friendly local recipe writer, zeroed in on that magic new gastronomic and health phenomenon, that newly popular, recently discovered among health-conscious Americans veggie … kale!

Basically a kind of cabbage that doesn’t form a head but produces lots of leaves, some variety of kale is a staple of many European, Asian and African diets. Rich in vitamins, especially vitamin K, which has been found to help blood clotting, this dark green (or sometimes other color) veggie can now be found on supermarket shelves as well as restaurant menus.

Kale is not new to me, however. My mother, who had a knack for finding and cooking what were many decades ago obscure vegetables, made kale regularly. That is, she boiled it. Period. So it wasn’t one of my favorites.

Fast forward several decades and cookbooks, websites and home making magazines are rife with recipes for kale paired with every conceivable as well as some very inconceivable ingredients. Because it is a little bitter and tough by itself, it is best prepared by removing its stems and pairing it with flavors that complement it.

With apologies to my mother, I offer you kale salad,  Portuguese kale soup and kale chips.

Kale, Orange, Avocado and Pignoli Salad

The rough texture of the kale, the tanginess of the orange, the creaminess of the avocado and crunchiness of the pignoli nuts converge on the palate for an interesting taste sensation.

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings.

INGREDIENTS:

One 12-ounce bag baby kale, washed, dried and de-stemmed

One large navel orange, peeled and diced

One avocado, peeled and sliced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons orange juice

1½ tablespoons wine vinegar

One tablespoon honey

One garlic clove

One teaspoon dried tarragon or one tablespoon fresh, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

½ cup toasted pignoli nuts

DIRECTIONS: Crush the kale leaves with your hands so that they wilt a little. Place in a large bowl and toss with orange and avocado. In a small bowl whisk together the oil, orange juice, wine vinegar, honey, garlic and tarragon. Remove and discard garlic. Gently toss liquid mixture with kale mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle pignoli nuts on top and serve immediately. Serve with crusty bread and a hard cheese or with any fish, chicken or meat dish.

Portuguese Kale Soup

Hearty as can be, this national comfort food of Portugal has many interpretations by Portuguese immigrants in America, and each one is better than the next. This recipe borrows ingredients from various versions that elaborate upon the basic “caldo verde,” which is potatoes and kale.

Portuguese Kale Soup

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.

INGREDIENTS:

8 ounces linguica or chorizo sausage, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

One large onion, peeled and diced

4 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

One pound kale, washed, de-stemmed and torn into pieces

2 quarts chicken broth

2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and diced

One 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

One 28-ounce can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Handful fresh flat leaf parsley, rinsed, de-stemmed and chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS: In a large pot over medium heat, brown the sausage slices. Add the olive oil and onion; stir over medium heat until onion is soft and slightly opaque. Add garlic, kale, broth and potatoes. Lower heat slightly and continue to cook until kale is wilted, then add remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, until potatoes are cooked through, about 20 minutes. Add water or more broth, if needed. Serve hot or refrigerate until used. Pair with Portuguese bread and olive oil.

Kale Chips

Amazingly easy and surprisingly delicious, these munchies are an excellent way to get kids to eat their veggies. In fact, I know of a certain little boy who became a convert from Pringles and Cheetos to kale chips!

YIELD: 2 to 4 servings.

INGREDIENTS:

One pound kale, washed, dried and de-stemmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 350 F. Toss kale with oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and bake 10 to 15 minutes until crispy. Serve with yogurt dip or hummus.

By Barbara Beltrami

It had been one of those days from hell — blustery, cold and wet. Battling the mall crowds had left me tired and cranky and both my stomach and I were grumbly. My feet hurt, my back ached and my head throbbed from the unavoidable, ubiquitous and ambient music that blared with a rock beat insistence. All I could think of was getting home, changing into my old jeans, a baggy sweater and fuzzy slippers and grabbing some crackers to assuage my hunger pangs before I collapsed.

But as I came in the door and dropped my shopping bags, an aroma redolent with veggies, onions and herbs greeted me. There simmering on the stove was the pot of soup I had made the day before, removed from the fridge by an elf (bless his husbandly heart) and set to simmer in anticipation of my return from my ill-advised expedition.

It was sipping (read slurping) that steaming bowl of soup that revived me and reassured me that there were still some things that hadn’t been commercialized and that homemade soup was one of them! I sat back, smiled contentedly and reflected on what a nice productive day I’d had and all the bargains I’d found on things I didn’t need. Soup has a way of doing that.

Ribollita

In Italian “ribollita” means reheated. (And doesn’t just about any respectable soup taste better the next day?) This one is chock full of kale, other veggies and beans and is a tribute to its name.

YIELD: Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

Two 28-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

8 cups chopped, well-washed trimmed lacinato kale*

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 ounces well-trimmed pancetta, julienned†

2 garlic cloves, minced

One 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes with their juice

4 medium celery stalks, thinly sliced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves or 2 teaspoons dried

8 cups broth

4 cups cubed crusty leftover bread

salt and pepper, to taste

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

DIRECTIONS: In a food processor, puree half the beans. Cover and set aside. In a large pot, bring 2 inches water to a boil. Arrange kale on a steamer rack; place in pot and cover with tight-fitting lid. Steam for 3 to 5 minutes, until almost tender. Place a pot or large saucepan (at least 6½ quarts) over medium heat, add olive oil and heat 45 seconds. Add onions, pancetta and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, one to two minutes, until onions are opaque. Stir in tomatoes with their juice, celery, carrots and sage. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender.

Add the pureed and whole beans, broth, kale to the tomato mixture. Bring the liquid to a boil; reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, about half an hour, until beans and kale are very tender and soup is thickened. Add bread cubes and cook 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper, if desired. Cool to room temperature; cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Half an hour before serving, reheat the soup over low heat to a gentle boil; stir frequently. Ladle into bowls and drizzle about half a tablespoon olive oil over each one

*Lacinato kale, a long-leafed dark green variety that resembles Romaine lettuce is preferable and available in most specialty markets, but the more familiar regular kale is okay if you can’t find it.

†Pancetta is Italian bacon available in most supermarket deli departments and certainly in Italian delis.

Cream of Tomato Soup

Warning: You’ll never be happy with the canned version once you’ve tasted this. And do I even need to say how great it is with a grilled cheese sandwich?

YIELD: Serves 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS:

3 tablespoons butter

½ cup chopped onion

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

2 cups water

½ bay leaf

1½ teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

Two 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes

Salt and pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS: In a large heavy pot or saucepan, melt the butter, then add the onion and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened but not browned. Add flour and continue to stir for another minute or two. Slowly add milk, bay leaf and sugar; continue to stir until slightly thickened. Stir the baking soda into the tomatoes, then add the tomatoes to the milk mixture and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer until heated through. Remove bay leaf and discard. Let cool about 15 to 20 minutes; puree in batches in food processor. Add seasonings and serve immediately or refrigerate and reheat before serving.

Lentil and Leek Soup

This hearty soup gets its zing from the addition of just a little vinegar, which acts as a flavor enhancer.

YIELD: Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

1 pound dried lentils, rinsed, drained and picked over

2½ quarts broth

4 carrots, peeled and diced

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 large rib celery, diced

3 medium leeks, thoroughly washed and sliced

1 bay leaf

1½ cups chopped tomatoes

1 cup juice from tomatoes

2 to 3 tablespoons wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 scallions, washed and thinly sliced

DIRECTIONS: Place lentils, broth, vegetables and bay leaf in a large nonreactive pot.Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes or until lentils and vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes, juice and, if soup seems too thick, water as needed. Cook 10 minutes. Add vinegar and oil. Stir; cook over low flame 5 minutes more. Remove bay leaf and discard. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with scallions.

By Barbara Beltrami

Nothing says “I love you” more than a home-cooked dinner on Valentine’s Day. Well, of course, there are certain tokens of love that come in tiny boxes, I suppose. Let’s not underestimate them! There are also dinners out in fancy restaurants with champagne, candlelight and bills the size of your mortgage payment, gargantuan heart-shaped boxes of chocolate that blow away your New Year’s diet resolutions, and sexy lingerie that may be anything but after you’ve eviscerated the box of chocolates.

Except for those tiny-boxed things, forget the other stuff. Get out the vacuum, throw all the usual clutter under the bed or in the hall closet, make yourself a shopping list, tie on an apron and whip up your own elegant candlelight dinner.

Chill the champagne and whip up an elegant and delicious dinner that won’t break the bank or your back. Leave time for a nice long bubble bath or shower and squeeze into that dress or suit you bought for that occasion last year and haven’t worn since.

Start with a dozen oysters (you know what they say about oysters!) and some champagne. Move on to citrus-flavored chicken with a nice dry white or red wine, and finish up with a chocolate-raspberry cake. And don’t forget to light the candles.

Oysters Rockefeller

They say these oysters are so named because they’re “as rich as Rockefeller.” Time to update the name maybe?

YIELD: Makes 2 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 tablespoons butter

One garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons bread crumbs

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 rounded tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

One shallot, peeled and minced

½ cup frozen chopped spinach, cooked

1 tablespoon anise liqueur

Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Dash hot pepper sauce

One dozen fresh oysters, opened on the half shell

2 cups kosher salt

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 450 F. Melt one tablespoon butter in small skillet. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and mix with bread crumbs, oil and Parmesan cheese. Melt remaining tablespoon butter in same skillet. Add shallot and spinach and cook, stirring frequently, until shallot becomes translucent, one to two minutes. Remove shallot and spinach.

Add liqueur to pan and stir to scrape up any browned bits. Stir in salt and pepper and hot pepper sauce, stirring constantly over low heat for 30 seconds. Add to bread crumb mixture. (There will probably be only a little bit); mix thoroughly.

Generously spread kosher salt around bottom of small shallow baking pan. Set oysters in salt and surround each one with enough salt to keep it from tilting. Distribute the spinach mixture evenly over oysters, then top with bread crumb mixture. Bake until tops are golden, about 10 minutes, but check often. Serve with lemon wedges and crusty bread.

Citrus Roasted Chicken

I wrote about this chicken almost two decades ago and when I run into people from way back then, they still mention how much they love this recipe. It’s also great re-heated the next day.

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

One 2-3 pound chicken, cut up

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

½ cup sugar 1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

One egg, beaten

¾ cup orange juice

¾ cup grapefruit juice

¼ cup dry white wine

½ cup toasted sliced almonds

One orange, sliced

Fresh parsley

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 350 F. Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in a shallow baking pan.

In a small or medium saucepan mix sugar and flower. Add egg, orange juice, grapefruit juice and wine. Stir thoroughly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is slightly thickened. Pour over chicken. Bake, uncovered for one hour or under tender and done.

Sprinkle with almonds. Garnish with fresh orange slices and parsley. Serve with rice, and a crisp green salad or cooked green vegetable such as broccoli or green beans.

Chocolate Fudge Cake with Strawberries

Chocolate and strawberries are so Valentine-y. If there are any leftovers, you can cut the cake into squares and pass it off to the kids as brownies.

YIELD: Makes 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

3 squares unsweetened baking chocolate

One stick unsalted butter

2 eggs

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup chocolate chips

One pint fresh strawberries, washed, dried, hulled and halved top to bottom

¼ cup currant jelly, melted

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease an 8-inch springform pan. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate squares and butter over low heat. Cool. In mixer bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the melted chocolate and butter; continue beating till blended. Stir in the flour and the vanilla extract. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth with spatula.

On outer rim of batter, sprinkle a one-inch-wide circle of the chocolate chips; then make a small circle of them in the middle. Bake 25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, then remove from pan. Arrange halved strawberries, cut side down, around remaining surface of cake, overlapping if necessary. Brush tops of strawberries with melted currant jelly.

Serve with sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and a nice cup of espresso.

Easy Buffalo Wings

By Barbara Beltrami

The big game on Feb. 5 is normally one of the most exciting events of the winter season. Bisecting the drab doldrums of January and February, it glues zealous sports fans to their TVs and ignites passionate tempers to not just a few expletives. In a feeding frenzy that alternately consoles and celebrates the vicissitudes of the afternoon’s plays, this annual game between the two best pro football teams evokes and stimulates the most American of appetites.

Although traditional fare is centered largely on some combo of spicy buffalo wings and blue cheese dips and spreads, many spinoffs of those flavors come to mind. There are Sloppy Joe’s, a goopy ground beef and barbecue sauce concoction served conventionally over open hamburger rolls, but just as good over toasted crusty bread.Then there are iceberg lettuce wedges with blue cheese dressing, bacon, cherry tomatoes and red onion. And because the day wouldn’t be complete without Buffalo something, here’s an easy recipe for wings.

Sloppy Joe’s

Sloppy Joes

YIELD: Serves 8

INGREDIENTS:

¼ cup oil

One large onion, chopped

One medium carrot, peeled and diced

One medium green bell pepper, washed, seeded and diced

2 pounds lean ground beef

Two garlic cloves, minced

¾ cup ketchup

One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with their juice

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons A-1 sauce

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

8 hamburger buns or 16 slices lightly toasted crusty bread

DIRECTIONS: In a large skillet, heat the oil for 30 seconds. Add the onion, carrot, and green pepper and sauté, stirring frequently, until onions are opaque and pepper starts to turn color, about 5 minutes. Crumble the ground beef and spread around the skillet; cook, stirring frequently with vegetables, until meat is browned. Add garlic, ketchup, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, A-1 sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar.

Cook over low-medium heat until vegetables are tender and liquid is evaporated, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in parsley and seasoning. Serve hot over open buns or bread slices with cole slaw and french fries.

Iceberg Lettuce Wedges with Blue Cheese Dressing

Iceberg Lettuce Wedges with Blue Cheese Dressing

YIELD: Serves 8 to 12

INGREDIENTS:

One head iceberg lettuce, washed, drained and trimmed

1 cup mayonnaise

½ cup light cream or half-and-half

½ cup sour cream or plain yogurt

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

¾ cup crumbled blue cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 to 6 slices crispy cooked bacon, crumbled

Cherry tomatoes, quartered

Thin slices red onion, separated into rings

DIRECTIONS: Slice the lettuce into as many wedges as you desire. Combine the mayonnaise, cream, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, blue cheese and seasoning. With a wire whisk, beat ingredients for 30 seconds. Arrange wedges on a platter. Pour dressing sparingly, and serve remaining dressing in a small bowl to be passed around. (It can also be used as a dipping sauce for buffalo wings in recipe below). Sprinkle bacon, tomato quarters and onion rings over wedges.

Easy Buffalo Wings

Easy Buffalo Wings

YIELD: Serves 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

12 to 16 chicken wings

4 ounces unsalted butter

One large garlic clove, minced

¼ cup Frank’s or Tabasco hot sauce

Salt, to taste

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 425 F. Wash and dry wings. With a knife or poultry shears, separate the wings at the joint. Cut off wing tips and discard or save for another use (such as soup stock). Melt butter with garlic. In a large bowl, combine mixture with hot sauce and salt. Add wings and toss to coat. Place wings in shallow baking pan and drizzle with remaining sauce. Roast 10 minutes on each side, basting often, or until golden brown. Serve with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing.

Risotto with Clams

By Barbara Beltrami

When I first met my husband who is Italian and whose parents emigrated from northern Italy, I had never heard of risotto. I grew up in a town with a lot of Italian families, but they were mostly from the southern part of Italy where risotto is uncommon and pasta is king. In the north, risotto may well be the go-to comfort food. Made from either arborio or carnaroli, short-grained varieties of rice that are available in most specialty supermarkets or Italian grocery stores, a good risotto is creamy and porridge-like, and oh, so buono.

There are probably as many risotti as there are pasta shapes and sauces; the basic ingredients marry well with nearly all veggies and even some fruits, cheeses, meat, fowl or fish, although the latter are much more rare. Using the Basic Risotto recipe and cooking tips below, you can create a risotto with pretty much anything you want.

Basic Risotto Recipe

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

3 to 4 cups broth

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

One medium onion, finely chopped

One celery rib, washed, trimmed and finely chopped

1 cup arborio or carnaroli rice

1 cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS: (1) In a medium saucepan, bring broth to a boil; reduce heat and keep at a simmer. (2) Heat oil in heavy saucepan for 30 seconds to one minute over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about two minutes. (3) Add rice, stirring constantly, for one minute over low-medium heat. (4) Add wine and half a cup of the broth, stirring constantly, until all the liquid is absorbed. (5) Continue adding broth, half a cup at a time, stirring frequently, until each addition is absorbed before adding more broth. The risotto will be ready in 15 to 20 minutes when the rice is tender and the mixture is creamy. You may not need all the broth or you may need more liquid, in which case just add a little hot water, half a cup at a time.

Risotto with Spinach and Gorgonzola Cheese

Risotto with Spinach and Gorgonzola Cheese

INGREDIENTS:

One 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach

One recipe for Basic Risotto (above)

3 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

DIRECTIONS: Cook spinach according to package directions; cover and set aside with its cooking liquid. Make Basic Risotto recipe with the following changes: Add spinach and its liquid between steps 4 and 5 in basic recipe. Reduce heat to low and add cheese, stirring vigorously until cheese is melted. Serve with salad or baked winter squash.

Risotto with Clams

Risotto with Clams

INGREDIENTS:

3 pounds littleneck clams

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves thinly sliced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

One recipe Basic Risotto (above)

1½ cups finely diced tomatoes (optional)

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

DIRECTIONS: Scrub the clams well in a generous amount of cold water, then soak them in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain them and put them in a large pot with the olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cover and steam open the clams, about 5 minutes. Drain them and reserve the liquid. Strain liquid through damp cheesecloth or coffee filter to catch any sand. Set clams aside. Measure liquid and substitute for equal amount of broth to be used in Basic Recipe (left). Make Basic Risotto; when risotto is about 3 minutes from being done, add the tomatoes, clams and parsley. Stir well and finish cooking. Do not add cheese. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.

Risotto with Zucchini

INGREDIENTS:

2 medium zucchini, trimmed, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thin

One small onion, sliced very thin, rings separated

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

One recipe for Basic Risotto (above)

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

DIRECTIONS: Heat the oil in a large skillet; add zucchini and onions. Saute until they start to turn golden, about 5 minutes; add the garlic and saute for another minute. Don’t let the garlic burn. Remove and set aside. Season with salt and pepper. Make the risotto. About two minutes before it is ready, add the zucchini and onion and stir well for another two minutes. Pass the grated cheese at the table. Serve with a tomato and mozzarella salad.

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