Cucina Valentina

Cucina Valentina

Friday, November 18, 2016

Shepherd's Pie

Can you believe Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I am still without my oven?  The long awaited igniter arrived last Friday and it was the wrong one!  I'm beginning to think that holidays, ovens and I, do not mix.  

Last Christmas, as a houseful of family and friends milled around nibbling on appetizers, I happened to mention to Ian that the turkey seemed to be taking too long to cook.

You already know that my husband is a self-proclaimed McGyver.  What you don't know is that his brother is not far behind.  No sooner had the words slipped out of my mouth than those two were in the kitchen, poking and prodding at my aging oven, trying to determine the cause.

Was the temperature gauge malfunctioning?  Was the door gasket not sealing properly?  How about this lever - what does this do?  And, with that, my brother-in-law locked down the oven door with the self-cleaning lever, trapping my turkey inside as the temperature skyrocketed up to 600+ degrees.

As you can imagine, pandemonium then ensued - the three of us panicking as we tried every which way to unlock the oven - to no avail.  Finally the Einstein of the group wrestled the oven away from the wall and unplugged it.  It took the better part of an hour to cool down enough for the self-cleaning lock to release and - Voila!  Problem solved.  The turkey was done, albeit a little extra crispy.

The temperatures were supposed to cool this past weekend, so I'd bought everything necessary to make my husband's favorite traditional dish, shepherd's Pie.  The plan was to light the season's first fire and settle in for a movie with one of the oldest comfort foods known to man.  

Oven or not, I decided to forge ahead and make this Shepherd's Pie.  A barbecue should suffice, right?  We shall see...

As I previously mentioned, Ian is from Scotland, and anyone who knows a Scotsman well knows that they are set in their ways.  God forbid he walks by the kitchen and sees me chopping celery, mushrooms or garlic for the Shepherd's Pie.

"Meat, carrots and peas - nothing else is in Shepherd's Pie!" he'll declare, then later, as he's scarfing it down, he'll grudgingly admit, "It's pretty good."

Shepherd's Pie is traditionally made with lamb, but a 50/50 blend of turkey and beef works just as well.

 Adding tomato paste, Worcestershire and beef base give it a rich, depth of flavor.

 So into the barbecue this Shepherd's Pie went, and who knew?  It worked perfectly.

Shepherd's Pie is a hearty dish that pairs well with a rich, dark Zinfandel, in this case, Tobin James Silver Reserve.  Its robust, full bodied fruity notes compliment a meaty dish perfectly.


Shepherd's Pie


1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground turkey or pork
1 onion or 3 shallots
2 carrots
2 celery
1 C mushrooms
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 C peas
Sage infused olive oil
1 T Rosemary
1 TSage
1 T Thyme
2 T flour
3/4 C Red wine
1/4 C Sherry
1/4 C Beef broth
2 T Tomato paste
1 T Beef base
2 T Worcestershire
salt and pepper to taste



Over medium high heat, brown meat in sage infused oil, breaking into small pieces.  Drain fat.  Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, mushroom and garlic.  Saute until starting to soften.  Sprinkle with flour and cook several minutes.  De glaze with red wine and sherry and cook until mostly evaporated.  Add tomato paste, Worcestershire, herbs and beef base.  Stir until combined.  Add peas last.  Cook until nice and thick.

Pour into casserole dish, top with mashed potatoes, spreading potatoes to edges of casserole to seal in the meat mixture.  Sprinkle top with cheese and paprika if desired.  Bake in a 350 degree oven until hot and edges are bubbling.  Let rest 15 minutes before serving.

Mashed Potatoes



3 potatoes
3 T butter
1/2 C grated Guyere cheese
1/2 C Greek Yogurt
Rosemary sprig
Salt and Pepper



Cut peeled potatoes into 1" cubes.  Place in a pot of salted water with a sprig of rosemary and bring to a gentle boil.  Boil until potatoes are fork tender.  Remove rosemary sprig and drain potatoes.  Return to pot, adding butter and cheese.  Mash with Greek yogurt and milk to achieve desired consistency.  Add scallions and salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Persimmon Rosemary Margaritas

I was recently gifted with a grocery sack filled with un-ripe persimmons.  Since then I've been anxiously waiting for them to ripen, and dreaming of all the wonderful concoctions yet to make.
Well, that day has arrived and, horror of all horrors, my 25 year old oven just died!  Of all times to give up the ghost, I had just put a lasagna in, 20 minutes prior to the arrival of eight dinner party guests.  T minus ten minutes we realized it was not heating.

A McGyver to the core, my husband tore it apart on the spot and determined the oven igniter had quit.  Are you kidding me, right now???  (A favorite saying of mine - not his.)  Ever the optimist, he was sure we could bake the lasgna on broil,  so he dragged a chair into the kitchen and stationed himself at the oven door, opening it to let heat out every several minutes when it got too hot, then closing it again to let the heat build up. 

It cooked the lasagna, alright.  The top was crisp and the bottom, soggy, but we ate it anyway.

Now, we are still waiting on the igniter to arrive and my persimmons are ripe!  

If you know persimmons, one minute they're ripe and the next, they are mush.  This is a full blown emergency.  I need to use them today!  

The best course of action is to make a Persimmon puree and freeze it for later use, but today, being that it's Friday, I think a cocktail is in order.  A Persimmon cocktail.  

Let's see how this goes...

The first step is to get a rosemary simple syrup going.  When it comes to simple syrup, I always use brown sugar instead of white, as it has a better depth of flavor.  And, I always add an herb or spice.  Herbs elevate cocktails to a new level.  In this case, I love the taste of rosemary with peaches, and persimmons are somewhat similar to a peach.

Rosemary is the toughest herb I know, and here in Southern California, it thrives year round in my backyard, so I frequently use it in both sweet and savory dishes.

Once the simple syrup is simmering, I tackled the persimmons.  Slippery little buggers, they are - and there are a lot of them!  

I pitted them with a melon baller, (reserving the seeds - let's see if I can get one to sprout) then sliced them in half, scooped out the flesh with a tablespoon and pureed them in the food processor.  I ended up with around six cups of puree.  No harm in sneaking some into a cocktail.  There is plenty left to freeze for when my oven is back in business.



Persimmon Rosemary Margarita


4 oz persimmon puree
3 oz tequila
1 oz brandy
1 oz lime juice (fresh squeezed)


Rub the rim of two margarita glasses with a slice of lime then dip rim into equal parts brown sugar, cinnamon and salt.

Add persimmon puree, tequila, brandy and lime juice to a shake with ice and shake vigorously.  When you think you have shaken enough, shake some more.

Pour into margarita glass and enjoy!

Rosemary Simple Syrup

Combine equal parts light brown sugar and water.  Add a few springs of rosemary.  Bring to a boil, then turn down and let simmer 10 -15 minutes.  Turn off heat and let cool.  Strain.  

Simple syrup will keep in the refrigerator for weeks.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Blistered Shishito Peppers with Lemon-Chipotle Dipping Sauce

I've discovered a new favorite appetizer that I cannot wait to share!  

Beautiful, Shishito Peppers.

If you are into food like I am, you've probably seen these little gems cropping up in the pages of numerous food magazines and been intrigued.  When they showed up on the menu at my favorite local sushi spot, I knew it was time to give them a try.

Finding Shishitos in the grocery store wasn't so easy.  I rooted through several different markets to no avail, then suddenly one night my neighborhood Von's revamped the produce section and the next morning I inadvertently walked into Foodie Heaven.

Mixed in with the standard celery, potatoes and broccoli I was delighted to see...

wildly striped graffiti eggplant
deep purple bell peppers
jewel tone carrots
a rainbow of colored baby beets
exotic mushrooms of every size and shape
even tiny quail eggs!   
and, yes, shishito peppers. 

Von's is stepping up their game, and I couldn't be happier!

Being that they are a small green pepper similar to a jalapeno or serrano, one might assume they are spicy.  I can assure you, they're not hot at all.  They are actually mild and sweet, and virtually addicting.  I dare you to eat just one.

They are super quick and simple to make, and if you can flip them in the skillet with a flick of the wrist, you are sure to impress your guests 

I will flip like crazy and haven't lost a pepper yet, though I will spend quite some time cleaning the stove top after my guest have gone home.


Heat the butter and lemon infused olive oil until it's frothy and just starting to darken, which will give the peppers that rich, satisfying browned butter flavor plus an underlying hint of lemon.

Don't worry if you get distracted and they burn a bit.  A little char is what you want.

Just keep flipping and they will keep sizzling and popping.  It makes for a great show.

The dipping sauce is just a thicker version of my Lemon Chipotle Crema, minus the milk,  It's acidic, lemony bite is the perfect compliment to the buttery peppers, as is Tobin James Ballistic Zinfandel.  This rich, silky red is out of this world, with layers of deep dark fruit and raisins.  For years we've been stocking up at the winery every time we traveled to Paso Robles.  Imagine my excitement when one of my favorite reds turned up at my local Von's grocery store!

P.S. Thank you for the gorgeous bowls, Tobin James Cellars!

Blistered Shishito Peppers with Lemon-Chipotle Dipping Sauce




10 oz shishito peppers, picked through, rinsed and dried
1 T butter
1 T Cucina Valentina Sicilian Lemon Olive Oil
sea salt
lemon juice


Heat butter and oil on medium-high in a wide skillet until frothy and just starting to brown.  Add peppers.  Saute peppers, flipping every few minutes until they are nicely blistered and slightly charred.

Arrange on serving platter and drizzle with fresh lemon juice.  Sprinkle with flaky salt.

Lemon-Chipotle Dipping Sauce



1/2 C Fage non-fat Greek yogurt
1/2 C mayonnaise
1 t honey
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 t chipotle chili powder
salt and pepper to taste 


Blend all ingredients together until smooth.  Keep refrigerated until ready to use.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Ian's Baby Back Ribs

Ah, baby back ribs.  While they don't come in a casserole or crock pot, I consider them to be a comfort food.  When you strike the perfect balance between savory and sweet, they are soul soothing - to me anyway...

And, I could use a hug right about now.

As I write this post, I'm adrift with melancholy.  It was difficult to put on a smile and say goodbye to my sister, Lesley, this past week, knowing she is headed back to the opposite end of the country and I'm not sure when I will see her again.

Michael and Lesley

Though we didn't have the luxury of sharing our childhoods (we only found each other in 2000), we've developed an undeniably deep connection.  I miss her already.

I know my husband feels the same, but in stoic male fashion, he's not showing it.  He and my brother-in-law Mike, have that same connection.  Put those two together and it's a guaranteed comedy hour.  

Ian and Michael

I can just imagine how wonderful life would be if we ever wound up in the same state, let alone, neighborhood.  But, for now, all we can do is cherish the times we are able to spend together.

Michael, Lesley, Cindy and Ian

I'd assured Mike and Les that it was going to be hot as usual here in sunny Socal, so they left Connecticut during the season's first snow flurries dreaming of sunshine and armed with an arsenal of shorts and sundresses.

No sooner did they arrive than we had our first rainstorm in over six months, complete with thunder and lighting.  Our temperatures may have dipped into the 60s?  And, as our fur kids were running for cover, my sister was wondering what she'd done to deserve such a cruel twist of fate.

We did make the best of it though

Wouldn't you know it, they day they flew home another Indian summer began, and we are right back up into the 90s!  I'm beginning to feel like global warming is hitting our corner of the earth extra hard.

To cheer each other up in the absence of our loved ones, Ian and I decided a patio party for two was in order, and what better patio fare, than baby back ribs?

We buy them by the case when they go on sale, cryo-packed in three rack bundles that keep extraordinarily well in the freezer for months.

Ian's recipe is pretty straightforward, but he guards it with his life.  He's probably going to pitch a fit that I posted his secret to amazing ribs, but the truth is, they're just too good not to share.

The ingredients are simple: 

 You've gotta love the silicone basting brush.  Easy to use, easy to clean.

Once the ribs are on the barbecue, there is no need for basting.  The turbinado sugar melts into a crispy coating that seals in all the spices and flavor.

When the meat begins to shrink back from the bone, you know they are getting close to being done.

Resting the ribs (or any meat for that matter) for at least 15 minutes is an integral part of keeping them moist and succulent.

Ian's Baby Back Ribs

3 racks pork baby back ribs, silver skin removed
1/2 C honey mustard
4 T Chef Merito's Fajita Seasoning
3 T crushed garlic
1 T chipotle chili powder
3 T turbinado brown sugar


Mix first four ingredients well and brush on both sides of ribs.  Sear over gas or coal fire on medium high, 5 - 7 minutes per side.  

Sprinkle both sides of ribs with turbinado sugar and move to center of barbecue.  Turn off center burners but leave side burners on low and let ribs bake two + hours until meat is shrinking from the bone.  Remove from heat and let rest at least 15 minutes.