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12/05/2016

~ Mel's Deconstructed To-Die-For Pirogi Casserole ~

IMG_3685Pirogi -- a subject I know a thing or three about.  I grew up eating these pillowy handmade-with-love potato-stuffed-dumplings in the kitchens of my Baba and Tettie (my Eastern European grandmother and her sister).  I was about age seven when they added me as a semi-skilled laborer to the assembly line of their twice-yearly day-long pirogi-making marathon. Once filled and formed, they were frozen flat on trays, packaged into bags and divided amongst their two families -- to be cooked and served as a meatless main course or a side-dish to my mom's holiday baked ham or a roasted pork loin with sauerkraut to ring in the New Year.

Screen shot 2016-12-06 at 12.26.21 PMFor the purposes of this deconstructed pirogi casserole, I am talking about potato-stuffed dumplings that get boiled in water, drained and enrobed in a saucy butter and onion mixture.  I mention this because, my grandmother (more so than her sister), stuffed them with other things too -- sauerkraut, steamed ground meats (beef, pork or lamb) and stewed fruit (usually sour cherries or prunes).  Except for the type of dough (noodle vs. pasta), the technique and method is almost identical to making Italian ravioli -- both are time consuming labors of love.

Like ravioli, pirogi are impressive.  They make a statement -- you are an accomplished cook. Over the decades, thanks in part to my husband's Italian family and friends, I've become an accomplished Italian cook.  That said, one thing I learned early on:  When you don't have the time to make ravioli, you make lasagna, and, when you have a large crowd to feed, you make lasagna instead of ravioli.  In my mind, lasagna is basically a casserole full of deconstructed ravioli.  Then came the day this Eastern European gal applied the same principle to pirogi.

I named it the:  Turn pirogi into a casserole principle.

IMG_3651Note:  I am using my favorite potato and cheese pirogi filling recipe and my favorite pirogi butter (& onion) recipe in conjunction with uncooked store-bought lasagna noodles.  If you are Eastern European and you have your own favorite recipes, use them -- they will work and it is important your casserole taste the way you want it to.  For example:  I hate bacon garnishing my pirogi, so, I don't use it, and, my grandmother used dried mint flakes (a common herb which grew like a weed in their harsh climate and was dried for the Winter) in place of fresh chives or green onion (which were only available in the short Spring and Summer).  Don't knock it 'till you've tried it.

Part One:  Making the Potato & Cheese Filling 

PICT0398

3  pounds peeled, quartered and 1" cubed gold potatoes (3 pounds after peeling)

2  teaspoons sea salt

1 pound + 2 cups grated white, cheddar cheese (total throughout recipe)*

3   jumbo egg yolks

1 1/2  teaspoons white pepper

3  tablespoons dried mint flakes 

Note:  I like using LOTS of extra-sharp white cheddar, and, I use white cheddar because, in general, I don't like pirogi that have orange-colored filling with a manufacturerd "Mrs. T's" taste to them, but, that choice is yours.  One last thing:  pirogi filling is NOT like making mashed potatoes.  Do not be inclined to add milk or butter to it.  The filling should be, for lack of better words:  stiff, thick, pasty (and even a bit chunky if that's your style), and, well-seasoned with traditional (not exotic) herbs or spices.  Remember, this is simple, rustic, peasant food.

PICT0400Step 1.  Place the cubed potatoes in an 8-quart stockpot and add enough of cold water to cover them by 1/2"-1".  Bring to a boil over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Reduce the heat to a gentle, steady simmer and continue to cook until the potatoes are fork tender but slightly undercooked, about 10-12 minutes.  Remove from heat and drain potatoes into colander.

PICT0403Step 2.  Return potatoes to the still warm stockpot and return the pot to the still warm stovetop.  Add 1 pound grated cheese, pepper and dried mint.  I do not add salt, as I find the cheddar cheese has an adequate amount of salt in it.

PICT0406Stir.  Cover the pot and set aside for 5-10 minutes.

PICT0410Step 3.  Uncover the pot and stir briefly.  The cheese will be melted or mostly melted.  In a small bowl or 1-cup measuring container, using a fork, whisk the egg yolks together. Add and stir them into the mixture.  

Egg yolks you ask?  Yep.  This is a secret I learned from my Tettie (Baba's sister).  Egg yolks are going to add a decadent richness to the potato and cheese filling.  Trust me.

PICT0414Step 4.   Using a vegetable masher, mash/smash the potatoes to desired consistency. I like mine ever-so-slightly chunky, with small bits of whole potato throughout.

IMG_3610You will have about 7 cups of potato and cheese filling.

Step 5.  Transfer the filling to a bowl or food storage container and cover with plastic wrap or a lid.  Do not refrigerate.  Experience has taught me it's best to keep the potatoes soft and slightly-warm for the assembly.  Set aside while preparing the sautéed butter and onion mixture.

Step Two:  Making the Butter & Onion Sauté

PICT04648  ounces salted butter (2 sticks) 

4  cups small diced yellow or sweet onion

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1/2  teaspoon white pepper

Note:  Ignore this photo which represents twice as much as the quantity listed above.  It's because I am making two casseroles today.

PICT0469Step 1.  In a 4-quart stockpot, melt butter over low heat and stir in the garlic powder, sea salt and white pepper.  Add the diced onions.  

PICT0476Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Adjust heat to simmer gently, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes.

Step 2.  Remove from heat and transfer to a 4-cup measuring container.  You will have 3 1/2 cups. Why use a measuring container?  It's simple.  A measuring container will make it easier to measure the proper amount of butter and onion sauté onto each layer.

Part Three:  Assembling & Baking the Pirogi Casserole

IMG_3613One evening, sometime back in the 1990's, while watching Chef Emeril Lagasse (on The Food Network) prepare his lasagna without cooking the noodles (using conventional lasagna noodles, not the "no-boil" kind, which are not a favorite of mine), I felt like the weight of the lasagna world just might be lifted from my shoulders -- and it was, because it worked perfectly.  I never boiled another lasagna noodle to make lasagna again -- and nor should you.

IMG_3620IMG_3621IMG_3625IMG_3629~Step 1.  Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" glass casserole (I use  glass to keep an eye on it as it bakes) with no-stick cooking spray.  Place 3 uncooked lasagna noodles in the bottom and break a 4th to fit the empty space.  Using a large slotted spoon, and allowing a good bit of excess melted butter to drizle back into the container, evenly distribute a generous one-third (1 cup) of the buttery onions over noodles.*  Using a tablespoon, dollop half (3 1/2 cups) of potato mixture over top. Using your fingertips, lightly pat, press and spread the potatoes, to form an even layer.

Note:  You are going to have some leftover butter in the bottom of the container after the casserole is assembled.  It can't be helped.  It was the minimum needed to adequately simmer 4 cups of onions, and, it is was my goal for this recipe to:  not bake it drenched in butter.  This is not because of calories.  You want just enough of the butter's moisture to soften the uncooked noodles as the casserole bakes, but not so much as to render the casserole mushy.

IMG_3632IMG_3634IMG_3640Step 2.  Break and place 6 more lasagna noodles, in the opposite direction of the first layer, over the top of the potatoes.  Distribute the second one-third (1 cup) of the buttery onions over the noodles, once again allowing the excess butter to drizzle back into the measuring container.  Using the tablespoon, then your fingertips, dollop, pat and press the second half (3 1/2 cups) of the potatoes evenly over the top.

IMG_3642IMG_3644IMG_3649Step 3.  Place 4 lasagna noodles, in the same direction of the first layer, evenly over the potatoes and break a 5th noodle to fit in the empty space.  Using the slotted spoon, distribute the last third of the onions over the last layer of noodles, once again, allowing the excess butter to drizzle back into the measuring container.  Top casserole with the 2 cups additional grated white cheddar cheese.

Allow casserole to rest 45-60 minutes, for noodles to soften a bit.

IMG_3659Step 4.  Cover casserole with aluminum foil and bake on center rack of preheated 325° oven for 1 hour.  Remove the foil and continue to bake an additional 15-20 minutes.* Remove casserole from oven and allow to rest 20-30 minutes prior to slicing and serving.

*After 1 hour, when the foil is removed, the casserole should be lightly and nicely browning on the bottom and around the beginning-to-bubble top edges too.  There is more.  A sharp paring knife inserted into the center should reveal the noodles are soft too: 

IMG_3661Continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes, uncovered, until a gorgeous, golden color & bubbly:

IMG_3663Allow casserole to rest 20-30 minutes prior to slicing:

IMG_3669Topped w/my favorite creamy sour cream & chopped chives:

IMG_3697Mel's Deconstructed To-Die-For Pirogi Casserole:  Recipe yields 7 cups of potato filling, 3 1/2 cups of butter and onion sauté, one 13" x 9" x 2" casserole, and, 12-16 servings.

Special Equipment List:  vegetable peeler; box grater; cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot w/lid; colander; vegetable masher; 2-quart measuring container; 4-quart saucepan; 1-quart measuring container; 13" x 9" x 2" (3-quart) glass casserole; large slotted spoon

IMG_5939Cook's Note:  Would you like to deconstruct another Eastern European favorite?  Trust me, it will make your life easier just before the holidays.    Check out my recipe for ~ Unstuffed:  Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage Rolls ~ in Categories 3, 12 0r 20.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)

12/02/2016

~ My Creamy & Comforting Tuna Noodle Casserole ~

IMG_3582I was a foodie sprout back in the latter 1950's, developed a few taste buds during the '60's, and, by the time I left the nest in 1974, had blossomed into a gal with a limited, but, sophisticated palate.  Limited because I wasn't exposed to a wide-variety of multi-cultural fare.  Sophisticated because my mom, aside from an occasional can of cream of tomato soup and a rare TV dinner (which my brother and I had to beg for), never, ever, purchased stuff like cans of "cream of" anything, boxes of mac 'n cheese, 'burger helpers, or, any chef-r-dee products whatsoever.  

IMG_3539The food we ate was simple, but, it was always made-from-scratch and it included a well-rounded Eastern European diet of fresh milk, eggs, butter, cheeses, in-season fruit, meat, cured and smoked meats, poultry, some fish and seafood, potatoes, grains, a small variety of vegetables, pickled vegetables and all sorts of great bread.  For the most part, I liked everything. This having been revealed, it should come as no surprise when I IMG_3552report:  my mom never made a 1950's era tuna noodle casserole. The can of tuna in her pantry was solely reserved for tuna salad.

Decades passed.  Then, in 2006, when Joe's mom moved to Happy Valley, the day came when I was asked to make a tuna-noodle casserole.  I was happy to accommodate, but, I wasn't starting in the cream-of-soup aisle of my grocery store.  I set out to come up with a creamy and comforting casserole, for her, but, it had to be one that Joe and I would enjoy too -- a rich, creamy, cheesy casserole topped with crispy, buttery bread crumbs.  That said, I took into consideration it should be in keeping with the concept of this iconic, retro casserole.  

IMG_3566Tuna noodle casserole:  a creamy, comforting pantry meal that can quickly be mixed together on a bad weather day or if you are just too tired to cook -- or simply because your elderly mother-in-law loves it.

Note:  The following recipe fills a 2-quart casserole (11" x 7" x 2"), and, if served with a nice salad and some crusty bread and butter, it will easily feed a family of six people. In the event you've got hungrier mouths to feed (teenagers), a bigger crowd, or want leftovers the next day, simply do the math, double the recipe, and, bake it in a much larger 4-quart casserole.

IMG_3482For the casserole:

1  12 1/2-ounce can solid white tuna, packed in water, well-drained

8  ounces bow tie noodles (farfalle), cooked al dente and well-drained

1 1/2  teaspoons sea salt, for seasoning water for pasta

4  tablespoons salted butter (1/2 stick)

1 1/2  teaspoons sea salt

1/2-3/4  teaspoons white pepper

1/4  cup Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour for Sauce and Gravy

1/2 cup small-diced yellow or sweet onion 

1/2  cup small-diced celery 

1 1/2  cups frozen peas and diced carrots, unthawed 

1  4 1/2-ounce jar sliced mushrooms, well-drained

2  cups heavy cream, half & half or whole milk, your choice

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated cheese with creamy melting properties (Note:  My three favorites are Provel, Velveeta or Gruyère, and, I'm using my #1 favorite, Provel.  You can learn more about this cheese by reading my Cook's Note at the end of this post, and, if would like to buy some, you can purchase it at Viviano.)

no-stick cooking spray, for preparing casserole dish

For the topping:

2 tablespoons salted butter, melted

1/2 cup French-style breadcrumbs or panko 

IMG_3470 IMG_3471 IMG_3474 IMG_3479 IMG_3488 IMG_3489~Step 1.  In a 4-quart saucepan bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil and add the sea salt.  Add the pasta and cook to a very toothy level of al dente, about 9-10 minutes, instead of the usual 11-12 minutes.  Do not overcook -- the pasta is going to cook a second time in the oven. Transfer to a colander, drain, and rinse in cold water to halt the cooking process.  Set aside to thoroughly drain of water, tossing it occasionally, about 10-15 minutes.  While pasta is draining, place the tuna in a small colander to drain, and using your fingertips, break it into bite-sized pieces.  Place the noodles and the tuna in a large bowl.

IMG_3492 IMG_3494 IMG_3496 IMG_3499 IMG_3500 IMG_3504 IMG_3505 IMG_3508~Step 2.  In the same 4-quart saucepan, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over low heat then stir in the sea salt and white pepper.  Add the diced celery and onion.  Increase heat to medium and cook until onion begins to soften, about 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Add the peas and carrots along with the sliced mushrooms and continue to cook until thawed, about 2 more minutes stirring constantly.  Add the flour, and stirring constantly, cook for 1 more full minute.

IMG_3509 IMG_3512 IMG_3519 IMG_3520 IMG_3522~Step 3.   Add cream and adjust heat to simmer.  Cook until thickened but drizzly, 1-1 1/2 minutes.  Reduce heat and stir in cheese.  Stir until a thick sauce has formed, 1-1 1/2 minutes.

IMG_3528Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and tuna.

IMG_3546 IMG_3548~ Step 4.  In a 1-cup measuring container, melt the butter in the microwave.  Stir in the breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons at a time, until you have added the full 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons), stirring well after each addition.  Using your fingertips, sprinkle the topping evenly over the top of the casserole.

Bake on center rack of 350°, until golden on top and bubbling around sides, about 25 minutes.

Tuna casserole going into 350° oven to bake about 25 minutes:

IMG_3564Coming out golden on top and bubbling around the sides:

IMG_3574Scoop it out & put it on a plate.  Can you feel the love?

IMG_3585My Creamy & Comforting Tuna Noodle Casserole:  Recipe yields 2-quarts, or 6-8 hearty servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 4-quart saucepan; colander; large spoon; large rubber spatula; 1-cup measuring container; 11" x 7" x 2", 2-quart casserole

PICT0005Cook's Note: Provel cheese was developed by the St. Louis firm Costa Grocery in the 1950's.  Made in Wisconsin, it's a processed cheese made from provolone, Swiss and white cheddar and sold primarily in the St. Louis area.

6a0120a8551282970b0176177cdb72970cMy critique of Provel cheese:  It's a white, slightly smoky and slightly salty tasting processed cheese, with a texture similar to the orange-colored Velveeta.  The second you take a knife to it, you just know it's going to melt to a creamy state.  It's famously used on St. Louis-style pizza, and, is a great addition to cheese soups and cheese sauces.  

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)

11/30/2016

~ Dried Cherry-Berry & Walnut Holiday Cheese Ball ~

IMG_3430'Tis the season for holiday cheese balls or cheese logs.  They're in all ordinary grocery stores and specialty cheese shops, or, they can be ordered from catalogs or on-line.  For the most part, they are a popular addition to the holiday nosh table -- given to the right person, they make a thoughtful gift too.  They pair great with any type of wine or champagne and almost any cocktail. Did you know these tasty (and often pricey) cheese balls are really easy to make at home?

IMG_3365 IMG_3340Back in the 1970's and 1980's, port wine cheese, and, the relatively inexpensive store-bought "port wine cheese ball" rolled in walnuts was a very trendy snack.  Port wine cheese is not gourmet.  It's an American snack cheese made by processing yellow sharp cheddar, tangy cream cheese and sweet port wine.  It's best served at room temperature, which renders it spreadable.  It's sold in slabs/chunks, rolled into nut-coated balls or logs, and/or, packed into pretty porcelain crocks.  

Homemade port wine cheese is super-easy to make in a food processor, but:  it won't have the signature neon-pink rainbow-like marbling.  It's a solid color, but, is every bit as tasty:

IMG_3455For full retro cheese ball affect:  "Put it on a Ritz!"

IMG_32908  ounces finely-grated sharp yellow cheddar cheese

8  ounces cream cheese, or neufchatel cheese*, at room temperature, very soft (Note: Remove from the refrigerator two hours in advance.)

1/4  cup inexpensive port wine, a fortified Portuguese wine

1  tablespoon Worcestershire

1  cup finely-chopped dried cherry, blueberry, cranberry and golden raisin blend (2 ounces each)

3/4  cup finely-chopped walnuts (about 6 ounces)

Ritz crackers, for serving

IMG_3452*Note:  Back in my day, everyone used cream cheese to make all types of cheese balls. Nowadays neufchâtel cheese is often substituted. It's packaged almost identically to cream cheese and located right next to it at the store. Both are dense, tangy and spreadable.  The biggest difference between the two:  the neufchâtel is made using milk exclusively (23% milk fat), and, cream cheese is made with milk and cream (33% milk fat).  What does this mean?  

Neufchâtel contains about a third less fat.  To learn more, click on the Related Article link below. 

IMG_3295Step 1.  Place the cheddar cheese, cream cheese, port wine and Worcestershire sauce in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Using a series of 30-40 rapid on-off pulses, process until cream cheese is incorporated. Open the lid and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Return the lid and turn the motor on, to process until smooth, about 20-30 seconds.

IMG_3305IMG_3298Step 2. Carefully remove the steel blade from the processor.  Using the spatula, transfer mixture to a food storage container and refrigerate until cheese is firm enough to remove from container, about 2 hours or longer (until it's the texture of stiff manageable cookie dough).

IMG_3406~ Step 3.  While the cheese mixture is chilling, chop the dried fruit and the walnuts as directed.

Note:  In one of my local markets (Sam's Club), I purchase 12-ounce bags of sweetened, dried "berry blends".  I keep a bag or two on-hand in my freezer at all times.  The blend I like best contains a combination of dried tart cherries, blueberries and cranberries.  I just chop half a bag (6 ounces) up along with 2 ounces of golden raisins, plus the walnuts.  Easy.

IMG_3416 IMG_3418 IMG_3422 IMG_3423~Step 4.  Remove the cheese mixture from the refrigerator and divide it in half.  I like to use a kitchen scale as a measure.  Place the two clumps on a piece of parchment or wax paper. Using the palms of your hands, while working as quickly as possible, form into two even-sized cheese balls (or logs if you prefer).  You will have, two, 8-ounce cheese balls or cheese logs:

IMG_3424~ Step 5.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 more hours, or up to 3 days in advance.  Remove from refrigerator and allow to soften, 30-45 minutes, prior to serving with crackers: 

IMG_3451Dried Cherry-Berry & Walnut Holiday Cheese Ball:  Recipe yields 2, 8-ounce cheese balls or logs, approximately, 16-20 Ritz-cracker-sized portions per ball or log.

Special Equipment List:  food processor; large rubber spatula; 4-cup measuring food storage container w/lid; cutting board; chef's knife; ; 8" x 8" x 2" baking dish; kitchen scale (optional) parchment or wax paper

IMG_3695Cook's Note: Dips and spreads are also quinessential holiday noshes. One of my favorites, which is popular and appropriate any time of of the year is:  ~ Pretty in Pink:  A Simple Smoked Salmon Spread ~. You can find my recipe in Categories 1, 9, 14, 22 or 26.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)