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Cream Sauces Part 2: White Eggplant Cream Sauce

March 20, 2014 Entrees, Menu, Pasta No Comments

In my previous post, I introduced you to the basics of béchamel sauce, along with other sauces that use a béchamel as their starting point (mornay, soubise and velouté sauces, to be exact). I also shared with you the recipe for my red pepper béchamel cream sauce. In this post, I’ll be sharing with you the recipe for my white eggplant cream sauce, which also borrows steps and ingredients from all of the béchamel inspired sauces mentioned above. I’m using 1 cup of diced and floured eggplant, which will help give this sauce a nice, earthy taste and, depending on how long you let it simmer, either a chunky or creamy texture. As the sauce cooks, you’ll notice that the eggplant will start to break down, thus thickening the sauce as it dissolves into the liquid base. You can control how thick or chunky you make the sauce by how long you keep it simmering. The longer you simmer, the thicker and smoother the sauce. Because the sauce could potentially thicken quickly, you’ll want to keep additional broth on hand while cooking, to help thin out the sauce when needed. You can also add additional ingredients to the sauce for extra flavor and texture. I added some peas and cooked bacon to my sauce. Anything from asparagus and ham to mushrooms would work. It’s your sauce…have fun with it!

One additional benefit to this sauce is that you can make it low fat. Whole milk or heavy cream are not necessary, which is a big plus for a cream-based sauce. You can use 2% or 1% milk. Soy milk or almond milk also works well!


White Eggplant Cream Sauce 

2 tbspn unsalted butter
1 tbspn finely chopped shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup eggplant, finely diced and dredged in flour
1 cup milk (your preference of 2% or 1% milk, or even soy milk or almond milk will work)
1/2 cup broth (chicken or vegetable), plus additional if needed
1 tbspn grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
dash of nutmeg

Additional ingredients that I used in my version:
2 tbspn frozen peas
2 tbspn cooked bacon pieces

Heat a large, non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the butter. When melted, add the shallots, cook for 30 seconds. Add the garlic, stir together until fragrant (about another 20-30 seconds). Next, add the diced and floured eggplant, stir so that all of the pieces are coated with the butter, shallots and garlic (at this point, it will appear that the eggplant has soaked up all of the butter. When the liquid is added and the eggplant cooks, it will release all of the buttery flavor that it first absorbed).

Next, add the milk and the broth, stir together. Bring the heat down to low and stir occasionally. The eggplant will gradually dissolve into the liquid, creating a creamy sauce. Add the parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir together, then taste to see if additional seasonings are needed. You can also add additional cheese, but be aware that this will cause the sauce to thicken even more. Continue to check on the sauce and stir for about 5 minutes. At this point the sauce is heated enough to be served, and you have control of how thick you want to make the sauce. The longer you keep it on the heat, the thicker and creamier it will become. You can (and most likely will) add additional broth to the sauce as needed to thin it out a bit. Be sure to just add a little bit at a time so that the sauce does not become too thin and runny.

You can stir in additional cooked ingredients a few minutes before serving. I added two tablespoons of frozen peas and two tablespoons of cooked bacon bits, stirring them into the sauce a few minutes before serving.

Serve the sauce with penne.



Baked Polenta with Shrimp, Asparagus and Peppers

January 19, 2014 Entrees, Menu No Comments
polenta bake

I’ve been planning to put together a recipe that incorporates polenta for a while now. If you check back again in another month or so, I’m hoping to have a breakfast polenta dish to share. But for today, I’m talking about a baked polenta dish mixed with shrimp, asparagus and red bell pepper. It’s like an Italian version of shrimp and grits. Grits and polenta are both, after all, very similar porridge style dishes – grits being made from stone ground white corn and polenta from yellow corn. The preparation, for the most part, is fairly easy. Sauté the shrimp, asparagus and peppers in garlic, olive oil and the zest and juice of one lemon, then fold into prepared polenta and bake. But it’s the type of polenta that you use that will determine if this dish is just good or out of this world.

Which polenta to use?
There are two common forms of polenta. There’s the pre-made tubes, which I like to use sliced thin for grilling or baking, topped with sautéed veggies or maybe a nice slice of cheese and some tomatoes. Then there’s the traditional version made from boiled cornmeal, often mixed with a little butter and maybe some parmesan cheese to form a creamy porridge-like dish. Because I wanted to mix in some other ingredients, then bake it in a casserole dish, the traditional method was what I needed to make. If you’ve never made traditional polenta, it involves about 20-30 minutes of cooking and a lot of stirring. A LOT of stirring. Similar to risotto (the other Italian dish that requires dedicated stirring), the trick is to keep a constant stir going to maintain a nice, creamy consistency. At first, it seems like a lot of work. But as you get into it and develop a nice rhythm, it almost becomes like a well-calculated dance. You allow it to get away from you just enough, then you bring it back together and gently keep it moving, and then you repeat this form until the dance is done. The end result is always worth the effort.

While doing my research for this recipe, I found yet a third option for making polenta…instant polenta. The cooking method and preparation are very similar to the traditional style. You add the cornmeal mixture to boiling water, and you stir. Only it’s done in literally under 5 minutes. Now I’m not exactly sure what is done to the cornmeal to make it instant, but there were enough recipes available online from reputable chefs that used instant polenta. It’s gotta be good then, right?

Wrong. Gotta say, I was not happy with the instant stuff. Yes, it did take under 5 minutes to prepare. But you go from start to finish in such a quick time, that you really have no control over the polenta. There is no careful stirring, no playing, no dance. It goes from liquid to solid so quickly that I felt that it just got away from me. I didn’t even have time to properly season it as I normally would. I did make sure to add some extra seasoning when folding in the shrimp, asparagus and peppers, but would have preferred to add a little butter while cooking the polenta. And I saw no chance of doing that while using the instant, which left it very bland and dry on its own.

To help add a little extra flavor, I put together a quick lemon greek yogurt sauce to use as a topping. This gave it a well needed, flavorful punch (see recipe below).

The bottom line here is use the traditional method for a dish like this. It’s worth the time and effort, and you will be very happy with the end result!

Baked Polenta with Shrimp, Asparagus and Peppers

12-15 raw jumbo shrimp, cleaned, shelled and devenined
1 small bundle (12-15 pieces) of asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces
1 red bell pepper, cut into small pieces
2 tbspn olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice plus zest of one lemon

Basic Polenta recipe
(courtesy of Giada DeLaurentiis)
6 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a large pan, heat oil and garlic over medium heat. Add asparagus and peppers, stir and cook until veggies are tender. Add the shrimp, continue to stir until all shrimp are pink. Add the lemon juice and zest, mix well. Remove from heat, cover to keep warm. Set aside.

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a heavy large saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture thickens and the cornmeal is tender, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the butter, and stir until melted.

Fold in the shrimp, asparagus and peppers. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased baking dish. Place the baking dish into a 350˚ oven, bake for 15-20 minutes. Slice, serve and enjoy!

Lemon Greek Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Juice plus zest of 1 lemon
2 tbspn olive oil
1/4 tspn salt

1/4 tspn chopped parsley
2 tbspn crumbled feta

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.


Cheesesteak Egg Rolls

January 5, 2014 Appetizer, Entrees, Menu No Comments

Being born and raised in South Philly, it was only a matter of time before I put together a dish inspired by our flagship sandwich, the coveted South Philly Cheesesteak. My in-law’s annual New Year’s Eve party was the perfect opportunity to do so. While there is never a shortage of good food at our family parties, I wanted to contribute something special and unique to help ring in the new year. I came up with a tasty South Philly-inspired appetizer …a cheesesteak egg roll.

Although the idea of a cheesesteak egg roll is not completely original (you can occasionally find them on restaurant menus), my recipe was totally off the cuff, inspired by the traditional tastes and ingredients of a true South Philly Cheesesteak. Just four basic ingredients – steak, provolone cheese, onions and egg roll wrappers – were the perfect combination. To help bring a sweeter, robust taste to the cheesesteak, I used caramelized onions in place of the traditional fried onions. You need a good 45 minutes to an hour to caramelize onions, so you’ll want to do this step a day or so in advance. I also used shredded provolone cheese in place of traditional sliced cheese (or, cheese whiz for some hard-core cheesesteak fans), and folded it along with the caramelized onions into the cooked steak, so that you get the full taste and flavor in every bite. I also baked the egg rolls instead of the traditional frying method. The steak, cheese and onion combination will create enough of their own oils within the egg roll, so there is no need to fry them in additional oil.

I’m very happy to say that the egg rolls were a big hit with everyone, and I’ve even gotten requests for a buffalo chicken cheesesteak version for my brother-in-law’s birthday. You can look for that follow-up post in another month or so. In the meantime, be sure to give my cheesesteak egg rolls a try. They’re an easy, delicious and filling snack food…perfect for your upcoming game day parties!

(makes 20 egg rolls)
1.5 lbs thinly sliced rib eye or top round steak (if you cannot make it to your butcher shop, frozen steak sandwich meat such as Steak-umm will work)
4-5 onions, caramelized. You’ll want to do this a day or so ahead of time. Recipe below.
2 cups shredded provolone cheese
1 pack of egg roll wrappers (found in the produce section of your super market)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the steak to the pan, a few slices at a time. Add a little bit of water to the pan while cooking the steak. You want to make sure that the steak does not dry out while cooking. Just as the steak starts to brown, chop it in the pan and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Chop and flip the steak until fully browned, then remove and set aside. When the steak is cooled a bit, mix well with the onions and shredded cheese. You don’t want to add the steak mixture to the wrappers when the mixture is hot. It will soften up the wrappers and make it difficult to assemble.

*NOTE – full assembly instructions are included with the wrappers. You can also follow the step-by-step photos below.

Pre-heat oven to 400˚. Place an egg roll wrapper on a clean, flat surface, endpoints at the top and bottom (diamond shaped). Add one tablespoon of the steak mixture to the middle of the wrapper. Fold the bottom portion of the wrapper over the meat filing, then fold the left and right sides over, then gently roll it 3/4 of the way. Moisten the top corner of the wrapper with a bit of water (as if you were sealing an envelope), then fold it and seal it. Repeat steps with remaining wrappers.

Spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Place the egg rolls seam-side down onto the sheet. Lightly brush the top of the egg rolls with olive oil. Bake for 10-12 minutes.

Serve immediately and enjoy.

You can also bake these ahead of time, and warm them up again for about 5-7  minutes.


The basic steps on how to fold an egg roll wrapper.


(courtesy of SimplyRecipes.com)

Several medium or large onions, yellow, white, or red
Olive oil
Butter (optional)
Sugar (optional)
Balsamic vinegar (optional)

Slice off the stem ends of the onions and place them cut side down on the cutting board. Cut them in half through the root end. Peel the onions. Lay them cut side down and make angled cuts into each onion, aimed at the center, cutting almost all the way, but not completely through the root end.  Make the cuts to your desired level of thickness. The root end will help hold the onion together as you cut it, making it easier to cut. Then cut a V in the root end to cut out the tough root holding the slices together.

Use a wide, thick-bottomed sauté pan for maximum pan contact with the onions. Coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and butter (about 1 teaspoon per onion). Heat the pan on medium high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the onion slices and stir to coat the onions with the oil. Spread the onions out evenly over the pan and let cook, stirring occasionally. Depending on how strong your stovetop burner is you may need to reduce the heat to medium or medium low to prevent the onions from burning or drying out. After 10 minutes, sprinkle some salt over the onions, and if you want, you can add some sugar to help with the caramelization process. (I add only about a teaspoon of sugar for 5 onions, you can add more.) One trick, by the way, to keeping the onions from drying out as they cook is to add a little water to the pan.

Let cook for 30 minutes to an hour more, stirring every few minutes. As soon as the onions start sticking to the pan, let them stick a little and brown, but then stir them before they burn. The trick is to let them alone enough to brown (if you stir them too often, they won’t brown), but not so long so that they burn. After the first 20 to 30 minutes you may want to lower the stove temperature a little, and add a little more oil, if you find the onions are verging on burning. A metal spatula will help you scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan as the caramelization proceeds. As the onions cook down, you may find you need to scrape the pan every minute, instead of every few minutes. Continue to cook and scrape, cook and scrape, until the onions are a rich, browned color. At the end of the cooking process you might want to add a little balsamic vinegar or wine to help deglaze the pan and bring some additional flavor to the onions.

Store refrigerated for several days in an air-tight container.


Kale Salad with Cannellini Beans, Gorgonzola and Balsamic Bacon Vinaigrette

November 7, 2013 Appetizer, Entrees, Menu, Salads No Comments

If you’re a follower of healthy food trends, I’m sure you’ve come across quite a few recipes that use kale. If you are not familiar with kale, it is one of the latest and greatest super foods, loaded with vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Because it has risk-lowering benefits for various forms of cancer, and also has cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits, kale is being enjoyed not only as an edible green, but also as an ingredient in protein shakes and body-cleansing juices. I’ve only recently been introduced to kale, served by my brother and his wife as a salad mixed with quinoa, and have since been inspired to try out my own version of a mixed kale salad.

Because kale has a very thick and firm texture, it is often recommended to cook it before serving, to help soften it a bit for easier digestion. Many health food sites recommend steaming it for 5 minutes, for maximum nutrition and flavor. You can also sauté it as you would spinach or other greens. You can, of course, serve it raw, as I do in the recipe that follows. To help soften the leaves and make them easier to digest as a raw salad, you want to thoroughly wash the leaves in warm to hot water for at least 5 minutes, making sure to rub away any grit or dirt. You then want to rinse the leaves again in cold water. This method is called massaging. Remove any thick pieces from the kale, then shred or chop the remaining leaves. You can then add your additional ingredients, then toss with a salad dressing.

My mixed kale salad included the following ingredients. You can add whatever amount you prefer:

• white cannellini beans;
• grape tomatoes;
• crumbled gorgonzola cheese;
• fresh bacon bits; and
• home made balsamic bacon vinaigrette dressing (recipe below).

Obviously, the bacon vinaigrette may not be the first choice for a healthy salad, but I was looking to make it a bit more hearty and flavorful. You can substitute it with a lighter dressing, such as a fresh citrus vinaigrette, if you wish.

For more ideas on how to prepare and serve kale, check out the following links:

Balsamic Bacon Vinaigrette Dressing
(Courtesy of finecooking.com)

2 slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 small shallot, minced
1-1/2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small (1-quart) saucepan over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a dish lined with paper towels, leaving the bacon fat in the pan. Add the shallot to the bacon fat and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 Tbs. of the vinegar and scrape the bottom of the pan with a spoon to dissolve the browned bits stuck to the pan bottom. Off the heat, stir in the remaining 1/2 Tbs. vinegar, the lemon juice, and the mustard. Gradually whisk in the olive oil (don’t worry if the sauce doesn’t emulsify). Season with 1/4 tsp. salt and 1/8 tsp. pepper, or to taste.


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