Pasta Opera

Nothing makes my taste buds sing quite like the combination of tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Combine that with some pasta, olive oil, and a few mushrooms for good measure and there’s a full-fledged opera going on in my mouth. The kind of opera singing that’s going to crack your wine glass, so do make sure you’ve taken the necessary precautions – those broken shards of glass are no fun! By no means am I suggesting to forgo the wine entirely. You may just need to use a plastic cup, so when the opera begins and the fat lady starts to sing, you’ll be fully prepared. Safety first.

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

One box of your favorite pasta. I’ve found that angel hair works very well here. It cooks quickly and I’m impatient.
One container of grape or cherry tomatoes.
One container of pre-sliced, pre-cleaned mushrooms.
Quite a few garlic cloves. I generally use 5-6 cloves of garlic for this dish.
A nice handful of basil leaves.
A generous amount of olive oil.

Let’s get down to business. First, I like to get a big pasta pot and fill it up with water. Add a good helping of salt to season your pasta and a tiny splash of olive oil to keep it from clumping. Put that pot on the stove and bring the water to a boil. If you’re quick, by the time your water is boiling, the rest of the dish will be ready to go!

Next, it’s time to prepare the ingredients that will very soon be adorning your perfectly cooked pasta. Give your cherry or grape tomatoes a rinse and then slice them right down the middle. I love these little guys, so I use a full container. They’re such a vibrant shade of red and have a beautiful sweetness.

Couldn’t you just look at them all day? Of course, these are too good to simply admire. Let’s get ’em ready for the party! In a large pan, add a healthy pour of olive oil. Add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Over a medium heat, bring your oil to a warm temperature. Once the oil is hot, dump in those tomatoes and let them sizzle away! Every minute or so, give them a shake or stir so they don’t get too cooked on one side. We want an even cooking on our tomatoes. Once they’ve been going for about five minutes, they’ll start to release some of their juice. At this point, they’re right where we want them. The juice they release will help to make your sauce that will stick nicely to the pasta.

Now that the tomatoes are cooking and developing a wonderful flavor, it’s time to add your minced garlic. Again, use as little or as much as you’d like. I typically go buck-wild with garlic and like to add at least five minced cloves. Don’t expect a smooch after this meal, unless your sweetie also partakes in this garlicky concoction. Let the garlic soften and cook gently. The flavors will mingle with the tomatoes and the juice that is developing in the bottom of your pan. Is your mouth watering yet? We aren’t stopping here!

It’s time to add some mushrooms to the mix. Obviously if you don’t like them, don’t add them. Get creative. Add whatever kind of mushroom you like. I opted for the simple button mushroom, but you certainly could try any variety of mushroom that’s looking good at the store that day. Dice them up and into the pot they go!

The mushrooms will only take a few minutes to cook. At this point, the opera singer is warming up her voice. Can you hear it yet? Your wine glasses are safe…for now. Your pasta water should be boiling by this point. Drop in the pasta and cook it according to the directions on your box, with one minor adjustment. You’ll want to stop cooking the pasta just a hair before it’s completely cooked. Sounds crazy, right? By removing the pasta from the boiling water 30 seconds before it has completely cooked, you’ll allow it to finish cooking in your pan with the delicious goodies that you’ve been nurturing so carefully. Drop your pasta into the pan with the tomatoes, garlic, and mushrooms. Mix everything together thoroughly until the pasta and other ingredients have combined.

We are almost at the finish line but we wouldn’t dare serve this meal as is. Don’t forget about your basil! That’s the ingredient that will tie everything together and give it a vibrant pop of color and flavor. You’ll want to add this at the end so the basil doesn’t completely wilt and turn a dismal shade of brown. We want that bright pop of green and freshness to join us at the dinner table. Mix one more time over the heat until everything is incorporated. Add another generous splash of olive oil for flavor and then you’re finished! Grab a plate and get ready to chow down. Not only was this meal easy to prepare and inexpensive in cost, but it will also look quite elegant on your plate. You’ve transformed simple ingredients and dressed them up for the opera – which you should be hearing by now! Of course you don’t need to dress up for this opera experience. A pair of jeans and your favorite t-shirt will do just fine. Can you hear it?

A piece of toasted crusty bread will go nicely with this dish. Of course you could also add some protein to the mix and toss in some grilled shrimp or chicken to make this meal even heartier. A bit of grated Parmesan cheese just before serving will add a delicious salty finish. Grab your plastic wine cup, a fork, and get ready to enjoy the opera!

Happy eating,

The Taste Bud

Longing For Lobster

It’s no secret that I simply adore seafood. I go bonkers for it. In nearly three decades of living, I haven’t come across a single crustacean that I haven’t loved. A big part of this appreciation for seafood goes back to my childhood. Large seafood meals were rare, but when they occurred, they were quite the extravaganza. Seafood dinners were prepared for celebrations, milestone events, birthdays, or for that exemplary report card that showed stellar grades. I think even to this day I still associate seafood meals with that sense of celebration and accomplishment, which may be why this type of food holds such a special place in my heart.

Simply put, seafood reminds me of happy times growing up, spent with my family, sharing big hearty laughs around a dinner table. It’s food that makes you feel comfortable. Utensils are nice, but not necessarily required – your fingers will work just fine! As the shells fly and crack, you may just accidentally send some of the crunchy crustacean exterior sailing toward your neighbor across the table. But that’s perfectly fine. Have a good chuckle and keep cracking.

Recently, I found myself thinking about the absolute best seafood meal I’d ever had. There were many top contenders. In the end, the big honor had to go to a lobster dinner that I shared with my mom on the coast of Maine in June of 2011. This was a particularly special trip that the two of us shared. We spent a few days in Maine riding up and down the coastline in search of the elusive perfect lobster dinner. Guess what? We found it!

Driving out to Bailey Island about an hour north of Portland, we arrived at Cook’s Lobster House. It was rustic. It felt comfortable. We felt hungry, so inside we went.

Once inside, we looked over the menu. It all looked so delicious, but we had one thing in mind. Lobster. As we placed our order, big cups of delicious lobster chowder were served. The chowder was spilling over with huge chunks of fresh lobster meat. The broth was creamy and savory. It got our taste buds revved up for the main event that was yet to come…

After a relatively short wait, I saw our waiter out of the corner of my eye. He was carrying a large tray with two large lobsters, each one a brilliant color of red. I knew that my perfect lobster dinner was about to begin. I grabbed my napkin in anticipation. Then it arrived. Right in front of me. An entire lobster that was as fresh as they come. This poor guy had been swimming a mere few hours before. Now it sat on my plate and I couldn’t wait to see if the highly-touted Maine lobster really was all that it’s “cracked” up to be. Sorry for the crustacean humor.

The condiments are simple. A squirt of lemon and some melted butter are the only things you need to truly savor this catch from the sea. This allows the true sweet flavor of the lobster to shine – and shine it did. After a mishap that involved my mom nearly dropping her lobster on the floor (talk about a heart-racing moment!), it was time to dig in. Shells were getting cracked and lobster meat was being separated. Large dunks into the generous helping of butter accentuated the sweetness perfectly. We had finally found the perfect seafood dinner. We were able to now say we had eaten a truly authentic Maine lobster in the most beautiful of settings. Sitting out there on Bailey Island, feeling completely removed from civilization, spending that crisp June evening with mom will always stay in my mind. It also reinforced just how special seafood dinners have been to me in the past, and how important they will remain to me in the future. In the end, it’s about more than the food. It’s about the memories – and those memories will last forever.

What’s the best seafood dinner you have ever had? Share your stories in the comments section of this blog!

Time for this meteorologist to get crackin’. Storms are popping up, so it’s off to work I go.

Until next time,

The Taste Bud

Ready To Roast!

Nothing makes me feel more accomplished in the kitchen than when I’m able to turn somebody on to a food that they thought they could never like. When the pickiest of eaters come by for a meal, it’s time to pull out the big guns. One weapon in my culinary arsenal that can transform an ingredient like no other is that of roasting. Using high temperatures and just a few basic seasonings, you can create a depth of flavor that will make a believer out of the harshest of critics. Did I mention that it’s E-A-S-Y?

Here’s what you’ll need:

Vegetables that you’d like to roast. First up, I’m doing broccoli and cauliflower.
Olive oil
(Did I mention it was E-A-S-Y?)

Give your veggies a nice gentle rinse to get them ready for their trip to roasting town. After the rinse, make sure you dry the vegetables off VERY well. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you put these vegetables into the oven covered with H2O, they will simply steam instead of roast, meaning you will miss out on lots of flavor. This will cause lots of sadness and tears. For goodness sake, pat those suckers dry! Get every ounce of moisture off of them. When they’re dry and cut into bite-sized pieces you’re ready to put them on the roasting pan. A cookie tray lined with aluminum foil will do the trick just nicely. By lining the pan with foil, you’re creating a clean-up process that will take you the amount of time it takes to wad up a piece of foil. Now that’s what I call doing the dishes!

When your veggies are on the tray, give them a good drizzle of olive oil (this isn’t the place for vegetable, canola, or any other kind of oil). Also hit them up with some salt and pepper. That’s really all you need. Did I mention that this was E-A-S-Y? Give them a nice mix with your hands and you’re ready to slam them in the oven. Place your roasting tray with vegetables into a pre-heated 425 degree oven and just wait. Watch some TV. Read a good book. Sip some wine. After about 10 minutes, take a look inside the oven to see what’s happening. You should start to see the edges of the vegetables getting nice and brown. The broccoli will start to get a little crunchy looking. Take your pan out of the oven and give the vegetables a nice shake to give the other sides a chance to get nice and brown. Cooking at a high temperature like this allows the natural sugars in the vegetables to caramelize, giving them an entirely different flavor. Even the biggest broccoli haters might be surprised at just how different and exciting the flavor can become when roasted. Yes, I just said broccoli can be exciting. After another 10 minutes or so, you’re going to have perfectly roasted and caramelized cauliflower and broccoli. Your cooking times may vary slightly depending on the whims of your oven. Your nose and eyes will tell you when it’s done. You don’t want to burn it, but don’t be afraid of letting it brown. Here’s what it should look like when it is perfectly cooked:

That brown color you see there is pure flavor!! It’ll melt in your mouth and make your taste buds do back flips. Of course now all you need is a plate and a hungry mouth. There’s always a hungry mouth, or two, or three in my kitchen.

For an extra pop of flavor, you could add some freshly grated Parmesan cheese while the vegetables are still piping hot. These roasted gems make a hearty side dish that can stand up next to some bold flavors on the dinner table!

Next up, a vegetable that has a bit more of a following…asparagus! Don’t you dare touch that steamer. We are roasting today!

Using the same procedure as before, line the asparagus out in a single layer on your roasting pan. Make sure not to have them too close together. They need room to breathe! If they’re too close together, they’ll steam. Remember the sadness and tears that will cause? Don’t make me cry. We want caramelizing and optimum flavor building to take place. Like your teenager who is becoming increasingly independent, give those things some space!

Give them a generous drizzle of olive oil, then a hearty helping of salt and pepper and they’re ready. Sometimes to give an extra burst of freshness, I like to liven things up with a squirt of lemon juice. You’d be surprised how a squeeze from one wedge of lemon will brighten up the party. Give it a try, but don’t go overboard.

Now put those asparagus into a pre-heated 425 degree oven and leave them alone. Let them develop their flavor undisturbed for about 10 minutes, then give them a check. They may need a little shuffling. Let them go for about 5 more minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus.

Now you’re ready to eat! When they’re finished, they’ll look like this:

Again, the brown you see there is pure flavor! When you roast asparagus, it will take on a nutty type of flavor profile. The tops will get all crispy and crunchy. The flavor will be totally transformed and amplified. Asparagus cooked this way will stand up nicely to your favorite steak or seafood. It’s ready to eat just the way it is. By the way, this doesn’t have to be dinner food. Feel free to serve it up with your scrambled eggs in the morning. It can make a wonderful addition to your breakfast!

Now, armed with this new knowledge of how wonderful roasting can be, get into the kitchen and be creative! The possibilities are endless and you just might be able to make a believer out of even the most discriminating of eaters. I’d love to hear your tips and comments on roasting success stories. Leave your comments at the bottom of this blog!

Happy roasting,

The Taste Bud

Summer Staple: Fried Eggplant

Being a man born and raised in North Carolina, I have always had a soft spot for fried food. As a result of this love for fried food, my midsection has become a bit of a soft spot, but that’s not the point. The point of this blog is eggplant. Fried. Yes, please.

The idea for this particular blog post came from a Facebook status by a former co-worker named Val. She was looking for a recipe for fried eggplant and that got my gears turning and my stomach growling. I wanted to make the perfect fried eggplant. Crunchy crust on the outside, soft and hot on the inside, bursting with tremendous flavor. I wanted to take a simple ingredient and transform it into a delectable side dish worthy of accompanying ANY southern supper.

What you’ll need:

One medium/large-sized eggplant
Two eggs
Corn meal
Salt & pepper
Onion powder
Cayenne powder
Vegetable oil or canola oil (for frying)
Splash of milk

Once you have all of your ingredients assembled, it’s not too much work. First things first – let’s slice the eggplant! I like to slice it into circles that are about 1/2″ thick. When you’re finished, your eggplant should look like this.

Now it’s time to get the coating for the eggplant ready. You’ll set up a work station with 3 separate dishes. One of these will contain 2 lightly beaten eggs with a splash of milk. The next will contain some seasoned flour. To season my flour, I like to add a generous helping of salt, pepper, a dash of onion powder, and a bit of cayenne pepper (if I’m feeling spicy). The final dish will contain a generous helping of corn meal. Here’s what your coating station should look like…

First, dip an eggplant slice into the egg/milk mixture, being sure to coat both sides. Then take a trip right on over to the seasoned flour. Again, coat both sides. Then take that slice BACK into the egg/milk mixture. Then finally, head all the way over to your corn meal and get a good coating on both sides. Repeat this process for each slice of eggplant. Your final product should resemble this:

Your hands should look like this (if they don’t, please let me know your secret!):

Give your hands a good, much-needed rinse and then get ready to FRY! In a medium-sized frying pan with a high edge, add enough oil to cover the eggplant slices when they’re frying. I like to fry with vegetable or canola oil for this particular recipe.

This next step is very, very, very important. Let the oil get HOT. Over medium-high heat, make sure your oil is completely ready to go before you put in the first slice. If your oil isn’t completely ready, the eggplant slices will soak up the cold oil and they won’t get crispy. Nobody wants to eat oily, greasy, fried eggplant. Not even the dog. To test the hotness of the oil, try this little trick. Run your finger under the sink and flick a *drop* of water in the pan with your oil. If it pops and bubbles, you’re in business. If you don’t hear anything, it’s just not hot enough. Again, don’t do anything more than a drop of water, if you want to avoid a fireworks-like explosion of hot oil on your stove.

Gently lay in each slice of eggplant, being careful not to crowd the pan. Lay the slices away from you, so you don’t accidentally splash any hot oil on your clothes…or your body! After bubbling away in the oil for 3-4 minutes, you should start noticing the edges getting a nice golden brown color. These babies are ready to flip! When you flip them over, you should see this:

Let them go for a few more minutes on the other side and then you’re ready to remove your golden brown goodness from the pan. Some people like to just drain them on a plate lined with paper towels. This will lead to soggy slices that will not only look wimpy and floppy, but they will taste overly greasy and oily. Yuck. To avoid this, take a wire rack like this one (the one from your toaster oven will get the job done):

Set the wire rack over a plate lined with paper towels. When you place the eggplant slices on this to cool, air will circulate underneath the eggplant, allowing the bottoms to stay nice and crisp – while the excess oil drains away. As soon as you place your eggplant on the wire rack, be sure to salt liberally while the oil is still hot on the outside. This will really ensure that the salt adheres to the outside of your eggplant.

Finally, the fruits of your labor shall be rewarded! It’s time to much away on these crispy beauties. They’ll be crunchy on the outside and soft and perfectly cooked on the inside. These fried eggplant slices make a wonderful accompaniment to any meal. If eggplant doesn’t float your boat, you can certainly substitute with yellow squash or zucchini, following the exact same procedure. The summer’s bounty of eggplant and squash is limited. Enjoy them while they are here and fresh!

Happy eating,

The Taste Bud

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