Gratins; the easy A+ side dish for the family Christmas dinner.

Can you imagine the savory crunchy bits of baked sauce or cheese left around the perimeter of a casserole? Who can stop themselves from scouring over the crispy morsels that are left behind in the dish?

The answer? No one. If you are looking for a universal Christmas dish that everyone is bound to enjoy, then look no further.

The French coined the name for a baked top layer,  which is  “gratin”. Gratins’ consist of breadcrumbs, cheese, sauce, or sugar layered on top of savoring pastas, potatoes or even deserts.

The origin of the word is quite interesting and dates back to the 16th century. The French verb, “gratter” means “to scrape”. Likewise, The term, “le gratin” has been used to refer to the “upper crust” in society. In modern uses, “au gratin” refers to a dish with a crunchy caramelized top layer.

Although the gratin originated in France, small twists and different recipes make it easily adopted in Italian cuisine.

When I was home this weekend, I went to one of my favorite locally-owned family restaurants, called Oregano’s. Upon looking on the menu, I noticed that they served a dish called baked cauliflower gratin. Needless to say, we ordered it as our appetizer.  Absolutely Delicious!

After eating, I spoke to the owner Larry Mancini about the history of the dish and why the dish is a healthy alternative. He started off with,

“Oh…well, it’s the healthy mac and cheese!”

Truly, he is right in this statement. The cauliflower becomes so soft and pasta like that it hardly even tastes like a vegetable. Surrounded by the creamy cheddar base,  it can easily be mistaken for a not so healthy dish.

He went on to tell me that he has had this recipe on the menu for over Twenty years because it was one of his mother’s favorites. Having done his fair share of research and experimentation, he explained that there are multiple gratin dishes. The oldest of these mouthwatering dishes is called, gratin dauphinois; it is just sliced  potatoes in a garlic cream sauce coated in butter and sprinkled with breadcrumbs.

He mentioned that with cauliflower, roasting it will caramelize it, and lead to a sweet and savory taste.

Another reason why gratins are so loved is that they are so easy to make! They can be prepared with anything from cauliflower to asparagus to pasta; and not to neglect, deserts as well! Coating fruit and cream in sugar and popping it in the oven will torch and caramelize the sugar. Can you say heaven? I can!

Attached is a cauliflower gratin recipe that I recently made myself and loved. It adds a goat cheese topping, which further defines it’s salty flavor.

Gratins’ are also easily modified to fit food allergies. There are gluten free options, as well as vegetarian alternatives to fit everyone’s specific needs.

If you need that extra appetizer to add to your eloquent Christmas dinner, simply add a gratin. The result? Delectable crispy and creamy goodness to pass around the table!

Insight into the healthy ‘kick’ in butternut squash

As the weather starts to cool off and running noses and sore throats become all too common, soups become one of the most appealing foods.

When the squash season starts to come to an end, its the perfect time to incorporate a multitude of wonderful, ripe squash vegetables into your daily whole made soups.

Butternut squash in particular, is raved about for its wholesome, as well as filling characteristics. In addition to a soup base, it can also be used as a ravioli filing or as a squash casserole.

As it pertains to soups, Deborah Mele, Italian cook and author of Italian Food Forever, has really nailed the perfect butternut squash soup recipe. I recently made this soup and I must say the flavor way phenomenal. From the sage to the drizzle of yogurt, the flavors could be tasted in every spoonful.

“This soup is also low in fat as only a little heart-healthy olive oil is used, and the soup gets its thick, creamy texture from the sweet potatoes rather than heavy cream.” adds Deborah.

If you are battling allergies or asthma, butternut squash is also rich in vitamins and minerals to improve immunity through the cold winter months. According to Medical News Today, butternut squash contains an antioxidant known as Beta-Carotene which acts as a protective shield to the body, preventing free-radicals from getting into our systems. What could be better way to kick that stubborn cold?

I had the opportunity to speak with Nathan Tarentino, owner of Italian restaurant and cuisine, Centanove. When I asked him about the popularity of his butternut squash raviolis, he answered in excitement, “There is not an item on the menu that sells at the rate that my butternut squash raviolis do. Once you start eating them, it becomes an addiction almost. You are tasting so many different spices and flavors all at once, engulfed in an authentic Italian pasta…There really is nothing better. He jokes,  “Also, I feel that many people have the mindset that they are eating a vegetable, so it completely voids the fact that you are eating quite a few carbohydrates that come from the pasta.”

Wether you be outside around a fire enjoying the crisp air that transitions into winter, or cuddled up on the couch in a blanket, there really is not a more satisfying taste then that of butternut squash. Before you bundle up to relax for the night, grab yourself a bowl or plate of your favorite squash meal.

Buon Appetito!

 

 

The pumpkin is the ticket to seasonal baking and festive family bonding

Near the end of October and beginning of November, the feeling of the Fall season really starts to set in: Halloween, memorable times with family, delicious food and laughter are all in the air.

What better way to give thanks for all the wonders in life than to indulge in a delicious seasonal treat? We have much to celebrate in life, and there is nothing better then a warm whole made pastry.

Since my family is Italian, it is tradition to spend countless hours in the kitchen perfecting long standing family baking recipes, many of which came directly from Italy. A few that spark my tastebuds are: vanilla bean cookies, dark chocolate macaroons, and my favorite, pumpkin spice scones!

When I think of Fall foods, the pumpkin is at the heart of them all. Thanks to the local, Trader Joe’s, the creation of fall treats is right at your finger tips! If you are in college, not to worry, many pumpkin mixes and pulps will fit your budget.

Trader Joe’s offers a multitude of kits and packages that include everything you need to create a tasty and easy pumpkin treat. They offer recipe kits such as: caramel pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin spiced cheesecake, pumpkin pie, pumpkin spiced babka, pumpkin pancake and waffle mix, pumpkin toaster pastries, pumpkin scones, pumpkin spiced whip cream and even pumpkin spiced pumpkin seeds!

Clearly, there is no better place to kick off pumpkin season then Trader Joe’s.

Tradition is essential to celebrate during the holidays and specifically around Thanksgiving. Whatever your origins and cooking traditions may be, it is important to shed extra light on them during this grateful time of year.

I was given the opportunity this weekend to speak to the owner of Grazia Puma Panetteria, a family owned Italian bakery in Willow Glen, California.  Suzette Sorrentino agrees with me about about the importance of baking and family tradition:

Around this time of year, many start noticing the trees turning colors, or for children, many start thinking about Halloween costumes, but for my family the onset of Fall evokes a specific memory and ongoing tradition that we’ve enjoyed year after year. As Fall marks the beginning of our Italian cookie baking season! Based on recipes handed down through many generations, we al share in the enjoyment of our unique, mouth watering, artful cookies.

Essentially, instead of the focus being on Halloween candy, we should all strive to incorporate family bonding into our sweets by baking a home prepared treat this season.

We all need a break to our healthy eating regime; relish in the sweetness. After all, calories don’t count during the holidays!