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!

Giuseppe Cucina Rustica’s grand opening; a switch from classical to modern dining.

There is no doubt that San Luis Obispo is a quaint little town full of Italian heritage and wonderful Italian food.

If you are looking for fine Italian dining, it is not hard to find what your looking for with the grand opening of Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica.

Giuseppe’s restaurant moved from the Palazzo in downtown SLO to 949 Monterey street. They also modified the name of the restaurant to better fit the new overarching theme.

I had the opportunity to sit down and speak to the owner’s son, Giuseppe Di Fronzo. I asked him why they chose to switch buildings. “Our old place was nice, but that style isn’t going to be popular forever. We needed a change. We needed to up our game. My father has always dreamed of having this building, and finally he has achieved that dream”, he said.

Giuseppe told me the happy and charming aura that the building has always had historically, is a major attraction. He is extremely proud of the high white ceilings, family portraits, beautiful chandeliers and the cast iron ceilings, which to my surprise turns out to be one of nine cast iron ceilings that are still in place.

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“It is incredibly open and airy. This is what happens when modern meets classic”, he added.

Due to the switch of buildings, one could inevitably expect a switch in crowd, but Giuseppe told me that they gets a lot of the regular people with a few new ones here and there, but mostly he just notices, ” A crowd. A big one.”

Along with the building change, the menu has changed a bit as well. They have added many new and more traditional items to the menu. Giuseppe’s father also now has his dream of having his own pasta maker in house. He describes the pasta being cooked to perfection by al dente, the perfect firmness. “It is a major change for our menu. It is real authentic Italian noodles.  It has become another major attraction at our new location”, he told me.

The menu is relatively inexpensive and if you are not familiar with Italian cuisine, helpful descriptions and tips are embedded in the menu to help you navigate. Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica also has numerous vegetarian options and if you have small children, ordering an authentic cheese pizza or butter pasta is always a big hit.

One of the new items is called the, “Mama’s salad”. It consists of arugula, cucumber, tomato, iceberg and endives. “It just looks something my grandma used to fix up at home. Simple and tasteful.” He mentioned. Giuseppe gave me this salad when I left and it was incredibly flavorful and fresh.

Another popular new menu item is on the Antipasti list, called the “Mediterranean Octopus ‘alla Barese'” Giuseppe is rather proud about the popularity of the dish. “I feel like a couple years ago this dish would not have sold, but now people love it and it is extremely popular. It is one of those dishes that really brings me home.”

Giuseppe also stated that since they now have this new location up and running they can now work on fixing the burned down restaurant in Pismo.

If you are in need of having a fine Italian dinner, do not hesitate to check of Giuseppe’s menu and head to their new and improved location downtown.

 

Looking for a low fat and affordable alternative to breadcrumbs? Quinoa is the answer

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When I’m thinking about how to best prepare a dish, three essential factors come to mind: the  preparation time, the flavor, and most importantly, the nutritional value.

Many believe that in order to make dinner bakes such as: chicken alfredo, pesto chicken, or eggplant parmesan, you need a really high quality  bread crumb. However, it is completely false.

If you are looking for a high protein, low saturated fat, low carbohydrate and affordable substitute for fatty bread crumb crusts, quinoa is the right answer.

In order to fulfill the flavor of breadcrumb crusts, make sure you cook the quinoa encrusted chicken until it is golden brown or about 25 minutes, this will give it the irresistible crunch that breadcrumbs offer. Then top with marinara, mozzarella and basil.

Quinoa is the heart-healthy superfood of the century. Jessica Penner, a health nutritionist at Smart Nutrition says this about its nutritional value:

Quinoa is a great grain alternative for those following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. The protein in quinoa is complete, meaning that it contains all the essential protein building blocks (called amino acids) that our bodies need. Quinoa is also a good source of iron, zinc, magnesium, and manganese.

Quinoa’s healthy composition and delicious taste beat traditional breadcrumbs by a long run; so next time instead of drenching your chicken filets in flour and oily breadcrumbs, use white or red quinoa as a wholesome alternative.

 

 

 

 

The essential oils

Throughout time, people have been testing a wide variety of oils in their frying, baking and sautéing endeavors; plant, animal and synthetic fats are a few oil options.  However, when it comes to mastering Italian recipes, the quality of the oil is the very basis for success. The search is inevitably for something light and tasty, but also wholesome.

As we move away from animal fats, new scientific evidence from The Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests cholesterol-free vegetable oil from oilseed crop is the best option. These include:soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, cottonseed, and peanut oils.

Most of these vegetable oils have levels of oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids that significantly exceed that of palmitic acid, and nutritionists now generally recommend that preference is given to such oils in the human diet.

Oleic and linoleic oils are unsaturated, fatty acids that won’t compromise your health, but still have the same satisfaction in the stomach.

In order to maintain a healthy kitchen, steer away from high levels of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids in cooking oils. Partially hydrogenated, Crisco and Canola are just a few that should be avoided due to their contribution to cardiovascular disease.

The next time you wish to whip up an Italian dinner, pay special attention to the use of the oil. Such a small change can dramatically improve the taste as well as your overall health.