gnocchi with roast chicken, asparagus, and sun-dried tomatoes in pesto cream sauce

It’s a little heartbreaking to me that many of my favorite dishes are ones that I’m too terrified to attempt to prepare at home: fish and seafood, baking from scratch, soufflés, most of the French mother sauces—and gnocchi.

Every time Greg and I go to Muffuletta, I order the gnocchi. And every time it’s perfect, and more delicious than I remember, with light pillows of potato, rich duck confit, and fresh tomatoes in a bright lemon-infused olive oil. It just seemed like an awful lot to live up to.

I’m not ready (or rich enough) to tackle duck confit. But when I picked up the monthly Fare for All groceries that Mom and I share, and I stared down a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes, I was emboldened. It was time to take a stand. It was time to make homemade gnocchi.

I used Anne Burrell’s recipe for Light as a Cloud Gnocchi, and sadly, my gnocchi turned out considerably heavier than clouds. Don’t get me wrong – they were a fine vehicle for the killer sauce I made. But they were heavier and doughier than I was hoping for. I’m guessing that the recipe is fine and the issue was USER ERROR. I think that I waited too long after baking the potatoes before passing them through the food mill. A mistake I don’t mean to duplicate. /Princess Bride

And I think I cut them too big.

But I conquered my fear of gnocchi (OOGITY! BOOGITY!). It was a long process, and it didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped, and I’m going to try it again. I feel a little less scared of seafood and those French mother sauces now.

The flavors in the sauce are some of my favorites – basil, sun-dried tomatoes, lemon, and asparagus. The only complaint I have about the basil cream sauce accompanying the daredevil gnocchi is the chicken. It was roasted just the way I like it, but it didn’t seem to belong in this dish. Next time I’ll skip the chicken, and keep the focus on the gnocchi, vegetables, and sauce.

Recipe below the fold

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Olive Oil Lemon Cupcakes with Mascarpone Frosting

On the day of my spaghetti dinner, I followed a careful hourly plan, with every task scheduled from the moment I woke up. I stayed on program until about 4 p.m., when I was about to get in the shower and I realized that I’d failed to schedule a time to make dessert.

The rest of the afternoon was a mad rush to finish preparing the meal, get myself and my apartment cleaned up, and try to erase the expression on my face that screamed, the shirt is about to hit the flan.

My brother was running a little late anyway, and Mom and Greg pitched in on the salad when they arrived. Disaster averted!

These sweet and tangy cupcakes were the perfect end to my Lunch Bunch trial run dinner. I needed a treat that would be easy to transport to work, so rather than making an authentic Italian dessert, I decided to make a cupcake with some of my favorite Italian ingredients.

I’d been interested in baking a cake using olive oil ever since I had the lovely olive oil corn bread at Il Gatto a few months ago. Pairing it with lemon was a no brainer for me. I love lemon. No matter what time of year it is, as soon as I begin to zest a lemon, I’m overcome with an overwhelming sense of spring.

Mmm…spring.

I adapted an olive oil cake recipe from Cafe Fernando that demanded I overcome my irrational fear of baking a cake from scratch. The cake turned out dense and moist—a little crumbly, like a pound cake. It’s very lemony, not overly sweet, and the olive oil gave it almost a savory flavor.

The mascarpone frosting recipe is Martha Stewart’s, so yeah. It’s perfect. The texture was light and fluffy, and the mascarpone gave it a luxurious buttery tang.

Recipe below the fold.

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Antipasto Salad

Q: What’s the best way to improve a green salad?

A: Add salami!

I served this salad last Saturday night to Mom, Handsome Greg, and my fancy guesty big brother Kevin. We ate it alongside the spaghetti in meat sauce and Italian bread with roasted garlic whipped butter. I made way too much, and I’ve been enjoying it for dinner every night since then, straight from the serving bowl.

This is another Lunch Bunch trial recipe. (My day to serve lunch at work is two weeks from today. Nervous!) I’m planning to keep everything the same, except for the croutons. On Saturday, I fried up bits of pizza dough and tossed them in grated Parmesan cheese.

[Wait – that’s a lie. Mom fried up bits of pizza dough and tossed them in grated Parmesan cheese. Oh, and Greg and Mom did all of the chopping. And Mom made the dressing, and marinated the mozzarella. Other than adapting the recipe, I was pretty much useless on this one, as I was busy making frosting for the cupcakes.]

Anyway, the fried pizza dough croutons were deliciously cheesy, golden-crisped nuggets of wonderful on top of the salad. But they don’t stay that way long enough to work for Lunch Bunch, so I’m going to make regular bread croutons in the oven, tossed with olive oil and garlic. Sorry, Lunch Bunchers!

The rest of the salad was just as fabulous: crunchy hearts of romaine, creamy marinated fresh mozzarella, spicy salami, briny artichoke hearts, and sweet basil, all tossed in olive oil and lemon juice.

Recipe after the fold

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spaghetti in meat sauce

After taking a break to focus on Flops! this summer, I’m back in Lunch Bunch. A handful of folks at work take turns making lunch for the rest of the group every Wednesday. My turn to cook is in a couple weeks, and I’m on pins and needles.

When I cook for other people, I tend to get totally unhinged about everything being perfect, and Lunch Bunch provides two sizeable obstacles to serving a perfect meal: no oven and no stove. Also, the food needs to be prepared mostly at home, and then transported to work, to be served magically fresh and at the perfect temperature. If only I were a caterer with schmancy caterer tools – I’d be the Goddess of Lunch Bunch.

Sans schmancy tools and keeping in mind the kitchen constraints, I chose spaghetti in meat sauce for my triumphant return to Lunch Bunch, and guinea pigged Mom and Greg on Saturday night, with a special guest appearance by my big brother, Kevin.

[Kevin and his family live in Seattle where he works as a tattoo artist. He flew in for the weekend to do tattoos on some of his old Minnesota friends, and he was able to get away for a break on Saturday night to join us for dinner. Yay!]

Veronica! Dinner!

The sauce was ridiculously easy to put together – just brown the beef with onions and garlic, stir in the rest of the ingredients, and simmer. It was tasty pretty much right away, but I let it simmer for about six hours, stirring every once in awhile, and it just got richer and yummier.

It was pretty thick by dinner time, so before I drained the pasta, I ladled out some of the starchy cooking water and stirred it into the sauce. When I make it for Lunch Bunch, I’ll prepare the sauce the night before, warm it in the crock pot in the morning, and then stir in the cooked spaghetti before I leave.

I served this with Antipasto Salad, Roasted Garlic Whipped Butter, and Olive Oil Lemon Cupcakes with Mascarpone Frosting.

Recipe after the fold

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chicken soup risotto

This dish is the perfect marriage of Italian comfort food (risotto) and American comfort food (chicken soup). I made it for the second time on Sunday, and it did, in fact, improve my emotional status.

Chicken thighs, carrots, and mushrooms were all on sale last week. Mom had celery remains that needed to be used up or forsaken and flat-leaf parsley from her patio herb garden ready to harvest.

My favorite Chicken Soup Risotto seemed the perfect choice for Sunday dinner, plus lunch for the week, until I realized midday that I had no chicken stock, or even chicken bones, in the freezer. And so my simple comfort food became an all-day affair of roasting the chicken and making the stock.

The aroma of roast chicken, celery, and onions in my apartment was literally intoxicating – for my cat, Atticus “Tigger” Meowington. When he wasn’t shamelessly begging for chicken in the kitchen, he was lolling about, belly up on the dining room carpet, tongue sticking out and legs splayed in all directions.

Of course, it worked. As I shredded the chicken I left bits in Tigger’s food dish. Look, I’m not made of stone.

Recipe after the fold

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s’mores cupcakes

I am afraid of cake.

That s'more!

Cake is dangerous – so many things can go wrong. It can turn out too heavy and dense, it can be dry, it can be tough. And worst of all is the fallen cake, the sad collapse, camouflaged with frosting. I confess – I’m overwhelmed and intimidated by all the variables: erratic oven temperatures, air pressure and humidity, the freshness of the ingredients, and the possibility of over-mixing the batter.

I have not invested the time and money in taming the Temperamental Cake. When I’m baking for others, I need to know that it’s going to turn out, so I rely on cake mixes, just in case. But I’m never going to bake a cake just for myself. So, when will I ever learn to bake a cake from scratch?

(That was a really long-winded and defensive justification for my shameful use of a boxed cake mix for Kate’s birthday cupcakes. I’m sorry you had to see that.)

For shame!

Kate requested a chocolaty dessert for her birthday potluck, and (about three years behind on the cupcake fad) I was happy to oblige with S’mores-inspired cupcakes. I guinea-pigged Mom and Greg on the cupcakes last week, and I was mostly happy with the results.

I made chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow buttercream frosting, topped with chocolate covered graham crackers. The frosting—equal parts buttercream and marshmallow fluff—didn’t quite work. It was yummy, but it didn’t taste at all like marshmallow; it tasted like extra sweet buttercream. So, for the potluck, I’m using straight fluff, and browning it under the toaster oven broiler.

I’d like to find a way to really integrate the graham crackers into the cupcakes, but none of the options appealed to me. I didn’t want to mar the texture of the marshmallow with graham cracker crumbs, and I didn’t want a crumbly graham cake. I’ll just have to accept that the graham cracker is mostly a garnish here.

Recipe after the fold

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radiatori with eggplant in meaty tomato sauce

When I’m entertaining, I tend to go completely overboard, with a ridiculously complicated menu and every component of every dish made from scratch. When I’m cooking for myself, I scale it back considerably – I make one-pot meals from sale items and pantry staples. On Sunday afternoons, I make a big pot of something, the something I’m going to eat for lunch all week. This past Sunday, my mom joined me for dinner to watch the Emmy Awards (a week late). We only got about halfway through the red carpet stuff, so no spoilers, please.

This week’s Sunday dinner/lunch is an old favorite of mine. It’s a simplified stovetop casserole version of moussaka. When I’m feeling hot buttered fancy, I’ll make a traditional layered moussaka, with lamb and topped with béchamel, la la la. But for lunches, it’s ground beef, a jar of spaghetti sauce, pasta, seasoning, and vegetables, mixed up messy together and dumped in a bowl, sometimes topped with parmesan cheese. I served this on Sunday in my nice dishes, which are gigantic, so the portions were way too big. Mom and I finished our bowlfuls, but were too full to finish dessert, the caramel apple crisp I made that afternoon.

I started with a butt-ugly eggplant. I bought it over a week before I cooked it, and it didn’t age well in the fridge. It cooked up great, but it looked horrible, full of dents and creases, and the stem was brown and withered. I attempted every angle, but there was no pretty picture of the eggplant.

I hear it on the Food Network all the time that I’m supposed to gently wipe the mushrooms with a paper towel to clean off the dirt. And I did that – I did! For years, I followed the Kitchen Rule of Mushrooms: do not clean mushrooms in water. They will absorb the water like a sponge, and that will ruin their texture and keep them from browning properly.

Well, I was in a big, fat rush on Sunday to get dinner ready (Mom was in the living room watching “Live from the Red Carpet” and calling me in from the kitchen now and again to gasp at something glorious or hideous), so I threw caution to the wind and briefly rinsed the mushrooms in a strainer under cold water, instead of brushing off the grit with a towel. And they turned out just fine. Great, in fact. They were meaty and earthy, and everything mushrooms should be. From now on, I will save my time and rinse the mushrooms. I don’t care what Ina Garten says.

(I totally care what Ina Garten says.)

Recipe after the fold

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Caramel Apple Crisp

My schoolgirl days are long passed, but I still imagine that I live on an academic calendar. When autumn arrives, I feel like buying notebooks and pencils, and starting something new. So welcome to my start-of-the-school-year autumn project, Galley Kitchen. I’ll be sharing my own recipes, trying others’ recipes, and learning to take decent food photos.

The weather in Minnesota has just begun to cool off, and the summer humidity is lifting. The air is crisp, the skies are blue and clear, and the Minnesota State Fair is finally ending. I live a few blocks from the Fair, and for 10 days each year it’s the bane of my existence. The annual neighborhood takeover of cars and pedestrians makes me want to use angry emoticons.

For my inaugural food blog post, I’m stepping entirely out of character and making something simple: a commercial recipe that I’ve made before. In honor of autumn’s impending arrival, I’m making Caramel Apple Crisp, recipe courtesy of Kraft. (Don’t judge.) They’re very sweet and gooey, with a crispy oatmeal crust and topping.

The butter I left out on the dining room table to soften had some suspicious imprints in it, so I got another stick from the fridge and melted it in the microwave. If I was just cooking for myself, I’d probably go ahead and use butter that my cat had licked, but this is a dish to share.

After I added the melted butter to the brown sugar I combined all the ingredients in the crust/topping, and squished it all together with my hands, until it was soft and crumbly.

I’m a little slow at the peeling and chopping, so I tossed the apple chunks in lemon juice as I  chopped them to keep them from turning brown.

If Greg decides to go to the State Fair today, I’m going to be his Park-and-Ride to the fairgrounds. I’ll wrap up some apple crisp for him to snack on with Dusty in the middle of the night.

Recipe after the fold

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