The Main Menu: A great Christmas gift idea

Christmas is coming! This statement of the obvious is not meant to irritate but simply to act as a focus. With each successive Christmas, I have determined to emphasis the aspects I love about the season – the music, the food, celebrating around a dining room table with friends and family – and downplay the part I loathe: the commercialism.  In fact, in most cases, gift giving has become the gift of food carefully planned to fit the needs of the individual.

When my son asked for five favourite recipes as his Christmas present, I was thrilled. Simply choose the current top five, as a bonus include the ingredients, and I have Christmas all wrapped up. Knowing his hectic schedule, the recipes had to be tasty, quick and of course, appealing. Here are some winners complete with where to buy the ingredients, packaging and with all the tips for fast and successful preparation. Best of all, when you prepare them, you will be a star!

Mediterranean Pasta    
The inspiration for this dish comes from a super little family owned Italian supermarket right in our neighbourhood, the corner of Westlake and Danforth – Vincenzo’s. Most of you probably have your favourite shop, but Vincenzo’s is appealing to me because it is small enough to be manageable while having excellent quality ingredients including great baskets for packaging your gift. Everything listed here is available at Vincenzo’s. One stop shopping.

8 oz (250 g) Italian pasta, cooked al dente
Sauce: try Tarall’oro
1/4 cup (50 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 cups (500mL) mushrooms, sliced (optional)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 jar roasted tomatoes, drained
1/2 jar marinated artichokes, drained
2 tbsp (25 mL)    vegetable paste (Ortolina vegetable paste in tube)
1/2 cup (125 ml) dry white wine or chicken stock
1/4 tsp (1 ml) fresh black pepper, salt if needed
1/2 cup (125 ml) fresh chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
2 tbsp (25 mL)     quality balsamic vinegar or balsamic cream
1 cup (250 mL) shredded Asiago cheese
Variation:
1/2 lb (250 g) chicken sausages, cooked, sliced thinly

Measure out the pasta. Put aside. In large saucepan fill with salted water and bring to boil. Put large serving plates or bowls in low oven to warm. Meanwhile, in separate large saucepan or frying pan, heat oil over medium high heat, cook onions, leeks and mushrooms covered until softened about five minutes. Stir in garlic, tomatoes, artichokes, vegetable paste and white wine or stock or mixture. Cook stirring until well blended about two minutes. Season with pepper – you may not need any salt. Taste. Adjust seasoning. Add pasta to water and cook according to directions about 8 minutes. Drain reserving about 1/2 cup (125 mL) pasta water. Toss the pasta with the sauce, add parsley, add pasta water if required and sausages if using. Spoon mixture into heated serving dishes; sprinkle with vinegar and cheese. Serve immediately with crusty bread and a green salad.
Green Salad with Basic Vinaigrette
For optimum flavour, be sure to use fresh Ontario garlic and a quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil to make this salad.

4 cups (1 L) mixed greens
2 tbsp (25 mL) natural almonds
2 tbsp (25 mL) dried cherries
Basic Vinaigrette
1/3 cup (75 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp (25 mL)    quality balsamic vinegar
1 clove, garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1/4 tsp (1 mL) fresh black pepper

In a mixing bowl, toss together greens, almonds and cherries. In measuring cup, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Pour into a jar. Drizzle over enough dressing to coat greens lightly refrigerating any leftovers for future salad.

 

Simply Shortbread
How could three ingredients turn into something that tastes so delicious? Technique is everything for this transformation to take place; please pay close attention to the method.

2 – 2 1/2 cups (500 – 625 mL) all purpose flour
1 cup (250 mL) butter, softened
½ cup (125 mL) fruit sugar or granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 325 F (180 C). Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a mixing bowl, measure out 2 ½ cups (625 mL) all purpose flour. YOU MAY NOT NEED ALL THIS FLOUR BUT MEASURE IT OUT.
In separate bowl using an electric mixer, beat butter until like whipping cream. Gradually (tablespoon by tablespoon) beat in sugar.
Beat in flour ½ cup (125 mL) at a time leaving out the last ½ cup (125 mL). Form the dough into a ball; if it seems very soft, roll the dough in the remaining flour to lightly coat then place the dough between 2 sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper and roll out ¼ inch (6mm) thick. Cut out using cookie cutters and arrange the shapes on baking sheet leaving at least ½ inch (1.2 cm) between each cookie.
Alternatively, roll out and cut out using a 9 or 8 inch pie plate as a template and cut into circles. Using a knife, score each shortbread pie into 8 – 12 wedges. Prick each wedge with a fork.
Bake cookies in oven until a pale golden brown (this tastes much better than cooking until still white because it caramelizes the sugar). Cooking time will be about 15 – 20 minutes depending on size of cookie, individual oven and the colour of the baking sheets. Dark baking sheets brown faster than pale coloured baking sheets. When you smell a delicious fragrance wafting from your oven this tells you when the cookies are done. Cool on racks and pack carefully in cookie tins separating layers with waxed paper. Shortbread freezes well for up to 6 months.

Variations:
Gluten free: you can substitute rice flour for all purpose flour; it will be more crumbly but is still acceptable add ½ tsp cardamom.
Add 1 tbsp (15 mL) grated orange rind or lemon rind to dough
½ cup (125 mL) grated quality semi-sweet chocolate may be added
½ cup (125 mL) dried cranberries may be added to dough

Jan Main is an author, cooking instructor and caterer.
janmainskitchen@yahoo.ca


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