Not Quite Four Cheese Tortelloni - Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese and Orange

Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese
I haven't shared too many recipes lately, so allow me to catch up a little with this simple one that I accidentally created for a recent dinner party.

After making a few complicated appetizers I was prepared to make tortelloni from homemade pasta and fill them with an herbed goat cheese mixture. The pasta dough was ready but I kind of ran out of time. Actually, I lost the teenaged helpers I had been counting on. No worries. This wasn't some fancy dinner party, it was a casual get together. Remember my holiday cooking tips? "#10 - Don't sweat anything".

So we cooked some good dried pasta, tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper along with a very small amount of the herbed cheese filling that had been intended for the tortelloni. Then dollops of the herb mixture were dotted onto the top of the warm pasta. Some of the mixture melted, some stayed together in....dollops, I guess. I did top it with some strips of oven dried orange peel. Over the top of all this I squeezed the juice of half an orange.

I used a small ball-shaped pasta called Acini de Pepe, which I understand to be Italian for "peppercorns", which is the exact size and shape of the pasta. This is a really good pasta to use for a crowd, because even just a pound of it will a lot of people as a side dish. Why, you ask?

Have you ever wondered why angel hair pasta seems to be more filling than say, fettucine or spaghetti? Maybe not. But most people think so. The reason is that there's more surface area in one pound of very thin pasta than there is in a pound of larger pasta. Thus, more water is absorbed, the pasta gets a little denser, and you get a little fuller. The peppercorn pasta has this same characteristic. We served seven adults and had leftovers, even though most people went back for seconds.

Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese and Orange

1/2 cup ricotta cheese
4 ounces plain goat cheese
3 tablespoons milk or cream
1/4 cup good quality parmesan
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
4 fresh sage leaves
--- If using dried herbs, use half the amounts and just a pinch of sage
1/2 of one orange
1 pound Acini de Pepe (small ball shaped) pasta
  1. Mix ricotta, goat cheese and milk or cream until texture is smooth. Add parmesan.
  2. Finely chop all herbs and add to cheese mixture along with salt and fresh ground pepper. Cover and allow to chill for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Cook pasta according to package directions, usually about 10 minutes. Drain and toss immediately with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and two tablespoons of the cheese mixture.
  4. Put pasta into a serving bowl, and while pasta is still warm drop teaspoons sized dollops of herb cheese mixture across the surface.
  5. Squeeze the juice of half an orange over the pasta and cheese.
  6. Optional: Cut long strips of orange rind with the "digging" edge of a citrus zester. Place on foil and cook for 30 minutes in a 200 degree oven. Break dried orange rind over pasta.
Note: since the advent of microplane graters, I rarely use a traditional zesting tool. However, to cut the long strips of orange rind I mentioned I use one. There might be a microplane version, but I haven't seen one yet. If you need one of these tools, here's a good one from amazon: OXO Zester on

Kitchen Gadgets I Hope You Don't Get For Chrstmas

Greetings from the kitchen Grinch. At least the Kitchen Curmudgeon. If you're a ""gadget person", you may not appreciate the holiday sentiment I'm about to share. Hopefully, most of y'all will smile at some point in reading this article.

Most of the major cooking catalogs reach my house - Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, Chef's Catalog and my favorite Cooking Enthusiast (which originated as Professional Cutlery Direct). I tend to quickly browse them to catch up on the latest trend they're pushing (pannini presses, this year's coffee making solution, and so on).

As I thumb through these catalogs, the gadgets and specialty tools especially stand out to me.....because so many of them are useless. Sure you could use a dedicated tomato slicer, avocado slicer, avocado masher and so on.....or you could use a sharp knife or a fork. The gadgets tend to break, not work all too well and get lost in a drawer somewhere. You'll probably forget you even have most gadgets after a year.

As I scanned one catalog's holiday edition full of inexpensive kitchen gift items, I chuckled with glee with counter arguments for what a good, or improving cook should use instead of the gadget of the day. Here are my thoughts about this year's gadgets. At least they're very colorful, the bunch of 'em.

Silicone Pinch Grips
What you should really use: Dry towel
Yet another specialty item to find, wash and clutter your drawers.

Citrus Juicer
What you should really use: Your Hand
Use your other hand as a strainer to catch seeds.
If your citrus is so hard that you can’t squeeze it by hand, it’s past ripeness.

Pot Clip Utensil Rest
What you should really use: Small plate, bowl or decorative spoon rest.
Hovering utensils over a hot pot will burn or heat up.  

3-in-1 Peeler
What you should really use: One good peeler, or a sharp knife
Ceramic peelers are intensely sharp. You’d be surprised how
many items can be peeled with a sharp knife with just a tiny bit of practice.

Individual steak button thermometers
What you should really use: Instant read thermometer
Can be used for all temperature taking.

Chop-2-Pot folding cutting board
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
It just can’t be that hard to scrape cut items off a cutting board into a prep bowl or pot.

Mini cleaver 3.5” blade
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
Cleavers are for whacking huge hunks of meat and thick vegetables.
Unless you’re an elf, how could you need this?
Actually, this seems kind of dangerous to me.

Garlic Chopper
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
Crush garlic with the flat side of your knife,
it then peels easily,
then chop the garlic with your sharp knife. Really.  

The Grinch on Cooking Gift Sets + A Grinchy Conclusion

Who Hash Gift Set, $49.99.
Includes one can Who Hash produced by hash artisans
from rural Whoville and one inexpensive can opener,

One more thing.....I'm not a big fan of cooking gift sets. Especially Any Gift Set That Includes a Food Product. The quality of the food and gadgets is likely poor and the price likely high. In one catalog alone I saw gift sets for:
  • Paella
  • Pizza
  • Whoopie Pies
  • Donuts
  • Ebelskivers
  • Fondue
  • Cupcakes
  • Grilling with BBQ Rub
  • Moroccan Tagine
  • ....and my favorite, the Himalayan Salt Block set
None really looked like a fair value to me. The sets included gadgets you probably wouldn't use, the quality looked questionable, prices high-ish. Bah.

Grinch with 3x larger heart

Yet, in appreciating that the Grinch himself opened up to new possibilities and embraced the positives of Christmas in Whoville, I too, can open up with a positive ending to my Grinchy ramblings today.

Months ago you may have read my thoughts on the Kitchen Tools You Can't Live Without. It's a pretty short list of essentials that every good cook should have. Picking a few items from that list, and a few others we rely on, here's a very short list of favorite kitchen tools. Most are easily found even during last minute shopping, or might be worth exchanging for if there were some impractical cooking items in your stocking.

Keeping a knife sharp is far more important that what you paid for it.

Less expensive than Pam, better taste from your own choice of oil.

How well does a rounded spoon scrape a pot / pan?

Easy to clean up, replaces many blender and food processor tasks
Better than a mesh strainer, a key for sauces, large capacity,
easy to clean, and can double as a regular strainer / colander.

Organize Your Holiday Dinners and Improve Your Results

I do a lot of cooking. Besides cooking three to five times per week for my family, there are parties at home, large family gatherings and vacations, and I even cater a few parties for friends.  Along the way, I learned how to be highly organized to make large scale cooking faster and more reliable. Today I'll share some of my tips, a few of which I hope are new to you.

To put the following advice in perspective, I can recall spending days preparing a complex Christmas or Easter meal. Now I can throw a fairly sophisticated party for 15 to 25 people and usually start cooking for a few hours the night before, followed by cooking for some or most of the next day, but never all of the next day. And that's for pretty high end, complicated cooking.

How? I've become better organized before the cooking even starts. You can too, even of you only cook "big" once or twice per year.

Tip #1. Write out your menu 'formally' and keep it updated when it changes. Don't rely on a simple scrap of paper or a few emails exchanged among y'all. List  the name of the dish and each subcomponent,  like rice for gumbo. Even for a simple party with a couple dishes, this helps.


          Pork Potsticker Dumplings                                            Page 44, Land of Plenty (cookbook)
            -- Lime Dipping Sauce
            -- Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Strips

          Andouille and Shrimp Gumbo                              
            -- Steamed Rice
            -- Crusty Bread
            -- Assorted Hot Sauces

2. Assemble all your recipes in one place. I used to stack up a few issues of Gourmet magazine and a several cookbooks loaded with bookmarks and cook my way through them. Then I started photocopying favorite recipes. Not bad, but it's even easier now because you can print out most recipes from your computer.

From these individual recipe pages you can assemble a clip board or stapled sheaf of recipes all in one convenient place. If you can't get a one-page copy then note the cookbook source on your menu.

Menu and recipes from 2010 Homecoming Dinner
3. Create a master ingredient list from all your recipes. This is not a shopping list (at first). It's a checklist, and it will be a time saver later.

Use Word or Excel to quickly capture the ingredients and quantities. Then you can sort the list by ingredient type and sum up the totals. This sounds excessive, but last week I did it in 20 minutes for a menu that had 8 different dishes, with 16 components (sauces and accompaniments). 

Use this master list to check off what you have on hand vs. what you need to buy. The end result is your shopping list.

Taking this approach will make it almost impossible to forget an important ingredient. If you didn't plan like this and then forget something, someone will spend 20 minutes running to the store. See the lyrics to Robert Earl Keen's classic song Merry Christmas From the Family for a hilarious example.

Or you might skip / substitute an ingredient and not have as good a dish in the end.

4. Be willing to shop at more than one store. It would be convenient to make one giant trip. But if your stores are like mine, there are definitely certain better products at one store than another. In fact, there are some stores here that don't even carry certain items, mostly specialty, but another does. In the end, you'll have a better meal of you get your favorite version of an ingredient. Some preparations about about quality, not time savings.

5. Make as much in advance as you can. Of course you knew this. But let's take it a step further......

6. Create a timeline for when you will be preparing each dish. It doesn't need to be down to the hour. But writing "Fri PM", "Sat Early", "Sat Anytime", "Last Minute" next to each dish (and component) on the menu will help.

You don't have to stick to this plan, but it helps outline what can be done early and what must be done late. You don't need graphs and charts....but it helps. I'm KIDDING. Don't do that.

7. Fill your sink with hot soapy water as soon as you start cooking. This sounds nuts. The usual approach is to pile up a mountain of pots, pans, bowls and utensils, then take a big break and wash them all. Sure, they might be filled with water to soak off the big crud. This is different.

Instead, as soon as you're done with an item or two, toss them into the hot soapy water. Let them sit. If you need one of those items again soon, a quick wash and rinse will have it in your hand in no time.

You might end up using the same pot twice, instead of getting two pots dirty. You get to quickly re-use cooking tools right when you need them. Of course, on a long day of cooking you'll change the water a few times. But it will seem like you barely did any dishes at all by the time you're done.

8. Use painters tape and a Sharpie. You say, "Whaaaaaaat?". Really. This is one of the best tips I can give you, and is something chefs do routinely to identify items in storage containers.

Create a simple label for any item that you can't identify clearly. Two dark sauces in jars? Make a label. Tupperware / plastic ware that you can't see through? Get a label.

Also - use different sized zip-lock bags, which are often better short term storage containers and rigid ones, since they take up less space. Most have a white space so they can be labelled.

9. Determine in advance which pots and pans you'll use for cooking at crunch time and which serving bowls, platter and baskets to use. Get them out at one time so you don't have to dig for them along the way.

Label the serving dishes (see #8) if want, so you don't forget what you planned. For complicated parties and catering, I sometimes label the pots and pans. If I do, I never am short the pan I need when I need it.

Usually I just place all the serving dishes on the kitchen or dining room table. If anything can be temporarily stored at room temperature, like crackers or many vegetables, place them in their serving dish prior to opening or prepping them.

10. Don't sweat anything. Have a glass of wine while you're cooking. Relax. Burn a dish? Throw it away. You'll have plenty of food. Get too busy and skip a planned dish? Who would know (maybe keep that menu to yourself)?

Cooking is about sharing your love and talent with friends and families. Enjoy it.

Updated Simple Shrimp and Lobster Cocktail for Holiday Parties

This is a great simple recipe. If you use it for a holiday cocktail party, you can claim a certain amount of "retro" feel, but also surprise the quests / party goers with the sophisticated flavors that really come out. You can also claim the sauce is called "Rose Maria Sauce", which is accurate. It's a British phrase for ketchup and mayo sauce.

I read the ingredients for this recipe and thought of the mayo/ketchup salad dressing my Mom made in the '70's. But the addition of lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and Brandy caught my attention. It was shockingly refreshing.

When I made this I went over the top, as I had homemade ketchup on hand, and whipped up my own mayo (literally, of course, it's whipped). But I also made a “regular” version of it using a jar of mayo and off-the-shelf ketchup, to see if it would work as well, and it did.

Shrimp and Lobster Cocktail with Rose Marie Sauce
Serves 8-10

1.5 pounds medium shrimp, preferably 16-20 or 20-25 count, peeled
2 medium lobsters, approx. 1.25 pounds each.
       If you don't want to wrestle with lobsters, add another half pound of shrimp.
Seasonings: 1 bay leaf, 12 whole peppercorns, 1 lemon sliced
1 head Butter lettuce
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon good quality brandy (not flavored in any way)
1 small lemon

  1. Prepare an ice bath - a large bowl of water with a handful of ice cubes.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil – add seasonings and simmer about 3-5 minutes.
  3. Add shrimp, cook for 2 or 3 minutes depending on size of shrimp. Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon and put in the ice bath. Let cool for 2-3 minutes, then drain.
  4. Cook lobsters in boiling water for 10-12 minutes, one at a time. Plunge into ice bath, or run under cool water until they can be handled.
  5. Combine ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire sauce and brandy. Season with salt and pepper, then squeeze the juice of the lemon into the sauce.
  6. Toss shrimp and lobster pieces in sauce, serve over butter lettuce.
Garnish a sprinkling of lemon zest, or cayenne pepper, or chives whole or finely chopped, most anything could make a nice garnish.


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