Monthly Archives: December 2013

Chicken Parmesan, Pesto Pasta, & Panna Cotta



Welcome back everyone, and Happy Friday! 

Today is another home cooked meal, and clearly with the holidays in full swing, it was time for some indulgent cooking.  What we have today on our menu is some homemade chicken parmesan served with basic pesto pasta (linguini, I think) and followed up with a great looking vanilla panna cotta.

The chicken parm recipe is one off the Food network site.  So it’s straight forward and full of flavor.  The pesto pasta?  Store bought pesto sauce (GASP!), thinned with a little of that great olive oil I have on hand (Ojai Olive Oil).  My GF and I don’t always have that extra time to whip up the side (pesto) completely from scratch, despite it being only a handful of ingredients.  We take the occasional short cut, and that’s totally cool!

Now, plating can be very simple and straight forward as seen in the pic below.  It’s colorful food, and the plate is filled with a delicious meal, and I’m sure it’s quite tasty.  But I think the presentation lacked a little something


So the GF and I decided to break out the biscuit cutter again.  We used it for the pasta.  The chicken was cut in thick slices, at a slight angle.  I wouldn’t call it “on the bias” just yet.  Our chicken crust was deliberately thinner than the recipe called for, as our goal was to keep the meal as light as possible while keeping to the spirit of the meal.  That’s why a bias cut wasn’t the best play. 

In the middle of the plate, we set up the biscuit cutter, and lay in some fantastic tasting pesto pasta.  Then we carefully fanned out the chicken across the pasta.  Throw in some chopped parsley for garnish, and you’re set. 

Our pic shows both an individual plate and a family-style plating with some mixed greens to finish soaking up the oil from the chicken.  The cherry tomatoes lent a ton of color to the plate, and served as an easy way to make the plate “pop.”

Dessert today features a homemade panna cotta, which I’ve shown before in another neat presentation.  I’ve wanted to show one of my versions of plating the dessert, but I think it’s best to start with one from the GF.  I made the panna cotta the day before from a basic interweb recipe, and you can see the vanilla bean flecks in the image below.


I took a couple of ramekins over to the GF’s place as she was having one of her college girlfriends over for a few days of sightseeing.  Thought it would be a good way to score some points with some of her friends.  ALWAYS a good idea, fellas!

She threw in a few berries, and a bit of contrast with the tiny mint leaf.  It’s gorgeous!  She wins!

The next pic is my own plating of a panna cotta.  If you’re going to do something like THIS, be sure to cover the panna cotta with some plastic wrap on the glass. This is a delicate dessert that can pick up flavors and odors from your fridge.  As soon as you’re poured it, get it cooling, and cover it so it remains a funk-free zone!

When I was ready to plate, I added some berries, and threw in a thin wedge of a peach for a little extra color.   It was definitely a delicious idea!


Thanks for stopping by to read!



Pumpkin Cheesecake Indulgence

Okay, whoever doesn’t love cheesecake, stop reading today’s blog now!  You’re either lactose intolerant, a practitioner of a diet, or are suffering from repeated kicks to the head. None of those of those things should make you stop reading this blog regularly:  just today’s blog.  🙂

My last post featured dinner, and one of two desserts completely plated. But as you’ll remember, the GF & I also cooked up a cheesecake that was looking pretty good coming out of the oven. We gave it the opportunity to cool off overnight and had a little fun with plating.
First, I should note we used a ‘fancy’ implement in the making of this dessert.

We used a hand mixer/boat motor to make some homemade whipped cream. Well, technically, we made Chantilly cream, as we added some confectioners’ sugar and a splash of vanilla extract. The boat motor was used to take the heavy cream to a “stiff peak” stage.

Sure wish the food community would come up with a better term for that, considering how suggestive it sounds. I swear I can’t hear Nigella Lawson say that expression without lighting a candle, and turning on some Barry White for mood music.

In any case, we put the Chantilly cream aside in the fridge to stay cool. Then we brought out the plate, a squeeze bottle, and some store bought (GASP) caramel. It had the consistency of fudge, so we thinned it out with some of the remaining heavy cream. You’re going to have to experiment with the cream to caramel ratio. You don’t want it so runny, it’ll splash right out of the squeeze bottle, but not so thick, it requires Olympian strength to get it out of the bottle either. Find that happy medium.

With the pumpkin cheesecake, there was also a delicate balance to maintain. The finished caramel should have a somewhat different color than the cheesecake. As you can see from the pic, I barely managed to make it happen on this occasion.  Hey, I wasn’t paying that much attention to what I was doing:  there was CHEESECAKE around!!! My advice is to either go a little darker or a little lighter than the color of the item on the plate. Contrast in plating is a good thing.

This part of plating is fun, and you should feel free to include kids (5-10ish) in the process. Let the kid squeeze out a modest amount of the sauce on the plate (from the squeeze bottle) in any decorative pattern you like. I went for some zigzagging lines; as usual, nothing fancy. I’ve seen this dessert plated with a tic-tac-toe pattern as well, so have a little fun.

FYI, these were salad plates used for this pic. I could say the cheesecake was deliberately scaled down to stay in “context with the plate.” But that would be a pretentious load of buffoonery. The real reason was that I can’t handle that much sugar at once. I put a rather large biscuit cutter in the middle of the cheesecake, and then cut smaller wedges extending outwards from the outside edge of the biscuit cutter. Of course, that did leave us with a hefty chunk of crust-less middle that my GF’s coworkers undoubtedly found irresistible.

Okay, aside is over; back to the plating.

You’ve got the caramel sauce on the plate, and a non-Cheesecake Factory standard sized piece of cheesecake adorning the middle. What’s left? Just a small dollop of Chantilly cream placed on the cheesecake as elegantly as possible. I’ll never know how many times it took that person to get it right on the packaging of Cool Whip. Of course, we’re not using Cool Whip here, so I’m sure the different textures have a little something to say about this. No matter! We’re having cheesecake, and that’s okay by me!

There you have it. Some pumpkin cheesecake made on a whim while the GF and I enjoyed some killer salmon cakes, and a chocolate galette.

You can use this plating technique with any sort of cheesecake you like, even if you buy one from a store, or from the Cheesecake Factory. Bring it home; add a little contrasting colored sauce to set the plate, and what the heck!  Throw on some of that Chantilly cream to top it off!

Make it an indulgence you enjoy with your family one Sunday of the month. It’s okay to splurge a little. Once the cheesecake is suitably cooled, It’ll take you all of 5 minutes to get everything you need set and ready to plate a great dessert!


Salmon Cakes For The Win!

Hey everyone!

Happy Sunday and I hope you’ve had a great weekend so far. Spent much of yesterday cooking with the GF, and had a blast. Will post a few pics of some of the goodies we made last night. The main pic of today’s blog features a delicious plate of fried salmon cakes.

For presentation, I’d tried a couple of things before settling on this layout. It’s a little more symmetrical than I’d ordinarily prefer on a plate, but the size of the salmon cakes limited what I thought I could get done. The only other ‘complaint’ I have with my efforts is that aside from the browned panko bread crumbs, the lemon, and the fresh dill, the plating is too ‘white.’

(Apologies on the lighting for the pics.  Didn’t break out the mounted flash for my SLR.  Lesson learned for next time)

The GF and I had thought to do a rice pilaf from a box (GASP!), and we were using the burners for all sorts of cooking (see chocolate galette pic further down), and we didn’t have the space on the cooktop, so we went with microwaving the rice. We’d hoped that would give our plates a tad more color, but wound up being a bad choice, culinarily speaking. That’s another reason this blog features ‘homemade’ images, and a little honesty where mistakes were made. 🙂

Please note that the size of the food being served also dictates the size of the plate, and what you can generally do with the layout. The size of the cakes didn’t allow for a lot of options in my head, so I went with a basic layout. The GF had a different take on it, and you’ll see that pic below.

Sixth copy

She left off the rice, but did include a nice bump of color with the ramekin. That’s another easy way to add visual appeal to your dish. She wins!

My only critique of the food itself is that the cakes were a little big to stack attractively, or to arrange in more than one or two ways on the plate.  We scribbled some notes and there will be another attempt next year with more modest sized cakes, and we’ll do a comparison/contrast at that point.  I think we can do better!  🙂

Okay, now let’s get onto the dessert. we made an easy chocolate galette in the oven. Five simple ingredients: butter, sugar, chocolate, eggs, and a store-bought pie crust (GASP!). Pour the wet ingredients into the pie crust, throw it in the oven, and in just a half hour or so, you have a pretty tasty dessert!


We didn’t have everything available to us to add some real color to the plate, so the GF drizzled some cookie icing across the cut galette, just for a little contrast.


I went with a Christmas tree motif with the icing, some left over M&M’s, and a shortbread cookie. The cookie was a little Star of David-ish, so I combined Chanukah and Christmas in a fun little dessert. We had other ideas initially for plating, but we didn’t get around to the store to pick up the needed items, and the plan changed slightly. I think the GF won for simplicity’s sake regarding the final plate.  Remember, I don’t just want fancy for the sake of fancy!

Sometimes you have to do that in the kitchen, but make sure that doesn’t get in the way of your fun! Cooking with the people you love is a great thing, and I vote for more of that!

The cheesecake pics will come later today. This was how it looked as it came out of the oven, and I think we did quite well with it.


Okay, I’m off to have a little fun with my Sunday afternoon. The GF and I will meet for dinner, and attempts to plate the cheesecake in ways that you’ll find fun and easy!




Go Beyond The Plate for great Carbonara!


Hi everyone!

Today, I found a great looking plate of pasta carbonara.  Thanks to Danielle Tsi over at “Beyond The Plate” for the image.  As usual, if you clink the title of this blog post, it’ll link right over to her blog that features the recipe.  I liked her post and image, because it does two key things:  Focuses on making a (typically) indulgent meal, a little healthier.  Second, her post stresses the importance of finding time to make good meals at home, despite the challenges that life tends to throw our way. I can get behind that sentiment on any day!

Spaghetti is one of those dishes that can easily get out of control on a plate.  The temptation is to drain it, slop it into a bowl, throw the rest of the toppings on it  (eg some type of sauce), and be done with it.  Danielle makes it look easy, because it IS easy.

Her plate is a single-serve bowl of pasta, but could become a family sized serving in a larger bowl.  You can use salad tongs, a large serving fork, or even a dinner fork to start making these individual portioned sizes ready for combining into a family sized plate.

Her process was as easy as twirling a fork (serving, or dinner sized) around a bit of pasta, and then moving it from one plate to another. If you have a large serving bowl, this will look beautiful as a grouping of small stacks of deliciously plated pasta.

You’ll notice Danielle garnishes with chopped parsley and cheese, which are both great options.  The thing I want to point out about her recipe is that it isn’t the carbonara you’ll find in Italian chain restaurants (looking at you, Macaroni Grill, Carrabba’s, Olive Garden, etc). There’s nothing wrong with their recipes, because they’re ridiculously indulgent.  But note how there’s no heavy cream or massive amounts of butter in the recipe Danielle references.  It’s a pretty light meal, even with the bacon included.

When the dish is combined in your plating dishes (remember to buy white dishes so as not to draw attention away from the food), you’ve got green, white, brown, and a creamy yellow color.  It’s great for the eyes and the tummy!

If carbonara featured sun dried tomatoes, you would almost have the colors of the Italian flag.  Suddenly wondering if there’s an opportunity to find great dishes that feature colors you’d find in the flag of the country where that meal came from.  (filing that thought away for a future blog post)

Please go read Danielle’s post, and do your best to make at least one great home cooked meal per week.  You and your loved ones are worth the extra couple of minutes it takes to Plate Great, so do it!




Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders

The first cold blast of the season hit this week, and it’s time for some comfort food.  For today’s recipe, I’m throwing in a winner that my girlfriend found about 6 weeks ago.  A little fried chicken fingers with my first attempt at a homemade creamed corn, served with a broccoli/cheese rice casserole.  The girlfriend and I started trying to do one homemade meal per week. With our work/hobby schedules, it’s a bit of a challenge, but one well worth taking, as you can see from the results.

The recipe here is only for the chicken. Click the title of this post, and it will take you to the recipe we used.  I’ll be sure to post the recipe for the broccoli/cheese rice casserole and the homemade creamed corn another time.  The honey-mustard sauce is homemade, and pretty easy to make.  It’s a 50/50 split of honey and mustard.  That’s really it.  Once it reaches a nice consistency, you can add a little milk or cream (your choice) to thin it out just a bit.  If you have thinned it out TOO much, put it over low heat with a smidge of corn starch to thicken it.

When finished, just spread on the plate using a spoon.  (No glopping! – Yes, WordPress, “glopping” is a word I made up…stop trying to correct it))  Guys, if you want to get REALLY fancy, throw that honey-mustard sauce into a squeeze bottle, and lay out some small dots on the plate in a random pattern, or a straight line.  Just keep it simple, and don’t over-complicate the plate with enough dots to make it look like someone with lots of freckles. 🙂

Quick lesson (mostly for the guys):  other than the cooking utensils, the only thing I used to get that plate looking half-way decent was a biscuit cutter.

“But Mario, I don’t have one of those…anything else I can use?”

I’m glad you asked! While not as elegant, you definitely CAN use an empty soup can or an inverted ramekin.

NOTE:  My microbiologist girlfriend wants me to remind you here, that you should remove the label, wash the can thoroughly (dish washing cycle preferable) before using a soup can for plating purposes.

Now, back to the previous paragraph which I interrupted for your safety announcement.  Use an empty soup can, a ramekin, or a biscuit cutter to form the corn into an attractive round shape.  You can also use a wide biscuit cutter to form pasta.  I’ll show you an example of that on another day.  In my case, the creamed corn wasn’t sturdy enough to hold the chicken fingers and retain its shape.

If you try this recipe and want to show off similar plating, I’d suggest maybe using the rice casserole as the item formed by the cutter on the plate.  If that doesn’t work because the mutant-sized chicken fingers are too large and heavy, just plate the fingers around the object like my example above.  No big deal!

You’ll notice this is a very ‘yellow’ plate. You could use some chopped parsley on the formed object for a little dash of extra color contrast for more visual appeal.  If you use a round plate, try to find a square object to plate a smaller amount so you don’t have circles on circles.  That’s not a ‘win’ for plating, typically.

For kids, you could actually use a cookie cutter for the right amount of creamed corn or rice casserole.  Since kids eat less, you don’t have to worry as much about plating a large amount of either the corn or casserole, and you could have fun with different cookie shapes.  I’d get a good laugh at a ginger-bread cookie cutter forming some creamed corn for their plate.  It helps kids ‘eat’ with their eyes, and is an interesting trick to help, you as a parent, cut into the picky eating syndrome.

Now get out there, and enjoy some good food!


My Leftover day!

It's turkey and stuff!

It’s turkey and stuff

This was my ‘leftovers’ plate from Thanksgiving.  It was last night’s dinner, and the only mistake was going to work out about 90 minutes after I ate.  But that’s another story!

Nothing fancy, and since I overdid it on the stuffing and bread on Thanksgiving itself, I decided to go bread/stuffing-free.  So what you have is a nice layout of turkey, cornered with some of the homemade creamed corn and mashed potatoes, with a little of the cranberry/orange goodies.

I did very little other than reheat it.  But I tell you, just a small amount of effort makes the food more appealing than if you ate just a sandwich.  The only change I might have made is plate the turkey slices a little closer together, in order to not entirely fill up the plate.

Sometimes, we fill up the plate to bursting, and it can take away from the presentation.  In the case of the turkey, the slices were fairly thin, so although it is spread out quite a bit on the plate, it’s not a ton of food.

What it was, was tasty!  I recommend you do something similar. Nothing says the plate has to be boring, right?  🙂




One FINE Panna Cotta

Big Jones Chicago is the supplier of a beautifully plated Panna Cotta dessert today.  They’re also good enough to provide a recipe as you go down the page.

It’s so good, I’m likely going to revisit this page as I build up the blog to house a dessert, lunch, dinner, and other related pages in addition to the main blog page.

The dessert features a fruit called the “paw paw.”  I’m not exactly sure what it is, other than the author described it as highly perishable, which limits how long the fruit is available during the year.  My guess is that this dessert would work wonderfully with any other brightly colored jam or preserve.  You’re really just looking for something that would contrast nicely with the creamy white color of the Panna Cotta.

I like their recipe included on the page.  As strange as this sounds, there is a way to make it more palatable to vegetarians, at least those willing to indulge in cream (I’m talking to YOU, Wisconsin ‘vegetarians’ who do cheese, milk, & butter).  You can substitute Agar for gelatin, in just about a 1:1 manner. The texture difference, in my experience, is that Agar sets up a little firmer than gelatin, which for this dessert, means you can leave it out of the fridge a little longer, if needed.

If you have ramekins or martini glasses, you can definitely pour the Panna Cotta mixture in different containers to give your dessert some added ‘oomph.’  So you have 3 different ways now to plate Panna Cotta so that it is as appealing to the eyes as it is to the taste buds!

Someone remind me to post a pic of Panna Cotta in those two containers so you can see what I’m talking about.

Since this week is typically ‘leftover’ week for most of us in the US, I’ll do a special plating in the next few days showing you that leftovers don’t have to be boring sandwiches alone.

Now, go have yourself a great Monday!