Homemade pesto

Now that spring and summer are officially on the horizon, pesto will become a staple in my kitchen (more than it already is). The beauty about pesto is that basil, Genovese basil to be exact, is readily available in the warm and hot months and I can just walk to my vegetable garden and pick a few leafs. Last summer, my friend Sharon surprised me with a full load of basil, literally.

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See, Sharon leaves in Albemarle County and her vegetable garden is at least three times the size of my little speck in the ground. She called, asked if I wanted “a little basil” and off I went, happy as a clam to be receiving some tasty garden offerings. Little did I know that what Sharon meant as “little” was really at least 10 whole plants – with roots attached. We run out of bags and decided to just throw everything in the trunk, that way I would be able to do my initial “cleaning” from the car.

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This is what I was working with: three bags full of aromatic basil (the aroma lingered in my car for at least a week – not that I am complaining, mind you).

The very first step in preparing for pesto making is the simplest, yet most time-consuming: washing. Every basil leaf needs to be plucked and washed thoroughly. The stem is too stringy, tough and bitter. It is also really important to inspect every single leaf – if it’s wilted or is excessively damaged, toss it. I plucked, washed and inspected every single leaf. Throughout the process, I asked myself whether I would like pesto once the ordeal was over. It turns out I still love it.

The simplest way to clean and wash the leaves is to fill the kitchen sink with water and let the basil soak in it for a few minutes.

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Pour the leaves into a colander, fill up the sink with water and soak the leaves once again. Repeat this process until the water is clean with absolutely no dust or debris. It took me 6 hours to wash the three bags of basil!

What you need:

Parmigiano Reggiano
Pine nuts
Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Take a fistful of fresh, clean basil leaves and place them into a food processor. There are really no true measurements for making pesto. Depending on how tangy you want the mixture, you can adjust the ingredients. I love a bitter/tangier pesto and for that I add quite a lot of garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano. If you like a sweeter pesto – to use as a marinade or as a meat sauce, add more pine nuts and be mindful of the amount of garlic.

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Season with salt and pepper to taste. Grind the ingredients to your preferred texture. Tip: if you use pesto with pasta, you can leave it a bit chunkier than you would a meat marinade.

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That’s it! You are done! You can use the fresh pesto for a quick lunch or dinner or you can can it. With my load of basil, I decided to can it and freeze it for posterity. At the end of the process, I had 11 jars of fresh pesto! I gave some to Sharon and others as house warming gifts.

To can, pour the pesto into the jar making sure that it coats all the sides of the jar. Once it’s filled to the brim, close it up and place it in the freezer –  it will last you for months, in fact, I have been eating pesto all winter long.

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Tip: Once you start using a jar, add extra virgin olive oil to the remainder pesto and store in the fridge. Even if the basil will darken in color, it’s still as delicious as before.

pesto9_logoTry this delicious summer treat: Pasta with homemade pesto, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella bites. Let me know what you think!

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

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We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

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The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

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Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

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But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

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It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

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Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

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We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

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The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

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Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

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Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

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For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

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For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

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This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

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Orange juice and almonds breakfast cake

Cake for breakfast sounds good no matter how you look at it. I remember my mom making cakes for my brother and I since we were little – and that, my friends, was the best part of waking up and getting ready for school. These cakes were low in sugar, but packed with big flavors. The other day, while I was taking a mental picture of my pantry, I suddenly realized that tea and cereals (I am somewhat lactose intolerant) for breakfast every day is just. plain. boring.

So, I ravaged through the kitchen and concocted a breakfast cake that I was sure would be a step up from my usual breakfast. It was an experiment and I am proud to say, it was a well thought out and executed experiment. But I will let you be the judge. Let me know what you think!

Here is what you need:

2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking soda or baking powder (I use a vanilla-based baking powder I buy when I am in Italy)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of orange juice (freshly squeezed is best)
1/3 cup of sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon of grated nutmeg
1 cup of roughly chopped almonds

The first step is to mix together the dry ingredients. In a medium-sized bowl or food mixer, combine the flour, baking soda or baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well.

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Pre-heat the oven at 400F. Add the orange juice, egg and vegetable oil and mix together. While the mixture is mixing, add the almonds, nutmeg and vanilla extract. Mix again until the dough is uniform. This cake is purposely not too sweet: I wanted to taste the distinct flavor of the almonds and nutmeg.

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Pour the dough into a cake pan. To add even more texture, I sprinkled chopped almonds on top.
Bake the cake in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Once ready, moved the cake to a cooling rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.
The best thing about cakes for breakfast is that they last three or four days in a cool, dry place.

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This delicious experiment is best enjoyed with hot tea, milk or why not, a glass of orange juice. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear from you! Buona colazione! – Happy breakfast!

The Weekend List 04/12/13

All day Thursday, I thought and lived as if it were Friday. Disappointment ensued when I finally figure it out. It has been THAT kind of week. I am looking forward to the next few days, chock-full of events and exciting beginnings.

First and foremost, the Charlottesville City Market celebrated the opening of its 40th season last Saturday! I happen to be on the board of Market Central, a non-profit organization that supports the market, its vendors and customers, and the farmers market is a big deal for us. Personally, perusing the stalls at the farmers market makes me giddy like a school girl: fresh produce, accessible food. It is really an educational tool for society.

1) In keeping with the social aspect of food and its production,  In When Eating is an Economic Act, interviewed Frederick Kaufman who has a new book out called Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food an important look into the politics of our food system. Give it a read.

2) There is something about celebrities and cookbooks that I find amusing. I can’t decide whether I am annoyed or revolted, but either way, it’s got to stop. Yet,  this take on Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. Hilarious does not do it justice. It’s so much more. had me at “hello.” She gets it.

This is my favorite excerpt:

While waiting for my pre-breakfast Best Green Juice to finish draining — “Just about as energizing as a cup of coffee,” Gwyneth has promised — I begin the recipe for my actual breakfast: Millet Fig Muffins. I dutifully measure out my gluten-free flour, my raw millet, my unsweetened almond milk. I grind flax seed, pinch fine sea salt, toss chopped figs in a spoonful of the dry ingredients, line my muffin tins with paper liners. It’s only noon, and I’m almost done cooking my first meal of the day.

Time to settle down with my green juice, which has acquired a bright emerald color and tastes like a cross between a lemon and a lawn, and wait for the timer to buzz.

Meanwhile, we have 20 to 25 minutes to ponder the meaning of Gwyneth Paltrow.


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I like Paltrow as an actress, and I even like the fact that she has taken the lead on the über local, fresh, no dairy, super healthy. But I can shake off the feeling that they, these celebrities, are all in for themselves. I know, I am naive.
Look at this list of celebrities with cookbooks:
Trisha Yearwood, Valerie Bertinelli, Stanley Tucci (ok, he is beyond awesome), Eva Longoria, Sheryl Crow, Gloria Estefan, Victoria Gotti (!!!!) and my favorite, Teresa Guidice from the Real Housewives franchise – wait…she has 3 cookbooks????? I rest my case.

3) Speaking of celebrities, Antony Bourdain sat down with Andrew Zimmern for a friendly chat on the eve of Bourdain’s new CNN show, Parts Unknown. The thing with Bourdain is that you either love him or hate him. No way in between. I love, love, love his bombastic, foul-mouthed persona. And he is a terrific writer.

In this piece, they talk about the writing process, mainly, Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, being called a gonzo journalist, to which Bourdain replies, “I’m an essayist”, and his hosting duties on that weird (very bad) show called The Taste – and the best part, both Zimmern and Bourdain recall reading children’s books to their offsprings and shed a few tears.

A classic: Pasta Carbonara

I often think about my favorite pasta dish. There is so much to choose from, but I have concluded that carbonara is it. I’d much rather eat a steaming plate of carbonara than any piece of meat or slice of cake. First, it has bacon or pancetta. Second, Parmesan Cheese. That alone could be my daily food intake. This dish encapsulates everything I love about Italian cuisine: simple and accessible ingredients. Nothing superfluous.

But I am a lucky girl. Francesco makes a sensational Carbonara. I don’t know what magic ingredient he adds (actually following a recipe???), but he nails it every time. I don’t talk about him often enough, but he is a great cook. He is an engineer, thus  I love watching him cut vegetables, or in this case bacon, with painstakingly precision. It does take him 20 minutes to cut a carrot, but hey, the result is uniform and fabulous.

Here is what you need: (for 4 people)

1 cups of pancetta (or bacon)
500 grams of pasta, Spaghetti or Bucatini
1 egg
1 cup of Parmeigiano Reggiano cheese
a hint of nutmeg
Salt and Pepper

Pancetta, or bacon, is the first ingredient that gets cooking. Cut, or mince – depending on taste, the pancetta and cook it for about 5 or 6 minutes, or until brown. Set aside.
Tip: Don’t oil the pan and don’t add any oil. The pancetta is fatty enough and will release its own juices.

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Next, heat water for pasta in  a medium-sized pot and bring it to a boil. In the meantime – there is never actual waiting time in the kitchen if you time everything right – we can get started on the creamy sauce.
In a small bowl, combine one egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, salt and pepper and whisk until the sun comes down.
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Whisk until the cheese is amalgamated with the egg – it should almost look like a paste; a creamy, cheesy paste. Set the mixture aside.

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Once the water boils, add salt and the spaghetti (angel hair pasta) or the bucatini (as seen below – I much prefer the bucatini for this recipe because each “strand” of pasta is thick and much more chewy than regular angel hair) and cook it until i is al dente – usually 7 to 8 minutes.

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Always taste the pasta before draining –  it may need more seasoning. It is also always a good idea to taste the water before adding the pasta. Salty water will make the pasta much more flavorful.

Drain the pasta using a colander and place it back into the pot. Add the pancetta and pour the cheesy egg mixture in the pot. The cheese will melt and the pasta will be coated with a layer of goodness. Serve while it’s hot.

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Add more Parmigiano Reggiano or pepper to taste. This dish is so simple, but so incredibly delicious, I have to stop myself for making it every week. Buon Appetito!

Focaccia Pugliese (potatoes and rosemary)

I’ve never been able to bake a decent focaccia – either hard as rock or chewy and off-textured. Imagine my skepticism when I decided to give a new recipe a try. Baking has to be my number one passion, I think. I mean, when I think about food, my first thought or memory is bread or cake. Coincidence? I don’t think so. If I could, I would bake sweets and savory treats all day long, hence my unrelenting drive to find baking/bread/cake/pies cookbooks with traditional and unexpected recipes. I’ll say that I would try anything at least once.

While browsing the aisles and shelves of our local bookstore, I found a little book, tucked away in a corner: 100 Great Breads by Paul Hollywood. What I found was a plethora of really simple bread and focaccia recipes that sounded and looked doable. I bought it immediately.

After a few hours of contemplating, I settled for a focaccia with potatoes and rosemary.

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The Puglia region is the hill of the Italian boot. Lots of good food and friendly folks. When I was young, my family used to drive to Gallipoli and camp there for a month. We had an RV and traveled around the coast and stopped at random camping locations throughout the area. I have really great memories of that time and I hoped that by baking something from that sunny land, I would feel the same Joie de vivre. I succeeded. I made this focaccia at least a dozen times since; I served it to my colleagues during a work dinner, to my friends at brunch and my parents at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is what you need (my adaptation to the original recipe):

4 Cups of flour
1 Package of yeast
1 1/2 Cups of warm water
3 Potatoes, cleaned and sliced
1 Tablespoon of salt
3 Tablespoons of rosemary
Rock salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine flour, salt, water and yeast in a bowl and let the mixture form a chewy and elastic dough. Let the dough rest in an oiled bowl for one hour, or until it has at least doubled in size. I like to coat the bowl with a thin layer of olive oil to avoid the dough to stick – trust me, it has happened. Not pretty. I usually place the bowl close to a source of heat – that way, the dough rises a little faster.

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While the dough rises, clean, peel and cut the potatoes. I like to use yellow gold potatoes, bu you can try using any other you prefer. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper for the dough.

Once the dough is nice and plump, roll it out onto the said backing sheet and flatten it. Tip: to help flatten it more evenly, I use a round tall glass as a rolling pin and shape the dough to the contour of the sheet.

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Now comes the fun part. With a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the flattened dough with extra virgin olive oil. Add the potatoes by placing them in whatever arrangement see you fit. Be creative.

Once you are done, add pepper; sprinkle rock salt and rosemary. Let the decorated focaccia dough rest for one hour. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven at 450F.
Tip: I like to cover the dough with plastic wrap, so that nothing will disturb it (cats included).

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Once the dough has risen, place it in the oven and bake it at 450F for at least 30 minutes or until the sides are dark and the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. I like to add a bit of extra virgin olive oil to the finished product.

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Ta daaaa! The focaccia is ready to be cut and served. Francesco and I like to eat it with dinner or as a snack. Put the leftovers in the fridge. Enjoy!

It’s still snowing: Braised Beef with Polenta

It’s the end of March. It should not be snowing. Central Virginia was covered with a soft blanket of snow yesterday and as much as I love snow, snow days, snow cones, I cannot. take. it. anymore. I had all these plans of actually getting stuff done in the garden, which currently looks like an abandoned field with twigs and dead leaves everywhere. It’s a mess. I am embarrassed. I was supposed to fix that. But no, I had to postponed my plans until the weather clears up and warmth decides to pay us a visit.

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But what do you do when you can’t go anywhere, when it’s cold and all you want to do is curl up in bed with a hot chocolate, surrounded by your kitty cats? (wow, that would have been awesome!) We cooked.
A few weeks ago, we bought two pieces of great-looking beef chuck roast with the intention of braising them in red wine. I found a delicious recipe (Emeril Lagasse) while browsing the web. I tweaked it, made it more to my taste, added a little, eliminated a few ingredients.

Beef Braised in red wine
(Recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse, 2004)

2 pounds of beef chuck roast
4 carrots
3 stems of celery
2 cups of onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1 bottle of Nero d’Avola red wine
2 cups of chicken stock
Sage
Rosemary
Thyme
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

We finally got to use our spanking new Le Creuset dutch oven – and that my friends, is reason enough to celebrate. But I digress. Coat the bottom of the dutch over with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil. Turn on the heat and let it warm up. Add the beef (cut in small pieces) and let it brown on all sides. We didn’t season the meat before browning, because we added salt and pepper to the stew a little later. Once the beef is browned, remove it from the heat and keep it covered. To the beef fat in the dutch oven, add onions, celery and carrots, minced, and cook until tender (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic, minced as well, and cook it until brown.

Return the meat to the pot, add the chicken stock, the entire bottle of Nero d’Avola (gulp!), the tomato paste, the rosemary, sage and thyme. Season with salt and pepper – but don’t worry about the exact quantity. You will be able to taste the broth and balance out the seasoning once the cooking gets underway. Bring the stew to a boil, covered, and lower the heat to medium and cook for 3 hours.

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If after 3 hours the stew is too liquidy, uncover it and let it cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. The result is a velvety and deeply flavorful sauce that coats the beef chucks completely. Serve immediately.

After tasting the braised beef, we felt invincible. We decided to make polenta as a side and the result was incredible. These two were almost meant to be served together. Soul and tummy were satisfied.

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What is your comfort food on cold and wintry nights? Drop me a line and share your traditions! Happy…SPRING!!