RECIPE: HOW TO MAKE HOMEMADE LIMONCELLO

Have you ever been to Italy? Specifically, have you ever been to Capri or the Amalfi coast? If you have, you probably remember the lemons and you've probably experienced limoncello,  a luscious lemon liqueur. The Italians typically serve it after dinner as a digestive or with flaky Italian pastries or rich desserts. I am a big fan of limoncello. Not only does it remind me of a wonderful summer in Italy a lot of years ago, it is a fast and easy ingredient for cocktails and even for a super quick dessert. Pour chilled limoncello over pound cake and berries, over vanilla ice cream, or add it to your store bought lemonade or iced tea. Makes a great addition to an Arnold Palmer!

I keep a bottle in the freezer for late afternoon summer sipping.... takes me right back to Italy.  When I first learned to make limoncello, you could not find it in the stores. Nowadays, you can find it readily but it is so much more fun to make your own. Make a double batch and give it as a gift! It's a wonderful summer tradition. I got this recipe from an Italian friend a few years ago and tweaked it until I got it just right. You do not have to use the vanilla bean; that's my own spin.

A couple of important notes: you have to take care to get rid of the white pith of the lemon rind. It becomes bitter in the distilling process. Also, you can use grain alcohol instead of vodka. I've made it both ways and simply prefer the vodka version but there is not a disenable difference in taste or cost. Select thick skinned lemons that are fully yellow with no green or soft spots on the exterior. Typically, I prefer lemons with a thinner skin when juicing, but the thicker, dense peel is better for zesting.

HOMEMADE LIMONCELLO

INGREDIENTS

20 fresh lemons

2 750ml bottles vodka (use 100 proof, if possible)

4 cups granulated sugar

5 cups water

2 vanilla beans- split with seeds removed (optional but yummy)

DIRECTIONS:

Wash the lemons well. Use a brush to remove any wax or residue on the peel. Pat dry. Peel the lemons using a vegetable peeler. Use only the outer part of the lemon rind. Try not to remove the white pith, If you do, take a sharp pairing knife and remove as much of it as possible; discard. Reserve the lemons for another use like lemon marmalade or fresh lemonade that you can freeze for a few weeks, if necessary.

Put the lemon peel into a large glass container, like a Mason jar, a large pickle jar, or a pitcher with a tight-fitting lid. Add the vodka or grain alcohol. If you are adding the vanilla bean, add it now. Split the bean and using the back of your knife, remove the seeds by scraping the bean. Add to the jar and secure the lid tightly. Allow to sit undisturbed at room temperature in a dark place for ten days. Do not disturb the mixture or stir. Just wait patiently as the vodka soaks up the yummy lemon flavor.

On the 11th day, make a simple syrup by combining the water and sugar in a pan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until sugar completely dissolves. Allow to cool completely.

Pour the simple syrup over the lemon peel/vodka mixture. Cover and allow to stand at room temperature for at least 24 hours but the preference would be to let it stand for at least another 10 but no longer than 20 days; the longer you allow it to stand, the better the flavor will be.

Strain the liquid to remove the peel and the vanilla bean, if you used it. Pour the liqueur into pretty bottles with a stopper or tight-fitting lid. Seal tightly and refrigerate. If you don't have a fine mesh strainer, line colander with a coffee filter as a quick substitute.

Chill well before serving. The limoncello should be very cold. You may even store them in the freezer to extend the prime flavor.

Serve very cold; in tall shot glasses or cordial glasses.

And as they say in Italy... "No poem was ever written by a drinker of water." - From the great Roman poet Horace around 65 BC. 

Salute!

RECIPE: HEARTY BEEF BOLOGNESE

I don't think I like anything much more than Bolognese-- a rich meat sauce usually served over pasta. I build my Bolognese with lots of flavor--- and really let it cook down to almost a paste consistency to make it really hearty. You can reconstitute it with stock if you want to thin it out a little before serving. Bolognese, a cold salad, some fresh bread, and a good bottle of wine is a party in my book. 

Hearty Beef Bolognese over pasta

 Prep Time: 15    Cook Time: 1 hour

INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 strips bacon or pancetta, diced

1 large onion, diced fine

1 cup carrots, diced very fine or grated

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh thyme- minced (ok use 1/2 t. dried thyme instead)

1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced (ok to use 1/4 t. dried oregano)

Pinch fresh ground nutmeg

1 1/2 pounds ground beef

1 pound ground veal (optional, substitute beef or ground pork if you prefer)

 3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups red wine (optional- you can sub beef or chicken broth)

1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes including the juice, crushed

1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree

3 cups beef broth (you can also use vegetable or chicken)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Pinch red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

Pinch. sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon. fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped fine

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated or shaved

DIRECTIONS:

Add the olive oil to a large pot and heat. Over medium-high heat, add the bacon and cook until browned. Add the carrots and onions. Cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Add the beef and the sausage. Cook until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Drain off any extra grease. Return to the heat. Add the tomato paste and cook for one minute, stirring constantly over medium high heat. Add the salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, and nutmeg. Allow the mixture to brown well, you will hear some popping and crackling. This is a good thing. Don't stir too often but don't let it burn, either. Cook until a crust forms.

Add 1 cup of the red wine (or use stock if you are not cooking with the wine) and use that to deglaze the bottom of the pan, scraping all of the crust off the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium. Let the wine reduce completely, stirring occasionally. Add the other cup of wine and cook, reducing the liquid until it is almost completely gone. Once the wine has cooked down, add the juice from the whole tomatoes. Reduce the heat. Then crush 6 tomatoes by hand and add them to the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the remaining tomatoes. Add that plus the tomato puree and half of the beef broth. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to keep the sauce from sticking on the bottom of the pot. Add the sugar, red pepper flakes, and the bay leaf. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours, stirring frequently. Add more beef broth as the sauce cooks down and becomes thick. You want the sauce to be very thick and paste like but you can add the broth to reconstitute it a bit if you like.

Before serving, remove the bay leaf. Stir in the cream. Serve with the Parmesan cheese over any hot pasta you like. Sprinkle the cheese over the hot pasta, then ladle over the sauce. Top with fresh parsley.

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RECIPE: ARANCINI (ITALIAN RICE BALLS) WITH HOMEMADE MARINARA SAUCE

I have to tell the story of this recipe. During taping for Food Network Star, my cast mate, Michele Ragussis made her mom's Arancini for us one night and let me help her make it. A few days later when my team had to create a food court restaurant with an Italian theme, I asked Michele if it was okay if I made it for the competition but with my own twist. Yes, she gave me her blessing but choked back a laugh since I'd only watched it made once and had never actually made it myself. It came out pretty well, I guess. We won. And I even got a marriage proposal on set from an Italian guy in the audience who told me these arancini and the marinara I made to accompany it was better than his Italian mother's. That made me pretty proud. Thank you, Michele and Mama Phyllis, for sharing your family tradition with me.

Arancini is the perfect party dish. If  you use ground beef, it is very inexpensive to make for a crowd and you can easily double the recipe. I make them early in the day and just drop them into the fryer right before serving. You can even make them in advance and freeze them- just thaw and fry just before guests arrive. These are cheesy and delicious. Try them and let me know how you do.

ITALIAN RICE BALLS --ARANCINI WITH SPICY MARINARA

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced small

5cloves garlic, minced

1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground veal (optional- you can sub ground beef or pork)

1 cup Italian flat leaf parsley minced

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 ½ cups tomato sauce

2 cups grated Parmesan cheese grated

2 cups cooked and cooled Arborio rice

5 eggs

3 cups breadcrumbs with Italian seasoning (I make my own but store brands are good)

Canola oil for frying

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil

Marinara Sauce (see recipe below or use store-bought)

Special equipment: #10 (small-medium) ice cream scoop

DIRECTIONS:

Cook the rice according to package directions but you want the rice to be sticky so I cook a bit longer than I should and don't add butter or olive oil to the water. You don't want it to be mushy. Set aside.  

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté onions and garlic for 2 minutes until softened. Add meat and cook until browned, breaking up large pieces as it cooks. Strain off excess fat from the pan. Add parsley and cook 3 minutes. Add thyme, oregano, and pepper, and salt, cayenne, red pepper flakes. Taste and add more seasoning if needed.

Keep in mind that rice and cheese contain salt so be careful not to over salt the meat mixture. Let the meat mixture cool a bit. Add the tomato sauce. Combine rice with cheese but be careful not to mash the rice. Add the rice mixture to meat mixture and stir gently to combine. Check the seasoning. Add additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Use ice cream scoop to shape the balls so they are a consistent size, then hand roll the balls as tightly as you can.

Pour enough canola oil into a deep skillet or Dutch oven to reach 5”. Heat oil over medium heat to 350-degrees. Use a thermometer to check the oil temperature.

Whisk eggs in a small baking dish. Place breadcrumbs in another baking dish. Roll rice balls lightly in the eggs then immediately roll in breadcrumbs to form a coating. Shake off the excess breadcrumbs. Place them on the baking sheet and refrigerate or freeze until you are ready to fry.

To fry:

Carefully drop rice balls into the hot oil a few at a time, taking care not to overcrowd and lower the oil temperature. Cook until golden brown, about 2-4 minutes per batch. Bring oil back up to 350-degrees before cooking each batch. Drain rice balls on paper towels before serving.

Serve with homemade or store-bought marinara for dipping. Garnish with the basil leaves.


SPICY MARINARA SAUCE

INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 large cans (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, including liquid

1 cup fresh whole basil leaves, loosely packed

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (about 1/2 tablespoon dried)

1/2  cup fresh whole oregano leaves, loosely packed (about 1 tablespoon dried)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

big pinch granulated sugar (optional)

½ teaspoon black pepper

pinch cayenne pepper

splash Balsamic vinegar

DIRECTIONS:

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes until translucent and softened. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Use some of the liquid from the tomatoes to deglaze the pan, and then add the remaining ingredients. Use an immersion blender to puree, taking care to leave the tomatoes slightly chunky. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can add everything to a blender or food processor)

Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from burning on the bottom. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 hour or longer so that the marinara thickens as some of the liquid cooks out. Check seasoning prior to serving. Add salt or a pinch more sugar as necessary.

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