Check out La Diva Cucina's NEW cooking club blog: Tutti A Tavola!

La Diva with the cast of NBC's Live Miami at 11!  I appeared on the daytime show last Wednesday (8-24-11) and had a blast!  Hostesses:  Nathalie Pozo, La Diva, Shiri Spears, Trina Robinson and Roxanne Vargas!  Thanks, ladies!


La Diva has written a NEW POST!  Check out my other blog, Tutti a Tavola Cooking Club Blog....ciao, darlings!


Rustic Roasted Cauliflower Rigatoni with Fontina Cheese Sauce and Toasted Truffled Bread Crumbs

 Rustic Roasted Cauliflower Rigatoni with Fontina Cheese and Toasted Truffled Breadcrumbs:  Another meatless wonder that hubby inhaled without questioning, "Whar's the beef?"

 Darlings!  La Diva is back in the kitchen and cooking with a vengeance.  Oh yes she is!   And there is something driving me to baking cakes and cooking classic suppers.  Perhaps longing for simple comfort food is another way to heal thyself?    Or maybe it's the weather?  What is it about the gray, cloudy days hovering endlessly in Miami that seem almost "winter-ish" and slightly depressing?  These dull days initiate a submerged yet familiar feeling inside that reminds my body clock of times past in snowy Illinois and Michigan.  Is this part of the desire to prepare and eat savory comfort foods?  Who knows?  All I know is that La Diva has been cooking up a storm and the recipient of my efforts is one very happy and neglected DJ.

Blackberry buttermilk cake from this month's Buon Appetite.  Fruit cakes are my fave!

One night, we dined on grass fed steaks from Gaucho Ranch with sauteed shitake mushrooms, mashed potatoes with lashings of white truffle cream, fresh baby spinach with garlic; all washed down with a hearty and peppery Aussie shiraz called Henry's Drive.  Perfectly cooked, the flavorful and juicy steaks practically melted in our mouths, steak and mash is one of our favorite meals.  So, where's the money shot?  Where's the food porn?  There is none.  We were too hungry to stop and take a photo.  Sorry.

Tony Bourdain snags a dinner invite for traditional Sunday ragu at mama's place in Naples, Italy. 

And then, inspired by the recently aired Naples episode of "No Reservations," La Diva conquered a five hour pork and veal ragu made with San Marzano tomatoes, all while conjuring up images of the chain smoking matriarch on the show.  She reminded La Diva of my long departed, sailor-mouthed Auntie Ann, who every Sunday, dripping with diamond rings, made the traditional Italian ragu with pork, chicken, braciola, Italian sausage with finocchio seeds (fennel) and mostaccioli.  In her tiny basement, an assembly of dinner tables were pushed together and three generations of family would sit and eat with much laughter and arguing! 

Savory, rich and delicious, La Diva's ragu was something my Auntie Ann would have been proud of, the sauce was more-ish and induced intense cravings.  Just from after breakfast, all I could think about was when we would be eating it again and how soon was dinner?  I realized this was why people in our family have heart disease and tend to be on the, ahem, "plump" side.  Another winning dish and yet, La Diva took no photo even after serving it two nights in a row.  Sorry.

Both dinners were divine.  But did I bother to take you on a food porn journey with either of the succulent suppers?  No.  Greedily, the DJ and I tucked into our  laden plates, not stopping to talk, allowing a sip of wine here and there, and plowing through until our plates were clean.  There are no photos, there will be NO forthcoming blog post. 

Instead, I give you a rustic and simple dish I made up based upon a craving. 

Let's talk for a minute about cravings.....La Diva has been having a lot of them lately, for some reason.  Perhaps it was the myriad cooking shows I watched endlessly over the last four weeks during my infirmity?  Of that, I'm certain.  In any case, I gots a lot of cravings.  And with cravings, I sometimes find that having the meal or dish you crave doesn't actually satisfy you and makes you want to eat it all over again.  And again.  What you thought would satisfy you really makes you want more.   You just know in your heart of hearts that you are almost better NOT succumbing to the craving to begin with (as experienced when La Diva had a problem with severe cravings for freshly baked Southern biscuits.)

 These freshly baked biscuits only took 15 minutes to prepare before they were in the oven.  Making them myself was much easier than calling out to the DJ every few seconds: "Biscuits."  "Biscuits." "Biscuits."   For some reason me annoying him with my repetitive plea did nothing to propel the man into action to make me some.  Hmpf.

And then there are the cravings that are passed on to you....someone mentions an excellent dish they recently enjoyed that gets you to thinking...and craving.  Believe it or not, my passed on craving came from a student from one of my recent classes that ate at  a high end vegetarian restaurant, raved about their beautifully baked breaded cauliflower and wondered "did I know how to make it?" 

No.  I did not.  Unfortunately, La Diva has not eaten every thing at every restaurant (though I try!)  But it got me to thinking about tasty breaded cauliflower, something I love but never make.

Which led to me thinking of a bubbly, cheese-y bread-crumb-y cauliflower gratin.

Which led me to think of a rustic mac and cheese with a toasted buttery, crunchy bread crumb topping.

Which led me to combining all the flavors and textures into:

Cauliflower Rigatoni with Fontina Cheese Sauce and 
Toasted Truffled Breadcrumbs

 Heat oven to 450 degrees Farenheit and heat up a large pot of water to cook the pasta.   Cut up one small or half of a large cauliflower into even chunks, douse with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.  Stir together to coat well, put into oven and bake for 15-20 minutes.  When cauliflower is brown, turn over to caramelize the other side, continue cooking until brown and fork tender, another 10-15 minutes.  Remove from heat. 

The browning of the cauliflower releases the vegetable's sugars and lessens its slightly bitter taste.

 In a skillet, melt a knob of butter with a dash of olive oil.  Add fresh or panko breadcrumbs to the pan and toast until evenly browned.  Remove from heat and put onto a plate to stop them from over-browning.  For a bit of decadence and flavor, La Diva added a few drops of white truffle oil and mixed through.

 When the water begins to boil, add rigatoni and set timer for two minutes less than al dente.  Salt the water.  When done, drain and add to the cauliflower.

Now it's time to make the cheese sauce:  Melt a few tablespoons of butter and then add equal amounts of flour, stirring with a risk and forming a "roux."  

Cook the roux until golden.  Then add one cup of milk, whisking continuously.  Stir in 3/4 cup fontina and parmesan cheeses.  The sauce will thicken, taste it and season with salt and pepper.  La Diva had some white truffle and porcini cream, so I added a good heaping spoonful to the cheese sauce.   Mmmmmmmmm mellow, salty, creamy cheese sauce loaded with umami!

Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and cauliflower and then mix through to make sure its all well coated.

Turn off oven and set broiler to high.  Sprinkle pasta evenly with bread crumbs and put under broiler until brown and bubbly, just a few minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure you don't burn it!!  

RESULT:  Delicious.  Scrumptious.  Divine.  More-ish.  You know, darlings, La Diva usually does not approve of "carb on carb" dishes (the breadcrumbs and the pasta) NOR do I care very much for baked pasta dishes (darlings, I don't know about you, but La Diva has suffered too many bland and mushy mac and cheese and baked ziti dinners far too many times!) However, cooking the pasta less than al dente allowed for the pasta retain a perfect, still-chewy texture when removed from the oven.  And for that reason, rigatoni is one of my favorite noodles.   It holds up so well and has a robust, ribbed texture that captures the sauce.  

The crunch of the toasted, truffled bread crumbs combine with the pasta to add another layer of toothsomeness to this hearty dish. The truffle's taste was subtle, the slightly bitter flavor of the cauliflower mellowed, and the sharpness of the parmesan cheese was tempered by the creamy fontina.  All in all, this dish is WINNING!

Do cravings inspire YOU in the kitchen, darlings?  What are YOU making this week?  Please tell La Diva ALL ABOUT IT! Ciao for now! xo

PS:  The bank accepted our offer for the short sale.  We closed on our condo last Monday and got a great deal.  My level of responsibilities just got waaaay bigger and the DJ and I are thrilled!  So, please excuse  me if I don't get around to commenting as much as I'd like to. Off to patch, prime and paint!

La Diva's Key Largo Boating Adventure...Saving the Hellish Best for Last! Part 2

 This sign was above the bar in the Pontunes tiki bar:  La Diva needs few reminders of the charmed life she leads!

So, darlings, part one of our boating adventure left La Diva and the DJ in a twenty four foot rented Sundeck boat in Key Largo, about head into the ocean to snorkel at the reefs.  The day was cloudy with the threat of more rain.  However, our little boat was in the wake of a large snorkeling excursion boat for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, so I felt all was well to continue on to the reef, miles out to open sea.

The marker buoys leading us out to sea and the State Park tourist boat ahead of us.

As we headed out into the ocean, we noticed about five sets of markers were taking us straight out.  It's imperative that you stay between the markers and not divert from the guides otherwise you'll find yourself in shallow waters where the boat could get grounded and stranded until the tide comes in or an expensive tow boat comes for you if you've damaged your engine and propeller!

We reached the last of the markers, finally, and the DJ gunned the boat leaving the large tourist boat behind!  La Diva was in heaven!  The sea spray splashed my face as we raced across the waves.

I looked behind us and noticed two large towers with lights, filing it away as a landmark for our return.   And that's when I asked the DJ, "Darling, what direction are we headed in?"

"East. No, West."

"What?  Well, what does the GPS say?"  I asked?

"It's not on!"  Doh.  The DJ turned it on, waited for it to load and found that we were actually heading southeast.  So, our return would be northwest.  Easy-peasy!

We continued out into the glorious aqua blue sea, and for now we were alone with no other boats in sight.  At last, we spotted one of the reef towers, found no other boats there, and decided to head further out to the next reef tower.  We drove on for at least another twenty minutes and then arrived at the second reef.  I noticed another dive boat and a small boat were already moored there.  I looked back and saw the State Park excursion boat heading in too.  We were in the right place!

Now to just find a white buoy to tie up to...there it is!  I grabbed the telescopic boat hook and told the DJ to pull up closer.  But the swell that the Pontunes staff had told us was only two foot high, was really like three feet and the waves were rough.  I leaned over the boat and hooked the buoy.  Out the telescope went, one, two, three.... "HELP, DJ, I can't hold on!"  With the boat bouncing in the waves and current, I couldn't keep hold of the buoy without being pulled over the side and into the water.  The DJ scrambled to me in an instant, took over and tied us up.  The telescope on the boat hook was bent.  I bent it back into place and it snapped in two.  DAMN.  How much do these things cost? $50?  $70?  I was dreading to find out.  But, the beauty of the ocean quickly erased all of my anxiety, for there we were, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean on a gorgeous coral reef and about to go snorkeling!!!

This is the photo I took of the ocean.  Gorgeous.

The conditions were windy and the sea was turbulent.  The waves continued knocking the boat around and I was having a hard time keeping my balance.  I put my  dive mask on, carefully let down the ladder and then cautiously lowered myself into the warm sea.  While still hanging on to the ladder, I took a quick look around behind me under the water.  About a dozen large fish looked right into my mask at me as if to say, "Well, ya gonna feed us or what, lady?"  Excited, I climbed back into the boat.

"It's beautiful!  There's a million fish down there and the water is so clear!"  Inspired, the DJ put on his gear and jumped in without hesitation.  As soon as he let go of the ladder, the current took him away from the boat a few feet.  I looked at the two tourist boats.  No one was getting into the water and I wondered why.  The other small boat had already up and left.  And then the smaller dive boat left.  Shortly after, the large excursion boat left as well.  We were alone in the middle of the ocean.



And that's when it all changed.  

Large, foreboding clouds had developed to the north and with disappointing realization, I knew there would be no snorkeling today.  The current was too strong, the water was too rough.  And then 


It began to lightening. Even though we had been there only fifteen minutes, we knew it was time to head back in as quickly as we could.  Being out in the middle of the ocean in an electrical storm was NOT how we intended to spend the day.

DJ:  "Which way home?"

I looked at the reef tower landmark and exclaimed,  "That way!"

Checking the GPS, the DJ said,  "No it's not!  It's back THAT way!"  

Thank goodness for compasses and GPS!  The boat had gotten all turned about in the waves and so had La Diva!  Wasn't the tower on our left when we arrived?  I had thought it was.  It's hard to tell which way is the "right" way when each direction looks the same, you cannot see land and there is no sun to guide you.

The DJ put the boat into full throttle,  but the waves were larger now, so the boat was slamming into each one: bam, bam, BAM.  I couldn't take it.  "Slow down!" I screamed, fearing I would fly over the edge or the small boat would break apart.   As we headed back to shore, we found we were heading directly into the storm, with an ominous black cloud and lightening in our path.  What could we do?  That was the way back to the marina.

Water, water, everywhere you looked and no land in sight as the sky grew even darker.  Finally, I spotted one of the towers with lights!  Yes!  Land!  "We are getting closer to the shore!" I screamed over the engine.  As we neared the shore, we realized that it was not the tower we were after but the one further south.  Where was the other tower?  There it was, WAY UP NORTH, we were much further south than we realized.  The DJ headed back towards the second tower......and then all of a sudden the rain came down by the barrel-full, the skimpy little awning on our small boat providing little shelter from the tropical storm. 

 The Sundeck boat:  perfect for two but not in an electrical storm!

Through the gale, we kept heading north trying to locate the markers to the entrance of the mangrove canals.  As quickly and violently as it began, the rain slowed down, visibility returned and that's when the DJ noticed that we were in VERY SHALLOW WATER.  Damn.  I could see the sandy bottom and the sea weed, we were in maybe two and a half feet max.  WHAT?  We were on the wrong side of the markers!!!!  I looked behind and saw the engine was churning up sand!  Instantly, images of scraped propellers, fisty confrontations and expensive credit card charges filled my head and then were immediately replaced with visions of hypothermia, engine failure and electrocution! We HAD to get out of the open sea and out of the storm NOW, La Diva did not want to be stranded on the water for hours.

Undaunted, my brave husband, lifted the engine halfway out of the water and we S-L-O-W-L-Y made our way to the markers in the pouring rain.  We had no choice, either chance ruining the engine and getting grounded and stranded or putt along until we reached deeper water.

putt putt putt 

And it rained and rained.   And then, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached the markers, we'd made it.  Safely in between the markers and making our way back in towards the mangroves, we didn't think the boat suffered any damage that we could tell (so far.)  Whew.  But I knew I wouldn't be happy until we could take the time to check. 

 Buh-bye stupid canal that went on forever and where every dam thing looked the same!

With the showers now down to a light sprinkle, we followed the markers in through the mangroves in the deserted canals, thankful for the guideposts through the endless, monotonous mangroves.  It started to rain hard again and La Diva was soaked and starting to get a chill.   Around yet another bend in the canal and then at last, we came into Large Sound.  La Diva let out a deep sigh. We were  now about a three quarters of the way back and we had to find the entrance to the cut.

This was the cut on the way out...nice and calm.

We crept close to the shore, trying to find the entrance to the canal and the house that was our landmark.  As we got closer, we discovered that all the houses looked the same and once again realized that it's hard to locate these canals until you are right on top of them.  La Diva reminded the DJ, "It was a white house that was boarded up..."  Which house was it that the canal was by?  I pulled out my camera and found the image....and suddenly the house was in front of us.  

We entered the canal, we were in the home stretch now, just through the cut and then two bays away!  The rain started again, coming down with even more ferocity.  It pummeled us so fast that the DJ couldn't see, and with the canal's waters churning, the boat was even more difficult to steer. I quickly gave him my sunglasses, which helped only marginally.  Soaked and shivering, I grabbed a beach towel out of my bag, wrapped it around me and helped direct him, trying not to notice the water that was beginning to fill the back of the boat.

There it was, we reached the end of the cut!  HOORAY!!! After what had seemed like forever, we were heading into one of the last bays....but wait!  Where were all the boats and yachts we'd seen on the way in?  We couldn't see them because the rain was coming down so hard that the boats that were there before were now obscured and enveloped in a large cloud.  There was no way in hell we were going to be able navigate around moored boats we could not even see.   The rain was coming down in sheets and we had taken on three inches of water in the back of the boat.   Chilled to the bone, La Diva was trembling violently. We had no choice but to head back into the canal and tie up to one of the moors at a private house to seek shelter until the storm passed. 

Who knew that when I took this photo upon entering the cut we'd be moored at one of the houses a few hours later?

 La Diva went to the side of the boat and grabbed the tie line and threw the bumper out.  We headed towards the first home, but the waves and current took us quickly past, we missed it.  Then onto the second house and the same thing happened.  We got to the third home and I managed to grab a line from the shore and pulled in tight.  BAM!  Even though I had put the bumpers out, the rear of the boat slammed into the coral seawall, it was just too rough.  The boat was bouncing all over and I could barely keep from falling over as I tied the front of the boat.   The DJ came over to tie up the back, with the boat secure, I scrambled up the ladder with our bag and ran under the house's balcony.

But where was the DJ?  I thought he was right behind me.  "Get up here, please!"   I yelled towards the boat.  I was so worried he'd be struck by lightening.  The DJ climbed up and joined me under the house, he had been checking the boat and engine for damage.  

"Do you think we scraped it, I asked?"  

"Nothing that wasn't already there," he replied.

With a slight feeling of reassurance, I caught my breath, took out the Pontunes card and dialed their number.  John, whom helped us earlier, answered the phone.  "Hey, we've been worried about you!  We saw that you had stopped and we knew you were caught in the storm.  Stay put til the storm passes and be careful!"

Um, yeah.  Guess what, John?  If the storm didn't pass soon, you'll be picking up our soaking, miserable asses in a CAR and getting your damn boat later.  La Diva had had enough and we were on land and relatively safe, although still shaking and cold.

But after living six years in Florida, I knew these storms don't usually last long.  In twenty minutes the rain had come to a complete stop.  Without hesitation, we quickly got back into the boat and pushed off, before Mother Nature changed her mind.  This time as we left the cut, we could see all the boats moored right in front of us.  We slowly went past and then once again gunned it back to the marina.  We made it through the first bay and now we were almost to the end of the second.   Would we ever freakin'  get there?  I guess today the thrill was in the journey more than the destination and  it seemed like one LOOOOONG-ASSSSS trek. We only had one more bend to turn and then the marina would be just past the point.

As we got closer, I could see the bridge off Key Largo and the mangroves that were across from the Marina, not long to go now.  Adrenaline was still powering both of us but I was not going to be happy and relaxed til I was on dry land and in dry clothes.  I stood in the front of the boat, watching the marina come closer and closer and thinking that by simply "willing" it badly enough, we would get there faster. 

And that's when I turned around and noticed a HUGE CLOUD OF MOSQUITOES in the boat and all over us!  Would this HELL NEVER END?!   I immediately got out the insect repellent, furiously spraying the both of us and violently swatting at myself and the DJ.

putt putt putt

Exhausted, we pulled into the marina.  The deck hand was there to meet us, an obvious look of relief on his face.  "We were so worried about you, are you all right?  I asked the manager what should we do to help you and he said there is nothing we could do!"  He had started at Pontunes the day before and felt helpless.  I showed him the broken boat hook, he threw it down on the deck, unconcerned, and helped me off.  I scrambled to the car, got our dry gear and went into the bathroom to change while the DJ did the same.  

Ahhh, pants and a clean shirt! 

Covered legs!  


And best of all...DRY.  La Diva had HAD ENOUGH of being wet for long periods of time over the past three days. Being dry felt good, very good.

I went into the office, which was now closed, and found the staff waiting for us and told them our harrowing tale.  They were amazed that we didn't get marooned on an island or out to sea and that common sense and cool heads prevailed.  John told us of another couple that hadn't listened to him, went into the wrong canal, got into trouble in shallow water and ruined the propeller.... all on a nice, sunny day!  They were up for hundreds of dollars in repair charges.  Suddenly panicked, I asked,"Well, how's the boat?"  

"Fine.  It will be $80 for gas and then you guys are good to go.  Enjoy your meal!"  

Once again with relief, I paid him and we headed to the bar. 

Excited, drained and with the appetite of coal miners, we stumbled into the tiki bar and ordered strong, boozy drinks. The bartender was happy to oblige and then offered us shots.  We downed them and congratulated each other on our solid teamwork.  Naturally, La Diva reminded the DJ how lucky he was I'm a competent tomboy instead of a helpless crybaby!   I was proud that in a critical situation, neither of us had panicked and kept our wits about us.   Together, we could handle anything.

That night, La Diva ate three courses including an entire fish.  Afterward, we headed home and made it back to Miami Beach in just an hour.  Up the lift with our bags and into our pajamas, suddenly we were back in our warm, safe bed of home, sweet home!