BATTLE CABBAGE with La Diva Cucina!

Traditional Polish design by Rejke

Darlings!  Because of my Italian last name of Lafata (which means "The Fairy" in Italian!) and the Italian name of my company (La Diva Cucina means "The Diva Kitchen!"), many people think that La Diva is a nice, sturdy girl with Italian blood lines, and they are not wrong.   But equal to my Italian heritage, my genetic make up and bloodline also comes from Polish roots, along with German (Bohemian) and Scotch-Canadian.  An interesting mix to be sure, especially when it comes to cooking!

And it is from these humble roots that helped La Diva decide on her dish for BATTLE CABBAGE!!!

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, Easter was one of the holidays I spent with the Polish side of our family, usually at my Great Aunt Irene's place outside of Detroit.  Each year, our cousins, great aunts and uncles would fill my Aunt's tiny home and celebrate Easter and Spring with traditional Polish food, drink and loads of laughter and merriment!

The dessert table would be laden with dyed Easter eggs and sweets including my great Aunt Alice's delicious and buttery tea cake, which was really a divine walnut roll in the shape of a ring encased in a bread-like dough.  Smeared with creamy butter and not overly cloying, it was my favorite offering on the sweets table! Auntie Alice would make it on other occasions as well, but only if I begged her to!  Also on offer was a huge tray of light as a feather angel wings or chrusciki and prune filled kolaczki cookies with chocolate Easter egg candies scattered in between.  Easter at my Auntie's was always a holiday my siblings and I really looked forward to.

 The butter lamb is a Polish Catholic tradition and symbolizes the Lamb of God.   It graced Auntie's table each year and I always loved seeing it, her lamb always had eyes made of cloves.   Click HERE to learn more about Catholic Polish Easter meal and see loads of butter lamb photos!

But the real feast was the dinner table, always overflowing and always with the same traditional Polish dishes, year after year:  a large ham, Kowalski Polish kielbasa sausage, pork chops, pierogi of cheese, cabbage and meat with sour cream and my Aunt Barbara's kapusta, my very favorite dish of all!

Kapusta means simply "cabbage" in Polish (AND Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian and Slovakian!)  but kapusta is also the name of a classic Polish dish.  Just like many traditional ethnic dishes, every family has their own version.  But one thing is for certain, kapusta always has two ingredients:  some sort of  cabbage, either pickled as sauerkraut, fresh or both and smoked sausage, usually kielbasa.  The dish was hearty, filling and full of nutrients to warm  and nourish the hard working Pole through the cold winter months.

When I was thinking of a cabbage dish for Battle Cabbage, the first one to come to my mind was a favorite stir fry using Chinese cabbage with mushrooms, snow peas, bean sprouts and carrots encased in a flavorful Asian omelette.  Sadly, I realized I had POSTED IT BEFORE back when I first started my blog!  As I thought hard about some of my favorite ways to use cabbage, I remembered my Aunt Barbara's kapusta.  Since I knew cabbage was in season at the Farmer's Market, I wanted to try my Auntie's recipe using fresh cabbage instead of with the usual pre-made sauerkraut.  Darlings, I give you....

La Diva's Warm and Comforting Kapusta

Serves four

1 head fresh cabbage
1 lb. Polish kielbasa
1.5 lbs of pork chops (this time I used boneless  pork loin country style ribs, just make sure the meat is not too lean)
2 large tomatoes (or small can diced tomato)
2 large peeled, potatoes cut into bite size chunks
1/4 c apple cider vinegar
1 T caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
sprig dried marjoram or thyme (optional)
cooking oil
salt and pepper
butter (optional)

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil and when very hot, add seasoned pork.  

Brown meat on all sides, throw in a couple of bay leaves.

Take washed cabbage and core and chop evenly.  Toss into pot with the meat.

Add two chopped tomatoes (you can certainly used canned, Florida tomatoes are in season now and they are sooo good!)

Then add:  a dash of salt, caraway seeds and vinegar, the herbs and a half a cup of water.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.  Cover and cook until pork is just tender, 1.5-2 hours, making sure to stir occasionally.

When the pork is fork tender, add peeled and cubed potatoes.  If the stew is drying out, keep adding small amounts of water and DO NOT let it scorch, but keep stirring occasionally.  Cover and continue cooking another hour until meat begins to fall apart easily when pulled and potatoes are soft.  Adjust the seasonings but remember, you will be adding kielbasa, which has a lot of salt, so don't over salt, you can always add more!

Slice the kielbasa into 1/4 inch disks and stir through kapusta.  Do not add the kielbasa until everything is cooked, you are adding flavor and don't want to take all the good juices from the sausage by adding them too early and boiling it to death!  Kielbasa is already cooked so all you are really doing is warming up the sausage and allowing its fat to melt into the stew.  Bring to a boil again (if necessary) and add more water if needed.  (The kapusta should not be dry.)  Once the kielbasa is warmed through, taste again and adjust seasonings if needed.  

Put the kapusta into bowl and add small dollops of butter over the top.  Serve with fresh rye bread or simply as is.

RESULT:  Oh dear!  I think I did my Auntie Barbara proud!  Even though her original recipe calls for sauerkraut, I think that the fresh cabbage simmered with the vinegar was wonderful as the cabbage's texture was retained.  The tomatoes adds a really mellow flavor, not too sharp or acidic, which is surprising considering the vinegar that's in the dish as well.  The pork is fall apart tender, the keilbasa gives that hit of smoky, saltiness and then you bite into a buttery potato with the caraway!  *sigh*  This is a delightful dish that even cabbage haters would enjoy....there is no strong cabbage taste or bitterness, just comforting, warm deliciousousness!  La Diva is wondering if my Polish great grandmother Cashmira would approve?

To check out all the other uber creative entries to BATTLE CABBAGE, go to Hostess with the Mostest and TOFU battle winner GRUMPY GRANNY to check out the entries, there are some really talented people out there!  Good luck to the other competitors and for now, La Diva wishes you DOBRANOC!

400 Degree Dinner

Darlings!  A cold front moved into Miami over this past weekend and La Diva found it a most excellent opportunity to put on the oven and make a dinner that would be warm and comforting on a night that begged one to "get cozy."

Since I've been blessed with family and friends that are kind enough to keep me in the latest cookbooks, La Diva has decided that I darn well better start using them!  I'd scanned through my Ottolenghi The Cookbook I got as a present from my brother in law and his girlfriend last Christmas and had flagged each recipe that intrigued me, but after researching recipes  for a client recently, I stumbled upon a most divine dish, a decadent fennel gratin.  (To refresh your memory of this fabulous tome, click HERE.)

I decided that if if I was going to heat the oven, I might as well cook everything in the oven!  So, dear readers, this post is about cooking an entire meal in the oven at 400 degrees!

Now, darlings, when you cook an entire meal in the oven, one must plan.  What should be cooked first and in what order should the dishes be made?  I started with a side dish for the meal and chose a  fennel gratin recipe from the Ottolenghi cookbook.  It was a good choice to start as I knew it could be held at room temperature without a reduction in taste or texture.

The recipe includes the making of a crumble for the topping of the gratin.  It was super easy, just combine 300 g* flour, 200 g of cold butter and 100 g of sugar until the texture of breadcrumbs.  This was easily achieved by pulsing the ingredients in the food processor.

*La Diva LOVES cooking and shopping in metric, it's so much more accurate.  This is when a dual metric and Imperial scale comes in handy.

After adding cream to thinly sliced fennel, the crumble was mixed in with freshly grated parmigiano cheese and then added to the top.  I baked it for 45 minutes at 400 degrees, until tender, adding more thyme and grape tomatoes and then baking for another 15 minutes.  After it was done, I let it sit on the warm stove and popped the next item into the oven.

(Blogger Surit from The Dish has kindly replicated the recipe for the fennel gratin with cherry tomatoes, HERE. )

With a very large punnet of blueberries staring me in the face in my fridge, La Diva thought an easy and quick dessert would be to use them in a cobbler.  I've actually had the recipe printed from for years and now finally remembered to try it!  This recipe was a good choice because it was for two servings (very LARGE servings!) was quick, easy and also called for a 400 degree oven.  The dessert could be made and served room temperature, so I chose the cobbler to be next to go into the oven.

 In order to get the dough to a texture that I could actually spoon it instead of crumbling, I had to supplement the recipe by adding a bit more cream.  Also, next time I would add a half recipe more so the topping would cover the berries entirely. You can view the recipe for Blueberry Lemon Cobbler by clicking HERE.

When I asked The DJ how he'd like me to prepare his pork tenderloin for dinner, he exclaimed "barbecue!"  I used a store-bought hickory seasoning mix and slathered it on the meat after coating it first with olive oil.  I seared it on all sides to form a nice, spicy crust.  I let the pan cool, washed it and then added a good dousing of olive oil on the bottom.  I added the pork and the cubed, peeled sweet potatoes.  I popped it into the oven at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes.

I had a bit of Stubb's spicy bbq sauce in the fridge and  doctored up with a bit of honey.  I basted the loin a few times with barbecue sauce for additional barbecue flavor.  I cooked the meat until it was just done, leaving it slightly pink and juicy.  After letting the meat rest for 10 minutes, I sliced it up and plated it with the potatoes and gratin.

Plated up and ready to eat:  roasted sweet potatoes with hickory smoked barbecue pork tenderloin and fennel gratin with grape tomatoes.

RESULT:  What a stupendously comforting winter meal!  The meat was moist and tender and had a crunchy, spicy-sweet crust.  The potatoes were cooked to perfection, caramelized and extra tasty from the barbecue pork drippings.

The fennel was DIVINE!  Perfectly cooked to fork tender, the fennel's usually strong anise flavor was subdued and combined well with the sweet tomatoes and the sharp, saltiness of the cheese crumble. The creamy texture made the dish very more-ish, we went back for seconds!

La Diva is usually a big fan of roasted tomatoes but I thought they overshadowed the subtle flavor of the fennel.  Next time, I will omit the tomatoes altogether.

This quick cobbler was delicious!  The berries worked surprisingly well with the lemon zest and juice and gave the berries quite the zingy flavor.   A dollop of vanilla ice cream on top made it even better!  The cobbler was dangerously quick and easy to make.  Even more dangerous is the fact that I have a restaurant in the building so The DJ can run down and get two scoops of ice cream in an "emergency!!!"

All in all, the 400 degree dinner was a warming and wonderful winter meal and all made in the oven, keeping the kitchen warm and toasty.

Do you have a favorite winter time meal that you can just easily pop into the oven?  DO tell, darlings, La Diva wants to hear all about it!  Ciao for now!

Mon Petit Jardin Vert! (and the joys of multi-climate gardening!)

Darlings!  Welcome to La Diva's little green garden!  My small plot is part of a community victory garden on South Beach that I was lucky to be assigned last May.  After a brutally hot, steamy and rainy summer, along with the negligence resulting from my leg injury, La Diva wasn't feeling too hopeful about achieving any success with my dismally overgrown  plot from summer.

But after enriching the soil twice with organic compost, time, love, water and a nice dash of fish fertilizer, my garden is really coming along nicely!

My herb and salad garden:  bottom left corner clockwise chives, lemon thyme, thyme, marjoram, jalapeno peppers, cayenne peppers, heritage kung pao chilies, baby tomatoes, basil, Thai basil, spinach, assorted lettuces, sage, peppermint and spearmint and Italian parsley.  The middle from the bottom has komatsuna, escarole, mini bell peppers and assorted leaf lettuces!

Besides the rainy, humid summers, Southern Florida gardeners have to contend with harsh winds from tropical storms and hurricanes, poor soil quality and salt from the ocean, my garden is only one block away from the sea!

Because of the sub-tropical climate of Southern Florida, vegetable gardeners find a lot of success growing Asian varieties like komatsuna, mizuna,  and yukina savoy.  Also popular are Caribbean vegetables like amaranth (known as callaloo) calabaza (a pumpkin variety) and red sorrel.

A tiny anole scampers about my garden!  They are pretty fast critters, I was lucky this one stayed still long enough for a photo!

You see, I'm from Michigan and the growing season there is very short.  This does not stop, however, farmers around the state having huge success in their harvests and I've eaten many an ear of Michigan sweet corn, beets and tomatoes from road side stands by my dad's house over the years. 

Muy caliente! Cayenne pepper

When I lived in Chicago, I had a beautiful garden out back on one side of the yard I shared with my neighbors.   Obviously, I was already well versed on what would grow as its the same climate and zone as Michigan. One year, I grew giant sunflowers that a cheeky little squirrel would sit atop, stuffing his mouth with the seeds in late August.

These little tomatoes are tiny and super sweet.  I have a number of flowers and clusters, I'm just waiting for them to ripen now.

Then I moved to Sydney, Australia and got the shock of my life.  I saw vine-like geraniums so big that they were growing up the side of telephone poles!  I marveled at HUGE rhododendron and azalea bushes as high as a house!  I had NO IDEA that those plants could actually get so large, but having a longer growing season, mild winters and not a lot of frost or snow all contributed to this.

My little pepper bush is laden with jalapenos.

It was quite the change to move from the climate of  the northern midwest of the United States to downunder Australia that boasted a temperate climate! I had to relearn plant varieties, when to plant and how to maintain a garden. Also, the sun is extra harsh there, so native drought resistant plants, like kangaroo paws were quite successful.

Southeastern Australian gardeners have to contend with harsh sun, drought-like conditions or an over abundance of rains, bushfires and strong winds.  Some Australian flora have adapted to the harsh conditions by actually being germinated when heated by bushfire, like the flannel flower or banksia bush. Fire is also a key component to germinating some California native plants.

Hello my little ladybugs.  Thanks for stopping by and keeping nasties away from my garden!

Back in the midwest, I was used to early spring flowers of crocuses, forsythia and narcissus.  But Spring in Michigan and Illinois is in April, and now I was living in Sydney where Fall is in April!  Everything was confusingly back to front!  If I wanted to enjoy bulb flowers or lilacs, I had to go up to the Blue Mountains where they enjoyed a higher elevation  and cooler climate blooming in September!  

Just below my tomatoes is a clump of organic baby lettuce I bought at the farmers market a few weeks back.  Small spinach sprouts are on the bottom right and left of it is chervil, a lovely fern-like herb with a subtle licorice taste.  The lettuces are Red Cherokee, Black Seeded Simpson, Arugula and escarole (at top left.)

At my last house in Sydney, I had a large yard and planted a wonderful herb garden and a cutting flower garden.  I was lucky the yard was already adorned with a large mulberry tree.  Just when I thought I had a handle on gardening in Sydney's climate, we moved to Los Angeles, and I was going to be gardening in another climate altogether!

In the middle is komatsuna, a Japanese green that is slightly bitter and great in stir fries.

I found gardening in Southern California to be the easiest yet.  I remember enjoying loooong sunny days, not a lot of humidity, cooler nights and dry summers, wet winters.  As I lived in apartments without a yard, container gardening was the way to go.

The escarole did very well here in Southern Florida!

I had bought a dwarf Eureka lemon tree for a container and actually saw fruit!  My window boxes were so bountiful, colourful and beautiful that I actually sold them when I moved to Florida.  Each one had coleus, fragrant alyssum and the exotically gorgeous fuchsia, which attracted hummingbirds and one giant, black carpenter bee that I donned "Blackie."  Blackie would come by daily and would buzz about the yard haphazardly, like a drunken sailor.   I can actually say that I miss my Blackie here in Miami!

Just picked from my garden, this escarole was so crisp, fresh and sweet!

Southern California gardeners deal with the unforgiving Santa Ana winds, fire and lack of rain to an over abundance of rain at certain times of the year.  Still, it was my favorite place to garden and I used to love driving through Malibu to see the sides of the cliffs covered with nasturtium or vibrant pink or orange ice flowers.  And each Spring, The DJ and I would travel to Antelope Valley to see the wonderfully vast displays of bright orange poppies blanketing mile after mile of rolling hills!  It was truly a breath taking sight!

Peppermint and spearmint are contained in a pot in the ground to prevent from spreading.

I grew my garden here in Miami Beach with these considerations mind:  

It has to be something not easily attainable (like chervil, when's the last time you saw that in the store?) 

It has to be something that I use a lot but never that much of at the same time (like mint, it's expensive at $2.99 a bunch and I throw half of it away!) 

Or it has to be something that I could enjoy eating all of the time (fresh baby salad greens and tomatoes.)

An Italian classic:   white bean soup with escarole.  I like to add sliced, browned, spicy Italian sausage with mine.  Some say escarole is too bitter but straight from the garden, it's much more subtle in flavor.  Also, the escarole leaves stand up to cooking much better than spinach or even arugula.

Darlings, do YOU garden?  What grows best in your area?  And what challenges do you face?  Tell La Diva all about it!  Ciao for now!