Zucchini “Lasagna”

So, as I may have mentioned before, I’m not much of a gardener. I have a tiny plot behind my house that we plant tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini each year hoping we’ll get a harvest. The problem is that no one in my house (including me) wants to do the work of taking care of the garden — so it gets weedy, overgrown, and just plain unruly.

Dan’s Garden September 2018

The thing is that every year we dutifully weed the bed, hand-till it, compost it, plant it, water it… and forget-about-it! Still every year we seem to get at least some produce from the untended mess of plants — so every year we vow to do better at tending and cultivating our micro-farm. This year we planted late (again) and dealt with the early summer drought (and the lack of human attention) to gain several dozen really beautiful tomatoes, zero peppers, and about eight overgrown zucchini… I mean the giant, monster squash that comes from checking the garden only once every two weeks.

With all that being said, I still like to find a way of using these overgrown summer staples.

Which brings me to today’s post Zucchini “Lasagna.” This past week I’ve had four giant zucchini taking up room on my kitchen counter and I needed to do something with them. So I tried to pass them on… but most people I know around here have their own zucchini to bestow on others, so it was up to me.

I wanted to make something with sauce and cheese, so I decided to make a “lasagna” with my zucchini. I like the idea of baking the zucchini with ricotta and mozzarella layers to hold it together — my family voted for a ground beef layer, so I made the zucchini “lasagna” in the same fashion as traditional lasagna at Lista’s Italian Cuisine (see my post Lasagna Bolognese? from July 27, 2017). After slicing the zucchini, I layered it with sauce, ricotta cheese, meat sauce, and lots of mozzarella and Romano cheeses. Then baked it for about 90 minutes — let it set for another 30 minutes and topped it with a little more sauce and a sprinkle of grated Romano. Delizioso!

Please Note: my zucchini lasagna was a bit of a fail for me. It came out very watery after it was baked (you can see it in the last photo above). The problem was I didn’t slice the zucchini thin enough and I didn’t take time to prep the zucchini “noodles” with salt or heat to dry them out. After I let it rest for 30 minutes before serving, the moisture accumulated in the pan and I was able to lift out a slice and then carefully drain much of the water out of the pan (I did this 2-3 times while serving) so the servings held up nicely and the extra moisture was minimized. And overall it was very tasty and my family enjoyed it.

So after the fact I did a little reading and found some tips to avoid the moisture problem: 1. Slice your zucchini very thin (use a mandolin slicer) perhaps lengthwise… and layer the sliced zucchini on a double thickness of paper towels and lightly salt it (salt draws out moisture) and let it sit for several minutes. Then pat the slices dry with more paper towels before assembling the lasagna.
2. Another method is to bake the thinly sliced zucchini (with or without salting it) in the oven to dry it out before making the lasagna.
3. I read one recipe where the author added some dry quinoa to the bottom of the pan which will absorb some of the moisture. This method is appealing to me since I prefer not to use salt.

If, like me, you typically cook by experimentation then give one of the methods a try… or maybe you’ll discover your own way of avoiding the excess moisture.

Dan’s Zucchini “Lasagna”

Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 60-90 minutes
Rest time: 30 minutes

Serves: 8-12

2 extra large or 4 small Zucchini – sliced thin
1 lb. Ground Beef
1/2 med Onion – finely chopped
1/2 cup Seasoned Bread Crumbs (optional)
16 oz. Ricotta Cheese
2 Eggs
1 TBSP Dry Parsley Flakes
1 cup Grated Romano Cheese – divided
2 cups Shredded Mozzarella Cheese
4-6 cups Prepared Pasta Sauce – divided
Salt and Black Pepper – to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the rack in the center. Coat a 9×13 baking pan with cooking spray (like Pam).
2. Slice the zucchini very thin and remove some of the moisture using one of the methods mentioned above — or wing it like I did.
3. In a skillet, brown the ground beef and chopped onion over med-high heat until no longer pink. Drain and return to pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add bread crumbs and 2 cups prepared sauce and stir to combine. Set aside.
4. In a medium bowl scramble the eggs, dry parsley, and 1/2 cup Romano together, stir in the ricotta cheese until thoroughly combined. Season with black pepper and set aside.
5. Layer the “lasagna” in the baking pan as follows: Spread one cup prepared sauce in the bottom of the baking pan. Layer sliced zucchini overlapping as needed to cover the bottom of pan. Spread the meat sauce mixture evenly over the zucchini, and sprinkle evenly with about 2/3 cup mozzarella. Add another layer of zucchini. Spread the ricotta cheese mixture evenly over top, and sprinkle another 2/3 cup mozzarella over the ricotta. Top with another layer of zucchini, spread the last cup prepared sauce over that and sprinkle the last 2/3 cup mozzarella over that. With your hand, press down the “lasagna” layers to make sure there are no air gaps.
6. Bake the “lasagna” uncovered in heated oven for 60-90 minutes until hot and bubbly and center reaches 180 F with a thermometer. Cover loosely with foil during last half of cooking if top gets too brown.
7. Remove from oven and allow to rest about 30 minutes before serving.
8. Cut “lasagna” portions with a sharp knife and lift out with a spatula. Top with additional pasta sauce and grated Romano cheese if desired.

There you have it, my Zucchini “Lasagna” — a great way to use up those giant zucchinis in your garden (or the ones your friend tries to pawn off on you). This recipe would work just as well with yellow summer squash, eggplant, or a combination.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Salmon Patties with Quick Remoulade


Like many people, my family has enjoyed salmon as a regular part of our dinner menu for quite some time. Salmon has grown in popularity over the years due to its availability, sustainability, and nutritional value. A great tasting source of high quality protein and loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is one of the best choices when seeking a fish protein for your plate.

Now that my household is down to just two of us, we occasionally have some leftover cooked salmon in the refrigerator. When this happens I try to find an alternative way to serve the seconds. (It should be noted that leftover cooked fish should be eaten within 3 days.) One way I use up leftover salmon is to serve it cold over a tossed green salad with a nice lemon based vinaigrette. Sometimes I use the leftover salmon in a creamy fish chowder or add it to a coconut milk curry.

But recently I had some leftover grilled salmon in the fridge and decided to take a walk down memory lane and mixed up some delicious Salmon Patties just like my Dad, Vinnie Lista, did when I was a kid.

I can’t recall ever seeing grilled salmon on the menu at Lista’s Italian Cuisine… but I definitely remember my Dad making these Salmon Patties at home using canned salmon. In those days there were some lean times and canned salmon was a frugal way to feed our family of seven. Still we didn’t think of it as a cheap meal… to us Salmon Patties were a treat (of course anything fried was a treat for us kids). And all the more fun when the patties were topped with American cheese and served on a hamburg bun!

I pan fried my Salmon Patties and served them with a quick Remoulade sauce. The result was moist, crispy, light tasting Salmon Patties that paired perfectly with the tangy, sharp Remoulade Sauce on the side. Although I used leftover fresh salmon that I had grilled; these Salmon Patties can be made “old school” with canned salmon, but I suggest you splurge for the boneless-skinless variety — or be sure to carefully remove the skin and bones before making this recipe.

Dan’s Salmon Patties

Prep time:  15 minutes
Cook time:  15 minutes
Makes:  6-8 patties

14 oz Cooked Salmon (leftover or canned)
1/2 cup Vidalia Onion – minced
1/2 cup Dry Bread Crumbs (regular, panko or Gluten Free)
1 Egg – beaten
2 TBSP Mayonnaise
1 TBSP Chopped Parsley
1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper (optional)
Salt & Black Pepper – to taste
1/4 cup Canola Oil – more as needed

1. Remove skin from the cooked salmon and crumble fish into a large mixing bowl (if using canned salmon pick out the skin and bones).
2. Add the minced onion, bread crumbs, eggs, mayonnaise, parsley and cayenne to the salmon and gently mix until fully combined. Season with salt and pepper if desired (this may depend on what seasoning was already on the salmon).
3. Using about 1/2 cup of salmon mixture, form into patties about 3 inches wide x 3/4 inch high. Set patties on a plate and refrigerate until ready to pan fry.
4. Heat skillet on med-high, add 1/4 cup oil and swirl to coat pan. When the oil is shimmering, carefully place salmon patties in hot oil about 1 inch apart (do not crowd pan – cook in batches if needed) and cook undisturbed about 4-5 minutes until deep brown crust forms.
5. Using a spatula/turner gently flip the patties and cook undisturbed on the other side for another 4-5 minutes.
6. Remove cooked patties from pan and place on a paper towel lined plate until ready to serve (keep warm if cooking another batch). Serve with Quick Remoulade Sauce on side.

If you are not familiar with Remoulade Sauce, it is a mayonnaise based sauce similar to the more well-known “tartar sauce” but with elevated ingredients and a distinct sharpness that goes really well with fish and seafood. Most recipes call for a crunchy element such as chopped celery, capers, or cornichons (pickles). For this “quick” version I just used what I had on hand – so I chose to minced up a dill pickle. A grainy mustard is best in this recipe, but any sharp flavor mustard will work such as creole, spicy brown or Dijon. Some people say adding horseradish is a must, but I didn’t use it for this recipe.

Dan’s Quick Remoulade

Prep time:  5 minutes
Makes:  about 1 cup

1 cup Heavy Mayonnaise (such as Hellman’s)
2 TBSP finely chopped Dill Pickle
2 TBSP Ketchup
1 TBSP Grainy Style Mustard (or other sharp mustard)
1 TBSP Worcestershire Sauce
1 tsp Lemon Juice
1 dash Hot Pepper Sauce (like Tabasco)

1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

There you have it, Salmon Patties with Quick Remoulade sauce. A great way to use up leftover cooked Salmon. This recipe also makes a great appetizer if you form small patties (about the size of a silver dollar). I hope you enjoy this economical and delicious “old school” way to cook Salmon.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!” 

Dan’s BBQ Spareribs

Summer time is a great time to enjoy foods that are not only tasty but fun to eat. Ice cream, corn on the cob, hots dogs, potato salad, strawberry shortcake, and of course all the wonderful grilled foods we love — chicken, steaks, kabobs… and BBQ Spareribs!

BBQ Spareribs are one of those foods that I only make in the summer. Maybe because the local market brings the price down at that time, or maybe because it’s more fun to eat with your hands when your sitting at a picnic table. Whatever the reason, I definitely like some ribs during those dog days

With the plentiful BBQ restaurants around town, I do get to enjoy some Spareribs more often that just in the summer — but nothing compares to the Spareribs that come off my own backyard grill. I think my Spareribs are the best (of course I think everything I cook is the best).

If you’re going to make Spareribs at home you have to start with the right cut of pork. When I make Spareribs at home I like to start out with a full slab of spareribs. This means the whole bottom portion of ribs that has not been trimmed or cut into what’s known as “St. Louis style” ribs. I choose the whole slab for two reasons, first it’s the most economical (you can find packages of whole uncut ribs for a great price at many stores) and second I believe the flavor is better when you start with the whole slab because you get all the fat and bones which is where the flavor lives. Personally I also don’t bother with the more expensive “baby back” ribs — and although I do like what’s known as “country style” ribs, for barbecuing nothing beats the good ole Spareribs.

Here’s a quick rib pictorial I found on the internet:
1. Full slab spareribs (my preference)
2. St. Louis Style spareribs
3. Baby Back ribs
4. Country Style ribs


Okay, now that you get the picture (pun intended) the next important step in making great Spareribs is the seasoning or “rub.” You can try the different ones you find in the grocery stores or you can do a bunch of research online for the “prize winning” rubs — but what I find is most people have the ingredients for a great rib rub in their spice pantry and you can whip it up in no time at home.

Dan’s Basic Pork & Rib Rub

2 TBSP Paprika (regular)
1 TBSP Salt
1 TBSP Black Pepper
1 TBSP Chili Powder
2 tsp Smoked Paprika
2 tsp Ground Cumin
2 tsp Onion Powder
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1/4 cup Brown Sugar (optional)

1. In a small mixing bowl whisk together all ingredients until fully combined. Rub into all sides of meat before cooking. I make my rub sugar free but if you like a sweet rub then add the brown sugar. Store extra rub in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to one month. Makes about 1/2 cup rub enough for one full slab; double or triple the recipe if making more ribs.

Now that you’ve picked out your ribs and made your “rub” you’re ready to get cooking. Here is my favorite way to prepare fall-off-the-bone tender Spareribs that will be the highlight of your next cookout. This method uses the oven to get that “low ‘n’ slow” tenderness that is usually found in smokehouse barbecue. Using the oven also makes it so you spend less time standing over the grill. 

Dan’s BBQ Spareribs

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 2 1/2 hours in oven, 30 minutes on grill
Serves: 4-6 

1 full slab Pork Spareribs (about 6 pounds)

1 batch Rib Rub (about 1/2 cup)
1 cup Prepared BBQ Sauce + 1 cup Water
Parchment Paper
Aluminum Foil

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F and set rack in center.
2. Remove ribs from packaging, rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Turn ribs bone side up and remove the membrane covering the bones: Use a sharp knife to lift a corner of the membrane and then using a paper towel, grip the membrane and firmly and evenly pull it off. If it doesn’t come off in one sheet then do the process again with the rest.
4. On the counter lay out a double thickness of aluminum foil big enough to completely envelope the ribs – topped this with a double thickness of parchment paper.
5. Place the ribs meaty side up on foil/parchment and generously coat with rib rub. Turn over and coat the bone side.
6. Starting with the parchment paper, fold the paper over the ribs to completely seal them in. Then bring the foil up over the paper and completely seal the package by crimping the seams of foil.
7. On a rimmed baking sheet, lay the foil wrapped ribs seam side (bone side) down and bake in the preheated oven for 2 1/2 hours. (Ribs should be cooked to at least 185 degrees F internally.)
8. Remove pan from oven and carefully open the foil/paper packet (their may be a lot of juice so be careful). Allow the ribs to rest at least 30 minutes or refrigerate over night.
9. Heat an outdoor grill to medium-high.
10. Mix 1 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce with 1 cup water in a small bowl.
11. Cut the cooled (or refrigerated) ribs into 4 sections. Grill the ribs, turning frequently and 
using a brush baste the ribs  with sauce after each turn. Cook until ribs are glazed and nicely browned and heated through.
12. Serve the BBQ Ribs as is or with additional sauce.

So there you have it, my favorite summer time BBQ Spareribs. If you haven’t attempted spareribs at home — give this method a try and I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results. Tender, meaty, and so delicious. Perfect for those Holiday cookouts, family picnics, graduation parties, or any other summer time get together. 

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Chicken Oregano with Potatoes

Once again life in my world has been busy and unfortunately one of the things that gets set aside is my blogging. So I’m finally publishing this post that I started writing last month… thanks for your patience and thanks for reading!

June is one of those months where the weather can be so unpredictable… oh wait, that’s pretty much every month in Rochester NY. But seriously, I had some bone-in chicken quarters that I wanted to barbecue and then it rained and rained and rained — so I had to change plans (because I only grill in fair weather).

While looking at the cut up chicken on my counter, it reminded me of the years that Lista’s Italian Cuisine was one of the few full service restaurants around Brockport that also did catering. My Dad did a lot of catered events when the restaurant was in business. Everything from weddings, graduations, and corporate events to small affairs in private homes. And not everything was strictly Italian food.

Dad was well known for his catering skills and was called on often to create memorable buffets filled with hors d’oeuvres, salads, antipasto trays, carved meats, and of course Lista’s famous pasta dishes. Dad’s roast turkey, ham and prime rib were outstanding… and his attention to detail when garnishing his trays was second to none.


(This photo taken in June 1975 is from one of the catered events at Lista’s.)

One story I like to tell is how Dad would take potato or macaroni salad and mound it up on a serving tray then use heavy mayonnaise to “frost” the whole thing — then using mayo mixed with food coloring, he would fill a pastry bag and pipe on decorations just like a fancy wedding cake. It was pretty impressive!

Of course not everything was that labor intensive, in the years between 1960 and 1980 there was a very common buffet served at every party house and catering restaurant around town — I referred to it as the “Rochester Buffet” and it consisted of: Roast Beef au jus (sometimes hand-carved), Herb Roasted Chicken, Baked Ziti, Roasted Tiny Potatoes (sometimes called rissole potatoes), cooked Vegetables (usually green beans amandine or California blend), Tossed Salad, Dinner Rolls… and sometimes a big bowl of Fruited Jello!

Many wedding receptions during those years had that same buffet no matter where you went. Still I fondly remember how much I loved that herb roasted chicken (with garlic, lemon and oregano) and those tiny rissole potatoes (crisp outside and creamy on the inside) my Dad would make for those catered events.

So since it was raining and I wouldn’t grill outside, and I wanted to avoid turning on the oven and heating up the house… after all it was June! Instead I transformed the ingredients I had on hand into a delicious Chicken Oregano with Potatoes one pan meal that reminded me of those favorites from my past.

Chicken Oregano with Potatoes

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40-60 minutes
Serves: 4-6

3 lbs Chicken on the bone (Leg Quarters, Thighs or Whole cut-up)
1 1/2 lbs Red Potatoes (about 6 large) – roughly the same size, scrubbed
1/ 4 cup Olive Oil – divided
2 Fresh Lemons – one quartered, one sliced
8 cloves Fresh Garlic – roughly chopped
1/4 cup Fresh Oregano Leaves or 2 TBSP Dry Oregano
1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
Salt and Pepper – to taste

1. Trim chicken pieces of excess fat, rinse and pat dry with paper towels. If using leg quarters, separate at joint between drumstick and thigh. If using a whole chicken cut into 8-10 pieces (i.e. 2 wings, 2 drums, 2 thighs, 2 breast pieces – halved if large). Season both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Scrub red potatoes and remove any “eyes” or blemishes with a paring knife. Cut potatoes in half. Set aside.
3. Heat a very large (12″-14″) deep-sided skillet or dutch oven over med-high heat. Add 2 TBSP olive oil, swirl to coat pan, and the chicken pieces – skin side down. Cook undisturbed for 8-10 minutes until fat starts to render and a nice brown crust begins to form. Turn over and cook undisturbed for another 8-10 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and pour off excess fat/oil from pan.
4. In the same pan 
over med-high heat, add the remaining olive oil, sprinkle in the crushed red pepper flakes, and chopped garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant – about 5 minutes. Add chicken pieces back to the pan and arrange the potatoes, cut side down, around the chicken. Add the oregano and lemon slices (reserve quartered lemon) evenly over the chicken and potatoes. Allow to cook undisturbed for 10 minutes.
5. After 10 minutes, turn the potatoes and chicken pieces and redistribute so everything rests on the bottom of pan. Squeeze the lemon wedges over the chicken and potatoes. Season with a little more salt and pepper. Allow to cook for another 10-15 minutes until potatoes are tender and chicken is cooked through (165 degrees) and juices run clear.
6. Remove pan from heat and allow chicken and potatoes to rest 5 minutes. Gently lift portions of chicken and potatoes with a spatula (to preserve the brown crust) and serve with your favorite vegetable or green salad.

There you have it, my Chicken Oregano with Potatoes — a delicious meal that is simple to prepare and cook in one pan — that reminds me of my Dad’s catering days. Keeping with the “Rochester Buffet” theme, I served the chicken and potatoes with some California Blend vegetables (broccoli,  cauliflower and carrots) but it goes great with any fresh or frozen vegetable or a nice green salad. If you like the bright taste of fresh lemon, go ahead and squeeze a little over the chicken and potatoes just before serving. I hope you find a chance to make this dish… maybe on the next rainy day in Rochester.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Quinoa Patties

Quinoa is one of those nutritionally dense super foods that you either love; hate, or have never tried. A few years ago, quinoa came onto the culinary scene in a big way and is now found everywhere and in everything from appetizers to desserts.

Quinoa (pronounced “Keen-wah” not “kin-no-wa” as my mom says) is a flowering plant with edible seeds originally found in the Andean region of South America. Although the seeds have been cultivated and grown as a grain crop for thousands of years it has only been grown in the USA since 1983.

As a crop, quinoa is not a true cereal grass like wheat, corn, rice and oats — but is a non-grass pseudo-cereal like buckwheat and amaranth and is gluten free. Nutritionally quinoa’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the only plant based food that provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a source of complete protein (perfect for vegetarian and vegan diets).

You can find quinoa in almost any grocery store in white, red or black varieties, as well as, packaged blends and mixes. There is even quinoa flour for gluten free baking.

For the novice, it is important to note that quinoa seeds have a natural pest deterrent coating that contains bitter tasting saponins. Most commercially processed quinoa have been treated to remove this coating but it can still taste bitter unless you thoroughly rinse the seeds before cooking. Another trick is to lightly toast the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they just start to brown and get a nice toasty aroma — then cook in boiling water per package directions (my son swears by this method).

My own journey with quinoa started a few years back while attempting to find the right diet to combat my wife’s many food sensitivities. Because of her needs, our family stopped eating food containing gluten, yeast, dairy, sugars, and starchy foods like potatoes, corn, and rice. So it was suggested we try quinoa as a substitute for grains and potatoes. Before that time I had never eaten quinoa and really only heard of it as a “health food.”

Since then, I have made quinoa a regular part of our weekly menu and have used it in dozens of recipes. Quinoa can be a great gluten free replacement for breadcrumbs in meatloaf or meatballs — or a stand-in for rice in casseroles and stuffed peppers. Cooked in water or broth quinoa makes a delicious side for entrees and can be served under ragouts or braised items instead of rice or couscous. I’ve even used quinoa instead of bulgar to make a passable tabbouleh salad.

However, my favorite way to enjoy quinoa is to make these wonderful pan-fried patties as a side dish. Similar to a latke (potato pancake) or fritter, these quinoa patties are crispy on the outside and tender and savory on the inside. They are a perfect addition to grilled meats or broiled fish or can stand alone as a light meal alongside a green salad.

Dan’s Quinoa Patties

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Serves: makes 10-12 patties

3 cups Cooked Quinoa – cooled to room temp
1 (10 oz) pkg Frozen Chopped Spinach – thawed & squeezed out
1/2 cup Finely Chopped Sweet Onion (like Vidalia)
3 Whole Eggs – beaten
1/4 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
2 TBS Flour (regular or gluten free)
1 tsp Italian Herb Seasoning
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Garlic Powder
1/4 tsp Black Pepper
Olive Oil as needed for pan frying

1. Cook 1 cup quinoa in 2 cups water or broth per package directions (about 15 minutes). Pour cooked quinoa onto a large plate, spread out and let cool to room temperature.
2. Thaw frozen chopped spinach (use the microwave) and place in a strainer and squeeze as much water out as possible.
In a large mixing bowl combine the Italian seasoning, salt, garlic, pepper and flour – whisk together. Add cooled quinoa, spinach, chopped onion, eggs, and Parmesan cheese to the bowl and combine thoroughly. Using about 3/4 cup of quinoa mixture hand-form 10-12 small patties 3″ round x 1/2″ thick.
4. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add 2 TBS olive oil to hot pan and swirl to coat, lay patties in the pan about 1/2″ apart (cook in batches if needed). Cook patties undisturbed for about 6-8 minutes. Turn over and press down slightly with a spatula. Allow to cook undisturbed for another 5-6 minutes until patties are deep brown, crisp outside, and firm in the middle. Remove from pan and place on parchment lined plate and keep warm until all patties are done and ready to serve.
5. Serve the patties alone or as a side dish (they are really good topped with a little Greek yogurt or sour cream mixed with some sriracha sauce).

There you have it, my recipe for Quinoa Patties. A great protein packed, nutrient dense, and delicious addition to your next meal. I have used grated zucchini, or finely chopped broccoli instead of the spinach… and even grated carrot or sweet potato for a brighter taste. I hope you enjoy this recipe and if you haven’t tried quinoa yet — give it a chance and I think you’ll learn to really enjoy this versatile “super food.”


Happy Father’s Day to any of my readers that are dads. I’m forever grateful for my dad, Vinnie Lista, who was a strong influence in my life especially teaching me to appreciate great food and giving me the experience and skills to create and cook the great recipes I feature on this blog.  Thanks Dad… you are always in my heart.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”


Spiedo (no not the skimpy swimsuit) the Italian word meaning “spit” (like cooking over a fire) is the root of the name spiedies — a marinated and grilled meat dish created in the Binghamton NY area. This dish is so popular that thousands of visitors have flocked to Binghamton for the annual Spiedie Fest & Balloon Rally for more than 30 years.

Based on the Italian dish spiedini or spidducci (in Abruzzo) which is made with cubes or balls of goat or sheep meat flame grilled on skewers. Spiedies came to Central New York through Italian immigrants who created the local dish in the 1920’s. Growing increasingly popular between the 1950’s and 80’s this grilled meat on a stick has become a regional favorite. Originally made with marinated lamb or beef, today’s spiedies are predominantly chicken or pork — while some home chefs like to use venison. Whatever meat is used, the real secret to a great spiedie is the marinade — a closely guarded secret for some of the Binghamton area’s more prominent spiedie producers. 

A combination of oil, vinegar, lemon, salt, spices, and herbs are used to marinate the meat from 1 to 3 days before skewering and grilling over charcoal. Although the formulation varies, a true spiedie marinade will feature basil, oregano and mint. Like many regional foods there are the originals, the close to authentic, and the poor knock-offs. When it comes to spiedies any recipe made with bottled Italian salad dressing is not the real deal… so stay away.

Marinating the spiedies is easy using a zip-top freezer bag — put the meat cubes and marinade in the bag; smoosh it around a little bit to make sure it’s all coated, press out the extra air and seal. Then refrigerate overnight and until ready to grill. You should wait until you’re ready to grill before putting the marinated meat on skewer. Of course if you want to take the spiedies to a picnic and grill them there, make up the skewers and wrap them in plastic wrap, keep them on ice until you arrive at your destination then get grilling.

My personal favorite recipe is below and I prefer pork spiedies (just because I do) but chicken, beef, lamb or venison all work equally as well. Traditionalists will serve the spiedies on a thick slice of soft Italian bread (using the bread to pull the meat off the skewer). A good Italian sub roll works great or even a hot dog bun in a pinch. Of course you can eat the spiedie right off the spit or serve it over some rice or noodles if you want.

However you make it give spiedies a try at your next cook-out… you’ll be glad you did!

Dan’s Pork Spiedies

Prep time: 15 minutes + 1-3 days marinating time
Cook time: 20 minutes grill time
Serves: about 6 skewers

2 lbs. Lean Pork Shoulder or Loin – trimmed of excess fat
1 cup Olive Oil
1/4 cup White Vinegar (cider or red wine can be used)
1/4 cup Lemon Juice (bottled is fine)
2 cloves Fresh Garlic – pressed or finely minced
1 TBSP Dry Basil
1 TBSP Dry Mint
1 tsp Dry Oregano
1/2 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
6 Bamboo Skewers – soaked in water for 30 minutes
6 thick slices Italian Bread or Mini Sub Rolls (optional)

1. Trim and cut pork into 1 inch cubes and place in a gallon size zip-top bag.
2. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, minced garlic, basil, mint, oregano, salt and pepper — set 1/2 cup marinade aside and keep in refrigerator until ready to use.
3. Pour remaining marinade over the pork in bag and seal. Massage the bag to ensure all the meat cubes are coated with marinade. Loosen one side of seal and squeeze out the excess air, reseal and refrigerate overnight or longer. Turn bag every so often if possible.
4. Preheat grill to med-high (charcoal should be ashed over — gas grill should be at 400 degrees).
5. When ready to cook, thread marinated pork cubes onto soaked bamboo skewers (about 6-8 pieces per skewer) until all pork cubes are used. Place spiedies on the hot grill and cook until all sides are slightly charred and meat is thoroughly cooked (reaches a temp of at least 165 degrees) about 20 minutes total.
6. To serve, place one grilled spiedie on a slice of bread and while gripping the meat, pull the skewer out leaving the meat cubes in the bread. Drizzle with some of the reserved marinade if desired.

There you have it my take on the Central New York favorite, Spiedies. Allowing the meat to marinate for at least 24 hours brings the true essence of the original spiedie to the dish. Grilling over charcoal is best but a propane grill is just fine — oven roasting can’t get the same flavor so don’t bother. Serve your spiedies on some good Italian bread as a sandwich or over rice. Drizzle some fresh marinade over the meat when serving, or add some grilled hot peppers or a dash of hot sauce if you want to spice it up. Give this regional favorite a try and I think you’ll make them again and again.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

Remembering Falafel

Enjoying lunch with a good friend this week at one of the many local diners, I ordered a Greek salad consisting of: lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, pepper, kalamata olives, feta cheese and grilled marinated chicken breast. It was a good salad and one of my usual lunch choices — but that salad got me thinking about another favorite food from the Mediterranean: Falafel!


So, taking a departure from my usual reminiscing about Lista’s Italian Cuisine, my family’s Italian-American restaurant — today I wanted to feature this culinary staple from that Middle East/Mediterranean region.

Falafel is not just a popular New York street food, it is one of the most popular foods in the Middle East and a national dish of Israel. I first encountered falafel (and Middle Eastern foods in general) on a trip I took to Israel in 1990. About the second day of my week long tour of the Holy Land, my group stopped in a street market for lunch and I had my first falafel from a cart vendor. I remember the man using a common box cutter to slice the top quarter from a pita pocket and stuff in three walnut sized falafel, followed by “salad” consisting of chopped cucumber, tomato, green pepper, and onion — then a squeeze of tahini (sesame seed paste) sauce, and as requested a squeeze of “charif” (hot sauce)… and finally a handful of french fries stuffed on top. After eating the fries, I got down to business and took my first bite of the falafel and I was instantly hooked on this amazingly delicious regional food. 

Most recipes for falafel are made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans) with spices and herbs, however, my favorite local Mediterranean restaurant makes their falafel using chickpeas and fava beans. I wondered about this combination and after doing some research found that due to Favism (a genetic enzyme deficiency found in some people of the Middle East and North Africa) the use of fava beans caused sickness and was mostly discontinued and replaced with the chickpea. This local restaurant also adds sesame seeds to their falafel which I really like for the added texture.

Unlike many other sandwiches or hand-held foods, falafel is one that isn’t generally tried at home. Admittedly, I hadn’t made my own falafel before coming up with the recipe featured here. Most authentic recipes call for dry chick peas that are soaked overnight and then mashed or ground… this seemed too much work to me since there were cans of chick peas in my pantry. Also, falafel is typically deep-fried — and as I’ve mentioned a few other times, I prefer not to deep-fry in my home (it’s messy). So I did a lot of reading and set out to make my home-made falafel with the convenience of canned beans and pan frying. Needless to say I had a few failures before I found the right ingredients and method to make a falafel that taste great and can be made the day I crave it.

That is not to say that making falafel isn’t time and labor intensive, because it can be. But these are a few tricks that I found to help me get really good results. First, I opened two cans of chick peas and drained them in a strainer, then placed them on a paper towel lined platter and allowed them to air-dry for a couple hours (I found this step helps with the texture of the finished product). Next, I got all my other ingredients out and put them close at hand (as the French say, “mis en place” — everything in its place). Finally, when I cooked the falafel I used a six inch frying pan with about 1/2 inch of oil to shallow fry them in batches. I chose to use canola oil for frying and I used a one ounce cookie scoop to portion the falafel — which I flattened slightly into disks that were roughly 1 1/2 inches across and 3/4 inch high.

[Please note that this recipe is not vegan since the recipe includes an egg to help keep the falafel together — the recipe also calls for some flour but I used King Arthur Gluten Free All Purpose flour with great results.]

I served the falafel with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion — and topped them with tahini sauce and charif sauce (see below). The results were delicious and we ate every last one.

Dan’s Falafel

Prep time: 30 minutes + 1-2 hours air-drying chick peas
Cook time: 30-40 minutes
Makes: 16-20 depending on size

1 1/2 cans Chick Peas (about 2 cups) – drained & air-dried
1 cup Loosely Packed Fresh Parsley (stems removed)
1/2 cup Yellow Onion – roughly chopped
2-3 cloves Fresh Garlic – roughly chopped
2 TBSP Sesame Seeds (optional)
2 TBSP All Purpose Flour (regular or Gluten Free)
1 Whole Egg
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Ground Coriander
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1/4 tsp Salt (or to taste)
Oil for Frying – as needed

1. Drain the chick peas and spread about 2 cups on a paper towel lined platter/tray and allow to air-dry for 1-2 hours.
2. Meanwhile chop onion, garlic and parsley and add to the bowl of a food processor – pulse until finely chopped (scraping bowl as needed). Empty into a mixing bowl.
3. Add sesame seeds, flour, egg, cumin, coriander, baking soda, cayenne and salt to parsley/onion mixture and combine thoroughly. Set aside.
4. Add 1/2 the chick peas to food processor and pulse until finely ground but not a paste. Add to mixing bowl. Pulse remaining chick peas until coarsely ground (for texture) and add to mixing bowl. Mix ingredients together until everything becomes cohesive (sticks together). Place in refrigerator until ready to pan fry.
5. In a small (6 inch) frying pan, heat about 1/2 inch of oil (I used Canola) over med-high heat until shimmering.
NOTE: at this point you need to test the mixture by frying one falafel first — if it starts to fall apart in oil then add 1-2 more TBSP flour to mixture and try again.
6. Using approx. 2 TBSP falafel mixture, form 16 to 20 walnut sized balls. Gently place 4-5 balls into hot oil and flatten slightly with a fork into disks about 1 1/2 inches round by 3/4 inch thick. Allow to fry undisturbed for 5 minutes and turn over and fry for another 3 minutes.  Falafel should be dark brown and crispy outside. Continue frying falafel in batches and drain on paper towel lined plate.
7. Serve falafel in warm pita pockets with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion. Drizzled with tahini sauce and/or charif (hot) sauce. Enjoy!

To make Tahini Sauce:  In a small bowl whisk together 1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) with 1/4 cup water, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp olive oil, and a pinch of salt. 

To make Charif (hot) Sauce:  In a blender combine a can of diced tomatoes (drained), 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 cloves garlic, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp salt, and 1 or 2 tsp cayenne pepper. Blend until smooth.

There you have it, my version of Falafel that I think taste wonderful and are fairly quick and easy to prepare. These are good stuffed into a pita for the traditional street food experience, or on top of a simple Mediterranean style salad, or as an appetizer served with dipping sauce (tahini sauce, charif sauce, tzatziki (yogurt sauce) or even ranch dressing). With a little patience and practice I think you’ll find great results from these recipes.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”