Talking Turkey With Chef Ellie
Patch chats with the host of the web show, 'Cooking on the Block'
Thanksgiving is all about food. And who better to talk turkey with than Caldwell's own Chef Ellie? For those of you who don't know Ellie Esposito, she hosts a weekly online show, Cooking on the Block, at ChefEllieEspo.com. (She's also a chef at Tom the Green Grocer in Scotch Plains.) Here, Patch spoke with Esposito–whose first cookbook is at the printer–about her show and what she's doing for the Thanksgiving holiday. (Don't miss the recipes under the Q&A!)
Tell me about Cooking on the Block …
I'm blessed to live in such a beautiful neighborhood—people opened their arms to us when we moved from Bloomfield to Caldwell five years ago. You can walk to so many nice stores and shops. It definitely has a homey feel. And that's why my cooking show is called Cooking on the Block. Actually, my neighbor across the street helped to come up with the name. When I used to bake things, my husband, Anthony, would go across the street and say that I just made some cinnamon rolls and she just had to try them. When we started doing the videos, she said you should call it, Cooking on the Block.
My husband is a respiratory therapist, but he loves photography. He's the videographer for our show. We tape right in our kitchen. We're thinking of taking it on the road—into other people's houses—especially in the neighborhood. Then we're really cooking on the block!
Are you taping a show this week?
This is the busiest time of the year for me. The week before Thanksgiving I need to make over 600 pies. So probably not this week, but I usually try to do one video a week.
Last week's Sweet Potato Casserole is timely for Turkey Day …
And it's easy. Plus, if you don't have oven space on Thanksgiving, you can make it a day or two before and it'll be fine. Just reheat it. There's also a recipe for Thanksgiving pasta on my website; it's farfalle with butternut squash.
When did you become passionate about cooking and baking?
I come from a large Irish family—there were five of us kids. When my mom went back to work, I had to start dinner since I was the oldest girl. I peeled potatoes and put the roast in the oven, so while I did it to help, I found out that I loved it. It was a blessing in disguise. And I always baked with my mom, especially at Christmastime and the holidays. My aunt was a real good baker, too.
How did your hobby turn into a career?
I went to school to be a med tech, and did that for 10 years. That's where I met my husband, Anthony. But I always brought my cookies with me to any parties and into work. Then people starting asking me to bake them a tray of cookies for showers and whatever. Finally, I got a little tired of the med tech thing. My husband suggested we start a catering business. And I was like, oh, I don't know. But we did—and we did that for nine years … After the business closed, I went to work for Tom the Green Grocer. I've been there for 21 years.
Will you be a host or a guest this Thanksgiving?
I'll be a guest. I'm going to my sister's house. I got a pie request so that's what I have to bring—and I'm going to make my mom's chocolate cake—I have to bring it whenever there's a family function or I'll get booed out of the house. It's a straight-up chocolate cake—the kind you want to enjoy with a big glass of milk. My mom made it for us kids for every birthday.
What's your favorite Thanksgiving side dish?
I have to say a mix of roasted vegetables–brussels sprouts with peppers and butternut squash, red bliss potatoes, and sweet potatoes roasted with shallots and at the end I drizzle a balsamic reduction over them. They're soooo good. They're really easy, too. You just coat the veggies with olive oil, salt and pepper, put them on a sheet pan and roast them in the oven. When done, mix them together and pour the balsamic reduction over it.
For a twist on a traditional side, I also like mashed sweet potatoes with chipotle and maple syrup and a little chopped cilantro. That's really good, too.
How would you decorate a holiday table?
I had a neighborhood party a few weeks ago to thank friends and neighbors for supporting my videos. I served seasonal appetizers. The whole table was fall-themed: I hollowed out an acorn squash and filled it with a cheddar ale spread that I had made, and then I made homemade fennel breadsticks to go with it. I also hollowed a pumpkin and filled it with an arugula dip and served homemade focaccia with it. Little things like that make a big difference.
What's next for you?
My cookbook, Cooking on the Block, is coming out pretty soon. It's at the printer now. It will be available on Amazon.com, plus we'll have copies on hand at book signings in the area. We were hoping to have the book out by Christmas, but it's probably not going to happen. But we're still really excited.
Medium: Culinary arts
Influences: Family, friends and travels
TWO THANKSGIVING RECIPES FROM CHEF ELLIE
Thanksgiving Sweet Potato Casserole
Makes one 9 x 12 casserole
3-4 sweet potatoes, thinly sliced
2 leeks, thinly sliced
2 slices pancetta, diced
1 oz porcini mushrooms, reconstituted, save the liquid
1 1/2 cups of grated cheese, combination of parmesan, cheddar, Jarlsberg etc.
3 cups milk
4 T butter
4 pinches nutmeg
salt and pepper
4 T flour
Begin by rendering the pancetta and place in a bowl. In the same saute pan, wilt the leeks and then add the chopped porcini mushrooms. Meanwhile, heat the milk on the stove with one clove of sliced garlic.
Butter the casserole dish and lay the potato slices to cover the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle with some of the flour. Sprinkle some of your leek, porcini and pancetta mixture. Season with salt and pepper and nutmeg then sprinkle with some of the cheese. Dot with some of the butter. Repeat the layering process. Ending with potatoes and cheese.
Pour the scalded milk over the casserole. Then place on a baking sheet. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Let the casserole rest for about 20 minutes. It may be made a day ahead and reheated.
2 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed into small pieces
1 shallot, diced
1 bag of spinach
½ cup of reconstituted porcini mushrooms (reserve a ¼ cup of the soaking liquid from the mushrooms)
1 cup of chicken stock
¼ cup of cream
salt and pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 lb. of farfalle cooked al dente
Coat the butternut squash with olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast the squash for approximately 20 to 30 minutes until it is nicely browned and set aside.
In a saute pan, brown the shallots in olive oil and add the spinach then cook until wilted. Add the porcini mushrooms and season with salt and pepper then add the butternut squash. Add the porcini mushroom liquid, chicken stock and cook for about 6 to 7 minutes. Then add the cream and reduce for another 5 minutes. Toss with the pasta and sprinkle with parmegiano reggiano.