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Ileana Morales Valentine, Times Correspondent

Ileana Morales Valentine

Ileana Morales Valentine writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section. She also blogs at


  1. For easy holiday entertaining, assemble your own cheese and charcuterie boards


    Picturing the oncoming whirlwind of food that is the next couple of weeks, I closed my eyes and wondered what Ina Garten, the queen of easy, breezy entertaining, would do.

    She would probably work on her cheese and charcuterie game.

    Cheese and charcuterie boards are prevalent on local menus, but they're also the perfect appetizer to serve at home this holiday season. While friends and family await dinner, a cheese board will keep them happy until the big meal. Or, for a holiday gathering, these beautifully composed platters can even serve as the evening's main event. They're fun, festive and easy. And they don't require an oven....

    You needn’t be fancy when it comes to your cheese and charcuterie display. For simplicity, consider placing the goodies on a piece of paper and labeling them.
  2. In Our Kitchen: Recipe for Spiced Pepita Brittle


    I'm still rolling my eyes at all the things that are bizarrely pumpkin spiced this time of year, but the flavor gave me an idea for another kind of seasonal treat: Spiced Pepita Brittle.

    I've been wanting to try my hand at brittle for some time, and though a peanut or almond brittle is a more obvious place to start, pepitas were calling to me. Pepitas are pumpkin seeds, just not from the same kind of pumpkin you carved for Halloween. I love pepitas for their earthy green color and texture. I also think they're much tastier than the pumpkin seeds I usually end up picking out of pumpkin guts....

    Savor the salty-sweet taste of Spiced Pepita Brittle by itself or try it in a bowl of ice cream.
  3. In Our Kitchen: Lentil Soup With Spicy Italian Sausage recipe


    Back on land after a rum-soaked trip to the Bahamas, my stomach growled, but for the first time in a few long days, dinner would require more effort; there was no pizza at the ready. Easy, breezy cruise life was over but I couldn't yet deal with groceries and cooking dinner. I needed to ease back into real life. I needed takeout.

    And if I'm going to pay for delivery, I may as well order enough for my husband and I to have leftovers for the next day. As part of my plan, I ended up with a quart of lentil soup. I've always loved lentil soup, even after a friend called it dirt soup....

    Hearty Lentil Soup With Spicy Italian Sausage comes together in about an hour. The beauty: Leftovers are just as good if not better.
  4. In Our Kitchen: Mussels With Cherry Tomatoes and Chorizo recipe


    This week's recipe continues a theme from my last column: recipes that work for both quick weeknight dinners and for when you have guests. They're efficient, easy, elegant and so good you'll be making them again and again.

    Last time, it was about a quickly braised chicken in a broth heavy on mustard. This week it's another dish with a very important broth, but a new star: mussels. Steamed mussels are one of my favorite dinners to make at home because (1) people are always impressed, (2) it's fast and easy, (3) it is so good. ...

    Mussels With Cherry Tomatoes and Chorizo is a dish worth repeating.
  5. In Our Kitchen: Mustard Chicken With Shallots recipe


    There are endless ways to serve up chicken, and in our kitchen we most often roast or quickly fry it in a pan. Add mustard? I'm sold. Wine and herbs mixing in a broth that begs for big hunks of bread to go with it? Yes, please.

    The chicken dinner I keep coming back to is Mustard Chicken With Shallots.

    Beyond the tender, golden brown pieces of chicken bathed in an irresistible golden broth of white wine, chicken fat and mustard infused with fresh tarragon, I really love this recipe because it works just as well for a weeknight dinner as it does for a small dinner party. ...

    The shallots in this recipe will practically melt in your mouth.
  6. In Our Kitchen: Recipe for Espresso Panna Cotta, for a crowd


    After dinner, my husband often wants a little sip of something more or a bite of something sweet. At a restaurant in Chicago years ago, he ordered and never forgot one thing on the menu: a so-called after-pork digestif. There was a lot of pork at this dinner, and here was this liqueur served at the end of the meal, as if to punctuate it and soothe your full stomach.

    The classic after-dinner coffee is the same idea just without the alcohol. With an upcoming dinner party, I wanted to play off this idea but combine it with dessert. With 12 people joining us for dinner, it had to be something I could make ahead. And it shouldn't be too over the top. ...

    Your guests will be pleased when you serve them Espresso Panna Cotta. It can be made ahead of time, which is nice for you, and it can be flavored according to your tastes.
  7. In Our Kitchen: recipe for Roasted Cherry and Coconut Pops


    Cherries are my main squeeze right now when it comes to fruit. Sorry, berries. Sorry, apricots. Plums, it'll be you soon. But for now, I'm craving cherries so much that I'm willing to stain my fingertips red as I pit more than a pound of them in the name of popsicles.

    Popsicles — because it is so steamy outside right now, and we are in dire need of a refreshing treat. For these pops, I coated the cherries in a big splash of balsamic vinegar and roasted them in the oven for 20 minutes. The balsamic vinegar won't make the cherries taste like salad; it'll just deepen their flavor. Freezing dulls ingredients, so roasting the fruit is an important step for maximizing the cherry flavor....

    Roasting the cherries brings out their flavor.
  8. In Our Kitchen: Peach Pie Bars


    “That's it. This is the last time I turn on the oven in this house," I said to my husband. We're planning on moving at the end of July, and I was sweating in our kitchen. Again.

    "Yeah, right," Danny said.

    He totally called it. Because I have a problem: I love roasting dinner and baking dessert in the oven, even if it's not quite the season for it. Despite my better judgment, I've kept turning on the oven, which is probably as old as me and emits nearly as much hot air into the whole kitchen as it does to the food cooking inside it. I've continued to turn the dial up, fanning myself with pot holders for the sake of za'atar roast chicken and potatoes, broiled tofu to top a weeknight salad and, most importantly and recently, crumbly peach pie bars....

    You’ll need about four peaches for the filling.
  9. In Our Kitchen: Blistered Shishito Peppers With Sesame recipe


    Hot dogs, check. Icy beer, check. Pie, check. Burgers, potato salad, corn. Check. Check. Check.

    You probably have most of the bases covered for a Fourth of July spread this weekend, but if you're looking for something unexpected that will win over as many hearts as that bowl of chips, look to blistered shishito peppers.

    Platters of these charred peppers have become popular at restaurants, but they're way easy to make at home and are an excellent start to a meal. The hardest part may be finding shishitos near you. Typically they are picked when still green, and that's how you'll find them at the grocery store. (Locally, Trader Joe's carries them.) ...

    Start your meal with Blistered Shishito Peppers With Sesame. The Japanese peppers, which are about 4 inches long, are mild.
  10. How to make hummus at home: Recipes for classic, beet and edamame flavors


    My first memories of hummus are firmly tied to my college years in an incredibly vegetarian-friendly town where I enjoyed many a hummus wrap. It was a great alternative source of protein for this one-time vegan.

    A few years went by, and hummus really went mainstream. With a side of pita chips, this Middle Eastern spread is a mainstay when my friends get together. My mom frequently buys a tub of grocery store hummus to serve when people come over. A couple of years ago, Sabra hummus became the official dip of the NFL....

    Branch out from the traditional with a beet-flavored hummus.
  11. In Our Kitchen: Recipe for Salmon Kebabs on the grill


    Every time Danny and I are heading south on I-75 toward my parents' house in Miami, my dad or my mom calls to see how far along we are and, more importantly, what we want for dinner. And nearly every time they ask, Danny will request the same thing: pinchos, a.k.a. kebabs.

    This request, in part, is because we're usually getting in late on a Friday night and pinchos don't take too much time to prepare or cook. The other reasons is that we love eating them. They're so simple but so tasty. My dad usually threads the kebab skewers with strips of skirt steak and bell pepper, then grills them. ...

    Dinner becomes something special with colorful, flavorful Spiced Salmon Kebabs With Lemon. When possible, try to use wild salmon.
  12. How to pack snacks and map out food stops for summer trips


    I was in the middle seat, which is not where anyone wants to be on a packed plane. Especially on a flight from California to Florida.

    But in my hands I cradled a fresh chicken and pesto sandwich from a market in San Francisco. I bet the guy sitting next to me would give up that window seat for a bite.

    As I ate, I delighted in the fresh flavors of herbs and vegetables, and thought: It should always be like this. However you travel, a prepacked meal or snack makes the journey much more comfortable and delicious. If a summer road trip is in your future, eating well should be as important as getting an early start on the highway....

    Date Truffles are decadent and delicious, and there are many variations.
  13. In Our Kitchen: Recipe for Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp with Cardamom and Nutmeg


    A fruit crisp, in this case a rhubarb and strawberry crisp, is my kind of dessert. Crisps, crumbles, cobblers, buckles, bettys — I'll take them all, with their buttery clusters of oats or dough against fruit that has been roasted until softened and concentrated into the best version of itself.

    Rhubarb begins to pop up in spring, and its prime season runs April through June. These stalks come in different shades of red and pink, and once sliced you'll see they are a dusty red and green inside. It kind of looks like celery from the future. ...

    Celebrate rhubarb season, which lasts through June, with Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp With Cardamom and Nutmeg.
  14. Ricotta Pancakes: light, airy and lovely


    A few weeks ago, I hung out with my youngest sister, Lila, while she was on spring break. If given the choice, Lila wants just one thing for breakfast: pancakes.

    I decided that would be a fine breakfast to start our busy Friday of watching the (original) Star Wars trilogy. But since I usually go for waffles instead of pancakes on a weekend morning, I didn't have a basic pancake recipe on hand. After some Googling, I found one that was okay. But just okay. ...

    Start the day off right with Ricotta Pancakes, which owe their lightness and tenderness to the egg whites and ricotta cheese that are incorporated into the batter.
  15. In Our Kitchen: A recipe for exotic yet comforting Oxtail Ragu


    Where does one buy oxtail in St. Petersburg? The only way I knew to get oxtail was at a fritanga (sort of a Nicaraguan cafeteria-style restaurant) in Miami. Locally, our first thought was Mazzaro's Italian Market, but they directed us to another nearby butcher: Tony's Meat Market on Fourth Street S.

    What I did find at Mazzaro's while elbowing my way down the aisle packed with fellow biscotti enthusiasts was an awesome and new-to-us pasta called garganelli, which I paired up with this oxtail ragu. I couldn't find the strozzapreti the Bon Appétit recipe originally called for, but found that any short pasta with some texture would do....

    Making Oxtail Ragu isn’t as quick and effortless as whipping up a bowl of spaghetti, but it isn’t difficult. The biggest challenge may be finding a place to purchase oxtail.