Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo
NAPLES — Stephanie Rhodes came by her love of cooking naturally. Both her parents are from Italy and the love of food was inherited from them, especially Italian specialties. Her cooking gene has even been passed down to her 12-year-old granddaughter, Riley Sorenson of Minnesota. Riley was one of the 54 winners (one from each state, Washington, D.C. and three U.S. territories) of first lady Michelle Obama's "Healthy Lunchtime Challenge" and was invited to the White House for the Kids' State Dinner to have her stuffed red peppers and banana oat stacks made by White House chefs.
Naples Daily News: Did both your parents cook when you were growing up?
Stephanie Rhodes: My mom and dad were both great cooks. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and every Saturday morning, my parents went to the Italian market downtown to get fresh meats, cheeses, olives and other Italian foods. We had a large garden, and my mother canned her own tomatoes for her homemade spaghetti sauce. My dad would buy fresh chickens, milk and eggs from a local farm. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were both into organic food before anyone ever heard of that term.
NDN: Did they let you help, and if yes, when did you start cooking with them?
SR: I really got interested in cooking when I was 15. At that time, my oldest brother opened a small takeout restaurant called Mamma's Kitchen, where my mom made all the Italian food from scratch. I worked with her during my high school years to earn extra money and that's where I learned a lot about cooking.
NDN: Do you use recipes or make up your own?
SR: Probably about 50/50. I love the Cooking Channel, and I make a lot of their recipes. And I watch YouTube videos to learn how chefs prepare certain dishes I'm not familiar with. But I also inherited my parents' ability to throw things together and make it work, so I experiment a lot.
NDN: Do you have a favorite appliance or gadget that you can't live without?
SR: My KitchenAid Mixer! I make so many things with it, including all my baked goods, bread and pizza dough. I love the mixer's pasta attachments. I make my lasagna noodles, ravioli and linguine with it. In fact, I just tried the flat roller attachment for flatbread pizza and it worked perfectly.
NDN: Do you enjoy cooking and entertaining for large groups or small intimate dinners?
SR: I love cooking for large groups. We had eight people in our home growing up, so I was used to large, family-style meals. Entertaining 20-30 people is not uncommon for me. Before I moved to Naples, my friends and I threw an Italian party each year for more than 150 people and I made most of the food.
NDN: Do you always make everything from scratch or have you found store-bought sauces, etc. that you can pass off as your own?
SR: I make most of food from scratch whether it's a simple stir fry or a pizza with homemade dough and sauce. But I have to admit — when I'm pressed for time I use Classico Tomato Basil sauce. I once passed it off on my mom who thought I made it from scratch.
Rhodes shares her recipe for Manicotti for four made with her own crepe shells:
MANICOTTI CREPES WITH MARINARA SAUCE
BASIC CREPE RECIPE
1 cup flour
1 cup skim or low fat milk
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 Put all ingredients in blender and mix while scraping sides with spatula.
2 Refrigerate for 1 hour.
3 While the crepe batter is in the refrigerator, make the marinara sauce as listed below.
4 When the crepe batter is ready, pour about 2 tablespoons of batter in nonstick crepe (or omelet) pan and swirl around till crepe is done on one side. Crepe should be pretty thin and approximately 5 inches in diameter.
5 Flip crepe and only cook next side for a few seconds. Crepe should slide easily out of pan onto dish.
This makes about 20 crepes. Extra crepes can be refrigerated and filled with whipped cream and strawberries or Nutella for a scrumptious desert.
The filling can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.
2 cups (1 pound) whole milk ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 pinch nutmeg (optional)
Two 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil (regular — not extra virgin)
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 leaves fresh basil or two teaspoons dried basil
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon baking soda (my mother’s secret ingredient — it takes the acid out of the tomatoes)
1 Lightly sauté the garlic in oil (be careful not to brown the garlic or it will get bitter.)
2 Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil and stir.
3 When the sauce comes to a slight boil add the baking soda and stir.
4 Lower the heat to a simmer and stir often as it cooks for 1 hour until the sauce is thickened.
5 Cover the bottom of a 15-by-10-inch baking pan with a thin layer of marinara sauce.
6 Spoon filling lengthwise onto cooked crepes.
7 Roll crepes.
8 Lay rolled crepes on sauce seam side down.
9 Top with the remaining sauce then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
10 Cover with foil.
11 Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, until bubbly.