CHICKEN SOUP FOR MANY SOULS

Chicken noodle soup? In the summer? Really?

Am I pretty close to what you’re thinking? Well, as with most things in life, there’s a story to it.

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There are times when I simply need to cook

When the world is an unsettled, unsettling place, I cook. Airplanes fall out of the sky.  Four young boys’ day at the beach turns out to be the wrong beach. And it’s getting difficult to remember who’s at war with whom. Or why.

I can’t fix any of it. Hell, I can barely understand it. Cooking, on the other hand, makes sense to me. It organizes my thoughts, focuses them. It lets me feel productive in a small way. It is restorative.

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Only the best will do

And occasionally, a moment of sheer grace shines through the bleakness. A colleague with whom I work and his wife welcomed a beautiful little daughter a few days ago. A bunch of us were in the middle of a meeting the afternoon – timing being everything in this life – that they brought their sweet family in to share with us. While one of the little girls clambered up onto a dining room chair and proceeded to season her baby doll with salt and pepper, we cooed over the tiny baby and her gorgeous head of dark hair. The girls’ mom is a trouper; she had the baby on a Friday, and on Sunday was in church with all three girls. In heels. The mom, that is.

At some point, the reality of sleep deprivation will intrude on the the new-baby high. Remember hearing the well-intentioned, though utterly ridiculous advice to sleep when the baby sleeps? Good grief, when do people think dishes get washed; laundry, and lots of it, done and folded; dinner started? Sometimes even finished.

We could all use some soup.

Soup doesn’t really need a recipe. It just needs some ideas and ingredients. I was going for optimum comfort, ease, and nutrition. This one comes together fast, in about 40 minutes. It has tiny tender pasta for little mouths (I can so picture the little one who salted and peppered her dolly sliding them onto her fingertips!), vegetables for color and great flavor, beans and chicken, and relatively little in the way of onions and garlic – really, just enough for some flavor without passing on any more wakefulness than necessary to the sweet baby.

CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP

6 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in

Olive oil

Sea or kosher salt and pepper

6 carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4″ dice

6 stalks of celery, trimmed, 1/4″ dice

1 yellow onion, 1/4″ dice

2 cloves of garlic smashed, peeled, and minced

1 pound mushrooms, stems removed (save them for your stock bag), quartered

35-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes

25-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 quart vegetable or chicken stock

2 zucchini squash, 1/4″ thick slices

2 yellow squash, 1/4″ thick slices

1 pound small pasta such as little elbows or ditalini

Get all your vegetables ready to go, as this comes together fast.

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Quarter the carrots lengthwise after peeling them; slice them into 1/4″ pieces on a pretty diagonal

 

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Cut the celery stalks into halves or thirds depending on their size; also slice them on a diagonal

 

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Ready for the pot

 

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Quarter the mushroom caps

 

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Season both sides of the chicken thighs with salt and pepper

Film the bottom of a heavy-bottomed soup pot with olive oil, and warm it over medium heat. When it’s hot, the oil will shimmer, or “ribbon,” add the chicken pieces to the pot, skin-side down. Allow them to brown gently, then turn them over, about 5 minutes on each side. When the other sides are also gently browned, add the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and mushrooms. Also add the can of tomatoes and their juices.

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Use scissors to cut up the tomatoes right in the can

Cover the pot with a lid, reduce the heat to medium-low, and allow the vegetables to braise for about 10 minutes, until warmed through. When the vegetables have begun to soften, use tongs to remove the chicken thighs to a cutting board.

While they cool, add the beans and stock to the pot. Raise the heat, replace the lid, and allow the soup to come to a simmer.

When the chicken pieces have cooled a bit, remove the skin and discard it. Use your hands to pull the meat from the bones, then cut it into small pieces. Return them to the pot. Simmer the soup for about 15 minutes, until the carrots (the densest of the vegetables) are tender and the flavors come together.

While the soup simmers, cook the pasta in a separate pan. If you add it to the soup in its dry state, it will tend to absorb too much liquid from the soup and likely overcook as well. Read about how much water and how much salt to use here. Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the time indicated on the package. Drain it through a colander.

While the pasta cooks, slice the zucchini and yellow squash

While the pasta cooks, slice the zucchini and yellow squash

When the vegetables are done, add the zucchini and yellow squash to the soup. Also stir in the pasta. Cook the soup for 2 minutes more. Last, season to taste with salt and pepper.

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A beautiful, bright, summertime soup in under a hour. You needn’t necessarily wait for someone to have a baby to try it.

Posted in COOKING AHEAD, Entrées, Pastas, RECIPES, Soups, STORIES, The Freezer is Your Friend | 2 Comments

BASTILLE DAY: QUICHE!

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I can think of few things more classically French than a quiche. And Quiche Lorraine at that. You know, bacon, eggs, cream, all in a tender pastry shell.

In the 16th century, it was prepared in a brioche crust and known in German as a Kuchen, or cake. The Quiche Lorraine familiar to us is a relative youngster, dating to the 19th century. Cheese, usually Gruyère, was added when the dish immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s.

Quiche, or Kuchen, originated in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. The two territories  had bounced back and forth between what eventually became France and Germany since the first half of the first century. They finally came to rest in France in 1945 at the end of World War II. It was in the beautiful city of Strasbourg, on my first trip to France, where I tasted Quiche Lorraine on French soil. I still think of that moment whenever I make one.

A Quiche Lorraine with the addition of onions becomes a Quiche Alsacienne, and in honor of both Bastille Day and the initial moments of what grew into a life-long love affair with a country, that’s what I decided to make.

FIRST, MAKE THE PASTRY

But first, a note about tart pans. I’m fond of those made of tinned steel with a removable base.

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Once lifted out, breaking the side crust while serving ceases to be an issue. I have many of them in several shapes and sizes, and they’re among the true workhorses of my kitchen. They are inexpensive and easy to find. I recommend them highly.

 

Read all about pie and tart pastry here. That post, for Perfect Flaky Pastry, is one of the most oft-viewed on the site. It’s one of those methods that is simply fail-safe.

After the disk (the recipe makes two, so don’t forget to freeze the other) has rested in the refrigerator, remove it, and unwrap it.

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Flour your work surface and the surface of the dough

As you roll the dough, slide it around from now and then to be sure it isn’t sticking.

 

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The diameter of the pastry should exceed that of your tart pan by about an inch and a half. Use a paring knife to trim it into shape. Roll it back over the rolling pin, then drape it over your tart pan.

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Carefully lift the edge with one hand, and ease it into the corner of the pan with the other. Gently press the sides of the pastry against those of the tart pan. Finally, if there is any dough which extends up beyond the edge of the pan, gently press it over the edge and run the rolling pin over the top to evenly cut it off. For some reason, I find this strangely yet enormously satisfying.

 

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Set the tart pan in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Be sure to pick it up by the sides, NOT the bottom!  While it is resting, begin preparing your other ingredients.

 

QUICHE ALSACIENNE

Makes a 10-inch round quiche, 6 or 8 servings

6 strips of very good thick-sliced bacon

1 onion, yellow or white

6 large eggs *

4 ounces cream

4 ounces Gruyère cheese (Jarlsberg or Fontina will do nicely, too), grated

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

Pepper

If you’re using a conventional pie plate rather than a thinner tart pan, you’ll need more eggs. The typical ratio for a quiche is 1 egg per person; however, for a deeper pie plate, add 2 more eggs and another two ounces of cream. 

Preheat your oven to 375º degrees.

You know the trick of cooking bacon in the oven, right? Much less mess, much less shrinkage, the oven eventually does the clean-up. Well, if you think the aroma of bacon cooking is the ne plus ultra of cooking, just wait till you smell bacon and onions together.

Lay the strips of bacon on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Cut off the stem end of the onion, then cut it in half from stem to root end. Leave the root end intact; it’s going to hold the onion together while you slice it. Peel each half.

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Lay each half flat on your cutting board, and slice them into half-moons 1/4″ thick. Discard the root ends.

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Toss the onions about on your board to separate them, then arrange them around the edges of the baking sheet containing the bacon. Sprinkle the onions with a bit of salt.

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Set the baking sheet in the oven. Bake until bacon is crispy and onions have softened and begun to caramelize, about 35-40 minutes.

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Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Use tongs to transfer the bacon strips to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. With the same tongs, toss the onions in the bacon grease and let them cool at room temperature for about 10  minutes.

Leave the oven set to 375º to bake the quiche.

Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and set it on a clean baking sheet. Once filled, it’s going to be much easier to handle, and if it overflows a bit, the mess is contained.

 

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Grate the cheese

 

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Scatter half of it on the bottom of the tart shell

 

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Use tongs to arrange the onions on top of the cheese

 

Transfer the bacon to your cutting board, and chop it into 1/2″ pieces. Scatter them over the onions.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, salt, and some grinds of pepper.

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Look at the color of those yolks! I get them from a sweet friend who has five “ladies,” as she calls them

When fully blended, pour them over the contents of the tart pan. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top.

Set the quiche in the oven. Bake it for 35-40 minutes, until it has puffed up, and the top and edges of the pastry are gently browned. If you are using a deeper pie plate, yours may need to bake for 10 minutes or so more.

Remove it from the oven and allow it to sit for 5 minutes to stop cooking.

Using hot pads or oven mitts, carefully lift the bottom up from underneath and set it on a flat surface. Cut the quiche into as many servings as you wish. Those not consumed right away can be wrapped individually to take to work for a heavenly lunch.

Serve with a green salad and perhaps a glass of crisp Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewuztraminer.

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This plate travelled home from Provence in my suitcase on a recent trip; amazingly, it arrived in one piece

 

Wherever you are, Santé to Bastille Day, and to the best of a warm July evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Entrées, Leftovers, Pies & Tarts, RECIPES | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

WEEKDAY BREAKFAST: POACHED EGGS OVER BABY GREENS

Weekday breakfasts need to be quick. For me, that usually means a smoothie of some sort. And while I love smoothies and also love greens, friends, I cannot do green smoothies. I just can’t. But that doesn’t stop me from incorporating greens into breakfast. And a fast one at that.

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I’m fond of a blend of 5: baby bok choy, chard, spinach, arugula, and endive. Use whatever makes you happiest. Drop a handful in the center of a plate. Drizzle it with some olive oil, then season with sea salt.

Bring about 12 ounces of water to a simmer. Not a boil; that’s too aggressive. A simmer. Add a pinch of salt. It will keep the whites from going all spidery when they hit the water. Gently crack an egg or two into the water. Let them cook for 2 to three minutes until the whites have set, but the yolks are still blissfully tender. Lift them out carefully with a slotted spoon, allowing water to drain away, and slip each onto your bed of greens. Sprinkle a bit of sea salt over them, along with some grinds of pepper.

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Start to finish, including eating, about 10 minutes. A welcome change from smoothies. And I didn’t have to wash the damn blender.

To clean up, set your plate in the sink, pour the hot poaching water over it to rinse it, set the pan in the sink, and head out the door. Go, be on your way. You’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see. The dishes will be waiting for you when you get home. Mine always are.

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#lazycats

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Breakfast, RECIPES | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

WEEKNIGHT DINNER: SEARED AHI TUNA SALAD

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I know, by the calendar it’s Friday. But my workweek being what it is, this is technically my Thursday. So it’s still a school night. Confused? So am I. I’ve been out of town on business for a couple of days, so I could roll dice and get about as close to what day of the week it actually is. While away, I ate happily and wonderfully, but I am so craving a dinner of my very own making. Some crisp/tender textures, bright flavors.

My local market sells frozen 4-ounce pieces of Ahi tuna for about $3.00. They aren’t consistently available, so when I find them, I pick up a handful and stash them in the freezer. They’re interestingly-shaped, clearly pieces of trim, but heck, both the price and the portion are perfect for my budget and my appetite.

When I was cleaning the freezer before I left, I happened upon one that I didn’t realize was there. After the long, cold, snowy siege that winter was, it’s finally safe to serve salad for dinner on a night when I desperately long for one. Oh, happy day.

SEARED AHI TUNA SALAD

I assembled the ingredients for the salad quite literally by strolling around the produce department of our brand new Lucky’s Market.  I knew I wanted some sort of cabbage for the base, and thought that a tender savoy would be perfect – a nice crunch, but not too much so, given the extremely tender nature of seared ahi. I also knew I wanted both a marinade and a salad dressing that leaned in an Asian direction and when I saw a basket full of beautiful Mexican papayas (they’re a manageable size, as opposed to football-sized Hawaiian papayas), I realized right away that I had the dressing’s base – not too sweet, and with a marvelous, silken texture. Right nearby was a basket of star fruit, which I utterly love.

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The fruit of a tree which has long been cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, it’s crisp and tart, and I thought would make a perfect garnish to offset the slightly sweet papaya and tender ahi. And when I saw that limes were a sane price of three for a dollar, I bagged some and headed for the check stand. Everything else I had in mind was waiting for me at home.

MARINADE FOR THE AHI

1 or 2 ahi tuna steaks, about 4 ounces each

2 ounces sesame oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon unseasoned (meaning unsweetened) rice vinegar

Juice of 1/2 lime

2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek (chili paste)

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Whisk together all the marinade ingredients and pour them into a shallow, flat-bottomed baking dish. Lay the ahi steaks in the marinade and cover it with plastic.

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Let them sit at room temperature while you prepare the salad and dressing. Turn them over now and then.

PAPAYA VINAIGRETTE

Makes about 2 cups

1/2 of a Mexican papaya

4 ounces sesame oil

2 ounces unseasoned rice vinegar

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon Sambal Olek

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

Cut the papaya in half and scoop out the seeds.

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Use a peeler or a paring knife to remove the skin. Dice the papaya into 1/2″ cubes and place them in the bowl of a food processor or a blender.  Add the remaining ingredients, except for salt and pepper.  Purée until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Save the other half of the papaya and add it to your morning smoothie.

FOR THE SALAD

Makes enough for 1 or 2 dinners, plus leftovers for luscious lunches

4 ounces thin rice noodles (Maifun)

1/2 head of savoy cabbage

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt and several grinds of pepper

1/2 red onion

Handful of  snow peas

Slices of star fruit – I used 3

Lime wedge

Rice noodles make me happy. I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it’s their silky texture, or the way they carry other flavors so beautifully. Hot or cold, they make me happy either way. But most especially in a salad. Open an 8-ounce package and pull off about half of the noodles. Place them in a large bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Set a plate over the bowl to retain the heat. Let them sit for about 10 minutes. There. That’s all the cooking they need. When tender, drain them through a colander, rinse them under cold water to cool them, and use scissors to snip them into more user-friendly pieces.

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Let them continue to drain while you prepare the cabbage.

Peel away the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut it in half through the stem. Trim out the core.

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Cut the half in half, from top to bottom, then slice the halves as thinly as you can, not more than 1/4″ thick. Place the cabbage in a large bowl along with the rice noodles. Add the salt and pepper and the dressing. Use tongs to toss the everything so that the dressing is well distributed. Let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. This will tenderize the cabbage some, and allow the rice noodles to absorb wonderful flavors.

Cut the red onion in half and peel it. Cut in half the long way again, then also slice it as thin as you can.

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Add it to the cabbage, but don’t mix it in yet.

Slice the snow peas about 1/4″ thick and add them to the salad.

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Now you can toss everything together.

Cut a few slices of star fruit.  Dice them into 1/4″ pieces.

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Leave them on your cutting board until you are ready to serve the salad.

 

TO SEAR THE AHI

Set a skillet or a ridged grill pan over medium heat. Add enough sesame oil to cover the bottom. If you are using a grill pan, brush it with sesame oil.

Remove the ahi steaks from the marinade and set them on paper towels to drain a bit while the pan warms. Turn them over once.

When the pan is warm, the oil with shimmer, or “ribbon.” At than point, gently add the steaks to the pan. Season the top with salt and pepper. Watch them closely. When you can just begin to see a band of white forming around the bottom, use a metal spatula to carefully turn them over.  Season the now top side with salt and pepper. Again watch them, and when you begin to see a while line forming around the bottom, remove the steaks to a plate and let them rest while you serve up the salad.

TO SERVE THE SALAD

Divide the salad between plates.  Remove the ahi steaks to a cutting board and carefully slice them into strips 1/4″ thick. Arrange them over the salad. Garnish with the diced star fruit and serve with a wedge of lime.

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Alternatively, if you are preparing this for yourself alone, just think how magnificent tomorrow’s lunch is going to be.

 

 

 

Posted in Entrées, Fish, Leftovers, RECIPES, Salads, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: BIG CLOUDS IN THE BIG SKY STATE


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Posted in RECIPES | 4 Comments

WEEKNIGHT DINNER: FETTUCCINE ALL’AGLIONE

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There are abundant variations on this pasta sauce, but the two ingredients on which all agree is garlic (aglio in Italian, with a silent “g”) and plenty of it, and don’t stint on the red pepper flakes. Beyond that, to mince or thinly slice the garlic, to brown it in the (also abundant) olive oil or not, and to add or not to add tomato sauce, all appear to be a matter of one’s own preferences. Parmesan? That’s up to you, too.

I made a large batch because I want leftovers for lunch during what is going to be another pedal-to-the-metal week. At work, I really try to leave the kitchen and actually sit down to eat  lunch. Even if for no more than 15 minutes, to sit and enjoy something of my own from home while reading a few pages of a book is downright restorative. And comfort doesn’t get any better for me than garlic, tomatoes, and pasta.

The dish is traditionally known as Pici all’Aglione. It comes from around Montepulciano, in Siena, which is south and east of Florence a bit, almost in the exact center of Italy. Some of my most favorite red wines are produced in the same area. Che coincidenza.

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I digress. Pici is a long, thin, hand-rolled pasta, somewhat like a thicker, rustic version of spaghetti. It’s lots of fun to start with a small knot of dough and roll it back and forth beneath one’s palms on a board as it miraculously lengthens and grows thinner. The long pieces are then coiled up on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina flour until it’s time to cook them. While making it is a great way to spend a weekend evening, this is a school night, and hand-made pasta is not happening. That said, the bold sauce needs a substantial pasta to stand up to it. I decided to use fettuccine.

FETTUCCINE ALL’AGLIONE

Serves 4, or fewer with leftovers

12 ounces fettuccine (3/4 of a package)

10 cloves of garlic, minced, but not too finely

6 ounces good extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

15-ounce can of good-quality tomato sauce

Sea or kosher salt to taste

Parmesan cheese

1.  Begin heating water to cook the pasta. For how much water and how much salt to add, see here.

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2. Open the can of tomato sauce. Pour the olive oil into a saucepan ( a decent, heavy-bottomed one is good) and warm it over medium heat. When it is hot, it will “shimmer,” or “ribbon.” Add the garlic and a generous half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Stir it about as it cooks, and do not let it brown. I find garlic takes on a bitter taste if it does. Once it is very fragrant, stir in the tomato sauce. Reduce the heat to a simmer and set a lid on the pan, but leave it cracked about an inch. Let the sauce reduce and thicken for about 20 minutes.

3. When the sauce is 10 minutes away from being done, drop the pasta into boiling water. Fettuccine has a cook time of about 12 minutes. Set a timer for 10 minutes, as the pasta will finish cooking in the sauce. Stir the pasta as it cooks so that it doesn’t stick together or to the bottom of the pot. Set a colander in the sink. When the timer goes off, dip out about 8 ounces of cooking water and pour it into the sauce. The starchy water, in combination with the olive oil in the sauce, is going to give the sauce a heavenly silkiness once stirred into the pasta.

4.  Strain the pasta through the colander, then return it to the pot.

5.  Stir the pasta water into the sauce, taste it, then season it to taste with salt and pepper. Pour it into the pot of pasta and return the pot to medium-low heat. Use tongs to combine pasta and sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of more minutes.

5. Serve the pasta into bowls and pass a wedge of good Parmesan around with a grater. You’ll be glad you did.

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Okay, it was all silky and spicy and more dente than al, just the way I like it. Deliziosa. Still and all, I’m quietly ecstatic over the leftovers. And Georgeanne Brennan’s memoir, A Pig in Provence that I’ve downloaded. I see some sweet lunches on the horizon. Starting with tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Entrées, Meatless Monday, Pastas, RECIPES, Solitary Cook, Vegetarian, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

MEMORIAL DAY: A TOTALLY GRILLED DINNER

I love Monday holidays. It’s like we’ve been given a second Sunday. I’ll spend the rest of the week wondering what day it actually is, but that’s a small price to pay.

We seem to feel honor bound to grill something on Memorial Day. Neighbors on the next block celebrated last evening with a huge backyard gathering. I passed by a couple of times on my way to and from the market.  If one more person had crowded into the yard, I suspect the fences would have exploded. There were games set up for kids. The littlest ones rode around on fathers’ shoulders. Music played, but not obtrusively. A passel of good dogs gleaned morsels dropped from tables groaning with food.  When the cooking started, heavenly smells drifted all the way into my own kitchen.

Meanwhile back at the market, I had grilling on my mind. I don’t eat a lot of meat, especially beef, so when I get a craving, I’m willing to splurge on the really good stuff. To me, that means grass-fed. I know a couple of ranchers not far from here who raise grass-fed stock. I love, love, love that in purchasing their products, I’m supporting families who raise it.  Not only is it leaner than grain-fed beef, it also has a a significantly better balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3s are the good ones.

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And then there’s the fact that it tastes out of this world.  I didn’t set out to prepare an entire dinner on the grill, but once I’d picked out my steak, one thing let to another. I found some pretty little organic potatoes, and the asparagus display looked like a gorgeous floral arrangement. Irresistible.

First, build a fire or light your grill.  I grill over charcoal, so while the coals are burning down, take the steak from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and salt it on both sides.  I leave it at room temp with the wrapping paper draped back over it. By bringing it to room temp before grilling it, the steak is not going to be as shocked by heat as if it were cold. Therefore, the cells aren’t going to tighten up and squeeze juices out of the meat and into the fire where they don’t do anyone any good.  Too, by salting in advance, the salt has time to dissolve and be absorbed into the cells of the meat. Salt has a great affinity for water. by allowing the meat to absorb salt, water is retained within the cells. A juicier, more tender steak (or burger) results.

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Preheat your oven to 225 degrees. Pepper the steak on both sides just before grilling it. You’re going to use the grill to sear both sides of the steak, not to cook it to the actual doneness you want. Allowing the steak to finish cooking gently in the oven is another step on the path to a tender, perfectly done piece of meat.

I had bundles of fresh herbs leftover from a hat-decorating project a few days ago – don’t ask – and just yesterday I came across a photo from Bon Appétit that veritably spoke right up and told me this lily deserves some gilding.

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Fresh rosemary and bay leaves, and in place of garlic I’m using some gorgeous shallots that, given my penchant for pretty produce, I fell in love with at the market

 

I’ll toss a couple of spears of rosemary and some of the fresh bay leaves right onto the fire because, well, why not? They’re going to kiss the steak and asparagus with a heavenly smokiness. More will go into a skillet, along with a few peppercorns, slices of shallot, and some olive oil, creating a fragrant bed on which the steak will rest in the oven after it comes off the fire.

While the steak was salting itself and the fire burning down, I got the potatoes ready for the grill. I diced the little beauties, then put them into a bowl along with a handful of Kalamata olives, slices of shallot, and some crumbles of good, Greek Feta cheese.  I tossed it all together with some olive oil, then added salt and pepper, some of those fragrant rosemary leaves, a fresh bay leaf, a strip of lemon zest, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I spooned it out onto a double thickness of foil, folded a good seal over the top and ends, and set the packet aside so the flavors could marry for a while.

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The asparagus received a simple treatment:  olive oil, salt, and pepper.  I grilled it all, every single spear. Because grilled asparagus is one great reasons for the existence of summer.

 

 

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Leftovers will come back in salads, and perhaps even an omelette as the week moves along

 

GRILLED STEAK ON A BED OF AROMATICS

1 New York steak is enough for me, with a portion left over to add to a salad for lunch the next day

Fresh herbs – I used rosemary and bay leaves because they were what I had on hand.  Thyme would be lovely, as would marjoram, even some sage.

1 large or 2 small shallots

A dozen peppercorns

1 ounce olive oil

Sea or kosher salt and pepper

Bring the steak to room temperature and salt it as discussed above.  Preheat your oven to 225 degrees.

Pour the olive oil into a skillet with an oven-proof handle.  Add your blend of aromatics and toss them all about with your hands.

When the fire is ready, spread the coals out into an even layer. Set the steak on the grate. Leave the grill open after about 2 minutes, lift it and turn it 45 degrees. This is called “marking,” and will give you that lovely cross-hatched pattern. After 2 more minutes, turn the steak over and grill it for 3 minutes longer. Remove the steak and place it on the bed of aromatics and put it in the oven. Allow it to finish to your desired degree of doneness, about 10 minutes for medium rare.

GREEK-STYLE POTATO PACKETS

Makes 2 packets

4 red or yellow potatoes

1 large or 2 small shallots

1 dozen Kalamata olives, pitted

2 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled

2 strips of  lemon zest

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped

2 small fresh bay leaves

4 ounces olive oil

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Toss all the ingredients together in a bowl. Lay out 2 sheets of aluminum foil, about 12″ x 18″. Fold them in half so you have a double thickness which will be sturdy on the grill.  Divide the ingredients between them. Curl the edges of the foil if you need to, so the olive oil doesn’t run off. Bring the short edges together and fold them down to the level of the potatoes. Roll the ends up.

Place the packets on the grill when you set the steak on it. Once the steak is transferred to the oven, close the grill and damp down the top and bottom vents about halfway. Continue  grilling the potatoes for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the potatoes feel tender when poked through the foil with a knife.

If the potatoes are done before the steak is, set the packets in the oven to keep them warm.

GRILLED ASPARAGUS

Go ahead and grill it all. Grilled asparagus in the refrigerator is almost as good as money in the bank. Maybe better.

I trim asparagus with a knife by cutting the spears about 2″ from the ends. Put the ends in your stock bag.

Lay the spears in a shallow baking dish.  Drizzle them with enough olive oil to coat each spear and toss them about with your hands. Finish them off with some salt and pepper.

Once the steak and the potato packets have been removed from the grill, arrange the spears on the grill perpendicular to the bars on the grate. Use tongs to roll them around as they cook. They should cook in about 5 to 7 minutes, but if your fire has burned down, simply close the lid again. Remove the spears before they are done all the way to the middle.

To serve, open one of the potato packets and scoop its contents onto a plate. Slice your steak into 1/4″ thick pieces and arrange them over the potatoes.  Lift some asparagus into place.

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A feast fit for someone you love. Even if the someone is you. Perhaps especially so.

 

 

 

Posted in Meats, RECIPES, Side Dishes | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

WEEKNIGHT DINNER: ORECHIETTE WITH FRESH PEAS, LEMON, AND GREEK YOGURT

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When we were a young family, I raised a great garden every summer in Northern California. One of the crops was peas. If you’ve never grown peas, you have not experienced abundance. Think rabbits. Literally.

The peas grew faster and produced more than we could possibly consume, so the bulk of them were fed daily to the son and the daughter’s rabbits. When each of them – the children – was five years old, I got them a baby bunny from a friend who raised them. They came to us about five inches long, and ended up as huge creatures much larger than our cats. Who they loved to chase when they escaped from their cage, a gorgeous two-story structure that my husband built for them, complete with storage space for a bale of hay in the “basement.”

I digress. The other day I was over at our brand new Lucky’s Market. Never has a grocery store been better named. We feel extraordinarily fortunate that it has come to our city. Its produce department about brings me to my knees every time I walk into it.

At any rate, as I cased the joint, I came across a bin of English peas. In their pods! I instantly thought of the two dwarf bunnies of my own (sisters, Pearl is all black with a white spot between her eyes, and Panda, black and white like as, well, you know) and how they would love the hulls once I’d split and emptied them so as to prepare something for dinner.

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Something fast because this week, as Bevi says, is like a march to the salt mines. Wearing a blindfold.

Here’s the something.

ORECHIETTE WITH FRESH PEAS, LEMON, AND GREEK YOGURT

Serves 2, or 1 with lucky-you leftovers

A common version of this is made with cream. I’m looking for something a little lighter, and lemon brings the yogurt and peas together in a divine trinity.

1/2 pound orechiette

2 ounces olive oil

12 ounces of English peas in the pod

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

8 ounces Greek-style yogurt

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

Fresh chives for garnish

This comes together fast, so get all your tools and ingredients together from the start.

1.  Set a pot of water on to boil to cook the pasta. For a quick primer on how much water and how much salt to add to it, take a look here.

2. Hull the peas. If you have rabbits or chickens, feed the hulls to some happy creatures. Alternatively, add them to the trimmings and stems in your stock bag and let them flavor a fragrant batch of vegetable stock at the end of the week. Last ditch: compost them!

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My 12-ounce bag of pea pods yielded about a cup of little green beauties.

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3.  Why orechiette? Italian for “little ears,” they’re not much larger than the peas, with a lovely little indentation that will cradle them so gently. Because this week is, have I mentioned, a march to the salt mines.  I need gentleness wherever I can find it.

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4.  Once the pasta water has come to a boil, add the orechiette. I am partial to those made by DeCecco*, which cook true to package directions, yielding the perfect combination of tenderness and al dente “toothiness.” They have a cook time of about 10 minutes.  Set a timer for two minutes less than the cook time on the package. After 3 minutes have elapsed, over medium heat, warm the olive oil in a skillet or other pot large enough to contain the pasta as well. Add the peas. They’re spattery, so cover the pot to control the mess and also steam them in their own juices.  Just before the timer goes off, add the garlic to the peas and sauté it until fragrant. When the timer sounds, scoop a ladle of pasta water into the pot containing the peas. Drain the pasta through a colander. Once drained, add it to the peas.  Stir in the Greek yogurt and lemon juice. Allow it all to cook for 2 more minutes. Taste it, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

* CeCecco does not furnish me with products, nor do they compensate me in any way.

6.  Spoon the pasta into bowls.  Shave some Parmesan over the top. I hope you have a pot of chives growing on the windowsill. Cut some, and use scissors to snip them over the bowls. Taste the symphony.

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Posted in Entrées, Meatless Monday, Pastas, RECIPES, Vegetarian, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

BRAISED ONION VINAIGRETTE and A LEFTOVER SALAD

Remember Mezzaluna Marinara?  Remember the onion that was fished out of the sauce once it had lusciously thickened and concentrated? The one I told you not to dare to throw away? Right, that onion.

It absorbed all sorts of wonderful flavors during its time in the sauce. And now that it has cooked, it’s sweet and tender, perfect for being puréed into a vinaigrette.  The onion will add a significant sweet flavor, which balances beautifully with the brightness of fresh lemon.

ONION VINAIGRETTE

1/2 onion from Mezzaluna Marinara or Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce, cut into 4 pieces

4 ounces olive oil

1 ounce red or white wine vinegar (a good Italian one, if available)

Juice of one small lemon or 1/2 of a large one

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

Measure all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Store in the refrigerator; bring it to room temperature for 15 minutes or so before serving.

LEFTOVER SALAD

Not one drop of the Mezzaluna Marinara was going to go to waste. I had a bowl for lunch the next day, left one serving in the freezer for an evening when I need something good quickly, and had a small amount left over that wasn’t really enough for either.  In my kitchen, such a quantity of something is either rolled into a burrito, slipped into a sandwich, or transformed into a salad. The first two sound ridiculous here, so the solution essentially presented itself. DSCN5535

I tore up some red leaf lettuce and sliced up the remaining pieces of onion saved over from the sauce.

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I scattered the last onion shards over the lettuce, then drizzled some of the Onion Vinaigrette over them. I warmed the last of the Mezzaluna Marinara in the microwave for just 20 seconds – not to warm it, but simply to take the chill off – and distributed it over the salad.

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Some shavings of Parmesan are the finishing touch for a pretty perfect lunch

 

Posted in Leftovers, RECIPES, Salads, Vegan, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WEEKNIGHT DINNER: MELANZANA MARINARA

DSCN5491Isn’t she beautiful! All right, so her hat sits a bit crookedly. Big deal. She’s plump yet firm in all the right places, and the sheen of her skin is downright dazzling. And she only cost a dollar and eighty-nine cents. I ran into a sale on eggplant at the market this afternoon, and she had dinner written all over her.

I often confess to a weakness for pretty produce.  I’m going to dice up this little beauty and toss it into a marinara sauce because I just know it’s going to turn as wonderfully silken as the tomatoes.

My favorite tomato sauce ever comes from Marcella Hazan. I get cravings for it, not least because of the simplicity of its ingredients: canned tomatoes, an onion, butter, and salt.  It doesn’t take much in the way of care and tending, and within about an hour simmers itself to unctuous perfection – enough time to feed the four-leggeds, change out of work clothes, sit down with a book, and let the day slough away.

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Not much in the way of cleanup, either. A weeknight dinner doesn’t get any better. Especially a dark and stormy one.

Which tonight is.

And because this sauce is going to be on the chunkier side than usual, it needs a pasta that can stand up to it. One with some shape and texture.  DeCecco’s great big rigatoni never fail to make me feel happy with each generous bite.

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Because of the size and density, it has a cook time of 12 to 14 minutes, so plan accordingly

 

MEZZALUNA MARINARA 

1 yellow onion, cut in half and peeled

Red pepper flakes (my addition because I love them in practically everything)

1 medium eggplant, 1/2″ dice

35-ounce can of good peeled tomatoes

4 ounces of unsalted butter cut into 1/2″ pieces *

Sea or kosher salt to taste

Juice of 1/2 lemon (if you don’t have access to good canned tomatoes, a splash of lemon juice will brighten the flavor of those you do have)

Fresh basil chiffonade for garnish

1/2 pound of rigatoni

* If you substitute olive oil for the butter, and use an eggless pasta which the DeCecco is, the recipe is vegan

1.  Open the can of tomatoes. I feel so fortunate to have a brand new Lucky’s Market within a few blocks of my house. Along with damn good deals on produce every day of the week, they carry genuine Italian canned tomatoes – a few different brands! – at prices that real people can afford. I keep a few cans in the pantry for nights when I need something fast. And good.

I digress. Open the can of tomatoes.  Use scissors to cut them up right in the can.  Then add the tomatoes and their juices to a pot large enough to contain finished sauce and the cooked pasta at the end.  Stir in the eggplant, butter cubes, and red pepper flakes. Immerse the 2 onion halves.

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The mixture may appear inauspicious. Have faith or patience, whichever comes first. It will get better.

 

Cover the pot. Allow it to come to a simmer gently over medium heat, then remove the lid and reduce the heat a bit so that flavors and textures can concentrate slowly. Continue gently simmering the sauce for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring it occasionally. Begin tasting it after 45 minutes; you’ll recognize when it has reached a warmly rounded flavor profile. By the time it is done, its volume should have reduced by about half – you can tell by the beginning and ending marks around the edge of the pot. As the sauce reduces and thickens, turn the heat down so that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pot.

2. While the sauce is simmering, begin heating a pot of water to cook your pasta (hint: a covered pot boils faster than an uncovered pot). Conventional wisdom says that you need 4 to 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Pardon me, but I find the difference between 4 and 6 quarts of water significant. Too, the more substantial the pasta, the greater the water requirement. Always planning for leftovers, I typically cook a half pound of any kind of pasta at a time. Angel hair? 2 quarts, max. This  rigatoni? For a half-pound, 3 quarts, easily. Maybe a little more. It wants to be able to tumble about readily and not stick together.

And what about salt? Do you remember an early reality show several years back that featured a chef by the name of Rocco DiSpirito and an Italian restaurant he was opening in New York? I can’t begin to remember the name of it, but on opening night, a fire erupted in a wall behind one of the stoves in the kitchen. In the basement. Yes, it went downhill from there. He was a dumbass of a manager, but the guy can really cook (or could before he sold his soul to the diet industry).

My point is that the one bit of useful information I took away from the whole mess was when he said that water for cooking pasta should “taste like the ocean.” While your sense of the taste of the ocean may be a bit different from mine, generally  2 tablespoons of sea (preferably, for what I trust are obvious reasons) or kosher salt added to 4 quarts of boiling water is a nice approximation.

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French gray salt from the Camargue is my most very favorite

 

Without all that sand in uncomfortable places. And those annoying gulls.

Once the water comes to a boil, cook your pasta according to time indicated on the package.  That means that you’ll set a timer for a minute or two less than the time given, then taste the pasta when the timer sounds. Italians tend to like their pasta way more “dente” than “al”. Undercooked as opposed to overcooked, in other words. Cook it to your taste, but know that I sit firmly in the “dente” camp.

3.  When the pasta is within a couple of minutes of being done, use tongs to lift the onion sections out of the pot of sauce. Marcella would have you discard them, but don’t you dare! Once cool, wrap them in plastic and purée them into a vinaigrette, or scatter slices over a simple salad. Squeeze the lemon juice into the sauce, give it a stir, then taste it. Season it with salt and pepper. Stir it well, then give it another taste. When it meets with your approval, kiss your fingers and say, “Mmmmmwah!” Remove the pot from the heat.

DSCN55284. Chiffonade of basil. WTF? It’s French for “ribbon”. Once chopped, basil is notorious for taking on the appearance of brown shreds of tobacco. However, if you chiffonade your basil, you will maintain its gorgeous greenness and look like the queen of the kitchen that you are. Pull some leaves off the plant that you have growing in a window. Lay them one on top of the other, matching them at the stems – 3 leaves at a time is good. Beginning at the stem end, roll them up into a tight cylinder like a cigar (clearly we’re on a tobacco roll here). With a sharp knife, slice the roll into very narrow ribbons. Toss them on the board with your fingers to separate them. They will remain green because you’ve sliced them in the direction that the cells grow, thereby avoiding the enzymatic browning that plagues avocados and bananas. And basil.

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Lovely ribbons of basil

 

5. When your pasta is done, transfer a ladleful of the cooking water into your sauce, then drain the pasta through a colander, but not completely. Pour the pasta into the pot of sauce and gently stir everything together. Spoon it into bowls and scatter the fresh basil over the top.

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I don’t mean to go all Rocco DiSpirito on you here, but you really don’t need Parmesan with this. The lemon juice and basil brighten flavors to the extent that your palate will be quite content without it. Especially on a dark and stormy night.

Posted in Entrées, Meatless Monday, Pantry Dinners, Pastas, RECIPES, Vegan, Vegetarian, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments