TIME FOR SOME CHANGES. I MEAN SERIOUS CHANGES.

To overstate the obvious, I’ve been AWOL for a while. December’s Christmas party mayhem, as usual, ate my life. At the start of the month, out of sheer curiosity, I began keeping a tally of how many people we’d helped to celebrate company parties, but ultimately abandoned the effort when I realized it was making me feel even more overwhelmed than I already was.

When the New Year arrived, which felt like approximately a week-and-a-half after the old one had bombed in on us, it found me feeling as though I’d given blood and they took it all. As usual. It should have come as no surprise when I got rollicking, roiling, wildly sick. The daughter in L. A. came down with the same gastroenteritis at the very same time – who knew that the telephone was such an effective transmitter of disease? – so I at least had someone with whom to commiserate.  When either of us was able to talk.

In a conversation with my sister (a brilliantly kind family doc) recently, she said I’d probably had Norovirus, given the fact that it’s hung on for so long. Some of the urgent symptoms have relented, but others have not. At three weeks in, I’m still sneaking up on the idea of solid food. The daughter said it best:

“I can’t imagine that I’ll actually sit down to a meal ever again.”

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I’ll admit that it’s always a surprise when I get sick. I’m fortunate to enjoy good health and fairly decent fitness most every day. Being interrupted by sickness feels like an insult. How could this happen to me?

And I didn’t do myself any favors. I stayed home sick for exactly one day because on that day, I had no choice whatsoever in the matter. The next day dawned with a false sense of suddenly feeling better, so I went to work. For 11 hours. The day after that, mercifully a day off, I was right back where I’d started. Still, come Monday, which was supposed to have been a day off, I hauled my sorry self to work and stayed there. Each day, I’d make several dashes to the bathroom.

I was the most compulsive hand-washer you’ve ever seen.

When I got home, I’d have to go to bed for a couple of hours before I could even contemplate getting up to feed the animals, refill my water glass, then go back to bed and sleep for 12 hours before doing it all over again.

You’ve heard that the human body can go X number of days without food, but cannot survive without water? Every word is true. For three weeks, I survived on water. Cold water, warm water, hot water with ginger and honey and lemon. Water. Anything else – ginger ale, broth soup, tea, coffee (oh God, especially coffee) – was instantly rejected. Often violently.  I lost 15 pounds, but water saved me. I’ll never take it for granted again.

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The moral of the story is that it is time for limits. Time to set some, time to stretch others.

In the end, absence from cooking and writing and even normal living gave me a much-needed perspective. Some facts became clear.

The job needs to stop eating my life. I believe that if the month of December hadn’t so utterly depleted me, I might not have been as sick as I was for as long as I was in January. It’s both a blessing and a curse that I am the only one in the kitchen who does what I do. I’ve been the squeaky wheel asking for help and support for too long; if none is forthcoming in anything other than in intermittent ways, there are things that won’t be getting done. I have no more thanklessly long days, nights, weeks, or months in me.

The blog needs to refocus. It has been wandering without one for several months because, beyond the confines of work, I have been without one. I’ve put all my creative force into something which has drained me dry and kept asking for more. Well, as a friend is fond of saying,

“Fuck that shit.”

I’ve recently reset my hours at work to go in earlier in the morning and leave earlier in the afternoon. That gives me guaranteed daylight time, regardless of the time of year, to have a long walk with the dogs. It’s a tossup as to which of us needs it more. I’m an early riser, and with set dog- and me-walking time later in the day, I can take that first cup of coffee back to bed and write when the day is brand new and my thinking is clearest.

And where to go with that? I’ve grown dissatisfied with the scattergun approach to blog posts. Here a salad, there a soup, everywhere a something-or-other. It may sound contradictory, but it’s difficult for me to think creatively without a structure. A direction, if you will.

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As I was lying in bed one afternoon, beginning to think about actually eating food, the vision of a boiled potato came to me. Tenderly split open, steaming, with just a sprinkle of salt. I knew I couldn’t eat it yet, but the mere fact that I could imagine it gave me a quiet sigh of optimism. A corner had been turned.

A couple of days later, again back in bed before animal-feeding time, I realized that the potato looked lonely. Carrots. I always have them on hand for the bunny. She’s a genial soul, and I’m sure would share if asked. To boil together some yellow potatoes and bright chunks of carrot surely would taste as lovely as it looked. Any why turn my back on my old friend ginger just because I was feeling a bit steadier on my feet? Add a couple of slices to the pot, and the resulting stock would likely make a restorative tisane.

Suddenly I fell further back into the pillows. My jaw dropped open. I realized that I was daydreaming not just of a meal, but rather thinking down a road. It had a name: ROOT VEGETABLES. Now, that may not ring your bells as it did mine, but suddenly I had my direction. My structure.

Categories. I would restructure the blog under broad categories, each post being a small slice thereof. Full of information and recipes, hopefully new and useful to all of us. And most of all, interesting. To all of us.

From illness into health, chaos to – or at least moving in the direction of – order.

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Will all these optimistic and early – very early, given that it’s all of mid-February – harbingers of good times to come have yet another blanket or two of snow to look forward to? Probably. But they’ll be there. Waiting. Ready to begin growing again. With all of us.

Posted in STORIES | 27 Comments

COOKING WITHOUT A RECIPE: BLACK BEAN STEW FOR A BRAND NEW YEAR

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Some sources say that the origin of eating legumes, specifically black-eyed peas in the American South, on New Year’s Day to ensure all things good revolves around their resemblance to coins. I find that easier to, uh, swallow in the case of lentils, but that’s the story. Others explain that it harkens back to Biblical times. (Please take a look at the Comments section below; Susan G and The Wimpy Vegetarian have generously supplied some wonderful information on origins of the tradition.)

Still and all, it’s a practice that I and my sister have maintained for many years. I’m not sure we’ve ever prepared them the same way twice. With ham hocks or without; vegetarian or not; spicy or tame; this year I decided to go in a Mediterranean direction. Anything that bears even slight notes of sun-filled days in warm climes must surely brighten our still-long hours of darkness. And please don’t relegate this to a once-a-year dinner; it will nourish and warm you until the sun returns to do the job.

I couldn’t wait to get home from work on Saturday afternoon and settle into warm, fleecy things and put together something high on the comfort scale. We’ve had bitterly cold weather on the heels of snow, which turned roads into skating rinks. Cars don’t appear to drive as much as they do glide silently. Stopping at the grocery store was not on the agenda. My pantry contained neither black-eyed peas nor lentils, but I did find about a pound of black beans. I should have rinsed them last evening and set them to bubble quietly overnight in the slow cooker. But clearly I didn’t plan that far ahead.

A pound of any kind of bean when cooked is a whole lot of beans. That’s good. Because one of my plans for the New Year is to be better – okay, a lot better – about taking my lunch to work. I’m at least planning that far ahead.

While a pot of tea steeped, I rinsed  the beans, and started them in cold water to cover by a couple of inches, along with a fresh bay leaf (if you don’t have fresh, use a couple of dried, and bruise them a bit with your fingers). Once they came to a boil, I turned them down to a simmer and let them cook for a couple of hours until nicely tender.

 

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Be sure to sort through them to pick out any that are broken or discolored, and to search out any pebbles

 

Could you use canned beans instead? Of course. But you’ll miss the fragrance of the beans cooking slowly, fogging the kitchen windows, and perfuming the house.

Once done, I poured them through a colander, rinsed and dried the pot, and returned it to the stove to sauté a diced onion and a few cloves of garlic in some olive oil. When they were soft and fragrant, after about 4 to 5 minutes, I poured the beans back into the pot and also added two 14-ounce cans of Italian cherry tomatoes. They were in the pantry; use whatever canned tomatoes you have on hand. I filled the cans with water to rinse them, and added that to the pot. Finally, I tossed in a couple of more bay leaves and some thyme sprigs.

 

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I find canned cherry tomatoes impossibly cute. They hold their shape perfectly when cooked, so if you can find them, you’ll think of all sorts of ways to use them.

 

While the soup was simmering, I set a pot containing 20 ounces of water to boil and added a couple of teaspoons of salt and a cup of arborio rice.

 

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Yes, the same stuff you would use for a pot of risotto, lovingly stirred for a long time. But I simmered it exactly as I would have any other kind of rice. I did not want it to give up its coat of thickening starches. Rather, I wanted them bound up in the rice so that once I stirred it into the soup, it would thicken it into a stew to just the right degree.

 

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Tie up the thyme sprigs with a bit of string to make them easier to remove at the end

Another bay leaf, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, and the pot was covered to simmer until the aroma drove me to dip into it, about 45 minutes.

But first, I cut a  thick slice of gorgeous sourdough bread, brushed it with olive oil, and ran it under the broiler to toast on both sides. Then, to gild the lily, I rubbed both sides with a fresh clove of cut garlic.

 

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Just before filling a bowl, I swirled some baby greens into the soup, because we all know greens are good and the New Year is a fine time to begin eating more of them. Last, I seasoned it to taste with sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes.

 

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I sliced the grilled bread in half, and overlapped them in the bottom of my soup bowl. Over the top went some generous ladles of steaming stew.

A drizzle of good olive oil, a grating of pecorino romano, and the New Year and I are off to a propitious start. A most happy one to all.

 

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Posted in Meatless Monday, Pantry Dinners, RECIPES, Soups, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

ROASTED BUTTERNUT & APPLE SOUP with FRIED SAGE LEAVES

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I don’t believe I’ve ever been happier to see Meatless Monday. National Overconsumption of Poultry and Everything Else Day has left us sprawled in its wake. With the typical excesses of Christmas coming at us, I’m craving some clean, simple flavors. Something un-fussy.

Winter squash are everywhere right now, of course. I’m fond of butternut for soup because it purées to such beautiful silkiness. And I thought of tossing some apples into the mix because it just sounded interesting. I decided on a couple of Pink Lady apples because their texture is close to that of the squash – dense, in other words, so they’ll take about as long as the squash to roast.

ROASTED BUTTERNUT AND APPLE SOUP

1 medium-sized butternut squash

2 pink lady apples

2 ounces olive oil

1 quart vegetable stock

1 generous teaspoon turmeric

Sea or kosher salt and pepper

Fresh sage leaves – 6 or 7 per person

2 ounces good olive oil (read here about the distinction)

 

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

The squash is easier to split in half the long way if you cut off the stem first. Once halved, use a spoon to scoop out the seeds.

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Also cut the apples in half. With a paring knife, make an angled cut along each side of the core, creating a V, and pop the core out.

 

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Line a baking sheet with parchment. Brush the cut sides of the squash and apples with olive oil.

 

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Then turn them face down.

 

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Set the sheet in the oven. Roast everything for about an hour, until all can be easily pierced with a knife. Please note that the neck of the squash will take longer to roast than the bulb.

If the apples get done sooner than the squash, simply lift them out with a spatula. First, though, be sure they are really soft. Mine had reached that point after 45 minutes.

 

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The squash was poking along, so I raised the temperature to 400, and set a timer for 15 minutes more.

 

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Perfect!

 

When the apples and squash are done, remove them from the oven and turn them face up. Let them cool until you can handle them comfortably.

 

Use a large spoon to scoop the flesh out of the apple skins and the squash hulls. Drop all into the bowl of a food processor. Add 4 ounces of vegetable stock. Purée until as smooth as possible. 

 

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Pour everything into a soup pot and whisk in the remaining stock.

Turmeric. It is what gives curry powder its beautiful, golden-orange color. It’s also a good antioxidant and has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties.  Whisk it into the soup. Marvel at how amazing it smells. It will lend a lovely umami by complementing  both the sweetness of the apples and the savory elements of the squash and sage leaves.

 

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Begin heating your soup over medium heat, stirring it now and then. When it is warmed through, season it to taste with salt and pepper.

While the soup is heating, warm additional olive oil in a small skillet. When it ribbons or shimmers, it is adequately hot. Gently drop the sage leaves into the oil. Fry until crisp, about 4 minutes. When they stop sizzling, they’re done. Remove them to paper towels. Sprinkle a bit of salt over them.

 

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Hint: make extra because you’ll want to snack on some – alright, a lot –  while the soup finishes heating.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Arrange the sage leaves on top, then with a spoon, scoop up the olive oil in which they were fried, and drizzle it over the top of the soup. Pour the rest into a ramekin and dip some good, grilled bread into it.

 

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Waste not, want not.

 

 

 

Posted in Meatless Monday, RECIPES, Soups, Vegan, Vegetarian, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

RUSTIC MUSHROOM TART with BRAISED VEGETABLES

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Come fall, I crave mushrooms. Read enough cooking magazines, and one can’t help but associate mushrooms, optimistically or vicariously, with professional foragers who supply The French Laundry and its ilk. Nice work if you can get it. But I’ve previously stated that, were I to attempt to feed myself via foraging where I live, I’d be lucky to return home with pockets full of sugar beets and an Angus steer slung around my shoulders. And I’d have to cover some serious miles even for that.

Fortunately, I can dependably find a decent range of mushrooms in local grocery stores. Come late October, I begin stalking Costco’s produce area for chanterelles. Great, big, beautiful portabellas; small, plump crimini; and gorgeous shitakes can be had any day of the week within walking distance at my local Lucky’s Market.

I recently mentioned that during this past September and October, work was such an overwhelming overload that my eating habits went straight to hell. Consequently, pasta and I are still taking a break from each other. So what else to do with such a bounty, but wrap them all up in a tart. A storm is threatening. A perfect day to fill the oven.

FOR THE VEGETABLES Prepare the vegetables first, as they’ll need more time in the oven than the tart.

Preheat your oven to 350º.

1 smallish head of broccoli

1/2 head of cauliflower

2 carrots

2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled

Sea or kosher salt and pepper

4 ounces of good olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

Red pepper flakes

Cut the broccoli into pieces about an inch in diameter. Do the same with the cauliflower. Peel the carrots and remove the ends and tips. Slice them on a dramatic diagonal into pieces about 1/2″ thick at the center.

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Smash and peel the garlic cloves, but do not mince them.

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Place all of the vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Pour the olive oil over them.

Speaking of olive oil, what constitutes a “good” one?

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A couple of days ago, I came home to find a large box on my front porch. It was addressed to me! It was from my sister! Once inside, I opened it to find 2 bottles of exquisite olive oil. I have no idea what motivated her to send them to me other than sheer kindness. We both love good olive oils. This one, from McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, California is one of the genuinely great California olive oils. It is described as, “a complex blend of Tuscan varietals, harvested early and by hand – full-bodied and peppery, with hints of artichoke and greens.” Swoon.

It is not one for general cooking; rather, it is for times when the olive oil is going to be an essential portion of a flavor profile. Times just like this.

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Add a teaspoon of salt and some grinds of pepper. With a large spoon, toss everything together. Keep the bowl; you can re-use it just as it is with the mushrooms. Transfer the vegetables to a covered roasting pan or casserole. Place it in the oven at the point when you place the rolled-out pastry in the refrigerator.

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FOR THE TART

Mushrooms – use what you like. I started with 1 pound of chanterelles, 1/2 pound of shitakes, and 1 large portabella

Fresh rosemary stripped from a 5″ or 6″ stem

2 large shallots

2 tablespoons each of butter and olive oil, twice

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

1 round of Perfect Flaky Pastry

1 beaten egg

If you’re lucky, you’ll have stashed away in the freezer a round of perfect flaky pastry. If not, it comes together very quickly.

Dust your work surface with flour and set the pastry in its center. Also dust the top of the pastry.

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Begin rolling it out. Be sure to roll in all directions, and to lift your rolling pin before you reach the edges. That way, your pastry will not be thinner at the edges than at the center. Get it to about 14 inches in diameter.

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Line a baking sheet with parchment. Roll your pastry onto the rolling pin, then gently unroll it onto the parchment.

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Drape a sheet of plastic over it and set it in the refrigerator while you prepare the mushroom filling. Also place the casserole in the oven.

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Strip the rosemary from its stem and chop it finely.

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Peel and slice the shallots about 1/4″ thick.   I know mushrooms shouldn’t be washed, but chanterelles can be full of both pine needles and dirt. I fill a bowl with cold water, immerse them, and agitate them. I have some paper towels nearby, and lift them out of the water and onto the paper towels. Don’t pour them through a colander to drain them, as you’ll pour the dirt you washed off of them back onto them.

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Gently wipe the caps of the other mushrooms with a dry paper towel. Pop the stem out of the portabella; if using shitakes, trim them off with a knife. There is no need to trim anything from the chanterelles. Quarter the shitakes; roughly slice the chanterelles. If you’re using a portabella, do slice it as thin as possible – this is a good job for a mandolin.

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Roughly chop the chanterelles.

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Begin warming a large skillet over medium heat. Add the butter and olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the shallots and chopped rosemary. Sauté them until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add half the mushrooms along with about a half teaspoon of salt. Cook them until they’ve softened and begun to release their juices. Pour everything into a colander set in a large bowl. You want to retain their liquid. You’ll see why in a moment.  Add another dose of butter and olive oil to the skillet and cook the  remaining mushrooms, then drain them. With a large spoon toss the mushroom mixture together. Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.

Remove your pastry from the refrigerator. Arrange the mushrooms in an even layer in its center, leaving about a 2 inch border.

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Carefully fold the edge of the pastry over the edge of the mushrooms, pleating it gently as you go.

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Brush the edges of the pastry with the beaten egg.

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Before placing the tart in the oven, take out the casserole containing the vegetables and remove its lid. Pour in the collected liquids from the mushrooms and chard, replace the lid and set the pot back in the oven.

Raise the heat to 375º. Now put the tart in the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes and when it goes off, rotate the tart and set the timer again for 20 minutes.

When the timer goes off the second time, remove the vegetables from the oven and raise the temperature to 425º. Bake the tart for an additional 5 to 10 minutes to brown the crust well.

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Remove the tart from the oven and let it set for 5 minutes before you cut into it. I dare you  to resist pulling tidbits of mushrooms from the top.

Before serving the vegetables, remove the lid and add the lemon juice and red pepper flakes. Gently stir them about with a spoon. Remove the garlic cloves.

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Slice the tart into wedges and serve on a plate along with a generous helping of the gorgeous vegetables.

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Bliss on a chilly evening.

Posted in Entrées, Meatless Monday, Pies & Tarts, RECIPES, Side Dishes, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

COOKING AHEAD: FIRST NIGHT IN FLORENCE SPAGHETTI REIMAGINED

I’m trying, I really am, to be better about taking lunch to work with me. I know, it sounds strange – I work in a hotel kitchen, and could certainly have lunch on any given day from banquet leftovers. But I have a difficult time eating food that I’ve been seeing, smelling, handling for several hours, so I tend to go without. Which is a terrible way to eat (or not), let alone live. By mid-afternoon, I’m headachy, irritable, and sleepy.

When I take leftovers from home for lunch, though, everything changes. I actually sit down, eat a decent, enjoyable meal (I even transfer it from its portable container to a real plate), and read a book for 20 to 30 minutes. The entire tenor of my day is better. Lately, days have been sooooo long, and I’m so tired when I get home that I’ve cleaned out my treasured stash of leftovers in the freezer. The good news is that I’ve actually eaten dinner; the bad news is that there’s nothing left to take for lunch. Clearly, the moral of the story is that I need to remember it’s well worth the effort to prepare some lunches ahead.

I mentioned recently that the latter part of summer makes me very nostalgic for Italy. Just writing that led me to crave First Night in Florence Spaghetti. When that craving collided with my need for a few lunches, a spark of inspiration resulted in my reimagining it as a salad.

FIRST NIGHT IN FLORENCE PASTA SALAD

1 pound dry fusilli

Sea or kosher salt

3 ounces olive oil

1 pint grape tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, minced

Juice of 1 lemon

5 ounce can tuna packed in olive oil

Fresh baby spinach

Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste

Red pepper flakes to taste

Additional olive oil as needed

Why fusilli? Because it’s sort of the shaped pasta equivalent of long angel hair. It cooks quickly. Besides, what fun to cook something whose name translates as “fuses.”

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After 9 minutes (read here about how much water to boil and how much salt to add to it), it was perfectly al dente (be sure to check the cook time on your package). I drained it, poured it back into the pot, filled the pot with cold water and a couple of handfuls of ice cubes, then swirled the pasta around with my hands until it was completely cooled.

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I drained it again, then poured it into a large mixing bowl, and stirred in 3 ounces of olive oil to prevent it from sticking together.

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One pound of dry fusilli yields about 6 cups cooked.  I scooped a couple of cups into a ziplock bag which I stashed in the freezer for a night like the stretch I’ve just finished. I poured the remainder, along with all its lovely olive oil, into a large mixing bowl.

Using the moderately frightening tomato knife that KDub gave me (she rashly thought I was adult enough to responsibly handle such a tool), I reigned in my typically wandering thoughts and zenned in on halving the tomatoes lengthwise.

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Not only does this knife cut through tomato skins as if through butter, I believe it would shear through sheet metal with equal efficacy

The one hitch in the transformation from a cooked sauce to a cold one was how to take the sharp edge off the garlic without sautéing it. Here’s a good trick to know: there are all sorts of lovely acids present in both the tomatoes and lemon juice, so after mincing the garlic,  toss it together with them, along with a generous pinch of salt (to encourage the tomatoes to give up their juices more readily).

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The easiest way to extract juices from any citrus fruit is to stick a fork firmly into the center of each half, then work it back and forth as you squeeze

Set it all aside for about 15 minutes.

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You’ll be tempted to stop right here and eat the garlicky, lemony tomatoes just as they are. But persevere.

Open the can of tuna and add it and its olive oil to the pasta. Pour in the tomato-garlic-lemon mixture.

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Toss everything together, then season to taste with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.  If it seems a little dry, feel free to drizzle in additional olive oil.

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To take this for lunch, since I don’t want the spinach to break down excessively, I filled some ziplock bags with a couple of handfuls each of fresh baby spinach. At work, I’ll toss the salad together with the spinach when I’m ready to sit down for lunch. And a book.

But first things first. Labor Day may have glided past us, so we ostensibly can’t wear white or linen any longer. But we can damn well have a great salad for dinner on a still-warm evening. After I’d packed some lunches, I placed 2 generous handfuls of spinach in my favorite salad bowl, spooned some of the pasta salad over it, feathered some Parmesan over the top, and sat down to a new and heavenly version of one of my favorite dinners ever.

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Buon appetito!

Posted in COOKING AHEAD, Lunch Goes to Work, Pantry Dinners, Pastas, RECIPES, Salads, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

MEATLESS MONDAY: A SIMPLE SUMMER SUPPER

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Say that three times fast. That’s about how long this takes to come together.

 

For the last couple of summers, I get very nostalgic for Italy around this time. The daughter had spent most of the summer at an international dance workshop in Florence. I flew over towards its end to see her final performance and afterwards to travel around Italy and France with her. Lost Shoes Risotto and First Night in Florence Spaghetti were among the offspring of those travels.

When I got home, one of the first things I did was go looking for a large bowl that reminded me of those in which we’d had great, gorgeous salads – everything was in season – and wonderful, simple pastas. It needed to be deeper than a pasta plate, but smaller than a conventional mixing bowl. I had a surprisingly difficult time finding just the right one. I finally found the perfect, classic white bowl at T. J. Maxx. For $3.99. Sold.

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And it was made in Italy! It was almost as though I’d brought it home with me.

 

This simple, Italian-inspired pasta is perfect for a warm summer evening. If you can step outside and pick a couple of handfuls of little tomatoes, snip some deep green leaves from a basil plant, lucky you.

As for the pasta, typically, a flat pasta would be used here, but I use angel hair because oh mio dio, it’s hot. Angel hair cooks so fast that very little time is spent generating any more heat than absolutely necessary.

Have all your ingredients prepared, as everything comes together very quickly.

ANGEL HAIR WITH GARLIC, TOMATOES, AND BASIL

Serves 2, or 1 with luscious leftovers

Extra-virgin olive oil – be generous: a good 2 to 3 ounces

3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes

8 ounces of  angel hair

Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper

Red pepper flakes

Fresh basil leaves cut into chiffonade

Parmesan cheese

 

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After you’ve rinsed the tomatoes, cut them in half from top to bottom. They’ll cook faster this way.

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Yes, I know the trick of sandwiching the tomatoes between two plastic lids, then carefully running a knife through the center. The problem is that no two come out the same thickness. Some at best have a sliver shaved off one side. So I halve mine the old-fashioned way. A kind friend gave me a tomato knife which slices through them as if through butter. It is shockingly sharp, which forces me to slow down, creating a sort of meditation on tiny tomatoes.

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Mmm hmmm, that’s a flat-bottomed rock that I use for smashing garlic. It’s also vaguely foot-shaped, but that’s a story for another time

Smash and peel the garlic cloves, then mince them well.

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Chiffonade (French for “ribbon”) a few leaves of fresh basil. As much as you like.

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Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Read about how much water and how much salt here.  Add about half of the package of angel hair. Set a timer for 4 minutes.

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Over medium heat, warm a skillet large enough to hold both the sauce and the pasta. Add the olive oil. When it shimmers, or “ribbons,” add the garlic. Cook it gently until it is nicely fragrant.

Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes.

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About a half teaspoon

If the pan is spattery, reduce the heat a bit. The tomatoes want to cook very gently.  When the pasta is almost done, season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

When the timer sounds, use tongs to transfer the pasta to the skillet. Add a ladle of the pasta cooking water. Carefully toss everything together with the tongs, and let the pasta cook for a minute more.

Lift the pasta into bowls, and spoon the sauce over it.  Garnish with some strands of beautiful basil and some shavings of Parmesan.

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Pour a glass of chilled Italian rosé. Twirl some pasta on a fork. What does the scene you’ve set conjure up for you?

 

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Personally, I’m imagining sitting in a little trattoria in the daughter’s San Niccolò neighborhood, which graces the right bank of the languid, sultry Arno. The heat of the day is yielding to evening’s cooling touch. And I’m clinking glasses with the beautiful, graceful young woman whose mother I am so proud to be.

 

 

 

Posted in Entrées, Meatless Monday, Pantry Dinners, Pastas, RECIPES, Vegetarian, WEEKNIGHT DINNER | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: SUMMER PRESENT, SUMMER FUTURE

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Posted in RECIPES, WORDLESS WEDNESDAY | 3 Comments

WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: BIRD ON A WIRE

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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 | 4 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