Friday, December 03, 2004

ROASTED ASPARAGUS


This is barely a recipe—I mean, I did get it from Jack (Bishop) in Vegetables Every Day, but I think I could have figured most of it out on my own. Still, it’s a really, really great way to make asparagus. I used to steam it, which is nice and fresh-tasting and good for the spring and summer, but asparagus takes on a whole new brown and toasty dimension when roasted (and this also helps to make up for it not being in season). And it’s easy as pie. (Wait, why do we say that? Pie is not the easiest thing in the world to make.) I only made a half-recipe, since asparagus is $4 a pound right now, but I wish I’d made more. In fact, I’m going to go eat the leftovers right now!

1 ½ pounds asparagus, tough ends snapped off
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt (preferably coarse kosher or sea salt) to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Place the asparagus on a large baking sheet, drizzle on the oil, toss gently to make sure each spear is thoroughly coated, and then spread the spears in a single layer over the baking sheet.

3. Roast the asparagus, shaking the pan once or twice to turn the spears, until they are lightly browned, 12-15 minutes.

4. Sprinkle with salt and (my own addition) freshly ground black pepper and serve.

Serves: 4 as a generous side dish
Time: 20 minutes

ROASTED GARLIC AND POTATO SOUP

Hooray! After having almost exhausted my favorite cookbook, Pasta e Verdura, I happened upon another one by the same author, Jack Bishop, at the library: Vegetables Every Day. I don’t know why I’d never thought of looking for other books by him before, or maybe I’d looked in Minnesota and forgotten to renew the search when I moved to L.A. A quick search of the Pasadena Public Library catalog yielded 2(!) more Bishop books, which I’ve placed on hold and am eagerly awaiting. I’m like a cooking stalker. Anyway, Vegetables Every Day seems like a useful book to have around, as it contains mainly side dishes, and I’m always looking for something besides salad to have with not-quite-complete-in-themselves main dishes like fish, chicken, and soup. The recipe that really stood out to me when I first paged through the book, however, was Roasted Garlic and Potato Soup, which sounded basically like eating a big bowl of garlic mashed potatoes. I decided to make it this week, and bought all the necessary ingredients.

But when last night rolled around, I was tired and craving pizza. Loath to disappoint Jack, however, I rose to the challenge and schlepped into the kitchen. And challenge it was. I started cooking at around 7:30, and we sat down to eat at 10:00, just as the opening credits of ER were beginning. Looking back, I’m not sure why it took quite so long. I imagine I should be able to do this a little faster in the future, when I’m better-rested and have had some practice, but it’s still an involved, multistage recipe—roast the garlic, peel the potatoes, slip the garlic cloves from their skins, boil everything, puree in the blender…. Not exactly a quick weekday meal. Still, both A and I agreed it was well worth all our efforts (mine of cooking, his of doing the immense heap of dishes I left behind). This would be an especially wonderful thing to have when you were sick (provided someone else would make it for you, that is)—pale, smooth, creamy, comforting, but with that kick of garlic you could taste even through your head cold, plus all the antioxidant/antibiotic properties garlic is supposed to have. Of course, this soup is tasty enough that I’m probably not going to wait around to get sick before having it again. I’d like to give it a try with homemade chicken stock (I’d run out, so I used Trader Joe’s free-range chicken stock—so nice that they don’t keep the chicken stock in cages, don’t you think? Hee.), which I bet would be even better.

Obviously, you need something green with this plain white soup. I went all-out and roasted some asparagus, which was perfect. A simple salad would work just fine, too.

2 large heads of garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped fine
2 pounds red potatoes, peeled and diced fine
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel off as much papery outer skin from the heads of garlic as possible without separating the cloves. Cut a ½-inch-thick slice from the top of each head, exposing the cloves. (Actually, because I am often foggy-brained by the time I get around to cooking, I cut the slice from the stem end of the first head. This of course, caused the cloves to instantly separate, since I’d cut off the part that holds them together. So, all together now, the part you want to cut off is the pointy part at the top, not the dark hairy part at the bottom. But if you are dim-witted like me, you’ll be reassured to know that I just threw the loose cloves in the pan and they roasted up just as fine as the second head, which I managed to cut correctly.) Place the garlic heads (cut side up) in a small baking dish and add just enough water to come up 1/8 inch in the dish (about ¼ cup). Drizzle a tablespoon of oil over the garlic, sprinkle with salt to taste, and cover the dish with foil. Put it in the oven to bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake about 15 minutes longer, until the garlic is quite tender and golden. Remove the dish from the oven and let the garlic cool until it's comfortable to handle. Then the fun part: gently squeeze each garlic clove out of its skin (which sounds like an annoying task, but really was satisfying to me). For they most part, they should just slide ride out. Discard the skins and put the cloves into a measuring cup--Jack helpfully informs us that you should have about ¾ cup cloves.

2. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions and sauté them until soft and golden, about 6-10 minutes. Add the roasted garlic and stir, smashing the cloves with the back of the spoon. Add the potatoes and stir until they're coated with garlic and oil.

3. Next, add the chicken stock, bay leaves, and salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat back to medium and let it simmer until the potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes.

5. When the potatoes are done, remove and discard the bay leaves. Puree the soup in batches in the blender until it's nice and smooth, stir in the chives, and add more pepper.

Serves: about 6
Time: well, it took me 2½ hours somehow, but I contend I was abnormally poky. Let’s say 1½ to 2 hours (but much of this is garlic-roasting time, during which you can go and do something else).

SMOKY MARINARA SAUCE

Sometimes you just want some basic tomato sauce. You don’t want it to be boring, though, which is why there’s smoky marinara sauce. The secret ingredient is Muir Glen brand fire-roasted canned tomatoes, which hopefully are available wherever you happen to be (I know they are in Minnesota, anyway, as well as California). I got this recipe from my mom and really like it with cheese ravioli. I’d never made it for myself, however, before Tuesday night, and frankly the result didn’t taste as good as mom’s. Mine got sort of watery somehow, which is maybe because I wasn’t exactly sure what to buy when the recipe called for “crushed tomatoes.” Trader Joe’s didn’t have anything called that, so I just bought a can of tomatoes in tomato juice. I think maybe a tomato sauce or puree would have been better, at least for me, because I don’t particularly like big chunks of canned tomato. I’ll have to experiment. Despite the consistency problem, though, this tasted good and was easy to make. It made a lot of sauce, so I was able to freeze some for quick meals in the future.

Postscript, December 2009: Turns out that I rarely want basic tomato sauce, so I never really make this. It's going to the "Not Favorites" category, but using fire-roasted tomatoes is still a good trick when you want to spice things up.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
28-ounce can Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (as I said, I would perhaps use canned tomato sauce or puree)

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium-large saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is warm add the garlic and herbs and saute for 1 minute.

2. Chop the fire-roasted tomatoes and add them (along with their juices) to the pan. Add the crushed tomatoes (or sauce or puree) as well, along with the balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper, and simmer everything for about 10 minutes.

Serves: The recipe says it makes 6 cups, which by my reckoning is at least 8 servings
Time: Under 30 minutes

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

SPAGHETTI WITH ZUCCHINI AND BASIL


I’m afraid it’s been a few weeks since I posted a recipe. For some of that time, I was preparing to travel, and then I was traveling, and then I was recovering from traveling, so I ate out a lot. But rest assured, I’ve still been cooking off and on—it’s just that the recipes were all repeats, either because they were favorites or because they were reliable and easy to make amid all the hubbub. But this week I’m back in the saddle; stay tuned for three, count ’em, three new recipes (and probably more to come in the future, since I’ve discovered three new Jack Bishop cookbooks and put them all on hold at the library). Stand back!

This recipe is an oldie—it’s the one that made me decide to like zucchini (and perhaps the first time I’d prepared zucchini, or eaten it in any noticeable quantity. The zucchini gets all tender and sweet and absorbs the flavor of the garlic, the half-and-half cuts the zucchininess a little without being too rich, and the cheese is just the right amount of sharp and salty. There’s something soft and comforting about this dish. And it’s simple, so I was able to make it on Monday night even though I was close to collapse, having flown in from D.C. the night before, gotten only four hours of sleep, worked a full day, and then gone grocery shopping before settling down to cook dinner. After six days of eating on the go, settling for whatever was available at the time, whether good (a delicious handmade tagliatelle with wild mushrooms in a light sage-cream sauce, or fresh and authentic pub fish and chips) or bad ($9 chicken fingers and fries at a basketball game, or blah pizza at a Smithsonian cafeteria), I wanted to cook for myself, dammit. And I wanted something green. This recipe had few ingredients, was forgiving enough for the occasional lapse in concentration, and was just what I was craving.

1½ pounds small or medium zucchini
1/3 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup half-and-half
1 pound spaghetti
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
handful of basil leaves, torn into small pieces

1. Trim the ends off the zucchini, quarter the zucchini lengthwise, and cut the quarters into ½-inch chunks.

2. Warm the garlic in the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. While it's heating, put a large pot of salted water on the stove over high heat for cooking the pasta.

3. When the oil is warm, add the zucchini and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook gently, stirring every so often, until the squash is soft and browned in places, about 20 minutes.

4. When the pasta water boils, add the spaghetti and cook it until al dente.

5. When the zucchini is done, add the half-and-half and cook for 10 minutes more, stirring more frequently (I usually turn the heat down to medium-low so the half-and-half doesn’t cook away). When the pasta is done, add it to the skillet, along with the cheese and basil. Toss everything well, season with salt and pepper, gorge self, pass out in food coma.

Serves: 6
Time: 40 minutes

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

APPLE CRISP

This is one of only two desserts I ever make. (I’m not really a desserty person; most of the time I’d rather have a piece of chocolate than a slice of cake or a cookie.) The other is caramel-chocolate-oatmeal bars, which I am only allowed to make on very special occasions because I am capable of eating the entire pan. Apple crisp is never as tempting or decadent for me, just a homey and wholesome old-fashioned kind of treat. In fact, I come to it relatively recently, having taken many years to get over my aversion to the texture of cooked fruit. I never crave it or gorge myself on apple crisp, but every now and then I make it and it’s good. If I dared to serve it with vanilla ice cream, it might become a vice.

This recipe is from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. It’s very easy. It claims you can substitute (with some adjustments) pears, peaches, blueberries, or cherries for the apples, but I’ve never tried this. If I do, I’ll let you know.

*Postscript: I later tried this recipe with home-canned peaches in place of the apples (eliminating the white sugar, since the peaches were already in a sugar syrup). It was squishy but great.

5 cups sliced, peeled apples
2 tablespoons granulated (white) sugar
½ cup regular rolled oats
½ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon
¼ cup butter
¼ cup chopped nuts or coconut

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Peel the apples, cut them into fourths, cut off the core, and slice the flesh. Put the slices in a 2-quart square Pyrex baking dish. Stir in the granulated sugar.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, flour, and spice (I use half nutmeg, half cinnamon). Cut in the butter—which, as near as I can tell, involves putting the chunk of butter in the bowl and using a knife or fork to break the butter into little bits, mixing the bits with the dry ingredients until the mixture “resembles coarse crumbs.” (Don’t worry too much about your technique here—I’ve never been too clear on how to do this, but my apple crisp turns out just fine.) Stir in chopped nuts or coconut and sprinkle the mixture over the apples.

4. Bake the apple crisp for 30-35 minutes, until the apples are tender and the topping is browned.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes

PASTA WITH SAUSAGE AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH


Sausage and squash go together like peanut butter and jelly as far as I’m concerned, not that I’d want to make a sandwich out of them. (Well, maybe...) But pasta, yes. This one is easy, straightforward, and colorful (the basil is a nice, bright touch). I particularly recommend following it up with Apple Crisp, as I did on Sunday night. It makes a fine fall feast.

1 pound rotini or other curly pasta
1 medium butternut squash (about 1¾ pounds)
¾ pound hot Italian sausage links, casings removed (I like chicken sausage)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup packed fresh basil leaves, chopped
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Boil a large pot of salted water for cooking the pasta.

2. While the water heats, peel the butternut squash (this will be a true test of the quality of your vegetable peeler), trim off the stem end, slice the squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Cut the squash flesh (there’s a great phrase for you) into ½-inch pieces and set it aside.

3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (use one that has a lid; you’ll need it later). Add the sausage to the skillet, breaking it apart with the back of a spoon as they cook. Cook the sausage, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes until browned. Remove it from the skillet with a slotted spoon, onto a plate lined with paper towels. The recipe here says to “discard all but 2 tablespoons of drippings from the skillet,” but yikes, I’ve never had a measurable amount of drippings left over—more like an oily coating on the pan. What kind of greasy sausages are these people using?

4. Add the squash, salt, and pepper to the drippings in the skillet, reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan with the lid, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the squash is tender.

5. When the water boils, add the pasta. Cook it until al dente. Reserve ¾ cup of pasta water before draining the pasta.

6. Add the sausage, basil, Parmesan, pasta, and pasta water to the squash in the skillet and toss everything together well. Serve it topped with a bit more Parmesan, and freshly ground black pepper.

Serves: 6
Time: 40 minutes

Friday, November 12, 2004

SPAGHETTI WITH ASPARAGUS, LEMON, AND BREADCRUMBS


I was craving a light pasta with a green vegetable; more specifically, I was craving asparagus. So I splurged and bought some, even though it’s out of season and $3.99 a pound at the grocery store. So as not to be totally extravagant, I decided to make a half-recipe so I’d only need one pound of asparagus. I’m regretting that decision a little this morning, with no nice asparagus leftovers to look forward to for lunch, but that’s how it goes in non-asparagus season.

This is a strong, simple recipe (probably from Pasta e Verdura, but I forgot to check) that brings together the tastes that go most naturally with asparagus: garlic, lemon, and parsley. It’s not hard to make, though it feels a little like you’re scrambling when you try to cook pasta, steam asparagus, and toast breadcrumbs at the same time. You can always separate these steps instead of trying to do them simultaneously (get the breadcrumbs toasted, then set them aside and start on the asparagus)—this is a forgiving recipe in which nothing needs to cook for very long. I was surprised by how quickly the food was ready last night; shockingly, we had finished eating dinner before prime time began.

2 pounds asparagus
1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs (I won’t lie; I sometimes use more)
½ cup olive oil, plus a little extra for toasting the breadcrumbs
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup minced fresh parsley leaves
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (1-2 lemons)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound spaghetti

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta.

2. Meanwhile, heat a dab of olive oil (maybe a teaspoon?) over medium heat in a large skillet. When the oil is warm, add the breadcrumbs and stir them well until they absorb all the oil. Toast them, shaking the pan occasionally to stir them, until they are crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes.

3. Wash the asparagus, then snap off and discard the tough ends. Cut off (but keep) the tips, then cut the stalks in half lengthwise and slice them into 1-inch pieces. Steam about 2 minutes, until crisp-tender. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. When the pasta water boils, add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

5. While the pasta cooks, remove the toasted breadcrumbs from the skillet and set them aside. Add the ½ cup olive oil to the skillet and put it over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and sauté until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add parsley, lemon juice, and salt to the pan and cook for 30 seconds, then add the asparagus and mix well.

6. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet, toss everything together well, and dish it into bowls. Sprinkle toasted breadcrumbs over each serving and grind on some black pepper if desired. (The recipe doesn’t ask for that, but it cuts the tartness of the lemon very nicely. The recipe doesn’t ask for Parmesan cheese, either, and it does just fine without it, but if you happen to be a cheeseophile, a small sprinkling can be nice. I do this on occasion—last night being one of the occasions, because I was feeling celebratory.)

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes

VEGETABLE FAJITAS


This has been a staple for me for at least four years, and it saw me through that long period when I never cooked meat but didn’t really like beans either (OK, I still don’t love beans). I eat it less often now, because we have discovered the joy that is steak tacos, but I still enjoy it on occasion—especially now that I’ve found the best salsa in the world, Trader Joe’s Salsa Especial, and am grateful for any excuse to consume it in large quantities. Plus, it is just good to eat big piles of vegetables. This recipe is a cinch for anyone to make, I promise. It may seem like a lot of ingredients, but all you need to do is mix them together right in the baking dish and then pop it in the oven. I was practically faint with hunger on Wednesday night when I made this, and I still managed to pull it together without incident. Oh, except the recipe says this makes 4 servings, but A and I ate most of it in one sitting, with only a small snack-size portion left over. So…be forewarned.

Also, sometimes when I feel like spending perhaps an extra ten minutes over the stove, I put the vegetable mixture into quesadillas and that is perhaps even more delicious.

2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 small zucchini, cut into sticks (2 cups)
1 yellow zucchini or summer squash, cut into sticks (1 cup)
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips (1 cup)
1 small onion, sliced (1 cup)
¼ cup salsa, plus extra for garnish if desired
8 six-inch flour tortillas
½ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1. Preheat the oven’s broiler and grease a 9-inch square baking dish with a little vegetable oil.

2. Put all the vegetables in the pan.

3. Mix the lime juice, cilantro, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, chili powder, oregano, cumin, garlic, and salt in a small bowl (I actually like to use a former Grey Poupon jar, because then I can just screw on the lid and shake it up), then pour this mixture over the vegetables in the baking dish and toss well. (It’s easier to blend all the seasonings together and cover the vegetables thoroughly if you do it this way, but believe me, I’ve had my lazy days of just throwing everything into the dish and it works just fine. If you don’t want to dirty a bowl, I say go for it.)

4. Put the baking dish in the oven and broil the vegetables for 5-10 minutes, “until tender-crisp or to desired doneness.” (Take them out of the oven once partway through to stir them around so they cook evenly.) When the vegetables are done, take the dish out of the oven. Add the salsa to the vegetables in the baking dish and toss well.

5. Reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees, wrap the tortillas in aluminum foil, and put them in the oven to heat, about 5 minutes. (You can heat them in the microwave too, but the texture is better if you do it in the oven.)

6. When the tortillas are warm, top them with vegetables and cheese (and more salsa if desired), roll them up, and eat them.

Serves: 3-4
Time: 30 minutes

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

MY FAVORITE PASTA SALAD


The title of this dish is a total lie, making it sound as though I have systematically conducted a thorough scientific sampling of all the pasta salad recipes the world has to offer before carefully declaring a winner. A more accurate name would be "My Only Pasta Salad." I can’t even think of another pasta salad I like at all; cold food generally doesn’t charm me. And many of the pasta salads I’ve experienced have contained some ingredient I dislike (olives, artichokes, green peppers) or have had heavy, mayonnaise-y dressings. But this recipe (courtesy of my mom, who has made it for me often) is light and straightforward, full of good things that go together brilliantly, so that each bite I take I find myself analyzing the different combinations: broccoli with mushroom, tomato with mozzarella, mozzarella with summer sausage, summer sausage with tortellini. I can tirelessly eat massive amounts of this salad, as can A, who has been a fan ever since I introduced him to it. This is for the best, since this improvisational recipe tends to result (for me, at least) in massive amounts of pasta salad. I go adding a little more of this and a little more of that to even things out, I decide I might as well use the whole package of mushrooms or the whole bunch of green onions, and suddenly I need multiple bowls to hold all the salad. It’s never a problem, because the salad will keep for at least a week (the mushrooms will start to stain the other ingredients, but that’s all) and tastes even better a few days after being made. It’s great for summer, when you don’t feel like cooking too much and maybe want something to take on a picnic (we always bring it to Cinespia and the Hollywood Bowl). It's also my go-to dish for parties and potlucks. But there’s no time of year when I wouldn’t make this. (Personally, I prefer it not to be ice-cold, and will let my helpings sit at room temperature for about half an hour before I eat—if I can stand to wait that long.)

Make as much or as little as you like. There’s a lot of chopping involved, but otherwise no skill is required.

1 package cheese tortellini, cooked and rinsed in cold water (I usually use the boxed/bagged stuff you find in the dry pasta aisle, about 12 ounces, but the refrigerated stuff works OK too)
4-8 ounces rotini pasta, cooked and rinsed in cold water (I usually use the tri-color variety)
chopped tomato (cherry tomatoes cut in quarters work best; I usually use 1 pint container)
chopped broccoli (I usually use 1 medium head)
sliced mushrooms (I usually use an 8-ounce package of cremini or plain white buttons)
chopped green onion (I usually use 1 bunch, which is about 6)
chopped fresh parsley (I usually use 1 handful)
fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in small cubes (I usually use maybe 4 to 6 ounces)
salami or summer sausage, cut in small cubes (maybe 1/2 to 3/4 lb?)
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
a few dashes Tabasco sauce
½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Boil a large pot of salted water and cook the rotini in it until al dente.

2. While it cooks, mix the tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, green onion, parsley, mozzarella, and salami/summer sausage in a large bowl (or you might need to divide it between two large bowls).

3. When the rotini finishes cooking, drain and rinse it until it's cool. Mix it into the bowl(s) of salad. Refill the pot with water and put it back on the stove to boil for the tortellini. When it boils, add the tortellini and cook it according to the package directions.

4. While the tortellini cooks, mix the remaining ingredients (oil, sugar, vinegar, Tabasco, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper) in a glass jar with a lid (a small bowl is fine too). Based on the amount of salad I've produced, I sometimes decide to go ahead and double the dressing quantities--do whatever feels good to you, but I say better to have too much than not enough.

4. When the tortellini is done, drain it, rinse it until cool, and mix it into the salad bowl(s). Vigorously shake up the jar of dressing (if you’re using a bowl, just whisk very thoroughly until the oil and vinegar blend) and pour it over the salad(s). Mix everything, grind on more black pepper because it makes everything better, and eat. (If you like a colder salad or want to eat it later, cover the bowl and throw it in the refrigerator, of course.)

Serves: as many as you like; with the quantities mentioned above, I can get at least 8 generous servings
Time: maybe 45 minutes

Friday, November 05, 2004

TORTELLINI WITH MUSHROOM-CHEESE SAUCE


To be eaten in moderation, but very good. I don’t even like cream cheese all that much, but boy does it complement mushrooms and garlic. This dish comes out a bit like a mushroom stroganoff, but freshened up by the basil. It’s been a standby favorite of mine ever since I first made it about 5 years ago, in my first apartment after graduating from college. I was cooking with roommate K, who famously proclaimed while doing the prep work, “I feel like I’m a slave to these mushrooms.” (A phrase that inevitably pops into my head when I’m chopping them now. That’s definitely the most laborious part of this recipe—the rest is a cinch.)

This can be a somewhat rich and heavy meal, but it’s easy to adjust the amount of cheese to suit your tastes. The proportions of the recipe (wherever I got it) were very unbalanced, so I’ve restructured it after extensive experimentation. It originally called for one 12-ounce package of tortellini, but all the prepackaged refrigerated fresh tortellini I see at the store (DiGiorno, Buitoni, etc.) comes in 9-ounce packages. A ratio of just 9 ounces of tortellini to 6 ounces of cream cheese is grossly overcheesy (believe me), so I got in the habit of using two packages of tortellini (18 ounces). Last night, in fact, I used a “family pack” of 20 ounces of tortellini, because that was all I could find at the store, and I used even less than 6 ounces of cream cheese (maybe 4-5 ounces). I upped the mushroom amount slightly, too—the “baby portobellas” I like to use come in 6-ounce packages, so I bought three and used all 18 ounces instead of 16. I also put in more than the required 1 tablespoon of basil, because I like basil. And everything turned out great. The very health-conscious among us could probably use even less cheese, but I prefer to just eat small servings of the final product and then have a green salad on the side.

Note: I always try to use brown mushrooms, like cremini—it adds more mushroom flavor and prevents the cream cheese from dominating, and it also makes this a slightly more sophisticated dish and less like something made with a can of Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup.

18-20 ounces fresh cheese tortellini
1 tablespoon butter
1 to 1¼ pounds mushrooms, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
3-4 ounces cream cheese (reduced-fat is OK here), cubed
¾ cup milk
salt and pepper to taste

1. Boil a large pot of salted water for cooking the tortellini. When it boils, add the tortellini and cook according to package directions.

2. Meanwhile, heat the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. When it's melted, add the garlic and mushrooms to the skillet and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are soft and all the liquid they release has evaporated (recipe says 10-12 minutes).

3. Add the cream cheese (add it gradually, to avoid using too much), milk, and basil to the skillet, and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce comes to a gentle boil. It should definitely be liquid and saucelike (if it’s not, you’ve used too much cheese), but not runny and watery (if it is, you don’t have enough cheese). Sprinkle in a little salt and pepper.

4. When the tortellini is done, drain it, add it to the skillet with the sauce, and toss everything together well. Serve garnished with additional basil and black pepper if desired.

Serves: 4-6
Time: 30 minutes

Thursday, November 04, 2004

CHEESY STUFFED POTATOES


This is what you make for dinner when your candidate is looking likely to lose the most important presidential election in your lifetime. It takes a long time but does not require a lot of work, so you have ample opportunity to glue yourself to the television, or to flee the television and walk down to the video store to rent a movie starring Bill Murray. It involves a lot of vengeful stabbing and violent mashing of potatoes with forks. It contains a lot of cheese, which most sane people find extremely delicious and reassuring. It is warm, hearty, familiar, and comforting. You are treating yourself. You are keeping your strength up. But you also eat a big green salad or a large helping of steamed green vegetables, because you know you do not need to feel any more guilty, depressed, and ashamed the next morning—the newspaper headlines will make you feel quite bad enough.

4 large baking potatoes, well scrubbed
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into small bits
½ cup sour cream (you could probably also use yogurt; I go with the light sour cream)
1 cup finely cubed Muenster cheese
½ cup finely cubed cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
paprika to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Scrub the potatoes under cold running water, prick them with a fork in a few places, and place them in the oven directly on the rack to bake for 1 hour, or until the skin is crispy and they're tender throughout.

2. Remove the potatoes from the oven (leaving the oven on), slice them in half lengthwise, and let them cool for a few minutes. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop most of their flesh out with a spoon into a large bowl, leaving ¼-inch-thick potato shells. Place a few butter bits into each of the shells.

3. Mash the potato flesh in the bowl with a fork, then stir in the sour cream, cheese, and parsley. Spoon the mixture into the potato shells, then sprinkle each one with paprika.

4. Put the potatoes on a baking sheet. Return them to the oven and bake them for about 20 minutes, or until they're hot and bubbly.

Serves: 4
Time: 1½ hours

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

SPAGHETTI WITH LOTS OF NICE VEGETABLES


Faithful BookCook readers will have realized by now that I possess an endless parade of recipes for pasta with vegetables, so the name “Spaghetti With Lots of Nice Vegetables” seems incredibly undescriptive and unhelpful—at least until you consider that its original name, in whatever cookbook I found it in, was “Ligurian-Style Spaghetti.” I can’t in good conscience go around using the word “Ligurian” when I don’t even know what it means, particularly not to describe a simple pasta dish. If A were to ask, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” and I answered, “Ligurian-Style Spaghetti,” that would be no help to anybody. In comparison, the new name I’ve come up with is a miracle of clarity. I have, by the way, consulted the American Heritage Dictionary on this, and it turns out Liguria is “A region of northwest Italy on the Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea between northwest Italy and Corsica. Named for an ancient pre-Indo-European people, the Ligurii, the region was subdued by the Romans in the 2nd century b.c. and was later (16th–19th century) controlled by Genoa. A small section of the coastline surrounding Genoa formed the Ligurian Republic from 1797 until 1815.” This is enlightening, but my dinner doesn’t need quite so much provenance. The new name sticks.

Although I don’t ever exactly crave this meal, it’s in the regular repertoire because it’s colorful, fresh, light, and complex-tasting. There aren’t a lot of surprises here (except possibly the carrots), but everything comes together exceptionally well. There are no difficulties in the preparation, beyond the large variety of ingredients (lots of chopping and slicing). I cooked it without incident last night and we both wolfed down our portions. A especially enjoyed it and declared me to be “on a roll” in the kitchen.

4 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into small julienne strips
1 small zucchini, cut into small julienne strips
1 small yellow zucchini or summer squash, cut into small julienne strips
1 tablespoon salt, plus extra for seasoning
1 pound spaghetti
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Mix tomatoes, 1 tablespoon basil, 1 tablespoon parsley, and 2 tablesoons oil in a small bowl.

2. Put 1 tablespoon salt into a large pot of water and put it on the stove to boil for the pasta. Heat the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it's fully warm, add the garlic, onion, and carrot, season them with a little salt, and cook them, stirring frequently—the recipe says for 5 minutes, but I do it for longer, at least 10 minutes, until the onions and carrot are quite soft, because that is how I like them. Add the zucchini and summer squash, again seasoning with a little salt, and cook until they're tender (again, the recipe says 5 minutes; again, I probably do it longer). Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining basil and parsley.

3. Meanwhile, when the water boils, added the spaghetti and cook it until al dente. Drain it, add it to the skillet, and toss with the vegetable sauce. Serve each portion topped with some of the tomato mixture, Parmesan cheese to taste, a little pepper.

Serves: 6
Time: 30-45 minutes

Monday, November 01, 2004

CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP


My nose has been hideously runny lately, so I thought some medicinal food might do me some good. And can you believe I’ve never made chicken noodle soup before? It’s a pretty improvisational business—when I went to consult my mom’s recipe, I found it didn’t contain any measurements, so I lifted some from my Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook; this represents a combination of the two versions. The result was supremely easy, and very tasty. Combined with homemade rolls, this represents the most fully from-scratch meal I’ve ever attempted. I could just feel the wholesomeness oozing out of it.

My mom’s recipe suggests you take a whole chicken, cut up, boil it with vegetables and water to make the stock, and then strain out the chicken and pull the meat off the bones for this soup. This is an efficient method and will result in the best-tasting soup. But I had already made my stock last week, with a chicken carcass, so that wasn’t going to work for me. Instead, I took a boneless chicken breast and some boneless chicken thigh meat, poached them in a covered pan with a little water until they were cooked through, then cubed them and added them to the soup. You can do whatever suits you better: this recipe is very flexible. It will also be just fine if you use frozen vegetables and dried herbs—but make every effort to use fresh, and you’ll be abundantly rewarded.

4½ cups homemade chicken broth
½ cup chopped onion (about 1 medium)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil, or ½ teaspoon dried
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, or ½ teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, or ½ teaspoon dried
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 bay leaf
10 ounces fresh or frozen mixed vegetables, or more to taste (I usually use fresh carrots, celery, corn, and green beans, eyeballing the quantities)
1 cup egg noodles
2 cups cubed or shredded cooked chicken
chopped fresh parsley to taste

1. Place the vegetables, onion, basil, oregano, and rosemary in a large soup pot along with the pepper, salt (you’ll have to adjust this depending on the saltiness of your broth), bay leaf, and broth.

2. Bring the soup to boiling, then stir in the noodles. Return the soup to boiling, reduce the heat, and simmer it for about 8 minutes, until the noodles are al dente. Discard the bay leaf, add the chicken to the soup, and cook for a few more minutes until everything is heated through. Add some fresh parsley and serve.

Serves: 4-6
Time: 30 minutes

BUMPY ROLLS


That’s what I used to call them when I was a kid, because of their cloverleaf shape. My mom would make them often, and I’d eat a lot of them. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to eat a bumpy roll is to pull the three sections apart slightly (leaving them connected at the bottom), spread them with butter, and microwave them for 30 seconds or so until the roll is hot and tender and the butter is molten. I’m sure they would also be good with honey. They’re really the perfect basic wheat dinner roll, and fun to eat at that.


I’m not much of a baker, but I thought it would be fun to give breadmaking a shot yesterday. I wouldn’t say it was the easiest thing I’ve ever made, but I also think it would be much easier with practice, when one wasn’t so concerned about the potential to mess things up at every turn. I did have a good time—the chemistry of baking is always interesting (though yeast freaks me out somewhat—those little crumbs are alive), I do love the feeling of kneading dough, and the entire apartment still smells of fresh bread—I dare you to name a cozier smell than that. It was a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, as I could do one of the recipe steps, go do laundry or cleaning or an errand while the dough rose, and then come back and do the next step. Despite my fears, the rolls turned out tasting nearly as good as mom’s (Me: “They’re not quite the same.” A: “Maybe you forgot to add love.”), though the first batch I put in the oven got a bit dark on the bottom. Excessively pleased with myself, I proceeded to eat about four of them, with chicken noodle soup on the side. A happily devoured a few as well, and I froze the remaining two dozen for later. Now I’m eagerly eyeing the bread recipes in my books—we’ll see what comes of that, if anything.


2 packets (2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2½ teaspoons salt
4 cups white flour
¼ cup instant nonfat dry milk or 1¼ cups milk
¼ cup honey
2 cups wheat flour
3 tablespoons soft shortening

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast with 1 cup warm water, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ cup white flour. Beat this with a whisk until it's smooth, and then cover the bowl with a damp dishtowel and let it stand in a warm place for about 15 minutes (other recipes I consulted suggested the warm place should be about 80-85 degrees, so I put my bowl in the bathroom with the door shut and turned on the odd little heating unit on the wall; it seems a more conventional method is to put the bowl in the oven—which should be turned off—and put a pan of hot water on the lower rack).

2. When the 15 minutes are up, heat 1¼ cups milk almost to boiling in the microwave, let it cool until you can stick your finger into it comfortably, then add it to the bowl (you can use 1¼ cups warm water with ¼ cup instant nonfat dry milk, if you prefer). Add the honey, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, the wheat flour, and the shortening, and then beat the mixture for 2 minutes with an electric mixer. Gradually stir in (by hand, with a wooden spoon) about 3½ cups white flour to make a very stiff dough. (This was probably the most laborious part of the process—I kept thinking the dough wouldn’t possibly take any more flour, but it always would, after I expended a lot of arm power stirring it up.) Next, spread a little flour on the counter, dump the dough out of the bowl, and knead it until it was smooth. Wash the bowl out, grease it lightly with shortening, place the kneaded dough inside, cover it with the damp dishtowel again, and let it rise until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

3. When the dough has risen, lightly grease muffin tins with shortening. (You’ll want three if possible, as this recipe makes about 36 rolls.) Uncover the dough, punch it down, and begin pulling off little bits with your fingers and rolling them into small balls. In each muffin slot, you want to place three balls of dough, each about one inch in diameter, touching one another at the edges like the leaves of a clover. Fill your pans, cover them with the damp dishtowel, and let the rolls rise until they have doubled in size, about 30 minutes. (Because I only have two muffin tins, I had some dough left, so I just kept that in the bowl, covered it, and let it rise again as well, figuring it couldn’t hurt--and it didn’t.)

4. Near the end of the 30 minutes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the rolls have finished rising, put them in the oven for 15 minutes, until the tops are light brown. Remove them from the tins and cool them on wire racks. (At this point, if you have remaining dough as I did, wash out one of the muffin tins, regrease it, punch down the remaining dough, shape it into rolls, let it rise 30 minutes, and bake it as well.)

Makes: about 3 dozen rolls
Time: about 2½ hours, but only 30 minutes of that is actual work

Friday, October 29, 2004

PASTA WITH PEPPERS


Yet another creative use of vegetables with pasta, thanks to Pasta e Verdura. I don’t even have a particular fondness for peppers—I hate the green ones, and I tolerate the others, but don’t seek them out—and yet I really enjoy this dish. It’s so cheerfully fresh and colorful, has an intense zesty flavor but isn’t too heavy. Plus, it’s incredibly simple to make; I think the most laborious part was just seeding and slicing the peppers (those darn seeds get everywhere). When I made this on Wednesday night, we devoured our food in about a minute flat, even A, who just had a cap put on his tooth and can’t chew well (pasta with peppers—perfect for the ill and infirm!).

5 medium bell peppers (about 2 pounds), in a variety of colors (I usually use red, yellow, and orange)
1/3 cup olive oil
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup minced fresh basil leaves
1 pound fettuccine or other long pasta
freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta. While it's heating, halve the peppers and cut out the cores, seeds, and white membranes. Cut the peppers into thin slices and cut the slices in half crosswise.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté until the garlic is fragrant and lightly colored, about 1 minute. Add the peppers and salt to the skillet, toss to coat them with the oil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers have softened considerably but are not mushy, 15-20 minutes.

3. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until al dente. When the peppers are done, add the basil to the pan, then drain the pasta and add it as well. Toss everything together, dish it out, and sprinkle cheese over each serving.

Serves: 6
Time: 30-40 minutes

SAUSAGE AND EGGPLANT “LASAGNA”

Don’t the quotes in the title look silly? Or, excuse me, “silly”? But they’re actually accurate; this is indeed pretty much like lasagna, in that it has layers of meat and cheese and tomato sauce, only it has eggplant instead of those pesky noodles. Like lasagna, the tastes meld together beautifully. And also like lasagna, it’s pretty labor-intensive, but it can conveniently be made ahead of time and baked later, so it’s good for company. I of course didn’t take advantage of this when I made it on Monday night; I just plodded along through the whole recipe while engaged in a long phone conversation—always a risky undertaking, but I didn’t get distracted enough to ruin anything.

I think this may be from Bruce Aidells’ Sausage Cookbook; anyway, I’d only made it once before. The results of the first trial had obviously been good enough to keep the recipe around, but I do recall it turning out too oily and heavy. So my challenge during Round 2 was to see if it could be made less greasy—and, therefore, worthy of keeping in the long term. I am happy to announce that I succeeded. The problem had simply been eggplant’s amazing ability to soak up oil like a sponge; the first time, I’d followed the recipe’s instructions to “drizzle with several tablespoons of oil.” This time, I used the oil very sparingly and cut down on the quantity of cheese (1 pound is a lot of mozzarella—you just don’t need that much). And the result was a nice, savory dish, rich but not overwhelming.

Both times, I’ve made a half-recipe, by the way. We just don’t need that much leftover “lasagna” cluttering up the refrigerator.

Postscript, December 2009: Ultimately, this proved to be too labor-intensive and rich to earn a regular place in my rotation, so I'm banishing it to the "Not Favorites" category. I'm still not a huge eggplant lover, try as I might.

2 medium-large eggplants
olive oil
2 pounds hot or sweet Italian sausage
2 medium onions, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
½ pound sliced mushrooms
16 ounces canned tomato sauce
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound thinly sliced mozzarella cheese, or to taste (I use less)
½ pound freshly grated Parmesan, or to taste (I use less)

1. Heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Slice sausage into 1/2-inch pieces. When the skillet is hot, add the sausage slices and brown for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. When the sausage is brown, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon and put it on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Turn down the heat to medium, add the onion and garlic to the sausage drippings, and cook them for about 5 minutes. When the onions are soft, add the fennel, basil, and mushrooms and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and the wine, bring the sauce to a boil, and decrease the heat to a simmer. Simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes.

3. While the sauce is cooking, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with tinfoil and then very lightly oil the surface. Trim the ends off the eggplant, peel it, and slice it lengthwise (be careful not to make the slices too thin, by the way, or they’ll overcook and get limp and useless). Place the slices on the baking sheet and brush them with the barest possible amount of olive oil. Put the baking sheet in the oven to cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft. About midway through, flip the slices over, just to see how they're cooking (and to keep them from sticking to the sheet too much). When eggplant is tender, remove from oven and reduce heat to 350 degrees.

4. When the tomato sauce has simmered for 30 minutes, add the sausage and cook about 10 minutes longer, then add some pepper and a little salt and remove from heat.

5. Get out your 9x13 baking dish (since I was doing a half recipe, I used a 9x9). Place a layer of eggplant on the bottom of the dish, cover it with a layer of the tomato-sausage sauce, and then add a layer of sliced mozzarella and grated Parmesan. Continue layering ingredients, ending with a layer of cheese on top. (The recipe notes that the “lasagna” can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated overnight.)

6. Bake 20-30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted and beginning to brown on top. Remove from oven, let it rest for 10 minutes, and then slice and serve.

Serves: 8
Time: 1½ hours

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

THREE-CHEESE MANICOTTI

I got this recipe from my mother, and I make it occasionally out of nostalgia, and also out of a love of cheese. I don’t make it too often, because it is very similar to my mom’s recipe for stuffed pasta shells, but stuffed pasta shells also have spinach and, to me, a more pleasing shape. Still, this is a good, simple, friendly recipe, almost guaranteed to be inoffensive to everyone who doesn’t hate cheese, tomato sauce, or pasta. And besides, stuffing things into other things is not only fun, but will also make your food seem much fancier than it in fact is—thus, this is a good dish to make for guests, especially since you can stuff the manicotti ahead of time. Pour on the sauce, throw them in the oven when you’re ready to sere, make a side salad, and you’re all set.

14 manicotti shells (usually, this is 1 package)
1½ cups cottage cheese or ricotta cheese (I prefer cottage cheese; it's moister and creamier)
1¼ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese, plus extra to taste
2 beaten eggs
¼ teaspoon pepper
16 ounces canned tomato sauce
½ teaspoon each dried basil and oregano
¼ teaspoon fennel seed

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove, and then add the manicotti, cook them until al dente, drain them, and rinse them in cold water until they're cool enough to handle.

3. Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add the ricotta/cottage cheese, mozzarella, Parmesan, and pepper. Use a small spoon to stuff this mixture into the manicotti shells when they're ready, and then place the stuffed manicotti in a shallow 9x13” baking dish. At this point you can throw the dish into the refrigerator if you’ll be serving it later, or you can even put the manicotti on a baking sheet instead of in the dish, throw the baking sheet in the freezer, wait until the manicotti harden, put them in a Ziplock bag, and then store them in the freezer until some later date.

3. When ready to cook, mix the tomato sauce with the basil, oregano, and fennel and then pour over the manicotti. Put the baking dish, uncovered, into the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the sauce is warm and bubbly and just slightly cooked down, and the cheeses look melted. Sprinkle a little Parmesan over the top and bake for 5 more minutes.

Serves: 4 (3.5 manicotti per serving), or more if you want smaller servings
Time: 1 hour

Monday, October 25, 2004

EASY LENTIL SOUP

Legumes are not by any stretch of the imagination my favorite food category, but my mom must have made lentil soup occasionally when I was little, because the taste is familiar and reassuring. I forgot its existence for a long time, until I had lentil soup at a potluck last winter and some vague sense memories were reawakened. Shortly afterward, I found this recipe somewhere (online, I think) and added it to my repertoire. I couldn’t eat lentil soup every day, or even every month—I think this is only the second or third time I’ve used this recipe—but it’s good, nourishing comfort food. This is, as promised, an easy version, but it’s still flavorful, especially when eaten as leftovers (as with many soups, the flavors seem to intensify over a couple of days). Very little skill is required, and you barely have to pay attention to it while it’s cooking. Best of all, it makes the house smell cozy and lentilicious, so for optimal effects, make it on a cold, cloudy, wet day when you’re feeling a little sad and sleepy. (I, however, made it on a brilliantly sunny and warm day after a bracing hike along the ocean, and it tasted just as pleasing to me, so really there’s no need to wait until the bad weather and dark mood strike you.)

3 cups dry lentils
7 cups water
2 teaspoon salt
6-8 medium cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups chopped onion
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes

1. Put the lentils, the water, and the salt in a large pot on the stove, bring it to a boil, and then lower the heat to the lowest possible simmer and cook, partially covered, for 20-30 minutes.

2. Add the garlic, onion, celery, and carrots to the pot along with a generous amount of black pepper. Cover the pot and simmer, covered, 20-30 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot and let them cook at least 5 minutes more, until everything seems tender and warmed through.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour

Friday, October 22, 2004

TORTILLA BLACK-BEAN CASSEROLE


From The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, this faux-Mexican lasagna is one of the old staples from my vegetarian days, exceedingly easy to make, unpretentious, fairly wholesome, and wholly yummy. A doesn’t even like black beans, but he still likes this casserole. I like it even more that I’m using stellar salsa (Trader Joe’s Salsa Especial—I’ll plug it every chance I get), and in addition to what's inside the casserole, I usually spoon more salsa over my serving before I eat it. For cheese, use whatever sounds good to you--I've used the plain Monterey Jack called for, and in a pinch I've turned to a pre-shredded four-cheese Mexican blend as well as plain grated cheddar, but my fave is freshly shredded jalapeno pepper Jack, which adds a nice kick. Use whatever color bell pepper you like, but I favor yellow for color contrast.

1 medium onions, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 medium bell pepper, chopped (about ¾ cup)
8 ounces canned chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup good salsa
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained
6 (6-inch) flour tortillas
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a large skillet, combine the onion, pepper, undrained tomatoes, salsa, cumin, and garlic. Bring this to boiling over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. (It definitely doesn't hurt to cook it a little longer; personally, I like my onions nice and soft.) Add the rinsed, drained beans to the skillet, cook everything together briefly, then turn off the heat.

3. Get out a 9-inch square baking dish. Spread one-third of the bean mixture over the bottom of the dish. Top this with half of the tortillas, overlapping as necessary. (How I fit round tortillas in a square dish: I put one tortilla on, centered, in the middle. Then I cut two more tortillas in half, so I have four half-circular pieces, and I place the straight sides of these pieces so each one touches one of the four sides of the baking dish and the round parts meet in the center—tah dah, even tortilla coverage.) Top the tortillas with half of the cheese, then add another one-third of the bean mixture, the remaining tortillas, and then the remaining bean mixture.

3. Bake this, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 30-35 minutes, until it's heated through. Pull it out of the oven, sprinkle the top with the rest of the cheese, and let it stand about 10 minutes (or until the cheese is melted). Cut it into fourths and serve with additional salsa if desired.

Serves: 4
Time: 1 hour

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

PASTA WITH ZUCCHINI AND TOMATO-CREAM SAUCE

A standard, serviceable pasta recipe from Pasta e Verdura, tasty but nothing exotic. Nothing not to like here: I love zucchini—perhaps the first of the Vegetables I Taught Myself to Like Despite Not Having Much Exposure to Them in the Past—and certainly don’t turn my nose up at a tomato-cream sauce. I’ve already expressed how much I loathe peeling tomatoes, but since homemade fresh tomato sauce is so good, I really can’t complain too vociferously. I’m still using farmers’ market tomatoes; they’re not quite as good as they were in summer, but still light-years better than the waxy, hard, pink-inside specimens I was forced to buy at Trader Joe’s a couple of weeks ago during a Tomato Emergency (two of my farmers’ market tomatoes went bad and I needed quick replacements).

The peeling of the tomatoes is much easier when you don’t blanch them too long, and I managed to do it right last night, which is surprising since I’d gone out for drinks after work to celebrate my managing editor’s birthday and didn’t get home until 8:00, yet decided to cook dinner because I am crazy, so I was rushing and a little…er, fuzzy-headed, and yet somehow the food turned out just fine, and in under an hour. Maybe gin and tonics are the secret to good cooking? In retrospect, eating the leftovers for lunch today, I decided I would have cooked the zucchini slightly longer (in my opinion, the recipe told me to do things in the wrong order, so the pasta was done too early and I had to hurry the sauce along—although just now, I realized that I cut the zucchini lengthwise into fourths and then cut it into cubes, rather than cutting it in half and then into thin slices, which would have made it cook much faster). Anyway, I've revised the order of operations here. But regardless, thumbs up. A was enthusiastic, although he also said, “I was a little suspicious of it until I saw you adding the cream.” A vegetable connoisseur he is not.

4 medium ripe tomatoes (about 1½ pounds)
4 medium zucchini (about 1½ pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup heavy cream
15 large fresh basil leaves, shredded
1 pound penne pasta
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water (4 quarts) to a boil.

2. Heat the oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. While that's warming, trim the ends off the zucchini, cut them (the zucchini, not the ends) in half lengthwise, and slice them into thin half-moons. Add to the skillet and sauté, stirring frequently, until golden, about 10 minutes.

3. Once the water is a-boiling, cut Xs into the skin on the bottom of the tomatoes and drop them into the boiling water for just 20-60 seconds before removing them with a slotted spoon, running them briefly under cold water, and placing them on a cutting board. Then add the pasta to the boiling water. Peel the tomato skins off, core and seed the tomatoes, and cut them into ½-inch cubes.

4. When the zucchini is tender and just starting to brown, add the garlic to the skillet and cook for 1 minute. Then add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring several times, until the tomatoes are heated through, about 2 minutes.

5. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the cream and cook, stirring often, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Stir in the basil.

6. When the pasta is al dente, drain it, then toss it with the sauce and the ¼ cup Parmesan. Portion out the pasta into bowls, sprinkle on a little extra Parmesan and pepper, and you're done.

Serves: 6
Time: 45 minutes

Monday, October 18, 2004

LEEK AND POTATO SOUP


I made this last night for A and his mother: my best, most reliable, serve-to-company, make-a-lot-at-once-and-freeze-for-later soup recipe. It’s easy, quick (as far as soups go), and very flavorful—especially this time, since I used the homemade chicken stock instead of canned broth. The milk, potatoes, and broth make it hearty and comforting enough for winter; the leeks, herbs, and lemon make it light and bright enough for spring. It’s good on its own, with a side salad, or with bread and cheese (like Gouda or Edam). It may be the perfect soup.

P.S. For extra awesomeness, try a little fresh-cracked lemon pepper over the top. Heaven!

5 cups sliced leeks, white and light green parts only (1½ pounds trimmed)
1½ tablespoons butter
4 pounds russet potatoes
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, if you’re vegetarian)
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
juice of ½ lemon
pepper
milk or cream to taste (optional)

1. Scrub the potatoes thoroughly and cut them into ½-inch dice, throw them into a large soup pot, and add the water and salt (you can add a little more water if needed to cover them, which I typically have to do). Bring this to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are tender.

2. While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Trim the root ends and dark green ends off the leeks, wash the leeks thoroughly, quarter them lengthwise, and slice them thinly, then add them to the butter in the skillet. Cook, stirring often, until they're very limp. (I like to cook them pretty well; otherwise they can be a little tough and squeaky between your teeth. They shouldn't brown, however--if they do, turn down the heat.)

3. When the potatoes are done, add the cooked leeks to the pot, along with the broth, herbs, lemon juice, and a generous amount of pepper. Cook everything together for about 10 minutes, taste for seasonings and correct them as needed (for me, it usually wants a little more salt, as there's none in my homemade broth). You may also add a little milk or cream (just eyeball it) to make the soup more creamy.

4. The soup can be eaten as-is, but I like to puree it briefly in a blender to make it smoother. Usually, I only puree about half or ¾ of the soup, so some texture remains. (You can also just mash the potatoes with a masher, if you want it less chunky but not pureed.)

Serves: about 12
Time: 45 minutes

PASTA ASCIUTTA


Don’t ask me when I made this. Thursday night, maybe? Last week was a slow BookCook week—one night of unexpected pizza, one night of a rerun recipe (steak tacos, of which I can now say that an extra day of marination, due to having the aforementioned unexpected pizza on the day tacos were originally planned, was not at all a bad thing). Other things not to ask me: where I got this recipe, or what the word “asciutta” means. Although if I had to take a guess, it means “delicious but insanely decadent,” because the original version of this recipe calls for ¾ cup olive oil, ½ cup butter, and 1 cup cheese. In addition, of course, to the carbolicious pasta and potatoes. I am not one to shy away from such things, but even to me that seems excessive. By all means, feel free to try the original version, but I managed to reduce the quantities slightly and still produce a very good meal. It’s not just about the cheese, butter, and oil, but also the green beans (I do love green beans), the sweetness of the onions, and the plentiful garlic. It reminds me of pasta mixed with garlic mashed potatoes, but fresher, less overwhelming than that. Highly recommended, though maybe in small, infrequent doses.

6 medium red potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 pound fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil
12 cloves garlic, quartered
1 onion, chopped
1 pound fettuccine or lingune
¼ cup butter
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup shredded fresh basil

1. Bring a medium pot of lightly salted water to a boil for cooking the potatoes. When it boils, dump the potatoes in and cook until they're tender, being careful not to overook. While the potatoes are cooking, steam the green beans until they're tender but still crisp (the recipe says 10-12 minutes, but I don’t think I cooked them that long). Once the beans are steaming away, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta.

2. So, while the potatoes are boiling, the beans are steaming, and the pasta water is heating (this is a multitasking recipe), heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions and garlic and sauté until they're very tender and golden.

3. When the potatoes finish cooking, drained them. When the beans finish cooking, remove them from the heat. When the pasta water boils, add the pasta.

4. When the onions and garlic are cooked, add the butter to the pan and heat until it's melted. Then add the potatoes, green beans, and about ½ teaspoon salt, toss well, and turn off the heat.

5. When the pasta is al dente, remove about ½ cup of the starchy pasta water. Then drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Toss the pasta and sauce with the cheese, basil, and a lot of pepper. If the pasta clumps or seems dry, add some pasta water (or you can add a little more olive oil instead, if you want).

Serves: 6
Time: 45 minutes

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

PASTA WITH LEEKS AND WHITE WINE


Mmmm, leeks. This is very leeky pasta—not much else to it, really. Naturally, the recipe is from Pasta e Verdura, my source for out-of-the-ordinary vegetable pasta dishes. I’ve made it a number of times, although this wasn’t the most shining example of it. I discovered I didn’t have any parsley and had to make do with basil, which was OK, but not the same: more bitter, less bright. Also, it really bugs me how little leek pieces are capable of getting strewn everywhere in my kitchen. Still, this was tasty—the sweet onionyness of the leeks is perfect with the dry tartness of the wine. Lots of elegance for very little effort.

Can I just voice a pet peeve here, which is that recipes often call for freshly ground pepper in specific quantities? What am I supposed to do, grind it into a teaspoon to measure it? (Yes, I guess so.) Usually I just grind what looks like enough directly into the dish. This time, however, I noticed this recipe calls for ½ teaspoon pepper, whereas most seem to ask for only ¼ teaspoon. So I shelved the pepper grinder, brought out a container of preground pepper, measured out ½ teaspoon, and boy howdy that’s a lot more pepper than I would ever have thought to add on my own. And I’m glad I did it that way, because the end result tasted nice and peppery, which helped balance out the leeks.

4 medium leeks (about 2 pounds)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1 pound penne pasta
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot for cooking the pasta.

2. While the water is heating, trim the dark green tops, the root ends, and the tough outer layers from the leeks, then cut each one in half lengthwise. Wash the leeks under cold running water, gently spreading apart (but not separating) the layers to remove all traces of soil. (I enjoy cleaning leeks, because you can see the dirt come right off. You have to be thorough, though, as there’s nothing grosser than gritty leeks.) Set the leeks on the cutting board and slice them crosswise into very thin strips.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the leeks when the oil is warm, and sauté them over medium heat until they're completely wilted. (The recipe says this should take about 10 minutes, but I probably let it go a little longer, as I dislike the squeakiness of undercooked leeks. But the leeks shouldn’t start to brown—if they do, reduce the heat. I've also found that it's helpful to cover the leeks, which allows them to steam and get really tender.)

4. When the pasta water boils, pour in the penne and cook until al dente.

5. When the leeks are suitably wilted, pour in the wine, the salt, and the pepper. Simmer over low heat until the aroma of the wine fades and the sauce thickens a bit, about 5 minutes, and then stir in the parsley.

6. Drain the pasta when it's cooked, mix it with the leek sauce, add the grated cheese, and serve.

Serves: 6
Time: 30-40 minutes

Monday, October 11, 2004

ROAST LEMON CHICKEN WITH HONEY GLAZE & SWEET POTATOES

Hair-Raising Adventures In Chicken Roasting, Part II, in which we have the opposite experience from last time but, like last time, everything turns out OK in the end. This is another recipe from Martha Rose Schulman’s Ready When You Are, a book I’m really thinking about buying because everything I’ve made from it has turned out great, if a little intimidating in execution. But I like a challenge. This was actually simplicity itself, except that my chicken got very, very brown very, very quickly, and finished much sooner than the recipe claimed it would, which was worrisome. (In retrospect, this was probably because I was using a chicken on the smaller end of the continuum, about 3½ pounds.) And I’d thought I was smarter than the recipe, which was trying to tell me to cook the potatoes for 90 minutes, which seemed sure to produce little blackened lumps of coal. So I added the potatoes later than I was instructed to, but then since my chicken was done sooner than expected I had to remove the chicken and cook the potatoes longer, which didn’t end up being a big deal but caused me a little stress that everything wasn’t going the way it was supposed to. Not to mention that I was using ordinary red potatoes instead of sweet potatoes, because A doesn’t like sweet potatoes, and I wasn’t sure if that would work.

But glory hallelujah, this was some good chicken. At first bite I was suspicious—it seemed bland, and I started hankering for flavoring, like garlic or herbs. But then I realized: this just tastes like chicken. Good, sweet, crispy chicken. The lemon isn’t too assertive, but it made the meat really moist, even despite the fact that I probably overcooked it (OK, the breast was maybe a tad dry, but it could have been much worse. The legs, at least, were perfect). The honey made the skin delicious. The potatoes were roasted potatoes, but with a little glaze (I’d brushed on some of the leftover honey). A was enthusiastic. I’ll definitely make it again.

Postscript, December 2009: I have made it again a few more times, but since it just can't compete with my other roasted chicken recipes, it's fallen out of favor. The lemon and the honey aren't quite enough to set it apart, and if I want sweet potatoes, I'll just have them with the other mixed vegetables in this iteration. Time to slap on the "Not Favorites" label, I think.

1 chicken (3½ to 4 ½ pounds)
1 cup fresh lemon juice (for me, this was about 6 lemons)
salt and freshly ground pepper
4-6 medium or large sweet potatoes (or red potatoes, or a mix)
¼ cup mild honey, such as clover

1. The night before you're going to roast the chicken, place it in a large Ziplock bag. Pour the lemon juice into the bag, seal it, and refrigerate it for 12-24 hours. Turn the bag over a couple of times while the chicken's marinating to make sure the it soaks in the juice all over.

2. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a roasting pan (I actually use a large, heavy baking sheet). Drain the chicken and season it all over with salt and pepper, set it on the baking sheet breast side down, and put it in the oven for 10 minutes.

3. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and add the potatoes to the roasting pan. The recipe tells you to scrub them, pierce them several times with a sharp knife, and roast them whole, but I like potatoes with as many brown and crispy surfaces as possible, so I cut mine into fourths; I also seasoned them with salt and pepper. Return the pan to the oven and cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

4. After 45 minutes, the chicken should be a nice golden brown. Put the honey in a bowl and microwave it for 15 seconds to thin it out, then brush it over the chicken’s back. Turn the chicken over so the breast faces up. (Unfortunately, all the breast skin stuck to the pan and ripped away as I did this. I’m not sure how that could be remedied in the future, but it should be, because it would help protect the breast meat from drying out.) Brush this side of the chicken with honey. (I also gave the potatoes a little brushing of honey, for good measure.)

5. Put the pan back in the oven and cook for another 45 minutes, basting often with the pan juices and any leftover honey, until the chicken is browned and the potatoes are tender. Take the pan out of the oven and let the chicken sit for 10-15 minutes so it'll be firm enough to carve. (If your potatoes need to cook longer, remove the chicken to a plate and return the potatoes to the oven.) Carve the chicken and (if you left your potatoes whole) cut the potatoes into chunks, peeling if desired. Serve with a little pan juice spooked over each serving.

Serves: 4 (maybe 6 if you have a bigger chicken or can carve more meat off the bones than I can)
Time: 1½ to 2 hours, plus 12-24 hours to marinate

Friday, October 08, 2004

FACE-BURNING SPAGHETTI


Of course, this wasn’t always its name. When I got from whatever cookbook I got it from, years ago, it was called something descriptive and boring, like “Spaghetti With Garlic, Hot Pepper Flakes, and Toasted Bread Crumbs.” No, it’s not the hot pepper flakes that inspired me to change the name. It’s the fact that this is the only pasta that has ever injured me. About four years ago, when A and I were in the midst of the long-distance portion of our relationship, he was visiting me in St. Paul, it was our last night together before he returned to L.A., and I was making this pasta for dinner. I came to the part of the recipe where I was supposed to reserve and set aside ½ cup of the water the spaghetti was boiling in. Just before I turned the stove off and drained the pasta, I took my measuring cup and carefully dipped it into the pot to scoop out some boiling water. At this moment, a drop of water splashed up and splattered my hand, startling me so much that my hand jumped. Which caused me to jerk the measuring cup violently. Which meant that I threw boiling water directly into my own face. Which now I find really funny, but at the time I wasn’t amused. I wasn’t dramatically hurt (my glasses protected me from most of it; I only sustained a tiny pink burn on my temple that faded in a few days), but it stung like hell, and the end of our visits was always an emotional time for me anyway, so I basically threw a big fit—I remember writhing around on the floor at one point in pain and annoyance. A was very calm and helpful and plied me with jokes and cold compresses, and in half an hour or so I was laughing about it. And after that, “face-burning spaghetti” just became the easiest way to describe it. “That pasta with the garlic and red pepper flakes and tomatoes and bread crumbs” just isn’t specific enough, but with “face-burning” we both know exactly what we’re referring to.

This is an intense pasta, so the name works in more than just an inside-joke sense. It’s one of my favorites, actually, despite the traumatic memory associated with it. There aren’t any surprises here, just a few basic flavors that go together very, very well, applied in generous quantities. I never feel the urge to make just a marinara-style tomato spaghetti sauce, because this has pretty much the same ingredients but is so much better. You really gotta try this—just be careful with the pasta water, OK?

Note: I made the bread crumbs from part of a French baguette I had in the freezer. I always say I’m going to make crumbs the easy smart-person way, in the blender, and then I think about how annoying the blender is to wash, and then I start tearing the bread into crumbs with my hand, and The Simpsons is on, and before I know it I’ve got 2 cups of bread crumbs. But I’m not suggesting this is at all the best way to go about it.

8 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1 pound spaghetti
6-12 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼-½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 large tomatoes, cored and diced
1 cup fresh Italian parsley, minced
½ teaspoon salt

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta. When it boils, add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

2. While the pasta water heats, put 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, and when it's warm add the crumbs and stir them thoroughly so they all soak up some oil. Cook them until they get nice and crisp and golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Scrape them into a bowl and set them aside, and put the skillet back on the stove. (I love when recipes thoughtfully allow you to conserve dishes.)

3. Add the rest of the oil to the still-hot skillet, then add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and sauté a few minutes. (The recipe says 1 minute, but I always seem to end up doing it a little longer than that as I’m waiting for the pasta to finish cooking. I don’t think this matters, the tomatoes just break down a little more. But still, they should only be cooked briefly. If you're still waiting around for the pasta to finish, you can remove the skillet from the heat until you're ready to continue.)

4. When the pasta is done, scooped out ½ cup of the boiling water with caution, ease, and grace, then drain the pasta. Mix the pasta water, parsley, and salt into the skillet with the tomatoes, remove it from the heat, and toss it with the spaghetti. Dish the pasta out into serving/storage bowls, and sprinkle bread crumbs over each portion.

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes

Thursday, October 07, 2004

CREAMY CARROT-POTATO SOUP


This is one of my go-to soups, smooth, mellow, and festively orange. It’s one of those deceptively simple recipes that somehow ends up being much more than the sum of its parts. You think, “Ugh, pureed boiled vegetables with hardly any flavoring?” and then you taste it and it seems so savory and complex. As usual, this is best with homemade chicken stock, but if there is a canned chicken broth you enjoy the flavor of, go for it; just use the low-sodium version if possible. (There’s no reason the vegetarians and vegans among us couldn’t substitute vegetable broth, either.) Also, I accompanied it with Green Garlic Bread, an excellent choice if I do say so myself. (Although with the bright green and the bright orange, our table looked like a St. Patrick’s Day parade.) If you don’t feel like spending so much of your evening hunched over the blender, some bread and butter and a green salad make fine side dishes for this, too. But no matter what, try this soup—it’s easy, healthy, and perfect for autumn.

1 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large potato, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chicken stock
chopped fresh oregano for garnish

1. Put the vegetables in a 2-quart saucepan, add water to cover them, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and and simmer until they're easily pierced with a sharp knife, about 25 minutes. Drain them in a colander.

2. Puree the vegetables in the blender (you can use a food processor or immersion blender instead if you have one) with the butter, salt, and pepper.

3. Pour the puree back into the saucepan, stir in the chicken stock, and cook the soup over medium heat until it's blended, thickened, and heated through. Ladle it into bowls, sprinkle on some oregano, grind on some more pepper, and serve.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes

GREEN GARLIC BREAD


This one is for the garlic fans. What we’ve got here is basically a pesto baked on some bread, but you’ll notice the pesto contains 10 cloves of garlic. Even I quail slightly at this. You will wake up with garlic breath the next morning, but this stuff is worth it, glowingly green, zesty, and all nice and toasty-crusty on the bread. I have no idea where I got this recipe; I’ve had it for years. I don’t make it regularly (it’s a bit labor-intensive for a side dish; generally if I want to make garlic bread I just toast the bread in the oven and then rub a garlic clove over it) but last night I hit upon the bright idea of making it as a companion to the shockingly orange Creamy Carrot-Potato Soup. Although I had to use two blenders to make this happen, they went extremely well together, the spicy freshness of the pesto with the sweet, mellow, earthier soup. I very much recommend the pairing.

Note: I don’t know that I’ve really ever used a full loaf of bread for this recipe; maybe I spread the pesto too thick or something. Last night I used half a French baguette—but the baguette was about five inches wide, so there was a lot of surface area on which to spread stuff. Just eyeball it.

Also, if you use less garlic, no one will judge you. I've gotten away with as few as five cloves without sacrificing any deliciousness.

10 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1-pound loaf of Italian bread or French baguette

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dump all the ingredients (except the bread, of course) into the blender (or you can use a food processor, of course, if you’re fancy enough to have one). Puree this until it's fairly smooth.

2. Cut the bread loaf in half horizontally, i.e., from end to end (generally I cut it in half, or even in fourths, crosswise first to make this easier). Set the bread pieces, crust side down, cut sides up, on a large baking sheet and spread the cut sides with the pesto.

3. Bake until the pesto is crusty and just beginning to brown, 10-12 minutes. Cut the bread into thick slices and serve it warm.

Serves: 4-6
Time: 20 minutes

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

CHICKEN BREASTS BAKED ON MUSHROOM CAPS


Zowie. This new recipe (from The Joy of Cooking’s All About Chicken book) was a cinch to make, yet it seemed so sophisticated. Maybe it was just the fact that I had to cook pan juices down into a sauce, in the French manner, that made me feel all fancy-dancy, but the thing tasted good and rich, too. A pronounced this “an A+ recipe.” I’m not sure I’d go quite so far (my heart still belongs to Greek Chicken, which coincidentally is from the same recipe book), but I was pleased and will still be adding this to my repertoire. I felt especially triumphant because I’d felt so dubious during the cooking process; my chicken, mushrooms, and sauce didn’t seem to be behaving as the recipe said they would, so I had the sneaking suspicion I was doing it all wrong and was about to produce a disastrous meal. First of all, there is a lot of wine involved, and mine just wouldn’t cook down in the oven (or the mushrooms produced a heck of a lot of liquid themselves); then the chicken didn’t seem to be browning; the mushrooms shrank by half; the sauce seemed like it would never reduce and thicken. The recipe and I seemed to go our separate ways when it said cryptically, “For a low-fat sauce, add enough water or chicken stock to measure 1 cup. For a more luxurious sauce, add ½ to 1 cup heavy cream.” It was the “enough…to measure 1 cup” phrasing that had me a little confused; did it mean to just add a cup of water or chicken stock, or did it mean that the water or chicken stock plus the pan juices should equal 1 cup total? I already had a full 1 cup of pan juices. But I was going the cream route anyway, because I love the word “luxurious,” so I just added ½ cup cream to my pan juices and proceeded. And it worked, eventually.

Everything turned out great in the end, savory and intensely mushroomy (if perhaps a tad salty, because I’d used cooking wine, which already has salt in it, so if I’d been thinking I wouldn’t have added much additional salt). It felt a little like alchemy, as it always does when you take plain-seeming ingredients and turn them into something new.

I made a half-recipe, because I didn’t want to be eating leftover chicken all week. We had some green salad on the side.

6 chicken skin-on breast halves, either boneless or bone-in
1 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
6 large Portobello mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cups dry white wine
olive oil
1 cup water or chicken stock, or ½ to 1 cup cream
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold the chicken pieces in a single layer (for me, with three chicken breasts, that was a 9-by-9-inch dish; for the full recipe it should be 9-by-13). Snap the stems off the mushrooms and arrange them gill side down over the bottom of the pan. (Mine weren’t really that large, so I decided to use 5 of them instead of 3. I was glad I did, because they ended up shrinking down so much as they cooked.) Sprinkle the minced garlic over the mushrooms, along with salt and pepper. Pour the white wine over the mushrooms. (Wow, that’s a lot of wine. My mushrooms actually started floating.)

2. Rinse the chicken breasts and patt them dry, then season them all over with salt, pepper, and the thyme. Lay them skin side up on the mushrooms, and brush them lightly with olive oil. Put the pan in the oven, uncovered, and bake until the chicken skin turns golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Actually, I think I ended up baking them longer, because the skin didn’t seem to be browning. Finally it achieved a very light shade of golden, which I figured was close enough.)

3. Pull the pan out of the oven. The recipe says, “Check to see if there is some liquid in the pan; if not, add more wine.” (Here's where I started to worry, because my pan not only had “some” liquid, but it also had as much liquid as when I’d started. I still don’t really understand this. Was my wine not “dry” enough? Or maybe my mushrooms were just really watery. Anyway, it didn’t end up mattering, so don’t worry if it happens to you.) Baste the chicken with the pan juices and turn the pieces over, so the skin side is now down. (I sort of question this logic, as it means that the chicken skin, which has just been crisping, now gets all wet and becomes more soggy. It seems as though if you’re going to bother having skin on your chicken, you’d want it to be crisp and browned. I might reverse the order next time, but I don’t know—I don’t want to mess anything up.) Put the pan back in the oven and bake until the chicken is firm and fully cooked, 10-20 minutes more.

4. Pull the pan out of the oven, and use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken and mushrooms to a plate. Pour the pan juices into a saucepan and add 1 cup of water or chicken broth (or, for a richer sauce, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of cream instead). Boil the sauce over high heat “until reduced to a syrupy consistency.”

5. Put a chicken breast on each plate with a mushroom (or a couple of mushrooms if you've made extra), spoon sauce over everything, and sprinkle on some parsley. Just like the pros.

Serves: 6
Time: 1 hour