Monday, February 28, 2005


This soup is a brown puree resembling something small singing children would be fed in a Dickensian workhouse. Luckily, it tastes pretty good. I’m not sure where the recipe came from; I’d made it once before, maybe a year ago, and apparently deemed it good enough to keep, but then not tried it again since. So last week I decided to test it to see if I still liked it. And…yes, I do. I had been worried it would be too bland, and it was not. A, in fact (who fears blandness above all else) particularly enjoyed it. I didn’t passionately love it, but it tasted good (with nice green salad on the side), was easy to make, is different from any other recipe I have, and it’s nice to have a soup recipe on hand that doesn’t require broth. I think the only change I would have made would be to go for a little more mushroom flavor (12 ounces, maybe?) and a smidgen less potato. And I didn’t have any parsley to put on top, which would have reduced the gruel-like appearance. Anyway, if you’re a cream of mushroom soup fan, this is a way to get a similar taste without using any cream.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large scallions, white parts only, chopped
10 ounces firm mushrooms, such as white button, Portobello, or cremini, thinly sliced
1 pound red potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste
minced fresh parsley

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the scallions and sauté, stirring often, until they have softened. (The recipe crazily says, “About 7 minutes,” but mine had already softened and started to turn brown [oops] after just a minute or so. Was I supposed to turn the heat down? Should I have cut bigger onion pieces?) Add the mushrooms and sauté until they soften and begin to give up their liquid. (Again, the recipe says “about 7 minutes.”)

2. When the mushrooms are softened and juicy, add the potatoes and dill to the pot and stir well. Added enough water (maybe 2 cups?) to cover the contents of the pot, stir again, and—well, here the recipe mysteriously said to “raise heat to medium,” but hadn’t the stove been on medium the whole time? There’s nowhere where it said to turn it down… Either I copied it down wrong, or this recipe author is messing with my head. Since the recipe says the soup should be “brought to a gentle simmer,” I took a chance and raised the heat to medium-high. Anyway, when the soup simmers, put the lid on the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the potatoes are soft, “about 15 minutes.”

3. When the potatoes are soft, puree the soup in the blender (I had to do it in two batches) until it's thick, smooth, and creamy. Return it to the pot, turn the stove heat to low, season with salt, pepper, and paprika, sprinkle with fresh parsley, and serve. Then practice saying “Please, sir, can I have some more?” in your best British accent.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes

Friday, February 11, 2005


This is my favorite of all recipes, and if you know me for any length of time, chances are good that I’ll make it for you. It’s a perfect meal for entertaining, because it’s really really super easy: there are only a few ingredients, you can mix most of them together ahead of time, and only one of them has to be cooked. At the same time, because it involves Brie, it is also really really super rich and decadent, and thus is best enjoyed only with friends, for extra special occasions. The price of a pound of Brie being what it is, it’s probably better that way. Once per year is just about right (preferably in the summer, when you can find awesome tomatoes). In fact, I think the last time I made Brie pasta was a year ago, when I had L, J, E, and N over for dinner in my tiny basement apartment on Portland Ave. in St. Paul. On Tuesday night, I had A, M, and K over for dinner to watch the finale of The Amazing Race, so I figured it was time to work the Brie mojo again. I found nicely affordable Canadian (it’s almost French!) Brie at Trader Joe’s, and decent tomatoes (for this time of year) at the farmers’ market, and voila!

Do I even have to describe what this tastes like? The compatability of pasta, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil is already well established. To this you add Brie, which gets all melty, like the best kind of cream sauce, and cheesy, like the best kind of macaroni and cheese. ’Nuff said. The funny thing is that I got this recipe from a little photocopied dorm newsletter when I was in college. It was just squished in there among announcements of campus events and reminders to renew parking permits. I often wonder where the newsletter writer found it in the first place—I’ve even Googled “Tomato Basil Brie Pasta” and found some similar recipes, but one of them had red wine vinegar in it (no way), and the other called for 2 cups (!!!!) of oil (gack…can that possibly be right?), and both asked for Parmesan cheese, which is totally unnecessary when you have—did I mention?—a pound of Brie. Let’s just call it happy chance that I found this recipe, and even happier chance that I’m passing it on to you.

1 pound farfalle (bow-tie) pasta
1 pound Brie cheese
4 large, fresh, ripe tomatoes
1 large handful of fresh basil
1/3 cup olive oil
2-4 cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste

1. Remove the rind from the Brie (I know some people like the rind, but don’t try to use it here—it will ruin the texture) and cut the cheese into small chunks (they don’t have to be perfect, since they will melt anyway, but for ease in melting, don’t make them much larger than an inch). Put these in a large glass bowl (make sure you don’t use a metallic bowl, or you will taste it).

2. Mince the garlic. Keep in mind, the garlic stays raw in this recipe, so if you want to use less than 4 cloves, go ahead (this is the only time you will ever hear me say this). If the garlic is too potent, it will overwhelm the taste of the Brie. Shred the basil and add both it and the garlic to the bowl.

3. Seed and core the tomatoes and chop them into 1-inch chunks, and add them to the bowl. Also add the oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

4. The recipe says to let the mixture marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, but this can be skipped if you’re really hungry. Sometimes I just make it and eat it right away; other times, I’ve let it marinate longer than 2 hours. On this occasion, I probably did it for about an hour. It’s good no matter what, although I think the leftovers taste even better because the flavors have had more time to blend.

5. When it's near time to eat, boil salted water for the pasta and cook it until al dente. Drain the pasta and return it to the cooking pot, then add the tomato-cheese mixture and stir gently. (The pasta makes an earthy squishing sound during this process that I enjoy immensely.) Eventually, the heat of the pasta melts the Brie into a smooth, creamy sauce. Added more salt and pepper and serve (good with a green salad on the side).

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes (plus optional 2-hour marinating time)


First of all, it’s really fun to type the word “kebab.” Kebabkebabkebabkebabkebabkebabkebab…your left-hand pinkie and index fingers get to do this cute little dance. OK, it’s out of my system now. This is another successful recipe from Bistro Chicken, by Mary Ellen Evans. When I started making it last night, I was somewhat worried about how it would turn out, because (a) I was afraid the marinade would be too bland, and (b) potatoes?, and (c) it was raining and we had no charcoal, so we were making the kebabs (whee!) on the George Foreman grill. But I was up for an adventure, and Mary Ellen’s description was too good to resist: “These plump portions of chicken, marinated with herbs and lemon, then grilled to perfection, will turn your own backyard into a seaside escape.” Right on!

The recipe was slightly more time-consuming than I’d expected, just because there are so many separate phases (cut the chicken and vegetables, make the marinade, marinate, boil potatoes, thread food on skewers, grill), but everything turned out deliciously. The little chicken chunks get nicely saturated with marinade so blandness isn’t an issue, the potatoes get crispy and roasty, the George Foreman handled the task admirably, and it’s exciting to eat food off of sticks. (Like the State Fair! In your kitchen!) I would definitely make this again…and a good thing, too, because I have 100 bamboo skewers to use up.

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon), plus 1 optional lemon for garnish
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 3⁄4 teaspoon dried
2 teaspoons fresh oregano or 3⁄4 teaspoon dried
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 pound small new potatoes or red boiling potatoes, quartered
11⁄4 to 11⁄2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 11⁄2-inch cubes
2 bell peppers (preferably each a different color), cut into 11⁄2-inch pieces

1. Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, thyme and oregano (as always, I strongly advocate fresh herbs), and salt and pepper in a small bowl.

2. Cube the chicken breasts and put the pieces in a large Ziplock bag, then add two-thirds of the marinade. Mix everything up well (I love that Mary Ellen suggests I “gently massage the marinade all over the chicken pieces” from outside the sealed bag) and put the bag in the refrigerator to marinate for 1-24 hours. (The recipe says just one hour, but I always get better results with longer marination.) Set the bowl containing the remaining marinade aside (if I'm marinating overnight, I just put the rest of the marinade in a small covered bowl in the refrigerator).

3. When ready to cook the kebabs, put a medium pot of salted water on the stove to boil for the potatoes. Meanwhile, cut up the bell peppers, put them in the bowl containing the rest of the marinade and mix them up so they're coated all over.

4. Quarter the potatoes and, when the water boils, add them to the pot. Mary Ellen says to boil them until they're just tender, “about 20 minutes.”

5. Drain the potatoes and let them cool for a little while until you can handle them without hurting yourself. Put them in the bowl with the peppers and marinade and mix everything up well.

6. Now for the fun part. Preheated the grill, get the marinated chicken out of the refrigerator, and set about threading the chicken, peppers, and potatoes onto 8 skewers.

7. Discard the marinade and put the kebabs on the grill. Cook them, turning and rearranging them periodically, until the chicken is firm and not pink in the middle and everything looks nice and browned; the official instructions (for real gas or charcoal grills) are as follows: Grill on medium-high heat, covered, on a gas grill or 4-6 inches from heat on a charcoal grill, turning every 4-5 minutes, until chicken is done, 16-20 minutes total.

8. Mary Ellen suggests cutting your second lemon into 8 wedges and then putting a wedge on the end of each skewer as a garnish, but I only had one lemon so I skipped this and went straight to the eating part. Yum. What we didn’t eat we removed from the skewers and put in a Gladware container for later.

Serves: 3-4
Time: 45 minutes, plus 1-24 hours marinating time

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Yeah, I’m slow this week. I made this recipe on Sunday (!) night, as a side dish for Cheesy Stuffed Potatoes, because it’s important to have something green with your big piles of melted cheese. I’m trying to expand my repertoire of side dishes, since green salad gets a little dull after a while. The recipe is from yet another Jack Bishop (sheesh, I must be watching too much 24, I almost typed “Jack Bauer”) publication, The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook. Although neither A nor I adores broccoli, we liked this treatment of it (what’s not to love when red pepper flakes and garlic are involved?). Between the strong flavors of the seasonings and the freshness of our farmers’-market broccoli, there was none of that cabbagey taste that broccoli sometimes has. My only complaint is that it uses one too many pans, but that’s a small gripe. Jack suggests pairing the broccoli with “a tomato-based pizza or tart,” egg dishes, or pasta dishes; I think you could probably even serve it over plain noodles if you wanted to (with a little olive oil and maybe some Parmesan).

1 medium bunch broccoli (about 1½ pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic
½ teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste

1. Bring several quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. While it's heating, trim the broccoli: separate the florets from the main stalk and cut them into largeish bite-size pieces. When the water boils, add the broccoli and some salt to the water and cook until the broccoli is crisp-tender, 4-5 minutes. Drain the broccoli and set it aside. (Jack says you can set it aside “for up to 1 hour”--what happens after that?--but I’m not sure why you’d want to do this.)

2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. While it's heating, mince the garlic. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and hot pepper flakes to it, stir, and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the broccoli and stir to coat it well with the oil. Cook everything together for 1-2 minutes, add a little salt to taste, and serve.

Serves: 4 as a side dish
Time: 20 minutes

Friday, February 04, 2005


Sometimes you just need a good, plain, easy chicken breast recipe. This one did the trick for me on Wednesday night; I’m not gaga over it, but it made a nice accompaniment for our roasted asparagus. It's kind of like chicken tenders for grownups. I like that this is the kind of thing I could usually throw together spontaneously from ingredients I keep on hand. It’s from a new cookbook I got from the library, Bistro Chicken: 100 Easy Yet Elegant Recipes With French Flair, by Mary Ellen Evans. The book doesn’t contain quite as many promising-looking recipes as I’d hoped (maybe I have to face the fact that I just don’t love chicken quite enough), but now that this one’s been well received, I’ll give more of them a try (chicken kebabs on the George Foreman may be my next experiment).

Mary Ellen says to use “the best-quality Parmesan you can afford” and “grate it fresh just before using,” but I only had my pre-shredded, mid-range Parmesan from Trader Joe’s. I know from experience that Parmesan grated freshly from the block has a better texture and flavor (they put a lot of strange substances in the pre-shredded stuff to keep it from sticking together), especially when it comes to melting, but I get so tired of having to grate Parmesan almost every day. My knuckles are always scraped and the cheese grater is always needing to be cleaned. So I go the lazy route. And if you do, I think it’s OK—my chicken turned out just fine. Still, I can see some practical as well as aesthetic advantages to using fresh-grated, because I had a hard time getting my long, rectangular, stiff bits of cheese to adhere to the chicken breasts. Next time I’ll grate my own.

Updated June 2008 to add: What was I thinking? Definitely freshly grate your Parmesan! Now that I have a Microplane (O, sweet Microplane!), I use for the Parmesan that because it creates such a fine shred, it's easier to make it adhere to the chicken.

Four 6- to 8-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
5 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1¼ cups)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Lay each chicken breast flat on a cutting board and cut it in half horizontally to form two thin pieces.

2. Combine cheese and flour in a shallow bowl and then stir in the chopped basil. In another shallow bowl, add the egg whites and a tablespoon of water and stir them together with a fork until “slightly foamy.”

3. Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. When it's fully hot (I really have a hard time waiting for pans to heat up properly, so I was careful to be sure that a tiny pinch of flour sizzled and browned when I added it to the pan), quickly dip four of the chicken breast pieces, one at a time, into the egg white mixture and then into the cheese mixture, turning them around to get totally coated. Add the coated chicken to the hot skillet and cook until browned and cooked through (Mary Ellen says 2-3 minutes per side, but I think mine took a bit longer). Remove the chicken to a platter, then add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the skillet and repeat the process with the remaining four pieces of chicken. Sprinkle chicken with pepper and serve it.

Serves: 4
Time: 20 minutes

Thursday, February 03, 2005


For many years of my youth, this was my favorite dish that my mom made, so learning how to make it for myself several years ago was very satisfying. There’s nothing revolutionary about the spinach-cheese-tomato combination, but the combination of flavors always reminds me of home. Plus, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s fun to stuff things inside other things. The recipe’s also very versatile, because after you’ve stuffed the shells, you can put them on a baking sheet and freeze them until they’re hard, pull them off the baking sheet, put them in a Ziplock bag, and keep them in the freezer for as long as you like. Then you can take out however many you want to prepare, defrost them, throw them in a baking dish with tomato sauce, bake them, and insta-dinner. Or you can just skip the freezing and bake the whole batch right away, as I did when I made them last weekend.

I secretly like stuffed shells best made with cottage cheese, which I think is how my mother usually did it, because the cottage cheese gets very creamy and melty, but A finds the idea grotesque, so I use ricotta—and it's good, maybe better, it’s just not the pure experience. This time, I did things slightly differently, because I had a 15-ounce container of ricotta and a 1-pound bag of Trader Joe’s frozen spinach. So I used a bit less cheese than usual and a lot more spinach, and better-quality spinach at that, and the result was an improvement. The stuffing turned out slightly firmer, less gooey, and nice and green and fresh-looking. I’d definitely recommend amping up the spinach if you try this recipe.

1 package large pasta shells
1 pound cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
10-16 ounces frozen spinach
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
2 eggs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste
canned plain tomato sauce (about one 8-ounce can per 12 pasta shells)
dried herbs, such as Italian seasoning, oregano, and fennel
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil for cooking the pasta shells. While this heats, beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl and then stir in the three cheeses, a pinch of nutmeg, and some salt and pepper. Defrost the spinach in the microwave (following the package directions) and then squeeze all the liquid out of it (by far the most annoying part of this recipe but if you don’t do it well, you’ll have runny filling). Stir the spinach into the cheese mixture.

3. When the water boils, add the pasta shells, cook until al dente, drain them, and rinse them under cold water until they're cool enough to handle. Spoon some of the filling into each of the shells and place them in a 9x12 glass baking dish.

3. Pour canned tomato sauce over the shells and generously sprinkle seasonings over the top (I use oregano, Italian seasoning, fennel seeds, and pepper--if you want to do this like my mother does it, you have to use the fennel seeds). Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes, then take off the foil and bake uncovered for about 10 more minutes.

Serves: 5-8 (depends on how many shells you put in a serving; A and I like 6, which is a fairly large portion, so we usually end up with 6 servings)
Time: 1 hour