Friday, January 26, 2007


Sausage is my favorite pizza topping (and a favored ingredient in general, as you may have noticed), but its fat content and occasional textural issues (odd pieces of gristle) skeeve me out. I’ve sampled a few different brands and settled on Trader Joe’s as the best quality and value, but they only carry sweet Italian sausage, not spicy. I add red pepper flakes for extra spice, but the flavor’s still not all it could be. I’ve tried Trader Joe’s Italian chicken sausage, which has less fat and nice flavor but not that porky robustness, plus it doesn’t brown as well. Then I stumbled across this recipe on the Cooking Light web site, and immediately knew I had to try to step up my pizza-making game by trying it. My friend Editor A graciously agreed to be a guinea pig, so last Saturday night, she came over to help me assemble and cook the sausage (and then make pizza, eat it, drink wine, and watch Impromptu).

This recipe was simplicity itself to make—strictly a one-bowl affair, pretty much like making meatballs but without the trouble of actually having to roll it into balls. I did begin to get slightly nervous when we began to cook it. Thanks to the comments on the Cooking Light web site, I’d been prepared for the fact that this sausage wouldn’t brown as normal, all-pork, super-fatty sausage does. Following suggestions on the site, I cooked the sausage in batches (to allow more room in the pan) and added a little splash of olive oil for better browning. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the fact that, due to the red wine, when the sausage began to cook, it turned a bizarre shade of lavender. It also (due to the wine again) produced a lot of liquid, so I felt like I was practically boiling, rather than frying, the meat. I kept cooking until the liquid cooked off, and then the sausage did brown a bit, though it still had a much paler color than normal sausage. I tasted a few pieces and worried it might be too bland.

But we forged ahead, tossing it onto the pizza (with homemade sauce, sautéed mushrooms and zucchini, and plenty of cheese), sat down to eat, and…wow! This is some great sausage. It’s zesty, it’s meaty, it’s got complex flavor, and it’s not terrible for you. The recipe makes a ton, so now I have nice pre-cooked sausage in my freezer, ready to put on pizza at a moment’s notice. I love that I can season it just to my liking. Next time, I’m thinking even more red pepper flakes, maybe some dried oregano, and possibly garlic powder (which I normally eschew, but it permeates ground meat much more thoroughly than real garlic). This is without a doubt an excellent addition to my recipe arsenal.

1 pound ground turkey
1 pound ground pork
½ cup dry red wine
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1½ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fried thyme
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, crushed

1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Cook sausage, in batches, in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat in a small amount of olive oil until browned, stirring to crumble. Drain.

Yields: 5 cups; sausage can be frozen in zip-top plastic bags for up to 3 months
Time: 30 minutes

Friday, January 19, 2007


Tuesday was about the third time I’ve made these, but I’ve resisted accepting the recipe into my repertoire because (a) It’s somewhat similar to other recipes I make regularly (in that it involves tortillas, cheese, and black beans), and (b) It’s one of those recipes so simple that it’s nearly intuitive, leading me to think, “I could have come up with this! Why do I need a recipe?” But of course, I didn’t come up with this; Cooking Light did. And it’s easy and speedy and delicious—like little personal taco pizzas, basically, with pureed, seasoned, lime-spiked black beans for the sauce.

I think Cooking Light suggested using storebought rotisserie chicken as a convenience, but the reason I find this recipe so genius is that it’s the perfect way to use the extra meat I sometimes end up with after roasting a chicken or making chicken-noodle soup, or even from other recipes with complimentary flavorings, like Israeli Spice Chicken. As with pizza, you can modify the toppings however you like; the original recipe calls for adding shredded lettuce and sour cream after cooking, but we don't use them, preferring instead cilantro and a drizzle of salsa. For extra zest, we also use pepper Jack instead of plain Jack. Although I think the seasonings are just about right in this recipe, it's OK to mess around with a lot of the quantities--the original recipe had very precise measurements, because that's how Cooking Light operates, but I'll admit I don't bother with measuring out exactly 3 tablespoons of cheese or 1/4 cup chicken for each tostada; I just use however much looks like a good amount to cover the tortilla.

The finished tostadas make OK leftovers, but the tortillas don't stay crisp. Sometimes I don’t want more leftovers when my fridge is already packed with them, but it's awkward to halve the recipe because then you end up with a half-can of leftover black beans. Luckily, this recipe is so versatile and easy to assemble that if I don't want 4 tostadas immediately, it's easy to prep all of the components but then only assemble 2 tostadas, storing the extra chicken, tortillas, cheese, and black bean mixture in the fridge all ready for later, perhaps a nice quick lunch on the weekend. (The avocado mixture won't last more than a day or two without turning brown and getting mushy, but you can just use storebought salsa instead if you like.)

Now that I look back at the recipe, I see that it's actually called "Soft Black Bean Tostadas." That's weird to me--a soft tostada? Why call it that when the crisp tortilla crust can be so nice? The original recipe has you broiling the tostadas, but back when my broiler was nonfunctional, I got into the habit of baking them at 450 instead, and this makes the difference--because the heat comes from below when you bake, the tortilla gets crisper while the toppings stay moister. I think this method is preferable, even though it might take a few more minutes. But if you want the "soft," super-quick version, feel free to broil instead.

1 medium avocado, peeled and chopped
1 tomato, seeded and chopped (I've sometimes used about 3/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes instead)
¼ cup thinly sliced green onion
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
4 (8-inch) flour tortillas
1 cup shredded cooked skinless, boneless chicken breast
¾ cup (3 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese (I use pepper Jack)
Salsa and/or cilantro, if desired

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Combine the first five ingredients (avocado through ¼ teaspoon salt) in a small bowl. Toss gently and set aside.

3. Combine the next six ingredients (water through black beans) in a blender; process until smooth.

4. Place the tortillas on baking sheet(s) and spread ¼ of the black bean mixture evenly over each tortilla. Top each evenly with ¼ cup chicken and 3 tablespoons cheese. Bake until cheese melts and tortilla edges begin to brown.

5. Top each tortilla with ¼ of the avocado mixture (and salsa and/or cilantro, if desired). Cut each tortilla into 4 wedges and serve.

Serves: 4
Time: 25 minutes

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Thanks to this recipe, I have been wandering around the house singing “I made squash cass-oo-laaaayyy” to myself in a Bob Dylan-esque accent, to the tune of “I Threw It All Away” from Nashville Skyline. No, I don’t know why. Just roll with me here, folks.

Maybe I’m being reminded of Minnesota and its greatest singer-songwriter (sorry, Prince) because it’s been record-breakingly “cold” here in California. It is weird, and my sympathies go out to the homeless, the citrus growers, and anyone whose pipes are frozen, but if I hear one more panicky TV news fluff report about the “arctic” temperatures, I’m going to scream. (Example: over footage of a man wearing a light windbreaker jogging along the beach on a clear, sunny, beautiful 50-degree day, the newscaster says darkly, “Training for an upcoming marathon, John Doe refuses to let the bad weather keep him from running.”) Ah, Southern California, where if a small patch of ice appears on a freeway exit ramp, they close the whole ramp down. These people would make terrible pioneers.

Anyway, when I saw this cassoulet lovingly photographed in Cooking Light, it seemed like just the thing for a brisk evening in our drafty apartment. (Where we have not yet turned on the heat, because we’re Tough Midwesterners, and besides, isn’t that what we have cats for? To drape over ourselves for warmth?) Y’all know I’m not great fan of the bean, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can enjoy certain kinds (white, black) in moderation, as long as they’re warm and at least partially broken down (but no cold, slimy, hard chickpeas on my salads, please!). I pointed to myself and A that the glories of roasted garlic, caramelized onions, butternut squash, bacon, and toasted breadcrumb topping would mitigate the risk of any unpleasant overbeaniness. Since I had the day off yesterday and the recipe is a tad time-intensive, it seemed the perfect opportunity to give it a whirl, and…yum! A cinch to make—seems like a lot of ingredients but they come together easily, and most of the long cooking time can be spent on the couch with a book while the garlic roasts, onions caramelize, and cassoulet bakes in the oven. The flavors blended together nicely. It was warm, wholesome, and comforting. It was also unique from most of my other recipes. Pretty bean-centric, so I’m not going to start making it every week or anything, but I will make it again, and A agreed to eat it again. (Asked for his review, he couldn’t quite overcome the presence of beans: “It has beans in it.” “Well, but for beans it was pretty good, right?” “It still had beans in it.” But the fact that he ate it and will eat it again is a ringing endorsement, coming from a confirmed bean-hater. I am so relieved not to be reliving the Ratatouille Wars of 2004.)

As a bonus, this was my first time cooking with pancetta. The stuff I found at Trader Joe’s was pre-chopped into such miniscule dice that I don’t think I got a good solid taste of the stuff; just little bursts of vague meaty saltiness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cooking Light says you can substitute regular smoked bacon, but use less, because it’s more assertive than pancetta, which is unsmoked. Also, I’ve been cooking all this past week with fresh bay leaves, which I bought at the farmers’ market. The flavor is much more robust than the sad dried-up ones in my spice rack.

Tips: I don’t have a Dutch oven, so I just cooked everything in a heavy skillet on the stovetop and then transferred it into a 2-quart casserole dish when it came time to pop it in the oven. Also, I made just a half-recipe, which provided 4 generous servings. After I got the garlic head all roasted, I noticed that the recipe only has you use half of it, which meant that, in halving the recipe, I was only supposed to use a fourth of the head. This seemed wasteful, so I used half the head and it was great. The other half I mixed with a little butter and spread on some baguette left over from making the bread crumbs. When I took the top off the cassoulet to cook it uncovered for the last 15 minutes of baking, I threw the garlic-laden bread slices on a baking sheet and put it in the oven to toast, giving me garlic bread and cassoulet all at the same time! We ate our meal with some apple slices on the side, but a nice green salad would also accompany it well.

1 whole garlic head
4 ounces pancetta (or regular bacon), chopped
2 cups vertically sliced onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
4½ cups (½-inch) cubed peeled butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
½ cup vegetable broth (I used homemade chicken broth)
½ teaspoon dried thyme (I used fresh)
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 (16-ounce) cans cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 bay leaf
2 (1-ounce) slices white bread
2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Remove white papery skin from garlic head (do not peel or separate the cloves). Wrap garlic head in foil. Bake 1 hour; cool 10 minutes. Separate cloves; squeeze to extract garlic pulp. Set half of garlic pulp aside; reserve remaining garlic pump for another use. Discard skins.

3. When garlic has been baking for 30-40 minutes, heat a large Dutch oven (or heavy skillet) over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sauté 5 minutes or until crisp. Remove pancetta from pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain, reserving drippings in pan. Add onion and 1 tablespoon oil to drippings in pan; sauté 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 25 minutes or until onion is very tender and browned, stirring frequently. Stir in vinegar.

4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

5. Add garlic pulp, pancetta, squash, and next 6 ingredients (through bay leaf) to onion mixture, stirring well. If using a skillet, transfer mixture to an oven-safe 9x12 baking dish. Pulse bread in a food processor to make crumbs (or just tear them by hand), and combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and ½ teaspoon olive oil in a small bowl; sprinkle evenly over squash mixture.

6. Cover and bake 50 minutes or until squash is tender. Uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes or until topping is browned. Discard bay leave. Sprinkle with parsley.

Serves: 8
Time: 2½ hours