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Rocco DiSpirito’s Aromatic Cauliflower Soup

cauliflower

As I’ve mentioned, I am cooking most of this week from Rocco Dispirito’s cookbook entitled Flavor. Last night was my first Rocco-curian experience, and while it started out pretty…Roccy…the meal ended up a smashing success.

The main premise behind Flavor is that most dishes worth eating have elements of sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Dispirito goes to some lengths to teach the home cook which flavors come from which sources, and to identify in his recipes which ingredients provide which kind of taste. Although many of the dishes in the cookbook will never be made in my kitchen for a variety of reasons (Rocco is a much bigger seafood fan than either member of my audience), the “Aromatic Cauliflower Soup” looked like a relatively healthy, interesting twist on regular cream of vegetable soup (the kind where you cook the vegetable with onions and seasoning and broth, then puree it and add cream).

There were two issues right off the bat: in the photograph in Flavor, the soup has enough body to support a picturesque circular drizzle of basil oil and toasted pine nuts; mine was so thin that the additions sunk to the bottom. That has a great deal to do with the size of the cauliflower one uses, and while I don’t think it affected the flavor, it certainly was not quite as lovely as I had expected.

Second, if you are a competent cook and follow Rocco’s instructions in order, it will take you twice as long as necessary to make this soup start to finish. I see no reason not to multi-task and make the sugar-basil oil and the toasted flavored pine nuts during the periods when the cauliflower and onions are doing their thing on another burner. I didn’t strain the soup, either, but I did take the step of straining the basil-simple syrup mixture. Although it might be interesting if the basil pieces were left in…maybe next time.

My final caution is that, if one is accustomed to the standard method of making cream soup from vegetables, one may be as horrified as I was after making the cauliflower base for this recipe, tasting it, finding out that it basically has no flavor, seasoning the hell out of it tasting it again, giving up and deciding I would put it all together and then throw it out and order pizza. DO NOT GIVE UP. There is some kind of alchemy, quite probably having to do with DiSpirito’s flavor theory, that makes the sum of the parts a glorious thing in this recipe. Everybody loved it, even the kid, and it was all eaten so fast that there is no photographic evidence that the meal ever existed.

Aromatic Cauliflower Soup

(From Rocco DiSprito’s Flavor)

  1. 3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup corn or vegetable oil (do not use olive oil)
  2. 1 large Vidalia onion peeled and chopped
  3. Salt and pepper to taste
  4. 2 quarts cauliflower florets (from about 1 large head)
  5. 1/4 cup sugar
  6. 3 cups fresh basil leaves
  7. 1/2 cup pine nuts
  8. 2 tablespoons ground coriander

Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot over low heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, cover pan and sweat onion for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower, season, and stir well to coat. Increase the heat to medium and cook another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 1 quart water and increase heat to high. When water reaches a boil, immediately reduce heat so that soup simmers. Simmer 20 minutes or until cauliflower is completely tender. Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender and puree until smooth. (I just used an immersion blender in the pot). Pour the soup through a wide mesh strainer into a clean pot. (Or do as I did, and just leave it where it is).

While soup simmers, make a simple syrup out by heating sugar with 1/4 cup water until sugar is dissolved. Transfer syrup to a blender.

Bring a small pan of salted water to a boil. Submerge thge basil leaves and boil for three minutes. Drain basil in a colander and immediately run colander under tap water until leaves are cool. place basil in blender with sugar syrup and puree for 2 minutes. strain, sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup corn oil in a shallow pan over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and cook, shaking the pan frequently until nuts turn golden brown, about 1 minute. Place pine nuts on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and coriander. Whisk 2 tablespoons of the pine nut-flavored cooking oil into the basil syrup.

To serve, ladle the hot soup into bowls. Drizzle a few spoons of basil syrup around the perimeter and pile some pine nuts on the surface of each bowl of soup. Serve hot.

The Best Meat Pies in Lansing …

potpie-iii

Synchronicity. Sometimes, it all comes together in life in the strangest ways…and leads from cannabalism in 19th century London to a tasty spontaneous dinner in the Midwest. Unless you are interested in musical theater, or have a deep and abiding interest in my personal history, you may want to skip down to the recipe. Don’t say I didn’t warn you….

I love musicals, and I love Sondheim most of all. Nearly 30 years ago, during my first week of college, I sat entranced in a practice room as my new friend Bob Ingari played and sang “Johanna” from a brand new musical called “Sweeney Todd.” It was haunting, and beautiful, and (as is often the case with Sondheim) far more interesting than the Surry with the Fringe on Top, or that Enchanted Evening business. I eventually got to see “Sweeney Todd” on the stage, bought the record (yes, the record) and put in the “good” pile near “A Little Night Music” and “Evita,” and far away from Boy George and Gary Neumann.

By the time the movie came out last year, I was too busy to make it to the theater. Our Netflix pile is growing dusty as it is, and I’d honestly just forgotten about the whole thing until yesterday. Sam was home sick, and he asked me if I wanted to watch a movie with him. He picked “Sweeney Todd,” and because I am a totally negligent parent I agreed to let him watch the throat-cutting and live-burning so that I could ogle Johnny Depp and hear Sondheim. (Note to employees of protective services agencies: he appears to be unscathed). As we watched, I kept thinking about the meat pies, and about the fact that we had nothing firm planned for dinner. (Note to horrified readers: I was thinking about this in connection with the meat pies towards the beginning of the movie that are made of, well, regular meat. Not the other ones).

We had the following odds and ends in the house: 2 bone-in chicken breasts, 1 surplus pie crust from a quiche making day earlier in the week, about a cup of peas left over from making Topopo salad, and carrots for Sam’s lunch. It seemed likely that I could construct some sort of pot pie from all of this, with the addition of various hosehold staples (shallots, milk, flour), but there was a problem: I have always, always hated pot pies. I believe it stems from my childhood abhorrence of un-flavored white sauce; I hated Tuna Noodle Casserole, Chicken a la King, Creamed Chipped Beef…and pot pies. I do, however, like things with flavored white sauce like Macaroni and Cheese and Turkey Tetrazzini, I didn’t want cheesy pot pie (literally or figuratively) but I figured that a splash of the dry sherry that made the white sauce palatable to me in Tetrazzini might also work in the context of pot pie. We paused the movie mid-murder, I put the chicken breasts on to poach, and eventually this is what I made:

The Best Chicken Pot Pie in Lansing

(A title which is immodest, but related to my “Sweeney Todd” Theme)

  1. About 2 cups of cooked, cubed, white meat chicken (I poached mine, but this would be a great way to use up left over cooked chicken or turkey)
  2. 1 single purchased or homemade pie crust (although you could certainly add a top crust – I just don’t like crust that much)
  3. 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  4. 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  5. 3 shallots or 1 small onion, chopped
  6. 2 large carrots peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into thin half-moons
  7. 1 cup frozen peas
  8. 2 cups milk or low-fat half & half (I used the latter, which made the filling very rich)
  9. splash of dry sherry
  10. salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Place pie crust in pie tin or 8-inch round baking pan with excess crust draped over outer edge.

In a large, shallow pan, heat oil over medium high heat; cook carrots and onions, stirring often, until they are tender (about 10 minutes). Add flour, salt and pepper and cook about 3 more minutes. Gradually add milk or half & half and stir constantly until sauce thickens, mashing out any flour lumps.

Turn off heat under pan and add peas, chicken and sherry, stirring to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Pour mixture into crust and fold edges up and in to form free-form edge. Bake for about 25 minutes, until crust is lightly browned and filling is bubbling.

pot-pie-1

What’s for Dinner – The Rocco Edition

As in any important relationship, my feelings about chef Rocco DiSpirito are varied and complex. My introduction to Rocco came in 2003 with the premiere of his Bravo reality show “The Restaurant.” Rocco was a rising and critically acclaimed young turk of the New York restaurant scene, beyond hot, and very charismatic, but it soon became clear that the show was not really about cooking or food; it was a superficial, dramatically heightened series of episodes that served mainly as vehicles for advertisements for the same American Express “Open,” Mitsubishi and Coors. It was astonishing that, directly following a block of commercials for these goods and services, our hero Rocco would pull up in front of the restaurant in his Mitsubishi, driving carefully around a truck unloading cases of Coors, and go into his office to call Amex to ask if his “Open” line of credit could be extended. Simply astonishing.

rocco-ii

But I digress. The show soon devolved into a sort of Restaurant-based combination of “The Hills” and “The Apprentice” punctuated by product placements and far too many segments about Rocco’s mama making meatballs, and I bailed long before Rocco lost control of “The Restaurant” in a legal dispute with his backer, and went into a period where he was mostly famous as the butt of biting commentary from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali.  Although he has not had a straight trajectory back to credibility (Buitoni ads and “Dancing with the Stars” come to mind) he has continued to run restaurants, write cook books, and appear persuasive and interesting during turns as a guest judge on “Top Chef.”

So I was willing to give him another chance yesterday when, while pretending to clean out my office, I discovered a copy of his 2003 book Flavor, lent to me by my friend Alice last summer. She said it wasn’t a great cook book, and that she only used a couple of the recipes, but she also said that it was beautifully photographed and that I would like it, visually. Looking at the book, which is stunning to look at, I began to feel something nagging at the back of my mind. Good looking, tempting, cooking-related…overrated and disappointing? I was intrigued by the focus on flavor profiles (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) and on need to feature and balance them in every recipe. The recipes looked heavy on the seafood for my family, but there were several intriguing choices. If I tried the recipes would I be channelling Good Rocco or Bad Rocco? Beauty sans substance or beauty as a bonus feature on top of great instincts for the kitchen?

I am giving Rocco another chance. This week, with the exception of Thanksgiving (about which, more later) day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers, and a recipe that called to me from yesterday’s newspaper, I’m cooking from Flavor. Then I have to give the book back. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Saturday

Aromatic Cauliflower Soup (Rocco’s), Homemade Bread (Mine), Salad

Sunday

Quick Miso Chicken (Rocco’s), Soubise (Rocco’s), Cous Cous

Monday

Bucatini with Summer Vegetables and Tomato Anise Broth (Rocco’s, duh), Homemade Bread (Mine), Salad

I am fully aware that it’s no longer “summer,” but the vegetables involved are fennel and basil, both of which are available year-round thanks to the magic of modern supermarkets.

Tuesday

Salad with Leftover Miso Chicken, Avocado, Red Onion and Grapes (Mine), Homemade Bread (Mine)

This might manifest itself as a mayonnaise-bound salad or as ingredients tossed with greens and dressing.

Wednesday

Caribbean Pork Stew with Plaintains, Rice

This is the recipe from the paper, which ran a large feature on braising, with which I am currently obsessed.

Thursday

Thanksgiving

As I said, more later.

Friday

Turkey Tetrazzini and Other Elegantly Presented Leftovers

Cozy Supper After the Theatre

lady-with-opera-glasses

“…I remember, as the chief result,  a very pleasant little supper after the theatre, at Miss Tempest’s house near Regent’s Park, for the purpose of talking the matter over.”

-Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

I had always rather imagined myself living the sort of life in which after theatre dinners would figure quite prominently. There would also be suppers after the opera, the symphony and the series of Beethoven string quartets. I would nibble on some grapes, and maybe have some tea and biscuits to tide me over as I got dressed and did my hair and makeup, and after the performance I would come in from the cold (it’s always cold in this particular fantasy), my head still full of this character or that movement, to the smell of something delicious to eat. While I readily acknowledge that this dream of mine is largely the result of reading far too many 19th and early 20th century novels involving the British aristocracy and their American descendants (Henry James! Edith Wharton!!). I have stubbornly clung to the hope that at least once before I died, someone would have dinner ready for me when I got home from a performance. I can now say that it happened, and that it was less elegant, but just as wonderful as I had hoped.

I have, all my life, been able to attend performances, and for many years I was a professional musician and often a participant in said performances. Growing up in a college town, I was taken to see concerts and play, but dinner was always before the performance. During college I saw every play and concert that I could, but I lived in a dorm; all that was available to me “after” was ramen made with an immersion heater or a sandwich stolen from the dining hall in my backpack. As a young woman living in Boston I could rarely afford to see anything of a musical or theatrical nature unless I was the guest of a better employed friend (or was willing to settle for free performance art at the Community Center), but even if there was dinner afterwards it was at a restaurant. I lived alone, and there was no one waiting there to whip up Oysters Rockefeller and proffer a glass of very dry champagne. (As is true of many of my fantasies, this one involves living on a scale that includes the acquisition of household staff).

Last Saturday night, I went to my ancestral middle school to see my niece in her theatrical debut as Pirate Virginia in the performance of something called “Captain Bree and the Lady Pirates.” I had three tickets, but Mr. Annie begged off; my companions were Sam and a friend of the family. It was cold, I was dressed to the nines, and the performance was quite splendid. I did consume approximately six Wheat Thins and a can of Diet Coke as I performed my pre-theatre toilette, and I recall wondering vaguely whether we would be hungry after we returned home. It seemed likely that we would be, and I planned on heating a can of soup, and maybe having the energy to make grilled cheese sandwiches before I changed and crawled into bed.

When we arrived home, the house smelled like cooking – onions and toast to be sure, and maybe a little butter? In the kitchen was Mr. Annie, not paid staff, but a fine cook in his own right, surrounded by his usual mess of butter wrappers, dirty pans and onion skins. He told me to relax, and I did; kicking off my 3-inch heels, and settling onto the couch. In short order there was a plate in my hand, covered with fried potatoes (cooked in butter and oil with onions), a cheese omelette and buttered toast. He even cleaned the kitchen when he was done.

It was beyond bliss, the sense of being cared for, of having gone into the world and communed with the arts, only to return safely home to something hot and delicious. Oysters and champagne could not possibly have made me happier. (Although I hope that will not deter anyone from offering them to me in the future). It is reassuring to me how much reality can exceed even the most deeply cherished fantasies, and if it never happens again, it happened once, and it was perfect.

Fit for Man and Beast

short-ribs

I have always wanted to cook short ribs, but for a number of reasons, I have never tried. They are expensive enough that if I really screwed them up, I would be wretched. I have also been pretty sure that they’d be too wierd for the kids. (Note to people with nonexistent or exceptionally game children: this potential aversion to eating strange foods is not in any way the result of my failure to introduce foods other than chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches. It is a form of subtle and vicious mind control practiced by the small and weak in order to control the large and powerful).

I have eaten short ribs in restaurants and at the odd dinner party for years and marveled at their flavor, texture and versatility, but not until my recent cooking renaissance did I decide to throw caution to the winds and try them at home. I have a little tweaking to do, but I am mostly pleased by the results of grabbing life by the short ribs. They were tender, the sauce was perfectly spiced (although I would make it hotter next time) and the brightness added by the cilantro and a bit of lime was money. The meat was too fatty for my taste, but I think I’ve found a solution to that problem for next time.

I served the ribs with grits, which proved excellent for soaking up the glorious sauce, and a Mexican salad which was a tarted-up version of one of my mother’s old standbys.  Do try this at home.

Beef Short Ribs in Chipotle and Green Chile Sauce

(Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook)

[Note: my adaptation makes this a two-day recipe. Plan to start the day or night before you want to eat this dish]

  1. 1 teaspoon salt
  2. i teaspoon ground black pepper
  3. 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  4. 1 teaspoon ground chili powder
  5. 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  6. 8 3-inch-long meaty beef short ribs
  7. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  8. 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  9. 6 garlic cloves, minced
  10. 1 14-ounce can low-salt chicken broth
  11. 1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes
  12. 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  13. 1 1/2 tablespoons canned chopped chipotle chiles (I doubled this)
  14. 3 large, fresh Anaheim chiles stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch-thick-rings
  15. Chopped fresh cilantro
  16. Lime wedges

Mix salt and next four ingredients in bowl; all over short ribs. (If you want to get good coverage, plan to do this in two layers, sprinkling half of the spice mixture on a large side of 4 ribs at a time). Place ribs on a plate and cover; refrigerate at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 350. Heat oil in a large ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add half of the ribs and brown on all sides, about 9 minutes; transfer to plate. Repeat with remaining ribs. reduce heat to medium. Add onion and garlic to same pot; cover and cook until soft, stirring occasionally. Add broth and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Add tomatoes, lime juice and chipotle chiles. Return ribs to pot, meaty side down, in a single layer. Bring to a boil, cover and cook until ribs are just tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove pot from oven. Tilt pot and spoon off fat. (I did not find this effective – keep reading for my alternative suggestion). place pot over medium heat and simmer uncovered until sauce coats spoon and ribs are very tender, about 25 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper. (Okay, this is where my genius idea comes in: at this point, I would refrigerate the meat and sauce overnight so that the fat solidified and I could easily remove it all before proceeding. I found that attempting to de-fat as the recipe suggests caused me to remove some of thge broth mixture, but not all of the fat, which left me with not enough sauce and too much grease in the sauce I had left).

(Remove pot from refrigerator) and bring to a simmer over medium heat; add chile rings. Simmer until chiles soften, about 10 minutes. Transfer ribs and sauce to large bowl. Sprinkle with cilantro; garnish with lime wedges and serve.

For Your Beasts

Our dogs got the bones from the short ribs, and enjoyed them tremendously. I don’t think they are dangerous and splinter-y; if you know otherwise, please let me know before I do this again!

mexican-salad

Mexican Salad

I started to follow a recipe for this salad before realizing that it was one of my mom’s standards. Here’s how we do it:

  1. 1 head red leaf lettuce (or any leaf lettuce
  2. 1/2 red onion cut in half and sliced into thin rings
  3. 2 seedless oranges or tangerines, peeled and sectioned (if using oranges, cut sections in half)
  4. 1 avocado peeled and cut into slices or cubes
  5. red wine vinaigrette

Place first four items in a salad bowl. Dress to taste, toss and serve.

Chicken with Indian Spices and Yogurt

chicken-with-indian-spices

There is nothing quite like Indian food to make the house smell like heaven. My kind of heaven, anyway. Tonight I made “Chicken with Indian Spices” from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, along with some Basmati rice and Indian-spiced acorn squash.  I will confess that I was put off by the fact the yogurt essentially curdled during cooking, and the sauce looked pretty awful when it was done; I put it in the blender to smooth it out, and it was much pleasanter to look at. I also found that the bone-in chicken pieces (particularly the white meant) were still a bit on the chewy side, possibly because of their size. They were also difficult to eat – I didn’t want to eat the skin, and needed to get the meat off the bone, and in the process of meeting those goals I lost a lot of precious sauce. (The sauce was GREAT, and i would eat it by the spoonful). Next time,  I think I’ll use cubes of boneless thigh or breast meat in place of the whole, bone-in chicken parts, and shorten the cooking time accordingly.

I invented the squash preparation. I have no idea whether squash is part of the cuisine of any part of India (and I am too tired to Google it at the moment) but it went beautifully with the rice and chicken.

Chicken with Indian Spices and Yogurt

(From Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything)

4 Tablespoons peanut, canola or other oil

About 1 cup flour for dredging

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 whole (3-4 pound chicken, cut up (legs cut in two) trimmed of excess fat, then rinsed and patted dry (or 3-4 pounds cubed boneless skinless breasts or thighs)

2 medium onions, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger (or 1 teaspoon ground ginger)

1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups plain yogurt

Minced cilantro leaves for garnish (I had these, but forgot about them)

  1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large, deep skillet, Dutch oven, or casserole. Put flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl and season it with salt and pepper. When the oil is hot (a pinch of flour will sizzle) dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and shake off any excess, (If using cubed chicken, you can easily do this in a zip-top plastic bag). Add chicken to oil, and brown on all sides. Regulate the heat so that the oil bubbles but is not so hot that it will burn the chicken. (you can skip this browning step if you like, and go directly to cooking the onions).
  2. When the chicken is nicely browned, remove it from the skillet and pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of oil. Turn heat to medium, and add thge onion along with some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until they soften, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, ginger and spices along with an additional 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Cook with the onions, stirring, until vert aromatic, about 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in thge yogurt, then add the chicken pieces. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, turning the pieces every 5 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. (If you use cubed chicken, stir every five minutes and start checking for done-ness at around 15 minutes).
  4. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Garnish and serve. (If you find that your sauce has curdled, puree it to smootheness using a stand or immersion blender)

Squash with Indian Flair

1 acorn squash

2-3 Tablespoons butter

1-2 Tablespoons Garam Masala

  1. Cut squash in half and microwave about 10 minutes, or until flesh is tender when pierced with a fork.
  2. Cool squash and scoop out of shell, into medium saucepan.
  3. Add butter and Garam Masala to squash and mix with a fork until no large lumps remain. Heat over medium heat until butter melts and all ingredients are well combined. If you like, you may puree this before serving,

What’s For Dinner – The Pleasing Everybody Edition

I am delighted beyond reason to be cooking again these days, and I have expanded my duties to include cooking dinner for my parents three nights a week. Those meals must be un-spicy and easily transported. In the mean time, I am adjusting my menu planning for nights when Mr. Annie is on the road (nursery food) and the realities of the season and the economy. I pretty much missed farmers’ market season this year, and a Michigan November is not a great time to plan meals around fresh produce. Furthermore, food is just getting really expensive, and although knowing how to cook takes the sting out of it a bit (I can braise a tough cut of meat into silkiness like nobody’s business) I still have to make some choices, particularly in terms of quality. I could drive to a farm in a nearby community and buy eggs, or drive to the City Market to replicate the farm-fresh eggs I buy at the farmers market in the summer, but in either case I would be increasing my gas expenditure and my carbon footprint in order to get better eggs. I could buy Eggland’s Best,” which do (in my opinion) have a slight edge in taste and a definite edge nutritionally, but they are at least twice the price of the less exotic eggs in the dairy case. We eat the regular eggs.

Here’s what we’re eating this week, based on the parents, the schedule, the budget, and what called to me from my cookbook collection. I have never made several of these recipes before; I was in that kind of mood.

Saturday

That’s a Great Question

My niece is making her stage debut Saturday night in a production of something called “Captain Bree and the Lady Pirates,” and since the curtain goes up at 7:00, we will need to leave here by no later than 6:15. I am not personally capable of eating dinner earlier than that, so I am hoping that Mr. Annie will prepare a sumptuous post-theater feast that will be ready when we return home, put our opera glasses away and slip into our respective smoking jackets.

Sunday

Chicken and Indian Spices with Yogurt, Basmati Rice & Spiced Acorn Squash

The chicken recipe is Mark Bittman’s, the rice is on a bag in my cupboard and the squash is to be invented. This is a just-us night; I knew as soon as I saw the spices called for in the chicken recipe that it was not suitable for the faint of heart.

Monday

Short Ribs in Chipotle and Green Chile Sauce, Tijuana Tangerine & Mixed Green Salad and Grits

I realized recently that, although I love to eat short ribs, I had never cooked them. The beef and salad recipes are from The Bon Appetit Cookbook, and I don’t know why I’m making grits other than the fact that I needed a starch that would nicely soak up the sauce, and I wanted something different.

Tuesday

Pork Tenderloin, Homemade Applesauce and Baked Sweet Potatoes

This one goes to my parents, so it’s non-spicy and fairly comforting. I’ll probably bake the pork with some maple syrup glaze, and start the applesauce in the morning so the house smells good.

Wednesday

Cheese Tart, Spinach Salad and Fresh Pineapple

This meal will be served only to my parents and me; Rob will be in a motel somewhere, abnd Sam will be at Youth Group (which we are hoping will improve his character). The Cheese Tart is a Moosewood recipe I haven’t made for maybe 25 years (it’s really a quiche) and although this will be a nice, light vegetarian meal, it is possible that the half pound of bacon languishing in my meat drawer may be used. It’s really just being thrifty….

Thursday

White Bean, Tortellini & Pancetta Soup and Homemade Ciabatta

This one will be for my parents, Sam and me; Rob will still be eating at the restaurant nearest the Red Roof in some Midwestern city. The soup is Giada De Laurentises (tough call on the possessive, there) and the ciabatta is my old, beloved recipe.

Friday

Chicken Marinara, Pasta with Butter & Parmesan & Green Salad

The chicken recipe is Mark Bittman’s, the rest is from the recesses of my tormented brain.

Just Do It.

There is always a reason not to entertain. The house isn’t clean, the porch isn’t painted, there aren’t enough chairs, it’s too expensive, I don’t have ten matching teaspoons, it’s too hard to figure out a menu, they’re gourmet and will turn up their noses at my pot of chili, they’re simple eaters and will be unwilling to try my famous cioppino…there is always a reason.

The reasons were many, last Saturday night. I was still exhausted from the end of the campaign season, and I had some sort of lingering bronchial crud that made me launch into paroxysms of coughing about every thirty minutes. I mostly just wanted to sleep, and regroup and read magazines, but I had to decide what to do about The Boys. Two years ago, in this student neighborhood, we lived two doors away from six of the nicest, smartest, most interesting young men one could imagine. As seniors, there wasn’t a GPA below 3.7, and The 544 Boys quickly became part of the fabric of our lives. I sent them huge piles of baked goods, cakes on their birthdays, casseroles and soups, and had them to eat at our house as often as their schedules allowed. They graduated in 2006, and went on to ophthalmology school, grad school in engineering, seminary, a fourth undergraduate degree, highly paid IT work in Chicago, and work in green building certification in D.C.. They are one of the greatest justifications I can give for choosing to live among the undergraduates with their beer pong tables and thumping bass when we could be stationed on a quiet cul de sac in te suburbs. I cried when they graduated.

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So when they had a reunion last weekend, centering on the MSU vs. Purdue football game, I wanted to see them. (And no, that is not me in the picture, much as I might wish to be a 20-something marathon runner). It was natural to them that they would come at dinner time on Saturday, after the game, and that I would feed them; I always had. I knew that we’d be down one (too long a break from ophthalmology school in Oregon) but that two of the boys would bring their serious girlfriends, one of whom recently became a fiancee. That meant seven for dinner plus the three of us, and I was on my deathbed thinking of reasons that it couldn’t happen.

I should add, here, that I was raised by frequent and consummate entertainers. My parents either attended or had a dinner party every weekend of my childhood; sometimes they did both. My mother had enough dishes, silver and glasses, beautiful tablecloths, and a collection of new recipes to try. She knew the preferences of her guests, and could whip up an American Dinner for a collection of Asian students visiting the University as easily as she could create curry for three of her colleagues and their spouses. She made it look easy, but I knew that behind the eternally filled wine glasses and the perfectly timed courses there was a day of house cleaning, tablecloth ironing and cooking, as well as a week of menu planning, wine selection and discussion of who should sit where at the table. It always looked effortless, guests were comfortable and happy, but there was some serious heavy lifting involved. To be sure, we had more casual gatherings, but my mother (who still abhors soda cans or condiment containers at the table) left little to chance and would never have invited people over for potluck, or takeout. That is A Dinner Party in my head, and it’s a lot to live up to.

Between blowing my nose and moaning piteously, I decided that it was more important for me to see the boys and feed them than it was to have a perfect occasion. The house was a mess after my four month hiatus from all but the most urgent cleaning; Mr. Annie and I worked together to whip the downstairs into shape. I figured out that if we included my office chair and the folding chair we stow in a closet, we had enough chairs. I came up with ten plates, glasses and sets of silver, although I cannot tell you that everything matched anymore than the chairs did. I planned a menu that did not in any way show off my culinary talents, but which provided a lot of warm, satisfying food for people who were cold after sitting on bleachers for three hours. I prepared two 9×13 pans of macaroni and cheese, Rob grilled an improbably huge number of brats, and I made a big salad. For dessert I baked brownies FROM A BOX which I tarted up with a sprinkling of M & Ms left over from Halloween.I made sure we had some beer, the boys brought wine, and there was soda for our pastoral counselor in training and our resident 11-year-old.

mac-cheese-1

It was a wonderful party. We sat in the living room,many of us on the floor, and watched football, talked about what was old and what was coming up next, and generally enjoyed being together. I am touched to the point of uncharacteristic mushiness that these young adults, spending a weekend in a town full of old friends (and bars) and parties (and bars) and demands on their time (like bars) would all choose to spend an evening hanging out with old people.  I won’t make the cover of “Southern Living” for this one, but I fed people I care about, and made them comfortable in my home. Next time I have the chance to offer love in the form of hospitality, I hope I’ll stop myself before I go into a complete tailspin of terror about napkin rings and floral arrangements. There is a time and a place for the gathering with style, and it’s in my genes to yearn for a little show-offery, but sometimes it’s important to Just Do It as well as I can. I could not be happier that I did.

What’s For Dinner?

george-bailey

I have planned menus throughout my recently concluded career as a campaign press person, but actual execution was pretty spotty. Sometimes I came home at 4:00, slept until 6:00 and had to order a pizza or make soup and grilled cheese because people were starving and couldn’t make it until I finished cooking the planned meal. Other nights my parents took pity on us and took us to dinner, or I discovered at 5:30 that some essential ingredient had been used up, never purchased or was otherwise unavailable. It would be an understatement to say that I had neither the interest in nor the capacity to whip up something creative using what actually was available. I was interested only in how quickly some Pad Thai, gyros or subs could be made to appear in my house.

This week, I am ready to cook again. Like George Bailey on the snow-covered bridge near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I have seen what life is like without home cooking, and “I want to cook again!” I am not quite ready for adventures in the kitchen; I just want to make good things from scratch. Then I want to eat them. Here’s what we’re having on Forest Street this week:

Saturday

Grilled Sausage, Macaroni and Cheese, Salad, Brownies & Ice Cream

A group of boys who lived up the street during their senior year in college are coming back to town for a football Saturday, and having dinner here between the game and their evening activities. (Which undoubtedly include lots of alcohol and probably things i don’t want to know about).  I used to have the pleasure of feeding these gentlemen fairly often, and i know them to be big eaters with fairly straightforward taste. For the 6-8 of them and the 3 of us, we’ll grill a bunch of kielbasa, I’ll make two pans of macaroni and cheese and a big salad with some interesting additions (maybe some slivered Granny Smith and some pepitas) and we’ll finish with homemade brownies and ice cream.

Sunday

Beef Curry, Basmati Rice, Fresh Pineapple

I have missed this curry so much that I could weep. I have posted the recipe previously, but I love it so much, and want so much for you to share my joy, that I am posting it again:

Annie’s Out-of-the-Box Beef Curry

  1. 1 1/2 pounds lean beef strips (can be from any cut of beef, but fatty and/or tough cuts will require an additional step)
  2. 8 tbsp Thai red curry paste
  3. 2 tbsp fish sauce
  4. 2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
  5. 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  6. 2 tbsp Brown sugar
  7. 3-4 crushed garlic cloves
  8. 1 large or small onions halved and thinly sliced
  9. 3 carrots peeled and cut into rounds or 1 1/2 cups slaw or stir fry mix (not frozen)
  10. 4 tbsp chopped basil (optional)

1. If you are using tough or fatty meat (chuck, for example) cook with no oil over medium- high heat until all visible pink is gone, remove meat from pan with a slotted spoon, pour off fat, and return meat to pan. If you are using lean meat (almost no visible marbling) heat oil in pan over medium-high heat and cook until no visible pink remains.

2. Add onions and carrots or slaw mixture to meat and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat for about 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 more minute.

3. Add coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce and brown sugar; stir to combine. Reduce heat to “low” and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until meat can be cut with the side of a fork but is not mushy. (You are looking for a texture that is firm, but not so firm that you will essentially be serving beef chewing gum). Cooking time will vary depending on the type of meat used.

5. When meat has reached desired consistency check sauce for taste and add salt or pepper if needed.

6. Serve curry over steamed or boiled rice, and garnish with fresh basil if you like.

Monday

Chicken & Dumplings and Lima Beans

I am going to use this recipe, in my final salute to the crock pot that got me through so much of the past four months. I am making lima beans, which Mr. Annie hates, but which I worship and crave with unnatural fervor. He just won’t have any.

Tuesday

Potato Leek Soup and French Bread

C’est magnifique, this soup. It’s comforting, elegant and subtle. I might make a simple green salad, and I might not. I plan to commune with the spirit of Julia Child as I cook.


Wednesday

Topopo Salad

Another craving to satisfy.

Thursday

Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Bread, Green Salad

Simple, authentic Italian pasta with many of life’s best things (including bacon, San Marzano tomatoes and Bucatini), a warm loaf of bread with good extra virgin olive oil, and some greens dressed with olive oil, sea salt and Balsamic vinegar.

Friday

Flash Chicken Saute with Cider and Almonds, Pilaf and Butternut Squash

I figure that by Friday I’ll be capable of trying something I haven’t made before. This recipe comes from Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s “Splendid Table,” and sounds autumnal and delicious.

Oh No You Didn’t

As a general proposition, I am very fond of allrecipes.com. If I need to find the best recipe for, say, flaky pie crust, I know that on allrecipes I will find at least 50 choices, sort-able by reader ranking and bolstered with tips from said readers about how the recipe worked in practice and what changes they recommend. It’s not a Wild Kitchen Adventure sort of site (actually my brain is my best resource for that kind of cooking)  and it isn’t necessarily the place to find the cutting edge haute cuisine of the day straight from A-list chefs. (although I have found some pretty interesting things). It’s a reliable source for recipes that work, and in my experience, the highest rated recipes always do the job. Some of the workhorse recipes of my repertoire, from my lasagna to my marinated vegetable salad come from a fruitful search of allrecipe’s bounty.

Based on my deep and abiding trust for the allrecipes community, I signed up some time ago to receive a daily recipe via e-mail. The format is excellent; I receive the recipe du jour, along with a vegetarian alternative, a budget-friendly version, or a dessert or cocktail suggestion. This is a handy little package if the recipe is something I might cook. Sometimes it is. I have tried and liked several of these offerings, including Greek Chicken Pasta, Mongolian Beef, Chicken Taquitos, and Dijon-Tarragon Cream Chicken.

However.

Last week, I received a recipe for “Raspberry Kielbasa Over Cheese Grits.” The recipes come in while I am sleeping, and I hadn’t yet had a cup of coffee; thinking that I had, perhaps misunderstood the nature of the recipe, I opened the message. There was no mistake: it was a recipe that called for kielbasa, raspberry preserves, mushrooms and cheese grits. I have eaten snails, unidentified dim sum, and tiny Korean fish with their heads on, but I cannot in my wildest dreams contemplate the intentional preparation or serving of kielbasa with raspberry (mushroom?) sauce. I like raspberry preserves, sorbet, pie, berets, cobblers, blintzes, and can even readily conjure a raspberry sauce for chicken, duck or venison, or drizzled over a baked brie. I draw the line at polish sausage. (True confessions, here: I do not like kielbasa very much, but I swear to you that this has nothing to do with my revulsion about this recipe. It’s just sick and wrong).

God bless the contributor of the offending recipe; he or she is probably far more sophisticated than I will ever hope to be. Or far less. I haven’t figured it out quite yet. I will not link to the recipe because I would hate it if someone posted a recipe of my creation as the object of shock and horror. Besides, you aren’t really going to make it, even if I show you where the recipe is. It would be like stopping by Frederick’s of Hollywood under the guise of buying a negligee and a new whip, when you really just wanted to see whether there were any men there picking out size 13 marabou bedroom slippers.

If, by some chance, you have made this dish and enjoyed it, let me know and I will be publicly humbled. Of course I would much rather hear from you if you have made the dish and fed it to your corgi.

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