When life hands you leftover brioche, make French Toast.
One of the best decisions I’ve made recently is to use some unexpected vacation time to ease our transition from my maternity leave into our new routine. I was able to arrange for my first four weeks back on the job to be short weeks, scheduling a month of Thursdays off to spend at home with the kids. It has helped to break up the week for me as I get back in the swing of things at the office, and it allows Mike a bit more freedom to get the things done for his book and other writing projects that he needs to, as well.
Last week, Julian –out of the blue – asked me for mac and cheese, and since it was Thursday, and I was home, I figured why not? But with naptime approaching, I didn’t want to keep him waiting an hour or more for my regular skillet mac and cheese. Instead, I used that tried-and-true recipe as a jumping-off point, stripping down and changing up the proportions of my cheese sauce, and using a smaller (and quicker-cooking) pasta shape to produce a simple, super-creamy stove-top version for him.
Three servings later, I was pretty sure I had a winner on my hands, and when Julian asked for it again yesterday, I figured I’d better write my recipe down for posterity. I hope Julian and his baby sister always push me to think outside the box, in the kitchen and elsewhere.
Simple Stove-top Mac & Cheese
1/2 lb. small pasta (we like Garofalo’s Lumachine, but any little tube or shell is fine)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoon flour
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 oz. grated extra-sharp cheddar
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan or pecorino romano
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1-2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1-2 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta, and cook it until tender. While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a skillet over medium-low heat and whisk in the flour until combined. Whisk in the milk and cream until smooth. Add the cheeses a little at a time, stirring until they are well incorporated, and let cook over medium heat until the sauce is thickened and a bit reduced. Whisk in the Dijon, Worcestershire, and Tabasco (if using), then season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese mixture and stir gently until the pasta is thoroughly enveloped, and the cheese sauce gets into all of its little nooks and crannies. Serve immediately.
It’s hard to believe it was just over a year ago that we returned to Brooklyn. So much has happened over the last 12 months, it often feels like we’ve been back here much longer. We’ve been settling in to our new neighborhood, slowly reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. There have been new professional opportunities to pursue, and on a personal level, we’ve had the joy of watching our little guy learn to walk and run and talk a blue streak. And before we know it, that little guy is going to be a big brother, and we’ll welcome a new little one into our family, into this big, shiny place we call home.
Looking at where we are now, how far we’ve come and what we have to look forward to in the year ahead, kind of takes my breath away.
We’ve been so lucky – we’ve had a whole lot of good come our way in the last year, and more still to come, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve worked more hours in the last 12 months than I probably ever have before in my career, and that hasn’t left me a lot of time to spend with my guys, let alone to keep up with this blog. And we’re still recovering, in a lot of ways, from our big move. We spent everything we had and then some to get back here, and as anyone who has spent time here knows, New York is expensive. We’ve had to really simplify, and one way I’ve done so is by relying more heavily on our favorite pantry staples when planning meals for the week.
I came up with this dish a year ago, when we were still sleeping on air mattresses in our brand new Brooklyn apartment, living out of suitcases and a couple of Rubbermaid bins, trying to stretch the pantry items we were able to move with us from Providence and the few fresh foods we could afford until my first paycheck arrived. We liked it so well I’ve made it numerous times since then, sometimes adding peas or short lengths of asparagus, a little something fresh and green from the farmers’ market. Even at it’s simplest, it has always satisfied.
Pasta with Salmon in Creamy Lemon Sauce
1 lb short, chunky dry pasta (I usually use farfalle, but any shape will do)
3 T unsalted butter
3 T unbleached all-purpose flour
1 lemon, juice and zest
1 cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 6 oz. can salmon, drained, skin and bones removed
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
snipped scallions or chives, about ½ cup
(Optional: 1 cup peas or short lengths of blanched asparagus)
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to the boil for your pasta.
While the water heats, melt the butter in a wide, shallow pan over low-to-medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and whisk it in to combine, letting it cook briefly but being careful not to brown it. Whisk in the lemon juice – it will probably seize up, but don’t panic! Whisk in the milk until the mixture smoothes out, then add the heavy cream. Heat for a minute, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Add the lemon zest and the salmon, breaking it up as you go. (If you’re adding peas or asparagus, add them at this point.)
Once your pasta water is boiling, add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, with a bit of the cooking liquid still clinging to it. Scatter the scallions or chives over the pasta and sauce in the pan, leaving a few aside for garnish, and stir until the pasta is coated with the sauce and the sauce is slightly reduced. Add more scallions or chives and another grinding of pepper, and serve.
I’ve always been pretty proud of my ability to think on my feet. It’s a skill that has served me well at my day job, but it has proven to be invaluable since I became a mom. You just never know what the day will bring.
We’ve been lucky – Julian has been extremely healthy and robust, but yesterday he just wasn’t feeling like himself. He had had some immunizations at his 15-month checkup late last month, and his doctor warned us he might show some delayed symptoms about a week after; right on schedule, he was cranky and fussy and spiked his very first fever Sunday morning. We tried time and again to put him down for a nap in his crib, but he wasn’t having it, so I nestled him close to me in the big bed, and read while he drifted off, staying with him for nearly three hours.
He slept deeply and well, his fever broke, and he woke with a smile on his face, but I had to shelve my original plan for dinner. Something brothy and comforting seemed like just what we all needed, so I put a small pot of beans on the stove and got to chopping while Mike took over tending to our boy.
I was inspired by a beautiful pot of minestrone I saw on Pinterest, so I cobbled together my own version, rich with alliums and fennel, carrots and parsnips, cabbage and kale, good canned tomatoes, fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay. I added a dash of Worcestershire for savoriness and a splash of Sherry vinegar for brightness, the cooked beans and their broth for heft, and a parmesan rind for the wonderful richness it imparts. I didn’t have any soup pasta around, but I did have a bag of par-cooked whole wheat spirals in the freezer left over from a previous meal, so I thawed them and stirred them gently into the soup until they were just warmed through.
I also had a bunch of leafy celery in the crisper, so I pulled off a big handful of the leaves to make a quick gremolata of sorts, chopping them fine and combining them with garlic and lemon zest and coarse pink salt, plus a little bit of olive oil to make a chunky paste, which I swirled on top of our soup bowls.
We settled in at the table, passing a tray of cheese-dusted, garlicky toasts for dunking, and even Julian ate with gusto. I guess a good pot of soup really is the cure for what’s ailing you.
A few days ago, Mike asked if I would make a batch of granola. I did, and decided to try adding an egg white for extra clumpiness, a trick I had seen mentioned in a few different places recently.
That meant, of course, that we had an extra yolk around. And you know I couldn’t let that go to waste.
We’ve gotten a couple of bags of local AP flour from Cayuga Pure Organics in the months that we’ve been back in New York, and I adore how it performs in fresh pasta dough. These Knoll Crest Farm eggs are pretty great, too.
I had also gotten a great deal on some locally-raised ground Angus beef, so I pulled together a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce to go with our pasta, and while the sauce bubbled away and my granola cooled, I whipped up a few other things for our little guy to eat during the week.
A tray of little sweet potato wedges, just slicked with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, went into the oven to roast along with a batch of Judy Rodgers’ Roasted Applesauce.
I make this stuff just about every week – it is the easiest and best applesauce ever, and we all love it. This time I used some heirloom Baldwin apples we picked up at the farmers market earlier in the day.
I also cooked up a pot of Broccoli Cooked Forever, minus the hot peppers, as a side to our baked pasta and to have around for Julian this week – it’s one of his favorites (though very un-photogenic).
I was craving a baked pasta, so I decided to do something a little different, canneloni-inspired, if you will. I cut my fresh pasta sheets into square sections, and blanched them as I do for lasagna. Once shocked and patted dry, I added a swipe of seasoned ricotta to each, rolled them into cigars, and set them on a bed of my sauce, with more sauce spooned over the tops. I baked them for half an hour or so, covered, then removed their tinfoil cap, grated on some cheese, and put them back in the oven to get bubbly.
Julian got a pint-sized portion of his own, and a chance to work on his fork skills.
He’s a natural, don’t you think?
You guys just blow me away. Thank you so much for your kind words, your links and tweets and retweets. I had no idea that last post would hit home for so many of you. I think my heart grew three sizes this past week. Truly, thank you.
Speaking of giving thanks, and Thanksgiving, ours, aside from a bit of a plumbing emergency, was pretty fantastic. We had beautiful weather, a delicious meal, and we have just about finished the last of our leftovers. I made gumbo and sandwiches, and a dish I called the “hot mess” casserole. It was homely as heck, but delicious.
I got to watch my kid eat pumpkin pie for the first time. Which was pretty awesome.
And a little something fun arrived in the mail.
You guys. We made a cookbook. Again! Big congrats to all my fellow cooks and the whole food52 team. I’m so honored to be part of your community.
And to all of you reading, I hope your Thanksgiving holiday was as full of smiles as ours was.
Our 2012 Thanksgiving Feast (with links to recipes, where applicable):
Tuscan Chicken Liver Paté
Russ Parsons’ Dry-Brined Turkey (a.k.a. The Judy Bird), with a cider-spiked turkey gravy
Mrs. Wheelbarrow‘s incomparable Challah, Mushroom, and Celery Stuffing
my Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Warm Cider Vinaigrette
roasted sweet potato rounds with fried sage
Canal House’s Cranberry-Port Gelée (holy cow, was this good – and we’re not big fans of the sauce, usually)
Meta Given’s Pumpkin Pie
Le Cinsault par Familongue
Three years ago, we almost lost our apartment. We were buried under medical and veterinary bills, we found ourselves owing a fortune in back taxes due to an accounting error – we were in the red in every single way possible. I had no idea how we would – or if we even could – dig ourselves out of that pit. But you wouldn’t have known about that, just from looking at these pages. That year I spent a few hundred bucks sourcing out food for a Thanksgiving feast for an article that would pay me about half that amount. It was a great meal, and despite everything, we still had a lot to be grateful for.
Two years ago, we spent an entire day cooking up a spectacular meal: a heritage turkey, cooked two ways, all sorts of trimmings and sides. Though we were a party of two, there was food and drink enough for an army, and after a bit too much of the latter and a huge fight, I threw my wedding band across the living room and stormed out into the night, dinner uneaten. The weight and wear of all we had been struggling with over the previous years, the losses we had suffered, some still fresh and raw, brought us to a breaking point that night. I wasn’t sure our marriage would survive.
But you wouldn’t have known that either. The next day, I pulled bowls and platters from the fridge, made up a couple of plates, and took photos by daylight while Mike made coffee. We ate in silence. He dug my wedding band out from behind the bookshelves later that morning.
One year ago, we had a 9-week old baby boy in our lives. We slow-roasted a duck, kept sides and drinks to a minimum, took a long walk through the crisp November air, snapped lots of photos. It was the simplest and happiest Thanksgiving we had had in years. It felt like the start of something. And when I look back at my posts from that day, finally, I see the truth reflected.
One reason I took an extended break from posting here is because I was beginning to feel pressure to be something I wasn’t. I felt like I had to put on a false face, put forward some idealized vision of our life, to hide the fact that it isn’t always cocktails and charcuterie, thirty dollar pastured chickens and good bottles of wine. It was all too much. There are weeks when we’re flush and we can spend a fair amount on food and drink, but more often than not these days, I am trying to figure out how I can best spend thirty bucks on enough good food to last us all week.
But you know what? I am so grateful for that. We have so much.
Our life has changed, is changing – every day, it seems. Just when we think we’re in a good groove, a routine, something happens to change that. A delayed departure from work, a late train or a cranky toddler can disrupt everything. We had a stretch where we were able to eat dinner together every night before putting Jules to bed. Then we lived in a hotel for nine days. Then we moved to New York, without our furniture, our belongings – it was a month before we were able to get them out of storage and into our new space. I went back to work, and Mike and Julian got back into their daily routine at home, and just as we were settling back in to a predictable schedule, things changed again.
But that’s life. That is our life, and I want to capture our reality, preserve it here. I want to remember these times, these meals.
And I want Julian to remember.
The dishes I make from night to night are tasty and nourishing, but there is absolutely nothing sexy about them. They wouldn’t be sexy if I had a DSLR to photograph them with and a wardrobe of twee table linens to shoot them against. And that has kept me from capturing them, from cataloging them like I used to. I’ve felt ashamed, in a way, like I couldn’t compete. But what I got away from is that this isn’t a competition, it’s our life. And I don’t want to hide it anymore.
I can look at the pale-hued Polaroids I swiped from my mom’s collection, and see the little girl I once was sitting on a couch at grandma’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles who are beginning to fade away, and just by looking at them, I can conjure up the smell of grandma’s dressing, the flavors of my aunts’ creamy casseroles. I want my son to grow up with some record of the special meals of his childhood, and the ordinary ones too, something to spark his memories when he’s all grown up and too far away from home.
I want him to remember that the three of us ate together, as a family, every chance we got. Even if the photos aren’t perfect, and more of what’s on his plate ends up on the cats than in his belly these days, I want him to remember. I want him to remember when he looks at these pages that even if the meals were plain and unpretty, and sometimes mommy was tired and cranky, and some weeks we had plenty and some weeks we had less but we always had enough, that most importantly we had each other, and we loved each other fiercely, and we ate together, and we laughed, and we were grateful for it all.