Get the Balance Right

Dinner:  February 1, 2010

Juggling the duties of my new position and old position is still a major challenge, but I’m trying hard not to get overwhelmed. I really do find comfort in the kitchen, and while my time and energy have been limited, it is important to me that I still make time to cook for us at least a few nights a week. I’ve given up on getting creative for the time being, instead choosing to turn out some old favorites, uncomplicated meals I can put together almost without thinking about them – like Monday’s onion soup. Onion soup was the very first thing I taught myself to cook, more years ago than I care to admit, and I still get a little thrill every time I dip my spoon through a layer of molten cheese into the rich broth beneath.

Dinner:  February 2, 2010

Tuesday night’s dinner was even easier, thanks to the full day I spent cooking on Sunday. I had cooked up another pot of my new favorite lamb ragu, setting half of it aside to reheat last night, and stashing the rest in the freezer for another time. When I got home from work, I put the ragu in a pan with a glug of red wine, got a pot of water boiling, and caught up with Mike over a cocktail while the sauce simmered. I really love this sauce, and while I’ll never give up the pleasures of a long-simmered beef and pork Bolognese, I think this simple lamb ragu is going to be my go-to meat sauce for pasta. It’s all about options, and balance, right?

Lamb Ragu, Take Two

½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped carrot
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1-2 T olive oil
Kosher salt
1 T double-concentrated tomato paste
1 lb. ground lamb
1-2 fresh bay leaves (or one small dried)
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
½ cup dry red wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, with their juice
1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar

Place the celery, carrot, onion, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse them until they’re very finely chopped. Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan until shimmering, then add the ground up veggies and a big pinch of salt. Stir the veggies through to coat them with oil, and cook for a few minutes until they’re softened. Clear a spot in the bottom of the pan and add the tomato paste, allowing it to toast for a few minutes before stirring it through.

Add the ground lamb, breaking it up with your spoon and stirring until the softened veggies are mixed through. Cook until the lamb has lost its raw, red color, then add the bay leaves, thyme, marjoram, and wine. Bring to just to a boil, then add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking the tomatoes up with your spoon. Add another big pinch of salt, then bring to a boil once again. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the sauce, partially covered, until the sauce is thick and reduced, about an hour or so.

Stir in the Sherry vinegar right at the end, taste and adjust the salt if needed, then serve right away or cool and store in the fridge or freezer.

Note: This makes about 4-5 cups, or enough to sauce 2 lbs. of hot cooked pasta. To reheat, add a couple of cups of the sauce to a hot pan with a half cup or so of wine or water, then cook over medium heat until it cooks down and gets a little caramelized. If you’re going to toss it with pasta, let the sauce get really dry, and then add some of the starchy water to the pan along with the al dente pasta; leave it a little more moist if you’re going to serve it another way (like, for example, over soft polenta).

The Beginning

Dinner:  October 5, 2009

Yesterday’s news about the demise of Gourmet magazine left plenty of folks feeling nostalgic, myself included. While I had allowed my subscription to lapse earlier this year, one of many things we’ve had to give up since becoming a one-income household, I continued to purchase as many issues as I could at the newsstand, and was always struck by the quality of the writing as well as the beauty of the photos. It was inspiring, plain and simple, and I’m sad to see it go.

So while people all around the internet thought back yesterday to what Gourmet meant to them, how it influenced them, and how best to celebrate it, I thought back to how all of this started, how I came to be a girl who pored through food magazines and cookbooks like some pore through comics or mystery novels. As an 11 year old girl standing at a stove in a little brick house on the east side of Detroit, making onion soup from scratch for the very first time – not from a recipe, but from the memory of a bowl of soup I had at a restaurant and wanted desperately to recreate – I never would have dreamed that some day I’d be sharing so many meals with so many people.

Saying goodbye to Gourmet feels like saying goodbye to an old friend, but it feels like we’re entering into an exciting time for food and media. I’ve had a tremendous number of new and new-to-me blogs and websites and people turn up on my radar over the last few months, and it feels like as that part of my world has grown bigger, it has in many ways gotten more intimate. I’ve said it time and again – food brings people together. I am forever grateful for Gourmet and to all who contributed to it for showing me the possibilities that existed beyond the food and food culture of my youth, but I look forward to seeing where inspiration will come from next.

The Time of the Season

asparagus

It seems everywhere I turn on the internet these days, I see a mouthwatering recipe featuring pasta paired with the vegetable of the moment, asparagus. And frankly, the combination is so perfect for a quick meal this time of year it’s not surprising that asparagus pastas are all the rage.

spring onions

My version was inspired by a dish I had recently at La Laiterie, which contained grilled asparagus and a fresh, bright spring onion soubise. The flavors were wonderful together, and while that dish partnered them with halibut cheeks, I loved the flavors of the asparagus and creamy spring onion so much that I thought I’d spin the two components into a sauce for pasta.

blanched spring onions in water bath

I started by blanching a couple of cups of spring onion, sliced into segments an inch or two long, then pureeing them in the food processor with a little bit of water. I added a dab of butter to a skillet while my pasta water bubbled away on another burner, and I gently warmed the puree in the butter. I added the juice and zest of half a fat lemon, a sprinkle of sea salt, and then melted in about half a cup of tangy crème fraiche.

tips and ribbons

sauce+asparagus

I had separated my asparagus into tips and stalks, using a vegetable peeler to shave the stalks into long, thin ribbons. As the pasta boiled (I used a farro fettucine, which needed only 5-6 minutes in the pot), I cooked the asparagus just briefly in the sauce, adding a bit of starchy pasta water to smooth it all out. I transferred the pasta to the pan with the sauce, tossing it gently to coat the noodles, then spooned it into shallow bowls, finishing our plates with a grating of Pecorino Romano and more lemon zest.

The flavors worked as well together as I had hoped, with the spring onion puree, lemon and crème fraiche melding into a light but luxurious sauce, but the thing that was most fun about this for me was that with each twirl of my fork, silky ribbons of asparagus were entwined with the pasta, providing a pretty pop of color and fresh flavor in every bite.

Cooking to Combat Cancer

I know of very few people whose lives have not been affected in some way by cancer. Mike was just a little boy when he lost his father to pancreatic cancer. My aunt is a breast cancer survivor. Our friend Michele has undergone treatment for skin cancer, and just recently, our friend Jill lost someone very dear to her after a long battle with breast cancer that metastasized to her brain. It is for Jill’s friend Jen, and for everyone else in our lives who has been touched by this disease, that I am writing this today, to participate in the third installment of Cooking to Combat Cancer.

Cancer is a scary word, and I’m sure it’s easy to feel powerless when you or someone you love is faced with that diagnosis. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia nearly 10 years ago, and after struggling with various treatments, I took a good hard look at my diet, figuring it was one small thing I had control of. Cancer is, obviously, a very different beast than fibro, but consuming a diet made up of good, wholesome foods is a great way to help manage all sorts of health conditions.

Food is a powerful thing: it provides both fuel for our bodies and comfort for our souls. I’ve talked a lot about the latter here, but it’s easy to forget sometimes that so many foods contain compounds that fight cell damage, reduce inflammation, boost immunity, and are as beneficial to those battling disease as to those of us who are trying to stave it off, or who are managing chronic health conditions. The fact that they taste good is a bonus.

salad, pre-toss

I tend to like vivid color on my plate, so with that in mind, I chose red quinoa as the base for my cancer-fighting dish, a warm quinoa salad. Quinoa is a favorite pantry staple, a great canvas for other flavors, and a breeze to prepare – just rinse it well and cook it as you would rice. I tossed my cooked quinoa with a zippy dressing spiked with lots of minced garlic, lemon juice and zest, all bound with a bit of extra virgin olive oil. I added about a cup of thinly sliced spring onions to the mix, as well as several handfuls of young kale.

in praise of...

Inspired by Sara Kate’s recent post at The Kitchn, I opened a tin of olive oil-packed sardines, reserving the oil to fry them in. I gave the sardines an ultra-light coating of Wondra flour seasoned with sea salt and a little cayenne, then gently fried them until they were crisp on the outside and just warmed through.

Dinner:  April 28, 2009

I gave the warm quinoa salad another quick toss before serving it, placing the sardines on top and finishing the whole thing with another hit of lemon zest. The richness of the fish married really well with the nutty quinoa, brightly flavored dressing, sharp onions and tender young kale – this meal was as full of flavor as it was packed with healthy goodness.

(Big thanks to Mele Cotte for hosting, and to Blue Kitchen’s Terry B for referring me there.)

Gifts from the sea

Dinner:  June 3, 2008

One of the things I love most about seafood is that when you get good, super-fresh stuff, you don’t need to do too much to it. A little basic seasoning, a quick cooking method, perhaps a little sauce or something to go alongside and you’ve got a great meal. It almost feels like cheating.

Mike brought home a gorgeous piece of bluefish yesterday, which got a quick rubdown with salt and olive oil before going on the grill. To go with it, I packeted slices of Yukon Gold potato in foil (which were also cooked on the grill), mixed up a garlicky lemon mayo, and quickly pickled some thinly sliced red onions with salt and sherry vinegar. I finished our plates with a little baby arugula, both for color and a fresh, peppery bite.

pre-dinner bite

We had time to fit even more seafood into our evening – some oysters we picked up from Matunuck at the Hope High farmers’ market over the weekend, which were shucked, soaked in buttermilk, then dipped in flour and fried until crisp and golden. They were great to nibble on while the rest of our meal came together, and needed just a sprinkling of flaky Maldon salt after they came out of the hot oil – perfect little bites of salty-sweet-slightly briny goodness. This time of year, this is how I love to eat.