Towards the Light

coming home

December already. I can’t believe we’re closing out another year, though for many reasons, I’ll be happy to put this one behind us. I’ve been struggling with the weather already, crawling stiff-limbed out of bed, heading out to the bus stop each morning swaddled in layers, returning home in darkness, cheeks red and fingers numb, guided by twinkling holiday lights to the warmth of our kitchen.

I’ve been cooking a lot, not that you’d know it by coming here, mostly big pots of brothy things, soups and stews to force the chill from my bones, but very little of it has been noteworthy. Most dishes have been comprised of odds and ends foraged from the freezer and pantry, from leftovers repurposed, from trying to stretch a protein over a series of meals. We’ve been tightening our belts even more than before, in anticipation of the holidays but also of necessity. We’ll scrimp more now so we can splurge a bit at Christmas.

cabbage

And with the exception of one glorious night out with dear friends recently, we’ve been staying in. I don’t mind it so much – I’m a homebody at heart – but I do find that I have really been missing the spark of inspiration I get from a good meal out, the way a chef will work with an ingredient, pair it with something unexpected, or prepare it in a new (to me) way. I feel like I’m in a rut, my taste buds in hibernation, my creativity lacking.

Dinner: December 9, 2010

I did, however, have a minor breakthrough last night with a pasta dish that I’ve been trying to recreate forever (or at least since February of 2008), a simple mix of spaghetti with savoy cabbage, pancetta, and pecorino cheese that I first tasted at A Voce in NYC. I’ve played with this preparation over the years with varying levels of success, and while I’ve come close in the past, I think I finally nailed it. The key, I think, was to really hammer the cabbage, to wilt it down to silky strands, almost caramelizing it, rendering it soft and sweet and utterly delicious. I added a tiny knob of butter too, which rounded out all of the flavors, allowing the salty pecorino and flecks of freshly cracked pepper to really dance on your tongue. This may not have been the prettiest dish, but the flavors really sang, and it was so good we had seconds.

From food52: A Twofer

After Mike’s 40+ mile bike ride yesterday morning, he was craving a hearty dinner, and in looking at the recipes I had bookmarked for my week of food52 dinners, I had just the thing in mind.

Caesar Salad with Pancetta

First up, my friend Marie‘s Caesar Salad with Pancetta, the runner-up in the somewhat controversialYour Best Caesar Salad” contest. This salad has everything I love in a Caesar – rich egg yolk (in this instance, gently coddled), lots of garlic and anchovy, and crisp homemade croutons. Marie’s additions of pancetta and lime juice are what make this salad really special – we loved the crisp bits of pancetta in the salad, as well as the flavor the rendered fat gave to the croutons, and we could have eaten the lime-spiked dressing by the spoonful.

The (Not Barefoot) Contessa's Fish Pasta

For our main course, I went with The (Not Barefoot) Contessa’s Fish Pasta, an early food52 recipe challenge champ, and a really delicious dish. The olive and caper-spiked tomato sauce is evocative of a puttanesca, and the chunks of meaty white fish (in our case, halibut) give the sauce heft without heaviness. We would have liked a little more salt and acid in this dish (and perhaps a pinch of red chile flakes), though that’s totally a personal preference – this is a wonderful seafood pasta dish that we’ll definitely make again.

Minor adjustments

pancetta + leeks

I’ve been tweaking a lot of my favorite standards lately; last Saturday’s mac & cheese, for instance, was made with more bechamel than I have traditionally used, making it extra creamy and luxurious, and I also used a different blend of cheeses, adding a blue and a creamy cheese to the mix. When planning our meals for the week, I decided to reserve the remnants of a Poilane loaf I brought home on Friday and use it for one of our other favorite comfort food dinners – a savory bread pudding – and I decided to play around with my usual recipe.

We had a couple of leeks in the fridge that I wanted to use up, so I chopped those and sautéed them with half a pound of chopped thickly sliced pancetta. That got tossed with my cubed bread, along with a handful of chopped fresh sage. I fiddled with the proportions in my custard, combining six eggs with two cups of whole milk, one cup of heavy cream, a little kosher salt and a couple of tablespoons of Colman’s dry mustard. I added my cheeses to this – about a cup each of grated Parmagiano Reggiano and Mecox Bay Dairy Sigit (a really delicious Alpine-style cheese), then poured the mixture over my bread cubes. After a bit of tossing and squishing, I transferred the mixture to a buttered baking dish, added a bit more grated cheese on top and placed it into the oven, baking it at 375 until it was puffy and browned.

Dinner:  February 12, 2008

Though parts of the bottom got a little over-browned, this was probably my favorite bread pudding yet, rich and creamy in the center, with crisp edges and a crusty, cheesy top. I will probably use this base going forward, but I need to remember to let the pudding rest a bit longer once it comes out of the oven – that added creaminess makes for a molten hot center and steam burns on the roof of the mouth are no fun.

‘Choked up

This time of the year, it’s difficult not to be an impulse buyer when visiting the Greenmarket. I loaded up on artichokes at Union Square over the weekend – I had no idea how I was going to use them, but it’s such a treat to get them grown locally.

bucatini

The heat and humidity were pretty oppressive yesterday, so I wanted to fix something fast. Doing a quick mental inventory of the fridge and cupboards, I decided to combine the artichokes with pancetta and bucatini pasta.

Dinner:  September 9, 2007

My artichokes were small, so trimming them down was a breeze. While the halved hearts sat in acidulated water, I got my pasta water going and chopped up half a pound of thickly sliced pancetta. I sautéed the pancetta in a bit of olive oil until crisp, then added the artichokes, salt, a pinch of chile flakes and a splash of white vermouth. I let this continue cooking until the artichokes were tender, then finished the bucatini in the sauce, adding a couple of ladles of the pasta water. I stirred a handful of grated Pecorino Romano in off the heat, and finished the pasta with plenty of black pepper and a bit more cheese.

our wine with dinner

Wine Pairing: I’m always a little wary of trying to pair wine with artichoke dishes, and my original thought was to buy a Prosecco to go with our meal. We ended up going with this Dolcetto d’Alba recommended to us by Dan at Uva Wines (who moved into their big, bright new space just last week), and once again, he picked us a winner. It was bright and juicy and went beautifully with our pasta.