wine braised beef

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I don’t really consider myself a team player. I’ve never been excited about sharing or compromise (which makes me really fun to live with, as you can imagine). And yet, in the last several months, two good friends have asked me to collaborate with them on big projects.

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The first was a dinner party for twenty women. It didn’t need to be fancy or involved, except that we wanted it to be. Through a long series of emails, discussing the merits of lasagna versus baked stuffed chicken versus braised meat, we finally decided on a “deconstructed stew” theme, with glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, and beef slow-cooked in a pot of simmering wine and broth. And then just for kicks, we added pesto palmiers, cheese and crackers, mushroom farro soup, orange cream tarts, truffles, and cranberry bliss bars to the menu. Also mulled wine and flavored waters.

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Around this time, the call for proposals to present at the BlogHer Food conference was released, and Brady had asked me if I was interested in submitting a proposal with her about free photo post-processing software programs. Of course I was! Brady and I got our proposal accepted, and so we’re traveling to Seattle the second week of June to talk about editing photos, and, most importantly, doing it using free software.

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Surprisingly, to myself at least, both projects have been unqualified successes. The dinner party was great fun, to plan, to prepare, to serve, and to eat, and my friend invited me to host with her again next year, so I couldn’t have been too hard to work with! Brady and I are still in the beginning stages of planning our presentation for the BlogHer Food conference, but just the fact that our proposal was accepted is a positive sign of our ability to work together. Maybe I’m not so bad to team up with after all.

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One year ago: Toasted Almond Scones
Two years ago: Honey Wheat Cookies
Three years ago: Honey Yogurt Dip
Four years ago: Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas

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Wine-Braised Beef

Serves 4-6

The goal was that the main dish be stew-like without being stew. It was going to be served on plates, so it couldn’t be too saucy, but we wanted meltingly tender chunks of beef. A cheaper cut of meat so we could serve a crowd was definitely a bonus. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s no last-minute work and it can be made in advance and actually improves with being stored overnight.

I’m a big fan of Yellowtail’s wine for recipes like this. It’s cheap but pretty good. I used a Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 (3 to 3½-pound) boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce pancetta, diced into ⅛-inch cubes
1 yellow onion, diced fine
1 medium carrot, diced fine
1 celery stalk, diced fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups dry red wine
1½ cups chicken broth
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 sprig thyme
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat the meat dry, season it generously with salt and pepper, and arrange the pieces, without touching, in the Dutch oven. (You may need to do this in two batches.) Cook the meat, without stirring or flipping, for 2-3 minutes, until the bottoms are deeply browned. Turn the chunks of meat and brown a second side. Transfer the meat to a plate. Discard any fat in the pan (but leave the cooked-on brown bits).

2. In the same pot over medium heat, cook the pancetta until fat starts to render, 3-5 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges of the onions start to brown, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic; cook and stir for about one minute. Pour the wine into the pot, scraping up the sticky brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the stock, tomatoes with their juice, thyme sprig, and reserved meat back to the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Once the liquid simmers, reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and simmer slowly until the meat is tender, about 3 hours.

3. Mix the butter and flour in a small bowl until smooth. Remove the thyme sprig from the pot. Whisk the butter/flour paste into the sauce. Increase the heat to medium to medium-high and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened. Serve, topping each portion with a sprinkling of parsley.

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pasta with salmon in pesto cream sauce

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I never know what to do about Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, I’m not interested in the traditional stuff; I don’t want gifts or chocolate or a heart-covered card with a canned message. I’ll never say no to flowers, although I don’t love the responsibility of keeping the cat from eating them. On the other hand, Valentine’s Day is hard to ignore, because the rest of the world is definitely into it. I’m not one to scoff at something because it’s mainstream; I’d rather join in on the fun.

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I thought that, at the very least, I’d make a nice meal. But Valentine’s Day is on a Tuesday this year, so I couldn’t get too ambitious. Dave’s favorite meal, salmon pesto pasta, would have fit the bill perfectly. It hardly takes longer to cook than it takes pasta to boil, assuming that your pesto is already prepared.  For all that it’s so easy, the finished dish is deserving of being Dave’s all-time favorite dinner, with generous bites of salmon held to pasta by a sauce that’s creamy but not too heavy, since it’s made from evaporated milk instead of heavy cream.

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But, we’ve been having salmon pesto pasta a lot lately, trying to use up last year’s surplus of pesto before this year’s basil starts growing. I decided it wasn’t special enough for Valentine’s Day, even my lazy attitude toward the holiday, so instead we’re having prosciutto-wrapped salmon, farro risotto, and roasted Brussels sprouts. Dave will be so disappointed, but it will be short-lived, because salmon pesto pasta is so easy that we can just have it next week for a non-holiday.

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One year ago: Chocolate Oatmeal Drops
Two years ago: Jalapeno Baked Fish with Roasted Tomatoes and Potatoes
Three years ago: Pot Roast
Four years ago: Apple Galette

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Pasta and Salmon with Pesto Cream Sauce

Serves 4

I usually make half of this recipe to serve two people, and the smaller 5-ounce can of evaporated milk is perfect.  I tried using more, so that the full recipe would use a whole 15-ounce can of evaporated milk, but all the dairy blunted the other flavors.

12 ounces pasta, preferably a short shape (rotini, penne, farfalle, orechiette)
salt
2 (6 to 8 ounce) salmon filets
10 ounces evaporated milk
½ lemon
½ cup pesto
parmesan, for serving

1. Adjust a rack to the upper position and heat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil.

2. Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Once the water boils, add the pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt. Cook the pasta until it is slightly undercooked, about 1 minute less than the package indicates the pasta will be done. Drain.

3. Meanwhile, place the salmon, skin-side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Season it liberally with salt. Broil until the salmon is lightly browned on top and flakes easily with a fork, 6-10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. Return the empty pasta-cooking pot to medium-high heat. Add the evaporated milk and ¼ teaspoon salt. Simmer, scraping the bottom of the pot often to prevent sticking, until the milk is reduced to about ⅓ cup, about 5 minutes. Add the pasta to the milk, and cook, stirring constantly, for about one more minute, until the pasta is al dente.

5. Use two spoons to break up the salmon into bite-sized pieces. Squeeze the lemon juice over the flaked salmon. Add the salmon and pesto to the pasta; stir gently to combine and serve immediately, topping with parmesan.

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This is an update from a earlier blog entry. For a meal we love as much as this one, I thought a new entry was worthwhile.

sausage and spinach stuffed shells

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When I was a kid and cooked dinner for my family once or twice a week, stuffed shells from a freezer bag topped with jarred spaghetti sauce was one of my staples. It took 5 minutes to arrange the shells in a baking dish and dump the sauce over them, and another five minutes to make a salad from iceberg lettuce and mealy out-of-season tomatoes. My mom hated when I made this meal, but not as much as she hated the prospect of cooking dinner for a family of five every day after work. Who can blame her – for wanting a break and for not enjoying my pre-teen culinary prowess?

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These shells took longer to prepare than my standby meal as a kid, but at least by adding spinach to the filling and making my own (less-processed) tomato sauce, I figured I could skip the bland side salad. But I wasn’t just trying to add fiber to my meal, I wanted more flavor than the shells of my youth, which were stuffed with nothing but plain ricotta cheese.

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First, Italian sausage contributes more than just savory meatiness, but a range of spices. Spinach would provide earthiness (plus I had a bunch to use up). The ricotta would be richer and smoother – and, okay, fine, you can use regular store-bought ricotta too, if you haven’t become spoiled by the homemade stuff like others of us. The tomato sauce on top would be fresher and sweetened just slightly with nothing but lightly caramelized onions.

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This is a far cry from those pasta shells I made as a kid. For old time’s sake, though, I still ate them the same way I did back then, trimming off one corner of each shell for the first bite, then the next corner, then dividing the remaining square of pasta and filling into four equal bites. The biggest difference is that this filling is packed full of flavor – plus it took me almost an hour to make dinner instead of ten minutes.

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One year ago: Bourbon Bread Pudding for Tuesdays with Dorie
Two years ago: Toasted Vegetable Subs
Three years ago: Floating Islands for Tuesdays with Dorie
Four years ago: Comparison of 4 Vanilla Frosting recipes

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Sausage and Spinach Stuffed Shells

Serves 6

You probably won’t use the whole box of shells, but a lot of them might be broken or could rip after being boiled, so it’s nice to have some extra.

Feel free to use whatever your favorite tomato sauce is. I’ve provided the recipe I used  below, which is a simple sauce I like for serving over rich pastas with a lot of their own flavors, like these shells.

1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells
salt
16 ounces Italian sausage
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 ounces spinach leaves, washed, coarsely chopped
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta (or 2 cups homemade ricotta)
8 ounces (2 cups) provolone, shredded
1 ounce (½ cup) parmesan, grated
2 eggs
Simple Tomato Sauce (recipe below, or 4 cups of your own sauce)

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Bring a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta shells; cook according to the package instructions. When the pasta is tender, use a large slotted spoon to transfer the shells to a dish towel.

3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausage, breaking up large pieces, until it is no longer pink and has rendered some fat. Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt; continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage is browned and the onion is softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the spinach leaves, letting the residual heat wilt the leaves. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl; stir in the ricotta, provolone, parmesan, and eggs.

4. Lightly coat the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with tomato sauce. Fill each shell with 3 to 4 tablespoons of filling. Transfer the filled shells to the baking dish. After all of the shells are filled, evenly distribute the remaining sauce over the shells. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.

5. Bake for 20 minutes; remove the foil and bake for about 10 minutes longer, until bubbling around the edges. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Makes about 4 cups

Chop the tomatoes right in the can using kitchen shears. You can use diced tomatoes instead, but they won’t break down as the sauce simmers.

2 teaspoons olive oil
½ small onion or 1 large shallot, diced fine
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup red or white wine
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, undrained, chopped
1 tablespoon minced basil and/or parsley

In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until it flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the onion and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the wine, scraping up any browned residue on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes with their juice. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. Stir in the basil or parsley.

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chickpea and rosemary soup

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I confess that this soup came out through a series of blunders. I had originally planned to make African coconut curry soup, with the belief that it was a new recipe and I could submit it to Branny’s SouperBowl charity fundraiser for ASPCA. It turns out though, that it’s the exact same recipe I submitted last year. Whoops.

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I started jotting down what I had in mind instead, a tomato broth with lots of garlic, red pepper flakes, and rosemary, reminiscent of this braised white bean recipe. It also included the chickpeas I’d bought for the curry soup and pasta, which I’d been craving. But then that soup starting sounding familiar too.

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Apparently I wouldn’t be striking bold new soup ground. But that’s okay. I didn’t want something new, I wanted something warm and comforting and easy, easier than my favorite pasta e fagioli recipe. This simple chickpea and pasta soup, infused with piney rosemary, hit the spot perfectly – maybe even better than the originally planned curry soup would have.  I have no regrets for all my blunders that led me to this soup.

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Participation in Branny’s fundraiser requires that the blog post be dedicated to a pet. I dedicate mine to my cat, Daisy, who is also warm and comforting and easy, at least when she isn’t puking on the carpet.

daisy

One year ago: Almond Biscotti
Two years ago: Banana Cream Pie
Three years ago: Crispy Baked Chicken Strips
Four years ago: Fish Tacos

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Rosemary Chickpea Soup

Serves 4 to 6

I used 8 ounces of pasta. It seemed like a lot, but I didn’t mind. Still, if you’d like less pasta, 4 ounces (or anywhere in between) would work well.

1 tablespoon olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
½ teaspoon salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Parmesan rind, if you have one
4-8 ounces small pasta, such as ditalini or macaroni

In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Once the oil starts to sizzle, stir for about 1 minute, then add the tomatoes with their juices, the chickpeas, broth, salt, rosemary, and parmesan rind (if using). Increase the heat to medium-high; once the liquid comes to a lively simmer, add the pasta, return the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the pasta is tender. Remove the rosemary sprigs, adjust the salt if necessary, and serve.

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pasta with tiny meatball sauce

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I haven’t been this excited about a cookbook in a while. This is the type of cookbook that makes me eager to get into the kitchen, particularly because I want to make every recipe in the book. I thought I would start with one of the most involved recipes, one of those “choose your own adventure” recipes that has you page flipping to find all the different components.

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The first is fresh pasta, which I’ve made before, but the recipe in the book differed from my usual with the inclusion of semolina, salt, nutmeg, and, most significantly, oil. Once the pasta was cooked and sauced, I didn’t notice the extra flavorings, but the oil seemed to make rolling easier. I also made a new shape that required less rolling and cooked up pleasantly toothsome.

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The second part is the sauce, which is a slow-cooked meat sauce, but with a twist. Instead of simmering the sauce with ground meat, or with beef meant to be shredded and added back to the sauce, the meat is kept in this sauce through hours of simmering, and then is removed. And not added back in. The meat is not part of the sauce, it’s just there to infuse it with flavor. It’s like you’re making tomato broth.

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The last part, then, is the tiny meatballs. It’s a simple mixture, no bread for tenderizing, just meat, seasoning, and an egg to bind it. The recipe instructs you to form the meatballs “just larger than a chickpea”, but I’m not insane and would prefer to stay that way, so my tiny meatballs were about twice that size, and still plenty tiny for me. Twelve ounces of meat turned into 72 tiny meatballs.

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I loved the tiny meatballs. I can see myself making them again sometime, even though I do not love forming tiny meatballs. I’ve also started to add a dribble of olive oil into my pasta dough, although I skip the semolina, nutmeg, and salt for simplicity’s sake.

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While I enjoyed everything about the sauce – the flavor, the plateful of tomatoey meat we ate as an appetizer, the fun of braising – I’ll make it differently in the future. The original recipe calls for three types of meat, and it’s impractical for most home cooks to buy small portions of a variety of meats. Instead, I’ll just stick to our favorite – lamb – and I’ll use a bony cut like blade chops, because I suspect the bone will add even more flavor to the sauce than the meat did.

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Obviously making a slow-braised sauce, homemade pasta, and forming 72 tiny meatballs is not an insignificant amount of effort. But it was the most fun I’ve had in the kitchen in months, with the added bonus that I learned some new tricks. I can’t wait to choose another recipe from my favorite new cookbook and do it again.

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One year ago: Curry Coconut Chickpea Soup
Two years ago: Baked Ziti
Three years ago: Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread
Four years ago: Deviled Eggs with Tuna

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Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Ragù all’Abruzzese and Palottine, aka Pasta with Tiny Meatball Sauce (completely rewritten but hardly changed from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Pasta of Italy)

Serves 8

I went ahead and bought three different types of meat for this, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Pick your favorite and buy just that one cut.

I don’t usually cook with veal, so I used 8 ounces ground beef plus 4 ounces ground pork plus ⅛ teaspoon gelatin, dissolved in the egg, in the meatballs instead.

Ragù:
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes with their juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces boneless beef chuck roast, cut into four equal pieces
6 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into three equal pieces
6 ounces boneless lamb shoulder cut into three equal pieces
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, finely diced

Pasta:
4 cups (18 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons semolina flour
1 teaspoon table salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
6 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Meatballs:
12 ounces ground veal
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil for cooking

1. For the ragù: If you have a food mill, press the tomatoes through the disk with the smallest holes, discarding the solids. If you don’t have a food mill, puree the tomatoes in a food processor or blender.

2. Generously season the meat with salt and black pepper. In a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it just starts to smoke. Add the meat and cook, without moving, until deeply browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Rotate the meat and brown on the second side. Transfer the meat to a plate.

3. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens but does not brown, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Add the meat back to the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 3 hours, until the meat is tender and the sauce is thickened. Remove the meat before using the sauce; reserve for another use (or just eat it right then, because it’s delicious).

4. For the pasta: Place the flours, salt, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add the eggs and oil; process until the mixture clumps together in large crumbs. Form a small portion of dough into a ball; if it’s too dry to stick together, add up to 2 tablespoons more oil; if it’s sticky, add up to ½ cup more flour. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and set it aside for 30 minutes to rest.

5. Divide the dough into 8 portions. Work with one at a time, keeping the others covered with plastic wrap or a damp dishtowel. Flatten the dough and pass it through a pasta roller on the widest setting. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter, and roll it through the widest setting again. Repeat the rolling and folding 3-4 more times, until the dough is smooth. Flour the dough (with semolina flour if you have it) as much as needed to prevent sticking. Adjust the pasta roller to the next-thinnest setting and roll the dough through twice, then repeat on the third-thinnest setting. Thin the dough to the fourth-narrowest setting on your pasta roller. Repeat the rolling, folding, and thinning with the remaining balls of dough. Pass each strip of dough through the thin cutters on the pasta roller to form long noodles that are approximately square in cross section.

6. For the meatballs: Use your hands to evenly combine the veal, salt, nutmeg, and egg. Form the mixture into balls about ½-inch in diameter.

7. In a 12-inch skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the meatballs, and cook until well browned a couple sides, about 4 minutes, turning about once a minute with a spatula. Transfer to the pot with the ragù; keep warm.

8. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about a tablespoon of salt and the pasta and cook until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

9. Return the drained pasta to the pot; toss with about two-thirds of the sauce and meatballs, adding some of the reserved cooking water if the sauce is too thick. Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl (or individual bowls) and spoon the remaining sauce over the top. Serve immediately, with parmesan and crushed red pepper flakes to pass.

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ricotta

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Here are some things you need to know about making ricotta at home:

1) It really is as easy as they say. The process involves nothing more than heating milk and salt, stirring in lemon juice or vinegar, and straining the mixture.

2) It requires a lot of milk for a relatively small amount of cheese – you’ll start with about four times more volume of milk than you’ll end up with of cheese.

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right after adding the acids

3) About that milk – you can use the regular ol’ stuff from the grocery store, ultrapasteurization and all. That’s all I have access to, and I’ve made some nice ricotta with it.

4) If you’re feeling decadent, you can substitute some of the milk with cream. I started out using about seven times more milk than cream, but in the pictures you see here, I was almost out of cream and used about twenty times more milk than cream. I like this batch just as much as the others.

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right before straining

5) You can use either regular white vinegar or lemon juice. I read here that using all lemon juice gives the cheese a lemony flavor and vinegar is more neutral. However, I was worried about my cheese tasting like vinegar, which would be gross, so I always use a mixture of the two.

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after 5 minutes of straining with no cheesecloth or paper towel liner

6) The pH of the acid you add to curdle the milk matters. That’s one reason vinegar is more dependable than lemon juice; the acidity of lemons varies. It also means you can’t substitute other vinegars, because they might not be as acidic as white vinegar. I learned this the hard way when I realized I was out of regular vinegar and tried to use white wine vinegar instead; the milk didn’t form many curds.

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after 15 minutes of straining with no cheesecloth or paper towel liner

7) You don’t need cheesecloth. The first two times I made this cheese, I strained the mixture in my fine-mesh strainer. Worried that I was losing too much of good stuff, I tried using a double layer of paper towels, but it was draining too slowly and I got impatient and went back to just the strainer. That being said, I really am trying to remember to buy cheesecloth.

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after 15 minutes of straining with no liner, stirred

8 ) You’ll feel wasteful throwing all that whey down the drain, but the bit of internet research I did indicated that it isn’t good for bread dough, because the acid breaks the gluten molecules, weakening the dough’s structure.

9) It isn’t technically ricotta, which is made from the whey leftover from making other cheeses. (The word ricotta, in Italian, means re-cooked.) When I first heard this, I wondered why anyone would call it ricotta, since it isn’t made the same way. Then I made it myself and realized that it looks and tastes just like real ricotta.

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after 2 hours of straining with no liner

10) Homemade ricotta is better than the stabilizer-filled tubs you’ll find in most grocery stores. However, if you do happen to have access to real fresh ricotta, it’s probably cheaper to buy that rather than using half a gallon of milk to make 2 cups of cheese. As for which is better, the last time I bought fresh ricotta from an Italian market was a couple years ago, too long to remember the details of how good it was. I know it was really good, but I know this is really good too.

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finally bought cheesecloth; after 1 hour of straining with double layer of cheesecloth; smoother, creamier cheese

One year ago: Beef Short Ribs Braised in Tomato Sauce
Two years ago: Maple Oatmeal Scones
Three years ago: Chopped Salad
Four years ago: Country Crust Bread

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Ricotta (adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Serious Eats)

Makes about 1 cup

You can adjust the amount of cream down (to 4 cups milk and no cream) or up (to 3 cups milk and 1 cup cream), depending on how rich you want the ricotta to be.

3½ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. In a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the milk, cream, and salt to 190 degrees. Remove the pot from the heat, add the vinegar and lemon juice, stir once, and set aside for 5 minutes.

2. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl. Line the strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth or a single layer of paper towels. Pour the curdled milk mixture into the strainer. Set aside for about an hour. It will get thicker the longer it sits to drain.

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smoked salmon kale carbonara

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When we were in Italy, we tried to eat whatever the local specialty was. That means that in the first few days when we were on the Mediterranean coast, and then the next couple of days on the Adriatic coast, we ate a lot of spaghetti ai frutti di mare – pasta with a bunch of different types of seafood, basically. We ate it three days in a row, and on one of those days, we also had risotto ai frutti di mare.

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In Tuscany, we ate more red meat, and in Rome, every dinner included some version of pasta with fatty pork, whether carbonara, amatriciana, or gricia, the difference between them being whether the sauce includes eggs, onions and tomatoes, or nothing but meat and cheese, respectively. I remember enjoying the gricia and amatriciana, but the carbonara I got was overly sauced in a rich cream and wasn’t at all what I thought it should be.

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Of course, I had no other traditional carbonara experiences to compare it to, and I still don’t. While I can’t guarantee that the creamy carbonara I had in Rome wasn’t authentic, I know for sure that this one isn’t. Instead of smoky pork, this recipe includes smoky fish, which, if you’re going to be unauthentic, is kind of a perfect way to do it. And while we’re at it, why not throw in some bitter greens? I probably shouldn’t say this out loud, but this carbonara was better than any of the similar pastas I had in Italy.

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One year ago: Roasted Chicken Thighs with Root Vegetables
Two years ago: Lamb Stew
Three years ago: German Apple Pancake
Four years ago: Banana Cream Pie

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Smoked Salmon Kale Carbonara (adapted from Cara’s Cravings and Gilt Taste)

Serves 4

12 ounces dried pasta
salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ small red onion, minced
2 clove of garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 large bunches of kale (about 12 ounces), thick stems removed, leaves cut into 1-2 inch pieces
2 eggs
2 ounces (1 cup) grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces smoked salmon, torn into small pieces
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil; add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook, according to the package instructions, until just tender. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until it just starts to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale; cover the pan and cook until tender, 3-5 minutes, stirring about once a minute. Set aside.

3. Beat together the eggs, cheese, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a pinch of black pepper.

4. Transfer the cooked pasta back to the cooking pot; stir in the kale mixture and salmon. Stirring vigorously, add the egg mixture, then the lemon juice. Serve immediately.

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lentil marinara

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When my coworker came back to work after spending weeks in the hospital (and in my small town, that means a hospital over two hours away from home) with his sick newborn baby, I figured they could use a home-cooked meal. I thought tomato soup, homemade bread, and some nice cheese to make grilled sandwiches would be the perfect comfort food. Unfortunately, it would require a trip to the store and a couple free hours to cook, and when I saw how exhausted my friend was, I figured getting something to him soon was more important than getting the perfect meal to him.

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So I made extras of what I was having for dinner that night. Spaghetti is warm and familiar, so fits the comfort food bill, and who doesn’t like the pasta and tomato sauce combination? The lentils, though, might seem strange to some people.

It makes perfect sense to me, because lentils are a great protein source, and while I can’t claim that they taste like beef, there is something meaty-like about them. Besides, what’s more comforting than knowing that your dinner is not only delicious, it’s healthy?

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And now I have another friend who needs comfort food after the death of her father on Thanksgiving day. Unfortunately, I can’t just bring her my leftovers, because she lives a thousand miles away. I don’t think virtual comfort food is quite the same, but at least she’ll know I’m thinking about her and her family and wishing them the best during a difficult time.

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One year ago: Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts
Two years ago: Thai-Style Chicken Soup
Three years ago: Pumpkin Ginger Muffins

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Lentil Marinara (adapted from Branny Boils Over)

6-8 servings

I simmered this for 30-45 minutes, but, if you have the time, I suspect that a longer simmering time while covered would really help the lentils absorb the tomato flavor.

I like canned whole tomatoes for sauce because they break down better, but if you don’t mind larger tomato chunks in your sauce, diced tomatoes will work fine. I chop canned whole tomatoes by sticking kitchen shears into the can and snipping away.

Update 4/23/12 – I’ve made this a couple more times, and I’ve decided that it’s probably too heavy on the lentils.  Using up a whole bag at once is nice, but 8 ounces of lentils for 2 cans of tomatoes will make a tastier sauce.

2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon oregano
¼ cup white or red wine
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 (1-pound) bag brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until it flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the wine, scraping any browned residue on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender and the sauce is thickened.

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butternut squash risotto

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The first time I made this risotto, all the smoke from the chicken I was roasting set off the fire alarm in my apartment building. Everyone had to go stand outside in the cold (this is back when I lived somewhere where it actually got cold), but I didn’t want to leave the stove because I needed to stir my risotto! So Dave was the one who had to go confess to everyone that the alarm was my fault. He loved that.

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And I loved this risotto. It isn’t nearly as rich as the pumpkin risotto I made a couple years ago; that one has twice the cooking fat and a generous dollop of mascarpone. All that cheese mutes the flavor of the squash, and squash is what I want to highlight in a squash risotto.

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This recipe has a trick (it’s a Cooks Illustrated recipe; of course it has a trick) to eeking out all of the possible flavor from squash, and that’s to sauté to fibers and seeds, then use them as a base for the liquid used to cook the rice. It’s almost like making a squash broth, which is the perfect way to incorporate squash flavor into the entire risotto, not just in the chunks of squash distributed throughout the rice.

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The risotto was much better than that alarm-raising chicken. It involves some annoying steps with straining the broth and of course the tedious peeling and chopping of squash, but it isn’t anything as bad as explaining to your neighbors why they have to stand out in the cold on a Sunday night.

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One year ago: Pomegranate-Glazed Salmon
Two years ago: Brown Rice with Black Beans
Three years ago: Sushi Bowls

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Butternut Squash Risotto (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 4 as a main course and 6 as a first course

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch dice (about 3½ cups), seeds and fibers reserved
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small onions, chopped very fine (about 1½ cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
1½ cups dry white wine
¾ cup (1½ ounces) finely grated Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves

1. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add about 3½ cups of the squash in an even layer and cook without stirring until the squash is golden brown, 4-5 minutes; stir in ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender and browned, about five minutes longer. Transfer the squash to a small bowl and set aside.

2. Return the skillet to medium heat; add the reserved squash fibers and seeds and any leftover diced squash. Cook, stirring frequently to break up the fibers, until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan and add the chicken broth and water; cover the saucepan and bring the mixture to a simmer over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a bare simmer.

3. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in the now-empty skillet over medium heat; when the foaming subsides, add the onions, garlic, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and remaining ½ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rice to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until the grains are translucent around the edges, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring frequently, until fully absorbed, 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, strain the hot broth through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return the strained broth to the saucepan and discard the solids in the strainer; cover the saucepan and set over low heat to keep the broth hot.

5. When the wine is fully absorbed, add 3 cups of the hot broth and half of the reserved squash to the rice. Simmer, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the bottom of the pan is almost dry, about 12 minutes.

6. Stir in about ½ cup of hot broth and cook, stirring constantly, until absorbed, about 2 minutes; repeat with additional broth 2 or 3 more times, until the rice is al dente. Off the heat, stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter, the Parmesan, sage, and nutmeg. Gently fold in the remaining cooked squash. If desired, add an additional ¼ cup of broth to loosen the texture of the risotto. Serve immediately.

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turkey ricotta meatloaf

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Of all the food we ate in Italy, probably the most interesting dishes were made by friends in their home, not ordered in a restaurant. One night, after a first course of spaghetti with tomato sauce, they served thin slices of pork loin (or possibly veal) with a sauce made from canned tuna (which I later found is a traditional Piedmontese dish called vitella tonnato). The next night, we ate trofie al pesto, which Wikipedia claims is the “most symbolic of Genoese meals”, fitting, considering that we were indeed in Genoa.

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But it was the main course that night that really impressed me. It was a sort of loaf, which I know doesn’t sound appetizing, but it was wrapped in pancetta, which does sound appetizing. It was light colored and didn’t have the coarse texture of most American meatloaves. I asked about the recipe several days later, but our friend didn’t know what his wife had put into it other than turkey and ricotta.

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Searches for turkey ricotta meatloaf didn’t turn up anything that looked similar. The closest I found was a beef meatloaf with ricotta, so I started there, changing the ground beef to ground turkey, skipping the chunks of mozzarella (but keeping some shredded, to increase tenderness), and eliminating the tomato sauce to more closely replicate the one I’d had in Italy.

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This meatloaf was not very similar to my friend’s meatloaf. But it was very good regardless, and other than cooking it in a smaller pan to concentrate instead of burn the juices, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Except maybe eat it with friends in Genoa while overlooking the Mediterranean, but that goes without saying.

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One year ago: Red Kidney Bean Curry (We had this for dinner twice last week.)
Two years ago: Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Cider Vinaigrette
Three years ago: Mulled Cider

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Turkey Ricotta Meatloaf (adapted from Lidia Bastianich’s Cooking from the Heart of Italy)

Serves 8

½ cup milk
1 cup stale bread cubes, crusts removed (from 2 slices sandwich bread)
2 pounds ground turkey
2 large eggs
10 ounces ricotta
4 ounces (1 cup) mozzarella, shredded
2 shallots, grated
1 ounce (½ cup) grated parmesan cheese
¼ cup minced parsley
pinch nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces pancetta, thinly sliced

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, mix the milk and bread; set aside for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the bread is saturated with milk, use a fork to mash the mixture until it’s smooth. Add the turkey, eggs, ricotta, mozzarella, shallots, parmesan, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper to the bowl with the bread. Use your hands to mix the ingredients until evenly combined.

3. In a 9 by 13-inch pan, shape the meat mixture into a cylindrical loaf shape about 12 inches long. Drape the pancetta slices over the loaf, tucking the slices under the bottom. Cover the pan with aluminum foil.

4. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the foil; bake for an additional 45 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer reads at least 170 degrees when inserted into the middle of the loaf. Let the meatloaf rest 10 minutes before slicing and serving with the accompanying juices in the pan.

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