home corned beef

Can someone explain to me why the only way I can buy brisket in my tiny town is to get the whole brisket? (And why are there no dried currants? Or mini-cupcake liners?) I didn’t even know what a whole brisket looked like before last month. First off, it’s huge. Who needs to buy 15 pounds of meat at a time? Second, half of that 15 pounds is fat. I actually weighed the fat after I spent an entire hour aaaargh! trimming it off the brisket. An inch-thick layer of fat, yum.


monkey peeler for scale

And why is brisket so much more expensive to buy than prepared corned beef anyway? Corned beef is just seasoned brisket. I didn’t corn my own beef because I have a problem with the store-bought versions of corned beef; it’s just that…I can’t help myself. Homemade corned beef sounded fun.

I tried it a few years ago (back in the glorious days when I could buy pre-trimmed brisket in reasonable sized roasts), using Cooks Illustrated’s dry rub recipe. In that one, a mixture of salt and other seasonings is rubbed onto the brisket and left to set for several days. It was good, because it’s salty brisket, but I didn’t think it was significantly better than what I could buy.

I started out this time using Alton Brown’s recipe, which is a wet brine similar to what is often used for chicken. However, I balked when I was supposed to add 2 pounds of ice to 2 quarts of water to make the brine for four pounds of brisket. That seemed like an excessive amount of liquid per meat; I’m not sure I have the fridge space for all that. So I halved the liquid, but that means that my brine was far more concentrated, and the resulting corned beef was not-quite-inedibly salty.

I tried again (after all, I still had plenty of brisket in the freezer), dialing back the amount of salt by half. And what do you know? Perfection. Dave is already requesting more reubens, so it looks like I’ll use up 15 pounds of brisket after all.  Maybe next time I can get the butcher to trim it for me.

One year ago: Roasted Baby Artichokes
Two years ago: Red Beans and Rice

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Corned Beef (adapted from Alton Brown)

6 to 8 servings

The use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is up to you. Its purpose is to make the meat pink; without it, it turns the purpley gray that you see in my pictures. Cooks Illustrated’s corned beef write-up reported chemical flavors whenever they used saltpeter, and I couldn’t find it anyway, so I left it out, and truthfully, I quite like the color of the meat at the end of cooking.

4 cups water
½ cup kosher salt
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon saltpeter (optional)
½ cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
4 whole allspice berries
6 whole juniper berries
2 bay leaves, crumbled
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
4 quarts ice
1 (4 to 5 pound) beef brisket, trimmed

Place the water in a 5-quart pot along with the salt, sugar, saltpeter (if using), and spices. Cook over high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add the ice and let set the mixture until the ice is mostly melted. Once the liquid is cold, place the brisket in a 1-gallon zip-top bag and add the brine. Seal and lay flat inside a 9×13-inch pan. Refrigerate for 5 days, turning occasionally. After 5 days, remove the meat from the brine and rinse it under cool water. Cook using your favorite recipe. (I like to keep it very simple, just simmering the brisket in water for a few hours until it’s tender, adding potatoes, carrots and cabbage near the end.)

lighter chicken and dumplings

Aargh, I hate when I choose a recipe specifically because of one step that I find interesting, and then I screw up that step! In this chicken and dumplings recipe, Cooks Illustrated uses chicken wings to thicken the broth, instead of starch. I’m always fascinated by how homemade stock is gelatinous when it’s cold, so I was eager to try out the idea of thickening a broth with natural collagen.

But then I didn’t quite buy chicken wings. Drummettes were more easily available, and they’re from wings, so I figured it was close enough. Too late, I read the recipe description closer and saw that they specifically refer to the joints in wings as having a lot of collagen. D’oh! My little drummettes didn’t have joints.

So much for that trick. I ended up dissolving about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in about ¼ cup of water and stirring that into the broth near the end of cooking. That worked fine, although it wasn’t as fun.

Regardless, the resulting chicken and dumplings were really delicious. I particularly liked the idea of putting a kitchen towel under the lid of the pot while the dumplings cook, so that they’re tops don’t get soggy. I also like that it only has a bit of fat in it, so this meal is light enough to make again soon – correctly this time.

One year ago: Chopped Salad
Two years ago: Oatmeal

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Lighter Chicken and Dumplings (from Cooks Illustrated)

Stew:

6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2½ pounds), trimmed of excess fat
table salt and ground black pepper
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 small onions, chopped fine (about 1½ cups)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¾-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1 medium celery rib, chopped fine (about ½ cup)
¼ cup dry sherry
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 pound chicken wings
¼ chopped fresh parsley leaves

Dumplings:
2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
¾ cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 large egg white

1. For the stew: Pat chicken thighs dry with paper towels and season with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chicken thighs, skin-side down, and cook until skin is crisp and well browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Using tongs, turn chicken pieces and brown on second side, 5 to 7 minutes longer; transfer to large plate. Discard all but 1 teaspoon fat from pot.

2. Add onions, carrots, and celery to now-empty pot; cook, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in sherry, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in broth and thyme. Return chicken thighs, with any accumulated juices, to pot and add chicken wings. Bring to simmer, cover, and cook until thigh meat offers no resistance when poked with tip of paring knife but still clings to bones, 45 to 55 minutes.

3. Remove pot from heat and transfer chicken to cutting board. Allow broth to settle 5 minutes, then skim fat from surface using wide spoon or ladle. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard skin from chicken. Using fingers or fork, pull meat from chicken thighs (and wings, if desired) and cut into 1-inch pieces. Return meat to pot.

4. For the dumplings: Whisk flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt in large bowl. Combine buttermilk and melted butter in medium bowl, stirring until butter forms small clumps; whisk in egg white. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir with rubber spatula until just incorporated and batter pulls away from sides of bowl.

5. Return stew to simmer; stir in parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. Using greased tablespoon measure (or #60 portion scoop), scoop level amount of batter and drop over top of stew, spacing about ¼ inch apart (you should have about 24 dumplings). Wrap lid of Dutch oven with clean kitchen towel (keeping towel away from heat source) and cover pot. Simmer gently until dumplings have doubled in size and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 13 to 16 minutes. Serve immediately.

asian-style chicken noodle soup

I don’t get sick very often, which I chalk up mostly to luck (or I guess good genes). It probably also helps that I try to eat bunches of fruits and vegetables, drink a lot of water, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly.

Of course, over the holidays, I tend to grab a cookie instead of a piece of fruit for a snack, and I sleep less, and I drink wine instead of water, and I spend a lot of time indoors, and…blah, this year, I got the Cold From Hell right after Christmas. I spent the better part of three days sitting on the couch with a book, a mug of tea, and a blanket (which sounds nice, yet wasn’t). I did, however, find enough energy to make chicken soup.

I wasn’t in the mood for a traditional version, which just seemed too hearty for how I was feeling. I wanted a gently flavored broth with ginger and leeks instead of more assertive aromatics like onions and carrots. Mushrooms were a light addition and Japanese soba noodles made the soup into a balanced meal.

It definitely hit the spot, which was good because we didn’t eat much besides this and tomato soup for a few days. It seems to have worked, because this morning – finally! – I’m breathing through my nose. I forgot how wonderful that feels.

Two years ago: Pad Thai
One year ago: Pasta with Broccoli, Sausage, and Roasted Red Peppers

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Asian Chicken Noodle Soup

6 main dish servings (probably 12 first-course servings)

My small-town grocery store didn’t have shiitakes, which was very sad, so I used oyster mushrooms. You can use really any type of mushroom, including white button.

2 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts, 12 to 16 ounces each
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts only
1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups water
4 cups chicken broth
8 ounces soba noodles, broken in half
12 ounces shiitakes, stemmed discarded, caps sliced thin
2 tablespoon rice vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon chili oil (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 scallions, chopped

1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position; heat the oven to 450 degrees. Heat the oil in 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat; swirl to coat the pot evenly with oil. Brown the chicken breasts skin side down until deep golden, 3 to 4 minutes; turn the chicken breasts and brown until they’re golden on the second side, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Place the pot with the chicken in the oven; roast until the thickest part of a breast registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 18 to 25 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter and set aside until it’s cool enough to handle, then shred it, discarding the bones and skin.

2. Discard all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat in the Dutch oven. Without rinsing the pot, sauté the leeks, ginger and garlic over medium heat until the leeks are softened, 3-4 minutes, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the water and broth; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 15 minutes.

3. Add the mushrooms, chicken, and soba to the broth mixture and simmer for about 6 minutes, until the noodles are tender. Stir in the rice vinegar, soy sauce, chile oil, sesame oil, cilantro and scallions. Serve.

sweet potato hash

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While I can be, shall we say, particular about preparation, I think keeping an open mind is so important when it comes to both ingredients and certain dishes.

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For example, stuffing. There’s nothing unpleasant about bread, seasonings, aromatics, and broth baked until the flavors are blended and the top is crispy. When people say they don’t like stuffing, I really think they just didn’t like the stuffing they had when they were young. They just need to try a different recipe (add bacon!) to enjoy it more.

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As far as ingredients that often inspire pickiness, sweet potatoes have a bad name. For a lot of people, one of the only ways they’ve seen sweet potatoes prepared is in that sugary, marshmallow-topped weirdness at Thanksgiving. Hey! Let’s take something already sweet, cook it in sugar, top it with more sugar, and serve it with dinner! Blech.

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Because I don’t like those sweet potatoes and wasn’t exposed to them prepared other ways, I always assumed I didn’t like sweet potatoes at all. But now I know better! I like them quite a bit in more savory preparations.

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Take this dish. Salty bacon, flavorful slightly caramelized vegetables, and browned sweet potatoes. What is there not to like, especially when the whole thing is topped with an egg? It goes to prove that I could miss out on some great meals if I don’t remember that just because I don’t like an ingredient prepared one way doesn’t mean I won’t like it in other dishes.

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One year ago: Peter Reinhart’s Pizza Dough

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Sweet-Potato Hash with Bacon (adapted from epicurious/Gourmet)

Serves 4

These are the same ingredients in the same proportions as the original recipe, but I’ve tweaked the preparation a bit because a number of reviewers complained that the original was too greasy. Adding eggs on top is also my addition, but Dave and I tried it with and without the eggs, and while it was good without, it was even better with.

½ pound sliced bacon, cut into ¼-inch strips
2 medium onions, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
salt and pepper
2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
4 eggs (optional)

1. Cook the bacon in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until it renders some fat and begins to brown. Drain off all of the fat except for a thin coating on the pan, then add the onions, red pepper, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, 7-8 minutes.

2. Stir in the potatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and starting to brown, 10 to 14 minutes. Stir in the thyme and season to taste.

3. If you’re adding the eggs, create four indentions in the hash and break an egg into each. Season the eggs and cover the pan. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook without removing the lid for at least 6 minutes, when you can start testing for doneness. I like my eggs without any runniness at all in the white but with gooey yolks, and it takes around 8 minutes.

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brown rice with black beans

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Of all the whole grains, brown rice has been the hardest for me to accept. I realize now that I’d been cooking it wrong for years. I just couldn’t seem to cook it through all the way, and I tried a bunch of different recipes, but it was always crunchy.

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Then sometime last year, Cooks Illustrated sent me a recipe to test for them for brown rice with andouille, and not only does it have andouille, which, come on, andouille, delicious, but at the time I was religiously making every recipe they sent for me to test. (It got to the point where I’d get the magazines and I’d already have made half the recipes. I’ve since slacked off.) So I only made the recipe because I felt like I had to, plus of course the andouille. But it was fantastic, just so, so good. It was a revelation for me, because it was the first brown rice I’d made that was not just edible, but delicious.

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But that isn’t the recipe I’m telling you about today. Ha! When the magazine issue came out, it had a few other variations, and one is just perfect for me. Brown rice, black beans and a bunch of aromatics, how healthy and tasty does that sound?

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The first time I made it, I followed the directions fairly closely, just adding the scraped-off kernels of one cob of corn at the end of cooking. That was a great addition, especially visually. Corn isn’t in season anymore, so I skipped it this next time. I doubled the black beans the second time, because you can never go wrong with more black beans. I also added an avocado and wow! I mean, it goes without saying that avocado improves almost anything, but it was particularly complimentary with this.

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If you’ve ever had doubts about brown rice, this recipe will make a believer out of you. And if you’re already a convert, this dish will be a great addition to your repertoire.

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One year ago: Sushi Bowls

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Brown Rice with Black Beans and Cilantro
(from Cooks Illustrated)

I like to double the black beans. Corn, either cut off of the cob or 1 cup frozen and defrosted, is a good addition stirred in with the black beans. One diced avocado is delicious added with the cilantro. I used red pepper, because I like them better than green.

Serves 4 to 6

4 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 green bell pepper, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2¼ cups water
1½ cups brown rice, long-grain
1 teaspoon salt
1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, 12 to 14 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.

2. Add broth and water; cover and bring to boil. Remove pot from heat; stir in rice and salt. Cover and bake rice until tender, 65 to 70 minutes.

3. Remove pot from oven, uncover, fluff rice with fork, stir in beans, and replace lid; let stand 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro and black pepper. Serve, passing lime wedges separately.

pasta with no-cook tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella

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I know I’ve been harping on my love of summer lately, and I did the same thing last year. Honestly, while summer is undoubtedly my favorite season, fall is a not-too-distant second, and really, there are aspects I like about every season. But summer doesn’t just have sunlight and warmth and lightning bugs and beach trips and fireworks and…well, all of those other things I love, but very importantly, it has tomatoes.

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I love fresh summer tomatoes so much that, other than the very occasional container of cherry tomatoes, I don’t bother buying fresh tomatoes any other time of the year. Why set myself up for disappointment? Why bother with those dry, mealy, flavorless winter tomatoes? I’d rather just wait for the real thing.

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And then – then I go crazy. Gazpacho, BLTs, maybe a potato tomato tart, and this pasta. Oh this pasta. It’s a perfect meal. Super simple, it can be made in the time it takes to boil the noodles. The sauce, uncooked, retains the brightness of tomatoes at their peak, accented with smooth fresh mozzarella, tangy green onions, and fruity extra virgin olive oil.

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With almost no cooking and so few ingredients, you need to make sure you’re using the best ingredients you can get. Summer tomatoes, of course. Use whatever your favorite mozzarella is – this time I used buffalo mozzarella, but I’ve also tried the little balls my grocery sells in its olive bar, as well as the shrink-wrapped balls that I’m guessing are more widely available. Also, be careful of your garlic – I once made this (for a large group, no less) with some incredibly strong garlic, and it really ruined the whole dish. I recommend toasting the unpeeled cloves, either in a dry skillet or in the oven if it’s already on.

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Fall is closing in fast (pumpkin and cider and football and colorful trees and crisp air!) but there’s still time! We still have at least a month of wonderful tomatoes left! What are your favorite ways to use them?

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One year ago: Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Sauce and Fresh Mozzarella (from Cooks Illustrated)

This is the recipe directly from Cooks Illustrated. I do make a few small changes. First, I don’t seed the tomatoes, which does make the pasta a little wetter, but I just can’t throw away so much precious summer tomato flavor. I also use less oil, because, you know, fat and all that. And sometimes I reduce the amount of pasta.

Also, you’ll probably want to warm your serving bowl for this recipe.  I usually put the bowl in the oven, turn the oven on to warm for a few minutes, then turn the oven off, leaving the bowl in there until I’m ready for it.

salt
1 pound pasta (a short, curly type is best)
1½ pounds ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into ½-inch dice
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
3 medium scallions, sliced thin
ground black pepper
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes

1. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta to the boiling water, stir to separate the noodles, and cook until al dente. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

2. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Combine the tomatoes, oil, garlic, scallions, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Add the tomato mixture and mozzarella to the pasta in the pot and toss to combine. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

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potato tomato tart

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Dave and I have this conversation nearly once a week:

Me (whining, after baking all day): I’ve been cooking all day and I’m tired and I haven’t even stupid started dinner. Stupid stupid stupid.

Dave: Okay. We’ll order pizza.

Me: We can’t order pizza! I bought ingredients for dinner! If we don’t use them tonight, they’ll go to waste!

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Once the week’s menu is set, it does not change.

But last week something went haywire, and I needed to come up with an extra meal on short notice.

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I had two potatoes that I’d bought and never got around to using (see! they almost went to waste!) and there was a pile of tomatoes leftover from tomato picking. But I couldn’t find any recipes that fit all of my requirements – used plenty of both tomatoes and potatoes, didn’t require any ingredients I didn’t have, and actually sounded good. So I <gasp> came up with something on my own.

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I sliced the potatoes thin and arranged them in a skillet. Once they were crisped on the bottom and mostly cooked through, I arranged sliced tomatoes over the top. Once those were softened, I arranged sliced mozzarella on top of that. It melted almost immediately, so I quickly picked a few leaves from my pathetic sun-starved basil plant, and sprinkled them over the tart.

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It was pizza-like, which is always a plus. The potatoes were browned and crisp on the bottom.  It was pretty. It was easy. It was tasty. It used up ingredients I didn’t know what else to do with. Perfect.

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One year ago: Banana Coconut Muffins

Potato Tomato Tart

Serves 2 for a light meal

I used a mandoline set at 1/8-inch to slice the potatoes and tomatoes.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin
salt and pepper
2 large (or maybe 3 small) plum tomatoes, sliced thin
2½ ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced thin (or just over ½ cup shredded)
3-4 basil leaves, sliced thin

1. Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Arrange the potatoes in one layer on the bottom of the skillet, overlapping each slice. Season with pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are almost tender and are lightly browned on the bottom.

2. Arrange the tomatoes in one layer of overlapping slices over the potatoes. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, until the tomatoes are slightly softened. Evenly disperse the mozzarella over the tomatoes and cook a few minutes, until it’s melty. Sprinkle the top of the tart with basil.

3. Serve. I was able to move the tart once, by sliding it from the pan to a serving plate. Then I realized it would be easier to cut the tart if it was on a cutting board, but moving it from the serving plate wasn’t nearly as easy as moving it from the pan. By which I mean that the whole thing mostly fell apart. So don’t try to move it around too much.

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tortellini soup with carrots, peas and leeks

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It turns out that pea-picking is way more fun than strawberry picking. For one thing, it isn’t nearly as crowded. Shocking, I know, that strawberries are more popular than peas. There’s also nothing squishy lurking under the foliage, and the peas are plentiful and just demanding to be picked. And pick we did, far more than we needed for this soup.

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I know, it’s July, and you’re not interested in soup. Rest assured that I tried it both ways, and it’s just as good with frozen peas, so you’re free to wait until the weather cools down a bit. Either way, it takes all of 15 minutes to make. Even better, it covers all of your nutritional bases, making side dishes unnecessary, although we found that a chunk of crusty bread is a welcome addition.

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It comes together like any soup, starting with sautéing aromatics, adding broth, then tortellini, and finally the peas near the end. Pour it into bowls, top with some parmesan, and enjoy an assortment of light, spring flavors.

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One year ago: Cherry Rhubarb Cobbler

Tortellini Soup with Carrots, Peas and Leeks (from Fine Cooking, November 2006)

I doubled, or maybe even quadrupled the carrot. Also, the second time I made it (when I took photos), I didn’t have leeks, so I had to use red onion instead.

2 medium leeks (12 ounces untrimmed)
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
½ medium carrot, peeled and finely diced (2 tablespoons)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
5 cups low-salt canned chicken broth
8 ounces frozen cheese tortellini
1 cup frozen peas
¼ cup (½ ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano

1. Trim the roots and dark green leaves from the leeks. Slice the white and light green part in half lengthwise and then slice the halves thinly crosswise. Rinse well and drain.

2. Melt the butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, leeks, and carrot. Season with a couple pinches of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. (It’s fine if the vegetables brown lightly.) Stir in ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook for about 20 seconds, then add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the tortellini and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the peas. Continue to simmer until the tortellini are cooked, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Portion the soup into warm bowls, top each with some of the cheese, and serve.

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tofu mu shu

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A friend of mine once, oh-so-innocently, asked me if I had any recipes with napa cabbage. Poor guy. You have to be careful talking to me about food, because I can go on forever. I sent him longwinded comments about a bunch of recipes. I also sent a recipe for tofu mu shu, which I overcomplicated by providing two versions, one a super-anal-Bridget-version and the other simpler. Of course I had only made the super anal one. Of course.

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Mu shu is stir-fry wrapped in a thin bread-like shell. The first several times I made it with pork using Jen’s recipe, which is quite delicious. I did want a vegetarian version though, as we tend to save meat for special occasions (you know, like weekends). I haven’t been able to find the dried tofu cakes that Jen recommends substituting for the pork.

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I’ve had good results from pressing firm tofu, marinating it briefly in soy sauce, and sautéing it in a very hot pan. Tofu prepared this way was excellent in mu shu, so it was included in my super-anal-Bridget-version.

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The other difference between my two recipes is the shape of the chopped ingredients. Jen has exceptional knife skills, and her prepped ingredients for mu shu are beautifully julienned. Frankly, it takes me forever to do. Jen also cooks the eggs as one sheet, then removes it from the pan and cuts it into strips, which is far more attractive than clumpy scrambled eggs.

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But are crisped tofu, julienned vegetables, and eggs cut into strips worth the extra time? I made my easy version first, with unbrowned tofu, scrambled eggs, and coarsely chopped vegetables. Two days later, I made the other version, sautéing the tofu, cooking the eggs as a sheet, and julienning the vegetables.

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Dave and I didn’t notice a difference in flavor in the finished product. The easy version probably took me about 15 minutes less time. With pre-made mu shu pancakes, that makes this a pretty reasonable weeknight meal.

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One consideration is that the more work-intensive method is more attractive, as the ingredients are all approximately the same shape. That could be an important consideration if you’re serving this to guests. I, for one, am happy to have a simpler version of this, so I can eat it that much more often.

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One year ago: Pecan Honey Sticky Buns

Mu Shu Tofu (adapted from Use Real Butter)

Start to press the tofu before preparing the remaining ingredients.

Serves 6

1 (12-ounce package) firm or extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 teaspoons canola oil
3 eggs, beaten
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and cut into strips
3 cloves garlic, minced or julienned
1 medium head napa cabbage, halved and shredded
2 cups bean sprouts
4 green onions, sliced
1 can bamboo shoots, roughly chopped
12 mu shu shells
hoisin sauce

1. Cut tofu in half horizontally to make two flat rectangles. Layer it between double layers of paper towels or clean dish towels. Put all of that in a pie plate and put something heavy on top, maybe another pie plate with some cans in it or something. Set it aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Cut the tofu into strips and add it to liquid ingredients; stir gently.

3. Heat 2 teaspoons canola oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms are softened (2-3 minutes), add the garlic; cook and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the eggs and stir vigorously with wooden spoon until scrambled and barely moist, about 20 seconds. Add the cabbage and bean sprouts. Sauté until the cabbage is wilted but still a little crunchy, 3-4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and the tofu mixture. Cook and stir until evenly heated.

4. Heat the mu shu shells according to the instructions on the package. Serve each mu shu shell with a smear of hoisin sauce down the middle. Place several spoonfuls of mu shu on the shell and fold the sides in.

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pasta with cauliflower, walnuts, and ricotta salata

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I was recently reminded me of why I unabashedly (okay, maybe a little abashedly) stole Smitten Kitchen’s “one year ago” idea (although all the cool kids are doing it these days it seems). I’ve had this pasta recipe bookmarked since she posted it, and every week when I plan my meals, I consider it, and then pass over it. I didn’t realize I’d been doing this for an entire year until I saw this recipe featured from one year ago.

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Seriously, I love pasta, and we eat it one or twice a week. Also, cauliflower? My favorite vegetable, ever since I was a kid. And quick vegetarian meals are our standard weeknight fare. And, I’ve been meaning to try ricotta salata for ages. I was outrageously overdue for making this recipe.

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But, when I finally made it, I thought it had a lot more potential than it did flavor. The problem is that the recipe’s original author, Alice Waters, took a very easygoing, flexible route with the recipe, providing only approximate ingredient quantities and no recommended cooking times.

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In a nutshell, the cauliflower is pan-roasted, then onions and crushed red pepper are added, then garlic, then lemon juice, white wine vinegar, and toasted walnuts. All of that is mixed with pasta and soft cheese. It’s a nice combination of ingredients and you’d be hard-pressed to make it bad, but ‘not bad’ is generally not my goal for food.

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The next time I made it, in an effort to bump up the flavor, I decreased the pasta significantly. (You could also think of it as increasing the cauliflower, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and walnuts.) I’ve also quantified things. Willy-nilly, splash of this, pinch of that recipes drive me crazy and usually end up underseasoned.

Other than the ratio of pasta to everything else, the recipe really isn’t so different from the original. And hopefully it’s reproducible now, so you can have the exact same spicy, fresh flavor from this dish that I enjoyed.

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One year ago: Breakfast Strata with Mushrooms, Sausage, and Monterey Jack

Whole Wheat Pasta with Cauliflower, Walnuts and Ricotta Salata (from Chez Panisse Vegetables via Smitten Kitchen)

Serves 4

10 ounces whole-wheat pasta
½ cup walnuts
1 tablespoon olive oil (not extra virgin)
2 small heads cauliflower, cut into 1.5-inch florets
1 large or 2 small onions, sliced very thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for the pasta cooking water
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 ounces ricotta salata, chopped
extra virgin olive oil, for serving (optional)

1. Bring 3 to 4 quarts water to a rapid boil over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook according to package instructions. Before draining the cooked pasta, put about 1 cup pasta cooking water in a separate bowl and set aside. After draining the pasta, return it to the cooking pot.

2. Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a large, not nonstick pan over medium heat until fragrant. Put the walnuts in a small bowl and set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in the same pan over medium heat. When hot, add cauliflower and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4-5 minutes. Add onions, red pepper, salt, and black pepper. Continue cooking and stirring until the onions are softened and the cauliflower is crisp-tender. Stir in the garlic, then immediately remove the pan from the heat. Add the lemon juice, walnuts, and cheese.

4. Stir the cauliflower mixture into the pasta. Add enough of the reserved pasta cooking water to moisten the mixture. Adjust the seasonings to taste and serve, garnishing each plate with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if desired.

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