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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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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asian lettuce wraps

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I try not to order dishes in restaurants that I can easily make at home, but PF Chang’s lettuce wraps had so many raving reviews that I had to get them the first time I ate there. They were just as good as I was hoping, but were also simple – too simple to pay someone else to make them for me. I made a mental note to try these at home.

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That was years ago, but I still hadn’t gotten around to making this easy dish that promised to be just as tasty as it was healthy. That is why this recipe, which requires no great skill or time-investment, no new ingredients or techniques, made the list. Sometimes I just need a little extra push, even if it’s from myself.

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I don’t think I’ll need that extra push to make these again. It will be hard to forget how well the savory filling compliments the crisp mild lettuce and sweet hoisin sauce. I can’t compare them to the restaurant’s version, since it’s been years since I’ve had theirs. I won’t wait so long before I eat lettuce wraps again, not after this reminder of how good they are, and how easy they are to make myself.

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One year ago: Stromboli
Two years ago: Maple Oatmeal Scones
Three years ago: Twice-Baked Potatoes with Broccoli, Cheddar and, Scallions
Four years ago: Mandarin Pancakes

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Asian Lettuce Wraps (adapted from Rasa Malaysia)

Serves 4

I used a combination of ground pork and lean ground beef, but many recipes call for ground chicken. Use whatever lean ground meat you want; I particularly recommend chicken or pork.

Marinade:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 green onion, finely chopped
chile-garlic sauce (optional)

Filling:
1 pound lean ground meat
1 tablespoon oil
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced
1 (5-ounce) can water chestnuts, chopped
2 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small head of Boston or Bibb lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed, and dried

Dipping sauce:
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon sriracha (optional)

1. In a large bowl, combine all of the marinade ingredients. Add the ground meat; use a fork or your hands to coat the meat with the marinade, breaking up large chunks. Set aside for 15 minutes.

2. Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until it flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the shallot, garlic, and ginger; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about one minute. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms soften. Add the chicken with its marinade and the water chestnuts; cook, breaking the meat into small pieces, until no pink remains, about 6 minutes. Stir in the green onions.

3. Combine all of the dipping sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with the meat and lettuce leaves, filling the lettuce just before serving to prevent wilting.

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herb roasted pork loin

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Like I believe most moms do, mine would make my favorite meals for me when I came home from college. That usually involved a pork loin roasted over potatoes, so that the potatoes not only become crisp from the oven, they soak up any pork drippings for extra flavor. My mom’s homemade applesauce would round out the meal.

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Simple as it is, I’ve never tried to replicate this meal. It wouldn’t be quite the same, I’m sure. Still, I love pork roast. It doesn’t seem like a popular cut of meat, and while I know it can easily dry out since it’s so lean, when it’s cooked right, it can be really special.

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Surely smothering the pork with shallots and mustard and surrounding it with herbs is “cooked right”, and it’s certainly special. Making a winey sauce from the browned bits leftover after roasting the pork can’t hurt matters either. I was surprised, and pleased, by how much herb flavor the meat absorbed. Maybe it can’t beat one of my childhood favorite meals, but it can certainly compete.

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One year ago: Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls
Two years ago: Twice-Baked Potatoes

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Herb-Roasted Pork Loin (from Gourmet via epicurious)

For pork:
1 (4 to 4½-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
6 rosemary sprigs, divided
8 large thyme sprigs, divided
8 sage sprigs, divided
8 savory sprigs (optional), divided
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

For sauce:
⅓ cup dry vermouth
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1¾ cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle position.

2. Pat the pork dry and season with 1¾ teaspoons salt and 1½ teaspoons pepper. Straddle a flameproof roasting pan over 2 burners, then heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Brown the pork on all sides; transfer to a large plate.

3. Put a metal rack in a pan and arrange half of the herbs down the middle of the rack. Stir together the shallots, garlic, mustard, and 1 tablespoon of the oil and smear over top and sides of roast. Place the roast, fat side up, on top of the herbs. Roast 1 hour. Toss the remaining herbs with the remaining teaspoon of oil and arrange on top of roast.

4. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer registers 140 to 145°F, 5 to 15 minutes more (temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees as it rests). Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let it rest for 15 to 25 minutes.

5. While the pork rests, make the sauce. Remove the roasting rack from the pan; discard the herbs from the rack. Straddle the pan across 2 burners over medium heat. Add the vermouth and mustard and deglaze by boiling, stirring and scraping up the brown bits on the pan, until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the broth and simmer the 3 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a 2-cup measure. If you have more than 1½ cups, boil to reduce; if less, add water.

6. Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking, until pale golden, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the vermouth mixture and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Serve pork with sauce.

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banh mi

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For me, taste will trump authenticity every time. Spaghetti and meatballs is more Italian-American than Italian, most of my favorite sushi rolls didn’t originate in Japan, and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches include a whole mess of ingredients that aren’t available to me. I don’t want to miss out on any of these foods just because they don’t closely resemble the versions in their original countries.

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I’m not saying that I have no interest in more authentic versions of banh mi. I’m just saying that a sandwich made of grilled meat, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and spicy tangy sauce is too good to wait around for daikon radish to show up at my grocery store, because it never will. Regular radishes will have to stand in for the daikon radish. And I’m sure pâté is a particularly luscious addition, but still not one that’s worth the trouble of searching southern New Mexico for it.

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Besides, the mixture of storebought mayo, sriracha, and fish sauce is good enough to make any sandwich tempting. One with tangy pickled vegetables and tender grilled pork, all piled on an airy baguette, has become one of my favorite sandwiches ever. It may be a far cry from its origins, but it’s too good to care.

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One year ago: Cheesecake (comparison of 3 recipes)
Two years ago: Twice-Baked Potato Cups
Three years ago: Banana and Peanut Butter Stuffed French Toast

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Vietnamese-Style Grilled Pork Sandwiches (from America’s Test Kitchen Feed)

I used a mixture of Greek yogurt and mayonnaise, heavy on the yogurt, instead of just mayonnaise in the sauce.

Sliced cucumbers are a nice addition, and as you can see, the carrots and radishes work just fine if they’re thinly sliced instead of julienned. (I haven’t figured out how to julienne things on my mandoline.)

Serves 4

½ cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons sriracha
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 (6-inch) piece daikon radish, peeled and julienned
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
¾ cup mayonnaise
1 pork tenderloin (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons five-spice powder
1 (24-inch) baguette, cut into 4 pieces and split partially open lengthwise
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1. Combine vinegar and sugar in microwave-safe bowl. Heat until sugar has dissolved, about 90 seconds. Add 1 tablespoon sriracha, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, daikon, and carrot to bowl and toss to combine. Set aside for 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, whisk mayonnaise, remaining 1 tablespoon sriracha, and remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce together in second bowl.

3. Rub pork with five-spice powder. Grill over hot fire until browned on all sides and pork registers 145 degrees, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to cutting board, tent with foil, and let rest 5 minutes. Grill bread until lightly toasted, about 1 minute.

4. Slice pork crosswise into thin slices. Drain vegetables. Spread mayonnaise on inner sides of bread halves. Arrange slices of pork on bread and top with vegetables and cilantro. Serve.

cornmeal and bacon loaf

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It’s impossible to get burned out on food fads in smalltown southeastern New Mexico. There are no cupcake shops (heck, there isn’t any kind of bakery), no restaurants topping their food with foam, and bacon stays where it belongs – next to eggs, not in desserts.

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Not that adding bacon to cornbread is particularly trendy, but I naively fell for the naming trickery of this bread and didn’t realize until I was eating it that “cornmeal loaf” is cornbread. In this case, cornbread with bacon and without any fruit, as I didn’t want to confuse the issue of whether this was a dessert or breakfast. With a poached egg on top and savory bits of bacon mixed in, this is classic breakfast all the way.

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Caitlin, who evidently can’t resist the combination of fruit and cornmeal, chose this for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the full recipe posted. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for half of the whole wheat flour, left out the fruit, reduced the sugar to ⅓ cup, and added 6 strips of cooked chopped bacon, as recommended by Dorie in her savory variation.

One year ago: Espresso Chocolate Shortbread
Two years ago: Lime Meringue Pie
Three years ago: Chunky Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Chocolate Chipsters

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sweet corn hash

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I went to the local farmer’s market for the first time in over a year this morning and was sadly reminded why I hadn’t gone to the local farmer’s market for over a year. Apparently a farmer to the locals is someone who makes little crafts, not someone who grows stuff. The only vegetable for sale was zucchini, and we already have plenty of that.

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So I’ve been buying my summer corn at the grocery store, which just seems wrong, doesn’t it? Ears of corn should be bought out of the back of a truck on the side of the road. That doesn’t seem to be an option here, but it would be a shame to go the whole summer without eating corn just because I can’t find a local vendor selling it.

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It doesn’t take much more than the word “hash” to get me excited about a recipe. It’s hard to go wrong with a dish based on browned potatoes topped with eggs. Buying corn at the grocery store instead of the farmers market might not feel as satisfying, but it works just fine, especially once the corn is mixed with lightly caramelized onions, browned potatoes, and crisp bacon.

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One year ago: Whole Wheat Challah
Two years ago: Potato Tomato Tart
Three years ago: Fruit Bruschetta

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Sweet Corn Hash (adapted from Joy the Baker)

Serves 4

Joy roasted her potatoes, but I thought it would be easier to brown them in the skillet with the rest of the ingredients. She also adds butter at the end to increase the richness of the dish, but I figured a couple slices of bacon would have the same affect, while contributing great flavor of its own.

We also stirred in some chopped roasted green chile, because ‘tis the season.

4 slices bacon, chopped
4 medium red potatoes, cubed
1 onion, chopped
4 ears corn, kernels removed
¼ cup parsley, minced
salt and ground black pepper
4 eggs

1. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until almost crisp. While the bacon cooks, put the potatoes in a medium microwave-safe bowl; spoon a couple teaspoons of rendered bacon fat from the skillet into the bowl; stir. Cover the potatoes loosely and microwave on high for 3 minutes, stirring twice.

2. Add the onions and potatoes to the skillet with the bacon; cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in the corn and most of the parsley. Lower the heat to medium-low. Using the back of a spoon, create 4 wells in the hash. Break one egg into each well; season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and cook, without stirring, until the white is set, about 8 minutes. Garnish with the remaining parsley; serve immediately.

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pizza with caramelized onions and fennel

After a year and a half living in a small town, I still haven’t fully adjusted to the grocery store situation. I don’t think I’ve walked out of the store here once without thinking wistfully of Wegman’s. My new store isn’t a bad place; I’m just spoiled. They do occasionally stock random items, and I’ve learned to jump on those opportunities and worry about finding recipes later.

Sometimes I buy the item just to encourage the store to keep it up. In the last few months, we’ve eaten haricot vert, Copper River salmon, yellow carrots, and now fennel. Since I moved here, I’ve bitterly overlooked fennel recipes, thinking my fennel days were over, and then once I found fennel, I could only remember one of those recipes.

It’s a memorable recipe because it has a lot going for it. For one thing, it’s pizza, which is always good, but it’s even better since I’ve started playing with a new crust recipe recently (which will be the next blog entry). For another, the onions and fennel are caramelized, and who doesn’t like turning vegetables into candy?

Lindsay laments that this pizza was pale and homely, so I added some color in the form of black forest ham (ideally prosciutto, but my store was out of it) and a sprinkle of parsley. Not only is the splatter of pink and scattering of green welcome, but the salty bites of ham and bitter bits of parsley complimented the sweet onions and the licorice of the fennel. It’s too bad I don’t know when the next time I’ll find fennel is, because I’d love to make this one again.

One year ago: Quinoa Tabbouleh
Two years ago: Croissants
Three years ago: Franks and Beans

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Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Fennel, and Fresh Mozzarella (adapted from Love and Olive Oil)

Serves 6

I cooked the onions and fennel separately (not because I love doing dishes and wanted to use more than necessary; I had leftover caramelized onions to be used), and I found that the fennel didn’t caramelize, it just browned slightly. It may behave differently if onions are around.

1 pound pizza dough, fully risen and at room temperature (½ of this recipe)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 large fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced
Salt
8 ounces whole-milk fresh mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
4 ounces prosciutto, cut into slivers
freshly shaved Parmesan cheese
sprinkling parsley

1. Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 500ºF. Divide the dough in two and shape each portion into a ball. Set the balls of dough aside, loosely covered, to allow the gluten to relax.

2. Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, fennel, and ¼ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking and occasionally stirring until the onions are golden brown, about 15 minutes.

3. Work with one ball of dough at a time on a lightly floured surface or a damp cloth. Flatten the dough, then pick it up and gently stretch it out, trying to keep it as circular as possible. Curl your fingers and let the dough hang on your knuckles, moving and rotating the dough so it stretches evenly. If it tears, piece it together. If the dough stretches too much, put it down and gently tug on the thick spots. Transfer the round of dough to a large square of parchment paper; slide onto a pizza peel.

4. Top the dough with half of each of the caramelized vegetables, cheese, and prosciutto. Slide the pizza with the parchment onto the hot baking stone. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the crust is browned around the edges. Transfer the pizza to a cooling rack without the parchment; top with parmesan slivers and a sprinkle of parsley. Let the pizza rest for 5 minutes before serving. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

barbecued pulled pork

The best part of barbecuing a whole pork shoulder on the grill is that you are forced to spend all day outside tending the grill. I can’t think of many better ways to spend a Saturday. We started the grill before breakfast, then spent the rest of the day in the backyard.  First we drank coffee, then some water because you have to to survive, even on weekends, and then it was time for afternoon margaritas, and then we capped it off with beer, because what else are you going to drink with pulled pork?

The truth is that while you do need to keep a constant-ish eye on the grill, you don’t need to spend much time actually doing anything with it. Once the pork is cooking, it takes just a couple of seconds every hour or so to add a handful of fresh coals. A thermometer is key to monitor the temperature, although a cheap oven thermometer – which is what I used – will work just fine.  And if you do find the temperature varying widely, it won’t ruin your pork; just let it slowly come down to the right temperature range or add more coals to bring it up and continue cooking. Cooking a whole pork shoulder on the grill is a simple and forgiving process, even if it does take a long time.

I know the question everyone is asking: Is it really better than crockpot pulled pork? Well, of course it is. Crockpot pulled pork, especially using the same spice rub, is incredible – flavorful, tender, and easy easy easy. Barbecued pulled pork isn’t as moist and as a result, its flavor seems more concentrated. It’s still easy to pull, but it has more chew than crockpot pulled pork, which can get mushy if you’re not careful. The biggest difference were the outside bits of the roast, which were deeply browned and crisp. (This is not the same thing as the blackened top in the photo below, which is a thick layer of fat that I discarded.) Dave and I filled up on those while I was still shredding the roast. But the best part of making pulled pork on the grill as opposed to in the crockpot is that while one method frees you up to do chores and run errands all day, the other keeps you in the backyard with a book and a beer.

One year ago: Home Corned Beef and Corned Beef Hash
Two years ago: Orange Oatmeal Currant Cookies
Three years ago: Hash Browns with Sauteed Vegetables and Poached Eggs

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Barbecued Pulled Pork (spice rub from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves a lot

The least messy way I’ve found to add the spices to the meat is to line a rimmed baking sheet with a large piece of plastic wrap. Set the pork on the plastic wrap; add the spice rub, rotating the meat to rub all sides. Wrap the plastic wrap around the meat, then wrap another layer of plastic around in the opposite direction.

I use all of the spice rub on one roast, but if you think it’ll be too much, save half for another use. It’ll keep in the pantry for months.

Spice Rub:
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1-2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons table salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground white pepper

1 (6-8 pound) bone-in pork shoulder

1. Combine all of the ingredients in the spice rub. At least one day, and up to three days, before cooking the pork, rub the spice rub onto all sides of the pork (see note). Wrap the pork in a double layer of plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight or up to three days.

2. About 10 hours before you plan to serve the pork, remove it from the refrigerator; let it set at room temperature for 1 hour. Meanwhile, soak 4 wood chunks (or 4 cups of wood chips) in water for an hour.

3. About 20 minutes before you’re ready to grill, light about 30 charcoal briquettes (half a chimney starter). Once the coals are covered with a layer of ash, dump them into a pile on one side of the grill, then top with ¼ of the wood chunks or chips. Open the bottom vents completely. Place the meat, fat side up, on a double layer of aluminum foil with the edges folded up or in a 9×13-inch disposable aluminum baking pan. Place the meat on the side of the grill opposite the coals. Put the lid on the grill with the vents opposite the coals; adjust vents to be ¾ open.

4. Use a grill or oven thermometer to monitor the temperature of the grill, which should remain between 200 and 250 degrees. Add fresh coals, about 8 every hour, when the temperature drops. Add more wood chips an hour after you start cooking, then again at the 2- and 3-hour mark. (Don’t worry if the top of the meat blackens; you’ll discard that layer of fat anyway.)

5. After about 5 hours, when the internal temperature of the pork reaches 165 degrees, wrap it completely in foil. Continue cooking until the internal temperature of the pork is 195 degrees, another 2-3 hours.

6. Remove the pork from the grill and let it set at room temperature, covered, for one hour.

7. Place the pork on a large rimmed baking sheet. Remove and discard the thick layer of fat. Use your fingers or forks to shred the remaining meat. Serve.

pasta e fagioli

Living in southern New Mexico, I’m out of touch with all of the weather systems the rest of the country gets. The weather here is always the same – sunny, dry, cold at night and warm in the afternoon (hot at night and hotter in the afternoon in the summer), windy in the spring. So even though I know most of you are burned out on cold and snow, I’m very excited right now that we’ve gotten a taste of real winter here.

And, even better, a snow day. A snow day! Not that it takes much snow to get a snow day here, but that’s even better – a snow day with no shoveling to do!

The first time I made this soup was years ago, and it was just as cold that day. I remember that Dave and I went to a political rally in Ithaca, and afterward, we were talking while I made the soup, and I got distracted and added the pepper flakes twice. Sadly, that ruined the soup. It was almost inedibly spicy; so much for the careful balance of flavors I was hoping for.

The soup is a whole lot better when you make it correctly. Just a bit spicy, all mixed in with tomatoes and vegetables and beans. A warm hearty bowl of soup is the perfect way to cap off a snow day.

One year ago: Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Two years ago: Tofu Croutons
Three years ago: Deviled Eggs with Tuna

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Pasta e Fagioli (from Cooks Illustrated)

I added 2 cups less water than the recipe calls for. I’m sure the original recipe is fine too; I was just in the mood for something thicker. If you do this, make sure you decrease the salt to ½ teaspoon.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 ounces pancetta or bacon, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 celery rib, chopped fine
4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 anchovy fillets, minced to paste
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with liquid
1 piece Parmesan cheese rind, about 5 inches by 2 inches
2 (15½-ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3½ cups homemade or low-sodium chicken broth
2½ cups water
salt
8 ounces small pasta
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
ground black pepper
2 ounces (1 cup) grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onion and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes and anchovies; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of the pan. Add the cheese rind and beans; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer to blend the flavors, 10 minutes.

2. Add chicken the broth, water and 1 teaspoon salt; increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender, about 10 minutes (refer to package instructions to better estimate pasta cooking time).

3. Discard the cheese rind. Off the heat, stir in 3 tablespoons of the parsley; adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into individual bowls; drizzle each serving with olive oil and sprinkle with a portion of the remaining parsley. Serve immediately, passing the grated parmesan separately.