Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli

By now, given that it’s not only all over Pinterest, but both Saveur and Smitten Kitchen have a version (though to be fair, hers is based on Saveur’s offering), you probably know about slow roasted sweet potatoes which means I am completely overdue unoriginal on trend with this one. But that’s okay. As a scholar of medieval texts, I am nothing if not interested in old material. Besides, this one comes with thanks to Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and her propensity to respond to people’s recipe request tweets – while tweet-stalking fangirling scrolling through my feed last week, I noticed a reader ask advice for a lamb chop dish, and Alex recommended a side of sweet potatoes with a ginger butter.

That was all the light-bulb I needed for how to dress up these already-basically-perfect sweet potatoes, roasted for an agonizingly long time until their sweetness deepens, and their flesh collapses into rich orange velvet, and their skins need the barest flick of a fork to split, and just before serving you can shove them under the broiler just until they start to blister and crackle for extra texture. Ginger would be delightful here, cutting sharply through the butter and the starchy softness of the potato (you keep your fresh ginger in the freezer, right, for easy grating?). I knew immediately I would add some brown sugar, or maybe some maple syrup, but set all that off with a generous grating of lime zest to keep it from becoming just deconstructed sweet potato pie (though honestly, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing…). And rather than make them play second fiddle to some protein, these would be the central feature of our plates.

An almost-dessert main requires a sidekick to keep it oriented, so our vegetable costar would have to be savory and kicky and intense. I went green. Broccoli, sliced into thick, steak-like slabs to expose flat, crisp-tender centers of each stem, aggressively seared until deeply bronzed, then tossed with a pungent mixture of lime juice and fish sauce for that deep, salty-savory funk. At first taste, N. was thrown off by the sourness of the sauce combination, and I’ll admit, it is strong. But then he kept coming back for more, as the briny strangeness seeped temptingly into the bright florets.

This is a weekend meal to be sure, given the length of time needed for the potatoes. But it’s largely hands off; once you stow them in the oven, glistening with oil and scattered with salt and pepper because we are going to eat every shred of that skin, you can putter around, or sink into a movie, or venture out into whatever sort of garden you might be planning for, or indulge in a cat nap, or continue your binging of season two of Jessica Jones; you are free for whatever needs doing until it’s time to char the broccoli and lick your plate.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli
Serves 4
About 2½ hours
For sweet potatoes:
4 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, approximately equal in size
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
For ginger lime butter:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but not melted
zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (keep it in the freezer for easier grating) OR 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup
For charred broccoli:
1 pound broccoli
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce

 

  • Preheat the oven to 275F. While it warms, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Rub the sweet potatoes with the 1 tablespoon olive oil, arrange on the lined baking sheet, and sprinkle each generously with salt and pepper. Place carefully into the oven and bake at 275F for 2½ hours.
  • While the sweet potatoes take their sweet time, make the ginger lime butter. In a small bowl, use a spoon or a spatula or a small whisk to whip together the softened butter, the lime zest, the ginger, and the brown sugar. Once fluffy and well combined, cover with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until a few minutes before it’s time to eat.
  • When the sweet potatoes have about ½ hour left to bake, start on the broccoli. Combine the 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a small bowl. Cut the broccoli into large, steak-like slices straight across the head – the point is to have lots of flat sides of broccoli flesh to lay against the pan.
  • Heat about 1 tablespoon of the oil mixture in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is shimmering but not quite smoking, carefully arrange slices of broccoli over the surface in a single layer. Try not to crowd; you will likely need to do this in a few batches. Cook without moving until the underside of each broccoli slice is deeply bronzed, around 2-3 minutes depending on your stove. Flip each piece over and repeat, so both sides are darkly browned and the broccoli is barely tender. Remove to a bowl or serving dish and repeat, adding more of the oil mixture when needed, until all of the broccoli is cooked.
  • While you are cooking the batches of broccoli, whisk together the 1 tablespoon lime juice and 1 tablespoon fish sauce in a small bowl. When all of the broccoli is done, pour on the sauce mixture and toss to combine.
  • After 2½ hours, the sweet potatoes are done. For an extra layer of flavor and texture, if you wish, set them under your broiler on high for a few minutes just before serving, until the skin blackens and crackles just a little bit, then carefully remove to a plate, split down the center, add a heaping helping of the ginger lime butter, and serve with a side of the broccoli.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies

I love a great many things about my job. Being a community college professor is rewarding in a number of ways, and my biggest fears: that it would be just an amplified version of high school, and that there would be limited opportunities to make lasting connections with students, have proved fairly unfounded. In fact, more students follow me from class to class and contact me semesters and even years after they have left our campus than anyone at the university level ever did. It’s gratifying.

The thing I didn’t expect to miss, though, was a big library. Coming from a research university to a large community college, where the focus shifted from scholarship with teaching on the side to teaching with occasional, non-required research, was a big change for me, and it’s sometimes hard to access the materials I need. Yes, my library helps me get interlibrary loan materials, and I have a library card for UCLA’s massive collection, but sometimes things are missing. Sometimes things are checked out, or libraries say no. So I turn to other options: my research assistants. Funny enough, I probably have more unofficial, unpaid, unaware “RAs” than I would were I at a research university. And they aren’t RAs, really; they are just lovely people who sometimes help me access materials.

Most recently, I branched out from my usual RA – my sister – and got some help from E., who sent me a few chapters of a book no one local could or would loan me. I’d found an electronic version of the parts I needed through Google’s book preview which, oh so helpfully, didn’t have any page numbers! How’s a responsible prof to cite her sources, if her sources won’t cooperate?

So in thanks to E., who is revising his dissertation and clearly has much more important things to do than scan and send book chapters to his needy friend across the country, in spite of his loud insistence no such action was necessary, I decided to mail him a box of thank you cookies.

I’d considered this combination a month or so previous: dried apricots and white chocolate in an oatmeal based dough sounded different and delicious, and my sister and I had talked about playing with its clear granola resonances and adding, say, flaked coconut, and maybe chopped, toasted nuts or seeds.

For this version, though, I decided to keep it simple (though I did add guesses for quantities of coconut and nuts to the recipe, if you want to experiment). For the dough, I used an adaptation of my favorite oatmeal chocolate cookie recipe, one that Ghirardelli used to print on its semi-sweet chocolate chips bags, but has since changed to include both less butter and less flour. The products of that original recipe used to come with me, in great, craggy, unevenly shaped mounds, to field show competitions when I was in high school. After the first time or two, they never made it past the table at the entrance to the band room.

But anyway, egregious quantities of barely soft butter (thought it does make a lot of cookies, so don’t despair), heaps of rolled oats, and a generous dosing of both white chocolate chips and meaty, moist dried apricots get mounded into tablespoon-sized heaps and baked until they are barely cooked through – they come out still quite soft and a little raw looking in the middle – and set up as they cool. The butter should be malleable but still cool from the fridge, never melted, and the dough should be stowed back in the fridge to keep the butter cool in between baking each batch; as with pie crust or biscuits, this keeps the cookies from flattening out as they cook. In high school I used margarine instead; if you do this they will stay puffy, but I prefer the flavor and make-up of butter. The oats should be of the old fashioned rolled variety, not quick cooking, for texture in the final cookie.

When I sampled the first one, still quite hot from the oven, I thought it was good but a touch too sweet. But then I found myself eating another one, and then had to slap my own hand to prevent myself from downing a third in a row, so I figured I had to be on to something. Cooled, they lost a little of that initial saccharine hit, and considering that several dozen lasted all of two hours in my department mailroom when I brought them in last week, I’d say they were a reasonable success.

Oh, and my primary reason for baking? I won’t embarrass him by revealing how many he told me he ate at one go, but I will say they had a good reception and I’m glad they are there to comfort him as he plows through his dissertation revision process. A little cookie comfort in the middle of that trying process, especially when that is happening as only part of the weirdness and horror of the world right now, is so necessary.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies
Adapted heavily from the old Ghirardelli’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe
Makes approximately 4 dozen
About an hour
3 sticks unsalted butter, medium soft
¾ cups brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups rolled oats (not quick cooking oats) OR 2 cups oats and 1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (note: this is an approximation; I did not use coconut in mine)
12 ounces white chocolate chips
1 cup diced dried apricots
optional: ¾ cups roughly chopped unsalted toasted nuts, like walnuts or pistachios (note: this is an approximation; I did not add nuts to mine)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is broken down a bit. Add the sugars and cream on medium speed until very light in color and texture, 3-4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once to ensure even integration. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla and mix at low speed until incorporated.
  • At low speed, mix in the first ½ cup of flour with the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When it has incorporated a bit, add another ½ cup flour, mix to incorporate (don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl), then the final ½ cup flour. This ensures you don’t get flour everywhere.
  • If you are using an electric mixer, switch now to a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon and prepare to work out your upper arms. If you are in a stand mixer, continue at low speed. Stir in the oats until well incorporated, then the fruit and white chocolate chips just until mixed in.
  • Scoop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets. I did 8 per sheet, to ensure no overcrowding. Bake in the preheated 375F oven for 9-10 minutes, storing the remaining dough in the refrigerator while each batch is in the oven. When they come out, the cookies will look underbaked in the centers. Take them out of the oven anyway, and let them sit on the cookie sheet for 3-4 minutes to set up, then remove to a rack to cool for at least another 2 minutes before scarfing.

 

Chopped Challenge #2: mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with corn chip cornbread

Course: entree

Ingredients: lamb, sweet potatoes, chives, corn chips

The first thing I thought of when N. issued me this “mystery basket” was meatballs: the lamb and chives would be pressed lovingly into a tender little sphere perhaps reminiscent of these beauties from my meatball challenge year, and instead of pilaf, I would nestle them into a bed of softly cooked sweet potato noodles. Spoodles?

But there were those corn chips. As with last month, one of the players stubbornly refused to fit in. I thought halfheartedly of nachos, but then, remembering a play on mole spices crusted onto roasted sweet potatoes I’d attempted a few years ago, I suddenly envisioned a chili. Ground lamb, cubes of sweet potatoes, black beans, a roasty dark beer, all swimming in a sauce resounding with the flavors of that most famous player in Oaxacan cuisine.

Of course my mole is an approximation. It’s an adaptation of an adaptation of one of Rick Bayless’s recipes, and I can claim no authenticity. But mole and its flavors correspond well with chili: the peppers are there, of course, though lending more fruitiness than heat in most cases, and the warm spices play so nicely with lamb, taming its gaminess. Mole gets its thickening power (as well as flavor, of course) from toasted nuts and seeds, and I realized these would make an excellent thickening agent for the chili, as well as adding tasty, toasty depth. It felt like cheating to just sprinkle on the chives at the end, so I decided I would make a chive oil to drizzle on top, for a little fresh onion flavor and a bright burst of contrasting color.

Now that I knew I was making chili, the corn chips became easier to deal with. Again, as with the chives, serving them simply as dippable garnishes to the main event sounded delicious, but too easy. Since they are essentially cornmeal and salt (with a few extras), I wondered if I could grind them up and use them as a base for cornbread, which is our typical accompaniment to chili.

After about two bites, N. told me that “the judges” thought I would definitely progress to the dessert round, so I’m going to call this a successful experiment. Lamb and mole are meant to be together, and as so many makers of bean-based brownies have already discovered, black beans and chocolate – that most recognizable of mole ingredients – complement each other very well. There’s just enough heat to prevent the sweet potatoes from getting too saccharine, and the chive oil, though we agreed it was negligible in terms of flavor, was a very striking drizzle: bright emerald against cocoa-dark.

The cornbread turned out well too, although it was a touch sweet and not particularly strong in corn flavor – adding whole kernels of corn helped, but as I’ll also note in the recipe below, subbing in stone ground cornmeal for a portion of the chip powder would likely produce a cornier end product (or, you know, just use cornmeal…). Something about the flavor and the softer-than-usual texture reminded me of those scoops of corn cake you get at Tex-Mex restaurants, which made me forgive its otherwise regrettable lightness in flavor. In an effort to make it a little more savory, and get good use out of all of my ingredients, I whipped up a little chive butter in case we wanted to top the cornbread. We agreed this was probably unnecessary – the cornbread was nice and moist on its own – but tasty all the same, and how lovely to be able to do the whole thing in the food processor!

I’m including the recipes for both here, and the chive components, though I have to admit that with the chili, I wasn’t timing things too carefully. My directions about how long the recipe takes to make are… let’s kindly call them an approximation. I’d say you should make this, if you’re going to, over a leisurely afternoon, so you have plenty of time for things to simmer.

Corn chip cornbread with chive butter
Makes a 9x9x2 inch square loaf
About 40 minutes
For cornbread:
1 cup corn chip powder, from about 2 cups corn chips, loosely packed (note: this will produce a less corn-y tasting bread. For stronger corn flavor, use only 1 cup of the corn chips, and add ½ cup stone ground cornmeal. If you do this, you may have to add just a touch of salt)
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not refrigerator cold
1 cup buttermilk (or just shy of 1 cup milk with a splash of vinegar stirred in)
1 egg
1 cup defrosted or fresh corn kernels
For chive butter:
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (what remains from the stick you used for the cornbread works very nicely)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
salt to taste
  • Preheat your oven to 375F and spray or grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Buzz the corn chips in a food processor until they become a fairly fine powder (they won’t go completely to dust because they do already contain fat, so stop processing before they become wet). Add the flour, the sugar, and the baking powder and process until well combined.
  • Cut the butter into roughly tablespoon sized chunks and add to the food processor; pulse 2-3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is distributed in small to medium chunks. Add the buttermilk and the egg and pulse again in 2 second intervals until the mixture is combined – at first it will look quite liquid, but then suddenly thicken an puff (this is the baking powder activating).
  • Add the corn kernels and pulse once or twice just to distribute, not to break up the corn.
  • Scrape and pour into the prepared baking dish and bake at 375F until golden on top and cooked through: about 25 minutes.
  • Let cool at least 10-15 minutes before slicing, though we like ours completely cooled to room temperature.
  • To make the chive butter, use a spatula, spoon, or small whisk to combine the butter and chopped chives. Season with salt if desired. Serve with the cornbread.

 

Mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with black beans
Makes a large pot – at least 6 hungry diners
Approximately 2 hours
For chili:
3 dried ancho chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
½ cup skin-on almonds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cloves
3 dried bay leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
1 medium poblano or pasilla chile, stemmed and diced (take the ribs and seeds out if you don’t want the thrill of potential spice)
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound ground lamb
1-2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained
1 12 ounce bottle dark beer, such as a stout or porter
1 28 ounce can low-sodium peeled tomatoes (I like whole, but you can use diced or even fire-roasted, if you prefer)
optional: up to 1 cup low sodium beef broth or water
1-2 tablespoons lime juice, if desired
For chive oil:
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons roughly chopped chives

 

  • In a dry pot over medium high heat, toast the dried chiles 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • In the same pot, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, then add the almonds, the pumpkin seeds, and the sesame seeds. Toast until they are beginning to brown, then remove these as well, keeping as much oil in the pan as possible.
  • Again in the same pot, add the cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, and bay leaves, and toast until fragrant, stirring frequently. If the pot seems very dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil. After just a minute or two, add the onion, garlic, and fresh poblano, stirring to integrate well into all of the spices, and sweat until the onion and pepper are softened, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the ground lamb, the salt, and the black and red pepper and raise the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking up the lamb with a wooden flat-sided spoon or spatula, until no longer pink, around 10 minutes.
  • Use a spice grinder or small food processor to grind the reserved dried chiles, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds into a paste. Add this to the pot along with the cocoa powder, stirring well to fully integrate.
  • Add the sweet potato chunks, the drained black beans, the bottle of beer, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the mixture at a simmer. If at this point the mixture seems way too thick, stir in some of the beef broth. Keep in mind, though: it will loosen up as it cooks.
  • Continue to simmer the mixture for at least an hour, until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the flavors have had time to meld.
  • Shortly before you are ready to serve, taste for seasoning. It may need more salt. If it feels a little flat, add a squeeze or two of lime juice.
  • To make the chive oil, combine the olive oil and the chives in a blender and blend until uniformly liquid. Swirl on top of the chili before serving.
  • Other topping options: freshly chopped cilantro, greek yogurt or sour cream, crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, more of the corn chips, or fresh chopped chives or green onions.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.

 

Chopped Challenge #1: Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: bulk sausage, bell pepper, sriracha, panko bread crumbs

Here it is! The first “basket”! N. decided that for the first challenge of the year, it would make sense to offer the first course of the meal, so to speak. He says he will change up and randomize courses later on, but I know for sure that January = appetizer, February = entrée, and March = dessert. That doesn’t tell me much, but it does offer a solid start.

As seems so often to be the case with real Chopped baskets, three of the four ingredients seemed to go together well however I shuffled them. Sausage, bell pepper, panko: reasonable! Sausage, bell pepper, sriracha: okay. Even bell pepper, sriracha, and panko seemed to fit. But all four? I couldn’t wrap my brain around how it was going to work and still keep this an appetizer.

Ultimately I landed on a blast from the past, if you will. I’ve been digging mushrooms lately, and realized at least three of the four: the sausage, the bell peppers, and the panko, could get crammed inside (or at least on top of) a mushroom and baked into a tasty, bite-sized little throwback classic. The sriracha would have to become part of a sauce – I didn’t fancy a spicy kick inside my mushrooms (besides, one of the biggest complaints from the judges on the actual show is the relative dryness of a dish – they are always after a sauce or dressing component).

To wrestle the heat into the dish, but also to ensure more exposure for the bell peppers, which were really just going to get minced and cooked down with the sausage and some onions, I decided roasted red pepper would be a nice flavor base for the sauce. It would need something to enrich it, though, and goat cheese would provide a tang and a welcome thickness. There. I had my dish.

Though this definitely took me more than the twenty minutes allotted on the show (could I have done it in time if pressed? Maybe… with a much bigger mess…), it came together well. It’s hard to fault pork sausage cooked with aromatic vegetables, especially when it gets mounded with panko soaked in what seems like an excessive amount of oil and baked until feverishly crispy. At first taste we weren’t sure the sauce matched the mushrooms – the roasted red pepper has such a strong vegetal clarity that, blended down and even spiked with hot sauce, it can stand up to and overpower its supporting players. Yet we kept going back to it, sliding the mushroom caps through and dotting on another spoonful, and when we each tried a mushroom bare, it was good, but we wanted that kick from the bright, orange-red smear left on the plate. Ultimately I think the sauce was on the right track, but needed a little something to combat the overly heavy vegetal quality, so the recipe below cuts the pepper-forward flavor with the addition of broth. I suspect this will help it meld with the mushrooms better.

We tried out two serving options, just to see which we preferred: a puddle of sauce topped with a few stuffed caps, and a row of caps drizzled with sauce. Though we decided the puddle of sauce on the bottom would be better for hors d’oeuvres that were going to sit around for any length of time, as the sauce-on-top styling could damage the pristine and glorious crispness of the panko topping, we preferred the sauce-on-top delivery method as both prettier and easier to eat. In either case, a final dusting of parsley made for a prettier presentation and a welcome little herbal freshness to the bite.

* Photo note: this week, as I wait for my new machine, I’m using the editing features on Preview on my laptop. I’m… underwhelmed. Le sigh.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce
Makes 12 mushroom caps + extra sauce
40-45 minutes
For mushrooms:
12 large crimini mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup finely minced onion
½ cup finely minced red bell pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sprig thyme, optional
8 ounces bulk pork sausage
¼ – ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
For sauce:
6 ounces roasted red pepper (you can do it yourself, of course, but the jars are so quick and easy)
3-4 ounces goat cheese
3-4 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons sriracha, or to taste
To serve:
chopped parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and place a wire cooling rack in a baking tray or cookie sheet – we are making a slightly elevated platform for the mushrooms to prevent waterlogging.
  • Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the gills and some of the innards from each of your mushroom caps. We need lots of room for filling. Finely chop the “guts” you’ve removed.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushroom pieces (not the caps), the onion, the red bell pepper, and the thyme sprig, if using. Season with black pepper if you like that sort of thing, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are tender, around 5-7 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, place the hollowed out mushroom caps stem side down on the cooling rack and place into the oven. This gets them started cooking and allows some of the water they will expel to drain right into the cookie sheet. Cook them until the sausage is done.
  • When the vegetables in your skillet are looking tender, add the sausage and use a wooden, flat-sided spoon or spatula to break it up. Continue to cook over medium heat, breaking up the sausage and stirring often, until the meat is just cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes for easier handling. (Reminder: at this point you should also remove your mushroom caps from the oven!)
  • While the sausage cools, toss the panko and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • When you are ready to fill, flip the mushroom caps over so the hollow side faces up. If you want, you can move each and lightly spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray; they do start to cling a little bit while baking.
  • Fill the mushroom caps with heaping spoonfuls of the filling, lightly but firmly packing it in. It will be a little crumbly, so be determined but not rough, as that can break the delicate mushroom caps. Top each filled cap with a mound of panko, then carefully place back into the oven to bake at 400F for 15 minutes.
  • While the mushrooms cook, make the sauce. Using a standard or an immersion or stick blender, whiz together the roasted red pepper, the goat cheese, and the broth until very smooth. Pour into a pan (I used the same skillet I’d cooked my vegetables and sausage in, just wiped clean with a paper towel), add the sriracha (start with just 2 teaspoons; you can always add more) and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Simmer about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.
  • To serve, either spread a puddle of sauce on the platter and place the mushrooms on top of it, or arrange the mushrooms on a platter and then drizzle sauce over each. Both are pretty. Either way, sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top to add freshness, and serve warm.