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.

 

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Rye and Mushroom Stuffing with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts

Food Blog December 2014-0936A few months ago, my sister and her boyfriend engaged in a Whole 30 food challenge to help them feel healthier and more in control of their diets before the holiday season. As part of the challenge, and to silence naysayers convinced this would mean a barrage of boring, bland food, my sister took photos of almost every meal they ate. Some of these looked so good I was ready to hop on the bandwagon myself (though, as she admitted, going without cheese for that long was a hardship. First world problems, I know).

Food Blog December 2014-0930One dish in particular caught and held my imagination. R. called it “hazelnutted mushrooms.” The combination of two much beloved, earthy, woodsy ingredients made me think of Oregon and long for its damp autumnal glory as Los Angeles cycled through week after week of 80 degree days.

Food Blog December 2014-0929As the idea simmered in my mind, I kept thinking of other ingredients that would pair well with hazelnuts and mushrooms. Sage, certainly, with its dusty sharpness. Whiskey, to deglaze with that sear of burning honey. Maybe even chestnuts, with their curious texture and meaty sweetness.

Food Blog December 2014-0932Once chestnuts entered the picture, there was no doubt this was destined to become a stuffing. With half a loaf of dark pumpernickel rye bread in the fridge longing for an application, I took action. Butter, onions, celery, deeply caramelized mushrooms, and the crunch and odd sweetness of chestnuts bolstering the broth-moistened bread and toasted hazelnut bits. The whiskey adds just a gentle flavor and a great smell to the stuffing that backs up the flavor of the chestnuts and somehow makes them make more sense as an ingredient – I wouldn’t do without it, but you can if you wish.

Food Blog December 2014-0935You’ve likely noticed there are fewer photos here than usual – it turns out that though “brown food tastes goooood” as Anne Burrell is apt to note in her throaty growl, it doesn’t always produce the most flattering or interesting photograph. Regardless, this brown food is indeed good, and deserves your attention. Though we weren’t willing to put this on the Thanksgiving menu (we are boring sticklers, and this big a shift in the sides might cause turmoil), it has considerable promise as a winter companion to roasted meats at other cold-weather holidays, especially if you tend to go with pork or beef. I think stuffed pork chops would be a particularly nice application. We kept it simple, though, and went (almost) vegetarian, pairing moist, heaping spoonfuls with mashed sweet potatoes and salty, crispy roasted brussels sprouts.

Food Blog December 2014-0936

Rye and Mushroom Stuffing with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts
Serves 6-8 as a side
6-8 slices dark rye bread, preferably stale
¾ cup raw, unsalted hazelnuts
6 tablespoons butter
½ a red onion, diced
2 large ribs of celery, diced
¾ pound (12 ounces) crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
½ cup (6-8 ounces) cooked, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
8-12 fresh sage leaves, minced
¼ cup whiskey (I used Jack Daniels – you use what you like, or omit it and use extra broth instead)
2 – 2 ½ cups broth, chicken or vegetable
Salt and pepper to taste (how much salt you use will depend on the sodium content of your broth)

 

  • Preheat your oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle slot. Fill a baking sheet with your hazelnuts. Place a wire rack in the tray (it should fit over the hazelnuts) and spread out your rye bread on a single layer atop it. Toast in the preheated oven until the bread is quite dry and the hazelnuts are starting to look slightly oily; 10-15 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
  • Meanwhile, heat your broth in a small pot or in the microwave – it doesn’t need to be boiling, but it should be quite hot. If it does boil, turn it down to avoid losing too much through evaporation.
  • Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced onions and celery and cook until softened and translucent; 5-8 minutes.
  • Add the mushrooms and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes, until the mushrooms have soaked up much of the moisture in the pan and are soft. They may begin to brown a bit; that’s a good thing.
  • Add the chopped chestnuts and the sage and let them warm through for 1-2 minutes.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, chop your hazelnuts into rough chunks (it’s wise to wait until they are cool enough to handle), then add them to the vegetable mixture in the skillet.
  • Turn off the heat and immediately add the whiskey, which should bubble furiously when it hits the surface of the pan. Stir to combine – much of the whiskey will evaporate.
  • Tear or cut the rye bread into small pieces or cubes. It should be quite dry. Add the bread cubes to the pan and stir well to combine.
  • Now, add 2 cups of the hot broth and stir to combine. If the bread still seems fairly dry, add the remaining ½ cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then put a lid on the skillet and let the mixture sit for five minutes to allow the bread to absorb the broth.
  • After five minutes (or more – allowing it to sit a while at this stage is fine), deposit the stuffing mixture into a greased 9×9 inch baking dish, spread or pat into an even layer, and bake in your preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, until the top layer is crusty but the interior is still nice and moist.
  • Serve hot, as an accompaniment for meat or veg.

Bean and cheese stuffed poblanos and “stuck pot” red rice

Food Blog October 2014-0674I must have been this busy last year. I just don’t remember. When I get to work, I sit down at a desk on which the stacks of papers have been rearranged so many times they might as well be dancing. When I get home, I sit down at a table slowly succumbing to a pile of opened and unopened mail, notes and lesson plans, and yes, more papers. I am freest when standing, and when I am standing I am either stalking the classroom (a practice that, though necessary, regrettably and inevitably produces yet MORE papers), walking my sweet dog-daughter, or leaning over the stove to smell or to stir or to taste.

Food Blog October 2014-0645 Food Blog October 2014-0651 Food Blog October 2014-0652 It’s mid-October. It is at once much later in the year, and much earlier, than I’d hoped it would be. Recently my parents phoned to confirm a flight time for Thanksgiving; could N. or I pick them up from the airport if they arrived at x time? My brain flew ahead, thinking of food, thinking of games, thinking of the family closeness of the winter holidays and longing, longing, for that to be now, now, right-now-thank-you-very-much. But at the same time, there are so many things I wanted to accomplish, as always, that remain undone.

Food Blog October 2014-0648

Food Blog October 2014-0653All I can do is what I have. And what I have for you this week is, as promised, a pair of dishes that fit together so well I can’t, in retrospect, imagine presenting them here separately.

Food Blog October 2014-0655These dishes, a bean and cheese stuffed poblano and a take on the sort of rice you find shaped in a mound or a scoop on your enchilada plate at a certain type of Mexican restaurant, came into being for me during one of our dinners this past summer with our closest graduate school colleagues. Dinner was made by T., previously featured here as a salt expert, and she presented us a casserole dish approximately the temperature of hot magma, laden with fragrant peppers piled with beans and cheese. Beside them, she wedged a heavy dutch oven filled to the brim with “red rice,” a medley of tomato-laced long-grain rice shot through with aromatics and spice. It was one of those dinners where everyone ate without speaking.

Food Blog October 2014-0657I had to have it again, and I knew it would take some tinkering. T.’s rice was fluffy and almost dry, whereas recipes I’d tried for this style of rice produced something wet and floppy – a Mexican risotto, if we’re trying for politeness – and that wasn’t my aim. I wanted something toastier, more like a pilaf. Inspiration and guidance came, as it so often does, from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, in a simple, hearty little feast she calls “Stuck Pot Rice and Lentils.” Inspired by Middle Eastern rice dishes that praise the tahdig, a crispy layer on the bottom of the pot, this rice gets parboiled vigorously, then mixed with other ingredients and cooked slowly, with very little additional liquid, until it adheres into a massive round cake you can, with some care and bravery, flip out onto a plate in a large, crunchy-topped wheel.

Food Blog October 2014-0673Food Blog October 2014-0679Are you hungry yet? There’s more. The peppers, which get roasted over a gas flame until their skins split and peel away and their flesh hangs like wet velvet (you could likely also do this in the oven at high heat or under the broiler, but I haven’t tried it – if you do and it works out, leave your procedure in the comments!), get delicately split and seeded, and then gently loaded with a mixture of smashed black beans and cheddar cheese before being baked for a half hour to bring everything together. Upon emergence from the oven, as if all this weren’t enough, they are subjected to a shower of crumbled queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds and (if you’re the sort who appreciates this sort of thing) a sprinkling of cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.

Food Blog October 2014-0660This is a play of heat. The pepper is a gamble – some poblanos (they may be labeled pasillas in your grocery store) are moderately spicy, while others are barely hot enough to tickle the back of the throat. The beans keep even the spicier peppers from overwhelming the palate, and if you are steaming, the cool avocados and a big forkful of the starchy rice relieve the sting. If you really want to tease your taste buds, you could add some diced jalapeño to the rice along with the other vegetables. I resisted, since the poblanos we used were aggressive enough.

Food Blog October 2014-0668This is, I must admit, not a quick weeknight dinner. The peppers must be addressed in several stages, the beans are seasoned and cooked separately, and the rice collectively takes the better part of an hour to complete. But it’s worth it, especially as temperatures cool. At this point in the season, I’d rather be warmed from within by a well-seasoned pepper than I would by the relentless sun (did you hear that, Southern California?!). It’s a warmth that almost, almost, chases away the busyness.

Food Blog October 2014-0667*** I’ve presented these recipes with the peppers first, since they require a bit more advanced planning. But I’ll inject spots in the procedure for each where you can switch between dishes to get both on the table at roughly the same time.

Food Blog October 2014-0676

Bean and Cheese Stuffed Poblanos
serves 6
6 large, shiny, firm-fleshed poblano peppers (they may be called “pasilla” peppers at your market)
2 cans (14 ounces each) black beans, one drained, one with liquid reserved
8 ounces cheddar cheese, as sharp as you like it
½ a red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon cumin
(you may find you want salt for this, you may not. It will depend on your taste and how salty your black beans are. Taste first, add second)
¼ cup crumbled queso fresco
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1 whole avocado, cut into small chunks
2 tablespoons cilantro
squeeze of lime juice

  • If you have a gas stove, turn the burners on to medium-high heat and set the whole poblanos over the flame, charring them on all sides. Turn as needed until the skins are uniformly black and crackly and the flesh feels soft; for me this took 10-15 minutes. As they finish roasting, pop them into a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Leave them to steam (this helps the skins peel off) until they are just warm to the touch (I, um, forgot about mine while I did some other chores; they were quite certainly ready half an hour later…).
  • If you don’t have a gas stove, I suggest using your broiler. Since I haven’t tried this I can’t give indication of times, but put them close to the heat, watch them carefully and turn as needed.
  • When the peppers are cool, use your fingers, a paper towel, or the edge of a knife blade to scrape and peel the skins off. A few black specks here and there is okay, but the skins are a bit bitter, so the more you remove, the better.
  • (While you wait for the peppers to cool, you can turn your attention to prepping ingredients for the rice)
  • As you relieve each pepper of its skin, carefully cut a slit through just one side of the pepper and excavate the seeds and ribs inside. You want an empty, in-tact pouch, and this takes some delicacy. The flesh is quite tender at this point. Wedge the skinless, empty peppers into a greased 9×13 inch baking dish.
  • Saute the onions and garlic with a pinch of salt and pepper in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until they are starting to shade gold, but are not burned. For me, this took 5-10 minutes with frequent agitating.
  • When the aromatics are toasty and golden, add the beans – one can that has been drained, one complete with the liquid. Add the cumin and stir to combine. Then, use a potato masher to smash about ¾ of the beans into a thick paste. A few whole or half stragglers are okay – they break up the texture nicely. Cook over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated: 15-20 minutes.
  • This is a good moment to preheat your oven to 350F.
  • (While the beans cook, you can shift your focus to the rice for a bit. Just don’t forget to give the beans an occasional stir to ensure they are not cementing themselves to the bottom of the pan.)
  • When the liquid in the beans has mostly disappeared, turn off the heat and add the 8 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese. Stir to combine.
  • To assemble, load up each empty pepper pouch with about ½ cup of the bean and cheese mixture. This takes a bit of finagling – get the mixture in there, but don’t tear up the peppers too much. Use the sides of the neighboring peppers to help everyone stand up straight and hold in their own filling.
  • If you wish, you may sprinkle on the ¼ cup queso fresco at this point. I found I preferred it as a post-baking addition, but it’s also nice baked on.
  • Bake in your preheated 350F oven for 25-30 minutes.
  • (While the peppers bake, carry on with your rice – if you are setting it over a low flame as you put the peppers in the oven, both will be ready at the same time)
  • When the peppers emerge from the oven, set them aside for 5 minutes. Then, serve, sprinkling as desired with queso fresco, avocado chunks, toasted pumpkin seeds, and cilantro. At the last possible moment, squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top.
Stuck-pot red rice
Serves 6-8
1-½ cups long grain white rice
¼ cup olive oil, divided
½ a large onion, diced (the other half of the one you used for the peppers is convenient)
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
part or all of 1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced (optional)
½ cup fresh or defrosted frozen corn
juice of 1 lime
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
Water as needed (see procedure)
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon salt
fresh cilantro to serve, if desired
queso fresco to serve, if desired
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the rice all at once, clamp on the lid, and cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Drain and set rice aside in a large bowl.
  • In the same large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the onion, garlic, corn, and jalapeno, if using. Stir in a pinch of salt, then put the lid back on and cook 10-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are browning nicely. Be sure your corn is defrosted before adding, or it will take longer to cook off the water it emits.
  • While vegetables cook, drain the canned tomatoes, reserving their juice. Add enough water to the tomato juice to reach ⅓ cup, then add an additional 2 tablespoons.
  • When the vegetables are nicely browned, add them to the rice and mix well to distribute evenly. Add the canned tomatoes, the cumin and coriander, the salt, the lime juice, and the mixture of tomato juice and water as well, stirring to combine.
  • (The mixture can sit for a bit at this point if you need to go back and pay attention to your beans and peppers)
  • In the same pot you used to boil the rice and cook the vegetables, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Quickly and carefully, add all of the rice mixture and use a spatula to smooth it down into an even layer.
  • Now, being sure to keep edges away from the burner, place a clean kitchen towel over the open top of the pot, clamp on the lid, and securely wrap the edges of the towel around the handle of the pot lid. This creates a tighter seal and prevents extra water from dripping from the lid back onto the rice.
  • Once your towel and lid are securely situated, lower the heat to medium-low or low and cook, undisturbed, for 30 minutes. After about fifteen minutes you should start to smell a lovely toasty rice-y smell. If it smells closer to burning, turn the heat down a bit but don’t remove the pot from the heat. Check Deb’s post (linked above) for more on the procedure, if you like.
  • When 30 minutes has passed, turn the heat off and let the pot sit for 5 minutes to allow the rice to firm up. Then, using pot holders or a thick towel, carefully position a large plate or round platter over the top of the pot and, over a counter, invert the pot onto the plate and set it down. The rice should plop down onto the plate or platter; if you’re lucky, it will do so in a single round wheel.
  • Scatter it with cilantro and crumbled queso fresco, if desired, and serve.
  • If you don’t want all that fuss, just scoop the rice into a bowl, scatter on the optional garnishes, and be done with it.

Project Sauce: Gnocchi and Broccoli with Blistered Sauce Mornay

Food Blog February 2014-3291I think a lot about what I put on this blog – the content, the recipes, the types of food – and this often leads me down a rabbit-hole of consideration about what kind of blog this is. Perhaps because I’m an academic, or maybe just because I watch an awful lot of food TV, this frequently kindles an urge in me to categorize what I do here, to define myself and my food. This is not a baking blog, though I produce a lot of baked goods. It’s not a dessert blog or a gluten-free blog or a vegan blog or a comfort foods blog, and it’s certainly not an “easy and fast” blog… what is it? To figure out if I’m doing what I’m doing well, I feel I have to know what it is that I do.

Food Blog February 2014-3260And yet at the same time, that same academic part of me that studied too much post-structuralism in graduate school screams “No! Don’t limit yourself! Don’t draw yourself into a box! Categories are restricting. Categories are unnecessary. Categories are a lie.”

Food Blog February 2014-3266True enough. Too often, categories are a lie. They lead me into grandiose, Walt Whitman-esque resistance. And yet, because blogging is, by being essentially writing, an experiment of selfness, in order to better understand myself, I have to better understand what I do here.

Food Blog February 2014-3268And maybe that’s it. Rather than stating what this is, blocking myself into a stationary category that may someday become too small for my own swelling and developing, maybe it’s better to talk about what I do, and what this blog does.

Food Blog February 2014-3272Here’s my latest approximation: I re-imagine classics. Not the most original or most creative, I assure you, and not always strictly true, but I think it’s a pretty good explanation for most of the recipes that end up here. Discontent with as is, I poke around and try anew. Ignoring, in some respects, the idea that a classic is a classic for a reason, I demand that it learn flexibility and try on new styles, metamorphosing, growing, moving. Do, don’t just be.

(Obligatory, shamelessly decadent sauce-pouring pictures)

Food Blog February 2014-3276Food Blog February 2014-3277Food Blog February 2014-3278This week’s recipe is definitely one of those that define what I do here. Furthering our exploration into the sauce world, I take a classic, simple, comfort food: broccoli cheese potatoes, and turn its world over, draping thick, cheddar-laden robes across a dish of pan-fried gnocchi and lightly blanched broccoli, letting the cheese sauce sink gracelessly into the crannies between before blistering the whole top under the broiler for a few minutes. It’s a revelation. But then, that shouldn’t be so surprising, because the classic combination it pulls from is already so good.

Food Blog February 2014-3280Sauce mornay is basically a béchamel that’s been dressed up with the addition of cheese. It is French, as so many of them are, and in application can be used to add gooey goodness to everything from crepes to vegetables to macaroni and cheese. Not a fan of cauliflower? Roast it and drench it in a mornay sauce. I can almost guarantee you’ll be a convert. Making a cheese-y potato soup? The base to which you add broth or stock will likely be something very similar to a mornay. Fondue and Welsh rarebit are other closely related preparations, though whether they are offshoots, coincidences, or legitimate progenitors is likely not provable.

Food Blog February 2014-3283Traditionally, the cheese added to a mornay is a blend of parmesan and gruyere, a particularly nutty variety of Swiss cheese. I like extra sharp cheddar in mine, though, the sharper the better. My mornay sauce, it’s only fair to tell you, is thicker and has a much higher proportion of cheese in it than is strictly traditional. My reasons for this, as I’ve mentioned before, are largely that I like the taste of cheese more than I like the taste of the sauce it becomes. This seems a bit silly – why make the sauce if what you’re really after is the cheese? – but this creation is so velvety and thick and luxurious that it’s worth tinkering with until you get the consistency and cheese percentage you are happy with.

Food Blog February 2014-3290As for the rest of the dish, I can’t take ultimate credit. The inspiration for pan frying the gnocchi comes from Nigella Lawson, the (for me) true domestic goddess. Rather than boiling them and risking gumminess or spongy bits falling about, she sautés them until golden and crisp, as I’ve done here. They are then ready – anxious even – to suck up the lush cheddar velvet we’re going to douse them in. Adding the broccoli, blanched in salted water just until crisp-tender, is my attempt to make this a complete meal and dislodge some of the guilt you might feel about the amount of cheese you’re going to consume. Plus, who doesn’t love broccoli with cheese sauce? Again, classics, but jammed together in a fresh way that I hope will delight you.

Food Blog February 2014-3289I’m giving you two versions of my sauce mornay recipe here – one quite pared down and basic, though, as I noted above, cheesier than what is typical (many mornays call for only a few tablespoons of cheese) – one “kicked up” with the integration of some more complex, exciting flavors. Use and play at your own discretion.

Food Blog February 2014-3295

Basic Mornay
Makes about 2½ cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ cups milk, at room temperature, if possible, for easier integration
2-3 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (or the cheese of your liking. I use a whopping 3 cups of extra sharp New York cheddar)
  • Key for this sort of sauce is having all of your ingredients ready to go from the beginning. You don’t want to get to the “whisk constantly” part and realize you haven’t grated your cheese yet. Do yourself a favor and have everything ready and waiting for you before you begin.
  • In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When it is melted and bubbling, sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine with a whisk. The mixture will become thick and a bit crumbly.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg and stir to combine.
  • Add the milk slowly – no more than ½ cup at a time – whisking insistently and constantly as you add it. You want to combine it smoothly into the thick roux (butter and flour mixture) you’ve created, and avoid lumps. Adding 1½ cups of refrigerator cold milk all at once makes lumps much more likely.
  • Keep whisking your mixture gently as you pour in each addition of milk. When you have added all of the milk, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to whisk gently and languidly (or more ferociously if you have ended up with some lumps… it happens…) until the sauce begins to bubble.
  • Once the sauce reaches a gentle simmer, whisk until it thickens slightly – something a bit thicker than melted ice cream, perhaps the viscosity of a soft porridge or cream of wheat (remember that stuff? God I loved it as a kid).
  • Now that your sauce is thick, turn the heat down to low and add the cheese a small handful at a time, whisking after each addition until it is completely melted and incorporated. After a few minutes, you will end up with a thick, rich, pale orange (if it’s cheddar) sauce. If you are using cheddar, you might notice that your sauce is just barely grainy. That’s okay. It will still work really well in whatever application you’re using it for. Cheddar is just such a crumbly cheese that it doesn’t melt as silky smooth as other, softer cheeses.
Kicked-up Mornay
Makes about 2½ cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 ½ cups milk, at room temperature, if possible, for easier integration
2-3 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (or the cheese of your liking. I use a whopping 3 cups of extra sharp New York cheddar)
  • See notes above about having all of your ingredients ready to go before you begin cooking this sauce.
  • Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. When it has melted completely, add the finely minced garlic and stir gently.
  • When the garlic is sizzling and has barely taken on color, add the flour and stir to combine with a whisk. The mixture will become thick and a bit crumbly.
  • Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and mustard, and stir to combine.
  • With the spices and flavorings integrated, follow the remaining directions for the standard mornay sauce above.
Gnocchi and Broccoli with Blistered Sauce Mornay
Serves 3-4
1 pound gnocchi (I use premade, go on, judge me…)
1-2 medium heads broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 recipe kicked-up mornay
  • Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil, then (carefully!) drop in the broccoli florets. Return the water to a boil and cook for just a minute or two, until the broccoli reaches your desired state of crisp-tenderness. Drain well and set aside in an ovenproof dish. I used a 9×9 inch square pan, which worked well.
  • In the same skillet in which you intend to make your mornay, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. When it glistens as you let it flow across the pan, add the gnocchi and toss lightly to get them all in contact with the oiled surface of the pan.
  • Cook the gnocchi, tossing occasionally, until all are golden and they have gained a dry, crisp crust. This should take approximately 8 minutes, depending on how hot your stove’s “medium” is. While you wait for the gnocchi, tossing them occasionally, turn on your broiler to preheat.
  • Once your gnocchi are golden and all have a crisp crust on at least one side, toss them with the broccoli you prepared earlier.
  • Now make the mornay sauce, following the directions above. When it is thick and rich and adequately cheese-laden for your tastes, pour it over the top of your gnocchi and broccoli, letting it sink down into the crevices in between, and settle in a substantial layer across the top. You may not want to use all of the sauce, but the quantity you apply is up to you.
  • Place your sauced dish in the broiler and let it rip for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently, until the cheese sauce across the top bubbles and blisters, and the exposed broccoli florets begin to get crusty and brown. Then all that’s left to do is serve yourself up a bowl and enjoy.

Trick or Treat

Halloween is easily in my top three holidays.  I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place.  Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate.  No costume.  No party.  No decorations.  We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six!  The whole evening!  Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.

I did embrace the season, though, the following day.  Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).

The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner.  It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld.  In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.

“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.

Pairing figs, garlic, and orange juice seemed odd.  Nevertheless, I collected enough for one portion (this was not N.’s kind of dish):

6 dried black mission figs

1-2 tsp fresh rosemary

2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves

1 TB olive oil

juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)

I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely.  Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.

Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan.  I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde.  Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.

I plated, I ate, and I considered.  This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either.  The rosemary and the figs were lovely.  The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering).  The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable.  They just weren’t my favorite.

I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category.  I had eaten it straight.  This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it.  Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.

Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen.  I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Set it in the oven and preheat to 400F.  Yes, you are preheating the pan along with the oven.

Peel and halve a butternut squash.  Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes.  In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles. 

During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.

While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth.  When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.

During the last few minutes of roasting time, toast 2 TB pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to snap and crack.*  Be careful not to burn them.  Toss with bulgur and vegetable mixture.

In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle.  Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan.  Nasty trick, egg.

Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in.  It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish.  It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.

I turned to dessert:

“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.

I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.

1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced

½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like.  Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)

¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup butter

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Butter a 9×13 inch pan (my round, much smaller dish was a poor choice).

Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar.  Spread them out in the pan in an even layer.  Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.

Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.

I did few of these things.  My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar.  As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture.  I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.

Tricked again.

To remedy this problem, I tried several things.  First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt.  Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts.  Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top.  This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.

 

I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner.  As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!

This was clearly the right thing to do.  Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.

Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water).  Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.

These make lovely, tiny snacks.  The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing.  There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change.  The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.

Perfect November treat.

 

* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash.  I, clearly, am not.

Swing

Summer into fall into summer.  Salads and grilled vegetables into casseroles dabbled with cream into fresh raw dips.  Luxurious stretches into curled legs under blankets into stressed grading sessions into sampling new half-fizzed white wine.

Sometimes this is called Indian Summer.  I like to think of it as Swing Season.

Two Bittmans for you this week.

77. Trim and dice fresh tomatillos; peel and julienne jicama (or daikon or kohlrabi). For dressing, combine lemon and lime juices, olive oil and chopped cilantro. Pour over salad, top with toasted sesame seeds.

This sounded like a good late summer/early fall salad.  I found tomatillos at the grocery store, but no jicama, no daikon, and no kohlrabi.  And then we went to our Farmers’ Market, and I found all three!  Huge daikons, alien baseball sized kohlrabis and, hidden between stacks of beets and the tiniest fingerling potatoes I’ve ever seen, a pile of grubby little tubers with vine-y stems still attached.  Eureka, jicama!  Back at home, I assembled the troops:

1 TB toasted sesame seeds

2 small jicama

6 medium tomatillos

(really, the number of jicama and tomatillos isn’t super important as long as the quantities are roughly equal once you’ve cut them up.  Start with maybe 1 cup of each, see what you think, and then add more if that’s what makes you happy)

2 TB chopped cilantro

1 lemon

1 lime

Olive oil

Salt

I’ve tasted jicama, but it has been a long time.  And I’ve certainly had tomatillos, but mostly only after they were roasted and processed into salsa.  I wasn’t sure how they would be raw.  This – a lovely fresh slaw/salsa/salad hybrid – sounded so bright and tart and lovely that I wasn’t too nervous.

Before anything else, I toasted the sesame seeds and set them aside.  They give off such a lovely roasty scent when they are just browned and starting to release some oils.

I peeled, then sliced the jicama into rounds.  Then I stacked up the rounds and made thin slices across until my two little aliens were a pile of matchsticks across my board.  Into the bowl with you.

Next I quartered and diced the tomatillo.  Because they are still underripe when green (apparently they can turn purple and get very sweet when they ripen, but I’ve never seen them in that state), their skins were quite resilient – it took some pressure to get my knife through them.  Carefully chunked into miniscule cubes, they joined the white confetti in my bowl.

A quick squeeze of lemon and lime, a whisking pour of olive oil, and a handful of chopped cilantro feathers later, and the dressing was done.  And then a sprinkle of salt, and it was perfect.  It was a little more than needed to moisten the salad, but it’s hard to know how much juice citrus will have secreted away inside it, so it’s always going to be a guessing game.

I mounded the white and green on my plate, then added a generous scoop of Mexican rice and a quartered cheddar cheese quesadilla.  Simple simple.  At this point, you should ideally sprinkle the sesame seeds you so carefully toasted atop the salad, but I forgot until after I’d already subjected it to a photo shoot.

I was surprised and pleased by the flavor of this dish.  I can’t imagine eating it as a Thanksgiving side dish, but it was a bright burst of summer on a day that began in drizzly autumnal terms.  Jicama is crisp and juicy with the barest hint of starchiness, and its flavor reminds me most closely of an Asian pear.  The tomatillos were very tart, but the pairing tamed them.  Imagine a granny smith apple crossed with an underripe tomato and you’re approaching the brightness we experienced.

This was good as a salad, though its tartness necessitates a small portion.  It was also good heaped atop our quesadillas, like a raw salsa.  It contrasted nicely against the melted cheddar and the just crisped corn tortillas.  But where it would really shine, N. and I agreed, would be as a kind of mirepoix for guacamole.  Dicing the jicama instead of leaving it in strips and folding the whole salad gently into chunks of ripe, buttery avocado would make for the perfect chip dip.  Tart, creamy, crunchy, with the right kind of salty sourness from the dressing, and all you’d need was a frosted Corona and a pool to dip your toes into.  Summer.

But things never end there.  At least we hope not!  Days of sweating and hiding inside and waiting till after sunset to go out always, inevitably (even if it’s taking FOREVER, Los Angeles…) relax and cool and crystallize into Autumn.

35. Pumpkin-Noodle Kugel: Cook a half-pound of egg noodles in salted water until not quite done; drain and put them into a buttered baking dish. Whisk together 4 cups milk, 4 eggs, 1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine), ¼ cup melted butter and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Pour over the noodles and sprinkle with bread crumbs (or, for added kitsch, corn flake crumbs). Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

I had no idea how to serve this dish.  I’ve heard of kugels, but I’ve never even eaten one, let alone made one.  I wasn’t sure, as usual, what to serve it with, so I asked a few friends and did some research on the good ol’ internet.  At the point that I read Smitten Kitchen’s version (okay, so this one is written by her mom, but seriously, that woman has cooked everything, and all of it sounds and looks outrageously delicious), this sounded more like a dessert than a dinner side dish.  It would be, I decided, dessert and weekend breakfast.  Sweet, autumnal, nicely spiced, and custardy.  “It’s going to be like a rice pudding but with noodles.  And pumpkin,” I told N.  He still wasn’t sure.

8 oz. egg noodles 

4 cups milk

4 eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s)

¼ cup melted butter (I put this in, but I’m not sure it was really necessary)

¾ cups sugar

¾ cups golden raisins

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

2 cups corn flakes, well crunched (who am I to pass up added kitsch?!)

It wasn’t until I had collected ingredients that I realized Bittman’s recipe doesn’t call for sugar.  But I was already on the dessert/breakfast kick, and I couldn’t quite envision this as a savory dish, so I dumped in my sugar estimation anyway, along with the golden raisins that aren’t part of the original.

I cooked my noodles for 5 minutes and then let them cool for 10.  They probably needed to be cooked for only 4 minutes, because they keep on cooking not only while they are in the oven, but on the counter as they cool as well.

Yes, I take these photos from the floor. But it’s a nice wood floor, and the light is so good, and I promise Lucy stayed on the other side of the room the whole time…

With the custard whisked together and the noodles evenly spread in a buttered 9×13” glass baking dish, I preheated my oven to 375F and assessed the corn flakes situation.  Whenever an ingredient needs to be crushed, crunched, or pulverized on Chopped, I yell at the chefs for using their hands, knives, or a rolling pin instead of just bringing over the food processor.  But they don’t have to wash all the dishes they make, and I do, so my pretty little scarlet processor stayed on its shelf.  I crushed up the cereal with my hands, feeling a kind of satisfaction as the flakes became bits and then powder.  I topped the noodly custard with a generous layer of crumbs and carefully slid it into the oven.

An hour later, the custard had set and the smell flashed me forward to Thanksgiving.  I’m convinced we as a society don’t really know what pumpkin tastes like, because what we experience is texture and spices.  If this kugel didn’t have a sprinkle of cinnamon in it, I’m not sure I would know it had pumpkin either.

Dinner came and went, the kugel cooled a bit, and I dug out a too-big portion for myself, and neglected to feel any kind of remorse about it.  It was too good for that.  The noodles had melded together as the pumpkin infused liquid cooked, making a solid, scoopable, sliceable custard.  The corn flakes on top were perfect: aggressively crunchy against the soft interior.  I wouldn’t omit the golden raisins either; they were a really nice textural contrast to both the softness of the noodles and the crunchy crumbs, and their complex sweetness added some depth to my dessert casserole.  It was warm, and sweet, and perfectly comforting as I tucked my feet under me on the couch and waiting for the approach of Project Runway (don’t judge, every girl needs a little reality TV now and then).

The leftovers are delicious too, though the dish does lose something in relinquishing its crunch to the microwave.  In another universe where I’m a Southern cook, I could see doing crazy things like frying squares of this in butter and then drizzling hot maple syrup over the top.  But I’ll refrain.  Because from my window, I can see my basil wilting beneath the curiously, cruelly hot-for-mid-October sun: back to summer, so it seems!  And here I was considering making soup…

Swing season indeed.