“Chicken Noodle” Soup: Ramen Noodle Soup with Roasted Chicken

Well, I fell off the wagon longer than I’d intended for a number of reasons, but I owe you a soup recipe for April, so let’s get on that. It would feel disingenuous, I think, to careen through a year of soups without at least gesturing toward the perennial classic that is chicken noodle. Darling of head-colds everywhere, this is the feel good, childhood callback, gentle-on-the-tummy go-to. Every commercial soup company has a version. Usually it’s chunks of chicken, often cooked in the broth itself, along with a mélange of vegetables, and a heap of noodles of some sort, usually high on the egg content.

The problem is, though, and this is an issue with soups in general, that when I think of chicken noodle soup, all I can think of is softness. The vegetables, cooked to within an inch of their lives, are soft. The chicken chunks are tender (unless they’ve been cooking in the broth too long and have toughened while giving over their flavor to the liquid they are drowning in), but the noodles have lost any indication of al dente, sinking into near-mush while they wait for you to drag yourself out of bed and dip up a bowlful. And probably because this soup has become synonymous with “get well soon” food, it is made to be gentle on the belly, and thus its flavors are also soft: it is entirely unobjectionable. While that doesn’t sound like a tremendous issue when discussing food – who would want a bowl of soup to be objectionable? – to me, that’s just a polite way of saying that it’s boring.

My version of chicken noodle soup needed to break, therefore, from the softness that so often pervades both its ingredients and its flavors. When I want a soup with a deep, flavorful broth and perfectly cooked, just chewy noodles, I find I want ramen. This is perhaps a function of living in Los Angeles, where ramen shops are fairly ubiquitous (seriously, between pho and ramen, you could probably live for more than a week in my neighborhood consuming only Asian noodle soups, and you wouldn’t have to eat at the same place twice. And that doesn’t even take Thai restaurants into account).

A bowl of ramen is a treasure chest. In a way, it’s the soup version of my favorite sort of salad: full of stuff. Once you dig through the perfectly chewy noodles, there are hunks of meat, there are so-thin-they-are-almost-transparent slices of chili, there are vegetables or mushrooms or scatterings of herbs or sesame seeds, there are still fresh and crunchy green onions, and of course, quivering like unguarded crown jewels, there’s the soft boiled egg. Sometimes the broth is pork based, sometimes it is miso based, sometimes it is fish or seafood based. I saw no reason, with its deep flavors and its pile of noodles, why it couldn’t be chicken broth and form the basis for my own twist on chicken noodle.

I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to put into my chicken (ramen) noodle soup, but because I was curious, I asked the internet, and Laura’s recipe looked so perfect that I ended up following it almost exactly. I have adapted a few things – adding baby bok choy and changing up the broth approach a bit – but the approach is essentially the same, and her recipe for soft-boiled egg – the first one (and then the second one) I’ve ever made – worked perfectly for me. We did find we wanted the shiitake mushrooms in smaller pieces; the whole caps looked gorgeous floating in there like rafts, but were a bit ungainly to eat. You can do with or without the jalapeño or fresno chili slices; think of them as sinus-clearing options.

Here, we are starting with a premade chicken broth and enriching it, enhancing the flavors even more with more vegetables, and the aromatic warmth of ginger and garlic. Your chicken broth might already be pretty tasty, but trust me on this: deeply flavored broth is important for a good bowl of ramen. When you serve this up, it’s a play of textures, and really, you get to be the boss. If you are nuts about broth, make it brothier. If you are noodle-crazy (like me), use less broth and pile in the chewy noodles. The chicken will still be juicy after a crisp in a skillet and then a quick roast in the oven, but it will still absorb some of the broth from the soup and lap up some of those flavors. As for the egg, well, if you need me to extol to you the virtues of a just-runny yolk stirred into noodles and vegetables, then you’ll need to come over and sit down for a while, because there’s too much to say for this one little post.

This isn’t your traditional chicken noodle, but I see no reason why, with its deep flavors and treasure chest of ingredients, it shouldn’t become your new favorite way to slurp up those classic soup components.

 

Chicken (Ramen) Noodle Soup
Lightly adapted from Fork, Knife, Swoon
Serves 4 modestly or 3 generously
6-8 cups chicken broth, store-bought or homemade
2 inch knob of ginger
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 yellow onion, root and stem end removed, quartered
3 carrots
2 stalks celery
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin on
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
3 heads baby bok choy, trimmed, rinsed, and larger leaves separated so only small heads remain
½ cup sliced scallions, dark and pale green parts only
2 packages (3 or 3.5 ounce) ramen noodles
Optional: thin slices from 1 jalapeño or fresno chili, ¼ cup cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F. While it warms, add broth to a large pot – if you prefer a more noodle-forward soup, use 6 cups of the broth. If you prefer a brothier end product, use all 8 cups. Pop in the prepared onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and ginger, then bring to a boil with the lid on. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • While the broth is warming, season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the chicken breasts skin side down and cook without moving them for 5-7 minutes, until the skin is golden and crisp. Flip both breasts over, cook another 4-5 minutes, then transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 15-20 minutes (start checking doneness at 15 minutes), until cooked through. When done, remove from oven and cover with tinfoil to keep warm until you are ready to serve the soup.
  • After the broth has simmered 20 minutes, remove the large vegetable pieces with a strainer or a slotted spoon. Taste for seasoning and add soy sauce until the broth reaches your desired saltiness. Add the shiitake mushrooms as well, and simmer 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are softened. If desired, now is the time to fish out the mushrooms, remove their stems (which can be a bit tough), and slice them before popping them back in.
  • At this point, pause for a moment to make your soft-boiled eggs. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, then use a spoon to add the eggs, still cold from the refrigerator, one per diner. For a custard-y middle (that is, still liquid but quite thick), boil for 7 minutes, then remove to an ice bath for 5 minutes before peeling.
  • With your eggs working, add the prepared bok choy to the broth with mushrooms and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the noodles and simmer 3 minutes more.
  • Now you are ready to assemble. With tongs, pile the noodles in a large bowl. Add broth and vegetables. Slice the peeled soft-boiled eggs in half and position atop the noodle pile. Slice the chicken into thin strips, keeping as much of the skin on as possible, and arrange these around the bowl. Scatter on the scallions, and add the chili pepper slices, the sesame seeds, and/or the cilantro, if using, over the top. Serve immediately.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Beef Stroganoff Meatballs

2015 Blog October-0554These are the meatballs that started it all. On a whim, in a post I wrote to publicize Shauna’s (at the time) most recent cookbook, I mentioned off-hand the idea of roasting the mushrooms in the Russian classic beef stroganoff – a savory stew of long-cooked beef with onions and mushrooms, often draped over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

2015 Blog October-05462015 Blog October-0548Somehow, as it simmered in my head, the concept of roasted mushrooms, well, mushroomed, and turned instead into adapting the whole dish into a meatball. Onions and mushrooms, sautéed down in butter until tender and moist, studding a beef meatball floating in a beefy wine sauce, finished with a generous dollop of sour cream. It sounded exactly right, and though a few ingredients added themselves to the mix – thyme in the meatballs, a bay leaf in the sauce and a sprinkling of fresh herbs of the top – they stayed in basically the same form as the year stretched on. From there, in fact, they launched the whole meatball project: if beef stroganoff could be remade in meatball form, why couldn’t other classic dishes? And if I could come up with enough of those, I was set with a project for the year. It became a plan.

2015 Blog October-05492015 Blog October-0551As ideas came thick and fast, and the seasons grew warmer, stroganoff was put off month after month. Finally, in a rare cool weekend, I was able to return to the idea and let me tell you, it was a worthy origin story. My sauce broke, but yours won’t, because you will start with your sour cream at room temperature and add it slooooowly with the heat off, won’t you? And your meatballs will be tender and moist, after simmering but not boiling in the rich, slightly thickened sauce. And though you can certainly serve these as we did, piled atop pan-toasted gnocchi, a pillow of sour cream mashed potatoes or a bowl of egg noodles would be equally welcome.

2015 Blog October-0552

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs
Makes 24-28 tablespoon sized meatballs
45-60 minutes, very approximately
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup minced white onions
1 cup minced mushrooms (I like crimini)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pound ground beef, preferably 85% lean / 15% fat (any leaner and the meatballs run the risk of being dry)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1 egg
1 cup red wine
2 cups low-sodium beef broth
1 bay leaf
¾ cup full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
1-2 tablespoons each minced dill and parsley, to garnish
pan-fried gnocchi, egg noodles, or mashed potatoes, to serve

 

  • In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir once, then let cook gently while you prepare the mushrooms.
  • Add mushrooms, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and the thyme to the gently cooking onions and raise the heat to medium, then cook, stirring frequently, until tender and lightly browned – around 5-8 minutes. Let cool.
  • In a medium glass bowl, combine ground beef, salt, mustard, egg, and the cooled mushrooms and onions. Use your fingertips (preferable) or a spatula to lightly bring everything together; we are aiming for a mixture in which the aromatics and seasonings are evenly distributed.
  • In the same skillet you used for the onions and mushrooms, heat a few drops of olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add a teaspoon-sized patty of the meat mixture and cook on both sides until done. Taste for seasoning and adjust for the rest of the mixture, if needed.
  • Using moistened hands, roll tablespoons of the meat mixture into tight but tender spheres, setting each on a plate until all are rolled. In the same large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the meatballs in a single layer, not touching each other (this will probably take at least two batches). Cook until browned on all sides (2-3 minutes per side), then set aside on a clean plate. Repeat until all meatballs are browned.
  • When all meatballs are browned and set aside, add the red wine all at once and use a wooden spoon or spatula to loosen the browned bits from the bottom. This is called fond, and it contains a lot of flavor. Add the beef broth and the bay leaf, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let the broth and wine mixture simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Carefully add the browned meatballs back into the liquid and return to a simmer, letting the meatballs roll in their broth and wine bath for 10 minutes. At this point, it would be wise to get the starch component ready as well.
  • When the meatballs are cooked through, dish them out with a slotted spoon to a temporary storage plate. Turn off the heat and slowly whisk in the sour cream ¼ cup at a time. Don’t add it all right away, and by all means don’t add it straight out of the refrigerator – this will cause it to turn grainy and look curdled (though it will still taste okay). Slow incorporation is key.
  • Once sour cream is fully incorporated, return skillet to low heat, add the meatballs back in once more, and cook just until sauce and meatballs are warmed through.
  • To serve, pile meatballs with a healthy helping of sauce atop pan-fried gnocchi, mashed potatoes, or egg noodles, and garnish with a sprinkle of fresh dill and parsley.

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone

Food Blog March 2015-0498It would seem that I’m developed a bit of an obsession with well-oiled, aggressively seasoned mushrooms, patiently pan-roasted until deeply, deeply browned and edging toward crisp. Still bouncy on the inside, these golden crusted, meaty little nuggets are finding their way into my cooking more and more frequently. This would be, I think, an entirely good thing in terms of health and waistlines, except I keep drowning them in small mountains of cheese. Last week it was the quintessential quesadilla (which, if you’re wondering, is also stellar in taco format with the addition of tempeh, per my friend S.). This week, a calzone filled with deeply caramelized mushroom quarters, a chunky adaptation of my favorite puttanesca sauce, and of course, the requisite cheese all folded up and pinched inside a swollen half moon of dough.

Food Blog March 2015-0464Food Blog March 2015-0479I love a good calzone, but N. is a little resistant for the same reason he is resistant to lasagna: the not-smooth-enough texture of ricotta cheese. Its strange milky loyalty to both savory and sweet applications is not quite cheese-flavored enough, and the slight graininess of the tiny, tiny residual curds lingering in there weirds him out. Fortunately, in this case as with most cheese-related conflicts, the answer is more. Mashing a healthy dose of grated mozzarella in with the ricotta adds a stronger cheese flavor and ups the salt content, which I think ricotta often needs. Here, I’ve bumped up the flavor and interest even more by folding in a small pile of chopped herbs and some lemon zest. This provided welcomed brightness against the deep earthy mushrooms and puttanesca.

Food Blog March 2015-0471Food Blog March 2015-0476The trick with calzones, as you might expect, is moisture. Because you are sealing up this lovely little packet, it should be baked at a lower temperature than a pizza – the dough tends to be a bit thicker, and because half of it is on the inside, it needs more time to cook all the way through without burning the outside. But what you’ve stacked up inside also has more time to release its own juices, which can result in a bottom crust which is a bit, well, mushy is such an ugly word. Let’s call it soft. Ours certainly was. Calzone dough should be chewy and slightly pillowy but still, there’s a reason it’s called crust.

Food Blog March 2015-0481Food Blog March 2015-0482My thoughts on preventing this are as follows: ensure you are using only the chunky vegetable bits from the puttanesca sauce for the inside. Save the sauce component to spread over the top of the calzone. Additionally, if you have the time, drain the ricotta lump in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Even an hour would allow some of that moisture to escape, which means it would end up in the sink rather than the bottom crust of your dinner.

Food Blog March 2015-0484Food Blog March 2015-0485Food Blog March 2015-0488But even if you do end up with a bottom crust that isn’t as, well, crusty as you might like, you won’t be hurting for flavor. Mushrooms and ricotta – particularly a ricotta jazzed up with mozzarella and aromatics – play incredibly well together, and somehow both hold up to the briny strength of the sauce.
Food Blog March 2015-0492It’s a good dish, then, with which to bid March farewell: still those dark, warm notes of winter, but a lovely springy freshness too, all wrapped up in a chewy, melty package, and just as delicious the next day.

Food Blog March 2015-0499

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone
Serves 6-8
16 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought
8 ounces crimini or button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of pepper
sprig of thyme (optional)
4 ounces ricotta cheese, drained if desired
8 ounces (1 cup) low moisture mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
For sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, minced
¼ cup coarsely chopped kalamata olives
2 anchovy fillets
pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ cup dry red wine
8-10 ounces diced canned tomatoes, with their juice
  • On an oiled pizza pan, spread out the pizza dough in a rough circle 12 inches in diameter. If it springs back, no worries; let it rest for ten minutes and then stretch it out again. At least half an hour before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F with a rack in the middle position.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the pinch of pepper, and the thyme sprig if desired and cook until the mushrooms are well-browned. This should take 8-10 minutes with occasional stirring, during which time the mushrooms will suck up the oil, release their liquid, and then accept some of that liquid back again.
  • While the mushrooms cook, combine the ricotta and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese in a small bowl with the fresh parsley, fresh basil, lemon zest, and pinch of salt to taste. I find a rubber spatula works well for this. Reserve the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella for the top of the calzone.
  • When the mushrooms are done, set them aside in a small bowl and discard the thyme sprig, then put the skillet back over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the minced garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is soft and aromatic and edging toward golden. Add the anchovy fillets and mash them around with a wooden spoon to break down. Scrape in the capers and olives and saute for an additional 1 minute.
  • Toss in the red pepper flakes, the basil, and the ½ cup of red wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomatoes with their juice and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit and the flavors are well combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
  • To assemble, spread the cheese mixture over half of the stretched dough, leaving a healthy inch margin around the edge. Pile the mushrooms on top of the cheese, and then use a slotted spoon to add the chunky portions of the sauce – the tomato and olive and caper bits – on top of the mushrooms (again, keep and respect that inch margin).
  • With slightly moistened or lightly oiled hands (especially if your dough is sticky), grab the edge opposite the area you’ve been filling and pull up, folding over to meet the half-circle edge along your margin. You’ll form a half-moon shape with the dough. Crimp the edge by pulling the bottom layer of dough up slightly over the top layer in a series of small segments. Press and pinch each one tightly into the top layer of dough about a half inch from the edge. This will form a seal to prohibit the top from opening up during baking. It also looks pretty. Because we care about that.
  • With the calzone fully sealed along the circular edge, brush the top with some of the remaining puttanesca sauce, then sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella cheese. Carefully place into the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cheese on top is melted and crusty, and the dough is golden and cooked through. After removing from the oven, wait 5-10 minutes before slicing, then serve hot with any remaining puttanesca sauce, if desired.

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas

Food Blog March 2015-0538Because I have the habit of wanting to impress you, the simple, day-to-day dinners I make often don’t end up here because they don’t strike me as “blog-worthy,” as I’m fond of saying. But much as I want to blow you away all the time, this is a silly habit. The point is not over-the-top impressive, outrageously original, faultlessly styled plates. At least it shouldn’t be. The point is good food. And yet because I get sucked in by things like Pinterest and Tastegawking and Foodspotter and vice versa, we had these mushroom kale quesadillas three or four times in a month because they were so damn delicious I couldn’t stop thinking about them before I realized they might be something I should share with you. Even though they are simple. Even though they are just quesadillas.

Food Blog March 2015-0533Because, seriously? Mushrooms. Kale. Cheese. Toasted tortillas. What a combination! Quesadillas are, weirdly enough, a kind of touchstone for me. If I wrote one of those memoir/cookbook mash-ups, a quesadilla would have to find its way in there somewhere, because when I stop and think about it for three seconds, my life contains a number of memory-charged quesadilla incidents. Example: when my family moved from Southern to Northern California shortly after I graduated from high school, some of the first ingredients in our new fridge were tortillas, cheddar, and salsa. As my mom unpacked the kitchen and the movers unloaded box after box after box from the massive truck into our new garage, we realized the morning had wasted thin and we were starving. Cue Chelsea at the stove with a skillet and spatula rinsed free of box dust seconds ago, flipping quesadillas. They weren’t magnificent, because they were just cheddar folded inside a flour tortilla, but when the cheese melted and sizzled out the sides, and the fat hidden in that deceptively dry flour tortilla browned in huge freckles all over the surface, no one wanted anything else for lunch, including the movers. We used up the whole package of tortillas and most of the cheese, but it was nice to watch everyone unfolding the fried half-moons and pouring liberal doses of salsa over the molten orange goo inside.

Food Blog March 2015-0527Quesadillas are best when you don’t think about them too much. What I mean is, they are best when they contain a quantity of cheese you’d rather not cop to. During our second year of living together, my college roommate K. wondered briefly why she liked my quesadillas so much more than hers. Part of it was undeniably the fact that food tastes so much better when someone makes it for you. But part of it, we determined, was that I used more cheese than she did. Great blocks of monterey jack sacrificed themselves to feed our quesadilla longing, and K. placed me permanently in charge of quesadilla production, as long as I never told her how much cheese I was folding inside. In those days, we upgraded from spooning a scoop up jarred salsa inside to smashing a velvet green half of avocado over the top, and maybe a luscious scoop of sour cream. These lunches were probably, now that I think about it, the base of much of my weight gain that year (the post-break-up pints of Godiva ice cream were likely the other culprits). But in retrospect, my “sophomore sixteen” is so much less important than how good those quesadillas were with their different kinds of softness and the crisp, almost oily tortilla in between.

Food Blog March 2015-0523Food Blog March 2015-0525Though I’m still on board with a simple monterey jack quesadilla with avocado, guacamole, or salsa of any kind smeared over the top, I gradually realized quesadillas could also be employed to funnel vegetables into us. I don’t skimp on the cheese – no sense forgetting what I’ve learned – but now I jam in layers of corn or spinach or, in this version, thinly sliced mushrooms pan roasted until golden and almost crisp, folded together with torn leaves of kale barely wilted with some olive oil and salt. In quantity, cheese is non-negotiable, but the variety you mound on is a personal choice. I’m partial these days to pepperjack for that lovely extra kick, but regular, dependable old monterey jack, or a combination of jack and fontina or gouda would also be glorious. Here I’m using spinach tortillas in a combination vain attempt to make these seem healthier, and because I just dig the flavor, but you could use plain flour tortillas, or even corn, though they will obviously require less filling.

Food Blog March 2015-0528I’m not going to make the claim that these quesadillas will turn a mushroom and kale hater into a mushroom and kale lover, because we’re really not hiding the vegetables; we’re celebrating the way they complement the cheese and toasty tortilla. But they might turn a mushroom tolerator into an almost-fan, and someone who is tired of kale might find in them a gasp of fresh breath. And they will without question provide you with a quick, delicious dinner item that is absolutely perfect with a side of these beer braised beans.

Food Blog March 2015-0540

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4-6 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons olive oil
16 ounces crimini mushrooms (1 pound)
5-6 ounces kale, tough stems removed
2 cups monterey jack or pepperjack cheese, or a mixture of soft white cheeses
4 burrito size tortillas (I like the spinach ones)
  • Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until glistening. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté over medium for 8-10 minutes, until they are nicely golden and some are barely crisp.
  • Add the kale to the cooked mushrooms and sauté for another 3-4 minutes until barely wilted but still bright green; season with salt and pepper if desired. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
  • To build the quesadillas, lay out the bottom tortilla and scatter ⅔ cup of the cheese evenly across it. Add half the mushroom and kale mixture, then scatter ⅓ cup of cheese on top of the vegetables. Top with the second tortilla. This construction – cheese, vegetables, cheese – holds in the vegetables because the cheese melts on both sides of them, binding them inside. This makes for easier, cleaner flipping.
  • Cook the quesadilla in a dry pan (I use the same one I cooked the mushrooms and kale in, just wiped clean with a paper towel) over medium to medium-high heat until the bottom tortilla is nicely browned (or slightly charred, if you like that), and the bottom layer of cheese is well melted; 3-4 minutes. Flip and repeat.
  • While the first quesadilla cooks, build the second one as described above.
  • When both sides of the quesadilla are nicely browned and crisp, remove from heat. Wait 1-2 minutes before slicing to avoid losing too much cheese. Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • To serve, cut in quarters (or smaller wedges) and offer with guacamole, sour cream, salsa, or just bare and crisp and oozing and perfect.

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.