Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Course: appetizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“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.