Sunday, November 16, 2008

Linguine for the Fall Harvest

Well, Mother Nature sure has been hormonal for us in the north east this fall. We went straight to winter back in September, then segued to a lovely and mild Indian summer for a few weeks, then onto monsoon-type spring rains, back to freezing cold, and then a 'psyche! too bad you put your ac units up, suckaz!' return to warm weather, extending the mosquitos breeding season all the way into November.

But now, it's cold again (though I'm not going to say 'for good this time' as I have about 4 times incorrectly this season.)

And while many people ask how a Texan can adjust to a real winter every year, I tell them that winter gives me an excuse to do two of my favorite things - shop and cook. You see, with only window units to cool down our 1800's apartment building and its 20 foot ceilings, I don't often relish the thought firing up the oven in the summer and sweating like a chased pig before sitting down to dinner. But in the winter I can cook to my heart's content. (And of course, those sweaters and boots and jackets from the year before never seem to look quite as good as they did last year, which inevitably means braving the cold for a little shopping...)

Anyway, this pasta dish is both delicate and hearty. You get that earthy meatiness from sauteed portabellos while roasted butternut squash provides a sweet, nutty contrast. Fresh basil keeps the goat cheese from taking over while pine nuts round everything out with their serene, calming demeanor.

I know this is treason in some circles, but I actually find this pasta even better the next day. All of the elements seem to have gotten to know one another in the fridge and decided to be friends. A good glass of chianti makes them like each other even better...

One last thing - if they offer pre cut butternut squash in your grocery store, by all means - cheat!

Linguine with Butternut Squash, Portabello, and other Fruits of Fall

4-5 small shallots, finely diced
3 portabello mushrooms, tops wiped clean and cut into strips (slice all the way down in 1/4 inch slices, then give those slices a cut across the diagonal)
1/2 cup white wine
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small 1 inch chunks
1/4 cup goat cheese
1/4 toasted pine nuts
handful of fresh basil
1 lb fresh linguine
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat your oven to 375.

Put butternut squash onto a large rimmed baking sheet, douse with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook for 20 minutes, toss over with a spatula, then cook 20-25 more minutes until golden brown but not burnt.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water over high heat to get ready for the pasta.

Meanwhile, put a large saute pan over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then the shallots, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add in portabellos (little more salt, little more pepper.) Also add more oil if pan is getting too dry. Cook, stirring occasionally, until portabellos begin to wilt and release their liquid - about 15 minutes. Once they've really wilted and become flacid, add in the white wine, bring to boil, and cook down for 2 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half. Lower heat, and simmer while you salt your pasta water and add your pasta - cooking just 6 minutes or until al dente (don't over cook fresh pasta or you'll be eating mush.)

At this point, gently toss in goat cheese, then your roasted butternut squash and basil. Check for salt, adding any if necessary and serve with toasted pine nuts sprinkled over.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fall on a Plate in 20 Minutes

I promise you, dear readers, that one of these days I won't be working so much and will have time to cook something more daring than what I've been posting lately. I may be the Meat and Potatoes Foodie, but I'm hankering for some down and dirty, spend-a-little-longer-in-your-apron kind of cooking. Perhaps Thanksgiving will be my chance.

In the meantime, I have another quickie for you, that I have to say I threw together one night after work having no idea if it would work. I had a drawer full of Lady Apples - the adorable little golf ball sized apples you get in the north east this time of year. I think they're completely sassy and vivacious in their petiteness, which I'm guessing is how they got their name.

Aesthetics aside, they make a great quick pan saute to accompany pork chops as their little size doesn't require much cooking time to become fork tender and melting. Of course you could sub in a regular tart apple, like a Gala, if you needed to. Just cut into smaller pinkie sized-wedges.

Pork Chops with Quick Sauteed Lady Apples
Serves 2.

2 boneless pork chops of good thickness (1 1/2 inches)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
1 tablespoon butter
6-7 Lady Apples, cut into pinkie-width wedges
1 whole garlic clove, smashed with skin removed
A good slug (tipping over bottle for a good two-count) of Calvados (French apple liquor) or white wine
Small pinch fresh lemon zest
Dash of pumpkin pie spice, or cinnamon
Additional tablespoon of butter, optional

Preheat oven to 350.

Salt and pepper the pork chops on both sides. Add olive oil and butter to a medium, rimmed nonstick pan and bring to medium heat. Add chops getting a nice sear and cook 3 to 4 minutes per side, just until slightly golden. Transfer to a sprayed baking sheet and put in 350 oven for 15 minutes (10-12 minutes for thinner chops - do not over cook.) Remove and let rest.

Meanwhile, add slivered apples to leftover grease in pan over medium heat. Season with a little salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar, tiny pinch of salt and cook 5 minutes stirring every so often. Add slug of Calvados (or white wine), increase heat, and let bubble away for a few minutes. Lower heat to medium, toss in whole clove of garlic and cook 5 more stirring occassionally. Add lemon zest, dash of cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice, and cook 2 minutes more or until apples are meltingly soft to the bite. You can also stir in a tablespoon of butter at the end to make it even more silky and luxurious.

Serve apples over pork chops. (You can also roast asparagus with olive oil, salt, and pepper for the same amount of time as the pork takes in the oven - 15 minutes - as an easy side.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chicken Mozzarella Sandwiches with Ridiculously Rich Marinara

I know when I have something special on my hands when I drool a little just thinking about blogging about it.

It all started on Sunday when I suddenly craved a fat, chicken parmesan sandwich dripping with hearty red sauce - the kind of sandwich you need at least a dozen napkins at the ready and a frosty Italian beer to wash it down with. The only problem was I have a bizarre prejudice against sandwiches with breaded meats in them. Call me crazy, but breaded meat inside more bread just seems like overkill. If you take the time to make a lovely, crunchily textured chicken parm, why hide it in a sandwich?

I decided right then my chicken wouldn't be breaded, but instead be browned in a skillet, then left to simmer in a warm, tomatoey sauce. The right side of my brain kicked in, and the result was a homemade ragu that makes me tear up a little just thinking about it. Let's just say it starts with 3 thin strips of bacon snipped into a hot pan. See what I mean?

And even though I'd never made this sauce before, there was something incredibly familiar about it. Two days later when I heated up the leftovers in the microwave, it was even better than it was the night of its conception - smokey and sweet and tangy from those incredible San Marzano tomatoes. That's when it hit me - I'd gone and made some sort of Italian/BBQ sauce hybrid! Leave it to a Texan, I guess. So, while this started out as a sandwich post, the sauce quickly took center stage. I actually want to be buried with a jar of it, tied with a pink ribbon and a porcelain spoon.

Actually, there's nothing earth-shattering about adding bacon to a ragu. Italians add pancetta to their sauces all the time. I now think the key to my sauce's addictive, lip smacking flavor is the fact that I added a cup of red wine to it, then boiled it and boiled it until there was almost nothing left but a few reduced teaspoons-full, swimming alongside the sauteed chopped onions (now stained a deep shade of purple...fellow red wine lovers know the color.) So, while you're used to reducing 'by half' or 'by a third' when it comes to cooking with wine - trust me on this recipe and keep on keeping on until the wine's almost gone. It will pay off in dividends, providing a richness that can't be achieved any other way.

Chicken Mozzarella Sandwiches with Ridiculously Rich Marinara
Serves 2


3 thin slices bacon
2 chicken breasts, dredged in flour, salt and pepper.

2 fat garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, diced
bay leaf
1 pinch each - dried sage, oregano, thyme
pinch sugar

3/4 cup red wine

1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 (28 oz) can whole, peeled tomatoes, WITHOUT JUICE
1 (14 oz) can whole, peeled tomatoes WITH JUICE
pinch sugar

2 fat, cushy sandwich rolls (whole wheat French has a nice complimentary sweetness)
4 hefty slices fresh mozzarella cheese, or provolone, or aged mozzarella

Add a tablespoon olive oil to a large, rimmed skillet ( if you're adding mozzerella later - ideally you want a handle-less pan , a la a Le Crueset.) Using kitchen shears, snip in the bacon (about half inch chunks) and cook over medium heat until cooked but not crisp - 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer with slotted spoon to a plate.

Add a couple more tablespoons olive oil to the pan (enough to coat) and add the chicken breasts, cooking 4-5 minutes per side until golden brown. Transfer to plate with the bacon and set aside. Add the onions, garlic, dried herbs and bay leaf to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cook until onions soften and become translucent. Add pinch of sugar, stir in to incorporate, and cook for one more minute.

Add the wine to the pan, and raise heat if necessary to bring to a boil. Allow to come to a full, raging boil for a few minutes, then lower heat slightly so that it's still bubbling away but not as violently. Keep over a low boil, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes or as long as it takes to reduce to just a few small spoonfuls worth (as mentioned, you'll basically be left with a bunch of purple onions in a tiny bit of liquid.)

Add the tomato paste, tomatoes (with and without juice), and another pinch of sugar. Stir in to incorporate, then season with a little more salt and pepper. Again - raise the heat if necessary to bring to a boil, and boil away stirring occasionally until you've got a sauce on your hands. You will know you've got a sauce when you're no longer staring at the watery mess in the pan wondering how on God's earth it will ever become a sauce. Suddenly it will thicken and leave a wake behind your stirring spoon - somewhere around the ten to fifteen minute mark. Once this happens, add the bacon back into the sauce as well as the chicken and any juices from the plate. Stir in and let meld over low heat another 20 minutes or so (if sauce is evaporating/reducing too much - just put a top on it)

At this point, top the chicken with thick, meaty slices of fresh mozzarella and put the entire skillet in a preheated, 375 degree oven for 15 minutes, until cheese is melted. (IF MAKING SANDWICHES, ADD 2 SOFT WHOLE WHEAT ROLLS OR MINI FRENCH BREAD LOAVES DURING THE LAST FIVE MINUTES ON A SEPARATE TRAY TO HEAT THROUGH. THEN SLICE IN HALF AND STUFF WITH CHEESE COVERED CHICKEN AND SPOON OVER EXTRA SAUCE.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Painting the Plate Red; Roasted Duck, Beets, and Pomegranites

When it comes to cooking, I am a fiddler. Even if held at gunpoint, I'm not sure I'd be able to follow a recipe without adding a little of this or a little of that, or adjusting what's on the page by instinct. Perhaps this is due to my right brain being the alpha of my pea sized cranium, or maybe it's because I'm not really an adventurist (not into surfing or any extreme sports) and therefore get my kicks where I can in the safety and warmth of my kitchen.

Anyway, while I have posted many tweaked recipes here, I haven't included many that are completely mine. So this week, we're going buck wild with original recipes (insert KFC original recipe jingle HERE.)

The first is a duck breast served with roasted beets tossed with a confetti of chopped mint, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds with an orange scented rice pilaf on the side. Sounds fancy, huh? Well it's not. You're basically putting the beats and duck on cooking sheets, sticking them in the oven, and at some point, chopping up the mint and cilantro. (Oh and the rice is stovetop which cooks at the same time - just mix in toasted pine nuts and orange zest at the end.) The hardest thing is getting the pomegranate seeds out of the pomegranate, although I found it quite entertaining. It was like a little fruit massacre in my own kitchen.

Anyway, this is actually a light and refreshing fall meal, if you like duck. I first had duck in high school on a prom date at Vargo's in Houston. It was prepared the traditional way, with a rich cherry compote, and it was delicious. But today's duck is simply a duck breast, seasoned well with salt and pepper, roasted in a hot oven (400 degrees for 15 minutes), then topped with a fresh herb mixture (or as the Italians say, grimolata) - or put more simply - a handful each of chopped fresh mint and cilantro. Sprinkle over a handful of pomegranate seeds, and you're done.

Now onto the beets. I admit, I may be a little spastic about food and cooking, but I freaking love cooking beets. Just peeling off the wrinkled, ugly skin to reveal their whore-ish, velvety red interiors makes me happy. The color is unreal. And the smell is enough to make you run out and hug a tree. Earthy and sweet and cleansing.

But loving beets comes with a price, as you'll have stained red hands for a few hours, and possibly red colored pee. Quite worth it, in my opinion. It should also be noted that the key to delicious beets versus not so delicious is dousing them with olive oil, salt and pepper, then roasting low and slow (350 for 20 minutes, toss, then roast another 20.) You can also enhance their sweetness with a little drizzle of balsamic vinegar (just add and toss before you add the oil) or even sugar.

Since this particular post features two polarizing dishes that many people may prefer to look at a picture of rather than eat (beets and duck), I've chosen to provide the recipe free-style... If you want more explicit cooking details, just let me know.

Until next time;)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Buttermilk Roast Chicken with Farewell Heirloom Tomato Salad

Ah, Nigella Lawson... how I love thee.

I broke down again, dear readers. A few clicks of the mouse and another book is on its way to me - and not any cookbook but THE Nigella Express book I verbally thrashed a year ago, for fear she was compromising her integrity and getting into bed with the likes of Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. Anyway, here's how it happened...

I had another insane workweek involving takeout every night (I actually ate a turkey burger 3 nights in a row from the same place.) Needless to say, by the weekend I was dying to cook but my energy level didn't sink up with my will to do so. Cut to me searching for something easy to fix...but good.

The recipe I decided to try was Nigella's Buttermilk Roast Chicken (from her Express book), and it is slap-your-mama-good. I only made two changes - subbing bone in chicken breasts for thighs and adding a bay leaf to the brining mixture. After roasting, the chicken looked gorgeous (in the final stages, I actually watched the skin bubble and crack through my oven window, giggling like a madman every time it turned a deeper shade of bronze.) But what truly made it deadly was an heirloom tomato salad I served alongside it (don't ask me where these luscious, groovily colored heirlooms came from this late in the season, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.)

I tossed the tomatoes, goat cheese, basil, and olive oil together, then spooned them all around the warm chicken, in a sort of deconstructed chicken salad. The heat from the chicken washed over everything, warming the tomatoes and basil through, making the whole kitchen smell like summer.

Needless to say, after finishing the meal, I realized I was going to have blog about the damned chicken. And buy Nigella's book.

Buttermilk Brined Chicken with Farewell Heirloom Tomato Salad
Serves 2


2 bon- in, skin on chicken breasts
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 large pinch kosher salt, or smaller pinch table salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon maple syrup


Place the chicken buttermilk, 1/4 cup of oil, garlic, pepper, salt, cumin, maple syrup, cumin and bay leaf into a large freezer bag, squishing everything around to mix. Add the chicken and roll around to make sure every nook and cranny is anointed, then place in the fridge overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Take the chicken pieces out of the bag shaking off the excess marinade, and then arrange them in a roasting tin lined with foil and sprayed with nonstick spray. Drizzle over the 2 remaining tablespoons of oil and the lightest sprinkling of salt, then roast in the oven for about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 and roast another 30 minutes (20-25 if you're using small breasts - the ones I had were epic in size), then crank the heat up again and move to the top tray of your oven for the last 5-10 minutes of cooking, watching carefully while you get the skin crispy and golden (at this point, you will also notice clear chooses running from the meat into the pan, signaling they're cooked through.)

Remove and let rest for 10 minutes before you plenty of time to make:

Farewell Heirloom Tomato Salad:
Serves 2

l large, plump, ripe and fun to squeeze Heirloom tomato
1 handful basil leaves, rinsed and roughly torn
Heaving tablespoon of goat cheese, to crumble in
Tiny pinch sea salt
Fresh cracked pepper
Generous drizzle of olive oil

Gently slice your tomato into fat wedges and drop into a medium bowl. Add the basil and rest of the ingredients, giving a gentle toss to combine. Serve next to something warm, preferably the above roast chicken.

Halloween Party Recap

Every year around September, I become possessed by the urge to have a Halloween party. The pattern of possession is always the same - weeks spent planning the invite, menu, and beverages, followed by the actual making of the recipes and the inevitable panic the night before as I frantically run around cleaning and decorating, thinking to myself 'why oh why God did I do this??? Party planning and hosting is for house wives - NOT for people who work 80 hours a week!!!'

But finally, ready or not, the party commences and I have the time of my life. Each year I'm dazzled by the creativity of my guests' costumes and their own willingness to regress back to childhood for the evening. Take a look at the pics - we had everyone from The Joker to 'Joan' from Madmen to Slash to a Stepford Wife to TGIFridays bartenders (who brought their own kamikazees which they poured for us all evening) to vice pres nominee Sarah Palin!

And by the end of the nigh - or morning as has been the case the last couple of years - I'm already dreaming of next year's party. (Much like child birth, I've already magically forgotten any pain I had endured. See - it really is possession!)

Anyway, I've included most of the food from this year's party and if you're surprised by how white trash/unsophisticated the recipes are - don't be. I promise you that's what people want when they're doing serious imbibing. The Tiki Snack Mix I made from the November issue of Bon Appetit was my most experimental dish and suffered, in my opinion, from the severe humidity brought on by torrential downpours we had that evening. (Notice how the skunk in one of the photos has a towel wrapped around his head - he arrived soaked to the bone as did several other devoted party goers.)

The cheese ball that I put into a brain mold and covered in black poppy seeds disappeared by midnight and as usual, the belles of the ball were my sausage cheese balls which I've included as well.

I wish you all a belated Happy Halloween!

Sausage Cheeseballs (for Halloween, I like to make them with spicy sausage and call them 'Devil's Balls' Hee Hee!)


1 lb ground sausage
1 lb grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 and 1/2 cups Bisquick
2 shakes red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Wousteshire sauce
¼ teaspoon ground Coriander
¼ teaspoon ground dried garlic
½ teaspoon hot English mustard (powder form such as Coleman’s brand)
pinch sea salt or kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all ingredients in the food processor until well blended. Form into 1 inch balls and bake on a cookie sheet (only greased if you're making them from the freezer) at 350 for 15-20 minutes, until tops are just golden brown and bottoms are a rich, dark brown.

* These are so easy to do if you make and bake them a week or month ahead, then freeze them (after they've cooled) in Ziploc bags. Just pull them out of the freezer and bake them the same way as if they were fresh to heat through on a greased pan.)

Curried Ham Wraps


4 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
1 cup peeled, shredded tart apple
4 (6 inch) flour tortillas
8 thin slices Black Forest ham

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, garlic, curry powder and mustard. Stir in apple. Spread about 2 tablespoons over each tortilla. Layer with 2 slices of ham. Roll up tightly and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Cut in half on the diagonal and serve stacked onto a plate with chives strewn around as garnish.

White Trash Cheese Ball (or 'The Brain' as it was for the party)

2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
3 1/2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (I used white Cheddar, to look more like a brain)
1/2 of 1 (1 ounce) package Ranch-style dressing mix
2 heaping tablespoons sour cream

Blend all in a food processor until smooth. Transfer to a cheese mold or using your hands shape into rounded ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (these are great to make the night before.) Cover with poppy seeds, chopped pecans or other nuts if desired before serving.