Why don’t I feed myself?

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Lately I’ve been like an addict on a bender. Appearances are fine. To the outside world it looks like things go according to plan. The reality is that I have been like a ravenous maw consuming all in my many paths and nothing on the path I should tread.

There sits my kitchen. For the past couple of weeks I have been letting myself be lured by the siren sounds of other kitchens. Any excuse to eat at a restaurant and I’d jump out the door purse in hand. A shopping trip to get groceries revealed that putting those wholesome items away was a challenging obstacle course of takeout containers and plastic bags. I need it to stop.

I know how to cook. I really do. A cabinet in my pantry is full of cookbooks for guidance and inspiration. I read food magazines and cooking blogs like they are novels and short stories. I have a kitchen of drawers and cabinets full of pots, pans, utensils, gadgets and knick knacks. So why don’t I feed myself? I really don’t know.

Force myself to go in there. Into that room of food laid to waste. Odds and ends. Bits and pieces. Force myself to page through the books, see what is on the page, see what is in the drawers, on the shelves, on my mind.

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A trip to the yard for herbs. A grab in a drawer for a gadget. The cool feel of stainless steel in my hand. Oh so many questions: why is there always a bag of pasta with just an ounce or two of pasta missing? Why are there five mushrooms rolling around in the bottom of the crisper like orphans in a crowd? Is the sour cream off? What… is… that…

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I am not a drinker, yet I have bottles and bottles of alcohol. I try so hard to eat a healthy diet, yet there is always butter and cheese. Always, there are piles of vegetables and fruits neglected and sometimes scary lurking in the darker recesses. Sometimes there are treats such as black forest ham or cured olives reserved for tasting but living in that hazy place between snack and alchemy. Such a wealth. So ignored. For what? The new pasta place that served us mediocre food? The brewpub with the cabbage we suspect of making us ill? The breakfast place with the food that tastes of greasy meals past. It’s criminal. It needs to stop.

It stops here.

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Penne with Black forest ham and vegetables primavera

12 oz penne

Broccoli florets trimmed from two stalks

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp unsalted butter

5-6 mushrooms sliced

2 cloves garlic, diced

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 lemon, zested and halved to be squeezed for juice

1 medium zucchini, chopped

½ red bell pepper, diced

6 oz black forest ham, chopped

½ cup dry vermouth

1 cup low fat milk

½ cup reduced fat sour cream

1 -2 tbsp freshly grated parmesano reggiano, plus more for garnish

Freshly ground black pepper for garnish

In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add penne and cook approx. 8 minutes until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, return the pasta to the pot and set aside.

Steam broccoli for three minutes until just softened. Set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and butter. Heat until butter melts and foaming subsides. Add mushrooms and garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes until the mushrooms begin to soften. Add rosemary, lemon zest, zucchini and red peppers. Continue cooking until the veggies begin to soften. Add ham and broccoli. Cook for a minute or two until the ham begins to shrink a bit. Add vermouth. Continue to cook for a minute or two until the liquid begins to evaporate. Add milk and sour cream. Stir until the sour cream becomes smooth and incorporates itself into the sauce. Be careful with the heat at this point because you don’t want the dairy to curdle. If your stove is running hot, lower the heat a bit so that it is just at a simmer. Squeeze about a teaspoon of juice into the sauce from a lemon half. Toss in the parmesan.

Remove the sprig of rosemary from the sauce and pour the sauce over the pasta. Return the pot to the heat. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes until the sauce coats the pasta and thickens a bit. Serve with extra parmesan and a little fresh ground pepper.

Pure comfort food

baked-penne

I have a recipe I love for baked penne.  It is loaded with three kinds of cheeses and these ethereal chicken meatballs that you fry in olive oil until they have a brown crunchy crust.  It is wonderful and when I make it, it takes hours to prepare and I always feel vindicated to have an especially massive piece of it after such hard labor.  Since I embarked on my weight loss journey, I have been terrified to make this particular dish because I know it is loaded with fat and calories and I know that I can’t be trusted to eat a tiny portion.  In fact, I have been known to dig cold meatballs out of the casserole and pop them into my mouth at a moments notice.  Not a good thing to have in my house, no.

 

I love Italian food and I especially love all of the baked dishes.  I didn’t think I could indulge in such cheesy, saucy fare so I have seriously been depriving myself for so many months now.

 

Recently, I have expanded my usual magazine fetish due to finding out how great Cooking Light and Eating Well have become.  As a matter of fact, I can’t get enough of Cooking Light magazine.  During the holidays, I noticed a special edition Meals in Minutes issue of Cooking Light at the store and took it home.  There was a baked pasta dish included in this issue.  It sounded sort of pedestrian.  Not so special as the baked penne I love so much.  However, looking at the nutritional information, it looked like it would fit nicely into my allotted food for the day.  I decided to give it a try.  The original recipe called for spicy Italian turkey sausage, regular white pasta and full fat mozzarella.  I switched these ingredients for chicken basil sausage, whole-wheat penne and part skim mozzarella.  I used a really full flavored parmesano reggiano.  What came out of my oven last night made me want to weep.  Nothing can replace my original favorite recipe but this was so very good, so healthy and so simple to make that I am very happy indeed.

 

Baked penne with sausage

Adapted from the best of Cooking Light meals in minutes

 

1 pound whole-wheat penne rigate

1 pound chicken and basil sausage

1 cup chopped onion

3 garlic cloves

1 tbsp tomato paste

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp fresh ground pepper

2 (14.5 oz) cans diced tomatoes (with basil and garlic if available)

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

1 cup shredded part skim mozzarella

1 cup grated parmesano reggiano

Olive oil cooking spray

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

 

Cook the pasta according to the package directions.  Drain and return to the pot.  Cover and set aside.

 

Remove the casings from the sausage.  Heat pan over medium heat and spray liberally with cooking spray.  Add onion, garlic and sausage.  Cook until sausage is browned.  Add tomato sauce, tomato paste, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 

Add the fresh basil and sauce into cooked pasta and mix well.   Oil a 9”x13” pan.  Pour half of the pasta mixture into the prepared pan.  Top with half of the mozzarella and parmesan.  Pour the other half of the pasta mixture on top of the cheese layer and smooth with a spoon.  Top the pasta with the remaining mozzarella and parmesan.  Bake for 25 minutes until bubbly.  Makes 8 servings.

 

 

A most excellent soup

I love fall.  Where I live, it is still clear and warm during the day but the air gets a definite bite at night.  When the evenings get cool, my thoughts turn from salads to warm food.  I want things that cook on the stove top for extended periods of time, food that roasts in the oven, perfuming the air with the scent of good flavors.

 

I have been intending to make Lentil Minestrone for weeks.  I got a dutch oven for my birthday last month and I have wanted to try it out but soup just wasn’t meant to be until today.  I stumbled onto the recipe while looking up something entirely different.  The soup makes good use of pantry items and staple veggies.  The only problem I had is that the dutch oven I got turned out to be a bit small for this particular soup recipe.  I have a three and a half quart dutch oven.  This recipe makes more like four or five quarts of soup.  The soup should have been brothier than it turned out, but I was determined to use my new pot so I used much less vegetable stock than called for.  I enjoy a thick lentil soup anyway.  I also traded out some of the herbs and flavorings called for in the original recipe with items I already had.  The herbs seemed a little more French inspired so I went with Italian herbs instead.  It was a good choice.  Redolent with parsley, rosemary and fresh bay leaves, this soup was delicious!

 

Lentil Minestrone

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

 

2 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 tbsp tomato paste

¼ cup chopped parsley

4 large garlic cloves

3 carrots, diced

1 cup celery, diced

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup French lentils, rinsed

3 fresh bay leaves (or 2 dried)

8 branches parsley

2 branches fresh rosemary

6 cups vegetable broth

Soy sauce to taste

1 bunch chard, washed thoroughly and chopped

1 cup dry pennete (or any small pasta of your choice)

Optional toppings:  drizzle of olive oil, shredded parmesan

 

Heat the oil over medium heat in a dutch oven.  Add onions and saute for ten minutes until lightly caramelized.  Add tomato paste, chopped parsley, garlic, carrots, celery, salt and pepper.  Cook for another three minutes.  Add lentils, bay leaves, parsley branches, rosemary branches and vegetable broth.  Bring to a simmer and cook thirty minutes.  Meanwhile, boil water for pasta in a small pot.  Boil water for chard in a large pot.  Boil pasta according to package directions until al dente, drain and set aside.  Cook chard for three to five minutes, drain and set aside.  When the soup has cooked for thirty minutes, season the soup with soy sauce to taste.  Remove the parsley branches, rosemary branches and bay leaves.  Stir in the cooked pasta and chard right before serving.  If you would like, serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmesan.  The soup is wonderful without these condiments.

 

Become a leaf eater

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Over the years, I have always relied on what nutritionists have touted as the wonder veggies.  If I found a way to get some broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage into me, I felt virtuous.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not about to say anything bad about these veggies.  They are high in nutrition.  As a matter of fact, I feel that any food that grows on a plant has to be good for me.  A few years back, I started eating swiss chard and kale.  They compliment each other well.  They are wonderful in pasta or as a side dish.  At this time of the year, they are readily available and at their peak of flavor.  One day, I decided to find out how nutritious they are.  Holy cow!!  You eat these two veggies and you’ll be set for the day on vitamins A and K.  Together, they will just about give you all of the vitamin C you need.  You’ll get omega three fatty acids and a whole host of other vitamins and minerals.  Check out these links to see some charts on what you get by eating kale and chard.  Amazing.

 

After learning how good for me these leafy greens are, I started to try to add them to my diet as much as I could.  One dish we really love is a pasta dish with sausage, roasted red peppers and the greens.  You make a lovely wine enhanced tomato and sausage sauce and then you melt the greens into it, cooking them until they are just sweet and tender.  Yum!

 

Here is a note about the ingredients for this dish:  Since we typically crave this dish in the winter, I usually purchase canned roasted red peppers.  I get these at Trader Joes who imports them from Spain.  I have never been to Spain so I think it is unfair that my red peppers get to come to the U.S. from Spain.  Since I can still find red peppers at the Farmers Market (they may be the last, it is starting to get cold now).  I roasted them myself this time.  If you have a rotten, stupid electric stove and oven like I do, broil the red peppers on a heavy-duty pan.  Broil them on all sides until the skin is blistered and charred.  Place the peppers in a covered dish to steam for 10 minutes or so.  Let them cool enough to handle and then peel and seed them.  You can use any kind of sausage for this recipe that would work with a tomato based sauce but we prefer chicken basil sausage.  Italian sausage is good too, but the chicken is mild tasting and the basil helps give the sauce a little bit of a kick.  Make sure the kale and chard is extremely clean.  Like spinach, it can be sandy.  The sand tends to stick in the bumpy textured leaves.  I usually chop the leaves and then use the bowl and colander of a salad spinner to wash the leaves.  I fill the bowl full of water and then swish the leaves around and then drain.  I repeat this until I see no sand in the bottom of the salad spinner.  It is usually a triple wash process.  This dish can be made with any tube pasta but penne is especially good.

Penne with Sausage, Roasted Peppers and Greens

3 chicken and basil sausages

 

5 cloves garlic, chopped

 

1 large onion, chopped

 

1 lb penne

 

15 oz can of tomato sauce

 

½ cup (or more) dry red wine

 

7.25 oz jar roasted red peppers drained and torn into strips or 3 medium homemade roasted red peppers and any juice that accumulates after you peel them, torn into strips

 

1 bunch each of kale and chard, chopped and washed very well

 

¼ cup Parmesan plus more for serving

 

Boil the water for the pasta.  While the water heats, brown the sausage with garlic and onion over medium heat in a large deep skillet for about 10 minutes.  Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook per directions on the bag (probably 8 minutes) until al dente.  While the pasta is cooking, add tomato sauce, wine and peppers to the sausage mixture.  Bring to a boil and then add the cheese and greens.  You may have to add the greens in handfuls, stirring and adding more to the pan as they wilt and make room. If the mixture starts to look dry add a splash of wine.  Cook until the greens are wilted and tender, lowering the heat to medium if necessary. Drain pasta and add sauce to the pasta mixing everything to combine well.  Serve with extra Parmesan sprinkled on top.

  

Fun with Lamb Shanks

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Weekends are when I plan the meals for the week.  I take a look at the specials at our local gourmet/natural foods store and often plan a couple of meals around what I find at bargain prices.  This week, lamb shanks were $2.99 per pound, which sounded like quite a bargain to me.

 

I’ve had lamb shanks at restaurants a couple of times and they have not disappointed me.  I made them at home one time and although I loved how tender they got, the sauce wasn’t a winner.  I went online to Epicurious to see if I could find a better recipe and I stumbled onto a soup recipe instead.  The soup had quite the greek style influence to it so I was immediately attracted to the recipe.

 

I don’t often fiddle with a recipe the first time out, but the comments on Epicurious said that the recipe needed some garlic and that sautéing the ingredients in the stock made a world of difference so I tried the suggestions.  The soup turned out pretty good but it wasn’t as wonderful as I imagined it to be.  Three pounds of lamb shanks were a bit excessive.  If you try this recipe, you may want to cut down on the amount of meat.  My boyfriend felt the soup was a bit “lamby”.  Normally this would be a turn off to me too but I felt like the meat was good quality and didn’t have a gamey flavor.  I just felt that the soup was a bit greasy and had more meat than necessary.  I would definitely make the soup again with 2 lbs of shanks and I might add another veggie like some zucchini or extra carrots.  However, with a multigrain baguette and a glass of 2002 Sunstone Syrah, this soup made a mighty fine meal.

Spinach, lamb and orzo soup

Adapted from July 1992 Bon Appetit magazine

 

3 tbs olive oil, divided

 

7 cups water

 

1 15 oz can chicken stock

 

2 – 3 pounds lamb shanks (go with the full amount if you love lamb more than anything you can think of)

 

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

 

1 carrot, chopped

 

1 onion, chopped

 

1 celery stalk, chopped

 

1 dried bay leaf or two fresh bay leaves

 

1 small onion, sliced

 

¾ cup orzo

 

1 large head of spinach, chopped

 

freshly grated parmesano reggiano

 

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large saucepot.  Sauté garlic, carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf until veggies start to soften.  Add lamb shanks and brown them on all sides.  Add water and stock to the pot.  Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer.  Simmer until the lamb is tender about 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Transfer lamb to a plate and cool slightly.  Remove the meat from the bone and cut into ½” pieces.  Strain the cooking liquid and reserve.

 

In the same pot, heat the remaining 2 tbsp oil over medium heat.  Add the sliced onion and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes.  Add the reserved cooking liquid, the lamb meat and the orzo.  Cook soup over medium heat for 20 minutes until the orzo is al dente.  Add the chopped spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.  Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.  Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

   

Spaghetti with Shrimp, Tomatoes, and Mint

This meal has become a standby this summer.  I have an herb pot on my patio that is full of perennial herbs.  I grow two kinds of mint, oregano, parsley, chives and rosemary.  This pot has gone to sleep each winter and come back to provide me with wonderful herbs each spring for the last decade.  The mint grows better than anything else and it is the herb I have the least use for.  I saw this recipe while looking through “Italy al dente” by Biba Caggiano this summer and I knew it would be a good use for my abundance of mint. 

 

The recipe is actually supposed to be a squid recipe.  Although I am not exactly a Locavore, I do try to be aware of where my food comes from and I try to buy local when I can.  Well, it turns out the squid I always assumed my little gourmet market sold was local, was actually defrosted from a big frozen block that is shipped in from China.  This kind of pissed me off.  The Santa Barbara channel, from what I hear has abundant squid, which we fish, and export all over the world!  So china ships us squid and we are probably shipping squid to China.  Makes a ton of sense.  I am able to sometimes get shrimp at the Farmer’s market, which makes it very local.  If not, the shrimp comes from Mexico at the market so it ends up being a shorter trip from producer to me if I go with shrimp instead of Chinese squid.  Besides, the shrimp tastes like it was made for this dish.  It is simply scrumptious.

 

If you decide to make this pasta, be sure to use good quality canned plum tomatoes.  The original recipe asks you to run the tomatoes with their juice through a food mill.  I just break them up with a spoon.  Any mint should do, but spearmint would be ideal.

Spaghetti with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Mint

Adapted from the spaghetti con Calimari, Pomodori e Menta recipe in Italy al Dente by Biba Caggiano

 

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

 

2 large cloves garlic, minced

 

1 small onion, chopped

 

2 to 3 anchovy fillets (packed in olive oil), chopped

 

Red pepper flakes to taste

 

1 28oz can plum tomatoes with juice

 

Salt to taste

 

1 lb. Shrimp, peeled and deveined

 

8 to 10 fresh mint leaves, chopped

 

¼ cup fresh parsley, minced

 

1 lb spaghetti or linguine

 

optional:  garnish with either grated or shaved parmagiano reggiano

 

Put water on to boil.  Add a couple of teaspoons of salt when the water comes to a boil.  Start cooking the pasta right about the time you are cooking the onions…

 

Heat the oil in a large skillet (you want a pan big enough to fit the sauce and the pasta).  Add Garlic and sauté for a minute.  Add onion, anchovies, and chili flakes.  Cook, stirring, until the onion is golden, 4-5 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and season with salt.  Break up the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon.  Cook the tomatoes uncovered, stirring occasionally for 4 to 5 minutes.  Add the shrimp, mint and parsley.   Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 4 to 5 minutes until the shrimp are just cooked through.  The pasta should be done right about now. The pasta should be tender but firm to the bite.  Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce.  Toss the pasta over low heat until the pasta and sauce are combined.