Friday, June 22, 2018

Ini-Ini Soup

I want to start this post by apologizing to any commenters who didn't have their comments published in a timely manner (especially you, Katie and Tina).  For some reason Blogger stopped emailing me when comments were awaiting approval.  I have to remember to go to my dashboard and click on the "comments awaiting moderation" link.  I often forget.  I get so few commenters that I tend to assume no one has commented (so anyone reading this blog, please leave me a comment now and then so I know you still love me).  I will do my best to check more often and not leaving your lovely comments hanging out there.

Anyway, let's get on to the real topic of the post.

Regular readers know my favorite holiday to host is Christmas.  I love cooking a huge elaborate meal that is unconstrained by tradition.  I have loved all the Christmas dinners I have cooked, but I think if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the most recent one.

When I remember the food I think of the chocolate ricotta cake that I almost didn't make, the cookies that were a throwback to my childhood, and of course, the porchetta with it's delicious shards of crispy skin and the lemony arugula gremolata spread over its surface.

In the midst of the sweets and the meats, it's hard to remember the unsung hero of that dinner. I don't know if everyone remembers the soup course, but I remember it well.  I spent hours simmering the homemade stock. Then I found scrumptious tortellini to float in it. The soup was the simplest item on the menu, but it was perfect in its simplicity.  With the right pasta, the flavorful stock was all I needed to complement them.  It was equivalent to serving pasta in a well-made sauce.

I was in the mood for tortellini this week and I decided I wanted to serve them in a soup again.  I had simmered some stock last week and I was ready to use it.  I could make another round of tortellini in brodo, but I wanted to make a soup that would be a full meal and not just an appetizer.  Now that summer is approaching, the farmers' markets are filling up with the best fresh produce.  I wanted to experiment with a vegetable-based soup (but not tomato because I make a lot of tomato soup).

I decided to try making a zucchini soup.  I was thinking of a soup that was a little rich, but still fresh tasting, and wouldn't compete too much with the tortellini.  Zucchini-tortelini soup?  That's a lot of "inis".  It set up a cute name for it.

Okay, maybe the name is hokier than it is cute, but at least I didn't fall back on my pun habit and call it Ini Meeny Miney Moe Soup (although I kind of just did that, didn't I?).

I sauteed zucchini slices from two zucchini and cooked until they were soft.  Then I added some garlic.  I simmered this in my homemade chicken stock with mint, parsley, and lemon juice.

I made this into a blended soup.  Once it was well blended, I finished it with a touch of cream.

I cooked the tortellini separately and added them to the pot.

You can substitute veggie stock if you want to make this vegetarian.  I also think some pecorino would be good in it.

The recipe needed some improvements.  I used too much lemon, so I cut the amount of lemon in the recipe below (a half instead of a whole).  The color was a bit drab, so another zucchini (zucchino?) or two wouldn't hurt.  Some pecorino would also have been nice in here to play against the mint.  (If you haven't tried mint and pecorino together, please go find a way to do that).

Ini-Ini Soup (Cream of Zucchini Soup with Tortellini)


  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2-4 medium zucchini, sliced
  • About 2 cloves of garlic (depending on size and how much you like garlic), minced
  • 1 quart chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 1 Tbl chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tbl chopped fresh mint
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 9 oz. package cheese tortellini

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan.  Add the sliced zucchini and cook until soft.  It's okay if they take on a little color.

Add the garlic and cook another minute until fragrant.

Add the stock, lemon juice, parsley, and mint to the pot.  Simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile,  cook the tortellini in a separate pot in 4-6 quarts of boiling water.  Remove from heat and drain a couple of minutes short of cooking time directed on the package.

Transfer the soup to a blender or food processor or use an immersion blender and blend until smooth. Stir in the cream.

Stir the drained tortellini into the soup and serve.

Monday, June 18, 2018

I Thought I Would Try Jumping on this Bandwagon

I am not a cereal fanatic.

Some people love cereal.  They want nothing else for breakfast.  They even like it as a dessert or a snack.

I'm not one of those people.

It wasn't always that way.  As a kid I loved sugary cold cereals (Cocoa Pebbles were my favorite), but as an adult, I started to believe my mother when she said they might not be good for me.  It took a few years of eating non-sugary cereal  for breakfast every day to help me realize cereal is no treat.  Not only do the healthful cereals not taste as good, they also are monumentally unsatisfying.  If I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, I would be starving an hour later.  That's no way to start the day.

The latest food craze now is "Cereal Milk", popularized by Christina Tosi of the Milk Bar.  The concept comes from the belief that the milk at the bottom of your bowl is the best part of the cereal.  I have now seen this idea repeated in food blogs everywhere.  Cereal milk is now a flavor for ice cream and cake frosting and pie custards.

Is the milk at the bottom of the bowl the best part?  My memories from my cereal-eating days wouldn't agree.  I suppose as a very small child eating chocolate cereal I liked the chocolate milk at the bottom of the bowl.  Otherwise, it was just the nasty puddle I had to clean up off the breakfast dishes.  In fact, I rarely ever drank the milk at the bottom of the bowl because for years I had a greedy cat who would perch on the kitchen table next to my bowl and immediately stick his head in the milk as soon as I put my spoon down (spoiled kitty).

Despite my misgivings about how gross cereal milk is, I had to admit part of me sees the appeal.  Why not have a dessert that is subtly flavored with a sweet cereal without having to put the actual cereal in the dessert (the cereal itself would only get soggy)?

With my curiosity piqued and my sense of adventure activated, I decided to try it.  I invited my family over for Father's Day.  I wanted to create a dessert that my nephew would eat.  He doesn't like cake (hates frosting) or pudding or any other soft desserts.  In truth he doesn't like too many foods in general.  Among the few desserts I see him eat are cookies and ice cream.  I decided to bake giant chocolate chip cookies and make a super-sized ice cream sandwich with cereal milk ice cream.

Tosi uses Corn Flakes for her ice cream.  I wanted something sweeter.  I used Cap'n Crunch.  While I wouldn't replace a regular dessert with Cap'n Crunch, I have enjoyed it as an adult as an indulgent breakfast.  I thought it might make a fun ice cream flavor.

I decided to use a Philadelphia style ice cream with no custard base.  Part of my rationale for doing this is that ice creams without the enrichment of the eggs have more intense flavor.  I wanted the cereal to be the primary taste.  Also, it's much easier and faster to just throw the milk, cream, and flavoring into the ice cream machine than it is to cook a custard.  Ice creams without a custard base are perfect for lazy cooks.

I soaked the cereal in two and a half cups of milk.  I used more milk than the original recipe calls for because I knew I would lose some of it in the soaking process.  I let it soak overnight and then measured out two cups.

I mixed it in the blender with cream, vanilla, and some sugar and then churned it in my ice cream maker.

I used the classic Nestle Toll House pan cookie recipe.  Then I baked it in my cookie-shaped baking pans.

I spread the soft ice cream between the giant baked cookies and froze the whole thing.

Not bad.

What else did I serve?

I made a platter of deviled eggs in three flavors.  One was avocado, cumin, chili, and lime.  One was bacon and smoked paprika.  One was classic mustard and capers.

We had a simple salad of farm market lettuce dressed with good olive oil, white wine vinegar, and a touch of honey.

Main course was lamb shanks with classic risotto.

I have no photos.  I was enjoying the dinner so much, I forgot to take any. 

How did the ice cream taste?  It was really good.  The cereal came through nicely.  I would try this again and maybe even try a different cereal.  I could try peanut butter Cap'n Crunch instead.

Cap'n Crunch Cereal Milk Ice Cream


  • 3 cups Cap'n Crunch cereal
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Place the milk and the cereal in a large bowl and soak overnight. 

The next day, strain the cereal from the  milk.  Measure out the remaining milk to make 2 cups.

Mix milk with remaining ingredients in a blender.

Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Day at the ICE

Just because I like to cook, and friends and family tell me I'm good at it, doesn't mean I don't have room for improvement.  I believe we should always keep our skills sharp in any hobby we practice regularly.  We should always be learning and pushing our limits.

I have not had much in the way of professional cooking instruction.  Most of my cooking skills come from watching cooking shows (I give a lot of credit to The Frugal Gourmet who dominated the airwaves in my teen and college years) and reading cookbooks.  I have always believed that I should take classes and make sure I was putting out my best dishes.  I just never got off my butt and did so.

Two years ago my office had a holiday party at the Institute for Culinary Education.  I had wanted to take classes with them for years.   When I was in my twenties and trying to figure my life out, I considered going back to school and attending culinary school.  The ICE was my first choice.  Back in those days it was still called Peter Kump's New York Cooking School.  I subscribed to their mailing list and watched for local enrichment classes they offered here in the suburbs. It was one of those things I never got around to doing.

After doing the cooking party at work, I knew it was time to start seriously considering a class.  The ICE offers dozens of  recreational classes in a variety of disciplines on many days and times.  There was no excuse to not find one that suited me.  I asked for a gift certificate for Christmas, and Dad decided to give me one for a gift.

My schedule was so busy this year with theater  and travel that I didn't have time to do cooking classes until now.  This weekend I finally went to a class.  I selected Classic French Bistro Dishes.  I felt this class offered a wide variety of recipes and would help me improve on fundamental cooking techniques.

The ICE is in a beautiful building, a shopping mall really, near the World Trade Center.  It is a light and airy space with majestic water views.

 I arrived at my class and our teacher, Chef Peter, gave us a talk about what we would be preparing that day.  There were 8 dishes in total: Scallops in  cream sauce, Choucroute Garnie (a dish made of sauerkraut, bacon, salt pork, sausages, smoked pork chops, potatoes, and apples), pork chops braised in prunes, scalloped potatoes, raspberry tarts, and chocolate mousse. 

We were divided into three teams and each team was assigned certain dishes.  I wanted to try cooking them all.  I even wanted to try cooking the scallops because the preparation sounded so interesting and I can always use tips on cooking seafood for Kevin (even though I wouldn't be eating them).

I took my place at a station equipped with a cutting board, two knives, an apron, a towel, and a packet containing the recipes for the day.   We had a supply of measuring equipment, mise en place dishes, and other tools on the table as well.   My team was assigned the soup, the choucroute, and the chocolate mousse.

The chefs mostly left us to our own devices. They started out giving us advice when we began (such as the best way to cut the onions for the soup) but we were mostly on our own.   They were there is we had questions, and would interject advice for the whole class on certain important topics when we were at a certain stage of cooking, but otherwise the instruction was minimal.

We started with the soup.  We had to work with four pounds of onions and we were instructed to cook them for an hour and a half.  That left us plenty of time to work with the choucroute, which is a much more labor intensive dish.

This is where I hit a few snags.  First there was a woman on our team who is a regular at ICE recreational classes.  She said this was her 19th class.  It was useful having her on the team because she is familiar with the kitchens and knows where to find the food and equipment.  The downside was that she tended to take over everything.  She wanted to do everything, or at least do the delegation of who should do what.  I felt like she wanted to be head chef and make us her assistants.  I wondered if could have done more if she hadn't been on my team.

The next snag was my own fault.  As we began the choucroute, I volunteered to prep the salt pork.  I had to cut off the skin and then blanch the meat.  The small knife had disappeared from my station, so I attempted to use the chef's knife to remove the skin.  It was awkward and the knife ended up slipping and cutting me.  The cut was fairly superficial, but it bled like crazy . I lost about ten minutes of kitchen time getting my cut bandaged and covered with a glove.  The team had gone on without me by the time I returned.  I still managed to finish cutting the skin off the pork and blanching it.  I spent a lot of time stirring the onions too.  Then I chopped up the slab bacon (even though my self-appointed team leader said I was not to be trusted with a knife anymore).  I never touched anything to do with the charcuterie dish after that and my teammates did all the work on it.

Once we had the onions caramelized and the choucroute simmering away, we decided to get started on the chocolate mousse.  Self-appointed leader said she wasn't a big dessert person, so no one had an issue with me starting on that.  Since I'm often the one doing desserts at home, I had mixed feelings about ending up with desserts in the class.  I wanted to improve cooking skills this day.  Desserts would be another class.  Still I wanted to get something out of this class, so I began chopping up the chocolate.  (I was glad they were cool with me having a knife again, but they should have known I shouldn't be trusted with chocolate.  It was delicious chocolate.)  Chef Peter told us to make two batches, so I worked in tandem with another teammate to melt the chocolate and make the sabayon.  I had another teammate who was happy to take on the simple task of making the whipped cream.

Once the mousse was done, most teams were ready to start serving.  Our team took a minute to pose for a selfie and pat ourselves on the back.

The choucroute plate was the most impressive one on the table.  It was one of the most delicious pork dishes I have ever tasted.  If I could choose how I die, I think clogged arteries from eating this dish would be high on the list.

The onion soup was also interesting.  We served it without bread and cheese.  After tasting it, I didn't care.  There was so much flavor in the soup that bread and cheese would have masked it.  Besides, our dishes were so rich, we didn't need more cheese. 

We laid out the buffet and started serving ourselves.  I'm glad it was a buffet since I could ignore the scallops.

The class did a great job.  Everything we ate (well, I can't comment on the scallops) was delicious.  The standout was the charcuterie dish. It was so rich.  I never tasted anything like it.  I would love to make it myself some time, but I don't know if many of my family members would eat it.  Maybe if I'm ever invited to a potluck

Would I ever do this again?  I think I would.  I am still interested in a pie class, but unfortunately most pie related classes are taught on Sunday nights and I don't want to go into the city on a Sunday night.  I will keep checking the course list though.  I would also like to try a knife skills class or some other basis classics so I can keep my basic skills sharp.  An Italian cooking class would also be fun.

I just want to make sure if I ever see that woman again, I will take care not to be on her team.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Long Neglected Easter Celebration

Easter has been a neglected holiday in my family in recent years.  The problem is nobody is around to celebrate anymore.  My uncle and his wife moved to Florida.  My brother's in-laws moved to Florida and he and his family use spring break to visit them.  That doesn't leave too many people left to enjoy the kinds of dinners and I used to prepare or participate in.  For a brief time we used Easter as an excuse for a fancy brunch, but eventually just ended up going out to the diner for dinner.

I decided this year I needed to shake things up.  There are still 7 family members left in New York. Maybe they would like to get together.  Kevin and I have been so busy with our theater activities that we don't have much time for family.  On top of that, my stepmother lost her mother (a wonderful woman whom we all miss terribly) back in February.  Kevin and I also have had no time to celebrate my stepmother's birthday in March.  The family was in need of a gathering and a celebration.

I didn't create any original recipes, but this post will give credit to the recipes and services I did use.

Since nearly half the family in attendance are Jewish, I jokingly called this "Eastover".  Years ago Kevin and I considered doing a Sedar for our Jewish friends and family.  The idea was too impractical though.  There is no way I could do a truly kosher meal.  I have no dishes that haven't had meat and dairy touch them.  That would be easy to get around with paper.  However, my cooking pots have all been vessels for meats (including pork) and dairy.

I understand devout Jews don't like this sort of holiday combination.  The Nicene Council of 325CE decreed that Jews were guilty of the sin of killing Christ and therefore the Passover meal should have no connections to Easter.  Of course more enlightened Christians believe the synoptic Gospels indicate the Last Supper was a Sedar and Passover should be part of Easter as an acknowledgment of Jesus's Jewish faith, so from that point of view, it seems fairly harmless to combine them. No one is my family is that devout.  My combination holiday is all a matter of convenience.  Being with family and sharing a meal is more important that the religious symbolism behind it.

With so few people, most of whom don't have big appetite, I kept the meal small and simple.  I didn't even make the Easter Pie.

I started with matzah ball soup.  I simmered some homemade stock on Friday night and then used my previous matzah ball recipe.  I made one change with this that isn't part of my standard soup.  I used leeks instead of celery and onions.  Leeks are a nod to the spring season and they gave the soup a subtle new flavor profile.

Dinner was traditional.  I bought a delicious ham from Heritage Foods.  You may remember I bought a ham from them for Christmas two years ago.  They kept me on my toes that year with the late delivery.  Despite the somewhat unreliable delivery and the high price tag, the ham is the best I ever ate.  It's worth the cost and the headache now and then.

Side dishes were roasted asparagus dressed with a bit of balsamic vinegar and cheese grits.  If you are a long time follower of TERP, you know the grits are a time-honored holiday tradition in my family even though I'm not sure why.  To save myself some trouble, I had Mom make the grits.  (I believe she uses this classic recipe you can find on the side of the can.)  She also brought Easter bread from one of the local bakeries.  For a moment that almost felt a bit like Passover since Easter bread is a lot of challah. Then I realized challah would be forbidden on Passover.

Dessert was a homemade vanilla cake with raspberry white chocolate buttercream frosting.  Since time was at a premium this weekend, I stuck with simple recipes and didn't try to invent any wacky new desserts.  Normally I like my frostings to not be straight butter (I generally use Swiss or Italian buttercreams fortified with egg whites) but I appreciate the simplicity of plain, American, buttercream when I'm in a rush.


 One of the guests bought a fruit tart.  I purchased some macarons from the farmers' market as well.  I served the former ringed by the latter.

Cocktails were proseco with pomegranate juice - one of my favorites.
It wasn't fancy, but it was a fun family holiday and I think I may do it again next year.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Literary Inspriations: Under a Scarlet Sky

It's a busy season here in the Disordered Kitchen.  Once again SPP and I are back in the theater, working on a spring production of Mame.  Mostly we are doing our best to make what is turning out to be a disastrous rehearsal schedule not kill us.  Weather, cast member absences, and power outages have caused more rehearsals to be canceled than completed. When we do end up rehearsing, it's a mess due to cast absences creating a constant shift of blocking.  The closer we get to performance time, the more the push feels stressful.

Even with my busy schedule, I do my best to find time to read.  I read on the train as I travel to and from work.  I read for a few minutes before I go to bed.  I read in the park at lunch time weather permitting.  Reading is to my soul what eating and breathing are to my body.  I need it.  It is a form of self-care for me.

Despite these stressful times, I am also determined to cook my meals.  It would be easy to rely on takeout when I'm in rehearsal almost every night, but that's both expensive and unhealthful.  Cooking is a part of my physical self care.  

My slow cooker is becoming my best friend.  Lately I have been using my Instant Pot more on slow cooker mode than as a pressure cooker.  I had hoped the pressure cooker would reduce my cooking times on busy nights, but I find it falls short of those expectations.  The time it takes for the pot to come up to pressure and then depressurize adds far too long of a wait to the seemingly shorter amount of time it takes for the food to actually cook.  When I have rehearsal, I put that sucker on slow cook mode. Dinner is ready when I come home.

I wasn't expecting to find a literary inspiration for my slow cooker, but my most recent read gave me some ideas.  I read Under A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan.  It is based on the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian boy during World War II who at 17 was escorting Jews through the Alps to help them escape to Switzerland and then joined the army at 18 and used his connections as a driver to a prominent Nazi general to spy for the resistance. 

I did not expect to find inspiration for slow-cooker-friendly foods in a book about Italy in World War II, but I had a few surprises.  Like many of the books I have read recently, there were few specific dishes mentioned in the story.  At one point Pino stays in a monastery where the brother who does the cooking is an excellent cook.  Specific dishes were rarely mentioned other than a chicken stew and fresh bread.  Pino's love interest often cooks for him, but the dishes she makes seem basic (although extravagant for wartime).

When I read That Month in Tuscany, I used the region to inspire me.  Under a Scarlet Sky takes place in Milan and the surrounding region (the Alps and the lakes).  Food in this area tends to be heavier than the food of Tuscany and also a bit more cosmopolitan.  Milan is a major business and cultural center.  It is closer to the norther borders of Austria and Switzerland and takes on some of those food influences.  Rice and polenta often replace pasta in this region.  Veal "milanese" seems to be an Italian take on Austrian weinerschnitzel.  Stewed dishes like osso bucco (slow-cooked veal shank) are common here.  To the south of Lombary is Emilia-Romagna, home of Bologna and it's famous ragu`.

Slow cooked dishes like pasta bolognese or osso bucco are perfect for the slow cooker, although they aren't always well received at my house. The tough cuts of meat do best with this kind of cooking, but this doesn't make Sir Pickypants too happy.  I give him credit for being far less picky than he used to be. He tries new flavors and recipes more often.  He also doesn't complain about an upset stomach every time there is even a slight suspicion that one of his formerly forbidden foods touched his plate

That doesn't mean he takes much pleasure in eating some of them.  He may eat a hamburger and even a piece of beef tenderloin at a steakhouse, but he freaks out at the sight of bones, fat, and connective tissue.  When I cook one of these cuts, I have to make sure I cook it well enough to dissolve as much of these offending bits as possible and carefully excise anything that might possibly remain after cooking. I do what I can to make it palatable and cook a lot of side dishes.  He eats it.  His only other choices are to cook himself or order takeout.  He doesn't want to do the former and he is too kind to offend me by doing the latter.  He may be picky, but he's a good man.  Even if he doesn't like the food, he's going to eat it to make me happy.   He appreciates the effort even when he complains.

So I love pork and he doesn't.  (He's Jewish, so he has an excuse for that one.)  Unfortunately pork is a great meat for the slow cooker.  I recently tried cooking some thick pastured pork chops in red wine (inspired, but not exactly copied from Thyme for Cooking), carefully removing as much fat as possible before cooking, and slicing the cooked meat off the bones before serving.  I wanted to work with an even more slow-cooker-friendly pork.  The obvious cut for the slow cooker is pork shoulder, but a typical shoulder or butt roast is about 5 pounds.  That's way more meat than I need for just two people.  Leaner cuts can dry out in the slow cooker (loins and tenderloins do well in pressure cook mode though if you have time). I decided to try using hocks.

I cooked hocks once before and they were delicious.  I decided in honor of the cuisine of northern Italy I would cook them in a ragu`and served it over polentaI took my inspiration from two of my previous recipes.  The first was my recipe for lamb shanks.  The second was my pork shoulder  ragu` which I also served over polenta. Once the hocks were cooked, I blended the vegetables into a sauce and removed the fat , and pulled the meat from the bones and chopped it up.  This made a uniform sauce wihtout too many scary parts in the meat and without the chunks of mushy vegetables I hate.  I cooked the hocks for eight hours, but in the future I might let them cook an hour or two more.  I wanted them to be shredded, but they didn't pull apart so easily.  I had to use a knife.  

My camera battery was dead and I didn't have time to take a good photo with the light box and it was too late for natural light.  You get a photo taken on the stove top with the phone. 

Although the meat could have cooked a bit longer, the dish was delicious.  The fennel gave it an unexpected unique flavor.  This would also be good on pasta.

Instant Pot Slow Cooker Pork Hock Ragu`

  • 2 fresh pork hocks
  • 1 Tbl olive oil 
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • 2-4 carrots, finely diced (Quantity depends on size of carrots.  Mine were small.)
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup strong red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
Put your Instant pot in saute mode and brown the hocks on all sides for several minutes.  Add the oil to the pot and soften the onions. Add the fennel seeds and stir into the onions until fragrant.  Add the fennel and carrots and cook until fennel is soft.

Mix together the wine and tomatoes.  Place the hocks on top of the vegetables and cover with the tomato-wine mixture.  Add the bay leaves.  Put lid on the pot and cook on slow cook mode for 8-10 hours.

At the end of the cooking, pull the hocks from the pot and set aside.  Remove the bay leaves and discard.   Optional Step: Blend the sauce to a smooth consistency with a stick blender or blend it in batches in a food processor.  Chop or shred the meat and return it to the sauce.

Serve with pasta or polenta.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

In Squash We Trust

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm not a fan of squash.  I don't hate it the way I hate peas or olives.  It's not inedible, but it's not something I enjoy.  I have written extensively about how much I hate pumpkin.  I'm also not a fan of the well-loved butternut squash.  The same goes for acorn or pattypan or most hard-shell squashes.  Their taste is nothing special and I can't stand the texture.

Are any squashes edible to me?  I can name two.  The first is zucchini.  The taste is mild and the texture is more vegetal than mealy. I have also found that I like spaghetti squash.  Both varieties have mild enough flavors that can be covered with the right sauces.

Squash with sauce was quite important in the past six weeks because I was participating in the Whole Life Challenge.  You can read more about it in the link for the specific rules, but there is one thing I had to do for six weeks.  I had to cut out pasta and noodles of all kinds.  If I wanted pasta that badly I either had to lose points, or find a substitute.  The most common replacement for pasta on a grain-free diets are the two most tolerable members of the squash family. I hoped I could use them to make me miss pasta less.

For much of the challenge I didn't crave pasta, but last week I had a craving for sesame or peanut noodles.  I was thinking of pad thai or the sesame noodles you get at Chinese restaurants as an appetizer (that are usually mostly peanut butter).  I decided to try making something similar out of spaghetti squash.

My dilemma was whether or not I wanted the noodles to be peanut or sesame.  Peanut butter can be heavy and gloppy and sesame paste can be bitter.  I decided to use a mix of both sesame oil and natural peanut butter.  I balanced that with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and lime juice.  In the end it was probably a tad too acidic, but not bad.  I would probably go with only one type of acid the next time.

I learned a trick online.  If you put a spaghetti squash in the microwave for a few minutes, you can cut it in half more easily for roasting.

Spaghetti Squash in Sesame Peanut Sauce

  • 1 spaghetti squash
  • 2 Tbl sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup natural peanut butter
  • 2 Tbl soy sauce*
  • 2 Tbl rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 Tbl coconut sugar**
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • Sesame seeds for garnish
  • Scallions for garnish
Gently score score a slit around the squash with a sharp knife along the lines where you want to cut it.  Prick it all over with a fork.  Place it in the microwave and cook on high for 6 minutes.  Remove and let cool for a minute or two.  Carefully cut it in half, lightly coat it with oil. and place on a cookie sheet.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Scoop out the pulp of the squash.  Cook for 45 minutes.  Cool until it's cool enough to handle and use a fork to scoop out the strands.  Set aside.

Mix together the peanut butter, sesame oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt, sugar, and ginger.  Toss with the squash.  Garnish with scallions and sesame seeds.

*  You can also use fish sauce.  I find the fishiness in fish sauce is too pronounced in cold dishes, so I don't use it.
**You can also use brown sugar or palm sugar


Another popular substitute for pasta is "zoodles" or noodles cut from zucchini.  This has become so popular, you can now buy special tools just to turn your vegetables into spaghetti.  I admitted I cheated and bought pre-spiralized zoodles in the produce section for my next recipe.  I don't think I will use a spriralizer enough to justify purchasing one.

One of my favorite pasta sauce in the world is pesto.  As I have said many times before, it just tastes like summer to me.  The Whole Life Challenge doesn't just forbid pasta and flour-based products.  It also forbids dairy.  That means my pesto can't contain parmesan.  I decided to take on the challenge of pesto pasta that was compliant with the challenge and still tasted somewhat authentic.

Vegans and paleo dairy avoiders often use cashews as a substitute for cream or cheese.  I decided to let them stand it for the cheese and the pine nuts in my  sauce.  Vegans use yeast to get a more cheese-like flavor, but I just used vinegar for the acidity.

This didn't taste like a summer pesto, but it made a flavorful side dish.

Zoodles in Dairy Free Pesto

  • 2 cups spiralized zucchini "noodles"
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup basil leaves
At least an hour in advance, soak the cashews in water.

When you are ready to make the sauce, drain the nuts and reserve 1/4 cup of the water

Place the water, cashews, basil, garlic, salt, and vinegar in a food processor.  Blend until you have a creamy green mixture.

Cook the zoodles in boiling water for two minutes.  Drain and serve with the sauce.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Literary Inspirations: The Address

For this post I made my most ambitious recipe yet.

A common literary trope today is the story of two or more women (and occasionally men) from different time periods who are somehow linked together through a particular location.  Usually the character from the present finds some kind of artifact from the past and decides to look for clues as to what it's all about.  The story then shifts to the past where the reader learns the story of what happened.  Usually the character from the present needs to deal with the mess of her current life and finding out these clues gives her focus and purpose.

The Address by Fiona Davis fits this formula nicely. The story takes place in one of New York's most famous residences, The Dakota.  The story shifts between a young English girl who leaves her job as a hotel maid to help manage the newly-built Dakota building, and an interior designer in the 1980s who is a recovering alcoholic trying to salvage her life and career by taking a commission to redecorate a friend's Dakota apartment.

I was hoping the book might provide some descriptions of fine dining in NYC in the 1880s (or even the 1980s), but like every other book I have read in 2018, it failed to bring me any direct inspiration.  I imagined chapters that would feature dinner parties at the Dakota or meals eaten at Delmonico's.  To my dismay, this book decided not to put any focus on what the characters were eating.  I have learned some authors don't think food is important.  What is wrong with them?

I decided to do some research once again and see what was commonly on fine dining menus from 1884-1886 (the years the historical parts of the book took place).  I found the New York Public Library has an archive of menus from clubs, restaurants, and private parties from almost every era.  I looked for common elements throughout the different menus offered.

The food on the menus was rarely anything interesting or unique.  The most most frequent dishes were roast meats and fish along with vegetable accompaniments, all made to sound fancier by writing them in French.  I had to run some of the options through a translator.  I often found once I was beyond the French name, I was looking at an ordinary dish.  I'm sure many of these fine cuts of meat were considered fancy enough as they were.  The average American most likely couldn't afford the kinds of cuts of meat offered in high-end restaurants. There were also more adventurous cuts that tend to be overlooked by Americans today such as rabbit, offal, and  terrapin.  At first I thought I would not have to work very hard to create the kind of meal the characters in The Address might have eaten at a dinner party.  I could cook a leg of lamb and a side of peas and call it a day.*

After reading way too many menus, I began to notice that timbale was a popular method for presenting food.  I saw meat themed timbales (or should I say timbali?) and vegetable timbales, but the one that caught my eye was one called Timbale Ris Milanese.  Ris Milanese?  Would that be like risotto milanese, the arborio rice dish flavored with saffron?   What if I made a molded risotto and filled it with a delicious meat filling?  How about a duck ragu`?  Duck, including duck timbale, was featured regularly on the retro menus.

My usual brain mushing ensued as I came up with how I would do this.  I made a basic risotto, but without the onions (for the sake of texture).  I flavored it with wine and saffron.  I mixed it with eggs and parmesan, molded it into a springform pan, and filled it with a duck ragu´

I made the ragu´ with store-bought duck leg confit (even though I had to bite the bullet and pay $12 per leg).  I started with slow-cooked some onions.  I layered that with mushrooms and garlic.   I add some Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste for a deeper, richer, and more intense flavor.  Finally I added brandy to give it a kick.  I simmered it all together and nestled it in with the rice.

I didn't want to waste the skin, so took the skin off and made cracklings in the microwave to sprinkle over the finished product and the greens beneath it.

I had a little bit of an issue getting the top and bottom out in one piece when I sliced it, but it didn't look too bad.

How did it taste?  The duck ragu` was delicious (although the brandy taste was a bit strong).   I want to use the recipe again.  Maybe the next time I make duck ragu` pasta, I will use this recipe instead of my previous one.  I think the rice coating made a nice presentation, but made the dish unnecessarily starchy and heavy.  It tasted fine, but it was a bit too filling.  I think Kevin might disagree.  He loves his starches and he loves risotto, and I think he probably would have eaten a cake made entirely of risotto.  (Maybe I should make the dish again as is and eat the duck myself and have him eat the rice?)

Risotto Timbale with Duck Confit Ragu`

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 2 Tbl butter
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 Tbl tomato paste
  • 2 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 duck confit legs,** skin removed and meat shredded
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Heat a large frying pan or saute` pan over medium heat and add the oil when hot.  Add the onions to the pan.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.  Watch them carefully.

Place the duck skin on a paper-towel-lined plate.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Try not to eat it all.

In a small saucepan, heat chicken stock. If it is low-sodium, add a pinch or three of salt to taste. Crush the saffron into the stock and keep it all warm on the stove, just at a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add the rice to the pot and stir to coat.  Cook 2-3 minutes or until you start to smell the rice toasting.  Add the white wine and stir until it is absorbed into the rice.

Keep watching and stirring those onions in other pan.  Turn down the heat if they brown too quickly.

Add a ladleful of hot stock to the rice.  Stir until absorbed.  Taste and adjust salt as needed. Continue to add stock and stir until absorbed until you have used all the stock.

Are you keeping an eye on those onions?

Once the risotto is done, spread it out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Increase the heat to medium and add the sliced mushrooms to the pan with the onions.  Cook until softened.  Add a little more olive oil and the garlic letting it cook until fragrant.  Stir in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce and make sure the onions and mushrooms are evenly coated.

Stir in the duck pieces until well combined with the onion-mushroom mixture.  Add the brandy and let it evaporate a bit.

The risotto should have cooled by now, so place it in a bowl and stir in the eggs and parmesan.

Pour the risotto into a buttered springform pan.  The rice should cover the bottom of the pan and go about halfway up the sides.  Place the duck in the middle of the pan.  Top with more rice so it is completely covered.

Bake for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool 10 minutes and unmold carefully.  Give it another 5 minutes before you cut it.

Serve over a bed of lightly dressed mixed greens and sprinkled with crumbled duck crackling (assuming you haven't eaten it all).

*And I would have eaten all the lamb and my husband would have eaten the peas and neither of us would have been satisfied.

**I might have liked a fourth leg, but duck confit is so expensive, I decided I could do with three to stay in budget.