Monday, May 25, 2009

Improvised Pastas

My favorite food in the whole world is a tomato. They are the one food I cannot live without. Show me a food better than the tomato. Fried corn and tomatoes, bacon and tomatoes: they play very well with others. However, in the summer I eat them like apples; they're perfect by themselves. Sure, they're nightshades, poison to some, very acidic, but I'll never turn my back on them.

I used to hate any tomato-based pasta dish I'd ever make from scratch. The sauce always tasted metallic. Lately, I've been having good luck with little sauces. I'm committed to the idea of making the perfect tomato sauce.

Here are two pasta dishes we've made in the last little while:

All great dishes start out with sauteing onions in olive oil, then adding some garlic and a pesto cube.

I made a big bunch of pesto last summer (minus cheese) and froze it in ice cube trays. I know they've passed their best by date, but I still use them. I have a bag of basil pesto cubes and a bag of arugula pesto cubes. Please try arugula pesto. You're doing yourself a great disservice if you do not.

After the onions soften, then you add whatever other veggies you want (The first dish had spinach, peppers, and chopped canned artichokes), turn the heat up really high so that you get a nice char on everything, then pour in some white wine (In this case, Old Fort White Something-Another from Beans Creek Winery--Spring Break trip with Bethany and Mark 2009!) to deglaze the pan, scrapping up the brown bits. Next, I added a 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes. I boiled up some whole wheat spaghetti and mixed the two together in a big bowl given to me by my sweet sister-in-law as a wedding present. This was very simple and clean tasting...but I wanted more tomato, something more akin to soup than salsa to cover my noodles.

The second dish was a meat sauce made leisurely last Sunday night. I started out by putting 1 lb. of lean ground sirloin and a pesto cube (maybe a tidbit of butter, but who's keeping track?) into my big ol' cast iron dutch oven. I chopped some onions and peppers and added those guys in (don't let 'em get too soft).

A note about the red bell pepper: I simply cannot do without red bell peppers. I hate how expensive they can be, but they are simple pleasures I've found that I cannot live without. Frozen peppers will do at times, but some times I need them crunchy and delectable in their fresh state. I rationalize that I do not spend money on fancy shoes or that pesky (not to mention bland) Banana Republic anymore, so why not?

I added some red pepper flakes, some homemade chili powder, oregano, probably a myriad of other spices I can't remember, and some s & p and let that go for a while. I added some chopped canned artichoke hearts and three cans of tomatoes to get my fix (1 28 oz. can of sauce, 1 28 oz. can of crushed, and 1 14.5 oz. can of fire roasted diced)! I let that come up to a simmer and added a pinch of sugar. The sugar cannot be avoided, mind you (not entirely true--you might be able to figure something out with agave syrup or your favorite sugar substitute). The sweetness from the sugar balances the acidity of the tomatoes. I then added 2 bay leaves and a parm rind from the freezer and let it simmer away for as long as we could wait: about 45 minutes, I'm guessing.

In the meantime, I boiled the pasta water, salted it well (always add more salt than you think is sufficient) and added a box of rigatoni. In a separate pan, I sauteed some cremini mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until all the butter was absorbed. I deglazed the pan with some leftover marsala wine we had for some incredible chicken marsala you'll hear about some day. These mushrooms were incredible. I'd intended to fold them into the sauce, but I didn't want their flavor to get lost in with everything else. So, I poured the mixture into the bottom of my baking dish. When the noodles were done, I poured them in a big bowl and added enough sauce to cover them well. I poured this on top of the layer of mushrooms and topped it with pecorino romano cheese, parm, and skim mozz. I baked it at 450 for 10 minutes and yeah, it was the best so far.

A few interesting bits of info re: at-home pasta goodness:
1. You don't have to spring for the expensive tomatoes. My darling Lynne prefers Hunt's.
2. Trader Joe's never ceases to amaze me. They're dried pasta has proven to be better than many of the more expensive products that get me with the flashy packaging. See this article. Thanks for the info Claudia/Lesley.

Also, I'm in the midst of a culinary love affair with Ina Garten! I once counted her a nemesis with her condescending descriptors of "good olive oil," etc. Now I know what it's all about: more details to come, maybe.

Please stop, Ina. That's tacky. I'm a married woman.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Steak & Peanut Butter

My mentor teacher was so excited when she saw my lunch the other day. She exclaimed, "Oh, that looks and smells so good. Is it pot roast?" No, I tell her, it's steak and peanut butter. I realize that sounds kinda gross and she immediately becomes uninterested. I didn't mean it that way, but it's true. It is steak and peanut butter and it's pretty good.

With my teaching responsibilities dying down, I've come back to recipe reading. I couldn't be more pleased because for a while I thought I might never be inspired by cooking again.

I do think it was a good experience to learn how to cook like "real people" with simple no-nonsense recipes for chicken breasts and a requisite rice cooker (I love this appliance...a wedding gift from Sandy Sprankles--my favorite name ever. It automatically shifts itself to warm once the rice is cooked. You don't have to watch it or time it).

I found this recipe in an old issue of Everyday Food.

Skirt Steak & Bok Choy Stir-Fry

2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
2 garlic cloves, minced
coarse salt and ground pepper
1 pound skirt steak, thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 large head bok choy, cut 1 inch thick crosswise
4 medium carrots, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced on bias
cooked rice, for serving (We had brown rice seasoned with Asian garlic and chili paste)
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped

1. In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, vinegar, peanut butter, honey, and garlic; season with pepper.
2. In a bowl, toss steak with cornstarch; season with salt and pepper. In a large nonstick skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium-high. Add 1/2 of steak; cook, tossing, until browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate; repeat with remaining steak.
3. To skillet, add soy mixture, bok choy, and carrots. Cover and cook, tossing occasionally until tender, about 5 minutes. Return steak to skillet; cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve over rice; sprinkle with peanuts.

I loooooove bok choy. The spines are very celery-like in texture, but without the acrid taste of actual celery. I kind of freaked out when I realized the stir-fry to sauce ratio and doubled the sauce. I do not think this was a wise decision. It was still really good, but I think the flavors would have been more subtle and less peanut butter and steak if I'd had some patience and taken into account that the bok choy would obviously wilt down.

This reaction came from my experience with recipes from the Everyday Food magazine. I absolutely adore this publication, but it's mostly for the stylistic elements of it. The photography charms the pants off me, but the recipes are very simple and sometimes I wonder why they take up space with the repeated information (I've been a subscriber for a little too long, but you let an issue show up late and I'm calling their customer service department immediately).

Sometimes simplicity is best, but I adhere to the advice of Bobby Flay (I can't believe I'm invoking his name; I can't stand to see or hear him. I will not tell you what I think he looks like.): cook it less and season it more.

We also had some lovely Asian Cabbage Slaw (also from Everyday Food):

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 milliliters rice vinegar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 small head shredded Savoy or green cabbage (I used green)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
4 scallions, cut into matchsticks
1 grated carrot
1/2 fresh jalapeno, minced

In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, and 2 teaspoons sugar; season with salt and whisk. To dressing, add 1/2 small head shredded Savoy or green cabbage, 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, 4 scallions, cut into matchsticks, 1 grated carrot, and 1/2 fresh jalapeno, minced, and toss to combine.

This was delectable...and only gets better with age. I adore raw cabbage. Pickled foods like this are good for digestion. The macros have a dish like this with every meal.

Summertime...and the livin' is easy

Here are the cupcakes I made for my last day of student teaching. These were exclusive cupcakes made for my mentor teacher and other folks at the school who kept me alive (mainly the school librarian--she was indispensable). Now I'm on to a full-on job search and packing. We will soon be leaving South Nashville for our new digs in the East (fingers crossed tightly).

The cupcakes are a version of my very favorite cake recipe from Anne Byrn. I've made this cake so many times for so many people. It's super easy and a real treat. I generally don't care for desserts, but this cake is an exception.

Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

Cake ingredients:
1 package (18.25 oz) plain white cake mix (do not get super moist varieties)
1 package (3 oz.) strawberry gelatin (this makes the cake non-vegetarian friendly)
1 c. mashed fresh strawberries with juice
1 c. veg oil
1/2 c. whole milk
4 large eggs
1 c. sweetened coconut
1/2 c. chopped pecans

Frosting ingredients:
1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, at room temp
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temp
3.5 c. confectioners' sugar
3/4 c. mashed and drained strawberries
1/2 c. coconut
1/2 c. chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray your pans with Pam.
2. Mix cake mix, strawberry gelatin, strawberries, oil, milk, and eggs for a couple of minutes until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl every once in a while.
3. Add coconut and pecans.
4. Pour into cake pans (3 9-inch round pans)
5. Bake 28-30 minutes until a toothpick, when inserted into the cake, comes out clean.

Make frosting:
1. Cream the butter and cream cheese.
2. Slowly add confectioners sugar until it's all combined.
3. Fold in pecans and coconut.

There you ever strawberry cake. Blue Ribbon worthy.