Thursday, September 18, 2008

Spaghetti di Mezzanotte

Pardon the lapse (uh...if any of you care). Most of you know that I'm also involved in the Boston theater community and I've been working this past week on The T Plays being produced by Mill 6. It's been a lot of fun, although it has eaten (hah...get it?) into my cooking (and blogging) time.

Often, when I'm working on a show or performing in one, I wind up eating quite late after getting home. Not always due to hunger, but sometimes it's just the act of cooking something that I look forward to as a way to wind down. More often than not, these late night suppers are some sort of pasta. I'm sure my resident nutrition expert, Deana, would frown upon this as an eating practice, but - hey - pasta is fast, easy to make with on-hand kitchen staples, and can have the culinary appeal of a big, warm welcome-home hug and a goodnight kiss.

Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene, the mother/daughter team behind Sicilian Home Cooking write of the Sicilian tradition of Spaghetti di Mezzanotte, or Midnight Spaghetti. A small group of friends gathering together after a night on the town and throwing together a late pasta party.

So...I blame the Sicilians.

The most common midnight spaghetti, they write, is prepared with garlic, olive oil, and hot peppers. I have my own that I turn to frequently, knowing that the ingredients are always on hand and the preparation, well practiced by now, requires zero thought. Linguine in a quick sauce of sauteed garlic, onion with broken up canned tomatoes and a can (this is ease-of-use time!) of chopped clams. Spaghetti with olive oil, hot peppers, anchovy paste, capers and bread crumbs. There's a great stove-top mac and cheese recipe in the ever handy Quick From Scratch Pasta book by Food and Wine I picked up at some used bookstore, but - lest you take me for a food snob - I will, given a very late return home - pop open a box of the unnaturally Black Light Poster orange Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. (What we like to call the 'emergency rations'...)

Johanne Killeen and George Germon, owners and operators of the excellent Al Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island - and surely no strangers to coming home late, tired and hungry - have many quick easy pasta recipes in their book On Top of Spaghetti, including one named '4AM Spaghetti for One.' It consists simply of pasta tossed with olive oil that's been flavored with garlic, Espalette pepper or paprika, oregan, pepper and salt.

There is, of course, the late night pasta everyone has heard of - prepared for or by the queens of late nights - pasta putanesca. Yes "whore's pasta" (there...don't you feel dirty?) made up easily with pantry staples for that between-John or Giuseppe snack. Pasta in a sauce made up of tomatoes, anchovy fillets, olives, capers, garlic and hot peppers.

Basically, the goal is light - unless you can sleep late the next day...then, why not?...hit the cream sauce! And go with things you can have in your pantry: canned tomatoes, tuna, clams, olives, some ham or cheese from the refrigerator. Lemons and garlic are also essentials and you should try to always have some on hand. And if you have that window box of basil or parsley growing someplace indoors, the fresh herbs are always welcome.

It may be ill-advised to adopt this as a regular eating habit, although it has become one of mine. Allow me to point out that I do not weigh 300 pounds.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

True (CSA) Confessions


It happened.

Last night, the night before I was to go pick up our next CSA harvest, I had to throw some stuff away.

There were four or so tomatillos that I didn't use in the tomatillo salsa earlier in the week. And a SMALL bunch of tatsoi I hadn't gotten around to using in a salad or something before they got a bit skanky.

And one large-ish bunch of scarlet, beautiful beets.

In one giant, painful, Eff You to the pilgrims, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her ilk, all those who made do...lived off the land...used every scrap, not to mention the host of poor, starving Indian children my mother pled for when brother Ned refused to eat his peas - I picked them up and tossed them in the trash. Yes, the trash. So I suppose that's one more Eff to the capital U to my greener friends who will bemoan this sorry loss to their compost bins.

OK. I hate myself a little. I don't, as I've said, relish the idea of wasting food. But, hey, I maintain that I remain a bad and deeply flawed individual.

I didn't toss those beets, though.


Instead of making my (very European, mind you) daily jaunt to the market to pick up something for dinner, I vowed to make dinner with what we still had in and that would be...

"beets...lots of dill (now bagged in the freezer - thank you, Deana!)..."

Borscht! Or something very like it.

I've never had it. Never made it. But I knew I could make a really nice beet soup with what we still had in and serve it with a nice side salad. Sauteed some onions, carrots (from the CSA!), garlic, celery and added the peeled chopped up beets, then covered with some water and vegetable stock and seasoning and cooked that until soft. Pureed that in the blender and returned to the pot, then seasoned it and added a shot of apple cider vinegar and some of the aforementioned dill. Finished it with the beet greens which I'd washed and sliced thinly (in lieu of, what I believe is, the more traditional cabbage).

I think it made for a tasty and highly nutritious - and pretty! - soup.

Mrs. B (not the one who searched diligently for fashion deals at the now defunct Bradlees) and I sat down and enjoyed the salad (with cuke...from the CSA!) with parmesan vinaigrette. Then we moved on to the soup. Miss Kate took one spoonful and - in a stunning and uncharacteristically blunt moment of clarity - put down her spoon, slid the bowl of steaming red broth away from her and said:

"Never make that for me again."

Well...there's a first time for everything and - while I try to find ways to prepare even allegedly hated food products in a way someone might grow to like them - there was no getting this one by Miss Kate's lifelong dislike of the beet root. She's come to like them, as she stressed, in salads - particularly the lovely golden beets - but there was no getting around the fact that this dish was the oval office in the capitol of Beet Town, USA.

Props to her for trying it though, and - truth be told - I didn't have high hopes. I liked it, in the end. Eating her bowl after mine may have been overdoing it in the See, I Love This and Beets Don't Kill Department.

Thus ends our brief affair with borscht. Unless you, beet lovers everywhere, want to come over. We're keeping fingers crossed that Parker Farms doesn't show up with a bushel or two of beets, colorful delectable earthy BEETS, this week.

Stay golden, Beety Boy.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What I Did Last Summer...

I've been bad.

(Those of you who've known me since our younger days will not be surprised to learn that I am late turning in my papah!)

Originally meant to give a weekly update of the CSA harvest for those of you vicariously partaking. My fourth pickup was last night. So, backing up...

CSA - Week 2

2 lbs tomatoes
2 pts cherry tomatoes
1 bunch mustard greens
4 eggplant
3 green peppers
4 apples
10 ears corn
3 cucumbers
1 pound shell beans
1 bunch parsley

This was a bit of a lost week as we were away on vacation. Bequeathed the take to my mother-in-law, but some of it made its way with her down to me at the Cape. Felt a bit 'early' to be starting up with apple desserts, which always feel more 'right' come October - but I confess I won't just pick up an apple and eat it. Sue me.

Grabbed the trusty Cape-resident Joy of Cooking and found a recipe for an Apple Cockaigne. Hearkening back to the last 'New England' post, I'm a big fan of fruit desserts from days gone by: cobblers, grunts, buckles. (Just the names alone!) Still, those feel more cold weather to me and the Cockaigne looked interesting and provided us with the added incentive of flamboyantly over-pronounced Fraaaanch.

Cockaigne, by the way, is not a cooking term I was familiar with. (No big surprise.) Gourmet Sleuth provides this to clear things up:
The term in medieval times signified "a mythical land of peace and plenty". Authors of the famous Joy of Cooking cookbook named their country home "Cockaigne" and thus included the term on many of their "favorite" recipes included in the cookbook.

It turned out nice. Tart-like with a shortbread-ish crust. I made little pseudo creme fraiche topping with some Greek style yogurt we had on hand. Still, though, it was no G.D. cobblah.

Oh, and we made a simple sweet corn soup by removing the kernels, simmering the cobs in some water to make a corn broth, then removing those - tossing in the kernels, some butter and a splash of cream and pureeing with some fresh basil. Ta die fowah. However, next time I wouldn't puree the basil with the soup as it adds a greenish tint when you really just want that beautiful corn color. Next time I'd chiffonade the basil and sprinkle it on before serving.

CSA - Week 3

4 eggplant
3 green peppers
1 bunch broccoli
2 pts cherry tomatoes
3 lbs tomatoes
1 bag baby lettuce
10 ears corn
1 bunch raab
1 bunch beets
1 bunch mizuna

There is plenty to do with eggplant, but we LOVE this recipe from Cooking Light - Baked Eggplant with Mushroom and Tomato Sauce. It is fabulous and makes regular appearances at our house - generally served with or over some angel hair pasta.

We didn't have any mushrooms, so I sauteed up some of the CSA green peppers (the SWEETEST green peppers I have ever tasted in my life) with the onions. Instead of broiling the eggplant per the recipe, I tossed the slices on the grill. It was still summer after all. For the tomato sauce I sauteed the CSA tomatoes until they broke down, ran them through a food mill to get out the seeds and skins and then reduced that down with some garlic and a little (really, Barlow, a little?) wine. Try this dish...EVEN if you aren't crazy about eggplant. Really.

Mizuna was new to me. (Look, Mary, m'Zuzu's petals!) An Asian green. Great in salads and, I believe, often found in the mesclun mix you buy at Whole Foods or the like. One night, to use up the rest of the mizuna, tomatoes and peppers, I made a sort of middle eastern pasta salad, throwing in some chicpeas, grilled haloumi cheese and tossing it all in a pomegranate vinaigrette.

The corn (last batch from the CSA, I hear...too much work to keep the bugs off them in the later months...and this city boy girly man confesses that he won't miss the weekly army worm sighting each time one smuggled himself in on an ear and decided to explore): we can't get through ten ears in any sort of time and the quality of fresh corn on the cob deteriorates the SECOND it's picked. I shucked all the ears the night they came home, removed the kernels with a chef's knife, blanched them for a minute or two and shocked them in ice water. Drained them and froze them in a big Ziploc bag. Now we've got terrific frozen sweet corn whenever we want it.

CSA - Week 4

2 pts cherry tomatoes
2 pts tomatillos
2 bunches tatsoi
1 bunch dill
1 bunch carrots
1 bunch beets
1 bunch kale
6 green peppers
4 pounds tomatoes

Got home with the goods last night. Put everything away. (No, I did not wear the carrot tops...yet.) It's a double-batch of bad juju for Miss Kate, who is no fan of beets or green peppers. Looking for something quick, I sauteed some slivered garlic in olive oil, wilted the rinsed and chopped kale, then added a cup or so of vegetable stock. Covered and simmered for ten or fifteen minutes then added in some rinsed and drained cannellini and red kidney beans. Served that over white rice. Nice vegetarian (which we eat a lot) supper. Nutritionists far and wide (Popeye, too) sing the praises of dark, leafy greens: chock full of vitamins, iron, folate, etc. And they really can taste quite lovely - even though I haven't yet evolved to the point where I still don't feel like I'm 'eating responsibly' when consuming them. The beans are in there because they're an important source of protein if you're a veg. For a great healthy side, you could just do the kale this way without the beans and much less vegetable stock.

This will be my first time cooking with tatsoi - another Asian green that looks somewhat similar to bok choy, with dark green spoon-shaped leaves. I'm going to try it in a lo mein tonight, most likely with some of those beautiful young CSA carrots and (sorry, Kate) green peppers.

So far so good, though. Aside from some garlic and some onions and some fresh fruit, I don't think I've purchased produce anywhere since the CSA came into our life.

OK, all caught up. Sorry for the length. I will try and turn in my homework on a weekly basis now. And I will not talk in class. I will try and turn in my homework on a weekly basis. And I will not talk in class...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Nourishing the Inner Puritan

Fall is coming, my friends, and I am feeling those yearnings for red wine, tweeds, and comfort food. (And a Trapper Keeper and a Partridge Family lunchbox, but I never could shake that back to school thing...)

One of my father-in-law's favorite meals we are New Englanders here...the traditional 'Saturday Night Supper' of - yep - franks and beans. When I've got the time, as I did last week, I like to make him a big pot of Boston Baked Beans from scratch. They're really easy to prep; you just need the time to leave them in a low oven all day long, but they smell delicious and, not surpisingly, are a far cry from those you get out of a can. (Which are really fine and will do in a pinch.) I swear by the recipe for baked beans from the good folks at Cooks Illustrated. Rinse the dried beans and bake them for hours with rendered salt pork and bacon (I had some chorizo left around this time and swapped that in for the bacon), some onion, water and (mandatory) molasses, whirling in a bit of mustard at the end of cooking. Really, try them sometime. You'll thank me.

Miss Kate and I are junkies for another traditional old New England supper: cod cakes or fish cakes. (Not the most romantic sounding of dishes, I know, but somewhat better than The Joy of Cooking's moniker: cod balls. Enough said.) We keep store-bought fish cakes on hand in the freezer for quick meals when we're not in a big mood to cook. They are usually very (very) affordable. Our dearly departed fishmonger, Greer's, in Belmont used to sell them three for a buck. Serve them with some baked beans, some coleslaw, and you'll feel like whipping out the yellow rain gear and speaking in your favorite (butchered) New England accent.

Really, these cakes are a simple and hearty example of the frugality New Englanders are (I hear) known for. Scraps of leftover fish, mashed pototoes, a bit of onion and seasoning bound together with some egg and bread or cracker crumbs...and (hello!) deep or pan fried. Now, the storebought kind are great in a pinch, but surely you've had crabcakes prepared for you in a restaurant and enjoyed them. Recently we had some 'real' fish cakes the Skipper's restaurant down the Cape (stellar), so I figured it was time to try some from scratch myself. Hunted around for a recipe and couldn't find any one that particularly fit the bill. Lots of variations in fish (reconstituted salt cod, for instance), the bread used for a binder and coating, seasonings. I cherry-picked to come up with something like this:

I cooked up a pound of fresh cod (we were on the Cape of Cod, after all) and flaked it into a bowl, boiled and mashed a few potatoes (about the same amount as the cod) and added those, hit them with a dash of Old Bay Seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, then mixed them together with 1-2 beaten eggs, some cream and crushed up Saltine (gourmet!) crackers until I had a mix that was not heavy and not too loose. I formed handfuls of the mixture into little cakes (about 3 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick), dredged them in panko bread crumbs (ok, not so traditional) then - in an attempt to show SOME restraint - rather than frying the cakes, I put them on a lightly buttered cookie sheet and baked them in a 425 degree oven until they were puffed and starting to get good color.

Served 'em up with Ye Olde Baked Beans and - because I had them in from the CSA share - some quick pickled beets and their greens. You might want to give a squeeze of lemon juice over the cakes...but, if you are a tartar sauce maven like me, have at it because the fish cake screams out for that sauce. Hey, this isn't a light supper. It's hearty, stick-to-your ribs fare meant to send you to bed warm, happy and ready to get up at zero o'clock in the morning to go pull some lobster traps.