Sunday, January 28, 2007

Viva L'Italia

A popular patriotic custom in Italy is to prepare a pasta dish reflecting the colors of the national flag. Recently, Mark Bittman published an updated cheesy pasta sauce coating bowties (farfalle) with arugula and cherry tomatoes.

This is fast, fresh and fabulous.
You know me, the Queen of Substitutions, I had grape tomatoes and some baby spinach, no arugula. Seemed a good alternative, so it was full steam ahead. (The spinach image is by Tony Sinecola.) Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add 4 cups of bowties, while that cooks (13 minutes) wash and chiffonade two big hands full of baby spinach, wash and slice in half a cup of grape or cherry tomatoes.
Measure a cup of half & half into a small saucepan and gently heat, add a cup of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. The cheese will melt into the half & half, leaving some lumps is fine. When the pasta is al dente, drain and immediately return to pot and place pot back on hot burner (turned off).
Add the cheese sauce to the pasta and stir well to distribute along with the spinach chiffonade. Stir for a few minutes to help the spinach wilt and the sauce thicken. Then stir in the cut tomatoes and some freshly ground pepper. Add a fresh grating of Reggiano cheese when serving.
Who says there's no time to cook?

Tuck this one away to make when you want something quick and easy yet soul-satisfying.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baked Fideo
On a cold rainy day what could be better than comfort food? For those macaroni and cheese lovers out there, here's a Mexican version that will warm the cockles of your heart and if you use a heavy hand with the chipoltes, as I do, it will warm everything from your lips, tongue, soft palate and esophagus all the way to your stomach!
This is one of my favorite, quick, easy, tasty dishes, thanks to Mary Sue Milliken and Sue Fenniger, those Too Hot Tamales. Served as is, straight from the oven on the first day, and then it transforms itself, with the help of a few cups of chicken broth and some broken corn chips, into a fabulous simulated tortilla soup the next day. Nothing could be easier.
Start by tossing four good sized, chopped, ripe plum tomatoes into the blender along with a cut up medium yellow onion, 3 - 4 good sized cloves of garlic, a generous teaspoon of salt and a half cup of water. Puree, then add another cup of filtered water to the tomato mixture. Break up a half pound of skinny noodles. I like to use vermicelli but you could also use the ones labeled 'thin' spaghetti.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in an oven proof pan and add the broken pieces of noodles, turning them as they brown. Be careful they don't burn. Once the oil is hot, I turn the heat down to medium to allow the pasta to brown slowly. When most of the noodles have browned, add 3 - 4 dried chipoltes. The more chilies, the hotter the final dish. Toss the noodles and chilies around in the hot pan for another 5 minutes or so then add the tomato puree, cover the pan with foil and place in the hot oven for 15 minutes. All the liquid should be absorbed and the noodles should be soft. While this is cooking, grate 6 - 8 oz of cheese. Ideally, you should use anejo, but I've used everything from Cheddar to Jack to Monterrey and combinations thereof.
The pictured dish was made with about 6 oz of Monterrey/Jack cheese. Once the noodles are soft, raise the temperature of the oven to 400°, carefully remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle on the grated cheese and return to the oven, uncovered, for another 10 minutes or until the cheese has melted and started to brown in spots. That's it. It's ready to eat - the tastiest macaroni and cheese on the planet. The quantities given above make the amount shown. Double the quantity and pour into a 9 x 13 baking dish for a larger serving.
If you have leftovers, heat a quart of chicken broth, add the fideo and serve with some broken corn chips in the serving dish, a dash of fresh lime juice and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro give it a professional finish but the soup is fine with nothing extra added. Add this to your quick, easy, economical, superbly satisfying repertoire.
Till next time. . . keep on cooking!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Lovely Lively Lentil

Cooking with legumes takes some planning. Remembering to soak beans and allowing enough time to cook them slowly with gentle heat assures flavorful, tender beans, but often busy people just don't have the time. Canned beans come to the rescue. Lentils offer an alternative to canned beans. They come in a colorful variety, are jam packed with protein and nutrition, cook quickly and require no pre-soaking. But I suspect, the lowly lentil is neglected by many of us.

I recently remembered making a great lentil chili from one of Mollie Katzen's books many years ago. It was delicious served over egg noodles drizzled with a little aged balsamic vinegar and I recalled that the preparation called for a lot of garlic, something like 10 -12 cloves. After scouring my bookshelves, I realized over the years some loaned vegetarian cookbooks never came home to roost. Still Life with Menu is one of them, unfortunately. But on the bright side, hopefully, whoever has it is cooking up a storm of tasty, healthful meals. Thanks to modern technology, a simple on-line search found the recipe on Mollie Katzen's website. The ingredient list appeared to have changed slightly. Where, I wondered, had the many cloves of garlic gone? I made half the quantity specified - working with 2 cups of lentils not four and I adjusted the liquid accordingly. I used 4 cups of homemade veggie stock I had on hand and added a bit of filtered water as the lentils cooked. I used 4 large cloves of garlic, minced and one medium onion, diced, and followed the suggestions for the herbs and spices, though, in fact, I used smoked paprika as well as a liberal spoonful of Mexican hot chili powder in addition to the cumin and thyme called for in the recipe. You can play with the seasonings to suit your palate. I added a touch of balsamic vinegar at serving time and Mollie's lentil chili tasted as wonderful as I remembered it. Give it a try. This is a fabulous meal, easily prepared for pennies. The leftovers are even better reheated and it freezes well, too.

Then there are the nights when you just don't feel like cooking anything, right? We've all been there and our solutions are sometimes pretty lame. Zip through a fast food drive-in on the way home, call for take out, pick on snack food. How about a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich with something green?

With a little twist to the common grilled cheese sandwich, a quesadilla fills the bill nicely especially if you've some interesting tortillas on hand. This little number is comprised of the end of a piece of Harvati grated and a sliced tomato. The broccoli and red pepper are cooked with a sprinkling of crushed red pepper and slices of shallot and garlic in a little olive oil and 1/3 cup of water. They were ready in 5 minutes with the one-pot steam/sauté trick. I don't consider the ten minutes it took to prepare and cook the above plate of food really cooking...and look -- four servings of veggies and the torts are whole wheat with green onion. Nice and healthy. Next time you don't feel like cooking, think of something fast and easy like the food pictured above. It's quick, easy, and to top it off, it's a budget pleaser as well.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Popeye Never Had It So Good

As I recall, all pictures of Popeye eating spinach had him slurping it out of a can. Yuck. I would imagine that canned spinach, black, soggy, and bitter, accounts for the bad rap this veggie has collected over the years. With the recent recall of fresh spinach, I've been a bit reluctant to buy any. Prior to the e.coli outbreak at the end of 2006, I purchased and ate a package of fresh spinach weekly. Like broccoli, I ate half of it cooked and half of it raw, trying to cover all bases for getting the most nutrients from the veggie and the best flavors, too.

When one considers the number of people who die in automobiles annually (43,000) or the number of folks who innocently took prescription medications prescribed by their trusted physicians and have died from the drugs (565,047, since 9/11/01) and then look at the latest count of deaths from spinach related e.coli -- three, eating bagged spinach doesn't seem much of a risk, does it? We think nothing of getting in our cars or popping a pill our physician prescribed, so why not have some spinach?

Spinach salad is a versatile dish that can incorporate various fruit, such as strawberries or mandarin oranges, and reaps a great taste treat by adding red onions, various cheeses, nuts and seeds. Spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing is luscious, too. For those who can't take the straight hit of all spinach, it's great mixed with other greens like red leaf lettuce or romaine. The salad pictured is a straightforward rendition of spinach salad. Red onions, stawberries, pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese. The salad is dressed simply with a balsamic vinagrette. Using the standard proportions of one part vinegar to three parts oil, I mixed 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, a 1/2 tsp of Dijon mustard, a dash of salt, a couple of grinds of fresh pepper, and a teaspoon of Penzey's Raspberry Enlightenment. I put all the ingredients in a small glass jar with a tight fitting lid and gave it a hearty shake. Dress the washed and dried spinach with a couple of tablespoons of the vinagrette, just enough to moisten each leaf lightly then add some thin slices of red onion, a few sliced strawberries and a sprinkling a toasted pine nuts and top it off with the crumbled goat cheese. Divide onto two individual plates for a salad course, or use one big plate for an individual luncheon course.

One of the secrets to healthy eating is to make each meal as colorful as an artist's palette. Veggies with deep, rich tones are the ones that provide the most nutritional value.

This veggie plate includes edamame in a light vinaigrette, citrus flavored roasted sweet potato, green beans with roasted red pepper in a citrus/mustard sauce and some cranberry relish. The veggie plate was complemented with a small whole wheat pita bread and a cold crisp glass of Reisling. Even with all those veggies in the luncheon salad and the dinner plate, it only adds up to 8 servings, one short of the recommended daily 9 servings of fruit and vegetables. Though I will admit, the spinach serving was large enough to count as 2 or even 3 servings - might it be pushing it to count the grapes in the wine?

Green Beans Moutarde with Grilled Red Peppers

Any green bean preparation is made simpler by having the beans ready ahead of time. If possible, removed the ends from the beans, wash them well and blanch them with a sliced onion for 3 - 5 minutes depending on the size of the beans. You want them bright green and barely tender. Drain, refresh and store them in a ziplock bag in the fridge. Then, when you're ready to proceed, they're ready, too.

Melt one teaspoon of butter and one teaspoon of olive olive oil in a large skillet. Add the green beans (approximately one pound) and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add slices of a roasted red pepper, and sauté for another minute or so. Add a couple of tablespoons of water and cover and steam for 3 or 4 minutes. While the beans and peppers are steaming. Grate the zest from about half a piece of citrus (use what you have on hand: orange; lemon or lime) Place the zest in a small bowl, juice the fruit and measure two teaspoons into the bowl with the zest. Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard a pinch of dried tarragon or a tablespoon of fresh and a little salt and pepper and mix well. Add the mustard mixture to the skillet with the beans and peppers, toss well to coat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more citrus juice if necessary. Another delicious veggie preparation courtesy of The Passionate Vegetarian. For you carnivores, these green beans would be a great side with a thick juicy pork chop.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Roasted Butternut Squash
After a great lunch that included roasted butternut squash, I found myself wondering if my life is so empty and dull that a plate of oven roasted squash gets me excited OR, if on the other hand, I've reached that mellow, relaxed place in life where small wonders fill me with joy -- no need for big extravaganzas. Whatever. . . I'll tell you, the image above is what's left of the best .88 cents I've ever spent.

I bought a little butternut squash that weighed in at just about one pound. With the oven set at 400°, I peeled and diced the squash, tossed it with a teaspoon of olive oil and two teaspoons of tamari and spread the pieces out on a cookie sheet. (I covered the sheet with a piece of foil for ease of clean up).

Bake the squash until the pieces are lightly browned, slightly shriveled and fork tender. The Passionate Vegetarian suggests cooking them to the al dente stage, barely tender, and then tossing the pieces with a teaspoon and a half of honey, returning the pan to the oven to crisp up and brown some more.

I went out to walk the dogs during the first roasting, when I returned thirty minutes later, we'd passed 'barely tender' and were definitely at fork tender. Light brown had come and gone, too. Not to be deterred, I removed the tender, slightly blackened pieces to a serving dish, drizzled them with a teaspoon of unfiltered orange blossom honey and made that the main component of my vegetarian lunch. For those who shy away from an all veggie meal, this will make a marvelous side dish with chicken or the other white meat.
Oven roasting vegetables is a smart way to prepare side dishes simply and quickly. Not only does the produce retain its supply of vitamins and minerals, but the high heat caramelizes the natural sugar in the veggies, bringing out the best of the flavors and adding that bit of crisp browning that we all love. Eating a wide selection of deeply colored vegetables is the best way to help our bodies fight disease. The taste treat above beats a pill any day!
Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's in the Veggie Bin?

I love to open the vegetable bin drawer and quickly fill a plate with fresh ingredients using what's on hand. Above we've a little romaine, some mixed young wild greens with radicchio, sliced radishes, sliced cucumber, slivered sweet onion, a few golden raisins, some walnuts and a generous sprinkling of Gorgonzola crumbles. The salad is lightly dressed with a dash of apple cider vinegar and a drizzle of high quality first cold pressed olive oil from Italy, salt and freshly ground pepper. I use a finer grade of olive oil for eating than I use for cooking.
On the other hand, practically the same group of veggies can easily become a spicy, hot stir fry.

Instead of romaine and wild greens, I've used some bok choy, radishes, sweet onion, carrots and jalapeno ( you can't see the chili - I added it as an after thought - found it in the bin after shooting the shot).

I started by sauteing the onion with some sliced garlic and a few flakes of crushed red pepper in a little olive oil, then added the crunchier veggies with a dash a tamari, saving the leafy greens to add last. In a separate pot, I cooked up a 1/2 cup of fragrantly delicious mixed brown and black Lundberg's rice. As the stir fry reached crunchy/tender perfection, I added a little more tamari, a dash of salt and pepper and plated it over a mound of the rice, topped with a few unsalted peanuts. Nice to have a 'found' meal with little effort.

If you shop with a little foresight, quick, easy meals are at hand in the fridge and pantry. Make your own 'found' meal with what's on hand. Give it a shot, and be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to turn out a plate of fine tasting, healthy food in record time.

If you need something to read while you're eating, check out:

Nelson DeMille's WildFire or Greg Iles' True Evil both are rapid page turners! Though reading while you eat is not recommended if you're trying to lose weight. It's so easy to keep moving the fork from plate to mouth as you turn those pages!

Till next time . . . keep on cooking or better yet, eat it raw!