Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Recipe #3–Risotto with Tomatoes and Parmesan (Risotto alla Cardinale)

The next Trattoria recipe that I tried—Risotto alla Cardinale—is apparently named for the vivid red color of a Catholic cardinal’s robes. I liked to think instead of the bright crimson birds that flitted in the forsythia bushes during the snowy Hudson Valley winters of my childhood: a beautiful, shocking red against the surrounding dull-white and gray.

I’ve loved risotto since…well, since forever, really, because I can’t recall a time I didn’t love it. The steaming hot, deeply flavorful grains—whether enhanced with saffron, butter, a particular vegetable or a bit of perfectly seasoned seafood—are the stuff of my food dreams: simple, comforting, served in a single bowl. Yes, there’s the preparation: 20 minutes of slaving over a hot stove while stirring constantly with an aching arm, but it’s totally worth it.

Patricia Wells’ version with tomatoes and parmesan cheese caught my eye a few weeks ago when I needed to make something for a Monday dinner. The recipe looked promising and fairly straightforward…two good things on a time-pressed school night.

To start, I stirred together 2 cups of veggie broth with 1 cup of the leftover tomato sauce I’d recently made from Trattoria. Once the brew was barely simmering, I pulled out pot #2, put it on a medium-flame burner, and tossed in 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ minced shallot, 2 bay leaves and some salt. This I cooked for a few minutes until the shallot bits gleamed and were mostly translucent.

Next, I poured in 1 cup of Arborio rice and stir, stir, stirred with my favorite wooden spoon (Sur La Table, 2007 collection) until everything glistened. Wells points out that this is a key step, as “The heat and fat will help separate the grains of rice, ensuring a creamy consistency in the end.” Bravo to that.

Once the rice was just about translucent, I slopped in a ladleful of the simmering tomato broth, and stirred mightily as those rice grains absorbed the liquid, a task they performed with impressive speed and efficiency. Into the pot went another ladle of broth, followed by more furious stirring, until all of that liquid had disappeared as well.

At some point, I pulled my face back from the steam, uncurled my cramped fingers from the spoon and grabbed a fork to taste the rice. It was just about done—tender but still a little too chewy-tacky for my taste. I dumped in the remaining liquid and marveled as I always do at this point in the recipe at risotto’s incredible capacity for absorption. Why hasn’t this magical element been exploited? Couldn’t they make compostable paper towels out of this stuff?

It took about 20 minutes, as usual, for the risotto to achieve the “creamy porridge-like consistency” that Wells describes and all Italian cooks strive for. Thrilled, I pulled the saucepan from the heat and stirred in another tablespoon of butter, along with ¼ cup of grated Parmesan. The risotto smelled tomato-sweet and buttery rich, so it was hard to clamp the lid on the pot for it to “stand” for a final few minutes as the flavors did their little blending dance.

I found my fork and gave the finished dish another taste—it was perfect. Out came the bay leaf and into two bowls went piles of the rice; I also put a dollop on a plate for Roxy.

The results: So, so good!

Tomato-creamy and rich!

Hot and fortifying!

And…a bit like Chef Boyardee!

Yeah, it’s kinda true. There was something deliciously addictive and spoon-lickingly wonderful about the risotto—the chunks of tomato from the homemade sauce aside—that made me think of Americanized Italian junk food. Was it the smooth texture and consistent taste? The obvious presence of butter? I suspect so. The risotto definitely wasn’t sweet, but there was no mistaking this resemblance that was hard to shake once the idea popped into my head.

Jon ate his bowlful right up, but in a thoughtful, almost clinical way that made me wonder if he was having similar flashbacks. Rox ate a single grain and pronounced it “Not what I’m feeling like” so there was no big win there.

I think you could avoid this unfortunate 1970s canned pasta association by adding some chopped fresh herbs—or maybe some wild mushrooms—to the recipe. I’ll make it again, once my arm has recovered, and see what I come up with.

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Recipe #2–Tomato Sauce

“Tomato sauce should be rich, elegant, smooth, and redolent of herbs,” proclaims Patricia Wells in her introduction to Trattoria’s basic Tomato Sauce. To which I add: ditto for James Bond.

I was paging through her cookbook a few weeks ago in search of something simple to drizzle over tortellini. I found the tomato sauce, skimmed the minimal ingredients and knew I had my answer.

After tying on my new butterfly apron (a full “chef’s” apron with a black-and-white butterfly pattern and orange pocket…totally awesome), I chopped a small onion, spooned the equivalent of 3 minced garlic cloves from a jar and tossed those fragrant bits into ¼ cup of olive oil along with some sea salt. Sounds pretty familiar, yes? Well, here’s the clever part: Wells says to do the above in an unheated saucepan.

Brilliant!

This cool-pan technique allows the ingredients to mix completely without the infernal spitting of the garlic into peering eyeballs and upon unprotected forearms. Why this is the case, I’m not exactly sure. My inner scientist whispers that the modicum of juice that the garlic brings to the party can mingle with the oil at room temperature, whereas it reacts violently when hot.

But don’t quote me on that.

Regardless, this small nuance in the recipe’s first step made an immediate quality-of-life difference, a little like flipping one’s pillow to the cool side during a hot summer night.

Next, I cooked the (peacefully) mixed onion-garlic mélange over moderate heat for a few minutes until the garlic turned a pale toasted hue. Then I poured in a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes in their sauce and stirred everything together before adding “the herb bundle.”

Doesn’t “herb bundle” sound both charming and practical—something Mrs. Frisby would haul to her tiny mice children in the classic story? Wells describes hers as “Several sprigs of fresh parsley, bay leaves and celery leaves tied…with cotton twine.”

Feeling every bit the prairie girl, I dug around in the Everything Drawer until I found said twine (probably purchased by my parents during the Reagan Administration and sent off with me to college) and then looked through the crisper for some herbs. I found fresh parsley, but no celery leaves, so I grabbed some thyme and then the jar of bay leaves from the spice cabinet. After washing a few sprigs of each specimen, I bunched the damp greens together, tied a tiny bit of string around their middle and cinched it tight. Had Roxy been there, she’d have wanted one made for her dollhouse.

I dropped the bundle into the saucepan, stirred the brew several times and then let it simmer sans lid for about 15 minutes (for a thicker sauce, Wells says to add another 5 minutes of cooking time). When the timer rang, I peered into the pan and saw that my bundle had, sadly, broken apart upon the high seas. I fished out the limp sprigs, as well as the smug, still-stiff bay leaf. Then I tasted the finished product, added a touch more salt plus a few turns of fresh pepper, and removed the sauce from the burner. It was time to eat.

The results: I spooned the sauce—a glistening, deep red—over tortellini and fresh spinach in three bowls. Then I distributed one each to Jon and my mom, who’s visiting from Northern California, and we all tucked in. (Roxy had eaten earlier.)

The tomato sauce was a hit—mega-flavorful, uncomplicated, and richly satisfying without being heavy. It worked perfectly with both the mellow, creamy, cheese-filled pasta and the densely-green spinach pile. And it couldn’t have been easier to make (even with the herb bundle mini craft project in the middle).

I thought of the Make the Bread, Buy the Butter cookbook in my collection. When compared with the taste of its jarred counterpart, which is almost always painfully sweet and sorely lacking in herby-spicy interest, homemade tomato sauce such as Wells’ concoction is an obvious, stomach-pleasing “make.”

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Recipe #1–Milanese Vegetable Soup

One of the most reliable soups in my cooking universe is vegetable soup. You can make it an infinite number of ways—and at least three-quarters of those ways are uncomplicated, healthy and yummy. It’s hard to go wrong.

When I wanted to make soup during December’s cold snap, I chose Patricia Wells’ Milanese Vegetable Soup. Did I have every ingredient called for? Hardly. But I had enough of them to be able to riff on what she presents.

In the recipe’s introduction, Wells calls the soup “minestrone.” She points out that all minestrones share piles of fresh vegetables, a dried bean of some kind and a starch such as pasta or rice. For this version from Milan, Arborio rice plays the role of starch, which isn’t surprising since it’s a culinary staple of the region.

We made this soup twice during the holidays. The first time I used oyster mushrooms instead of pancetta, a shallot in place of some of the onion, sweet potato in addition to some small red potatoes, and purple cabbage instead of white. The results were fantastic.

The second time, Jon made the soup for our Christmas Eve shindig and hewed more closely to the recipe (no sweet potato, actual amounts of each ingredient, but still using mushrooms instead of pancetta). He also doubled the recipe for the expected 12-person crowd…with mixed results.

The general prep for the soup begins with melting butter in a stockpot and tossing in ½ cup minced pancetta (or mushrooms, in our case), 2 medium onions chopped and some salt, all of which cooks for a few minutes until the onions are transparent. Next, add 2 diced carrots, 5 or so chopped celery stalks including leaves, and a cup of beans (the recipe recommends dried cannellini or other small beans; I used canned cannellini), and cook for another 5 minutes. A cup of trimmed, halved green beans, some shredded cabbage, 2 medium, peeled and diced potatoes, and 2 quarts of water follow, along with a 16-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes with their juice. Wells says to place a food mill over the stockpot and puree the plum tomatoes directly into the bubbling brew. I chose to dump it all into the pot and use kitchen scissors to chop the tomatoes into smaller chunks—a kindergarten craft approach, but quite effective.

At this point, cover the soup and let it simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Once the half hour is up, season with some salt and pepper to taste and let the soup continue bubbling gently on the burner until the beans are soft (since I used canned beans I opted for another 15 minutes; for dried beans it could take up to an hour). Finally, add a cup of rice (I only had a half cup) and simmer until the grains are al dente, about 20 additional minutes.

The results: Patricia Wells suggests stirring a few tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese into the soup before serving. I’m not sure this is necessary since I sprinkled a ton on top after ladling servings into two bowls the Sunday evening I made it.

Jon and I both loved the soup. The variety of flavors—from the mellow sweet potato and earthy carrot to the green pop of celery and bright tomato notes—was hearty, satisfying, and a contrast to blended soups that taste more or less the same with every spoonful. The rice and white beans added some welcome heft; the parm cheese a salty-umami zip.

Wells warns at the conclusion of the recipe that the soup will thicken over time. We didn’t notice a huge difference the second night, except the flavors had melded even more.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve day, when Jon made a double recipe of the soup for our family bash. This means he added two cups of Arborio rice, along with two cups of beans, to the recipe. When I got home from a half-day of work and asked how the cooking was coming along, he pointed to the stovetop.

“We’ve got a massive quantity of soup here.”

I peered under the lid of one of our biggest soup kettles. The bubbling mass was two inches from the top of the pot—and thick as wallpaper paste.

“Wow,” I said, stepping back. “Hope all the vegans come.”

It turns out the soup was still good—flavorful, filling, and lava hot after bubbling away on a low burner for much of the afternoon. But all that burner time also meant it had thickened before even becoming a leftover. People ate bowlfuls and went back for seconds (there was also a meat chili for the carnivores) but at the end of the night we still had gallons left. We transferred it into one of our largest Tupperware and rearranged the fridge to accommodate the wide load. We ate it again on Christmas—referring to it exclusively as “stew”—and maybe one other time and then I walked the rest up to the compost bin.

“Here you go, bugs,” I said, dumping the heavy glop onto the leafy, loamy pile. “Happy New Year!”

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Introduction

If you think about it, the end-of-year holidays resemble a typical oddball American family.

There’s pious, big-hearted Thanksgiving; quiet, bookish Hanukkah; rollicking Big Daddy Christmas; renegade Kwanzaa; and the tacky uncle, New Year’s Eve. En masse, they’re overwhelming and demanding. But, one on one, they’re delightful when you get to know them…full of stories, quirky tics, and honest-to-goodness meaning.

They’re also full of food.

From late November through early January, we face mountains of comestibles: cheese platters at afternoon gatherings, fancy appetizers at evening soirees, roasts the size of carry-on bags at dinner parties. There’s pie at Thanksgiving, rugelach at Hanukkah and Christmas cookies at…really, at anything, regardless of the hour. And there’s candy: in bowls and gift boxes, stuck to cards, tumbling from desks at work.

It’s an embarrassment of riches (or maybe just embarrassing).

Unable to resist this seasonal tug of the kitchen, I cooked a lot over the holidays, even as we scrambled to unpack and settle in to our completed—yes, finally, completed—new/old house. Tacos, soups, gougères (delicious cheesy puffs), chilis, salads…much feasting ensued.

Early in December, as the weather started to cool and my thoughts turned to soup, I grabbed a cookbook I’ve had for years: Patricia Wells’ Trattoria (Morrow; 1993). Wells, a Midwesterner, is a former New York Times food writer and restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune and, per the cookbook’s biographical sketch, “the first woman and only foreigner to have served as restaurant critic for the French newsweekly L’Express.” She’s also written a pile of award-winning cookbooks, and currently splits her time between Paris and that other not-too-shabby corner of the galaxy, Provence, teaching cooking classes, blogging and generally living the très bonne life.

I received Trattoria from my parents the Christmas after graduating from college. Early on, I made a few of its tasty pasta dishes, as well as its incredibly delicious, summertime dessert: Baked Peaches with Almond Macaroons. Since then, I’ve pulled out the cookbook every few years to try a new recipe, but mostly, it’s just lingered on the shelf. I wondered if it would live up to its excellent first impressions, particularly during the food-focused holidays.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Recipe #4–Biscuits

Thanksgiving morning, I got up early to make biscuits.

Yes, on a day packed with high calorie dishes like creamed corn and creamed onions, marshmallow sweet potatoes and pumpkin chiffon pie, I decided a fresh, butter-laden baked good would make the perfect healthy-and-balanced breakfast for my family.

Fortunately, I’ve got a biscuit soul mate in Auntie Em’s Cookbook author Terri Wahl. “Is there any food in the world better than a hot, handmade biscuit?” she asks in the recipe’s introduction. “With gravy, or with butter and jam?” No, is the answer, although you could go one better by adding the powerful prepositional phrase “with honey.”

Two nights before, I’d bought what I needed—buttermilk, mostly, since everything else was in the pantry—so it was easy to get to work once I’d slugged down some coffee, fed the cats and preheated the oven to 375 degrees.

I whisked together 4 cups flour—a somewhat stunning amount—4 teaspoons baking powder, a teaspoon of baking soda, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Then I sliced 1 cup of unsalted butter (that doesn’t sound so bad, but in reality translates to two embarrassing STICKS), covered the top of the flour mixture with the tiny squares as if preparing for a round of bingo, and got out my pastry cutter to work all that “fat” into the dry ingredients.

I don’t know why, but referring to butter as “fat” has always grossed me out. Fat is lard bubbling in a pan. Fat is that pale part of a bacon slice. Fat is a spoonful from Grandma’s plastic margarine container of grease by the stove. Butter is, simply,…butter. Pale yellow, slightly sweet, with a bit of tang, and absolutely magical. Maybe I have this aversion to the term because the idea of spreading “fat” on a croissant or muffin is about as appealing as eating a hot dog on a baguette. It’s just wrong.

I worked and worked and worked that pastry cutter until my arm was sore and the mixture crumbly. Then I poured in two cups of buttermilk and stirred twice.

OK, I stirred a few more times than that, but I was extremely careful not to over-mix, since that’s a big no-no in the world of biscuit making (stir too much and you’ll get a tough biscuit say the pros). This can feel strange to those of us who like to make sure everything is combined and then some. But it’s a good habit to cultivate when making biscuits from scratch. Essentially, you want the dough to start pulling away from the sides of the bowl—that means the ingredients are starting to stick together—without becoming a perfect clean lump in the center of a perfectly clean bowl.

Next, I dumped the mostly mixed dough on to a pasty mat I’d dusted with flour. I kneaded the dough just a few times before patting it into a circle about an inch-and-a-half thick. I used a pink cookie cutter left over from Easter to cut out vaguely egg-shaped biscuits, arranged them on a baking sheet, and painted the tops with a little extra buttermilk. I slipped the sheet into the oven to bake for about 20 minutes, and then carefully re-kneaded and re-patted the dough cuttings into a new circle and cut the remaining biscuit eggs.

The results: Jon and Roxy slowly slipped into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and holiday happy, as I grabbed jams and spreads from the fridge, poured coffee and milk, and heated veggie sausage links.

“Those smell amazing!” said Roxy, arranging herself on the chair across from me at the kitchen island.

I pulled the baking sheet out of the oven and put a pale, toasted, puffy biscuit onto each of our plates and passed them out.

Simply put, these biscuits are the best I’ve ever made. They ROCK. They smell amazing—toasted and buttery and cozy. They look delicious—puffy without being ridiculous, golden and layered. And the taste: absolutely perfect. I slathered my first half with pluot jam—heavenly!—and the second half with obsidian blackberry jam—divine! The contrast of tart fruity spread with buttery hot dough was absolute perfection.

“What makes these so good,” asked Jon, as he picked up crumbs with a fingertip from his plate.

“I was really careful not to over-knead the dough,” I said proudly.

“And you didn’t make them too thin.” Yes, that, too.

I also think that painting the biscuit tops with the rest of the buttermilk adds that little professional touch that makes these look restaurant-worthy, but taste homemade.

Terri suggests playing Andre Williams’s song “Pass the Biscuits, Please” while eating these little wonders. I completely forgot to do that so I will clearly have to make them again soon to test out the music/food pairing.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Recipe #3–Curried Chickpea Salad

One evening, a week before Thanksgiving, I decided to make Curried Chickpea Salad. In spite of its lengthy ingredient list, which I’d shopped for over the weekend, this Auntie Em’s Cookbook recipe looked like an easy-to-throw-together-but-still-tasty weeknight creation.

Author Terri Wahl introduces the salad by saying it’s not only delicious on its own, it makes a great sandwich filling and green salad dollop. I’ve had the café’s Curried Chickpea Sandwich and, yes, it was yummy, so I was excited to see if the homemade version of the filling could compete.

I gathered the ingredients on our kitchen cupboard/island (the resulting still life looked like the set of a cooking show—full of color, bursting with potential), while Roxy limped through her current events assignment. She’d chosen to encapsulate an LA Times piece about Pasadena’s famed Doo-Dah Parade, but had long ago burned through the day’s allotment of homework energy. Murmuring encouragement mixed with the occasional prompting question, I grabbed a large mixing bowl and got to work.

First, the home cook must whisk together the dressing. Since I decided to halve the recipe (resulting in three promised servings as opposed to the more overwhelming six), this involved 1 tablespoon of chutney (I used Sharwood’s Major Grey mango); ¼ minced chipotle chile in adobo sauce; ½ teaspoon each Dijon mustard, curry powder and cumin; ½ tablespoon rice wine vinegar; 1 tablespoon vegetable oil of some kind (I used canola); and ½ teaspoon each sea salt and fresh ground pepper. As I whisked and stirred the powerful ingredients together, the aroma was incredible—it made me think of a South Asian mole.

Next, I added the salad’s bulk: ½ medium purple onion, chopped; 2 cloves minced garlic; 1 cup drained and rinsed chickpeas and half as much black beans; ¼ cup drained, rinsed and minced sun-dried tomatoes in oil; 1/8 cup each diced celery and carrot; and 1 tablespoon each of chopped cilantro and parsley. I stirred the colorful pile with, as directed, a rubber spatula and then used the back of the spatula to mush and mash some, but not all, of the integrated ingredients. This was harder than it sounded; I’m surprised I didn’t snap the handle of our poor spatula in the process. A wooden spoon might be a better tool for the job.

Knowing that our dinner was probably 30 minutes away, I scraped the salad into a container and stuck it into the fridge (which is still out on the deck due to delays in our painting plan) to chill.

The results: Once we helped shepherd the current events homework to a stopping point, Jon made Roxy’s dinner, and I dug around for Curried Chickpea Salad accompaniments. What a coup: I found a bag of Trader Joe’s Garlic Naan in the freezer and some baby spinach in the fridge. While the naan heated, I filled two bowls with the greens and spooned the chickpea salad on top. When the naan were well-toasted (which took four times as long as the package instructed, these being a Trader Joe’s product), Jon plunked the two carbohydrate-delivery vehicles—stiff as paddles—on to each bowl, and we were ready to eat.

It only took a bite, maybe two, to realize that this salad is some tasty business.

There are plenty of chickpea dishes out in the world—many curried and some even cumin-laced. By adding the chipotle chile in adobo sauce AND the sundried tomato bits AND the chutney AND the rice wine vinegar, Wahl takes a somewhat ordinary bean combination to new culinary heights: sweet/spicy, smoky/tangy. Add the cool crunch of carrot and celery, plus the fresh leafy bite of both parsley and cilantro—they perfectly counter the hearty bean “mash”—and you’ve got a salad/spread/even savory pie filling that could please a crowd, satisfy all your vegetarian friends, and serve as a quick weeknight dinner.

My only caution—it’s easy to go overboard with the purple onion. A third or even a quarter of the breath-trashing nightshade would work just fine.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Recipe #2–Pear & Cranberry Compote

Lovely, warm-gray floors stretch from wall to wall in our house.

We’ve had them for three weeks, and their very existence still feels like a miracle.

I like to walk on the floors barefoot. I like to shuffle across them in my cupcake slippers. I like to vacuum them. I like to stare at their fake, knotted wood patterns. I don’t even mind—too much—the way they gently slope and dip with all the slopes and dips of our crooked, hillside, no-straight-lines-about-it old house.

We dragged a few pieces of furniture back inside right away: the rolling kitchen cabinet that serves as an island, a mini cart that houses a few tall appliances and our baking drawer (measuring spoons, wooden spoons, some scone and cookie cutters). These additions alone make our house feel cozier—and the prospect of cooking appealing once again.

Last week I pulled The Auntie Em’s Cookbook off the shelf and leafed through it in search of something easy and tasty. I landed on Pear & Cranberry Compote, which seemed both seasonally spot-on and delicious to boot.

The recipe appears in the fall section of the book, includes a colorful, up-close photo of the compote in a little glass dish, and is introduced with Terri’s no fuss comments. “I love keeping this compote around,” she writes, “especially in fall. It’s lovely with yogurt, cottage cheese, toast, ice cream, and many desserts.” Ok, then! Let’s make it.

Jon, Roxy and I swung by Whole Foods after a quick dinner out so I could grab a few ingredients for the compote, as well as another recipe. Once home, and after a game of multiplication “war” with Rox, I dove into the prep. First, I washed, peeled and diced the two Bosc pears I’d picked out. They weren’t as ripe as I hoped, but they would do. Because I only had two, which weighed in at a pound, I had to settle for making a third of the recipe (it calls for 3 pounds of ripe pears). Welcome to Kitchen Math 101.

Along with the diced pear, I poured 2/3 cup fresh cranberries and four teaspoons of fresh squeezed orange juice into a saucepan and put it on a burner to boil. Almost immediately, everything was bubbling, so I quickly lowered the burner to its tiniest flame and, per the instructions, let the mixture simmer for about an hour. I had to stir and scrape the bubbling goo periodically, and even add some water to keep it from burning. Would riper pears have given off more juice?

Once the cranberries had split open and the pears softened, I removed the pan from the burner. The recipe says to mush the ingredients with a potato masher, but we don’t have one so I tried, unsuccessfully, to do the deed with a wooden spoon. Next, I added some sugar, a halved and scraped vanilla bean, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and put the saucepan back on the burner, this time on medium, so the compote could cook for a final five minutes.

The results: We didn’t have any vanilla ice cream, yogurt or cottage cheese in the house, and toast felt a little strange at 9 p.m., so I spooned the compote into mini ramekins and handed one to Jon.

“What do you think?”

He took a bite. “The pears are still a little firm, but the flavor’s really good.”

Indeed it was—which shouldn’t have been surprising. Aren’t cranberries and pears the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of the fruit universe? That zingy-tart cranberry and mellow pear earthiness work perfectly together, especially when warmed by a cinnamon spiciness. This compote’s colors are beautiful, too—wine-dark magenta, syrupy yellows and tree-bark browns.

The stuff would be amazing spread on any manner of unsuspecting substrates: angel food cake, biscuits, even fish or—hello, November—turkey, I’d imagine. If you’ve got leftover cranberries from yesterday’s Big Feast, this would be an easy way to (beware the holiday pun!) gobble them up.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Recipe #1–Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash

On the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, we honored our toiling fore-parents by sleeping in. This was necessary work after a month of early rises and painful awakenings thanks to our house project.

While Rox continued to doze, Jon and I wandered into the kitchen to make some breakfast. I dragged my new Auntie Em’s Cookbook with me…just in case.

I say “just in case” because we don’t exactly have a well-stocked fridge at the moment. We’ve been practicing the Ninja form of grocery shopping in which one slips in and out of the food emporium, fast as fire, to grab the three essential items from a much longer list. The one saving grace to this unfortunate habit has been our produce box, which continues to arrive on our doorstep every other late Tuesday night with lovely organic vegetables and fruits for us to devour.

“Ooo, these Pumpkin Pancakes with Persimmons & Pecans sound fab,” I said to Jon as he fed the cats. “Do we have any pumpkin?”

“Um…nope,” he said after digging around in the pantry.

“How about pears? We could make this Pear & Ginger Baked French Toast.”

“We ate all the fruit.”

“Any tomatoes? There’s a Baked Egg and…”

“Sadly, no.”

I peered into the fridge. Lurking in the crisper were some beets (greens having already been consumed the night before), a few peppers of unknown name and green-yellowy hue, and celery. We also had potatoes, eggs, cheese and the de rigueur line-up of mustards, jams and chutneys that all modern fridges come pre-populated with. Something could surely be made with this fine assortment of ingredients!

I returned to the book and almost immediately landed on the page for Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash.

I’ve always loved hash, even that crazy Hormel kind in the can with the too-uniform cubes of white and erasure-pink food material (optimists call it potato and something pig-esque). Since becoming a vegetarian in high school, that hash has disappeared from my diet, as has most other hash due to its potato and meat-stuff make-up. Hooray, then, for Theresa Wahl and her veggie-friendly cooking!

I skimmed the recipe’s ingredient list and spied beets, potatoes, onion, garlic and eggs. No, we didn’t have an onion, but we could use one of those peppers perhaps? And instead of the fresh dill and parsley Wahl calls for we could do dried herbs… Any lingering doubts were quashed as I took in the perfectly staged, colorful, close-up photo of the completed dish in all its purple, orange, yellow, white and bright-green glory.

We set to work. I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, while Jon chopped the equivalent of 2½ medium potatoes (we halved the recipe). Next, I peeled and diced the same amount of small beets. Instead of a ½ small onion, Jon de-seeded, de-veined and diced one of those yellowy, bent peppers and then measured the equivalent of 1½ cloves of garlic from our jar of the pre-chopped stuff. It was only then, thanks to our unbearably slow oven, that we tackled the recipe’s first step: pouring 1/8 cup of olive oil into our cast iron pan and heating it to sizzling inside that presumably roaringly hot, dark space.

We tossed all the chopped vegetables with a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, added some dried dill and parsley, and then dumped it into the hot cast iron pan, spreading everything Zen-garden smooth. Scooted back into the oven, it all roasted for 25 minutes.

When the veggies were caramelized and the kitchen smelled more of root vegetable and olive oil than plaster and tools, Jon pulled the cast iron pan from the oven. He scraped and stirred the veggie pile, plus all the brown bits, and then made two round divots…nests, really…in the colorful hash. That’s where the two eggs went after cracking—and before the pan headed back into the oven for a final 3-5 minutes.

The results: First, I must admit that we didn’t listen to the recommended tune “Flavor” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while cooking. We were too focused on all the R&B coming out of Songza.

But the name at least is PERFECT for this recipe. Vegetarian Red Flannel Hash is amazingly flavorful, even with our substitutions. The roasted veggie flavors—sweet-edged savory, tangy gone earthy—are the exactly right match for a poached egg and some yummy herbs. Jon and I scarfed up our portions while Roxy, awake by this time, sleepy-cute and jonesing for Cheerios, looked on in wonder.

“Why is your bowl purple?” she asked when Jon finished.

“Beets!” he sang.

My only question is why the reference to red flannel? Is this good lumberjack food? A nod to the recipe’s colors? Or a wink to the Seattle Sound of the ’90s?

Doesn’t matter. I’ll be making this again.

The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: Introduction

Even though “cooking” these home-renovation days mostly involves making a salad or sautéing up some vegetables, I actually acquired two cookbooks this past week. The first was Peter Miller’s Lunch at the Shop, which arrived in the mail thanks to a KCRW pledge-drive donation made in a fit of NPR gratitude (and corresponding FOX News horror). The second I purchased with great intent (and even greater excitement): The Auntie Em’s Cookbook: A Musician’s Guide to Breakfast & Brunch by Theresa Wahl.

Auntie Em’s is an amazing café down the hill from us in Eagle Rock. We were thrilled to discover it after moving to the neighborhood—a co-worker had rhapsodized about the soups, while another friend couldn’t stop talking about the coconut cupcakes. We tried the place and became instant fans of their creative salads, kick-ass sandwiches and baked goods. Almost as awesome was the vibe—brightly colored, fun, with a bit of a punk rock edge.

It turns out that edge is real: Founder and owner Theresa Wahl used to play in the all-girl band the Red Aunts. Her book opens with comments from café fans you may have heard of (hello, Jack Black, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson & Beastie Boys, and Josh Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers). Following those comes an ode to Mom, Terri’s inspiration, and an introduction titled “From Punk Rock to Pulled Pork” with perfect lines like “In the Red Aunts van, instead of trashy magazines we had stacks of cookbooks and food magazines.” She also explains that, in lieu of wine pairings, her book will match recipes with songs that are particularly suited to rockin’ in the kitchen. I’ll toast to that!

As I paged through the sections, I became more and more pleased with my purchase. Organized by season—while still offering separate “Desserts & Baked Goods,” “Staples” and “Preserving the End of Summer” chapters—the book bursts with must-make recipes. Swiss Chard Gratin. Pear & Cranberry Compote. Something called Green Tomato & Zucchini Chow Chow. And while the coconut cupcakes aren’t included, the café’s famous red velvet cupcakes are.

Perhaps best of all, the cookbook includes photos from Terri’s early years with the band on the road. The best of the lot shows lots of hair, mics and a rapt front row, with the caption “The Red Aunts, rippin’ it.”

I’m totally in love with this cookbook and I haven’t even made anything yet.