Featuring walks and thoughts as I explore my new home

Author: Erin (Page 2 of 14)

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #5: Creamy Peanut Slaw & Recipe #6: Chocolate Fudge Pops

We’re in the home stretch of the recap of the big dinner party. That means it’s time to cover the side dish—Creamy Peanut Slaw—and the dessert—Chocolate Fudge Pops before closing this chapter of Embarrassing Culinary Lessons Learned.

Creamy Peanut Slaw

“Stop serving the same old soggy sadness,” urges Creamy Peanut Slaw’s recipe, “and try this slawsome side dish.” I like a peanuty, tangy, mayo-free slaw, so I was completely game, although why I thought it would be a good side dish for tortilla soup I’m not sure.

I decided to quadruple the recipe for my 14 guests plus me and Jon. That seemed about right since the recipe “makes enough for 4 as a side dish” and I had four times that planning to belly up to the table. How I moved from that simple math to leaving Gelsons 24 hours later with a bulging 45-pound bag of 6 cabbages—three green and three purple—will be one of life’s little mysteries, I guess.

Anyhow. I prepped my vat of slaw the night before by first assembling the peanut dressing. That involved mixing 12 tablespoons of peanut butter, 8 tablespoons of warm water, 12 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 8 tablespoons of lime juice, 4 tablespoons of minced ginger, 6 teaspoons of Sriracha and 2 teaspoons tamari into a bubbling brew. At some point, Jon pointed out that, rather than counting to 12 tablespoons for all these different liquids, I could simply pour ¾ cup but I was In Too Deep at that point. I had a rhythm, and there was no stopping the careful, whispered measuring, the mid-point panic that I’d double-counted, followed by the visual assessment of the puddle in the bowl—Is that what 4 tablespoons of lime juice looks like? Or is it closer to 5?

Step 2—the Slaw—begins with thinly slicing 12 cups’ worth of both purple and green cabbage. I awkwardly grab-rolled four of the cabbages from the fridge’s lowest shelf, which was at that point dedicated to storing nothing but cabbage, and peeled one each with reckless, wasteful abandon. Like an exacting gourmet chef, I decided I’d use nothing but the innermost pristine layers, since, lo and behold, I apparently had cabbage to spare. Even with this frivolous approach, it took only one of each cabbage to fill the recipe’s quota. In fact, I think you could probably get six cups of thinly sliced goodness from a single cabbage without even sharpening your knife.

“What am I going to do with four cabbages?” I yelled down the hall, as I dumped four-carrots worth of shreddlings from the pre-shredded carrot bag into the mighty salad bowl. Jon didn’t bother answering.

To finish, I chopped 1-1/3 cups green onions and scraped the pungent little bands on to the top of the veggie mountain. Then, I sealed up the veggies, poured the dressing into a jar, and stuck everything into the fridge for the night; I’d mix it all the evening of the party.

The results: Holy squirrel, this was a lot of Creamy Peanut Slaw.

It tasted good—lots of crunch, and snapping green freshness—but I think pouring all of the dressing, as instructed, over the veggies was a bit too much. I liked the dressing, too, although it could’ve used even more tamari and Sriracha. The students ate a fair amount of the stuff and some even stirred it inexplicably into their soup. Still, I had buckets left—and four whole cabbages waiting for another one of my brilliant cooking ideas.

Chocolate Fudge Pops

Don’t make these with firm tofu.

The recipe calls for “firm silken tofu” and I couldn’t find it at the store, so I just grabbed whatever tofu and figured I’d make it work. WRONG. Yes, there’s almond milk and semisweet chocolate chips in the filling, but that was clearly not enough to obliterate the sin of poor shopping choices. I heated the milk, melted the chips in a double boiler, and then carefully blended everything with the tofu before pouring the filling into little red cups and plunking a popsicle stick in the middle as they started to firm up in the freezer. And it didn’t matter.

The results: The pops were chocolate-y, yes, but overwhelmingly grainy and unpleasant. And really, really vegan in that disappointing way desserts without dairy often turn out.

MAJOR FAIL.

And at dessert-time! That most important part of the meal.

I solemnly swear I’ll never do the tofu switcheroo again.

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #3: Baked Spicy Plantain Chips & Recipe #4: Tortilla Soup

During April—which included a magnificent five-day camping trip to Death Valley during Roxy’s Spring Break—I got some new perspective on the Big Dinner Thing I threw for the visiting students. These fresh thoughts enabled me to cobble together some personal Entertaining Do’s and Entertaining Don’ts, which I share here:

Stick to cooking familiar, tried-and-true recipes for very large groups of people. For smaller clutches of friends and family, experiment away! But for any event featuring more than 6 or 7 guests, stick to the basics. It’s just less stressful.

If compelled to experiment, tuck the new recipes into harmless corners of the menu—the appetizer lineup, beverages, even a side. If people like the main dish and dessert, they’ll probably leave happy.

Put out plates, silverware, napkins, etc. more than 20 minutes before the guests arrive. If you don’t have enough of anything you can rethink (insert or mix in disposable, unearth those IKEA cocktail napkins that live in the hostess-gift stash in the linen closet, dispatch a loved one to the store).

Follow the recipe’s instructions. Now is not the time to see if firm tofu is an excellent substitute for fluffy-silky tofu.

And there’s probably other stuff, too, which I’ll learn the next time a bunch of folks come over.

So, back to the Thug Kitchen recipes I made for the students…

Baked Spicy Plantain Chips

“This is a chip with some motherfucking backbone,” opens the recipe’s introduction. A confident claim if ever I’ve read one. I also liked the unintimidating look of the 4-step process, so I added this to my menu for the night.

I made these a few hours before the dinner party so that I’d be able to serve them hot, crisp and fresh. First I “cranked” the oven to 400 degrees and misted a baking sheet with cooking spray, which I always do outside on my back deck, which feels only slightly less gross than doing it inside. Next, I attempted to peel the 2 green (as instructed) plantains I bought for the double version of the recipe. This was a sticky, annoying process—lots of peel clinging doggedly to the fruit, lots of fraying peel strings once detached. In fact, the plantain soon turned a sickly gray (from the extensive manhandling, I presume) leading me to abandon the artisanal, by-hand method and grab a knife. I did my best to get the peel-and-just-the-peel off the plantains but probably lost a lot of the fruit in the process. Had I grabbed too green a bunch?

Once I’d peeled those plantains, I sliced them coin-thin. After scrubbing all the stickiness off my hands, I pulled out two of my favorite stacking bowls (yellow and orange). Into the first went 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 tablespoons of lime juice, followed by the plantain coins. I mixed it all until the plantains were beautifully and evenly covered (hint: that’s not how the recipe described it). Then, I scraped the plantains into the second bowl, along with 4 teaspoons chili powder, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper and ½ teaspoon salt, and mixed some more.

To bake the coins, I arranged them into a single layer on the baking sheet and stuck that into the oven for 20 minutes. This proved to be a bit too long for our cranky old oven; the plantains came out on the crispy Cajun-blackened side rather than “golden” as described. Crap.

The results: The recipe says to eat these chips the day they’re made for crisp retention. “Yeah that’s right, crisp retention, some highbrow shit right there.” I tried a few right out of the oven and they were tasty—albeit a tad over-spiced (although that may have been the char talking). I used one to scoop up some Cilantro Bean Dip and that combination was deelish, all sweet-spicy crunch playing nice with the cool blast from the lime and cilantro. Even with the over-baking oops, I thought the chips were a solid B.

Once the students had settled in later that evening, I scraped the plantain chips into a bowl and put them on the coffee table beside the gigantic buckets of tortilla chips I’d already deployed.

Guess which ones disappeared?

Once again, I’d failed to properly think about presentation. Dark little chips in a dark little bowl resembled compost-ready trimmings from an ancient vegetable, not a tasty appetizer. This shit, to borrow a phrase from Thug, needs bright, small and appealing to entice guests to grab and try.

I ate a bunch, Jon ate a bunch. Someone else probably did, too. But there were still leftovers.

Oh well.

Tortilla Soup

I had a hell of a time figuring out how much of this, my main course for the night, to make. It wasn’t like it was raining and cold that week. But it was Friday night after five straight days of volunteering around L.A. and these students would be hungry. Or so I reasoned.

Thus I quadrupled the recipe.

Soup, I also reasoned, would be easy. Only bowls and spoons required…choose your own amount, decorate at will. And I love soup! Other main dishes—lasagna, various bakes and ricey bowls, pad thai—just looked hard.

I made the soup the afternoon of the dinner. This involved chopping up 4 onions (which, in this case, meant opening a bag of frozen diced onions…my one shortcut), 4 carrots and 4 red peppers; spooning 16-cloves’ worth of chopped garlic from my trusty jar (I guess that’s another shortcut, but I always do that); and mincing about 6 jalapeños. Then I pulled out our largest soup kettle and sautéed the gleaming onion mound in some olive oil, followed by the carrot and peppers. Into that tastiness, I dumped the jalapeños, garlic, and veritable anthills of ground cumin, dried oregano, chili powder and salt. Once all that had cooked for about 30 seconds, I added 4 cans of low-salt diced tomatoes plus a cup of tomato paste (you know you’re cooking for a crowd when you measure out an unfathomable CUP of tomato paste). “Make sure that you stir that son of a bitch around enough so that the paste isn’t just sitting in a clump,” Thug advises. Then I poured in 20 cups of vegetable broth.

Uh, huh. 20. You read that right. And around 14 cups or so I realized there was no way all those ingredients were going to fit into one soup kettle.

I grabbed another enormous pot, splashily transferred 7 cups of soup into it and split the remaining broth between the two kettles. I let it all come to a good simmer over medium-high heat.

In the spirit of “taking [it] up a notch,” I tossed in lime juice and piles of corn tortillas (28 or so) that I’d cut into 1-inch squares with my handy kitchen scissors, brought both pots to a gentle simmer yet again and listened to it all bubble quietly away for about 10 minutes while I did some dishes.

The next step calls for firing up your immersion blender and “pulverizing that bastard” (or in my case, the bastard twins) until smooth. Watching immersion blenders do their thing always amazes me. Into the whirling blades go chunks and colors and odd shapes—out comes professional-looking uniformity. It’s a bit of a trip.

To finish up, the recipe says to add any more seasonings the soup may need—I think I put in a bit more salt—and you’re ready to serve.

The results: I chopped up a ton of different yummy toppings for the soup—avocado, cilantro, the rest of the jalapeños—and laid them out in bowls along with the bits from the tortilla chip bag—once everyone was ready to eat. The soup really smelled good: spicy/pungent and hearty without the greasy chicken undertone you often get in restaurants.

I brought out both kettles, stuck in ladles, pointed to the bowls piled at one end of the table, and welcomed everyone to dig in. And dig, ladle, splash, stir and slurp they did!

The soup was pretty spicy—I’d definitely cut down on the jalapeños next time, although I didn’t mind the chili powder and cumin—and really good, especially piled with cool, mellow avocado and tangy-bright cilantro. The soup was filling, too, which wasn’t a surprise given all those chopped tortilla squares.

The students seemed to like the soup; many had seconds and a few thirds. Jon wandered in from the office to grab another bowlful, too. Even so, at the end of the night, after everyone had Ubered off into the misty dark, I had GALLONS left. The only vessel big enough to hold it all was our giant 6.8-liter Tupperware container usually reserved for cakes and storing all the other Tupperware.

We enjoyed the leftovers for three, maybe four nights. Then, we dragged the sloshing remains up the hill and poured them into the compost.

 

 

Thug Kitchen–Recipe #1: Ginger-Lime Sparklers & Recipe #2: Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

As the Ancient Greeks intoned from their stony Delphic perch, it’s important to know thyself.

I sort of know myself. I know, for example, that I am impatient with computers, have an inexplicable weakness for Keanu Reeves, avoid ketchup like the plague and love reading in bed late into the night.

I also know that I’m not very good at cooking for large groups of people.

It’s not that the desire isn’t there. I like throwing parties, dinners, brunches and dessert things. They’re opportunities to throw open the door, welcome loved ones in and nurture them with homemade deliciousness.

I’m just not very good at it.

To be more specific, I’m not very good at figuring out HOW MUCH TO COOK.

Last month I made dinner for 14 Pomona students at the end of their Alternabreak. They showed up in three shiny Ubers, deposited a mountain of backpacks on the floor and proceeded to be delightful, fun, interesting, appreciative and a lovely reminder that [college] kids are still [college] kids in spite of old folks’ worries about technology swallowing them whole.

Cracking open my brand-new copy of Thug Kitchen, I made half the menu the night before the dinner; the other half the afternoon of. Here’s how it all went—in two-recipe posts.

Ginger-Lime Sparklers

As the recipe’s intro promises: “No need to sit on your ass waiting around for syrups to boil and cool. You can have this fizzy ginger limeade ready in less than 5 minutes.” That’s mostly true. The recipe serves four, which is great in my everyday life, but a pain in the tush when cooking for 14. So, times-ing twice, and then twice again, I cut four limes into small wedges and tossed them in my blender, along with 6 tablespoons of fresh minced ginger, 12 tablespoons of agave syrup and 4 cups of water. “Yeah, the whole fucking lime,” as the recipe says. “Just have some faith.” I blended the concoction on high—Mix button, then Puree button for good measure—for about a minute.

Next, I dragged our large fine-mesh sieve out of the way-low cupboards, plunked it over a bowl and strained the blender’s contents. Into the compost bin went the pulp, and into our largest pitcher went the liquid, along with another four cups of water. At this point, the pitcher was nearly full, but I gently stirred the contents a few times without losing too much to slosh. Once I realized I still needed to add the tonic water, I poured half the liquid into another pitcher and then equally divided 12 CUPS of tonic water into the two pitchers.

The results: Once everyone was crowded around the coffee table munching on pita chips, tortilla chips, salsa and dip, I announced the Ginger-Lime Sparklers. About 10 of the students wanted one—and slurped them up as I doled them out. Everyone pronounced them delicious.

I totally agreed. The ginger-lime combo is a no-brainer that stretches back to our Caribbean and Indian ancestors, if not further. The tangy-sharp green of the lime pairs perfectly, comfortably, with the earthy-sweet hum of ginger. Mixed with tonic water in a tall cup of ice, the sparkler is utterly refreshing—the very definition of brisk without swerving into menthol territory. I’d make this again in a heartbeat. And I bet adding a fistful of fresh mint to the blender might not be a bad idea either.

Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

“This savory dip can elevate even the lamest party,” brags the recipe’s introduction. “YES, IT’S THAT FUCKING GOOD. It has the power to make you cool.”

I was sold, especially when I noticed the recipe is only four sentences long.

First sentence: “Throw all of that shit in a food processor and run until creamy.” “That shit” would be—and I doubled this, my first mistake—a little over four cups of canned black beans, 2/3 cup veggie broth, 4 cloves garlic, juice from 2 limes, several pinches of salt, 1 teaspoon chili powder, ½ cup chopped cilantro and 1 cup chopped green onions.

The second sentence offers an alternative to a food processor—a potato masher—so I ignored it.

Third sentence: “Serve warm, room temperature, or cold.” Check.

Fourth sentence: “This is a dope spread for a wrap or sandwich, too.”

The results: After making this on Thursday night, I sampled some with a cracker. Although it looked like sludge—a purple-brown, oddly, even with all that green matter in it—the taste was divine. The veggie broth, plus all that lime juice, elevate this from typical bean-dip boring to a much fresher, zippier land.

The problem was, on the night of the dinner party, we (because by now Jon was helping out, God love him) didn’t present it correctly. We scraped the dip into a single dark-blue bowl, arranged it on the coffee table with the chips and salsas, and there it sat, mostly untouched.

I should’ve dusted it with a garnish—maybe more chopped cilantro? Or a few crumbles of feta cheese perhaps (although with one lactose intolerant student in the mix I was trying to avoid dairy entirely). Even chip crumbs would’ve worked. But a big lonely blob of dark whatever in a bowl just doesn’t scream out “Taste me now.”

When I looked back at Thug Kitchen’s own presentation of the dip on its opening pages to the chapter “Dip, Dip, Pass Motherfucker” I saw that they did it right, using a small, even cute, bright yellow bowl for contrast and containment. I’d totally dip a chip into that. Lesson learned.

Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F&ck—Introduction

Thug Kitchen, one of 2014’s bestselling cookbooks, arrived on my doorstep last week encased in its Amazon cardboard wrapper.

It’s a fucking good thing, too.

Months ago I offered to host a dinner for 14 Pomona College students in my home. I felt generous of spirit, eager to learn from and share with young people attending my alma mater, and happy to support their “Alternabreak” volunteer activities at several L.A. nonprofits. The uplift! The good karma! The networking!

Well, here we are the week of—in fact they’ll be here in 48 hours—and I couldn’t be less prepared.

I blame expectations. Expectation #1: Take-out won’t be served. Expectation #2: The house will be clean. Expectation #3: Sparkling conversation will occur.

I’m having a hard time moving from frazzled and paralyzed to eager and productive. My week has been busier than expected; I’ve also successfully procrastinated for several evenings in a row. Worst of all, I can’t decide on the menu.

And did I say one of the students is lactose intolerant?

Say a huge fucking prayer for Thug Kitchen. Published by Rodale in New York, the 212-page book is written by Thug Kitchen LLC. That caused a bit of a double-take when I first read it. Is that a person? A club? Some Girl Scouts? Google says it’s Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis, whoever they are, but I rather like how TK puts it on their website: “This site is here to help your narrow dietary mind explore some goddamn options so that you can look and feel like a fucking champ.”

Well, then.

All the recipes are vegan and the book, which looks and feels great, has one of those durable matte, full-color covers that makes you want to pet it and dive right in.

The tone of the book, like the site and the blog and the posts and all that other crap, is hilarious. More importantly, it’s wise and straightforward and encouraging. The intro serves as their manifesto—why they feel everyone, not just fancy people who talk a certain way, should and can make tasty, healthy food without killing themselves and the planet. I like this Every Person ethos.

I also like the writing, especially when they’re explaining something to a cooking newbie: “If you don’t like an ingredient, say mushrooms, then don’t try a recipe where the main ingredient is a motherfucking mushroom. And don’t go thinking you can just leave out some core ingredient like that and the dish will still work out. That shit is not going to fly in any recipe. EVER.

“Don’t fucking email us when you try switching bananas out for bell peppers and you’re disappointed with how it tasted,” TK continues. “You did that shit. Not us. Own it.”

I could keep typing lines from the cookbook all day, but I’ll stop. Needless to say, after much page turning and calculating, I finally came up with the following Amazing Dinner Plan:

* Ginger-Lime Sparklers

* Creamy Black Bean and Cilantro Dip

* Baked Spicy Plantain Chips

* Creamy Peanut Slaw

* Tortilla Soup (“This old-school Southwestern soup is so goddamn good, even your grandma would approve. Just don’t let her catch you swearing in the house.”)

* and, for dessert, Chocolate Fudge Pops

DAMN.

I don’t swear this much in a calendar year, so there’s something cathartic about reading lines like “You are going to be one clever culinary motherfucker when we are done with you. Let’s get to fucking work.”

Yes, ma’am. The clock is ticking.

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: The results

Patricia Wells’ Trattoria is a terrific cookbook. Sure, it’s 22 years old, but there are plenty of lovely things in the world that are 22 that shouldn’t be dismissed—that cute blond actor from The Hunger Games, for example—so why should it?

The Trattoria recipes I tried were tasty and no-nonsense, while still packing plenty of flavor and rising above the ho-hum. The Tomato sauce was simple and perfect; the Milanese Vegetable Soup comforting and delicious; and the Risotto, while a tad one-dimensional, still tasty and a good option for a mid-week meal. The recipes I dog-eared for later, including the Celery Salad with Anchovy Dressing (or Insalata di Puntarella in Italian, which sounds like something served in a fairy tale) and the Pasta and Bean Soup, are high on my list for March.

When I first posted that I’d be cooking from Trattoria, my friend Justine commented that she loves the book…and then proceeded to rattle off a few favorite recipes pronto when asked. It’s that kind of collection: memorable, a go-to for years to come.

This got me thinking about the hot cookbooks of the moment, so I hunted down 2014’s best-selling tomes. They included some obvious ones: Plenty and More Plenty by He-Who-Worships-the-Vegetable, Yotam Ottolenghi; the hyper trendy Practical Paleo; and the annoyingly sanctimonious The Oh She Glows Cookbook: Over 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out.

The list also includes the provocatively titled Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*&k…which I had my doubts about until I cracked it open online and found the best cookbook chapter title I’ve ever read: “Big-Ass Cup of Cozy” (for Soups and Stews, of course).

I immediately purchased a copy and will report back soon.

Which of these cookbooks will endure? I can only wonder since I haven’t cooked from any of them. But when I think back on some of the of-the-moment cookbooks I have tried, The I Hate to Cook Book from the ’60s, and that awful Smoothies guide from the ’90s, I’m doubtful many of them will make the leap to Classic Status (and certainly not anything with the word “paleo” in the title).

Trattoria, I know we’ll be cooking buds for years to come. You’re the little black dress of the cookbook world—versatile, fabulous for most any cook, comfortable yet snazzy.

In fact, my only complaint (other than with the slightly Chef Boyardee aspect of the risotto) is with some of Wells’ English translations for the Italian recipe titles.

“Coffee and Mascarpone Ladyfinger Cream” for tiramisu?

That might not be, shall we say, dinner party ready.

The results: 9 spatulas

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.

Random Bon Appétit recipes: Part Four—Meyer Lemon Cream with Graham Crackers and Sea Salt

Over Super Bowl weekend my in-laws were in town from Seattle to help celebrate Roxy’s ninth birthday and, of course, watch the Big Game (yeah, we know how that went). Our weekend thus whiplashed from afternoon tea at a rose petal- and chandelier-filled Glendale shop on Saturday, to the grunting-crashing-leaping-sprinting-tossing-fumbling-guilt-inducing spectacle that is high-stakes pro football on Sunday.

Like many dutiful Americans, we planned a hearty Super Bowl feast (grilled salmon, gougères, quinoa salad and shrimp salad) because the guacamole, tortilla chips, veggies, hummus, shrimp and cheese board that we’d laid out at the start of the game was somehow not going to fill everyone up.

Knowing dessert would need to be a light, barely there affair, I decided to make Meyer Lemon Cream with Graham Crackers and Sea Salt for dessert. I ripped this recipe out of the February 2014 issue of Bon Appétit months earlier intrigued by its simplicity and the sparkling words “Meyer lemon” since that almost always means yummy in my book.

Uncharacteristically, I’d read the recipe through the night before, so I knew the dessert would need to chill two hours prior to serving. Consequently, I got to work around noon, with the kitchen door flung open to the beautiful Los Angeles day.

The simple process started with cooking three eggs, 2/3 cup sugar and ½ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice over medium heat, while “whisking constantly,” for 10 minutes. The goal is to thicken the ingredients without scalding them.

Next, I scraped the pale yellow mixture into my blender and turned it on the lowest speed.

The recipe makes a big deal out of this, warning “you’re not trying to aerate the mixture, so keep blender on low speed.” Problem was: I had no idea if Stir was faster than Mix or Blend faster than Chop on my Osterizer, so I had to punch through the entire lineup of buttons before settling on Grind.

Into the whirlpool of lemony-sugary-egg I gradually added 2 tablespoons of butter that I’d chopped into tiny slices. With each drop of a butter pellet, the blender’s contents grew paler and (slightly) thicker. After finishing, I poured the curd into a glass bowl, covered it and tucked it into the fridge for a few hours of chilling. Then, I zested a lemon and, with the back of a wooden spoon, pounded six graham crackers tucked into a plastic bag into bits.

The results: As the evening light faded into the dark, fuzzy gray that is Mt. Washington at night, I prepared dessert. The game was over, spirits subdued and stomachs more than full.

I pulled the curd out of the fridge. It had firmed up and settled on a cheerful sunshine yellow. I slowly stirred in 1½ cups of chilled heavy cream, which both loosened the curd and returned it to a paler, pastel Easter-party hue. Then, I found four small bowls and spooned a serving of the cream into each one, followed by a sprinkling of the smashed graham crackers, followed by another dollop of cream, followed by a dash of fresh lemon zest and a sprinkling of sea salt. I could’ve really gone for the parfait effect and chosen glass bowls and added two extra layers, but no one needed the extra calories.

I served the group and we all grabbed our spoons.

And, basically, wow.

The Meyer Lemon Cream was incredible: silky smooth, lemony sweet with just the right amount of tart. The graham cracker bits are a brilliant addition giving the luscious curd a perfect, slightly salty crunch, while the zest layers on a refreshing intense pop of citrus juice. The recipe couldn’t be easier (well, I guess the whisking is a bit of a chore) and the results look fresh, inviting and light.

A total winner.

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.

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