Pipe Rigate with Broccoli and Capers


Most people know, but few believe, that I was a vegetarian for 11 years. I have no regrets. What started as an act of pre-adolescent self-rightiousness turned into a decade-long stint. It left me with a deep appreciation of weird, gnarled tubers and difficult squash, as well as a persistent, daily craving for bitter leafy greens.

When I moved to France (an act that effectively ended my vegetarianism), I took with me only two cookbooks: The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Wells’s book was a huge influence on me; it became my neighborhood guidebook, as many of her featured haunts were less than a few meters from my apartment in St-Germain-des-Près. However, it was Madison’s book that became my daily go-to, a constant source of information and inspiration. She showed me what to do with and how to eat so many of the things that I saw in the markets and had never prepared before.

Over the years, I think that I have cooked almost every recipe in the book. If you do every recipe in any cookbook, you start to feel a real intimacy with the cookbook author. Madison was a great teacher. I credit my food fearlessness, not to the hip, new restaurant du jour serving liver and brains, but to Madison. Rutabaga? Bring it on. Kohlrabi? Yeah, baby! Celeriac? Love it!

Another thing Madison taught me? Recipes are great to follow, terrific for ideas, but ultimately you have to find your own style. Now when I turn to her book — or any book for that matter — I feel confident to change it up, switch things around, and adjust it to my taste.

This recipe is originally from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but of course, I’ve played with it a little bit.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds of broccoli

3/4 pound of pipe rigate, lumache, or conchiglie

1/3 cup (or more) extra virgin olive oil

2 fat cloves of garlic, finely minced

1/4 cup of capers, rinsed

Red pepper flakes to taste

The juice from half a lemon

Freshly grated Parmesan

How to prepare:

1. Cut the tops off each stem of broccoli and divide the tops up into small florets. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the stems. Cut the stems into bite-sized pieces, roughly the same size as the florets.

2. Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water. When the pasta is half-way cooked (about 5 minutes), add the broccoli florets and stems. Continue to cook, uncovered, until the pasta is al dente. Drain the pasta and broccoli into a large colander and wipe out the pot.

3. Heat the oil, garlic, and capers over medium heat until fragrant. Add as little or as many red pepper flakes as you like (I like a lot). Sizzle the red pepper flakes in the hot oil for a few seconds, being careful not to let them burn. Add the pasta and broccoli back to the pot with the lemon juice. Toss everything together well.

4. Turn off the heat and transfer everything to a large warmed bowl. Shower the pasta with freshly grated Parmesan and serve immediately.

Very Easy Macaroni and Cheese


Let’s try this again.

After my brothers poo-pooed my mac and cheese last year, I tried another version this year for the holidays. This time I only used pre-shredded Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan — nixing the fancy schmancy Gruyère and smoked mozzerella that are so near and dear to my heart.

And the Parmesan? I used the real stuff. The nutty, fragrant, pungent stuff. A great big wedge of it. To fake out my family, I covertly grated it and surreptitiously snuck it into an empty green Kraft shaker bottle.

Ha! Take that picky eaters!

My brothers also have an aversion to bread crumbs (?!) which led me to make a quick substitution: crushed-up potato chips.

The result? Super easy. Super creamy. A little bland, but the dish was scraped clean.

Score!

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons of unsalted butter

1/4 cup of all-purpose flour

About 4 cups of whole milk, chicken stock, cream, or a mixture of all three

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound of your favorite shape of pasta

8 ounces of shredded sharp Cheddar

4 ounces of shredded Monterey Jack

4 ounces of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup of crushed plain potato chips

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 3- to 4-quart gratin dish or another shallow baking dish.

2. In a kettle of salted boiling water, cook macaroni until just al dente. Drain well.

3. In a heavy saucepan, melt just 6 tablespoons butter over moderately low heat. Add the flour and cook the roux, stirring with a wooden spoon, for about 3 minutes. Add the milk, stock, or cream, a little bit at a time. Don’t stop stirring. Slowly add more liquid until you have roughly 4 to 4 1/2 cups of sauce. Bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring the sauce regularly, until it has thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. In a large bowl, combine the macaroni, the sauce, the shredded cheeses, and Parmesan. Transfer the macaroni mixture to the prepared dish and spread it out evenly.

5. Sprinkle crushed chips over the top of the macaroni and cheese.

6. Bake the macaroni in the middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Homemade Hamburger Helper, Cheeseburger Macaroni


Feeding my brothers and myself must have been a challenge for my mother. Raised in Hong Kong, she grew up with a keen taste for fried dace and chicken feet — something that she failed to pass on to her Americanized kids. Consequently, she found convenience foods to be, well, really convenient!

One of those was Hamburger Helper. You remember it: the prepackaged sodium-bomb, like macaroni and powdered cheese mix but with meat that you had to add. When I started cooking for myself, it was foods like this that I rebelled against, forsaking as well store-bought salad dressings and mayonnaise in favor of making them from scratch like a good little French bonne femme.

Over time, I’ve found that hard feelings against certain foods does soften, and when contemplating what to do with a lone pound of CSA ground beef, I decided to recreate that fresh-from-the-box flavor without the box.

This recipe is a variation on one that appeared on Eating Well’s site called “Hamburger Buddy.” Clearly, that recipe was designed to surreptitiously feed fussy children vegetables by processing their suggested daily servings into indistinguishable purée.

While this might fool kids, it did not fool my boyfriend (“What is this? CARROTS?!).

I actually didn’t mind the carrots, but as adults feeding adults, I don’t think that you need to be so sneaky. Upon reflection, the dish would probably taste closer to the “real” thing if the carrots were omitted. It is quite tasty nevertheless. Betty Crocker be damned!

Ingredients:

3 cloves of garlic, peeled

2 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces (optional, see post above)

10 ounces of white mushrooms, sliced

1 large onion, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 pound of very lean ground beef

2 teaspoons of dried thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups of water

2 cups of chicken stock

8 ounces of elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

8 ounces of sour cream

1 cup of shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley or chives

How to prepare:

1. Fit a food processor with the steel blade attachment. With the motor running, drop in the garlic cloves through the feed tube and process until minced. Add the carrots to the minced garlic and process until finely chopped. Add the onion and pulse until it is roughly chopped.

2. Cook the beef in a large straight-sided skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it is no longer pink. This should take about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms, chopped vegetables, and thyme. Stirring often, cook until the vegetables begin to soften and the mushrooms release their juices, about 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Stir in the water, chicken stock, macaroni and Worcestershire sauce. Bring everything to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the sour cream and the shredded cheese. Adjust seasoning. Simmer, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened, about 2 minutes. Toss in the parsley or chives right before serving, stirring in order to distribute the fresh herbs evenly throughout the pasta.

Macaroni and Cheese


Home for the holidays a few years ago, I decided to make macaroni and cheese from scratch: roux, béchamel, freshly-grated nutmeg, 5 kinds of cheeses (smoked and unsmoked), 3 different pasta shapes, bread crumbs, the whole shebang.

The reception? After poking the golden pile and perfectly crunchy top with suspicion, my brother declared that he preferred the stuff out of the box.

My heart immediately sank. It was like someone telling you that they liked Tang more than fresh-squeezed. My inner cook shook her useless, cheese-stinking fists at the sky and wailed, “Why?!”

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, and as comfort food it should be instantly familiar, recognizable, and convenient. Warm, soothing, and uncomplicated.

For myself, my first “real” mac and cheese was a revelation. Having grown up with the boxed stuff, I found the fussier version so much more satisfying and have never gone back — even if it means I eat it at home a lot less frequently.

In truth, to make it from scratch really isn’t so much fussier; like anything else we cook, there are complex ways to make something as well as simpler ways. My absolute favorite macaroni and cheese recipe comes from Deborah Madison’s cookbook The Savory Way. That recipe is decidedly a lot of work, but it is so worth it. This recipe from sadly defunct Gourmet Magazine is not nearly as complicated, but it is still delicious. Four cups of whole milk from Milk Thistle Dairy made the sauce exceptionally rich and creamy. For the cheese, we had one last scrumptious wedge of Bier Meck from our CSA that we shredded along with a good chunk of raw milk Colby.

Ingredients:

8 tablespoons of unsalted butter

1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour

4 cups of whole milk

1 1/2 teaspoons of dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon of cayenne

1 pound rotini

3 cups coarsely grated “melty” cheese (about 12 ounces of different cheeses is always best)

1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)

1 cup bread crumbs

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 3- to 4-quart gratin dish or another shallow baking dish.

2. In a kettle of salted boiling water, cook macaroni until just al dente. Drain well.

3. In a heavy saucepan, melt just 6 tablespoons butter over moderately low heat. Add the flour and cook the roux, whisking, for about 3 minutes. Add the milk in a stream, whisking while bringing to a boil. Continue to whisk the sauce. Add the mustard powder, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 2 minutes.

4. In a large bowl, stir together the macaroni, the sauce, the grated cheeses, and one cup of Parmesan. Transfer the macaroni mixture to the prepared dish and spread it out evenly.

5. Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in the microwave. In a small bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan, and the melted butter. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the macaroni.

6. Bake the macaroni in the middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.

Spaghetti and Meatballs


In general, the restaurants that are nearest and dearest to my heart are the one’s that are the least complicated. Just straightforward, quality food. Beautifully sourced and expertly prepared. No foams, no fuss.

For this reason, I have always been a big fan of Frankies Spuntino. In the years since opening their doors — first in Carroll Gardens and then on Clinton Street — Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronov’s food has never failed to put a big smile on my face. This is good, solid, tasty cooking at its best.

In June, the gastronomic duo released their first cookbook, The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. It’s a beautiful tome to own, filled with charming fine-line drawings and direct prose. Like their food, it is exceptionally accessible.

This meatball recipe is mostly theirs, though the basic tomato sauce is my own. While making them at home, I forgot to add the eggs, but did not find that the flavor suffered. Maybe my meatballs were a little springier as a result. If I had to do it again, I think that I would do something to make the raisins and the pine nuts not so obtrusive by either substituting golden raisins for dark. Even better still, I think I would use currants. The pine nuts I might think about coarsely chopping too.

Ingredients:

2 slices white bread (about 1 packed cup’s worth)

1 pounds lean ground beef (from High Point Farms if you have it!)

2 finely minced cloves garlic

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus about 1 cup for serving

1/4 cup raisins

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

7 turns white pepper

1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs

Basic tomato sauce

Spaghetti

How to prepare:

1. Heat the oven to 325°F. Put the fresh bread in a bowl, cover it with water, and let it soak for a minute or so. Pour off the water and squeeze the excess out the bread as best as you can. Tear it into tiny pieces.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine the bread with all the remaining ingredients except the tomato sauce and the spaghetti. The mixture should be moist-wet, not sloppy-wet. If the mixture is too moist, you can adjust it by adding more Panko.

3. Gently shape the meat mixture into handball-sized balls. Space them evenly on a baking sheet or arrange them evenly in a large cast-iron pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The meatballs will be firm, but still juicy and gently yielding when they’re cooked through.

4. Meanwhile, reheat the tomato sauce in a deep-sided pan that is large enough to accommodate the meatballs and sauce comfortably.

5. Put the meatballs into the pan of sauce and turn the heat up a little. Simmer the meatballs for no more than half an hour so they can soak up some sauce. Any longer that 30 minutes, and they start to disintegrate.

6. Meanwhile, prepare the spaghetti according to directions.

7. Top each serving of spaghetti with 3-4 meatballs and a healthy helping of the sauce. Shower the bowl with the freshly-grated Pecorino and a little finely chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

Penne with Roasted Chicken and Parsley


I have never liked the term “leftovers.” To me, “leftovers” imply scraps. Superfluous remnants, really. Unwanted and unused remainders. Surplus.

But what remains after one dinner can be the start of the glorious next — sometimes a meal even more treasured than the former. This is the case with this dish.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore roast chicken, but what I love almost more is what follows the roast chicken dinner. I take the carcass and pick off every wonderful and delicious bit that I can. I save the juices and fat in a separate container. The next day, I remove the top layer of cold fat from the juices, which have now solidified into a beautiful amber jelly. I keep the fat for another day when I want to roast potatoes.

Perfectly al dente penne gets tossed with the morsels of meat. The added jellied juices melt into a luscious sauce. A good handful of freshly chopped parsley adds both freshness and crunch.

The result? The most chicken-y pasta in the world. A rich and dense meatiness permeates every mouthful, amplifying the flavor in what was already extremely flavorful chunks of chicken. Believe me, nothing is left over.

Penne with Pepper Sauce and Hot Italian Sausage


Tonight we are very lucky indeed: kind friends have shared a tub of homemade pepper sauce. It’s lovely, creamy, unctuous, with fresh parsley and a spicy kick. They made it from some beautiful bell peppers that they bought in the Hudson River Valley. Absolutely delicious. It was such a treat.

To this, we can only add the very best that we have. I took some of the hot Italian beef sausage from our CSA and roasted it in a 375° oven for about 20 minutes. Maybe it was less, but I lost track of time licking the remainder of the sauce left on the sides of the container.

After letting the sausage rest for a few minutes, we sliced it at an angle and tossed everything together.

Served with a side of local rainbow chard sautéed in minced garlic and olive oil. Does food get any better than this?