Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday.
If I could, I would have made these gnocci alla romana for him, warm and rich, covered in Marcella Hazan’s butter-onion-tomato sauce, with meatballs on the side. There would be a big green salad, crusty garlic bread, and a bottle of red wine. Homemade ice cream—I think vanilla with bourbon pecans—topped with warm berries. We would have had a little Scotch afterward, something I never got to do with him because teaching myself to like whiskey was a project I undertook after his death.
Today, if he were here, I know that we would have talked about the earthquake in Nepal, about how David Brancaccio acknowledged the “awkward” transition from news about lack of water and basic medical supplies in an underdeveloped nation to stock reports from the world’s richest countries on Marketplace this morning. I wonder what my dad would say about the arguments that will begin in the Supreme Court tomorrow, arguments that—either way—will impact his daughter’s, and his grandson’s future. I like to think that his opinion would have shifted in the last nine years, the way that opinions have shifted all over this country in such a historically short period of time. I like to think that. It’s a useful fiction.
Tonight, instead, my mom and my son and my hopefully-someday-soon-legally-recognized spouse and I went out to dinner and raised a toast to the man whose life was unexpectedly cut short almost nine years ago. We toasted“L’Chaim”—to life—because toasts are sort of like prayers, words that build things when we declare them. To life. There are tiny humans growing in the bellies of two of my closest friends. To life. There are junebugs and roly-polys milling around my backyard, plucked by the hand of my son and brought to show me. To life. There are tomatoes on the vine, black and blue berries, too. To life. There is the news that we came home to, anger and judgement and a reality that is not new but is perhaps being newly seen. To life. To missing lives, to angry lives, to lives in crisis, to lives that have been all but exhausted. To lives of excess. To lives of service. To ordinary lives that are usually, upon closer examination, anything but. No matter the kind of life, death is the end game for us all; let this compel us into urgency but do not let it drive us to despair. To life. To life. To life.
“Tell me you believe the world is made up of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals,
that anything, everything is still possible.” –Mary Szybist
Happy birthday, Papa. I love you.
GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA
Recipe composite from Saveur & Lucky Peach
One of my mom’s favorite restaurants in town makes a killer version of these, so I decided to try and replicate them a few weeks ago when having her over for dinner. It turns out that gnocchi alla Romana are a breeze to make compared to their more traditional, potato-based cousin. They are so delicious that Jill, Shiv, & my Mom all went after seconds—and thirds. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. I plan to make this in the future for company, since you can do the main work ahead of time, then pop them in the oven to heat when you’re ready to serve.
You can serve them plain, but topping them with this simple but luscious tomato sauce really takes them over the edge.
4 cups milk
1 ½ cups semolina
1 ½ cups Parmesan (divided)
8 T unsalted, softened butter, divided
2 egg yolks, beaten
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Bring milk to a simmer in a large saucepot; reduce heat to low. Add the semolina very, very slowly and gradually, whisking the entire time. (Do not dump the semolina in, or you will end up with a giant, lumpy, clump—not that I would know from experience or anything).
Cook the semolina, whisking frequently, until the mixture is solid but soft, about 8-10 minutes. Whisk in ½ cup of the cheese, 4 T of the butter, & both egg yolks. Season to taste with salt & pepper; remove from heat.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with buttered parchment. Pour the semolina onto the sheet and smooth with an offset spatula—you are aiming for an even layer, about 1/2-inch thick. Allow the mixture to cool until firm. (If you are planning to make tomato sauce, this is an excellent time to do it!)
Heat your oven to 500° or as close to that as you can get. You can either use a knife to cut gnocchi squares, or use a biscuit/cookie cutter to make circles. The squares are more efficient, the circles more aesthetically pleasing. Either way, don’t waste your scraps! They are delicious.
Layer your gnocchi in a buttered baking dish, overlapping them slightly. You will probably end up with 2 layers of gnocchi; sprinkle each layer with half of the remaining cheese and dot with half of the remaining butter. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes; if needed, you might want to crank up the broiler for the last 3-5 minutes to achieve the lovely browning you’re after. Serve with warm tomato sauce (optional) and even more cheese.
“It’s too good, Ms. Mehra,” they said. “This one’s just too good.”
They were talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a five-page stunner of a short story with a dystopian premise that, though it was published in 1961, still feels all-too-imaginable. Set in 2081, Vonnegut imagines an America in which all are finally “equal,” an equality achieved through whatever means necessary by the United States Handicapper General. Any citizens with above-average strength, intelligence, or talent are weighted down (in some cases, literally) by handicaps that keep them from achieving anything beyond mediocrity. It’s a brilliant piece, and my Creative Writing students—seventeen high-school seniors—balked at the notion that they were being asked to imitate it.
“Don’t worry about trying to be Vonnegut,” I told them. “What I’m interested in seeing is whatever your vision of a plausible dystopian future looks like.”
Dystopia is by no means a new genre, but it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly within the world of young adult (YA) literature. The Hunger Games series is the most well-known, with the Divergent trilogy close behind; Lois Lowry’s The Giver is older (published in 1993), but was recently made into a film. And there are plenty of others: the Legend trilogy, the Uglies series, the Delirium trilogy, Matched and its sequels, Feed, The House of the Scorpion, and The Maze Runner series are among the best.
Personally, I don’t think this popularity is an accident. Since my first year teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to eighth graders, I’ve been convinced that there’s something about our particular time period that creates the need for dystopia as a genre. All good literature is reflective of what is, of the truths of the human condition and human behavior, but good dystopia goes beyond simply holding up a mirror; it holds up the mirror and it issues a warning.
It may sound hyperbolic to say so, but I’m pretty sure the reason dystopia has become so popular is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between it and reality. A large chunk of Antarctica is melting, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and there are giant TV screens in Beijing that project virtual sunrises because the air is too thick with smog for residents to see the actual sun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about the fact that, by 2016, it’s predicted that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than the remaining 99% .We could talk about the militarization of the police force. We could talk about the (lack of) internet neutrality and privacy. We could talk about our intense dependence on technology and pharmaceuticals. We could talk about species extinction. We could talk about human overpopulation.
I have received such wonderful feedback on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” an essay I wrote for Guernica Magazine, which was linked to on NPR (!) over the weekend. People have written me to tell me that they saw their family in mine, their lived experience in our lived experience, and reading the piece was tremendously affirming; others have written to say that they found the piece confronting, and that reading it was uncomfortable and forced them to examine and reevaluate their own perspective. Both categories of response are gratifying, as I could not ask for anything more than for my words to both uplift and challenge. This is what I want when I read, so it is truly moving to hear that I have done this for others.
At the same time, I know there are lots of people—many of whom, I’m told, have made their opinions known in the public comments section the NPR website (I’ve followed the first rule of the internet and kept myself from reading any of them)—who want to write me off as an easily offended, holier-than-thou, fill-in-the-blank. This is the byproduct, I was reminded by a very wise friend, of “directing attention to things many, many people would just as soon ignore, and some will openly deny in spite of empirical evidence.”
My students rocked their assignment, like I knew they would. Because, contrary to popular belief, teenagers pay attention. They are keen observers—and critics—of the world around them, and the adults in it. I am heartened by their willingness to look at, and talk about, unpleasant things. I am inspired by their sharp-sightedness and ability to self-critique. Spending class time with them, reading their work—I am humbled and hopeful. Because nothing can even start to get better until we look the ugly stuff square in the eye.
I know this is ostensibly a food blog, and I still love—and love to make—food as much as I always have. But, let’s face it, NPR or no NPR, I have a very active two-and-a-half-year-old who wants to choreograph my weekend (“Dance, mama!” “Hide, mama!” “Run, mama!”) and I want to let him. I swear we could—should a windfall of extra cash magically appear—employ someone full time to do laundry and keep our house even marginally clean. There is always so much grading, and there are friends to whom I wish to give attention and none of this is a complaint, truly, rather an explanation for why you’ve got a picture for one, but not both, of the recipes mentioned here, and why I am linking to them like a lazy-bones instead of recreating them in my own words. Maybe next time?
The more important thing to know, though, is that I have made this ratatouille recipe twice and it’s brilliant. Aside from a lot of chopping, it’s very hands-off, as it cooks slowly in the oven and makes your house smell amazing. It’s dreamy with bread, of course, but also works well as a side to whatever meat you might be grilling or broiling or pan-cooking. Shiv liked it mixed in with “noo noos,” a.k.a. noodles, the beloved food of all toddlers.
Speaking of noodles, I had a half-container of mascarpone that a friend pawned off on me and wanted to use it for something savory. This baked pasta recipe proved a wonderful starting point for a few substitutions: first, I subbed in cooked broccoli for the mushrooms, and second, when making the sauce, I added a bit of flour to the pan after browning the onions but before adding the mascarpone, to thicken it and add a bit of body. Jill loves non-tomato-sauce pasta, so this was a big hit with everyone. I actually pre-made the pasta the night before we were going to eat it, let it cool, then covered it with foil and stashed it in the fridge. Heating it back up in the oven the next night made dinner very easy, and we had leftovers for a few days—always a win!
Today is the day that a robot landed on a comet because a team of human beings did intense work calculating how to get it there, and then a million things went right, and then it did.
This is why I am not going to write a whole post about why I haven’t posted here in over a month. I got sick, I was busy, whatever—it’s not interesting and it profoundly does not matter in the scheme of things.
Here’s something that matters—last Friday, Jill and Shiv and I were dancing around in the back yard after dinner. It’s so dark so early these days, so Jill made a fire and the three of us were being loopy and goofy in that end-of-the-week sort of way. Somehow, we started to sing in faux opera style, which Shiv thought was great. He started interpretive dancing and asking for “more ooo-ooo music!” so we came inside and broke the Sabbath so that I could pull up a video of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” with the New York Philharmonic circa 1980.
Our kid sat, enraptured, watching one of the greatest opera singers of all time sing one of the most beautiful arias of all time. When the video was over, without any prompting from us, he pushed the “play” button to watch it again. And again. And again. He sat in my lap, perfectly still (a rareity) and watched that video half-a-dozen times. I swear I could feel his soul grow.
It’s just so insane to me, the grace that brought this being into my life and that has entrusted me with his care. It’s crazy humbling and so much fun, watching him figure out who he is and what he wants from the world.
I am teaching Whitman right now, among other things, and I love him so much it makes me delirious. I’m sure my students think I am a madwoman, raving and pacing around the classroom about the brilliance of this old bearded dead dude. But he is one of the pole stars by which I have guided myself all these years, and to whom I hope my son will someday refer. His work is, for me, like a sacred text, words I can return to over and over again throughout my life, drawing more meaning with each reading.
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
We read these lines now and they feel so conventional to us, so expected and cliché that it’s difficult to convey fully the truly radical nature of Whitman’s thought within his time. When Leaves of Grass was first published, reviewers called it “vile” and suggested that the author of such work ought to be flogged in the streets; that is how offensive his notions of equality, of egalitarianism, of the importance of the body in all of its functions, of the beauty of the ordinary day, moment, experience.
A new and unexpected friendship, a student who takes the poetry-writing assignment seriously when you totally thought he wouldn’t, the generosity and graciousness of strangers, a little boy who calls you “Mama” when it still sometimes catches your breath that anyone does.
No shortage of things to be thankful for here.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH CARBONARA
barely adapted from Bon Appetit
I made this a few weeks ago and only have the one iPhone picture to show for it, but man it was good. Much as I love pasta with tomato sauce, it’s nice to take a break from that and do something different. Shiv is pretty well obsessed with “noo noos” (noodles), so every other week or so, I try to give the people what they want.
There are a handful of steps here, but none of them are hard. I was able to pull this together on a weeknight whil Jill was teaching a class and it was just me & Shiv home, so that speaks well for its doability. Also, if you want to plan ahead, you can make the butternut squash puree ahead of time—it should keep in the fridge for a few days.
Because we had about a half a container of baby greens wilting in the fridge, I folded them in at the end of the cooking process (right after taking the picture above) and they added both a nice color contrast as well as a note of bitter to play against the sweetness of the squash. I’d do it again.
4 oz. pancetta, chopped
small handful fresh sage leaves, whole
3 cups peeled, seeded, & cubed butternut squash (half inch cubes or somewhere thereabouts)*
1 small onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1 lb. pasta of your choice—I used pappardelle; original recipe calls for fettucine or linguine
salt & pepper
to serve: Pecorino or Parmesan or the hard, salty cheese of your choice
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pancetta until it is crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a small bowl. Add more oil to the skillet if needed and quick-fry the sage leaves for just a minute or two until they are crisp, then transfer to the same bowl as the pancetta.
In the same skillet that you just cooked the pancetta & sage in (delicious flavor in there!), cook the squash, onion, and garlic over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the onion is translucent, then add the broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until the squash is soft and the liquid has reduced considerably, about 15-20 minutes.
Allow the squash to cool a bit, then use an immersion blender to blend until smooth. (Alternately, you can transfer to a conventional blender, but if you do this, you will need to let the squash cool a bit longer first.) Taste and season the mixture with salt & pepper.
Cook your pasta until al dente—you will be cooking it a bit more in the next step, so don’t over-cook it now! Drain the pasta and reserve about a half cup of cooking liquid. In the same old big skillet, combine the pasta, squash puree, and ¼ cup of the cooking liquid and cook over medium heat, tossing everything around until the sauce coats the pasta. (Add more cooking liquid as needed to thin the sauce.) This step should only take a few minutes.
Remove from heat and crumbled the pancetta and sage over the skillet, plus a generous amount of cheese!
*I usually advocate saving money & prepping your own vegetables, but butternut squash is the exception; those things are a damn pain to peel & break down. I am a big fan of the Costco pack of prepped squash!
Ever have a moment where you can see yourself from outside of yourself, for just a split-second of time? And after it happens, the image is super tricky to process, so you’re not sure if you’re making it up or if you really saw what you think you just saw, because it’s disconcerting as hell, but then you get a glimpse of a little nugget of clarity: an insight, a revelation, and the truth of it hits you squarely and you know that you are right about what you saw.
That happened to me yesterday. Fitting that such insight should come on New Year’s Day: auspicious even. Of course, seeing oneself clearly is not always a particularly pleasant experience; over the years, I have devised a million ways to avoid, deflect, and grow defensive whenever I see something about myself that I don’t like.
My thoughts were born out of a winter-break experiment that I planned and took on with a dear friend; she is also a mama who works in the field of education, and together we pledged to take on a kind of social media “fast” for the days that we were off of school. Neither one of us faults the media itself, of course, but wished instead to examine how we were engaging with things like Faceboook, Twitter, and Instagram, and to recalibrate and re-set our relationships with our computers and phones.
The hard truth that we had each come to realize is that we were letting our devices take attention away from our families; instead of being present, we would, as a default, rush to “capture the moment,” often so that we could share it with others via social media. In its purest essence, the impulse to share pieces of our lives is a healthy one, but if I’m honest, for me that impulse often becomes something more performative and affirmation seeking, showing off and/or comparing my life to others. It’s shockingly easy to forget that we all select and filter (in the case of Instagram, literally) what we do and don’t share online—other people’s lives can look deceptively and perfectly styled. And then there are the hours I’ve spent scrolling aimlessly on social media, not really seeking or finding anything of value or substance, but rather, letting myself be thoughtlessly sucked in, the net result of which is wasted time, with annoyance as a by-product.
Cue yesterday’s revelation. As said above, social media/my phone/my computer are but tools, and I choose how to use them. So by taking them out of the equation, I simply forced my psyche to show its hand, so to speak, by inevitably finding another thing to be distracted with or consumed by. I had said, at the outset, that I wanted my winter break to be largely plan-less, filled with time to nest and organize at home, play with my kid, spend time with family and friends, and do some much needed reading and writing—and I did a fair amount of that. I have spent wonderful time with family and friends, hung out a lot with my awesome kid, read one amazing book, and cleaned out parts of the house, taking big bags to Goodwill and upgrading my pantry from a disaster area to a functional space.
But I have also managed to be quite busy: cooking, planning, visiting, hosting, coordinating. I have taken on things—things I enjoy, things that are not bad—but things that directly contradict what I said I wanted out of this break. In the immortal words of the Beastie Boys, Listen all of y’all, it’s a sabotage.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with the things I spent my time doing over the last few days; I had a wonderful time and I don’t regret any of it. But I didn’t get a lick of writing done. I gave up that time by filling it with all kinds of other things; I made myself busy and I set myself up to fail. It’s time, I realized, to interrupt the identity I’ve structured for myself, an identity that’s become so fixed that it occurs for me as simply who I am. “But that’s just what I do!” I protested, when Jill, at my request for coaching, gently pointed these things out to me. “Right,” she said. “But you choose all that, and you can choose something else.”
After Jill’s cancer, and again after I got my sanity back, almost exactly a year ago this month, I swore that I wouldn’t revert to my old ways, that I would work hard to remain focused on what truly mattered, instead of letting myself be distracted by all the various bits of chatter in the atmosphere…and it seems I need a reminder again, a spot of discipline and some new tricks to interrupt the old ones.
Which brings me to this: I’m going to take a break from the blog for a few months. I haven’t been pleased with the quality of my posts of late, and rather than keep producing more of the same, I want to see if I can’t break out of the hitherto established Blue Jean Gourmet identity and re-engage with food and writing on their own terms. April is when I plan to be back, hopefully with some new tricks and energy up my sleeve.
I hope you will understand and not be too inconvenienced by my absence; sometimes I forget that there are actually real people out there actually reading my blog. Whenever you post a comment or send me a note to let me know that you tried one of my recipes, it means more than you might think.
Leaving you with one new recipe—a pasta perfect for colder temperatures—along with a list of winter favorites that you might like. See y’all in the spring! xoxo–Nishta
BRUSSELS SPROUTS CARBONARA
barely adapted from Philip Krajeck, chef at Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters, via Bon Appetit
We’re quite the carbonara lovers in my house, so I knew we had to try this the minute I saw it. The original recipe also provides instructions for making your own oriecchiette from scratch, which I have not yet attempted; I have also taken to zesting a Meyer lemon on top of each bowl of pasta, and love what the flavor does to help cut the fattiness of the dish.
1 lb. oriecchiette (fresh or dried; you can also use another small pasta shape)
12 oz. Brussels sprouts, trimmed, leaves separated
4 oz. guanciale or pancetta, finely chopped
½ cup grated Pecornio Romano
6 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 egg yolks, beaten to blend
Kosher salt & coarsely ground black pepper
Get a pot of salted water going; when it boils, cook your pasta until al dente (~5 minutes for fresh pasta, almost twice as long for dried). Drain the pasta but reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, cook the Brussels sprouts leaves until they are partially charred, about 5 minutes. Transfer the leaves to a plate and set aside. If there are any pieces of Brussels sprouts left in the skillet, wipe it out before the next step.
Heat another tablespoon or so of olive oil in the same skillet over medium heat and cook the guiancale or pancetta, stirring regularly until it’s crisp. Add ½ tsp. black pepper to the pan and cook briefly, until fragrant, before adding half of the pasta cooking liquid. Reduce the heat to low and add the butter gradually, swirling the skillet as you go, then add as much of the remaining pasta liquid as you need to create a thick, glossy sauce.
Add the cooked pasta and the Pecorino to the skillet, tossing to combine. Remove the skillet from the heat and mix in the egg yolks. Add the reserved Brussels sprout leaves and toss, thinning with any remaining pasta liquid or hot water, if needed.
Top with more Pecorino, if desired.
Y’all. I’m so out of control. So far this weekend, I have: baked these scones, this brioche (which yielded two hella-good hamburger buns and one bundt pan’s worth of sweet bread fortified with Amaretto-soaked raisins) and my new favorite banana bread, made a fresh batch of yogurt and these really tasty oatmeal pancakes, assembled kickass homemade hamburgers, baked sweet potato fries, prepped a few things for this week’s lunch, and rendered lard and made tortillas for the first time.
Are there other things I could be (six months ago I would have said “should be”) doing? Of course. But I can’t remember the last time I had this much time in my kitchen, nor do I know when I will have this much again, and right now it feels really, really, really good.
Jill is having surgery on Friday; we are done with chemo (for right now and hopefully forever) which means it’s time to remove the tumor that chemotherapy did manage to shrink down a bit. Her procedure, which necessitates the opening of the chest and the cutting of the breast bone, is common in the broad sense, but of course completely uncommon, to us. And in moments completely terrifying.
Here’s the thing about terror—it’s real. It’s real, and it can mess you up. But it can also, I think, be useful. The thought of losing Jill, of living my life without her, of her no longer existing in the world? Probably the worst thing I can imagine. Actually, after my dad died, all I did was imagine it. Endlessly, as I sat talking to her over the phone, I would disappear it all in my mind: her voice, her being, our conversation, our togetherness. That terror kept me at arm’s length from her for some months.
But eventually you have to choose: arm’s length or terror. So while I swirl around in this kitchen, while we invite friends out for “We’re Going to Be Boring For a While So Come Do Fun Things With Us Now” dinners, while we eat and laugh and even manage to watch a Netflix DVD we’ve had since January, you’d better believe that terror is along for the ride. He’s not the focus of our conversation; every once in a while we acknowledge that he exists. And while he may not be the most glamorous houseguest, his presence can morph the most ordinary day into the most extraordinary one.
SPICY PORK NOODLES
adapted from Ruth Reichl
Because, let’s face it, noodles are wonderful.
As the original recipe states, the key to making this successfully is to have all of your ingredients assembled ahead of time. After that, things move quickly and you’ll have big portions of an intensely satisfying, tangled dinner ready to serve in about twenty minutes.
1 package thin rice noodles
1 lb. ground pork
1 bunch scallions
½ cup crushed peanuts
¼ cup each: sugar, fish sauce, white vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic
red chile flakes
peanut or canola oil
Cook the rice noodles, then drain and rinse with cool water. Set aside.
Dice the scallion whites, but mince the greens; keep the two separate. Mince the garlic. Combine the sugar, fish sauce, & vinegar. Mix in the juice of one lime.
Now, to start. Coat a large wok with a thin film of oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the pork, scallion whites, and garlic, stirring until the pork is cooked and no longer red. Toss in the cooked noodles, stir gently, then pour in the fish sauce mix and cook over high until the liquid has been absorbed (5-7 minutes).
Add the eggs one at a time, cracking them directly into the wok and stirring quickly until the egg is fully cooked.
Remove the wok from the heat, and top the noodles with the scallion greens, chile flakes, and crushed peanuts. Serve with wedges of lime & Sriracha.
People often assume I don’t eat meat.
Lots of Indian folks don’t, of course, and given that I am rather brown and wear a bindi on my forehead every day, it reflects more cultural sensitivity than insensitivity when people say “You’re a vegetarian, right?”
Wrong. Anyone who’s ever read this blog or gone out to dinner with me knows that I love to eat pretty much everything, and that I live with an unabashed meat eater. There are, however, a lot of vegetarians in my life, including my mom and some of my closest friends. It’s always funny (albeit a little annoying) to go out to eat with these folks, only to have the server inevitably plunk the vegetarian dish down in front of me. I do so enjoy contradicting assumptions.
Enter tofu. It suffers from far more false assumptions than I; people assume that it’s bland, mushy, and utterly unappetizing. On the contrary—when prepared well, tofu can be delicious. Does it taste like meat? No, but I don’t think that’s the point. Eating vegetarian shouldn’t be about compensating for missing meat, but enjoying a complete meal without it.
TOFU WITH SOBA NOODLES
The method here is what’s important—pressing the water out of the tofu before marinating it before cooking it over high heat. Play around with the marinade and feel free to substitute different vegetables like bok choy.
Soba noodles are an obsession of mine. I love how quickly they cook and how hearty they are; they stand up well to the peanut sauce I’ve included here. You could easily swap in some brown rice, though, if that’s what you’ve got in the pantry or if it’s simply what you prefer.
1 package extra-firm tofu
1 package soba (buckwheat) noodles
1 head broccoli, crowns cut off stem
3-4 carrots, peeled & sliced into fat diagonal pieces
To prepare the tofu, first drain it from its packaging. Slice lengthwise into 6 slabs. Arrange the tofu atop a layer of paper towels, supporting underneath by a kitchen towel. Lay more paper towels on top of the tofu, followed by another kitchen towel. Press firmly to force water out of the tofu.
Pour the following marinade into a shallow baking pan. Lay the tofu slices in the pan to absorb the marinade for at least 20 minutes, flipping them over halfway through.
for the marinade:
½ cup soy sauce
2 T sesame oil
2 T fresh ginger, peeled & chopped
2 T garlic, chopped
splash of Mirin or rice wine vinegar
To cook the tofu, bring a grill pan or nonstick skillet to high heat. Coat with a bit of vegetable oil, then remove the tofu from its marinade and cook it until it colors, about 7-8 minutes on each side.
While the tofu is cooking, bring a small pot of water to a boil and cook the soba noodles, which take only 2-3 minutes. Drain, then rinse with cold water. Steam or sauté the vegetables, then add to the noodles.
Serve the hot tofu on a bed of soba noodles & vegetables, topping with peanut sauce if desired.
for the peanut sauce:
1 cup chunky peanut butter
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup brown sugar
1 T minced garlic
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. Sambal Olek chili paste or chili flakes
juice of 1 lemon
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, breaking up the peanut butter with the back of a spoon until it forms a sauce. Thin with water to desired consistency. Taste check & add soy sauce for salt/chili paste for heat, if necessary.
This weekend I watched my best friend eulogize his sister. I watched his sister’s widower, who is thirty-one, eulogize his wife, telling the sweet story of how they met as undergraduates at Rice, their first date an Old 97s concert, their sixth anniversary just a few months ago, just a week or so before she died in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti.
The same week that Dave flew home to begin the long vigil of waiting for news of his sister, my dear friend Wayne sat in an ICU waiting room night after night, keeping company and logging time as his mother recovered from emergency brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass.
Today I spoke to Wayne on the phone—his mother is doing well, feeling strong and working her way through chemo and radiation—but Wayne’s fiancée Elizabeth, if you can believe it, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor of her own. It woke them both up a few nights ago, Elizabeth gripped by a seizure, her body revealing its secret.
Understanding isn’t welcome here, friends. Answers, even if we had them, would do no good. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, moral indignance to the contrary be damned. If anything, what we can cling to is our insistence on aliveness, the instantaneous dose of perspective such news brings, like my realization that most of what’s on my to-do list is useless; my list of complaints and grudges, bullshit. I know it shouldn’t take catastrophe to get me to pause, to “what the hell” and toss out my agenda in favor of face-to-face time with the people I love, but all too often, it does.
I sat across from Dave tonight, espresso cups balanced on a rickety table between us, as we have done so many times before in our decade of friendship. Of course, everything has changed now, inextricably and irreparably and inexplicably. I make mix CDs and I hug him tight and try not to say anything idiotic, hope furiously that loving someone as much as I love him counts for something in this long-run weigh-in with grief.
Something about this dish screams “carpe diem” to me, perhaps because it’s so decadent without being fussy, comforting and dead satisfying. It’s the kind of thing you make when you’ve abandoned any healthy pretenses and instead decide to serve up a bowl of something unguent, tangled mess of joie de vivre.
Disclaimer: this is not a strictly authentic version of carbonara, and I know that. It is, however, a much less cluttered version than many you’ll find out there. To strip down further, omit the parsley and use guanciale instead of panchetta, splurge on fresh pasta.
1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed & minced with a little salt
¾ cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
optional garnish: chopped flat-leaf parsley
First things first—get the pasta going. Cook it as you normally would, but be sure to save about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid when draining the noodles.
In the meantime, heat a little olive oil over high heat, then add the chopped pancetta and cook until it begins to brown. When it does, turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic. After about 5 minutes, your kitchen should be nice and fragrant. Pour in the wine and let it cook down, another 5 minutes.
Sprinkle the red pepper flakes atop the garlic-panchetta brew. In a separate bowl, crack and gently beat the eggs. Add in the pasta water and beat further—this is to temper the eggs and keep them from scrambling when you add them to the hot pan, which you are about to do.
Bring everything together: remove the pan from heat, then add the drained pasta. Pour the egg mixture over everything, tossing rapidly to coat. Sprinkle on your cheese and grind in a generous helping of pepper, then mix again.
Serve hot, with parsley and a little extra cheese as garnish, if you wish.
It’s always a good idea to revisit a classic.
My students and I are finishing up our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird this week and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief. I was so hesitant to teach this text—some of you know that I switched from sixth to eighth grade English for this year—because I just didn’t know if I could do it justice. Never have I been asked to teach a book I hold so close to my heart, and I was scared.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in the seventh grade. My teacher, Mrs. Zehring, was a goddess whom we all worshipped; we were captivated by her, and so then by extension, the book. I’ll never forget the afternoons sitting in that classroom, listening to her read passages from the book aloud in her lilting Southern accent. The intensity of the storylines surrounding Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, the innocence and feistiness of Scout, the quiet and courageous dignity of Atticus—all of it made a profound impact on me.
Since then, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird many times, marveling in the adept writing, haunted by the timelessness of the social commentary, being ever moved to tears at the end. What if I couldn’t convey all of this to my students? What if they didn’t “get it?” What if I became unfairly frustrated with them because I was so attached to the book?
I needn’t have been so worried. Coming to the book as a teacher has only deepened my respect for and awe over its power, especially as I’ve watched my students go from skeptical (“It’s so confusing!”) to interested (“Okay, it got kinda good.”) to deeply impacted (“OMG, I cried!”). And, of course, they have shown me facets of the book that feel new, energizing. They have renewed my faith that classic literature really is classic—that it can still be read and cherished in a Lady Gaga, podcast kind of world.
For a dinner classic, I urge you to revisit spaghetti & meatballs. If nothing else, the basic marinara sauce is worth getting under your belt. The meatballs, while time consuming, are crazy-delicious. Lighter and more flavorful than the ones you might have grown up eating, these still satisfy that “bowl o comfort” craving at the end of the day.
SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS
My philosophy is that if I’m going to go through the trouble to make homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, I’d might as well make a bunch of both. The sauce freezes so well, and on a night when you really need it, will help you answer the inevitable “What are we having for dinner?” Think: pasta, pizza, chili.
You can also freeze the meatballs, of course, either on their own or in the sauce. But don’t feel limited to serving the two together—the meatballs will work just as well on a sandwich or you can toss them into all kinds of soups.
This recipe is very forgiving, so feel free to improvise as you see fit.
for the marinara:
2 large yellow onions, diced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced (may sound like a lot, but I promise it mellows)
½ cup red or dry white wine
3 (28 oz. each) cans whole tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 T dried oregano
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
salt & pepper
optional: fresh basil, to finish
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook 1-2 minutes before adding the garlic. Cook together until translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes more.
Crank up the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Reduce that mixture down until it’s thick and syrupy. Now it’s time to toss everything else in: the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic, oregano, & crushed red pepper.
Allow the sauce to heat up until it’s bubbling, then turn down heat and simmer the marinara for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour or two. Serve as-is OR add meatballs to heat through (see below) OR cool and freeze the sauce for later use.
2 lbs. ground meat*
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup day-old bread, preferably white or an Italian-style loaf
approx. 1 cup milk, preferably 2% or whole
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp. lemon zest
salt & pepper
Sauté the onion & garlic in a small skillet with olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent (sensing a theme here?). Set aside to cool.
Tear or chop the bread into small pieces, then pour milk over the bread, enough to cover all of the pieces. Let sit for five minutes, then remove the bread, squeezing out any excess milk. Trust me on this, okay?
Add the milk-soaked bread to a large bowl, along with the cooled onion & garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and generous amounts of salt & pepper. Using your hands (really, you must, and it’s so much fun anyway!), mix everything thoroughly.
Again, using your hands, shape the meat mixture into meatballs of the size you prefer—I like mine with a 1 to 1 ½ inch diameter—and line them up on baking sheets.
I use a deep, very heavy-bottomed saucepan for meatball-cooking purposes, and an oil ratio of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vegetable oil. The oil needs to get rather hot (not quite to smoking) and I recommend you wear long sleeves when you do this—safety first!
Cook the meatballs in small batches—don’t crowd! Brown the meatballs on all sides (remember, you’re not cooking them through) and then return them to a clean baking sheet. Depending on the size of your pan, each batch will take 8-12 minutes.
To finish the meatballs, you have a couple of options: toss them in the hot marinara sauce and let them simmer for about twenty minutes, or do the same with hot soup broth. Otherwise, the meatballs can finish cooking in a 350˚ degree oven, 12-15 minutes if smaller, 15-20 if bigger.
Cool the meatballs thoroughly before freezing OR cook up some pasta and bust out the Parmesan.
*I have used all combinations of meats with great success: all ground beef, half beef/half pork, half beef/half ground turkey, all turkey.
Today’s post marks the last in our Summer Classics Series. I know summer’s not quite done yet—the temperatures alone here in Houston will attest—but it seems we are shifting into late summer, that mode in which we savor the last of the stone fruit, can and jam what we can, begin to long for a little nip in the air and think “Hmm, maybe I need that jacket even though it’s 80 degrees outside.”
When the weather cools and necessitates a long-sleeved shirt, I’ll be glad. Of all the seasons, autumn makes me swoon the most. But, summer’s not half bad, especially when it comes to eatin’, so for now, I’m going to hang onto tomatoes and corn, keep buying berries by the bushel and sweat it out.
Wrapping up our series is a sweet ode to summer in the form of a meal, the kind you might be inspired to whip up after coming home from the Farmer’s Market or grocery store. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, is it not, having a free swath of time in the kitchen and all possibility spread before you?
We’ll be starting a new, fall-friendly series next Friday and going back to regular, miscellaneous posts on Tuesdays. As always, if you have any requests or suggestions for us here at Blue Jean Gourmet, please leave them in the comments. We heart comments. We heart you, too.
SUMMER’S SWAN SONG DINNER
These dishes are homey and forgiving. For the pasta, feel free to switch in whatever noodle you have handy. Buy the veggies that look good, throw in herbs from your garden. Serve with some wine and maybe a salad.
You may be skeptical about the idea of figs + balsamic vinegar + ice cream. Trust me. It’s freaking GOOD. My dear friend Stephen, who inspired this recipe & fancily has his very own backyard fig tree (I’m jealous), often switches in Port for the balsamic, and you know what? That’ll do.
FARMER’S MARKET PASTA
1 lb fettuccine (would be even better with fresh, but I used dried)
1 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined
large bunch of spinach, washed & chopped
2 ears corn, kernels cut off the cob
herb-flavored goat cheese, such as chevre (between 2-4 oz)
a handful of cherry or grape tomatoes
fresh herbs, like basil, chives, parsley
2 cloves garlic (or more or less), minced
Start the pasta cooking in the background.
Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat; add shrimp. After just a minute or two, turn down the heat and add the garlic. Allow another minute to pass, then pour in a glug of white wine & a squeeze of lemon. Test your shrimp for doneness—be careful not to overcook!—and let everything simmer for just one or two minutes more.
Remove the shrimp from the pan and reserve off to the side. Crank the heat back up on your skillet, adding a bit more olive oil if necessary. Wilt the spinach, add the herbs, corn, & tomatoes and cook until heated through. Toss in the goat cheese and just a few spoonfuls of pasta water to make a sauce.
Your pasta should be al dente by this point; drain it, add to the spinach mixture, and add in the shrimp. Toss together and serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano, if you like.
BALSAMIC FIGS OVER ICE CREAM
balsamic vinegar, preferably a fig or other fruit-infused variety
a little butter
walnuts or pecans, roughly chopped
high-quality vanilla bean ice cream
Melt a little bit of butter in a large skillet. Place the figs, cut side down, over the bottom. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of sugar over the whole mess, allow to cook for a few minutes so the figs get nicely caramelized.
At this point, if you’re feeling fancy, you can remove the figs before adding the balsamic, thereby freeing up your skillet to reduce down the vinegar into a syrupy glaze. It will work just as well, though, if you drizzle a generous amount of balsamic (say, a tablespoon or two) right onto the figs, turn down the heat, and leave them alone for a few minutes.
Whatever you do, don’t forget the nuts, because crunch is a good thing here. Over vanilla ice cream, these figs make for a very elegant, very grownup, but nonetheless satisfying sundae.
“Hot town, summer in the city…”
It’s June. My town (Houston) is hot, and it’s only going to get hotter as the weeks roll by. Luckily, along with the heat come ears of sweet corn, ripe Texas peaches, and these adorable yellow heirloom tomatoes, straight outta the Blue Jean backyard.
I love summer, unabashedly. Cutoff shorts, tank tops, sunscreen, fluffy beach towels, oversized shades, sweat—bring it on, I say! To honor the sultry season, here at Blue Jean Gourmet we’ll be featuring favorite summer dishes every Tuesday from now until Labor Day. Everything from potluck-friendly dishes (like the one below) to pitcher-friendly beverages and crowd-pleasing desserts…Blue Jean Gourmet will be celebrating summer right, and we hope you will celebrate with us!
Some recipes will be familiar (Southern-style potato salad, anyone?), while others will offer a twist on old favorites (a colorful, Southwestern-style coleslaw with a kick!) As always, I promise to provide straightforward, delicious food which is well-worth making, and worth making again and again. If you have any suggestions or requests for summer food favorites as we move forward, please leave a comment or send a note to bluejeangourmet (at) gmail (dot) com.
Let the Summer Classics Series begin!
This pasta salad recipe is a lighter twist on the mayonnaise-heavy classic, and it’s perfect for summer because a) you can make it ahead of time, b) you can feed a crowd with it, c) the method is very straightforward, and d) the dish highlights all that’s lovely about summer produce. I like to call this recipe “farmers market friendly,” because you can easily adapt this salad to whatever vegetables looked the best at your local vendor.
If you’re not familiar with orzo, now is the time. Generally described as a rice-shaped pasta (personally, I think it looks more like little teardrops, but whatever), you can find orzo in little bags next to all of the other boxed noodles on the pasta aisle. Orzo’s one of the things I always keep in my pantry because it’s so versatile. The bag may be small, but be warned—it cooks up to fairly large amount!
My friend Lee originally introduced me to this recipe (hey you!), and she suggests making this dish more carnivore-friendly by adding chopped prosciutto at the end. Frankly, I’ve never done this, because the dish is so darn tasty as it is…but then again, so is prosciutto.
In tribute to Lee (who works at my high school and in whose office I spent a great deal of time reading Dostoevksy), I’d like to connect classic food with classic literature. A few of my fellow book-nerds and I have decided to take on a “big” book for the summer, a classic we haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Mine? Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses. I’m a little nervous but a lot excited (book-nerd, remember?) and curious if any of you out there are taking on a substantial summer read. Check out the “100 Greatest” lists at The Guardian, Random House, or Time Magazine for inspiration, and let us know what your suggested favorites are! I know we’ve got a bunch of fellow book-nerds (and teachers and librarians) reading this blog.
So, to sum up:
1) Tuesdays will be Summer Classics Days here at Blue Jean Gourmet from now until Labor Day. Send us suggestions for dishes to feature/adapt!
2) We like classic literature, along with classic food, here at BJG. What are your favorites among the great books? Taking on any big ones this summer?
3) This pasta salad is really, really good and easy to make. Try it!
Sautéed Vegetable Orzo
adapted from Lee Avant
You can use whatever veggies you want—I’ve just listed my favorites. Do your best to chop uniformly so the vegetables will cook evenly. This salad will taste even better the next day, if there’s any left!
1 package orzo (rice-shaped) pasta
1 red onion or 2 shallots (the latter has a milder flavor), chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 portabello mushrooms, cubed
1 zucchini, cubed
3-4 fresh tomatoes, cubed
grated parmesan, cubed feta, or bocconcini (tiny mozzarella balls)
1-2 T butter (adds flavor)
optional: chopped fresh basil, fresh lemon juice, chopped prosciutto (find with the specialty cheese & deli meats)
Cook orzo in boiling, salted water until toothsome (6-8 minutes). Drain and set aside in a large bowl or serving dish.
Heat olive oil & butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion & garlic and sauté until fragrant. Toss in mushrooms and zucchini, cooking until desired tenderness is achieved (5-8 minutes).
Mix cooked veggies in with the pasta, adding the uncooked tomatoes. Blend in cheese and prosciutto (if using), adding more olive oil if needed to keep the pasta coated. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and garnish with basil.
Serve immediately or cover with foil & keep warm in a low oven. Enjoy!