DUTCH BABY

Don’t worry, this recipe does not involve an actual baby.

See?  It’s a pancake.  Sometimes they are called by another name—German pancakes, and indeed, food historians suspect that the moniker “Dutch” is actually a corruption of “Deutsch,” which makes much more sense.  As for the “baby” part, I have no idea.  Perhaps the first tasters were so amazed that they cried out “oh baby?”

Whatever the etymology of the name, these pancakes are delicious and perfect when you have guests for brunch.  Pull the eggs out of the fridge the night before—they won’t spoil, I promise—just as with a good batch of popovers, room temperature eggs help insure that your pancake will puff.

In the morning, slip the pancake in the oven while you make coffee, fry bacon, etc.  So much easier than flipping individual pancakes like a short-order cook, but no less satisfying.  Heck, even Sonya, my breakfast-obsessed photographer, said, “I think I might like this better than a regular pancake!”  Oh baby, indeed.

DUTCH BABY PANCAKE

Should you be craving some “regular” pancakes, we’ve got a recipe for those, too.

ingredients:

3 eggs, at room temperature
¾ cup flour
¾ cup milk (go decadent, use whole or 2%)
2 T butter
1 T sugar
pinch salt

oven: 400˚
pan: 8-10” cast iron skillet or Dutch (ha! of course) oven

As the oven is heating, toss the butter in your skillet and place it into the oven to heat.  In the meantime, whisk together the remaining ingredients.

Once the oven has pre-heated, check the skillet.  When your butter is nutty-brown and slightly foamy, pour in the pancake batter.  Return to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the pancake is puffed and golden.

Cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve.  I like mine with a healthy dusting of powdered sugar and squeezes from fresh lemons; Jill prefers hers with syrup and berries.

VARIATION—When browning the butter in the oven, include some thinly sliced apple and a dash of cinnamon.  Pour the batter over the whole mess and bake the same as above.  Makes a lovely treat, especially in fall or winter.

GREEN LENTIL SOUP

Forgive me in advance for my discombobulation.  Is “discombobulation” really a word?  No, it’s not.  But I’m an English teacher and so I think my made-up words should count.

Tomorrow morning I leave to chaperon the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. We’ll be packing in some l-o-n-g days of sight-seeing and I just don’t know that any blogging is going to happen while I’m gone.  I bet I’ll have some excellent stories to share when I get back, though; I’m fairly certain this trip is going to be exhausting, educational, and highly entertaining.

After D.C. comes Passover break!  (Some of you may recall that I work for a  Jewish school).  And, what do you know, Jill and I are actually GOING ON VACATION.  To a resort.  On a beach.  Just the two of us.  Where they make drinks with little umbrellas in them.  Aside from road trips to see my mom or her parents, Jill and I haven’t taken a non-work related trip since I graduated from college.  Which was five years ago in May.  So, it’s time.

Fret not, though, while I’m lounging on some sunny beach and finally reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, two excellent guest bloggers will be taking care of things around here.  And once April rolls around, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming.

In the interim, I present you with some lentil soup.  Should you be experiencing the “cold snap” (feels more like the weather BROKE if you ask me, since it was sunny & 70 degrees yesterday, now blustery & 41, what gives?) that we are, or should you live somewhere that’s just straight-up cold, give this soup a try.   It’s very hearty but actually healthy at the same time, doesn’t take too long to throw together but gets better as it sits in the fridge for a few days.  Should you prefer a vegetarian version, Jess from Sweet Amandine read my mind and posted one.

Last but not least, I’m very proud to share that the Houston Press named Blue Jean Gourmet one of ten “Blog Stars” for the city!  You can read the full story here (and find me on page 5).

GREEN LENTIL SOUP

ingredients:

1 ¼ lb. sausage*
2 small yellow onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled & diced into small chunks
3 ribs celery, diced into small chunks
2-3 gloves garlic, minced
3 cups green (French) lentils, picked over & rinsed
6 cups water or chicken/vegetable stock (I used ½ & ½)
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (I like fire-roasted)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp dried thyme
splash of red or white wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste

Slice the sausage into thick rounds and brown it at the bottom of a stockpot or Dutch oven.  There’s no need to cook it all the way through, just get good color on both sides, then remove it from the pot and set aside.

My sausage wasn’t very fatty, so I added a little olive oil before tossing in the onions.  You might not need any extra fat, or may even want to remove some of the sausage grease—it’s up to you.  Either way, get the onions going, and once they become translucent, toss in the garlic, carrots, & celery.

When the vegetables have lost a bit of their “tooth,” throw in the lentils, liquid, tomatoes, & aromatics (bay leaf, cinnamon, thyme, & about a tablespoon of salt).  Cover the pot and let everything cook until the lentils have reached your preferred softness, about 30-45 minutes.  You may need to add additional water or stock as you go.

At the end, stir in the vinegar and generous grinds of pepper, along with extra salt to taste.  Serve up in big bowls with a hunk of crusty bread or wholegrain crackers.

*I used a garlic sausage that we get from our meat share, but I think a mild Italian would work well here, too.

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SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

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.

SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

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.

ingredients:

1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 eggs
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
black pepper
olive oil

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.

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MINESTRONE

I didn’t grow up with many males in my life—twelve years in an all-girls’ school and no brother will do that to you—so it wasn’t until high school that I really began to build friendships with them.

Now, thankfully, there are these men in my life whom I love.  I mean, really, really love.  Men who can make me laugh with a one-line email, men who appreciate the noise my high heels make on pavement, men who care deeply for the people in their life, who watch “The West Wing” on DVD and keep Lincoln biographies and cookbooks and Spanish poetry and young adult fiction all stacked by their bedside.

Who have crushes on Mary Louise Parker.  Who have held my hand in art museums, or held me on a couch the night after my father’s funeral, or held their palm gently against the small of my back, ushering me into a door or through a crowded room.  Who write the most incredible letters, which I will save forever.  Who love their wives, their fiancées, their girlfriends, their sisters, mothers.  Who chide me into staying a little longer and drinking another beer (or Scotch or glass of wine).  Who will happily eat anything I put in front of them.


I look at my fourteen-year-old male students, who are so earnestly figuring out how to be men, how to flirt, how to build character, integrity, and swagger, and then I look at these men in my life: Dave, Phil, Stephen, Wayne, and I feel tremendous joy for the men I know my boys will grow up to become.

MINESTRONE

This recipe makes a big batch, but minestrone is the perfect “it’s still cold outside” refrigerator space-taker.  I always like to have mine with a good, golden-crusted grilled cheese.

1 large yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
3-4 small zucchini
3-4 small yellow squash
2 bunches fresh spinach (can substitute frozen), washed & roughly chopped
1 large (28 oz.) can crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cans kidney beans
2 T tomato paste
1 T dried oregano (double if using fresh)
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt & pepper
olive oil

secret ingredient: Parmesan rind
optional: a few cups of cooked pasta

Dice the onion & mince the garlic.  In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat a fair amount of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Throw the onions in first and cook until they are a bit brown, then dial back the heat to medium and add the garlic.

While those two ingredients are making your house smell incredibly delicious, cut the zucchini & squash into small cubes, trying to keep them uniform without worrying too much over precision.  Add to the pot & sauté 5-8 minutes, until soft.

Now it’s time to toss almost everything in and let soup magic happen.  Tomatoes, stock, herbs, tomato paste, & Parmesan rind, if you’re using it.  Let your soup simmer for at least 45 minutes before adding the fresh spinach in batches, folding it in so it will wilt on its own in the hot soup.

Pull out the Parmesan rind (it will be gooey!) and toss in the beans, plus pasta if you’re using it.  Once everything has heated through, serve up in bowls or big mugs, garnishing with some fresh Parmesan and/or extra parsley, if you like.

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CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.

I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern.  How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?

At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?

Paradox is the sea we all swim in.  I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world.  To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn.  To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow.  To look at the screen, because we must.

My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences.  Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl.  Pure, unadulterated noise.  It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.

Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively.  The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.

This is me, howling.


CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.

I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff.  Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white.  While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.

Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat.  If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk.  Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.

for the broth:

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 T flour

3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry

4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup whole or 2 % milk

2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon

1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

vegetable oil

butter

salt & pepper

for the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

2-3 T chicken fat or butter

equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it.  If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.

Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly.  Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.

Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side.  Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit.  Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot.  (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).

Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom.  Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base.  Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.

When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot.  Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot.  Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.

For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste.  Fret not!  They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous.  Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.

Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow.  Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes.  Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.

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MY MOM’S SHRIMP CREOLE

I don’t really know how my mom got to be such a badass cook.

{Facts about woman who brought me into the world—
She does not care for: goat cheese, the word “widow,” or folks who do not vote.
She is rather fond of: peanuts in all forms, the Allman Brothers song “Rambling Man,” & character-driven fiction.}

Like most Southern-women-who-can-make-anything-taste-good, she never had any formal training.  She can make thrifty one-pot or decadent dinners, improvise or plan something elaborate.  She has dishes for which she’s famous, the kind folks often request, she keeps a well-stocked pantry, bar, & wine rack, and of course, will insist that whatever item of hers you just ate which made you seriously think about licking your plate was “really no big deal.”

However, unlike many other Southern-women-who-cook-real-good, my mom isn’t actually from the South.  She was born in the mountainous and politically troubled region of Kashmir, India, and grew up in a household without a mother to learn from in the kitchen—though she did pay attention to the cooks her father employed.  When she and my father were newly married, my mom was suddenly responsible for all of the household cooking (and for an extremely fussy husband, I might add).

What I admire especially about my mom is that she never does anything halfway.  A new position at work means she’ll throw herself into graduate-level classes (even though she already has TWO masters degrees) to ensure she does the best possible job.  A trip to the wine store is always accompanied by a well-researched list and notes.

So in moving to a new continent and into myriad new food cultures, my indomitable mother took it all on.  She experimented until she could reproduce her and my father’s favorite dishes from home, inventing plenty of her own along the way.  But she also dove into learning America’s food culture—woman makes mean spaghetti & meatballs, squash casserole, and this shrimp creole.

Growing up, we ate this every New Year’s Day, so I’m actually running about a week late in posting it.  The bright side, though, is that while this dish is warm, homey, and comforting, it’s actually not so bad for you, so if you’re experiencing post-holiday-food-and-drink-consumption-guilt (I know I am), you can still fit this on your January meal plan.

Up until a few months ago, I had only ever eaten this dish over wild rice, and for good reason—it’s yummy that way.  But when I had some leftovers hanging out in my fridge and no wild rice in my pantry, inspiration struck.  I did have polenta, and topping it with this creole made for one of the best plays on shrimp & grits I’ve ever experienced.

My mom taught me pretty much everything I know about food, passing on her passion for collecting cookbooks, stocking the fridge with a million condiments, and clipping recipes for an ever-expanding file.  Though she makes fun of me now for going through “so much trouble” to try strange or elaborate dishes, she’s the one who once made her own pomegranate liquor, so I don’t think she has much room to talk.

Love you, Amma.  Lots & pots.

SHRIMP CREOLE

Like most dishes that originate from my mother’s kitchen, this one’s not fond of exact measurements.  I’ve done my best to accurately capture the method & flavor here, but this recipe is designed for tinkering.  Fiddle away—it’s still bound to taste good!

This concoction is best made ahead, and therefore is conducive to dinner guests.  Just be sure to reheat the sauce separate from the shrimp, adding them at the end so they don’t get rubbery.

1 ½ – 2 lb. shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 cup ketchup
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. (½ if you’re heat-shy) Tabasco sauce

Gently mix the above together.  Stash in a non-metal bowl in the refrigerator while you prep the vegetables or for up to two hours.

2 medium yellow onions
2 green bell peppers
4 ribs celery
— (fun fact: the above three items are considered “the trinity” of Cajun cooking, a riff on French cuisine’s mirepoix of onion, celery, & carrot)–
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14 oz.) cans fire-roasted tomatoes
1 small can diced tomatoes with green chiles
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, for thinning*
1 tsp. oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper

Peel & dice the onions, seed & dice the peppers, trim the ends off of & dice the celery.  You want everything to be about the same size—I like ½ inch cubes.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven, pour in a generous swirl of olive oil and bring up to medium-high heat.  Cook the shrimp (in batches if necessary) until pink, just a few minutes on each side.  Remove shrimp to a bowl but don’t clean out the pot.

Toss in the onions and garlic first.  When they begin to sweat, add the bell peppers.  Celery comes last.  Once all of the vegetables have cooked, add the tomatoes & oregano.  Thin with your desired amount of stock and let simmer at least thirty minutes, but up to a few hours.

At this point, I like to taste the base and will probably toss in some extra Tabasco & Worcestershire sauce, plus salt if it’s needed and lots of pepper.  Once things are tasting dee-li-cious, add the shrimp and any accumulated juices back in.  Turn off the stove at this point–the creole should be hot enough to re-warm the shrimp without any added heat.

Serve over wild or white rice, polenta or grits, even pasta.

*I like my version of this dish to be quite chunky, while others prefer a thinner sauce.

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SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS

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
olive oil
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.


for the meatballs:

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
olive oil
vegetable oil

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.

CONSIDER THE CHICKEN

Oh humble chicken, you have been much-abused.  Penned-in, overfed, packaged on sterile Styrofoam and pumped full of watery broth, deboned, all-too-often rendered dry and tasteless.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.

roast chicken

Out of a whole set of reasons which are probably suited for a separate blog post, Jill and I made the decision over a year ago to stop buying conventionally raised & processed meats.  I could say a lot, lot more about how and why we did this and how glad I am that we did, but for now I’ll just stick with: I’ll be damned if the chicken sure doesn’t taste a heckuva lot better.  You know, like food you’d actually want to eat.

I also find it brings great satisfaction to use the bird in its entirety, from neck to wingtip. It’s what your grandma—well not my grandma, but someone’s grandma—would do.  I want to be that grandma in the kitchen: thorough, efficient, capable, fearless.

So let’s reclaim the chicken in all of its juicy, satisfying glory!  It’s amazing how well you can feed yourself and, if applicable, your family, with one respectfully-treated bird.

Today’s somewhat complicated post proceeds as follows:

Roast a chicken
Make chicken salad out of leftover breast meat
Make chicken stock using the carcass
Make chicken soup with the stock & any remaining chicken meat

{Repeat}

You don’t have to go through all of these steps, of course; you can easily make the chicken salad or soup with a store-bought rotisserie chicken.  But I hope at some point you will take a second look at the humble chicken, perhaps splurge on a free-range version, and spend some time in your kitchen with her, for she is so much more than the zebra-striped grilled breasts she’s so cruelly reduced to.

ROAST CHICKEN

Okay.  There are lots of fancy recommendations out there about tucking slivers of garlic under the skin or mixing up ten-ingredient spice rubs with which to coat the entire bird, and you can do all of that, I am not going to stop you.

But promise me you’ll try, at least once, the almost sinful simplicity and ease of  roasting a chicken practically naked.  Planning to eat it for dinner?  Roast some potatoes and parsnips (drizzled in olive oil, seasoned with salt & pepper) underneath.  Planning to reserve the meat for later?  Roast carrots, onions, a few cloves of garlic, & celery underneath to transfer directly into a stock pan.

Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it.  Preheat your oven to 450°.

Using paper towels, dry the chicken extremely well, inside and out.  Cover the skin liberally with salt (kosher, if possible) & pepper.  You may stuff the breast with herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. and/or half of a lemon.

I like to roast my chicken this way: in the roasting pan go the potatoes and veggies.  On top of those, I set a small rack (the same kind I use for cooling baked goods), and on top of that, I set the chicken.  This allows for more even cooking than if the chicken sits directly on top of the vegetables.

You can truss the chicken, as you see I did here, but honestly I’ve roasted without and just don’t think it’s necessary.  Roast the chicken, breast side up, for 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of your bird.

Make sure you let the bird rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into it.  Divide the bird into breasts, legs, & wings, but watch out for eager kitchen visitors trying to snatch bites from over your shoulder (ahem, cough, Jill, cough cough).

CURRY CHICKEN SALAD

My version of the classic.  You’ll see I like my chicken salad chunky, but feel free to chop everything into smaller pieces if you prefer.  Tastes even better the next day.

chicken salad sandwich
ingredients:

2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored, & small-diced (I used a McIntosh)
1 rib celery, small-diced
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped
¼ cup red onion, small-diced

1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
splash of white wine vinegar or lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients.  Serve on toasted bread or, if you must, lettuce.

HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK

Just as with roasting a chicken, there’s no one way to make chicken stock.  If you do make it at home, though, I swear on my Kitchen Aid mixer that it will be about 8 million times better than the stuff you can buy at the store.

Time is your friend when making chicken stock, so you can’t be in a rush.  I find that a minimum of 3-4 hours are required for a concentrated, brightly-hued batch.

chicken stock on the stove

ingredients:

chicken carcass
2 onions
3 carrots
3 ribs celery
2-3 cloves garlic
fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
splash of vinegar
salt & pepper

optional: white wine

If you roast the vegetables with the chicken, you can cut everything into big pieces and transfer them directly to a large pot along with the chicken carcass when you’re ready to make stock.  Deglaze the roasting pan with white wine and then add that liquid to the pot as well.

If you’re making stock separately, dice the veggies and sweat them out in the stock pot first, with a little olive oil.  Once they’re translucent, add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover the whole mess.  Throw in the seasonings and a splash vinegar (said to help draw flavor out of the bones).

Bring to a boil and then simmer on low to medium heat, skimming the surface to remove any foam that appears in the first hour or so of cooking.  After that, keep an eye to see how the liquid is reducing down the side of the pot.  Once you can see a three-to-four-inch gap between where you started and where you are now, you’re in business.  Like I said, give it at least three hours.

Allow the mixture to cool a bit before removing the carcass with tongs and then straining the liquid through a sieve.  Discard vegetables and pick carcass clean of any extra meat bits.

Store the chicken stock in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container.  The fat solids will rise to the top upon cooling; if you like, you can remove them.  I don’t!


CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP

I made a noodle-less version of this soup for my friend Courtney a few weeks back, when she was feeling rather under-the-weather (see: germy students).  She texted me the next day to say “I’m healed!  And I’m pretty sure it was your soup that did it.”  Hey, maybe becoming that grandma after all!

Credit for this recipe goes to Chef Roger Elkhouri, who taught the only cooking class I’ve ever taken.  He was the head chef for my dorm in college and even though I hold him responsible for my Freshman 15 (it was bread and cakes for me, people, not beer!), he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and a culinary hero still.

chicken noodle soup

ingredients:

1 yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thickly at a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled & sliced thickly at a diagonal
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. nutmeg

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
4 cups broad egg noodles, cooked

Cook the onion, celery, & carrots in the bottom of a soup pot in a little vegetable oil.  Add the garlic once the vegetables have begun to soften.  Once the mixture is translucent, add the stock and spices.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer gently at least thirty minutes.  Add the chicken and egg noodles to warm through.  Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, & cloves before serving.

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