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!