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stuffed peppers à la Pete

This week, on cooking without a recipe: stuffed peppers, Pete-style!

This is one of those few occasions when inspiration and serendipity meet on the street and decide to go for lunch. Originally I had planned to make beef tacos because, duh, Taco Tuesday. But on Monday, I was driving home and passing the farm that I pass every day. All summer long I’ve looked hopefully for the roadside stand that was there last August when I started my new job and the daily commute on that road. On Monday it finally appeared, laden with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes, and these huge, gorgeous green peppers. I saw them and instantly thought, “Stuffed peppers! Tacos be damned!” (Near blasphemy in my house—if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would probably be of a taco.) I spent the remaining 24 hours thinking about stuffed peppers, totally disregarding the work I had to do on Tuesday, and jotting down notes for myself as idea followed on inspirational idea.

If you know my cooking style at all, you know I love to use up what I’ve saved or stored in the kitchen. For weeks I’ve been overloaded with celery from Misfits, so I chop it and freeze it against the onslaught of winter and soups that I will inevitably need to make. Stuffed peppers seemed like a good opportunity to start using some of that bounty.

I love stuffed peppers. My mother makes them in a very old traditional way, which is to say, rather bland…but oddly comforting. She boils green peppers (I normally avoid them entirely) and stuffs them with a lightly seasoned admixture of beef and white rice, topped with tomato sauce, and baked. I decided to take it a little further.

I sautéed the butt end of an onion that was languishing in the fridge with a few cloves of garlic, the celery and chopped carrot I found in the freezer, a diced Anaheim, and the chopped “lids” of the peppers that I had hollowed out. When everything was soft and sweetened, I added two heaping spoonfuls of tomato paste, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, paprika, thyme, salt, pepper, and chili flakes, toasted all of that for a bit, and then added the beef. When the beef was browned, I added a can of drained black beans and a proportional quantity of frozen corn. More salt because you only live once and you might as well enjoy food while your taste buds are awake. (Ask my grandfather.) 

I stuffed the peppers and was amazed that the five of them took everything from the pan—I thought a pound of beef fortified with all the chopped things would stretch a bit but I wasn’t sorry to see it fit so perfectly with what I had on hand. Talk about fate! They weren’t baking fast enough so I asked mom, and she suggested adding water and covering the dish to steam them. Of course, she was right. 

I made a quick tomato sauce with garlic and canned San Marzanos (also rescued from the freezer where they’ve been dormant since the last time I made quarantine pizza), chili flakes, and a little sugar, reduced it to thicken, and topped the peppers during the last five minutes of their steam cycle. Served with a fresh salad and cucumbers in vinegar to universal applause (read: the two of us groaningly full). I regret only that I can’t eat them all day long.

Now, go forth, and cook!

(Here is a picture of the leftovers because we were too excited to eat to take proper plated pictures. That just shows you how good they were.)

P.S. We don’t eat dairy anymore, but I would top these with cheese in a world where I’m not trying to lose 20 pounds. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Please. Add cheese.


sneaky sausage

Sometimes I try to trick my boyfriend into eating things he doesn’t like.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Food history is rife with people sneaking certain things into family meals—vegetables for kids (or adults), tiny bits of mushroom for the persnickety eater who “won’t” eat them and “can taste a mushroom even if it’s tiny!”, arsenic…let’s hope not too much of the latter.

My boyfriend isn’t a picky eater. He has a shellfish allergy but other than that he really will—and does—eat anything I put in front of him, even if it’s bad (and sometimes it is). He’s choked down overcooked steak and chicken, soggy defrosted vegetables, burnt pancakes, dry, flavorless eggs, and over-salted soups that I didn’t notice because I was half in the bag. In a lot of ways I’m very lucky because he is so pliable and easy to please. But it has its drawbacks for someone who loves to show off through cooking projects. Rather than a fancy triumphant meal that I labor over for hours (*cough cough* looking at you, bolognese), he is happiest with a simple tossed Caesar salad or a humble quesadilla. As long as there’s chicken in it, he’s pleased as punch.

Among the few things on his “won’t eat list” (which isn’t even really a “won’t eat” so much as a “I don’t like this but I’ll eat it” list) are mushrooms, tomatoes, radishes, any kind of sausage, and broth-based soups. I can usually slip diced mushrooms or tomatoes in something and he won’t notice or care. He’ll pick around grape tomatoes if I put them in a salad, so I’ve learned to save myself the trouble. He’s always been pretty adamant about not eating sausage so I never bother making it, though I love it in all its forms, particularly for breakfast. (Cut to me salivating for breakfast links. Kielbasa. Chorizo. Sweet Jesus, Italian sausage and pepper sandwich.) I don’t crave it often, but since I have it so rarely it does occasionally rear its head and roar for attention. Last night was one such occasion.

I had a big, bold, beautiful butternut squash (couldn’t resist alliteration, sorry) from my first Misfits Market box and had decided I’d save it for a baked squash night. Since embarking on our new eating routine, we dine vegetarian a few nights a week so I wasn’t concerned with having this and some salad for dinner. But when I got home from work and started putting it together I felt like something was still missing. Though I can easily make a meal out of baked squash, and even throw some chickpeas in a pan to crisp for a light protein, it just wasn’t going to cut it. I couldn’t get the image of beautiful sautéed crumbled sausage meat out of my head. Sausage I wanted and sausage I must have.

I knew I had a tight-packed tube of it in the freezer from a grocery trip some weeks ago. Earlier that day I had even considered texting him to ask that he find it and let it thaw on the counter. (He works from home so this sort of arrangement is not uncommon for us. #thankscoronavirus.) But I didn’t want him to know that I was making sausage because he would almost certainly scoff at it. So I decided to be sneaky, knowing full well he’d recognize the taste immediately. But, hey, once it’s on his plate, he’ll eat it, right?

While he was out playing tennis I defrosted the sausage myself in the microwave (horrors! but needs must). I diced a bell pepper and half an onion (saving the rest for ratatouille, q.v. tomorrow) and sautéed them in oil with salt and pepper and dried thyme. The squash was already baking in the oven with fresh thyme sprigs and smelling fantastic. When the pepper and onion were beginning to caramelize I threw in the defrosted sausage and seasoned it, browning it swiftly and adding more thyme and garlic powder. I threw in a whole container of baby spinach just to watch it wither into nothingness. Perfect. Just before the squash was quite baked through I stuffed its cavities with the mixture and popped it back in the oven to finish. I sprinkled it with fresh parsley and basil from the pots in my yard that have so far miraculously survived. (Also the lighting in my kitchen is terrible so I apologize once and forever for my awful photos. It will get better when we move.)

The moment arrived. Boyfriend began to dig in (not after some prevaricating on how exactly to start eating half a squash on his plate) and immediately asked, “What’s this meat?” Damn it!

Because I am sly and also determined to get my way, I told him it was pork. He isn’t so easily fooled. Looking closely at it (but still chewing happily), he said “Hm, I don’t taste the pork…but it’s good!”

I folded. I was never good at surprises. “Well…it’s pork sausage.”

“Ewwww,” he said, triumphant at last, “that’s what that taste is. I’d know it anywhere!”

Thus foiled in my master plan to trick my boyfriend into eating sausage, I threw up the white flag of surrender (read: napkin) and continued shoveling pork sausage and butternut squash into my face.

“Well,” I pressed, ever hungry for even a Pyrrhic victory, “you already said you liked it. You probably wouldn’t even have noticed if I hadn’t said it was sausage.”

“It’s pretty good!” he said, which is his way of saying not as bad as he expected. One for the boys back home!

He still cleaned his plate. I guess sausage isn’t so bad after all.

The moral, boys and girls, is that deception in relationships is wrong…but it’s also sometimes deeply satisfying, provided you do no lasting harm.*

Actually, the moral is: butternut squash is delicious with herby pork sausage and spinach. Make it as soon as you reasonably can.

*Don’t take relationship advice from strangers and/or food writers on the Internet. I am not responsible for my own thoughts and actions, much less yours. Don’t write me when you get into a fight because you decided it would be clever to force-feed your loved ones vegetables disguised as baked goods (although I’d love to hear the story) or arsenic (please don’t tell me the story).

a dal-liance

I have a dalliance with lentils, or dal as they are called in Hindi—a dalliance, if you will. (Oof! Terrible pun.) I love them. I grew up with stewed green lentils over rice, often with chopped up hotdogs, as one of my mother’s cheap go-to meals to feed a lot of people. But I always found it savory and comforting, and certainly filling. When I was losing a lot of weight a few years ago (those were the days) I ate canned lentils over steamed or sautéed kale and spinach because it was high in fiber and low in everything else. Recently I’ve begun to unearth the delights of Indian cooking traditions, and among them are the many, many ways to make dal.

I cannot pretend that this is anything like the authentic, traditional dish that inspired it…but it’s damn good and I’m going to make it again and again.

This is my riff on dal makhani (or makhni), a traditional Punjabi dish made of special black lentils (note, they are sometimes called “beluga” lentils, though I can’t think why; the word “beluga” comes from a Russian word that means white, and these are distinctly black, although the interior is white when they are cut open—maybe that’s why), kidney beans, butter, and cream. I found the recipe via Pinterest (ever my bottomless wellspring of foodie ideas) on a Vegan blog and adapted it to what I had on hand one night when I was more than half in the bag. Last night, I made it again with a few more alterations.

I melted half a stick of butter and threw in four garlic cloves, half an onion, a whole yellow bell pepper, and a jalapeño to soak it all up. When they were a little softened I added about two tablespoons of garlic powder and twice that much of garam masala (maybe more—I had to keep adding it to get the flavor I wanted as the lentils simmered), and a little salt and pepper. I toasted a huge dollop of tomato paste in that fragrant admixture, then poured in close to three cups of water and more than two cups of red lentils. (I’ve never seen black anywhere, and I had green and pardina on hand but a good foodie friend of mine had advised me to use red.) I let the lentils bathe until they were plump and soft and added most of a can of coconut milk (not traditional at all) and the kidney beans. When everything had thickened satisfactorily, I departed entirely from the recipe and added lime juice, cilantro, and lots of baby spinach leaves for something green. (Gulzar tells me this makes it saag makhani, which is fine by me!)

We ate it over quinoa, in strict adherence to our no-grains no-dairy diet, with lots of cilantro piled on top; it was comforting, warming, delightfully balanced in its flavors and textures. The last time I made this I ate most of it on the couch with an old-fashioned, and then more for [*cough cough* hungover] breakfast the next day. But today I’ll be satisfied to munch it for lunch, and grateful for the cooks and traditions that came before me and continue to teach me.

bowl life

I have a new obsession with things in bowls.

Maybe that’s misleading. I have always loved food in bowls. There’s something deeply comforting about that well of food, held so easily in one hand you can shovel forkfuls of it into your masticating jaws without taking your eyes off the TV screen or the book in front of you. When I was a kid, and the only thing I knew how to cook was Ramen noodles, I would invariably drain all the broth but eat the noodles from our Corelle non-breakable bowls. I also made a lot of Knorr pre-flavored rice packets, which I considered extravagantly gourmet when I added frozen peas to them. (Rice medley was the best one and don’t even argue with me about it. I ate the whole packet by myself every single time—four servings of rice without batting an eye.)

Time and my metabolism have changed. I can still eat that much rice, but frankly I’d rather not and with my waistbands getting ever tighter, I can no longer afford to try. In an effort to slough off some of the weight we gained during quarantine and in the last year of over indulgence, my partner and I have changed our eating routines and restricted ourselves from consuming grains, dairy, processed sugar, and alcohol (except on weekends for the latter—a girl needs her coping mechanisms). At first I was morbidly depressed about this, thinking I’d have to give up all of my favorite foods (namely pasta, bread, and cheese) in the name of being slightly thinner, but it has turned out to be a lot of fun. The challenges of cooking without these ingredients are few, and focused mainly on how to bring more vegetables into the daily eating, which is what we should all be doing anyway.

That said, I’ve been making a lot of things in bowls. Salads, mostly. But roasted vegetables take very well to bowls. So does curry, like the curried yams and plantains I made based off of a recipe from Yewande Komolafe (SPICY but so good). Last night, it was a veggie bowl. Some might call it a power bowl or a Buddha bowl, which latter I find slightly offensive and certainly do not endorse. I like to call things what they are, and in this case, it was a bowl full of vegetables. Let’s get started.

I got the idea for this from Real and Vibrant, a great site I’ve only recently discovered thanks to Pinterest. I also got the lemon-tahini dressing from them and boy, am I grateful. What I like about recipes like this is the flexibility; I’m learning how to use what I have on hand and substitute, rather than follow recipes so strictly these days, and it’s been an incredibly freeing experience. Yesterday, like most days, I got home ravenous and determined to throw as much into dinner as possible, so it turned out to be a little…much. But it was good. Here’s what I did.

I halved Brussels sprouts and sliced summer squash and a yellow pepper that was about to call it quits, and threw them in a bowl with olive oil and my good ol’ friends Diamond Crystal and Tellicherry. Those went on a couple of baking sheets to roast until soft and browned. Meanwhile, I whipped up the tahini dressing, sliced a couple of radishes and green onions, and steamed two fat sweet potatoes till quite soft. I cooked quinoa with ghee and garlic powder, salt and pepper, chili flakes and positive vibes. I sautéed chickpeas until crisp and popping, then added ghee (bad idea—too greasy, dumped it out) and butter (good idea) and fennel seeds (bad idea again but not nightmarish). I built a bowl-base with mixed salad greens and cilantro. I laid on the couch and chugged a lemon Spindrift (which is my new favorite thing) and waited till everything was cool enough to heap onto my salad greens without wilting them.

Let me interject here that by the time dinner was ready I wasn’t even hungry anymore. I formed a diligent and self-punishing plan to stop snacking on trail mix when I get home, which I do every day before my run, and it ruins my appetite every time. But that did not stop me from eating all of it and sneaking a bite or two while I was cooking (another bad habit). The leftovers, which I portioned into Tupperware without the greens and doused in more tahini sauce that I made after dinner because it was so delicious, were perfect and had me aching to open my lunchbox all morning. I will be thinking about this meal for several days to come, appreciating how filling vegetables and complex carbs are.

A few months ago I would never have considered making dinner without a form of animal-based protein, and now I make vegetarian meals at least twice a week and I love them. It’s another part of this experience that has been freeing—I no longer feel tied down to any one way of cooking or eating. I’ve been experimenting and trying new things, and challenging myself to grow as a cook and it’s been wonderful. Especially when I can put it in a bowl.

pandemic pasta

Folks, it’s been a while.

To be more precise, it’s been over a month since I last posted. I’ve been acutely aware of this, and daily sink a little deeper into the shame and anxiety of the degenerate who doesn’t stick with his own resolutions or intentions. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? The more you put off doing something, the harder it becomes to start. I’ve struggled with this kind of anxiety my entire life, often to a crippling degree. I know I’m not alone, especially these days. I know millions of people are living with mental as well as physical barricades right now, and that nothing feels normal or safe or right.

Nothing, that is, except pasta.

Pasta is the ultimate comfort food. No matter how many recipes flop, no matter how much of a mess I make in the kitchen, no matter how bad things get in the world, I have confidence in pasta. I may be sick to death of cooking (hard to believe, but I’m there), tired of planning and thinking and worrying, but I can make a pasta dish and know with absolute certitude that it will turn out just the way it should—and it will be delicious.

I had big plans for this quarantine. Things started to get scary shortly after I started this blog. More and more people were entering self-imposed or otherwise necessary social isolation, working from home or laid off with a lot of extra time on their hands. I knew I wasn’t likely to be working from home, but with the extra time on the weekends (thanks, social distancing) I also knew I could finally tackle some of my bucket-list cooking projects. I had elaborate fantasies of the bread I would bake, the cookies I would experiment with, the macarons I would finally master, the long-baked pasta dishes and stews and soups and stocks and gnocchi and oat milk and pastries I would make.

Some of that happened. Some of it didn’t. I ended up working from home for three weeks. And you know what happened? I cooked. I ate. We ate. Life was, somehow, still busy. I adapted to a new routine, to daily life of cooking for someone, providing for both of us, creating a new balance. I found I needed writing less, and needed time for myself more. So that’s what I took.

One of my intentions during quarantine has been to make the most of the ingredients I have on hand, rather than making multiple trips to the grocery store. Honorable intentions, no? I have been doing pretty well. With my meat supply running low last week (and my pasta supply at an all-time high), I decided to use up a pound of ground beef and some odds and ends to make my own meatballs and tomato sauce. Not quite the long-simmering Sunday sauce of Italian-American fame, but a sturdy, respectable weekday spaghetti sauce.

As I was cooking, my partner asked me why I hadn’t been posting on my blog. The simplest answer is that I simply haven’t felt like it. When I made this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t be beholden to a rigid routine or marketing scheme of daily or even weekly posts. I would do what felt good, and I’ve stuck to that. In this case, that meant taking a month off. But I think now it’s time to get back into the swing of it.

Back to pasta. I took Mark Bittman’s very simple recipe for drop meatballs and tomato sauce, and made it my own using what I had in the house (and adding a lot more garlic). But his recipe is a little too fussy and a little too speedy for the slow, relaxed process I had in mind for a rainy Thursday when I was supposed to be working.

I browned the meatballs as instructed, but then I set them aside to cook in the sauce after it had simmered for a bit. I had some fun with the sauce, based on other recipes I’ve tried and general knowledge of cooking principles that are now finally beginning to stick in my head. In the sizzling beef fat, I browned a diced onion, then added the garlic and two lovely dollops of tomato paste from the freezer. When that was fragrant, I deglazed with some red wine and let it burble away before adding a food processor-blitzed mixture of canned tomato sauce, whole San Marzanos, and some leftover pizza sauce I’d frozen two weeks ago. I threw in a big sprig of fresh basil, a lot of dried oregano, and some Parmesan rinds, and I let it go while I danced around the kitchen with my wine, answered a few emails, and tidied up a bit. It was raining and it felt great.

At the end, I carefully dropped the tender little meatballs into the sauce and let them cook through while the spaghetti cooked. I drained that, saving a little water, and added the liquid of the sauce to the pasta to combine, then served it in huge bowls topped with fresh parsley and Parmesan. We ate it on the living room floor (my kitchen table was my new office space) with garlic bread and salads in the lowering dusk, and saw that it was good. So good, in fact, we ate it again the next night, and the only cooking I had to do was the spaghetti.

I had big plans for this quarantine. But ya know what? It’s OK to eat leftovers. It’s OK not to plan your week’s meals and an elaborate one for every night. It’s OK to eat pasta twice in a row and get shitty fast food one night. It’s even OK that your grownup pants don’t fit quite right when you have to go back to the office and pretend you’re a professional again. Make some pasta. Add more Parmesan. Take a breath and stop worrying for a minute. It’s going to be fine. In fact, it’s going to be pretty great.

cooking the long game

I spent entirely too much time in the kitchen this weekend.

We all have our ways of coping with the sweeping and devastating news that reaches us every day, with the fear and anxiety that crowd in at the corners, with the sudden shift in our priorities and clearances in our schedules. For those of us who are home, safe, still well—for those of us who are fortunate, in short—the question that fills our minds the most is: what on earth do we do?

What do we do? What do we do to help? What do we do to keep ourselves, our families, safe? What do we do with the time that we suddenly have in spades? What, in God’s name, do we eat? This last question is a primal one, but seems to float to the surface these days with more urgency, even alarm, as we consider not only the huge range of possibilities that arrests us with the time we suddenly have, but also the larger picture of why we have that time to begin with. It raises other questions, too: what can I find at the store? Is it safe or prudent for me to run out and buy what I need? Will it be enough?

I’m a fairly anxious person, but I find that the scary noisy questions like this tend to take up only a little space lately. Maybe I’m getting used to it. Maybe years of therapy have strengthened my ability to deal with my own anxious thoughts. But most likely, as I have found with other matters, I just get tired. I get tired of thinking in these dark, tenacious tangents. And when I’m tired, all that’s left to think about seems to be food.

So, I cook.

This weekend, with all the time I knew I would have, I decided to cook the long game. We’re all sort of playing the long game now, waiting this thing out or working hard on the front lines to push it away, keep it at bay, save as many lives as possible. For those of us who can be home, who are home, the long game is more a slow, subtle art. How to fill those long hours with something worthwhile, something filling and comforting, in more ways than just filling the belly.

I’m seldom home on the weekends. There was always somewhere to be, in those days that now seem decades ago, when we were allowed to be somewhere. So I never really get time to make anything that takes long, slow afternoons of simmering and rising, teasing out flavors, letting things ferment and absorb and settle and meld. This weekend, I determined, would be time for some Projects.

That’s Projects with a capital P, mind you.

First, the shopping. I had grocery lists from my elderly neighbor and my mother, who is now forcibly housebound, and a very long list for myself to stock up on as many pantry staples and fresh items as I could for the next week or so. My tiny apartment kitchen has a correspondingly tiny fridge, and zero storage space to boot, so I have to be cautious about how much I really buy, and I can’t stock enough for weeks at a time. I’m OK with that. I don’t need a month’s worth of supplies and we’re told not to hoard anyway. So I spent all morning on Saturday finding what I needed, and that afternoon I got to work.

I started with Marcella Hazan’s bolognese. I cooked it long, deliberately, and slowly. I brooked no shortcut. I suffered no impatience from my unruly spirit. I did it all (except the chopping, which I loathe and avoid successfully thanks to the food processor). I watched it assiduously and waited for the milk to bubble away, then the wine, then the tomatoes to simmer and meld into a beautiful rich sauce. I served it over the fancy pappardelle that I had set aside for a special day (if not now, when?) with a quick tossed Caesar salad. We had Rice Krispie treats for dessert and ice cream, and went to bed with full, happy bellies.

Sunday morning, I laid out my goods for a day of real cooking. I made banana pancakes for breakfast, as I do almost every Sunday. I planned on making my sourdough bread, as well as some fantastic little orange cinnamon rolls that my favorite baking site, Sally’s Baking Addiction, had published and which appeared by the movings of fate in one of my social media feeds. I also knew I wanted to make stock, as I was all out, and Nigella Lawson’s “Mother’s Praised Chicken” for dinner. For the most part, this all worked out. The bread, however, did not. After adding way too much flour to my poor, sloppy, too-wet dough, I gave up and tossed the lot of it. I hate the waste, but it was honestly too much to deal with.

The stock was perfect. It simmered for almost seven hours, and then I removed the bones and vegetables and allowed it to boil down for two more hours. When the praised chicken was done and carved, I threw those bones in the stock, too, for added flavor, and strained it all before bed into six beautiful golden quarts for my freezer. There’s something about having good homemade chicken stock on hand that just makes the world feel a little more secure, pandemic or no pandemic.

The cinnamon rolls—well, they’re almost gone. I will save that story for another post.

All of this is to say, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Maybe a little too much. Keeping yourself occupied is one thing. But keeping something simmering on the stove two days in a row means a lot of time in the house and not a lot of time enjoying the nice spring weather with your boyfriend, who’s getting a little antsy working from home all week and who can’t see a sunny day without itching for his tennis rackets. But it also meant he got to go off and have some time to hit while I cooked and babysat my stock. It meant we had some time apart, so we could appreciate our time together a little more. Because every hour is precious, even when it’s 48 in a row. We none of us know where the days ahead will take us. Or even the next few hours. Do what you love. Hug who you can. We’re playing the long game, and we’re going to find a way through it.

eating with your eyes closed

These days we’re doing a lot of guessing. It’s hard to know exactly how to plan, even for the week ahead, when the world is changing so rapidly around us. What was easy and accessible—second nature—only a few days or weeks ago is now socially irresponsible, even unthinkable. This week for the first time in a long time, I planned our meals for the entire week ahead. My partner is now home with me, working from home alone while I return to the office where my department is considered essential in our roles. I’m not complaining. I’d like to be home but for now, this is where we are and we’re making the arrangement work. We’re blessed to have what we do.

So on Sunday I planned our meals ahead, based on what I had in the fridge and the few things I would need to supplement that. Tuesday, I decided, would be great for thawing out the two big pieces of salmon I’d gotten from Aldi and trying out Alison Roman’s slow-roasted salmon with whole lemon dressing.

The idea behind this, which is very interesting, I’ll admit, is to make a kind of chunky vinaigrette with a whole entire lemon—peel, pith, and flesh of the fruit into the bargain. You chop it all up with a small shallot, add white wine vinegar and olive oil, a little seasoning, and you’ve got yourself a dressing. Half of it is spread over the salmon before it’s roasted (I let mine go quite long because the boyfriend likes it well done, and I don’t mind either way), and the other half is served fresh on top with greens.

Any time I try a new recipe like this, with an unusual flavor profile or use of ingredients, or anything I’m not familiar with, I feel like I’m cooking with my eyes closed. This is especially true when there’s none of the accompanying video that we’ve all learned to expect from our YouTube cooking channels and cooking vlogs. However, I was feeling adventurous and optimistic, and dove in full force.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it much. Now I had read somewhere that Alison forewarned people that if you’re not into the bitter-forward flavor category, this may not be the dish for you. I tried it anyway and, wisely, used only one lemon from my dwindling hoard. It was OK but definitely not the bright, beautiful dish I was hoping for. As for L, he scraped the dressing off and ate the salmon without complaint, bless his heart. We tried.

This isn’t the first recipe of Alison’s that has failed me. However, it’s not enough to put me off her work entirely. The caramelized shallot pasta alone is enough to keep me going. I’m hoping to get to that one tomorrow night. And maybe this weekend I’ll be able to make Marcella Hazan’s bolognese, or a really slow simmered marinara sauce for a simple pasta meal. I haven’t decided yet. Who knows what’s coming, anyway? We’re facing the days ahead with our eyes closed, and some of us with our arms and breath held tight, too, lest we risk the contagion we’ve been warned about so seriously. We still have to eat, even if it’s with our eyes closed.

reflections over breakfast

I have to be honest: I don’t feel a lot like writing.

Believe it or not, this happens to writers quite often. Writing is hard work, even when it’s something you love to do and have been practicing for years. It’s draining. And when you’re already drained for whatever reason, it’s like scraping the rocks in the well hoping water will come out.

We’re all tired. We’re all worn out. We’re all drained. And not just in that normal “oh life is busy” way. The last week—the last few days—have been a relentless, escalating spiral of bad news, fear, paranoia, and anger. And that’s hard to deal with. Like everyone else, I’m trying to find ways to keep myself positive and not let the isolation and the fear infect me the way this virus has infected so many others. I can count my blessings, and they are many.

I was thinking about that this morning when I prepared breakfast for myself before starting my work. It’s my second day of working from home. As a writer I don’t do a whole lot that can’t be done from home, but the organization I work for does not have a work from home policy, and even now under the crisis we’re still required to be in the office. My department is managing things on their own terms, however. So this is an unusual arrangement for me. I feel very, very fortunate that I’m allowed to work under these circumstances. I feel deeply fortunate that I am working at all, that my pay hasn’t been cut, that I still have access to healthcare and income for the foreseeable future. So, so many people I know can no longer say that.

I don’t normally make myself breakfast, or not much of one anyway. I go to the gym every morning and I don’t like a big meal weighing me down, so I have a small bowl of oatmeal or some buttered toast, and I’ll drink a protein shake after my workout. That’s enough till lunchtime. But I love breakfast, and when I’m home I take advantage of the time to make it. Today I made avocado toast. This is nothing groundbreaking. I didn’t do anything different or special. (Well, I made bacon, but that’s nothing terribly interesting either.) But it was nonetheless a really cathartic process for me. It was soothing to prepare the toast, fry the bacon, boil water for my tea, and assemble everything. With the early morning sun streaming into my living room behind me, I allowed the toast to cool and then spread it with the perfectly ripe avocado that I found at the store a few days ago. I was careful and methodical. I sprinkled it with coarse salt and ground pepper. I drizzled it lightly with my best olive oil. I chopped up half a jalapeño with far more care than I normally give to chopping anything. I let the bacon drip on a rack while I stirred sugar into my tea. I squeezed a lime over my toast to give it some kick. I looked out the window and thanked the universe for the color of the windswept sky.

Today wasn’t great. I started answering emails when I opened my eyes at 7:20, and the phone calls started before I could finish the second slice of toast. Everything annoyed me today, and nothing was easy. But for those few minutes, I made space for myself. For those few minutes this morning, I had a really enjoyable meal, and I am so grateful for what I had and still have: the opportunity to keep going. There may come a day when you can’t get fresh avocado in the store anymore. When produce is scarce, or food is rationed. But today we can still enjoy breakfast. So don’t forget to give yourself that.

chili for the end of the world

I think I’ve done it—I’ve finally mastered my mother’s chili.

My mother is not what I would think of as an adventurous cook, but there is a fair list of household staples that she does very, very well. Her chili is one of my favorite meals ever. It’s a far cry from any kind of traditional chili in the Texan or Mexican tradition, but who cares? It’s thick and hearty and warming and comforting, and consistently delicious. She serves it invariably with hot hoagie spread that comes in a jar, and cornbread baked in a special cast iron pan of hers that is divided into six sections so each slice is uniform and perfect. It freezes well, and it’s delicious cold out of the fridge in the middle of the night with tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and sour cream. In short, it’s wonderful.

It’s also great survival food. As the country shuts down and people shut themselves in, as grocery store aisles are rapidly depleted of meat, canned food, and butter (of all things), I—like so many others—derive immediate comfort and security from having a lot of something stored up in the freezer. This particular chili is simple, quick, and cheap to make in large quantities…as evidenced by the VAT I used to cook it in and the six or more quart containers that resulted.

I’ve made this before and I couldn’t get it quite right. My mother, of course, has adapted her own recipe over the years and substitutes what she has on hand, or adds things that she has lying around, so the flavor has varied slightly from time to time. But there is, to me, a sort of Platonic ideal chili to which all iterations of it aspire…some more successfully than others. This week, I came as close as I think I ever will.

Here is how to make my mother’s chili. Please note that her “recipe” is simply a list of ingredients on a faded and stained recipe card, with the only instructions to, essentially, put everything together in a big pot, more or less at once, and let it simmer a while. I’ve made a few adjustments of my own, as well. So, really, this is how to make my mother’s chili the way I do it—to me, it still tastes the way I remember hers tasting.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large Dutch oven or frying pan. Dice three large, or five small, white onions (I use a food processor to save my eyeballs) and sauté them in the butter over moderate hit. (I used a Dutch oven because the stock pot is inconvenient for sautéing, but you can do everything in one pot if you want.) Salt the onions well as they’re cooking so they release their liquid and don’t burn too quickly. When they start to become light and transparent, set them aside in a bowl, and add olive oil to the now empty pot. Throw in a diced green bell pepper (this is very important), two or three cloves of chopped garlic (not original to my mother’s recipe but, to me, essential), and one or two chopped jalapeños, with or without the seeds. Cook all of that together with some salt until softened.

Now, add the onions back in, and throw in a whole can or 4 oz. of tomato paste. Let it toast in the pot and season everything for a couple of minutes, and then add the spices: 2-3 heaping tablespoons of chili powder, 2 generous teaspoons of paprika, and a good spoonful of hot hoagie spread OR your favorite hot sauce. This time, I used tabasco and Louisiana hot sauces together. Let all of this cook together for a few seconds, and adjust as you like for spicier chili. You can always add more later.

To a separate pot, or to the same pot with the vegetable-spice mixture set aside, add three pounds or so of good ground beef, ideally 80/20. Add salt, and let it brown, stirring frequently to make sure all of it browns evenly. When the meat has browned, add it to your largest stock pot, or, if it’s already in there, add everything back together—onions, peppers, garlic, spices, and meat.

Add three 1-lb. cans of crushed or diced tomatoes, one 8-oz. can of tomato sauce, and three to five cans of beans, depending on how hearty you like your chili. I used two cans of chili beans with the sauce, two cans of kidney beans drained and rinsed, and one can of black beans drained and rinsed. I thought it was perfect.

Here’s the secret ingredient to my mother’s chili: sugar. Add about a tablespoon of sugar, not more than two, after everything else and stir it all in. Let it come to the boil for a moment, then reduce the heat to medium or even low if you aren’t in a hurry. Let it go for at least 30 minutes—if it’s a weeknight, for instance—or up to a couple of hours to really let the flavors meld. Taste and adjust seasoning periodically. I like it a little hot, but not Texas hot.

Serve with fresh cornbread and shredded cheese, maybe sour cream and tortilla chips for good measure. I always do. Share a quart with a friend, and put some in the freezer for later when you just can’t be bothered to cook but you need something great. We’re all going to need something great in the weeks to come. I hope you keep cooking, and above all eating well. We’ll get through this.

conquering carbonara

I am one of those people who has had an unreasonable fear of pasta carbonara.

At first, I just didn’t understand how something made with essentially raw egg tossed with some warm spaghetti could possibly be digestible, if not downright dangerous to eat. Don’t ask me to explain this or justify it, even with the very reasonable assertion that we were all raised not to eat raw eggs (no Gaston am I), because I can’t tell you the sheer amount of raw cookie dough I have willfully consumed throughout my life. And let’s not forget the time I insisted on making a traditional French recipe for chocolate frosting laid out in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 that calls explicitly and uncompromisingly for raw eggs. I ate it, my parents ate it, nobody got sick. We’re fine. ALSO. I’ve seen multiple videos of Gym Bros chugging protein shakes with raw egg in them so OBVIOUSLY it isn’t as big of a deal as we were raised to believe. Salmonella is, in fact, quite rare and now falls into that murky category to which the Bermuda Triangle, quicksand, and freezing your face into strange expressions also belong.

There’s also the fact that millions of people make and have made pasta carbonara for years with no problems or side effects (except perhaps some acid reflux and weight gain) so clearly I jumped on the band wagon way too late out of nothing but carbonara fear and superstition. Shame, shame, shame on me.

I actually had carbonara for the first time at a friend’s house, and she told me it was one of the quick cheap meals that she and her friends used to whip up in college—makes sense. Bacon, Parmesan, pasta…it’s like a five-dollar meal, if that. And it’s super filling, very satisfying, and makes you feel pretty fancy for being able to toss it together. I’ve had it on my list of things to make for a long time, probably since last summer when I started watching this guy in his instructional videos on the four Roman pastas (among other incredible feats of cooking). I’ve made cacio e pepe successfully (it remains my favorite), and several other kinds of quick-cooking pasta meals made from pantry staples, but something about carbonara made it absolutely unapproachable. Like it was the elite of all pasta dishes and should only be attempted by Acolytes who had undergone the Rituals and sacrificed whole pigs under the new moon in their search for the perfect guanciale.

Turns out, it ain’t that big of a deal. I didn’t use guanciale, because it’s near impossible to find even under normal circumstances and we are living in anything but normal circumstances these days. The grocery stores don’t even have chicken breast, much less cured pig jowl. So here’s what happened:

I had no plans for what to feed myself for dinner last night but I had a pack of bacon in the freezer, the last remains of a wedge of Parm in the fridge, and I’m usually well stocked on dried pasta so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give this a try. We’re all in self-imposed quarantine anyway, and if this pandemic has done anything it’s reminded us of how short and precious life really is. Look how much our world has changed irrevocably in just a few weeks. So it’s time to take life by the horns and start ticking some things off my bucket list. I fortified myself with some wine (OK, a lot of wine), and got to cooking.

I decided not to try to follow a recipe. I know the steps and the principles of the dish well enough that I don’t really need one (it’s four ingredients, c’mon) and after a couple glasses of wine I felt like free styling. Besides I had weird amounts of everything and all the recipes are set up to feed four, and I don’t need that much pasta.

First I sautéed three strips of bacon cut into small pieces until they were nice and crispy, and set the pan aside. I wasn’t messing around with egg yolks so I just threw two whole eggs in with a handful of Parmesan that I had grated about two weeks ago and mixed it all up with a ton of pepper. I had about half a box of spaghetti and it looked like too much for the egg mixture so I added one more and that seemed about right. When the pasta was ready I warmed the bacon up again and used tongs to transfer the noodles to the pan so some of the water got in too, and agitated it quite a bit to emulsify everything. I added maybe a cup of the pasta water and cooked that down before tossing the hot pasta with the egg-cheese mixture.

I am still shocked at how well this came out: creamy, rich, not in the least bit slimy or overwhelming. It’s not my favorite dish—I still prefer cacio e pepe or midnight pasta or even puttanesca for its sharp salty flavors—but it’s really damn good. This picture is terrible because I only took it to share in my group family text thread, and wasn’t planning on a post, but here we are.

Leftovers to look forward to for dinner tonight. I restrained myself from eating all of it because I couldn’t spend another night trying to sleep on an overly full stomach.

I still have a long term goal of sourcing guanciale and making this the traditional way. I think the rules even call for pecorino, which is a little saltier and sharper than Parmesan, so that will impact taste as well. Maybe that’s why I prefer cacio, which is also made with pecorino. (Pecorino is the Roman pasta, whereas Parmesan is from a different region and not traditional in the Roman dishes.) I’ll save that project for when the world isn’t crumbling quite so quickly.