A few months ago, I got an email from my friend Sarah, inviting me to participate in a cooking club with about 5 or 6 other ladies of her acquaintance. Although I hesitated to add more commitments to my already busy schedule, I’m so glad that I did- these gals can cook!
Although I was unable to attend the first dinner (I think I was playing a show that night), I received a charmingly decorated envelope in the mail from my friend Amy, who had gotten crafty and made us all little badges that said “les culinettes”. I was smitten.
Luckily the next dinner presented no such scheduling conflicts, so a month or so later I got myself to Meghan’s adorable Victorian home in Corktown, where the theme of the evening was “peasant food”. I think any actual peasant would have just about keeled over knowing we considered wild boar ragù, fresh oysters and Pasta Kerchief “peasant food”, but hey, a loose interpretation of the term is fine in my book if it means I get to eat incredible food. Continue reading
…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!
It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries. Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin. In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing. Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.
So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale! Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get. They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.
Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection. She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen. In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her. But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.
I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half. Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong? I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen? Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh. This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding. However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.
The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene. As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf. The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce. Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce! I think I was more upset about it than anything.
That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left. I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so. It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them. At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body and flavor to my sauce. I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).
I’m still not sure what happened with the meat. I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled. If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.
P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley. Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!
A few months ago I got an email from a gentleman at Oh! Nuts asking if I’d like to sample some product, and maybe I could write a recipe about it. I was thinking of all kinds of treats to make- ice creams, tarts, etc. But when the package came, I was too busy to do anything with it so I made like a drag queen and tucked the nuts away. Then recently I checked out A16: Food + Wine from the library (yes I know, I’m behind the curve on this book that was much-hyped around Christmas 2008) and saw a recipe for halibut with a pistachio, parsley, and preserved lemon pesto (try saying that three times fast!). It sounded like a perfect summer dish and a great excuse to use some of those pistachios.
Incidentally, can I just dork out for a moment and say how exciting it was to get my first shipment of free swag?? I’ve been offered a couple other things here and there but nothing I would actually use. Free nuts was a major score, as A) I love nuts of all kinds, and B) nuts are freaking expensive! The company sent me pistachios, hazelnuts, and steamed, peeled chestnuts, which I think I’ll save for an autumnal dish. [Can I also say to all the bloggers who are always griping on Twitter about how many PR emails/offers they get, it's a little hard to have pity. Gee, you poor thing, your blog is well-known enough for you to get PR pitches and free stuff all the time. Boo hoo!]
I was really happy about how this recipe turned out, and although I made it with fish, I could easily imagine this pesto-like sauce as an accompaniment to roast chicken or on pasta for a vegan dish. As a side dish, I just drizzled some artichokes with olive oil and lemon and tossed a few olives in for good measure. I picked up a nice bottle of Auratus Alvarinho selected by Jeffrey at Holiday Market that was moderately priced and a great compliment to the food; A16 suggests a Sicilian Carricante if you can find that. As far as a “review” of the nuts, they were perfectly fine, fresh, etc. Of course I always advocate buying local first, but if you can’t find something you need, the Oh!Nuts website is a good alternative.
A note on fish: To find out whether a certain fish is on the endangered/ unsustainable list, check here. Re: substituting fish, Mark Bittman’s book Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking is an excellent resource; for each type of fish, he lists several other species which can be interchanged in recipes.
1 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
2 cups parsley leaves, loosely packed
1 Tbs capers (salt-packed if possible)
½ a preserved lemon, peel only
½ tsp dried chili flakes
½ cup olive oil
sea salt if needed
fresh lemon wedges and additional olive oil for serving
Note: This pesto is best served the day it is made.
Soak the capers and preserved lemon peel in cold water to remove some of the salt. Roughly chop the parsley. Put it in the bowl of a food processor (if you have a smaller-sized bowl, this works best) along with the pistachios, chili flakes and capers (drained and rinsed). Pulse while adding the olive oil in a thin stream, scraping down the sides once or twice, until the pistachios are well-chopped. Alternately, you can make the pesto in a mortar and pestle; you’ll want to chop the parsley more finely for this version. For fish or chicken, I prefer a looser pesto where the nuts are left slightly chunky, but for pasta you could process it a bit more if desired. Finely dice the preserved lemon peel and stir into the pesto; taste for salt (mine did not need any; the capers and preserved lemons were salty enough to season the mixture).
To serve with pasta, simply toss the pesto with 1 lb pasta that has been cooked in well-salted water. Drizzle over a bit more olive oil if desired, and serve with fresh lemon wedges.
Note: The A16 recipe calls for halibut, but at $19 a pound it was a bit out of reach for me so I substituted cod. The cod was thinner but I folded under the thinnest ends to ensure a more even cooking, and adjusted my cooking time downward.
Season the halibut fillets with sea salt at least one hour and up to four hours prior to cooking. Remove from refrigerator ½ hour before cooking to allow to come to room temperature (less time will be needed for thinner fish). Preheat oven to 400°. Drain off any liquid that has accumulated and place the fish in a glass baking dish. Divide the pesto evenly among the fillets, pressing down so it adheres. Place a small amount of water in the bottom of the dish, enough to come about a third of the way up the fish.
Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through; this will depend on type and thickness of fish, so keep a close eye on it. (Fish is done when it is just firm to the touch; it will continue to cook for another couple minutes after removed from the oven, so it’s best to err on the side of ever-so-slightly underdone.) Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Taste the braising liquid and drizzle some of this on top if desired. Serve immediately with fresh lemon wedges.
Confession time: I’m not much for TV food personalities (I don’t even have cable!), but when I was first really getting into cookbooks, I was pretty into Nigella Lawson. There was just something in her breezy “if I can do it, anyone can” manner that was very appealing, and I enjoyed reading her cookbooks as much as I did cooking from them. Nowadays, I’m at a point where most of her recipes (with the exception of baked goods) are things I could whip up on my own without having to consult a cookbook. But there are a few dishes that have stuck with me and become part of my regular repertoire.
This soba noodle salad is one such dish. I’ve made it for countless potlucks and barbecues, and almost always get asked for the recipe. The two great things about it are that it’s ultrafast to make, and that it’s pretty healthy as far as “pasta salad” goes. The original just calls for noodles, scallions and sesame seeds (in addition to the dressing), but I’ve taken to add-ins such as the peapods pictured, or carrot matchsticks, or any raw veg you see fit, really, to make it a bit more salad-y and substantial.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour, which can also make this salad a good gluten free option if you substitute tamari or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for the soy sauce (I’ve been told tamari usually does not contain wheat gluten, but check labels!). It’s also vegan. I’m not gonna lie, it’s not really substantial enough to have as a main dish, but it makes a great component to an Asian-style meal. We had it the other night as part of a Japan-esque motley dinner of salmon sashimi with yuzu juice, an heirloom tomato, tofu and shiso salad from the Momofuku cookbook, and a mess of stir-fried purple-tinged leafy mystery greens we bought from one of the Asian produce vendors at Eastern Market.
8 oz dried soba (buckwheat) noodles
¼ cup sesame seeds
3-5 scallions, sliced thinly on the bias
6 tsp soy sauce (or sub Bragg’s Aminos for gluten free)
2 tsp honey (non-honey-eating vegans, just sub brown or regular sugar)
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
optional: 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
optional: additional vegetables, such as peapods or julienned carrot pieces
Notes: The soba noodles I buy come in little 3.5-oz bundles (see photos), so I just use two bundles- close enough. The ginger is optional but a nice touch if you have some on hand. If you’re using additional vegetables, depending on quantity you may want to lightly salt them or toss them in a bit more soy sauce prior to adding them to the salad. This recipe doesn’t make a huge quantity of salad, but it can easily be doubled if serving more than a few people.
Directions: Put a large pot of water on to boil. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry nonstick skillet over low heat, taking care not to burn them. Remove from heat when toasty and fragrant, and allow to cool. Combine all the dressing ingredients (including the ginger, if using) in a large bowl and mix well.
When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the noodles and stir them so they don’t clump. The noodles will cook VERY quickly- test for doneness after 3 minutes. The package instructions (and Nigella, in her version) say 6 minutes but in my experience this yields gummy, overcooked noodles. As soon as the noodles are cooked through, drain in a colander and immediately rinse with cold water until thoroughly cooled. Shake to remove excess water. Toss the noodles in the bowl with the dressing. Add the sesame seeds, scallions, and any other vegetables and toss again to distribute. If you have time, allow the salad to sit for 30 minutes or so before serving for the flavors to develop.
A few weeks ago I posted a challenge to come up with a $2-per-serving menu to challenge the notion that healthy food is “too expensive” or that you need to resort to convenience foods to have time to sit down with your family for dinner. Ironically, what with trying to run holiday-related errands after work most days, and having a plethora of parties, shows, rehearsals and other stuff, I haven’t been cooking much! (I did make a big batch of lamb & bulghur stew last weekend and have been pretty much subsisting on those leftovers all last week, but it wasn’t particularly blog-worthy.)
The other night I was staring at the fridge with the glazed-over and rather desperate look of a person who hasn’t been to the grocery store in recent memory, when inspiration struck. I had a bag of frozen shrimp in the fridge, a package of pasta, and enough pantry items to make said shrimp and pasta into a quick and very flavorful dinner. Crisis averted.
Let me detour here to say that I do regret that my $2 meal was not more local– apparently there is a shrimp farm in Okemos but my shrimp were from Trader Joe’s. I don’t eat a ton of shrimp because of the overfishing issues, but as a person who lives alone, there is a great advantage to a food which you can keep in the freezer and remove a few at a time for a single serving. This recipe may also not fall under some people’s definition of “healthy”, but it does use all natural ingredients and that’s my usual guideline. As I had not been to the store I didn’t have any fresh vegetables in the house, but I would certainly encourage adding a green veg to make this a more balanced meal.
Here’s my cost breakdown: Shrimp: ½ bag @ $8.99/1-lb bag= $4.50; butter: 2 oz @ $2.89/lb= 36¢; 1 lb spaghetti= 99¢; 1 lemon= 50¢ (mine actually cost less since I had bought a bag of them, but I think that’s how much they are if you buy a single one); 4 cloves garlic= approx. 25¢; 1 tsp red pepper: negligible, but let’s say 15¢ (or get it free next time you order pizza!). Total= $6.75 and serves 4, so $1.69 per serving. That leaves $1.25 to spend on 4 servings of the veg of your choice- a plain green salad, some sautéed zucchini, or some steamed broccoli, perhaps?- and still keep it under $2.
Garlic Shrimp Pasta
1 lb. dried spaghetti or linguini
½ lb. shrimp (should yield 4-6 shrimp per serving depending on shrimp size)
4 Tbs butter
4 large cloves garlic
1 lemon, halved lengthwise
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 handful chopped flat leaf parsley, optional
kosher or sea salt
Notes: Feel free to embellish and throw in other random items you may have in your pantry or refrigerator… a spoonful of capers, perhaps, or some grated Parmigiano. I happened to have some parsley in the fridge so in it went. This recipe is also very easily divisible/ multipliable- I originally made 2 servings, not 4- so it’s a good recipe if you’re just feeding 1 or 2 people. The dish can be prepared in about 30 minutes, and 10 of that is just waiting for the water to boil. You’ll want to work very quickly to get the sauce on the pasta before anything gets cold.
Directions: Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Rinse and pat dry the shrimp, salt lightly on all sides and set aside. Mince the garlic. Juice half the lemon; cut the remaining half into four wedges. Chop the parsley, if using.
When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to package directions, probably 8 minutes or so. You’ll want to try to time it so the pasta and shrimp are just getting done at the same time.
Select a saucepan in which the shrimp will just fit in one layer. Melt the butter over low heat. Add the garlic, keeping the heat as low as possible. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring and making sure the garlic does not brown. (If the butter is foaming too much, add a splash of olive oil.) Add the pepper flakes and stir.
Add the shrimp to the pan in one layer. Cook gently until they appear opaque halfway up the sides, then flip and continue cooking until fully opaque. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a covered dish on the stovetop (so they remain warm).
Meanwhile, drain the pasta when done, reserving about ¼ cup of the cooking water. Add the juice of half the lemon and a little of the pasta water to the butter/garlic mixture and increase the heat slightly, stirring. Cook for 30 seconds or so, stirring to emulsify. Toss the sauce with the cooked pasta. Add any other ingredients at this time such as the parsley, capers, etc. Taste the pasta for salt, adding as needed. If it seems too dry, add a bit more of the pasta cooking water, and/or a little olive oil.
Plate the pasta in warmed shallow bowls or plates, garnishing with the shrimp and a wedge of lemon.