Mmm…double starch

The Kid has never been a picky eater. Beets, bananas, and fish sticks are a few of the small list of items that shall not pass my child’s lips.

And there are two one-pot main dishes that are on the no-fly list.  One is a recipe I got from my friend and former boss, Bosco.  It’s a rice, chick pea and hamburger skillet.

The other dish is the scratch-made version of a treat with both rice and short spaghetti shards one might find in San Francisco.  I’ve made it for years; I’ve even written about it before, but the last time I made it, I added a new ingredient. It’s a trick America’s Test Kitchen uses when making quick versions of slow-cooked dishes.  At first blush, it seems like one of those internet hacks that sound like a life-changing miracle, but when actually attempted leaves you with regret, frustration, a wine-stained shoe, a broken bottle, and glass shards embedded in your forehead.

It’s unflavored gelatin.See?  I told you it sounded bizarre.

But hear me out.  When you cook meats very slowly, the collagen eventually dissolves.  That’s what lends the unctuous mouth feel to things like brisket or ribs.  Gelatin’s a protein which comes from collagen.

I’ll never make this without gelatin again; it’s perfect in this dish, or any dish that needs a little silkiness.

San Francisco Cheat-2.0rice a roni1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 pound mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoons rosemary, chopped finely

1 teaspoon dry thyme

1 ¾ cups long grain rice

1-7 ounce bag fideo noodles (found in grocery stores’ Hispanic section)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry or red wine

1 ½ cups thawed shoe peg corn

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

½ cup cold water

Salt and pepper

For broth, whisk together:roni broth

4 cups beef stock

2 teaspoons horseradish

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Splash of mushroom or dark soy

3 bay leaves

Bloom gelatin: stir together gelatin powder and ½ cup cold water.  Set aside.  It will harden into gelled disk.

Turn large heavy pot with lid to medium-high.  Break ground beef into thumb-size pieces and drop into pan.  Season.  Let cook undisturbed until the portion touching the bottom of the pot browns and gets a little crust. 

When the meat is browned all over, remove meat from pan and set aside.  Pour out all but about a tablespoon or so of the fat left.

Add mushrooms, onions, rosemary and thyme.  Cook until liquid has cooked out and veg are caramelized.

Stir in fideo and rice.  Cook, stirring frequently until the rice and pasta have browned a bit.  Stir in tomato paste and let cook for a few minutes. 

Pour in sherry or wine, scraping up any bits on pot bottom.  Let cook until pan is dry.

Pour in broth and put gelatin disk into pot.  Stir until melted and liquid comes to a boil.  Add back the ground beef and stir in corn.  Turn down heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 17-20 minutes or the broth has completely cooked in. Remove from heat, leave covered, and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.  Top each serving with a pat of butter and some snipped chives if desired. 

Serves 6-8.

As far as savory gelatin goes, this beats the pants off those crazy aspics from the fifties, with tomato jello studded with celery, pimento-stuffed olives, and shrimp.

But for the love of Mike, why, oh, why, would they do that to perfectly innocent food and their digestive tracks?Thanks for your time.

Man can practically live by breadcrumbs alone

Last week I made one of the best meatloaves I’ve ever made.

And it was all because of the breadcrumbs.

But those crumbs didn’t come from bread.  It was the end of a box of Wheat Thins.  Which bring us to the very best thing about breadcrumbs.

They don’t have to contain bread.


No, really.

You know, I was gonna say I’d rather have the bread crumbs, but now…not so much.  He’s awful purty.

Japanese panko is the super trendy man-bun of the breadcrumbs world.  A few years ago, to get some you could only procure them by mail order.  Now, they carry them at Big Lots.  You can pick some up at the dollar store.  They even use panko on fish sticks, for the love of Mike.

But panko comes from bread in the same way that jelly beans come from the farmers market.

To produce those Japanese breadcrumbs, they make a slurry of wheat and a few other ingredients.  They then spray it onto canvas sheets, dry them, and flake them off.  That’s pretty much it, but panko was never, in its life cycle, bread.

In my freezer, I have a bag.  Whenever we have a bag or box of crackers that is almost empty, or has gone a little stale, I toss them into that bag. When I make a casserole that needs a crispy breadcrumb topping, I grind up enough to make a cup or so.  Then I season it, add herbs or spices that fit the flavor of the casserole, and pour in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, or melted butter and stir it through.  After baking, there is a beautiful, golden, crispy crust on top.

When I want shake and bake-style pork chops, I throw all the orphan crackers into a food processor.  Then I throw in some olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs and spices.  Cheese is also mighty tasty in the mix.  Dryer cheeses like Parmesan and Spanish manchego are really good, and easier to work with, but I’ve used things like provolone and cheddar as well.And nuts are a breadcrumbs best friend.

Whole Foods has a collection of breadcrumbs that have been enhanced with different nut and herb combinations.  But they are pretty dear, with a couple of cups coming in at more than ten dollars.

But think about the combos you could make in your own kitchen.

For an Asian twist, what about Chinese five spice powder and cashews?  Feeling Italian?  What about hazelnuts, Parmesan, lemon zest and basil?  For a taste of Spain mix Marcona almonds, pimiento powder, and some delicious Manchego into your breadcrumbs.

Hey!  What if I tossed the pasta tonight with some stale, gound up bread?

You can even dress pasta with breadcrumbs.  In the days before freezers, frugal Italian peasants came up with a way to use stale bread.  This recipe is a take on one from the lovely mind of Nigella Lawson.

Pasta with lemon & garlic breadcrumbs

Ingredients (serves 2)breadcrumb-pasta8 ounces pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Zest & juice of 1 lemon

¼-½ cup shredded Parmesan

½ cup breadcrumbs

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper, to taste

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley


Bring heavily salted water to a boil.  Add pasta, and cook until al dente. Before draining, remove a cupful of cooking water.

While pasta’s cooking add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a non-stick skillet and add lemon zest; it’ll sizzle.  Add breadcrumbs, lightly season, and toast until golden.  Set aside.

After draining pasta, pour it back into pot, then add second tablespoon of olive oil and half the lemon juice.  Toss to combine in hot pan until much of the liquid’s absorbed.  Add garlic and cheese.  Toss again, while adding enough pasta-cooking liquid to emulsify it into sauce consistency.  Season then taste, and add more lemon juice if desired. Right before serving, gently fold in parsley and breadcrumbs.Here’s something else nifty about breadcrumbs.  There doesn’t have to be any kind of bread/cracker product in them.

Don’t believe me?

Next time you need breadcrumbs, break out the potato chips, corn chips, or leftover rice that has dried out in the fridge and you’ve ground up in a food processor.

Now you never need to buy a pre-made can of saw dust…I mean breadcrumbs again.Thanks for your time.

Dinner as the reward of virtue

First, let me admit that I am most definitely no goody-two-shoes, uber-organized, Martha Stewart-wannabe.

I once overheard a woman say that she tries to retrieve her laundry from the dryer before the clothes go cold.  I try to retrieve my laundry from the dryer before the clothes go out of style.

There is, however, one exception.

Growing up, my father was in the Coast Guard.  Their motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready.   My mother’s personal motto is Clean as you go along.  The result of being raised with these two philosophies is that when cooking, I am a cleaning, prepping machine.

There are few things I love more than getting into the kitchen and knocking out every step of a meal up to the final cooking.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day when I was putting together a pot of goulash.

I grew up eating goulash.  It consists of hamburger, pasta, tomatoes, and loads of garlic.  It’s also known as American chop suey or beefy mac.

This time I did all the prep, and after adding the pasta, covered it, and took it off the heat.  An hour later I discovered that the residual heat had almost cooked the pasta.  But they were still opaque, and tasted a little doughy.  So later, when we were ready to eat, I cooked it briefly, stirring frequently, until the cavatappi was translucent and tasted cooked.

If you want to cook it right away, instead of taking it off the heat cook it on medium covered for 10 minutes, and uncovered for 10 more, or until the noodles are cooked and the sauce is thickened and clinging to the pasta.

Now-R-Later Goulash


1 lb. 80/20 hamburger

12 ounces mushrooms

1 onion

2 heads garlic

½ teaspoon bacon fat or vegetable oil

2-14 ounce can tomatoes

1 ½ cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons dry thyme + ½ teaspoon

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped + 2 sprigs

2 teaspoons kosher salt + pinch

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper + pinch

1 pound cavatappi pasta

Roast garlic:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut heads of garlic in half horizontally.  Lay in piece of foil about 9 inches square. Place ½ teaspoon thyme, rosemary sprigs, pinch of salt, pepper, and oil.  Wrap, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Extract garlic cloves from skins and set aside.

Put hamburger into large heavy pot with a cover.  When it’s just about cooked through, add onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and remaining herbs.  Cook until the veg have released and cooked out all their liquid.

Add garlic and stir.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and mix in.  Cook until the paste has darkened, and started to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Add sherry, stir to pull up all the stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Cook until the sherry’s cook in.

Pour in tomatoes and juice.  Add beef stock.  Stir in pasta. 

Cover, take off the heat and let sit covered for 60 minutes.

10 minutes before service, put it on a medium burner, gently stirring frequently, so that all the pasta cooks to opaque.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream of Mexican crema.  Serves 8.

So, practicing the virtues taught to me by my parents, I was rewarded with a dinner that virtually cooked itself.

It’s like we dined on instant karma.

Thanks for your time.

A Kernel of Truth

Originally published in the Herald-Sun 12/19/2012.

At our house, we are huge fans of carby comfort food.

We have a repertoire of dishes, everything from blue box mac, to an invented dish we call a ‘pasta toss’ (pasta, usually with sautéed veg and lots of lemon and garlic).

When Petey is saving lives at Duke, my baby and I dine alone.  On those nights we love nothing better than to get into our jimmies, and hop onto the couch with a couple of plates of steamy noodle goodness.  Then we dine, while watching a cinematic classic like, “Super Lobster Versus Mega Kitten”.

One night, prowling the Food Network website, I came upon a picture of a pasta dish with corn and green onions.

It looked fresh and light, yet luxurious.  Crazy gorgeous.  It made my stomach rumble.

I copy/pasted the illustration, and emailed it to The Kid, who was ensconced upstairs in the fortress of solitude, with various beeping and blinking devices.

It was given a thumb’s up.  We decided to create our own corn and pasta dish.

We immediately started making plans.

For pasta, we decided on parpadelle.  It’s as long as spaghetti, but as wide as an egg noodle.  The good stuff is as silky as a French nightgown.  It’s eggy and yummy.

For flavoring and fat in which to saute, we decided to go with pancetta.  It’s Italian.  They make it with pork belly, which also makes our American bacon.  It’s cured and rolled. But unlike bacon, which is smoked, pancetta is never smoked, but flavored with peppercorns and other herbs and spices, like rosemary and juniper berries.

Although I am an onion lover, my child is not, so instead of green onions for our dish, we would stir in a handful of fresh chopped parsley.  This would give us both color and fresh bright flavor.

As for our star of the show, corn, a trip to the farmers’ market presented us with a myriad of choices.  We settled on some beautiful sweet juicy ears still in their pale green silky robes.

Some stuff about fresh corn:

As soon as the ear leaves the stalk, the sugars in those sweet kernels start converting to starch.  In two days, about 80% of the sugar has mutated.  So, only buy fresh corn on the day you will use it.  And don’t buy it if it’s been languishing at the grocery store for days. The way to get the tastiest corn is to get freshly picked.

Otherwise, buy frozen.

Don’t be ashamed to be seen in the freezer aisle.  IQF, or individually quick frozen vegetables is the way most veg are prepared these days.  They’re cleaned and frozen as quickly as possible, sometimes within minutes, in buildings just feet from the fields in which they grew.  I promise they will be fresher than the sad, middle-aged specimens declining in your supermarket veggy department.

To shuck corn, quicker and cleaner; drop each ear into boiling water for a count of fifteen.  This will make the silk practically jump off the corn.  To completely eliminate the mess and bother, make the kids do it–outside.

To get the kernels off the cob, just hold the cob upright on a cutting board, and cut down with a sharp knife, turn it, and repeat.  After kernels are removed, scrape down the cob with the back of your knife, to get the juice.

Some folks swear by resting the cob on the opening of an upright bundt pan.  The theory is all the stuff goes only into the pan.  It never works for me.  It is a messy job, no getting around it.  I suggest a drop cloth, and a shower after.

Once we had our components, we set about making our newest pasta toss.  It was a blast conspiring together to create this new recipe.

Happily, all the fevered intrigue paid off.  It’s the perfect, yummy plate to devour while watching “Grizzlygator versus Colossal Hedgehog 2”.  This time I hear it’s personal.

Summer Corn & Parpadelle

Serves four as a side dish, or two as a main.

1 lb parpadelle

¼ lb thick sliced pancetta, cut into cubes

2 cloves garlic, peeled, and smashed, or thickly sliced

6 ears fresh corn, cut from cob (or 12-16 ounces frozen shoe peg, if fresh is not available)

1 shallot, diced

1/3 cup white wine

1 cup chicken stock

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

2 T butter

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Salt and pepper

Set a very large pot with heavily salted water on to boil.  When it boils, add pasta and cook ‘til al dente. 

In a large heavy skillet, cook pancetta until completely browned on medium-low, and remove from pan. Turn up to medium, and put garlic in.  Cook until lightly golden and fragrant.  Remove and discard. 

Put shallots into skillet, and cook until softened and lightly translucent.  Add corn with juice.  Cook until the liquid is almost gone, and add wine, and stir to coat everything.  When wine has evaporated, add chicken stock, and turn up to medium-high. 

Let it bubble away to thicken, while paprpadelle is cooking.  When the consistency is right, turn off heat, and stir in cheese and butter (called mounting).

When the noodles are done, don’t strain them, remove from water with tongs or a large slotted spoon, and add directly to sauce.  Add parsley, and toss everything together.  If the sauce is too stiff, add a little pasta water to thin it.

Check for seasoning, plate, scatter top with pancetta bits, and serve. 

The Kid called this past weekend, and told me next week’ll be finals for food and wine compatibility class.  The directive is a dish that pairs well with a chardonnay.

Guess what recipe my child is choosing to make for the exam?

Thanks for your time.

Dining Alone


Happily Ever After Everybody Leaves

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/4/2012

The Kid and I have this thing. If we can’t decide what to eat, we employ the “magic wand” gambit.
We close our eyes, and pretend that our imaginary, enchanted, baton has the power to grant us anything our brain-stomach collectives can envision.
A burger from a joint near my junior high, 2500 hundred miles and thirty-five years away. Or waffles from the actual Cinderella castle at Disney World. Maybe guacamole made by Chef Chrissie, my sensai, and the closest thing to a big brother The Kid has (not including the dog).
Then we adjust downward.
Since there’s no winner in the time/space X Prize, I make Del Taco’s hamburger myself (it’s really just a burger with tomato and Miracle Whip). Visiting Orlando is out, but I have a waffle iron, and make a mean sourdough/chocolate chip version.
Choosing guac, though, is dicey.
Avocados are not able to ripen on the tree, so they are shipped, and arrive hard.
“How unripe are they?”
I’m glad you asked.
They’re so new, they think that Angelina Jolie is a heart-stoppingly beautiful movie legend, a humanitarian warrior for the voiceless, a loving partner and mother to biological children and orphans from around the globe.
And not a home-wrecker.
But I recently made a discovery.
Some stores sell a lot of avocados. Some, not so much. Those slower volume stores will sometimes have avocados that have been around for a while, and have done their ripening for you in the produce section. Every once in a while, the universe aligns itself just because you deserve a bowl of Chrissie’s guac (The last time The Kid was home from college, the universe did just that. We gorged ourselves on guacamole for days. Short of Chrissie coming in from Chicago and whipping it up for us, it was a flawless magic wand performance.).
Three nights a week, my ever-lovin’ spouse works overnight at Duke. Before driver’s licenses and New England, The Kid and I used those evenings to investigate personal gastronomic theories, and indulge wand inspired whims.
Nowadays, alone after Petey leaves for work, I break out my private dinner scepter.
Those meals are bound by nothing but taste, mood, and pantry.
I cook for only myself; all the stuff I’ve been craving.
Once, as a little girl visiting relatives in New Jersey, I went to a sleep-over at the house of my second cousin, and her three daughters (There’s “kin” in Jersey, too.)
Back then, in the old days, an authority figure put food on the table, no questions asked. Children’s sole input was the mandatory cleaning of the plate.
In a shocking twist, Cousin Dody put the menu entirely into our hands.
That was the night that the wand and I first met.
We dined on hot dogs, Jiffy-Pop, and root beer. Dessert was rock candy.
Now, I often want childhood favorites. Blue box mac, pb&j’s (apple jelly rulez), mashed potatoes and corn. Last Sunday night, I ate a nutmeg dusted bowl of oatmeal and fruit.
Occasionally, it’s a full-on dinner that I cook from the ground up. Sometimes I go for a diner-style breakfast for supper. Some weeks, it’s chocolate (Or murder. I’ve decided on chocolate.).
Many nights I have salad. Sometimes it’s a salad to make a nutritionist proud. Crisp greens, fruit, veggies, some nuts, a little parm, and a light dressing.
But about half the time, my salad would make the same nutritionist take an extended sabbatical to reexamine their life choices.
There is my very favorite, potato, and all it’s numerous starchy, fatty variations. But a lot of times my rib-sticking dinner salad is pasta based.
This afternoon, I bought a couple of thick, beautiful, ruby red slices of London Broil from the prepped food case at Whole Foods. I knew I had plenty of other salad stuff at home, including about a cup of leftover rotini.
Tonight, I thought about what I wanted. A variety of textures. Cool and not too heavy, but creamy and comforting. And, I wanted to have a balance of all the flavor notes–salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. What resulted was half bowl of pasta to eat in my jimmies in front of “The Supersizers Go” (amazing show on foodtv, check it, home slice), and half lab experiment, selecting items on the fly from my test kitchen that could provide the desired accent.

Performance Art Pasta Salad

1 cup cooked salad-friendly shaped pasta
4 oz cold very rare beef * (deli counter or leftover), sliced length of the pasta, 1/4 inch thin
*vegetarians could substitute grilled portobellos, or tofu
2 cups baby spinach
1/3 cup dried blueberries
1/4 cup roughly chopped, salted pistachios
1/4 cup manchego or very dry English cheddar, shaved into salad with potato peeler
1/4 cup green onions, both white and green parts, sliced very thin on extreme bias
salt and pepper
1/3 best olive oil (best in your kitchen, my best usually comes from Costco)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise (makes dressing feel creamy on the salad, and the palate)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
Whisk together all ingredients until an emulsion is formed. Check on a piece of spinach for seasoning. Lemony things demand more salt, and the juice may be too sour, so that a little more honey is called for. Taste and adjust, please!
Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes before folding into pasta.

Gently toss all ingredients, while slowly adding the dressing. Stop adding it when everything is barely, barely coated. The water from the spinach, and the juice in the steak will contribute lots of flavor, and liquid, to the final dish. Cover with plastic wrap to rest at room temperature. In 15-20 minutes, give it another gentle toss. Check for seasoning, plate, and serve.

To be perfectly honest, after I mixed it but before I had tasted it, I got a little nervous. There were some seriously non-traditional participants and combinations in that salad. But when I tasted it, I was delighted. The flavors worked. The dried blueberries were a little out there, but they were my favorite part. The chewiness was met with nutty crunch and the burst of sour/sweet was a perfect foil for the salty/funky meat and cheese.
This may sound perfectly dreadful to you. But that’s the point. I made it with my own magic wand.
You’re a grownup, it is your druthers. It doesn’t matter if the fantasy banquet for one is to dine on the perfect Waygu steak, champagne-glazed fiddlehead ferns, and fresh porcinis seared in brown butter, or chilling in your underwear, swilling YooHoo and munching Funyuns, while watching the “Prime Minister’s Questions”, the wand is yours, to do with as you wish.
Close you eyes, and pick it up.
Thanks for your time.