Tip #8: Raid the Fridge

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Sometimes, the main dish is a done deal but deciding on the side dish(es) feels like a lot of work. When that happens, I turn to a no-recipe dish. I look at the vegetables I have in the refrigerator and the pantry and combine the ones that I think will go well together and with the main dish. Last night’s combination was mushrooms, green beans from last summer’s garden (so frozen is fine), and spinach. I pulled them together with butter and olive oil and lightly browned garlic chips, with a scattering of green onions toward the end of cooking. My husband and I could have eaten the combination over a bowl of brown rice and been happy (and we will in the future).

The mushrooms–cooked until golden on all sides–were meaty and earthy-sweet. The green beans added a vegetal note and tender-but-with-bite texture. The spinach gave a minerally taste, and the garlic and scallions added that allium kick from which so many vegetables benefit. The salt, butter and oil combined for a richness that united all of the flavors.

If you purchase already sliced mushrooms, frozen green beans, and pre-washed spinach, the only things you really need to do are slice the garlic and green onions. Speedy and delicious.

Other great combinations: (I use salt, pepper, and olive oil with all of these, but add herbs, spices, and oils of your choice)
-roasted broccoli and/or cauliflower with Brussels sprouts and a shower of lemon juice
-bias-cut carrots and quartered Brussels sprouts with a maple syrup glaze (pan or oven roast)
-bias-cut celery, canned diced tomatoes, sliced onion, and garlic, simmered until the celery is almost melting (add water or broth if the pan dries out too quickly)
-roasted butternut squash and Brussels sprouts
-green beans and julienned (or just thinly sliced) carrots
-butternut squash and red bell peppers

One way to tie all of your vegetable choices together is by softening onion and/or garlic in oil or butter before adding the rest of the vegetables, or by leaving them in larger pieces and adding them to the roasting pan. Or you can make garlic “chips” like I do in this recipe.

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Most vegetables go well with each other, especially if they are harvested in the same season. And if you play with a combination that you wind up not liking, it isn’t the end of the world. Make a mental note and try something different next time!

Green Bean, Mushroom, and Spinach Sauté with Golden Garlic
(serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main dish over a hearty whole grain)

Ingredients
1 lb frozen green beans, dropped in boiling water and cooked just so the beans separate
1 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
6-8 oz mushrooms, quartered (sliced is also fine; they’ll just cook faster)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 oz spinach (I used mature, because I prefer the taste and texture, but baby spinach is fine)
4-6 thinly sliced green onions, divided

Directions
1. Heat a 1/2 tbsp oil and a 1/2 tbsp butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the mushrooms and cook, undisturbed, for about two minutes or until the first side is golden brown. Flip to another side and repeat. Flip a final time (unless they’re sliced versus quartered–those will only need one flip) and cook 2-3 minutes. The mushrooms should be golden on all sides, including the rounded one. Lower the heat to medium.
2. Add the rest of the oil to the skillet. When it is hot (which will be almost immediately), tilt the pan so the oil flows to the side and add the garlic slices into the “pool.” Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic starts to turn golden around the edges. Work quickly for the next step.
3. Give the green beans a light squeeze to remove some of the excess moisture. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and stir in the green beans. Add a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes or until the green beans are warm.
4. Add 1/2 of the sliced scallions, all of the spinach, and another pinch of salt and cook, tossing the vegetables around until the spinach wilts. Add the rest of the scallions and some black pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Serve hot.

Tip #7: Oven’s on? Make lots!

When it comes to the day-to-day feeding of myself and my family, I am just as likely to be caught without a plan as anyone else. When I lived in the Boston area, this was no big deal; we could get take-out or go out to eat. Living in a rural area where nearby restaurant options are extremely limited, I need a different Plan B. To help with this, I often ask my oven to do double-duty.

It takes just about the same time to roast double the amount of potatoes, squash, garlic, and other vegetables as it does to roast a single meal’s worth; the only addition is the prep time. While there are some nights that prepping just one more Brussels sprout might send me over the edge, most of the time prepping double is no big deal. Roasted Brussels sprouts can be a side dish tonight, and can be tossed with leftover chicken, garlic, some Balsamic vinegar, and cooked pasta or another grain for a quick main later in the week. Ditto just about any roasted vegetable.

Roast two chickens (or poach extra chicken breasts) and you have meals for days. Use the chicken in enchiladas, soups, casseroles, sandwiches…none of the meals have to be the same, especially if the chicken is simply seasoned with salt and pepper. Roast two chickens and two sheet trays of vegetables, and later meals are wicked fast: throw shredded chicken and vegetables in some warm broth and you have soup; combine them with cooked quinoa and something crunchy like chopped nuts or raw vegetables and you have a grain bowl. Open a can of beans, chop some lettuce, warm some tortillas, and it is Taco Tuesday with Sunday’s roast.

This make-extra ethos also applies to cooking extra dried beans, quinoa, barley, millet, rice…you get the picture. Keep things simply seasoned so that later in the week you can change up your flavors by simply adding herbs and spices.

Two-for One Poached Chicken Breast

Meal One: Poached Chicken Noodle Bowls
serves 4
Meal Two: Chicken Enchiladas
serves 4

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 quarts chicken broth
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1. Place the chicken in a Dutch oven, sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover with broth to about an inch over the chicken (use water if necessary to make enough liquid to cover) and bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat to low, skim any scum that has come to the surface, cover with a lid, and cook for 8-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the chicken breasts. Remove the chicken and reserve the liquid.
2. Thinly slice half of the chicken breasts and use two forks to shred the other half. Chicken can be refrigerated at this point, or used in the recipes that follow. Save the broth, too!

Noodle Bowls
8 oz rice stick noodles, cooked and rinsed according to package directions
4 cups chicken poaching liquid
4-6 cups thinly sliced Bok Choy (kale also works here)
1 cup each thinly sliced celery and carrot
2 peeled, smashed garlic cloves
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups thinly sliced snow peas
sliced poached chicken
1 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1 tbsp peeled, grated ginger
For topping:
hot sauce (we like gochujang or Sriracha, but any hot sauce you like will work)
thinly sliced scallions
chopped peanuts
thinly sliced celery

  1. Bring the broth to a boil and add the garlic, celery and carrot. Lower the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are starting to soften, 5-7 minutes. Add the Bok Choy, peas, and snow peas and cook just until the peas and snow peas are done–you want the snow peas a little crunchy–3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the soy sauce, ginger, and sliced chicken.
  2. Place 1/4 of the noodles in the bottom of each of four bowls. Use tongs to transfer 1/4 of the chicken and vegetables to each bowl, and ladle 1/4 of the broth over each bowl. Top as desired.

Basic Enchiladas

shredded chicken
remaining poaching liquid from the chicken (add water, if necessary)
12 corn tortillas, warmed according to package directions and wrapped in paper towels or a dish towel to keep the heat in
1 15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
5 oz bag baby spinach
1 can enchilada sauce (or make your own–this is a great recipe: http://www.gimmesomeoven.com/red-enchilada-sauce/)
2 cups shredded cheddar or Mexican Blend cheese
4 chopped scallions, plus more for using fresh if desired
Optional: 1 cup sauteed bell peppers, garlic, and onions

Prepare a 13 x 9 baking dish by spraying with cooking spray, and preheat the oven to 350.

1. Warm the poaching liquid over medium heat to a simmer and add the chicken, beans, and spinach. Stir to wilt the spinach and remove from the heat.
2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken mixture to a bowl. Add 1/4 cup poaching liquid, 1/4 cup enchilada sauce, 1/2 cup shredded cheese, and the sautéed vegetables, if using. Stir to combine.
3. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of the chicken mixture* into each corn tortilla, roll up, and place seam-side down in prepared baking dish. Top enchiladas with remaining sauce, remaining cheese, and 4 chopped scallions. Cover pan with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 5-10 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and starting to turn lightly golden in spots. Remove from oven, sprinkle with additional scallions if desired, and let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*Any extra filling can be served over rice for a quick lunch.

Tip #6: It isn’t really about the food

Last week, my husband and I drove to my sister’s house in Florida to be with family for Christmas (the computer never left the computer bag, hence, no post). We like to eat in my family, so food was discussed beforehand and I was toting a ham, a cabbage that weighed more than a newborn baby, three butternut squash, and the accompaniments for all three.

Other people pack bathing suits.

As might be expected, when you throw 12 strong personalities into a room, the best-laid plans go awry. Meals were late, there wasn’t always enough ovencounterrefrigerator space to get things done, someone didn’t like that so was there something else to eat? I hauled the cabbage and the rest of the recipe ingredients back to New York with me, but everything else was used. And we had a great time being together, building crazy-looking gingerbread houses, going on a monster-truck tour of a citrus grove, coaching my oldest niece through preparing a meal for ten (when I was her age, I was putting rosemary in chili; she’s waaaay more savvy…), sitting around the long table and talking.

Because it isn’t really about the food. My sister-in-law and niece were talking one day about the different ways people show love, and how feeding others is one way. This is true: if I love you, or even just like you, one of the ways I show it is by feeding you. While I want what I serve you to be delicious, what I really want is for you to feel cared for and to spend time with you around the table. It is easy to get caught up in the failure of a recipe or the break in a time line, and to be upset that what you’re trying to do just is not working out.

Remember that the next time your soufflé doesn’t rise, or the chicken takes forever to cook through, or the cake falls in the middle. It isn’t about the food. It’s about the nourishment we get from being with people who love us.  Order a pizza, crumble the cake into a trifle, and enjoy your time together.

Tip #5: Make it a sandwich

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Mine: not as pretty, but delicious

I used to think that I did not like sandwiches. While it turns out that this is somewhat true, in fact, there are some sandwiches I love. However, they emphatically do not include “lunch meat,” the thought of which makes my stomach lurch a bit. (Except for bologna, which has to be fried. And I do not want it in a sandwich. Ever.)

It turns out that the sandwiches I loathe are the ones with a swipe of mayo and/or mustard, a slice of cheese, and some lunch meat. Read: every sandwich I was ever served in a school cafeteria. They were invariably served on white bread, and chewing them turned them into this gluey, gloppy yuck that stuck to my teeth and the roof of my mouth. Just…no thank you. (Putting them on wheat bread does not help.)

I know that there are millions of people who adore this American icon, and I am sorry if you are offended by my extreme dislike of it. This might not be your post.

But if there is room in your heart for multiple kinds of sandwiches, then read on.

For me, sandwich success requires five things: a good bread, something crunchy, something tender, something creamy, and contrasting flavors. The options are limitless, and I had an outstanding version at LaRosa’s in Andover, Massachusetts. It was open-faced on Italian bread with a tender breaded chicken cutlet, (I know, this can seem like an oxymoron) slightly bitter sautéed broccoli rabe, garlic cream sauce, and melted smoked mozzarella. The sandwich was piled high and was knife-and-fork material, like a Danish Smørrebrød (though the Smørrebrød would not be piled high).

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LaRosa’s: beautiful and tasty and big enough for two but consumed entirely by me. Not sorry.

I’ve had this combination of yum before, but usually tossed with pasta rather than on a sandwich, and as I thought about it, a lot of the sandwiches I love are things I first saw with pasta or on an antipasto platter: meatballs, tomato sauce and melty mozzarella; salami, mortadella, provolone, and marinated roasted red peppers and artichokes; chicken, arugula, and shaved parmigiano reggiano with a little vinaigrette.  These are all Italian, but the options are limitless.

I think the thing I like best about playing around with the sandwich-as-a-meal concept is that it can be as complicated as making all of the ingredients from scratch or as simple as gathering leftovers, and no matter what you pile on the bread, eating it feels kind of a like a hug.

Check out some fabulous sandwich options at these links:
http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/smorrebrod-introduction-danish-sandwich.html
http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/recipe-collections-favorites/best-sandwich-recipes
http://www.saveur.com/gallery/best-sandwich-recipes?image=0

Tip #4:”Less” does not mean “none”

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Almost all of the cooking magazines I subscribe to are sending the same message: eat less meat. Many people would say, “You need to subscribe to different magazines,” but I love vegetables, so this does not sound like the beginning of the end of the world to me. I know I am not in the majority here.

I get it. I really do. The addition of meat to a dish gives it texture, taste, and satiety that it can seem truly hard to get from other ingredients. And given the fact that we have half a pig, a quarter of a cow, and about three chicken’s worth in our freezers right now, it would seem like I am the last person to be writing this post. The thing is, that meat will last us a year, even if we each eat a serving (4 ounces) every day.

“Less meat” does not mean “no meat.”  But what might less look like?

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In October, in an effort to stretch a pound of beef–we buy locally-raised, grass-fed, absolutely delicious meat, which is expensive, which means I like to stretch it out–I played around with the idea of the “meaty” texture of eggplant (you could also use mushrooms). I had just pulled the last of the eggplant and bell peppers from the garden and needed to use them, and I wondered if I could get both meatballs and stuffed peppers from that single pound. The answer is a delicious yes (duh…otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this).

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Both eggplant and mushrooms have a lot of water, and when you cook that out you are left with a texture that is chewy like meat–you have to use your molars to really break it down. Combined with a ground meat, either or both of them will give you meaty-but-tender meatballs, meatloaf, and meat patties. (If you have ever eaten the doorstops that all of those recipes can be when handled less than gently, you might appreciate that “tender” bit.)

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I started with the eggplant, onion, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. The salt is not only to flavor, but to help draw out the moisture in the eggplant. When the eggplant had given up most of its liquid, I added some fresh hot red chili peppers, (which you could replace with about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes). Once the pan looked a little dry and everything was softened, I took out half of the eggplant mixture, added half of the ground beef, half a cup of tomato sauce, a splash of water and some herbs and cooked it through. I mixed this with cooked orzo, stuffed it into bell peppers, sprinkled on a little mozzarella and parmesan and baked them, covered, at 350 until the peppers were tender, about 45 minutes. There was enough to fill five medium bell peppers (10 halves), which for us was four dinner servings plus lunch. They freeze really well, which is a bonus.

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The rest of the eggplant mixture was combined with the other half pound of ground beef, herbs, parmesan cheese and an egg, and messily rolled into meatballs. They were delicate and had to be handled with care, but fried up just fine. Once they were browned I made a tomato-pepper sauce and let them simmer so they cooked through. We ate them over pasta and pronounced them delicious. Tender, totally meaty, herby and cheesy, all on 1/2 a pound of ground beef.

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Eggplant and Beef Meatballs (makes about 12)

olive oil (just keep the bottle handy)
1/2 lb eggplant, unpeeled and chopped into 1/4-1/2 inch dice (whatever…make it kind of small)
2 tsp garlic, minced and divided
1 cup onion, diced, divided
1 small fresh red chili, diced OR 1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or both if you’re a chili-head)
3/4-1 tsp dried marjoram or oregano, divided
1/2-3/4 tsp dried basil, divided
1/2 lb ground beef, pork or veal (I used beef)

1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, plus more for serving, if desired
1 1/2-2 cups red bell pepper, diced
1-1/2 cups tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper

  1. In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium. Add the half of the onion and garlic, the eggplant, 1/4 tsp each of salt and black pepper and stir to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring, until the eggplant has given up its liquid and the pan is starting to look dry. Add a splash of olive oil, half of the herbs, and the red chili peppers and cook another 2-3 minutes or until everything is softened and glistening a bit with the oil.
  2. Transfer the eggplant mixture (reserve the skillet) to a large bowl and add the beef, egg, cheese, and a 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper. Use your hands to gently combine everything, tossing lightly. When everything is combined, scoop heaping tablespoons (mine were somewhere between a walnut and a golf ball) and roll gently into meatball shape and place on a plate.
  3. Wash your  hands. 🙂 Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in the reserved skillet over medium. Gently add the meatballs (you may have to do this in two batches) and cook, turning really carefully, until browned on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Some of them will fall apart a bit. It’s okay. Remove the meatballs to a plate (I used the same one, because the meatballs were going to simmer, being turned occasionally, in the sauce for a while. If that makes you squeamish, use a clean plate.)
  4. Add 1 tbsp olive oil (if necessary–there may be enough fat in the pan), the other half of the onion, garlic, herbs, 1/4 tsp salt and all of the bell peppers to the skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the vegetables are softened. Add the tomato sauce and a 1/2 cup of water and bring to a simmer. Return the meatballs to the pan and cook, turning the meatballs occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the olive oil glistens on the top, 10-15 minutes. Serve.

Tip #3: Make double, and freeze half

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I am actually going to start with Tip 3 1/2, which is, “Make sure your puff pastry is puff pastry and not pie crust.”  I feel like this might not need much explanation.

Also, Tip 3 3/4: “Save your quart-sized yogurt containers.”

There are two of us in this household, (plus two dogs who subsist primarily on dog food). I have yet to find a perfectly sized turkey for Thanksgiving, and I am not interested in not roasting a whole turkey. We have leftovers. Loooots of leftovers. This is the best. Thing. Ever.

I should explain here that I like leftovers. Once. (Unless lasagna. Lasagna for daaaays!!) But there is often an opportunity to turn the original meal into something else, at which point I have Meal 2.0 and can eat the leftovers again. With an 11 pound turkey, we have lots of options for remakes. The turkey soup is already in the freezer, along with half of the pot pie filling that I made.

Making more than we will need for a meal and freezing it is how I deal with dinner on the nights that cooking is not on the agenda, but I am already in my pajamas. (This is where those yogurt containers come in. I don’t know about you, but buying a bajillion storage containers is not in the budget around here. Instead, I reuse sturdy containers that held something else. It makes me feel good to participate in the reduce/reuse/recycle system, too.)

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Don’t forget to label your containers! (And if you live in or are visiting the Adirondacks, head over to North Country Creamery in Keeseville to buy some of the best yogurt you will ever eat.)

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Turkey Pot Pie for 1,000
serves 4-6, twice

1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups each sliced carrots AND celery
1 1/2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced potato (I used Yukon Gold; red potatoes would work equally well)
1 1/2 cups peeled and diced rutabaga
1 1/2 to 2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash
1 1/2 to 2 tsp each chopped fresh thyme AND sage (or 3/4-1 tsp dried)
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, divided
salt and pepper to taste (I used approximately 1 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper)
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
1 quart turkey stock, divided
2 1/2 cups sliced Swiss chard or spinach
3 cups shredded cooked turkey
2 tbsp flour OR 1 tbsp cornstarch
2 sheets of puff pastry*, preferably all butter, one defrosted and rolled gently to cover the pie dish (I left ours a rectangle and draped it over. Lazy? Yup. Extra pastry? Yup.) and the other left in the package and placed in the freezer next to your leftover pot pie filling
1 egg, beaten with a splash of water

  1. In a large stockpot over medium heat melt the butter and oil. Add the carrots and celery and the next 5 ingredients (through the thyme and sage), 1 tbsp parsley, 1 tsp of salt and a 1/4 tsp of pepper. Stir to combine thoroughly and cook covered, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, or until the vegetables are mostly tender.
  2. Add the white wine, if using, stir once and cook until the wine is mostly evaporated, 3-5 minutes. Add 3 1/2 cups of the turkey stock and the Swiss chard and simmer for ten minutes, or until the vegetables are fully tender. Preheat the oven to the temperature recommended on your puff pastry package, usually between 400-425.
  3. In a measuring cup, whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup of broth, 1/2 tsp pepper, and flour or cornstarch. Pour broth mixture into the stockpot and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the soup to a low boil in order to activate the thickener.** When the consistency of the filling is where you like it, lower the heat and stir in the turkey and the remaining tablespoon of parsley. Taste for seasoning and if desired add the remaining (or more) salt.
  4. Cut vent holes in the center of the puff pastry. Transfer half of the filling to a deep-dish pie plate, brush the rim of the pie plate with egg wash (to hold the pastry) and drape the puff pastry over the top, pressing gently along the rim to make sure the pastry is in contact with the egg wash. Brush the top of the pastry with the egg wash, and place the pie plate on a sheet pan to catch any spill-over. Place the sheet pan with the pot pie in the oven and bake 20-25 minutes, or until the puff pastry is puffed and golden.
  5. Transfer the other half of the filling to a container, let it cool with the lid off while you eat, label and lid it, and pop it in the freezer for next time! (Defrost at least overnight, or in a pinch drop the frozen filling into a saucepan with a lid and heat it low and slow on the stove until it is gently steaming. Do the same from defrosted–the filling should be warm before it goes in the pie plate.)
    *You can also use pie crust. Or gluten-free pie crust. With the cornstarch option, it makes the pot pie gluten-free. Double check the turkey stock if store-bought, though, just to be sure.
    **If the filling is too thick, add water 2 tbsp. at a time until it reaches desired consistency. If it is too thin, whisk 1 tsp flour (or 1/2 tsp cornstarch) into 2 tbsp of water, add to the filling and bring to a boil. Repeat until desired consistency.
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Tip #1: Relax and trust yourself

I was having coffee with a friend (Hi, Beth!) and we were discussing the benefit of a presence on the internet. She casually said, “You know, if you posted a tip a day in your field of expertise, you would have 365 tips at the end of the year. That sounds like a book-in-progress to me.” The hamsters got those wheels spinning upstairs, and I thought, “A tip a day! Who has time for that?”  Then I thought, “I bet I could do a tip a week, though…”

Welcome to tip number one!

Our food obsessed culture has pros and cons. On the positive side, it is helping to make many of us much more aware of what we eat and how we want to eat. On the not-so-positive side, all of the television chefs and beautiful blogs that are cranking out incredible food can make the home cook feel some performance anxiety.

Relax. Unless you are Mario Batali, no one expects you to be Mario Batali. Cooking does not have to be complicated.

Case in point: biscuits with sausage gravy. Can’t bring yourself to make both from scratch? Buy the biscuits and make the gravy. Tell the haters to bring their own scratch-made biscuits next time. And the gravy brings me to the second part of our tip.

Trust yourself.  I stumbled upon a recipe for sausage gravy when I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of an open can of evaporated milk. I cannot stress enough how much I love biscuits and sausage gravy, so when I saw that title, I jumped on it. I didn’t have the maple breakfast sausage called for, but I had ground pork, maple syrup, sage and crushed red pepper so I knew I could bring in the usual flavors.

Once the sausage was browned, it was time to make the gravy. The recipe called for adding the flour to the sausage and drippings in the pan, and two things gave me pause: the amount of flour called for did not seem like enough to thicken the amount of liquid called for, and the later suggestion to add more flour if the mixture was not thick enough seemed like a recipe for lumpy gravy. But I followed directions, because blog commenters who mention all the things they changed in a recipe and then complain that it did not work make me roll my eyes so hard I may hurt myself one day.

There was not enough flour.

Adding more to the gravy made it lumpy.

I whiskedandwhiskedandwhisked and eventually got most of the lumps out. Next time, I’ll trust what I know: when making a roux, or the thickening base for a sauce or gravy, the ratio of fat to flour is one to one (1:1). And it is better to whisk additional flour into a small amount of cold liquid until a paste forms, and then add that to the gravy you are trying to thicken; it helps smooth the way for incorporation.

Sausage Gravy (with a gluten-free option)
(serves 4-6)

1 lb loose maple breakfast sausage (if you can only find links, remove the casings and crumble)

1/4 cup all purpose flour*

butter, oil, or bacon fat to make the oil in the pan equal 1/4 cup OR spoon off sausage drippings until you’re left with a quarter cup

12 oz evaporated milk, well-shaken

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)

1/4 tsp pepper (we like a little more, but start here)

  1. Place the sausage in a large skillet and heat over medium-low until the sausage is cooked through and has rendered its fat, about 6-7 minutes. Spoon off drippings or add butter/oil/bacon fat so that you have 1/4 cup of fat in the pan (tilt the pan and let the fat pool so you can eyeball it).
  2. Sprinkle the flour in the pan and cook, stirring or whisking, until the raw flour taste is gone, about 3-4 minutes. Except for the sausage bits, the roux should be a smooth mixture of fat and flour.
  3. Combine the evaporated and regular milk. Increase the heat to medium-high and whisking gently but constantly, slowly add the milk mixture to the sausage mixture. Once combined, switch back to a spoon and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken, anywhere from 3-5 minutes depending on heat level.
  4. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the salt and pepper. Taste and add more seasoning, if desired. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Sausage gravy can be reheated in the microwave or on the stove in a saucepan. Reheat gently, and add a little milk or water if it is too thick.

*Gluten-free? Skip the flour and use 2 tbsp of cornstarch or 2 1/2 tbsp potato starch. Instead of adding the thickening agent to the grease to make the roux, whisk the starch into the cold milk mixture. Follow the directions from there.

Tip #2: “Just Cover It in Cheese” or “Don’t Be Afraid to Riff in the Kitchen”

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I have been craving chicken parmesan. The crunchy, gooey, tomatoey plate of goodness served over a mountain of spaghetti.  Chicken parmesan done right is time-consuming, though. And today, there are no breadcrumbs in the kitchen. (Just today, though. Breadcrumbs–gluten-free or regular–are one of my secret weapons, a la Rachel Roddy.)

I also do not have mozzarella or parmesan cheese.

Or spaghetti. (You are going to have to trust me when I say I really am of Italian heritage.)

These things happen.  We are not slaves to recipes. I do have olive oil, a spaghetti squash from the garden, a ridiculously large half of a chicken breast, whole canned tomatoes from last year’s garden, and the traditional soffritto vegetables…subtract the celery and add a red chili pepper. I have two Italian cheeses. (Around here, I can cover anything in cheese and it seems to work. We are doing our best to support the world cheese industry.) I am not going to be able to make chicken parmesan, but I can make something that will hit most of the flavor notes, and I am going to make it up as I go along.

A lot of the meals my husband and I wind up loving begin this way. One of us wants a very specific thing, but we don’t have all of the ingredients. I try to think about the flavors of what we love about the original dish and see if I can create something that will hit the high notes.

Does it always work? Pfff. Of course not. But I haven’t made anything completely inedible since I was 12, making dinner for the family, and thought dried rosemary might be interesting in a pot of beef and bean chili.

FYI: Nope.

Cheesy Chicken Spaghetti Squash  (serves 4-6)

1 medium to large spaghetti squash (about 3 lbs)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb chicken, cut into bite-sized cube’ish shapes (I used skinless, boneless breasts because we had them, but chicken thighs would be great here, too.)
1/2 cup carrot, peeled and diced small (about one large)
1 cup diced red onion (about 1/2 of a large one)
2 tbsp red fresno chili, diced small (Don’t like heat? Use a red bell pepper–the whole thing–who wants to store the rest of the pepper?– or leave it out.)
1 tbsp minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
1 tsp dried oregano, or to taste
1 tsp dried basil, or to taste
15 oz whole, peeled tomatoes with juice OR diced tomatoes with juice OR tomato sauce
salt and black pepper to taste (I probably used a total of 1 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper)
1 cup shredded Trugole cheese*
1/4 cup Crescenza-Stracchino cheese, divided*

  1. Preheat the oven to 375. Carefully halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Sprinkle both halves of the squash with salt and pepper and place them cut-sides down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, but at 30 minutes, begin checking every 10 minutes. You do not want the squash to become mushy. The strands should have a bit of bite–but not crunch– to them when you scrape a little to check.
  2. In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-low for about two minutes. Add the chicken pieces, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until lightly browned on all sides and cooked through, about 7-8 minutes.Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
  3. Add the carrot, onion, chili, garlic, oregano, and basil to the pan, along with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the sauce to a bubble. Return the chicken and any juices to the pan and stir to combine.  Cook 5-7 minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken.
  4. Carefully add the spaghetti squash to the pan, using tongs to gently toss squash and sauce together. Stir in 3 tbsp of the Crescenza-Stracchino cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
  5. Spoon individual servings into a bowl, top with about 1 tsp of the remaining Crescenza-Stracchino, and up to a 1/4 cup of the Trugole. Serve.

*We went to a Wegman’s for the first time today, and they had a number of Italian cheeses I had never seen. We bought these two. You could just as easily use ricotta or mascarpone in lieu of the Crescenza-Stracchino and mozzarella in place of the Trugole. Or go in a completely different direction and stir in a soft goat cheese.

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