Thursday, April 28, 2011

Baked Ziti

I met baked ziti about 20 years ago. My mother had a cookbook entitled "365 Days of Italian Dishes," or something like that. There is a whole series, I believe. You could spend a year as all Italian, then one as all French, and so on. I was just getting into reading cookbooks and trying my hand at cooking. When choosing from the Italian book, I knew I needed a meal enough for the family of five that we were. I chose shrimp and kidney beans as a first course (a lovely combination, by the way), probably a salad on the side that I do not recall, and baked ziti. Everyone liked everything and my budding chef identity began. Ziti became a family favorite and even started appearing on the Christmas table. But it does have those pasta casserole sins: mushy pasta and a general dryness.

Fast forward 20 years or so when I met America's Test Kitchen.

I do not recall who introduced Josh and I to ATK, or if we discovered it on our own, but it's ingenious. The idea is that a bunch of chefs test recipes many times and many ways and come up with The Best way to make X. There are cookbooks, magazines, and a TV show. One day, I saw baked ziti. So I made it, and it was excellent.

The keys are way undercooking the pasta, like half the time, and making two sauces - bechamel and red sauce; also, a lot of basil. Oh yeah, instead of ricotta, cottage cheese! Ricotta is really moist and so contributes to mushy pasta. It felt odd pulling pasta out of the boiling water when it was still rigid (4 minutes instead of 11!), but it absolutely worked. And making your own pasta sauce is really the way to go. I just can't buy red sauce anymore in jars. Reading the labels is a horrible habit that puts me off buying, well, everything in a jar or box. And, sometimes, you just need something in a jar or box to help you out.

The size of this dish brings into relief the problem of cooking for two people, only. Too bad we don't live in a community with cousins and siblings, where you have a few extra people for dinner every night. I certainly halve recipes, but sometimes just go for the whole, thinking that we can reheat for leftovers. But reheating is not such a good idea with pasta casseroles, I find. The pasta gets mushier every time.

So the next time I make baked ziti, I'll just have to invite some people over.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Red Meat

Josh, Sam and I took a little trip to Orcas Island a couple weeks ago. We had a right lovely time, even though it rained all weekend. We still paddled out in the kayak, threw rocks in the water (Sam's new favorite), and got in the hot tub.

True to form, I was the event planner. That meant that among my packing duties for Sam and I, were also the duties of kitchen supplies. I almost packed pans and tongs and the whole nine yards, but decided against going that far. I went with simply foodstuffs and a roll of foil. Turns out there was lots of foil there already.
In my effort to use up the remainder of our steer (so that I can get another one this fall AND a pig ... and maybe a couple of ducks), I planned some red meat meals. First was sirloin steaks with quinoa and spring vegetables. The quinoa dish doesn't look like much, but it was quite tasty. I'll put the recipe below.

I was quite distraught because the steaks were not searing. The barbecue was fancy, and was a combination of wood and gas. That meant I could set the temperature and still have wood flavor. Josh noted that it was set up for smoking. I didn't really understand what that meant until I cut into my steak. I should have taken a photo of the inside. I cooked them, by the miracles of my bbq timing sensibility, to a perfect medium. With nothing but salt and pepper and the smoke from that strange barbecue, the steaks were imbued with flavor.

I took my searing and temperature lesson from the first night and applied it to burger night. Again, all that went into the burgers themselves was salt, pepper, and celery seed. I put the burgers on rolls with melted havarti and tapenade. Delicious! I thought I was not a big fan of tapenade, but accompanying the burger and the cheese, it was perfect.

Sam's meals were less amazing: macaroni and cheese with strawberries. Since he doesn't eat vegetables, except for the occasional raw carrot, I figure fruit is better than nothing. I keep thinking and hoping that three will be the miracle age where he will relish in trying new things. How weary I am of hearing the phrase "I don't like that."

Quinoa and Vegetables
1.5 cups quinoa
1 cup vegetable broth
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
5T fresh mint leaves
1 garlic clove, peeled
3T butter
1 large leek, halved and thinly sliced (just white and light green parts)
3/4 cup sliced shallots
8oz mushrooms
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

(If you can't find quinoa, couscous is a good substitute. The couscous to liquid ratio in a 1:2, or 1:1.5, depending on how dry and separated you want your grains.) Bring 2.5 cups water to boil in a small saucepan. Add quinoa and 1 tsp. salt; bring back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until quinoa is tender, 15-17 minutes.

Puree broth, 1 cup peas, 4T mint, and garlic clove until smooth.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add leek and shallots; saute until soft and light brown, about 4 minutes. Stir in mushrooms for 2-3 minutes, until just beginning to get tender; then add asparagus for 3-5 minutes, until tender but still bright green. Mix in puree and the leftover peas; stir until heated through, about 2 minutes.

Serve vegetable mixture over quinoa and garnish with leftover mint.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Zen of Roasting

I will be the first in line for a kick in the rear if the question is Would you like some steamed broccoli or a kick in the rear? I have complained before that I find the vegetable offensive. Bitter and offensive. I don't mind it in a stir fry and I don't mind it raw dipped in ranch dressing. But steamed or sauteed - gross.

And then I found roasting.

I could eat broccoli all day with this recipe: 1 lb. broccoli, 3T olive oil, 1/2 tsp. each of salt and sugar, yes, sugar. Put a sheet pan in the oven as you preheat to 500. Mix the broccoli with those flavorings, settle onto sheet pan, and roast on the bottom rack for 9-11 minutes depending on how large your broccoli chunks are. You can dress it up with minced garlic, fennel seed, a squeeze of lemon once out of the oven, too.

Naturally, the broccoli stem is immune from contempt. That is the best part of the broccoli. Peel off the outer skin and munch on it raw. I don't understand how the flowerets can be so bitter while the stem is sweet and mild. Hm. Actually, it has to do with the nutrients collecting in the head where the flower will form, doesn't it. All that bitterness is an indicator of the stuff that is good for your body. I do find it offensive when I see all those poor, severed broccoli heads at the market. Where are the stems? Please don't tell me they were thrown out.
Ditto for the cauliflower - the fact that I find it offensive, that is. The only way I used to accept cauliflower was raw and with ranch dressing. Now, I roast it.

Preheat to 425. Put flowerets on sheet pan, pour over 3-5 T olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and roast for 25-35 minutes depending on the size of your chunks and how roasted you like your cauliflower. I like mine a very dark brown.