Friday, May 14, 2010

Baby, It's (Still) Cold Outside!

It’s been unseasonably cool here this early May. I had to dig out the gloves I’d put away for the summer. I thought I was being organized and efficient; now I have upset boxes. I had to cover my newly planted vegetable garden and drape sheets over the last of the lilacs, just to savor a few more days of fragrance.

But that’s okay. The cool weather gives me another good reason to cook cozy comfort food, one of my favorite pasta dishes, one I never make in the summer. My sausage-pepper fettuccini is a simple, quick, mildly-spiced, creamy-saucy dish that ranks right up there with pasta carbonerra for me. That it happens to be my husband’s favorite just gives me another great excuse to make it. Forget about the fact that we’re both trying to shed a few pounds before an upcoming vacation. Who can think about shorts and tanks when it’s 35 degrees outside?

So while we start a fire to burn the last of the indoor firewood, I start to warm up the kitchen with a pot of boiling water and set about chopping the veggies, with Siriusly Sinatra crooning in the background. A bottle of wine is definitely in order.  This is a very colorful and, of course, rich pasta dish.  (I had only spaghetti in the pantry that day; better with fettucini.)

Mangia! Buon appetito!

Sausage-Pepper Fettuccini

½ pound sweet Italian sausage
½ cup butter
1 cup green pepper, cut into medium sized squares
1 cup red pepper, cut into medium sized squares
1 small onion, sliced thinly
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme (or use all fresh, if you can!) 
1 clove (or more!) garlic, minced
1 cup half-and-half
12 oz. fettuccini noodles, cooked and drained
½ cup (or more!) grated parmesan – the real stuff

Remove casing from sausage, if necessary, and break into small pieces. In large skillet over medium heat, cook sausage until done. Remove from skillet. In same skillet, over medium high heat, melt the butter and add the pepper, onion, garlic and seasonings. Cook 3-5 minutes, keeping the vegetables crisp tender. Stir in sausage and half-and-half and cook until heated through. Toss with hot fettuccine and mix in cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings. (Leftovers make a great frittata.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Gift of Tahini

A very heavy box came in the mail a couple days before my birthday. It was from my daughter in Florida. To send this heavy box to Pennsylvania cost her, I knew. That it was early was, well, not typical. But the real surprise was what was inside.

She’d made a little game of this package. She put instructions inside the box that told me to be sure and open the little packages in their numbered order. Each wrapped package had a number and a little note. There were nine.

First there was hoisin sauce: “Can’t pronounce it, but I know you like it.” Then some plum sauce, duck sauce, and a can of sardines, one of anchovies. The label on the sardines said, “These are just weird, so they had your name on them.” Then there were bean threads, cellophane noodles and arborio rice. The piece de resistance, the last but not least was tahini: “Just what you always wanted, Mom! Happy birthday!”

You see, as much as I enjoy our country life, from time to time, I get a little frustrated at not being able to find some ingredients I want at our local grocery stores, at least when I want, or when making something like hummus, for instance, is on my mind. And I don’t think far ahead enough to order things online or when I’m in the city (which is rare, by the way.) So when Amy asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told her I wanted her to get me some of those kinds of things to stock my pantry.

I’d really forgotten about telling her that until the package came. I called her right away and she told me what a ball she had shopping in a grocery store for my birthday present. She’s out of her element, buying this kind of stuff, so she had a friend along to guide her on this foreign mission, thank heaven.

Because I couldn’t be with my distant daughter yesterday, Mother’s Day, I decided I would make my hummus with the tahini she gave me a few months ago – just a little way to feel closer to her. And even though mothers aren’t supposed to be cooking on Mother’s Day, I decided this wasn’t really cooking – I was just indulging my hobby.

I set about making the hummus. It was a semi-spontaneous decision. A couple days before, I bought dried chickpeas at the store. I had soaked them the day before and then, on a whim, decided I would try roasting them instead of boiling them. It was like eating nuts!

I wasn’t sure if the roasted beans would be the same as canned as I made the hummus, since none of the recipes I looked at suggested roasting first. But the hummus was just great; it may have taken a little longer to puree in the food processor than canned beans would take, but it worked fine and did indeed imbue a nice, nutty flavor to the hummus.

So thanks again for the birthday present, Amy! It helped to make a nice Mother’s Day, too!

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
1 cup chickpeas, or garbanzo beans
2 large cloves garlic
4 T lemon juice
4 T tahini paste
2 T olive oil
Water, as needed
½ t salt
¼ t black pepper
1 t cumin
Shake (or two) of crushed red pepper
Several drops sriracha sauce
2- 3 pieces large pieces of roasted red pepper, from jar

Place chickpeas, garlic cloves, lemon juice, tahini and olive oil in food processor bowl. Mix until well-blended, about five minutes, adding water as needed to make texture as creamy as desired. Add seasonings. Roughly chop red pepper, add to mixture and pulse a few times, leaving some red chunks of pepper visible. Refrigerate several hours before serving to allow flavors to meld. (Ideally served with homemade pita chips!)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

PBJ and Beer

Last weekend, we went to a beer tasting party hosted by a young couple who don’t live too far from us. It was their Third Annual Beer Fest and they’re making it a “first Saturday in May” tradition, just like the Kentucky Derby. The host and a friend got into making “home brew” a few years ago, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it! They tapped six or seven of their own kegs.

They named them all -- typically, I can’t remember a one of them – and they posted descriptions of each variety and what made them unique. I didn’t sample all of them; in this case, I don’t really think variety is the spice of life. I sampled an oatmeal stout and a honey beer, but my favorite was what they said was the “hoppiest.”

It’s a potluck party and I always see this as an opportunity to try something new. My husband thinks I should stick with tried and true faves. So my compromise was a twist on something everyone loves: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I made Peanut Butter and Jelly Cookie bars.

I decided on this a couple days before the party when I happened to catch Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, on the Food Network. I don’t watch cooking shows nearly as often as I’d like and I haven’t yet cultivated the good habit of setting the DVR to a couple favorites. And the only reason I was watching TV at all in the middle of the day was because I was catching up on my least favorite domestic duty – ironing. And The Barefoot Contessa was providing me company while I wrestled with wrinkles.

Truth is, I didn’t really like Ina Garten’s show when I first saw it. Could have been something as silly as I didn’t like the intro music. But I really like the show now and I love Ina’s style. She’s pretty low key, loves to use fresh ingredients, often combined in new ways and she’s a great teacher. An experienced cook won’t be offended by her instruction, which she often delivers as an off-handed hint, and the novice can learn an awful lot.

And Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars were on the menu that day. I stopped ironing (what a relief!)and paid attention. I made the cookies the morning of the party, sampled one, decided they were pretty good and took them as my contribution. They didn’t move at first, which had me worried, but then they disappeared. Someone found out that I had brought them and then I got compliments. And that’s the main reason we cook, right? Just to make something good that people like.

Peanut Butter and Jelly BarsFrom Ina Garten

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups (18 ounces) creamy peanut butter (recommended: Skippy)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups (18 ounces) raspberry jam or other jam
2/3 cups salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease a 9 by 13 by 2-inch cake pan. Line it with parchment paper, then grease and flour the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light yellow, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, eggs, and peanut butter and mix until all ingredients are combined.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture. Mix just until combined.

Spread 2/3 of the dough into the prepared cake pan and spread over the bottom with a knife or offset spatula. Spread the jam evenly over the dough. Drop small globs of the remaining dough evenly over the jam. Don't worry if all the jam isn't covered; it will spread in the oven.

Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown. Cool and cut into squares.