The Best Medicine

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My 19-year-old daughter is home from college, recovering from a tonsillectomy, and I couldn’t be happier. Not about the tonsils, mind you; I hate seeing her in so much pain. But with two kids out of the house, and one … Continue reading

A Pot of Love

It’s February and it’s cold. Dinner begs to be made. What’s a nice Jewish girl to do but prepare a traditional, one-pot corned beef and cabbage dinner, just like the Irish ancestors she never had used to make?

Seriously, it’s an interesting thing about that corned beef and cabbage; it was actually one of the more memorable dishes my mother prepared for us as kids. And I don’t mean just in March, either. No disrespect to my mother, she had many perfectly good meals in her dinner time repertoire, but for some odd reason, her corned beef and cabbage has always ranked as one of my favorites.

As for one-pot meals, I have to admit that since I’ve begun pursuing my culinary interests in earnest, I’ve steered clear of the old slow cooker. Somehow, it seemed like cheating to me. And after my terrific but humbling experience in the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America (see Never Too Late Risotto), I was almost embarrassed to use it.

Silly, I know. Slow cooking has been around for centuries.  It is the quintessential cook’s tool, one that predates most if not all cooking methods we rely on today. Long before the Crock Pot debuted in American kitchens in the early 1970s, home cooks were tending to pots of slow simmering meats over an open flame for hours on end.  Consider this recipe for “Brisket of Beef, a la Flamande,” from Isabella Beeton‘s The Campaign for Domestic Happiness, originally published in 1860:

Choose the portion of the brisket which contains the gristle, trim it, and put it into a stewpan with the slices of bacon, which should be put under and over the meat.  Add the vegetables, herbs, spices, and seasoning, and cover with a little weak stock or water, close the stewpan as hermetically as possible, and simmer very gently for four hours.  Strain the liquor, reserve a portion of it for sauce, and the remainder boil quickly over a sharp fire until reduced to a glaze….Garnish the dish with scooped carrots and turnips, and when liked, a little cabbage…

Sounds like a precursor to slow-cooked corned beef and cabbage to me!

Putting all nostalgia and historical context aside, one-pot meals serve an even more important role in the kitchen. They bring people together, much like I imagine Ms. Beeton’s Brisket of Beef, a la Flamande did. Gathered around a steaming vessel of aromatic mystery, friends, family, even neighbors cannot resist the temptation of what is surely to follow.

One-Pot Corned Beef

I took my cues for this dish from a beautiful blog, Recipes for Our Daily Bread. The author transformed her CB into a mouth-watering Reuben Sandwich, as well as Corned Beef Hash. Both wonderful ideas. I served it traditional Irish-style, with boiled parsley potatoes and buttery steamed cabbage on the side.

Ingredients:
1 3-4 lb. corned beef brisket
1 large sweet onion, diced
Approximately 2 c. of water (just enough to cover the top of the meat; do not add too much liquid)
1/2 c. brown sugar
1-1/2 T. yellow mustard
2 T. whole peppercorns
1-1/2 T. dried thyme
1 t. allspice
1 t. cumin
2 t. Simply Organic all-purpose seasoning

Place the brisket in the slow-cooker and add onion, water, brown sugar, mustard and all of the remaining ingredients. Cook on low setting for 8 hours. Remove brisket to a cutting board and allow to cool for approximately 30 minutes before slicing. Trim any excess fat before slicing the meat. Strain the marinade using a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth, discard the solids, and reserve the liquid to pour over the meat and cabbage.

Corned beef in the slow cooker.

Anytime Pasta

When the girls are home from college, all sense of time and reality are suspended. For a few precious weeks, we return to the days when they were babies, sleeping all day and awake most of the night. Winter break mandates that we loosen our grip on structure and routine as we have come to know it.  We submit to a less rigid lifestyle: no schedules, no plans, no predictable outcomes from day to day. It’s at once unsettling and deliriously perfect — and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

In this winter break fantasy land, breakfast never occurs before noon and lunch becomes obsolete. So when the chicks begin chirping in earnest long after the evening news has ended, the dinner question takes on a sense of near urgency. Fortunately the long months of less than satisfying fare on the college meal plan means that the kids will eat just about anything – as long as it has been cooked by me in our kitchen.

Here is my go-to dish when the clan is hankering for a hearty bowl of pasta. We like to scoop up each mouthful on hunks of crumbly fresh baguette. And even though the girls have returned to their respective college campuses and a  disconcerting quiet has settled on the house, I still choose this soul-satisfying meal every once in a while.  It’s quiet at the table, but there’s always spring break to look forward to.

Ah! A messy plate of pasta.

Anytime Pasta

Ingredients:
2 T olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves minced
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes *
2 T. tomato paste
1-1/2 lbs. lean ground beef (ground turkey or chicken are both good substitutes)
1 t. nutmeg
1/4 T. sugar
1/2 T. dried oregano
1/2 T. dried basil
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. pasta **
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

*As an alternative to the crushed tomatoes, you may use canned whole tomatoes and crush them by hand. This creates a chunkier texture to the sauce.
**Our family favorite is good old spaghetti, but any long pasta will do – fettuccine, linguine and the like.

In a dutch oven or large pot, sweat the onions in the olive oil and add garlic until aromatic, but not brown. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, bring to a simmer and cover.  While sauce is simmering, brown meat in a separate saute pan. Drain beef and add to tomato sauce, followed by remaining ingredients, except pasta. Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain, reserving 1/2 c. of pasta water in case it is needed to thin the sauce.

Pour cooked pasta into a large, shallow bowl or platter, and top with meat sauce and grated cheese if desired.

We are All Here

Life is fragile, unpredictable, precious, a gift.  Instinctively we know this, but in our day-to-day existence, we tend to forget. Fortunately, there are reminders: birth, death, illness, celebration, and other life milestones.

A few days ago, for my family, it was a near tragedy that turned the light bulb back on.  A few days ago, my daughter’s dog was hit by a car.  It happened so quickly–a split second decision to take off his leash before he was fully in the house. Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and this rambunctious puppy was out the door and in the street in no time. He survived, albeit bruised and bleeding. This poor creature, abused as a puppy and shuttled from shelter to shelter until, miraculously, the universe saw fit to bring him to us, has once again had to prove his mettle. But he is strong and he is loved–more than he ever could have imagined–and he will survive.

So now we transition to recovery mode.  Our maternal instincts will kick into overdrive and we will nurse this pup back to health until he is good as new. But for my daughter, who has learned a powerful lesson on love and loyalty, and for the rest of us, for whom those few seconds of sickening fear will forever remain frozen in time, life, in all its imperfection, has become dearer.

To celebrate life and to just plain help us all to feel better, here is an updated spin on the ultimate comfort food, courtesy of Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, aka The Fabulous Beekman Boys.  Their book, The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook, is all about embracing cherished moments with family and friends through food.  I have taken some liberties with their “Macaroni and Cheese with Mushrooms and Kale” to suit my family’s personal tastes.  Plain, sophisticated, out of a box (though not my personal preference), it really does not matter — as long as you enjoy with those you love most.

Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook)
This rustic version of the tried-and-true classic includes heart-healthy greens, robust mushrooms, and a hint of earthiness from the thyme and paprika.  I added some smokiness by including about a cup of smoked gouda cheese.

Ingredients:
3/4 lb. kale or other green leafy vegetable
8 oz. elbow macaroni
3 T. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. cremini or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 t. dried thyme
1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. low sodium chicken stock
2 c. milk
1-1/2 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1-1/2 c. sharp cheddar, shredded
1 c. smoked gouda, shredded
2 T. butter
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the kale in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes.  Remove the kale, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.  Drain again, squeeze to remove excess water, roughly chop and set aside.  Meanwhile, add macaroni to same pot of boiling water and cook according to package instructions.  Drain.

In a dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute until aromatic.  Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally for about 2 minutes until the mushrooms wilt and begin to release their juices.  Stir in the flour and cook until well blended with mushroom mixture.  Add about half of the stock (more as needed) and continue cooking for another minute.  Add remaining stock, milk, paprika and salt and cook, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in the cheese until melted.  Add the macaroni and kale and toss to coat.

Transfer mixture to a glass 9 x 13 dish or individual ramekins.

In a small skillet, melt the butter and add panko, stirring until bread crumbs are fully coated.  Sprinkle over top of the mac and cheese and bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown.

Set aside a cheesy elbow or two for your pet!

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore

If I was offered a one-day trip in a time machine and given the choice to revisit the past or peek into the future, I would choose the past. Of course, the people from my childhood who are no longer here would most certainly warrant a visit. My dad, whose presence I feel every day, despite the fact that he’s been gone for more than 23 years. My grandparents, particularly my maternal grandmother, whose sense of humor and huge heart left an indelible imprint on me. High school and college friends whose time on earth was far too short. Even pets who enriched my little-girl days. I’d love at least another 24 hours with them all.

Especially in this season of resolutions and looking forward, there is something about staying connected to the past that grounds me. And in the kitchen, more often than not, I find that the past is what inspires me.

I have so many wonderful food memories — far too many to enumerate. Some are attached to meals at special places that have long since closed their doors. Savory hot roast beef and gravy platters at the local Hot Shoppes; egg salad on cheese toast sandwiches at Hutzler’s lunch counter; pizza rolls in waxy bags from Silber’s Bakery; and sticky sweet banana splits from Howard Johnson are just a few that come to mind. I often recall food “snapshots” — moments disguised as insignificant but which somehow have resonated with me. The perfect tuna fish sandwich at my childhood friend Jane’s house, for instance, or picking crabs on the deck of the venerable Phillips Seafood.

Of course, food histories are borne out of special encounters with people as well. Recently I stumbled upon an old recipe book that once belonged to my husband’s long deceased grandmother, Rhona. Reading this 1964 collection of traditional Jewish dishes transported me to that place and time when trust, love and security were abundant and everything was somehow easier to understand. The pages of Grandma Rhona’s “Recipe Round Up” are yellowed, stained with who-knows-what, and decorated with margin notes in her fine, elegant handwriting. I read it cover to cover and smiled, thinking how far we’ve come and yet, how nice it would be to go back.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Rhona. She died when my husband and I were practically newlyweds. But I do recall one dinner, the only dinner we shared at her home. The dish was Chicken Cacciatore and — no surprise, here — it was delicious. Seated around the table in her humble but impeccably decorated apartment, the three of us enjoyed an evening of good food and a lot of laughs. Rhona was a dynamo of a woman who lived a colorful, interesting life and thus had great stories to share.  Though I didn’t know her well, her moxy, both in and out of the kitchen, has left its mark on me.

Grandma Rhona's "Recipe Round Up"

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore (as reinterpreted from Recipe Round Up(published 1964 by B’nai B’rith Women.)

Ingredients:
1 large red or white onion, thinly sliced
8 oz. mushrooms (cremini or white)
Approximately 4 c. plum or roma tomatoes, coursely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 T. red wine vinegar

1 4-lb. roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Salt and pepper
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ c. dry red wine
1 14 oz. can diced roasted tomatoes, juice included
1 c. low sodium chicken stock or broth
12 oz. pasta (preferably short-cut such as penne or gemelli)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and onions with approximately 3 T olive oil, generous amount of salt and pepper and the vinegar.  Toss to combine and spread in a single layer on a rimmed sheet pan.  Roast approximately 25-30 minutes until the vegetables are brown and have begun to caramelize.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Season the chicken with the salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan and brown the chicken, approximately 6 minutes on each side. Transfer chicken to a bowl and set aside (*Note: chicken will not yet be fully cooked at this point).  With the heat on medium, add the red wine to the empty skillet and deglaze the pan until the liquid is reduced by about half. Stir in the canned tomatoes with juice, as well as the chicken broth and return to a boil.  Simmer for a few minutes to allow flavors to meld, then return the chicken to the skillet.  Place skillet in the oven and cook uncovered until juices run clear, approximately 30 minutes or more, depending on size of the chicken pieces.

Remove skillet from oven and add roasted vegetables, stir until the vegetables are heated through. Serve in a wide, shallow bowl over cooked pasta (or rice, if you prefer).