Steak Tips, Savory Mushroom Sauce, Cheddar Mashed, Arugula Salad

After many helpings of leftover Thanksgiving turkey, it was high time for Lolita to feed her inner barbarian by diving into a steaming hot plate of RED MEAT.  Steak, baby — that’s what I wanted.  The husbandman suggested “beef tips and gravy over rice,” reminiscing as he was about similar meals made in his childhood redneck home, but if you read my blog often enough you know I’m not really a rice fan.  Risotto?  Sure!  Sticky rice?  Certainly!  Chicken and rice?  OK!  But rice rice, ala Uncle Ben’s or Minute or some such derivation I just don’t ever feel a hankering for.  Perhaps it’s because my childhood Puerto Rican home saw rice and beans on every lunch and dinner plate throughout my *entire* youth, and I just got plumb sick of it.  In particular, “rice and gravy” just sounds bland, boring, and blech to me – even more so now that some big-time soup comany has been advertising what a “great meal” spilling a hot can of their Vegetable Beef soup over rice can be for the “working mother”.  The commercial, which is supposed to draw me in and make me crave this fare, frankly turns me off – for various food-snob reasons I best keep to myself.  So I compromised and suggested beef tips in gravy over mashed potatoes.  Since no food would be made or consumed in our household if I didn’t make it, he was rather compelled to agree – if he wanted to eat, that is.  And eat we did: perfectly tender morsels of medium-rare sirloin bathed in rich beef gravy studded with button mushrooms and cippolini onions, served over steaming cheddar-enriched mashed potatoes, accompanied by a fresh and nutty arugula salad.

Steak Tips, Savory Mushroom Sauce, Cheddar Mashed, Arugula Salad

3/4lb sirloin tips
10oz button mushrooms
3 cloves garlic
5-6 cippolini onions
1 quart beef broth
1 lb yellow potatoes
2 tbs butter
1 heaping tablespoon flour
3 cups turkey/chicken stock
4oz sour cream
4oz cheddar cheese
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper
arugula
1 lemon
1 medium tomato
parmigiano reggiano cheese, for shaving

The potatoes will take a while to boil down, as will the gravy which will be reduced almost entirely from my quart of beef stock, so I start by washing and roughly cutting my potatoes and peeling and smashing my garlic.

The garlic gets minced, the onions peeled, and the mushrooms scrubbed.  I also cut the largest mushrooms in half, but keep the smaller ones whole.  I love whole mushrooms.

First, I bring my chicken stock (leftover from Thanksgiving) to a boil – adding enough water to raise the volume enough to cover my spuds, which I throw in and cook until they can be easily pierced with a fork — about 20 minutes.

In a large non-stick frying pan, I soften my garlic in some EVOO for a moment before adding the onions and mushrooms…

… along with about 1/2 of the beef stock.  I set this over high heat and stir often, until reduced by half, before I add the rest of the stock and do the same.  I’m trying to concentrate the flavors by removing as much water from the stock as possible, and the longer steaming time required to reduce this by halves will help the mushrooms absorb all that flavor until they’re completely cooked through.  The onions will soften nicely as well.  This takes about 20 minutes total.

Now that the glorious flavors are rich and deep, I want to thicken my sauce.  First thing I do, though, is remove most of the garlic by fishing it out with a strainer.  Why?  Because, I admit I think I added too much garlic, since the redolence of it wafting through my kitchen was so strong, so I removed the solids in the hopes this would add balance.  It did.  Anyway, to thicken, I needed something akin to a roux; this is how I do it when I’ve already got a hot liquid on the stovetop.  In a very small bowl, I add my flour and 1 tablespoon of butter…

… and using a deep spoon (I keep those plastic Japanese soup spoons in the kitchen for this reason), I fish out some of my boiling hot gravy and add it to the bowl with the flour and butter.

The heat from the gravy melts the butter, and using a fork I mix the contents of the bowl into a smooth slurry…

… before adding it to the rest of the gravy in the pan and mixing well.  This stays bubbling over high heat, which will thicken the sauce.

There was an unfortunate vein of cartilage (OK, I know I’m mixing my anatomical metaphors there, but you know what I mean) through part of one of these sirloin strips, but otherwise they were things of beauty.  I cut them into cubes and season them with salt and pepper before…

… throwing them into a very hot non-stick pan and searing them fully on each edge.

It only takes about 5 minutes to cook these tidbits, which I then add to the mushroom gravy for a couple minutes (not enough time to remove all the pink on the inside, but long enough to allow them to soak up some of the sauce.

Meanwhile, I make the husbandman mash the potatoes (perhaps an indelicate thing to do, considering he wanted rice, but he manned up).  After draining all the water/stock, he adds enough sour cream and butter to make the potatoes creamy, then shreds the cheddar cheese into the mix.  And that’s it; mashed potatoes are so elegantly easy to make.

A side salad to accompany this meal is definitely in order, but I don’t want to go overboard.  Arugula has just the right tang for savory steak, and brightening it with a squeeze of lemon, some fresh sliced red tomato, and some slivered onions is almost all it needs.  But the added bonus of some shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese, to add salt and nuttiness, brings it over the top.

I remember going to Golden Corral as a kid and thinking their all-you-can-eat salad bar and “made to order” steaks were the highest of culinary delight.  My favorite dish was always the steak tips in mushroom gravy, which were delivered to the table from the kitchen in these cool little cast-iron skillets.  I thought it was comfort food at its best.  Ah, youth!  My mother-in-law still enjoys her Golden Corral, so I daresay she’d enjoy this homage to those youthful pleasures, and I hope she’d appreciate the difference between their mass-produced stuff and my homemade version.  My bites of sirloin are crusty-seared without and shot through with pink within, and the mushrooms burst on the tongue with rich beef, garlic, and onion flavor.  The smooth gravy absolutely demands to be sopped up by the cheesy potatoes, and the fresh green salad offsets all the richness just right.  This isn’t a Weeknight Wondermeal because it calls for a decent amount of ingredients, but on the whole it’s a pretty simple dinner to assemble – and it can be pretty cheap.  After days and days of leftover white meat, this is exactly the red meat I needed to put Thanksgiving away until next year.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Hake with Olive Tapenade and Arugula Salad

Those of you who follow my blog know that I am a total fish-head this time of year.  If it swims in the ocean, bottom-feeds off the sea-floor, or otherwise spends its life in salt-water, I want it during the summer.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a pretty poor swimmer; maybe if I eat more sea-creatures, I’ll absorb their floating abilities and be able to improve my dog-paddle.  I know, I know – suggesting that ingesting swimming things to make me a better swimmer is as logical as thinking that pears and avocados would taste good together because they have the same silhouette, but they DO taste good together, so…. (I’ll leave you to construct an irrefutable ratiocination for my syllogism).  Anyhoo – after the super-hot, thoroughly humid, and completely unpleasant weather recently (which threatened violent thunderstorms that never came, leaving us without the welcome break from humidity rain usually brings), I wasn’t too hungry either – so a light dinner was in order.  Hake is a nice, flaky white-fish, kind of like cod or haddock, and is perfect for a pan-sear.  Along with some quickly minced olives for a garnish and an easy side salad, this fresh, healthy supper was just right: it took only about 15 minutes to make, used very little heat (only one pan to quickly sear the fish), and cost only $20.  Technically, I made it on the weekend, but it shares all the right characteristics for a Weeknight Wondermeal (cheap, easy, and quick), so I trust you’ll forgive the misnomer…

Hake with Olive Tapenade and Arugula Salad

1 lb fresh hake filet
1 tbs butter
flour
seasoned salt, black pepper
fresh arugula
burrata cheese
tomatoes
fresh basil
EVOO, white balsamic vinegar
4-6 oz mixed olives, the brinier the better

I love this product, even though I have no idea what it really is.  OK – I have an idea: it’s fine sea salt blended with chinese-five spice and some sort of hot pepper, likely schezuan.  But despite the fact that the label is replete with English language errors (they marinated the powder?), it is truly hot and flv. and salty — and it is a really delicious seasoning.  I start by splitting my filet into two roughly equal sized halves (which requires that I cut it lengthwise, since it is thicker at one end – and I need to pieces that will cook in the same amount of time), and dousing them with this salt before dusting them thoroughly with flour.

A glug of EVOO and a pat of butter go into my largest non-stick pan over high heat.  You’ve seen me use this combination before: the EVOO alone can smoke and alter the flavor of the fish, but the butter alone can over-brown.  A mix of the two makes just the right balance of milk-solids to foam and straight oil to sizzle.

See?  Once it’s foaming…

… I gently lay my planks of fish on the froth.  Since these pieces are irregularly shaped, I’ll need to sort of roll them so that they brown on all sides, and I sear for about 3 minutes each time.

Like so.  I’m aiming for a nice golden brown, and for fully-cooked through fish — which takes about 10 minutes total.

Me and my burrata cheese.  I know I am a freak for it, but what can I say?  It’s DELICIOUS!  These three ingredients – tomatoes, basil, and burrata – are the makings of a lovely caprese salad…  …but I had some arugula, too, so I added that to the mix.  Oh – and these are OUR tomatoes, grown in our little garden in the sky, just in case you were wondering.  Their skins are a little thick, but they are wonderfully sweet.  I toss everything together with a little salt and pepper, some EVOO, and some white vinegar.

I honestly don’t know what I did before grocery stores started stocking antipasto bars.  Whole Food has a particularly good selection of olives, and I like to pick and choose some of the sharpest, briniest, and strongest varieties they have.

To remove the pits from those that had ‘em, I smash the olive with the flat of my blade, which sort of cracks them open and allows one to fish out the stone from the center.  Then I chop them all up to make a nice relish sort of thing.

My delicate, flaky fish is blanketed by a healthy sprinkling of salty, flavorful olives – a perfect marriage of mild and strong sensations.  The creamy burrata, peppery arugula, fragrant basil, and sweet tomato salad is a nice compliment.  Since I realized I was hungry nary 20 minutes ago and am now sitting down to dinner, I’m pretty happy with myself.  And the husband?  Why, he’s THRILLED – mostly because it tastes so damn good.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Ginger Honey Glazed Salmon and Scallops, with Pear, Avocado, and Walnut Salad

This dinner is dedicated to some very special friends, for whom – to protect the innocent (and to avoid prosecution by FERPA) – I shall use a delightfully Victorian convention of referring to them by initials only (in no particular order – to avoid any implication of favoritism): AC, TP, KN, MS, CG, TD, CH, AL, SC, and SV. They not only invited me into their summer homes to enjoy lovely dinners prepared by them with affection and good humor, but they inspire me daily with their grace, wit, intelligence, youthful vigor, and general wonderfulness.  However, I am also spurred by a particular comment made by two of the above listed group —  a pair of ladies who suggested that my Weeknight Wondermeals, recipes I tout as super-simple and très-cheap, were “so fancy, and way too complicated!” What the what?  Dear girls, these offerings are the most basic of basics! If you can execute a successful Western blot, or re-engineer the severed limbs of an army of axolotl, you can TOTALLY make any Weeknight Wondermeal, if you have the right stuff in the kitchen.  To wit: tonight’s delectable dinner.  A tender, succulent, juicy salmon filet encrusted with honey and ginger oil, plus a similarly prepared but-also-soy-sauced scallop, served with a super-food salad.  I dare you, young friends, to make this dinner (note to TP: 86  the walnuts!): the effort is simple, but the reward is sublime!

Ginger Honey Glazed Salmon and Scallops, with Pear, Avocado, and Walnut Salad

.75-1lb filet of salmon
2 very large scallops (these equalled .3lb)
1 cup honey
1/2 cup ginger oil (or fresh grated ginger blended with EVOO)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 avocado
1 fresh pear
1 small white onion
fresh arugula
baby tomatoes
parmigiano reggiano
1/4 cup crushed walnuts
sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper, fresh snipped chives (for garnish)

Since I keep honey, ginger oil, and soy sauce in my pantry, my shopping list was pretty slim.  The most expensive items were these specimens of seafood: two huge, fresh sea scallops, and a lovely bright pink wedge of king salmon.  I want them to marinate a bit before I cook them, but they need to do so in separate bags.  Let me explain…

The salmon gets 3/4 cup of honey, 3 oz of ginger oil — a product I purchased at a nearby Asian supermarket, for about $2.49 — and lots of fresh cracked pepper.

I remove the adductor muscles from my scallops (here’s a pic), and then they get the rest of the honey and ginger oil, with the addition of the soy sauce – which is going to add just the right umame to the experience.  I seal both bags up nice and tightly, after removing as much air from them as I could, then I chuck ‘em in the fridge to marinate for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, we plug in Little Red and get him all hot and bothered.  Clayton fashions a simple tray out of some foil paper, since we want to catch and cook the marinade as well as the proteins.  You’ll see what I mean a couple steps from now.

I brush a little EVOO onto the portion of the foil that will cook the scallops, but I want to skin of the salmon to stick to the foil (it will make it easier to remove the fish-flesh (and nothing but) later), so I leave that side clean.

The salmon goes on first, and I pour the marinade carefully over it’s pink yumminess to coat it.  It doesn’t matter if it spills onto the foil — in fact, it’s good for some of it to do just that.  As it cooks, the honey will thicken and brown, making a nice glaze.  Again, you’ll see what I mean soon.

The scallops go on next, but they’re doused in less of their marinade, since the soy will have already permeated the meat.  I do save both marinades, in case I want to add more a the halfway point.  For now, though, I lower the lid and walk away for 10 minutes.

My salad tonight was inspired by the similarity between the shape of a pear, and the shape of an avocado.  I surmised that if they had the same figure, perhaps they would go well together…  Yes,  yes – there are all sorts of things wrong with that supposition, but in this case it worked.  I removed the pit out of my avocado, and removed the seeds from my pear, before slicing each half into an equal number of thin wedges.

After fanning the pear slices onto my plates, then layering a fan of avocado over that, I toss some arugula with thin slices of white onion, some shavings of parmigiano reggiano, salt, pepper, and EVOO.

After 10 minutes, my seafood is halfway done, and – as you can see – the honey in the marinade has started to caramelize.  Using a basting brush, I get as much of that honey off the foil and onto the exposed flesh of my fish – top and sides.  It’s slickery — meaning it doesn’t stick to the fish very well unless you sort of scoop it onto the brush and dab it onto the pink.  Be patient, and get as much honey to stick to the fish as you can — it will be SO worth it.

Instead of basting the scallops, I rub them into the marinade darkening on the foil before flipping them.  It’s just like basting, but this time I’m going bottom up instead of top down.

See?  Even through the foil, the scallops are taking on lovely grill marks.  I close the lid for 10 more minutes, and watch the sun sink lower on the horizon over this hot summer day.

When I lift the lid again, my scallops are done (so I remove them to a warm plate to hold), and the honey/ginger marinade for the fish has turned a deep, dark brown.  Never fear!  This is what we wanted!  Using my basting brush one more time, I transfer as much of that black honey to the fish as I can.

Like so!  I lower the lid for another 5 minutes, go indoors, plate my salad, then come back out to fetch supper.  The good thing about using the foil is I only have to pick that up and bring the whole thing inside – no muss, no fuss!  Using a long, narrow spatula, I divide the filet into two equal portions, lifting the fish right off the skin which is stuck to the foil paper.  The flesh slides right off.

After finishing my salad with a couple home-grown cherry tomatoes and a sprinkle of crushed walnuts (for crunch), and garnishing the seafood with snipped chives, we’re ready to dig in.  The whole dinner has taken about 30 minutes of activity, and it cost only about $20 (plus pantry items, like the honey, soy, and ginger oil).  But what deliciosity!

The salmon is sweetly encrusted, with tender, moist flesh and a wee snap from the black pepper; the scallops are succulent and sweet, with the additional amped up savor of rich soy; and the salad is inspired: the fragrant, firm pear is perfectly complimented by the soft, nutty avocado, and the peppery arugula, salty cheese, and crunchy nuts fill the palate with delectable complexity, richness, and freshness.  Each bite was sheer enjoyment!

As the sun sets over Hamilton Street, setting the sky on salmon fire, Clayton and I dig into our salmon dinners with gusto.  So, dear friends — and you know who you are — are you up for trying this yourselves? I promise you’ll enjoy it!

Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins


One of the first jokes I heard when I moved up here to Boston sounds more like a mantra than the one-liner it is: If you don’t like the weather here in New England… wait 5 minutes.  This week has, thus far, personified that way of life.  The down-home-cooking pictured here was prepared by yours truly and served up on Monday night, after a long, dark, dreary, windy, extremely wet and surprisingly cold August day. Tuesday was patches of the same, interspersed with random periods of clear blue sky and warm breezes.  But today… today it’s brilliant, cloudless, sunny, and HOT – a true summer day. I’ve gone from a long-sleeve sweater and sweatpants to tank-top and tap-pants in a matter of hours.  So even though just thinking of turning on my oven today makes me all sweaty and anxious, I sure am happy I did to make Monday’s dinner – even if we were too sodden to shop, and so only used the few things we had in the house and a boner recently bought at our go-to ghetto grocery store, Johnny’s Foodmaster.  But as this is Lolita’s riff on a standard chicken n’ dumplins, I did fancify it with a bit of ham and swiss cheese (stolen from Clayton’s luncheon meats supply) – just to make the mundane a bit more special. With a quick, two-ingredient salad and some garlicky “cheater” cheese muffins, this steaming hot and supremely satisfying pot-pie au gratin totally took the cold out of our bones, while culinarily combining our old Southern roots with our new Northern exposures. In the background, on the telly, Brigit Fonda is ostensibly contemplating killer crocodiles loose in Northern Maine (ala Lake Placid, a little gem of a movie), but she’s really thinking about the steaming chicken goodness just waiting under that crust of bubbly baked Swiss cheese. Back off, blondie!  This bowl’s MINE.


Chicken n’ Dumplins Cordon Bleu, with Arugula and “Cheater” Cheese Muffins

1 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breast (about 1.5 lbs)
2 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 onion
1 stick butter
1 qt chicken stock
garlic powder
1 package flour tortillas
arugula
fresh mozzarella cheese
EVOO
white balsamic vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper
1 can large buttermilk biscuits (yes, I used a can.  Sue me.)
shredded romano cheese


I started with a pat of butter and a large hot pan.


Just as my butter started to froth, I placed my large washed, patted dry, salted, and peppered chicken breast skin down into the pan, and I let it sear for a good 10 minutes, until the skin was brown and crispy and the breast had started to cook through. Meanwhile, I peeled and chop my onion, carrots, and celery.


I flipped my bird, moved it to the side of the pan, and dumped my aromatics into the pan, stirring well so the browned butter coated all the veggies thoroughly.


After the veggies softened slightly, I flipped my bird breast down again, added the quart of chicken stock to the pan, and using a wooden spatula to scrape up all the buttery fond, lowered the heat to medium, and put on the lid.  I let my chicken cook for 30 minutes this way, trying hard not to keep lifting the lid to inhale the amazing aroma.


Although I know they’re likely full of preservatives and stuff, I have always loved bread from a can – from the light and flaky crescent rolls to the super Grande buttermilk biscuits.  We try to keep a can on hand, just for days like Monday when going to the market just isn’t on the agenda.  They’re great in a pinch.  Still, as you may have seen before, dear reader, if you follow this blog, Lolita doesn’t like to just slap them on a cookie sheet — oh no!  I do a little something something to make them extra special.  A can comes with 8 biscuits; I used 4, and put the rest back in the fridge with the hope that I’d use them the next day (which I did, actually).  I first cut them into quarters…


… then I tossed them with the dry ingredients into a large zipper bag: a few shakes of garlic powder (not garlic salt), and some shredded romano cheese (about 1/2 cup).  I threw all this around until each little bread nugget was studded with flavor.  I then added 2 tbs of melted butter, sealed the bag, and tossed it around some more to fully coat everything.


Four nuggets per tin transformed these biscuits into savory muffins, and an extra helping of cheese on top makeed them crisp up.  See?  “Cheater” muffins – not from scratch, but they taste like it! They took 15 minutes to bake on 350° — just as much time as I needed to bake off the casseroles, so I set them aside until I was ready.


After 30 minutes, my chicken was fully cooked through and ready to be pulled off the bone.  Using tongs, I removed the breast from the pan, and set the heat to high so the chicken broth could continue to boil off and concentrate.


I carefully removed the meat from the bone, and it was luscious, juicy, and tender.  I roughly chopped it, making sure to keep some of the flavorful skin attached, and blended what little dark rib meat there was with the abundant white meat.

Using the ramekins I planned to serve in as templates, I cut perfect little discs of tortillas out of their larger selves.  My country mother-in-law revealed to me many years ago how well tortillas work in place of traditional dumplins – they have the same basic ingredients, and since they’re not dried like pasta-style dumplins, they don’t need as long to cook.  (I could make them from scratch, but it wasn’t that kind of night.)  They also create the unique texture one wants from the starch in this dish – soft and pillowy and a bit sticky.

These ramekins are 12 ouncers, I think (I don’t know why volume isn’t imprinted on the bottom of all kitchen items), just large enough for a decent sized dinner each. I buttered them down completely.  I did the same with a large muffin pan, so I could cobble together my white-trash “cheater” cheese muffins.

 


The first layer was an ounce or so of chicken broth, with a few of the veggies, too.


Then, I fit a layer of tortilla over that, studded the tortilla with a handful of chicken, then drowned it in chicken stock and veggies.  I repeated this layer about 5 times, until I reached the inner upper edge of the dish.


Knowing these would settle during cooking, I topped them with more chicken and veggies and set them on a cookie sheet and – along with my muffin tin – I threw everything into my oven for 10 minutes.


After that time, I pulled them out and happily saw that the top tortilla was fluffed and sodden but still intact, and that the edges had started to bubble over a bit.  I layered one slice of ham on top of each ramekin…


… and two slices of Swiss cheese, allowing the edges to hang off, on top of that.  I removed my muffins from the oven, turned the heat up to broil, then set my ramekins (on their cookie sheet, to make them easier to handle, and to keep the cheese from dripping) right under the heating element for 3-4 minutes.

 

I whipped together some arugula, the last of my North End fresh mozzarella (see Saturday’s post), some EVOO, white balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper for a salad – just the cold peppery milky compliment for the rich, savory main course.   A crispy, melted crust of nutty Swiss cheese and sweet ham revealed a steaming casserole of tender, flavorful chicken chunks nestled in between layers of ethereally soft white dumplin blankets, pillowed with pieces of barely-firm carrot and chunks of softened celery. My muffins bloomed on the plate; four little nuggets of buttery, garlicky,and cheesy stuck together to create crunchy outside/flaky inside bundles of joy.  It may have been cold outside, but with our favorite killer crocodile movie as the backdrop, and this yummy on the plate, it was warm and welcoming inside – and that’s all that counts.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Grilled Lamb Chops with Muddled Blackberry Salad and Smashed Potato Chips

It may still be a tad cool here in Boston, but there’s no denying it: it’s SUMMER.  The skies are clear and blue, the air is sweet and warm, and night drops gently — waiting until the last possible moment to fully engulf the celestial dome with its velvet darkness.  The cool may be keeping Clayton and I from actually eating outside (although the forecast for this week implies a change is nigh), but it’s not keeping us from cooking outside, and Little Red, our trusty Meco electric grill – now celebrating his 6th birthday! – has already been called into action.  He just loves chomping down on the bevy of booty I shove into his gaping maw, which he turns out perfectly grilled after just the right amount of time; everything from meats to cheeses to veggies have been tanned with his hot stripes, and each bite tastes better than the last.  Tonight’s meal was no exception: quick marinated lamb chops got the 20 minute treatment over Red’s hot-red coils, and with crispy smashed potatoes and a sweet tangy blackberries, red onion, arugula and buratta cheese salad, dinner was a quick, delicious delight to die for.  And, considering the $15 price tag for ingredients (plus pantry items) and the scant 40 minutes it took to make this, it’s a weeknight wondermeal for the ages.

Grilled Lamb Chops with Muddled Blackberry Salad and Smashed Potato Chips

2 lamb shoulder chops (about 1 lb total)
fresh rosemary
fresh tarragon
EVOO
white balsamic vinegar
sea salt and cracked black pepper
1 pint fresh blackberries
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
1 boll buratta cheese
juice from 1 lemon
sugar
arugula
small white potatoes

I love lamb.  Its unique sweetness, gentle gaminess, and sinewy steakiness is just the right departure from beef or pork, and the price of these meaty shoulder chops is always reasonable.  My mother didn’t like lamb, and I never remember eating it as a kid, so I’ve been playing catch-up for years.

As I love lamb, so does lamb love savor – and two of the best flavors to create that savor come straight from the garden: fresh rosemary, and fresh tarragon.  The former’s earthiness will compliment the meat’s richness, whereas the tarragon’s complex sweetness will temper its gaminess.  I divest these sprigs of their leaves…


…. which I then chuck, along with my meat, about 1/2 cup EVOO, 1/4 cup of white balsamic vinegar (which will tenderize the meat, and also help temper the gaminess), and some salt and pepper into a large ziplock bag, which I then seal tightly (removing as much air as possible) and throw in the fridge to quick marinate for 20 minutes.

These teensy weency little potatoes are tonight’s starch.  I throw about 15 of them…


… into a pan of salted water, which I then put on high heat to boil for about 15 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork.


Meanwhile, Little Red – our little oven in the sky – is heating up and getting ready to do his job.


Two lovely lamb steaks get laid on his grill, and doused with the marinade left in the bag, before I close the lid and let them roast for 7-8 minutes.


My cooked potatoes are ready for smashing, so I toss them onto a cookie sheet with some EVOO…


… and I squish them into rough, flat disks with the tines of a fork.  I drizzle them with another little bit of EVOO, stud them with chopped rosemary, sea salt, and cracked pepper, before throwing them into a 350 degree oven to toast into crisp chips for the 15 minutes that my meat needs to grill.


I flip my meat at the 8 minute mark, dipping my nose into the smoking aroma of roasting lamb and sizzling garden herbs.  See the lovely grill marks?  I lust after those like Casanova lusts after T&A.  Another 8 minutes and these will be ready to gnaw on.


Back in the kitchen, I whisk together my salad dressing: 1 cup EVOO, 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar, the juice of 1 lemon, about 1 tablespoon sugar, sea salt, black pepper, and 1/2 my onion slices and 1/2 my blackberries. I smoosh my berries very vigorously as I whisk, releasing their black juice and flavoring the vinaigrette.


Beautiful buratta cheese – my absolute favorite these days.  It’s like a soft-boiled egg replete with a firm outer white casing, and oozing within with a creamy white marscapone ‘yolk’.  I layer this over my argulua, then I douse the whole salad with my dressing and the remaining fruit and onion rings.


My smashed spuds are ready when they are a perfect golden brown, and crispy and crunchy.


Tender, tasty, fresh and light lamb steaks are cooked to the perfect medium rare, with just the right amount of charring at the edges to remind you they were grilled in the great outdoors.  My salad is peppery from the arugula, but snappy and sweet from the bruised blackberry dressing and red onion relish.  And my potatoes are like Frisbee fritters which crack on the teeth and bring happy to the tongue.  For Lolita, this is a super-simple easy peasy meal, variations of which we’ll enjoy often this summer under the waning sun and the rising moon, with the wind in our hair, wine glasses in hand, and happiness in our hearts.
Grilled Lamb Chops with Muddled Blackberry Salad and Smashed Potato Chips

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

Macaroni and cheese: are there any other three words that go together better?  Is there any other phrase more evocative, anything else that inspires in each and every person an urgent yearning for whatever sinful, pseudo-sexual gastronomic glut the dish means to them? Tonight, to me it meant succulent, tender, mouthfuls of sweet seameats, and creamy stringy scented cheeses, and crispy crunchy crust.  Paired with a sexy simple arugula salad with parmesan croutons, and dabbled with fragrant, earthy, and enlightening black truffle oil, this Sunday night dinner is elegant and hearty, soulful and seductive, and exactly the adornment our peaceful, productive weekend deserved.  Welcome, Monday: we’re ready for you.

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

12 oz Trader Joe’s frozen langostino tails
4 oz fontina cheese
4 oz cheddar cheese
heavy cream
2 tbls butter, divided
1 white onion, 1/2 diced, 1/2 thinly sliced
flour
nutmeg
chili curry powder
2 cups uncooked fusili pasta
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
fresh grated parmesan cheese
fresh arugula
an excellent EVOO
a high quality white balsamic vinegar
sea salt
cracked black pepper
black truffle oil, for garnish

Trader Joe’s came through: their 12 oz bag of frozen langostino tails are an excellent alternative to lobster, but more indulgent than shrimp.  I’d also use crawfish tails; or Maine shrimp, since they’re so tiny and sweet, and so unlike their bigger, brinier, ubiquitous tiger cousins.  See how sweet and pink and plump they are?  I defrost them, rinse them, then drain them over a screen set over a bowl, to separate all the liquids from the meat.

Since I only have one suitable pan (my Ikeawok), I start with my breadcrumbs, which I can set aside for use later.  I melt a tablespoon of butter of medium high heat until just turning brown…

  I throw my panko breadcrumbs, about 1/2 a cup, into my hot butter, and toss in my wok…

… until all the crumbs are uniformly toasted.  I remove them from the pan, setting them aside on some parchment paper, where I flavor them with salt and pepper, until I need them later.

Along with fontina cheese, I have a nice mild Wisconsin cheddar.  I shred about 4 packed ounces of each onto a plate.

OK, I shred about 6 oz of each; Clayton is on the prowl, and he pinches when (he thinks) I’m not looking.

Along with grated nutmeg, simple salt and pepper, and a dash of chili curry powder, these are the spice components of my sauce.  To me, the best macaroni and cheeses are the simple ones: firm pasta, flavorful cheesy sauce, and a crisp crust.  The addition of too many flavors and veggies just mucks up perfection.

 But the addition of  1/2 a white onion, nicely minced, is a must — shallot would do nicely, too, or garlic.  In this case, we went simple…

… and sweated and softened the minced onion (about 1/2 cup) in a tablespoon of sizzling (but not browned) melted butter.

After a moment, I add a tablespoon of flour to the sizzling butter, and stir well to make a roux.

Finally, I add my cream, and bring this to a simmer to thicken.  See how the butter-sauteed onions float to the top?  They will be tender little bursts of flavor on the tongue later in the meal.  Stir well, and thicken over medium heat.  My pasta is cooking on the back burner, and will be ready in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, I throw my cheese into the sauce, and…

… I briskly whisk over medium heat to melt and blend.

I add my just slightly undercooked pasta to my cheese sauce, and blend well.  I then add my drained langostino tails, mixing well, and simmering until heated through.

Finally, I spoon my sauce, seafood, and noodles into buttered 8oz ramekins.  I sprinkle a healthy portion of my breadcrumbs over the top of each dish, then place in a 350° oven to bake through for 15-20 minutes.

For the last five minutes, I put a cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper, and mounded with fresh shredded parmesan cheese, into the oven to make some cheesy croutons for a simple, snappy, arugula, onion, salted kumato tomato, EVOO, and white balsamic vinegar salad to serve on the side.

Right before service, I dribble some black truffle oil, a delicious gift given to me by my close friend and superpartner, Tom, over the top of my bubbling baked crispy topped macaroni and cheese.  My salad is fresh and light and sharp, topped with a wafery salty savory parmesan cracker, the perfect compliment to my rich, fragrant, slightly hot and wonderfully spiced creamy macaroni and cheese, studded as it is with sweet, briny mouthfuls of tender langostino tails, and topped with just the right buttered toast texture.  Clayton and I dig in with abandon: our noses fill with the umame aroma of melting cheese, our mouths with the gooey heat of pasta cream, and our brains fire synapses hard-wired to supreme excitement and titillating pleasure.  Thank you –  gods of the heath, spirits of the kitchen – for introducing cheese to pasta, and letting them  make their particular brand of love on the porcelain pillow of my plate: it is beautiful.

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

Weeknight Wondermeal: Truffled Pastitsio and Taramosalata Arugula

Lolita’s Weeknight Wondermeals are all about cheap, easy, and delicious.  As such, this meal only partially fits the bill — there are a few moments, during preparation of the Béchamel sauce, that overshoots easy by a few orders of magnitude, and some of tonight’s “pantry” (read: cheap) ingredients are leftover from a fancy-pants meal I made on Sunday.  However, the more one works a mother sauce, the less intimidating it becomes; and, not to split hairs or anything, but I didn’t technically *buy* the caviar or truffle parmesano specifically for this meal – I already had them on hand and needed to use them before they, er, went bad. So, I’ll qualify this as super-duper Weeknight Wondermeal: if I average the cost of the ingredients I had to buy tonight with the $$ of the uppity stuffity, I still come in at less than $25, and the basic preparation techniques, and actual active time in action, is about 30 minutes.  The effect: unbelievably scrumptious, salubrious and satisfying – a steaming hot wedge of tender pasta, sweet savory lamb, and creamy baked truffled custard, with a tangy, briny, peppery arugula garnish.  Delicious!

Truffled Pastitsio and Taramosalata Arugula

3/4 lb ground lamb
2 tbs caviar
2 cups fresh arugula
caciotta al tartufo (black truffle parmesan cheese)

Pantry:
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup diced celery
2 cups diced white onion
1 tbs fennel seeds
3 tbs fresh oregano
2 tbs ketchup
1 cup half & half
1/2 stick butter, melted
1/4 c. flour
2 cups milk
2 eggs, whipped
nutmeg
cayenne pepper
2 cups rotini or penne pasta
2 tbs mayo
1/2 cup half & half
tarragon vinegar (or lemon juice)
sea salt and cracked black pepper
EVOO


I start with my diced carrots, onions, and celery, and I add it – with my fennel seeds – to a few glugs of EVOO heating in my Ikea-wonder-wok.  I stir for a few moments, letting all the flavors warm and melt into each other.

I also add my fresh oregano.  Blend, yumminess!  Blend! I command you to blend!


Lamb: the pink meat.  I love its sweetness and gameyness; it tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating – regularly.  I push my slightly transparent veg to the side, and add my meat-wad to the heat.  Sizzle sizzle – maybe 5 minutes, medium high.

Smoosh and smash, I break up my lamb-ball and mix it with my mirepoix.  I let this simmer for a few minutes.

Secret super savory quick weeknight ingredient? Ketchup.  Yup – ketchup.  I don’t put it on my fries, nor my burgers, nor my anything, for the most part  – but I do keep it in the house.  It is a necessary ingredient for several important family recipes: meatloaf, tomato/cucumber salad, quick chicken and tomato rice.  Its unique blend of lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, and spices adds just the right kick and tang to the mix, especially when you don’t need a whole can of tomatoes.  I squirt a scant 2 tablespoons into my pan, and mix well.

Then I add my half & half, and mix well.  I set the whole mess to simmer on low heat, stirring every once in a while, for, well, until I’m ready to assemble the pie.  Takes about 20 minutes.

Here’s my pasta, purchased at the Salumeria.  We heart fun, fine, pasta shapes.  I set these to boil for about 10 minutes – to al dente.

The last 5 ingredients of my list are for my arugula dressing: a quick blend of mayo, cream, tarragon vinegar (although I think lemon juice may have augmented the brine in the caviar better, even if the sweetness of the tarragon did complement the richness of the pastitsio perfectly), salt and pepper.  I whisk this very well…

A true taramosalata is a caviar and whipped egg yolk emulsion, sort of a dip, with a very briny, fish egg flavor suspended in a mild, creamy base.  Because of my strong (I’m at the bottom of this batch, so it is very concentrated) tarragon vinegar, and fairly mild golden roe, my creamagrette is more sweet than salty.  No matter – it ended up really complementing the dinner deliciously, even if the caviar flavor was overshadowed by the herb.  I blend this well and let sit until the last moment, when I hand dress my peppery fresh arugula.

Béchamel, the topping for this here Greek inspired meat and pasta pie, is made with flour, butter, egg, and milk.  One of my eggs spent significantly more time in the tanning bed than his bretheren.

At the most complicated moment, I’ve got all my burners going and several bowls at the ready.  From the bottom left: my eggs are whisked, my milk is simmering, my pasta is cooking, my butter is melted, my lamb is stewing, and my flour is waiting.

I add my flour to my hot, melted, still-set-over-medium-high-heat butter, and whisk well until it’s all incorporated and turning a darker shade of pale.

I add half my hot milk to the pan (now set over low heat), and the other half to my whisked eggs, whisking constantly, with both hands, like the culinary virtuoso that I am.  (Note: I am still taking pictures, too.  Ok… ok… so I enlisted the hubby as a hand model.  Deal with it.)  I let this cook for about 4 minutes.

I then whisk my egg/warm milk mixture to my thick flour/butter/milk roux, whipping like the Dickens to blend and thicken.  This takes about 5 minutes.

I remove my sauce from the heat, add some sea salt, black pepper, grated nutmeg, and cayenne pepper, and stir it all up real good like.

My pasta is perfectly under-cooked – still slightly springy, since it will continue to cook while baking in the oven – so I layer half of it into a buttered dish, pour all my sublime lamb over it, and layer the other half on top.  Nice!

Velvety béchamel blanketing my noodles and sheep.  ‘Nuff said.

The final bit of sinful fun: my truffle parmesan, or caciotta al tartufo - a salty, earthy, nutty, rich cheese…

… shaved generously on top of my white mother.  I set this baby to bake in a 350 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes.

After which time… whoa. There be dinner here!

But it needs to rest for a few minutes, which will make everything stick together just so.  Perfect – because I need to dress my arugula with my caviar cream dressing, and a dash of fine EVOO.

A few more shavings of cheese, a handful of sweet and salty pepper greens, and my luscious hot  lamb pasta white sauce baked casserole is a hearty, home-style, provincial meal that warms all the chills permeating my corpus New Englandus these cold, damp, March days.  Each bite is steaming and rich, decadent and delicious.  Each tiny veggie cube adds toothsome texture, the lamb is tender and tantalizing, and the topping is lush and fluffy, earthy and cheesy.  I ate every bite, then a few more forkfuls from the platter, and then licked my plate clean.  So luscious… so Lolita.

Oh yeah.  I live for dinners like these.

 

Truffled Pastitsio and Taramosalata Arugula