Lockdown Hash

DSCN4852It has been one hell of a week here in Boston.  Bombings set off on Monday, our noble Marathon violently marred, death and dismemberment brought home to children and other innocents, and terror injected into our Beantown lifeblood like intravenous drugs designed to heighten anxiety and stress.  Last night and all of today has been all about police action, high emergency, and triage; one cop has been killed, others are seriously injured, shootouts have exploded and explosions have been hurled, and there has been an unprecedented complete and total lockdown of 6 different communities — including mine — within our fair borders.  We have been held captive all week in a true siege perilous, literally and figuratively: this most ancient seat of our young nation is undeniably under attack.   I worry about my neighbors, I worry about my Harvard kids, I worry about my friends.  I worry about this boy, this fresh-faced, nice looking, by-all-accounts good boy who is hiding among us somewhere… waiting, maybe?  Planning, maybe?  Or scared and alone and hurt?  I can’t not care; he looks so much like he could be one of my students.  My little haven, my home, is 5 blocks away in one direction from the merciless fatal shooting of MIT policeman Sean Collier, and 5 blocks away in another direction from the merciful release of the carjacking victim which the news is, at this time (6:57pm EST), still surprisingly silent about.  Needless to say, Clayton and I have stayed safely indoors, and totally glued to the TV, waiting until our beloved neighborhood is safe again.

Luckily, we had a dozen eggs and a handful of random items in the fridge to make both lunch and dinner, since we’ve been locked indoors and all stores are closed anyway.  But after an onion & bacon omelet with cheddar grits for breakfast, I wanted something a little more vegetable for dinner.  My pantry isn’t fully stocked, but I do try to keep some basics on hand, like canned beans and tomatoes and stock and stuff.  I found a few carrots in the fridge, some just-about-to-turn-rubbery small colored potatoes, I had 1/2 an onion, and bacon is always welcome more than once a day anyway – so I came up with this skillet:  Potato bacon hash, carrot studded tomato sauce, with baked egg, melted farmhouse cheddar, and garlic Texas toast for dipping.  Super hot, *really* comforting, and served in a cast-iron skillet heavy enough to use as a weapon to beat back terrorists: just what we needed to feel safe and satisfied after a surreal day.

DSCN4831

Lockdown Hash

8-10 small potatoes (these are purple, red, and creamer)
1 can peeled tomatoes
1/2 onion, diced
1 cup diced carrots
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup EVOO
4 sliced bacon
4 tbs butter
2 eggs
4 thick slices of toast
garlic powder, sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, oregano

DSCN4832I start by dicing my onion, carrot…

DSCN4833… and garlic.

DSCN4835I throw them in a hot pan with a glug of EVOO to sauteDSCN4836I add a dash of salt, pepper, and oregano, and cook on medium heat until just translucent — about 4 minutes.

DSCN4834I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: San Marzano canned tomatoes are the best.  I crack me a can.

DSCN4837And dump all the contents into the pan with the aromatics.

DSCN4838Then I add my wine and about 1/2 cup of EVOO.

DSCN4840I set the heat on low, cover the pan, and let my sauce cook for about 30 minutes until thickened.  At some point, since I’m anxious watching the news unfold, I end up breaking down the tomatoes into smaller pieces.  Meaning, I just sort of stand there stabbing at them with my wooden spatula, splattering my clothes since my eyes are riveted on the TV.  After the 30 minutes, I remove the lid and let the liquid start to boil off, to make a nice, thick, chunky sauce.

DSCN4841On one of my back burners, I boiled my potatoes in salted water for about 15  minutes, or until I was able to pierce them easily with a knife.  I drained and cooled them, and have now cut them into small pieces.

DSCN4842I get my two small skillets nice and hot on my burners, and I fry off two slices of chopped bacon in each.  I add a LOT of cracked black pepper to each pan, too – just ‘cuz.

DSCN4843Once my bacon is nice and crisp, and all the fat has rendered and is sizzling, I split my potato pieces evenly between the two pans, laying them in a single layer across the surface, to let them sear for a couple minutes.  After they’ve crisped on the hot edge, I stir gently to flip, and sear again.  I do this for about 8 minutes, stirring every once in a while so that the pulpy cuts of potato can crisp and brown against the iron heat.

DSCN4845When the home fries/hash browned potatoes are perfectly crisped, I push them to one side of each pan.

DSCN4846On the other side, I layer my nicely thickened chunky tomato sauce.  Sort of a yin-yang thing.

DSCN4847I’ve shaved several nice thin sheets of cheddar off the block, which I layer on top of my potatoes and tomatoes.

DSCN4848And in a well between them all, I crack a single egg.  My oven is preheated to 400 degrees, and I throw the pans onto the bottom most shelf, and let them bake for about 7 minutes — until the egg whites have just set, and the cheese is melted and bubbling.

DSCN4851Since I started writing this post 20 minutes ago, there has been another volley of gunshots, and the media is hopeful that that heralds a resolution to today’s drama.  There hasn’t been any movement in hours; but now something seems to be happening.  This blog is as much to show off my cooking as it is to remind me of my life, like a diary; each meal brings me back to a moment in my past in ways no other experience can do.  Tonight’s meal was heartwarming, comforting, true homestyle, delicious, and filling — as many of my meals have been; but, given the historic events unfurling within hearing distance of my humble little condo, I doubt I could ever forget it, even if I hadn’t written it down.  But I felt a need to share – and if I could have made this for every one of my local peeps, waiting like me for news that the suspect has been caught, and that all is safe (more or less) – I would have.  These pictures, and this insignificant story, are my small way of sharing.

Stay safe, my dear readers.  Lolita out.

Farmer’s Market Lobster Two Ways: Brandied in Alfredo Ravioli and Slow Butter-Poached

For those of you who follow my blog, you may have already figured out that I work at Harvard University — America’s mecca for the uber-mentally endowed.  But we do more here than just hunker down in carrels at Widener library studying esoterica – we also enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, or in this case – the fruits of the sea.  The University has been hosting an absolutely *lovely* farmer’s market for the last few years, every Tuesday during the summer months, and it is one of the best in the area.  Not for its size, mind you — it’s a fairly small venue, the strip of land in front of the Science Center, at the corner of Oxford and Kirkland Streets — but for its richness and variety.  The folks at HUHDS (that’s Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services, for the uninitiated) do a spectacular job finding vendors to fill the ranks, varying the offerings every week to keep things fresh and exciting.  There are usually a couple of bread/pastry vendors, and several local farms represented, but there are often also items like locally made chocolates, fresh-made pastas, community cheese-makers, kombucha (which I can’t stomach, but I hear it’s good for you), meat purveyors (see this earlier recipe, in which I used John Crow Farm’s steaks), and this week, Carolyn Manning, a bona-fide lobsterman’s wife, had just-plucked-from-the-sea ocean bugs for sale at an enticing $5.99/lb.  Along with some brandied lobster ravioli purchased two stalls down from Hollis, NH’s pasta-maker Valicenti Organico, I had me the basics for an elegant, but relatively easy to make, meal – all for about $25.  With just a few items from my pantry and fridge, as well as some scallions from the backyard garden, I pulled together a mouthwatering saucer of ravioli in alfredo cream sauce, topped with butter-poached lobster meat, and served with a crunchy cheesy garlic bread.  Par-boiling and removing the meat from the lobster took the most effort and time, but the plate itself came together in less than 20 minutes – practically a weeknight wondermeal, and one I plan to make again whenever I can!

Farmer’s Market Lobster Two Ways: Brandied in Alfredo Ravioli and Slow Butter-Poached

1 package fresh lobster ravioli
2 live lobsters (about 2.5 lbs)
1 1/2 sticks butter, divided
heavy cream
parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
sea salt, cracked black pepper
garlic powder
small loaf french bread
cheddar cheese


These two bugs had a journey before they hit the pot; I purchased them at noon, stuck them in fridge until 3, then carted them on my back all the way downtown and back home again.  Luckily, Carolyn loaned me an ice-pack so they’d stay chill and alive the whole way, and when I got home they were still sprightly and kicking.  Hello little buggers… are you ready for your hot bath?

Butter-poaching lobsters is a multi-step process.  You first need to get the lobster meat out of the shells, but in order to do so your lobster has to be at least partially cooked.  To do this, I filled a couple of receptacles (my kettle and a large saucepan) with water and brought them to a boil.  My lobsters I stuck in my largest pot, and I spoke soothingly to them as they flailed about and tried to escape.

Quickly, but ruthlessly, I pour the boiling water over my lobsters, and I let them slowly, gently par-boil for about 5 minutes (or, er, until they stop moving around).  Some recipes call for adding a few drops of white vinegar to the water, to help the lobster meat congeal so it will come out of the shell more easily; I forgot to do that, but it didn’t seem to matter.  Go to sleep, little lobsters… just let your Calgon bath *really* take you away…


After 5 minutes, I quickly take my bugs out of their bath and snap off their claws and arms by putting the tip of my chef’s knife into their “armpits” – the moon-sliver of semi-translucent membrane in the exoskeleton where their arms meet their torsos – and slicing through, while twisting their arms to break them free.  The armclaws go back in the hot water for another couple minutes, while I remove the meat from the tails.  Sorry – I don’t have any pictures of this; I had to work fast while the lobster was still hot, and my hands got all gunkified.  The easiest way to remove the meat is to use kitchen shears and slice down the middle of the entire length of the undertail.  You can then pry the meat out carefully.  After two more minutes, I remove the still-steeping claws from the water, and use my shears to cut the meat out of all four claws and all four arms (or knuckles, which is what I think they’re technically called on a lobster).

What I end up with is just slightly cooked lobster meat.  It’s still practically raw, actually – it will cook the rest of the way in it’s second bath, the BUTTER bath. (Cue angel song!)  But I set it aside for right now…


Lolita approves of the lovely packaging Valicenti has here.  It took me a few glances to see, but the open-mouthed graphic is tres awesome.  I get a large pot of salted water set on my back burner to high and bring it to a boil.  The ravioli will take only 5 minutes to cook, so everything will come together quickly right before plating.

In my smallest saucepan – which will be large enough for all my lobster meat to lay in a single layer – I get two tablespoons of water set to boiling.


To butter-poach, one needs, well – butter.  I think I might should have used unsalted butter, but this was what I had on hand, so salted it was.  I kept it in the fridge until the last moment; it should be cold before adding it to the water.

Which I do, with the pan set on medium low heat, one tablespoon at a time, whisking well after each addition, until the butter is fully incorporated.

This simple action – whisking cold butter into a small amount of hot water a little bit at a time – results in a thick, viscous, but aerated butter sauce; it has the consistency of a milk-shake, or melted ice-cream.

When all the butter has been added, I gently lay my lobster meat – the tails of which I’ve split up the middle, removing all tomalley (the green innards) – in a single layer on the bottom of the pan.  It only takes about 5 minutes for this to cook through (flipping a few times with tongs), so I add my pasta to the boiling water at this time, too.

Oh, I made some quick garlic bread too.  I had a nice mini French loaf, which I split lengthwise and drizzled with melted butter (yes – more butter).

I then sprinkled some garlic powder (I was out of fresh garlic, dammit!), over the loaf halves before covering them both with shredded sharp cheddar cheese.   These go into my hot oven for about 8 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the bread is toasted.

Finally, starting with a few tablespoons of the butter-poaching liquid, I make my alfredo sauce.  Using a large skillet set over medium-high heat, I take the lobster-infused butter…

… whisk in about 3/4 cup of heavy cream, which I bring to a simmer…

… then I add in about 1/2 a cup of grated parm/reg cheese, sea salt, and a nice amount of cracked black pepper…

…continuing to whisk to incorporate and thicken.

I’ve chopped my scallions, yielding about 1 cup, and 1/2 of them go into my sauce.

When my ravioli is floating, it’s ready.  Using a slotted or mesh spoon, I carefully lift each ravioli out of the water, drain it well, and lay them…

… into my alfredo sauce.  I let them simmer for just a few moments before plating.

Using tongs, I gently place my tenderrific, yummylicious, super-sweet, and perfectly poached chunks of lobster meat over my bed of heavenly stuffed raviolis and my blanket of rich thick wonderful cheese and cream sauce.  A final sprinkling of chopped scallions and a tower of garlic bread power rounds out the plate.  The sauce is simple and dignified, the pasta just al dente and filled with savory (barely brandied) lobster meat, and the butter-poached tidbits practically melt in my mouth, making this meal something truly special.

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: Homemade Spicy Lamb Pizza with Cooling Tzatziki Salad

Last night’s episode of The Next Food Network Star was dutifully watched in Lolita’s living room, and (as usual) I compared myself and my skills to those chefs/cooks/(and bloggers!) and wondered whether I could compete in that sort of arena.  It’s not just the ability to cook that’s required, mind you… it’s a sense of self-awareness capable of fueling a perpetual engine of self-promotion (read: moxie); it’s a relentlessly competitive spirit that pulls no punches when reaching for the goal (read: balls); it’s either a natural propensity for living with, sharing with, relying on, and befriending others (read: to love and be loved enough to inspire loyalty), or for infuriating, thwarting, fragmenting, and antagonizing others (read: hate enough to be ruthless and devious); or it’s an adamantine emotional shell (read: practical enough to be Spartan and detached).  I like to think I could rock that hizzy… that I could kick ass and take names by being in equal parts audacious, ballsy, lovable, devilish, and practical, and still become America’s sweetheart by throwing my culinary imagination and technical skill and knowledge of flavors and respect for the tongue and passion for palate pleasure into that mix of misfit but marvelous food makers and walking out the winner.  But, alas, I don’t even really investigate the option – I just dream about it.  Instead, I cook for you, dear readers, and for my stalwart test eater and faithful partner in life and love, the Claytonious husbandius.

My oh my, how I digress.  My apologies.  The point of introducing the show was to say that I decided to take up one of their challenges: to make a pizza that best defined me.  When I thought about what characterizes Lolita’s kitchen, I decided it was/is an abundance of the savory and the fresh, with an unabashedly omnivorous theme.  Cheeses, meats, good variety in flavor but familiarity in fulfill-ing-ness and stick-to-your-rib-ness, lots of garden herbs and quick snappy salads, where cuisine meets home-cooking, when the redneck walks the royal carpet, how the honest house special translates to a haute-couture plat du jour.  And, of course, the Weeknight Wondermeal: just a few ingredients, low on cost, easy and quick to make, but goshdurndelicious.  I recently bought a round pizza pan, since my rectangular cookie sheet pizza was way too big, and I’m happy to say my $6.99 at Target was well spent.  And I engaged Lolita’s creative drive whilst I slipped off to sleep, to determine the following decoupage of deliciousness: a toasted EVOO’d crust topped with spiced sauteed ground lamb, nutty goat cheese, briny feta, red onion, garlic and oregano, served with a quick tzatziki sauce and salad.   Homemade pizza has never been better.

Homemade Spicy Lamb Pizza with Cooling Tzatziki Salad

EVOO
3/4 lb ground lamb
1 tbs each fennel seed, rye seed, cracked black pepper, dried oregano, and crushed red pepper
1 pint strained Greek yogurt
1 small cucumber, seeded and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 4 tablespoons, divided)
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
1 16oz ball pizza dough
flour
feta cheese
goat cheese
iceberg lettuce
2 tbs butter, melted

My lamb was locally harvested from a farm in New Hampshire, according to the butcher at Whole Foods.  At $6.99/lb, it was an excellent price for an excellent product.

My seasonings replicated my favorite sausage spices: fennel seed, rye seed, and oregano.

I throw them, along with my black and crushed red pepper, into a hot wok with a glug or two of sizzling EVOO, and I let them toast for a moment to release the flavorful oils inside each bit of spice.

Then I chuck my lamb into the pan, and break it up into small meatball-sized chunks, allowing it to brown and absorb all the punch from my seeds and spices.  When it’s cooked through, I remove it from the heat and set it aside until I’m ready to spread it on my pizza.

I didn’t see any of the chefs on the show making their own dough, and given my lack of a food processor with a dough hook (and my desire to make this quickly – being a weeknight wondermeal and all), I bought my dough from Whole Foods. It’s a pretty good product, even if it is sometimes over-proofed, resulting in air bubbles and blistering/blackening edges.  Today’s dough, however, was great.  I turn it out of the bag onto my floured counter, then split the lump in half to make my pizza base and some garlic rolls to go with it.

Using my hands first to form the basic shape, I then roll out the pizza crust as thinly as possible with my rolling pin.  The rolls I form by hand and set onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  My pizza pan has been in my 425° oven for the past 10 minutes, getting nice and hot.

Along with my sausage, thinly sliced red onion, and 1/3 of my minced garlic (some of which I’ll save to toss with butter for my rolls, and some of which will go in my tzatziki sauce), I’m going to top my pizza with a combination of feta cheese – for salty – and goat cheese – for creamy.

After making sure all my toppings are ready for action, I very quickly remove the pizza pan from the oven, slather some EVOO over the surface, then stretch my pizza crust dough over the surface as best as possible.  I drizzle some EVOO over the dough, then spread out my sausage bits, red onion, minced garlic, and cheeses. I shake some black pepper and oregano over the whole thing, before putting the pan into the oven.   My oven’s two racks are on the top two slots — as far from the bottom’s heating coils as possible — so I place the rolls on the top one (since they need more room to grown), and my pizza on the bottom.  Cook for 15 minutes, or until…

… the crust turns nice and brown, the meat heats back through, the EVOO sizzles, and the cheese melts (which – in the case of feta and goat cheeses – means they fluff up and turn golden brown at the edges).

I made a quick tzatziki sauce with my strained Greek yogurt, my cucumber (which I deseeded, salted, and chopped), 1/3 of my minced garlic, and cracked black pepper. This coolifying condiment, along with some shredded iceberg lettuce, will temper the heat of my lamb.

My rolls have been tossed in butter and garlic, and are fluffy on the inside and perfectly crusty on the outside.  Mouthfuls of complex spice and gamey sweet meat meeting cooling cream and crisp lettuce over an almost crackery crisp crust makes for a personal pizza experience unlike any other.  Clayton and I ended up topping our slices with the greens and cream, so we could enjoy our salad and our pizza in each beautiful bite.   It took barely an hour to pull this meal together (and that’s with me stopping to take pictures every few minutes), and the ingredients cost less than $20.  One could argue that getting delivery would be cheaper and easier, but it would in no way be fresher, and it could never be this delicious.  Delivery pizza has its place in dorm rooms and at Superbowl parties, but for a true diner’s dinner, I’ll take homemade any day.  And if it’s always as savory and spicy and satisfying as this one, I might just have to make it more often.  As for “The Next Food Network Star” challenge, Bobby, Bob, Giada, and Susie would have asked for seconds, and maybe thirds.  Hell, I did.
Homemade Spicy Lamb Pizza with Cooling Tzatziki Salad

Macaroni alla Telefono

Clayton’s been working hard on the farm, poor boy; he’s coming home all spattered with mud, smelling like livestock, with a big fat tired grin on his face. Today he got bit in the ass by a goat, he carried around fluffy baby lamb, played with the freshly hatched baby chicks, moved a whole chicken coop, sloped hogs, etc.  Tonight I needed to whip together a hearty something something to make my man’s man all fortified for his supreme acts of labor, and I thank Mario Batali for introducing me to this super simple super satisfying dinner on the fly.  I, of course, did my own thing to it, but the concept is based on something I saw him make on one of his old shows on the FoodNetwork over a decade ago.  The macaroni is obvious: noodles, and squiggly ones to boot!  The “alla telefono” refers to the stretchy stringy cords of fresh mozzarella cheese melted into this delicious pasta and sausage baked dish.    With my quick-made basil marinara sauce, dinner is red and good and gooey and rich and fresh and hot and yummy and awesome.  ‘Nuff said.

Macaroni alla Telefono

1 lb sweet Italian sausage
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
a handful of fresh basil
2 tbs tomato paste
1 large can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
burrata cheese
oregano
2 cups noodles (your choice, but something squiggly works best)
EVOO
salt and pepper
fennel seeds (optional)
caraway seeds (optional)

I was cheeky today, I admit it.  I noticed that Savenor’s afternoonFacebook posting was a link to a blog – an excellent blog, to be sure – but it got me thinking: I gots me a blog, and I shop at Savenor’s, too.  Methinks perhaps I just need to say “Here’s what I do with your meats, yo'” (to mix my vernaculars) and maybe they’ll dig my blog, too.  So I slid the stud behind the counter my cool biz card, and I’m sure any day now they’ll offer me half their profits to compensate for all you rich browsers discovering them through my portal into the world of FOOD.  That’s right.  Lolita’s a trendsetter, she is.  Today I bought my cheese (they were out of fresh mozzarella, but burrata served the purpose of both ricotta and mozz at the same time), my sausage (which was heavenly), my tomato paste, and a loaf of french bread at their Cambridge joint.  After slipping the dude my card.  In shameless self-promotion. ‘Cuz that’s how I roll.

I start with a simple mirepoix and minced garlic and stir it around in a hot oiled pan.

I add a few dashes of sea salt, some cracked black pepper, and a teaspoon each of fennel seeds and caraway seeds.  I toss this around for a few moments to toast and soften.

I’d left the camera on; Clayton walked by at a random moment, and saw this image in the viewfinder.  I agreed it was… compelling.  So I snapped.  And so I share.  My stemless wine glass dripping with cava, our scratched kitchen table surface, and one of Clayton’s paintings coloring the background.

To my pan I add two tablespoons of tomato paste. I blend it well with my sauteed veggies.

I add my can of crushed tomatoes, blend well, and let this mixture simmer, covered, for the next 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I’ve heated a glug or glugs of EVOO in a pan, and now I’ve laid  my fresh sausage over the sizzle.  I’m going to rotate them regularly, so that they cook evenly through without splitting with too much heat drying out and fracturing the membrane.  Using tongs…

… I roll my sausages…

… every minute or so, just as the surfaces start to brown…

…and I finish off with some wrist-flip rolling, until my sausages are perfectly golden all over their little cylindrical bodies, all plump and toasty, all heated fully through, still bursting with savory pork juices.  Oh mama.

See?  As I slice my sausages, they ooze with juices and are perfectly cooked throughout, without being too browned and blistered on the outside.  And as I sneak a mouthful, and one for Clayton, we revel in the peppery, garlicky, flavorful, distinctive deliciousness before I…

… dump them disks into my thick rich tomato sauce.

I stir this all up, then add a handful of ripped fresh basil leaves to the blend, and I turn off the heat.

I’ve boiled off my pasta to just slightly underdone (I always think of Joyce’s  “Underdone’s”), since they’re going to bake for a while, which will bring them to just the right al dente.

I mix this all up real good like.  *Real* good like.

This plump ball of mozzarella (a wee wee bit rubbery at just the apex of the curve) stuffed with ricotta ended up being the *perfect* diary for dinner.  It comes from “The Mozzarella House” in Everett, MA — but they’ve got no website!  Technological deficiencies aside, their cheese is damn good (even if a little pricey, at $7.99 in comparison to Trader Joe’s more consistently produced, just as tasty, $2.99 8oz portion).  Anyway, the mozz will melt and stretch, and the ricotta will melt and cream.  I slice it, then roughly chop it, then scoop it up with the flat of my blade and…

… dump it into my hot saucesausagepasta.  I mix this up real good like…

… and I scoop it into an oiled baking dish, and throw it into a 350° oven for 15 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, I slice my beautiful baguette down the middle and cut it into planks.  I douse each slice’s surface with melted butter, sprinkle them with garlic powder, and grate some fresh parmigiano reggiano on top, then stick this on a sheet pan over parchment paper into the oven (which is already baking off my pasta) to toast.

I pull my pastabake out when I see the bubbling heat crawling up the sides of my glass baking dish.  This is about 15 minutes later.  This is about 10 minutes away from being devoured.

As I spoon the warm deliciousness into my bowl, I can show you why this is called “alla telefono” — see how the mozzarella stretches into supple cords, like telephone wires, as I serve up my dish?  It’s almost a struggle; I have to use another spoon to cut the wires, or they’d stretch, it seems, until eternity.

Spoonfuls of macaroni and mozzarella and tomato goodness are perfectly gloopy, with firm springy noodles laced with rich sauce, dotted with savory sausage, and threaded with creamy chewy cheese. Served with buttery baked cheesy garlic bread, served with love, served with hard working man man in mind. Clayton husband needed something from the heart to fill his stomach, and judging by the love-looks he’s been shooting my way since we walked away from the dinner table, he’s happy as can be.  Mission accomplished!

Macaroni alla Telefono

Weeknight Wondermeal: Portuguese Mussels with Sausage, Fennel, and Ouzo Cream

Ahhhh… mollusks.  I do wonder about the first intrepid gastronome (or malnourished neanderthal) who pried open a bi-valve and sucked up the briny, bursting mouthful of innards locked inside.  I am a lover of all shellfish, but mussels usually see the inside of my kitchen (and belly) less than their thicker-shelled cousin, the clam, or their gnarly rich uncle, the majestic oyster – mainly because I was never that blown away by their preparation or presentation.  Until we went to the Wellfleet OysterFest a few years back and tried an offering called Portuguese Mussels.  We must have seen 5-10 heaping, steaming, aromatic bowls walk by, jealously clutched by people who looked more like wolves guarding their kill than happy-go-lucky festival patrons, before we happened upon the booth that spawned these schools of black, white, and green bowls.  I have never been able to find this anywhere on the Internet (hence, why I’m memorializing it here), and therefore never able to verify it as a traditional Portuguese dish (most that I do find call for white wine, peppers, chorizo or linguica, and no cream).  But the recipe is simple simple; I charmed it off the guy who made the plate, while Clayton hung back, so as to not impede my mojo. Four ingredients (plus a few pantry items), and you’ll have an effusion of flavors; serve it with some bread for sopping, and you’ve got an uber-quick, super-cheap, weeknight wondermeal you’ll consider serving to company!

Portuguese Mussels with Sausage, Fennel, and Ouzo Cream

3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb Italian sausage (I used sweet, but hot works, too)
1 medium bulb fennel
olive oil
1/4 cup ouzo (optional, but *really* nice)
1 lb fresh mussels
8 oz heavy cream
sea salt and cracked black pepper

I start by adding a few glugs of olive oil to a large hot pan (large enough to fit all my ingredients, including my mussels, later on — a wok would have worked, too, if I’d another one to use), and then lightly sauté my minced garlic before adding my sausages, from which I’ve removed the casings.  Using a wooden spoon, I break these meatwads up into smaller pieces.

Meanwhile, I separate my fennel from its fronds, which I set aside to add later, then chop the bulb into nice-sized pieces.

I also wash my mussels, scrub ‘em, rap any open ones sharply to see if they close (if they don’t, they’re dead, and I chuck ‘em), use a paring knife to cut off any beards, all to prepare them for steaming.  It will only take about 8 minutes to do so, and I want them to be ready when I need them.  I set enough water into my wok to reach just under my bamboo steamer baskets, and bring it to a boil…

… before setting the basket over the bath and covering to start the steaming process.

I now add my chopped fennel bulb to the pan and toss everything well.  I want my fennel to still be toothsome when it comes to table, so I sauté it first with the sausage for about 5 minutes…

… before adding my ouzo for the last 3-5 minutes, which will sweeten the meat and soften the fennel.

The fun thing about steaming mussels in bamboo is that when they start to yawn, they push the top off the steamer — sort of like a pop-up button in the breast of a roasting turkey.  See how eager they are to be eaten?  I remove the steamer from the bath, trying not to drain all the milky broth inside the mussel shells; it’s not just condensation, that’s yummy, flavorful mussel juice, baby! I dump all them gaping maws, their tender little tongues, and their sweet, salty sweat over my fennel and sausage, and toss it all very well, introducing all the ingredients to each other until they’re ready to get even more intimate.

And what’s more intimate than swimming in heavy cream?  Luscious, silky, rich and thick, I generously drown the inhabitants of this hot tub with their ultimate sauce, then stir the pot to get the co-mingling a’ going.  I bring up the heat to high, and let the cream, sausage, and fennel come to a boil briefly to thicken.

At the last moment, right before plating, I add the chopped fennel fronds, some sea salt and a heavy serving of cracked black pepper, until the slick on my spoon tastes perfect to the lick.


Not to be all First Lady of New York or anything, but I do admit to keeping a can or two of easily adulterated quick biscuits in my fridge these days to make sure I always have something to satisfy Clayton’s constant bread craving.  But I really don’t like the uneven way they cook; my crappy oven always yields biscuits that are overcooked on top,  undercooked inside, and burned on the bottom.  I’ve learned that cutting them up, drenching them in spiced butter (garlic, pepper, parmesan, etc. for savory; cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg, lemon zest, etc. for sweet), and stuffing them in muffin tins makes  really nice puffy, perfectly cooked bread nuggets which compliment many a quick meal.

Since sopping was in order for the night’s meal, these were just the ticket.

Sweet Italian sausage, tender mussels and barely crisp slices of fennel all swimming in a delicately scented milk, a satisfying supper that warms the tummy.  I forgo the use of the tablespoon next to my plate, and find myself using a mussel shell as a slurping and scooping aid, catching the cream dribbling down my chin with the soft pillow of my buttery biscuit puffs.  This is a hands-on meal; you have to tease each morsel of mussel out of its ebony cage, you have to dig for sausage and stab bits of fennel with your fork, but if it didn’t take the effort to eat, I think it would be inhaled as if caught in the whirlwind of a black hole.  Clayton and I sure dug in with abandon.  And to think — this is essentially fair food, first enjoyed out of styrofoam with paper napkins at a belly-up high-top on an autumn afternoon.  The atmosphere might be different now, but the deliciousness remains the same.

Portuguese Mussels With Sausage, Fennel, and Ouzo Cream

Snow Day Pot o’ Chili

SNOW DAY!!!  SNOW DAY!!! SNOW DAY!!!  Boston’s Blizzard of 2011 slammed us hard, and we got to enjoy a bona-fide free day off because of the state of emergency.  Yay!  Sorry to all you folks without power – but we were toasty and warm within our little garret in Cambridge.  After snuggling inWe trudged our way through the 16″ the 1/4 mile to Whole Foods, very apologetically purchased our ingredients (since, because of people like us enjoying the luxury of NOT working in the service industry (anymore), people like our butchers and cheesemongers and cashiers and baggers were working), and enjoyed every minute of it. Thirty years ago I would have been building igloos; today, I built me some dinner.  Clayton’s had some hankering for chili, which was all I needed to know to get started.

SNOW DAY POT O’ CHILI

1/2 lb ground lamb
1/2 lb ground veal
1/2 lb (1) boneless beef shortrib
EVOO
1/4 cup ketchup
1 carrot
3 medium onions
1 head garlic
cumin seeds
paprika
sea salt and black pepper
chili powder
1 can diced San Marzano tomatoes
1 bottle beer
1 can kidney beans
1/4 cup heavy cream
scallions
sour cream
cheddar cheese
cilantro oil (for garnish)

I like my chilis meaty – and textured.  Sometimes just ground beef can be pebbly, and – just like a good meatloaf or meatballs – a blend of red meats makes the best flavor.  So I gots me 1/2 pound each of ground lamb and veal, and – to add a steak-like chew to the stew – one lovely boneless beef shortrib.  I start with that…

This perfect cut of super-amped flavorful beef has lots of connective tissues which need to be braised away.  I start by dusting each flat with flour, salt, and pepper.

I then drop it into my hot wok (this is a one-pot meal, BTW) onto a sizzling tablespoon of EVOO…

… and I sear each side until nicely golden browned.

Meanwhile, I peel my onions and garlic, then chop them and my carrot very roughly.

Setting my pan-peared steak aside for a sec, I throw my veg into the remaining hot oil in the wok and stir well, softening everything slightly over medium high heat.

I add all my spices: about 1 tablespoon black pepper, and 1/2 tbs each chili powder, cumin seeds, paprika, and sea salt.  Mix well; sauté until the onions are just translucent, stirring regularly.

Pushing all my veg and spice to the side, I drop each ball of ground meat onto the hot surface of the pan, and I poke away at them with the flat of my wooden spatula to break up the rare wads.

After my meats have browned a bit, I nestle my shortrib (and any accumulated juices) into the pan.


I don’t really use tomato puree all that much; I find that ketchup actually works pretty well in its place, especially for an application like this.  The added vinegar and lemon juice impart a zip to the final sauce, while maintaining its tomatoey thickrichness.

Chili needs two things: tomatoes (San Marzano are my favorite) and beans. Oh, for those of you who can actually stomach chilies in your chili, this is where you’d add some of them.  Back in the day (before my guts mutinied,  and I quit being able to eat the heat), I’d add some home roasted jalapeños right about the same time as the tomato, so the flavors could co-mingle unmitigatedly.

My tomatoes.  I dump the contents of the can over my meaty meat goodness, and stir well.

Then I dump a bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager (chili hearts beer) in, too.

Then I cover my pan, set the heat to low, and walk away for an hour.  The whole snow-covered house fills with the simmering scent of tomato meat stew.

After said hour, my shortrib is easily enough split with the edge of my spatula.

Time to add my beans.  I just dump the whole can, and all its juices, into the chili, and stir well.  Finally, I pour  in 1/4 cup of heavy cream and mix it thoroughly with the stew.  Milk does marvelous things to ground beef, sweetening and softening it, as well as balancing out the acidic tang of my tomatoes. I cover this and walk away for ANOTHER hour.

I’ve toasted off some wedges of baguette slathered in garlic butter.  I’ve shredded some 2 yr old Australian cheddar.  I’ve chopped up several scallions, and I’ve got some sour cream and homemade cilantro oil.  Several healthy scoopfuls of warm, three-meat and kidney bean chili does wonders to defrost the chill inside, due to the waist-high snowdrifts piling up outside.  Topped with cream, cheese, cilantro and scallions, this big bowl of beautiful makes this blizzard no big deal.

Homemade Beef Chili