Weeknight Wondermeal: Baked Egg Linguine with Onion, Scallion, and Umame

Spring is getting here … but it’s taking its sweet time.  Today was nice and sunny, yet there was a cold, strong wind that blew right through my corduroy jacket, and right up my long skirt, swirling around my unwisely unclad ankles, up past my bare knees.  For Clayton – out on the tractor all day, then gardening with a friend for several hours – he was frozen to the core, and he came home rather late.  I needed something quick, something warm, and something with what I had on hand.  Voilà! Using only some farm fresh eggs, linguine, cream, cheese, butter, onion, and scallion – with a sprinkling  of black truffle salt, and a dash of black truffle oil – I whipped together all those somethings, and more.  Thursday night could become one of my favorites, if I keep making quick pasta dishes like these…

Baked Egg Linguine with Onion, Scallion, and Umame

4 oz uncooked linguine
2 fresh eggs
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 stick butter
some flour (2 tbs or so)
1 cup fresh grated parmigiano reggiano
1 small onion
3 scallions
black pepper
black truffle salt
black truffle oil
a small loaf french bread
some leftover robusto cheese, and some more butter

I start by mincing my onions and scallions, and setting my water to boil for my pasta.  I also grate my cheese and butter my two 8oz ramekins.

I get 2 tbs butter melted in my large saucepan, and add my onions.  I sweat these out just until softened.

I then add about 2 tbs of flour, which I mix well with the butter and onions to form a roux.  I cook this for a few moments, until fully incorporated and just turning a wee bit tan.

I then add my heavy cream, and bring this to a simmer.  See how it’s thickening up?  NIIIIICE.

In goes most of my shredded cheese (I save some for garnish, and for Clayton to pick at), which I stir in well.  I then lower the heat, and let this simmer until thick.  I salt and pepper it to, until it tastes just right.

I’ve been cooking my linguine on the back burner, and at just slightly undercooked, it’s ready to add to the sauce.  I reserve my pasta water, too, so that – if this gets too thick – I can add a little starchy wetness to the pan until the sauce is the right consistency.

The last ingredient to add to the pan is my abundance of sliced scallions (reserving some for garnish, too).  I toss this in, remove from the heat, and stir well before…

… swirling my pasta into my waiting ramekins, using tongs to make a nice nest for…

… the addition of a single, cracked (but not the yolk!), farm fresh egg for the center.  This goes in my 350 degree oven, on middle shelf, for 10 minutes to bake – just until the whites are set, but the yolk is still runny.

Oh, I also split a nice small loaf of french bread down the middle, spread it with hot melted butter, and top it with shredded robusto cheese.  I put this in the oven, too, on the top shelf, and let the cheese melt and toast while my eggs are setting.


Right before service, I sprinkle some black truffle oil (Thanks, Tom!) and some black truffle salt over the dish, just to add that umame savor that separates this meal from any ol’ linguine alfredo.  Served with my toasted cheese bread for sopping, I pierce the quivering sun in the middle of my creamy pasta tresses, and I dive into this hot, simple, elegant, perfect little meal.  30 minutes + very few ingredients = utter weeknight dining perfection!

Baked Egg Linguine with Onion, Scallion, and Umame

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
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

Lolita’s Joint Journal: Thelonious Monkfish, Central Square, Cambridge, MA


Today, Clayton and I tried Central Square’s newest entry into the dining scene, Thelonious Monkfish: “Jazz for the Palate”, as their menu proclaims. So sayeth us all; the food was, in a word, delicious!  A “sushi and Asian fusion” experience, the menu has everything from curry to stir-fry to pad thai to sashimi. What they didn’t have was alcohol, although they did offer a fine selection of teas. No matter – water worked. We got all the enjoyment we needed from the meal itself.  Our server was a bit tenuous, and didn’t know the menu too well, but he was affable and otherwise efficient.  The place wasn’t too busy, but nor was it empty, either – there was a large 8-top and a couple 4-tops further into the restaurant.  We considered sitting at the sushi bar, but it seemed a wee bit cramped.  We did notice several compelling seating areas just past the bar, designed to be enjoyed in what I presume is a traditional seating style: no seats, just very large, very low tables around bamboo matting on the floor.  In my tight jeans, this did not look like the optimal ergonomic position, so we chose the window overlooking the masses walking down Massachusetts Avenue: one of the best people-watching venues around.


For our first course, we ordered the avocado salad for $6.95.  It was a healthy sized bundle of diced fresh avocado, julienned cucumber, shredded surimi, all dressed with mayonnaise and sesame oil and topped with tobiko and panko.  It was light and fresh, and even though I thought the panko was over-zealously sprinkled on top, it wasn’t an unwelcome addition to this very enjoyable version of one of my favorite sushi bar starters.


We contemplated the pad thai.  We contemplated the “create-your-own” stir-fry – for which one can choose between 2 sizes (lunch from $7.95-$8.95; dinner from $9.95-$14.95); and choose between veggie or tofu, chicken or pork, beef or shrimp, rotisserie chicken, duck or seafood; and choose between jasmine, brown, sticky, chicken-flavored, or garlic-flavored rice, or noodles ($1 more); and choose 1 vegetable from a variety of options.  One could do the same with a choice of the 5 basic curries, too.  We contemplated the noodle soups (7 choices), the fried rices (12 choices), the many *many* entrée options with different proteins (or vegetarian), but we ultimately decided to split one of their 12 wok-fried noodle dishes: the Mad Monk Noodles ($11.95), a spicy, snappy, chicken and shrimp peanuty flavorful hot steaming plate which, as they promised in the menu “will bring one to the edge of madness and creative genius.”  Strong words — and they delivered.  I apologize, but I dove into the plate before I snapped this picture; it looked and smelled so good, my eyes rolled back in my head and the feeding frenzy began, before Clayton reminded me I had a job to do.  I can assure you, their presentation was lovely, and the first bite was a kick in the tongue — in a good way.


Finally, we ordered our last course off of their extensive sushi and sashimi menu.  This marvelous makimono is called the “Crouching Tiger Roll” – it has shrimp, avocado, cream cheese, crab, asparagus all tightly rolled within, is layered with salmon, topped with tobiko, and studded with sesame seeds.  It is just lovely, perfectly proportioned, and generously sized for $12.95.  And I must say, it was hard to choose out of their many options.  This is good — it means we’ll be back to try more things in the future.


With a final bill of $40, including  20% tip, Clayton’s fat and happy with this lunch, and I’m pleased as punch we’ve got a new joint with a fantastic menu just a few blocks away from our pad.  There are a lot of vacant storefronts in Central Square right now; here’s to hoping more little gems like this move into the neighborhood.

Ode to Sophie: Chinese Roast Duck, Puerto Rican Caramelized Plantains, and Vermont Cheddar and Broccoli Souffle


Hip hip hooray!  Hip hip hooray!  I’m happy to announce the arrival of my newly adopted niece: Sophie Lu-Yi Himmel (nee Rodriguez) Diaz Delgado!  The clever among you will discern, by musing upon this little bundle-of-joy’s multi-cultural name, that she is a delightful salad bowl of ethnic affiliations: Chinese by birth, American by adoption, to Puerto Rican parents.  My beautiful,(only- slightly-older) sister Lara has been waiting for Sophie for 5 years now — the longest gestation period in history, we like to think — and finally has her daughter in her arms, and her soon-to-be husband Roberto’s strong devotion and love behind her.  My mom finally gets her grandchild (and a wonderful grandmother she’ll be), and my sister will show the world what super-star mothering is all about.  I hope Sophie’s ready for the love – because it’s gonna come hard, and stick fast.  Welcome to the family, baby girl – I can’t wait to meet you!

To celebrate my niece bursting upon the scene, I decided to craft a meal I thought would represent her international salad bowl heritage.  A tender roast duckling fit the bill – one flavored by Chinese five spice and coasted in crispy, crunchy, cracklin’ skin.  Puerto Rican was a little harder; I’m embarrassed to say (and my mother likely shakes her head sadly when considering it), I am especially untrained in the ‘Rican culinary arts.  My grandmother, bless her soul, was a great cook, but I’ve always been an anglophile and, as such, wasn’t ever very interested in my own island’s cuisine.  I’m trying to change that.  My memories of specific recipes are foggy, and of side dishes appropriate for savory duck, they are also few.  But duck loves sweet, and I do particularly recall the omnipresent plantain, and its unique sticky sugaryness once left to ripen and pan-seared.  So, Puerto Rican – check!  To complete the representative trinity of Sophie’s citizenry, we needed something purely American: I mean, it is the good ol’ U. S. of A. that stamps all our family’s passports these days – including our newest youngest member.  Broccoli and cheese immediately came to mind, then I Lolitized it a bit, resulting in a soufflé of locally, New England sourced florets, eggs, cream, and cheese.  A trifecta of flava’ — warm, complex, richly spiced duck meat redolent of the Far East, simple sweet sugary seared plantains a la Caribbean, and cheesy broccoli baked in an American state of mind.

Ode to Sophie: Chinese Roast Duck, Puerto Rican Caramelized Plantains, and Vermont Cheddar and Broccoli Souffle

1 5-6 lb fresh duckling
sea salt
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 tbs guava jelly
juice of 1 orange
2 tbs Chinese 5 spice
1 tbs cracked black pepper
1 tbs dried szchezuan red pepper
3 very ripe plantains
3 tbs brown sugar
1 lb broccoli crowns
3 tbs butter
1 tbs flour
1 cup half & half
1 tbs mustard
2 cups shredded sharp Vermont cheddar cheese
3 egg yolks
2 egg whites
scallions (for garnish)

Oh duck, how do I love thee?  Now, before I go any further, I gotta give props to The Hungry Mouse – one of my favorite blogs.  I follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and I have a link to them on my blogroll to the right.  Their tutorial on roasting whole, fresh duck I followed almost to the letter – including the two recommendations to fry up the liver for a tasty snack, and to render the fat from the trimmed skin to save for future yummy uses.  As they describe (and show with far more detailed, step-by-step photographic instructions then I’m doing here — I mean, why re-invent the wheel?), roasting a whole duck isn’t very difficult at all, although it does take a while and needs to be flipped several times, which can be daunting.  Still – with little more than salt as the initial spice, and a very quick and easy glaze to finish it off, there was very little I had to do but resist the siren scent of the sizzling, roasting, dripping, browning flesh.   I found us one beautiful bird, with a healthy, fatty, boneless cowlneck that would yield me some lovely, champagne colored drippings later, and two fat breasts stuffed with succulent meat.  For $20 at Whole Foods, this was a pricey main course, but the rest of the ingredients cost barely$7, so for less than $30 (not to be cheap, Sophie dear) this was a fancy, but still fairly frugal, feast.

My bird’s got a few feather shafts left in her, so I pluck those out, and I remove the innards (the neck, kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs)…

… before washing her, drying her well with paper towels,  scoring her skin in a cross-hatch pattern (being sure not to cut into the flesh), poking her skin all over with the tip of my paring knife, salting her enthusiastically with kosher salt, and tying her little naked legs demurely together.  All these steps insure that the eager to fry fat right under the surface will sizzle through the skin and crisp it nicely. I set her on a rack over a deep pan, then set her into a 300 degree oven, and walk away for one hour.

The trick to this bird is to flip it each hour, pricking the skin all over each time to encourage the fry-o-lation.  I’m going to cook her for four hours — so she starts breast side up, gets flipped down, then back up, then back down — all before her final roasting, breast side up.  Here are the first few roll-overs.

Meanwhile, by the way, I have cut the neck skin into small pieces, barely covered it with water, and have set it to simmer over medium high heat to render all the fat.

About 45 minutes later, I strain the contents of my pan into a glass, and set it aside to separate.  I get about 1/2 cup of duck fat from this (the lovely golden stuff floating to the top of my measuring cup there.  I reserve this, and throw away the water below).  I also capture the drippings off my fully roasted duck later on, which yields another cup of beautiful rendered fat.  I let this cool, mix it all together, then cover it and set it in my fridge to use later.

I also follow The Hungry Mouse’s advice to quickly fry up the liver in butter with some garlic, salt, and pepper to enjoy as a wee appetizer.  I mean, the roasting aroma of my cooking quacker is driving me to distraction already, and so far I’ve only rolled my bird over once.  This ounce of savor each for a mid-afternoon snack is just the ticket.  I pan sear the livers for about 5 minutes, stirring and flipping well.

After I mashed and spread this on some buttered toast with a sprinkling of sea salt and some quick chopped scallions, I called Clayton over for a bite.  He sat down reluctantly, disclaiming that he “never really liked liver,” but he manfully took a hearty bite (withering under my icy “eat-it-or-die” glare, he’d say).  Then he took another.  And then he took another slice of toast, and ate that up, too.  The sensation was rich and slightly gamey — the essence of everything good about the flavor of duck, distilled into a bumpy buttery savor.  Needless to say, he actually really *does* like liver – he just hadn’t had it my way.

I also make my final glaze — the shellac I’ll brush on my bird’s breasts to add the ultimate flavor to the meat.  The Hungry Mouse called for molasses, which I didn’t have, but I did have some guava jelly which reminded me of Puerto Rico, and therefore fit my theme for the night, so I substituted that instead.  Here’s my honey, soy sauce, guava jelly, the juice of my orange, and my Chinese five-spice, set over medium heat on my small saucepan.

Oh, and I add my schezuan pepper – just to spice it up a bit (and to sub for the scriracha The Hungry Mouse calls for).   I bring this to a boil, stir well, then lower the heat and let it simmer, uncovered and sitting occasionally, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of my spoon.  I baste my duck for the last 10 minutes of cooking, after turning the heat up to high, so that the glaze bronzes.  You’ll see.

I’ve also steamed off my broccoli florets and assembled the rest of my ingredients for my souffle.

I have my eggs, which I separate (yolks from whites), my cheddar cheese, which I shred, and I set my wok over medium heat with my butter and flour to make a roux.  After the butter has melted and the flour has begun to thicken, I add my half and half, mustard, salt, pepper, and cheese, and whisk to melt thoroughly.  I remove from the heat (sorry no pictures – I ran out of hands!), then add my egg yolks and stir well.

Using my electric whisk, I beat my egg whites until they are stiff but not dry…

Then I gently fold them into my cheese sauce and broccoli, then spoon this into buttered ramekins, and set into my oven to (unfortunately over-) bake for 30 minutes.

Black skins on plantains don’t mean that they’ve spoiled, it means that they’re sweet.  Green plantains are starchy, but as they yellow then blacken, their starches turn to sugars which caramelize into a full-flavored sweetness.

I peel them, cut them across the bias into 1″ thick oblong coins, toss them with brown sugar, and layer them into a pan simmering with hot grapeseed oil to sear for 3-4 minutes, or until crispy and brown on the edges.

See?  I sear them on the other side for a few moments, too.

10 minutes ago, I flipped my bird the final time, removed all the golden drippings from the pan (to use later — see above!), then slathered her with my guava five-spice soy glaze, and set her back into my now empty oven set to high.  Now, I have a crisp, juicy duck simply begging to be supped upon.

Sticky, spicy, crisp skinned, fall-off-the-bone tender Chinese roasted duck topped with shredded scallions, coupled with sweet and crunchy-on-the-outside-sikly-squishy-on-the-inside Puerto Rican plantains, and triple-timed by fluffy baked and browned broccoli and cheese soufflés.  A multi-cultural gastronomic exploration in honor of my new little China-rican (Puerto-ese?) American niece.  I’m so happy for my sister, Lara, my mother, Evelyn, and my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Roberto (and his family), for bringing Sophie home to live, love, and thrive with them, and I look forward to her growing the chompers – and the appetite – to enjoy what Auntie Lolita quite literally will bring to her table.


Chinese Roast Duck, Puerto Rican Caramelized Plantains, and Vermont Cheddar and Broccoli Souffle

Friday Night Fresh Feast: Garden Pasta Bolognese with Burrata Caprese

Do any of you watch Cartoon Network religiously, like I do?  I dunno — I just like the way the world works in cartoons.  Kids face insurmountable odds, and silly situations, and they maintain friendships and learn important life lessons – all in technicolor and underscored by happy happy soundtracks.  Sorry – I just can’t do the real world: I know what happens out there – I live it myself in my own small way – and I’ve found that my zen comes from seeking the benign, often in the form of the banal.  What can I say?  I like the ostrich approach. (If I ever run for office, will this admission bite me in the ass?)

OK – that was a *really* long digression.  My point culminates in a memory, of a Friday night cartoon variety show that Cartoon Network used to host (back in the salad days of “Ed, Edd, and Eddie,” “The Kids Next Door,” and “Teen Titans”) the theme song of which has become nigh-on anthemic to Clayton and I.  Every last night of the work week, after we make it home and get ourselves settled into the night, we always find ourselves suddenly singing to each other, in that melody of recollected relief, in that groovy, jazzy, jaunty tempo, that “It’s Fri-i-day Ni-i-i-i-ight!”  And it brings us joy.  Yep: JOY.

As did our dinner tonight.  Nothing fills one’s gills to the brim of gustatory delight like a hearty plate of pasta and creamy, meaty tomato sauce.  Now – a traditional bolognese is a very different beast than what I assembled this evening, but I didn’t have the hours and hours it requires, nor many of the ingredients.  But what we enjoyed was the perfect meal to match the lightening and thunderstorm raging outside our skylight; it was warm and filling.  We also we given a splendid gift today, in which we were eager to indulge.  A super, steaming savory hot and creamy, refreshingly sweet cold Italian themed supper that compelled us to raise our hands and shout “Hallelujah!”

Garden Pasta Bolognese with Burrata Caprese

1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage
1/2 lb ground beef
1 large carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium white onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbs fennel seeds
1/2 cup red wine
28 oz crushed San Marzano tomatoes
2 oz tomato paste
1 1/2 cups cream
3 handfuls fresh, washed basil leaved (separated)
pasta of choice
1 ball burrata cheese
fresh, sweet tomatoes (as best as you can do in today’s humdrum market)
a decent cooking olive oil
an EXCELLENT olive oil (see details below)
a SUBLIME balsamic vinegar (see above comment about seeing details below)
sea salt and cracked black pepper

I’ve skinned my sweet pork Italian sausages, and have set it into my sizzling oil wok with my 1/2 lb of ground beef. I add my fennel seeds, some crushed black pepper, and a dash of sea salt to the pan, too.

I break all this pink chunky yummy into smaller bits, searing and browning about half the red out.

I drain my meaty bits and set them aside for a few moments, add a few more glugs of olive oil (just some cooking stuff, and not the really GOOD stuff I was graciously given today — see below), and add my mirepoix and crushed garlic to pan.  I sauté until each veg bit has begun to soften and transluce.

At that time, I add my meaty bits back into the pan, and stir well.

I add my wine, and let it reduce while it soaks all the goodness.  Takes about 5 minutes on medium heat.

Then I add my crushed tomatoes and a few ounces of my tomato paste.  I stir this *very* well.

See?  It’s real thick to begin with, but it will all break down into a perfectly textured sauce.  Especially after you add…

… the CREAM.  Milk does something magical to ground protein: it tenderizes it; sweetens it; transforms its texture from dry and grainy to moist and meaty.  It’s the secret to any bolognese – even the bastardized ones, like this one.

After blending everything well, I set the heat to low, cover my wok, and walk away for about 30 minutes – coming to check and stir very occasionally.

30 minutes or so later, and my sauce is just the right consistency: it is smooth and creamy, and all the ingredients are perfectly incorporated.  I turn off the heat, rip 2 handfuls of basil leaves into the pan, and turn everything over a few times.

Meanwhile, I set my pasta — this wierd, like, mini lasagna noodle that Clayton was all hot for at O&Co. the other day — into boiling water and cooked it to a nice al dente.

The pieces of tonight’s resistance:  an unexpected gift from a new colleague – a scientist in the field of molecular and cellular biology – and a foodie who has told me he enjoys my blog. He surprised me with a lovely pair of very thoughtful condiments: Ina Garten’s favorite EVOO, Olio Santo – a nutty, smooth, creamy, green member of the olive oil family, and a sublime bottle of Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar Artigianale – a rich, complex, fruity, syrupy balsamic nicer than any I’ve ever been able to buy for myself so far.  I consider these my blog’s first token medal of appreciation, and I am deeply pleased with their presence in my kitchen — and my belly.

The best homage I could think of was the simplest kind: a tomato salad with fresh burrata cheese and the finest basil chiffonade.

Even before I stud this with cracked black pepper and sea salt, my salad pops with the promise of flavor.  Look at the sunshine of my EVOO — the sweet viscosity of my balsamic.  I am in love.

My quick Friday night bolognese is a rich, meaty, tomato sauce partnered with garden carrots, celery, onions, and fresh shredded basil leaves.  The cream adds texture and sweet complexity, and with some shavings of parmesano reggiano, I dig into a heaping platter of warm deliciousness.  My marscapone/mozzarella burrata cheese melts like ice cream over my puddle of herbaceous EVOO and silky sweet balsamic, spreading among the stacks of tomato wedges and the nests of tender basil strings.  Ah… it IS Friday night, isn’t it?  And life — she is delectable!

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

Rico Suave Osso Buco with Garlic Pommes Anna

Another cold day in Boston, and another snowstorm, too — this one bringing the euphemistically named “wintery mix”, which just means interlined layers of fluffy snow and slickery slush.  So we headed out to Whole Foods early in the day and tried to purchase whatever we’d need to feed ourselves for the whole weekend.  Maintaining my pledge to showcase some new technique each week, I focused my attention on side dishes.  Pommes Anna is a potato dish, not unlike a gratin, but with butter instead of bechamel or cheese in between paper thin layers of starchy yumminess.  The recipe is simple; it’s the execution that is time consuming.  But it is an elegant and delightful way to serve your spuds, and one which – once you master – you’ll crave like crack.  On the main dish hand, Clayton and I wanted something hearty and rich, and we wanted to fill the house with the aroma of slowly and lovingly cooked meat.  Whole Foods had some lovely osso buco cut veal shanks, and so… the idea for dinner was born.

Rico Suave Osso Buco and Garlic Pommes Anna

2 medium sized (about .75-1lb each) cross-cut veal shanks (a.k.a. ossobuco)
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tbs rosemary
1 bay leaf
2 tbs fresh oregano
1 cup nice red wine
1 can whole tomatoes in juice (mine are San Marzano – ‘cuz John Stage said they were the best, and he would know)
2 medium-large yukon gold potatoes
1/2 stick butter, melted
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bunch flat parsley
3 tbs minced garlic
the zest of one lemon
green onions, lemon wedge (for garnish)

Look at these beautiful calves wrapped around these sturdy tibias; their marble-lines look almost like they were etched into the muscle by ancient Egyptian calligraphers.

I wash them, pay them dry very well, then sprinkle them with sea salt and cracked black pepper before dredging them thoroughly in flour.  I add them to a large pan set over medium high heat and sizzling with hot EVOO.

I love bone marrow — with a passion not unlike an addiction.  Osso Buco is one of those dishes where bone marrow makes an especial appearance, and it plays an important role in the pan well before it meets the palate.  To wit: see how the white tube of marrow at the core of this leg-bone has begun to, well… bleed?  As my shank browns nicely on one side, the heat is transfered through the meat, but it passes more quickly through the light whipped texture of this tissue – providing the observant cook with a nice hint regarding flipping time.

Perfect: my shanks are just caramelizing and crisping, so I turn ’em and brown ’em…

… on all sides.

Once thoroughly browned, I remove my shanks from the pan and set them aside, then dump my finely chopped celery, carrots, shallots, and garlic to my pan, along with another glug or two of EVOO to coat.  I stir well, making sure not to brown, only to sauté until just softened.

I then add my herbs and spices, as well as some sea salt and black pepper.

After a few moments, I add about a cup of red wine (we had a nice sangiovese Clayton was planning to enjoy with the meal anyway) to deglaze the pan.  I reduce for about 4 minutes on medium high.

Enter the “rico” part of tonight’s sauce: rich, sweet, complex tomatoes.  I love this brand — they are hands down better than the awful tomatoes available in the market these days: bland, chalky, watery, boring.  The citric acids will help soften the sinews of my normally tough cut of veal, breaking down and absorbing all the savory the meat-flavored fats.

I add my ossobuco back to the pan, then add enough beef stock to bring the liquid level up to cover at least 3/4 of the meat.  I cover, set on low, then walk away for an hour and a half.  I spend the first half of that time drawing smiley faces in my windows as they fog up with delicious veal shank steam.

For the second 45 minutes or so, I prepare my potatoes for my Pommes Anna.  I set up a large catch bowl with salted cold water, then hook my cheapo mandoline to the rim.  I’ve washed and peeled my potatoes, and these I run along my blade, slicing them at the thinnest possible setting.  I’ve recently purchased a cutting glove; which makes this task so much less dangerous.

See how thin?  Lovely.

All you need for Pommes Anna is butter (most recipes call for clarified butter; I needs me some cheesecloth, so…), salt, and pepper.  The classical technique calls for cast iron, which I don’t have, so I’m using these small ceramic ramekin instead.  Also, varying from the classical technique, I’m making individual spud stacks, instead of one large pancake to be shared by the table.  Finally, I’m adding thinly sliced fresh garlic – sliced on the same setting on my mandoline as the potatoes themselves – in between some of my layers to kick up the flavor.  I start my brushing down each ramekin with melted butter, and studding them with a sprinkling of sea salt and cracked pepper.

My potato slices are so thin, you can barely see them in this picture, but I’ve layered four spud sheets, fanning them out to cover the whole surface of the bowl, dropped two garlic flakes over them, then sprinkled with more salt and pepper before dotting everything again with melted butter.  I do this, over and over and over again (only adding garlic intermittently)…

… until I’ve filled my ramekins to their brims.  I set these babies into my oven, which has been preheated to 400°.  These need to bake for at least 2o minutes.

Meanwhile, I prepare my gremolata, the traditional condiment for an osso buco — a fresh, zesty, snappy relish made from minced garlic, chopped parsley leaves, and lemon zest.

I add a few glugs of EVOO, some sea salt and pepper, give it all a good mixing, and it’s good to go.

It’s been almost 2 hours now, and my veal shanks are so tender they are absolutely falling apart.  I fish them out of the pan, trying to hold them together (if I’d had kitchen twine, I would have tied them), and set them aside while I finish my “rico suave” gravy.

I transfer the tomatoes, soft veggies, and cooked spices (everything but the bay leaf) to a high-sided Pyrex, with a large enough neck to accommodate my hand blender.  I whir the contents of the glass on high, pureeing all those lovely flavors together into a fluffy, yummy base.

See how my potatoes have crisped and browned?  Oh yeah!  I very carefully slip these babies out of the ramekins, before flipping them right-side up again on my plate.  A dollop of sour cream and some shredded scallions round out the presentation.

My gently braised veal falls apart with barely a sharp glance, and the zesty fresh gremolata offsets its richness, complimenting the vegetable thick tomato gravy puree.  A silky tender flaky cloud of buttery and snappy garlicky potato adds just the right amount of starch to soak up all the perfect flavors present on my plate.  This is beautiful, inviting, fragrant, and heartwarming — a classy culinary cap after a desolate and dreary winter day.

Rico Suave Osso Buco With Garlic Pommes Anna