Weeknight Wondermeal: Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach

2014-02-16 18.51.03Many of my Harvard kids (I teach and work at the University) complain that they don’t know how to cook.  I mean, why should they?  Their parents have taken care of them up to the point that they arrived here, and once here the dining halls take care of the rest.  But even though we educate their minds, we don’t do such a great job teaching them about the practical logistics of life after graduation.  Since most of them know about my gastronomic pursuits, they always ask me to teach them how to cook; this blog is one avenue for those lessons.  So, kiddos: here’s a SUPER easy one for ya.  It’s got 3 basic ingredients, a few items from the pantry, and requires only a cookie sheet, a pyrex baking dish, and a big ol’ bowl – but it’s delicious, healthy, and pretty enough to serve up to company, like when your parents come to visit you during that gap year to see where all the money they’re sending you goes…

I forgot to take a set-up shot, but here’s what you’ll need:

Simple Baked Salmon with Spuds and Spinach (for 2)

1 lb fresh salmon fillet
12 oz baby spinach
1 lb baby red potatoes
1 lemon
EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), white vinegar
sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, dried oregano

2014-02-16 18.09.55Start by washing your spuds, cutting them in half, and then tossing them with about 3 tablespoons of EVOO and your spices.

2014-02-16 18.11.42Lay those bad boys out, cut side down, on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet, douse with another glug of EVOO for good measure, and throw in the oven on 350 for 30 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.23.42Meanwhile, place your fillet of salmon into a baking dish large enough to hold it (this is an 8″x8″ pyrex).  Cut your lemon in half; squeeze one half of it over the fish, and slice the other half into thin rounds.  Pour a glug of EVOO over the fish, too, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then layer the sliced lemon over the top.  Throw this in the same oven as the potatoes and bake for 20-25 minutes.

2014-02-16 18.26.07Using the same bowl in which you tossed the potatoes (which you needn’t have cleaned out), add your spinach, some salt and pepper.

2014-02-16 18.44.07The potatoes are done when they can be a) easily pierced with a fork, b) their outer skins have gotten all wrinkly, and c) the cut sides are crispy and brown.

2014-02-16 18.45.54Spill these into the bowl over the spinach with all the hot oil which has accumulated on the pan, add a glug of vinegar (about a teaspoon or so), and toss this very well. The heat from the spuds and fat will wilt the spinach.

2014-02-16 18.48.22The salmon is done when it is completely opaque.  The oil and lemon juice will help keep the fish nice and moist; just use a spatula to divide the fillet in half and to slide the fish onto your waiting plates.

2014-02-16 18.51.37And there you have it: succulent, juicy, flavorful, healthy salmon served with creamy-interior, crunchy-exterior roasted potatoes and gently wilted spiced greens.  Serve with or without some crusty French bread, and call it a day.  You will be impressed with yourself, and your guests will think you’re the tops!  All this only takes 30 minutes of cook time, and a mere handful of ingredients.  If you can’t make this, my dear Harvard children, then you should have spent less time planning to change the world and more time tending to your diet.  Lucky for you, I’m here to help you through. You can thank me later, when you win those Nobel prizes and become CEOs of your own Fortune 500 companies.  Don’t worry – I can wait.

Pork and Beans and Greens and Beer

DSCN5358Wow.  It’s been a month since I last posted a recipe.  It’s not that I’ve become a slackass or anything – quite the contrary, actually.  I started running this summer, so have shaved some width off my volumps, plus I’ve seen a marvelous uptick in my evening social life – all of which are delightful developments I never expected to see in my 40’s.  I mean, I have been cooking; in fact, I’ve got several recipes in the queue, so to speak, that I still need to write up.  But I’m skipping those and going for the meal that I’m still licking off my lips.  It was a crispy baked and breaded thick cut pork chop sitting atop smooth spiced beer-braised beans and melted spinach which filled my belly with just what I needed after a lunch-free day, a couple bike rides, and a quick run around the block.  Oh, and Clayton’s out of town, so I needed comfort food because: lonely. And considering the near-freezing temperature already descending upon Boston, the warmth steaming off the plate was pretty damn welcome for more reasons than one.


Pork and Beans and Greens and Beer

1 center cut, 1″ thick, bone-in pork chop
1 can cannellini beans
8 oz fresh spinach leaves
6-8 cloves garlic
1 medium white onion
1 tbs butter
3-4 tbs EVOO
10 oz beer
1 egg
4 tbs flour
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
sea salt, cracked black pepper, paprika, parsley flakes, crushed red pepper, Chinese 5-spice
freshly grated parmesan cheese

DSCN5343I start by crushing and peeling my garlic cloves, then dicing my onion.  This I set aside for a few minutes.

DSCN5345I then salt and pepper my chop, then first dipping it in flour…

DSCN5346… then coating it with beaten egg…

DSCN5347… and finally pressing breadcrumbs into the meat, coating it thoroughly.

DSCN5348I heat up an oven-safe skillet and melt my butter and EVOO into it until it foams.

DSCN5349Then I sear my chop on every meat-surface I can.  This means front, back, and the exposed fat “seam” along the narrow edge by holding the chop up by the bone (which I frenched, BTW, to make it a better handle) and sear/rolling it in fat until it crisps to a golden brown.  Then I throw the pan into the oven, which is preheated to 325°, for 15 minutes, flipping once to evenly cook through.

DSCN5350Meanwhile, I’ve sauteed my onions and garlic briefly in another glug of EVOO before dumping the can of beans into the pan.

DSCN5351I had intended to use chicken stock, but alas!  I was out.  So I grabbed one of Clayton’s crappy beers, just to add some depth of flavor.

DSCN5352I add a little more than half the can.  It’s foamy.  I let this simmer on high while the pork chop roasts in the oven, and while I clean and trim my spinach.

DSCN5353Oh, right — and I add spices!  Paprika and parsley and lots of black pepper and a few shakes of crushed red pepper and a dash of sea salt and a smattering of 5-spice.  This all thickens up nicely while the beer boils off.

DSCN5354When I have about 3 minutes left, I press and mix all my spinach leaves into the beanpot.  It overflows at first, but…

DSCN5355… they melt beautifully.

DSCN5359At the last moment, I decide to grate some lovely parmesan cheese off a block onto the whole plate.  My beans and greens are the gravy, and my crispy, crunchy, tender, moist, flavorful, and hearty pork chop is the main course.  I tucked into this plate with complete abandon, savoring every unctuous bite. Frankly, I couldn’t eat it all – but I sure as hell tried.

Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

DSCN4347Those of you wonderful people who follow my blog know I have a weakness for anything cooked in a cast-iron skillet.  There is something so old-timey about cast iron, and I love how they serve today as both cooking equipment and serving platter – as they do in my house.  Maybe it’s the weight of them; maybe it’s just the tradition of them — I don’t know, but everything seems to taste better in cast iron.  No wonder, then, that tonight’s offering is a one-pan meal: a mixed grill of seared scallops, shrimp, and cod filet, served with piping hot cheese grits and some quick wilted spinach.  Light, healthy, and warming — just the thing for a chilly winter’s night.


Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

6 large shrimp, peeled
2-4 large scallops (8oz total), adductor muscles removed
1/2 lb cod filet
6 oz spinach
1 cup grits
4 tbs butter, melted and divided, plus 1 tbs butter, cold
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 lemon

This meal was inspired largely by the super-huge scallops on display at Whole Foods.  They were simply enormous, and my soul ached for them at first glance, but my pocketbook was unprepared for the hefty price-tag which came along with them.  So instead of doing without entirely, I purchased the two fattest bivalves I could find (they came to almost 1/2 lb on their own!), and augmented them with some more reasonably priced seafare — some large tiger shrimp and a nice codfish loin.  The shrimp I peeled while raw, and the fish I cut into bite sized pieces.

DSCN4333This is actually a *very* quick meal, and super-easy — it’s just  the expense that sort of knocks it out of the Weeknight Wondermeal category.  I started by melting my butter, which rather cooled back to room temperature before I started cooking in earnest, while I assembled everything else.  I wash and spin dry my spinach, grate my cheese, and get my grits all measured out.

DSCN4339I divide my melted butter roughly into 6ths, placing 1 dollop into each skillet, which I then position over hot burners.  As soon as the butter has begun to brown, I layer in my seafood, starting with the scallops and fish, which I let sear on one side for about 4 minutes, before flipping each piece carefully.

DSCN4340I then add the shrimp, with a dollop more butter on top to melt over them, which I cook for 2 minutes on each side, making a total of 4 minutes for the fish and scallops.  Y’see, the shrimp doesn’t take as long as the other stuff …

DSCN4341I remove the protiens briefly to a warm plate, which I cover with plastic wrap for a few minutes.

DSCN4338The skillets remain on the heat with their butter still bubbling hot.

DSCN4342In goes my spinach, which I sort of roll around in the butter and let wilt over the heat.

DSCN4343Meanwhile, I’ve made my grits according to the package directions (1 part grits to 3 parts water is the magic ratio), and have added my cold tablespoon of butter and most of my grated cheese, reserving a bit for garnish.

DSCN4344After only a few moments, my spinach is almost completely wilted, with some bits browning and crisping nicely on the pan’s surface.  I push all this to one side, and divide my grits between the two skillets, pouring them next to the spinach.

DSCN4345The fish, scallops, and shrimp get placed back into the skillets, with my last dollops of butter placed on top, before I throw both in a very hot oven for about 8 minutes to heat completely through.

DSCN4346A dash of salt, a sprinkling of pepper, a cross-hatching of shredded cheese, and a wedge of lemon are all the compliments needed for this rich, warm, satisfying seafood dinner.  Each protein brings something different to the plate: the cod is flaky and tender, the shrimp is fresh and firm, and the scallop is sweet and seared to a crisp.  Along with the stick-to-your ribs corn grits and helping of verdant greenery, this is a complete dinner in virtually no time at all.  Dig in and enjoy, my friends.  I sure did.

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

Oh hai Spring!  It’s March in New England but my windows have been open for days, and today I rode through Brighton in a tank-top, getting some much needed sun on my oh-so-pale shoulders. This false spring, as Hemingway called it, is so alluring that I fight against the voices that whisper “global warming” and just bask in the day while I have it.  Of course, with the forecast heralding sunny low 70’s all week, it looks like we’ll be having it at least until next weekend.  To welcome the warm breezes and clear skies, I purchased two angelic skate wings at New Bedford’s seafood mecca, Fisherman’s Market. I draped them in a silky snappy golden hollandaise, and served them with some spinach and grits extraordinaire.  Light fish, rich sauce, cheesy starch, and good greens — what more could a girl want on a perfect Sunday night?

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

2 skinned, boned, cleaned fresh-smelling skate wings
flour, for dredging
1/2 cup grits
1 1/2 cup water
4 1″ cubes cheddar cheese
2 sticks butter, divided
1 lb fresh spinach leaves
4 egg yolks
juice of 1/2 a lemon
sea salt, black pepper, EVOO
1 large spring onion
(ignore the caperberries in the picture — I ended up not using them)

Good grits require a 1 to 3 ratio: 1/2 cup grits + 1 1/2 cups water = perfection.  While I bring my water, salted, to a boil, I liberally butter up two 6oz ramekins and measure out my grits.

After 10 minutes or so, stirred occasionally, set covered over low heat, with a tablespoon of butter – and they’re perfect.

I fill each ramekin halfway, drop a couple nuggets of a nice raw milk cheddar on top…

…. then fill to the brim with the rest of the hot grits.  These will get set into a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, right before serving, to puff up and bake.

I think I’ve mentioned before how much Clayton and I love animation, cartoons, and comic books.  So we couldn’t resist getting Puss In Boots on demand recently, and we laughed our heads off.  I loved the texture of Humpty’s skin/shell — the perfect representation of an egg’s unique spherical smooth bitty bumped roundness.  My camera doesn’t get as close as I want it to; I need to upgrade.  Anyway, I need the nuclei of four of these babies.

Like so.  (I’m terrible at cracking eggs.  I never get whole yolks, and I never miss getting shell. Sigh.)  I squeeze half a lemon into the bowl and whisk very very well.

Along with a stick of melted butter, whisked over a double boiler, my lemon-juiced eggs froth and firm and double in volume.  I add tablespoons of hot water if it gets thick, and more melted better until I have it…

… just right.  Frothy and rich, I add some chopped spring onion greens, salt and pepper, and set aside until service.

The final – and easiest – component of this meal is the skate wing.  Skate is a type of stingray, a creature of which I have nightmares (as I do of most aquatic life – a mild phobia), but in which I do like to indulge when I see it.  One has to be careful with skate — it can stink of ammonia, so be sure to smell it before buying it (the fishmonger should be happy to hold a filet up to your nose).  I’ve made it before when ammonia permeated the flesh so thoroughly that I had to scrap the whole thing.  But when it’s right, it is a beautiful, delicate, and delicious fish.  All I do is sprinkle both sides with salt and ground pepper, and dredge it in flour.

A couple tablespoons of butter, and a few glugs of EVOO go into my largest non-stick fry pan, set over high heat until it froths.  (At this point, I put my two ramekins of grits into my preheated oven to bake.  They’ll need about 10 minutes – just enough time to finish the fish and spinach.

Both filets lay like angel’s wings, sizzling the second they hit my hot fats.  I recently purchased a crescent shaped spatula, which I flattened against the center of each piece when it began to buckle in off the heat.  About 4 minutes on this side…

…before flipping each to reveal perfectly toasted golden brown deliciousness.  Cook for another 4-5 minutes before moving to warm plates, reserving the leftover grease.

I press my washed spinach leaves into the pan, and turn them over a few times with tongs until they are completely wilted.  I salt and pepper them liberally.

My fish is plated, my spinach is ready, and my little bundles of cheddar and corn are popping out of their dishes.  They’re hard to flip (because they’re hot and slick), but flip them I do.

My plate is a study in swirls: the striated flesh of my skate wing shoulders a swathe of oniony rich thick fluffy golden butter cream, and a coiled nest of wilted greens, and a locus of corn grits with a sharp melting center.  In the light of the setting spring sun, Clayton and I each tuck our napkins under our chins and poise our forks above our dinners.  With a smiling look at each other, and a deep sigh — the kind only the satisfaction of spring can bring – we eat.  And we eat well, dear readers — very, very well.

Crispy Braised Pork, Manchego Grits, and Garlicky Greens with Lime Cream

It’s a brand new year!  Astute as I know you to be, dear readers, I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now, and I hope that you forgive my recent absence from the blogisphere, but for the holidays I gave myself the last few weeks off from cooking, more or less.  One of the drawbacks to being the house cook is that if I don’t make it, nobody does — and sometimes even Lolita lacks inspiration and motivation.  Hence, we became quite good friends with a troupe of delivery drivers, ate many large lunches out, and other than my spectacular Christmas dinner (which I may post for next year’s Noel), I didn’t do diddly squat.  But now that I’m back to work,  I’m back to cooking, and last night’s dinner was the perfect home-cooked meal for a first time back behind the stove.  Braised pork butt, stewed to tender and seared to crispness, served over some rich, nutty grits and wilted garlicky spinach, all topped with a cooling zesty crema.  As the temperature outside my windows dropped to the ‘teens, the warmth inside my belly grew with every hearty bite.

Crispy Braised Pork, Manchego Grits, and Garlicky Greens with Lime Cream

2lb pork butt
2 shallots
1 qt chicken stock
cumin, black pepper, sea salt, oregano
1/2 cup grits
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 head garlic
2 limes
sour cream

The dish I am essentially making here is carnitas, that savory shredded citrusy pork often found in Mexican cooking.  It is, quite simply, my favorite filling for tacos, quesadillas, and well, my mouth.  But traditionally, preparing this perfection out of  pork butt takes hours and hours and hours of slow braising, and I just couldn’t wait that long.  And I didn’t have to!  Because these little meat morsels can be relatively quickly prepared in smaller quantities with more rigorous heat, with just as succulent a product to enjoy afterwards.  I start with a nicely marbled 2lb pork butt, which I cut into largish chunks.  I also chopped my shallots, the only aromatic I’m going to add at the onset.  The citrus and garlic will come towards the end of the cooking process.

A glug or two of EVOO goes into my largest, heaviest pan, which I heat to sizzling.

In goes those perfect pink pork chunks and my shallots.  Almost immediately, the kitchen fills with the aroma of searing meat and melting shallot – and it is out of this world.

I also add about 2 tbs of ground cumin, 2 tbs cracked black pepper, 1 tbs dried oregano, and a dash of salt, which kicks the already amazing smell past the cosmos and straight to heaven.

I move everything around every once in a while, aiming for browned edges on all the sides of each meatwad, while trying not to burn the shallots.

When all my meat has been kissed by the heat, I add enough chicken stock to cover — which leaves me about a cup leftover to use in my grits later.  I lower the heat to simmer, cover my pan, and walk away for about 90 minutes.  The liquid will permeate the meat, melt the fat, and breakdown the connective tissues between the muscle, yet it takes patience.  Go drink a couple beers and watch some Bones reruns on TBS; that’s what I did.

An hour and a half later, the liquid has reduced to less than half, and two forks easily shred the meat.  Awesome, but still not quite ready.  At this point, the meat has a bit of a grainy texture; to remediate that, I remove the cover so the rest of the liquid can start to boil off, and the circulation of air through the now browned meat will tenderize it even more.

It’s the perfect time to start my grits on the back burner.  1/2 cup of ground corn, 1 cup stock + 1 cup water, all set to simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.

The major flavors on the plate will be garlic and lime, and it’s time to get them in the pan.  I first chop about 5-6 large cloves of garlic, then zest both of my limes.

Half the garlic and half the lime zest goes into the meat and stirred around well to incorporate all those snappy flavors.  Adding the zest – instead of juice – really kicks up the deliciousness; the oils released from the citrus will blend with the oils left in the pan once the rest of the remaining stock boils off, which will permeate the pork as it crisps during the final stage of cooking.  Adding fresh garlic at this point, instead of having added it when I started the braise, will ensure its flavor and pungency while still allowing it to mellow by virtue of a few minutes sautee.

After said few minutes, I raise the heat to high to finally boil off the last of the stock, leaving nothing but the EVOO and pork fat in the pan.  This starts to sizzle, and the meat against the surface of my stainless steel starts to sear and crisp.  I scrape the pan a few times, trying not to break my largest chunks of meat any smaller while trying to add that perfect crunchy richness which offsets the fork-tender; it is the synthesis of these two textures that make carnitas so delectable.

The last cooked component is my greens, so I add the rest of my garlic to another few glugs of EVOO in my large non-stick sauté pan, and sweat this until just translucent.

In goes my washed and dried spinach.  This particular foliage shrinks up madly when cooked, so I just overload my pan and toss gently until it wilts enough to fit.

This marvelous manchego cheese was a Christmas gift (included in a basket full of awesome vittles) from the other two men in my life, bosses TT and WA – thanks boys!  After noshing on it on New Year’s day, this leftover lump of lactic loveliness was exactly the cheese my grits needed.

El Claytonious shreds about half of it for me, which I add to my now thick and rich grits, along with some salt and pepper to taste.  Beautiful!

 The final component is my crema – a simple blend of sour cream, the juice from both my limes, and the rest of my lime zest.  I mix all this together well right before plating.

A molten bed of silky grits enriched by nutty Spanish cheese; a nest of garlic-riddled, wilted spinach; a pile of perfectly tender, crisp-edged, citrus scented, and super-savory pork; and a dollop of lime crema to add coolness and contrast to this rich repast.  “Pork and grits,” Clayton queried, “where’d you get that idea?”  After snidely reminding him that bacon is pork, and we eat bacon and grits for breakfast, like, all the time, I finally sheepishly admitted that I had been somewhat inspired by a similar dish offered at the new Firebrand Saints in Kendall Square, where their porchetta plate with polenta and wilted kale set my imagination in motion.  Theirs was delicious, of course (as are their burgers and cocktails!), but my interpretation really fit tonight’s bill of fare.  Hearty and wholesome – all in about 2 hours.  If this first real meal of the year foreshadows what’s yet to come, Lolita and her lover will be eating REALLY well in 2012.  I hope, dear readers, you too enjoy as much digestible deliciousness as possible this year.  If you find yourself falling short – drop me a line and I’ll make you dinner myself!

Honeyed Pomegranate Pork Chops with Rich Butternut Wedges and Sauteed Spinach

Today’s dinner was a result of “grabbing random things randomly” at the grocery store — or, at least, that’s what I offhandedly said to Claytonman when he fished through the shopping bag to see what I purchased: a pomegranate, a wedge of gorgonzola, and some baby spinach.  I knew I had a lovely butternut squash, the only specimen our little backyard raised bed garden yielded (even if we do have access to all the squash the 27 acres of farmland Clayton works produces – it’s still nice to eat something grown in one’s own wee plot of land), and I also had some perfectly plump pork chops in the freezer from our last foray to Blood Farm.  Since sweet goes well with pork, the butternut squash would fit the bill, and I thought vaguely that the pomegranate’s brand of red tart sweetness and crunchy, bursting seeds would add a little something something to the blend.  The gorgonzola was for cream and bite, seemingly always good accompaniments to most orange produce – sweet potatoes, pumpkin, heck even oranges and cantaloupe benefit from Penicillium glaucum.  And the spinach was the great equalizer: its wilted greenness perfectly offset the complex sugars on the plate (made even more delicious with a little honey butter and rosemary sauce).  With a thick delicious tender chop to round out the meal, dinner was something really spectacular.

Honeyed Pomegranate Pork Chops with Rich Butternut Wedges and Sauteed Spinach

1 large butternut squash
brown sugar
1 pomegranate
1 lb fresh baby spinach
1/4 lb gorgonzola cheese
2 large bone-in pork chops
sea salt
cracked black pepper
1/2 cup honey
4 tbs butter, divided
2 short sprigs rosemary

Clayton’s one and only butternut squash is a thing of beauty — thin-skinned, healthy rich flesh, just a small interior (could I call this a nucleus, I wonder? Hell – I’m gonna call it a nucleus…), and white sturdy seeds.  This baby is going to take at least 40 minutes to roast, so I start with it.  Once I’ve scooped out all the insides, I douse it with EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, and a hearty sprinkling of brown sugar before putting it on a rimmed baking sheet into my 400° oven.

I can’t remember the first time I ate a pomegranate.  I can’t even remember clearly the first time I ever heard of one, but I do recall the sensation of wonder that accompanied my first glance of its interior, and my first taste of those bursting little seeds.  It was a revelation.  I can’t think of any other fruit that has the same je ne sais quoi, but I thank evolution that we’ve got this ruby orb of delight to enjoy whenever we want to.  I cut my fruit in half, then, using my hands, I break each half down into its 6 segments, each a rough pyramid, each studded on two facets with red gems of juicy goodness.

Gently removing these seeds from their segments in a bowl of water is the trick; they will sort of peel right off without bursting if you are gentle enough, and this way my fingers aren’t be stained with their ooze.  Plus, the seeds sink to the bottom, and any of the other fruit fibers rise to the surface where I easily skimmed them off.

I didn’t have my computer open so that I could see look up methods to juice these little buggers, but I jerryrigged something that worked pretty well.  I first drained off all the water, set some seeds aside for garnish later, then using a large mesh spoon with a large sheet of cling wrap layered over it, I pressed my fingertips against the sieve to squish the berries, releasing their juice into the bottom of the bowl.  The cling wrap kept me from squirting myself in the eye, and from splattering my walls like a crime scene.  I kept pressing until I felt no more bursting.

I ended up with about 3 ounces of rich, red pomegranate juice (now I see why POM is so expensive!)  Along with my honey, 2 tbs butter, and my garden rosemary, I’m ready to make the sauce that will blanket the plate.

In my small saucepan, I add all these ingredients together…

….then bring them to a boil.  I let this simmer on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until it is reduced and a little thickened.

Meanwhile, I get my other 2 tbs butter and a glug of EVOO heating in my large non-stick skillet.  I wash and pat dry my muscular chops of meat, then sprinkle them with salt and pepper and lightly dredge them in flour.

When the fat is nice and hot, I add my chops, where they immediately start to sizzle and brown.  I cook them for about 4 minutes on the first side…

 … or until I see the meat start to ‘bleed’ on top – which means that they’re cooking nicely through.

Then I flip ’em, and boy do they look good.  The wee bit of flour has created a nice crisp crust on the outside.  After sauteeing for a couple minutes on this side, I throw the whole pan into a 350° oven, next to my squash, which are almost ready.  I bake the chops for about 10 minutes.

When the chops are ready, I remove them from the pan and hold them warm, reserving the fat and yummy drippings.

In goes my spinach.  It only takes a few minutes for it to wilt, and I toss it well.

My butternut squash is PERFECT.  I could just sit down with a spoon and eat this all up, but I gots plating to do! I cut my squash into wedges, removing the peel with intrepid fingers.

They get dressed with a dousing of honey/rosemary/pom butter sauce, and a sprinkling of gorgonzola cheese.

 Pan-roasted pork chops, sauteed spinach, and wedges of butternut squash, all bathed in an ambrosial sauce and topped with crunchy, bursting seeds of pomegranate perfection.  The meat is tender throughout, although the bit closest to the bone is so delicious, I get pork bits all over my face (and even a bit in one ear, I admit) trying to scrape all the meaty meat off the rack.  When sweet and savory come together like this, they form a most perfect union.  Enjoy!






Luscious Lobster Lasagna

Lolita loves herself a three-day weekend, and this July 4th provided just that – with perfect weather, no less!  Our little roof deck in the sky proved to be the prime place for this year’s fireworks.  In the past, the 18 story apartment complex a block away from us used to eclipse practically the whole light-show, and all we’d see was an intermittently glowing building with a few stray sparks escaping from the sides from time to time.  But the fire-barge must have moved up the Charles a bit – or the building moved down, which is highly improbable – because last night we could see almost all of the fireworks, and they were *beautiful*!  With the sounds of the Boston Pops and Martina McBride piping through my speakers from the TV indoors, Claytonious husbandius and I had excellent seats – with wine and cigars a’ smokin’ – for our town’s legendary Independence Day celebration.

And what goes best with independence?  Why, lobster, of course!   Historically speaking, before lobster became all haute couture as they is today, they used to be so abundant on the shores of the Northeast colonies that the crustaceans would wash in with the tides, leaving creepy crawly banks of the critters all along the coast.  Back then, it was considered “poverty” food, good enough only for servants and slaves — so the irony of linking lobster with independence isn’t lost on Lolita.  Still, today it rings in at $8.99/lb (for hard-shell 1 1/2lbers at Yankee Lobster off of Fan Pier), and we have it seldom enough that it’s still super-special to me and mine.

Er, except the lobsters we bought for Sunday’s dinner were HUGE, and after eating claws, knuckles, and legs with truffled melted butter and all the side fixin’s, we were so stuffed that we saved our tails for Monday’s dinner.  “Lobster two nights in a row?” said Clayton, “Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers?”  No, thought I, not the Rockefellers — just their well fed neighbors from across the tracks.  That’s where a light but luscious lobster lasagna can be found, served with a quick salad and a glass of crisp white wine, for a delicious dinner al fresco on our nation’s day of Independence.  Yankee Doodle Yummy!

Luscious Lobster Lasagna

8oz cooked lobster meat (I used two tails)
1/2 package lasagna noodles
2 tbs butter
1 cup half n’ half
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced celery
2 cups fresh baby spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
6oz ParmigianoReggiano
1 egg
iceberg lettuce, wedged
ranch dressing

Every time I make lasagna, it’s too big.  We have a craptastic freezer, and no microwave anyway, so making stuff to hold and eat days later isn’t feasible for us.  I also had a limited amount of lobster meat, so I decided to make a small loaf-pan’s worth of lasagna — which was just the right amount!  My noodles being the normal size, though, I had to break them up a bit to make them fit into the pyrex dish.  To make it easier to serve, I broke each noodle roughly in half before fitting them into the dish — I thought this would prevent the unfortunate squishing out of all the innards that sometimes happens with a gooey center.  In the long run, it was a good idea.

90° outside means it’s almost 100° in our pad, so cooking indoors is out of the question if we ever want to, er, wear clothing in the house during summer nights.  We’ve always been creative with Little Red, but we’d never boiled water on him before; I’m happy to say that he stepped up the challenge!  Since all I’m doing is cooking off my lasagna noodles so they’ll be easy to handle, I dump about 8 cups of salted water into my pasta boiler and set it, covered, over the preheated coils under Little Red’s grill.

He doesn’t close all the way, but this is close enough for government work.  It takes a while, but after about 30 minutes my water is boiling.  Boo-ya!  That’s one less preparation technique I need to suffer through indoors during the summer.

A glug of EVOO keeps my pasta sheets from sticking together.  I cook them to slightly less than al dente, since they’ll continue to cook when I bake off the casserole later, then I set them aside to hold in cold water until I need them.

These are the ingredients for my filling and sauce – more or less.  (There should be an egg in there, and some spinach – but I forgot to include them in this set-up shot.  Whoops.)

Here are my eggs.  These are so fresh from the farm they still have chicken funk stuck to them, so I have to wash the outsides, then my hands, before I can handle any more food.  Still – they were in a chicken yesterday, and will be in my belly tonight; that’s pretty darn fresh.

Not all my prep can be done outside, at least not while the sun’s setting and the bugs are flying madly about.  So I have to make my bechamel and filling inside – but all’s good, since it doesn’t take too long, and requires only a little heat.  I start by mincing my celery, carrots, and garlic.

I also chiffonade my spinach.  All these veggies will give my lasagna some crunch and texture, as well as simple garden flavors.

In my large skillet, I melt my butter and soften my garlic, before adding about a tablespoon of flour, which I whisk in well to make a roux.  I let this cook for a few moments over medium heat, allowing the roux to darken ever-so slightly.

I next whisk in my half n’ half, continuing to cook over medium heat until the bechamel has begun to thicken.

Some salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg gets added for flavor…

… before the addition of my veggies, which I stir in very well.

This could almost be eaten as a soup – a primavera cream soup.  I allow this to simmer, encouraging the spinach to soften and release its color by continuing to mix well, and I add about 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmagiano reggiano to the mix before removing the pan from the heat.

In a separate bowl, I’ve mixed my ricotta, my fresh mozz (which I’ve torn from little balls into littler balls), my beaten egg, more parm, and some salt and pepper together.

It’s time to layer the lasagna.  I’ve greased up my loaf pan, and I start with a slather of my spinachy bechamel.

Then I lay two noodle halves over the base, stud them with some of my chopped lobster meat, and then I drop two or three healthy dollops of my cheese blend on top, before spooning another slather of spinach sauce over everything.  I repeat this process for about 5 layers.

After topping the lasagna with the last of the bechamel and some more grated parm, I place the whole pan onto Little Red’s grill before closing the lid and walking away for about 30 minutes.

The fireworks may fall in the east, but the western sky right now is a study in light and shadow that easily rivals what we’ll be watching shortly, after the moon is high and the sun has completely sunk past the horizon.

As a complement to the lobster lasagna, I’ve thrown together a super quick salad: wedges of iceberg lettuce and tiny ripe salted tomatoes, topped with capers, ranch dressing and EVOO.  Sometimes it’s the easiest things to make that are the most satisfying.

After 20 minutes or so, I check to see that my lasagna is bubbling hot, and nicely crispy brown on top.  I remove it from the grill and set it to rest, loosely covered, for about 15 minutes before cutting into it (which will help it set).

This white light lobster lasagna has an almost ethereal quality: it’s hot and filling, to be sure, but the tender shellfish chunks and fluffy puffy baked cheese are bright, fresh, buttery and garlicky flavors, offset by wee bits of carrots and celery.  The crunchy salad with the sharp briny capers brings balance to the palate, and each bite is better than the last.  As the night closes in and the Pops warm up for the 1812 Overture, Clayton and I celebrate our freedom by devouring our dinners with gusto.  Happy Independence Day, America!  Here’s hoping that some day soon, we’ll be able to celebrate the freedom and happiness of every man, woman, and child on the planet – regardless of what they look like, where they come from, who they love or what they worship.  World Peace, people – it’s not just for beauty queens.