Pasta and procrastination

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Any of you who’s ever had to write anything for someone else–whether that’s an article, essay, proposal or even an uncomfortable email–knows a little something about procrastination. I think it’s because no matter how often you do it, writing is hard. And turns out, it’s even harder when you do it for yourself.

As a freelance writer who’s also trying to write a cookbook, I’ve become a procrastination queen. Especially when it comes to working on the book–I find literally any excuse not to. This past week, I switched out all the metal hangers in the house for plastic ones, I bathed the dog by myself (no small feat), cleaned the sliding doors, made bread and cleaned out the freezer.

Most recently, I biked to an inconveniently located Trader Joe’s to buy groceries. I wasn’t even sure what I needed when I got there besides olive oil (which I then forgot to buy). So I began wandering around, trying to mentally build that night’s dinner in my head. Twenty minutes later, I left with three types of cheese; some apples; a package of Thai chile and lime almonds (they looked tasty!); boneless, skinless chicken thighs; garlic; an onion; and a package of pappardelle noodles.

It took me a good 30 procrastinatory minutes to figure out how I was going to put chicken thighs and pappardelli noodles together. Luckily, I always have tomato puree and white wine at home.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll get back to chapter one. Oh wait, there’s that arugula in the fridge I’ve been wanting to use up for pesto.

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Pappardelle with tomato-braised chicken thighs
serves 2

    Canola oil, as needed
    3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    1 medium onion, diced
    1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1/4 cup dry white wine (Pinot Grigio works)
    1 28-ounce container tomato puree
    8 ounces pappardelle noodles
    3-4 ounces shaved Parmesan (I use a vegetable peeler)
    A few tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Method: Preheat the oven to 350F. Heat a cast iron or other large, oven-safe skillet on the stove over medium-high.

Season both sides of the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. When the skillet is hot, add the oil and chicken thighs. Sear for 2 minutes on each side, until browned. Remove and set on a plate.

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Wipe some of the grease out of the skillet if desired. Add some olive oil, the onion, red pepper flake, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute the onion until soft, about 5 minutes.

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Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon to lift up any brown bits, then stir in the tomato puree and a bit more salt and pepper to taste.

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Nestle the chicken thighs back into the sauce–along with any chicken juice that was left on the plate.

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Cover the skillet with a lid or aluminum foil, and slide into the oven. Braise for about 18 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. (To check, pull out the biggest thigh and stick an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part. It should read 165F.)

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously for the pasta.

Take out the skillet and place it on the stove over low heat. Pull out the chicken thighs and place them on a large cutting board. Slice into large, bite-size chunks and slide them back into the sauce to stay warm.

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Cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. With tongs, add it to the sauce and toss until combined. Add about half the shaved Parmesan and parsley, tossing to combine.

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To serve, heap the pasta into large bowls. Top with the remaining Parmesan, parsley and a few grinds of black pepper.

5 Comments

Filed under Chicken, Dinner ideas, Food writing, Pasta

I made cheese!

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Sometimes really simple things get overblown in our imaginations. For me until recently, one of those things was making cheese. I’ve always had a very commercialized image of cheese-making that involves rubber overalls, galoshes, large rakes and rennet–an enzyme used to make cheese that, for me, conjures creepy images of forced cow digestion. But that’s probably because I watch too much TV.

Making fresh cheese at home is actually really easy–and it will make you smile and spontaneously cry out things like, “I made cheese today!”

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For this post I made paneer, which is basically Indian cottage cheese made with acid and no rennet (phew).

All you do is heat a gallon of whole milk and add lemon or lime juice a tablespoon at a time until the curds eventually start to separate from the greenish liquid known as whey. Then you rinse, drain and press the curds until you have a semisoft, mild cheese perfect for saag paneer, curries, egg and pasta dishes, or frying in olive oil and piling on a sandwich with roasted veggies.

But what it’s most perfect for is bragging. Because you made cheese!

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Paneer
adapted from Journey Kitchen, makes about 8 ounces

Ingredients

    1 gallon whole milk
    3 tablespoons lemon juice

Method: Line a large pot with double-layered cheesecloth. Make sure the piece is large enough to be bundled and hung up later on.

In a second large, heavy bottom pot over medium heat, bring the milk to a gentle boil and let it stay there for about a minute. Don’t let it boil vigorously. (If it bubbles up too much, turn the heat down and wait for it to come back to a gentle boil.)

Add one tablespoon of lemon juice and quickly stir it in with a wooden spoon. You should start to see very small curdles forming. Add the second tablespoon and quickly stir it in again. The curdles will increase, and you’ll start to see the greenish whey. Add the last tablespoon and quickly stir. Now, you should see the curds starting to separate more clearly from the whey (see below).

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Turn the heat off immediately. Pour the whey into the second pot through the cheesecloth, which will collect all the curdles. Bundle them up and rinse them briefly under cold water to remove the lemon flavor.

Tie the cheesecloth into a tight bundle and hang it over the pot to drain for about 30 minutes.

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Next, place the cheese under a weight to flatten it and remove additional moisture. I placed it between two large cutting boards with a heavy pot on top and let it sit for about two hours. Don’t leave it much longer than that, or it will become hard and crumbly.

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And that’s it! It’s best to use the cheese (that you made) as soon as possible, but if you can’t, wrap the cheese tightly in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week.

7 Comments

Filed under Kitchen basics, Vegetarian

When octopus attacks

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I only tried to cook fresh octopus one time–maybe six years ago. Mom and I bought a dressed octopus from the grocery store and tried broiling it. After a few impatient minutes, we turned the oven light on to check on it, only to see its tentacles curling up sickeningly under the flame–like it was still alive in there.

“Gross,” Mom said. We gave it probably 15 more minutes before pulling it out. She tentatively sliced up one of the overly-singed appendages. We’d already decided we were disgusted, but just for good measure, the meat was chewy to the point of almost being inedible.

We later learned that the best way to cook it is very slowly and for a long time (either baked in a low-ish oven, poached or boiled), till it becomes tender. But I have a hard time bringing myself to try it again. I can’t unsee the curling tentacles.

So when I want octopus, I take the 10-minute train ride to pretty much any restaurant in Greek Town, where the octopus is perpetually tender, charred and salty–tossed in silky olive oil with lemon or red wine vinegar. When I want octopus at home, I pick up a little can of the oil-packed stuff at the grocery store in my neighborhood.

For this Spanish-inspired salad, I fried the octopus and a few mild peppers in olive oil and mixed them with shallot, raw bell pepper and parsley in a simple red wine vinaigrette.

That’s it. It came together in just a few minutes for a lovely appetizer.

Maybe some day, I’ll get over the horror of the curling tentacles and try cooking octopus again. For now, I’ll stick to the can.

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Octopus salad with peppers two ways
serves 2 as a side salad or appetizer

Ingredients

    2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for frying
    Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
    1 shallot, thinly sliced
    1 small bell pepper, large diced
    5 or 6 fresh shishito peppers (if you can’t find shishitos, use Anaheims)
    1 4-ounce can octopus (I like Matiz Gallego), drained
    1/4 cup parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Method: Whisk together the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Add the shallots and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium high. Toss in the shishito peppers and season with salt. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning every 30 seconds or so, until the skin is slightly blistered on all sides. Remove and set aside.

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Inmmediately add the octopus and a little more oil to the same pan if needed. Cook over medium high for 3 to 4 minutes, turning occasionally, until the octopus is slightly charred. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.

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Slice the stems off the cooled peppers if desired. Add them to the shallots and vinaigrette, along with the octopus, diced raw bell pepper and parsley. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve at room temperature.

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Filed under Appetizers, Fish/shellfish, Salad

Turning the page

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Hi there!

Just two short updates for you today on the Life of Marge while Penny takes a little nap.

1. I’m leaving my full-time position at FoodNavigator-USA next week to pursue freelance food writing. 

2. I’m writing a cookbook.

I love my FoodNavigator team and will dearly miss working with them every day. I feel pretty lucky that they took a chance on this lowly magazine writer/massive food nerd in the first place.

As for the cookbook, I don’t want to give away too much yet. Suffice to say, it will be a Chicago-centric tome dedicated to taking back the time so many of us are too busy for by getting in the kitchen to tackle some good ole home cookin’. Possible topics of inclusion are not limited to: Drinking too much wine, hosting white-trash dinner parties, butchering a fresh (eek!) chicken, making dirty Valentine’s Day cards, and cookie and dumpling recipes from old ladies.

JacobOver the next couple months, my dear friend and co-author Jacob (seen left, sniffing rubber cement) and I will be launching a recipe-testing blog, where we’ll no doubt bother any of you amazing folks who are willing to test some of the recipes we hope to include (and give honest, even mean feedback if necessary). More details to follow.

I’m not totally sure what prompted this career move. Maybe it was turning 30. Maybe it was spending a whole year producing more content than I ever knew I was capable of. Maybe it was realizing that I’ve filled my house with cooking tools, books about writing books and various writing surfaces for a reason. (Seriously, you can’t turn a corner without seeing a dry-erase board, chalkboard or notepad lying around.)

But I think the real reason was finally feeling confident enough in my own voice to want to make a real, lasting contribution as a writer who loves food and loves to cook. Obviously, there’s a good chance no one will buy the book–besides the family/friends we force to, of course. But then again, I never became a writer for the money.

OK, that’s it. I promise to return in earnest this weekend with a little post for a Spanish-inspired salad.

And thanks for reading. Really, thanks.

10 Comments

Filed under Food writing

Romesco (aka magic sauce)

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Oh, how I love romesco. A pureed blend of roasted red pepper, tomato, garlic, toasted almonds, sherry vinegar and smoked paprika, this Spanish sauce has everything I love most: tang, sweet, salt + heat. The first time I had it was alongside a pile of charred green onions at a tapas restaurant. I dragged the singed onions through the coarsely pureed, orange-hued sauce and slurped them down like noodles. I ate every last bit of that sauce. When there were no more onions to dip, I switched to mopping it up with bread. I was a woman bewitched.

I’ve made several unsuccessful versions of romesco sauce in the years since that first encounter–most recently a recipe with torn bread that had the sad consistency of paste and far too much vinegar.

What I like about this version I’ve adapted from Bon Appetit is its balance and simplicity. Every ingredient has a job to do; all you have to do is whir them together in a food processor or mash them with a mortar and pestle.

Don’t feel constrained by romesco’s distinctive flavor. Like worcestershire sauce, you can put this sh** on everything. I like a few dollops over fried eggs or mixed in with al dente pasta, spread on good bread plain or with a few tomato slices and Manchego cheese, or spooned over grilled corn or ribeye steaks.

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Romesco sauce

Ingredients

    1 large roasted red pepper (good quality jarred red peppers are fine)
    1 garlic clove, smashed
    1/2 cup sliced or slivered almonds, toasted
    1/4 cup tomato puree (I like Pomi brand)
    2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
    2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne (depending on how hot you like it)
    1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
    Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method: Combine the pepper, garlic, almonds, tomato, parsley, vinegar and paprika in a food processor or mortar. Pulse or mash with a pestle until coarsely pureed.

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With the processor on low (or while stirring constantly with the pestle), slowly drizzle in the olive oil, and blend for another minute or so to combine. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve at room temperature.

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Note: You can store romesco in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

4 Comments

Filed under Sauce, Vegetarian

Tomato watermelon + feta salad

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I know I shouldn’t complain when summer finally comes to Chicago, but where are all the 90 and humid days? It’s been a rainy one (which makes my herbs happy), and we’ve had maybe five days above 80 (which makes the SO, who is perpetually hot, happy). But after a particularly frigid/snowy winter in Chicago, I feel like we’ve been cheated out of the hot, dry summer we deserve–as if the weather should operate by some karmic code.

Maybe it will come to its senses in time for a sweltering August. Either way, this cool, colorful salad is dedicated to my dream Chicago summer–when it’s so hot and sticky that all you want are chilled and icy things, when the very idea of heating the stove or oven is laughable.

You may have noticed that the photos in this post are far prettier than my normal jerry-rigged, iPhone-filtered shots. I’m now shooting my food pics with a Sony a6000 (care of the SO!). I just have to learn how to use it.

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Tomato watermelon + feta salad
serves 4

Ingredients

    1/4 watermelon, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
    4 large tomatoes, sliced into wedges
    Juice of 1 lemon (a few tablespoons)
    1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
    3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
    1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
    4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
    A handful of crumbled feta, plus a few torn mint leaves and chives, for garnish

Method: Combine the watermelon and tomatoes into a large bowl.

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In a separate small bowl, combine the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the mint and chives to the dressing, and whisk to combine. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed.

Pour the dressing over the melon and tomatoes and crumble in the feta. Toss gently to combine.

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Pile the salad onto a large platter, and top with additional feta and torn herbs. Serve immediately.

4 Comments

Filed under Salad, Vegetarian

Mama’s baked beans

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I’ve been eating my mama’s baked beans every summer since I can remember. Laced with ketchup, bacon, diced celery and onion, never was there a more perfect partner for Dad’s barbecue chicken thighs (or really anything grilled).

“So how did you come up with these?” I asked Mom a few weeks ago when I finally got around to learning how to make them.

“It’s your mom’s recipe,” Dad replied, smiling proudly.

“No, I think I got it mostly off the Great Northern beans can,” Mom deadpanned.

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This prompted a somewhat lengthy discussion of recipes from a jar/can/box, which Mom and I agree have become far too underrated among the younger generation of foodies. The truth is, big brands have big test kitchen budgets, meaning any recipe you get from a can or jar has likely been tested extensively and should be reliable.

Not only that, but this is one of few recipes in the world I would truly consider fool-proof. There’s very little prep and no pre-cooking required. Everything goes into one dish and it bakes for about 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp. If you want more bacon, add more. If you like it sweeter, bump up the brown sugar. If you prefer thicker baked beans, cut back on the ketchup. In other words, don’t overthink this one. It’s kind of a non-recipe.

Happy 4th, guys. <3

Mama’s (Great Northern’s) baked beans

Ingredients

    2 cans Great Northern white beans
    1/2 cup finely chopped white onion (about 1/2 a medium onion)
    1/4 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 large stalk)
    1/2 cup ketchup
    1/4 cup brown sugar
    Black pepper, to taste
    3 strips smoked bacon, cut into lardons

Method: Preheat the oven to 375F. Empty the contents of both cans into an 8″ by 8″ baking dish. Add the onion, celery, ketchup, brown sugar and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir to combine.

Top the beans with the bacon pieces, and slide the dish into the oven. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp and golden brown.

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Remove from the oven and let sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

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4 Comments

Filed under Baked items, Side Dishes