Porridge sweats

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I’ve pretty much hit my limit with this winter. I now eat hot starchy things at almost every meal. Polenta, rice, pasta, cous cous, cracked wheat: whatever grain I can get my hands on gets cooked in liquid with a little cheese, herbs and/or butter and mixed with meat, vegetables, broth and–usually–additional cheese.

I know this isn’t a good solution, but I like the little bout of what I call “porridge sweats” that follows when I eat this type of insides-warming food. The sweats usually last long enough that I can make it a few blocks down the street without shouting “THIS IS BULLSHIT!!” into the bitter wind. (Yes, I’ve been yelling at the weather.)

Call me dramatic, but this is what Chicago winter does to a person. Each year, it discovers new ways of inducing despair. It might be through snow almost every day in December that turns the sidewalk into a distant memory; 15 straight days with no sunlight (trust me, that’s a lot); or like this year, a blizzard followed by a whole month of zero-ish temps so the snow turns into dirty styrofoam and everything else becomes permanently coated in either salt or black ice. Chicago winter, you are a sly minx indeed.

In search of new sources for porridge sweats last week, I ventured into savory oatmeal territory. I first had a variation on it with pork belly a few months ago at Owen & Engine and have been dreaming about it ever since. Steel-cut oats cooked risotto-style with a bit of wine for tang (or wine vinegar if you don’t have any wine open) and warm stock added little by little till they’re creamy with a slight bite in the center. My version, laced with sweet cherry tomato jewels and topped with Parm and a very runny egg, made for the perfect solo lunch. But you could also up the ratios, add some smoky bacon lardons and serve it for brunch to some poor, cold bastards in need of a good porridge sweat.

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Steel-cut oat risotto with poached egg
serves one

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 small onion, minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    12 cherry tomatoes, halved
    3/4 cup steel-cut oats
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    3-4 cups chicken broth, warmed over medium-low on the stovetop
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
    1 tablespoon butter
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    3 tablespoons minced parsley

Method: In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil, the onion, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute until fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and the oats, stirring to coat each grain in the oil. Add the red wine vinegar and stir until it’s all but dissolved.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm broth, and stir frequently until most of the liquid is gone.

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Repeat this in similar amounts each time, until the oats are cooked to al dente and have achieved a creamy texture. This should take about 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small bowl or ramekin. Heat a saucepan over medium heat until lightly simmering (not boiling). Add a large pinch of salt and the distilled vinegar. Use a spoon to quickly stir the water in all one direction until it’s smoothly spinning. (This will keep the white from spreading out too much). Ease the egg into the center of the whirlpool, and let it simmer untouched for 2-3 minutes for a runny yolk (4 for a firmer yolk).

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Use a spoon to carefully remove the egg, and set it on paper towels to dry.

When the oats are cooked, turn off the heat and add the butter, along with most of the Parmesan and parsley, saving a bit for garnish. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Spoon the oats into a bowl, top with the rest of the Parm and parsley and the egg. Season the egg with salt and a few grinds of pepper, and eat!

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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 pappardelle 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.

Quick artichoke pesto

The past month has been a busy one! From snowy New York City to chilly Ponte Vedra Beach, FL and back again to frigid–and I mean FRIGID–Chicago.

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You don’t really need another picture of this icy city, do you?

It’s hard to cook healthy meals when it’s this cold out. All my body wants is fatty, meaty and starchy things. And I usually listen to it.

But in this light, quick pesto, I combine artichoke hearts with fresh basil, parsley, lemon, garlic and pine nuts. So I pretty much eliminated the meaty, fatty (aside from extra virgin olive oil and Parmesan) and starchy parts.

…But then I went and tossed it with pasta. I’m only human, right?

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Artichoke pesto

Ingredients

    8 ounces frozen or canned artichoke hearts, drained
    1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
    1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
    1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
    Zest and juice of one lemon
    1 clove garlic, smashed
    1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    Extra virgin olive oil
    2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: In a food processor combine the artichokes, basil, parsley, pine nuts, lemon zest and juice, garlic, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Run the machine to roughly puree all the ingredients, stopping the machine a few times to scrape down the sides. Then, with the machine running, drizzle in about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

Take the blade out, and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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This recipe makes enough for pesto pasta for 4. You can also fold it into scrambled eggs, drizzle it on grilled meat, fish or vegetables, stir a little into vegetable soup just before serving, or smear it on a sandwich. To store the pesto, place in an airtight container and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. It should keep for up to 1 week.

Sueños de España

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

My best friend and I are turning 30 on the same day next year, and to celebrate, we’re planning a culinary road trip through northern Spain and Portugal, ending in Madrid. Last weekend, Sean was out of town and the weather wasn’t particularly great, so Penny and I spent a lot of time on the couch napping and watching episodes of the PBS series “Spain…on the Road Again,” which follows Mark Bittman, Mario Batali, Claudia Bassols and Gwenyth Paltrow on a 2008 road trip through Spain.

The only downside to my dreamy weekend is now all I can think about is España.

Sueños de jamon, vino tinto, tortilla Espanola, pan con tomate, pescados y verduras a la plancha. Sueños de bocadillos, cafe con leche y almuerzos y siestas largos.

I am really looking forward to exploring the parts of this beautiful country I’ve never seen, where some of the most exciting food in the world is being created.

So when I went to pick up a few groceries on Sunday, I couldn’t resist an expensive little can of oil-packed octopus from Galicia, a region in Spain that’s famous for seafood. While I was at it, I also bought some sardines, olives and anchovies. Clearly the hours spent watching Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali slurp down pulpos, berbecheros, aceitunas y anchoas has had a slight effect on my grocery shopping.

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Spanish canned food is a far cry from the water-logged tuna and clams we’re used to here in the states. Canned products made there (especially the seafood) are uniformly high quality, minimally processed, and they taste delicious even straight out of the can.

The pulpo is the only part of this pasta dish that’s actually Spanish, but the simple prep and flavors felt very reminiscent of the style of cooking I like so much there: unpretentious, savory, brightly acidic and finished with a glossy drizzle of good olive oil.

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Linguine with octopus and lemon
serves 1

    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
    1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    3 cloves garlic, sliced
    1 teaspoon lemon zest, plus another 1/4 teaspoon for garnish
    4 ounces canned octopus (I like Matiz Gallego), cut into bite-size chunks
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    125 grams (4 1/3 ounces) dried linguine
    1 tablespoon lemon juice
    1/4 cup torn parsley leaves
    A few chives, torn, for garnish

Method: Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil, red pepper, garlic and lemon zest. Swirl it around a few times before adding the octopus and about 1 teaspoon of the oil from the can. Season with salt and pepper, and cook for a few minutes to heat the octopus through. Turn off the heat if the pasta isn’t quite finished yet.

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Meanwhile, cook the pasta in heavily salted water until it’s just al dente. Heat the skillet over medium low, and toss in the pasta along with a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking liquid. Add the lemon juice, parsley and chives, and cook for another 30 seconds so the flavors meld. Heap the pasta into a bowl, sprinkle with chives and the reserved lemon zest, and drizzle with a thin stream of olive oil. Serve immediately, with a cold glass of albariño.

Tuna melt

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I’ve always had a soft spot for tuna salad sandwiches. I love that people a mile away know when you’re eating one and that you carry a faint tuna smell around with you for the rest of the day, reminding you what a great choice you made for lunch that day. After many years of tinkering, I have settled on what I consider to be the perfect tuna salad recipe, which combines celery, capers, scallions, grainy mustard and mayo. I like my tuna salad to have a little crunch and a lot of brininess.

Whenever I make tuna melts, I prefer them to be open-faced, so the cheese gets a little blistered under the broiler. This also makes it easier to add hot sauce, which Sean and I like to do with abandon. Don’t use water-packed tuna if you can help it. Oil-packed tuna has a much better consistency and texture than the water-logged stuff.

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Open-faced tuna melts

    1 8-ounce can tuna packed in olive oil, drained
    1 stalk celery, minced
    2 large scallions, minced
    1 tablespoon drained capers
    1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
    2/3 cup mayonnaise
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    3 large slices country or rye bread (about 1/2-inch thick), lightly toasted
    3 ounces sharp Cheddar, grated
    Tapatio or other hot sauce, for serving

Method: Preheat the broiler on high. In a bowl, break up the tuna a little with a fork.

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Add the tuna to a large bowl with the celery, scallion, parsley, capers, mustard and mayonnaise. Mix until combined, making sure everything is coated in the mayo. Taste it before seasoning with salt and pepper, since the capers are already salty.

Place the toasted bread slices on a sheet pan. Top each with a third of the tuna and 1 ounce of shredded cheese.

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Place under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes, checking frequently, until the cheese has melted and become bubbly. Remove and allow to sit for 30 seconds before slicing each tuna melt in half. Serve immediately, with a few varieties of hot sauce for dribbling. Serves 2-3, depending on hunger level.

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Nothing soup won’t fix

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It’s been probably five years since I shared a drafty, old Chicago apartment with my best friend Maggie and my sister Maddy. We laughed, cried, fought, watched lots of bad movies, stayed up too late and drank too much. The three of us grew up a lot during those years and will always be connected by that funny old place with the slanted floor, the chronically smelly second bathroom and the bedroom with no door.

It was during that time that I decided I wanted to be a food writer. Since I was known to often panic over the uncertain future of my career (I was still a financial reporter at the time) and Maggie was sometimes homesick for Milwaukee, the best way I knew to fix our problems was through soup. I’d order her to take a seat on the stool we kept in the kitchen and DJ from her laptop while I chopped, sauteed, poured and stirred with my favorite beat-up wooden spoon. From potato leek to sausage & lentil to Italian wedding, I tested soup recipes on the world’s easiest food critic, all while we cured homesickness and performed amateur therapy.

Gossiping at my wedding

The old roomies trade gossip at my wedding

Now whenever I offer to cook for Maggie, she almost always requests soup. “Ooh, what about the Italian wedding soup you made that time?” she’ll venture. “But I don’t feeeeel like rolling all those tiny meatballs,” I protest. Then last week I finally caved, realizing it was high time for a little weddin’ soup therapy.

There are lots of interpretations when it comes to wedding soup, though they all involve those little meatballs. My favorite version is the one with pasta because that turns the soup into a meal. I am usually not a fan of ground chicken, but I like the idea of blending it with sausage for a lighter flavored, more delicate meatball. I also added a little lemon zest for brightness.

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Weddin’ soup
adapted from Ina Garten

Meatballs

    3/4 pound ground chicken
    1/2 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
    1/2 cup fresh white breadcrumbs
    2-3 cloves garlic, minced
    3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
    1 teaspoon lemon zest
    1/4 cup grated Pecorino romano
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus additional for serving
    3 tablespoons milk
    1 extra large egg, beaten
    Salt and pepper

Soup

    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 medium onion, minced
    3 carrots, cut in 1/4-inch pieces
    2 stalks celery, cut in 1/4-inch pieces
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    10 cups chicken stock
    1/2 cup dry white wine
    1 cup small pasta shapes
    1/4 cup minced dill, plus more for garnish
    12 ounces baby spinach (could substitute finely chopped chard or kale, though I’d recommend adding it sooner)

Method: Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large bowl, combine the ground chicken, sausage, breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, zest, Pecorino, Parmesan, milk, egg, salt and pepper until well mixed. With clean hands, shape about 50 teaspoon-sized meatballs and place them on parchment-lined sheet trays.

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This step will take you a little while, enough time for the dog to tire out from begging.

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Bake the meatballs for about 30 minutes, or until lightly browned and cooked through. It’s OK to cut one open and check that the juices run clear–you did make 50 of them after all. Set aside.

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For the soup, heat a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium, and add the olive oil, onion, carrots, celery, salt and pepper. Saute the vegetables until softened, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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Turn the heat up to medium high; add the chicken stock and wine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, add the pasta to the simmering broth and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender. Add the fresh dill and meatballs to the soup and simmer for another minute or two. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in the fresh spinach and cook for 1 minute, until the spinach is just wilted. Ladle into soup bowls and sprinkle each serving with extra dill and grated Parmesan. Serves 4 to 6.

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