Friday, January 27, 2012

The Ultimate Comfort Food -- Casual or Elegant

Well, it finally happened! After weeks of being spoiled by above normal temperatures here in the Northeast, winter finally arrived in the form of 5 inches of snow last weekend. Right about now some comfort food would be soothing, and I can't think of anything more comforting than a plate of creamy Mac & Cheese. I present two amazing versions below. The first is a quick, delicious, one pot wonder, easy to make for a weeknight-after-work dinner (if you splurge on pre-grated cheese, it's virtually as quick as the powdered stuff in the blue box and SO much tastier!). The second recipe is a more refined version suitable for an elegant dinner party. It's slightly more involved, but well worth the effort. Serve either version with a crisp green salad to complete the meal. I'm feeling better already!

Just an aside; I recently ordered Mac & Cheese for dinner at a chain restaurant. I ate only half of it, more because I was afraid of the calorie count than because I was too full to eat the whole portion. When I got home, I pulled up the nutrition info on the restaurant's web site and was shocked to see a calorie count of 1000 calories. OK, I thought to myself--I only ate half of it, so the damage isn't TOO bad. Then I noticed the tiny print where it indicated that what was served was considered TWO portions!!!!! First, I don't know many people who order a plate at a restaurant to share--to me the fun of eating out is that everyone can order exactly what he or she desires at the moment without compromise. Second, I am hard pressed to figure out exactly what they could have done to the dish to inflate it to 2000 calories!!!! If my iPad calorie counter is to be believed, the Everyday Macaroni & Cheese recipe below yields 4 hearty portions at approximately 700 calories per person. Obviously not diet food, but less than half the calories of the restaurant version and, frankly, a whole lot tastier! I'm just saying.....

Everyday Macaroni & Cheese
Serves: 4

5 cups water
1 tsp. salt
pinch each paprika, ground cayenne pepper, & white pepper
1 lb. elbow macaroni
4 Tbs. butter
2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
4 Tbs. milk

Bring the water, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper and white pepper to a boil in an 8 quart saucepan over high heat. Add elbow macaroni and reduce heat to very low. Simmer about 8 to 10 minutes stirring frequently until macaroni is al denté. Turn off heat and stir in butter, cheddar cheese and milk until cheese is melted. 

Notes & Pointers:
This recipe seems like it can’t possibly work because you start with a measured amount of water for the pasta and don’t drain it at the end, but it really does work. It’s delicious!

Three-Cheese Pasta Gratin
Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 400°

3 Tbs. butter
1 garlic clove, grated or minced
3 Tbs. all purpose flour
4 cups milk
10 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 3 cups)
8 oz. hot pepper Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 2-1/2 cups)
1-2/3 cups grated Romano cheese, divided
1 tsp. hot pepper sauce, or to taste
1/2 cup whole almonds
1/4 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 lb. short cut pasta (such as cavatapi, rotelli or penne)

Melt butter in heavy 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; sauté until just fragrant, about 1 minute (don’t allow it to brown!). Reduce heat to low and add flour; stir 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Cover partially; simmer until sauce thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cheddar and Jack cheese, 1-1/3 cups Romano cheese (reserve remaining 1/3 cup Romano cheese) and hot pepper sauce. Whisk until sauce is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill. Whisk over very low heat to rewarm before using.)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter bottom and sides of 13” x 9” x 2” baking dish. Blend remaining 1/3 cup Romano, almonds and breadcrumbs in food processor until nuts are coarsely ground. Add 1/2 cup almond mixture to prepared dish. Tilt dish to coat bottom and sides. Return any loose almond mixture to processor. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain well. Return pasta to pot. Add sauce; stir to coat. Transfer to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle remaining almond mixture evenly over pasta.
Bake until almond mixture is golden and crunchy and sauce bubbles, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack 5 minutes.

Notes & Pointers:
Don’t be concerned if it looks like there is way too much sauce for the pasta. It all works out in the end! Once it’s baked, the pasta absorbs lots of the sauce. As far as the amount of hot sauce, you can use less or even none and just pass the bottle of hot sauce at the table for those who like everything 5 alarm!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Meaters and Vegans and More--Oh My!

Among our friends and family, we have all variety of eating preferences: omnivores who eat everything, "meaters," (meat and potatoes, no veggies please!), some who eat chicken but no red meat, pescetarians, vegetarians and vegans. How to feed everyone at the same table? 'Tis a puzzlement!!! I've developed some practices to ease these situations. Before guests come to my house for the first time, I always ask if they have any dietary restrictions. As a general rule, I always make two different entrees at every dinner party so my guests have a choice. Because I want all my guests to experience the same dinner, I never single anyone out by serving them a dish that was clearly made for them alone (like plopping a veggie burger on a plate when everyone else is eating Chicken Marsala). Instead I plan menus where I can make two versions of the same dish--one that suits meat eaters and one that will be palatable to my meat-free guests. 

For instance, I may make 2 versions of chili, one with meat, and one that is chock full of vegetables, beans, brown rice and tempeh. We can all enjoy some crusty bread and flavored dipping oils. Or I'll make sweet and sour chicken, along with sweet and sour tofu. Everyone can share in the brown rice. Another good technique is the "make your own" scenario. I've done this with pizza. Just make (or buy--I'm not judging!) a batch of pizza dough, roll out individual portions of dough (around 6 or 7 ounces each) on non-stick aluminum foil squares and have bowls of toppings laid out on a large table or counter. Be sure to have lots of veggies, vegan cheese and some meat free sauce as well as bowls of meat sauce,  pepperoni, anchovies and mozzarella and everyone will be happy! Let your guests design and build their own pizzas, then bake them for 10 minutes while you enjoy a drink. I've also done a pasta bar, where I cook up a large pot of pasta and offer 5 or 6 different sauces: plain tomato sauce, bolognese sauce, Alfredo sauce, vodka sauce, clam sauce, pesto, and maybe even an uncooked fresh tomato sauce laden with basil and raw garlic. Everyone chooses their sauce and we all share some herbed focaccia and the dinner experience.

Another good option is Pad Thai. This recipe is unique in that each protein is cooked separately and it is left to each diner to customize their meal.

Pad Thai
Serves: 4 to 6

1/2 lb. fettuccine-width rice stick noodles
1 Tbs. peanut or canola oil

For the sauce:
4 Tbs. tamarind paste
1/2 cup fish sauce (nam pla)
2/3 cup honey
4 Tbs. rice vinegar

Choice of 1 or more protein:
1 lb. chicken breast, cubed OR
1 pkg. extra firm tofu, patted dry & cubed OR
1 lb. shrimp, cleaned & deveined OR
1 lb. any firm fleshed white fish, cubed

For the stir fry:
2 Tbs. peanut or canola oil
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 eggs, beaten (optional)
1 small head Napa cabbage, shredded
12 oz. pkg. mung bean sprouts

For garnish:
1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro or parsley, chopped
2 limes, quartered

Cover noodles with boiling water in a large bowl. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes or until barely tender. Drain, toss with one tablespoon of oil and set aside. Simmer tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey and vinegar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for 2 minutes and set aside. Press on tofu (if using) with paper towels to remove as much moisture as possible. In a small frying pan (or several pans if making more than one protein), sauté chicken, tofu, shrimp or fish in one tablespoon of oil over medium heat until lightly brown; stir in some of the heated sauce, simmer covered 2 minutes or until cooked through and set aside. Sauté scallions and garlic in a large skillet in one tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the beaten eggs to the pan and scramble until just done (if your guests are vegan, you can easily leave this step out). Add cabbage and bean sprouts and continue to cook until cabbage begins to wilt, then add drained noodles to pan along with the remaining sauce. When noodles are warmed through, serve noodles topped with your choice of protein, garnishing each dish with the chopped peanuts, cilantro or parsley and lime wedges.

Notes & Pointers:
This recipe requires a few items that you may not find in your local grocery store, but they are worth tracking down at an Asian market. The recipe gives quantities for one kind of protein.  If you make more than one, you will need to use a tablespoon of oil to cook each protein and increase the quantities for the sauce.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Freezer, My Friend

When my husband and I first married, we lived in a small studio apartment with a tiny kitchen and a minuscule refrigerator. It was a 6 cubic foot model that fit under the counter and held hardly enough food for the day's dinner. It was so small that the egg holder on the door didn't even hold a dozen eggs and the ice cube tray in the freezer made special miniature ice cubes (guess the full size cubes would have overwhelmed the tiny ice box!). Entertaining guests was a challenge, to say the least. The party menu was determined solely by what I could find in my local supermarket the day before the dinner party, as I had no way to store food long enough to plan ahead. Forget about taking advantage of supermarket sales! After a few months of dealing with grocery shopping on the way home from work nearly every day, we decided to invest in a small deep freezer.

What a change! Suddenly we could plan meals days, weeks, even months ahead of time! I could purchase meats and other staples in bulk when the prices were low instead of being at the mercy of the supermarket each week. Just as importantly, I found I could make large batches of freezable foods and have quick dinners any day of the week. What a luxury! And we were no longer resigned to eating leftovers from a dinner party each and every day until they were gone or they spoiled...we could eat what we felt like and freeze the rest in portions to be consumed later, when they had become novel again! Additionally, I found my freezer to be a good weight control tool, as when a dinner party leaves me with a ton of irresistible desserts. I know if I spend the next week gorging myself, I will be laden with guilt and probably 5 extra pounds by Friday. However, by portioning the desserts into individual servings (a task best approached when not hungry!) I can happily enjoy the goodies over several weeks thus appeasing both my frugal and healthy sides.

I quickly began to find and test recipes for the freezer.....large pots of soup, (chicken, turkey, split pea, fagiole, stracciatelli, lentil, vegetable), big batches of chili (con carne and vegetarian), large quantities of tomato sauce (the Italian cook's secret weapon for unexpected guests), even beef bourguignon and stews. Along the way, alas, I also learned about foods that DON'T freeze well, those that change texture, lose taste, or flat out get yucky when frozen.

Here's what I've figured out. Most soups freeze well, provided they are broth based (like chicken or turkey soups--though I always leave the pasta, noodles, or rice to be cooked and added just before serving); I have had less success with milk or cream based soups (like potato soup or cream of mushroom). Most meats that are slow cooked in lots of liquid freeze well (like braised dishes and stews); meats that are dry roasted, broiled, or BBQ usually don't. Most cookies, breads and unfrosted cakes come out of the freezer tasting like they've never been frozen; however, cookies or cakes that have fillings or frostings are better eaten fresh. Cheeses change texture when frozen, becoming dry and crumbly. However, cheeses that are grated and frozen to be melted in recipes (like cheddar cheese for Mac & Cheese or pepper jack for quesadillas) work just fine. Pastas sometimes get pasty when frozen (though I have occasionally had lasagna survive the freezer unscathed when I was absolutely desperate). The most important thing is to wrap food well, in several layers of foil and plastic so all the air is pressed out (try using a clean straw to suck the air out of plastic bags before sealing). And label everything! No matter how sure you are that you will remember what is in a package two months from now, trust me, you won't. It only takes one incident of almost putting what you thought was chicken stock and turned out to be clam broth into a gravy to teach you that!

This is also a good time to mention storage guidelines which can be found at This pdf file indicates a freezer as being 32 degrees. A deep freeze actually keeps food at zero degrees, so your storage times may be even longer. Either way, a refrigerator/freezer thermometer can be purchased for under $10 and  is always a good investment. Meanwhile, try this recipe for makes a large amount, so have some tonight, then freeze some for a night when you don't feel like cooking.

Serves: 8 to 10

Ingredients for meatballs:
1-1/2 lbs. chicken breast, ground
2 Tbs. grated Romano cheese
3 eggs
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup parsley, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 to 1 cup cold water

Ingredients for soup:
16 cups chicken stock
6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced
2 (10 oz.) pkgs. frozen chopped spinach
1-1/2 lbs. any small pasta like alphabets, orzo or acini di pepe

Combine all meatball ingredients in mixer bowl with flat beater or in a large bowl using your clean hands. Meat mixture should be somewhat soft, but still hold its shape when formed into balls. Using wet hands, form small meatballs on cookie sheet. Broil 4 to 6 inches from broiler element until well browned. Turn the meatballs over and brown the second side.

Bring the chicken stock and the minced garlic to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Lower heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Add meatballs and simmer for an additional 15 or 20 minutes. Add the spinach and simmer just until the spinach is defrosted and hot. Boil the noodles in a separate pot of boiling salted water, drain and stir into the soup just before serving. Serve with Romano cheese.

Notes & Pointers:
This is a very large recipe, so I usually freeze half of the meatballs just after I broil them. Then I use only half the stock, garlic, spinach and noodles with each half of the meatballs. Alternatively, if you prefer, you can freeze the meatballs after cooking them in the broth with the garlic and spinach. Either way cook the pasta on the day you serve.