Saturday, March 16, 2019

Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage & Mushroom…Dinner from Leftovers…and a New Home (....and an Anniversary)

Nine years ago today I started writing a blog. Every year…to mark the date…I have posted a special recipe that includes pistachios.  There is nothing significant about pistachios—other than that I love them…and that I posted a cake featuring them on the first anniversary.  These pistachio recipes have just been a fun way for me to mark the passing of the years.

On this anniversary I don’t have a pistachio recipe.  In fact, I don’t really have a normal blog post.  Three days ago I moved.  I imagine what I am experiencing is pretty normal…but I haven’t moved in almost 30 years and my life is in a bit of an uproar at the moment.  As I have looked for a home and planned for my move I tried to maintain posts to my blog.  But as anyone who has moved (I think that’s everyone!) knows, the chaos peaks with the move and doesn’t really dissipate too much once you are officially residing in the new place.  I hope in the weeks to come that I will be able to post at my normal pace of at least three posts a month…but please know if there isn’t much, I’m not quitting…just busy.  In time I hope to return to my normal pace…or maybe even increase the number of posts I am able to write.

I have been surprised at how difficult it has been to get my bearings in my new kitchen—I cook in other people’s kitchens for a living, so I assumed cooking in my own new kitchen wouldn’t be that difficult.  But somehow it isn’t as easy as I had anticipated.  A lot of my equipment is still packed—and the amount of time I have to spend preparing a meal isn’t that great.  On my first evening, my mother and nephew stopped by.  I decided to make Fettuccine Alfredo for all of us.  When I was ready to put it on the plates I realized I had no silverware!  Dinner service came to grinding halt while I searched for the box and then plowed through it hunting for some forks.

But I have been determined to not succumb to takeout.  So for my first post from my new kitchen (and on the ninth anniversary of my blog) I thought I would share what I have made for my own table for the last three evenings. I think it might be encouraging for anyone experiencing a particularly busy moment in their lives.  My meals have been simple...but delicious.  It is not surprising that on my first night (after the Fettuccine) I made a meal that was almost entirely from my pantry…and I followed two nights in a row with leftovers from that meal. (I love leftovers—they are “prepared food” of the absolute best kind.)

I have actually wanted to post the recipe for my pantry dinner of Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage and Mushrooms for a long time.  I make it often.  I have never posted it because I make it differently every single time—always according to what I have on hand.  So rather than make up a recipe to type out in the traditional way, I’ll just explain what I do so you will be free to improvise according to what you have on hand too.

To begin, make the polenta.  I have already posted my basic recipe.  You can make any amount you like according to the number of people you are serving.  I think 3 or 4 tablespoons of dry polenta is more than enough for one person.  I always make a little extra so I can spread it out, chill it, and then have the makings of a meal that uses firm polenta (directions are on that same post).  For this dish I like to add a couple of ounces (2/3 cup) of finely grated Parmesan to the basic recipe.

While the polenta cooks, you will have plenty of time to make the ragû (or do other things if you are busy!).  I usually make enough ragû for two (but again, the recipe can be multiplied).  I start by browning a link of Italian sausage (4 to 5 oz.).  Sometimes I brown the link and then slice it.  Sometimes I cut the casing off and crumble the sausage and brown it.  You can sauté the mushrooms (4 to 6 oz. for two—I almost always have crimini on hand) in the pan after the sausage…or in a separate pan—your choice.  Follow the instructions on my basics post for sautéing mushrooms.  You can quarter them or slice them, as you prefer.  If you like, deglaze the mushrooms with a splash of white wine.

If you have some of your own marinara sauce (in the freezer...or canned), bring a cup (or a bit more, if you like a lot of sauce) to a simmer.  Add the sausage and mushrooms and heat through.   In recent years I haven’t been as good about making my own tomato sauce at the end of the growing season.  But canned tomatoes make an excellent sauce.  You can use your own favorite recipe—or the one in the notes at the end of this baked pasta. Sometimes I use just onion—sometimes just garlic.  If you like, you may add some dried oregano…or minced fresh thyme or rosemary.  You may finish the sauce with minced flat leaf parsley.  I imagine basil would be delicious, but I almost never use fresh basil in the winter (which is when I usually make this dish).

This year I froze tomatoes whole and have been thawing them as I need them to make quick sauces.  I think it is one of the best things I have learned how to do recently.  You can thaw exactly what you need.  Just set the quantity of tomatoes you need in a shallow bowl on the counter (or in the microwave) to thaw.  As they thaw, they will exude tons of liquid.  Don’t throw this away—it is delicious and tomato-y (even though it looks like water).  When the tomatoes are thawed, the skin will pull away.  Discard the skins.  Pour the liquid into a container.  Roughly chop the flesh and add to the liquid.  Use this just as you would the canned tomatoes.  A pound of tomatoes (or a 14 oz. can) will make about a cup of sauce.

To serve, place a big spoonful of polenta on each plate.  Make a well in the center and spoon in the ragû, allowing it to overflow.  Shave some Parmesan over if you like, and serve.

Even though I am only cooking for one now, I went ahead and made enough ragû to feed two.  This gave me a head start on my meal the next evening.  Taking my cue from that baked pasta I mentioned above, I tossed the remaining half of the ragû with 3 oz. of penne (cooked very al dente).  I then folded in a generous third cup of coarsely grated Fontina (about 1 1/2 oz.).  Low-moisture Mozzarella would have been good too…I just happened to have some Fontina on hand.  I discovered at this point that I didn’t have any of my regular baking dishes unpacked….  

So I spooned the pasta into a small oven-proof sauté pan, blobbed some ricotta over the surface (maybe 2 oz.) and scattered some finely grated Pecorino over all.  I baked it in a 375° oven until it was hot and bubbly (about 20 minutes).  I would have run it under the broiler to brown it a bit, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my new broiler to work…and I was hungry….

For my second meal of leftovers I cooked the firm polenta as described in the post referenced above that includes the master recipe for soft polenta.  I smeared it with ricotta as described in that post.  To top it I sautéed the rest of my package of crimini mushrooms (just under 4 ounces).  When the mushrooms were done I added a bit more oil, reduced the heat and added a minced green onion.  A little garlic…or some shallot would have been good too.  After about a minute I added a couple of handfuls (about 2 oz.) of very roughly chopped spinach (from this morning’s farmers’ market) and cooked it until it was just wilted.   About the time I added the green onions to the pan I started an egg.  Follow the instructions on this post, covering the pan for the look I got.  If you leave the pan uncovered, your egg will look like the ones in that original post.  Either way is fine.  Place the mushroom and spinach mixture over the ricotta-topped polenta and then top with the egg.


I hope this post will inspire people to feel free to cook without a specific recipe (using basic concepts and techniques instead)…and to cook when they don’t think they have the time.  I know this isn’t always possible…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with take-out—or eating out—when life has become overwhelmingly busy.  But somehow making the effort to feed myself from my own kitchen…and then sit down to enjoy it at my own table…made me feel less frazzled.  Frankly, just writing this post has made life feel a bit more normal….

Hopefully I will be able to keep up a schedule of three or four posts per month, but even if my posts become few and far between for the next few months, I hope regular readers will check back in occasionally to find out what I’m up to.  I can’t wait to put my new kitchen through its paces!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Winter Pasta Salad with Roast Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Occasionally, in the depths of winter, I teach a salad class.  I know that salad is more of a spring or summer topic, but I find that in the winter—despite the fact that we generally want hearty braises, soups, stews and casseroles—there is a genuine craving for things that are fresh and raw.  A salad is the obvious way to satisfy this craving and there are a surprising number of winter ingredients that can easily fill this niche:  kale, chicories (Belgian endive, frisée, radicchio, and escarole), grated/julienned root vegetables (like carrots, celeriac and beets), cabbages of all kinds…as well as apples, pears and the wide variety of citrus fruits that flood the market every winter.  The aim of the class is to encourage people to think about ways to create fresh, seasonal, winter salads.

But of course “salads” can also be hearty and filling.  I think of roasted vegetable platters, grain salads, barely wilted greens that are doused in vinegar to give them a salad like feel, shell bean salads and pasta salads.  Like salads in general, the latter category is also something that comes to mind mostly in relation to summer.  But a bowl of room temperature pasta, tossed with a savory dressing and roasted or blanched winter vegetables, can be every bit as much of a salad as the summer versions.

For years I taught a pasta salad that included a walnut-parsley pesto and roasted carrots and cauliflower.  It was a fine dish…but it was best when freshly made.  The roasted cauliflower didn’t really hold very well in the fridge.  I really wanted the pasta salad that I did for the class to be one that could hold overnight (or even longer) in the fridge.  So this year, as I was getting ready to teach the class, I decided to look around at what other cooks and chefs were creating with pasta and pesto during the winter months. 

Although I was looking for pesto, I was intrigued by and stopped to take a more in depth look at Deb Perelman’s Pasta salad with roasted carrots and sunflower seed dressing.  I discovered that the sunflower seed dressing was actually a carrot-top pesto!  Since my salad already included carrots, I thought this was perfect.  For my improved winter pasta salad, I jettisoned the roasted cauliflower in my old recipe in favor of shredded roast chicken and decided to use the carrot top pesto that I make with pistachios instead of Perelman’s sunflower seed version. 

I loved the way this salad turned out.  It is balanced and savory…and satisfying without making you feel stuffed (or like you need a long winter’s nap).  Best of all, like all good pasta salads, it is even better the next day.

Winter Pasta Salad with Roasted Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Carrot Top Pesto:
2 c. (2 oz.) lightly packed carrot tops (Before measuring the carrot tops, trim the feathery fronds away from the thick, ropey stems.  Discard the stems and use the tops only.)
a handful (1 oz.) of arugula
1/2 c. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2/3 c. olive more if needed to get preferred consistency
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan

Place the carrot tops, arugula, pistachios, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the food processor and process until everything is finely and uniformly chopped.  With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Scrape down the sides.  Add the Parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lemon juice if necessary.  If the pesto seems too tight, drizzle in a bit more oil.  Store in the refrigerator in a jar with a tight fitting lid and filmed with oil.  Makes 1 1/4 cups pesto.  

1 large (about 12 oz.) split chicken breast
olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 lb. carrots, topped, tailed and peeled
3/4 lb. gemelli or penne pasta
3/4 c. (200g.) carrot top pesto (about 2/3 of the recipe)
1 T. lemon juice (or to taste)
2 handfuls (about 2 oz.) arugula
Grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 475°.

Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in a baking dish and place in the  oven, roasting until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 150° to 155°—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Deglaze the baking pan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Set aside.  When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard.  Shred the meat into long strips about 1/2-inch wide.  You should have about 2 cups shredded chicken.

If you can find them, tri-color carrots are beautiful in this dish.
If carrots are fatter than 3/4-inch in diameter, halve or quarter lengthwise.  Cut the carrots in scant 1/2-inch slices on a diagonal (so that they are roughly the length of the pasta).  Place the carrots in a large bowl.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Add enough olive oil to lightly coat the carrots (about 2 T.).  Toss to coat, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast in a 475° oven until tender and caramelized/charred in spots, stirring once—about 20 minutes.  Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the salad.

Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 T. salt.  Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is just al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking water.  Spread the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.

To assemble the salad, place the carrots, chicken and pasta in a large bowl.  Toss to combine.  Place the pesto in a small bowl and thin with 3 or 4 T. of the chicken pan deglazings and pasta water.  Pour over the pasta salad and toss the pasta salad until all the ingredients are evenly dressed with the pesto sauce.  

If the pasta salad seems "tight" add more pasta water or olive oil.  Taste and correct the seasoning with the lemon juice, salt, pepper or more pesto.  Add the arugula and toss again.  Serve at room temperature, garnished with Parmesan.

Serves 4 to 6.