Spaghetti with Italian Sausage Ragout

Spaghetti with Italian Sausage Ragout

Spaghetti with Italian Sausage Ragout

Change is in the air. We are moving house in a week, and while it’s a local move, it still requires dismantling a life, glass by glass, book by book. Our belongings are wrapped and boxed in ambiguous cartons that creep along and up the walls, towering over the furniture with an insistency that precludes denial. In a week our life will be unpacked in a new home and environment, our belongings liberated and rapidly arranged then rearranged to produce a new vignette. For now, the dust bunnies and memories swirl about, gathering in corners and getting in our heads. And our dog is behaving strangely. I think she is hoping and fearing that she will also be packed.

Change is cathartic. It’s also unsettling. For all of the moving we’ve done in our family life, you would think this would be a piece of cake – the next step in our family adventure. Is it because I am older now? Or perhaps it’s because the children are older, fully aware and present in this move, packing their belongings and looking forward to our next step in their teenaged lives – a time which guarantees uncertainty with or without a move. I see how they watch me and listen to my words and mood, using me as a measure, while secretly I watch them back, feeling curious and just a little guilty about this event. After all, I am their mother.

So I reflect on our previous moves, from one country to another, to languages I would have yet to learn, searching for homes and a community to insert myself and my family into. This time we are simply moving zip codes, but this move has its baggage, too. So, today I will do what I do best and what has always served us well. I will cook a comforting and nourishing family meal, and we will share it for dinner as we sit together at our well traveled kitchen table.

Spaghetti with Italian Sausage Ragout
Serves 4

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound Italian sausage, casings removed, crumbled
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, cut in 1/4 inch dice
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, optional

1 pound spaghetti
Grated Parmigiano cheese
Chopped Italian flat leaf parsley

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add sausage and sauté until golden. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with a paper towel. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat in the pan. Add garlic, red pepper, oregano and chili flakes. Sauté 2 minutes. Add wine. Bring to a boil and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning. If needed, add sugar.
While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add spaghetti and cook until al dente. Drain. Serve hot with the sauce spooned over. Garnish with cheese and parsley.

Foodies of the World

Foodies world photo

Earlier this year I was contacted by the Slattery Media Group in Australia to contribute to the cookbook “Foodies of the World” representing some of “the best of the web” foodblogs from around the globe. Not only was I flattered, I was humbled when I received my book in the post recently, to see that I was among a number of esteemed blogs that I admire and follow, including Oui Chef, Cooksister, Stonesoup, Herbivoracious, and Steamy Kitchen – plus so many more, too numerous to list here.

This is a beautifully produced book with an extensive list of international recipes. In addition to my two contributions for Chocolate Rum Raisin Bread Pudding and Rice Paper Shrimp Spring Rolls, you will find at least 100 other delicious entries for recipes such as Slow Roasted Pork Belly with Puy Lentils, Salted Caramel and Toasted Walnut Shortbread Bars, LInguine with Gorgonzola, Prosciutto and Spinach, and Dutch Stroopwaffels.

One of the most inspiring aspects of the book, to me, is the community it represents. Despite its breadth of geography, with featured blogs from near and as far flung as France, Turkey, Barbados and New Zealand, it drives home what I love about the world of foodblogging. Regardless of where we live, we are a united community of passionate foodies, eager to chronicle and share with our readers recipes and stories about food, families, and our cultures. As I like to say, no matter where we are, our home is where the kitchen is, surrounded by friends and family, cooking, eating and sharing food together. Welcome to our village.

Home Grown Food

DK Salad

I may be exposing my suburban roots, but it thoroughly impresses me when an entire meal can be harvested from a back yard.  Nowadays, there is plenty of talk of local, sustainable food, and happily this concept is growing through local farmers’ markets and CSA’s, movements such as Slow Food, and committed practice by chefs and home cooks alike. Last week, the BlogHer Food Conference offered panel discussions on urban farming, canning, preserving and foraging. NOMA, the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant crowned number one in the world this year, creates its menu from ingredients which are locally foraged. Times are changing and hopeful as we return to our land, our communities and our kitchens.

I do my best to buy locally grown food, grateful I live in a part of the country where we have an abundance. I remain mindful of what and how we eat, aware that this is a learning curve – a process to move through in order to change a pattern of living and eating into a way that feels intuitively correct. Yet, as I pat myself on my back, I cannot help but feel like a self-aggrandized neanderthal when I think of my husband’s family in Denmark. My state of attempted permanent mindfulness is their norm, naturally and reflexively. While I write about it to convey an epiphany, they feel no need to articulate it, because it’s their way of life. Like breathing.

Mushrooms tf

When we lived in Denmark, and now when we return to visit, a frequent outing was to my sister and brother-in-law’s farm in the countryside. Each visit culminated in a family dinner based on food harvested from their property. The last meal we shared with them went something like this:

It began with homemade salumi made of venison and duck hunted from the nearby forest.  As we nibbled on the lean slices of salami, my brother-in-law went outside to harvest bucketloads of crayfish from their lake. He returned with a dripping basket teaming with crustaceans. In one arm he cradled giant porcini mushrooms the size of tennis balls, which he had spotted growing by a grove of trees on the way to the dock. In the meantime, after I had rather naively inquired as to whether there was a salad I could help make, my sister-in-law returned from her garden where she went to gather her daily harvest of vegetables. She profusely apologized that she did not have any lettuce, while she heaved her basket on to the table. It toppled to the side, spilling out its contents, a free form cornucopia of heirloom tomatoes, chard, new potatoes, red potatoes, yellow carrots, crab apples, garlic, zucchini, crookneck squash, red onions and grapes. She declared that this was only one day’s worth of a harvest. It should all be eaten, since there would be just as much to harvest tomorrow. So, we got cooking.
Crayfish plate

The porcinis were cleaned, sliced, and dressed with olive oil and salt. I made a salad of colorful heirloom tomatoes, red onion and chard; potatoes were roasted in olive oil and garlic; apples and carrots were sliced and put in lemon water for the children; we sautéed the zucchini and crookneck squash; the crayfish were boiled and cooled; homemade bread was warmed and sliced; the table was laid while we gamely tried to find room for all the plates and food. As we tucked into our meal, my brother-in-law told us to save some space for the pigeon and duck he had braising in the oven that he was eager for us to taste, adding that he had saved the largest porcini mushroom for a cream sauce which would accompany the birds.

This was a delicious, abundant meal created from food hunted or grown on the property. The further beauty of it was that there was no need for a written recipe. Each dish reflected the main ingredient, either cooked or raw, enhanced with salt, pepper, some olive oil, perhaps a little vinegar and lemon or a simple sauce. It was delicious and sating – a feast for a king despite our hosts’ humble means.

I still have so much to learn.

Heirloom Tomato and Chard Salad with Red Onions and Basil

Serves 4-6.

2 pounds assorted baby heirloom tomatoes, sliced or halved, depending on size
2 cups mixed red and green chard leaves, stems removed
2 small red onions, peeled, thinly sliced
1 cup purple and green basil leaves, stems removed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Arrange tomatoes in the center of a serving platter, alternating colors. Arrange chard leaves around the edge of the platter. Top tomatoes and chard with red onion slices. Garnish with basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Kitchen Table Philosophy: Macaroni, Cauliflower and Cheese

Kitchen Table Philosophy:  Macaroni, Cauliflower and Cheese

Macaroni caul cheese

What do you do when you’ve had a bad day? We all have them, and today was my daughter’s turn: Difficult math test, monotonous swimming lesson, lots of homework, and a bumpy day with friends on the playground. All in all, a tough day for a ten year-old.

I had a busy day, too. I was researching sources for sustainably-raised meat and drove out to West Marin. I returned home with a list of sources as well as a cooler full of grass-fed meat from Marin Sun Farms for our freezer, including 4 beautiful lamb loin chops I planned to cook for dinner. I spent the afternoon busy at the computer writing and researching a new article and in a meeting.  All in all, a busy day for a grown-up.

Then my daughter arrived home, tired, overwhelmed and teary from her day.  Her first request was if I would make her favorite dish – Macaroni, Cauliflower and Cheese – for dinner.  My immediate response was negative; I had all this lamb, after all.  She then pulled a chair up to my desk and began to recount her day to me, while I continued typing at my computer, half listening to the news on the radio in the background and half listening to her experiences.

Suddenly, I had a moment of clarity:  Sometimes you have to stop all your busy-ness, let go of your preconceived plans and just sit down at the kitchen table, fully present. I wasn’t fully present anywhere at that moment. So, I shut down the computer, turned off the radio, and sat down at our kitchen table with my daughter.  Together, we prioritized her homework so the seemingly mountainous pile became approachable tasks; we worked out those fractions and  proofread her Spanish.  All the while, I fully listened to the news of her day, the dramas, frustrations and thoughts, remembering that at one point I was also there and and how the world felt to a 10 year-old after a long day.

And dinner?  The lamb will wait a day.  Tonight we are having Macaroni, Caulliflower and Cheese.

Macaroni Cauliflower Cheese

Macaroni, Cauliflower and Cheese
Serves 4-6

1 medium head of cauliflower, divided into 1″ florets

1 lb. (500 grams) penne
Salt

1 1/2 cups grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup bread crumbs (panko)

Prepare:

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Steam cauliflower until tender but firm. Remove from heat. Set aside.
Bring salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta. Cook until just tender but still firm, about 5 minutes. Drain. Return to pot. Stir in cauliflower.
Combine cheese in a small bowl. Set aside.
Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Stir in flour. Cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Whisk in milk. Cook, stirring, until thickened. Add 2/3 of the cheese. Stir until smooth. Add mustard, salt and pepper.  Combine cheese mixture with pasta and cauliflower. Pour into a buttered rectangular baking dish.
Toast breadcrumbs over medium-low heat in a dry skillet until golden. Remove from heat and toss with remaining cheese. Spread breadcrumb mixture over pasta.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Bake in oven until top is golden and crusty, about 40 minutes.

Tip:
Try substituting broccoli for the cauliflower, or combining the two.
Alternatively, you can omit the pasta, and use only vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, rutabaga, parsnip) for a delicious gratin.

My Big Fat Greek Dinner

My Big Fat Greek Dinner

When it’s hot outside, the food I crave is Greek. These Greek-inspired lamb kebabs are packed with herbs, spices and the heat of cayenne.  They are positively addictive and perfect for a party and easy entertaining.  Nearly everything can be prepared in advance, and a barbeque is required.  What more could you ask for?  Oh, yes: Good friends, great wine and perhaps a little Ouzo.

To complete the menu, serve these spicy, more-ish kebabs with smoky, Middle-Eastern harissa and creamy, garlicky tsatsiki.  Accompany with a greek salad brimming with garden fresh vegetables, feta cheese and kalamata olives and roasted potatoes. By the end of the meal your tastebuds will be singing, and your guests will be begging for more.

Greek Plate

Grilled Spiced Lamb Kebabs
Makes 16

16 small bamboo skewers

2 lbs./1 kg. ground lamb
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1 cup
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander/cilantro
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne

Exta-virgin olive oil
Fresh mint or basil leaves
Pita bread
Tsatsiki
Harissa

Soak bamboo skewers in warm water 30 minutes before assembling kebabs.  Drain.

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl.  Mix well.  Gather a small handful of the meat in your hand and form it lengthwise around a skewer so that the meat is covering 3/4 of the skewer.  Place on plate or tray.
Repeat with remaining meat and skewers.  Lightly brush the kebabs with olive oil.  (Kebabs can be prepared to this point up to 6 hours in advance.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling.)
Grill on barbeque or in oven, turning to brown all sides, until cooked through, about 10 minutes.  Arrange on plates or serving platter and garnish with fresh mint or basil leaves.  Serve with pita bread, tsatsiki and harissa.

Comfort Food

Food 010

On this beautiful sunny day, I am enjoying a coffee on our terrace while reading the morning newspaper.  The news is not good these days.  As the world bumps along in these interesting times, and events feel frustratingly out of our control, I will purposely find peace and balance in the immediacy and pleasure of my environment with family and friends.  Tonight we will have a comforting meal with vegetables harvested from our garden. I cannot change events, but I can gratefully make a small difference in the lives of those who are close to me. 

Baked Penne with Aubergine, Tomato and Basil
Serves 4

1 medium-sized firm eggplant, about 1 lb.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 garlic cloves, minced

1 – 28 oz. (800 grams) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained
1 cup cherry tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 lb. penne pasta

1 cup grated Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 cup shredded basil leaves

Quarter eggplant lengthwise.  Slice quarters 1/4″ thick.
In an oven-proof skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until hot.  Add half of eggplant.  Sauté until brown and soft, about 5 minutes.  Transfer eggplant to a plate lined with a paper towel.  Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to skillet.  Add remaining eggplant.  Sauté until brown and soft.  Return drained eggplant to skillet.  Add oregano and garlic.  Saute until garlic is fragrant but not brown and eggplant softens further, about 4 minutes. (Add additional olive oil, if skillet becomes dry.)
Add tomatoes and simmer 10 minutes.

Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Add penne and cook until just tender but still firm, 5 minutes.  Drain.  Add pasta to eggplant mixture.  Add 1/4 cup Parmesan and 1/4 cup Pecorino cheese.  Add half of the basil.  Stir to combine.  Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.  Bake in pre-heated 350 F. oven until cheese is melted and brown, about 40 minutes.

Serve garnished with remaining basil leaves.