Zuni Cafe's Chard and Onion Panade

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I had a dinner party a few months ago in which everything sort of felt wrong. Not in the way you'd think - my guests ate everything I cooked (two chickens! multiple pounds of vegetables! an entire cake! a whole liter of whipped cream! six poached quince!) and there were no leftovers. But - has this happened to you? - when I sat down to eat dinner with our guests I looked down at my plate and thought, "I don't want to eat any of this".

It wasn't that the food didn't taste good, I guess. It's just that - and I'm having a hard time expressing just exactly what I mean, so bear with me here - it all felt so...strained, my relationship with what I'd cooked, I mean. I'd expended a lot of time and energy on planning the dinner and cooking the dinner and then once the food was in front of me it just felt so foreign, so far away from what I actually wanted to eat, from the things that make my mouth water. It was a sort of upsetting moment - to be surrounded by nine other people kindly devouring all that was laid before them and to feel so estranged from their experience and from the very food I'd spent all day working on.

Does this sound totally trite? I actually wrote a whole long post about that evening, so long that I thought about turning it into a chapter for the book, but in the end I couldn't figure out just exactly how to work it in or how to express myself, really. I mean: I threw a dinner party! The guests loved it! I wished I could have had a peanut butter sandwich instead! What?

For as long as I've been cooking in my own home, when time came to plan a dinner party, I'd spend days poring over cookbooks, trying to put together a menu that made sense (as old-fashioned as it may be, I adore cookbooks that include menu suggestions) and that would be a step up from the usual stuff I eat. But after that fatal dinner party I decided that I needed to approach menu planning differently. I needed to think about what I wanted to eat, first and foremost, when I had guests over. Does that sound like the most obvious thing ever? To me it wasn't.

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After the dinner party that made me lose my appetite, I decided that, actually, we eat pretty darn well around here when it's just the two of us. Why, when you get down to brass tacks, should we change that winning formula just because we have people coming over? In fact, wouldn't that be just the moment to stick with the greatest hits that make us happy, dinner guests or no dinner guests?

And so, to celebrate my mother's birthday last week, along with several of her closest friends and my dad, we threw a dinner party with food so good, and so familiar, I wished I could have had thirds.

Instead of wracking my brains to come up with a special menu, I decided to stay simple. I'd made Judy Rodgers's chard panade many times before just for the two of us and fell in love with it a little bit more each time. When I thought about my mother's birthday, I couldn't stop thinking about that panade. It felt like the perfect January meal - meatless yet still full of richness and flavor, shot through with dark greens for our mind, a little cheese for our soul. Simple yet celebratory.

I decided to eschew an appetizer and serve a salad on its own, as a second course, so to speak. Soft butter lettuce and mâche were tossed with cubed avocados and slices of juicy oranges, bound together with a shallot vinaigrette from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, which is where the panade recipe is also from. We had a few good bottles of red wine to pass around and then, for dessert, a simple chocolate mousse from Dorie's new book.

The dinner was a huge success. People took seconds, thirds, licked their plates, and - thrillingly - I joined in. It felt so easy, so effortless. And my mother, a tough critic, was still raving about the celebration days later.

If you haven't yet had the pleasure of knowing panade, it's a cross between a gratin and a bread pudding, but only sort of. You cook a whole mess of onions until meltingly soft and amber-hued. You cube stale peasant bread and toss it with salt and olive oil and a little bit of chicken stock. You sauté Swiss chard until barely limp and still vibrantly green. You grate a tiny mountain of fragrant Gruyère. And then you get to work, layering all four elements over and over until the baking dish is entirely filled. You soak the whole thing with good chicken stock (seriously, homemade stock pushes this dish into the sublime) and then bake it very slowly in the oven until it's plush and satiny, almost wobbling, the top crusted perfectly.

Peasant food for the gods, if you will. And just the thing to make a hostess who, in truth, really does love throwing dinner parties, feel like a million dollars again.

Chard and Onion Panade
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish

1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
Up to 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt
1 pound Swiss chard (thick ribs removed), cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
10 ounces day-old chewy peasant-style bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
Up to 4 cups chicken stock
6 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated

1. Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with oil to coat, about 1/4 cup. Set over medium-high heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is slightly golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir and repeat.

2. Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a pale amber color and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 2 1/4 cups cooked onions.

3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (or as low as 250 degrees, if it suits your schedule to stretch the cooking time from about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes; the slower the bake, the more unctuous and mellow the results).

4. Wilt prepared chard in batches: Place a few handfuls of leaves in a 3-quart saute pan or a 10-to 12-inch skillet with a drizzle of oil, a sprinkling of water (if you've just washed the chard, it may have enough on the leaves), and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat until the water begins to steam, then reduce the heat and stir and fold leaves until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Leaves should be uniformly bright green, the white veins pliable (the veins will blacken later if they are not heated through). Taste. The chard may be slightly metallic-tasting at this point, but make sure it's salted to your taste. Set aside.

5. Toss and massage the cubed bread with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup of the stock and a few pinches of salt, to taste.

6. Choose a flameproof, 3-quart souffle dish or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Assemble the panade in layers, starting with a generous smear of onions, followed by a loose mosaic of bread cubes, a second layer of onions, a wrinkled blanket of chard, and a handful of the cheese. Repeat, starting with bread, the onions and so on, until the dish is brimming. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, then make sure the top layer displays a little of everything. Irregularity in the layers makes the final product more interesting and lovely. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil.

7. Bring the remaining 3 3/4 cups stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly, in doses, around the edge of the dish. For a very juicy, soft panade, best served on its own, like a soup or risotto, add stock nearly to the rim; for a firm but succulent panade, nice as a side dish, fill to about 1 inch below the rim. Wait a minute for stock to be absorbed, then add more to return to the desired depth. The panade may rise a little as the bread swells.

8. Set panade over low heat and bring to a simmer; look for bubbles around the edges (heating it here saves at least 30 minutes of oven time; it also means every panade you bake starts at the same temperature, so you can better predict total cooking times). Cover the top of the panade with parchment paper, then very loosely wrap the top and sides with foil. Place a separate sheet of foil under the panade or on the rack below it, to catch drips.

9. Bake until the panade is piping hot and bubbly. It will rise a little, lifting the foil with it. The top should be pale golden in the center and slightly darker on the edges. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours, but varies according to shape and material of baking dish and oven. (You can hold the panade for another hour or so; just reduce the temperature to 275 degrees until 20 minutes before serving.)

10. Uncover panade, raise temperature to 375 degrees, and leave until golden brown on top, 10 to 20 minutes. (If you aren't quite ready when your panade is, re-tent the surface with parchment and foil and reduce the heat to 275 degrees. You can hold it another half hour this way without it overbrowning or drying out.) Slide a knife down the side of the dish and check the consistency of the panade. Beneath the crust, it should be very satiny and it should ooze liquid as you press against it with the blade of the knife. If it seems dry, add a few tablespoons simmering chicken stock and bake for 10 minutes longer.


Florence Fabricant's Chicken Baked with Lentils

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This week marks my sixth week of apartment hunting in Berlin. I took a break the week between Christmas and New Year's and again when I was felled with the stomach flu. But besides that, looking for a place to live has become my new job. And, boy, do I hate this new job. Ooh! With vim and vigor. But who wouldn't? No one, that's who. I can practically see you all nodding your heads in agreement when I say that apartment hunting is the pits. Let me tell you, I'd rather be doing the most mind-numbing data entry in a windowless room than trudging up yet another set of stairs. But as I am 32 years old and I cannot live in my mother's apartment, pulling things out of a suitcase every day, for the rest of my life, I persevere. And I muse upon the fact that I've now spent more time looking for an apartment here than I did in all of my almost ten years in New York City. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Never mind! Instead of complaining, let's talk about nice things, shall we? Like some of the things that make me happy here.

1. Eating Nutella on fresh, yeasty rolls for breakfast. Who over the age of 10 still eats Nutella for breakfast? Well, me. It is delicious, obviously. And can I tell you something scandalous and wonderful? All of my pants are loose! Turns out eating Nutella on a regular basis is great for your waistline.

2. Buying tulips for peanuts. The proximity to Holland, I suppose, makes cut flowers incredibly cheap here. I bought a dozen tulips for my mother the other day, the fancy, frilly kind, for less than 5 euros. Peanuts! And just wait until the ranunculus (ranunculii?) start coming into stores. Fresh flowers every day!

3. Listening to NPR Worldwide on the radio, 104.1 FM to be exact. Hearing Renee Montagne's and Steve Inskeep's familiar voices from my old mornings in Queens during the day in Berlin is strange and lovely at the same time.

4. One word: soccer. Every week.

5. Despite missing my friends in New York and my old life and my awesome, awesome city, I feel peace in my heart here. I'm supposed to be here, even with this apartment hunt and the never ending ice and snow and the cold apartments and the gray skies. I'm home. And that feels good.

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You know what else is good? Florence Fabricant's prosaically named Chicken Baked with Lentils. (That may have been the worst transition in the history of this blog. Forgive me? My artistic juice is currently on the lam, though fortunately my mojo seems to have returned.) Lentils and radicchio flavored with sage and cumin, chunks of ham and a splash of vinegar are the stars in this easy braise of golden brown chicken legs. So much more sophisticated than the name indicates, no? And yet it's still easy enough to work as a weekend lunch or a weeknight dinner.

The other day, after a morning of seeing apartments with my mother gamely in tow, now that she's in town for a few weeks, I decided we had to take a break. We needed a hot meal and respite from the icy streets. And I needed to focus on something other than apartments. My obsessive mind needed calming, needed to simply dice onions and boil stock, rather than have another conversation about renovation costs, look at another floor plan, or contemplate another compromise.

So I set about cutting up celery and onions, thin-slicing radicchio, browning cubes of bacon and chicken legs and trying to find my center, not to sound like a total yahoo. And it totally worked! I found it! Turns out it was in the kitchen all along. What a surprise, I know.

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Basically, you make this deeply flavored base for the dish, using bitter radicchio, mellow bacon, herbal sage, a kick of vinegar, earthy cumin, and onions and celery for good measure. Then you stir in lentils and lay browned chicken legs (or just thighs, whichever) on top, and cook the lot in the oven for an hour, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, the lentils are plump and bursting with flavor, and the chicken is so moist and tender it practically slides off the bone onto your fork in one fell swoop.

It's not much to look at, I suppose, from the point of view of an aesthete. But as with a lot of peasant food, I think its beauty is special precisely because you have to look twice to see it. Once you do, it's hard to avoid. The gravel-like lentils, shining like little planets in the sky of the plate. The golden tones of the chicken, skin puckered and delicate as a lace shawl. The chunks of bacon, rosy-hued and glowing with flavor.

Florence says to serve this with mashed potatoes, but it was so hearty we found it didn't even need a side. Just a deep plate, a big fork, an appetite, and a hankering for comfort. Delicious.

Chicken Baked with Lentils

Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta or bacon, in one slice, diced
3 pounds chicken thighs, 6 to 8 pieces, patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped celery, about 1 rib
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups finely chopped radicchio, about 1/2 head, cored
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
2 cups lentils
3 cups chicken stock, more if needed

1.
Heat oil in a 4-quart ovenproof casserole. Add pancetta and cook on medium until golden. Remove. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat, working in two shifts if necessary. Remove from pan. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan.

2.
Add onions, celery and garlic, cook on medium until soft and translucent. Stir in cumin. Add radicchio, vinegar and sage; sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock and cooked pancetta.

3.
Return chicken to pan, bring to a simmer, cover and place in oven. Cook about an hour, until lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, but not all. Lentils should be saucelike but not soupy. Add a little stock if needed. Check seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed, then serve.


Testaccio's Gnocchi alla Romana

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You all know my mother is from Rome, right? Una vera romana, she can swagger and gesticulate with the best of them. And she's pretty cute, if it's still alright to say that about a woman of a certain age. She's the lady who taught me how to pan-fry thin little pork chops with slices of raw lemon until crisp and juicy and totally delectable. She's the one whose Parmesan broth with tiny noodles is still the only thing I want to eat when I'm sick. And its her tomato sauce that, simmering on the stove, makes any house my home.

She is, however, not a cook. By her own admission. My career path mystifies her. She loves to eat, but cooking is not her bag. She masters the simple, but leaves the complicated to restaurants, Sicilian brother-in-laws, her strange daughter, or the hallowed halls of her childhood memories. When I called her the other night to tell her I was making gnocchi alla romana, a classic Roman dish of little semolina pucks baked in the oven and served with tomato sauce, her voice registered only disbelief.

"You're going to make them? Yourself? From scratch?" She might as well have said, "why on earth would you ever bother?"

Told you she thinks I'm strange.

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The thing is, semolina gnocchi really aren't that hard. You cook semolina with milk and butter until creamy and pulling away from the sides of the pot, sort of like polenta. You mix in some cheese and egg yolks and spread this mass out onto a baking sheet. Later, using a cookie cutter, you stamp out little rounds, tuck them into a baking dish, dust them with more cheese and dot them with butter and stick them in the oven until lightly crisped around the edges and browned. Yes, that's about it.

Oh, and that tomato sauce is so easy you could practically do it with one hand tied behind your back, whistling. (Though the slices of garlic were a little unsightly.) I didn't have any cookie cutters for the semolina gnocchi, so I tried to improvise with an egg cup. That was sort of a bust. I ended up finishing the job with a sharp knife, cutting little rounds out by hand which was far less fussy than it sounds.

What's important in this recipe is one small little thing: salt. Oh, ho. Yes. The amount of salt you add can and will be the difference between insipid baby food and something rather delicious. Which is why I found it so annoying that the recipe doesn't stipulate the amount of salt needed. I put in about a teaspoon and, sadly, my gnocchi tended very much towards the insipid. So try at least two teaspoons and taste taste taste as you go. If I made these again, I'd also double the amount of Parmesan used, and I'd put most of it in the semolina batter and only a little bit on top of the gnocchi.

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This recipe made an enormous amount of gnocchi, but only a rather modest amount of sauce. The sauce is so nice that it's a shame to have too little of it. So I'd double that, if I were you. Leftovers, if you've got any, are easy enough to get rid of on your spaghetti dinner the next evening. The gnocchi need that acidic, juicy kick of sauce to give them some spine.

And here's the last thing about semolina gnocchi: you must eat them when they're fresh and when they're hot. I know, I know: Italians and their food rules. But really, listen up. If you've got leftovers, too bad. Do not attempt to eat them the next day. You will regret it. Instead, invite some friends over and impress the pants off of them with dinner. Make them scrape up every last gnocco and be glad you don't have any left to throw out.

Gnocchi alla Romana
Makes
6 servings

1 quart plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups semolina flour
1 5- to 6-ounce piece Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 14.5-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

1. In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan, combine milk, nutmeg, salt and 4 tablespoons butter. Bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium and immediately start adding semolina in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Keep whisking to make a smooth mixture. Reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in most of the cheese and the egg yolks.

2. Use some of the oil to grease a baking sheet. Spread hot batter on baking sheet to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very cold, 4 hours or overnight.

3. Heat remaining oil in a saucepan, add garlic and onions, cook until soft and add tomatoes. Simmer gently about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Use a little remaining butter to grease a shallow baking dish about 9 by 13 inches. Use a 2- to 3-inch round cookie cutter or a glass to cut disks of chilled dough. Keep dipping cutter in cold water to prevent sticking. Lift disks off baking sheet and arrange, slightly overlapping, in baking dish. Scraps can be kneaded briefly and smoothed out to allow for a few additional disks. Sprinkle disks in dish with remaining cheese and dot with remaining butter. Bake about 15 minutes, until lightly browned.

5. Gently reheat sauce. Serve gnocchi with some sauce alongside each portion.<nyt_update_bottom>


Chez Panisse's Winter Squash, Onion and Red Wine Panade

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Oh, dear. This is rather awkward. I know it was only just two days ago that I told you about Paula Wolfert's squash gratin and how much I loved it and how delicious it was. But I've actually got something better now, and you've sort of got to drop everything you're doing and go make it straight away. (Well, you might have something better to be doing right now, like voting, but after that, definitely.)

Go on! Who cares about butternut squash and sheep's milk cheese and potatoes anymore? Now it's butternut squash and long-cooked onions and stale bread and Gruyere. Seriously. Cancel your dinner plans.

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I'm sorry to be a boss, but you know how it is sometimes, when you make something so wonderful that you find yourself somewhat speechless as you chew? Yes, that's what happened to us the other night. We sat there, in somewhat shocked silence as we ate. (Oh, we live a thrilling life, we do.) Look at it this way: you've got to do something tonight while you wait for the results of our election to come in, no matter who you voted for. You can't just sit in front of your computer, refreshing pages obsessively, or lounge on your couch, flicking from channel to channel in the hopes that one talking head will know something before another one does. So why not kill time making a long, slow dinner that takes close to three hours from start to finish?

Staying up late on a night like this is worth it. If not for the sheer pleasure of eating, then at least for your nerves.

The recipe comes from Chez Panisse Vegetables and is a study in the art of flavor-building. Onions are stewed with bay leaves and thyme and garlic. Wine is added and reduced, then in goes chicken stock, which simmers for a while. Good, stale-ish bread is briefly fried until golden in olive oil (or, if you happen to have duck fat lying around, you can use that, too) and two pounds of butternut squash are peeled and sliced.

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Then the fun stuff begins: the layering. In goes a layer of fried bread slices, several ladlefuls of herb-scented broth and a purpureal tangle of onions. Then you arrange the mass of butternut squash slices on top of the bread and ladle in more broth and onions. The rest of the fried bread makes the top layer, along with, yes, more broth and onions and finally, you grate over it all a flurry of grated cheese.

What happens in the oven is very neat: the bread swells with the liquid and rises, so that the panade goes from being a rather dense, heavy thing to a light and puffy wonder. The flavors, already complex, concentrate and the cheese melts and bubbles into a wondrously tasty cap. It's hard to figure out whether you should eat panade with a fork or a spoon - or how to decide what you like more, the broth or the silky bread or the sweet squash or the cheesy top. Oh, who am I kidding, all of it.

So, um, yes, I'd say that today, for sure, this is the only way you should be eating butternut squash.

Winter Squash, Onion and Red Wine Panade
Serves 8 to 10

5 onions
2 pounds acorn or butternut squash
6 cloves garlic
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
12 sprigs thyme
1 cup red wine
2-3 quarts chicken stock
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
10 slices stale country-style bread
1 ounce Parmigiano
2 ounces Gruyere

1. Begin by stewing the onions, peeled and sliced thin, over medium heat, in about 1/4 cup of olive oil. When they have begun to soften, add the garlic cloves, also peeled and sliced thin; the bay leaves; and the thyme. Continue to cook the onions until they just begin to brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, peel and seed the squash and cut it into 1/8-inch-thick slices. In a sauté pan over medium heat, lightly brown the slices of bread in more olive oil.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and assemble the panade: Cover the bottom of a large casserole with half the bread slices and gently ladle in enough broth (including the onions) to cover. Make a single layer of the sliced squash on top and ladle in more of the broth and onions, to cover. Make a layer with the rest of the bread, add more broth and onions so that the top layer of bread is well soaked through, and finish by grating the cheeses over the top to cover lightly.

4. Bake, covered, for 45 minutes; then uncover and bake for about 45 minutes more, until well browned. To serve, scoop the panade into bowls and ladle more of the hot broth around it.


Liz Pearson's Yogurt-Rubbed Roast Chicken with Red Pepper Sauce

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Let's start things off with a big, happy, declarative statement, shall we? It's Monday and it's awful out and despite being almost mid-May, we're dealing with March-like winds and rain instead of flowers and sunshine. I need something to cheer me up, perhaps you do, too, and I'm thinking this might just do the trick:

I may have found my new favorite way to roast chicken.

There. Things feel like they're looking up already, wouldn't you agree?

I'll always love the high-heat, Judy-Rodgers sanctioned way of roasting chicken, but the last time I did that we ended up having to live with the stench of scorched chicken fat in our apartment for nigh on a week. Since then, I've been banned from preparing chicken that way. Apparently, until we have a little elf living with us whose sole purpose is to run around silently behind me, cleaning up in the wake of my cooking endeavors and periodically scrubbing the inside of the oven (and while little elf is at it, also mopping), I won't be roasting at high heat again.

(Tragic, I know. How do I stand it?)

But over the weekend I found myself repeatedly coming back to a recipe printed in the LA Times a few weeks ago that has you stir Greek yogurt together with some herbs and spices and then massage big handfuls of the stuff onto (and into) a chicken, before letting it marinate for an hour and then roasting it at relatively average heat until cooked through.

See, doesn't that sound good? Something about spiced yogurt and marinating chicken... and I'm bewitched all over again.

Yogurt tenderizes chicken, don't you know, and the herbs and spices infuse the meat subtly. The marinating time and then the relatively long, slow roasting ensure an incredibly juicy bird. And to gild the lily - but this gilding I found absolutely necessary - the recipe has you roast shallots and red peppers beneath the chicken. After the roast is done, you gingerly peel the peppers (watch your fingers, they'll be hot!) and then puree them with the shallots and a disc of puckery goat cheese into an ochre-tinged sauce.

The original recipe has you do a fancy pan sauce with drippings and stock and flour and whisking, but is it a surprise to any of you at this point that I was far too lazy to follow suit? It was late, we were hungry, and that burnished bird was sitting on its platter making our stomachs growl. So I scraped up the pan drippings, separated the fat as best I could and dumped the drippings into the creamy sauce before whizzing it one last time.

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And it was fabulous. Sweet and savory and with the faint funk of goat cheese about it. We slathered the sauce onto our forkfuls of chicken, dragged the chicken through great puddles of the stuff on our plates. If we hadn't been in the presence of dignified company, I might have even taken a spoon to the bowl. Best of all, while the chicken disappeared in a flash, there's sauce to last us another night at least.

I'm planning on using this yogurt-marinade technique over and over again - committing it to memory, even handing it over to the lamination files, if you will! The chicken was dreamily moist and juicy and would make fantastic leftovers.

This is the perfect Sunday supper - one you can start as the sun starts its slow descent in the late afternoon and can have on the table by the time the light is gone, but the birds are still out doing their early evening calls. I love this time of day in spring and especially where we live now, where we can actually hear the birds over the sounds of the city. If I go out on the balcony, I almost feel like I'm back in Berlin again - close enough to the city that I see the sunlight sparking off the buildings in Manhattan, but far enough away that I hear more birds than sirens; birds and the rustling of leaves in the trees around our building.

And there we go! Suddenly this cold, gray day doesn't seem so bad anymore. I have red pepper sauce, Ben, and a movie waiting for me (how to choose: Scarface on DVD or Iron Man at the theater?).

Happy Monday, folks. I hope it's a good week for you all.

Yogurt-Rubbed Roast Chicken with Red Pepper Sauce
Serves 3 to 4

Note: I made a half-recipe - the original makes two birds, and enough sauce to last for a week's worth of sandwiches, I think. Also, I omitted the steps and ingredients for the pan sauce. Click here for the original.

1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (3- to 3 1/2 -pound) chicken
1/2 pound (about 8) shallots, peeled and left whole
3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 red bell peppers, halved, cored and quartered
1 2-ounce piece goat cheese, softened

1. In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the dry mustard, thyme, coriander, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Loosen the skin around the breasts and thighs, then rub both chicken all over (beneath the skin and inside the cavity, too) with the yogurt mixture. Refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for 1 hour.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the shallots, carrots, peppers, the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste into a large roasting pan and toss well. Arrange a rack over the vegetables.

3. Arrange the chicken on the rack, breast-side up, and roast, basting occasionally with pan juices, until the vegetables are very tender and the chicken is deep golden brown and cooked through, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Transfer the chicken to a large platter and tent with foil; set aside.

4. Drain the pan drippings into a bowl, then skim off and discard the fat; set aside.

5. Remove and discard the skin from the peppers (it should peel off fairly easily), then transfer them to a food processor. Add half the shallots and pulse until roughly chopped. Add the goat cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and pan drippings and puree until smooth.

6. Carve the chicken and transfer to plates. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of the red pepper and goat cheese sauce over each serving and serve with the remaining roasted shallots and carrots on the side.


Marco Canora's Beef Bolognese

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I suppose it's true that every Italian has their version of ragu, a long-simmered meat sauce to be tossed with fresh pasta or layered in lasagna. And all of them (us) think their version is the best, the only one worth spending five hours in the kitchen for, the sauce to end all sauces. (Not all Italians actually make this sauce themselves; they wait until they're home for a visit and it gets made in their honor, further elevating ragu into the stratosphere of heaven-sent manna.) Some people have had their recipes passed down in the family, from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother and so on. But others, like me, got their recipe through other means, like abject begging.

You see, my mother and grandmother, well, they aren't/weren't big cooks. I don't have any recipes in my arsenal that came from my grandmother (unless you count a simple tomato sauce made with onions and carrots that is still the subject of ample controversy between my mother and father. My father insists that my grandmother taught him how to make it; my mother says he's crazy for thinking my grandmother could have ever taught anyone any recipe, ever.). And my mother is so uninterested in what happens in the kitchen that it's probably still a marvel to her that I have ostensibly made my career around the subject.

So when the time came for me to start making my own ragu (sometime in college, this was. Yes, I know, some people spend those years getting high and finding themselves; I started building my recipe arsenal.), I turned outside the family to our dear friend, Gabriella. Gabriella is from Bologna and is possibly, besides my Sicilian uncle, the best cook I know. (You should have yourself invited over to her place sometime when she's making an all-fish dinner. Or a Marchigianian meal. Or, frankly, even just stuffed tomatoes. Good lord.) One summer evening in Torre, I sat next to her and took notes as she carefully told me how to make her meat sauce. And then I went back to the States and proceeded to make it - over and over and over again - until I committed it to memory.

It's "my" sauce now and I love it. It reminds me of my family and Gabriella's and our summers together and my childhood. It makes Ben smile with his mouth full and my friends clamor for the recipe and generally, it's one of the things I know how to make that I'm proudest of.

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But you know this post isn't about that sauce. This post is about someone else's sauce. I'll be honest, I'm not really in the market for a new meat sauce. I'm pretty happy with the one I've got. But then I went and read about Marco Canora (he of the addictive red cabbage) and his grandmother's sauce and the fact that it ends up the consistency of pudding (the mind boggles) and before I knew it, there was a little kernel of curiosity planted within me. Plus, I had explicit plans to do nothing but stay home and nest on Saturday. This would give me something to do.

And, boy, did it ever.

Getting the sauce to the point where you just let it simmer for three hours takes more than an hour. You slowly, carefully build layers of flavor - soffritto, minced garlic, diced pancetta, then beef. There's tomato paste and canned tomatoes, red wine and whole milk, even meat stock. It's quite impressive. The sauce gets thicker and richer with each stir. But what puzzled me was the complete lack of herbs: no parsley, no bay leaf. So I decided to add one bay leaf to the pot. After two hours, I felt guilty about it and took it out again. This was Marco's grandmother's sauce, after all, and I wasn't supposed to be messing with it.

The sauce does indeed become quite pudding-y. It practically quivers. It's very rich, and thick with meat. Someone remarked that it tasted like meat sauce made with pot roast and there is something to that. It's as if the sauce took apart the meat, altered the flavor molecules, and then stitched it back together again. It's darn good, I have to say, and makes an impressive amount, which is a relief because then at least you have some leftovers of your hard labor to put in the freezer.

But it almost doesn't matter than this sauce was as tasty as could be. I missed "my" sauce. I missed the minced parsley and the bay leaf. I didn't like the gaminess of the pancetta or the addition of minced garlic. Nothing against Marco or his grandmother, but I think these things end up being more than just a matter of taste, don't you think? They're about family and memory and love and tradition and other intangibles.

I know it's absolutely cruel to leave you hanging without a recipe for my meat sauce. I promise I'll write a post on it soon, maybe even combine it with a post about lasagna (in which I shall rail against the forces of evil who made millions of Americans think it's supposed to be made with part-skim ricotta or some such travesty). In the meantime, try Marco's sauce. And try Marcella's. Fiddle with them a bit until what you've got is your very own. Make that sauce so often that it becomes a tradition. Someone's favorite recipe. Something you pass on to your children or your children's children, or the daughter of a friend who always likes sitting near you when you cook, being watchful and quiet, absorbing every little thing you do.

You might realize, then, that food, in a way, immortalizes you.

Beef Bolognese
Serves 6 with leftover sauce

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups finely chopped onions
¾ cup finely chopped celery
¾ cup finely chopped carrots
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef
1/3 pound pancetta, finely chopped
1 1/3 cups tomato paste
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups red wine
2 2/3 cups whole canned tomatoes, drained of juices and torn
2 cups meat stock
Pappardelle, cooked al dente
Grated Parmesan

1. Combine the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy pot set over medium heat. When hot, add the onions, celery and carrots, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables start to brighten in color, about 20 minutes.

2. Add the garlic, and just before it starts to brown, add the beef and pancetta. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is thoroughly browned, about 25 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes. Add the milk and cook at a lively simmer until the milk is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until the pan is almost dry.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and the stock, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Skim the fat off the surface. Toss with al dente pappardelle and serve with grated Parmesan.


Marcella Hazan's Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup

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More patience.

Less anxiety.

More seizing-the-day, more exploration, more adventure.

Less routine, less ruts.

Oh, and more vegetables.

* * *

New year, new resolutions. Every January rolls around and I feel mildly twitchy and on edge about any number of things I'm meant to be improving Right Now (the state of my cuticles, the number of times a week I find myself gyrating to a hopped-up 80's music in a class full of other Spandex-clad ladies, the amount of letters I hand-write to my acquaintances, and my determination to make this year the year I finally join a choir).

I try not to get too caught up in the clean slate, fresh page thing, but it's hard. After a month of excess - too many truffles from gift baskets at the office, too much alcohol from one too many holiday parties, too many heavy meals that mark each celebration at the end of the year - it seems a given that January become an ascetic month. Early-to-bed, early-to-rise, frequent visits to the gym, main-course meals made of nothing but plants, and wholesale rejection of anything sweet... oh, it's all so dour.

(Except that while I was in Brussels with my family, eating meal after meal of amazing vegetables (my Sicilian uncle, man, he has his sources - boiled broccoli rabe, braised artichokes (every day!) filled with seasoned breadcrumbs, tender slices of raw fennel, and spunky little puntarelle (which sparked a discussion about the various kinds of endive/chicory were best and things got a little heated, I won't lie, because people have their favorites and you can't go around impugning someone's favorite green, you really can't), just to name a few, I realized that, if vegetables are as delicious as the things I ate there, it's not exactly deprivation.)

(Swear to God and I hope that doesn't make me a total nerd.)

(Tragically, and somewhat predictably, the fare available to me at my local Key Foods, and (to be honest) even at the somewhat more upscale organic grocer in my neighborhood is a pale, pale comparison to the tasty shoots and leaves we ate in Europe. Everything there was sweeter, greener, more tender, more flavorful. Why? I don't know. It just was. And I promise it's not because someone else was cooking either.)

(Okay, enough of this.)

In Berlin last week, I appalled some friends by admitting that Ben and I routinely polish off an entire head of cabbage in one sitting. I was thinking, specifically, of Marco Canora's braised cabbage, but then the other night, fueled by Marcella Hazan's urging and my determination (my trousers, they are snug), I turned an entire head of Savoy cabbage into soup and - zing! - it was gone in a minute. Hey, presto! Think of it as my version of the cabbage soup diet. (Ba-da bing.)

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It's so much richer, though, and delicious than it sounds. You shred cabbage and braise it within an inch of its life with a bit of vinegar (a Venetian treatment, this is). Then you take the whole lot of it (I know, it's rather wan. But so tasty!) and boil it with broth and rice into a soupy, sludgy stew. You beat butter and Parmesan into it, kind of like with risotto, let it sit for a few minutes and then you eat it.

It fulfills quite a few January requirements - some low, slow cooking; a goodly amount of vegetables and just a wee bit of fat; and has the stick-to-your-ribs quality that you simply need when the wind howls around the corners and your pipes threaten to freeze. It's not much to look at, that's true, but who said January was pretty, anyhow?

Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup
Serves 2 if that's all you're having for dinner

Smothered Cabbage:

2 pounds Savoy cabbage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1. Detach and discard the first few outer leaves of the cabbage. Shred the remaining head of cabbage very fine, either with your food processor's shredding attachment or by hand. Be sure to remove the cabbage's inner core.

2. Put the onion and olive oil and a large saute pan and turn the heat to medium. Cook the onion, stirring, until it's softened and taken on some color. Then add the garlic. When the garlic has turned a pale gold, add the shredded cabbage. Turn the cabbage over 2 or 3 times to coat it well, and cook it until it has wilted.

3. Add salt, pepper, and the vinegar to the pan. Turn the cabbage over once, completely, then lower the heat to minimum and cover the pan tightly. Cook for at least 1 1/2 hours, or until it is very tender, stirring from time to time. Add 2 tablespoons of water, if needed, during the cooking if the cabbage becomes too dry. When done, taste and add salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Allow it to settle a few minutes off heat before serving.

Soup:

The smothered cabbage
3 cups homemade meat broth or 1 cup canned beef broth diluted with 2 cups of water or 1 1/2 bouillon cubes dissolved in 3 cups of water
2/3 cup Arborio rice
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Put the cabbage and broth into a soup pot, and turn on the heat to medium.

2. When the broth comes to a boil, add the rice. Cook, uncovered, adjusting the heat so that the soup bubbles at a slow but steady boil, stirring from time to time until the rice is done. It must be tender, but firm to the bite, and should take around 20 minutes. If while the rice is cooking, you find the soup becoming too thick dilute it with a ladleful of homemade broth or water. The soup should be on the dense-ish side when finished.

3. When the rice is done, before turning off the heat, stir in the butter and the grated cheese. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into individual plates and allow it to settle a few minutes before serving.