Fried

Painted in Waterlogue

Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.

They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.

I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families,  I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)

So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.

And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.

It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.

I’m just reporting, not complaining.

But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.

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While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.

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I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil

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I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished. 

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It was a wonderful meal.

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Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight.  Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.

It was perfect.

The Nowhere Near Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge

Painted in Waterlogue

“Let’s just have green beans,” she said.

She didn’t mean we should forego the turkey, skip the stuffing, or pass on the pumpkin pie. And she surely didn’t mean there would be no mashed potatoes.

I had been asking about green bean casserole, which is a pretty traditional Thanksgiving side dish around here. But considering the butternut squash soup, the giblet gravy, and the aforementioned and very buttery mashed potatoes, I agreed the there would be enough creamy things on the menu. Steamed beans with salt and pepper and a little lemon zest would provide a nice, crisp balance. Nobody missed the casserole at Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody left the table happily full.

But, on Sunday night, while watching a cooking game show that included a “remake this side dish” challenge, I thought about green beans. (I’d bought more vegetables than we’d needed to cook for the seven of us, so there were some in the fridge that ought to be cooked soon.) When we arrived home on Monday after long days at the offices and long, rainy commutes, it seemed time for something warm and comforting—and not just the last of the reheated Thanksgiving leftovers. One of my students today had said, “You know, give me green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, and I’m good for Thanksgiving.”  So, while she folded some laundry, I thought: Game on. Remake Green Bean Casserole as an entree using only things we have in the fridge or pantry.

Green Bean Tortellini

1/2 package spinach tortellini
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tbsp giblet gravy
2 tbsp cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp grated parmesan cheese
2 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

Do the slicing and chopping. Set a pot of water to boil. If you have been sitting at a desk or piano, or in traffic, all day long, go into the living room and do a 7 Minute Workout. If your day has been sufficiently active already, slice and dice while waiting for the water to boil. Warm pasta bowls in the oven.

Cook tortellini according to package directions. Steam the green beans over the water in the pasta pot.
Put a glug of oil in a skillet, get it good and hot, and sauté the onions, then the mushrooms. Add the Worcestershire sauce and toss.
Drain the tortellini and put it in the oven to keep warm; it won’t be long now.
Add the green beans to the drained pasta.
Add the cream and gravy to the mushrooms and onions; stir to combine and heat through.
Pour the mushroom/onion sort-of-sauce over the pasta and beans; toss to combine.
Divide into the warmed bowls. Sprinkle crumbled bacon and cheese on top.

Serves 2, plus one lucky lunch-eater the next day. (Or increase all the quantities and serve 2 for lunch, or 4 for dinner.)

 

The idea here is for a dish that is equal parts veg and pasta. The result is not soupy. The beans are still crisp. The bacon is totally optional, but I’d made it and forgot to add it to the Brussels sprouts on Thanksgiving day, so its salty crunch seemed like a wise addition. It’s not Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s something entirely different. And I’ll do it again.

Dinner in 30 minutes, plus a little exercise, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a long day of happy-but-challenging work.  Not bad for Monday.

 

 

Simpaug Farms CSA: Weeks Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen

It takes approximately 10 weeks to form a new habit. It took approximately 10 weeks (as evidenced by the diminishing level of detail in our “cataloging the share” posts) for collecting and processing our share to become routine.

At some point between 10 and 2 each Sunday, I tidy the fridge, dispose of anything spoilt, wash any dishes, and head to the Farmer’s Market to collect our share. I unpack the crate of goodness into cloth bags, load them into the trunk, and drive home. (The market is three times farther away from our home than the grocery store is, and this process still takes less than half the time of a typical grocery run. No lines!) Once home, I unpack the items, store them appropriately (this now takes less than ten minutes!), and move on with my day.

In the first weeks of receiving the share, I spent hours with the fresh veg – meticulously photographing each item, washing and drying and trimming and wrapping and placing each one in its storage spot, poring over cookbooks and farm magazines looking for just the right recipes to showcase our farm-to-table goodness, and then feverishly batch cooking it all.

Now, it’s just food.

Well. In our house, nothing is “just” food, but bringing the share into our home isn’t a project – and it’s so much less effortful than making lists and choosing each item and packaging them. Sundays are, once again, full of ease.

What’s in Our CSA Share?

For the last few weeks, each of our shares have been remarkably similar: eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic, sweet and hot peppers, fresh herbs, acorn and butternut squashes, green beans, lettuce mix, watermelon and pullet eggs.

We’ve eaten watermelon by the slice, and I’ve relished baking cakes with these beautiful, yolky little eggs. Clay developed a new InstantPot chili recipe using acorn squash instead of beans, and a butternut+Parmesan pasta sauce. We’ve made creamy tomato soup and roasted ratatouille, and put up a few jars of salsa for the winter. I made a dozen mini quiches last week that we enjoyed for take-along-breakfasts. And salad is back in season, with a different custom dressing (see yesterday’s post about our thwarted desire for hot oil).

I’m craving a squash-and-potato soup with sharp cheddar cheese, so that’s on this week’s to make list. I’d like to give Ina Garten’s mini Italian frittatas a try. And I’ve been baking stone fruit skillet cakes and fall-fruit hand pies – I’ll keep at both of those!

What’s happening in your kitchen?

How NOT To Make “Hot Oil”

Pretty doesn’t always equal tasty.

Our favorite local pizza spot is a pub that specializes in the Hot Oil Bar Pie – a paper-thin, crisp crust smeared with aromatic marinara, a blend of cheeses, and an olive-oil-soaked jalapeño pepper placed in the center of the pie (so the spicy oil disperses throughout as it bakes). The heat is all up-front, so people who can’t handle a lingering spiciness can still enjoy a slice. This is an amazing pizza.

Since the predominant kitchen motto in our house is “I bet we can make that”, and since we’ve received a half-dozen jalapeño peppers from our CSA share in the last few weeks, I followed the instructions received from our waitress on our last visit; topped the peppers, removed the seeds and ribs, packed them in olive oil, and left them to cure.

The result: moldy peppers and cloudy oil!

I’m assuming that the folks at Colony take a few more steps, and that their peppers are packed tightly (like cucumbers for pickles); slicing mine made them less sturdy and more slippery, which probably means they were less likely to stay submerged in the oil.

I’ve done a bit of reading on making other spiced oils, and have a new idea: rather than retain the peppers for use, I’ll chop them, infuse them into heated oil, then strain the solids and retain the oil for use in dressings and marinades and finishes. Sadly, the new plan may have to wait until next Sunday; I packed yesterday’s jalapeños into a new jar albeit without slicing them, before checking on the originals. (A classic food-preservation blunder!)

Single-Serving Something

img_8335“I think this is a melon,” she said.

It might well have been. It looked like a tiny honeydew—about softball-sized, with sturdy, pale yellowish-green, and a good thump—but it had no fruity fragrance at all. Still the CSA listing said there was to be melon, and everything else was identifiable, so this must have been it. At any rate, its size wasn’t a problem, since she doesn’t like honeydew melon.

I took her to the train, came back to the house, and decided melon would be good for my breakfast.

Slicing it in half, I found flesh that was more yellow than green, and many more seeds (and larger ones) than any melon I know. I sliced off a bit and tried it. Nope. Not a melon. Definitely squash of some sort. I put the mystery squash aside and had a donut.

As lunchtime approached, I took the nothing-ventured-nothing-gained approach and set the toaster oven to 400F. I scooped out the seeds from the squash, lightly oiled and salted each half, and roasted it, cut side down on a little baking sheet. I checked every 10 minutes, and after about half an hour it was tender. I took it out of the oven and let it cool a little while I got to a stopping-point in a music-arranging project, then turned the halves over to take a look.

The squash, now slightly caramelized, revealed itself to be a little stringy. It was a petite spaghetti squash! Now lunch made perfect sense. I scraped it out with a fork, tossed it with a little butter, salt and pepper, and a spoonful of some excellent eggplant caponata I’d made for dinner the night before. It was a perfect single-serving lunch.

Mystery solved.

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Simpaug Farms CSA: Weeks Ten and Eleven

For the second time this summer, we lost a Sunday entirely; I picked up the box of vegetables between errands last week, tucking the carton into the fridge as-is and Clay actually looked through it and started making a meal-plan sometime on Tuesday. We ate well all week, but it wasn’t what you might call “well-planned”.

By contrast, this morning’s collection was leisurely – tucked as it was between Clay’s substitute-church-organist gig and my volunteer board meeting. I managed to lose myself in another bookshop on the walk between the meeting and the Farmer’s Market, but Clay kept us on task from that point forward, collecting our share and some extras (globe radishes and summer peaches). We had lunch, a little nap, a little exercise (running for Clay and yoga for me), and are settling in for a few hours of cooking.

What’s In The Share

These last few weeks are the reason I love the CSA so much: lush heirloom tomatoes, vibrant peppers (sweet and hot), and delicate garlic define summer for me. We haven’t had such a glut that we’ve needed to preserve any of it, until this week.

Vegetables

  • Beans, Green
  • Chard (untouched from last week, so a bit wilted)
  • Eggplant
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce, Green
  • Onions, Red
  • Onions, White
  • Onions, Yellow
  • Squash, Acorn
  • Tomatoes, Heirloom
  • Tomatoes, Roma
  • Tomatoes, Cherry
  • Peppers, Bell
  • Peppers, Bull Horn
  • Peppers, Jalapeno

Herbs

  • Dill
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Other

  • Eggs, 1 dozen

We have a few other ingredients at our disposal, too – either intentionally chosen or leftover from another time:

  • Asparagus (a few spears)
  • Baby Lettuces
  • Blueberries (from my uncle’s garden)
  • Peaches, 6 medium-sized
  • Potatoes, Heirloom Minis
  • Radishes, 1 bunch with their greens

What to Make With this Week’s Share

Eggplant Caponata

Clay made a delicious caponata inspired by our grocery stores “Recipe Ideas” Magazine. It’s a combination of grilled-then-pureed eggplant with diced tomato and onion, minced garlic and basil, and an assortment of spices. We ate it over the top of crostini toasts as one meal and as a fantastic pizza topping (along with fresh mozzarella cheese) for another. We’ll make another batch of it tonight that’s chopped a bit more finely, and use it as a salad layer in sandwiches.

Sausage and Pepper Sandwiches

Since we opted to stay in Connecticut this weekend rather than travel to hang with my family, we’re missing out on the hometown fair near Nana’s house. Rather than skip all the fun we’ll grill up a few onion slices and bullhorn peppers to make our own sandwiches with heritage breed pork sausage. (I’ll spoon some of the caponata onto mine…)

Pico de Gallo

We opened the last jar of last year’s salsa for a party yesterday, so I intend to preserve at least a few half-pint jars of a chunky salsa for this winter.

Perfectly Delectable Pasta Sauce

Since more tomatoes and peppers is never a guarantee, we’ll make another batch of that perfect summer pasta sauce we stumbled into a few weeks ago.

Pepper Paste

The mid-August episode of The Splendid Table included an interview with Maricel Presilla where she described making a hot pepper paste from chili peppers. I can’t handle very spicy food, but I think a variation of this made with bell and jalapeno peppers and a single dried chili from our spice cabinet will be terrific for Clay’s homemade chili this fall, so we’ll turn any peppers that aren’t used for other recipes into paste, stored in the freezer.

Compound Butter

Speaking of the freezer, we’ll combine the fresh thyme springs with sweet marjoram from our garden and a little garlic to make a compound butter. We wrap it in butcher paper to freeze and slice off small rounds to use with steaks or roasts.

Herby Potatoes

The other herbs – dill and sage – will season a pan of roasted mini potatoes. The potatoes are great to eat alongside a breakfast omelette!

Autumn Chili

Reading up on Acorn Squash, I know it will keep in the fridge for several weeks – but luckily for us it won’t have to. Next weekend is supposed to be cool and damp, and Clay starts tech week for a new show. That’s a perfect circumstance for autumn chili with cornbread, so we’ll make a pot of pressure cooker beef chili with cubes of acorn squash substituting for beans.

And Ideas for Baking

It’s nearly cool enough to fire up the oven for long stretches of time, so I fully intend to bake this week. My fall issue of Bake From Scratch includes three recipes I’m terribly excited for: Rosemary Shortbread Sandwich Cookies with Concord Grape Jam, Plum Skillet Cake, and Poached Ginger Pears.

My aunt and uncle grow concord grapes; while I’ll use store-bought jam for these sandwich cookies, the taste will remind me of them. As for the skillet cake, I’ll make that with the gorgeous peaches we bought today instead of plums. And since I made a gorgeous ginger syrup two weeks ago, I’ll use that to poach some pears as soon as they come into season!

What are you most looking forward to cooking this weekend?

How To Make A Three-Egg Omelette

Breakfast in the garden of the Little Red House by the Sea

Now that we’re back into the rhythm of commute-work-commute-work-commute-work at home, I’m missing the restful vibe of our vacation week. I’m always much happier inside my own home than in any borrowed house, but long afternoon walks, lazy hours curled up with a good book, and uncounted moments listening to the wind chimes and watching the waves were respite for a weariness I didn’t quite know I carried. I’m trying to capture a bit of that quietness over this holiday weekend that marks the end of summer breathing in greater New York City – even for those of us who don’t have to consult a school calendar.

As part of my master plan, Clay has just agreed to a 5am wake-up alarm tomorrow so we can brew coffee and tea in to-go mugs and head to our local beach for a sunrise walk. I’m bribing him through his dismay with the promise of omelettes for breakfast when we get home – just like my Mom made them for us at the Little Red House by the Sea.

How to Make a Three-Egg Omelette

  1. First, gather your tools.
    Pour hot tap water into a small bowl to warm it. Preheat your oven on the broiler setting. Set a small, oven-proof skillet containing a drizzle of olive oil on the range over medium heat. Set up a cutting board and chef’s knife.
  2. Second, prepare your filling.
    My go-to combination is a bit of whatever meats are leftover in the fridge with three spears of asparagus (cut into 1/2 inch pieces), a mushroom or two (thinly sliced), a half dozen cherry tomatoes (quartered), and a tablespoon of sharp cheese (shredded) – but choose whatever you like. You’ll want approximately 1/3 cup of filling per omelette.
    • Toss any raw vegetables into your skillet and saute them until they’ve lost their crispness. Add any pre-cooked ingredients like meat of other vegetables to the pan and stir to warm them through. Pour the water out of your now-warm bowl, dry it out, and move your vegetables into it. Wipe out your pan and place it back on the range over medium-high heat, with a teaspoon of butter tossed into it to melt.
  3. Third, taste your filling – especially if it’s made up of leftover ingredients, or any brined vegetables. Season to taste, with the plan that all flavor and seasoning will come from the filling. (I usually add black pepper liberally, but find that using pre-cooked meat means there’s no need for added salt.)
  4. Fourth, cook your eggs.
    In a small bowl (I use a glass measuring cup), beat together three eggs. We get ours directly from the farm as part of our CSA share, and they’re a combination of giant chicken and small pullet eggs; let’s assume an average size of “large”.
    • When the butter in your skillet is melted, bubbling, and fragrant, lower the heat to medium and pour your beaten eggs into the pan. Turn the pan to evenly distribute the eggs through it; as they set on the bottom, use a rubber spatula to lift the set portion and allow raw egg to run underneath.
    • When the eggs are nearly set to you your liking, remove the pan from the heat.
  5. Fifth, Assemble the omelette.
    Working quickly, scatter your filling over one-half of your cooked egg, adding any cheese as the top-most layer. Place the skillet into your oven under the broiler; leave the oven door slightly ajar to monitor the cooking/melting/browning for forty-five seconds. When the eggs are fully set and slightly browned and any cheese in the filling has melted, remove the skillet from the oven, and immediately fold it in half so that the “filled” half is covered by the “unfilled” half. Press lightly down on the top of the omelette so that the melted cheese can glue the two halves together.
  6. Sixth, serve.
    Slide your omelette onto a warmed plate, alongside a piece of hearty toast spread with tomato jam and some sliced fruit (peaches are divine just now). Hand the plate to your bleary-eyed spouse, along with a fork, a kiss, and a second-cup of coffee.

What’s your favorite “vacation” breakfast?