Birthday dinner with restrictions

This is an older post that was never published. My children are both in their twenties–but the recipes hold up… so there!

Everyone I know–including myself–seems to have some food allergy or intolerance or special health or dietary need. Or violent and inexplicable dislike. This can make it challenging to prepare anyone a meal, much less a celebratory one. A dear friend is having a birthday and I wanted to make a special menu, but she doesn’t eat meat. Another guest is diabetic, another has difficulty swallowing (making him highly compatible with a meat-free menu). I am lactose intolerant, which further limits the possibilities.

Add in two picky teenagers, and you have a recipe for applesauce.

Or you can have the menu I came up with.

A butternut squash soup to start is smooth and rich. Fresh winter squash of all sorts is piled high in every market at this time of year. White beans with pasta makes a substantial entree, with a side of garlicky Swiss chard. For dessert, apple pie (see Birthday Pie, an earlier post). The squash soup was from Fields of Greens, a longtime citizen of my cookbook shelf. I ordinarily make a curried squash soup, but it didn’t really work with the beans, which have a Mediterranean flavor. The beans (also “confit” but truly so, as they are baked in olive oil), were adapted from Food Network’s Michael Chiarello. The chard is not even a recipe, more of a technique.

An immersion blender is a great tool, and one I use almost daily for everything from pureeing soup to grating cheese to grinding nuts. This version has a few spiffy attachments that I use all the time, especially the mini chopper. In fact, mine has gotten so much action, I burned out the motor making this meal.

Butternut Squash Soup
From Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville

3 cups vegetable stock (made with two onions, sliced; four garlic cloves; two carrots, sliced; one potato, diced; two celery stalks, sliced; ten whole black peppercorns; two bay leaves; and five sprigs parsley. Water to cover.)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
3 tablespoons Calvados
6 cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into large cubes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 Macintosh apples peeled, cored, and sliced (about 2 1/2 cups)
½ cup apple juice

Start your vegetable stock before you do anything else. It makes more than you need, so plan to freeze the remainder for another recipe.

In a 8-quart stock pot, heat the olive oil and add the onions. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot, loser the heat to medium, and let the onions soften, about 15 minutes. Remove the lid, add 2 tablespoons of the Calvados, and turn up the heat to medium high, but watch so the onions don’t burn–and stir often. You want the onions nice and caramelized, which can take a mind-numbingly long time. Maybe another half-hour. While waiting, Peel and cube the squash and make the apple confit.

Melt the butter in a medium-size saute pan and add the apples; saute over medium-high heat, stirring to coat with the butter. Add the remaining Calvados and cook until the pan is almost dry. Add the apple juice, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until soft; cook, uncovered, for 8-10 minutes to reduce the liquid. Mash the apples, making sure the confit retains some texture. Like I said, it’s basically applesauce, but with booze.

By now, your onions should be caramelized and you can add the squash and about a teaspoon of salt. Add just enough stock to barely cover the squash. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 20-30 minutes, until the veetables are very soft.

Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add a little more stock if it seems too thick (mine was perfect). Stir half the apples into the soup. Return the soup to the stove and cook over low heat for 30 minutes to further develop the flavors–and your guests are ready to eat. Top each bowl with a spoonful of the apples.

Cannellini beans with orecchiette pasta
Adapted from Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello

1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
12 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed with the flat of a knife
3/4 cup tomato puree (Luigi Vitelli)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 cans cannellini beans, with their liquid
1 cup cherry or grape, halved
Kosher salt to taste
8 cups hot, cooked orecchiette pasta

Heat a 4-quart dutch oven and add 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Add the garlic cloves and let them caramelize a little. Remove the pan from the heat and add the tomato puree very carefully as it will splatter a LOT. Add the herbs and crushed red pepper flakes. Add the beans and bean liquid. Sprinkle the tomatoes over the top and season with salt. Pour the additional cup of oil over the top and bake in the oven, uncovered, at 300 degrees for 60 minutes. Serve over hot pasta.

And the Apple Pie recipe. I added one tablespoon of the Calvados to the apples, which was nice.

This went over well with everybody except the picky kids. They did eat the pie, though. All of it.

Which just goes to show that there is no accounting for tastes in food and friends.

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Gołobki (go-WOOMP-kee) or Polish Stuffed Cabbage

At 85, my Mom still makes a big batch of gołobki on a regular basis and frequently gifts the extra to family and lucky friends. Her mechanic is a frequent recipient of a batch and thus he takes excellent care of her elderly Taurus sedan. This is not exactly my Mom’s recipe, but it is darn close. It omits the Lipton Onion Soup mix in favor of nicely browned onions with a little garlic and a bay leaf–and lots of pepper. It’s well worth doubling this recipe for a crowd. Once you’ve made the filling and boiled the cabbage leaves, the hard work (such as it is) is done.

3 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 bay leaf
1 large clove garlic, smashed slightly with the flat of a knife and peeled
Salt and pepper, to taste (my taste is a lot of pepper)
1.5 pounds lean ground beef
2/3 cup brown rice, uncooked (White rice is fine, too.)
1 large cabbage

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  2. Put a large pot of water on to boil. Core the cabbage. Put a colander in the sink. When the water boils, lower the cabbage into the water. As the outer leaves cook, they will peel off easily from the head. Remove each leaf one by one and put in the colander to drain. You don’t need to really cook the leaves, just soften them a bit to make them pliable. Leaves that are smaller than 4 inches in diameter are too small for ł. Set the center leaves aside for a later use, i.e., sauteed cabbage or an addition to soup.
  3. Put the bacon pieces in a small frying pan and cook until brown and crisp. Remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside in a large bowl. Pour off all but 1-2 tablespoons of bacon fat and reserve the rendered fat.
  4. Sautee the onions, garlic and bay leaf in the pan. Season with salt and lots of pepper. When the onions are nicely browned, discard the garlic clove and bay leaf and put the onions in the bowl with the bacon pieces.
  5. Add the ground beef and rice. Mix well. Add a little more salt, if needed.
  6. Use a small roasting pan or shallow 2-3 quart Pyrex dish. Brush half of the reserved bacon fat on the bottom and sides of the dish.
  7. Pick up a leaf of cabbage. Trim the thick “vein” at the base of the leaf so that it is the same thickness as the rest of the leaf. Holding the leaf open like a cup and with the base away from you, put a ball of filling into the center of the leaf (depending on the size of the leaf, anywhere from ¼ to 1/3 cup; use your judgment). Fold the far end toward you, and then the sides in toward the center. Roll the whole package over tightly, like a burrito. Place the gołobek seam side down in the pan. Continue rolling, placing the gołobki tightly together so that they don’t unroll while cooking.
  8. Brush the rest of the bacon fat over the tops of the gołobki. Add water to cover. Place any unused outer leaves over the top of the gołobki and cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil.
  9. Bake for 75 minutes and test for doneness. Note: Brown rice takes a lot longer to cook than white rice. Just sayin’.
  10. Serve with ketchup or a mild tomato sauce.
  11. Gołobki freeze well and keep for several days in the refrigerator. To reheat, fry them gently in a pan with butter.

Jelly shots

Among the post-prandial activities at my family’s Thanksgiving festivities—which included a noisy game of Slamwich; several rounds of pass-the-baby with my five-week-old nephew, Felix; and my mother’s unforgettable rendition of the “Gangnam Style” dance—were many exchanges of cooking tips and recipe advice. The hot topics: cousin Leslie’s delicious mache and avocado salad with Styrian pumpkinseed oil, the vegetarian stuffing, and, of all things, the jellied cranberry sauce I whipped up. I’ve never been a big fan of the canned variety and, truth be told, it was never a big part of my family’s tradition. But this recipe, which I adapted rather freely from a Food 52 post on Canal House’s Cranberry-Port Gelee, was a winner. It will now join the ranks of the required holiday dishes, which include Meta Given’s Macaroni and Cheese, Conrad Fortier’s turnips and carrots, and Pinar’s Muhammara.

Cranberry-Apple Jelly
1 cup Calvados or brandy
1 cup organic cane sugar
10 black peppercorns
1 whole clove
4 cups fresh or fozen cranberries
1 large apple, peeled, cored, and chopped, preferably Macoun or Macintosh

Put the Calvados, sugar, and whole spices into a heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the apple and cook for 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the cranberries pop and soften quite a bit, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on whether your berries were frozen. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve (I do it twice, because I’m like that), scraping the solids against the screen with a spatula. Discard the solids. Stir the jelly and transfer to a bowl or jars. You could probably put it into a washed soup can and get the effect of the Ocean Spray jelly, if this is important to you. Cover and refrigerate. The sauce sets up to a silky jelly once it cools, although it is not as thick as the canned kind. It is superb.

Empty-the-fridge Soup

The other night, I got “THE PHONE CALL.”

You know, the one where Gabe called to say he was coming home from swim practice with two starving friends. I panicked. It was a Thursday night, which meant that my week’s groceries had pretty much run out. The dinner I had planned to serve was “a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” as my father would say. Now I had to come up with something a little more coherent, not to mention substantial. A frantic survey of the refrigerator’s meager contents revealed three meatballs in about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, a couple of slices of bacon, and some salad fixings. I rummaged the pantry, which yielded a can of pinto beans, small shell-shaped pasta, and a quart of chicken stock. This showed some promise. An onion, a couple stalks of celery, some broccoli florets, and some frozen peas all got piled on the counter. A carrot would have been a nice addition, if there were any.  But there were not. I sent the boys to the supermarket for Italian bread to buy me some time. The soup was nearly finished by the time they arrived, and was completely demolished, along with the salad and an entire loaf of bread, 30 minutes later. Whew.

Leftover Soup (feel free to use plenty of creative license)
3-5 slices bacon, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion, sliced
Center stalks of celery, with leaves, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 cloves garlic, lightly smashed with the back of a knife
2 cups broccoli florets
1 can pinto beans (or cannelini or garbanzo)
Any random amount of leftover meatballs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, and a few drops of tomato sauce. Or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, or 1 cup chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned).
1 quart chicken stock
1 sprig of fresh oregano (optional)
1 rind from a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, which you have squirreled away in the fridge
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup small pasta shape (small shells worked perfectly)
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Put the diced bacon and the olive oil into a stockpot or Dutch oven. Cook the bacon on medium high until brown and crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Set aside.  Add the onions, celery, garlic, and 1/2 cup of diced carrots (if you have them) to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about five minutes. Add the broccoli florets, stir, and cook another five minutes. Add the beans and their liquid. Stir. Toss in the meatballs and sauce. Add the chicken stock and oregano and stir again. Throw in the cheese rind. Cover the pot and bring to a simmer.  Meanwhile, in another samll pot, cook the pasta according to package directions. When almost done, add the frozen peas. Drain the pasta and peas, but save the cooking water. No, I am not kidding. After you have added the pasta and peas to the soup, you will find that you need more liquid. Am I right? Go ahead and add as much as you like. Add Sriracha, salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer for a few more minutes until flavors have melded or the ravenous teenage boys start to circle the stove. Garnish with grated cheese and bacon bits.

Serves four, if you are lucky.

Veal and Peppiz

Gabe first had this classic—and ubiquitous in Rhode Island—Italian-American dish at Mike’s Kitchen in Cranston, RI, a wonderful restaurant/private club staged in a VFW Post hall. The restaurant is only open to the public part of the time, so check before you head out to Western Cranston, because it can be a long and bewildering drive. There is only the most subtle signage indicating that you have arrived at your destination. Also, the line starts early (like, 5 pm), and they close early, too, so better to get there with the blue-haired set and wait in the vestibule. The bar, which is run separately from the restaurant, will be happy to serve you a glass of Chianti while you wait and read the signs and bumper stickers that say things like “Vietnam Vets aren’t Fonda Jane.”  In any event, do go, as the polenta is fantastic, and so is everything else. End of commercial for Mike’s.

So, Gabe requests veal and peppers occasionally, and I am happy to cook it because it is easy, relatively cheap, and delicious. You can also sneak some vegetables in (peppers, peas) and they will actually eat them. Tonight, I’m serving the veal with a green salad, pasta, and white beans (see my earlier post, Dawn of the Dead Chicken and a Side of White Beans for the recipe), but that’s only because there is a houseful of extra kids. All you really need is the polenta. In my opinion.

Veal and Peppiz (RI pronunciation):
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds stewing veal (trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces)
1 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 large clove garlic, lightly smashed with the side of a knife
1 28-oz. can Luigi Vitelli tomatoes, drained and chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
4 red and green sweet frying peppers, cut into strips
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
1/2 cup frozen peas

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Remove the onions to the upturned lid of the skillet. Dry the veal pieces well and add to the pan, working in batches. If you overcrowd the veal, it will steam, not brown, and you want some caramelization here. Add a bit more oil, if necessary to keep the bottom of the pan from scorching. Remove each batch of veal to the upturned lid. When the veal is all browned, add the vermouth and garlic to the pan. Reduce down to about 1/3 cup. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, veal, and onions and stir. Add the peppers, stir, and cover the pan. Simmer for one hour, until the veal is tender and the peppers are soft. Add the tomato paste and peas and stir. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.  Serve over pasta (or amazing polenta) with some Parmigiano Rggiano on the side.

Eggplant and Papers

Every year, around the Fourth of July, I host a backyard barbecue to celebrate summer and a bunch of family birthdays. Friends are usually added to the mix, and one year I went a little nuts and invited everybody on the street, too. It was great fun, everybody brought a dish, and I acquired this recipe from my dear friend Noam.

Noam is a beautiful, talented jewelry designer from Israel. She’s also a great cook. But sit down and try to play a game of Scrabble or Banagrams with her and she becomes orthographically challenged.

“Isn’t dardle a word? It looks like an English word. Gilper is a word—g-i-l-p-e-r—look it up!” Said with wide-eyed innocence.

Sorry, Noam. No triple word score for you.

So she can’t spell in English. She can, however, read and write Hebrew, a truly challenging language. Do you know that they don’t bother with vowels? Vowels are simply implied. You just have to use creative license when reading important documents and such.

I used some creative license with this recipe, too. It came from Noam’s mother, a native of Yemen. It features fresh mid-summer eggplant and peppers, or “papers,” depending on how you plan to score the word. This weekend, I went to the local farmer’s market and found these slender Japanese eggplants. Since they were only about one inch in diameter, I just grilled the darlings whole. I did not have any cilantro, but I did have basil and mint in my garden, so I used a combination of those two. I have used all three. Use whichever combo you like. It will be delicious.

Egyptian Eggplant and Roasted Red Papers

1 large eggplant, sliced
2 large red peppers
Olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro and/or basil

For the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
3 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon “ras el hanuf”: or a pinch each of cardemom, mace, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper

Make the vinaigrette and set aside. Note: I find minced raw garlic rather strong, so I just smash a couple of whole cloves and let them marinate. You can fish them out later or just push them to the side of the plate. Or, you can eat them as is and be fully protected against vampires.

If you are using a large eggplant, cut it in 1/2 inch slices and brush both sides with olive oil. Leave the peppers whole and rub them all over with the oil. Put the whole peppers and eggplant slices on a hot grill and cook, turning the peppers as they blacken and charring the eggplant slices on both sides until soft. Here’s what mine looked like:

 

Remove to a plate and let cool. Cut the eggplant slices into 1-inch cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Peel and seed the peppers and cut into squares. Add to the eggplant and throw in the herbs. Toss to combine. Serve at room temperature.

The finished dish!

Passover brisket ( revisited)

It’s the night before the first Passover Seder, and I am making the recipe for Miriam’s Brisket to bring to my friends Ayelet and Rami tomorrow. It’s simple, but tried and true. Good Pesach!

Upside-down cookbook.

My children have always been very different from one another. One is Mr. Social, happiest when with a crowd of friends; the other is perfectly content to spend the day alone with a book–and Facebook. To my daughter, schoolwork has always come too easily; my son does well in school but works hard for his grades. As a kindergartner, he proudly wore the title “Class Clown,” the other one is known for her perfect attendance record. When it comes to dinner, the dichotomies continue: one likes tacos, the other burritos (beans, cheese, sour cream ONLY). One likes sausage and peppers, the other fettucine alfredo. You can generally find me preparing a minimum of two options nightly, although they do agree that macaroni and cheese is only acceptable in two versions: Kraft macaroni and cheese and homemade (I’ll post this recipe soon).

Where it really gets ugly is the subject of pot roast…

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