Archive for September, 2008

Sunshine, Cobwebs, and Baked Orrechiette

I thought I’d let you know that I’m determined to get past my writer’s block and general food malaise. Last weekend’s gorgeous weather actually inspired me to get off the couch and think about writing again. Focus, clarity, and blogging seemed to be within my grasp, and I looked for a new recipe to help bring everything together.

I can never resist a baked pasta dish; there’s something about the mix of melted cheese, tomato sauce, and chewy pasta that hits the spot and lifts my spirits every time. So as soon as I received this month’s Food & Wine and saw this recipe for Baked Orrechiette with Pork Sugo, I folded down the page and vowed to make it as soon as possible. In my mind it promised to be a more elegant version of my beloved Baked Ziti with Spicy Sausage recipe, and we all know I could use a little more class in my life.

As the sun shined through my kitchen window on Sunday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrots, and garlic. Next I browned the pork in my Dutch oven and added the vegetables, tomatoes, red wine, and chicken stock before allowing it all to simmer slowly for a couple of hours. After cooking a batch of orrechiette and grating some Parmesan cheese, I threw everything into a baking dish and then into the oven.

As I proudly pulled the pan from the oven thirty-five minutes later, it hit me: I completely forgot to add onion to the sauce. I guess sunshine isn’t enough to clear the cobwebs from my brain. I swear I read through the recipe several times before I started cooking, but somehow the word “onion” never registered with me.

Sigh. Obviously I’m not over this nasty bout of block yet. And since I forgot an essential ingredient in this dish I’m reluctant to pass judgment on it. The salty cheese, rustic shredded pork, and vegetables mixed with one of my favorite pasta varieties indeed provided me with the comfort I was seeking. But clarity and focus? I think I still have a ways to go.

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Motivation

I’m not sure what’s wrong with me. I’ve spent the past few days trying to write a new post, but the words won’t come. I stare at the blank computer screen, type out a few sentences, and then quickly delete them. I’m out of sorts and, I fear, out of blog posts.

What’s funny about this situation is that lately I’ve been cooking up a storm. Nothing too exciting or labor-intensive, but I’ve been using seasonal ingredients in simple ways and trying out a lot of new recipes. With all this home cooking going on, Jim and I haven’t been eating out much—hence I don’t even have any restaurant experiences to write about.

But at least we’re enjoying all of these personally prepared meals while we retreat into nesting mode. (Perhaps we’re getting a head start on winter?) Food & Wine has helped us put some new dishes on the table, from the Triple Tomato Penne I made last night to the Pork with Arugula, Prosciutto, and Tomatoes and Crisp Vegetable Gratin we had a few weeks ago. Jamie Oliver’s Sweet Cherry Tomato and Sausage Bake may have been the easiest yet most exciting dish I made all summer, while his farro with roasted vegetables from Jamie’s Italy didn’t quite work for us.  

You would think that with this flurry of kitchen activity I’d be inspired to write post after post, with hardly a pause in between. Somehow this hasn’t happened. As I said earlier, I don’t know why, but I hope you’ll bear with me. Maybe I just need a weekend to recharge my blogging batteries. I’ll do my best.

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More Than Just Risotto: Cooking with Arborio Rice

Arborio rice is a staple in my pantry, but for years I used it sparingly, only hauling it out every once in a while to make risotto. And by “once in a while” I mean once or twice a year. Don’t get me wrong—I love risotto, but my poor arms can handle only so many upper body workouts, and all that stirring can be rather taxing on the biceps.

But in the past year I’ve started cooking with this short-grain Italian rice more often, for several reasons. First of all, it’s easier to prepare than longer-grain kernels, which I often seem to undercook or burn. With the Arborio variety, I just cover the rice with water, simmer it for 15 minutes, and finally drain it for whatever recipe I’m working with. Perhaps best of all, its high-starch content produces a creamy, moist texture that elevates simple dishes to divine. 

If you don’t believe me, take a look back at my Easter torta di riso or my stuffed Swiss chard leaves for proof. Or you can try cookbook author Viana La Place’s recipe for Lemony Rice-Parsley Salad that I found in Food & Wine a few months ago. I made it on Friday night, and my winning streak continued: As a dessert or main dish, Arborio rice has yet to fail me. 

La Place’s simple salad came together in under half an hour, perfect for a quick and healthy weeknight meal. While the rice cooked on the stovetop, I quickly chopped some parsley and pitted some briny black olives. After draining the cooked rice, I tossed everything together with olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of green pepper, and capers.

It was so easy I almost felt guilty calling it dinner. Luckily this sentiment was fleeting, as Jim and I enjoyed every bite of the supple, silky salad. It simply burst with the flavors of tangy capers, springy parsley, and lemon juice, all enhanced by the creamy texture of the rice and oil-cured olives.

As a result of these rice-related successes, a box of Arborio rice always sits towards the front of my pantry shelves. It is no longer relegated to the back of the cupboard, hiding out until a special occasion risotto dinner. I’m already planning on using it for Mark Bittman’s amazing Paella with Tomatoes later this week. That reminds me, I need to check and make sure that I have enough rice.

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Good-bye Summer

Sorry I’ve been so slow about posting this week, but I think I’m in denial that summer is over. I shouldn’t be so shocked, considering that it starts and ends the same way every year: Around the 4th of July it seems like the languid months of July and August will last forever. And then, just a few weeks later, Labor Day abruptly (and rather rudely, I might add) signals the end of beach parties and backyard barbeques.

So as I think back to how I celebrated the beginning of summer, I’m surprised at how similar it was to its farewell. On our nation’s holiday I whipped up Cook’s Illustrated’s buttery, crumbly Blueberry Buckle, while I prepared Food & Wine’s slightly less buttery Spoon Cake with Peaches for summer’s closure.

There’s no need to pit these fruity confections against each other; both admirably celebrated summer and its seasonal produce. Cook’s blueberry cake was chock-full of luscious berries from one end to the other, and the few remaining leftovers were enjoyed at breakfast the next day. Likewise, my family and I devoured the sweet, juicy peaches supporting Food & Wine’s spongy spoon cake during our Labor Day get-together.

As you can see, both desserts were winners in this head-to-head comparison. But now it’s time to say good-bye to summer and start dreaming about apples, pears, and pumpkins. Actually, now that I think about it, things could be a lot worse.

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