For the last month, our schedule has been impacted by my husband’s undergoing a 17.5-hour surgery for an hiatal hernia, hence the irregular postings to my blog as well as commenting on others. The surgery has also affected our daily menus with temporary restrictions on what my better half can safely consume.
So far, he’s been home for only a couple of days and, surprisingly, we’ve been able to have enjoyable dinners both nights. On his first night home we had skin-on bone-in chicken thighs over roasted with onions and red bell peppers. Last night, following the surgeon’s suggestion, I prepared a new recipe for a meat loaf from Hazan’s Marcella’s Italian Kitchen: Polpettone di Vitello al Sedano, or Veal Loaf with Celery. (It’s amazing how almost everything sounds better in Italian. Polpettone, by the way, is Italian for “big meatball.”)
Serendipity led us to last night’s scrumptious vegetarian dinner. On Friday, my husband sent me a recipe by Yewande Komolafe he found in The New York Times for a lentil and orzo stew with roasted eggplant. Little did he know that, just the day before, I had already chosen the very same dish for a future post.
Given the recent dank and dreary weather, atypical for San Diego, the stew was the perfect entree: earthy lentils, slowly simmered with aromatic vegetables and orzo, brightened by finishing with the juice and zest of lemon, and then topped with meaty chunks of eggplant roasted with warm and citrusy coriander. A few shavings of salty ricotta salata or even some crumbled feta completes the dish.
Over the past holiday week, it’s been chilly here in San Diego and the cool weather made me long for a hardy winter dish. Looking through my cookbooks, I came upon a recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy for a pork ragù with farro Potenza style. The combination of pork shoulder simmered low and slow in a spicy tomato sauce and then combined with nutty farro sounded most appealing.
Fortunately, our local grocery store was having a great half-price sale on fresh bone-in pork shoulder roasts, which added even more appeal to the recipe. Even though I only needed two pounds of meat, I picked up a six-pound roast that would allow me to practice my butchering skills and provide me enough meat for a couple of meals.
Recently, I was going through some photos on my computer and came across one of myself. It’s a candid shot snapped in the kitchen by my husband, who, by the way, deserves credit for most of the photos on this blog.
In the picture, I’m just sautéing the aromatics for a braise of lamb shanks, but what struck me about it is the hint of contentment on my face. Was this expression due to the satisfaction I get from cooking or could it be attributed to anticipating the gratification I would get from sharing the finished dish with family and friends?
I’m really not sure, but perhaps that tranquil look explains why dishes like braised lamb shanks are called “comfort food” and may indicate that the comfort derives not only from eating but also from preparing them.
The other day, my “Daily Briefing” email from The New York Times led me to a recipe for a Cheesy White Bean Tomato Bake. The photo accompanying the recipe looked so good that I simply had to make the dish that night.
When I started to cook, however, I began to find elements of the recipe that I needed or wanted to change. First off, because my pantry only had one can of cannellini beans, I had to substitute a can of chickpeas for the second can called for by the recipe. I believe this forced change was fortuitous since the chickpeas added another layer of flavor to the dish.
Next, I thought that cooking the garlic in heated oil for only one minute over medium-high heat wouldn’t yield the depth of flavor as would adding the garlic to unheated oil and slowly simmering it over low heat for five of six minutes. I similarly extended the time for “frying” the tomato paste from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, but made sure that the tomato paste didn’t burn by stirring it.
In addition, to add a little heat, I added a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to simmer with the garlic and oil.
In the recipe’s second step, I opted for the longer cooking time in the oven, a full ten minutes, at which point the mozzarella had started to melt. And as the recipe had anticipated, the cheese still was not as toasted as depicted in the recipe’s photo, so as suggested, I ran the skillet under the broiler for at least 2 minutes.
Although the final dish was very good, a perfect comfort food, I believe the recipe still needs some tweaking. Perhaps rendering some pancetta at the beginning or using a smoked mozzarella would do the trick. I’ll let you know how it turns out the next time around.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 generous tablespoons double concentrated Italian tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
½ cup boiling water
Kosher salt and black pepper
⅓ pound mozzarella, coarsely grated (about 1 1/3 cups) Preparation
Heat the oven to 475 degrees.
1) In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, simmer the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes over low heat, until the garlic turns slightly golden, about 5 or 6 minutes.\
2) Raise the heat to medium low and stir in the tomato paste (be careful of splattering) and fry for 1 ½ minutes, reducing the heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning.
3) Add the beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper and stir to combine.
4) Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top, then bake until the cheese has melted and browned in spots, approximately 10 minutes.
5) If the top is not as toasted as you’d like, run the skillet under the broiler for a 1 to 2 minutes. Watch closely to avoid burning.
Sometimes what I choose to prepare for dinner is determined by finding something in the fridge that needs to be used up. Such was the case yesterday when I found a week-old container of mirepoix (diced onions, carrots, and celery). I considered several options, including a bean soup and pasta sauce, but then I thought why not something braised, cooked low and slow. After checking a few cookbooks for recipes, I finally settled upon one I found in Michele Scicolone’s The Italian Slow Cooker: “Lamb Shanks with White Bean and Gremolata.” My only concern was being able to find the lamb shanks early on Sunday morning. Fortunately, I was able to grab the last four shanks available at my local market.
They were from Icelandic lamb, which I discovered is a seasonal special that ’s available at Whole Foods from late September to October. They met the recipe’s size requirements (small, about 1 pound each) and were surprisingly lean. This was my first encounter with this variety of lamb and I’m happy to report that it was rich in flavor and not as gamey as some other varieties, which I believe contributed to the success of the dish. There was a prefect balance of flavors among the meat, the vegetables, beans, braising liquid, and the bright gremolata (a mix of minced garlic, lemon zest, and parsley.)
I think the next time I prepare this dish, I’ll brown the shanks before slow cooking them to develop their flavor a little more. However, even without this step, the lamb was delicious.
Lamb Shanks with White Beans and Gremolata from The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 medium rib of celery, chopped (My mirepoix contained a little more of each of these ingredients.)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 3-inch fresh rosemary sprig
4 small lamb shanks (about 1 pound each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup meat broth or canned beef broth (I opted for the canned broth.)
1 cup dry red wine (I used a red-blend from California.)
2 tablespoons tomato paste (I use the imported concentrated paste.)
4 cups cooked white beans or canned beans, drained (I used a can of Goya “Small White Beans.” When using canned beans, I always rinse them under cold water.)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (Italian flat-leaf parsley is best.)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Scatter the vegetables, chopped garlic, and rosemary in a slow cooker. (I lightly salted the vegetables.)
Trim the shanks, pat them dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the shanks in a single layer on top of the vegetables.
Combine the broth, wine, and tomato paste with a whisk in a bowl. Pour the mixture over the lamb and cook on low for 8 hours, or until the lamb is very tender and coming away from the bone.
Remove the shanks from the cooker and place on a serving platter. Cover and keep warm.
Skim the fat off the the surface of the liquid in the cooker. Turn the heat to high. Stir in the beans and cook until thoroughly heated through.
Meanwhile chop the parsley and garlic, and combine with the grated lemon zest.
Stir half of the mix into the beans.
To serve, pour the beans over the lamb and sprinkle with the remaining gremolata. Serve hot.
When it comes to winter comfort food, nothing beats something braised. During cooking, the heat from the stove warms the house, while the aromas tantalize the appetite. At the table, the unctuousness of the meat and the sensuousness of the sauce caress the palate. And if you’re lucky enough, or had the foresight to double the recipe, you have the leftovers, which more often than not are even better than when you first enjoyed the dish.
Last weekend, I found some great looking locally sourced, farm-raised pork shanks, each about a pound, at my butcher in Chelsea Market, Dickson’s.
When I got back home, I looked through my files and found a recipe from Williams-Sonoma for a classic braise with broth, wine, and aromatics complemented by cooked white beans.
The success of this dish depends a lot on thoroughly browning the shanks to develop deep meaty flavors. Finely dicing the onions, carrots, and celery makes for a richly textured sauce. My only variation from the recipe was using whole, rather than chopped, fresh thyme and removing the springs before finishing the sauce. I also used a smaller quantity of beans than called for.
Braised Pork Shanks with White Beans Adapted from Williams-Sonoma
4 fresh pork shanks, well-tied, each 1 1/2 to 2 lb.
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs. tomato paste (I recommend the imported concentrated tomato paste from a tube.)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
2 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme (I prefer to use the whole springs and remove then after cooking.)
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups cooked cannellini beans (I recommend starting with 2 cups, and adding more to your taste.)
Preheat an oven to 375°F.
Season the pork shanks with salt and pepper. Dredge the shanks in the flour, shaking off the excess. (I’m rather liberal with my salt and pepper.)
In a large braiser (enameled cast iron works best) over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil until just smoking. Add the shanks and brown on all sides, 10 to 12 minutes total. Transfer to a plate. (Take the time to brown the shanks well.)
Add the onions, celery and carrots to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and allow to toast for about a minute. (The original recipe adds the tomato paste along with he garlic and thyme and does not call for toasting.)
Add the garlic, the 1/4 cup parsley and the thyme and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the broth and wine and bring the mixture to a boil.
Return the shanks to the pan, cover and transfer to the oven. Cook, turning the shanks once about half way through, until the meat is fork-tender and almost falls off the bone, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Transfer the shanks to a platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil. (The original recipe says to turn the shanks occasionally; I think once is enough.)
Skim the fat off the braising liquid, set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Simmer until the liquid is thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the cooked beans, mashing some of them into the sauce.
Garnish the shanks with parsley and serve immediately with the beans and braising juices. Serves 4.
Back from a week of enjoying authentic Venetian dishes and returning to my tutoring position in Harlem made me long for some homemade American comfort food. Among the first emails I read when we got home was one from the New York Times Cooking Newsletter that had a link to a recipe for Craig Claiborne’s Smothered Chicken. The original recipe appeared in a feature he wrote for the Times in 1983: “Make Dinner: A Home Cooking Manifesto.”
The recipe appealed to me not only for its comforting qualities but also for its ease. It requires minimal shopping: a small chicken; the rest of the ingredients are kitchen staples: chicken stock, flour, butter, salt and pepper. It’s also a one-pot dish: a cast-iron skillet and takes about an hour and a half to complete.
Even with getting back from work around 6:30 and having to go food shopping, I was able to get this dish on our table by 8:30.
Accompanied by some quick-cooking couscous, buttered peas, and an American Chardonnay, the dish delivered all the comfort we were looking for. After we finished, we looked at each other with contented smiles and I thought: “Gee, it’s great to be back home.”
“Simply the best short ribs we’ve ever had” was all we could say after finishing these succulent and flavorful braised ribs. Although not typical summer fare, the short ribs looked irresistible when I saw them at the market and I thought we both could use a little comfort food.
For me, braising is the best way to cook this cut of meat, and the most convenient method is slow cooking. And for slow cooking, I usually turn to one of Michele Scicolone’s slow-cooker cookbooks. For last night’s supper, I selected her recipe “Beef Short Ribs with Mustard and Red Wine” from The Mediterranean Slow Cooker.
After browning the trimmed bone-in ribs well on all sides in olive oil, I removed them from the pot and discarded all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. I placed the ribs in the slow cooker and seasoned them generously with salt and pepper.
In the remaining fat, I quickly sautéed some chopped shallots and finely minced garlic followed by a generous amount of concentrated tomato paste. I decided to toast the paste for about a minute, which I believe gave the dish a deeper tomato flavor.
I deglazed the pan with some Côtes du Rhone along with several tablespoons of whole grain mustard. After bringing the contents of the pan to a simmer, I poured them over the ribs, tossed in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, and cooked the ribs on low for 8 hours. The recipe does call for skimming the fat from the sauce after removing the ribs from the pot. But, as you may have noticed in the first photo, I did a cursory job of this as we were so hungry.
I must admit that browning the ribs can make an oily mess on the stove, but it makes a big difference in the finished dish. The whole grain mustard adds a luscious complexity to the sauce.
A Google search will yield other versions of this dish by chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. Scicolone’s recipe, however, delivers both a richness and a purity of flavor with a minimum of work.
I must admit that waiting for the ribs, as their aroma permeated the apartment, was torture, but the wait was worth it. Next time, I’ll just be sure to schedule my slow cooking for when I’m not at home for most of the day.