Mushroom Ragout with Polenta and Spinach (of Course)

This dish actually was not a ploy to make a dent in my 2½-pound bag of spinach, but that was a pleasant result. This mushroom ragout was just an initial embrace of cold-weather food. The earthiness of the mushrooms and polenta give an added warmth to an already hot dish, making it the perfect dinner to serve in a drafty old bungalow. If you’re a well-equipped cook, this is probably a pantry meal for you, which is an added bonus.

You can serve the ragout over pretty much anything—rice, beans, toasted baguette—but I loved it with polenta. Use coarse-ground yellow cornmeal and follow the package directions. Be sure to stir in plenty of butter and Parmesan at the end to make it nice and creamy.

Mushroom Ragout
Serves 2
olive oil
½ yellow onion, diced
½ pound fresh mushrooms, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of dried rosemary
1 Tbs. tomato paste
¾ cup vegetable stock
1 Tbs. butter
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
handful of chopped parsley

Heat about 1 Tbs. of oil in a skillet. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove the onion and set aside. Add some more oil to the pan and the mushrooms. Saute until they release their juices. Return the onion to the pan along with the garlic and rosemary. Continue cooking until the mushrooms and garlic begin to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and turn heat to high. Add the stock, bring to a boil, return heat to low, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Before serving, stir butter, vinegar, and parsley into the sauce.

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Real Green Bean Casserole

I have never been asked to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, but I am so certain the day will come that I’ve already started preparing for it. I am a firm traditionalist, so I can’t imagine a Thanksgiving dinner without green bean casserole. The only problem is that I don’t really like canned green beans swimming in cream of mushroom soup, so I was very excited to find this recipe for Real Green Bean Casserole.

Real should not be misconstrued as healthy. I am a firm believer that anything from scratch is better for you than something from a can, but I have a hard time making that argument in this case. Sure there are three pounds of fresh vegetables, but the butter, cream, and fried onion rings kind of cancel that out. It certainly doesn’t taste healthy.

The flavor was surprisingly similar to traditional green bean casserole — salty and earthy. The biggest difference was in the texture — the green beans were firmer, the creamed mushrooms thicker, and the onions crispier. Instead of having a lumpy, soupy mess on my plate, I had a chunky, sludgy mess. As it turns out, I just don’t like green bean casserole, even if it is real.

For the record, I think this is a good recipe with good results. I highly recommend it for green bean casserole gurus.

Biscuits and Gravy

I have failed at making biscuits and gravy many, many more times than I’ve succeeded. However, after making two good batches in a row (never mind that they were almost a year apart), I don’t believe I’ll ever fail again. You can see success number one over here and success number two above. I now know the secret to thickening gravy.

The secret to making thick and flavorful gravy is making a good roux. To make the roux, combine equal parts fat and flour in a large pan (preferably cast iron). One tablespoon each of fat and flour per person ought to do it. If you want stay-where-you-put-it gravy, you can add more flour a spoonful at a time until the grease won’t absorb it. Then cook the mixture until it is a deep brown color. Then add the liquid and stir slowly and constantly. If you’re a worry wart, you can spend the next twenty minutes agonizing over whether or not the gravy will turn out. But there’s really no need to worry — if you’ve done your work up front with the roux, the gravy will always turn out.

Breakfast Gravy:
1 lbs country sausage
2 Tb fat (from sausage or bacon)
2 Tb flour
2 cups milk

Brown the sausage in a large pan. Cook it slowly over a low heat to render the most fat.

After the sausage is cooked, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula and save it for later.

Asses how much grease you have. You can either eyeball it or pour it into a small liquid measure. If you don’t have enough grease, add some bacon grease (presumably you have a jar of it in your refrigerator).

Add the flour to the grease. Cook over low heat until the clumps are stirred out and the mixture is brown. If necessary, add more flour to achieve a more pasty consistency.

Stirring constantly, slowly pour in the milk. Bring the mixture to a very gentle simmer. In fact, it may not form bubbles because you’ll be stirring the entire time. Cook until the gravy thickens, stirring to prevent the bottom from burning or the top from scumming. It could take 30 minutes to thicken.

Salt and pepper the gravy generously, stir in the sausage, and serve over biscuits.

Gemelli with Cheese and Quick Arrabbiata Sauce

When I have four cooking magazines on my desk with at least twenty dogeared pages, it seems silly to open the recipe box and make a dish for a second or third time. The dishes I make on a regular basis lend themselves to improvisation: pizza, stir fry, soup. This Arrabbiata Sauce is one exception to the rule. The reason I make it over and over is because it tastes good, I have most of the ingredients in my cabinet, and, as the name suggests, it’s quick. Oh yeah, and it tastes one hundred percent better than the stuff in a jar (even the top shelf stuff).

The first time I made this recipe, I lived in a studio apartment behind the L tracks in Chicago. Glenn was making the long, wintry trek from school to my apartment and I was determined to have a hot meal waiting for him when he arrived. I didn’t realize that it would take me half the time to make this pasta as it would for him to travel from Ukrainian Village to Edgewater. I also didn’t realize that you could cover and simmer pasta sauce almost indefinitely. So we didn’t sit down to the hot meal that I planned, but it was tasty enough to try again. And again. And again.

I was a little worried that the dish would have lost its charm after so many years and so many fancier recipes. Not at all. And, as you can see, this dish was served piping hot. It fogged up my lens so much that I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the ghost waiting for his dinner.

Macaroni and Cheese

macandcheeseSince I’m on a from scratch kick, this seems like a good time to talk about macaroni and cheese. While I’m a big fan Rotel dip and bowling alley nachos, I have to draw the line somewhere when it comes to processed cheese. And I draw the line at powdered cheese. Why? Because it doesn’t taste good. If something is going to have little nutritional value, it better taste pretty darn good.

Now, I’m not kidding myself, I know that homemade mac and cheese isn’t the most well-balanced meal a person can eat. Sure it’s high in fat and sodium, but it’s also high in protein and calcium. You win some, you lose some. The least you can do is have a meal you enjoy.

I started tinkering around with homemade mac and cheese after I ate at Montage in Portland (OR) with my sister. Their Spold Mac (blend of Spicy Mac and Old Mac) was the first mac and cheese I ever liked. Living so far away from the restaurant in question, I had to try to replicate the dish. I’ve been miserably unsuccessful so far, but it did lead to many other delicious mac and cheese dishes.

My favorite recipe so far is Cheesemonger’s Mac and Cheese from Gourmet. Glenn and I made a version of it the other night that we dubbed Suicide Mac and Cheese. The recipe is below and the picture is above.

Cheesemonger’s Mac and Cheese

  • 1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere
  • 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar
  • 1 1/2 cups diced Brie
  • 5 Tb butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
  • 3/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 3/4 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • Melt 1 Tb butter in a small pan. Stir in breadcrumbs and toast until golden brown.
  • Boil pasta according to package directions and drain.
  • Melt 4 Tb butter in a pan. Add flour and stir until brown. Add thyme and nutmeg. Whisk in milk and simmer until thick and smooth.
  • Combine all cheeses. Reserve 1 cup for topping and add the rest to the milk mixture. Stir until melted. Add pasta to cheese sauce.
  • Divide pasta into eight 1 1/4 cup custard cups. Top with reserved cheese and breadcrumbs. (You can bake this in a large casserole instead.)
  • Bake at 375 for 20 minutes.

Sausage Ragu

DSC02672As far as I can tell, everyone has had an early and unseasonably cold fall. At least that seems to be the Facebook consensus from friends in Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon, and Texas. We’ve had a bit of a sunny break here in North Carolina, but last week it was cold and rainy. That’s why, when I saw this on Bittman’s blog, I had to make it. Immediately.

Glenn and I had a good, old fashioned, Midwestern style, Italian dinner. Meaty ragu, garlic bread, salad, red wine. And when I say ragu, I don’t mean the brand. I mean an equally easy, but much tastier, red sauce with meat. I was a little skeptical of a milk-based pasta sauce, but it was perfectly rich and creamy. We’re not winning any gold medals for nutrition here, but it was an elegant way to load up on carbs. Now I’m ready to hibernate.

Weiner Schnitzel

wiener schnizle

Glenn and I both studied in Vienna for several weeks, but in different summers. We went with the same program and had the same professors and did a lot of the same things, but not together. It’s pretty fun to reminisce, but it can get confusing. Remember when I learned the difference between brot and brötchen? No. You weren’t there. (Before every meal, the waiter would ask me, Brot oder brötchen? I always thought the terms were interchangeable and never knew how to get what I wanted. As it turns out, brot is more like a slice of bread and brötchen is more like a roll. Who knew.)

We both pretty much lived off of Wiener Schnitzel, potato salad, and cucumber salad while we were there. There was plenty of other food to be had — döner kebab, goulash, rye bread pizza, pizza slices, sauerkraut, noodle soup, apfelstrudel, Sachretorte — but serving Wiener Schnitzel to seventy hungry college students seems to be equivalent to serving burgers. Everybody loves it, it’s somewhat patriotic, it’s fairly inexpensive, and after awhile it gets a little boring.

Four years later (five for Glenn) Wiener Schnitzel seems like a delicacy. This meal is a nostalgic spin-off of those Vienna days. Instead of veal, we used pork. Instead of potato salad, we had potato gratin. All of it was super easy to make (consult Joy or your favorite cookbook on all counts). A few notes:

  • Use homemade bread crumbs or cracker crumbs. The store-bought stuff has a gritty texture.
  • Add a dash (the tiniest bit!) of fish sauce to the cucumber salad dressing. It’s the secret ingredient.
  • Glenn gave me individual gratin dishes for Christmas. Isn’t it cute?