The list of foods that we are afraid to make from scratch is long: gravy, risotto, bread, polenta, gnocchi… Something about the transformation that occurs during the cooking process intimidates us. We worry that the gravy won’t thicken, that the risotto won’t be tender, the bread will be flat, the polenta gritty, and the gnocchi will stick to the bottom of the pot in one large blob. However, if you have a good recipe from a reliable source and if you follow it to a T, you will achieve consistently positive results.

So when Glenn and I decided to make gnocchi for the first time, I consulted the usual suspects for a recipe: Mark Bittman, Joy of Cooking, and Gourmet. The proportions and technique were pretty consistent across the board, but one recipe stood out. This recipe from Gourmet recommended baking the potatoes rather than boiling them to control the moisture content. That sounded pretty logical to me and the recipe came with an instructional video, so I was sold.

Believe it or not, it was easy and fun to make the gnocchi. After baking the potatoes, it only took about 15 minutes to mix, roll, and cut the dough. I was still worried when it came time to boil the dumplings, but I didn’t let my stress interfere with my techniques and the gnocchi came out of the water tender and whole.

Glenn and I served our gnocchi in a beef ragu scented with cinnamon and coriander. It made for a great winter meal, but I can’t wait to try the gnocchi in a lighter sauce come spring.

Follow this recipe for The Best Gnocchi from Gourmet. The name says it all.

Beef Ragu Scented with Cinnamon and Coriander
Serves 4
1 14oz.-can diced tomatoes
2 oz. pancetta, chopped
½ an onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 bay leaf
½ cinnamon stick
¼ tsp. ground corriander
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ lb. ground beef
¼ cup red wine
1 Tb. tomato paste

Melt 2 Tbs. butter and 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large pan. Saute the pancetta until golden. Add the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Saute until vegetables are tender. Add the beef and saute until just cooked. Stir in the wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes with juices. Simmer 1½ hours.


How to Eat 2½ Pounds of Spinach in a Week

When Glenn and I moved out of my brother’s and into our own house, we joined Costco so we could stock up on basics like toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, flour, and rice. Now that we have a lifetime supply of these items, we’re not sure what to do with our membership. Last week I wandered into the produce section and nonchalantly tossed a 2½-pound bag of baby spinach into my cart. I didn’t realize the size of my mistake until I tried to put the giant bag into my fridge. So I consulted some old friends and came up with about 17 million ways to eat spinach.

Option 1: Toss a salad. Perhaps the most obvious solution to the spinach problem, but eating a salad for every meal until kingdom come doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. You can peruse Bittman’s list of 101 Simple Salads for the Season to get a few ideas or, to get ideas for this season, pick up a copy of Bittman’s Kitchen Express.

Option 2: Saute it. Many winter dishes taste fabulous with a pile of sauteed spinach on the side, on top, or mixed in. We happened to have a pot of dal in the fridge, which was perfectly complemented by a few handfuls of sauteed spinach. We also ate the sauteed stuff piled on top of mushroom ragu and polenta, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Option 3: Use an actual recipe. I was surprised by how many recipes I had saved that featured spinach. Believe it or not, we didn’t have enough spinach left to try this soup from the Pioneer Woman, but we did make a tapas dish from Smitten Kitchen. However, Glenn and I thought that since it had a protein, a vegetable, and a starch, Espinicas con Garbanzos was a well-balanced dinner and we ate it as such.

Option 4: Variations on a theme. I learned several years ago how to make spanikopita from a college friend with a Greek family. It makes an impressive party dish, but is really too much trouble for a weeknight dinner for two. Rather than buttering (and inevitably tearing) countless sheets of phyllo, I served the spinach, onion, and feta over whole-wheat pasta. It was both delicious and simple.

Spanikopita Spaghetti
Serves 2
½ lbs. whole-wheat pasta, cooked al dente
4 Tbs. butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups baby spinach
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
grated Parmesan cheese
lemon wedges

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook about 30 minutes or until onion is caramelized.

When the onion is brown and caramelized, add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the spinach, stirring until the leaves are wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add ¼ tsp. nutmeg if you want to be really Greek.

Scoop half the noodles onto each plate, top each with half the spinach mixture, half the feta, and some grated Parmesan. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Summer Baked Pasta

I used to have a pretty good meal-planning routine. I would spend all weekend reading food blogs and magazines, bookmarking and dogearing pages. I’d pick about three dishes to make for the week and, on Sunday morning, I’d make my grocery list and go to the store before everyone got out of church. Then I started getting a little too social on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings turned into afternoons and grocery lists turned into restaurant menus.

Without any food in the house, the meal-planning turns from weekly to daily. So one evening after work, I was frantically surfing the internet looking for something that looked edible and easy. I came across this baked pasta on The Pioneer Woman and decided that would do the trick.

It did. With twice as much vegetables as pasta, I felt like I was eating something healthy, but it sure didn’t taste like health food. I made a few adjustments to the recipe that night and next time (and there will be a next time) I’ll make a few more.

I used whole wheat pasta and, due to a lack of selection, I used penne instead of shells. I like the taste of the whole wheat pasta — especially in contrast to all the green vegetables — but some of the pasta on top got a little tough. Next time I’ll make sure all those pieces are tucked under some cheese and veggies.

I had to substitute some vegetables because my store was sold out of asparagus and I forgot to buy peas. I used spinach instead of asparagus and increased the weight of all the vegetables to make up for the peas. I think that worked out just fine.

I think that the cheese mixture could be more flavorful and the assembly could be a little easier. This recipe is definitely worth perfecting, so I’ll let you know how it goes next time I make it.

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.

Sweet Potato Ravioli

It’s good to have a long Saturday project. One that takes a lot of time and has a lot of different tasks and has a lot of breaks. A project to schedule your naps around. A project that will take much longer to prepare than it will to enjoy. Because, really, that’s the fun part.

These ravioli were one big, huge Saturday project. So many fun aspects: peeling, mashing, kneading, rolling. My favorite part? Cracking the eggs into a well (right on the counter! no bowl!). It took Glenn and I about four hours to prepare and about fifteen minutes to eat. In the end, the taste was a little disappointing (an odd combination of too rich and too bland — it think we didn’t use enough contrasting flavors), but it was nice to sit down to a meal prepared entirely from scratch.

We used The Joy of Cooking for the pasta dough and an old Bon Appetit recipe for the filling and sauce. We added a little goat cheese at the end, which was a nice compliment to earthy flavors.

Fresh Egg Pasta

  • 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Measure the flour onto a clean counter, shape into a mound, and form a well in the center. Add the eggs, salt, and oil to the well. Use a fork to whisk the eggs, gradually incorporating some flour as you go. Use your fingers to mix the eggs into the flour until a smooth dough forms. Knead the dough until it is satiny and elastic. Divide into four balls, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest about an hour.
  • Working with one ball of dough at a time, roll it out on your counter with a rolling pin. When the dough is as thin as you can get it with the rolling pin, stretch it with your hands. The Joy of Cooking has excellent instructions and diagrams, but I’ll try to explain a little bit of the technique. Lay the rolling pin across the dough and pick up the dough on the opposite side of the rolling pin. You can stretch it by laying it over the pin and holding it to the pin as you roll outward. You can also stretch it by using the pin to hold the rest of the dough down while you use your hands to stretch the dough away from you. In the end, you want the dough to be so thin that you can see your hand through it. Remember — pasta cooks up.
  • To make ravioli, you will place the filling on one half of the dough, fold the dough over, seal the edges, and cut the pieces apart. On one half of the rolled out dough, place teaspoons of filling with 1-2 inches in between. Dip your fingers in a bowl of water and wet the dough between the drops of filling. Then fold the plain side of the dough over the filling side of the dough and use your fingers to seal the area around each drop of filling. Then use a pizza cutter to cut the individual ravioli apart.
  • Spread the ravioli on a baking sheet, cover loosely in plastic wrap, and let rest one hour.
  • Boil ravioli in a large pot of water for about three 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.

3 Things to Make with Leftovers

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my meal rotation goes something like this: recipe from Gourmet, salad, recipe from Smitten Kitchen, pasta, pizza, salad. Maybe it’s a little boring to keep posting the same meals over and over, but I think it’s important. I think it’s important not to hide the fact that I make some really boring stuff sometimes. I also think it’s important to share ideas about how to make the boring stuff less boring. So here is a pasta, a salad, and a pizza made with last week’s leftovers.


Angel hair pasta with mushrooms and asparagus. This would have felt more like a meal if I had made the pasta with mushrooms and served the asparagus on the side.

DSC02531Greek-style Cobb salad. Did you know there are ivory bell peppers? They are slightly less sweet than green peppers. Is there even any lettuce under there? Somewhere.

pizzainovenHomemade pizza using Joy of Cooking crust. As it turns out, it’s pretty important to let the crust rise a few minutes before you top it. Also, preheat your baking stone or sheet — it makes the crust nice and crispy on the bottom. Roll the dough onto parchment paper or a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal for easy transfer.