Monday, December 28, 2009

Macaroni and Cheese with Tomatoes

What do Jews do in Phoenix on Christmas?  Barbeque!  Unless you want Chinese food, there will be no going out.  Plus, I’m here visiting my baby niece, and a barbeque was a nice opportunity for everyone to see her, and give her lots of kisses.  You would want to give her kisses, too, if given such a golden opportunity.  My psycho-cooker-contribution to the occasion was macaroni and cheese.  Mac and cheese is always a welcome contribution to a barbeque, and this is not just any mac and cheese.  It is a very special one with tomatoes, that also happens to be ultra-delish, and has the added bonus of consisting of six ingredients, including salt and pepper.  I have been making it for years, and it always receives rave reviews. 

I adapted it from a recipe in Joan Schwartz’s macaroni and cheese cookbook.  My slightly altered version is remarkably simple: penne pasta, 2 types of cheddar, canned tomatoes, salt, and pepper.  The key to success lies in allowing it sit for at least four hours in the refrigerator, between assembly and baking.  During this incubation period, something magical happens between the juicy tomatoes and cheese, and the pasta absorbs the mysterious sauciness.  After everything is allowed to saturate, the pasta is baked, and becomes crunchy and browned on top, and saucy and cheesy below the surface. 

Another distinguishing element: the cheese is diced, not shredded, resulting in an über-cheesy final product.  Please refrain from laughing, but this macaroni and cheese is also fairly healthy when compared to other recipes within the mac and cheese genre.  Perhaps “less unhealthy” is a more accurate description.  It lacks butter, cream, half-and-half, whole milk, double cream Brie, or anything of the sort.  The cheesy factor is created solely by the presence of abundant cheddar.  Not only do I believe that this makes the dish less unhealthy, but it also gives the dish a greater cheesy flavor since it doesn’t have any cream or béchamel diluting the cheese.  As wonderful as this mac and cheese is, and despite the fact that I firmly believe that it is the least unhealthy of mac and cheese recipes, I will not attempt to claim that the tomatoes count as a vegetable.  Not even a cheese-addicted psycho cooker would be that foolish.  However, the flavor they impart is invaluable, cutting the richness and monotony of endless cheese, and there must be at least a trace of lycopenes.  
Mac and Cheese with Tomatoes

1 lb. penne pasta
1-28 oz. whole peeled tomatoes
½-1 lb. of mild cheddar, diced
½-1 lb. of sharp cheddar, diced
·      You want somewhere between a pound and a pound and a half of cheese total.  I think a pound and a quarter is perfect, but it’s a personal preference.
·      Place the cheese in the freezer for 10 minutes for easy chopping.
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

·      Placed a large pot of water on the stove over high heat.  When boiling, add a tablespoon of salted water and the pasta.  Cook the pasta, but drain the pasta 2-3 minutes before it is fully cooked (about 8-9 minutes).
·      Place the tomatoes with juice in a large bowl.  Break apart tomatoes with your hands or a wooden spoon.
·      Add diced cheese, pasta, and salt and pepper to taste.
·      Add pasta mixture to a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish.  (A sprintz of cooking spray will make the pan easier to clean.)
·      Cover the pasta mixture and allow to sit in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (or as long as overnight).
·      Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes, or until hot, bubbly, and browned on top. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pasta Puttanesca

I survived finals.  It was a little vicious, but I am alive and breathing, and feeling fairly successful.  Thus, I have no complaints, especially in light of the fact that I am now blessed with abundant free time.  The other night, I leisurely cooked pasta puttanesca, while listening to the Takeaway (my favorite news-radio program) in its entirety, rather than rushing through it like I usually do in the mornings.  All of this occurred after spending the day with friends, just hanging out, rather than suffocating in a group study room of the library.  Of course, it cannot last.  Reality will beckon for me in a few weeks and, I assure you, I will be ready for it, and most likely complaining of boredom by then. About a week later, I will lament my demanding schedule. The human spirit can be inconsolable, always desirous of whatever it lacks.  To be honest, I was plagued by a dash of anxiety, and a twinge of guilt prior to my puttanesca production.  After counting the minutes until my finals passed, I felt uncomfortable in my aimlessness, but the puttanesca brought me back.  Cooking is a rare, albeit temporary, cure for our lack of sustainable contentedness.  If anything can bring you back to the present moment, it’s something sizzling aggressively on your stove, or a big knife in your hand, that is unavoidably close to your fingertips.  Cooking is like a meditation that happens to result in something good to eat.   

Puttanesca sauce is a tomato-based pasta sauce full of bold, sultry flavors:  spicy red pepper flakes, briny capers, rich olives, and a little anchovy paste in the base of the sauce.  I beg of you: do not let the anchovy paste scare you off.  There is nothing fishy about this dish, but the anchovies elicit a mysterious depth of flavor, a certain “je ne sais quoi.”  I cannot accurately identify what the anchovies add, but I guarantee, you will notice their absence.    

Pasta Puttanesca

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper to taste (easy on the salt)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
½ teaspoon dried oregano
10 grape tomatoes, halved (optional)
1-14 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
8 to 10 kalamata olives*, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon of capers, plus more for garnish
Chopped parsley for garnish
Pasta of your choice (I used thin spaghetti)

·      In a medium-sized saucepan, sauté the chopped onion over medium to medium-high heat in the olive oil.  Sauté for a few minutes until translucent, but not browned. 
·      Add garlic, anchovy paste, a few grinds of pepper, oregano, and red pepper flakes (no salt – the anchovies are salty enough); stir to combine.  Sauté until onions are cooked through (about 10 minutes total, but I like to let them go for about 15 because I really don’t like crunchy onions in tomato sauce). 
·      (Now would probably be a good time to put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta.)
·      Add the grape tomatoes, if using.  Allow them to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
·      Add the can of tomatoes with their juice. Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon (the tomatoes can remain fairly chunky as they will break down while cooking, and will be blended later). 
·      Reduce heat to medium-low; cover the sauce, venting the lid slightly.  Allow the sauce to simmer gently for at least 15 minutes.  Stir occasionally, and taste for seasoning, but be weary of the salt since capers and olives will be added later, and both are quite salty. 
·      Add pasta to the boiling water.  This amount of sauce can handle close to a ½ pound of pasta.
·      Use an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce if desired, but don’t obliterate it of all texture.  This can also be done with a standing blender, but should be done in batches.  Be sure to vent the blender and cover with a dishtowel to avoid explosions. 
·      Add capers and olives.  Stir to combine, and check for seasoning.
·      When pasta is ready, reserve about a ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water and drain.  Combine pasta and sauce; add pasta water as needed to help the sauce adhere to the pasta.  Garnish with parsley and enjoy!

Comments:  You may have noticed an absence of one of my favorite ingredients here.  I deliberately left off the CHEESE.  Although a sprinkle of Parmesan is perfectly appropriate in this context, I honestly did not want it.  The sauce has enough inherent richness and flavor.  Due to my undying commitment to cheese, the fact that I didn’t want it left me a little disturbed.  So after I ate about half my portion, I added some, and I wish to this minute I had trusted my intuition.  It was just too much: I felt like I was taking an exam, and hastily changed one of my answers at the last minute, only to discover that my initial instincts had been correct.  Without the cheese, I found the pasta dangerously close to perfection.  The addition of the grape tomatoes is not traditional, but those juicy crimson pearls helped balance out the boldness of the other flavors.  I made an effort to leave them alone when possible while my immersion blender maneuvered its way through the sauce. 

Ultimately, this dish is pungent and intoxicating, which its name reflects.  According to, in Italian, puttanesca translates to “in the style of the whore,” and puttana translates to “whore.”  A common interpretation of the name is that the smell of the pasta was used to lure customers to brothels.  However, puttana stems from the Latin word putida, which means “stinking.”  And this sauce does have quite a striking aroma.  Despite the mythical origins of this dish, it is quite delicious, though not for the faint of heart.

*See glossary for definitions

Friday, December 18, 2009

Black Bean Salad and Roasted Poblano Quesadillas

I adore Deb Perelman’s blog, Smitten Kitchen.  It’s fun to read, the recipes always sound great, and she takes beautiful pictures.  Deb even provides pictures of her adorable baby, who lacks the alien-like quality frequently associated with newborns.  I say the food sounds great because I had never made one of her recipes until the other night.  I actually have a document on my computer devoted entirely to Smitten Kitchen recipes that I intend to make, but I only acted on this for the first time earlier this week.  It was a variation of her black bean confetti salad.  I stumbled upon the recipe about two months ago, and immediately wanted to make this delightful concoction: black beans, bell peppers, in a lime and cumin vinaigrette.  As ridiculous as it may sound, I have an irrational love of black beans.  I love their creamy texture, and the contrasting colors of the exterior and interior. 

The recipe had me entranced, but I struggled to dream up an appropriate companion for this salad.  Deb suggests a green salad, but the absence of salad on my blog may serve as an indicator for how I feel about that.  Sometime last week, the notion of roasted poblano quesadillas dawned upon me.  I’d love to take credit for the idea, but I have no doubt that the notion was planted in my head by some Food Network show eons ago, and it has just been waiting for an opportunity to come to fruition.  Anyway, once I thought of it, I felt like black bean salad and roasted poblano* quesadillas would be the best of friends, and it would be an utter tragedy to keep them apart.  Plus, school has been audaciously encroaching on my cooking endeavors of late, and I felt that the process of roasting peppers might soothe my culinarily-deprive soul. 

Black Bean Salad (adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Black Bean Confetti Salad)

1 green pepper, diced
½ red pepper, diced
About 15 grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (about a quarter of an onion)
1-14 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or cilantro
Juice of one lime (one generous tablespoon)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon Sriracha* hot sauce
BIG pinch of kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper


2 poblano* peppers
1½ cups shredded Monterey jack cheese
4 large wheat tortillas
2 teaspoons olive oil

·      First, prepare the peppers:
·      Most people prepare these using a broiler or the open flame of a gas stove.  I have an electric stove and my broiler scares me, so I used one of my burners like a broiler.  I turned one of the burners on to high, and let it preheat until it was red-hot.  Then, using tongs, I held a pepper just above the burner (about an inch, give or take) until the skin was charred and blistered (about 3-4 minutes per side).
·      Place the peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Let sit for at least 10 minutes.
·      Peel off charred skin.  Cut or tear the pepper open, and remove seeds and stems.  Cut or tear the pepper into ½ to one-inch strips (this is very easy to do with your clean hands).  Set strips of pepper aside.  Wash your hands thoroughly, and until then, and avoid touching your eyes or face, not that you should be touching those elements while cooking, anyway.

·      Next, prepare the salad:
·      Whisk together lime juice, cumin, honey, Sriracha, and salt.  Then whisk in olive oil, and set dressing aside.
·      Prep vegetables, beans, and fresh herb of choice.  Combine in a bowl.
·      Add about half the dressing and a few grinds of pepper; taste for seasoning, and add more dressing if necessary. 

·      Last, make the quesadillas:
·      In a large skillet, preheat a drizzle of olive oil (about a half teaspoon) over medium-high heat.
·      Place a tortilla in the pan.  Add about a quarter of the cheese and a quarter of the roasted peppers on half of the tortilla, and fold over the empty side.  Cook for a few minutes on each side until cheese is melted and the tortilla is golden.
·      Add more oil if necessary and repeat with the remaining tortillas, cheese, and peppers; cut quesadillas into wedges.
·      Serve quesadillas with black bean salad and enjoy!

Comments:  This was so lovely, and the leftovers made for a few very satisfying lunches, and I did not even bother to reheat the quesadillas.  Be careful with the dressing:  you will most likely not need all of it.  I foolishly dumped all of it on my salad.  The recipe only yields a quarter cup of dressing, which didn’t seem excessive.  Well, it turned out to be quite excessive, and I ended up having to drain my salad through a sieve, which was a simple antidote, but could be easily avoided by a savvy reader like you. 

This method of roasting peppers is a little time consuming, due to the fact that you can only tackle one pepper at a time.  My broiler scares me, so it seemed like the safest way.  Safety aside, it was more fun than an amusement park.  I kid you not:  the process was a lot of fun, and a feast for the senses.  You can smell, see, and hear the progression occurring before you.  The squeaky noise the peppers make as they blister is just blissful.  I would recommend holding the tongs with an oven mitt, because they will get quite hot, and your arm may get a little tired, but it’s worth it.  Not only is it fun, but those roasted peppers are a tasty treat.  Mine had a nice kick, but most poblanos are pretty mild.  If you have an aversion to heat, just use a bell pepper, and I’m confident that you will be quite content with your meal. 

*See glossary for definitions

Monday, December 14, 2009

Say Thank You with Orzo and Chickpea Salad

A reader recently asked me if I always dine alone.  The frequent answer to that question is yes; when I cook, I usually eat alone for a variety of reasons.  For one, I’m not rolling in cash at the moment, thus I can’t exactly afford to do a lot of entertaining.  Also, I tend to cook at odd hours, and most people don’t want to come over for dinner at quarter to ten.  Plus, I really love to cook for myself.  My dad, for one, finds it hilarious that I love my own food to such a high degree.  I’m not entirely sure what this says about me: perhaps this makes me a little narcissistic; or maybe I just know what I like. 

With that being said, I recently had the opportunity to cook for others that was most definitely a worthy cause.  It is a tradition within my graduate program for the first year students to make lunch for the second year students and clinical faculty.  They all put a lot of effort towards coaxing some competence into us green first year students.  In particular, the second year students have been so amazingly supportive and helpful to us measly first years, I think they deserve a whole month of lunches. 

Given this one quasi-formal opportunity to say thank you, my contribution to the lunch was an orzo and chickpea salad.  I almost refrained from posting this recipe because somehow I forgot to photograph any part of the process, or the finished result.  Despite the lacking visual representation, this is a very forgiving recipe:  cook some orzo, make a simple vinaigrette, and add some chickpeas and your favorite vegetables.  It’s great for a light, but satisfying lunch.  It’s full of crunch, and the beans make it filling, but not heavy.  The feta adds a nice salty savoriness, and a little lemon juice in the vinaigrette makes all the flavors a little bit brighter.  I really like this ratio of acid to olive oil: enough vinegar and lemon to add a little kick, but you can still really taste the flavor of the extra virgin olive oil.    

Orzo and Chickpea Salad (note: this makes a huge quantity, and can be easily scaled down)

1-1  lb. box orzo pasta
1 English or hot house cucumber, chopped (these are the large cucumber wrapped in plastic; the seeds are tiny and the skin is tender so neither needs to be removed)
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
½ of a red onion, finely chopped
2-14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained
½ cup finely chopped parsley
8 oz. crumbled feta cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup combined red wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice (half of a lemon, juiced)
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

·      Put a large pot of water on to boil.
·      Prepare the vinaigrette: squeeze half of a lemon directly into a measuring cup, and then add red wine vinegar until you have a total of a third of a cup.  Add a generous pinch of salt (about a teaspoon) and pepper.  Whisk together (salt will dissolve best before olive oil is added).  Whisk in olive oil and set aside.
·      Meanwhile, prep your vegetables and add orzo to pot when water is boiling, and cook according to directions.  When orzo is ready, drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
·      In a very large bowl or pot, mix together all ingredients.  Re-whisk vinaigrette before adding it into other ingredients.  Taste for seasoning, and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.

Comments:  I have made a few variations of this salad, but I think feta cheese is a perfect compliment regardless of the other ingredients.  The recipe above is true to the version I made for the second year students, and this quantity will feed an army.  In fact, it produced such a huge quantity that I was forced to transport it in a soup pot because it was the only vessel large enough to contain the salad.  Usually, this dish actually has a higher vegetable-to-orzo ratio, but I found myself shocked my how much pasta an entire package of orzo can actually yield.  Make your own adjustments accordingly.  You may want to add more vegetables, scale down the pasta more than the vegetables, or just revel in the orzo-mania.  I suppose the word “mania” may be a little strong given the circumstances, but orzo is delicious nonetheless. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Presidential Broccoli Soup, Addendum

Due to the popularity of the presidential broccoli soup, I feel the following information is post-worthy:  the soup freezes beautifully!  I made the original recipe nearly two months ago, and experimentally froze a generous portion in one of those faux Tupperware items (you know what I’m referring to, right?  Glad and Ziploc make them?)  Anyway, as I mentioned, it’s closing in on two months since the soup has been hibernating in my freezer, which is a fairly decent freezer life span.  I defrosted and reheated the soup tonight, and it was just as good as the day I used my immersion blender to whirr those broccoli florets into oblivion.  I topped the soup with some loitering feta cheese (from another recipe you may soon read about), a grind of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Overall, this was not a shabby dinner.  Of course, as I discussed in the original post, practically any cheese would be a suitable companion for this soup.

It would probably be best to transfer the soup from the freezer to the refrigerator for defrosting purposes, the morning of the desired dinner.  However, I feel that such advanced planning defeats the purpose of having the luxury of meals in your freezer to begin with.  Inevitably, if you took such a sophisticated defrosting approach, you would develop an insatiable hankering for Chipotle come evening.  At a bona fide dinner hour, I simply gave the rock-solid-frozen-soup a few minutes in the microwave on the illusive defrost setting (seriously, what does that mean, objectively?)  Once the perimeter of the container returned to its former liquid state, I put the soup in a pan on low heat over the stove until it reached a steamy, luscious, soupy state.  Add a little cheese to the soup, and a little Radiohead to the mix (perhaps a cocktail, too?), and there is little else you can ask for when confronted with a chilly Tuesday evening in snowy December. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Acting Out

Finals are horrible.  Even though they will be over in two weeks, it feels like an eternity.  I recommend keeping a safe distance from me until then, because I am beyond irritable.  I had to get gas today, which seemed like the world’s biggest inconvenience.  My car was at about an eighth of a tank.  Even though I drive an average of a mile and a half a day, it seemed like a good idea to fill up because here in Boulder the thermometers are ringing in at near record low temperatures.  It’s supposed to be about five degrees tonight.  I pulled up to a pump only to discover that the credit/debit machine was out of order.  This necessitated me getting back in my car, and backing up approximately 15 feet, and I nearly cried out of frustration.  This is not normal.  This is finals. 

BUT… there is a bonus to finals that I forgot about until tonight: the inevitable acting out.  Yes, acting out, like a small child who is over-tired, and misbehaves horribly as a result, perhaps enjoying it a little.  In college, it meant finishing studying at midnight and drinking until three, only to get up at seven to study more.  In grad school, it’s a little less exciting, especially in the frigid cold.  I spent an embarrassingly long time at the library today, and there was class squished somewhere amidst those hours, and finals haven’t even technically started.  However, tonight, I found myself drinking vodka, cooking obnoxiously garlicky pasta, and having a dance party to the Beta Band at inappropriate hours.  I was giddy with glee, and pulling dance moves of which the details will not be disclosed.  Did I mention that I have a presentation tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning?  Like I said, finals are horrible, but the consequential psychosis comes with the occasional swing of mania that makes it worthwhile for a hot minute.

In case you were wondering, the pasta was a garlic and olive oil masterpiece, with lemon, tons of parsley, and enough hot pepper flakes to guarantee heartburn at this late hour.  I finished it off with some Parmesan.  It was all my favorite ingredients piled up together on one plate. This is actually a frequent antidote for exhaustion and desperation in my apartment. On this particular occasion, I garnished it with some capers for a dose of briny, salty goodness.  I will provide more detail one of these days, but not now, because I’m busy acting out.  If we’re all very lucky, I will refrain from posting until after finals are over, and hopefully, I will have recovered from the urge to divulge such psychotic drivel.