Birds of a Feather

Dear readers: please be advised that some may find this post objectionable as it skirts the very edgy topic of guns. No, I’m not writing about the latest gun-related tragedy nor is it a rant on gun control.  I’m just waxing nostalgic, because guns have not always been defined by mayhem and murder.

I grew up in the mid-part of the 20th century when guns were a big part of our existence. My dad was a marksman, an avid hunter, and was very proud of his gun collection and the many trophies that surrounded us.  We belonged to a gun club where we regularly took turns at target practice and skeet shooting.  He saw to it that I had my own .22 rifle and later a .410 shotgun; I learned how to care for them, to use them responsibly, and I became a pretty good shot. It never occurred to me that they could be used for violence against another person. At our house, guns were a form of recreation and largely related to delicious food—our freezer was well stocked with bear, deer, quail, pheasant and whatever else was fair game that year.

My mom was an excellent cook and prided herself in knowing how to best prepare whatever game came through the door. Those meals were highly anticipated events and deeply appreciated by everyone.  As I think about it now, one of my particular favorites was her Pheasant Cacciatore.

Since pheasant can be quite lean, she would soak the pheasant ahead in an herb and red wine marinade to moisten, tenderize, and remove any potential gaminess. Sometimes she would start with a bit of bacon and then brown off the pheasant.  She’d proceed to develop a hearty sauce with plenty of mushrooms, onions, carrot, tomatoes and capers—perhaps she’d throw in a little green pepper, celery, or olives.  I suspect she’d combine the pheasant and all the trimmings in a heavy covered pot and gently braise it in a moderately slow oven.

The recipe has long since been lost, but that’s my best recollection.  I recently reflected on those fabulous meals while preparing my easy mid-week Chicken Cacciatore.

It is made effortlessly with this Instant Pot treatment, yet it is a distant second to my mom’s ‘classic’ version.  When nearly done, mine became a one-pot meal with the addition of a few handfuls of penne pasta!  Still, with those flavors and few favorite pieces of plumb chicken, you really can’t go wrong.

Chicken Cacciatore, PC

Although this is presented in Instant Pot format, directions are included for standard stove top preparation, too. If using dry penne pasta on final, more liquid maybe required.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 6 chicken thighs (bone-in)
1 onion, slice
1 carrot, chop
2 ribs celery, chop
1 pasilla pepper, seed and chop
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, mince
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ pound mushrooms, trim and slice
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken stock, water or other liquid
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 tablespoons capers
2 cups approximate, dry penne pasta
Garnish:  ½ cup parsley and 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. If using an Instant Pot, set it medium Sauté, and heat 2 tbsp. oil. Pat the chicken dry, season with salt and pepper, and place in the hot pot. Brown 4-5 minutes per side and remove to a holding plate. Pour off excess fat.
  2. Add the remaining tablespoon oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the carrot, celery, pepper, the fennel, rosemary, thyme and red pepper flakes, and cook 4-5 minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms, garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper to the pot. Stir to loosen the fond in bottom of pan with the liquid released from the mushrooms. Increase to medium if necessary, cook 6 to 8 minutes.
  4. Stir in 1 cup chicken stock or water, the tomatoes and the capers.
  5. Return the chicken to the pot, nestle the pieces into the tomato mixture to barely cover them and bring to a simmer.
  6. Lock the lid, set pot to high Pressure for 12 minutes. (If using standard stovetop preparation, cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is tender.) When time is up, turn off the pot, disconnect, and let rest 10 minutes. Carefully release any remaining pressure and open.
  7. There should be enough liquid in the pot to also cook the penne pasta. Set the pot to medium Sauté and bring back to a simmer.  Add 1 handful of pasta per serving (about 2 cups) and simmer for 10 minutes, until al dente.  Adjust seasoning and dust with fresh parsley and Parmesan cheese.  Serves 4

Pasta Fazool: the ultimate vegetable soup

Several years ago I traveled with an Italian family, and this was one of their most requested soups.  They referred to it as Pasta Fazool, but it is also known by its traditional name, Pasta e Fagioli.

This easy, hearty dish is built on a zesty tomato based white bean soup, with plenty of fresh vegetables thrown in. Then, the ever-present pasta is added for the crowning touch.  What’s not to like?Fazool

Pasta Fazool is quite affordable to make, and great for a group. The more the merrier—just add water!  It’s perfectly delicious for vegetarians, too.  Of course, when I made it last, I went the other way. I pulled out a thick slab of ham tucked in the freezer from the holidays—a terrific addition, but not essential for this special soup.  A day ahead I tossed the ham cubes in an oil rub laced with garlic, fennel, red pepper flakes, and rosemary and set it all aside.

To get things started, beans are first simmered until near tender with crushed tomatoes flavored with onion, garlic and sage.  Either dried or canned cannellini or mayocoba beans work nicely.

To pull it all together, I briefly sautéed the seasoned ham (optional) in olive oil, and stirred in a few fresh vegetables. Next, the cooked beans are added and it’s briefly simmered to incorporate the flavors.

Lastly, escarole, kale or other hearty green is added to the pot, followed by a small pasta, such as ditalini.  It’s simmered for another 10 minutes or so, until al dente.Pasta Fazool

Top with a grating of Parmesan Reggiano and pass plenty of warm crusty bread.

 Pasta Fazool

Aka, Pasta e Fagioli

 Ingredients
2 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 onion, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
1 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 cup dried and soaked cannellini or mayocoba beans
2 cups water or stock (approximate), divided and used as needed
1-1/2 cups ham cut into ½” chunks (optional), in herbal rub (see below)
1 carrot, diced
1 poblano chile, seed chop
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1”x2” chunk Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon each sea salt and ground pepper
1 small bunch lacinato kale, ribs removed and leaves torn into 2” pieces
1-1/2 cups ditalini pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Sauté onion until soft, then add the garlic and sage, stirring briefly. Add the crushed tomatoes, the beans, and 1 cup water.  Simmer about 1-1/2 hours. Or, using pressure cooker, set on High Pressure for 18 minutes with pressure valve set to Sealing and use Quick Release.
  2. In a fresh pot over medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the seasoned ham for 2- 3 minutes (optional). Add the carrot, green pepper, and ½ teaspoon oregano, cook 4-5 minutes. Stir in the beans, Parmesan chunk, salt and pepper, 1 cup water, and simmer covered for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the kale to the pot and simmer for 3-4 minutes, stir occasionally, until it begins to soften. Stir in the dry pasta and simmer an additional 10 minutes until pasta is al dente. Add more water as necessary, it should be thick yet soupy.  Adjust seasoning.
  4. Serve with Parmesan cheese and plenty of crusty bread.  Serves 4-6.

For the ham rub:  marinade cubed ham 1 day ahead in: 2 cloves garlic crushed, ½ tsp fennel, ½ tsp red pepper flakes, ½ tsp rosemary, 2 tbsp olive oil, pinch sea salt.

Couscous: Good to Go

If you haven’t tried couscous lately, you might want to give it another thought.  When it comes to whole grains and such, couscous could well be regarded as a cook’s best friend.  Although, it’s actually closer to a pasta, since it is made from semolina, the ground hard high protein portion of the durum wheat grain.

Couscous
Couscous

Once combined with boiling water the tiny shape expands voluminously and is ready to eat in 10 minutes—without touching the stove. In North Africa multi-level couscousières are a kitchen staple. These clever, efficient pots simmer flavorful stews in the bottom portion while their beloved couscous is positioned above in a separate steamer compartment absorbing all the flavorful moisture from below.

Over the centuries couscous’ popularity has spread along the Mediterranean with regional dishes found in France, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. There are different sizes, too, with Israeli, or pearl couscous, being larger and chewier when prepared.

Unlike finicky pasta that requires last minute cooking, tiny couscous is very forgiving. It will wait for you. If you would rather focus your attention and energy on grilling, roasting, or sautéing your entrée grab some mild and easy couscous. Slip in a few vegetables, flavor with complementary herbs or spices, and you are good to go without missing a beat.

Couscous with Zucchini and Red Pepper

Ingredients
2/3 cup couscous
1 cup boiling water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium zucchini, trim cut into chunks
1 clove garlic, flatten with a knife
1 small red pepper, seed and cut into strips
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons green onion, chop

Directions

  1. In a medium bowl combine couscous, 1 cup boiling water, salt and stir with a fork.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile heat olive oil in medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add zucchini, 1 clove garlic, red pepper and thyme and sauté for about 5 minutes to brown and soften slightly. Remove garlic.
  3. Fluff couscous with a fork and gently combine in pan with vegetables. Heat briefly, add green onion and serve.  Serves 4.

Cheaters Risotto

There’s nothing like authentic risotto for sheer artistry. But at home I don’t seem to have the patience or inclination to constantly stir assorted liquids with rice in order to achieve the layers of flavor and creaminess it requires. Here’s an easy solution using orzo instead that takes all the work out of the process.zuke orzo one pot (480x640)

While the orzo and other goodies simmer away, diced zucchini can be stirred into the pot and cooked along with it.  I discovered it was the ideal opportunity to whip out my new inexpensive spiralizer, which cranks out perfect spaghetti-like strands in the flick of a wrist. The zucchini sits atop the simmering orzo, and steams to an al dente state in no time at all.zuke orzo (480x640)

To finish:  spoon into bowls and add a dollop of ricotta-basil cheese for extra creaminess.  

Orzo and Zucchini Risotto-style

Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chop
1/8 teaspoon saffron
1-1/2 cups orzo
14 ounces chicken stock
2-1/2 cups water
2 medium tomatoes, seed and dice
1 medium zucchini, diced or cut into 6” julienne strips or spirals
¾ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
½ cup Parmesan cheese grated
Optional ricotta topping
½ cup ricotta
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese grated
1 tablespoon fresh basil, julienne

Directions

  1. In 2-quart pot with lid, sauté the onion in olive oil to soften, adding the saffron in the process.
  2. Stir in the orzo and sauté for 1 minute.
  3. Stir in the broth, water, tomatoes, and bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat and cook for 8 minutes.
  4. To finish with zucchini, scatter the strands on top of the orzo, sprinkle with salt and pepper and parmesan cheese, cover and cook about 3 minutes longer, until the orzo is just tender and zucchini is al dente.  If liquid remains, increase heat, stirring until liquid evaporates and it is creamy.
  5. Spoon into bowls, top with a spoonful of ricotta cheese topping and serve.  Serves 3-4

Fast and Slurpable: Sweet Potato Vermicelli

Feeling the weight of holiday festivities?  Too many cookies and rich food taking its toll?  This little number worked for me last night.

I have been reading good things about sweet potato noodles lately.  Some accounts put them ahead of mung bean glass noodles, a longtime favorite.   Described as clear, thicker than bean threads, slightly chewy and slippery; all of this caught my attention.  I’m not going out on a limb and advocating them for a paleo diet, that’s not my focus.  I’m looking for light, somewhat filling, a canvas for other foods.

Yesterday I headed to my favorite Asian market and sought out the advice of the owner.  I left loaded with the sweet potato noodles and a few other items to go along with them.  Her point was that you can make a quick, satisfying meal with just a few handy items: your favorite noodle, Memmi—a popular Kikkoman style soup base, perhaps sriracha for additional seasoning, vegetables, and any other protein that inspires you.Sweet Potato noodles fixings (505x640)

While at the vegetable cooler she recommended kai-lan, a baby bok choy looking item with thicker broccoli-like stems.  She suggested slicing the stems up and cooking them first and then adding the tops, which take no time at all. Any of the baby Asian greens will do, but the kai-lan has a sweet, mild quality which works nicely here.

Surimi (480x640) (478x552)I was a little dubious at the frozen case when she pointed out all sorts  of gray meat balls and tiny sausage shaped items. But, in the spirit of the moment I went for gobo maki, a fried sausage seafood on the order of crab surimi that’s made with bream and burdock.  Since it is cooked, simply add it to the noodles at the last minute. She claims all of these choices are mildly flavored to absorb seasonings of the base blend.

When dinnertime rolls around, all it takes to pull this together is a soup pot of boiling water and about 10 minutes.  There’s no stir-fry or fussing around with inventive steps.  It’s probably what Top Ramen is probably supposed to be:Sweet potato noodles (640x480)  A few good noodles, some fresh veggies, and just enough broth to make it all extremely slurpable.

Slurpable Sweet Potato Noodles

2-3 oz. sweet potato vermicelli
2 tbsps or more Memmi noodle base, or Kikkoman soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp sriracha or chili garlic sauce, to taste
½ cup or more hot water
1 small bunch baby kai-lan (baby Chinese kale or broccoli), baby bok choy, or tender broccoli
1 small carrot, shredded
1-2 fried surimi seafood, or 1/3 cup fresh cooked shrimp
1-2 scallions, sliced
Salt and pepper

  1. For the seasoning blend:  In a small bowl combine the noodle base, sesame oil, and sriracha and part of the water to thin.
  2. To prep the vegetables:  Trim the ends of the kai-lan and slice the stems into ¼” thick ovals and slice the greens into 1” wide strips.  Peel the carrot; using peeler continue to slice into long peels.  Slice the green onion at an angle into thin ovals and set aside.
  3. To cook the noodles: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for 5 minutes, stirring to break up.  When they are tender all the way through (don’t overcook) scoop into colander, drain and rinse well. Cut into shorter lengths with scissors.
    Place them in a soup bowl and toss them with the seasoning blend.
  4. To blanch the greens: After the noodles have been removed from the lightly boiling water, add the thicker stems of the kai-lan and cook a minute or two before adding the leaves and carrot.  Cook a minute or two longer until all are tender-crisp.  Remove to drain lightly and add to noodles in bowl along with surimi or shrimp, tossing to combine.
  5. Adjust the preferred amount of broth with additional hot water.   Sprinkle with the green onion and season further with sriracha or salt and pepper to taste.

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

Now that we are heading into cooler weather, soup is beginning to look good again.  Here’s a tasty and fun soup that inspired my imagination because it immediately reminded me of my old favorite, Won Ton Soup—without all the work that goes into it.

I must be getting lazy. I’ve always enjoyed won ton making and have viewed the process of filling and folding and pressing each little won ton as relaxing and meditative.  I was intrigued; the further I studied the recipe, the more it resembled Won Ton Soup with its similar components, but lacked the cute little dumplings.  Perhaps this deconstructed version would yield a similar outcome without the fuss… I was all over it!

Credit for this soup goes to Jessie Price’s recipe Brothy Chinese Noodles in The Simple Art of EatingWell, where it is described as being inspired by Chinese Dan noodles.  Upon further investigation I learned that Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles are known for being spicy hot and frequently are served with very little broth.  For more background on Dan Dan Noodles, see Appetite for China.

With soup on my brain, I certainly wasn’t disappointed with EatingWell’s variation; it was beyond everything I had imagined. The soup broth has more flavor than my usual Won Ton Soup because it begins with ground turkey (beef or pork) broken into large chunks, browned in sesame oil along with ginger, garlic, and scallions, and then it is all removed.  The stock is built on the lovely brown bits left in the bottom of the pot and further enhanced by soy sauce and rice vinegar.  With the Chinese penchant for perfectly clear stock, this might appear a bad idea, but since the soup is already filled with chunks of ground meat, it really doesn’t matter.

Steamy soup pot
Steamy soup pot

I added bok choy,  hot peppers and other vegetables that would cook quickly along with the noodles. I opted for my current favorite, somen noodles, which gave the soup an even deeper, heartier flavor.

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup
Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

I finished the meal-in-a-bowl off with cayenne dusted cucumber strips and green onions.  In the blink of an eye the soup was done, with nary a flick of the wrist…

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

A zesty soup that calls for slurping; inspired by Brothy Chinese Noodles in The Simple Art of EatingWell by Jessie Price.    

Ingredients
1 Tbsp hot sesame oil
1 lb ground turkey
1 cup scallions, sliced, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 cup baby portabella mushrooms, sliced
Red pepper flakes to taste
6 cups chicken broth
3 cups thinly sliced bok choy
½ cup red hot or mild pepper strips or small rings
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
8 oz somen noodles, or dried Chinese noodles
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 small cucumber, sliced into matchsticks

Directions 

  1. In a large saucepan, heat sesame oil over medium heat.  Add turkey, ½ cup scallions, garlic and ginger, stirring gently to break up turkey, but keep some clumps. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until no liquid remains.  Remove to a bowl.
  2. Deglaze the pan with a little broth, scraping to loosen bits of meat adhering to bottom of pan.  Over medium heat, add all the broth and the vegetables as they are cut up.  When it comes to a boil, add the noodles and the turkey mixture, reduce heat slightly and stir occasionally until the noodles are tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. Adjust seasoning and serve topped with scallions and cucumber.  Serves 6.

One-Pot Pasta: No Sauce Required

Here’s a one-pot pasta dish that creates its own remarkable sauce in less than 20 minutes―while the pasta and its cohorts burble away.   Serious pasta lovers may scoff at the unconventional approach, but it actually works.

This clever Martha Stewart recipe is quite similar to Pesto Soup, a popular vegetable soup I have made for years.  It starts with fresh vegetables like green beans, potatoes, and either fresh or canned tomatoes.  All of this is simmered in a large amount of salted boiling water until nearly tender; pasta is then added and cooked until al dente. The bland mess is poured into a large bowl where it is miraculously transformed by plenty of pesto sauce and freshly grated cheese. No stock required; still delicious.

In this case, no sauce is required to make this easy satisfying pasta dish.  Cherry tomatoes, sliced onion, a generous amount of garlic, fresh basil, a healthy drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, and linguine are all brought to a boil with 4 ½ cups of water.  In about 9 minutes most of the water has evaporated, and it is done.  To serve, it is spooned into bowls and finished with more fresh basil, a bit more olive oil, and a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Since I am bad at following directions, mine took a slight turn. I had vermicelli on hand, which cooks much quicker (4 minutes).  I decided to make this a real one-pot-meal and ramp up the vegetable factor by including zucchini and a pepper. I sautéed them ahead, along with the onion and garlic, and set it aside, reasoning a quick sauté would seal in their flavors and further enhance their sweetness.

The primary ingredients were placed in the pot, when it reached a boil  the sautéed vegetables were included, and then the pasta worked its own magic by emitting just enough starch to thicken the liquid. The quick sauté may add an extra step or two, but the lively flavors brought out in the process make it well worth the effort.  On the finish, I stirred in a handful of grated cheese just before pulling the pan off the stove.one pot pasta pot

Granted, the 4 minute vermicelli threw off my timing factor with the necessary water reduction―which could have been rectified by using a little less water, perhaps 4 cups. In spite of cooking longer than necessary to reduce the sauce, the pasta was neither flabby nor gummy.  I’d  recommend tossing a small handful of cheese into the pot’s sauce while it’s still on the stove. The additional nutty creaminess brings everything together in one happy mouthful!

one pot pastaMy revised version follows, which includes the quick vegetable sauté step and extra cheese addition.

If you are thinking about a salad, consider lining the bowls with young spinach or other hearty field greens, top them with the hot pasta, and let everyone toss away.

At the table, be sure and have extra virgin olive and a good quality grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  Add a rustic, crusty bread and you have all the makings for a fun and relaxed meal.

One-Pot Pasta

Inspired by Linguine with Tomato and Basil in One Pot, From the Kitchens of Martha Stewart Living

Ingredients

1 tbsp      olive oil
1              onion, thinly sliced
4              cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1              pepper of choice: red, Hungarian, Anaheim, etc.
1              zucchini, cut up
12 oz       linguine
12 oz       cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
1/2 tsp     red pepper flakes
2 sprigs    basil, fresh
1 tbsp      olive oil
2 tsps      salt
1/4 tsp     pepper
4 ½ cups  water
1/2 cup     grated Parmigiano Reggiano
For garnish:  fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Method

  1. In a large pot, heat 1 tbsp olive oil, add the onion, garlic, zucchini, and pepper; briefly sauté. When softened, remove from pan.
  2. Add 1 tbsp olive oil to the pot, break the pasta in half and add it briefly tossing to coat and color slightly.  Add all remaining ingredients through the water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring pasta frequently, until al dente and the water has nearly evaporated, about 9 minutes. Add ½ cup cheese, stirring to combine well. Taste for seasoning, add more salt or pepper as needed.
  3. To serve, garnish with more basil, olive oil and cheese. Serves 4