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Macaroni and cheese with style (yes, you can make a roux) and spinach

6 Aug

The perceptive examiner of the picture in this post will probably agree that I did not choose an auspicious time to tart-up a macaroni and cheese dinner. I should’ve reached for a box of Annie’s Organic (and believe me, as much as I believe in a home-cooked meal, I reach for the Annie’s with great frequency in stressed times) rather than set out to make a white sauce while my over-tired, over-heated, under-snacked and therefore unpredictable pre-K maniac was in the room. If you decide that I am actually the maniac for trying it, well, I won’t argue.

A proper white sauce is creamy and smooth and tonight’s, while creamy, was not quite as smooth as normal. But I decided to post anyway, because I want to convince you that making a roux isn’t so hard. If I could do it passably well under this evening’s circumstances, imagine what you can do with better timing and fewer interruptions. And to those who get too critical, I say most of the lumpiness in the picture is due to the cheese, which I do not allow to cook much at all, since I don’t want it to get hard or stringy!

A roux is a mix of fat and starch and it adds thickness to dishes. The idea is to get the fat to activate the starch in your flour without burning it. It is the binder for a rich gravy, a thick gumbo, and unctuous macaroni and cheese. This one is blonde – which means it is not colored, so it requires little precision. All you have to do to make this happen is watch your temperature and keep stirring. I mean it.

For more background on roux try Wikipedia

To make your own, try this!

Creamy, cheesy and easy

Macaroni and cheese with style and speed (and spinach)

½ box pasta of your choice, 6-8 oz (we prefer small shells for this)

1 Cup frozen cut or chopped spinach

2 Tbs butter (salted is fine)

4 tsp all-purpose flour

¾ Cup whole milk

½ Cup grated grana padano or parmigiano reggiano or other cheese of your preference, grated fine for even melting

Salt to taste and additional grated cheese to taste

Cook pasta according to package instructions, adding frozen spinach 4-5 minutes before pasta is ready. Drain and set aside.

In the meantime, melt 1 Tbs butter in a heavy skillet at low heat (save 2nd Tbs for later in the recipe). When any foaming subsides, stir in flour 1 teaspoon at a time, stirring frequently until each teaspoon of flour is completely blended in. Then continue stirring while mix (roux) thickens into a paste. Continue cooking at least five minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning or coloring (you need this cook time to get the floury taste out).

Add milk and raise heat to medium and stir frequently until liquid becomes thick and creamy. Stir in cheese, stir just enough to mix and then add pasta and spinach mixture and reserved butter. Mix thoroughly and salt to taste. Serve with additional grated cheese.

Asian Stir Fry Sauce (this time with vegetables and your choice of noodles or rice)

27 Jul

One of my favorite prepared sauces comes from Sang Lee Farms in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island Their Asian Stir-Fry Sauce is all organic and adds incredible Asian pop to stir fry dishes, without the annoying cloying sweetness and goopiness of other seasonings in a bottle.

However, I run out of it pretty fast, so I am in the process of trying to recreate it at home. I haven’t quite got it, but this version is very yummy and does the job pretty damn well. When I hit exactly the combination I want, I will make larger batches, but for now, the amount in this recipe will season a couple of pounds of vegetables – enough for two to four people, depending on what you serve it with.

We used soba noodles (Leandro’s request, cause the curly noodles and Japanese writing on the package caught his eye and he absolutely loved them). We also had enough left over to drizzle over some cold chicken wraps I made the next day (and which will be the next post, haha!).

Do you make your own stir fry sauce? Please add your ideas in comments in this post!

Soba noodles make a worthy (and fun) accompaniment to stir fry veggies

Asian Stir-Fry Sauce

¼ Cup soy sauce or tamari (preferably low-sodium)

½ tsp crushed garlic

Scant ¼ tsp sesame oil

¼ tsp grated ginger

½ tsp lemon juice

Mix ingredients together and refrigerate overnight if possible.

When you are ready to cook the dish, begin preparing a cup or two of white rice or a package of soba noodles or other pasta of your choice, following package instructions.


2-2.5 lbs mixed stir-fry vegetables, cut into ¾ inch pieces (we used onions, carrots, some leftover chard stems and a beautiful purple pepper, all from Restoration Farm, plus broccoli from the supermarket)

Generous ½ tsp sugar

Heat the  vegetable oil in a 12 inch skillet with a heavy bottom, until just rippling and just beginning to smoke. Add vegetables and sprinkle the sugar over, coat with the oil and cook, stirring frequently, for about eight minutes, looking for caramelization on the vegetables. Lower the temperature to medium if you get a lot of sticking.

Push vegetables to the side and add a tablespoon of the stir-fry sauce , stir to heat, then mix with the vegetables. Add two to three more tablespoons as desired, being wary of making it too salty.

Serve over rice, noodles or pasta.

Heat Wave Solution: No-cook Pasta Sauce – with tiny tomatoes!

23 Jul

Oh this heat wave is tough. I’ve been cooking as little as possible, trying to limit turning on the stove and oven and trying not to eat food that is hot and heavy. Simple wrap sandwiches of veggie spears and hummus, apple slice dipped in hummus, cherry and Sungold tomatoes just popped into my mouth straight from the fridge.

This is a go-to no-cook pasta sauce that, yes, requires you to cook the pasta, but is fresh and cool going down. It’s done in an instant, and takes full advantage of the sweet little tomatoes and basil that are starting to hit their stride right about now. This sauce ends up with a silky sweetness that is almost buttery, but there is no dairy involved – unless you choose to add cheese…

Here’s wishing you a cool weekend!

Cool pasta for hot days

Raw tomato sauce for pasta

1 pound pasta (penne or other short pasta preferred)

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 pint cherry/grape or Sungold tomatoes, cut in half (the sweeter the better)

3 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup basil leaves, chopped

Salt to taste

(Grated cheese for serving, optional)

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain (reserving a few tablespoons of pasta water, just in case) and place in large serving bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients (including pasta water if the mix seems too dry). Serve with optional grated cheese.

Sofrito for freezing (Puerto Rican mirepoix)

30 Jun

The green and lush fragrance of culantro is one of my favorite rainy day smells. In the kitchen garden I kept at my late grandmother’s house in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, I had a vigorous crop and whenever it rained, the drops activated the fragrance, the scent pervaded the house, and I got hungry!

Without culantro (which we call recao), Puerto Rican food just isn’t as vibrant; it can’t taste quite like abuela’s. It is integral to sofrito, the starter to so many recipes, including beans, soups, stews and rice dishes. It is the equivalent of the French mirepoix, that combination of sauteed/roasted onions, carrots and celery that is the base for so many Gallic dishes.

Recao – culantro

Unfortunately, culantro is not as well known in the U.S. and doesn’t grow super-well in my planting zone, although I have had some small successes over the years (Thanks to Vic Muñoz for her growing tips). So I hit the local Latin supermarket on occasion and buy some pre-cut leaves from Costa Rica. Because once cut, recao loses its potency quickly, I use twice as much as I would if I had just gone out back and snipped some. And because it is sold by quantities much bigger than I need for a single dish, whenever I do buy it, I make enough sofrito to freeze.

The same goes for ají dulce, the non-spicy small pepper that looks like a habanero, but isn’t at all spicy. I buy a bunch at once — along with the recao — and make sofrito to freeze. You have to be careful and taste it before adding it to the sofrito, because sometimes the store makes a mistake and labels the hot ones as sweet ones, or, I’ve been told, ají dulce planted too closely to ají bravo (angry, aggressive) will take on the spiciness. I can actually smell the heat when cutting habaneros (also called scotch bonnets); the volatility  is no joke.

Ají dulce – the sweet sibling to the hottie habanero

The following recipe is for those who have access to these products. If you don’t have a Latin market nearby, investigate the Asian/Indian markets, as they too use these ingredients.

Continue reading

Aglio olio variations

28 Jun

Now that Leandro loves aglio, olio e peperoncino, I am milking the situation. I am adding all sorts of vegetables in the pasta water 3-4 minutes before taking off the boil and draining. Then I drench all of it in the ali-oli and spice! Leandro will now try anything if it is part of aglio-olio, so our carrot consumption is way, way up.

Fitting carrots into our repertoire

Aglio-olio veggie variations (serves 2)

½ lb pasta of your choice (with vegetables, penne or other short and fun pasta – wagon wheels, fiore, farfalle, fusilli –   are  a good choice)

1-2 Cups Mix and Match Veggies 1: roughly chopped broccoli florets/peeled sliced carrots/ peas – in pods or frozen or fresh/cauliflower florets/chopped asparagus spears/shelled edamame (basically, whatever vegetables you like or think your kid might try and that need just a bit of softening to be edible and appealing)

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1/2 Cup Mix and Match Veggies 2 (onion, peeled and chopped; or diced peppers: green, red, yellow, orange; mushrooms, chopped)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/8 to ¼ tsp hot red pepper flakes

1/4 cup grated grana padano or parmigiano reggiano

Boil the pasta according to package instructions, making sure to salt the water well. Add Mix and Match Veggies 1 to the pasta water 3-4 minutes before the pasta is fully cooked. Drain and reserve in a separate bowl or the colander. In the same pot that you cooked the pasta, add the olive oil, lowering heat to medium. When the olive oil is loose and fragrant, add mix and match veggies 2, garlic and red pepper flakes (to taste) and stir around until the garlic is golden (not brown). Add the pasta and vegetables back to the pot and mix well, adding grated cheese. Serve!

Spag bog? Spag bol? Spaghetti Bolognese!

22 Jun

My dear Kate over in England thought I had made a spelling error when we were chatting via Facebook and I wrote “spag bog” as I was cooking this dish this week. I thought the same when she wrote “spag bol”. Turns out we are both correct in our not-quite-right-ness. According to The Times (UK), it has been called both bog and bol in England since the 1970s when Spaghetti Bolognese arrived in that country. The Times opines that the Brits were afraid to attempt to spell or pronounce it, so they shortened it to something more manageable for the English-speaking tongue.

Spag bog by any name would be a great pasta sauce. Basically a ground beef (mince, if we are sticking to U.K. parlance) and tomato sauce, there are probably almost as many versions as there are folks who make it. Marcella Hazan, a fantastic cookbook writer and teacher of Italian cookery, does a classic version that involves milk and suggests 5-6 hours of simmering. I used to make her version, when I was young and childless and didn’t need any sleep, but these days? Well, as you’ll see, this recipe is pared down to basics. Continue reading

Spring Roast: Chicken and Vegetables with Rosemary & Mustard Sauce

3 May

Surprisingly light!

The weather is showing signs of heating up for summer, but there is still cool weather enough to turn the oven on and roast up a chicken, which is exactly what I did for my part of Easter Sunday supper. I always feel like a French country lady when I have roast chicken and vegetables; it’s honest and true food that is not at all plain or boring.In fact, done right (and it is easy to do right), it can be luminous.

This dinner came on the heels of a visit to Long Island’s North Fork, so the vegetables were fresh, organic and local (carrots from Sang Lee Farms, turnips from Garden of Eve, plus my dad accompanied his sublime grilled baby lamb chops – hope to snag you that recipe — with smashed fingerling potatoes and baby spinach from Sang Lee).

It was an easy-going day and an easy-going meal that really celebrated Spring and Family and Resurrection and all that. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Chile was the refreshing accompaniment. A pretty day.

Roast Chicken and Vegetables with Rosemary-Mustard Marinade


1/3 Cup your favorite prepared mustard (Dijon or whole-grain works well. I used a somewhat spicy Swedish-style brown, which was nice and subtle. I stay away from ballpark-style flavored mustard here and you should too!)

1/3 cup olive oil, plus a tablespoon or so

1.5 Tbs. chopped fresh rosemary leaves (and one whole sprig)

1 4-5 lb. roasting chicken, giblets removed


2 large red onions, peeled and cut into eight wedges each

1.5-2 lbs mixed turnips and carrots, peeled and cut into 1-1.5” chunks

1/2 cup low-salt chicken broth

Preheat oven to 375°F. Whisk mustard, 1/3 cup oil and rosemary in a bowl. Pat chicken dry with a paper towel and place in a roasting pan. Brush with half of mustard mixture. With your hands, rub extra Tbs olive oil on the breast side of the chicken, under the skin. Place rosemary sprig in the chicken cavity.  Roast until thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 170°F, chicken is golden brown and the legs move easily in the sockets when jiggled.

Meanwhile, toss vegetables with all but one tablespoon mustard mixture (reserve that for sauce) and spread into a lightly-oiled large rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tender and slightly browned (about one hour), stirring twice. Finish with a grating of flaky sea salt, if you’ve got or just allow diners to add salt at table.

Transfer chicken to serving platter. Spoon off the fat from the pan, then heat the pan over two burners. Whisk in broth and reserved mustard mixture and boil until reduced to about a cup. Add salt and pepper to taste and put in a gravy boat or other serving bowl. Arrange vegetables around chicken on the platter, garnish with any extra rosemary sprigs  and serve with sauce.

(Note: the chicken and vegetables were so moist, none of us actually did more than try the sauce. Go ahead and put it on the table, but don’t be surprised if your guests find it superfluous).

(Note 2: Leftovers make great sandwich/salad fare. I also simmered the bones with onion and parsley for stock for a future meal. It is frozen and ready to go!)

Black Bean Burgers: all the burliness, none of the beef

26 Apr
So much easier than I expected!

I’m pretty pleased with myself, because finally, FINALLY, I soaked beans from dry and was very happy with the results!

I’ve never had that happen before; every other time I have tried, the texture has always been grainy and awful and not worth the trouble. This time, I rinsed a pound of beans (from a store that seems to move a lot of dried beans – one of the problems is that if the beans are old, they will never soften up nicely), soaked them in two quarts water overnight. Changed the water and went to work. After work I simmered them for two hours and holy legumes, Batman, I had 1.5 quarts of beans to play with.

And talk about cheap: a pound of dried beans costs about the same as a 15.5 oz can of them and you choose how much sodium you want with it.

I did my usual black beans and rice and black bean nachos (loads of cheddar/Monterey Jack cheese), but with two cups I made black bean burgers! They were tasty hot out of the oven and tasty (and not messy!) again at a picnic at the zoo the next day at room temperature. You definitely want to dress them up with creamy avocado and/or another creamy condiment-y sauce (try my Sweet Roasted Red Pepper Dipping Sauce and all the trimmings!


Black Bean Burgers

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 stalk celery, minced (about 2 Tbs)

1 onion, peeled and finely minced (about ¾ Cup)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 cups black beans

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 Tbs ground cumin

1 Tbs oregano

½ Cup plain bread crumbs

½ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 375°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and grease lightly.

Warm oil in a large skillet at medium-high until rippling. Add celery and onion and coat, then lower heat to medium and sauté until translucent and tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another minute.

In a bowl, mash beans into a thick paste (use a fork, potato masher or ricer). Add cooked vegetables, egg, cumin, oregano and breadcrumbs and season with salt (and pepper if desired). Shape into four generous burgers with your hands (don’t mess with it too much) and then place on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes on one side, 10 on the other and then a five on the first side. Serve with thinly sliced red onion, sliced avocado, sliced tomato and Sweet Roasted Red Pepper Dipping Sauce, if desired.

Roasted Asparagus and Sweet Red Pepper Dipping Sauce

23 Apr
Simple and beautiful spring fare

I have been experimenting with my new fancy Breville toaster oven and it’s been a life-changer! I don’t always want to turn the regular oven on for a small dish, so this new tabletop oven has widened my options.

One example is asparagus, coming soon into season and one of my favorite things to eat. It roasts very nicely and quickly with no fuss. I just eat the spears with my fingers right off the plate.
I decided to jazz it up (and in the process use up some sweet roasted red pepper that I had taking up space in the fridge). This took a jiffy and was a bright relish-y sort of taste (note that I used SWEET roasted red pepper). I later whipped some up as a dressing for black bean burgers (recipe to come in the next couple of days).

Zesty Dipping Sauce for Roasted Asparagus

3 Tbs mayonnaise

1-2 Tbs plain nonfat yogurt

2 Tbs roasted sweet red pepper, diced fine

Mix all ingredients together. Serve as a dipping sauce or as relish for black bean burgers or other sandwich fillings.


Roasted Asparagus

1 lb asparagus (the fat kind preferred), washed and bottoms snapped off (reserve to make broth for another recipe)

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt or coarse kosher salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°. Rub olive oil over asparagus spears and place on rimmed baking sheet, foil or, ideally, broiler-type rack. Cook for 15 minutes, sprinkle with salt and serve with dipping sauce.

Broccoli and Chorizo Pasta with Cheese

18 Apr

creamy, crunchy, stodgy, zesty

I needed some comfort food with attitude (and no trips to the grocery store).

Some of you will remember in the early days of this blog that Leandro and I were in the emergency room twice within a month’s time to get him stitched up. That stress is in the past, but the part about having to pay the equivalent of an entire paycheck to cover what the health insurance doesn’t is a stress that is very much in the present.

So, I was in the mood for something cozy but kicking, something that didn’t call for a whole lot of work or special ingredients. And ideally, it would be something I could also put in Leandro’s lunch box the next day. The solution — after a quick rummage in the fridge — was this invention: Broccoli and chorizo pasta with cheese. I used catanisella pasta (a new shape for me) figuring Leandro would have fun with its long, skinny, tubiness and because I wanted something that the cheese would cling to rather than clog up (think of macaroni shells scooping up clumps of cheese). The broccoli crunch balanced the creaminess and the spice of the chorizo cut through any density. All in all a great success that did the job!

Broccoli and chorizo pasta with cheese (serves 4)

1 lb pasta – preferably medium short

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

½ yellow onion, peeled and chopped (about 1/2 cup)

8 oz hot (picante) Spanish-style chorizo (the cured, ready-to-eat kind…NOT Latin American chorizo, which must be cooked through. You may substitute dry Italian sausage or andouille sausage), peeled and sliced into ¼ inch rounds

8 – 16 oz broccoli crowns, washed and separated (blanched if desired. I usually use a strainer and dip them in the boiling pasta water for a minute until they turn bright green)

½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Gran Padano cheese

Boil pasta according to package directions (dipping broccoli into the boiling water to blanche). Reserve a ¼ cup of the pasta water.

Heat olive oil at medium-high in a heavy-bottomed  saucepan until fragrant. Add onion, stir to coat, then lower heat to medium and allow to become translucent and soft (at least five minutes). Add chorizo, stirring occasionally, until it begins to release its reddish oil. Add broccoli, stir to coat and cook until beginning to wilt (2 minutes or so). Add ¼ cup reserved pasta water and simmer until slightly thickened. Stir in cheese, add to pasta and serve. (It is doubtful that you will need to add salt, as the chorizo and the cheese will provide plenty!)

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