Roasted Spaghetti Squash & No Recipe Meat Sauce

Spaghetti Squash 6

I have a Bread Problem. There, I said it. I’ve always had a Chip Problem and a Snickers Problem…and a Dr. Pepper Problem…but somewhere along the road to becoming an adult I developed the need to eat all the bread in site. Not crappy stale sandwich bread, mind you, but a nice sourdough or baguette or pretzel roll. I could eat those until I burst. Accordingly, my bread problem translates somewhat to pasta. I don’t necessarily crave pasta, but when I make it I tend eat way too much of it and way too much of anything is not a good thing. Enter spaghetti squash.

Subbing spaghetti squash for pasta is hardly a novel idea, but it’s the kind of thing that you think won’t work until you try it and realize that it works quite nicely, actually. The squash’s delicately sweet flavor pairs well with the salty, savoriness of the meat sauce, and the texture adds just a bit of crunch to the dish. It’s a nice change to regular spaghetti and a good way to sneak more veggies into your dinner.

The sauce I made here is a variation on a recipe I found in one of Martha Stewart’s magazines. Now, I’m no Italian, but I think this sauce is pretty good. I call it “no recipe” because you can switch it up however you like and it should still come out pretty good. I used ground pork, mushrooms, onion, garlic, and a bit of anchovy because that’s what I like. You could put in eggplant, carrots, celery, zucchini, peppers, ground beef, ground turkey…it’s up to you.

For the spaghetti squash:

Spaghetti Squash 1

A nice 3-4 pound squash will easily yield you four or more servings. I find the smaller squashes easier to cut through, so in the future I will probably get two instead of waging war with my knife, pyscho-style, on one big ass squash.

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and tendrils. Lay the squash flesh side down on a rimmed baking sheet. I add a little water to the pan just so the squash doesn’t stick to it. It works like a charm.

Spaghetti Squash 2

Roast in a 425F oven for an hour or so, just until you can pierce it easily with a knife. Once done, use a fork to separate the strands of the squash. It should resemble spaghetti pretty nicely. I like to put the threaded squash into a strainer over a bowl for a little bit, as it’ll continue to expel some of its own moisture (which would otherwise water down your sauce).

Spaghetti Squash 3

For the sauce:

Ideally you would do this all in one pan, but I don’t have one big enough, so I did it in batches. While the squash is cooking, chop up about half of a large onion, 3-4 or more cloves of garlic, and 8 ounces of mushrooms of your choice. I used cremini, but plain button mushrooms or a mix of exotic mushrooms would also be great. Put about a tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan and let that heat, then add the onion, garlic, and mushrooms. Saute until cooked down and the water they give off has evaporated. At this point I also added a couple of anchovies and let them melt away into the mushroom goodness. Trust me, you can’t really taste the anchovies – they just add a nice layer of flavor to the sauce.

Spaghetti Squash 4

Because my saute pan wasn’t big enough, I removed the mushroom mixture, then browned ½ pound of ground pork in the same pan. Once cooked, I added back the mushrooms, sprinkled over some salt, pepper, and a good handful of oregano (probably 1-2 tablespoons), and then added a 28 ounce can of tomatoes. You can use whole tomatoes and chop them yourself, or you can get diced and have the work done for you, or you can puree them in a blender or food processor first if you want a smooth sauce. I ended up getting “chef’s cut” which were like strips of tomato that I ended up really liking. (I like a chunky sauce.) Turn the heat on your pan down to a simmer and let the tomatoes marry with all of the other ingredients for 15-20 minutes.

And now you’ve made sauce. Taste it and adjust salt and pepper like a pro.

Spaghetti Squash 5

Put a nice bunch of spaghetti squash on your plate and top it with your meat sauce. If you’re me, add some cheese on top. I like cheddar because I’m weird and like cheddar on my pasta. I mentioned I’m not Italian, right?

Spaghetti Squash 7

This isn’t a time-saving recipe that you can throw together after work on a Tuesday night, but it does make a whole bunch that you can save for leftovers and even freeze. It’s well worth spending a wintry Sunday afternoon creating this hearty, healthy pasta variation. Trust me, you’ll want to make it again and again.


Three Cheers for the Lakefront Path, the Green City Market, & Eggplant Lasagna

Eggplant Lasagna Collage

All week I’ve had a hankering for the mixed mushroom lasagna I made last year. I decided to up the health factor and substitute eggplant slices for the pasta sheets, which means I can eat more of it, right? Right. I had grandiose plans to run along the lake and loop back around to the Nature Museum to pick up some mushrooms at the Green City Market, but when I woke up it was in the teens and I just couldn’t abide by that. From outside my apartment I could see plenty of runners executing this idea like champs, but I am still not that hardcore yet.

That is snow sitting on top of the frozen harbor.

That is snow sitting on top of the frozen harbor.

So, I went to the park district fitness center and took another run on the treadmill. I’m finding the treadmill to be almost a completely different animal from running outside. It’s like microwave popcorn vs. fresh movie theater popcorn. Technically they’re the same food, but in actuality they’re really not. (Note I said fresh movie theater popcorn. That stuff they sell at AMC is like stale oily cardboard.) Running outside is both easier and harder than the treadmill. Easier because, according to my pace times, I run faster outside without consciously trying, but harder because my quads are always so much more spent than they are post-treadmill and I never feel like I’m running fast. It’s an odd dichotomy, the two exercises. I think the treadmill will serve me well by varying inclines for “hill” workouts and for doing more precise interval workouts, but mostly it’ll be a way for me to keep up the habit of “running” when the weather is less than tolerable. It’ll never be the same as outside running, but I suppose it’ll serve a very important purpose. (I now understand why every article on running EVER warns against training for races on a treadmill.)

On Sunday it was near 30°, which was warm enough for me to, well, warm up to the idea of a run. That said, I would like to know what meteorological phenomenon makes it possible for the wind to blow in my face both coming and going. Seriously, Chicago. I’ve decided to look at this in a positive light, though: wind makes me stronger. I did 3.19 miles in 32:48. Imagine how fast I could go without wind?

A new piece of art along the path. I call it, “Runner Girl Flies.” It’s better than, “Runner Girl Slips on Slush and Face Plants,” don’t you think?

A new piece of art along the path. I call it, “Runner Girl Flies.” It’s better than, “Runner Girl Slips on Slush and Face Plants,” don’t you think?

The goals for this run were to a) run it non-stop, and b) enjoy it. Of the former goal, I’m happy to say that I completed it well, with the exception of stopping to take the above photos in the first half – I like to also try to appreciate my surroundings during my runs. Of the latter goal, well, I really enjoyed it when Pandora decided to play Nsync in the second half. Does that count?

I found myself struggling with some old running demons, namely seeing numerous people pass me and feeling not fast enough/not strong enough/not good enough to be out there. I had to remind myself that I don’t know their circumstances and they don’t know mine. They could be doing intervals or they could be doing a tempo run. They could have many more years of running behind them than I do. I don’t know why they’re fast and I’m not, but all I can do is hang on and get the most out of my run that I can, no matter how slow that is. Fretting over such comparisons during the Fleet Feet Fun Run pretty much killed my love of running last fall, so I can’t let that happen again.

On a related note, I just have to say how thankful I am that I have the Lakefront path for running. I often do think about how fantastic it is that I have a long stretch of road where I rarely have to worry about cars, even if I do sometimes worry about much more accomplished runners. A friend posted this story on Daily Mile and it reminds me to be even more appreciative that I live in such a running/walking-friendly city.

Back to Saturday. Post-gym I hopped on the bus to the Nature Museum to pick up a bag of oyster, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms. I do so love mushrooms. I also love that we can get awesome local fresh produce throughout the year.

The “lasagna” turned out okay. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted delicious, but there were some execution issues. For one thing, the eggplant doesn’t soak up the extra liquid from the sauce the way that pasta noodles do, so the whole thing was a bit watery. For another thing, the eggplant skin was difficult to cut through with just a fork, making a knife necessary for serving and for eating. But aside from that, I was rather pleased with my veggie loving faux lasagna. For leftovers the next day, I piled a bunch into a ramekin and heated it until it was bubbling. Individual lasagnas, anyone? I’ll have to try that out at some point.

Eggplant Lasagna (3)

Skillet Eggplant “Lasagna” with Mixed Mushrooms & Pork
1 ½ pounds eggplant, sliced into thin rounds
1 28-ounce and 1 15-ounce cans of whole peeled plum tomatoes, chopped for a chunky sauce or pureed for a smooth sauce
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt and ground pepper
¾ pound mushrooms, sliced
⅓ pound ground pork
½ medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 large egg yolk
1 ½ cups part-skim ricotta cheese
½ pound mozzarella, shredded
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 300º. Rub the eggplant slices with a little of the olive oil and lay on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through, until the eggplant is soft.

Next, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet. Sauté the sliced mushrooms, working in batches if needed so the mushrooms brown and don’t steam. Remove the mushrooms. Add the pork to the pan and break up with a wooden spoon into small crumbles; add the onion and cook until the pork has browned and the onions have softened. Cook until browned. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and remaining oil to the skillet and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper and lower the heat. Cook on medium until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly, 12-15 minutes. Add the mushrooms back in.

While the tomatoes are going, mix together the egg yolk, ricotta, and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper in a small bowl.

When the sauce has reached a consistency you like, pour it into a heatproof vessel and return ¾ cup to the skillet, spreading it evenly along the bottom. Add a single layer of the eggplant, overlapping slightly so they cover the surface of the skillet. Top with half the ricotta mixture, spreading it evenly as best you can. Follow with a second layer of eggplant, then 1 ½ cups sauce. Top with the remaining ricotta and a final layer of eggplant and the remaining sauce. Sprinkle the mozzarella and Parmesan over the top.

Bake lasagna until golden and bubbling, 30-35 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Stuffed Acorn Squash with Pork & Parmesan

You know what’s not a good idea? Running 3.1 miles in the snow when you haven’t run in over two months. Lord, were my quads and hammies and hips sore! Note to self: Don’t quit running again.

In other New Year’s Goals news – heretoforth to be referred to as NYG – this week I totally dominated the chin-up. When I first bought my pull-up bar in October I could do little more than hang impotently off the bar. Since then I’ve gone from barely moving up an inch, to doing neutral grip negatives, to doing full chin-ups. My boss level is currently at 65%. Pull-ups better watch out!

As bad as the snow was on New Year’s Day, it was even worse on the 2nd. It was so bad, in fact, that I didn’t have to go to work that day. Of course, I didn’t get that memo until I was already settled in at the office and checking my email, but hey, at least I got to book it early and spend the rest of the day cozy in my apartment…which I did for approximately the next five days. It got cold here, yo*.

That would be steam coming up from the river. Second time ever that I've seen this happen.

#Chiberia: The morning after. That would be steam coming up from the river. Second time ever that I’ve seen this happen.

*I must also give props to the higher ups for subsequently allowing us to work from home on Monday when the high was -10°, without even factoring in the wind chill. I was very thankful for that.

At some point I took the opportunity of a break in the snowfall and the deep freeze to head to the grocery store to pick up sustenance. I’ve been wanting to try out this recipe for Stuffed Acorn Squash that I found at Runner’s World and my newly free day week was the perfect time to try it out.

Acorn Squash 4

I did my usual edits, swapping the ground beef for pork and the cheddar cheese for parmesan, but otherwise followed the recipe straightforwardly. The recipe is surprisingly simple, incredibly filling, and rather healthy, provided you don’t suffocate the thing in cheese. One change that I made that I think substantially improved the recipe is to sprinkle the squash with salt and pepper prior to filling it with the meat mixture. I find acorn squash to be a little bland on its own, but add a little salt and pepper and all of its sweet deliciousness comes right out. You can leave that out if you feel differently.

Acorn Squash Collage

1 small acorn squash
½ cup water
½ pound ground pork
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon dried rubbed sage
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons milk (I used almond milk)
¼ cup freshly shredded parmesan cheese
salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°.

This is the hardest part of the recipe, but perhaps the best because you inadvertently get an upper body workout in when you do this. Get the biggest knife you have and cut the squash in half. If you’ve never done this before, here’s what I do: jab the knife in as far as it can go and wiggle it back and forth a little to widen the cut. Ease the knife out and jab it in again at a nearby spot, continuing the line you’ve started. Keep doing this until the knife hits cutting board on the other side. At this point you should be able to stand the squash on its root end and cut any remaining uncut flesh straight through. To separate at the root, simply pull apart using your brute force. When you’ve got this done, place the halves cut side down in a baking dish and add the water. Cover the pan with foil and bake 35-40 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and can easily be pierced with a knife.

While this is happening, brown the pork and onion over medium heat, then drain any remaining fat. Stir in the flour and sage, add salt and pepper to taste, and stir. Add the milk and bring the whole thing to a boil. Cook, stirring, for a couple minutes or until the mixture becomes thick. At this point it might look a little, well, less than appetizing, but trust me, it tastes pretty good.

When the squash is ready, remove it from the pan with water and place it on a baking sheet, cut side up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, with desired, and fill the cavities with the meat mixture. Bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes. Finish the squash by sprinkling the parmesan cheese over the top and return it to the oven for 5 minutes until the cheese is melted.

Makes 2 servings.

My First Time on the Silks; Sautéed Pork Chops with Mustard and Parmesan Roasted Veggies

Silks Class #1
When I signed up for flying trapeze, what I really wanted to do was silks instead. Aerial silks look so graceful, so fluid, so fun, but also really hard. I figured that by working on the silks I’d get a nice opportunity to thoroughly work out my upper body and core in a much more appealing way than tons of pushups. I signed up for flying trapeze first because I was more afraid of it and felt that to do silks first would be a way to avoid my fear. This ended up being rather fortuitous for me.

First of all, it seems that I had a latent fear of heights that, while not great enough to keep me off ladders or high floors in buildings, prevented me from doing anything active too far off the ground. While heights have had a tendency to make me nervous, I didn’t realize I was actually afraid of them until trapeze day. Well, trapeze cured me of that right quick, which turned the prospect of climbing up high on the silks from nerve-wracking into completely doable. Second, trapeze gave me a pretty good taste of what it feels like to hang from your arms for extended periods of time. You would think hanging is easy, because you’re just, well, hanging, but oh no, it gets tiring really fast. All of those “I can’t hold on any longer!!!” scenes in movies have some truth to them. When I jumped on the silks, I knew I would be working my shoulders, triceps, and back in ways that I normally don’t, so I wasn’t shocked by how much effort it took to hang on.

In this class I learned the basic climb, a foot lock, and a couple of poses. I was nervous at first because, despite the fact that I do full pushups regularly, I was pretty sure I was going to grab onto the silks and hang there impotently, unable to pull myself up due to my certainly weak arms. Luckily, the opportunity for that to happen didn’t exist because the instructor so graciously had me twist my leg around the silk, then step on her fist, which she used to boost me while I pulled myself up. That eliminated the holy cow, I can’t do this! element that I’m sure many people experience the first time on the silks.

How hard was it? I would say, as hard as I expected, which would be really freakin’ hard. I could feel it in my abs each time I brought my knees up to go further up the silks and I was sweating and breathing hard after each of my turns. I need to find a rope to climb so I can practice in between classes.

Aside from that, being on the silks felt good. I learned a couple of poses (I don’t remember their names and, unfortunately, don’t have any pictures) and was pleased to find that I wasn’t at all afraid of leaning back or forward through the silks. The only problem I had was when I was instructed to lean to the side so I would be hanging horizontally and the right side of my back started to pinch. I had forgotten that I’d hurt myself over the weekend (twisting too much to the right while coming up the stairs – who does that???) and the cramp came back, making the pose really painful. But, that’ll go away eventually.

With my first class done, I can’t wait to get back on the silks soon. To quote my instructor, circus is pain, and I fully intend to sign up for more of it.

Sautéed Pork Chops with Mustard and Parmesan Roasted Veggies

Sauteed Pork Chops & Parm Veggies

I had a rather low-key Labor Day weekend, so the main highlight was getting together with Mindy and our friend Anna for dinner and Doctor Who. Basically, we watched several hours of episodes from season four, cooked the fabulous dinner below, and then topped it all off with gelato (vanilla, violet, and salted caramel pecan for me this time!). It was a great evening.

The pork chop recipe is one that I’ve been using for years and has never failed me. It comes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and is the perfect simple recipe to impress with a home-cooked meal. It has never come out over- or underdone and the sauce that accompanies it is thrown together in the last minute of cooking. You can make it in less than 30 minutes and with the addition of a vegetable and a starch is a complete meal.

4 center-cut loin pork chops, about 1-inch thick (the recipe says “trimmed of fat,” but I have to be honest, I love eating the fat so I leave it on)
salt and black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
minced fresh parsley for garnish

Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and add the chops and turn the heat to high. Brown the chops on both sides, for about 2 minutes per side.

Reduce heat to medium. Add the wine and the garlic and cook, turning the chops once or twice, until the wine is all but evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock, turn the heat to low, and cover. Cook for 10-15 minutes, turning the chops once or twice. When done, they will be firm to the touch, their juices will run just slightly pink and, when you cut into them, the color will be rosy at first glance but quickly turn pale.

Remove the chops to a platter. If the pan juices are very thin, cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is reduced slightly. If they are scarce (unlikely), add more stock or water; cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is reduced slightly. Then stir in the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat; add the lemon juice and the mustard, pour over the chops, garnish with the parsley, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

The veggies are Mindy’s concoction and are another one of those barely-a-recipe recipes. I can tell you what we did in just a few sentences: First, cut up some veggies. We used broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts (which I gave to Mindy and Anna because I don’t see what’s so great about them). Drizzle olive oil over them and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 425° for 8 minutes, toss them on the sheet, roast for another 8 minutes, toss and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, and roast for another 10 minutes. Out come perfectly roasted, deliciously savory, slightly crispy veggies. I can’t believe I never thought to do that before, but you can bet these will make an appearance in my own kitchen once the weather cools down a bit.

Summer may be at its end, but that’s all right with me. With cooler temps come soups and stews and casseroles and breads and all kinds of things that I can’t make when the thought of turning on my oven makes me want to cry. I relish the process of making a hot meal on a chilly evening. I can’t wait to get back into the kitchen and cook.

Recipe #7: Braised Lamb Shanks, Honey-Glazed Carrots & Parsnips, and Mashed Potatoes & Sunchokes

Photo by Mindy

Photo by Mindy

The Green City Market is one of the best places in Chicago to get all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables and try independently made prepared foods, such as jam, cheeses, and breads. The best thing about the Green City Market is that it moves indoors in the winter and opens a couple Saturdays a month. Last month Mindy and I went and I posed a challenge to myself: I would make a dinner using whatever I could find at the market. I thought of it sort of like Chopped or Iron Chef but, you know, much less stressful.

I’d seen a recipe for braised lamb shanks that I’d wanted to try, so I had that in mind when I went to peruse the veggies at the market. After sampling a number of delicious cheeses, we stopped at a table for Bron’s Bee Company. I’ve long disliked honey, but I’d recently started to suspect that it may just be conventional honey – or “bear honey,” as I like to call it – that tastes so much like plastic and had begun to wonder if “artisan” honey was any different. The vendor was really nice when I explained to him my situation and he opened a jar of their lavender honey for us to try. I must tell you, my views on honey have completely changed. There was nary a hint of plastic, just deep sweetness complemented by the floral, herbaceous flavor of the lavender (which you know I love). I practically wanted to do a little dance, it was so good. The vendor’s good will paid off because I then bought “A Flight of Honey,” a pack containing three small jars of mint honey, rosemary honey, and the lavender honey. Before then, I never knew honey could be so good.

Having tasted the honey, I remembered a recipe for honey glazed carrots in my phone. We’d seen bags of rainbow carrots at a table by the front door, so after making the rounds upstairs and purchasing some mixed mushrooms for later use, we went back downstairs, only to find that in that short time all of the carrots had sold. It was a saddening discovery. I still had some carrots in my refrigerator from the Roasted Vegetable Cobblers, so I decided to pick up some parsnips from the vendor and add them to the honey glaze.

A final stop downstairs brought us to a box of sunchokes. Neither Mindy nor I had ever eaten sunchokes, but we shared the same reason for wanting to try them: there always seem to be sunchokes in one of the baskets on Chopped. We’d heard the vendor telling another customer that they taste similar to potatoes and can be treated the same way, so I picked up some of those along with some Yukon gold potatoes for a mixed mash to round out the dinner. According to Joy of Cooking, sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, aren’t chokes or thistles at all. They’re tubers; more specifically, they’re the root of the sunflower, so it made sense to treat them like any other root vegetable.

With my market finds in hand, I had only to pick up the remaining ingredients. Lamb shanks are the shin bone of the lamb and they really look like it. They’re a tougher cut of meat, so they benefit from a slow cooking application, like a braise. The recipe I originally found came from Everyday Food, but it was very simple and I wanted to punch things up a bit. I turned to Joy of Cooking, but seeing spices like cinnamon and coriander in the ingredients list turned me off. That is way too close to the road to Indian-town, a cuisine that I absolutely detest. So, not happy with either recipe, I decided to take what I liked about each one and marry them to create something specific to my tastes.

[I just have to take a moment here to say to anyone who’s afraid of executing a recipe on the fly that I used to be, too. When people asked if I could cook, I would say that I can’t just throw things together, but I can follow a recipe. After years of cooking, I’ve gotten comfortable enough with techniques and flavors that I have a good sense of what will work and how I can change things to be more to my liking, even when baking. For some people this comes naturally. For me, it came with practice. It can come to you with practice, too.]

The Everyday Food recipe called for sautéing onions and garlic, adding tomatoes and the lamb shanks, and cooking everything in the oven for three hours. I took a few extra steps that I found in Joy of Cooking – I first browned the shanks (because brown is GOOD!), added some dried rosemary to the onions and garlic, and put in some chicken broth and white wine with the tomatoes (I liked the idea of a less tomato-y sauce). After three hours I pulled the mixture out of the oven and was fairly delighted with what I saw. The sauce was a bit more liquid than I would have liked, so I moved that to stove and let it cook down for about ten minutes until it had the right amount of body before spooning that lovely tomato mixture over the lamb and digging in. Glossy, luscious pieces of meat came falling off the bone into the hearty chunks of tomatoes that had become so infused with the lamb’s flavor that I wished only that I had a piece of bread to sop it up with at the end. (As it was, I just spooned some onto my plate and ate it just like that.) It was heavenly. I don’t think I’ve ever made meat that tastes as good as this, and it was so easy, too! Sure, it’s a three-hour endeavor, but for the vast majority of it you’re doing absolutely nothing. This would be a great dish to have in your arsenal when you need to pull out the stops and impress a special guest.

The Honey Glazed Carrots and Parsnips turned out somewhat predictably. I mean, there’s very little that can go wrong with adding honey to carrots and parsnips. The only slightly disappointing thing about that dish was that I couldn’t taste any of the rosemary in the honey I’d chosen to use. It all melded into a sticky sweetness, which was still perfectly delicious. The sunchokes were another story. I was not a huge fan. They tasted waxy and didn’t mash very well. Maybe I didn’t cook them long enough, although they did feel soft when I pierced them with a fork. I don’t know what the problem was, but I wouldn’t make them again, at least not like this.

Sunchokes aside, I was very happy with my market inspired dinner. I am definitely making this lamb again soon.

The wine we chose for this was a Rancho Zabaco California Zinfandel. I can’t tell you what flavors I picked out of this wine, but I can say that it was not the best choice for this dish because it was rendered nearly moot by the lamb and the tomatoes. However, I took a bite of the sweet carrots and parsnips and then took a sip of the wine and suddenly it had a nice, spicy kick to it. Interesting how food can completely change the taste of wine, isn’t it?

Below are the recipes for the lamb and honey glazed carrots and parsnips as I made them. If you don’t like lamb, ask the person at the meat counter for a similar cut of beef. Change up the herbs as you see fit – I’m sure some mint, some fines herbes, or some herbes de provence would be delicious as well. Likewise, try glazing whatever root vegetables you like best for a meal that is truly yours.

Braised Lamb Shanks
2-3 lamb shanks*
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic chopped
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, fines herbes, or herbs de Provence
1 can (15 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, chopped**
1 cup chicken broth or water
½ cup dry white wine

Preheat oven to 300°.

In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot***, heat oil over medium high. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the shanks and add the onions and the garlic. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft, stirring often. Add the rosemary and stir well to coat the onions.

Add the chicken broth, wine, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, cover, and bake until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone. Go clean your apartment or watch a movie or call a friend. Check back in 3 hours.

Skim the fat from the cooking liquid. If the sauce is very thin, remove the lamb shanks and bring the sauce to a boil on the stove. Reduce until the sauce has reached the consistency of your liking. If you accidentally over-reduce, add a little more wine, broth, or water to the pan. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Serve lamb shanks with sauce spooned over it.

Makes 2 servings.

*This depends on how meaty they are. I got two shanks, weighing together about 1 ½ pounds, and we could have definitely eaten more.

**To easily chop canned tomatoes, open the can, stick a pair of kitchen shears inside, and go crazy cutting like you’re a two-fingered Edward Scissorhands.

***I don’t have a Dutch oven. I long for the day when my kitchen will be filled with gorgeous, colorful Le Creuset cookware, but that day has yet to come. Instead, I used my cast iron pan and covered with the lid of another oven-safe pan. Aside from the pan being filled completely the brim and spilling on the oven door a little when I tried to move it, this worked just fine. If I didn’t have this or planned to make more servings, I would brown the shanks and cook the onions and tomatoes in a sauté pan, then transfer the mixture to a 13×9-inch pan, cover it with foil, and let it cook for the duration. To reduce the sauce, I’d transfer it back to a sauté pan and cook it until the sauce were sufficiently thick.

Honey Glazed Carrots and Parsnips
1 pound mix of carrots and parsnips, cut in 1”-2” pieces
½ tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup water
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt and black pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrots and parsnips. Cook, stirring once, until beginning to brown, about 2 minutes

Add water, honey, and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the flame to a simmer, cover, and cook until vegetables can be pierced easily with a knife, about 10 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat until the carrots are tender and the liquid is syrupy, 7-9 minutes more.

Turn off the heat and add the butter to the pan. Swirl to coat and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

Makes 2 servings.

Recipe #5 – Roasted Vegetable Soup [Fail]

Roasted Vegetable Soup

I’ve been debating whether or not to share this. So many food shows and magazines and blogs offer gorgeous pictures of delicious foods that you (and I) can’t wait to rush home and try. But, real cooking isn’t like that. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes things are tasty, but aren’t that pretty. And sometimes recipes just aren’t very good. Someone once confessed to me that they were afraid to cook new things because they don’t always turn out. To which I replied, yes, you will make things that are not good. The truth behind the shiny, mouth-watering photos is there are times when we all do. This is one of those times.

I found this recipe for Roasted Vegetable Soup in an issue of Real Simple, a magazine that I find, perhaps fittingly, a bit simplistic. However, I’d previously found a fantastic recipe for split pea soup within their pages, so when I saw this recipe I was game to try it. Roasted veggies are delicious, healthy, and, aside from the initial chopping, incredibly easy to make. The recipe consisted of little more than combining them with some broth and blending them into a smooth puree. How could that be bad?

Somehow, it was. Well, it wasn’t bad, just bizarrely tasteless for a bunch of vegetables that had shone so brightly in the cobblers I’d made the week before. There was no dominating flavor, except for that of the orange juice which, moments after I’d added it, I realized had no business being there. Salt was clearly lacking, so I added more of that and things improved a little bit, but there was still something missing. I threw in some dried thyme and it got a little better. Then I threw in some dried sage and, well, it got a little worse. I ate a bowl for dinner that night and packed up the rest in containers to freeze for work lunches, but when I came home the next day I knew they would just languish in my freezer, waiting for that day when I was so lazy I couldn’t be bothered to make something that I’d grab it in desperation and spend the entire morning completely unexcited to eat my lunch. I’m not big on wasting foods and actively look forward to leftovers, but this time that soup went in the garbage. Sorry.

In the interest of sharing my honest experience with recipes, here is my first bad one of the year. I expect there will be more, but that doesn’t deter me at all. Every failure is a chance to learn something new, even if it’s just that I will never make that recipe again. That’s the case with this soup.

Think you can make it better? Here’s the recipe below, waiting for some major improvements.

Roasted Vegetable Soup
4 cups roasted vegetables
4-5 cups vegetable broth
kosher salt and black pepper
½ cup orange juice

In a large saucepan, combine the roasted vegetables, 5 cups of broth, and ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are very soft, 10-15 minutes. Stir in the orange juice.

Working in batches, transfer the vegetable mixture to a blender and puree until smooth, adding more broth if necessary to reach the desired consistency.

Makes 4 servings. (Or 1, sadly.)

Recipe #3 – Roast Pork Loin with Mustard & Maple Garlic Seasoning and Individual Roasted Vegetable Cobblers

Roast Pork Loin & Veggie Cobblers[Photos by Mindy]

Over New Year’s weekend Mindy and I made a trip to the Spice House. I initiated the trip mainly because I was out of chili powder and wanted to buy one of their mixes instead of buying a generic one at Jewel. Of course, I came away with more than just chili powder – Mexican vanilla beans, Himalayan pink salt, and a maple garlic spice mix that Mindy had picked up. Upon taking a taste from the sample bag, I immediately said, “I want this on pork.” It was a great mix of sweet and savory that just screamed for a porcine application.

I’d marked a recipe for Fall Vegetable Cobbler in the inaugural issue of Food Network Magazine and remembered that the same page contained a recipe for a Roast Pork Loin. I’ve cooked pork chops many times with great success, always using Mark Bittman’s recipe from How to Cook Everything, but I’ve never tried a pork roast. It seemed like as good a time as any to try it, so I invited Mindy over to be my guinea pig for a dinner involving our newly found spice.

The results were…okay. Not a home run, but not horrible either. Here’s what I’d do to improve the roast: 1) I’d add simply add more seasoning. We ended up sprinkling some directly on top of our slices. 2) I’d put more salt and pepper on the roast. The seasoning included it, so I didn’t add any because I was afraid it would be too much. It wouldn’t have been. 3) I’d let the roast rest for an appropriate length of time. I probably only let it rest for about five minutes and when I sliced the roast it looked lovely and juicy and delicious. When we ate it, though, it was a little tough and dry. That was disappointing. Another five to ten minutes of resting might have remedied that.

The real star of the dinner, however, was the vegetable cobbler that I’d originally marked on the page. The vegetables and the sauce were so savory and good and the biscuit-like topping was so fluffy and buttery and delicious. It was so amazing, in fact, that at 10:30pm that night I didn’t want another one of the cupcakes I made for dessert (more on that in a later post), but more cobbler. That’s some serious veggie power.

I did make some alterations to the original recipe here. For one, I roasted the vegetables instead of just adding them raw into the sauce. I did this because I wanted to roast a whole slew of veggies and use them in a soup recipe I’d saved and I figured roasting them couldn’t hurt in this case either. (More on that in a later post as well.) This extra step takes a little more time, but I think it might be worth it since you don’t have to worry about the crust burning while waiting for the veggies to cook all the way through. I also decided to make these in small ramekins instead of one large dish because, well, I don’t own a large serving dish. The individual cobblers ended up being so cute that I think I may always make it this way.

The original recipe calls for heavy cream in the topping, but I lightened it by using skim milk and didn’t miss the cream one bit. I substituted vegetable broth for the chicken broth to make this a truly vegetarian dish. Finally, while the recipe calls for turnips, potatoes, and carrots, I nixed the turnips and added onions, parsnips, and celery root. I had never tasted celery root before, but I figured why not? I was experimenting anyway, I might as well add another unknown into the mix. That strategy can often backfire, but in this case it worked out fantastically. For anyone who likes the flavor celery lends to a dish, but hates the stringiness of the stalks, celery root is for you! Or, for me, at least.

A couple more notes: I made approximately half of each original recipe. For two people, it was plenty. On the beverage front, Mindy was tasked with finding a wine that would go with the ingredients in the dish. The wine she really wanted to get wasn’t available, but the white Spanish verdejo she found ended up being a surprisingly great compliment to the cobbler. I don’t know much about wine, but I could distinctly taste grapefruit in the glass and the wine’s fruity acidity cut nicely through the richness of the crust. Best of all, the wine was supremely affordable, costing less than $15. I would definitely search it out for myself.

The recipes for each dish are below. The ingredients on the Gateway to the North Maple Garlic Seasoning list maple sugar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and green onion flakes. If you don’t have access to it, you could probably just approximate a rub from the last six ingredients and add some maple syrup in the mustard and vinegar mix. For the cobblers, use whatever root vegetables you like or can find. It’s a recipe begging to be played with.

Roast Pork Loin with Maple Garlic Seasoning
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 boneless center-cut pork loin roast, ¾ pound, trimmed and tied (I didn’t tie mine)
1-2 tablespoons Gateway to the North Maple Garlic Seasoning
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 375°. Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Season the pork with the maple garlic seasoning, salt, and pepper and sear on all sides until golden brown. Combine the mustard and vinegar and brush over the pork. Transfer to a clean ovenproof skillet or baking sheet and roast the pork in the oven until a thermometer inserted in the center reads 145°, about 35 minutes.

(The original recipe asks you to sear the meat in an ovenproof skillet and transfer that to the oven, but I found the sugar was starting to burn and smoke and I was really concerned for my small kitchen, so I put it on a clean skillet before putting it in the oven. Also, if you’re at all interested in cooking meats, this is a good time to get yourself a probe thermometer. They really do eliminate the guesswork.)

Transfer the pork to a cutting board and tent with foil for 10 minutes. (Don’t rush this step!) Remove strings, slice, and serve.

Makes 2-3 servings

Individual Roasted Vegetable Cobblers
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 celery root, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 carrots, sliced
2 parsnips, sliced
1 small yellow onion, cut into eighths
4 tablespoons unsalted butter; 3 tablespoons cut into cubes and kept cold
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ cup fat-free milk
fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Mix the vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper and scatter on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven 40-50 minutes, until the vegetables are tender when pierced by a small knife.

Whisk the broth and 2 tablespoons flour in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the mustard and roasted vegetables; simmer until thickened, about 2 minutes. Whisk in 1 tablespoon butter and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer veggies and broth into four 6-8 ounce ramekins.

Whisk the remaining flour (this would be 7/8 cup, or ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons), the baking powder, and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Rub in the cold cubed butter with your fingertips until the dough resembles coarse meal. Lightly stir in ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons milk with a fork. Place big spoonfuls of dough (I put three on each ramekin using a small cookie scoop) on top of the vegetables and brush with the remaining milk. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet in case the broth boils over. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Scatter parsley on top (oops…I forgot this step).

Makes 4 servings.